No place to go

Issue 1/2008 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Lakanasiivet (‘Linen wings’, Otava, 2007)

The clothesline swayed in the wind. Helvi closed her eyes and felt herself flutter into the air with the laundry. She flapped her white linen wings, straining higher, now seeing below the whole small peninsula city, its damp rooftops glittering in the morning sun, the blue sighs of the chimneys, the steamboats toiling on the lake and the trains chugging on their tracks. The whole of heaven was clear and blue; only far off in the east were there white pillars roiling – whether smoke or clouds, Helvi could not tell.

She flew north on her linen wings and saw the great bridges leading to the city, on whose flanks the hidden anti-aircraft batteries gasped the fumes of gun oil and iron, and continued her journey over the land, following the straight lines of the telephone wires. She flew over wooded hills and deep green fields, finally arriving on the slope of the great hill where her daughter now lived, in hiding from the war.

She peered into the house through the window and saw that the girl was still sleeping; but her eyelids were fluttering, readying to open, red from rubbing and crying. ‘Mother, I miss you so much!’ Helvi heard her daughter cry. Helvi’s heart beat violently; she beat her wings outside the window and cried like a swallow, plaintively, ‘Dear child, sleep some more; save your strength. Soon the war will pass, and you’ll be able to come home.’

And the child sank back into sleep, her long legs poking out from under the covers. Helvi spread her wings and set off flying back to the small yard where she now had to live separated from her daughter, separated for the first time.

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 It happened all of a sudden. First only Rauha, the dog, was restless, and then the droning began.

‘It’s a Junkers, the German flyboys’ bird,’ Juho said to the girl. Somewhat overconfidently, to be sure. But he knew his aircraft. And he knew that these were just false alarms; Germany had beaten the Russkies so thoroughly that there was no way they could get into the air.

The girl was content to just nod, and they stayed sitting on the doorstep. But the drone only grew louder, and soon sirens began to scream. Juho shrugged his shoulders. Suddenly an anti-aircraft battery began to hack on the other side of the city, and Juho stood up and looked at the sky, heart pounding. The girl began chanting, ‘Where now, where do we go now, Juho,’ and he waved his hand at her to get down, get down, as he ran to the middle of the yard to get a better view.

And then the planes were already speeding over – low to the ground, muffled, grey clouds, their red stars skirting the rooftops.

The man was looking at them – he was sure of it. Did he raise his hand? ‘Hey there, kids, it’s just Uncle Ivan out for a joyride.’ Or was he aiming his gun, but didn’t have time to let fly the hail of bullets?

Juho felt like he was standing on the surface of an immense ball as the plane flew over, creating a vapour tail behind it in the sky. Out of his mouth slipped, almost unnoticed, ‘Ah Katyusha!’ Because that’s what it was: a small, agile Katyusha, the heroine of the Spanish Civil War; Juho knew it from the shiny glass domes and the air-gulping shape of the nose.

‘Now will it,’ Juho managed to think and then glanced around frantically. Where can we go? Rauha was barking and Saaralotta was curled up into a ball of floral print next to the stairs.

Just then, the door of the shed flew open. Kaarlo burst out with his hair standing on end and yelled, ‘Hey, you little shits, what’s my clarinet doing there, and what just flew over?’

Juho didn’t know how to answer and whose fault it all was – maybe the clarinet did have some secret connection to the planes that were roaring further off now, over Itkonniemi, in the direction the man was now staring with his hand at his forehead, streaming sweat.

‘Oh goddammit!’ the man shouted, when the muffled thuds began to echo, and started running to and fro on the yard. He grabbed the instrument case and waved it in Juho’s face, ‘Who gave permission?’ he yelled and shoved the case into Juho’s hands, then run to the gate and back again. When the last and largest thud of all rang out, they both ducked for cover, and Saaralotta whimpered.

Then it was over. The planes’ steel paddles churned the air as they turned away. Juho stared at the clarinet and thought hazily, ‘Is this what’s wailing so loudly?’

But no, the sirens were still blaring, and there was a pillar of smoke rising from the direction of Itkonniemi. The man took Juho by both arms and shook him, yelling, ‘You take care of the girl now! Do you understand! I have to go to the sawmill! And you are responsible for the girl now!’

And then the man took his clarinet, ran with it inside into his room and then came back out into the yard, shoes pounding. Rauha jumped up at her master, but the man just yelled, ‘Down!’ and the dog plonked herself down on the gravel. The man took a bicycle down from the wall, pushed it through the gate onto the street and took off pedalling. Rauha was left yapping in an anxious puppy voice as her master disappeared. The thunder of an immense conflagration started to come from Itkonniemi.

Juho looked at Saaralotta, who was still huddled next to the stairs. ‘Mummy,’ came her small voice, as if from underwater, ‘Mummy.’

Juho crouched down next to the girl and carefully stroked her mussed hair. The girl straightened her back and looked at him. Juho didn’t know what to say; he felt as if he were deaf and dumb. The girl put her hands around his neck, and he patted her on the back stiffly.

‘Now my Mother is dead,’ said the girl in a husky voice.

‘Not a chance,’ said Juho, even though it took a great effort to form the words in his mouth. A din of bells and horns began to proceed from the direction of the city towards the place where those great birds had laid their eggs, and some part of Juho wanted to see the destruction that was the cause of so much smoke and thundering. But he could still feel the pressure of Kaarlo’s hands in his arms, so he looked at the girl and stroked her hair again, saying very kindly, if somewhat laboriously, ‘Now we have to leave. More of them will come soon.’

‘Yes,’ said the girl, rubbing her eyes with her fists, ‘to look for Mother.’

Consolingly he said to the girl, as he had heard his friend Arvi talking to his little sister, ‘Run along now and fetch a wool sweater or something else warm to wear.’

‘But it’s hot now,’ said the girl, suddenly perking up. ‘And you don’t get to boss me around.’

‘Listen kid, there’s a war on,’ roared Juho, and a chill went down his spine as he remembered the steel shuttles over the yard. ‘And you will do as I say. Get a move on!’

The girl looked at him, lower lip stuck out, but she didn’t have the nerve to put up a fight; she just turned and went in through the shed door.

Juho looked around; Rauha had gone to sit at the gate and was staring after her master stock still. Saaralotta came out again, her face white, with a raspberry coloured sweater on her shoulders and a bundle of papers in her hand.

‘These were inside the sweater,’ she said, shoving the stack into Juho’s hands. Juho glanced at the papers: some ration cards and some sort of stamped slips of paper, and even a real passport with a picture.

‘Your papers,’ Juho said and tried to give them to the girl.

The girl hid her hands behind her back and shook her head.

‘Well, put them somewhere,’ Juho snapped. ‘Or should I throw them on the rubbish heap?

‘Now Mother has left me,’ said the girl. ‘She said she was going to leave lots of times because I’m so naughty. Now she has.’

Juho looked at the papers and thought for a moment. It certainly did seem reasonable.

‘Could be,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘But she won’t get far,’ he hurried to continue, before the girl could start sobbing.

But the girl didn’t give the impression she meant to cry. More like numb, or calm. Like a person sometimes gets when some long-feared thing comes true; Juho knew it well enough. Almost better to end up in hell itself that to wait in constant fear.

‘Let’s go after your mother then,’ Juho said, looking at the sky, which was slowly being covered with a thick, grey-black layer of smoke. Just then the all-clear signal spun up.

‘Now,’ Juho said. He threw his rucksack on his back and took a willow basket in his left hand. With the right, he took Saaralotta’s hand, which felt cold and small. ‘Are you cold?’ asked Juho, and Saaralotta nodded. ‘Do you understand now why you have to have a sweater?’ Juho wanted to say, but was too magnanimous to bother. He just said, ‘You’ll warm up as soon as we get walking.’

‘Where,’ said the girl, squeezing Juho’s hand tightly.

‘Well, now, where could she have gone?’ Juho said, suddenly powerless. This was a big city, much bigger than Varkaus, where he had lived with his father before the war. In that far-off time when the sight of a plane didn’t mean you needed to duck and didn’t cause you to break out in a cold sweat. Father, Juho thought longingly. Do you remember me where you are; do you remember the time before the war, the air show and the ice-cream cones?

‘I know,’ said Saaralotta, and when Juho turned to look at her, she continued, ‘Do you know a place where it says Tatra over the door?’

‘Tatra!’ Juho exclaimed. ‘Yes, I know that place. It’s a restaurant. I’ve even been there. They have those…dancers.’

And Juho thought back to last spring, how Mullikka was playing the piano at Tatra and a shiny-lipped woman was waiting behind the curtains, ready to glide out onto the stage, buxom and sensual. But Juho was forced to leave in the middle of everything, without seeing any dancing.

‘Yes,’ said Saaralotta matter-of-factly. ‘And last night I was there.’

‘Good,’ Juho said. ‘We can find Tatra. Let’s go.’

They walked to the gate, and Rauha wagged her tail as if signalling that, yes, I see you, I just don’t care, only about my master, who told me to lie down.

They opened the gate and stepped out of the yard.

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Juho Tiihonen came to a halt before the back door of Tatra and knocked once again. Saaralotta stood behind him chanting, ‘I’m sure mum is here now, I’m sure she is.’

They stood there for a long time, at least several minutes, but no one came to the door. Then Juho said to Saaralotta, who was still listening excitedly for noises from inside, ‘She isn’t there; it’s time to face facts – this must be the sixth time we’ve been here.’

And it was true: they had come and pounded on the door of Tatra countless times, wandering in circles through the blocks surrounding the restaurant, and always returning to the back yard of the restaurant, when Saaralotta would take hold of his arm and exclaim, ‘What if mummy came just now while we were gone! One more time, Juho, just once more!’

But now even Saaralotta had given up hope. She just hung her head and set off walking out of the Tatra courtyard, Juho following her out onto the hot street. They walked all the way to the edge of the market square without saying anything.

The wind was blowing litter around the square, with seagulls flapping in the mix. Someone’s fish basket had fallen to the ground and been left where it lay, which didn’t seem to interest anyone but the gulls. At one end of the market hall, a solitary old lady was picking something up off the ground. Further off at the bus station, a car stood; its driver was looking their way. The clock on the city hall said, ‘Bong.’

‘It’s one o’clock,’ said Juho, his voice sounding dry as if his insides were all covered with dust.

Saaralotta didn’t say anything. Juho shaded his eyes with his palm and flinched. A policeman was standing next to the newsagent’s stand. Juho began to drag Saaralotta away. But it was no use – the policeman had noticed them and flashed a stop signal with his hand, hurrying towards them.

‘Now whose little boy and girl are these,’ asked the policeman, brow furrowed.

‘I’m Juho Tiihonen and this is Saaralotta,’ Juho muttered, looking at the ground.

‘Saaralotta is it? And where might the young couple be headed?’

‘To Kuopionlahti,’ said Juho, at first surprised at his own words, but then realising that it really was for the best; they had to go somewhere to get out of the heat of the streets, to stop wandering around.

‘Will there be adults there then,’ said the policeman. ‘Or are you just running away?’

The policeman eyed Juho’s rucksack and willow basket, and Juho hurried to protest, ‘We were on an outing when the Russkie planes came. Boy, what a racket. Granddad is waiting for us on Aleksanterinkatu Street. We really ought to get going; – they’re sure to be worried by now.’

‘Well of course,’ snapped the policeman. ‘Now you’ve had enough wandering about for today, is that clear? Can you find your way there from here or shall I escort you?’

‘Yes officer, no officer,’ Juho muttered and took Saaralotta’s warm hand.

‘Dragging his little sister round like that,’ the policeman grumbled finally and then waved his hand as if to say, ‘Get along, you brats!’

Juho and Saaralotta scuttled off down Haapaniemenkatu Street. They came to the house on the corner of Aleksanterinkatu Street, entered the garden and went to knock on Grandpa Korhonen’s door.

No one answered. Juho tried the door: it was locked. His grimy face now ashen, Juho turned to look at Saaralotta and shrugged his shoulders. He wanted to say, ‘Probably out drinking,’ but he didn’t want Saaralotta to start pestering him about it. Saaralotta hung her head, and Juho stared at the doorstep fixedly. He had wanted to help the girl, but this is where they had ended up. Where could one woman disappear to like that?

At the policeman’s order, they had come here to this garden on Aleksanterinkatu Street that Juho had left in the spring as a war orphan. Looking at his bare toes, Juho thought, ‘Now it’s like I’ve gone in a circle and come back to the same place, poorer than when I left.’

‘Grandpa isn’t at home,’ said Juho, slumping down to sit between the rucksack and willow basket. Saaralotta collapsed next to him and said, ‘The one who drowned, the fish.’

‘Nah,’ laughed Juho. ‘My other grandpa, Grandpa Korhonen. He’s a postman and air raid warden. And a bit of a…’ Juho puckered his lips and then, making his hand into a bottle, imitated drinking from his thumb.

‘But he’s promised to stay sober until the end of the war,’ Juho added. ‘At least until the autumn anyway. And he told me that if it’s no good being off with the rich folk, then I can always come home.’

The girl nodded very seriously, and to Juho it felt as though she was a person who had seen the world and wasn’t even shocked by drunks, and he poked Saaralotta, making her yelp a bit.

‘You’re a good pal, Saaralotta,’ he said. Saaralotta said, ‘Yes, yes, but can I go over to that woodshed now? I’m awfully tired.’

‘Hey, I’ve got a better suggestion,’ said Juho, looking out behind the yard, where the dark mass of Aarneenkallio shone, sweating in the heat.

‘Look. Do you see the rock there behind the yard,’ Juho began to explain to Saaralotta. ‘At the base of the rock is a hut. No, you can’t see it from here, and that’s the best thing about it. Arvi and I built it, and that’s where I’m going to take you now. And right next to here is a huge rock shelter where we can go if the whistles start blowing, and it wouldn’t fall in, even if a bomb were to hit it dead on. So you can be in the hut when I go to look for your mother.’

‘Don’t go anywhere, Juho,’ said Saaralotta. ‘Let’s just go to the hut now.’ And Juho gathered up their belongings, took Saaralotta by the hand and began to lead the girl towards the empty plot of land where they soon disappeared amongst the long grass.

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Postman Korhonen jogged along down Ajurinkatu Street, crossed Aleksanterinkatu Street and turned into the garden of his house, hoping that he would see Juho waiting there.

But no. Korhonen pressed his palm to his thumping chest and took a few more deep breaths. Sweat was pouring off his temples onto the street, and his back was completely wet.

His body was still sweating out the poisons of drinking bouts past. Korhonen had sat up many nights listening to the booze demons howling in his ears and pounding their drums in his skull. But he didn’t give in to them; he wouldn’t until the war was over.

And maybe not even then. Korhonen set off walking from the corner of the building towards his home. Although there wasn’t much point in trusting in future promises; just so long as he could tick off this one day. He pulled on his front door in passing; sure enough, it was locked; the white slip of paper was on the doorpost as a signal that no one was at home. What if he had left the door open, as in times past? If Juho had visited here, he could have gone inside, found something to eat and maybe stretched out to rest.

He’d had to endure so much, his daughter’s son. His mother had died and his father had fallen ill in the war. And his grandfather was a drunk.

But what about his foster mother, a good, genteel woman, who, with a sad, caring expression examined Juho’s hapless life in Kuopionlahti and took him along with her to the life of gentility. Juho had received more things from that lady than in his whole life up to that point; from where would Juho’s father, a common factory worker, have been able to conjure up all the things that were a matter of course for Mrs Lehtivaara? Skis, skates, sledges, wristwatches, new trousers and a coat for every kind of weather.

But had the lady taken care of the child in the end? That she could drive a small boy away in the middle of a bombing raid, to run around the streets of the city.

‘Damn it all to hell,’ snarled Korhonen, walking across the garden to the shed. He opened one door at a time, peering into the dark, wood-scented depths of the shed. But although Korhonen listened carefully, he heard nary a rustle. He sat down on the stone step of the shed to cough. He just squinted the water out of his eyes. He dug a dog-end of a cigarette out of his pocket, turned it for a moment in his fingers and then put it back in his pocket. He closed his eyes and said to himself, ‘Think.’

The sun was shining from the direction of Aarneenkallio and the wall of the shed had fallen into shadow. After the heat, it eased his mind, and his heart finally began to calm down. Suddenly he had a strange feeling that everything would work out.

He had never felt that way. Never, and there shouldn’t have been any reason for it now. But some sort of grace just descended upon him as he stared at the rock, which had been collecting the heat of the day. The clemency of the evening and the grassy scent of the garden said that all is not yet lost; he was still alive and therefore might still be able to fix something.

With watering eyes, Korhonen looked again at the baked face of Aarneenkallio, and suddenly to his mind came such a vivid memory that his mouth stretched into a broad smile. Of course, where else would Juho have gone?

He stood up, walked past the garden into the vacant field and stepped into the swaying grass. He waded quietly through it until he saw the hut built in the willow grove and Juho crouched next to his rucksack in front of it. Korhonen stood up and was about to yell, ‘Juho!’ But then he saw that there was another child in the hut as well. Shading his eyes with his hand, Korhonen could make out long, blond hair and a slender arm. A little girl.

Korhonen sat down in the grass to think. Have to think of a strategy, move craftily like the generals. Something said to him that if he startled Juho now, he would panic and run. But the boy had come here, to his grandfather’s yard. He can’t be made to feel unwelcome; he couldn’t want to leave here anymore.

Korhonen crossed his legs with much effort and observed the children. He was like a woodsman on the hunt, tracking timid game. He glanced towards the house and thought, ‘And I can be absent from there for a moment – I’ve been gone for so many worse reasons.’

Juho was crouching before the hut, and Saaralotta was still sleeping behind him, curled up on some reeds. Juho didn’t know how long the girl had been asleep. The shadows were already long though, and the horn of the evening boat sounded from far off.

Juho sighed and opened his rucksack, which was resting against the wall of the hut. He took out a tomato, wiped it on the front of his shirt, and, plucking a few dandelion leaves from the ground, set the tomato on them, right in front of the girl’s eyes. It would be nice to wake her up when the first thing she would see was something so beautiful.

‘Do you think you could get up for just a little,’ he said to the girl. ‘Look, there’s a tomato.’

And the girl opened her eyes, rolled onto her side and looked at the round tomato for a long time.

‘Not such a big one.’

‘Well, but if I help you a little,’ said Juho, swallowing his saliva in anticipation. He untied the strings of his rucksack, took out a knife and quickly cut the tomato into four equal parts. He helped the girl sit up and put a tomato slice in her hand, and the girl sucked the strong, hearty juice from the tomato, eyes shut, as if with difficulty.

It was bad, the girl’s illness. If juice wouldn’t even go down right. Juho pushed one slice into his mouth, chewed it and swallowed. The girl looked at him and offered the rest of the slices to him, even the one she had sucked the juice out of.

Juho put the pieces in waxed paper and pushed the packet into the cellar hole. Maybe she would want it later.

Juho covered the girl better, turned onto his back and, staring at the ceiling, began to speak.

‘There’s a land where children may go who aren’t wanted anywhere else,’ he said. ‘It ‘s out there on the lake somewhere, and always appears in the moonlight.

‘The sand, which springs from the depths of the lake, is gleaming silver, new land, where no foot has tread. And only when the lake is low, and the water rolls away like the moonlight, is that land visible. And that is where they go, the children who are wanted nowhere else. Who have been driven from every other place.

‘The ice with which I stroke your forehead,’ said Juho in a storytelling voice, at which the girl drew an alert breath and turned towards him, curling up at his side. ‘This ice is a piece of the moonlit water, and you have now been anointed with that water. And I will take you on a journey, if you wish to go with me.’

The girl pressed her forehead against his, and they breathed the same air. ‘And I once thought that Mari Martiskainen was the most beautiful woman in the world,’ thought Juho. ‘Now Arvi can have her all to himself. Because this is my girl, this one.’

‘But what do people live on there,’ asked the girl, gazing straight into Juho’s eyes with own her lovely pale eyes. ‘There aren’t any things there.’

‘Oh, but there are,’ laughed Juho. ‘There is wood and bone, hammers and sickles, beds and bicycles. There you find everything that the water has carried away; there is everything for us there.’

‘Yes,’ agreed the girl. ‘Let’s go there. But how?’

‘We’ll go by boat. And we’ll take my friend Arvi with us. And his girl Mari,’ added Juho, looking at the girl a bit appraisingly. He had got the idea from listening to what the men said about how women don’t always get along easily. And who would he sacrifice then? Because he had talked about and planned this journey many times with Arvi.

But the girl just nodded and said very peaceably, ‘There is space for all of us there. And it will be nice to have another girl come. Because I’ve never had my very own friend. Except Auntie Ester.’

‘Good,’ said Juho. ‘The problem is that Arvi is serving on a ship and Mari has been bundled off to the country to get away from the war. So I’ll leave with you, ahead of them.’

‘How will we know where to steer the boat then,’ asked the girl, rising to her elbows now.

Juho said calmly, ‘The stars will show the way. We’ll go where Orion points.’

‘But there aren’t any stars,’ said the girl. ‘The sky is just white.’

‘But you know even on summer nights there is that small dark moment,’ said Juho.

‘Yes,’ agreed the girl, remembering again the previous night, the blue lanterns and the moon-
devouring waters. ‘Yes, yes,’ the girl agreed again and then lay on her back on the sacks. She closed her eyes and mumbled dozily, ‘Now I want to sleep, Juho Tiihonen. Let me sleep.’

‘Sleep, sleep.’ Juho whispered. ‘So you will have the strength to sit up in the boat at night. I’ll row you all the way, since you’re such a little doll. And I’ll catch you vendace with a net and cook them over a fire.’

‘I’m going to marry you, Juho Tiihonen,’ said the girl in a voice heavy with sleep. ‘And I will build us a house,’ said Juho. ‘In the autumn. So you won’t have to be cold. If an ugly, dirty working-class boy like me can be good enough for you.’

‘You aren’t ugly or dirty,’ whispered the girl. ‘Now be quiet so I can sleep.’

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Korhonen saw Juho crawl out of the hut and position himself in front of it like a guard. He had heard enough of what the children said that he understood that the girl was pale, which only made the decision strengthen in his mind. He had to get Juho to give up the game. But Juho was just the sort of hothead, living in his imagination, that if he were to cut off the game forcefully, there was no way to guess at the consequences.

Korhonen thought for a moment, then lay down on the ground and whistled very quietly, with dry lips. And when Juho lifted his head, Korhonen whistled again. Juho looked around like a rabbit, alert and ready to flee. But Korhonen whistled again, like boys do, and Juho began to move.

When Juho had got close to his hideout, Korhonen said from amongst the grass, ‘Juho.’

And Juho jumped and then hissed, ‘Grandpa! What are you doing, Grandpa! Are you… drunk!’ And then he took a couple of steps as if too flee. But Korhonen said from down on the ground, ‘I’ve kept my promise to stay sober. I haven’t taken a drink since Midsummer. I liked your Indian game, and I’ve come to give myself up as a hostage.’

‘As a hostage?’ said Juho.

‘Yes,’ said Korhonen, rising up on his hands. ‘I can be your prisoner, yours and that girl’s. You can execute me if I reveal your secrets to anyone.’

Juho was quiet for a long time and then said, ‘You’re pulling my leg, Grandpa.’

‘If I’m not telling the truth, then off it goes,’ said Korhonen, drawing his finger across his throat and then drew himself into a sitting position. ‘But listen now; at night that girl has to be brought in where it’s warm. And what if they bomb again? Are you going to carry her away from here yourself? Be a man now; you don’t want that girl’s death on your conscience.’

‘It takes a man to know a man,’ Juho grumbled. They were quiet, and then Juho took a step closer and said, ‘But not to your place anyway. I won’t bring Saaralotta there. She’s a refined girl. From a good family.’

‘Oh, aha,’ said Korhonen. ‘Not to my place. Will you come into the loft, if I put beds there?’

‘I will,’ said Juho quietly. ‘If you can promise. That you won’t tell anyone. Not anyone!’

‘I can,’ said Korhonen, raising his hand to the square. Juho took another step closer and crouched in the grass like an Indian come to parlay.

Korhonen pointed at the sky and said, ‘When the sun has fallen behind Aarneenkallio, then I will come to get you.’

‘Agreed,’ said Juho. ‘On your honour.’

‘Indian’s honour,’ said Korhonen, standing up and turning towards the house.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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