The mistake

Issue 3/2008 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story (‘Erehdys’, 1956, last published in the collection Lukittu laatikko ja muita kertomuksia, ‘A locked box and other stories’, WSOY, 2003). Introduction by Markéta Hejkalová

My feet are smarter than my head. On an April night in Naples they carried me along the Via Roma past the royal palace and the giant illuminated dome of the church. The people of Naples walked up and down the immortal street like the cool of evening, looking at each other and at the brightly lit display windows. I had nothing against that, but at the comer of Via San Brigida my feet turned to the right. The snow-cold breath of my homeland radiated toward me from Saint Bridget Street.

When I had turned the corner I could see a restaurant window still lit, with its fruit baskets, dead fish and red lobsters. The most hurried diners had already finished their meals. I stepped into the long dining room of the restaurant, the sawdust on the floor stuck to my shoes, a frighteningly icy stare pierced me from behind the counter, but I gathered my courage and whispered bravely, ‘Buona sera, signora.’

She shouted imperiously, ‘Jack.’ When the summons didn’t do the trick, she raised her voice to a piercing yell, ‘Jacobo!’

The host heard the summons and appeared before me, looked inquiringly at my checked, billed cap. He led me to the best table, and helped remove my overcoat with his own hands. He was a small, worried man and there was something familiar in his furrowed face and the colour of his eyes. But his hair was coal black and his breath radiated the soothing scent of garlic as he placed a menu in front of me.

Not that he was going to grant me any time to read it. He had already made up his mind, because of my checked cap, that I wouldn’t understand any of it. He suggested decisively ‘Frutta di mare.’

I frantically refused, but Napolitanos believe that outsiders should begin a meal with fruit of the sea, whether it is morning, noon, or night, whether or not upset their stomach. I myself am allergic to lobster and get cramps in my legs even from oysters, although no one believes me when I say so. The host Jacobo rebuffed my refusal with an Italian hand gesture and some words in American dialect that I didn’t understand because I don’t speak English. Plucking the menu from in front of me, he contented himself with asking whether I would like white or red wine. Acquiescing, I said, ‘Rosso.’

He disappeared into the kitchen and a moment later a swift young waiter with a stained apron was before me, opening an unlabelled bottle of red wine and filling my glass. When he had left, an old dog with limbs stiffened by rheumatism approached, stretched his head out toward me, and looked at me with eyes full of devotion. I patted his head and, with a heavy sigh, he lowered himself to lie down in the sawdust on the stone floor. He was an old white and light brown dog, and he had ears that stood up and flopped over at the tips. His parents wouldn’t have been so presumptuous as to dream of breeds or pedigrees. But it didn’t bother him. Or me. I thought he was a good friendly old dog.

I drank the red wine. It was good red wine. It didn’t need a leather-bound winelist, a label, or a year of vintage to prove its quality. As I saw the host Jacobo returning with a tray, I took another drink to buoy my spirits. He placed a dish in front of me and stood staring at me in an intimidating manner. I looked at the dish, shut my eyes, and drank some more wine. Two large blue clams, two white clams, a small squid, two long yellowish worms, and in the middle a melancholy-looking sea-horse steamed on the plate. The host stepped away. I started at the clams. I ate everything on the plate except for the two worms. Everything tasted good, although it made me sad to chew on the black sea-horse. A white cat came to rub its head against my leg. I offered her both worms and she lost no time eating them, leaving when she had finished the deed. The host smiled. His wife stared at me all the way from the other end of the room with a cuttingly black look.

‘Good,’ he asked in an affirmative tone.

‘Good,’ I confessed submissively.

He nodded and told me in English that he would prepare me an excellent steak with his own hands. Emboldened by the wine, I dared to tell him that I didn’t understand English. He shot a gloomy look at my checked cap and let out an indefinable sound. Still, he filled my glass with wine, repeated his assurances about the steak, and disappeared into the kitchen. His talk about the steak made the dog sit up and look at me with bottomless melancholy eyes, and rested his gray snout on my knee.

I drank red wine and thought about the little black sea-horse in my belly. The last guests left. ‘Aphrodite, Aphrodite,’ I said to the dog, but he didn’t understand.

‘When the sun has set and darkness spreads over the land,’ I explained, ‘then the bowstring can sound once again and the arrow streak to the heights. The arrow will reach the last rays of sun in the sky and flash in the air. That’s all I meant. It’s not me, but I wish it was.’

The dog took his nose off my knee, limped on stiff legs across the stone floor to the comer, sniffing something there, and returned, sitting himself at a careful distance from me. But he wasn’t waiting for further explanation. He was waiting for steak, although his confidence had been shaken.

The host whisked the steak onto the table, aware of every motion of his hands. It was a wonderful steak. I admitted it to him in a French that, in Naples, seemed flawless. He shook his head. ‘Scandinave,’ he asked with an inquiring look.

I’m not ashamed of my heritage. ‘Finlandese,’ I confessed, without hesitation. The dog stood up and approached me warily. The host struck the side of his head.

‘Kas, perkelettä,’ he said. ‘I’m Finnish, too. Yeah.’

‘Jacobo?’ I asked doubtfully.

‘Actually Jaska, originally,’ he explained. ‘At first they twisted it into Jack in America. The old lady there,’ he pointed his thumb toward the icy stare behind counter,’ calls me Jacobo when she’s in a bad mood.’

‘Please sit down, Jaska,’ I urged, ‘have a glass of wine. Nice to meet you. I’ve met Finns all over the place, but never working in a trattoria in Naples.’

I poured some red wine into his glass and examined his face. I already understood what was familiar about him, those angular cheekbones and restless grey-green eyes. ‘Where’d you get that hair?’ I asked.

He ran his fingers through his blue-black hair glistening with hair gel ‘Got dyed,’ he admitted, embarrassed. ‘Kinda suits the local colour better. And there other reasons, too.’

The time and place had forced a strange tone into his accent, but he still spoke Finnish fluently. ‘How did you figure out that I was Scandinavian?’ I asked. ‘Don’t I have an Italian suit, an English cap, Swiss shoes, European eyes, and the bald head of a gentleman?’

‘But hell,’ I continued, getting worked up. ‘I myself have travelled enough able to recognise a Scandinavian. A Finn drinks himself silly, fights, and ends in jail. A Swede drinks himself into a civilised state of drunkenness and tells you his wife doesn’t understand him and never has. A Norwegian drinks like a Finn, fights like a Finn, but doesn’t end up in jail. A Dane just laughs. An Icelander looks around with dreamy eyes and doesn’t say anything. He has oil-paint stains on his coat. I don’t know why, but for some reason every Icelander I’ve ever met anywhere in the world was a painter.’

I thought for a moment. Except Halldór Kiljan of course, I added. He could jump out at you from any side street in any city. But he’s a special case.

Jaska gave a crooked smile. ‘Good wine, eh?’ he said, changing the subject. ‘From our own cellar. For some reason I thought you were English.’

I wasn’t offended. ‘The steak’s good, too.’ I said appreciatively. ‘Where did you learn to cook?’

‘At sea,’ he said hesitantly. ‘In cook and steward school. And in the war. In officers’ mess hall. But I didn’t know how to do anything before my father-in-law taught me. In this place. Where are you coming from?’

‘Paestum,’ I explained. ‘I went to pick anemones.’

Jaska looked preoccupied, drank his wine suddenly, glanced at his wife and stared straight ahead. For my part, I ate my steak and gave my tithe to the old dog. After finding that his plate was empty, he gazed at me beneficently and sauntered off with a limp.

‘Good dog,’ I said, ‘pretty dog, faithful dog, hardworking dog. Where’d you get him?’

‘If it weren’t for that dog I wouldn’t be sitting here,’ Jaska said gloomily. ‘He saved my life once. Or rather, he actually didn’t save my life. I just thought he did.’ He leaned his cheek on his fist and added as he glanced across the room: ‘Not that I’d even care to sit here all the time.’

‘Women are women,’ I said, with the condescending tone of a man of the world.

‘Yes they are,’ Jaska sighed, taking a drink of wine. ‘But my Grazia Maria is even worse.’

‘Jacobo,’ the baleful woman behind the counter called. Jaska rubbed his hands, looking distressed, and got up. When he had crossed the room, I heard them exchange a few words. The woman went to lock the door and carry the dead fish from the display window to the refrigerator. Jaska returned, carrying a full bottle of wine.

‘On the house,’ he said, and sat down again. ‘Grazia Maria Grazia Maria,’ he repeated wistfully. ‘I guess it’s not her fault. It’s mine, because I have such a restless nature. I’ve left her twice already, but both times I came right back. I even missed the dog.’

‘So you came from Paestum,’ he continued, when the level of the wine in the bottle was a little lower. ‘I’ve been there before. In the autumn once. When the amphibious vehicles buzzed onto the beach and the tanks started ploughing through the fields. At the time, I still thought that bombs couldn’t hit a cook working at headquarters. I just laughed when the sun rose and the outlines of the brown pillars of Greek temples became visible and my mates wondered what the hell kind of antitank fortifications those were. But my smile froze all at once when the Germans counterattacked and our own naval artillery got mixed up in the shooting.’

‘Indeed,’ I said. ‘There was a large soldier’s cemetery next to the road there.’

‘My mates,’ Jaska conceded. ‘One of them was Mike Jefferson, from somewhere in the Midwest. He put together a poem about those temples before he got hit in the eye with some shrapnel. He was an earnest guy. And young enough that he really thought he was fighting to liberate the world from fear. Well. I suppose I believed all kinds of things back then, too. But when more than a year went by fighting in Italy, and the Canadians and Indians, Belgians and Poles, even Brazilians, got mixed up in it, and the gangsters went rampaging through the depots, and everybody kicking the Italians around, I lost faith.’

‘I’d rather you told me about the dog, Jaska,’ I said. ‘War is war.’

He pressed his fist against the table and gloomily insisted, ‘War is a filthy thing.’

‘Unquestionably, brother, unquestionably,’ I said diplomatically. But Jaska felt a need to open up the dam. In a voice hoarse with bitterness and red wine he said, ‘When we’d been at war for more than a year, somewhere around Bologna, I started to think for myself.’

‘Ai-yi-yi, Jaska,’ I said reproachfully, ‘it won’t do to think when there’s a war on. You could end up in the slammer.’

‘You can think, if you don’t go flapping your gums,’ he insisted. ‘Besides, it’s different for the cook.’

‘So you lost your nerve,’ I said. ‘You may have a mean wife, but so do a lot of other people. You just have to bear up like a man and not dwell on your troubles.’

Jaska swigged down the rest of his drink and confessed plaintively, ‘You saw yourself how she locked the door. Now she’s sitting on the key counting the cash ,with a dagger in the cuff of her sock. I’m not a man anymore, I’m a prisoner. But I was during the war, too. Almost to the end.’

‘We were all prisoners, wherever we were,’ I pointed out. ‘If we weren’t prisoners of our wives, then we were prisoners of ourselves. There’s nothing to be done about it. Some have tighter confines, some roomier ones, but we’re all prisoners. Until we die.’

Jaska glanced at me doubtfully and asked, ‘You’re not a priest, are you?’

‘No,’ I assured him. But then I thought for a moment. ‘I could have been one,’ I admitted.

He drank some wine and said, ‘I don’t believe in anything anymore. I don’t, dang it. If I tried to believe, I would only need to look at that limping dog. It took the last remnants of my faith. It’s a good dog. A smart dog. Smarter than you think.’

The dog came out of the corner, sniffed at his knee, and gave me an accusing look. Jaska patted its head.

‘Yep,’ he resumed. ‘Somewhere in the last dust-up near Bologna a rifle was rammed into my hands when the Germans started a counterattack, trying to close up the hole in their front ranks. Or maybe they just did it out of spite. It was such a mess for a few days that nobody knew what was going on.’

‘Believe me,’ he said, ‘you’re in a tough spot when you start sending the officers’ cook into enemy fire. But I’m not going to try to explain it to you, I didn’t know what was happening myself. I only know that I got lost in the woods and I must have been pretty well knocked out, because when it started to get light, I woke up in a deserted landscape next to a beastly big forest of beech trees. I didn’t see any friends or enemies. Just a few shattered trees and grenade casings and junk thrown around everywhere. Nothing else. I could hear the noise of the battle far off, but the sky was covered in clouds, I was mercilessly chilled, and I wasn’t even sure which direction was which. There was a little building of some kind, quite deserted, with its windows hanging open, a stone wall around it. It was a grim awakening.’

‘I dont doubt it,’ I said. Jaska shuddered.

‘The war had passed,’ he explained. ‘But I didnt know which way it went, or where, or who was on the winning side. And being all alone in a war is the grimmest thing of all. So I got darned happy when I saw one of those zebra-striped parachute men limp toward the house with his leg all bloody. When he got to the stone wall he shot a round from his machine gun into the house and made the woods shudder. A dog started to whine in the yard, and the man cursed in English, and I yelled, ‘Dont shoot, I have tobacco.’

‘It’s grim to be alone in a war,’ Jaska said again. ‘Not much time passed before a Negro came stumbling out of the woods, his face grey with cold and fear, and then some Pole with a peculiar cap on his head, so that there were four of us allied guys altogether, there by the wall. The dog was whining the whole time. We got out our tobacco and it became clear that none of us knew where we were. The parachuter had a map case and the map had borders of different colours drawn on it, but it was no use to him because he didn’t know where he’d fallen. He was as mad as a hornet. Italy can be a grim country when it wants to, on a cold morning when you’re lost. And the dog howling the whole time.’

‘We went into the yard as quietly as we could and when we got to the shed we saw what the dog was whining about. There was an Italian civilian lying there, shot. It must have been the owner of the house, his feet bare, just pants and a tattered shirt on, with a cardboard tag around his neck that had a couple of words scribbled on it in German and Italian. From that we concluded that the Germans had been through there, or that we had ended up behind the German front lines. The dog greeted us humbly, but when the parachute man went up the stairs and started to push the door open, the dog started to bare his teeth and block the way, as if he wanted to protect his master’s house. The rest of us remained standing apart, but the zebra-striped guy kicked the dog across the yard and pushed open the door with his machine gun poised. I don’t know what he thought he would find there, but it was his downfall anyway, because just then there was a rumble and half the house slammed into the air, and him with it. The Germans had mined the place before they left. The three of us who remained hit the ground and got fragments of rock and plaster, and bits of timber in the neck, but we were used to bigger bangs, and we just dropped back down behind the wall as soon as the house stopped raining on us.’

Jaska was thoughtful for a moment. ‘The strangest thing about it,’ he continued, ‘was that the three of us had a tremendous feeling of relief that the angry parachuter was no longer part of the group. I opened my bread bag and we divvied up the food and determined that running around a lot is no advantage in a war. That’s how you end up dead. The dog came over to us dragging its belly on the ground, and I’ve never seen a more forlorn look than the one in that dog’s eyes. I gave it a piece of bread. He wolfed it down and nestled against me. The Pole had grappa in his canteen and all three of us took a swig. It warmed us up and wiped out the worst of the feeling of desolation.’

‘In a situation like that,’ Jaska explained in a reasonable tone, ‘a person is all mixed up somehow and afterwards it’s impossible to explain why you behaved a certain way. After we had chatted for a while and smoked a couple of cigarettes, we started to feel like we couldn’t really stay there. That’s how it is when you’re lost and leaderless in a war. Some big guns started to shoot from some place far away, and the ground shook, and we decided that a new attack was heating up. But we didn’t know who was going to strike or from which direction. We just became uneasy enough that we couldn’t stay where we were. But we didn’t know which direction we ought to go. All three of us kept pointing in different directions. The dog perked up and looked alertly at all of us. I had a piece of rope, tied a loop in it to go around the dog’s neck, and suggested that we let the dog lead us. The dog resisted at first, but then he understood what was happening and I’ve never dog happier than that one when he realised he had a new master. Snapping at the leash, he started off, leading us straight into the beech woods, not on the road that led from the house at all.’

The old dog got up from the sawdust on the floor and put his chin trustfully on Jaska’s knee. Jaska patted his head absentmindedly. ‘This is the dog?’ I asked.

‘This is the one,’ Jaska said. ‘But he was young then, and lively, and tried his best to show us his skill, positively whining with eagerness as he dragged us into the woods. I was in front, holding the leash, the Pole came behind me with a pistol in his hand, and the Negro was last, mumbling prayers to himself. The dog was sniffing the ground excitedly the whole time and going around trees so we ended up zigzagging every which way. A couple hundred meters along, a German soldier rose up out of a pile of leaves, blue with cold and shaking with fear, and yelled something at us, putting his hands in the air. It scared us so that the Pole shot at him instantly, but he missed. When he tried again, I hit his hand away and explained that you don’t shoot prisoners of war. The German a thin young boy and he was as lost as we were. He knew a few words of English and assured us that he was a courier and wasn’t armed. The Negro took his wristwatch and I looked at his papers with a knowledgeable air, although I didn’t understand a thing on them. The Pole emptied his wallet and there were photos in it of a young girl and his parents and siblings. After looking at the photos for a while the Negro took the watch off and gave it back to the boy. Pole, for his part, gave the money back and started to show him his own photos, which were even more battered. Then we took a drink of grappa and gave some to the boy. We gave him an American cigarette, too, because he only had a couple of crumpled Junos left. Who knows how long we would have sat there if the dog hadn’t lost his patience and started to tug on the lead, clearly indicating that were to go deeper into the woods.’

Jaska laughed. He remembered the wine, poured some for me, too, gave a sly look, and explained, ‘Well, after some sputtering, we made a deal with the German kid that he was our prisoner. If we got through to our side, we promised that we wouldn’t let anyone panic and shoot him. If, on the other hand, we ended up in the Germans’ clutches, he could tell them he had taken us prisoner, and guarantee that we would be treated honourably. I figured that way we could cover our asses and our fronts, too. We continued in single file and Fritz didn’t try to make a run for it, but stuck even closer to us. After we had walked for a while the dog stopped all of a sudden and started to bark excitedly and paw at the ground. I tried to pull him away, but he wouldn’t budge. The woods were all chopped up and the road was closed off with racks of barbed wire. I looked around and a chill went up my spine when I remembered how the dog has bared his teeth to warn the parachuter not to step inside the mined house. I didn’t want to take time to find out what he was digging at, I can tell you that. On the contrary. I let go of the leash as fast as I could and stepped back behind a tree for protection. The dog looked at me accusingly and kept digging. I ordered Fritz to investigate what was there, but he didn’t want to. The Pole said that it didn’t matter to him and the Negro asked in the name of God can we get going again and leave the dog here. There was nothing I could do but crawl carefully to where the dog was and poke at the ground with my field spade until I found a loose piece of turf, and under it a flat land mine. I pulled the dog away on its leash. He was so mad he tried to bite me, no matter how much I assured him that none of us could possibly defuse the mine. So I gave him a piece of bread to calm him down, and after a little resistance, he set off, leading us forward through the woods. Here and there he stopped to dig and bark, but I would jerk him back in a hurry and give him a piece of bread each time as a reward. He helped us wind our way like that through a forest full of land mines, and I finally trusted his skill at finding mines so firmly that I no longer was peering ahead at where I stepped, I just followed blindly behind him and the Pole, Negro, and German tried their hardest to follow my exact footsteps.’

‘We spent the night in the beech woods, huddled against each other,’ Jaska continued. ‘The dog lay on my feet and kept me warm and we couldn’t praise him enough, because we had never heard tell of such a first-rate mine-sniffing dog. Flames from the mouths of artillery lit up the sky so we knew which way to go in the morning. We got through the woods with the dog leading us, and came to an open area where traces of the war still smoked and tanks were burning and military gear was scattered over the road. We saw supply trucks already rolling toward Milan far off on a country road, and we walked with the dog leading us with no worries, over barbed wire and areas marked by the mines left by the combat engineers up to the road, where the MPs arrested us. They barked at us and wondered how we crossed the uncleared minefield. I showed them the dog and I was so confused from fatigue that I offered to show them what he could do.We bet a pack of gum, and I walked along with them well away from the road with the dog in front of me for a few hundred meters. When I got back to the road, one of the trucks had engine trouble and had to pull over, and when it did, it smacked straight into a mine. I got my pack of gum and one of the MPs offered me a hundred dollars in invasion currency for the dog. But I said that I wouldn’t part with him for any price.’

Jaska got quiet, and I stared hard at him, and finally said hesitantly, ‘There no dogs like that. Mine-sniffing dogs, I mean.’

‘No, there aren’t,’ he generously conceded. ‘Well then we ended up in a sorting-out place for the lost, deserters, and other trash. They interrogated us and the Negro and the Pole were released to their own units and I didn’t see them any more after that. Fritz was sent to a place where the prisoners were collected and he didn’t ask for anything more. My own division was so scattered that no one knew where their command post was. We had shattered the German lines and advanced hell-for-leather toward Milan, at least that’s what I was told. So I ended up waiting a couple of days at the sorting place and two Italians came to inspect my dog. They offered to buy him. When I refused and explained that he was the best mine-sniffing dog in the world, they laughed until they were about to bust. I got mad for the dog’s sake, but when they were done laughing they explained that it was in fact a valuable dog, because it was raised to sniff out mushrooms – truffles. At first I didn’t believe them, but then I went with them into the woods and when the dog had searched a while, he started to dig at the ground at the roots of an oak tree, and the Italians dug a big hunk of mushroom out of the ground and told me to give the dog a piece of bread to reward him.’

‘That’s when I lost my faith, and I’ve never believed in anything again,’ Jaska concluded with conviction. ‘The poor dog had done his best the whole time to show his new owners what he could do, and like an idiot I thought he was looking for mines. It was pure coincidence that protected us, and not the dog at all. I still get a chill up my spine when I remember how annoyed the MPs were, when I walked beside the road with that dog leading me, in the middle of an unlexploded minefield.’

‘But you kept the dog,’ I said.

‘I kept the dog, because he had accepted me as his owner,’ Jaska confessed. ‘I didn’t have the heart to abandon him to the world, to be kicked around and pocket a few crumbs of bread digging truffles out of the ground. Actually, the lesson that dog taught me got me to stop fighting right then. That same night, I dyed my hair and exchanged clothes and papers with an Italian. Me and two other guys absconded with a food truck and sold the goods to friendly Italians. In fact, we sold the truck, too, in Rome, and I finally found myself here in Naples, where Grazia Maria was waiting for me. We had got to know each other when I was on leave after Salerno and she wasn’t nasty about it even though I came back a little ahead of schedule. Because she happened to be pregnant. In fact I barely had time to make it to the boy’s christening. But he died, and we weren’t blessed with any more children. She was hurt by it, the poor woman. Here in Naples, a man should have at least five children if he wants to feel like a man. As it is, I’m really nothing, just trash.’

Jaska was in low spirits because of the wine. The old dog licked his hand and looked at me reproachfully. I started to fiddle with my English cap and felt like it was time to leave. The woman with the icy gaze got up from behind the counter and came toward us with the bill in one hand and a key in the other. Jaska hurriedly topped up our glasses with the rest of the wine in the bottle.

‘To the truffle dog,’ I said. ‘To Grazia Maria. To the anemones of Paestum. Salute. The only way to get through life is by making the right mistakes.’

‘Salute,’ Jaska said dejectedly. But the woman smiled a surprisingly beautiful smile as she counted my change onto the bill and gently patted her husband’s coal-black dyed hair. Maybe she was a mistake, too, but Jaska could have found a worse guide to get through the minefields of life. I squeezed his hand understandingly and the woman showed me to the door, unlocked it and let me out into the Naples night. She didn’t let Jaska out, which was no doubt for the best. Both for Jaska and for me.

Translated by Lola Rogers

Tags: ,