A roof with a view

27 August 2009 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Mistä on mustat tytöt tehty? (‘What are black girls made of?’, Tammi, 2009) Introduction by Tuomas Juntunen

I’m a chimney sweep’s daughter, born October 1962 as a gift, a light to a darkened world. I’ve had lots of mothers, but none of them ever stuck around for good. One of them gave birth to me, so she’s Mother, not mother. Her name is Dewdrop, because water has spilled over the only photograph of My Mother and now her face has dissolved into a single translucent droplet; her nose, cheeks and chin are now a fat, shiny blob that looks like it’s about to fall out of the bottom of the picture.

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Once upon a time there was my father, eleven years of age. He was a little chimney sweep standing on the roof of a four-storey house, right on the edge of the chimney. My father was only an apprentice back then; the master’s name was Asell, and one of them was going to have to climb down that big chimney stack.

Master Asell couldn’t do it. His stomach was like a blood-red, full moon slowly rising above the horizon. This puzzled people back during the Depression. People on the streets wondered what on earth Asell filled his stomach with. Did he eat wallpaper or newspapers? The animal glue in the furniture? The bark from the old pines in Toukolanmäki? The fragments of bone china that littered the ground on the deserted plot next to the old coffee-roasting house? The melted lumps the size of dogs that used to be glass windows in the same? Leaves from the trees? The leaves of the maple trees on Vallilantie road were a particular delicacy; they were real chromosome monsters, they were so big. Somehow Asell was getting more grub than anyone else. Rumour had it that he knew one of the guards at the jail in Sörnäinen who handed over naughty children for him to gobble up.

Asell rubbed his belly and ordered the little chimney sweep down the chimney; all the other apprentices were serving at the front line. All except one, a young man called Korpela, who had come back after nine months away reborn – a nervous wreck, that is – and afraid of nothing quite as much as he was afraid of darkness and confined spaces. During his breaks Korpela would often disappear behind the incinerator and wrap his arms around his body as if he were trying to tie himself into an overhand knot. He never smoked a cigarette again, always said he could see the flares of the artillery in their glowing embers. In blackness Korpela could sense the presence of death; nowadays he always came to work in white clothing. He was like an able seaman afraid of a paddling pool.

During the war years, flues were often badly swept, many of them so blocked up that you couldn’t make out the unique smells of individual apartments any more. All you could smell was the reek of different kinds of soot, nubbly soot, shining soot, tar soot, oily soot. Korpela shouted from the apartment below, so that those up on the roof would know which flue to come down.

The little chimney sweep lowered himself down into the large chimney stack to listen; the flues only split off inside the shaft. Ahoy! shouted Korpela from down below. The chimney sweep pricked up his ears and lowered his brush with the cane handle down into the flue from which the cry had echoed.

Just then there came an air-raid warning.

Asell shouted, ‘Out of the shaft, boy!’ He headed straight for the ladder and clambered along the rooftop as nimbly as a hippo on a trapeze. He used wooden clogs and stepped so that the rooftop ridge fitted into the groove between the sole and the heel. His toes all jutted in different directions, you know, just like Chaplin. He knew how to skate along the tin rooftop. Korpela and the other apprentices already used rubber-soled shoes, the better with which to feel the contours of the roof. Master Asell belonged to the Old School; he made all his tools in his own workshop and didn’t order them in from Ekström’s brush and broom factory at Albertinkatu street 12….

Bombs began pummelling the city; the little chimney sweep could feel the blasts through the layers of bricks around the pipe. They sent tremors running through the veins of the rocks and along the pavements, along the paths that only a moment ago were filled with busy little ants in their smart neckties. The chimney sweep held his ear against the shaft: the explosions were more powerful on the side facing the sea. The blasts circled around the shaft and the chimney sweep circled with them.

He was safe in the shaft. He couldn’t see anyone and because of that nobody would be able to find him.

All of a sudden bricks began raining in from the sides of the shaft, as though a ladder had suddenly appeared beneath the little chimney sweep. He could feel the chimney stack rocking back and forth, like sitting in a swing made of bricks.

After one violent swing to the side, the chimney stack didn’t right itself again and the chimney sweep toppled onto his back. The whole building’s spine snapped with a crash and one of the stairwells fell around him like a blanket. The daylight at the top of the chimney stack disappeared and the little chimney sweep lay in darkness, covered with a thick layer of bricks. The chimney stack had become much smaller; he was lying in a coffin. The boy tried to edge his way forward through what was left of the shaft but couldn’t get his right leg to move. A brick that had flown out of the wall had smashed into his shin.

The little chimney sweep managed to remove the shoe from his other foot and felt his trapped leg with his toes. He couldn’t tell which splinters were from the brick wall and which from his own bones.

He lay there quietly. The ground around him had stopped trembling. The sirens fell silent. The world was soundless, dark, dusty. Some of the flues led to other places; he could make out the sound of a cat mewing, a child crying. He caught the smell of lye. A washbasin had been toppled over on the stove and now a sliver of lye was trickling its way through the crooked mesh of flues like a slow-worm. After a while the little chimney sweep was certain he could feel a burning sensation as the lye ate away at the soles of his shoes before starting on his trapped foot, one toe at a time.

There was some other creature caught in the flue with him. The chimney sweep decided it must have been an angel that had come to collect him. The angel’s wings fluttered against his forehead and its claws scratched his neck. The chimney sweep couldn’t move his hand to protect himself, so he pressed his face tight against the brick wall. The boy breathed soot deep into his lungs and felt as though he were cradled in his mother’s arms, though in fact he didn’t have a mother.

The boy slept in fits and woke again, many times; his mouth was dry. He realised that he was changing; the chimney stack was slowly cementing him into itself, then it would hollow him full of flues. Through his slowly emptying blood vessels and disappearing bone marrow he would send smoke signals into the sky. Strangely enough, it was a rather pleasant feeling, becoming part of a system of flues. Every young chimney sweep should be buried in a chimney stack. Humans are just shells covering a network of flues; wet and hollow like reeds washed up in the laundry bay. If only the pain would ease.

The flue angel interrupted the boy as he was becoming part of the stack; it kept tapping and scratching his neck and cheeks. Get out of my kingdom, go to hell, the angel bluntly informed him.

The chimney sweep bit into chunks of brick in an attempt to quench his thirst. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that every last drop of water evaporated from bricks when they were fired. There must surely be a few drops left. You just needed to crunch hard enough with your teeth.

Before long he began praying to the flue angel to take all the spilt pots of lye throughout the crumbled house and make their contents run along the pipes like a scented river. He would drink from that river, anything at all, anything liquid. His tongue had swollen like dough; with that in his mouth it was almost impossible to breathe. Only the tip of his tongue had been able to pop out between his cracked lips, and even that had split in two. With his forked tongue the boy lapped at the air.

Continuous night. So long, longer than a deep sleep. For a while the little chimney sweep drifted off to a hilly land where the houses grew upside down in green hills, their roofs pointing to the ground and their cellars rising up towards the sky. The houses were able to rise into the air using the power of the flames spurting from their chimneys. Many of the houses had two chimneys, they were rudders; you could steer the houses with a helm. The little chimney sweep knew that he had reached a place where chimney sweeps come when they die. He watched with admiration as the houses floated in the air and swapped plots with one another. These houses could have taught butterflies a thing or two about suppleness of movement. One house shunned direct sunlight and lived in a secluded spot by the riverbank, shaded by the alders, sunlight sparkling gently through the leaves. This house was never too cold, never too hot. The house moved from one side of the riverbank to the other as the sun moved across the sky, and from the kitchen window came a hand with a gleaming fishing rod which the house’s hungry inhabitant used to collect brown trout from the swirling water. With a bucket he collected drinking water. The little chimney sweep knew that the hand was his own; he could see his own house and knew that this was where he was heading.

However, it was inside the pipe that the little chimney sweep came to and not in the land of green hills. His tears were short-lived; they dried before they reached the end of his tongue, hissing as they evaporated on his cheeks. Again he slipped away, this time through many layers of gauze and iron plates. But he didn’t return to the land of flying houses; this time his new home was deep at the bottom of a hill in the graveyard, a trench where the bones from the top of the hill rolled down and gathered, slippery with muddy soil. People visiting the graves at the top of the hill didn’t know that the graves of their deceased loved ones were devoid of bones. Their skulls and shoulder blades were on the move. The trench at the bottom of the hillside, a kingdom filled with bones, was ruled by a single monarch; it was controlled by a throbbing heart of bone, whose beats resounded like explosions. And though the little chimney sweep tried to shut out the sound by pressing his ears tightly against the bricks, the explosions travelled through his teeth and into the rest of his body.

The boy gave a squeal and awoke to a sensation of pain, this time in his arm instead of his leg. Something was holding on to his arm, yanking it. His leg was still stuck and the rest of his body wouldn’t move. The chimney sweep glimpsed the face of a strange man. Gradually the face turned into that of Master Asell, with the frightened doe-eyed Korpela standing behind him. The men were talking; someone handed him a bottle of water. The boy was unable to hold it, there was no sensation in his arms, so someone lowered a cane with a battered tin mug attached to the end down into the pipe. It dangled up and down in front of the chimney sweep’s face as with his stiff tongue he tried to catch trickles of water that ran into his eyes and down his cheeks, out of reach.

Master Asell’s voice boomed from the mouth of the pipe: ‘We can’t get your leg free, Jussi. The third-storey flooring beams have collapsed around the base of the shaft. We can clear things away up to your shoulders, but after that the decision is yours.’ Once Asell had informed him of this, a black creature started flapping and clambering across the boy’s face. It vanished into the evening sky with a squawk.

The chimney sweep knew that it was a real angel, his Angel. Asell swiped at the air with his hand; bloody jackdaw.

The chimney sweep waited as a group of men worked on the bricks above him with hammers and iron chisels. He managed to free his arms from inside the collapsed shaft. Asell grabbed his arms, tapped and massaged them, rubbed his fingers with stinging ointment. The little chimney sweep opened his fingers one at a time and mumbled: ‘the ten wonders of the world’. Asell: ‘Jussi is frozen stiff. He’s just babbling, I can’t make him out.’ Asell helped him drink two mugfuls of vodka, and said he could have a third once the job was done.

The master gave the boy a belt that he was to slip around his leg and pull tight. Then Asell handed him a thin saw, gleaming sky-blue and with adjustable wooden handles at both ends. The chimney sweep took hold of the handles and held the saw as far down as he could reach, while the men supported his back in an arch. ‘Is the blade above the knee or beneath?’ asked Asell. The chimney sweep began sawing at his leg in jerky motions. Asell took off his thick belt and stuffed it into the chimney sweep’s mouth. ‘Bite this so you don’t lose your tongue.’ The boy fainted every now and then and Asell would bring him to by slapping his face and yanking his hair. The sirens began to wail, and once again the chimney sweep was left all by himself as his rescuers rushed for their shelter. ‘Is it off yet?’ asked Asell upon his return. It wasn’t. ‘Well, get on with it, then.’

As morning broke Asell and Korpela managed to pull Dad free from the remains of the chimney stack. He was carried across the mass of brick and debris to the hospital, where the doctor counted five different saw marks on what was left of his leg. The wounds were all black and the doctors were sure the young chimney sweep would die of wound fever or an infection.

But he didn’t know what Dad knew: that of all the elements in this world soot is the purest and healthiest.

So Dad became a one-legged chimney sweep. He had sawn off his right leg above the knee and was given a clonking, birch-green prosthetic leg a few centimetres shorter than the real thing.

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The day before my eleventh birthday, in October, Dad made me climb up the fire escape to the roof of a six-storey building in Vaasankatu street, even though there was a hatch leading up to the roof. That night the temperature had dropped below freezing and the ladder was covered in a thin icing-sugar layer of frost; the faint, margarine glow of the sun hadn’t shone on it yet. Some of the rungs were dotted with rust. Dad ran his finger along the rusted bars and tasted the rust with the tip of his tongue. ‘They’ll be fine,’ he nodded.

He, on the other hand, was heading for the stairs and was going to use the hatch, complaining about his dodgy knee, the one without the false leg. ‘See you in Heaven,’ he said….

I’d got half way up the wall when a woman with a tiny little nose poked her head out of a small ventilation window beside the fire escape: ‘Getdownoffthatladder, girl, youllfalloff.’ She grabbed the leg of my trousers; she was a thousand kilos heavier than her nose. With her free hand the woman shook the ladder so much that my teeth started chattering in time with the beads of her amber necklace. Rust flew up from the rungs of the fire escape and both of us had to squint.

‘She’s working for me,’ Dad shouted from the rooftop. The woman replied scornfully, ‘Wevenothingtosweep.’ As she spoke she yanked at my trouser leg like it was a disobedient dog’s leash.

Dad: ‘Let her go. She’ll fall.’ Woman: ‘Weveonlyanelectriccooker. Illcallthepolice!’ Dad: ‘Let the girl go first. Then call the police.’

The woman pulled at my trouser leg one more time and tried to sever my arm with her laser eyes. ‘Getinsidebeforeyoufalloffthatthing – betweentheladderandthewall! Thatshowgirlsclimb!’

Dad was waiting up in the eaves; he tousled my curls and told me to follow him to the end of the gable. I supported myself on the chimney and peered inside. The flue was blocked off with a tin cover.

‘What are we going to do? That woman was right; there’s nothing to sweep up here.’

‘Were you afraid?’ Dad answered.

‘Like fuck was I afraid.’

Dad beckoned me over to the wonkiest of all the gables and dangled his legs over the edge. I tapped the eave with the heel of my shoe. A layer of fallen leaves rustled as Himalaya the Mouse ran back and forth along his very own path home. Dad scratched the dried leaves and spoke slowly. ‘Pipey, I don’t understand what makes people that love each other want to sit together cooing at the sunset. They squeeze each other’s hands so tightly on the beach that they’ll end up with gangrene in their wrists as they babble about undying love before the blood-red sky. The fading light is an omen that everything will come to an end one day. It’s the sunrise they should come and watch.’

‘People don’t get up early enough,’ I said.

The October sun hung behind a veil of clouds yet still managed to warm the rooftop, and the sheen of frost that covered the frozen roof hissed as it melted and bubbled, as if the roof were gargling with mouthwash. Behind the railway forecourt a jet plane cut through the air, leaving a puffy trail like whipped cream across the sky. The nearest antenna crackled, blue sparks flashing at its tip. With my finger I started writing my name into the frosted tin plating.

Dad: ‘When I came up on to this roof with your mother in January (in the year 78 B.C.), there were still dozens of stoves, ovens and flues in this house that needed sweeping. Asell didn’t like people bringing their girls on to the roof, but roofs were the only places you could have a moment’s peace. Apartments and streets, workshops and alleyways were always filled with nosey parkers, but up on the roofs there was always space, a bit of calm amidst the crowd. A town above the town. People that only live on the ground, wading about at the bottom of a muddy lake, surrounded by leeches, they don’t realise that twenty-five metres above their heads is another world with a horizon in every direction – Vladivostok over that way, Madagascar down to the side, and over that way the fjords of Norway. They’d be able to see this if their eyes weren’t dazzled with sunspots. Each cloud has its own handwriting. You see, the sky is filled with poems. And I brought Haapala up here to read some them.’

‘What’s a poem?’

Dad continued: I’d brought a blanket in case it got too chilly. And it was cold up here, freezing after a snowstorm. We huddled together, wrapped in that blanket, and waited for the sun to rise – between those two chimneys it came up. Our breath rattled, as if sheets of ice had formed in front of our mouths between every breath and you had to break them with your tongue. Islands hung in the sky across the horizon. And then it happened. What happened? You were made. What?? We had a blanket, remember, there was plenty of room for both of us. There, beside the chimney stack, sheltered from the wind. We put our clothes down over there; we were in a bit of a hurry, didn’t have time to fold them, and it didn’t occur to us that it gets pretty windy up here. Very windy. We didn’t give it a second thought, because we were so warm. How come you were so warm? The wind swirled around us, your mother’s hair billowed in my eyes, and when we peeped out from beneath the blanket there was nothing left but our shoes. And socks, we’d stuffed them into the shoes. Three shoes, three socks.

‘The wind had strewn the rest of our clothes across the slanted rooftops and I’d to go scrambling along the ridges after our shirts and trousers, naked as the day I was born, in the freezing cold. I left the blanket for your mother. That was chivalrous of you. Not much, I soon had to take it back. I realised that only some of our clothes were still on the roof; the rest had been blown down into the yard and on to the street. I looked down and saw a lorry driving over my moleskin trousers – good job you couldn’t see the tyre marks on the black material. Your mother’s bra was dangling from a balcony on the fourth floor. I couldn’t reach it, not even when I tried to hook it up with a radio antenna I’d unscrewed for a minute. I found her skirt between the chimney stacks, and her jacket. I took the blanket for myself and made myself a kilt out of it. A gust of wind had slammed the roof hatch shut, and with my fingers stiff from the cold I couldn’t get it open. I had to take the ladder and halfway down the same gust of wind whipped away the blanket from around my waist. I can tie better knots than you can. Haapala taught me how. I can tie myself in a knot. There I was, hanging on to the ladder without a stitch, between the third and fourth floors, shivering, my skin covered in goosebumps, your mother, your mother-to-be, who’d just been made your mother, waiting up on the roof, blue with the cold, because I’d been using our only source of warmth as a skirt – and now it was gone too – and just then Päivi, the same woman that shouted at you and pulled at your trousers just now, opened the window and saw me hanging there. I figured you knew that mini-nosed busybody. Is she my mother too? She’s got nothing against you, Pipey. Nothing personal. Why doesn’t Päivi visit us? None of your business, girl.’

Avoiding the cables attached to the radio antennae, we made our way across the roof to the hatch. Every few steps I asked what piece of clothing had ended up in which spot. Is that where you made me? Dad gave a sigh. He took hold of my head and spun me around almost by force. ‘Don’t ever stand around staring at the roof plates,’ he said.

‘Pipey, this place is even more special to you than it is to me,’ Dad continued. ‘This is the centre of your world. This place is your birthday present; from me to you.’

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In 1962 my father gave me the name Katariina. He picked this name out of a saints’ calendar he’d found in a chimney belonging to the vicar’s boss, a minister called Aho. People throw the funniest things down chimney stacks; they think of them as rubbish bins – people that happen to be walking along the rooftops, that is.

Thieves, police officers, people installing antennae, postmen late on their rounds, tired angels that haven’t got the strength to fly all the time. Their wings start to ache in the headwind; every now and then they’ve got to rest.

Translated by David Hackston

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