I am me
Extracts from the novel Poikakirja (‘The boy’s own book’, Otava, 2010). Introduction by Mervi Kantokorpi
It’s a small day in spring. Another name for the lark is the skylark. You can only see them sometimes, and even then they’re so high up in the sky that they swoop like fast-moving dots.
The kitchen windowpane is rippling with stripes. The window has a bottom, and at the bottom there is some cotton wool and two opened matchboxes, a blue Sampo and a picture of an army chaplain in his uniform and insignia. As spring has progressed the cotton wool at the bottom has turned into wet blobs and the matches will never light again, as they’ve sucked up the winter frost from the glass.
Most children are made at home but not us, says Eini during walking practice. Outi shoves her, tells her to be quiet and walk in rhythm. I’m behind the table reading the Children’s Encyclopaedia, but I watch them. With every second step, their bottoms swing to the right and then to the left.
Mum comes into th the kitchen and asks what they’re doing; Anna-Liisa responds on the twins’ behalf, says they’re practising walking like in the movies and that’s why they’re wiggling their hips.
I have four girl sisters. Anna-Liisa and the twins are older than me, Teeny is a year younger than me. Teeny is the closest to me.
Teeny’s not in the kitchen. Mum starts showing them how women in the movies are supposed to walk properly and how to make your bottom swing and wiggle, if for some crazy reason you want to walk like that. Mum gets her high-heel shoes from the closet and starts walking back and forth along the striped rug. The twins try to copy her but keep tripping over themselves as they walk side by side, always looking to one side to see whether the other one can do it or not.
Anna-Liisa almost learns how to do proper walking. It’s much easier to do proper walking, because it’s just like walking but a bit more daintily.
I stop reading halfway through and start walking along the edge of the rug like Mum and Anna-Liisa, behind Mum and next to Anna-Liisa. Best not follow the twins’ example.
Halfway along, there’s a wide blueberry-coloured stripe running through the rug. At that point Mum takes me by the hand, stops me and says I don’t need to practice because I’m a boy. Eini starts giggling in that silly way she always does. Outi yanks her by the hand because she’s older, and because there’s nothing funny about it.
I stop straight away and walk away from the edge of the rug. For a while I don’t even look at them, I just turn to the window and read. I learned to read last winter and my first word was SARCOPHAGUS. It doesn’t mean anything; it’s just stick letters one after the other, but I can always find that word because at that point in the encyclopaedia everything is written in big letters beneath the pictures.
Marconi is trying out a new wireless telegraph.
The adjustment machine used to set watches and alarm clocks has letters on it that tell you which way to turn the pointer to make the clock tick more quickly or slowly. Pendulum clocks have an adjustable screw just beneath the metal disc hanging below the pendulum.
Teach young people to see and wonder at the ingenious inventions and admirable deeds of the great figures of history.
The Danish and Norwegian languages are not significantly different from each other.
I turn just enough to see them.
At first they practise properly, but then Mum shows them how not to walk.
Not like that, she says, and teaches them how to shift their weight to the side with each step so that walking seems light and easy and it looks like your bottom is swinging with each step all by itself. Mum can’t do it quite as lightly as in the movies – she says so herself – not even Anna-Liisa can get the hang of it, and the twins wobble, stumbling pathetically from side to side.
In turn Mother shows them how to walk and how not to walk, showing them the second version because it’s good to know how to walk badly so that you don’t do it. The girls agree and all three of them say they understand it properly when Mum asks them each individually.
Proper walking is the measure of a woman, but when you’re grown up you can sometimes wiggle your bottom when you feel like it and it’s the right time, that’s why I’m showing you how, so that you won’t have to learn it badly somewhere else, says Mum.
Then she undoes the ankle straps on her shoes and won’t let the twins try them on so as not to ruin the white leather by walking improperly.
This is how I first learned that a girl shouldn’t wiggle her bottom. This is how I first learned that a girl may wiggle her bottom if she wishes.
I am me. The table is it. The dog is he or it, your own dog is he, somebody else’s dog is it, you haven’t got a dog of your own, the dog is it.
It was in school that I first learned about God.
GOD IS GREAT.
GOD IS GOOD.
He created the heavens. He created the seas. He created the earth. He created you. God is your Heavenly Father. You are God’s child. Praise be to God! Love God with all your heart! Obey His commandments!
Children’s storyteller Zacharias Topelius teaches you like this. Remember to obey at all times!
I learned the words Mother and Father from the primer.
I am still small and helpless. I won’t get along in this world without care.
Mother is with me every day. She’ll never leave me, because she loves me.
Mother knows exactly what I need. She gives me clean, mended clothes and food. My bed is fresh, clean and warm. Mother airs the sheets and makes the bed every morning.
Mother looks me in the eyes when she’s talking to me. She teaches me about honesty and telling the truth. Mother’s voice is quiet when she is giving me advice or telling me off.
If something nasty happens in the yard, I run home crying.
Mother takes me in her arms, asks me what’s wrong and comforts me. But she doesn’t want to hear a single bad word about my friends.
When I feel poorly, Mother takes good care of me. I can hear Mother’s familiar footsteps. I sense that she’s running to be with me. I feel her cool hand against my feverish forehead. I feel so safe with my dear Mother.
Mother has taught me to pray every morning and every evening.
She thanks the Heavenly Father because I want to be a good boy. Then she asks God to send an angel to protect me.
I have a good father too. He and I are good friends.
I wait for Father to come home from work. Because he finds time to draw and build things with me.
Father is at home on Sundays. He tells me funny stories. Lots of things have happened during the week that he likes telling me about. Sometimes I talk so much that Father can’t get a word in.
Sometimes Father tells me off. That’s when I haven’t been a good boy. At least I’m not dishonest. Father is pleased with that.
I love my father. I want to be his very own good little boy.
Father once told me that home, a mother and a father are God’s gifts to children.
Thank you, God, for your gifts!
Your child, I will be kind,
Happy to do your work
So joy I’ll always find.
This is how I first learned that most of the time I’m a bad boy and nobody’s child.
In August, just before starting second grade, when it gets dark and the stars return to the night sky, I start to cry to myself and wish for a great darkness to descend before September comes.
Halfway through August the evenings are already so blue and black that it feels as though everything will end when summer ends, but the worst of it is knowing that nothing ends, that September will come and everything important will be gone. There are sharp boundaries between the months, just like a dotted line in a diary.
When, one Saturday afternoon towards the end of August, Dad tells his buddy Pena that he could move back to Helsinki right away, I jump up from where I’ve been sitting on the floor and make my way round to the other side of the armchair to look at Dad’s face and try to see whether he’s serious.
I can hardly remember anything about Helsinki, except just barely the things that people have told me, but one big fire I remember so vividly that it can’t be just what people have told me.
Beneath the window, piles of logs are burning at the edge of Hakaniemi Square. A burning wall rises up towards us. Down below you can see a bonfire swirling in yellow and orange, and on top of that tongues of black smoke licking the air.
The trams screech along their tracks. I remember only that one sound. I can’t remember where or when, or much else ever, except when Dad tells me things, and I don’t want to move back there, away from here, and yet now I would like to move there, but Dad’s not even serious and Mum tells him to stop dreaming of the impossible.
On the second last evening in August I gather up sawdust from the attic floor and stuff it in the old oil burner in the garage and set it alight in the middle of the yard. The twists of wood shavings are the first to catch fire, then the black slime at the bottom of the burner starts to smoke.
Other than that it’s dark all around. And when there’s a huge flame in the burner in the middle of it all, it’s even darker elsewhere.
For God’s sake child, what the hell are you doing? Mum shouts from the window and comes running outside straight towards me. From the clomping of her footsteps, I can hear that she’s wearing her grey boots.
I start crying out loud, and I’m not able to stop. I’m not crying because of the burner and not because the fire has now burnt its way through the sides, not because I’m scared, not because of the burnt laundry, not because of any of those things, but because everything is going to end at the dotted line in the diary.
When it’s time to say something, I try and speak through the tears, with difficulty, first about good and bad and that I can’t do everything, and then about what’s going to happen at school again, it’s all just falling, lunch breaks and teachers and Jesus, but I try to explain to Mum that it’s mostly because the darkness is coming, summer is coming to an end, something else is starting again, and already something has been snapped off altogether.
Now now, child, don’t take things so seriously, life isn’t bad at all, there there, child, says Mum, that and lots of other things. For God’s sake child, what the hell are you doing, she shouted in her ugly voice, but now she says, there there, child don’t take things so.
She manages to help me enough that I stop snivelling, and at the same time, or almost immediately, I feel ashamed because all the others are staring and not saying anything, but the twitching in my throat and chest has stopped, and even if they all stare at me and sit in the kitchen in silence, it still feels like something else, something better.
This is how I first learned 1) that there are two kinds of good, 2) to be careful about the spaces between times because there are dotted lines and 3) that learning is enough, nothing in school means any more than that.
The following Saturday when I’m in the sauna with Dad, he decides he wants to show me that he can put his legs behind his neck. First he lifts his left leg. It’s a strange position, all folded up like a penknife. Once he’s sat there hunched up for a while, he helps his left leg back down from around his neck with his hands.
Dad is red in the face and gasping for breath on the upper bench, and not just because of the heat of the sauna, as we haven’t even thrown any water on the stove yet.
An old test of suppleness, he says and warns me not to try it myself unless I’m absolutely sure I can get my foot down again.
I give it a little try but don’t really get anywhere near even though I’m pushing my foot as hard as possible, it’s still a good twenty centimetres short. I can’t even touch my face with my toes.
We have all sorts of skills, all different ones. We have to remember to keep some of them hidden. Take me, I’m by no means the best at these suppleness tests. Some people are so supple they can throw both their legs behind their necks and sit like that at the edge of the bench with their backs against the wall. I once saw a man like that in the sauna in Helsinki, an old man, like a monkey and a snake at the same time, he had a bald, slippery head and he managed to slip his legs behind his neck just like that, Dad recalls from his time in the city.
You shouldn’t worry about fusspots and all their fussing. When you know you can do something, then you can do it. In that way it’s enough and there’s a trace of everything left. That’s the way life works, he says as if by way of consolation.
I grunt in response, just enough as though I actually agreed with him, though I don’t really.
Then Dad continues his demonstration. First he throws half a ladle of water on the stove then, in one continuous movement, lifts his right leg and places it behind his neck. The right leg doesn’t move as easily as the left, and Dad has to use his hands to help him, has to puff and blow far more, but still the movement doesn’t stop halfway through and his ankle slips over the most difficult part of his head and rests behind his neck.
Once his leg is in place, Dad lets out a fart.
In this position there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s the rule, not the exception, even though we’re in the sauna. It’s just like in Greco-Roman wrestling, it’s perfectly natural, Dad says, but in his hunched-up position his voice sounds strained and his S’s are more like SH’s.
When he tries to take his leg back down again, he can’t do it. He groans and strains and takes deep breaths and starts to turn red in the face. It doesn’t look good. Mustn’t panic, he says to himself and gives it another go after a moment’s rest.
Get me a piece of soap from the basket, he says, and straight away I hop down from the middle bench and quickly go and fetch a piece of soap cut from the block. Dad instructs me to lather up his neck and the edge of his shin, then he gives another good tug and his slippery leg glides over the top of his head.
Dad remains sitting there, bent over catching his breath and shaking his head. First he thanks me for fetching the soap, then he warns me once again not to try this myself unless I’m absolutely sure I’ll be able to unpick my own lock.
This is how I first learned about suppleness. This is how I learned I should never try it myself.
Once we’re in the washroom and we’re sitting on the bench next to each other and Dad is scrubbing the bottom of his feet with a vegetable brush, in the middle of all this he starts talking about the girls and asks me if I’ve ever heard anything about them. I haven’t, I say. Dad’s voice makes me a bit uneasy, but I don’t know why.
That’s good. But if you hear anything in school or anywhere else, people saying anything about our girls or gossiping, don’t get involved, don’t listen, it’s all lies, says Dad and from his voice I can tell that’s not the end of the story.
I daren’t ask any more and I can’t look at him. I just lather up my armpits and try to look like I’m concentrating on washing myself.
Dad doesn’t say anything else, but fills a bucket with rinsing water that’s not too hot and eventually pours it over me so that the soap disappears and the water runs over my hair and face on to my shoulders and along my stomach right the way down to my feet. I imagine that’s what it must be like to have a shower, like a sudden waterfall, grey and bubbling so close to your eyes that you have to clench them tightly shut and you can’t open your mouth in case you breath in water.
Up in the attic I try to listen more carefully to what the twins are saying, but they’ve started talking less and know to check whether I’m upstairs or not, so that I can’t hear.
That evening they don’t go out anywhere – not even Anna-Liisa goes out. After sauna, we eat dinner an hour later than usual. There is a pot of boiled sausages on the stove and pancakes made from mashed potato in the frying pan. Mum has bought mustard in a tube. It tastes better than mustard in a jar, though you can collect the jars and uses them as drinking glasses.
Because it’s somehow quiet, Dad tries to keep the conversation going and tells us stories about the things people have tried to sell at the shop that week. Dad says he’s learnt over the years to see very quickly what is rubbish and what is vendible in this part of the country. Vendible is a completely new word to me, it’s crisp, sounds a bit like vegetable. I don’t ask about it yet, but I remember the word, because I don’t want to ask while the others are listening, because if the twins heard me ask they’d say everybody knows what that means, it’s a perfectly normal word.
Anna-Liisa is just a bit older, so she won’t start arguing with me or teasing me, though she considers the twins smaller than her and lets them know it every now and then.
I consider Teeny smaller than me but the twins stupider than me. Nobody could think Teeny’s stupid, because she’s sharp as a razor. I’ve heard people say that about her, but never about me.
There’s the one big difference between us: Teeny learns things without having to learn them and almost always at the very first attempt, while I have to learn things, often off by heart, repeating them over and over and wasting my attempts.
Teeny should be in school by now but she isn’t allowed to go because her head is sharp as a razor and we have to wait a few years until she’s past all the lower grades. She stays at home reading to herself if she feels like it, but mostly she amuses herself by staring out through the blinds and into the road, all the while adjusting the blinds so that the road and the yard open up then disappear, open up then disappear again.
I like Teeny so much that I won’t let anyone say bad things about her or wonder at her. People I know don’t dare say anything any more because I set upon the first people that said anything and punched them in the face, and even though I lost I punched from the ground and dug my teeth into the hand holding me through the mitten.
You don’t have to do that many times before you get a reputation, then no one will really dare try, or want to.
It’s a long and strange-shaped Saturday evening, and I’m confused as to how it’s turned out like that.
Translated by David Hackston
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