A spot of transmigration

13 January 2011 | Fiction, Prose

A short story, ‘Sielunvaellusta’, from the collection Rasvamaksa (‘Fatty liver’, WSOY, 1973)

‘Where will you be spending Eternity?’ a roadside poster demanded as Leevi Sytky sped by in his car.

‘Hadn’t really thought about it,’ Leevi muttered , as if in reply, and lit a cigarette.

But at the next level crossing, a kilometre or so further on, he was run down by a train, whose approach he had failed to notice. His attention had been distracted by the sight of a young woman who was picking black currants by the side of the track, and who happened to be bending forward in his direction. Intent on obtaining a better view of her ample bosom by peering over the top of her blouse, Leevi neglected to look both ways, and death ensued. Damned annoying, to say the least.

In due course he secured an interview with God, who turned out to be a biggish chap, about a hundred metres tall, wearing thigh-boots and sitting behind a large desk.

‘Well, and how’s Leevi Sytky getting along?’ God asked, lighting his pipe.

‘Mustn’t grumble,’ said Leevi politely.

‘And how are you thinking of spending Eternity?’ God inquired, sucking at his pipe and puffing out his cheeks.

‘Well, I thought of trying transmigration, if that would be all right.’

‘Very good idea,’ said God. ‘Have you decided what kind of creature you’d like to migrate into?’ .

‘I thought perhaps a crow, to begin with,’ said Leevi.

‘Splendid, splendid,’ said God, putting on his hat. ‘Let’s go and look for a nice crow.’

And off they went, with God leading the way and Leevi doing his best to keep up with him.

The crow

The soul of a young crow was neatly prised out, and Leevi Sytky slid himself into the space thus vacated.

He found himself perched on a branch of a tall pine, overlooking a lake. Around him a dozen crows were cawing noisily. He tried out a few experimental sounds, at first producing only a sort of hoarse whisper, but soon achieving a magnificent rasping croak: my word, how grand it sounded! He wanted to laugh! He flapped his wings a few times and then felt himself rising gently into the air. He opened his big beak and uttered a loud, throaty, gargling sound which pleased him very much.

The members of the crow colony were not fooled by the transmigration ploy, but were quite happy to welcome Leevi Sytky into their midst. One young crow flew on to the same branch and introduced himself; his name, he said, was Hyvönen. Hyvönen was a lively, friendly bird: the avian equivalent, perhaps of one of those jolly, blue-eyed, blond-haired lumberjacks they have up in the North.

That day there was a high wind blowing. Foam-crested wavelets covered the blue lake, the trees along the shore swayed and soughed in the wind. Leevi Sytky and Hyvönen amused themselves by perching at the very top of a pine, flapping their wings and cawing. Hyvönen, who had a particularly raucous voice, kept shouting ‘I am the Lord thy God, what ho there!’

To which Leevi Sytky would reply with a cackle of croaky laughter. They kept up this game for at least an hour, until the older crows got tired of the racket and told them to belt up.

Shortly before dusk the colony took wing to the edge of a rubbish-tip, where the carcass of a pig had been dumped. Here they partook of an evening meal, after which they flew to an island and took up quarters for the nig’ht in some elderly fir-trees. At daybreak they all zoomed off to the edge of a polluted pond, where they breakfasted among the reeds on the rotting corpses of roach and carp. Leevi Sytky found life as a crow highly enjoyable. It was a thrill to be flying over the misty lake, straight into the sunrise. He had, moreover, perfected a splendidly cacophonous croak, and now, on the wing, he let it rip.

One morning Leevi Sytky and Hyvönen woke before the others and quietly flew off together. It was market day in Kajaani, and thither they winged their way, cleaving the air with bony beaks. They took the easy route, along the misty Tenetti river and across the open waters of Lake Nuas, pale in the morning sunlight. Reaching Kajaani, they ensconced themselves in a copse of firs on the Teppana shore, and took a short rest. Then, at nine o’clock or thereabouts, Operation Crowflight, as planned by Leevi, was set in motion.

The two crows flew first to Sniper’s Tower. From there they set off down Market Street, flying side by side at a height of about three metres. An essential part of the plan was that they should both keep up a continuous cawing, using all the power of which a crow’s lungs are capable. Having flown to the far end of Market Street, they settled for a few minutes on the roof of the Kajaani Company’s clubhouse, to get their breath back.

Naturally the apparition of two crows, flying very low and uttering corvine cries, did not escape the attention of the people in the street, especially since the birds were flying only a metre or so above the shoppers’ heads and the cawing was extremely loud.

Soon the two friends returned by the same route, and more and more pedestrians halted in their tracks to gaze and laugh at them. What amused them most was the way the birds kept looking sideways, as though inspecting the goods in the shop windows or searching for acquaintances among the crowd. Actually, the only person Leevi Sytky recognised was an assistant magistrate called Salmenkivi.

Once more, for the third time, the crows flew along Market Street, and then they veered off towards the Kajaani river and flew over the castle ruins to Kuurha, whence they glided out over Lake Nuas. As they flew, they talked over the morning’s events, and had a good laugh over the game they had played. By about midday they were back with their own familiar colony.

As autumn drew on, they moved into the fields to feast on the grain. But at Tuhkakylä some ass of a farmer shot Hyvönen with a rook-rifle. This upset Leevi Sytky, who thereupon left the colony and went to live alone in the forest. But when an owl began to make his nights a misery, and the weather to get colder, Leevi Sytky decided that it was time for a change of habitat. Better, he thought, to spend the winter as a burbot, paddling around beneath the ice!

The burbot

Leevi Sytky’s crinkly, goose-pimply soul stood shivering in a snowstorm on the edge of a hole in the ice. It was early morning, and still dark. Punctually at 5.15 am there was a noisy commotion in the slushy water of the ice-hole, and a seventeen-pound burbot came to the surface as per arrangement. Leevi Sytky slid himself neatly in behind a gill-flap, and coolly bundled the burbot’s old soul out by the same route.

The huge, ferocious-Iooking fish lingered for a little while in the hole, taking a last look at the faint light shed by the snow and the sky, before descending into the depths.

Leevi Sytky became conscious of feelings and perceptions he had never experienced before. His new body, if one can put it like that seemed to be a damned powerful one, and incredibly supple. The feel of the cold water, as it swished over his slimy skin and mitten-sized tail-fin, was most agreeable. He could sense, or scent, other fish as they approached or moved away, even though it was pitch-dark. The lake water tasted a bit silty and smelt like mud.

The burbot’s own mouth had an oily, fishy taste which Leevi Sytky found somewhat disagreeable. He tried opening and shutting his mouth a few times, and began to realise what a hell of a big mouth it was. There was room in it for a football, at least.

When morning came, Leevi Sytky realised that he was now a predator. A burbot’s entire stream of consciousness, evidently, was dominated by a ferocious hunger, an insatiable lust for fish. The corners of his mouth twisted into a smile as he told himself that he would now have to get used to swallowing living creatures whole. Exulting in his strength, he set off in hot pursuit of a shoal of whitefish: what he actually caught was a five-pound bass that had had the idea of harrying the same shoal. It took him half an hour to swallow the spiny, heavily armoured monster: after which, his stomach feeling sufficiently full for the time being, he descended to a rock cranny for half a week’s rest.

But he was plagued by parasites. A tapeworm had evidently set up house in his stomach, and flukes were grubbing around in his liver. It was all very tiresome.

Leevi Sytky felt drowsy and dispirited. The constant darkness was getting him down. No sound penetrated the black silence of the water, no wave disturbed its stillness. To crown everything, he discovered to his disgust that he was carrying a cargo of roe. The idea of a spawning session with some stupid male burbot was hardly appealing.

Above the ice, the weather was mild. The snow on the surface melted, and then there was another slight frost. Leevi Sytky swam up close to the shore of the bay and penetrated into waters so shallow that he almost swept the ice with the back of his neck as he swam along. With his little burbot eyes he could see the brightness of the frosty sky and the red glow of the sunshine on the lakeside trees. Moreover, a small incident now occurred which cheered him up considerably.

Not far away some skaters, including a group of girls, were disporting themselves on the ice. The local Ice Queen, detaching herself from the others, started to walk along the shore, apparently in search of something. Eventually a large rock, which happened to be the very one beneath which Leevi Sytky was lurking, offered her the concea1ment she needed. The young lady crouched down behind it, rewarding Sytky with a glorious view of the eternally unattainable. With two hefty swishes of the tail, which clouded the water for some distance in every direction, he turned on his fin and sped off into the depths.

As Christmas approached, he began to find life beneath the ice unbearable. The sheer weight of the water and ice were smothering him. Under a bridge, where the ice had thawed, he left the burbot to die. The soul of Leevi Sytky, forlorn as a condor chick, perched for a while on the railing of the bridge, and then flew off to a garage yard where an ancient, windowless bus stood abandoned. From this vantage point he could watch out for a new host.

The dawg

Towards daybreak a big black-and-tan mongrel, with floppy ears and a scimitar tail, came scuttling into the yard. It looked reasonably well-fed. Assiduously it raised its leg, leaving brief communiqués on car wheels, petrol pumps, jack levers and other appropriate objects.

Leevi Sytky was thrilled. Here was a creature it would be a real pleasure to get inside the skin of. With a fur coat to keep him warm too! He entered the dog through one ear, and the dog’s former, rather phlegmatic soul went out at the other and was sucked into the air filter of a car’s carburettor, thus impairing the efficiency of the engine.

Leevi Sytky, having uttered a few powerful barks and scuffed a pile of snow with his hind legs, trotted off in search of new experiences. What particularly pleased him was the acuteness of his sense of smell. From a person’s footprint in the snow he could ascertain all kinds of facts about that person’s home, the smell of his rooms, the make of his shoes and the characteristic odour of his feet. The fragrances that floated in the air around the hamburger stall added up to sheer ecstasy. Saliva dribbled from the corners of Leevi Sytky’s mouth, and with a vociferous bark he addressed an appeal to the hamburger man, who was kind enough to fling him a piece of oldish sausage.

The first exchange of credentials (the other dog was a beagle) proved less tricky than he had expected, and passed off without incident. Indeed, it seemed a very natural and necessary procedure, providing vital information about one’s fellow-creature, such as his character and temperament, his immediate intentions, and the details of his diet.

In the course of the day, guided by instinct and his knowledge of human language, he found his way to what was, presumably, his home. Here an enamel dish, containing milk, some pieces of bread, and the remains of some potatoes and gravy, was thrust beneath his nose. It was a bit humiliating, but Leevi Sytky, steeling himself to the task, lapped up his dinner noisily and even licked the floor clean around the dish. The bloke who seemed to own him scratched his back and tickled his belly for an hour or two, and Leevi Sytky licked the bloke’s hand.

During the following week Leevi Sytky took an active part in the hectic social life of the canine community. Chasing around the village with a pack of ten or more other dogs was tremendous fun. He chummed up with a beagle called Hemppa, who was, in effect, the leading light and spiritual leader of the whole gang. It was Hemppa who had all the good ideas.

One frosty morning Hemppa barked out the word of command: ‘Come on, lads, let’s go over to the cart track, where it crosses the ice, and eat horse dung!’

Emerging from the shade of the frost-clad trees on the shore, the pack swarmed out on to the frozen lake. Yelping merrily, they headed for the track. Leevi Sytky loved the way they grouped and regrouped, running now side by side, now in single file, now making a detour to chase a twig or paper bag blown by the wind across the ice. And many a leg was gracefully lifted, many a communiqué issued, leaving yellow patches in the snow. The frozen horse dung, by the way, tasted superb: the equivalent on a human menu might be ‘West Coast salad’, or something of that kind.

All things considered, Leevi Sytky quite enjoyed being a dog. The life was brisk, sociable, eventful and stimulating. He was able to keep up with the latest news by reading the placards on the news kiosks or, when at home, by watching television. Thus he was not entirely out of touch with event in the world of human beings. He was a bit bothered by the problem of East-West relations.

But by the end of April he felt that had been leading a dog’s life for long enough. He applied for a transfer into a crane, but was informed by God’s office that the migrant cranes were not due until May 4th. Accordingly he applied for temporary accommodation in a human being, just to cover the bridging period. This was granted.

The local Alko manager

In a railway carriage, perched on the handle of the emergency brake, the soul of Leevi Sytky watched and waited. Having finally decided which of the passengers was the new manager of the alcohol store in a certain village, he effected the transmigration with practised ease, and settled in.

It was a Friday morning when the new local manager, carrying his suitcase, walked into the Alko store and introduced himself to the staff, suggesting straight away that it would be better for everybody to be on Christian-name terms. The staff formed a favourable view of their new manager, especially since he seemed to be a man of strong character, for he began at once go through the books and ask questions about the stock.

In the evening the new manager said he would be staying on after hours. He wanted to learn to find his way around, and to decide what fresh stocks needed ordering. The Chateau Bourgeois seemed to be running a bit low, and the previous manager had evidently had a preference for Alko’s own locally bottled brands.

But no sooner had the rest of the staff departed for the week-end than the new manager took a bottle of Hennessy from the cognac shelf and retired to his office, where he carefully drew the curtains and sat down. Leevi Sytky had decided that the lingering bouquet of dog and burbot must be rinsed from his mouth once and for all.

He drank well and copiously all Friday night, all day Saturday, and most of Sunday morning. At midday on Sunday, after putting on a pair of Wellingtons he had found in the broom cupboard, he packed into his suitcase a dozen bottles of cognac, for which there was only just enough room along with the sausages and other provisions that were there already.

On his desk he left a message: ‘Gone on tour with the circus folk. Tell Messrs. Alko to sell their own bloody booze, this boy’s off and AWAY.’

Leevi Sytky went to the shore of the lake and waded over the thawing ice to a small island. There he remained with his store of food and drink, and spent several delightful spring days listening to the hiss and crackle of the melting icefield around him.

To Lapland with the cranes

The moment of departure was remarkable for a number of phenomena which occurred simultaneously. Firstly, Leevi Sytky was down to his last bottle. Secondly, the police were approaching and were now only half a kilometre away from the island.

And thirdly: the joyous cries of the cranes rang out in the heavens, up among the white, fleecy clouds. As they flew on, in ploughshare formation, one crane veered away and landed on the rocky shore of the island. Leevi Sytky did not hesitate: it took him no more than a moment to effect an entry. The great wings unfolded, and the noble bird flew up to rejoin its companions.

From that day to this, there has been no word of Leevi Sytky. Is he still a crane in Lapland, or could he by now be a puffin, perched on a rock-ledge where the sea-birds wheel and cry?

Translated by David Barrett (1914–1998); first published in Books from Finland 3/1987.

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