The mighty word

15 November 2012 | Fiction, Prose

 ‘Mahtisana’, a short story from the collection Lapsia (‘Children’, 1895). Introduction by Mervi Kantokorpi

Mother and Dad hadn’t said a single word to each other since lunchtime. The children, Maija and Iikka, were quiet, too. They sat apart, Iikka on the chair at the end of the sofa, where he could see the moon through the window, and Maija next to the window looking out on the street, where children moved about on skis and sleds. They didn’t dare make a sound, not even a whisper to ask for permission to go outside. It had been so quiet all that Sunday evening that when Mother spoke, encouraging them to go out and play, both of them nearly jumped.

They left without saying a word, Maija creeping quite silently. Even out in the courtyard she and Iikka still spoke in whispers as they decided which hill to go to. They didn’t really want to go anywhere, but when they came out to the street and could hear the happy shouts of children from every direction, it refreshed their spirits. Maija sat Iikka down on the sled and set off at a run, pulling him behind her. She felt as if her gloomy mood was falling away in pieces to be trampled underfoot.

A few streets down there was a large crowd of boys on the corner. They decided to go and see what was happening.

They were having foot races. The Topi boys had organised it. The runners went once around the junction, and the prize was a free night of sledding on the Topi’s hill. Wille Teliini was winning, coming first in all three races they’d run so far, for three free nights on the Topi’s hill. But he didn’t care about that. He did it for the glory alone! In the third race he beat Kalle Topi, who made the attempt as a matter of honour. Now there was nobody who dared to take him on!

Wille was boasting and strutting around. He even told Maija about his victories, too, making pitying noises for his defeated rivals, and even more for the ones who were too afraid to try. He commended himself. He was quite a fellow!

But that was too small an honorific for him. It was so ordinary – pathetic, really. He made up a new one:

‘I am the stiknafoolia!’

Stiknafoolia? The boys were astonished. No one knew what language that was or what exactly it meant, but it sounded stupendous. They would have preferred not to grant him the glory and honour he was demanding for himself, if only they could find some way to put a damper on it. But what could a person say against a word like that, a word none of them had ever heard, a word that had such an impressive sound? Wille saw how they all went mum, and spun around among them more proudly than before, his head held high and his chest thrust out as he said the word again:

‘Stiknafoolia!’

He said it loudly, as if it was the highest office imaginable, something impossible to express with any other word. And that’s just what it seemed like to the rest of them.

Only Maija wasn’t listening to his big talk, hardly deigning to hear it. She was wondering if she could run a race, and win, and slide down the Topis’ hillside! The Topis’ hill was higher than all the others, and it had been her dearest hope to one day sled on it. She had asked her mother for the money once – five pennies, which was enough to pay for two nights of sledding – but her mother wouldn’t hear of it. And when Maija heard that the Topi boys always let Eetu Kurola sled for free, because Eetu rode standing up, Maija herself had practised going down the other hills standing on her sled. But she’d never had the courage to ask the Topi boys about it. And here she was again too shy to ask if she could run a race, too, bashful because she was a girl. She thought she could beat Wille, because she had outrun him once last summer. Wille had come up to her and the other girls on the road and teased them and turned over their berry buckets, and she had run after him. They ran nearly a whole kilometre until she finally caught him. Golly, how she wanted to have another go at him! Just think if she won and got to slide on the Topis’ hill!

Then, almost by accident, it came out of her mouth:

‘Can I try?’

‘No girlies!’ Wille shot back at her.

But Kalle Topi said she could, and the other boys agreed. They all burned to see Wille beaten, though they had no confidence Maija could do it.

Maija yanked off her coat, checked her shoelaces to make sure they were tight, and stepped boldly up beside Wille. Kalle Topi counted off: one two three!

The boys burst into laughter. Maija looked so funny when she ran. But once she came abreast of him at the first corner, their laughter turned to joyful hope. They waited in anticipation while the runners disappeared from sight. It was admitted that Maija was quite a fellow! Even if she didn’t win. That would bring Wille’s rank down a bit, so he couldn’t brag about being the stiknafoolia.

The runners came into view. First came Wille, swinging nimbly around the corner, but there was Maija, too, like a shot from a pistol. She made up the distance she’d lost turning the corner and they came to the finish at the very same moment.

A shout went up. Wille hadn’t won! This made them glad, because he couldn’t be the stiknafoolia anymore. Wille insisted he’d been half a foot ahead. But when he heard the stiff opposition in the gang of boys he gave in a little and claimed that he had finished four inches ahead of Maija. The boys wouldn’t give him even one inch, and when some of them started reckoning that Maija had come in first, Wille conceded that the race had been a tie.

It was a strong blow to his reputation and his rank. He had nothing to brag about, not even in ordinary words, let alone with his own great and glorious title of stiknafoolia. He started right in blaming his shoes, saying they were new, and still too stiff for running. Somebody mentioned that he’d got those shoes way back in the fall.

‘In the fall?’ Wille said, half questioning and half mocking.

‘Yes, in the fall!’ the other boy repeated. ‘Don’t you remember? The first time you wore them was when you fell into Tirilä’s well. You were crying because you were afraid of what they’d say at home when they saw you’d got your new shoes wet, and you went over to Pyhtinen’s to dry them out.’

Wille couldn’t disprove this claim. He simply explained that he hadn’t worn the shoes again except for Christmas Eve and today. They didn’t believe him, and a brief examination revealed that they weren’t stiff at all, in fact they were so worn in that you could see his toes through one of them.

In an attempt to put the question of his shoes to rest, since the boys were becoming quite sarcastic, Wille started to sputter that he would have beat Maija if only he had run in his bare feet. Maija wouldn’t have had a chance. She might as well have run in the other direction!

And there Maija was, already in her bare feet, thrusting her shoes and socks into Topi’s Kalle’s hands and standing ready to challenge him. Wille was chickening out. He said it was too cold to run in bare feet. The other boys’ taunts couldn’t make him do it. Then he had an idea. Once they were in the alley, he thought, where nobody could see them, he could push Maija down. He agreed to race, and was already starting to swagger. He took off his footwear in a great hurry and held them out for someone to take, as Maija had done with hers. But no one could be bothered to accept that honour. He could put his shoes in a snow drift if he liked. Wille didn’t care! His victory was going to be glorious. It would make up for all his annoyance and embarrassment to use his new, valiant name, the grandest name of all: stiknafoolia!

He pronounced the word as he took his place beside Maija, as if it were already his, and with that word the boys’ good wishes for Maija to win began to falter. It went right through your bones, right to your heart, a word like that!

While they were still well in sight, Maija took the lead. A cheer went up from the crowd of boys! Some of them were even shouting stiknafoolia in Maija’s honour. And when the runners crossed the finish line, with Maija well ahead, the boys shouted until the streets rang:

‘Stiknafoolia! Stiknafoolia!’

Wille was stung. Such a good word, a word he had made up, shouted for someone else!

He tried to explain to them that stiknafoolia wasn’t a real word. It wasn’t Russian, or American, either! It didn’t mean anything, he said with a half-hearted laugh. But his explanations and assurances did no good. It didn’t matter if it was a real word. It meant something now, and it meant a lot! Even Wille wasn’t convinced, for he heard the word, and its meaning, stinging his ears, burrowing into his heart, while he silently put on his shoes in the snow bank, his head hanging, as the boys all chanted, stiknafoolia.

Maija sat on her sled as Kalle Topi put her shoes on with gentle, loving hands. When he also promised she and Iikka could go down his hill for two nights free, Maija got the courage to ask whether she could sled there three nights, if she did it standing up.

Her question caused amazement and admiration among the boys. No one dared go down the Topis’ hill standing up except for Eetu Kurola and the Topis themselves. A few of them already had full confidence in Maija in everything and praised her in advance for her coming feat, but some were doubtful. All of them wanted to see her try. Thus the whole gang of boys followed followed behind as Maija was seated on her sled with Iikka and the boys fought for the privilege of pulling it.

They brought her to the Topis’ courtyard with a great bustle. Then came a silence as she went up the hill. Without pausing to think, she threw herself down the hill, standing fast upright, but near to the foot of the hill she fell, sliding the rest of the way on her belly. Wille Teliini’s laugh rose up so loud that the courtyard echoed, but everyone else was silent. Maija had tried. It had been an honourable attempt, and they had hoped with all their heart that she would succeed. As she ran up the hill to make second attempt the spectators stood expectant, every limb tense, as if they were holding her up, so afraid were they that Wille would have the laugh once again. Then a great cheer erupted and they shouted:

‘Stiknafoolia! Stiknafoolia!’

Almost embarrassed, Maija walked among the crowd, which now included girls as well. She sat down on the sled, which Iikka was holding for her, and almost couldn’t move for shyness. But she was happy. And she felt even happier when Kalle Topi told her that she and Iikka could come and sled whenever they liked.

Iikka’s mouth had been hanging open the whole time, and now he opened it even wider, his eyes as wide as circles, when he heard this promise. It was all so wonderful. A whole evening  sliding down this tremendous hill. It was like a fairy tale. His excitement was overflowing as he rode home on the sled and thought about it all, and especially about how they could go down the Topis’ hill again tomorrow, the day after that – any time they liked. This was something he had to tell Mother and Dad when he got home. They didn’t need any money, Maija had taken care of that. She wasn’t really Maija to him anymore, she was something extraordinary. She wasn’t just quite a fellow. She was even better than that: the real stiknafoolia. Nobody else was the stiknafoolia! What would Mother and Dad say when they heard she was it!

But Maija’s head was bowed. Something weighed on her mind as they started off for home. It was so quiet at home. And all the happy, noisy fun that still rang in her ears lost its fun when she thought of it. She felt uneasy. When they came to their own yard and she saw the light in the window, something like merry hope flashed through her mind, but when she thought of her mother and father, wordless and solemn, she was downcast again. She put the sled away very quietly, went up the stairs almost on tiptoe, shushing Iikka, who clumped along in a hurry.

When they got inside Dad was lying on the sofa and Mother sat in the rocking chair under the lamp with a book in her hand. She gave them a long look, stood up, looked again, then shook her head and gave a whistle.

‘This one is Iikka, if I’m not mistaken,’ she said finally. ‘But who are you?’ she pointed at Maija.

Maija stood there not saying a word and tried to look at herself, as if she would be able see what it was that was preventing her from being Maija.

She was covered in snow from head to foot, her socks piled around her ankles, her shoes untied, her scarf pushed to the back of her head, and her hair hanging atrociously, having gone wet with sweat and then frosted in the icy cold. There was a long, bloody cut on one cheek and tear in one side of her skirt.

‘Who are you?’

Iikka was about to say something, but Maija interrupted and said she was Maija.

‘Ah! Maija, is it? Then I’d better give you what you have coming.’

Before Maija knew what was happening, Mother stood before her with a bundle of switches in her hand.

‘Mama!’ Iikka shouted, so loudly that Mother was taken aback and looked at him. Even Dad, who had been chuckling through his beard at Maija’s appearance, waited in curiosity to hear what Iikka had to say.

Holding out his hand covered in a sad-looking frozen mitten, Iikka spoke, in a voice that seemed to say Mama, Mama, don’t hurt your hand!

‘Stiknafoolia!’ he said.

‘What?’ Mother asked, her brow furrowed, her voice astonished.

More clearly now, as if he wondered why his mother hadn’t understood the first time, Iikka repeated:

‘She’s a real stiknafoolia!’

Mother turned her back to them, her shoulders jiggling a little. Struggling to maintain her sternness, she turned around again and said:

‘Really? A real stiknafoolia? And are you one, too, Iikka?’

Dad, who’d been holding it back until his eyes watered, burst into laughter. Mother went over to him with the switch in her hand, pretended to raise it against him, and said:

‘I suppose you’re a stiknafoolia, too!’

‘You’re a stiknafoolish stiknafoolia!’ Dad said, pulling her and her switches down beside him.

Maija forgot about herself and looked at her smiling mother and father. She had such a good feeling that she thought she might laugh and cry at the same time. But Iikka stood looking at her with his mouth open, speechless, as if all this were more than he could comprehend. Finally he said to Mother and Dad, with the greatest seriousness:

‘You can’t all be stiknafoolias!’

Translated by Lola Rogers

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