The last Christmas tree

19 December 2013 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Reikä (‘The hole’, Like, 2013)

A four-litre saucepan should last the whole holiday, Honkkila calculates, throwing a bay leaf into the borscht.

Borscht is excellent at Christmas, as it blends the traditional Finnish dishes – beetroot salad, baked roots, ham.

At the same time Honkkila remembers the tree. He’s always had a tree, for forty years. When he was a child his dad brought it in from the back forest. Since then Honkkila has fetched his tree from various places, from the market and last Christmas from the shopping centre parking lot, but for this Christmas he has no tree.

Honkkila looks at the clock. The shopping centre is open for another hour. Honkkila takes the soup off the hob and goes out.

The shopping centre loudspeakers are beeping out electronic Christmas tunes; there are patches of spruce needles on the empty parking lot.

‘Is there anything left?’ Honkkila asks the assistant.

‘Just that one,’ the woman grimaces, pointing to the wall beside her. ‘I’d be willing to bet it’s the last Christmas tree in town. If you can call it a tree.’

‘I’ll take it. How much?’

‘I can’t take anything for it,’ the woman says, pushing the tree towards Honkkila.

Honkkila grasps the slender trunk, it’s easy, as there are few branches. He puts the tree under his arm and walks towards the boat club.

Honkkila leaves the tree propped up against Irja’s side. Lund’s Irja is bigger than my Helmi, Honkkila frets, and begins to walk round Helmi.

No water has gathered on the tarp, the ropes are steady, the boat is fine. Just four more months and the ice will begin to melt. Just five more months and he will be able to launch Helmi. Just five more months, and he will be able to raise the sails and go and visit the skerries, skirt the shoals, be free to sheet and reef. Suddenly from the ice comes a cry, someone is shouting for help. Honkkila runs to the shore: a green woolly hat is bobbing amid the ice.

Honkkila thinks for a second, runs back to Irja, grabs the Christmas tree and rushes across the ice toward the shouter.

Honkkila throws himself on to the ice, throws the tree toward the hole in the ice, green hat grabs the top of the tree, the top of the tree doesn’t snap. Honkkila holds on tight to the tree, Honkkila pulls.

Gradually green hat begins to rise. Honkkila pulls and notices that it’s Lund who is rising out of the hole in the ice. Lund inches his way slowly on to the ice.

By the time Lund reaches Honkkila, he dares to stand up. The men say nothing, just looking gravely at each other. They begin to run toward the boat club.

Suddenly Lund stops and turns. Honkkila remains standing in his place, grasping the Christmas tree tightly in his hand. Lund grabs a bucket and returns, and so the men continue on their way towards Lund’s block of flats.

Honkkila leaves the tree at the main door. The men call the lift, Lund takes the hat off his head, the lift arrives, the men step into the lift, Lund first, Honkkila second. The lift floor gets wet.

Lund holds out his door key, which Honkkila uses to open the top storey door. Honkkila begins to run warm water into the bath.

Lund takes his clothes up and jumps into the water.

‘What a coincidence you were there,’ Lund shouts through to the living room. ‘On Christmas Eve.’

Honkkila sits on Lund’s sofa, is silent, unspeaking. Red stars twinkle in the window. Soon the ice will hold, then it will melt, soon Helmi and Irja will be put to sea, soon they will be sailing in deep waters.

Lund returns from the bathroom wearing a dressing gown. Water drips on to the floor at every step. Before, the water was icy; now it’s warm.

‘I must go,’ Honkkila says, taking his coat from the coatstand.

Lund nods and goes into the kitchen. He lifts something out of a red bucket and drops it into a supermarket plastic bag.

‘Take this,’ Lund says. ‘Gut it, throw some sea salt into it and you’ll have cured fish on Christmas Day.’

Honkkila glances at the fish. The handsome whitefish swam in open waters until it was captured by the ice and entered Lund’s trap.

In the yard Honkkila picks up his Christmas tree. In one hand he has the plastic bag and in the other the green tree. Nothing much in the way of needles, but plenty of trunk. The whitefish kicks in the bag.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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