Patsy, the artist of the lumber camps

Issue 4/1984 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Atomintutkija ja muita juttuja (1950). Introduction by Aarne Kinnunen

Deep in the wilds, where the only sound is the sad, primeval sighing of the forest, it is easy to succumb to a mood of boredom and melancholy. It may sometimes occur to you that in such a place you are wasting your life. Real life goes on elsewhere, in places with more people, more signs of human activity, more light, more gaiety…

You fell a tree, severing a string of that mighty instrument, the forest. You saw it into logs, you strip off the bark: it all seems dull and pointless. Sometimes the rain decides to go on for days: the trees have streaming colds, droplets hang from every needle-tip. You make for the shelter of a lumber camp. But the low-roofed rest-hut, deep in the forest, looks a dreary place, the well-known faces are so dull, the talk so futile. You feel you know in advance what each man is going to say. And the food, too, is just the same as usual, the same old rubbishy mush. The sight of the pot, with its blackened sides, gives no pleasure: you know all too well what is in it. And those grubby playing-cards, how disgusting! The mere sight of them is enough to make you feel defiled…

And then Patsy comes – Mad Patsy, after days of tramping through the forest, arrives from the world outside, where there are other people, other camps. Some of us, of course, know him of old: a shortish man, whom no one for a moment would take for a blue-eyed innocent …

‘Like a bite to eat?’ asks someone.

‘Well, if it’s going…’

The camps are far apart, there is not always food in the knapsack, means are slender…

More often than not, Patsy is obliged to bear in mind the old saying: let a man feed for the day, a dog for the week… And it soon becomes clear as you watch him that this man is an eater, on the grand scale. Bread, butter, dripping, all vanish before your eyes: soups and stews too, if there are any. But when Patsy has eaten his fill, wiped his knife on his trouser-leg, returned it to its sheath and had a good belch, he will say:

‘And now I’ll show you some faces.’

For Patsy was an artist, a true virtuoso: in the art of face-pulling he had no equal. The skin of his face and head did not seem to be attached to his skull at any point. The ears would wag, the nose could twist itself in any direction, the mouth would stretch, contract, turn sideways, thrust itself forward, revolve like a top. The performance was so astonishing, especially if you had not seen it before, that you sat wide-eyed and wondered whether such things could really be happening … Oh, no, it was a far from useless life that Patsy led, trudging from camp to camp, bringing his message. And what was that, you ask? To the lonely woodman, bored and oppressed by his life in the forest, the sight of this mobile mask, these grotesque facial contortions, must surely sometimes bring the consoling thought: why, such is man, and such is human life – mere foolery.

Mad Patsy was an artist, and lived, no less than any itinerant preacher, by the exercise of his vocation. Gladly the woodman offered him a share of his food, and perhaps a coin or two as well, and equally readily Patsy would then announce:

‘And now I’ll, pull some faces.’

All kinds of things happened to Patsy in the course of his travels.

Once he was on his way to a remote camp with two other men. Being newcomers to those parts, they had never heard of Mad Patsy, the artist of the backwoods. When they arrived at the camp it was already dark, and everyone was asleep. The two men lit a fire in the stove, opened their knapsacks and had a hearty meal, with much smacking of the lips, while Patsy lay and stared and spat. As usual, he had no provisions with him. But it was not his habit to beg. Instead, he growled:

‘Don’t ye go stoking up that stove, now, or ’twill be the worse for you.’

The strangers lay down and went to sleep. But in the morning one of them woke to find his knapsack dangling limply from its hook, completely empty. Gazing at it in growing perplexity, he said aloud:

‘Last night this knapsack was full, it had pounds and pounds of food in it, enough to last me the week, and now it’s empty. Has someone made a mistake, or are there thieves about?’

From Patsy, lolling replete upon his bench, came the reply:

‘There’s been no thieving, it was meself had it all, out of devilment, and didn’t you deserve it, for hotting up that stove? Never a wink of sleep I had all night, and that’s the truth.’

After conferring, the inmates of the camp decided that between them, if every man contributed, they could make up the stranger’s loss. But it was felt, too, that some kind of punishment would have to be devised for Patsy. He was told to go over and give a display of his ‘faces’ to the camp foreman, who was not much liked by any of the men.

So off Patsy went. The foreman, too, was a stranger in those parts and knew nothing of Patsy. He looked up without enthusiasm when a shortish man, whom no one for a moment could have taken for a blue-eyed innocent, appeared in his doorway.

‘Have you come for a job?’ he asked, looking Patsy up and down.

‘I have not,’ said Patsy. ‘I’ve come to show you my faces.’

Which he then proceeded to do. The ears flew back and forth, the nose screwed itself into knots, the mouth spread first from ear to ear, then slewed round sideways, stretching from chin to forehead. For a long time the foreman stared in stupefaction, saucer-eyed, but finally it occurred to him that he was being mocked. And by a ragged tramp like that – how dared the fellow?

Furiously he set about Patsy and, with many kicks and pushes, propelled him from the office.

Patsy, for his part, was greatly hurt and offended to find his ‘faces’ so little appreciated. Sullenly, and with hardly a word to anyone, he left the camp and resumed his wanderings, in search of those who would understand his message. Whatever it was…

Perhaps some lonely woodman, bored and oppressed by his life in the forest, observed those extraordinary contortions, those weird grimaces, and exclaimed to himself in a sudden burst of illumination: why, such indeed is the life of man – mere foolery!

Translated by David Barrett

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