The blow-flower boy and the heaven-fixer

Issue 4/1984 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Puhalluskukkapoika ja taivaankorjaaja (‘The blow-flower boy and the heaven-fixer’, 1983). Interview by Olavi Jama


A chill west wind came over the blue ice. It went right to the skin through woollen clothes. Shivers ran up and down the spine, made shoulders shake.

In the bank of clouds close to the horizon, right where the icebreaker had crunched open a passage to the shore, hung a pale blotch, a substitute for the sun. It gave off more chill than warmth.

Lennu’s teeth were chattering.

He wore a buttoned-up windbreaker, a hand-me-down from Gunnar, over a heavy lambswool shirt. It couldn’t keep off the cold.

They stood, their faces purple, next to the corner of the shingle-roofed shed where the fishnets were stored. They were staring out over the ice.

At the mouth of the river, to one side of an island, at the spot where the current kept a stretch of open water in the ice, sometimes until Christmas week, three men were standing.

Lennu could make out the figure of his father. His shoulders were bent over, and he was pounding with a long boat hook at the hole cut in the ice. Actually, it wasn’t cut in the ice; it was a big stretch of open water with slush and chunks of ice floating in it. From the shore, it looked like a dark blotch.

It was Kurtti’s grave.

When Lennu was very small, a man named Kurtti, a longshoreman, had been drowned there one Christmas Day.

People were afraid of Kurtti’s grave.

When they skied or pushed their sleds to Black Swamp on the other side of the river to get branches for brooms or pine boughs to put in their doorways, they took care to go way around Kurtti’s grave, even in midwinter when it was all iced over.

Some people said they had seen smoke rise from the place, but Lennu hadn’t seen that. Father said it was steam, that the warmer water rose to the surface and changed to steam in the cold.

In the winter, people stuck trunks of fir trees in the ice to mark the spot. Lennu had often looked at them from the shore, and they had seemed like ghosts to him. Now there were no fir trees there.

The shorter and heavier man was Simo Suomela, whose nickname was Finlandia. Sometimes Lennu had laughed at that, but not now.

Right next to him stood Jeremejeff, the policeman. Father had known him since their days in Petsamo. He had been doing masonry work on the Kolosjoki smokestack, which Father had said was the tallest in the world, or at least in Europe.

Jeremejeff was holding a grappling iron which had big and small hooks. He had brought it to the shore on the back of his bike, along the narrow path. Father had rummaged about in the net shed and found a coil of rope, one end of which they tied to the ring of the grappling iron.

‘Whose iron is that?’ Father had asked.

‘The State’s.’ Jeremejeff had lugged it down to the ice.

Now he was letting the State’s iron hang at the end of the rope in the open water.

Father kept poking at the ice floes with the boat hook. Finlandia was explaining something. Jeremejeff started walking along the edge of the open water, pulling the iron along.

Suddenly he stopped and began to pull up the rope attached to the grappling iron. Lennu felt colder than before. ‘Nothing’s going to come up with that grappling iron,’ he muttered to himself. He wondered whether Mother had heard what he’d said. He glanced to one side.

Mother had a big fur hat on her head. Its earflaps were sticking out in a funny way, looking like wide spade-shaped antlers when seen from the side. It was Father’s hat. She pressed her lips tightly together. A drop was glistening at the end of her nose. She was staring out over the ice. ‘Something’s coming up now,’ she said in a shaky voice.

When the grappling iron came up empty, Mother sighed. ‘Nothing … Maybe they’re not there after all.’ Her hands were opening and closing inside her big mittens.

Anita was standing next to Mother, on the other side. She had on a yellow crocheted cap and a heavy overcoat. ‘They’re there, all right,’ Anita snapped. ‘The footprints were clear.’

Mother started to weep again.

Lennu was annoyed. Even though he knew the boys would be in the hole in the ice, he didn’t want to hear Anita say it, at least not snapped out like that. It seemed to cruel and – cold.

Ever since yesterday, they had been running back and forth through the woods until they were out of breath, calling and hollering for the twins so that the chill forest, slightly covered by snow, had been full of their voices.

In the early morning, they found two sets of small footprints on the shore. When Father shone his flashlight, they could see that the prints led straight to Kurtti’s grave.

Carrying a long stake crosswise in front of him, Father went to look at the edge of the open water. When he turned around, Lennu saw tears flowing down his face. Well, he couldn’t say for sure that it was tears. Father wasn’t one to cry. It could easily have been melted snow.

‘Got to call Jeremejeff,’ he said. Anita started running to the store.

Jeremejeff stopped. The grappling iron was caught on something.

Lennu saw that Mother’s eyes, swollen with crying, were bulging out of their sockets. For a while he thought they would plop off onto her cheeks.

Mother said in a pleading voice, ‘I’m sure it’s a sunken log.’

You could see that something was on the grappling iron from the way Jeremejeff was hauling up the rope. Father ran over to help him. Father wasn’t coiling the rope, but just let the loose rope slip through his palms onto the ice.

Jeremejeff bent down to take hold of what was coming up out of the water.

‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’

Ville laughed, grinned from ear to ear. His baby teeth were like pearls. ‘A heaven-ficther, of course.’

‘What does he really mean?’ Lennu asked his mother.

‘He’s been telling me that same thing again and again.’ Mother was shaking her head. ‘That’s what he says he’s going to be, a heaven-fixer.’

Lennu was looking at the boy. The face of the giggling five-year-old was full of laughter. Finlandia always said, ‘There comes the smiley-boy,’ when Ville would run across the field to their house and tell his odd tales in the living room of their farmhouse.

Once Ville had said to Hilja Suomela, ‘My mother said to tell you that you’ve got ugly curtains.’ Hilja wouldn’t speak for days, and almost wouldn’t believe that no one had told Ville to say that. He’d thought it up all by himself. Finlandia just kept laughing about it. He knew Ville, all right, but Hilja always took things so seriously.

‘I wonder if it’s some kind of sign, his talking about fixing the heavens,’ Lennu said to his mother.

‘How can you ever figure out a child’s thoughts?’ Mother said.

Ville ran across the grassy yard and went behind the woodshed. He and Esko had a hut there, made out of cardboard boxes from the store. They called it their playhouse.

Mother was deep in thought. ‘Maybe Ville thinks the heavens need fixing,’ she said quietly.

Lennu had the feeling that it was Ville. The heaven-ficther was now going to heaven to fix things up.

Jeremejeff had in his hands a long black bundle which he rolled onto the ice.

Father once again dropped the grappling iron into the water, making a splash.

Mother gasped and then called across the ice in a cracking voice, ‘For heaven’s sake, tell me what it is!’

Father turned. ‘We found Ville! We almost had the other one, too, but he fell off! Esko must be right here! He’ll be up soon!’

Mother dropped to her knees as if she’d been hit with a piece of firewood, falling right down next to a bare thorn-bush. She pressed her hands to her eyes, and her mittens flapped open and closed so that you couldn’t tell whether she was crying into her fists or her open palms. Loud wails burst from her mouth.

Fell off.

Lennu remembered that’s what you said in the summer when you were angling and the fish would nibble but wouldn’t get caught in the hook.

Ville was caught but Esko fell off.

Father was hauling in the rope of the grappling iron. Jeremejeff and Finlandia were squatting right next to him.

Another long dark bundle rose up onto the ice.

Esko was always asking about birds and flowers.

He would stand in the middle of the yard with his head thrown back and look at the swirls of gulls in the sky. He was always delighted when the fish entrails were tossed onto the compost heap and the gulls would come in a vast flock and, screeching, fight over them, then fly overhead with their wings flapping and the long intestines hanging from their beaks. Then he would clap his hands and run across the yard, sometimes all the way to the road, past the mailbox, craning his neck to follow their flight.

‘This is a puff-flower,’ Esko claimed.

It was the remains of a dandelion that had lost its yellow color. Its light white tufts shivered in the faint wind.

Lennu took the flower. ‘May I blow this one?’

‘Go ahead and blow it.’ The boy watched impatiently.

Lennu let out a quick puff. The tassels broke loose as if snapped from the base of the flower, and majestically floated out of reach on their parachutes.

Esko ran after them, tried to fish them with his fingers. Every now and then his short body would give a little leap and he would clap his hands, imagining that the tiny offspring of the puff-flower would end up caught between his small palms.

The tufts wafted away, to where all the tufts of the world go.

The child stared sadly after them.

Then he turned his eyes up to the brilliantly clear sky. His face was again lit by joy.

Lennu could see it too.

It was a bird with a broad expanse of wings, flying way up high. Its wings were not moving. It was striving for even greater heights. It grew smaller and smaller, and finally it was no more. There was only the clear sky.

Stubbornly, Esko kept staring up at the sky. Lennu wondered seriously whether the boy could still see it. Then he smiled at his thought. No one could have such good eyes.

Finlandia shoved the hauling-sled, which he had had ready a little distance away, closer to the opening in the ice.

It was a good sled, made by Janne from Kuusikko. Father said he was the best hauling-sled maker in the world. Father said that a hauling-sled had to carry two tubs full of water and its joints should never squeak. Janne’s sled could really take it, though on ours the crossbar had almost come loose, but that was only because Esko and Ville had been sledding down the steepest slope of the Kinnunens’ hill and had fallen and the bar had somehow loosened when it had scraped the ground. Lennu was sure it wasn’t because the sled was weak. No sled could have taken that kind of beating, that’s for sure.

Father and Jeremejeff lifted first one bundle onto the sled and then the other bundle, which had been caught in the hook and hadn’t slipped off anymore.

Father began to pull.

He threw the tug-rope over his shoulder and held the end of the rope with one hand in front of his chest. He helped by tugging it behind his back. Finlandia was shoving at the real bar though the sled would have slid along on the slippery ice without anyone pushing it. Jeremejeff walked alongside with his grappling iron. He had on a brown leather coat, baggy woollen pants, and rubber boots with buckled straps at the top. One of the straps had come loose and was flapping in time with his steps. His moustache was covered with frost. Finlandia also had a moustache but his was not as thick and bushy as Jeremejeff’s. It was rather small and white. Lennu remembered the time when Father had had a moustache too. Mother had always tugged at it and made fun of it until Father had got fed up and shaved it off.

When they came to the boat landing, Lennu could see that Father was out of breath even though it couldn’t have been that hard to pull the sled. His breath flowed out of his nostrils in long columns as from a lumberjack’s horse in the freezing cold.

They got up from the ice onto solid ground. The iron runners screeched on the rocks when they hit the shoreline.

At the corner of the shed, where the others were standing, Father dropped the tug-rope and the sled glided over to them under its own power.

The boys were lying on their backs against the baseboards, next to each other.

Neither one of them had a cap on. They were very white. The State’s grappling iron had torn Ville’s cheek. A piece was missing and you could see his small teeth through it.

There were ice crystals in their eyes, very small beautiful stars of ice. Esko was staring up at the sky with his eyes open. Lennu glanced up. Couldn’t see the bird. Lennu thought Esko could see it.

Mother fell to her knees next to the sled. She patted the boys, fingered their clothes, pulled Ville’s jacket tighter, just as if Ville were feeling the cold. She was looking after them, her mittens skipping from one boy to the other.

Father pointed to the sled. ‘Lennu, get the tarp.’

It was on the back wall of the shed, folded up next to the fish trap. It was dirty and torn. In the spring they always spread it over the boat so the boards wouldn’t shrink in the sunshine. The name of the company ran across the tarp. Lennu could guess that his father didn’t like having to use a tarp stolen from the company to cover the boys’ bodies.

Father and Mother covered the boys tenderly. Finlandia helped them. They had to move Esko closer to the middle. Lennu was amazed to see his mother so calm. When the boys were covered, she just stood there and stared at the dirty tarp.

‘Let’s go, then.’ Father began pulling the sled. ‘We’ll have to give the boys a sauna and thaw them out and order the coffins.’

Mother kept nodding.

Finlandia gave her his place pushing the sled. Mother wanted to help as Father pulled the boys home along the narrow path.

Lennu and the others walked behind them. Jeremejeff was pushing his bicycle. The hooks in the State’s grappling iron clinked like little sleighbells.

Translated by Aili and Austin Flint


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