Jacob’s Dream

Issue 3/1986 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Hänen olivat linnut (‘Hers were the birds’, 1967). Introduction by Pirkko Alhoniemi

‘It was Jacob’s Dream, Alma.’

How could she put it so Alma wouldn’t get hurt. Alma had ruined the surface of the painting. The pastor’s widow stood nervously in front of the window and tried to say what she’d had on her mind for several days but couldn’t quite come out with. When Alma went out of the house, the pastor’s widow would wander through the rooms and check on things. And the painting wasn’t the only object in danger, but also the birds. Their feathers were ruffled because Alma kept wiping them with a wet rag. How could she put it.


Alma turned to look at her.

‘It’s called Jacob’s Dream.’


‘That painting.’

And she saw how Alma glanced at the painting and again started to wipe it with the rag.

‘It’s Jacob’s Dream, Alma.’ Alma kept on rubbing.

‘My husband painted it.’

Alma didn’t understand. Alma didn’t understand that you shouldn’t rub a painting with a wet rag.

‘Did you have paintings at home, Alma?’

‘My brother bought one once and carried it home.’

‘What kind of painting was it?’

‘It was an eagle tearing a big book away from a woman.’

‘So it was the Maid of Finland. So Alma had that kind of painting in her house. How did your brother think of buying a painting like that? Do you know what it stands for?’

The pastor’s widow noticed that Alma had just dipped her rag in water and was again attacking Jacob’s Dream.

‘Alma, do you know why Jacob is lying on the ground?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Haven’t you read the Bible? Haven’t they taught you about it?’

The pastor’s widow went to get the Bible and then she read out loud to Alma about Jacob.

‘But my husband said Jacob had sciatica, and that could well have been so.’

‘Is that why he painted this picture?’

‘No, no. The pastor was an artist. He painted a lot of pictures but he destroyed them. I asked him to save this one for me, that’s how I got it.’

‘Who is it, then?’

‘This man? It’s Jacob.’

‘How did the pastor know what Jacob looked like?’

‘He imagined it – maybe he painted a picture of himself. Do you understand, Alma? Jacob looks a bit like my husband. When I look at that I sometimes get the feeling he painted himself. He once said to me,

“Jacob had a dream. It’s always fascinated me that he was so human. Jacob was cunning, sly.” “Why do you say that?” I asked. It hurt me to have him talk like that about Jacob. “You don’t understand,” he said. “The people in the Bible were human beings. The more I study the Bible, the more I believe and understand it. Jacob had committed a crime, he had a great dream. In order to make it come true he used all the tricks he could, he wanted to be somebody and he cheated his relatives. “You see, Adele,” he said to me, “sometimes I’ve had a dream and I understand Jacob completely. He’s a child of God in all his weakness.” Does Alma understand that this painting is dear to me?’

Alma didn’t answer.

‘How did you go about dusting at home, Alma?’

‘I didn’t do any dusting. We only had one painting.’

‘Well, I mean…Perhaps you haven’t dusted an oil painting before. See, this is an oil painting and you shouldn’t wash it.’

But Alma did not understand.

‘How old were you, Alma, when that painting came into your house?’

‘The mistress knows how old I am.’

‘Well, soon you’ll be thirty. How long is it that you’ve been in my house?’ Alma turned, gave her a hostile look.

‘I mean, I mean just to ask.’

‘Don’t you want to keep me any longer?’

Alma always misunderstood her. How could she say it. She made another try.

‘That’s Jacob’s Dream, Alma.’

Alma gave the painting a glance she meant as a compliment and then went back to wiping it.

‘Well, Alma, what I mean to say is that you don’t know how to handle paintings…or birds. I can understand that you don’t know how to handle birds but I would have thought you’d know you mustn’t wash paintings.’

‘But you yourself told me to do it.’

‘I said you should wipe them with a cloth, a dry cloth, but you’ve been wiping the birds with a wet rag.’

Alma fell silent.

‘Just look at the feathers of this owl, they’re ruined. It’s my dearest bird.’ The pastor’s widow waited for Alma to say something.

‘I’ve tried to talk to you about it, Alma. But you haven’t understood. Now it’s too late. Would you take a look at these feathers?’

The pastor’s widow set the owl on the table in front of Alma and was smoothing the trussed-up ankle feathers. Alma looked, then turned her head away, and obviously did not understand. How could one say, how could one explain to her that you mustn’t wipe birds with a wet rag.

‘Do you remember last Saturday, Alma? The day I was so nervous?’ Alma said she remembered. ‘That was for the same reason – remember, Alma – when I was walking behind you and all the time I tried to tell you but you didn’t believe me?’

‘What was it you said?’

The pastor’s widow didn’t answer. Then she asked:

‘How did you handle the bird you had at home?’ Alma hadn’t handled it at all.

‘But it was in your house when you were still at home, Alma. For many years. Wasn’t it ever cleaned?’

‘I don’t know.’

The pastor’s widow wanted to know where they had kept the swan.

‘In a corner of the parlor under the big feathery asparagus plant.’

‘The big feathery asparagus plant,’ the pastor’s widow said with a sigh.

‘Whose was it? Yours, Alma?’

One of the neighbors had brought it, Alma couldn’t exactly remember. But it was big, it grew in a barrel and needed lots of water. Once it was about to die, in the summer when it was hot and nobody had remembered to water it. People seldom went into the parlor, you slept out in the shed and only the guests were taken to the parlor and nobody much went in there. So the plant was forgotten.

‘Who’s looking after it now?’

‘I guess somebody is.’

‘But nobody knows how to take care of the swan.’

Alma didn’t answer.

‘Did you say it was in the parlor under the asparagus plant?’

Alma shuddered: it was starting again. She was on her way to another room when the pastor’s widow came after her and repeated:

‘How was it now? Did they keep the swan in the parlor under the asparagus plant?’

‘That’s where they kept it.’ Alma tried to think of something to do in the kitchen, but the pastor’s widow pursued her, stood in front of her, looking at her with that terrible expression. That look in her eyes. Every time Alma saw it, it really bothered her, made her furious. And every time she saw it she wished she were somewhere else and not in this house. Always lying. When you once blurted out a lie, you had to keep it up ever after. What in the world had made her tell about it? The pastor’s widow had gone crazy after she’d heard it. The look in her eyes had terrified her and she didn’t understand what had really happened when the pastor’s widow suddenly bolted from her chair, dashed in front of her, stared silently, and then burst into tears. Had she said it just to please or to brag, or why in the world had she said it. ‘Where is it?’ the pastor’s widow had asked. ‘Tell me, where?’ ‘At our house,’ she had answered.

From that day on, it was the only thing the pastor’s widow ever thought about. She would trail her, incessantly asking, ‘Was it a trumpeter swan or an ordinary swan?’ As if she’d have known. Black bill. Yes. Yes, I guess. She couldn’t remember, she had just said black. And that’s how it had all started.

– – –

‘A heart doesn’t break that easily, Alma.’

‘Has the mistress had a broken heart, then?’

‘I? No. I’ve had heartaches, but no one has broken my heart.’

She went over to the window, lifted a flower pot, held it in her hands and turned to Alma.

‘We’ll take this to the grave.’

‘But I’ve said time and time again you can’t take flowers to the grave at this time of year. They’ll freeze.’

‘You’re so angry at me just because I called you a lapwing? Can’t you understand I speak in metaphors?’

Alma was polishing a candlestick.

The pastor’s widow reached up to the top of the bookcase to take hold of a wagtail, then sat down, placed the bird on the table in front of her and adjusted its position so that its bill pointed straight towards the window.

‘You see, it should stand like this, just like in nature, curtains white as the clouds, like the sky and air above. Poor little bird.’

Alma didn’t turn to look.

‘Maybe my brains have turned into bird brains. Maybe you’re right, Alma, maybe I am a wagtail. Well, how could I expect people to understand me?’

Alma kept on polishing the candlestick.

‘When have you seen a wagtail running after a train?’ the pastor’s widow asked sharply. ‘You pretend not to remember that time when we were coming back home from the city, and you said to me, “Don’t run after a train like an old wagtail.” And anyway, it was your fault we missed the train, but did I blame you?’

‘My fault?’ said Alma. ‘Who was it who dawdled in the park to look at birds instead of getting to the station on time?’

‘Well, I think I have the right to observe the life of pigeons. You know pigeons don’t do well in this miserable village. And besides, I was on my way to the doctor’s. You don’t think I’d trust Herman’s diagnoses, I never have. And anyway, I said we could still get home on the evening train. I didn’t force you to walk home from the city, although Birger, his uncle Onni, and the pharmacist have all bicycled that distance many times. What are you blaming me for now? You talk about your broken heart when you remember the miserable rocking chair rug that you say your sister-in-law stole from you. Why didn’t you look after your own affairs? Now you just torment me every day with complaints about how your relatives robbed you.’

‘Well, you wouldn’t know anything about a broken heart when you look after your own heart like that. And get that creature off the table. Wasn’t I supposed to do a big house-cleaning today? How can I wipe off the table if you keep it there?’

‘Well, well. Now the truth comes out. You hate me because of the birds, just like everyone else. You hate the only defender of these innocent creatures. You’re like all the rest of them. Because you don’t consider me a proper pastor’s widow … as if I didn’t know. It’s pretty clear that you’ve gone around the village spreading stories about me. That hatred just oozes out of you … don’t argue back. Because of the birds, that’s why. Godless, I know. Do you want to hear the whole story of my suffering?’

Alma started flinging the birds down from the top of the bookcase so they could air out on the window sill.

‘It was a spring evening, not autumn as it is now, it was spring, the road curved down to the shore through a birch grove. “I beg you, don’t shoot little birds.” Birger was standing on a rock with a gun in his hand, and this very same little bird on the shore, on a rock, on a rock by the shore, a wagtail, with its tail going up, down, up, and Birger standing there, rifle at the ready against his shoulder. I began clapping my hands to scare it away but the bird didn’t hear, the shot rang out and Birger went running along the rocks and came back with this little bird dangling from his hand.’

The pastor’s widow looked straight into the bird’s glass eyes.

‘I don’t know whether you understand me. Who could I ask? I have nothing to ask, not of you, not of anyone. When I knew I was expecting a child, on the days when that became clear to me, I begged him. “Don’t shoot birds.” I couldn’t bear to look at them, there was a churning in the pit of my stomach from morning to night, this very room, small birds in rows on the table, dead, stiff, and the smell in this room. I fled upstairs, the smell penetrated the walls when he prepared them. Birger promised that this small bird would be the last. But one spring night after another he walked the swamps and forests and lake shores, and I had to go with him, I had to pick up birds that had plunged to the ground, from the grasses, from the edges of cliffs. I had to carry them on my side and feel the movements of the child against the dead birds. “He’s a master shot.” “Who?” “Your husband,” said the sheriff. “He’s a master shot. Just think how he can nail any bird with a single shot.” “It’s all right to shoot them, then? Is it permitted?” I asked, trying in some way to stop it. “Of course, of course,” the sheriff said. When the bishop came to visit, I again tried to prevent it. In Birger’s hearing I asked the bishop whether it was permitted. “Of course, of course,” the bishop said. “The pastor has remarkable skill. You know. I’m amazed he knows so unbelievably much about birds. By all means, just be happy he’s such a scientist and a clergyman at the same time.” “How can you go to church and preach, ‘Look at the birds of the heavens’?” “Silly.” Silly. Silly. Always the same answer.

‘I stopped asking. Towards evening the bishop and my husband went out to the reefs together and in the morning there were five new birds on the worktable, waterbirds, the ones that call out so plaintively on the open lake at night. When he came back home that night with the long-billed one in his hand – don’t break it, Alma. A curlew’s bill will break if you carry it like that. Carry it like this, like a babe in arms, this is how I’ve taught you. Put it on the other window sill by itself, not next to the mallard, as far as I know they aren’t close to each other in nature – well, when he returned home that night I stood waiting on the stairs and I had had enough. “What if you shot me?” I said. “I’d like to see which hymn you’d have them sing after you prepared me. Take a look, wouldn’t it be fun to push a metal wire through these, take a look, I’ll hold my arms like this and my legs like this, in what position would you set me, I’ve been thinking about it all night. Would you have me sitting, or standing on one foot, look, like this, or would you lift one arm in the air, or both arms, or .an arm along the side, or both arms? I’ve been expecting you home all night, I’ve paced back and forth all night and looked at these birds and thought I’m nothing but another bird in your collection. What name would you give me, rara avis or what? Would you put me up on the highest spot, on top of that case next to the owl, would you make glass eyes for me, too, would I be rara avis?” “Silly, silly, that’s what you would be. I’d put a label silly avis on your pedestal, don’t you get any ideas of being a phoenix, you’re just a nervous woman who can’t take a normal attitude toward her pregnancy – try to learn from these country women.” And then I shouted the name of the girl they’d taken along with them to row the boat. He started at me through his glasses for a long time and said: “Go sleep in a different room.” “Forgive me,” I cried. I tried to wrap my arms around his neck, no, not these’ – the pastor’s widow squeezed her arms, hooked the fingers around her left wrist – ‘not these, Alma, these arms are withered. Not these … I was young then and my arms were white and soft. I always wore long-sleeved dresses so I wouldn’t get brown blotches on my arms. I feel I haven’t had any arms since then, they stayed around his neck, torn off from me, stayed hanging around his neck forever when he pushed me off.’

‘Don’t start that again, don’t,’ Alma said. ‘You’ll have another sleepless night if you start talking about that again. Go away and don’t look at the birds any more today.’

But the pastor’s widow went on:

‘In the morning, when he was still sleeping, I came into this room and the curlew was on the desk. Long, pointed bill, the curlew tossed on the desk, its bill hanging over the edge as if it were taking a drink of water, the water of death. And you see, that’s how it has been stuffed, in just that position, as if its bill were trying to reach the water of death forever.’

‘I’m not listening,’ said Alma, ‘no, I’m not going to get you any medicine, believe me…’

‘But all these are alive, can’t you see they’ve become immortal? The feathers are smooth, well-cared for, no moth-holes, no stains. I will die, but the birds will live forever. Believe me.’

Translated by Aili and Austin Flint

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