The enchanted garden

Issue 4/1993 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä (‘A respectable tragedy’, 1941). Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

Artur sat on the balcony and contemplated the windowpanes, hot and bright as dragonfly’s wings. He reached into his pocket and produced an ivory cigarette-holder, inserted a fresh salt-capsule and a cigarette, and began smoking, but the cigarette was not to his taste. His mouth felt hot and dry; he probed the roof of his mouth with his tongue.

An ant was making its way across the floor; Artur’s gaze rested on the garden’s universe of flowerbeds, swarming with insects and blooms; the atmosphere in the garden had the tint of hot dust, apart from the lawn, with its limeblossom-tinged half­ light. He started to make for the garden: the flowers would all be needing water, and he could go for a swim in the pond. But first he wanted to take a look at his mother: she might manage an hour’s sleep in this heat. He tapped a drift of blue-grey cigarette­ash onto the floor. He tiptoed heavily to the old lady’s door, making the floorboards creak, and opened it a fraction. In the green aqueous light thrown by the blind he could make out the reposing outlines of a weak, almost immaterial body; her throat and chest moved gently under her star-crocheted lace, but otherwise the old lady was sleeping lightly as a bird.

In the aqueous dimness Artur took in the impression of the lightly moving lace: her lace’s motion signified life, and he closed the door and crept back again through the sunfilled rooms, with their scent of old warmed furniture, and withdrew into the garden’s greenish atmosphere, glinting with silver and savouring of dust and honey.

‘Bach… but mother didn’t like my performance,’ he reflected as he dived into the warm water of the pond.

Mother: sleeping there in that house’s quiet, humming box, full of sun and summer fragrances, specially built for her by father: his father, whom he’d always been slightly jealous of, because of his charming mother. And Artur ducked his head under the pool’s brown surface. He’d never, it suddenly struck him, given anything to Naimi, and he felt a moment of slight astonishment: How did they, who loved each other so much, give birth to me, who have never loved anyone except my mother?

He shook the water off his shoulders and waded to the water’s edge, his head, which seemed to belong to another era, drooping sadly on his handsome chest. The only heartfelt closeness in my life has been between mother and me. Naimi, off now at the spa, is quite excluded from any of that heartfelt closeness, the closeness of our family circle. It’s really amazing that I so often treat her ineptly – she’s a sensitive creature, and it makes her suffer – but between us there’s no heartfelt closeness.

Artur got dressed and, brushing a circling bee out of his hair, sat on the jetty for a while. He envied his parents that engaging love, which had brimmed their lives and whose shadow he still felt every day as he moved about the house. He’d had no talent for creating anything comparable from the love given him by Naimi: all he’d brought to that love was a potentiality for a sort of maternal compliance, patience and melancholy affection. And he sadly hung his head, thinking of Naimi’s love, always the same, despite his, Artur’s, everlasting ill-humour and heartless insensivity. They, those two, he pondered, adored each other on such a scale, they were incapable of creating any new life out of their love: I’ve never been anything but a reflection of their love; I adored my mother as my father adored her. I’ve had no love of my own, life of my own; those two should never have brought me into being. Their love had sufficiently fructified in their life together and their infinite adoration. They should never have attempted to release any life outside the circle of their love for each other.

Artur was right in his thinking about his parents’ love. For them, it had been the whole content of life, an eternal love developing into something ever richer and more refined – a rare phenomenon at any time: the personality of each lover being so important in it, the love required no physical fructification: it had so completely drained all potentiality for loving into the two who shared the love that the new creature given birth was unable to be new, spiritually new; he was merely a shadow mimicking the ones he was delivered from. Since birth, Artur had been virtually without any capacity to love of his own; from his father he had inherited a love centring on his mother. The result was, Artur’s entry into marriage had not created any new family either: he had gone on being part of his own family, the one created by his mother and himself, to which his wife Naimi could find no access.

Sitting at the end of the pond, which itself had been built by his father’s love, a blue­ streaked pond speckled with gold, Artur forgot the passage of time. Back in her room the old lady woke from her light sleep. She immediately recalled the music: it hadn’t pleased her because it was almost like therapeutics. Even Bach, as performed then by Artur, had not been to her liking: he’d been playing against his will. In any case, no music could possibly please her nowadays, nothing except the music Edvard’s shade rendered for her in those small hours, when she crept to the piano and leant over his shade – he playing a piece that had always conjured similar images for them.

She got out of bed in the blind’s aqueous-blue darkness, changed her linen for the second time that day, dabbed her face with cologne, tipped a little on to her handkerchief, and carefully twisted her pure silver curls into an attractive arrangement over her ears. She went into the dining room and out onto the porch to find her son and feel again that heartfelt closeness. Artur was not on the porch, though she had slept almost an hour. She had no wish to weary Artur: she wanted to preserve a little more freedom for him still, and she fetched her panama hat and sank her big bony head in it. She felt quite spry after her light sleep and decided to pop out alone and take a walk as far as the house at the crossing, with the great lime tree and the little blue-grey bees’ nests.

The old lady knew that Artur would not have allowed this solitary walk, but it was such a short distance, and she went via the drawing room, taking an unusual way behind the house, so that Artur, if he happened to be in the garden, would not see her.

Her panama hat’s delicate shadow fell across her hot face; the meadows were unspeakably fresh and green; her eyes drank in their wonderful cool prospects; she would be gone when the fragrant honeycomb-shaped rustling stooks of newly mown hay rose in the meadows. Her legs were beginning to get tired, though, after all. This solitary walk was a nonsense, Artur would say. But it was as necessary as the Bach: Edvard would have understood her well enough.

The lime tree was visible afar. It was unusually large; she used to walk here with Edvard when flowers dangled between the leaves like fragrant honey-coloured swarms of bumblebees. The tree was rising there now, dark green, full of hot golden light. She took several eager steps, making her heart race and her temple throb, and stood beneath the tree, looking at the little greyish-blue nest-homes, whose openings were thronged with a fine continual buzz of glassy wings and hot scented air. She stood in the shade of the tree as if on a fragrant little honeycomb; her hair was wet with sweat under the panama, her thin, transparent hands sought support from the leaves. Edvard – she meant Artur – would be cross. The sunrays pierced her rather dry throat like fine hot blades of glass. She felt a pricking in her shoulders. It wouldn’t occur to Artur to come here for her.

The old lady rested her head on the limetree bole. The earth was warm, the air full of the scent of limeblossom and cut hay, a fragrance, a humming, when, on those summer evenings, Edvard and she came here together; the hayfields were lined with rows of greyish-green stooks; the moon, spinning a pink silk, rose over the countryside, throwing no shadow at all. Edvard held on to her: life was overflowing with sweetness, with their love, with their heartfelt closeness.

She stood in the cool little shadow thrown down by the giant lime tree; her hands seemed to be getting ever thinner and sweatier, and under the stars of her lace her pulse was rapid. She must be getting back home, she must manage to walk that way back.

And she went along, staggering as if drunk, the green meadows shimmering like water in her eyes; her hair was wet with sweat under the panama, her temples covered with grey shadow and sweat. Very little body was left for her use now; she was just a shadow, with the light already passing through her; but she had the capricious gallantry that brought her to say, in the midst of all those sweet things and surrounded by the heartfelt closeness that still filled her life, ‘I’d like to listen to Bach, I’m not afraid of death.’

Artur, sitting at the pool’s edge much longer than he had intended, suddenly straightened up. Mother! – had something happened? He glanced at his watch: it was already half an hour longer than he’d meant. He went along the passage, through the porch, across the dining room, and opened the door of his mother’s room. The blind was still down, the room full of aqueous dimness, but his mother was no longer in bed. And she wasn’t on the porch, wasn’t sitting on the porch; but why hadn’t she fetched him from the garden? She could easily have found him by the pool’s edge. He went into the drawing room: perhaps my playing had irritated her, he thought, and she got up to sit in the drawing room. He went through the drawing room and out by the door she had taken and saw her tottering along the path, about twenty yards from the house. He set off running.

‘Can’t trust the capricious old thing for a minute” he started to think, but getting closer and seeing her lifting her legs like a blind woman, groping the air for support, he was overwhelmed by sheer distress, tenderness and pity. The old lady staggered against his shoulders, with a faint moan, and he supported her with both arms.

After this walk of hers, she was so worn-out, Artur would have wished to make her lie down again, but she wouldn’t have it. She sat in the cane chair at the hottest time of the day, her hollow temples wet with sweat, looking at the garden. Artur, who thought she was asleep, came up to push her chair into a shadier position, but she raised her eyes to him and said:

‘I don’t really like those silver pots – there’s something about them.’ She made a vague gesture with her hand. ‘And the pillars are too high.’

Artur moved the chair into the shade and brushed her forehead with her lips.

‘I’d like to go to the post office,’ he said, and the old lady groped for his hand; she squeezed it with her lifeless fingers, like pieces of wax.

‘I’ll move out into the drawing room,’ she said. ‘Tell them to pull the blind down.’

She was still sitting on the porch when Artur came by on his way to the post office, and he raised her thin hand to his lips again, in heartfelt closeness. The old lady followed him with her eyes as he traversed the garden, his body moving springily in his handsome grey summer suit. He vanished into one of the patches of golden-green light that filled the garden.

The old lady went through the dining-room, where the foxgloves were showing signs of withering; she spent a moment examining the small dark-madeira spots inside their bells. The starlike quilting on the dark-green velvet sofa-back was full of silver dust. She breathed deep breaths of the dining-room’s spent smell of flowers, velvet and heat and went into the drawing-room, where it was cool: the yellowish blind had been pulled down. Her legs still felt very unsteady. When Artur came to fetch her from here, he could play something more. A solitary bee blundered into the air like a gold thimble and disappeared somewhere behind the blind. She laid her head on the pink satin cover, which gave out a downy smell. The mirror gleamed with a cool depth: there were little goldish and cool bands of deep bluish shadow it was good to be absorbed into. A cool benign shadow of that sort crept up to her large forehead and absorbed her little old worn-out being into itself. Her head nodded and sank onto her chest, her eyelids closed. The bumblebee-wing-coloured air in the room, with its unplayed music, suddenly became stiller: the bee droned on behind the blind, but the quietly fading rhythm of her breathing was gone. The little silver thread that had accompanied the summer day’s music, the buzz of the bumblebee and the soundless sound of flying sunrays, was gone.

Back from the post-office, Artur discovered his mother dead on the drawing-room sofa. A blood vessel had burst in her brain, and the tiny happening converted it to dust and destroyed a world of knowing, longing and beauty. Destroyed – a soul? – a person? What?

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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