Issue 1/1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short sory from Kaunis nimi (‘A lovely name’, Otava, 1996). Raija Siekkinen’s limpid prose is at its best when she explores the complex feelings that lie behind the events of everyday life. Here objects are indicators of emotions, memory and loss, and what is most important is left unsaid

And where was the pen, the fountain pen, black, chubby; the one which pumped the ink straight up from the bottle?

There were three gold-coloured bands on the cap of the pen, and its nib, too, was golden, It had been given to her in a case lined with black velvet, and there was a groove for the pen, and a depression for the ink-bottle; and the bottle was narrow -necked, with curving sides, and the ink in it was not bright blue, but dark, so that words written in it looked old, written a long time ago; one forgot that one had written them oneself, one read them like the words of a stranger.

She remembered the pen, and began slowly to wake up.

She was lying in bed, and the coverlet hung over either side, for it was the coverlet for the big double bed, and the bed in which she slept was the narrow spare-room bed: and it seemed incomprehensible that she was there now, and not on her own side of the wide double bed in the bedroom.

The pen, she had been given it for Christmas, and was it true that she had wept when she had opened the wrapping, and opened the case, and seen the pen and the bottle. The paper had been dark blue with golden stars: she had smoothed the creases out of it, folded it, and put it away. Was the pen still in the desk drawer, or had it been taken by one of the people who came here all the time now, the ones who brought food and carried logs from the cellar and sat, unspeaking, with such similar expressions on their faces that sometimes it was difficult to tell whether the same person had brought the logs and someone else had lit the stove.

What about the knives and forks, then: were they in their correct places, and were there as many as they had once bought, from an antique shop: heavy, silver-plated, engraved almost one hundred years ago with the initials ofa sawmill-owner, HG, Hans Gutzeit. They had bought a lot that year, from that same antique shop, furniture, lamps, an oval table, but also smaller objects: curtain rings with lion’s-paw clasps, curtain-rail knobs, all of them brass, and some still not put up; where were they now?

She lay with her eyes closed, and smelled the scent of flowers. Irises, white lilies, and white roses and carnations; they were all there, the last she must have put in a plastic bucket, the oval table was awash with them, and there were more on the bookshelf, and now they gave off their scent in the cool room, the smell of death, she thought, and lying there with her eyes closed she could already see herself emptying the brown water of the vases into the wash hand basin, filling the rubbish sack with flowers, taking it along the track across the snowy courtyard to the rubbish bin, and, as she came back in, wiping the table, the oval table, and once more it would be as it should be: black, shining. The condolences, the pile of them, what a lot of them there were; they, too, were on the table, she would burn them in the stove, she could see it already, see the fire catching them, the ribbons on their backs: see how they burned, their beautiful and trifling words, words intended to comfort, but which only made the hum of emptiness louder. How powerless words were, after all; she, who worked with them, had always believed in them; and now, like this, they suddenly revealed their treachery.

She lay with her eyes closed, and the flowers gave out their scent, and the brackish water in the vases. The water needs changing, she thought, and remembered how to turn on the tap, let the water run, until it was quite cold and clear, how to fill the vases; and how sometimes flowers’ stems were cut to make them last longer. But they were other flowers, ten red roses, she remembered, and once orchids, and on that occasion she had got a golden chain for her neck, he had fastened it, where was it now? She felt her neck, recognised the chain, stroked it with her fingers, but her anxiety about something that had been lost remained.

The mushrooms, she remembered. Yes, it must be on account of the mushrooms, this anxiety, they had been on the kitchen shelf in their glass jars, dried chanterelles and ceps, she had crushed them in a mortar, sprinkled them on food: spaghetti sauces, sauces for fish: salmon, whitefish, perch, she remembered their taste, remembered that she had been told to eat, and saw herself melting butter in a pan, browning chopped onion in it, then cornflour, after that a drop of water-it had to be stirred with a wooden spatula and then adding creme fraîche; then tarragon, white pepper, salt. She remembered all of it, the smell of grilled fish, and of boiled new potatoes, covered with dill, their gleaming, unpeeled surface. She remembered the smell of the forest, they had gathered a lot of mushrooms that autumn, the big table in the porch had been laden with them, yellow chanterelles, red-capped boleti, thick-stemmed ceps; they had sat up late into the evening chopping them for drying, she remembered the scent of mushrooms drying in the lukewarm sauna. In the forest the spiders’ webs had glimmered in the slanting light of the sun, every day that autumn, when she had gone with her basket to familiar mushroom places; this will be a good year, she had said, but it had not been, and now she remembered once again the dry mushrooms in their jars, were they still there?

But the scent that she recognised was not the scent of mushrooms, and slowly she remembered that food had been brought; the ones who carried the logs, and lit the stove, also brought food, pizzas, olives, salmon pies and pasties, and now all of it was piled high on the kitchen table, the packaging unopened, and the scent, no, the smell, she sensed was the smell of rotting food, the pies already drying, the pizzas perhaps mouldy, she would have to throw them away, like the flowers, like the letters of condolence, and then perhaps everything would be as it had been before, she could already see herself wiping the table, the dishes were already washed, the stoves warm, and then she could hear the car stopping outside the house, the door slamming, and she opened the front door ready, and he came, he had bought a whitefish in his lunch-hour, and the potatoes were already boiling, or perhaps he would bring a little broom for brushing the outside steps, it was market-day, where was the little broom now? If she had left it on the steps, the neighbours must have taken it, and the steps would be under a thick covering of snow; and she saw herself giving them a sprinkling of coarse sea-salt.

She started, opened her eyes, the little broom, and everything else too: the pen, and the knives and forks, and the mushrooms, now she would have to look after them all, and there seemed to be so many things that she felt she did not have the energy to get up, after all. She lay in bed, saw that it was already dusk, in the darkening room she saw the drooping long leaves and runners of the plants, the palm, the fern, the ivy, and behind them through the glass came the cold shimmer of the snow, the street-lights and window-lights reflected in it. It was cool; she wondered how long it had been since anyone had been to light the stoves; and had they watered the flowers, that she could not remember, so she must fill the glass jug, put plant-food in the water, and water the flowers, standing on a chair for the fern, for it was high up in its hanging flower-pot.

On the wardrobe door, she could see, a black suit was hanging: velvet, she remembered that she had had it made for a first night, it had been made from a coat, and the coat she had bought in Rome. The suit was beautiful, and beside it a new pair of tights had been placed, also black, and shoes: black. She gazed at the suit, then closed her eyes, could not bear to look at it for long, although it was still as beautiful as it had been at the first night, long ago. She closed her eyes, and now the stoves were warm once more, and the sun shone in through the windows, and it was spring, and March, for a thin, bright layer of ice glittered on the ground. And now it was payday, she realised, for wine had been bought, red, it stood in two glasses in front of the open stove door; on the floor were cushions on which they would sit, and a new record had been bought, it was already playing, a violin and a cello. Perhaps they would grill chicken in the stove, so she would surely have made a salad, avocado, green lettuce-leaves, cucumber, nothing else, no tomato, which went watery in a salad; she sensed the smell of wine vinegar.

But the music was Greek, after all, and the record was the one they had bought on their trip to Greece. In it she heard the sound of the waves as they rolled slowly toward the shore, and their rhythm was different from that of the waters of her childhood; slower, duller. And the pebbles, she could hear them too, as they rolled over one another when the waves came, against each other, white and red marble pebbles, so round that they slipped under the feet like marbles when one walked across them. They had radiated their light when they had gathered them, and on the return journey the rucksack had been heavy with them, where were they now? The sun had shone, the blues of the sky and the sea had been severed by a silver, glimmering line, and on the border between the land and the water had stood a man, a brown, motionless, eternal figure: he, but suddenly no one; and everyone, always.

She awoke, and now it was already quite dark, perhaps already night, or even the next day. And now, finally, she rose, turned on the lights, gazed around the room where she was, saw the black suit, and in the other room the flowers, and in the kitchen all the food in its packaging, its smell mixed with the fustiness of the flowers. The pen, and the knives and forks, and the pebbles, and the mushrooms, she remembered. And she wandered through the flat, turning on lights, opening drawers, of desks, of bureaus, and the pen was in its place next to the pile of envelopes, and the ink-bottle with curved sides was there too; and there were as many knives and forks as they had bought, and the dried mushrooms were in their jars on the kitchen shelves, and in the comer of the hall was the little broom. But the anxiety about something that was lost had not left her mind. And standing there, next to the table full of flowers, she suddenly remembered: the ring, yes; the stone of the ring. The small, green, round bloodstone, which had been mounted in its gold surround as if in a little box, the bloodstone, it had today, or yesterday, perhaps, become loose, on the day which had been the most terrible of her life, it had fallen, she remembered how she had heard a little round sound, which had then grown bigger and bigger; the stone had rolled, with a deafening, receding sound, into oblivion, eternal oblivion, she knew she would never find it again; and now, finally, remembering this, she wept.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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