The unicorn

Issue 3/1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Koira nimeltä Onni ja muita onnettomuuksia (’A dog called Lucky and other misfortunes’, Tammi, 1997)

Hilma was rattling her bars when Pirjo stepped into the ward. Once again, she was the only one awake. The three other old people were asleep, wheezing heavily through their toothless mouths, making the air thick with their breathing. Clutching the bars of her bed, Hilma clambered up to a sitting position and leaned her sparse hair against the side.

‘How are you doing with the medicine?’ Pirjo asked.

‘A mouse took it,’ Hilma said, fixing her with her eyes.

‘And you’re not at all sleepy,’ Pirjo sighed.

The evening, outside the window, looked so fresh and blue that Pirjo felt like diving headfirst into it. Of course, opening the windows was not allowed. Only one, two, three, four hours to go, she counted on the clock, as she had done who knows how many times already. She would have liked to have told someone, but there was no one to tell.

‘Please would you make some coffee?’ Hilma asked, tilting her head. Hilma must have been beautiful when she was young. She still tried to get what she wanted by flirting.

‘What will happen to us if we drink coffee?’ Pirjo answered. She had learned this way of speaking from the staff nurse, and it horrified her at once. It was almost as if she too had to lie in a chronic ward behind bed-bars.

Just a spoonful,’ Hilma bargained.

Pirjo looked at the three other old people. In the next bed, a thin filament of spittle hung from mouth to pillow, and bluish eyelids fluttered weakly. Otherwise, they were sleeping peacefully. Pirjo raised a finger to her lip and, curling her toes, tried to stop her nurse’s sandals from flapping as she went to fetch the thermos from the nurses’ room. The long corridor seemed lighter to Pirjo than it had even yesterday. The ailing rubber-plant whose shadow had always startled Pirjo on her evening rounds looked today like a homely houseplant, and the frosted glass doors between the wards seemed to be there to ensure peaceful sleep for everyone rather than to hold back old ladies desperate to escape. Pirjo thought she had made out the theme in many hobby-group paintings.

A one-and-a-half-litre thermos flask had been left on the nurses’ room table for the night shift seemed surprisingly light when Pirjo picked it up. She decided not to look at the clock now, for she was sure that it went slower when she looked at it. ‘Let I everything go well tonight,’ she thought, without knowing whom she was talking to.

Pirjo had learned to walk so quietly in her nurse’s sandals that Hilma did not hear her arrive. It was a skill that was of little use outside the building. On seeing the thermos flask, Hilma squealed as loudly as her shrunken lungs allowed. She was probably reliving rationing, and the appearance of a cornucopia like this was welcome. Pirjo took a tablespoon from the bedside table and poured a couple of small drops into it from the thermos. She fed them to Hilma as to a baby bird.

‘Another one,’ Hilma wheedled, her two front teeth sticking out.

‘How are we going to sleep, then,’ Pirjo resisted, but refilled the spoon nevertheless.

‘Once more,’ Hilma coaxed, groping the air with greedy lips.

Today it will be ready.’ Pirjo realised she had spoken aloud, and the words hung in the air like any words that need more words to be understood. Hilma turned her eyes, grey with cataracts, toward her, and suddenly Pirjo found herself telling her everything about her garden and this year, when she had built it, everything about the little gondola and the mermaids and the unicorn. As she spoke, she refilled the tablespoon again and again and poured into the open, expectant mouth. Finally she poured it straight from the thermos cap, tilting the cup faster than Hilma was able to swallow. The blood began to mount in Hilma’s cheeks and tried to push forward in her broken veins. Hilma shook and rattled the bars of her bed as she waited for more, her neck tendons taut.

It was already ten o’clock and the night sister’s sandals were slapping down the corridor. Through the glass door, Pirjo could still see Hilma clapping her liver-spotted hands together and reaching out over the seas to Skye. The song was still following Pirjo as she changed into her civilian clothes.

Everything worked perfectly. The fairy-lights came on in the golden rod and the plastic gondola slipped slowly and solemnly into motion. It sailed to the right of the porcelain roe deer, just as she had hoped, and did not touch bottom even by the polar bears. Gracefully it sailed down the toffee-coloured rapids, past the sirens, and had just got out of the way before the angel flew by on its wire. The rheostat-controlled cuckoos were a brilliant invention. Pirjo was quite unconcerned when their time came. There was time to wind the goldfish up before the gondola slipped into the pond. The cuckoos sang their greetings, long life to everyone, as the prow of the boat touched the nose of the gutta-percha unicorn. The fishes’ clockwork tails rippled the surface of the water.

When the performance was over and the fairy-lights went out, Pirjo was, for a moment, so happy that she forgot to breathe. She looked at all she had made, and behold, it was very good. Then she dried the gondola carefully and put it gently back in its place. That night Pirjo slept soundly and dreamlessly for the first time in a long time.

During the night, a storm had detached the unicorn from its plinth and cast it into the water. Now it was lying, lifeless-looking, in the middle of the pond, as if it had drunk too much of the toffee-coloured water and suffocated. The lawn was wet when Pirjo ran into the garden; damp grass grabbed at her ankles and the rain-softened earth squelched between her toes. The chains of fairy-lights had sagged dangerously close to the surface of the pond. Pirjo stood in the middle of the garden in her short nightdress and tried to make her temperature go up. She could not go into work today. She could not, could not bear to run her fingertips along the diarrhoea-coloured line painted along the wall that led to the chronic ward, could not stand to spoon porridge into the gasping mouths. The dry, weak breathing on her skin would make her feel sick. She would start to cry and scream if someone’s breathing had stopped during the night. Pirjo felt like turning the cuckoos on, letting them cuckoo thirty, sixty, a hundred years of long life to everyone, but she knew, even without looking at the clock, that she was late. She rewound the cuckoo tape to the beginning, but it had become so damp during the night that all that could be heard was a scratching sound.

Pirjo was still trying to pull on her sandals as she ran down the corridor.

‘Hilma’s been moved to the funny farm,’ said the ward sister as soon as Pirjo opened the staff-room door. ‘She’s started to shit herself.’ The ward sister turned so rapidly in her chair that her stomach came to rest only long after the sister herself.

‘Anyone would shit themselves if they drank a litre and a half of coffee on an empty stomach,’ Pirjo thought, but swallowed the rest. ‘What if she goes nuts in there? Wouldn’t it be worth keeping her here, where she has people to talk to, as long as she has any sense left?’

‘Apparently you have the garden of Versailles at home. That’s the kind of stuff she’s coming out with now. She’s with people like her now. When one of them starts talking like that the rest of them go crazy too.’

Thinking up what to say in response took so long that the ward sister’s wooden clogs had already clicked off somewhere. Pirjo bent over the wash-basin and poured out some liquid soap. She poured boiling hot water over her hands, and then ice-cold. Her hands went red and blotchy, but Pirjo could not stop.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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