The trees

Issue 1/1998 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Sunnuntaina kahdelta (‘Sunday at two’, Otava, 1997)

Maisa enjoyed her trees without knowing their names, without ever counting how many of them there actually were. The trunks twisted together and then forked again, the branches wound round and stretched past each other, and the tapered leaves rustled in dark, wide fans. In the autumn, when the wind blew and the rain fell, the naked stand of trees flailed in a single damp movement, and in February the branches snapped and cracked invisibly under the snow like a promise that would be fulfilled before long.

Sometimes on summer evenings, when the boy was asleep, she listened to the birds fluttering among the shaded lower branches, to the shrews and field mice dashing between the trunks on their nocturnal journeys and the roots pushing deeper into the soil day by day. When she shut her eyes, she could see the sap pulsing under the bark, and her own arms and legs moved more lightly, her heart beat strongly, and her thoughts welled up.

Maisa was just leaving the table when she saw the man beneath her window. The man had a walrus moustache, an anorak that was too small for him and large rubber boots; he looked nervous, and was holding a power saw as if it were a live bomb.

Behind the man walked a woman, deeply tanned even though it was only the end of May, who was using a rake to point to the right and left in turn. When Maisa craned her neck, she could see what was happening: behind the woman other people followed, seven or eight men and women pushing wheelbarrows and carrying spades, and after them ran some excited children.

Maisa recognised her neighbour, and remembered a notice, framed with exclamation marks, that had been pinned to the notice board in the lobby. ‘Gardening bee! Everyone needed!’

The whole group came to a halt beneath her kitchen window and stared at the cluster of trees. Maisa could hear the ticking of the wall-clock, the boy’s snoring on the other side of the wall. She opened the window a little and heard the tanned woman say, ‘Well, let’s get to work.’

The woman waved her hand up and down like the blade of a guillotine; the man brandished his power saw and stripped the branches of the closest tree from low down to high up, then severed the slim trunk, and then the next trunk and branches, and over and over again, rhythmically and without pause, until half the clump was entirely dismembered.

Maisa’s mouth opened in a smile; laughter welled up from deep within her chest, making its way upward. Then something thudded simultaneously in her throat and her head and her legs. She fumbled the window open and leaned out.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ Her voice was shrill and distorted. The man with the power saw glanced upward, and so did all the others; someone pulled a face. ‘We’re just giving these twigs a bit of a pruning,’ the tanned woman shouted, kicking some of the branches aside.

‘What … what right do you have ….’

Once in a dream someone had put her head in a plastic bag and at every breath it had stuck closer to her skin so that when she had woken up her face had been wet with sweat. It felt the same now: her cheeks were hot and smarting, and there was a jabbing pain in her backbone.

‘We made this decision all together, you know, and we’ve got a permit.’

A man in glasses stepped forward, speaking in a sedative voice. ‘This cluster has begun to look pretty bad, it’s unsymmetrical – you can see for yourself. They’ll just suffocate each other’s growth, they’re so close together. And those terraces over there don’t get any sun. And a load of tangle wood like this sucks all the strength out of the ground for dozens of metres around, nothing’ll grow in the flowerbeds….’

‘You can keep your bloody violets!’ bawled Maisa.

The children giggled behind their hands.

‘Just try and calm down now,’ someone shouted.

‘This was a democratic decision. You should have opened your mouth when you had the chance.’

‘Wouldn’t do you any harm to join in sometimes and not just complain,’ said a woman standing next to the man in glasses. And a child’s voice carried clearly over the rest: ‘If you don’t shut up we’ll cut down the rest of them too!’

‘Mum!’ the boy shouted anxiously from his room.

Maisa withdrew at once, closed the window and drew down the kitchen blinds. ‘Mu-um!’ There was the beginnings of panic in the boy’s voice. Maisa went and stroked his hair and cheek, sang to him softly, and rubbed the back of his neck until his breathing became even and his face relaxed.

‘You did sleep a long time, didn’t you,’ she said.

A jagged edge danced before her eyes, and the right side of her head was beginning to pound. The boy sat up and rose to his feet, walked heavily into the kitchen, poured himself a glass of water from the tap and drank, gulping audibly. Next he would sit down on the sofa and demand to see the rest of the video; she would say why not and turn the video recorder on; her son would become engrossed in the film and she would crochet row after row.

Above her son’s bed was a framed photograph. In it, he was a baby, lying on a bed naked wearing a Christmas brownie’s cap. His father sprawled beside him, his tie askew, looking at his son with a broad grin. She was at the very edge of the photograph, in a blue crimplene dress, her hair backcombed and stiffly lacquered, smiling straight into the camera.

‘Next Christmas we’ll be able to walk to meet Father Christmas,’ her son’s father had laughed, dandling the baby.

But many, many a long winter had gone by before that had happened.

‘Mum, can I watch the rest of the film now?’ her son yelled from the sofa.

She put the video cassette in the machine, went to the kitchen window and looked through a crack in the blind. The marks of the damage had almost been cleared up; someone was still raking twigs. What remained was waving gently in the wind. You could see a long way now, so far that it hurt the eyes.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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