The ring

Issue 4/1998 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Irti (‘Away’, Gummerus 1998). Introduction by Milla Autio

When the car turns into the drive I know that this time it has happened. That this time it has not been for nothing that I have felt cold fear creep inside my stomach. And for a moment, as Vangelis gets out of the car and looks at me and Irini sighs deeply and grabs me as if for support, I feel nothing.

The landscape is the same, the trees and the burnt grass and the intoxicating scents of late summer. And the sounds, too, are the same; the merry cries of children farther off and the clatter of dishes from the kitchen. Later, of course, my landscape will shudder and quake from its place, fly on its way like disturbed papers. That was something you shouted at me about; other such incidents I do not remember, but when a gust of air from the door caught your papers you went mad. That moment is inscribed in my memory, caught there like the words on the pages of a book.

They have found you on the bend immediately after the abandoned factory. It is a dangerous bend; there have been two car accidents there recently, but no mirrors have been set up. In the village, on the other hand, there are mirrors on every corner.

At that point the tourists walk very close to the edge, and below the sea devours the rocky promontary. You are lying in a bundle in your pale-blue tracksuit; had they not known what they were looking for, they might have thought that someone had just left their clothes there. You are always proud of how early you set out, rising with the sun and drinking your orange juice when it is not too hot and you do not yet have to pass the time of day with anyone. The sacred moment of the day.

You are in good health; you stand on the verandah like a cockerel and let the early wind toss your thin hair. I wake during the night with a stabbing pain in the heart; you should go to the doctor’s, you say, you have all sorts of symptoms. It was a heart attack, says Vangelis, you can’t predict something like that. A man as full of vitality as him.

His words attack me and go through my skin and bones like nails and stay there and will not come out. Irini presses a handkerchief to her face and sobs. Vangelis brings me a glass of cognac and I drink to your memory, and your memory burns its brand into me as every moment in your company has done.

In photographic memories the square is bathed in the thin April sunlight. You offer me some ice-cream with peaches. I am wearing a green dress and jacket and white gloves. You look beautiful, you say. The light plays on the silver stem of a spoon. I have so longed for ice-cream! It has been wartime, so much has happened, and suddenly it is over. Everything important happens quickly, diving into you like air. And you are forced to wonder whether you have a life of your own at all like this time, this present moment, in the stream of this history.

We went to concerts and to diplomatic lunches at the embassy and no, we do not have any children, we said. When we were in Athens we had a house-warming party, too, although we would soon be moving on again, and no, not yet, we answered. In the end I saw the question in everyone’s eyes, and the art exhibitions we went to always had their versions of the Madonna and child.

Our bedroom was a battlefield.

It exuded the scents of skin and milk and tears.

Don’t worry, you said, it isn’t everything.

Sometimes I watched you go from the balcony; it was early as you circled the park, for you were already looking after your body. The sun pressed the church and the houses opposite into-red rectangles; you were away for forty-five minutes.

And then an hour and a half.

Three, five.

It was not your fault.

You left earlier and earlier, saying you sleep on, even though you could not sleep yourself.

And when your job meant we had to travel to India, I could see that you were unhappy; life was no longer the same as it was at the beginning, when we opened our eyes for the first time.

Irini makes some tea, brings me a cup and takes it away, makes some more and brings it and clears the table of glasses and plates and wipes away the stains. It makes me nervous; my innards swim and burn in her tea and I feel heavy and want to get on the move, perhaps to go swimming.

But it’s windy out, says Irini. And I would hurt myself on the rocks. I would fall and the water would receive me and strike me; I long for such pain. Pain which the skin feels and to which it can respond. I rock in my chair; the sky and the trees sway to the beat I set.

Irini packs my bag, suggesting that Despina could come with me and see that all goes well. But Despina is on holiday and I know how Irina is expecting her daughter, for she comes to see her less and less often. I shall manage; it is not on the journey that I shall need someone, but when I arrive.

Are you sure, Vangelis will certainly drive you to the airport and wait with you and look after everything else too. Yes, everything else.

The aeroplane is full as it always is in late summer.

You travel in a wooden box among the luggage; my name is required on various forms, and my hand is sore from all the writing.

On Saturdays we went to the indoor market; it was full of people and sounds and smells and lots of little set speeches, questions and answers and buying and selling. I did the shopping and you argued politics with the stallholder.

I still wanted some flowers, even though we already had a lot to carry.

I had a scarf around my neck, and some Indian jewellery.

The woman was pushing a pram, a black-eyed little boy in it; she came up to us and went by. I had seen her often since our arrival in the town, in places that were close enough to us but not too close. Shall I take some gladioli, tell me; they would look well in the tall vase in the dining room.

Take them, take them, you said, and you had tears in your eyes; it was because of the sun, of course it was because of the sun, how could it have been so bright just at that moment.

On your forehead the greased black hair curled like small, thin snakes. And within the arch of the market the silence was stretched tight, the kind of silence which locks the ears and goes on humming in the eardrums long after sounds have broken it.

A solitary light-bulb left burning at the apex of the arch glinted in your eyes and a black snake’s tail swung back and forth in your gaze. And there was the blackness that was inside you, suddenly, deepest and most unfathomable. The earth-smell of your innermost being.

You kept your secret.

You curbed it, kept it on its back in your heart.

And when I found out, it was in many ways too late.

I just happened to be looking at the right moment. I looked at you and you looked back, your gaze struck me like a fist and contained everything that I had not even suspected. Silence and knowledge, worse ever than words. The pram rattled past us, and the woman’s hips, her skirt swaying against her thigh, her waist and her backside, copper-coloured hair to which the sun attached its rays like a disease, bathed her scalp in fire and sparks. Her smell of milk. Her swollen breasts. The wheels which spun slowly with the rhythm of her hips.

I looked at you at the wrong moment, and the wrong moment was at the same time the right one; from your lips I forced useless words. I realised that you had never lied to me. Or even tried; I realised that I would have preferred you to lie, to have felt myself worth a lie.

These travellers to the island always excite you. You like the company of the Frenchman; you test your languages and your general knowledge. He is a playwright, Algerian on his father’s side and a French Jew on his mother’s. On holiday like the rest.

He sometimes looks at me, from beneath his eyebrows, as if he could read my thoughts or my entire life simply by glancing at my face.

The women are Finnish; sick with longing for the sun, I think. One of them has children and the other has a ring and then no longer has it, and it is with her that you talk in the evenings. You travel back to distant lands with her and tell your story as if you wanted to preserve yourself in formaldehyde. I have always known that you are proud of yourself, your achievements and even of the world, for the simple reason that you live there. When the cockerel crows in the morning and, in the darkness, one can just begin to distinguish between the various shades of grey, you rise and limber up and go out to take a bite out of that world.

High on the cliff.

On the bend.

To one side of the factory ruins, by the gravel-pit.

The sun rises; the sea takes on its green colour.

In the aeroplane I think of the woman and of the fact that she has a ring when she arrives on the island and then not. I touch my own, a gold one with a ruby; red is the colour of love, you said.

It will not come off; my finger is swollen, the joints thicker than before.

Some things must be worn, experienced, felt, every single day; so that one can wear, experience, feel them to be invisible, inevitable, self-evident components of life.

The aeroplane gets its bearings, turns diagonally over the sea and the island remains behind; and the other islands, the ships and the wakes left by them in the water. We rise higher, the engines roaring, and they are still there; traces.

The man is standing to one side under a tree when we come out. I did not see him in the chapel, but I have been expecting him, and his presence has been apparent everywhere. It is as if a photograph had copied itself, he is so like his father. He takes his hat off as we walk past. Everyone is tactfully silent; perhaps they merely glance, perhaps they have always known. The church bells are ringing, the wind rustles the leaves and the landscape is veiled in black. The people white, as in a negative.

The man’s hair and eyes and eyebrows as I remember yours.

I do not wish to hear his voice; does he wish to say something.

We stop and I stare at the ground, at the grave, deep into the earth. I think about worms and grass and flower-petals, stone slabs and canopies and words on them. Years. I know he is still there. And then I know he moves, turns, know he is already at the gate, his hand touching the door-handle.

I let him go.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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