Issue 3/1999 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Löytöretkeilijä ja muita eksyneitä (‘The explorer and other lost people’, Tammi, 1999). Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

The stranger met Delina at a development organisation’s work camp, but Delina was not a volunteer. Delina lived in the country permanently.

The stranger did not spend very much time in Delina’s company. His evenings were spent with fellow-volunteers in the village cafe, where Delina’s parents did not allow her to go. During the day, both of them worked in their separate ways: Delina at home and the stranger in the work camp’s fields.

The stranger did, however, get to know the girl well enough to hear that she was in love with a soldier called Zmiri from the nearest garrison. This soldier was arrested once when he and his comrades drunkenly molested volunteers – but Delina knew nothing of the case.

Once the stranger went on a trip to the mountains with Delina and her friends. There, on the shore of a beautiful little lake, Delina asked the stranger to find her a place at a foreign university. He promised to do his best, but warned her that he could probably not be of very much help.

In reality, the stranger did nothing. He was, after all, not so very interested in development work; he had joined the camp above all to have fun a long way from home. And he did not wish to become anyone’s personal guardian. That is, after all, what he would have become if Delina had moved to a country where she knew no one but him.

The stranger wrote to Delina twice, but to his relief he received no answer to his second letter. And so contact was broken.

When, twenty years later, the stranger returned, now as a reporter on a newsgathering trip, he was shocked. He was overcome by an unpleasant feeling. At first sight, Delina’s village had not changed at all.

On closer inspection, the better-kept houses in the village looked a little more dilapidated than before, and some of the less well-kept shacks were new. In any case, the village was a sad exception in comparison with what the stranger had seen in the other parts of the country. The country had at last begun to prosper, but apparently in some unfortunate areas a better future was still awaited.

The stranger remembered the right turnings and the right house. As he walked along the road and stepped into the garden, he was stared at almost as curiously as the volunteers had once been stared at, but now the neighbour’s children came to beg money and chewing-gum, and an old woman asked across the fence whether he would like to live in her house cheaply.

In response to the stranger’s knock, the door was opened by a large-boned, middle-aged woman. She was wearing a droopy frock, a stained apron, nylon stockings with holes in them and trodden-down slippers. Her dark, curly hair was struggling to break free of an elastic band.

‘Delina?’ the stranger asked, hesitantly.

The woman looked at him for a second with empty eyes, as if the name said nothing to her. Then she nodded, and the relieved expression that had risen on to the stranger’s face died away.

The stranger said his name and asked whether Delina still remembered him. The woman looked at him uncertainly, and for a moment it looked as if she was about to shake her head. In the end, however, she left the question unanswered, and asked the stranger to come in.

They asked after each others’ families, and Delina wanted to know how long the stranger was staying, where he lived and whether he was on holiday or perhaps on a business trip. He heard that Delina had three children and that her husband had a job in the capital.

‘What is your husband’s name?’ the stranger asked.

‘Arun,’ Delina said.

‘You didn’t marry Zmiri, then?’

An astonished expression appeared on Delina’s face:

‘Zmiri? What Zmiri?’

The stranger did not ask any more questions. He changed the subject and tried to keep up the conversation. Delina looked as if she was listening, but on closer inspection – particularly if the stranger made a reference to something he had said earlier– it occasionally became obvious that she had not heard a word.

At one point she herself seemed to realise how absent-minded her behaviour was. She said that in her village nothing much happened and no one was really interested in much beyond how to survive from one day to the next. Even with tourists, no one chatted so much as before; they just sold things to foreigners. Delina also said that she no longer read books or newspapers; the television was now her source of information.

Delina did not ask the stranger to stay the night: the house was so full of visiting relatives that there was no room that could be reserved as hotel accommodation. He understood that it would be best to leave after his cup of coffee.

He did not look to one side or the other, or even in front of him, as he walked through the sagging gate and on to the dusty road. A young girl appeared unexpectedly before him, and they almost bumped into one another.

‘Delina?’ the stranger said again.

He knew that the girl would answer in the affirmative. She looked exactly the same as twenty years ago, and he guessed that the daughter was named for her mother.

The girl asked, with a good command of what was for her a foreign language, whether the stranger needed an expert guide, and quoted her daily rate. He did not want a guide. He explained that he had been to visit an old friend, but it did not interest the girl in the least, and she did not trouble herself to appear interested once she knew that she would not be paid for it.

The stranger walked back to the main road and wandered for a moment before he found the cafe on whose terrace he had sat with the volunteers. He ordered a coffee and had to wait for it for a long time, even though it was a quiet time of day. A woman who looked like an old whore finally brought the coffee and some cold water in a dirty glass.

‘Delina!’ someone shouted from the kitchen, and the waitress turned her head.

Then the stranger understood.

Nevertheless, he asked the waitress to sit down; said that he would like to ask her something, and gave her a bank-note. The woman looked bored, lit a cigarette and scratched herself, but took the money swiftly and slumped on to the chair.

‘Were you born here?’ the stranger asked. ‘Are you married? How old are you?’

He could see that Delina-the-waitress felt his nosiness to be unnecessary, but she answered nevertheless. Yes, she was born in this village, and eloped with her husband to get married, and now she was thirty-seven years old. Her husband had died; knifed in the streets of the capital some ten years ago, good riddance. A bad man: who had beaten her a lot and drunk all their money. His name had been Zmiri.

The stranger was silent for so long that Delina got up to go, but she sat down again with a sigh when the stranger asked her to. There was something else he wanted to know.

‘Do you know a woman who has the same name as you, who is the same age and who has moved away? Gone somewhere, studied?’ There is one. She got a scholarship from some aid organisation and left. She’s married to a foreigner. They come here sometimes.’ The stranger did not wish to meet anyone else in that village. He circled the buildings back to a path that led toward the nearest town.

On the way, he passed the graveyard, and all he had to do was cast a glance over the low fence to see yet another possibility. In the corner was a solitary grave whose inhabitant had died at the age of nineteen, eighteen years ago. And from somewhere there appeared, once again, a begging child, who was able to tell him that this Delina had drowned in a mountain lake.

The stranger had nightmares about Delina for the rest of his life, and he believed he deserved them.

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