Cautionary tales

30 September 2002 | Fiction, Prose

Short stories from Förklädnader. Sagor, parabler (‘Disguises. Stories, allegories’, Schildts, 2001; Valepukuja. Satuja, vertauksia, WSOY, 2002)


All over Hellas, even in the barbarian lands, the lyre-players competed with one another. Odes, paeans, dithyrambs echoed endlessly. Phoebus Apollo himself generously oversaw these productions.

A certain promising singer, Deinarchos by name, who hoped to participate in the upcoming Pythian contest, sat in his study-cave in the mountains of Thessaly waiting for inspiration. He prayed repeatedly to Phoebus for help, but did not detect any response.

The fact was that Apollo was pretty fed up with the many calls for help he received from various quarters and did not wish to spend his days improving limping lines of verse, let alone more radical rescue operations. A lyre-tuner’s work, too, was fairly dull. But they simply would not leave him in peace, and so in his mercy he decided to do something for Deinarchos too.

Apollo took the form of a shepherd and appeared at the mouth of the cave.

‘Well, what do you want? Can’t you see I’m composing poetry?’ said Deinarchos, setting his lyre down beside him.

‘Composing poetry, eh?’ said the shepherd. ‘Do you mean you’re trying to invent something?’

‘Yes, what else,’ said Deinarchos. ‘I have the inclination, even if the talent is absent at this moment.’

‘Do you know what all is involved in shepherding,’ said the shepherd in his familiar and slightly uncouth way. ‘Here I have my flock of sheep, and I have to keep it together and move it along all day, and I know each animal so well that I could identify it even at a distance. But as I care for them and am always looking at them, almost every day I look at each one of them individually, and I always see something new, generally in their coats. Well. Sometimes I have to pick thorns or rubbish from their fleeces. Some of them always try to escape, and sometimes go a long way. Yes. The adventurous ones are pretty jolly fellows, sometimes irritatingly so. They can get into trouble. Then I have to leave the dog to guard the flock alone and set out after them, and when I find them they’re like new ones. And then in the autumn there’s the slaughtering. And, always, the cheese-making.’

‘Of course, of course,’ said Deinarchos. ‘But leave me in peace to compose my poems. You go on looking after your sheep.’

The shepherd went on his way.

‘O Apollo,’ said Deinarchos after a moment, picking up his lyre again. ‘Apollo! O Apollo!’

But the shepherd did not look back.

The faithful servant

Once upon time there was an old television set. He was at least fourteen years old, which was a good age for someone like him, as television sets rarely outlive dogs.

In outward appearance he was just the old-fashioned kind of thing you might imagine, but he still worked more or less as he had always worked. It is often thought that a television screen dims and its colours change and the picture flickers more as time goes on, and this is true. But the matter is twice as serious as is generally thought.

There also grows within him a peculiar inner mobility, a kind of quivering restlessness, an oscillation of the soul which is not visible from the outside, as it does not affect the differential function of the screen, but remains somehow separate from the electronics that direct and programme the projection of the picture tube. Is that not a good explanation?

The old television set still well remembered his puppy days, when everyone in the house often gathered around him for hours to admire his brilliant colours, as his predecessor in the corner of the living room had been blue-grey throughout. But more recently they had not often followed his performances, and did not even want to play with the remote control. They were not even the same people. Sometimes one of them shoved him under something they called a cassette and let him show its pictures as if they were his own. But of course they weren’t. They did not show real and genuine life, only imagined versions. He regarded video images with a certain condescension, for at heart he was perhaps a little haughty about his own, and strange images did not leave any traces in him.

For there was something which remained unknown about the old thing, namely that he never completely lost his own old images, however much he might have wished to. The majority, of course, he had scribbled on to space, but a kind of sediment or internal veil had remained inside the grey window. It did not even stay motionless; it was rather like a layer of dust which turned and glided, bubbled and flew. But quite invisibly; it was just that he could feel it.

It was made up of thousands of ingredients, the crumbled remains of real life, rioting and running crowds of people, burning cities and the inner surfaces of coronary arteries, exhausted children and enlargements of plant lice, everything from concrete to chlorophyll, along with thousands of babbling, weeping, grinning, empty or plain ugly faces, all of them with large lower teeth. But all of it had simply gone to form a porridge of dust.

It was already tiring him out a great deal, and one day there was simply not enough space for it any more in his cramped insides. The dust began to pour out of him; soon it formed itself into a kind of casing that spread out behind him. It was certainly visible if one looked closely, but what was there to look at, after all.

So that when one evening, banging and whimpering, he caught fire, no one expected it. Just think, you’d never believed that he cared so little for us, said the closest mourners. Hansel and Gretel

When both children had bolted the old woman into her bread oven and burned her to death, they set out contentedly for their home village, where their parents bade them a heartfelt welcome. They had not, after all, thought to see their children again.

No one remembered any longer that their father, Heinrich, and their mother, Ilse, had left Hansel and Gretel to their fates in the midst of the forest, where that the old woman had rescued them and looked after them, as everything was forgotten and forgiven when the children returned unscathed and in good form to describe their adventures and their deeds. They had to lie a little, of course; that they realised clearly.

‘Such brave children,’ said their father, Heinrich. ‘Now you have experienced adversities and overcome them, and have become hardened to life’s struggle.’

‘Absolutely,’ said their mother, Ilse. ‘The necessary hardness develops only through experience. I know it.’

‘Thank you father and mother for having allowed us to learn this,’ said Hansel.

‘We are eternally grateful,’ said Gretel, who was a sensitive little girl.

‘But,’ said their father, Heinrich, ‘has this not showed us, as if by some act of God or our Leader, a possible way forward?’

‘True enough,’ said their mother, Ilse, ‘this allows us to see far into the future.’

‘What do father and mother mean?’ asked the children.

‘Yes, perhaps there lies the beginning of a great task,’ said their father, Heinrich. ‘It is patriotic in a way, one could well argue. Is it not true that in the villages around here there live large numbers of old ladies, war widows and spinsters and cracked old bags, who live on God knows what. Do we have to put up with them all?’

‘Not at all,’ said their mother, Ilse. ‘And after all, most of them practise witchcraft, and their final goal is to strip us of all our power, yes, and with the help of the Devil to rule our whole beloved country, and in the end the whole world. I could bite this carpet when I think about it, it’s so infuriating.’

‘Was her bread oven really big, that old woman of yours?’ asked their father, Heinrich.

‘It certainly was,’ said Hansel.

‘Absolutely enormous, Daddy,’ said Gretel.

‘Did she have a lot of firewood?’ asked their mother, Ilse.

‘Yes,’ said Hansel.

‘Great big piles of it, Mummy,’ said Gretel.

‘And now there is no one living in that cabin,’ said their father, Heinrich. We could plan a little expedition there one day – ah, to the lovely green forest! – and then we can restore it and live their sometimes, and sooner or later some old hag will go past gathering her herbs and mushrooms.’

‘And then we can do it all again!’ the children cried in delight.

‘Absolutely, dear children,’ said their mother, Ilse.

‘And then we will have acted as an example and set the guidelines for future action,’ said their father, Heinrich, contentedly, smiling with the assurance of faith. ‘Thank you, children, for opening the eyes of future generations of our people.’

‘Young people must build the future as soon as it ripens,’ said their mother, Ilse.

More about Sleeping Beauty

When she was awoken and finally felt herself to be awake, it was dusky in the room. Everyone else was asleep. But before her stood an unknown prince, his mouth pursed, looking rather self-satisfied. He did not look at all like any of her former friends.

For a moment, Sleeping Beauty felt a indefinite revulsion toward everything. She had slept sweetly, so sweetly, and no doubt had lovely dreams, although she could not now remember them, even though she tried. But what should she do now?

‘Let’s go,’ said the prince, pulling her up from the chair. She followed him out of the room and through the rose-fence, in which the prince had cut a large hole. Sleeping Beauty had not yet said a word. She felt a little faint, she was hungry, and she needed to go to the lavatory.

Her fairy godmothers stood outside waiting with interest, both of them in disguise, for they, too, were not the same as a hundred or a hundred and sixteen years before. One of them was wearing a T-shirt and jeans torn at the knees. The laces of her trainers lay on the ground like grey worms. The other was dressed in black from head to toe, but her face was white-pale. Her hair stuck out in spikes and tufts. Both of them tapped the ground with their feet in time to music which only they could hear.

To Sleeping Beauty they looked like oddities, and she looked questioningly at the prince, or whatever he was.

‘They’re my old molls, both of them,’ the prince said. ‘But now you’re my girl. Although you have a lot to learn. You can model yourself on them; I don’t suppose you’ve bought yourself anything to wear for the past hundred years.’

That was how Sleeping Beauty’s new life began, with the prince and both fairy godmothers and a few new acquaintances. She had a lot to learn in a short time, everything about music, of course, and about events on the small screen, yes, and computers and virtual reality, and what to do to be accepted. The prince gradually disappeared, and Sleeping Beauty never missed him. The fairy godmothers hung around for quite a long time, although they sort of grew pale and shrank. Soon they and everyone else grew old together. Suddenly they were twenty-five, or even thirty, and everything was over, if not quite at an end.

How djinns conceal themselves

Deep in the Persian wilderness, there once wandered a man called Abdallah. He went on foot, for his only camel had collapsed from fatigue and hunger. Abdallah no longer knew where he was going or whether he would ever arrive anywhere. But he did not much care. When night arrived and it got cold, he was already lying wrapped in his jellaba, unsleeping.

Then the brilliant starry sky was covered for a moment and darkened as a djinn arrived, flying, and settled beside him. ‘Abdallah,’ said the djinn, ‘I can help you find the oasis, but of course I will not do it for nothing.’

‘What do you want of me, then?’ asked Abdallah.

‘I want something you have never given anyone else and which you wish never to lose,’ said the djinn.

‘Do you mean my life,’ asked Abdallah.

‘You can decide that for yourself,’ said the djinn. ‘And you must give it to me as soon as you arrive. The main thing is that it must be what you value most and want to have as your own.’

Abdallah thought for a moment, then said yes, please. In the twinkling of an eye he realised he had arrived at the nearest oasis and was standing under a date palm by a gurgling stream. Beside him stood the djinn.

‘You may have your price,’ said Abdallah. ‘As far as my life is concerned, I can just as well lose it as own it. It is not worth much. Before I rode from home my wife left me, and she took my money with her. My only camel is dead. So that you cannot have my life, for it is really not what I would hold on to most dearly. But you may have my name, which I have always valued highly and which I received from my father and my grandfather. You may take the name Abdallah. As you know, it means servant of God. I suppose I will find another name for myself.’

The djinn grimaced. ‘There are thousands of people of that name,’ he said sourly. ‘What can I do with a name like that.’

‘Think,’ said Abdallah, who was not, after all, born yesterday. ‘If you have this name and take on a suitable form, and look the same as everyone else, then it is an excellent disguise for a djinn who is planning his dirty tricks.’

The djinn acknowledged the truth of this and took Abdallah’s name as his own, and thenceforward no one could distinguish him from other Abdallahs. But he was still a djinn. For this reason one should always avoid trusting people whose names are Abdallah, or Jimmy, or Fritz, or Olli, or something else.

An academic legend

Professor Philipsson was a well-known zoologist, and for a long time also the director of the university’s Biological Museum. The Museum had been the apple of his eye for almost thirty years, and he had also become well-known, if not famous, if in smaller circles, for his ability to acquire or reserve grants or other funds and privileges for the Museum.

During Philipsson’s directorship, almost all of the departments of the Museum became sights. He was, with reason, proud of his achievements, and particularly of the top floor of the institution, where, among other things, the skeletons of all the mammals of the country were displayed in didactic glass cases. Naturally all these animals were to be found, stuffed, a floor below. Only the most interested visitors to the Museum bothered to climb up to the top floor.

When Philipsson was sixty and his emeritus professorship beckoned threateningly, the university commissioned a portrait of him, and to this he agreed with pleasure, but at the same time made a request, namely that the portrait should be hung in the mammal collection of the Biological Museum, or at least close to it, and not in the senate room. This was readily agreed. ‘I have another request, too, to which I shall return later,’ he said, with his usual serious expression.

Only twelve years later Philipsson was both an emeritus professor and had left the land of the living. He had been a particularly wealthy man, it became evident when his will was opened after a short delay. He had never had a family of his own, so he now left his entire considerable fortune to the museum, for the acquisition and maintenance of its collections and, in addition, for the founding of a couple of research posts. In his will he also returned to the request which he had, about a decade earlier, mentioned in passing.

He set a condition on the gift. Philipsson’s own skeleton, in a standing position, was to be placed on the top floor of the Museum, just inside the doors of the room. With the help of a simple photoelectric device, each visitor to the room would generate an electric impulse which would make Philipsson drop his jaw and lift his right forearm in a natural and friendly gesture, while a loudspeaker would broadcast his voice saying, ‘Welcome to the Museum’ in both the country’s languages.

Philipsson had, of course, thought the matter through thoroughly and made certain that he could be used. Thanks to his contacts with the conservation field, a small bank-deposit box now contained him in around five hundred pieces. Setting him up would be easy. The recorded greeting was also ready and waiting.

Philipsson had been a difficult person even when alive, and this appeared still to be the case. The condition was, of course, completely impossible, the university rector decided with his incontestable authority, but nevertheless appointed a one-person committee to work without unnecessary publicity to save the donation. The committee was made up of a professor of civil law who was authorised to appoint two or three additional members, who would remain anonymous.

Complemented by members appointed from the faculty of theology and the Museum’s board of trustees, the committee carefully read every line of the will, and between its lines, and the contents stated unambiguously that Philipsson was to be set up and made to work in the intended way. But, it was soon noted, the document said nothing about how long he was to work in this way. A solution was indeed closer than it had been dared to hope, and the committee was able to begin its work without further delay.

After a suitable interval, the Museum’s top floor was closed temporarily for renovation, and by the second day Philipsson was standing, in good shape, on a black pedestal just inside the door of the room, on the right-hand side. Outside the doors the committee gathered, at its full strength of four members, in a state of some excitement. It was decided to enter the room one by one and independently verify that everything was as it should be and the conditions of the will had been met to the last comma.

The matter proved to be a considerably more challenging experience for the members of the committee than they had been able to expect. As each stepped, alone, into the room and saw Philipsson raise his hand and heard his familiar, echoing voice bidding him welcome to his company, it caused a fair amount of stress. They had never liked Philipsson’s sense of humour, and they did not like it now. But the ordeal was short-lived, and the last stage of the plan could be begun. It worked as fluidly and unnoticeably as if it had been a military secret.

On the third day, Philipsson was absent once more, removed to the Old Graveyard, where Philipsson’s family grave was located, with suitable dignity. Some words of thanks had been carved on the headstone, a couple of massive wreaths were laid, and then the great donation could be made public and its blessed influence could begin. No funds would need to be directed to the Biological Museum for decades, that was clear.

It had been possible to keep the entire strange matter a tight secret. A number of people had had to be involved, it was true, but all their agreements to silence were eternally binding. As proof, among others, the careful and accurate scholar who later wrote the university’s history does not hint with even a word that there was anything strange about Philipsson’s will.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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