Song without words

Issue 2/2003 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Näiden seinien sisällä me emme näy (‘Within these walls we are invisible’, Tammi, 2003). Introduction by Maria Säntti

During the night the child was with Ellen, in her dreams. Ellen was turning over a pack of cards, the king rose, she followed the course of events from outside as it proceeded without her. The child was resting, settled, repeating her profile. The world was beautiful and all of them together in the face of death. Time stood still. A nocturnal bird sang through the rain. Ellen awoke, at night time does not stop; she thought, stepping from one memory to another. Everything was unfinished. It was a watchful night before words.

In the morning time rushed forward. Brain chemistry, Ellen thought as she lay in bed, mere brain chemistry. Then the train of thought broke off, a bright light suddenly snapped on as Tapani pressed the bedroom switch to search the wardrobe for a clean shirt. Ellen got up quickly, during the night the child had grown into something of which she knew nothing. She began to make porridge, and watched as the child opened like a plant toward the light.

The porridge cooked on the hob. A plastic salad bowl covered the child’s face, a lamp-shade, it said, and toddled off. Ellen served breakfast. The berry sauce was not allowed to be in a swirl on top of the porridge.

Tapani hurried off to work and Ellen stood at the kitchen window once she had made sure that the sauce crossed the porridge in a straight line. She looked out and saw Tapani’s back. He had been anxious, had found a crumpled white shirt and rushed out the door. Ellen shut the window. She shut out the sounds on the other side of the window, she wanted quietness, for the two of them. The child growled when she took the empty porridge bowl away from it. It moved its lips, seeking the right place for words. The cat turned on its back as the light reached the right angle.

The breakfast dishes made Ellen restless. The unwashed dishes troubled her as she went into the bedroom, made the bed and finally straightened the bedspread. The space around her was filled with speed and action, the child was bouncing the bedspread into a bundle, Ellen’s head was spinning and her home a mess. Only words were constant, but they were absent. Words did not stay where they were for a moment, the movements that flashed to and fro pushed time forward. Ellen began mentally to timetable the morning: a trip outside, food shopping, laundry, housework. The dustpan and floor brush fell to the floor with a clatter as Ellen pulled the vacuum cleaner out of the cleaning cupboard in preparation.

Ellen knew in advance that there were things she wanted to ask in the playground. What do you eat? How do naps go? What will the long hours of the evening bring with them? Do you get angry with your husbands over a miserable five minutes? But, Ellen thought, they would be a silent army.

She packed a bag with juice and a straw, rye bread, handkerchiefs, a change of trousers. The child’s clothes were in the wrong place again after Tapani’s outing with the child the evening before. Ellen stared out of the window for a moment and saw the rain begin. The mere thought of rain made her feel tired. The morning turned dull, the vacuum cleaner had gone ashore in the living room, which was now a harbour. Her orders rattled grumpily; the continuing movements in the material that surrounded her, the unpredictable courses of things, pushed Ellen off course.

Ellen rummaged in the cupboard to find a broken umbrella and wondered how she would be able to carry it at the same time as the child’s buckets, spades, the bag, a bag of rubbish. The rubbish bag, thought Ellen, might Tapani have picked it up from the corner of the hall when he went out? She turned toward the front door; there was the rubbish bag, spilling out on to the floor, the child’s rain hood crumpled beside it. Ellen felt it was time to have a headache.

Ellen began to gather outdoor clothes together on the chair in the hall. As she walked back and forth through the hall she noticed, from the bedroom door, the bed, which now looked unmade again. The shirt Tapani had used the day before was visible behind the sofa cushion as Ellen went into the kitchen to fetch another plastic bag for the rubbish. As she passed by, she grabbed a cup which Tapani had left on the edge of the bookcase the night before, and took it to the sink, setting it down beside the porridge bowl. There were pieces of kitchen roll on the floor, plastic bags had been scuffled into a heap behind the rubbish bin; Ellen made a rapid decision and picked up an empty bag to sit on.

One of the child’s mittens was still lost after yesterday evening’s outing. His rubber boots were still wet inside, as the insoles had not been taken out overnight. The child had already wandered to the outer door. Ellen felt disheartened, but decided to prevail. She put the spade into the bucket. Then she stuffed the bucket into a new plastic bag together with the umbrella and rain hood and dressed the child in his weatherproofs and the one mitten. She wanted to take her child out in the fresh air, which would once again become exhaust fumes at the same time as the mass of people kept their voices turned on. Then some time later, only later, the day would be forgotten, for the length of time it took to dream. But now, Ellen thought, she had wound the day up, and it was rotating, furiously.

Women have always shouted at their husbands on account of five minutes, Ellen knew it even though they had not talked about it, a miserable five minutes, and now Tapani was half an hour late. Ellen looked out of the bedroom window and at last saw her husband, who appeared dragging with him six plastic bags. Six bags of food, Ellen thought, the man must be mad. All their cupboards were already full of dry goods and the refrigerator shelves were stuffed full of milk products and chilled foods. Even the deep freeze was full: fish fingers, spinach soup, chips.

Tapani’s figure advanced along the road. He looked unsmiling, tired too, and his progress was somehow staggering on account of the weight of the swelling bags. His plodding figure did not move Ellen; on the contrary, Tapani’s fanatical struggle for a livelihood irritated Ellen.

Why couldn’t Tapani take it easy, Ellen thought, why on earth did he have to behave as if he were preparing for a state of emergency. Ellen longed for what Tapani had given her before, before the child was born: peaceful coexistence.

Before the child was born. Tapani had been a man who had treated her as a person, his equal even. Ellen remembered their early life together clearly and wondered what the Tapani of those days had in common with the Tapani whom she now saw through the window, struggling homeward beneath his load. It’s been a long day, Tapani would say, of course, thought Ellen, she could feel that herself in her limbs, it’s been a long day.

And what would they tell each other about the day, just that it had been long and rainy? That the rubbish bag had spilled over the hall floor. That everyday tasks were not as easy as they sounded: to get oneself out together with the spilling rubbish bag, the spades and bucket, the child in the grip of a tantrum, dressed in the relevant clothes.

The key turned in the lock and the door banged.

No, thought Ellen, she did not want Tapani to come near. Ellen wanted him simply to let her be.

Tapani dropped his shopping bags on the floor in order to take off his overcoat. Ellen stepped from the bedroom into the living room just in time to see Tapani succeed in dropping one of the hangers on to the metal shoe stand.

‘For heaven’s sake Tapani,’ Ellen hissed, ‘I’ve only just got the child to sleep, do you really have to?’

Ellen looked threatening and Tapani noticed it. Let him be hurt, Ellen thought, she didn’t mean anything, nothing at all, she really didn’t even care enough to hurt him. She had only just got the child to sleep. Only just, she added irritably in her mind.

If Tapani had been a horse, his ears would now be flattened as if in fear of the whip, thought Ellen. These days she could not comment on anything, he had become so thin-skinned. And her own job, apparently it was merely to restrain herself day and night.

But Tapani saw behind him only his own long day. He picked up the hanger and hung up his damp quilted jacket. Sand mixed with the puddle left by his muddy shoes on Ellen’s newly washed floor.

‘That’s the end of my floor then,’ Ellen said. ‘No respect for other people’s work.’

Ellen remained awake while the child slept and mourned the fact that her child had abandoned her. It pushed her away and at the same time sought comfort in her, sought the right distance, regulated her existence: far, near, far, near.

The child was incalculable and unpredictable and she did not know how to live with such an unknown being. Its unpredictability was a thorn in her flesh; the child traced each of her wounds. It stretched her nerves to their limit, directed her actions to such an extent that Ellen herself did not even notice the tension.

She held the child a little further away, considered him a little difficult, obligatory in an irritating way. The child howled when Ellen tried to talk on the telephone. It howled when Ellen made food for it. It howled when they were getting dressed. It howled when food was not put in front of it in a second. Ellen served it, fearfully, before the child even had time to ask for service.

The child did not agree to climb the steps. It lay down on the lowest level, it lay there, Ellen stood with her shopping bags and encouraged the child to get up as if enticement would make it get up.

By encouraging it, she kept her distance. She could not bear its anger. The more polite she was, the more angrily the child treated her. She carried the bags upstairs; the child went on lying there, the light on the stairwell went out, the child lay there, Ellen went to it, lifted it up, the child was limp and smiled, pulled Ellen in the wrong direction.

The child knew it was irritating her. Ellen dragged it upstairs, she did not have the energy to fight, she had lost, but for the child every step he was carried was a mark of victory. That was their shopping trip. That was what the shopping itself concealed.

After pushing her away, the child suddenly wanted to be with her. Its unpredictability turned, in one night, into a desire to belong to the family. Ellen was irritated. The child wanted everyone to dance together, it wanted them all to eat cheese at the same time, it wanted everyone to sit on the sofa.

Ellen wanted to run away. She had invented an errand for herself, an emergency fib, an escape route, so that she did not have to be with them. Just at that moment the child relented and let her go. She walked away with the rubbish bag in her hand. The child waved from the window, smiling. She was a picture that grew inside the child as she receded and shrank.

Then, some time later, Ellen thought she might take the child with her. It would walk from room to room at home, tell her when the cat should be fed, open the cleaning cupboard and start sweeping the floor. Then no one would give any orders any more, particularly not the child, and she would no longer obey.

She went back. She did not really care any more. She did not have the energy to serve and the child looked peaceful. Then it tried once again: with all its passion it tried to stop her making food, entwined itself with her, its arms floated upward, it howled and raged. Ellen grasped the child by the shoulders, looked it in the eyes and said: ‘Enough.’

‘Enough,’ the child remarked, and turned toward its train, a happy smile on its lips.

Ellen was ready to play with it, but suddenly the child got up, went to its room and closed the door.

What about her?

What would she do now that the child was no longer attached to her? What was the point of the dishes which she could now wash in peace? Should she perhaps sit on the sofa and pick up a magazine? And how would it happen, did she still have the knack? What would she do with all the air that surrounded her?

The child was stable, but Ellen did not trust it. She wanted so much to interfere in its affairs, her voice reached the room in which it was parking its lorry. The child had a profound grasp of things. Ellen had gone downhill, the art of climbing, the art of jumping, balance, sliding, twirling, counting, all of that was gone and made her look uncertainly at the child’s skills.

If she were to cling now. Steps would hesitate and question her tracks: into the mud, the puddle, the ice, into the thorny bushes? And her hands would fumble past the job in which she did not see any sense.

Ellen told the child to get off the arm of the chair. She told the child to get away from the cat’s bowl. She told the child to get away from the road. She told the child to get away from the scissors. She told the child to get away from the stove. She was no. She echoed unpleasantly. Ugly church bells rang gloomily.

They said goodbye to each other. What if the echo that remained within herself and the child was just the metallic clang of steel tubes clashing against each other? The child gave a kiss, unasked, and did not throw itself at her feet. She walked away, because she had to.

Her movements were slow, she was tired and absent-minded and she did not feel at all brisk as she carried the skis out of the cellar. It had begun to freeze. The child followed her like an ancient creature in whose memory the movements were stored. They slipped on the icy snow toward the edge of the forest, toward the darkness; the child talked about a fox that lurked in the forest, and Ellen lied that she was not afraid. She said: come on, let’s go, my mother taught me like this, skis apart, uphill, tread the snow, tractor tracks, tractor tracks, you won’t slide downhill with me here behind you, get going.

They went, the child ahead, she behind, up a tiny hill, the child could do it, just as if her mother’s knowledge, not her, had been leading it. As they went downhill the child stayed upright with one encouragement to bend its knees; it shrieked for joy: this is skiing!

Now skiing was in the child. Ellen felt herself floating between them, she transmitted this onward, a drum sounded dimly. Dusk fell at six, the child was not startled, it wanted to continue, onward, deeper.

Ellen breathed air into her emptiness, against the dark trees. She was afraid. The snow gleamed, three degrees of frost, at dusk the tracks are hard and slippery. On the tracks she was suddenly certain who she was, memory told her. She skies a long straight stretch behind her mother, it is a glimpse, she heard herself say to the child: come on, let’s go on, let’s ski this long straight stretch together. She heard her voice add: let’s ski as far as the shed, mother would never let me go so far.

The shed stood dark before them. The child was angry with her, it did not want to take off its skis. Ellen compelled the child to stand still, forcibly loosened the bindings and leaned the skis against the wall. The shed door was heavy but the child persistent in its desire to get it open. The door creaked and opened with difficulty. Inside, the air stood dusky, the black shapes of neglected tools rising namelessly, leaning this way and that. Ellen was just about to say how ugly and dirty it all was, she did not like this any more, did they really have to come here again, she wanted to go back to the light and the warmth, but then noticed the child’s enthusiasm. Mummy, that one over there, it exclaimed, that sharp one, mother, it’s a circular saw! Mummy, come on, Mummy, let’s go, there’s a manure fork and a plough!

The child stumbled against the high threshold, it hurt, attacked her with his fists and wanted to go on. Ellen did not hear any echo within her, her mother’s voice did not carry them into the darkness, it did not preserve them, from evil. The time of happiness was over; it had been full happiness.

Ellen was afraid; her child wanted to learn other things. A harrow with its spikes lay in the corner, among the dust and cobwebs. Ellen’s headache had gone, it had remained at the door, there she stood in the midst of wretchedness and unhappiness that she could not avoid. She was the one who had to carry the burden from here on without her mother, alone. She breathed, blew out vapour, and noticed how the emptiness in her lungs gradually filled.

Happy cotton-wool clouds floated away, a crow croaked, its wings were nothing but splashing flaps. The tattered clouds rained randomly, the road became overshadowed, and adults were not, after all, people whose affairs were in order and refrigerators full of healthy food.

The food dried in the oven, the dough had collapsed ages ago, the child’s mittens were wet through and small snowballs hung from them. The child’s nose was dripping, it was cold and hungry. The child wanted to go on, it did not care about the discomfort, it wanted to touch the most evil thing of all, the circular saw, the howl. It wanted to see fear living in the darkness. Crossly, it kicked away an old mirror that lay forgotten in a corner, anger lived in it, it knew how to hit and kick.

Ellen was afraid. She was unable to protect the child from life.

She was afraid: She had complete power. She had eyes and a gaze. She was a Mummy, a word that began every sentence, mummy, in the middle of a sentence. A full stop at the end, Mummy. Inside her echoed Mummy, a word which was the greatest of all. She was complete, a mother in a chain of mothers; she remained, lovely, in the kitchen, and stared out from there, a knife in her hand.

The child looked and asked: Mummy? She was the mirror into which it gazed, the disapproving eyes that stared from the mirror and the gesture that rejected completely. The shards of glass covered the floor of the shed. The child swayed around the circular saw and shouted: silly Mummy, help me turn this on! The child was angry and wished for nothing else but to separate from that which was one and the same: mother. The snot flowed, thicker than before, the child had a great will, it was the carrier of the dark mirror, at night. It dreamed dreams that were full of lizards, slimy, heavy-footed, longtails trampling mother’s flowerbeds, trampling everything that is beautiful and the land became desert.

Mother gave the dream a name, for everything was ready in the child, nameless. Perhaps mother would decide to sweep the child off the map of the world, flick it with her lovely hand like a speck of dust, away, away, mother will get rid of evil! The child is a mote, a speck, the mirror does not reflect evil. There is only life, only life.

But, Ellen thought uncertainly, you do know, don’t you, that mothers don’t kill their children.

Ellen was helpless and shouted: Mummy! Mother did not answer. Words did not tell: in the darkness mother is a witch, so good, that she knows before the child even imagines. Mother is the one who does all the right things at the right time.

Too good to be the object of hate, Ellen thought, and the words came tentatively, formed, ended and pulled away from her face the mirrored door from which Ellen was reading: you too, you changed, went and grew from a baby into a creature. Your eyes were dry and lifeless, the stars no longer twinkle, there were the wrong things in the cupboard and the child had too loud a voice and a will that no one wanted. Mothers were clean and chopped food.

Ellen wanted so much to offer the child from her pocket a heel of bread which she had reserved for the trip. A heel of bread which the child would gratefully have gnawed, just a heel of rye bread, the hungry child would have gazed thankfully into its mother’s eyes and waited to be praised for gnawing at it.

At that point it is worth crying for father, thought Ellen, when the electric shocks come from inside and make small, red marks on the skin: Mummy, Mummy, Mummy. She. Her mother. She was the one who should have given up her burdens.

The man was so shy in his existence, but he stayed. The man was different, he had not been created to be her housewife, he was different and existed only for loving. Mother’s arms were soft, the man’s arms hard. They were helpless, in Tapani’s opinion she complained about the newspaper, as she herself had still imagined that morning, and did not know what she was asking: take the child, save him, take him away, suggest something to him, fill his mind, fill it with a man, take him into another room and make him build a tall tower.

The child crawled, fists up, toward her. The child raged: now I’m really angry with you! The child was anxious: now I’m really tired. The child glowed and was filled with power.

They fumbled, out of harmony and close to one another, they fumbled toward the creak of the door. Ellen stepped toward the nameless and found the word as she looked at the crying child. She gave the word to the one who needed it most, the one who had to live the nameless for the first time in his life.

Her face was a mirror before the child, the mirror image opened its mouth and said: you are angry.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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