Conversations with a horse

Issue 4/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kiinalainen puutarha (‘The Chinese garden’, Otava, 2004). Introduction by Anna-Leena Nissilä

Colonel Mannerheim.
Near Kök Rabat, on the caravan route between Kashgar and Yarkand.
October 1906

It is growing dark. Let the others go on ahead. Let us wait here awhile. Perhaps the pain will go over. We’ll get through.

Steady, Philip.

You always obey. And listen. Your ears proudly, handsomely pricked.

Steady, I said, there in the garden. No reaction. Everyone was moving. Pure comedy. And something else.

An illusion, two girls. Then gone.

How to explain.

Before that. I had a conversation with Macartney, the British chargé d’affaires…

Pain…. It burns, now it burns again. Let us wait now, Philip. Steady, steady now.

All sorts of things came into view. First it burned so my eyes grew dim. Then the darkness swept the gravel desert into an undifferentiated field. A breath of wind cooled my forehead. Only then did I begin to see.

Just now I saw a shape. A large shape with soft outlines, which soon divided into two. But was still one. A woman and child, on a hillock, at the edge of the darkness. The sand and the darkness shaped them for me. The wind put the final touches to the outlines.

To be accurate, Philip, to be scientific, I should admit that I think I did it myself. The human mind is such that it draws a picture, draws it all the time, draws something of its own portrait on top of the landscape that surrounds it. I do not know whether the equine mind does the same, whether your calm eyes are at this moment painting a herd of proud steeds against the narrow, disappearing line of the horizon. Could you just as well make out a mare and foal on that hillock?

That was the nature of my image, close, motionless, warm. A mother holding a child in her lap. Strong was the grasp of that wood-carved mother. My eyes shaped in the sand a sculpture that I had seen in Kashgar at the home of the Swedish missionaries.

The Swedes called it a heathen image. It belonged to one of their fosterlings. Who knows, to the hoy it was perhaps a secret God. Just a couple of days before, I had seen something almost the same, but larger, with a painted, purplish-red cloak. I had seen it in Chini Bagh, at Macartney’s home. That is why the sculpture interested me.

‘Guanyin,’ said Bohlin, when I grasped the statue, the Chinese goddess of mercy. Guan means looking, yin sound. The goddess who looks at us, the mother who listens to our woes, explained the missionary Bohlin. Apparently Chinese mothers turn to Guanyin if they do not beget children, in other words boy children. ‘Avalokitesvara,’ Pelliot interrupted.

I am sure you will remember Pelliot, Philip. The archaeologist did not care much for what you horses think or for your welfare in general. He had little more consideration for his other travelling companions. I think you, too, considered him a lout. But unlike horses, people are sometimes permitted to be louts. People simply must have some other quality that compensates for their loutishness. Often it is money. Sometimes knowledge. Thus it is in Pelliot’s case.

Pelliot knows a great deal. I admire his knowledge. He was able without hesitation to say that the mother with the child in her lap was only one of dozens of figures associated with the goddess of mercy in China and that in fact Guanyin was originally of Indian provenance. That it was a question of a Buddhist god named Avalokitesvara, the divinity of compassion, the male bodhisattva. He enjoyed telling his hosts, with their belief in a single god, that Avalokitesvara is generally depicted as a gentleman with a thousand hands, mercifully gazing at the suffering, each of whose thousand hands holds an eye of wisdom. Enjoyed revealing that the mare was in fact originally a thousand-eyed stallion. Announced further that he himself, on this journey, was seeking an answer to how this could have come about. How the long journey over the mountains had made a man into a woman, how the god who sees had changed into the goddess who hears.

As if it were really so extraordinary. As if it were more extraordinary than a man being the origin of a girl, that a woman can give birth to a boy.

Do you have a mother, Philip? Of course you do, everyone does. Or, as in my case, did.

Just now, in that moment of pain, I saw a mother holding a child.

Then I saw that picture again. In the garden, Macartney a little way away. A flash between us. Girls.

Do you have girls, Philip? If so, they are somewhere far away, elsewhere, like my girls.

But you have a father, or you have had. I still have mine. Athough when I was small my father left us. Only after mother died did he return.

I sent that picture to my father the day I left Kashgar. I wrote that all was well and sent a picture of the European colony in the Chinese garden.

I do not really know why I sent just that picture, why I did not send a picture of the mountains or of a crowded bazaar.

Perhaps it was because I had just had an extraordinary conversation with Macartney. I had spoken to him as to a horse. This is no insult, Philip, not to you or India or the British representative Macartney. But I had spoken to him as I speak to you. No one hears what I say here, only you, everything I say here is between the two of us.

It was not quite the same as talking to you. Mr Macartney is not a horse, but a human being. Macartney did not just listen. He also spoke. It was to be an extraordinary conversation.

The mother held her child. It was Mrs Macartney. She held in her lap a child of a couple of months, a girl baby. We had been inside taking refreshments and come out on to the terrace. Before us there opened a view of a leafy garden and over the garden to the cultivated plots of the oasis, behind which there loomed in one direction the mountains, in the other the plains of the desert. Which now surrounds us on all sides. The musicians began to play.

The children were brought out to greet us to the rhythm of the music. The proud parents presented their children, a small boy and the babe in arms. The women made admiring comments, we men said something jocular to the boy and then withdrew in small groups to talk, at a suitable distance from this exhibition of a family idyll which would no doubt soon reach some noisy climax.

The younger of the missionary wives pressed upon me a sticky, sweet fruit called a jigda, which she had herself picked from a tree. Before the more extensive tastings that were threatened. I moved over to talk to David Fraser; it became clear that he, too, had been in the Japan war, as a journalist of course. I wished to avoid speaking of my own military career and was forced once more to execute an evasive manoeuvre, this time turning to the missionary Törnquist. I was immediately able to begin a very interesting conversation about the photography of moving objects. But we were hardly able to proceed beyond the beginning.

I felt a light poke in the leg. It was Macartney’s son Eric. He clambered to his feet and continued weaving his way among the guests. At first his route seemed random, but then I saw that he had a clear objective. The red ball which he threw forward – which dragged him behind it. Now it was on the other side of the terrace. As soon as he got the ball in his grasp, he threw it in the air and dashed after it again. The ball rolled up to the house wall. Eric grasped it in his arms, spun round, and threw.

There was a light clink and a rustle. Eric froze; everyone turned to look. The ball had flown against the window, not quite gone through it, but a star-shaped fracture, visible at quite a distance, now decorated the pane. A couple more years to the thrower’s arm and the window would have been in splinters.

Mrs Macartney’s reaction was swift and surprising. She glanced around her, did not see the nanny, and passed the baby to her husband. Then she hurried to the boy; I thought he would be taught a lesson at once, that his freely waving hands would receive a slap. But no. The mother took the ball, grasped her son by the hand and took him to one side, and walked him to the lowest level of the terrace, behind the flower beds. The others continued their conversations. But I was curious, stepped aside and peered round at them.

The mother was reproaching her son, decisively to be sure, but away from the gaze of the others, sheltered from their disapproval. Finally she took the serious boy into her arms and… made a gesture that I recognised. The mother ran her fingers through the boy’s hair with a single strong, decisive movement, her hands slid over his ears, softly, returning to the cheeks; the gesture ended in a kiss, pressed on to his forehead. A sequence of gestures and movements that was at once strong and tender.

Catherine Macartney took the boy in her lap and made that gesture. It came suddenly, without warning. My mother’s gesture.

It moved me unwontedly.

Soon the boy was laughing again. The mother gave him his ball and showed him where he could play.

Then I noticed Mr Macartney. He was a couple of paces away from me, the girl gurgling in his arms. Macartney, too, had followed what had happened below us. Then he had looked at me, a moment before I noticed him.

I nodded lightly, raising a sympathetic smile to my lips, trying by all means to show that the episode had been charming in my opinion. Macartney responded to my smile with a smile, but stiffly, with a reserve even greater than his customary reserve.

I felt myself to be an intruder, to have penetrated the family’s privacy in a way whose content I myself could not entirely define. I had shown my own feelings in a way that…. I was disturbed. I felt a need to explain. And I had nothing more in my mind than what I had just been thinking.

‘What we just saw, your wife’s way of dealing with the situation, brought vividly to my mind…,’ I began, paused, but it was too late to retreat. ‘It brought to mind my mother. My mother and me.’

‘Ah,’ answered Macartney, still looking at his wife.

It was a baffling answer. It was almost like a kind of neigh, Philip. He did not wait for any further explanation, he did not ask what I meant, but neither did he attempt to pass over what I had said; he simply nodded lightly and said, ‘ah’, like ‘yes’ or ‘really’, as if what I had said had been some banality uttered in a social situation.

I felt the need to explain, to specify. I mentioned that as a boy I had broken a whole row of windows, been more severely punished than the other perpetrators and been expelled from school. At that point my mother decided to take me away from Helsinki to our home estate of Louhisaari, to spend that winter with me, while the smallest of our seven-strong band of siblings were sent, under the leadership of my big sister, to our grandmother’s.

I mentioned that it had been November. And as I mentioned it, I remembered. The grey twilight, the ghostly, leafless trees, the rattling of the carriage along the road and myself turning to my mother, defiant and scared, and my mother ran her fingers through my hair, it was a purposeful, long gesture, it was almost painful, it could have been painful but for the fact that after a moment I felt a kiss on my forehead, in the darkness. Thus she kept me in her grasp and supported me that winter, while I struggled with my considerable pride and my destructive defiance. Under the direction of my mother’s strong, tender hands, they were subordinated to my will.

Only then did I realise that Macartney was staring at me, as directly and openly as the child in his arms, almost impolitely so. They followed what was happening on my face very closely, father and daughter. That made me continue.

‘I was twelve when I travelled with my mother to our country house,’ I said. ‘For the winter, for the spring. Which was my mother’s last.’

‘I was eight,’ said Macartney.

I looked Macartney straight in the eye.

‘I bade my mother farewell at the age of eight,’ he continued.

I nodded.

It was a very natural moment. For a moment it seemed perfectly natural to speak of the most personal matters with a complete stranger in the narrow oasis between the desert and the mountains.

From below a shout of joy was heard. Eric was throwing the ball wildly around him. The ball described its patterns in the green of the vegetable plots. Like letters, like writing.

Grief. From somewhere, it arrived. The letter that I had written to my sister Sophie after my mother’s funeral. Which I had written in red ink after my mother’s death. The black was finished and I had caught a chill and I wrote of my grief in red ink.

‘Red is the colour of grief,’ said Macartney.

‘Sorry, you were saying…?’ I said, disbelieving.

My reaction made Macartney uncertain, once more a little reserved.

‘I mean, people experience colours in different ways,’ said Macartney.

‘You mentioned red,’ I said; I could not leave it unsaid.

‘In Chinese culture red is a very strong colour. A protective colour,’ said Macartney. ‘It is used for protection against evil spirits.’

‘But….’ I said, but did not continue. But for you it is the colour of grief. I did not say. I did not ask about his mother, was red her favourite colour, had she been dressed in red the last time he saw her. I did not ask what was behind the wooden, red-cloaked female form I had seen, or from whom it had come. I did not ask, although I wanted to, because it no longer seemed natural. Because suddenly I was ashamed again. That red ink. The colour of my grief.

‘Your mother was Chinese,’ came from my mouth.

Macartney stiffened in a heartbeat. I also stiffened. The small girl looked at her father in surprise.

Macartney nodded and looked at me, no longer directly. I had just given myself away to the representative of India and England in Kashgar. I could, of course, have known it, I could have heard of the matter from the Swedes, or noted how fluently my host spoke with the Chinese. But I did not pronounce the sentence in such a way. I said in a way that allowed him to guess that I knew one or two things about him, in a word everything that consuls Petrovsky and Kolokovsky had recorded in their reports, at times no less than slanderous racial background in a disparaging tone.

Macartney guessed at that moment that I was in the service of the Russian government. I do not know whether the word spy entered his head, but he looked at me incredulously for a moment and then it was as if a layer of wax had spread over his features. His expression was still friendly, but an impenetrable film covered it.

It was somehow irksome in the extreme – that we had shown each other our innermost selves and then I had, with the utmost clumsiness, revealed my disguise. It was somehow extremely sad. Extremely annoying.

A horse would never do anything like it. Anything as idiotic. Anything as coarse.

We stood there side by side, silent. Two people and one future person.

The girl began to squirm, to whimper; Macartney sat her up. And asked about my family. Lightly, trying to lighten the situation.

I answered that I had two daughters. Almost grown-up, I said, somehow rather coldly, unresponsively. About my wife I said nothing at all.

I regretted it straight away. That accidental coldness to my own daughters. Even though it was not directed at them. But I could no longer expunge my words or their tone. Or the sorrow they left.

As an opener of conversations I am often clumsy; as a killer of conversations I am a master.

It may be that something was visible for a moment on my face.

Macartney’s daughter suddenly made a rapid movement and stretched out her hand. Touched my shoulder, took her time to examine it, grasped it. Joined us three all together for a moment.

We looked at each other. The music stopped just them.

Because we were not horses it was necessary to say something.

I suggested photography. I said that I would like to take a photograph of the musicians and their instruments.

Macartney made a gesture urging me to walk in front. And somehow at the same time his hand passed over all that had been said, wiping it away.

That conversation of horses.

Only then did his daughter loosen her grip on my shoulder.

Only then did I notice that Mrs Macartney was waiting nearby, waiting tactfully until we finished our conversation. Only then did she come to fetch her daughter.

Thus we were liberated from each others’ strangely intimate company.

I took a photograph of the players. But all sorts of things still flickered through my mind, figures from here and there appeared to cover the landscape, it was necessary to make them take their proper places, to merge with the background, to halt the flow of new images. So I suggested a group photograph of the guests. I suggested that everyone should freeze for a moment.

‘Stand still,’ I managed to say after a moment.

I looked at Macartney for a moment through the camera viewfinder; he had stopped half a yard away from the others. Stand still, I said, but waited for Macartney to move. For him to join the composition of the group photograph. That all the pieces would be in their proper places.

I looked at him and he looked at me. Perhaps he guessed what I was waiting for. But he did not move. Could not move. It felt excruciating. I somehow realised it. That he had bidden his mother farewell at the age of eight and needed that empty space beside him.

I looked at that empty space.

Then. Then two girls….

It hurts like hell now, Philip.

Let’s move on. Move on now. So that we’ll get there before dark comes.

Colonel Mannerheim. Yarkand Swedish missionary base.
Christmas Eve 1906

All right, don’t worry, Philip. It’s only me. We’re not going anywhere, at this time of night. All’s well.

It’s quite a claim, that all, everything, is well. But that’s how we talk, we humans, we men. We calm others – women, children, dogs and horses – although in fact we are talking to ourselves, always to ourselves. So all’s well. Because it could be worse. And now, after all, it’s Christmas.

Merry Christmas, Philip. I just came to wish you a merry Christmas. Now you can rest and eat well. Then we’ll resume our journey.

I must confess that I used you as an excuse. When I slipped away from the company of those pleasant, friendly people, when I left that warm, homely room, that beautifully set Christmas table. It was really very home-like there. Mr Raquette had concocted some home-brewed Christmas ale, Mrs Raquette conjured up a masterly imitation of Christmas stockfish. We sang Christmas songs. I even received Christmas presents. At the advanced age of thirty-nine I suddenly felt a childish joy when I opened my presents. From Mrs Raquette an embroidered handkerchief case, from Mr Raquette a craniometer. Of course you do not care much for handkerchiefs or devices that measure the human skull, hut you can perhaps understand the meaning of the gesture. As if someone were to groom your mane, long and calmly.

As I opened the presents, with great enjoyment, something else opened too, something that I would not have chosen to touch upon. There opened a backward view, as if from the summit of a mountain, dizzying, all Christmases were juxtaposed there, coming uninvited to the table. I also remembered, inescapably, another kind of joy, my own joy at the bright-eyed delight of a child. I heard the echo of the girls’ shrieks of delight across thousands of kilometres, a thousand days, from an inaccessible place. My own childish delight was already gone. I was once more just a man muttering softly to himself: all is well, it’s Christmas, all’s well.

The more the idyll conjured up by Gösta and Eva Raquette seemed like home, the farther I was from what had once been home to me my real home. Where, for just a moment on Christmas Eve, all was well.

I had to flee, flee that terrible distance that I brought to the Christmas table. That was why I said I had to go and see you. I said you had been breathing heavily during the day, your gait had faltered, and that I had to go and check that all was well.

It was not a completely untrue story. I really did want to come and see you, but for reasons I did not wish to reveal to my hosts. I really did want to bid you good night.

For this Christmas is good. It could be much worse. Many things are well.

A month and a half ago I was lying in the remote and peaceful house of the local Muslim officials, a few kilometres from here, where I had been removed from the caravanserai. Led there like some honoured elder.

My legs could scarcely bend, every joint ached and then there was the fever. A man’s ailment, Philip.

I lay there staring into the empty space above me.

The little open hatch in the ceiling. The sky was not visible. A little light drizzled in, a suggestion of the sky. Of the great empty space above. Just air. Emptiness. How could it weigh so much, I wondered to myself. I had no one to talk to. Raquette had left for the day. And I did not have the energy to drag myself to you.

Or, to be honest, I would not have wished to. I did not wish to see you. I was certain that I would never ride you again.

Is there anything more ridiculous. A cavalryman who cannot mount his horse. What must you have thought, when I did not get on your back. When I was carried along the Silk Road in a cart, when I arrived in the city of Yarkand in the bottom of a waggon. When I was moved from the bustle of the caravanserai to that peaceful house. Which, in my more cheerful moments, in conversation with myself, I called the roofed graveyard.

It was peaceful there, especially when I was quite still. When I just stared into space.

Quite often, though I had to get up, although it caused almost unbearable pain. I had to attend to my needs, although they brought more pain than anything else.

Shame feels like the wrong word. Too comforting. An embarrassing end, in the best case a shameful return home.

Then, for a moment, emptiness seemed tempting.


We do not generally see emptiness – you and me, steed and horseman. I feel your warm, strong and full being beneath me and look ahead. We look ahead, not upward.

If emptiness approaches, one can always ride faster, glide through the blockade.

The horseman does not understand emptiness.

Until his steed is taken from him. Until he is made to lie flat. Cast in a single, unmoving object. Left, a statue, in the middle of the desert to gaze into space.

Then he sees emptiness. His own emptiness. Against the world’s fullness.

He finds the city in which there is no difference between good and evil. It is above him. There, nothing is differentiated from anything else.

Never before have I seen so many specks of dust with such accuracy. They floated around me with mocking lightness. They and my memories. Tormenting me.

Failure. Christmases which will never come again.


‘Get up,’ ordered Raquette. ‘Up and moving, doctor’s orders. But first….’

Raquette recommended that I first take some white powder. It would reduce the pain. I asked for more, but he would not give it. Said that one had to be careful with heroin. People have so many kinds of pain. It is good to feel a little pain.

I felt quite a lot of pain. When Raquette forced me to move, to exercise, to take a bath. By gradual stages, to follow him through to the bustle of the centre of the city. At the same time he also forced me to talk to someone other than myself.

It was not at all easy. Even speaking can be painful. Raquette is a decent man, but a horse he is not. I did not speak to him as I do to you. Not even as I had to Macartney, there in the garden. But I spoke nonetheless, as one speaks to people.

A week passed, two, and gradually I felt the pain begin to fade. Gradually I was able to move without torment. Gradually I could meet your gaze, get into the saddle, even ride a short way. Gradually we were able to resume our journey.

I do not know what you think when I have sometimes resorted to riding in an arba carriage. That was Raquette’s recommendation. It pays to be careful.

It suits me well. Because all is relatively well. I was only able to look up for a short while. But I have not since been able to forget the emptiness that lies above us. Sometimes even when travelling it is pleasant for a roof to intervene.

I tried to explain this to the good Mr Raquette. I tried, cautiously, to speak to him of emptiness. I showed him a photograph I had taken in the Chinese garden, the one I have told you about. I mentioned that I had spoken with Macartney in unusual terms.

I pointed my finger at the empty space which Macartney had been forced to leave beside him. But I could not explain it. Coward, I dared not make the attempt.

‘A decent man, that Macartney,’ was Gustaf Raquette’s interpretation on my behalf. ‘A very modest nature.’

Macartney at a couple of yards of emptiness away from the others. Keep still, I said and looked at the empty space. That cannot fill up.

I once had two angels. I once had two winged girl foals, Stasie and Sophie. But they have already learned to keep still. I am afraid.

There are moments when one would like to say: keep still. Couldn’t everything be still, for just a moment. So as not to make a mistake….

Now Stasie and Sophie have been for who knows how many years in some Catholic boarding school, learning the noble arts of court curtseys and trivialities in numerous languages. Learning to stay put. It is a thought I do not wish to think.

I went to war against Japan, to experience yet another defeat. But it was refreshing. It was refreshing because I did not need to think about what I did not wish to think about.

The war ended but I am still at war. You are my warhorse, Philip! This time I only shoot with my camera. I miss quite a lot.

It was a military campaign that brought me to the Chinese garden. Suddenly my old troubles returned. A cavalryman’s troubles.

An old cavalryman’s thoughts.

A moment of weakness.

I reached out to press the button. I knew that Macartney would no longer move. I guessed that Eric would shift, breaking the dead composition.

Longing. Empty space.

I saw Stasie and Sophie float across the picture field.

I myself was perfectly still. Everyone was perfectly still. A non-existent wind passed over the flower-garden. Set in motion by angels and fairies.

A face rising into view behind the wall.

Then Eric jumped up.

I felt a shooting pain.

I pressed the button, trying the capture the image of the angel.

One should not do such a thing. There are already enough captives. You, Philip, are shackled; I am shackled. We have been bound to one another and to this journey.

But small girls and boys, foals and angels let them float free. For as long as you possibly can.

Before you join the rest of us in carrying the burden of emptiness.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

Tags: ,

No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment