The honey of the bee

Issue 2/2005 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

 A short story from the collection Mitä sähkö on (‘What electricity is’ WSOY, 2004). Introduction by Jarmo Papinniemi

Five days before I was born my grandfather reached sixty-six. He’d always been old. The first image I have of him gleams like a knife on sunny spring-time snow: he was pulling me on my sledge over hard frost under a bright glaring-blue sky. In the Winter War a squadron of bombers had flown through the same blue sky on their way to Vaasa; the boys leapt into the ditches for cover, as if the enemy planes could be bothered to waste their bombs on a couple of kids. Be bothered? Wrong: kids were always the most important targets.

Now it’s summer, August, and I’m sitting on the grassy, mossy face of the earth, which is slowly warming in a sun that’s accumulated a leaden shadiness. I’m sitting on my grandfather’s land. It’s the time when the drying machines buzz. Even with eyes shut, you can sense the corn dust glittering in the sun. Even with eyes shut, you can take in the smell of the barn’s old wood, the sticky fragrance of the blackcurrants barrelled on its floor, the tins of coffee and the china dishes on the shelves, and the empty grain bins; there’s the cupboard Kalle made, with its board sides and veneered door, and the dust-covered trunk that was going to accompany my grandfather to another continent. The ticket was already hooked, but Grandfather’s world remained here for good. When Easter comes we’ll gather the useless junk out into the yard and burn it; Grandfather’s travel chest will rise skywards. Grandfather stands in the barn entrance, leaning on the doorpost. He’s dead. Over all lies a heavy overbearing sun. Beyond the field the river’s flowing silently in its deep channel. At night time its dark and warm.

Our life’s a long series of lettings-go. We watch while the yoghurt drips down a furrowed chin – our own.

I lived near to my grandfather from six to fourteen. I had a little axe he’d made from start to finish, forging the blade and carving the haft. He taught me how to chop wood, which point to strike at each time, how to situate the wood on the chopping block for splitting, what to be careful about. Grandfather carted wood and water in the freezing cold, his nose-hairs and stubble rimed with hoar-frost. He never said no to me – he’d no need. His benevolence and unassumingness tamed me. If not working, he put his glasses on and read the paper. Then he turned severe-looking, and I was quiet. In my grandfather’s presence I felt valued. His hand was always dry and warm.

I sit here and I know nothing about life. My grandfather died thirty years ago yesterday. Whoever looks at someone laid out is there himself. It’s as though no more than a moment has gone by since I ran into the wood behind the house to clear an obstacle course, or did a high jump behind the shed. The moment has continued for decades. Age has come, not knowledge, I’ve thinned the birch grove, my back aches, the mosquitoes and horse-flies have bitten my neck till it swells. The spruce sapling has dried brown.

The birch grove is the world of childhood, of lost illusion. Therefore it has to be cultivated, therefore it has to be kept alive. Does God exist or not? The birch twigs are my daughters’ sun-tanned limbs, slender, sucking up water, reaching for the light. They’re rooted in this land and they’ll never die. I’m in search of a lost time, this one. I’ve written many deaths for my grandfather. They’re untrue. What is true? Is that why I’ve written many different deaths for you – so there wouldn’t be even one? To hear you behind me, panting in the heat, to see the tight line of your mouth, a couple of yellow teeth, your peaked cap pressed down to your eyes? So you’d come cycling along, bent forward, down a road that never ends, not anywhere? Is that why I write, so that nothing will end?

My grandfather had many brothers and two sisters. The two sisters, Juuna and Lempi, left for America at the beginning of the century. When the slump came Lempi took off for Russia instead, with her husband. At three my grandfather was put out to work. A leather bag was hung round his neck to glean up the fallen ears left over from the reaping of the rye and the binding of the sheaves.

(Jurva, Savijoki Village 13 September 1891 Dear relations Since a Favrable Oputunity as now come upon us we are duly sending you a Few Lines to tell ow things are with us just At Present namely that we are all Well and wishing the same for You and Thousands of Thanks for your letter which arived ere safely and our Wish is for you to come and see us sometime whenever it most suits you the Years rye arvest is Plentiful in these parts but Ay is short the Marsh Worms ave been at it so badly eating up the Marsh Grass such as no one in these parts in the Memory of Man can remember such a Plague of Worms and the spring crop was ruined through the long drowt so No Plentiful arvest is to be expected otherwise oping this finds you as it leaves us Well and short of nothing and a thousand Good Wishes from all of us at Jurva Goodbye Esaias Kinnari and Fambly.)

Grandfather was hard at work for nearly eighty years. He was considered a careful man, a prudent one. His own father entrusted the horse to him alone, as he feared the other brothers might break the harness. For this trust my grandfather remained proud all his life. He said his own father had been a severe, viciously disposed man.

My grandfather wasn’t in the Finnish Civil War of 1918, as he was working as a postman, a government official. He lived all his life in a small country village, in houses that were a few kilometres from each other. A man is given little time to go far.

When he was young he was employed in log-floating, forestry and building. He had the skill to make wood and iron come to life. Bread and milk had to be bought, he learned, from houses displaying flowers in their windows. The family’s social security rested on his shoulders. After he’d been promoted to foreman in the Thirties and fell from a scaffolding, breaking his right arm, one of his daughters began, the next morning, to accompany him everywhere and made up for the broken limb. In photographs Grandfather often sits rather to one side, on the edge of the picture, as if he’s got into the situation against his will. In one group photo he’s turning away, walking out of the picture. What’s the hurry? Everything’s frozen in the middle of a footstep. You don’t like looking straight into the lens. Your look’s on the run. Did you suspect that a person was hard to meet? When I was there, you didn’t turn away. There we are, standing hand in hand, looking into the black eyes of a brooding chaffinch, whose nest you’re showing me. In the photo taken at your funeral I’m standing on the extreme right. I’m not looking at the camera. A funeral’s a place where important people gather, one by one. They come uninvited. The people witness each other at a point where everything’s over. One can only see what’s behind. Grandfather bore the heavy responsibility for a family of six. He knew his own worth and was tough, but perhaps he was a rather soft man. When the bad times came he feared the liability for the mortgage would fall to the guarantors, sold his little farm and bought the family a modest cottage with a patch of land to grow potatoes on.

For several decades he served the same employer, a sawmill-proprietor and builder with a forest-property. He toiled for long years as the foreman at the sawmill. His employment ended when he was practically seventy. The employer took advantage of the final transition-phase of the pension law to deprive my grandfather of a pension, leaving him totally dependent, at the end, on the state pension. A black car drove into the family’s yard, the driver stayed in the car and the sawmill proprietor came into the house. For about an hour he remained alone with my grandfather in the living room. My grandfather wouldn’t ever tell anyone, not even his wife, what was said. Men don’t speak. All his life he was poor, he had only one Christian name, and that short, but those things never lost him his standing. Camus says it all:

The memory of the poor is shorter than that of the rich: there are fewer reminders, since the poor seldom leave where they live, and the reminders are scanter too because of the grey monotonous lives of the poor. There is of course ‘learning by heart’, which is supposed to be more trustworthy, but the heart gets worn out by toil and trouble: under the weight of weariness the heart is quicker to forget. Only the rich can recover a lost time. For the poor the past is nothing but indistinct pointers on a journey towards death.

I found the sun that shone on my childhood in Albert Camus’ unfinished and posthumously published novel The First Man (Le Premier Homme, 1994), which is as sketchy as life itself. Camus’ sun shines in the Algerian sky, but it’s a book about my grandfather and myself.

Apart from the leg-injury at work and some car-accident injuries during Finland’s Continuation War, Grandfather remained in good health till he was eighty-two. Just once in his life did he go to the dentist, in the 1920s. His experience of the foot-treadle drill was off-putting, and he never went again. But he aged. I’d already moved somewhere else when something inside me broke. It was when Grandfather had been visiting us and, as he left, I looked through the window and saw him getting into the back seat of the car. My throat tightened, I didn’t know where I was or why.

At home Grandfather still helped with the work, picking berries, carrying potato boxes, repairing bicycle punctures. Nothing shook his tranquility. Every evening he undressed at nine, turned to the wall in his flannel underclothes and slept uninterruptedly: a grey head, with hair always cut short and a sunline on his neck. I tiptoed out of his room as if from a sacred mystery.

The truth is that in spite of all my love I haven’t been up to living that patient life of the blind – wordless, aimless. I haven’t been able to live his oblivious life. And I’ve gone running through the world. I built, I created, I scorched some people. My days have been chock-full – but nothing has filled my heart like S….

I’m tired. I sleep badly. It’s hot. In the winter I wake up to the awareness that it’s cold and dark. I cower as if I’m in a bomb shelter after a bombardment of icy darkness has ended. An iron band is clamped round my head. I wake to the awareness that my days are a matter of dancing with shadows. I’ve immersed myself in money-making, accretion – nursing the illusion of independence. I work to order, not always knowing why. I kill more than I eat. When I was confirmed you put a peaked cap on your head, got on your bike and rode to the church, thirteen kilometres there and back. You drew a hundred marks out of the Co-operative Bank. The banknote was brand-new, unrumpled, warmed by your wallet. I hardly had the heart to put it in the bank. Now it’s grown interest. I’ll lay a fine table. You liked coffee bread, so we’ll have some of that. And strawberry yoghurt.

The first blow was unexpected, a sudden headlong fall. Grandfather came back from the post, took his cap off and fell to the floor without uttering a sound. Blood flowed from his nose. He regained consciousness and in hospital was already cracking jokes. I stood by his bedside, downcast, and realised something had happened: a sign had been given. I tried not to think about all that; I was at school somewhere else and waited for the summer to come.

The next seizure happened before the summer. Now he was in another hospital, a bigger one, and I saw fear and distress in his eyes. The stroke had taken away his speech and power of motion, though movement partially returned. At first he tried to say something, but words with no meaning came out. He shook his head and gave up trying. Back home he was able to move from room to room without help, and at that stage he was still able to feed himself. That summer I spent helping my grandmother to look after him.

Your task was to be Grandfather. It was built into you. You’ve not been around for thirty years, and yet what was between us is the one thing people are seeking all their life long. Shall I myself be up to showing my grandchildren how to pick nettles without getting stung? Do I know where the hedgehog’s home is? The old proverb says ‘Home is where your grandfather’s buried’. Those places are everywhere.

Grandfather suffered. He seemed to have no pains, but his degradation was total. The independent man, trained to be self-reliant, had to be dressed like a child. I led him to the outhouse, undid his braces and opened his trouser buttons. I went out and waited till he’d done his business. Then I went back to do things in the opposite order. He got bathed in a big tub in the living room. Naked, shaky, sitting with withered ankles in the bathwater he seemed helpless and far distant – already departed, gone away somewhere. His eyes looked over us and past us, allowing others to wash, dry and dress him as if we were perfect strangers. It felt difficult to touch him.

During summer there were two more seizures. Grandfather vomited, his limbs trembled and pounded: for the first time in my life I heard the word ‘Dear’ from my shocked grandmother’s mouth. Both times the ambulance arrived, siren shrilling, and took Grandfather to hospital.

Some time later he was brought home again, worse than before. We could no longer lead him to the outhouse: equipment had to be provided in the form of a large grotesque yellow plastic container in the middle of the living-room floor. Grandfather sat there on his pail, looking pained, and I could see what was hurting him most.

In the autumn school began again, and it became impossible to keep Grandfather at home. He was put into the sick bay of an old folks’ home. I went now and then to see him there. He was already far away; the strawberry yoghurt he was fed, using a little spoon, flowed from the corners of his mouth, and the brittle shiny skin on the back of his hands went transparent from time to time, the warmth fading from his hands.

I lie on the ground, watching the tops of the big birch trees sighing, and I become intoxicated with the prodigy of the slow leaden light. The sun enters me like a substance. I’m tipsy with the corn dust, the sun, and the warmth of the earth. The rest is silence. And mindlessness.

People return to the terrain of their birth when they’ve either become pensioners, made their escape from prison, or lost their faith. That is their right. I shan’t go back. I shall leave. It’s August. I lie here on this holy ground. The earth feels as warm as the skin of her I love. I lie on it as if on my woman, her heavy breasts and soft loins spread beneath me, her sweat and breathing known to me, her breathing sounding in my ears like the sea: she who, when she weeps, is more beautiful than ever, whose hair adheres to her forehead like grass on the cellar roof. She opens her thighs and takes me into her arms, and the corn dust explodes in the sun. I make her pregnant and she gives birth to me yet again. Kisses: the way it’s possible to die after them. Soon the leaves will start falling like stones, we’ll stare at the leaves on the grass in the light of the streetlamps, the tits will begin peeping indoors. We’ll have time for eternity.

I can leave.

Grandfather died on December 13th, 1973. I was a month off eighteen. The day was black, wet and misty. I didn’t react very dramatically to the news. That morning we set off for the old folks’ home to look at him for the last time. In the dim light we stood around before going in, waiting for the arrival of the hearse. The undertakers’ representatives were a youngish man and an even younger girl, a garishly made-up wench. They went along to Grandfather’s sick bay to clothe him and lay him in the coffin. Then the coffin was carried to the home’s hallway, laid on the linoleum floor and opened. The other inhabitants were cooped in their rooms like animals during this moment of devotion, to protect them from witnessing what lay ahead of them.

Grandfather’s face was tranquil, stern, as if he’d recovered some of his former distinction and returned to his former self. I could imagine him sitting in his armchair with his specs on, looking severe as he read the newspaper. For the first time in my life I smelled the sweet smell of death. Grandfather was dead. The coffin lid was put back in place and screwed down with cross-shaped screws. We accompanied the hearse to the chapel of rest and returned home.

In the evening I went into town and drank myself silly. Back home at night I quarrelled with my father. I didn’t weep. I refused to carry Grandfather’s coffin. December was dark, snowless. The funeral was arranged to be before Christmas. I was bought a new jacket and black trousers. At the funeral itself I thought about other things; I was somehow petrified, the women’s weeping and sobbing irritated me. At Christmas it rained. I crept secretly outside and smoked a cigarette. I stood behind the house under the eaves and looked at the black earth and the rainy sky, the dimness of the city, the dirty lights, the factory chimneys and the twinkling electric candles in the neighbours’ windows. Grandfather was dead, gone.

Give the earth back again. Give all the earth to the poor, to those who have nothing and are so poor they’ve never even thought of getting or owning, who are like he was on this earth, the mighty host of the poor, most of the Arabs and some of the French people too, who live or stay alive through doggedness and toughness, the sole right that means anything in the world, the right of the poor, give them the earth as something holy is given to those who are holy, and then I, poor once again and banished to the worst place of exile at the extreme edge of the earth, shall finally smile and die satisfied, knowing that the earth I’ve loved so much and those I’ve honoured are finally united under the sun.

I sit on the warm ground and listen to the earth speaking. In the sky a ragged, mistily configured cloud has appeared, a meaningless being. That’s the way things happen. I close my eyes and nevertheless know that the corn dust is glittering in the sun. The drying machines are humming, the south-west wind is bringing the scent of corn.

I shall sell this land and I don’t know what will happen to me. One has to let go of what’s important.

My grandfather’s rooms, the trees in the yard, the fields, the potato patch. There I was intact and whole, unscathed. I’m not adopting some banal sociological stance, pro country life as against city life, but indicating an irresistible fact, something man cannot escape. It’s like the sun that’s everywhere and did once penetrate you to your depths with its ray, at a moment you couldn’t choose for yourself. That’s why I have to go. Grandfather’s rooms are everywhere. My family is a crowd of old people that gather together in the grave and before that gathered in houses where meaningless goods are distributed – announcements of death, rugs, old deeds, family trees, reindeer antlers, a camel from Fuengirola whose tail forms a calendar – and finally, passed on from family to family, as if the most valuable item of all, a little bottle of Russian perfume Aunt Lempi brought from Petroskoi in the Twenties. Lempi had heard that Grandfather was a newspaper agent and thought it meant he was a journalist; and at first she didn’t dare say anything to her brother for fear her word would pass on, via the editor, to the Soviet Union. The perfume has turned black as clotted blood with a label no one can read, and three-quarters of it has evaporated, like time, without anyone having the heart to use it, or like Aunt Lempi’s husband, who disappeared one night without trace. No one wants anything, because everyone has everything, and we ourselves aren’t going to take it, because soon we’ll get it anyway, in our turn. The earth pulsates and opens its arms and I’m able to enter.

You who do not exist. I don’t know what you’re planning to happen through me at the ninth hour. I know it’s approaching. I take the bread, break it and eat. I take the cup and drink it. Peace be unto you! But we were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that we had seen a spirit. And he said unto us, Why are ye troubled? And why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And we gave him a piece of broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And I take it and do eat it in your sight. And thereafter a cloud can receive me out of your sight.

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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