Elmo’s fire

Issue 2/2008 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Elmo (WSOY, 1978)

After returning to Finland and Kainalniemi, Elmo got to feel like a celebrity. The various sport clubs were insufferably keen on getting Elmo into their training rings, but Elmo rebuffed them. He had belonged to Kainalniemi Sweat since he was a little boy, and that was enough for him. His mind was occupied by other matters. In the end, even his mother and father began to wonder at his attitude.

‘Why don’t you just go, since they keep asking, and since you do seem to have some talent in that direction,’ his mother urged as she made Sunday coffee from the can Elmo had brought as a gift.

‘Right. Somewhere down the road you could snatch a few gold medals out from under the noses of the others, just for the hell of it,’ his father said.

But most excited of all was Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström. He was already poring over training guides; he’d decided to engage himself as Elmo’s head coach and sure that he could soon wheedle him into training. Both the Andes winter games and the mammoth Derwanga summer games were approaching. And so it happened that within a week and a day, Elmo had been outfitted with every piece of winter and summer sporting equipment possible, and he began a merciless training schedule according to ‘Rummy’s’ instructions, aiming for those brightest of medals. And he threw himself into sport completely, with every cell of his body, in order to forget even partially his anguish and yearning: Aliisa was in Switzerland somewhere working in a sanatorium.

‘Radio Finland! The Andes winter games! Immo here! Nothing but cool to report from the slopes and gulleys of the Andes. Finland has taken her first gold medal of all time in the downhill. And from who else but Elmo. It was especially unforgettable to see the supposed Central and Southern European monster skiers’ jaws drop after Elmo’s time was reported. The Swedish favourite was heard weeping openly; you should have seen him blub!’

‘Lyly here too! Yes, of course the Swedish lad was only the favourite in his compatriots’ minds.’

‘In the five-hundred-metre speed skate, Finland, Kainalniemi and Elmo took a second gold. Elmo caused an odd murmur in the crowd as he rounded the track and crossed the finishing line first in world record-breaking time, but with a pipe in his teeth! However, none of the little or even the big boys out there should try this at home; you have to have Elmo’s psychophysical constitution before you can take on an extraordinary task like that.’

‘Elmo’s personal coach and childhood friend, Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström, explained to the international media that his protégé wanted a pipe so badly right at the starting moment that he thought it best to be permissive about the puffing; of course, along the way he probably did lose at least a hundredth of a second.’

‘But it’s all the same: jot down a new world record under Elmo’s name with a time of 35.78. Some Soviet came in second; the names just seem to forget themselves with Elmo always on people’s lips. Anyway, Sweden’s Andersson, Svensson or Karlsson came in third. And a surprising fourth was our Hungarian kinsman Endre Kiss.’

‘In ice hockey, Finland, Kainalniemi and Elmo have vanquished Sudan 12-1, Monaco 7-0, Pakistan 5-2, Norway 1-0, the USA 4-2, Czechoslovakia 2-1, Sweden 5-3, and in the final round Finland, Elmo that is, will meet Canada’s stony professionals with their tendency to resort to dirty tricks when they get frustrated. Finland’s tactic has been simple enough: except for Elmo and the goalie, Henkka ‘Barndoor’ Ryyninen, the others will arrange at least two-minute but preferably five-minute penalties for themselves, so that Elmo can have more room to toy with his opponents.’

‘You forgot to mention that Finland, Elmo that is, defeated the Soviet Union as well by a surprising margin: 18-6. The red shirts were so hot under the collar after the match that Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström was forced to pull his revolver on them to protect Elmo’s mental and physical integrity. And not only that, but after the Czechoslovakia and especially the Sweden game, murderous glances and insults unsuitable for printing in a family newspaper were flying every which way. It is certainly peculiar that the Swedes in particular will apparently never get used to taking a thrashing from the Finnish lads, or in this case, lad. What do you say, Lyly?’

‘Sure as shooting! And our western neighbour’s newsmen and commentators were vowing last night in every bar that one of their Anderssons, Svenssons or Karlssons will surely outdo Elmo and all the others today in the cross country skiing main event. And those guys were even prognosticating a triple victory for Sweden. But we’ll just have to see.’

‘Yes. The fifty-kilometre race is in full swing. At the ten-kilometre mark Nepal’s Karakatawandu was leading, an absolute surprise of a slider. Second came those three Swedes. Then Endre Kiss from Hungary. And Elmo finally in twelfth place.’

‘This news came a bit of a blow. Although, we did hear that Elmo was up all last night – he decided to participate in figure skating as well. And since this event is entirely foreign to him, he was learning all of the required forms and all sorts of jumps – triple lutzes and toe salchows until dawn.’

‘Well, we have faith in Elmo and hope that he can recover from it as the race matures. At the thirty-kilometre mark is Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström’s private inspection station and service point. It is from there that we are left to await more information. We have a radiophone connection to him. And perhaps as we wait around we could play the The March of the Pori Regiment in honour of Elmo’s achievements so far. Helsinki, take it away!’

The March of the Pori Regiment began playing with such a rattle that the vase of daisies jumped atop the radio. The Kainalniemians who had gathered at the volunteer fire brigade station sang along with all their hearts. And they clapped  their hands when, after the playing on the radio, rang out the wonderful cry:

‘Immo here from the horseshoe kettle! Can you hear me?’

‘I hear you, a little too loud and clear!’ Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström whispered gruffly. ‘Speak more quietly, so you don’t wake Elmo up.’

‘What?’ Immo blurted. ‘Yes, we-ell,’ Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström began, ‘Elmo arrived here at the thirty kilometre mark in sixth place, asked for some apples and a ‘tipple’, smoked a pipeful and said he was going to catch forty winks.’

‘Isn’t it about time, damn it all, to get him on his way for the good old blue and white!’ Immo said in a panic. ‘Four and a half million people there on the front are trembling in front of their receivers.’

‘Well, I guess I’ll have to wake him up then, over and out,’ Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström said as he broke the connection.

‘Quite a character, that Elmo,’ Lyly observed. ‘Have to speak quietly and pretend like nothing had happened. Whistle away casually.’

‘Aha,’ Immo said. ‘Now up there on the scoreboard we see the standings from the Honeywell computer. Endre Kiss is leading; it appears there are multipurpose men in Hungary as well. The Nepali second. Then those Svea mamma’s boys. Then the Soviet Unions Tolstnev. And then Elmo, Finland.’

‘The novelty division men are already starting to arrive at the finishing line. Just now there’s a private entrepreneur the size of a sky scraper from Kansas pushing along. And after him – well, can you still call that skiing?’

‘There certainly is a remarkable amount of waving. That technique would be more effective for shooing away an angry swarm of wasps! It appears to be the Australian in there flailing like a windmill towards the line; let’s just hope he doesn’t die in the final metres; although, there is always a certain sort of ceremony about the deceased. But God help us, and Jesus, isn’t that the cursed Swedish competition uniform flapping at the bottom of the hill over some tomato cheek from Scania?’

‘It is, it is, in the name of those very heavenly gentlemen, oh my…! And right there next to him I can see the Soviet Union’s all-white skiing get-up. Now it’s· time to start the watches.’

‘Elmo has three minutes, twenty-seven seconds and sixteen hundredths.’

‘Distressingly, it appears it will be that the first places go entirely unearned to Sweden and the Soviet Union. If only Endre Kiss would have been able to keep up the pace and bring home the gold to a Finno-Ugric people. Woe, woe, woe is me, it’s as if all of the lustre has gone out of the sport in this one moment!’

‘But here comes Elmo!’ Immo shouted. ‘I can see Elmo! He looks like a large, defiant giant of a pine tree, like a thousand-year-old oak, like an eternal spruce covered in beard moss, indifferent to whirlwinds, in the middle of a national cemetery! Here he comes like a band of Ostrobothnians with blades bared pulled by a double team of horses! Now downhill like quicksilver! Now uphill with the resolve of deathbed repentance! Does he have eagle’s wings on his back? Or is it the demon moose of ancient tales goading him towards the line? He lit his pipe somewhere along the way! Smoke is belching out like from an express steamer bearing the Blue Riband! Orie hundred metres of flat left! Elmo wins! Elmo brought home the gold! Elmo is the undisputed champion! Elmo is at the finish line! What a crowning achievement! And I am crying.’

The Andes winter games went down in Finnish history. Elmo also took the gold in the large hill ski jump, figure skating, luge and hockey.

‘Radio Finland! Derwanga! Immo here! The first day of finals has dawned. A full house has once again packed into the stands. At least 222,000 human ants roiling in a multicolour mass. The weather is sunny, perhaps a little too hot for Scandinavians. However, this will bother Elmo not one whit, since he has been training in Tanzania and the Solomon Islands and is now accustomed to extremely hot conditions. Elmo has made it into the finals or second round in all of the events he has participated in. Elmo’s popularity here is boundless even without all that. Last night he appeared on local cable television on the ‘Up after Midnight’ programme …’

‘Right. Lyly here! Just as a little aside, that programme was recorded and will be shown later on our national network and in other countries. Go ahead’.

‘Yes. Elmo presented his own unique arrangement of the hit Uska Dara Mamula’s Moon and an extraordinarily tender Finnish folk song, the first stanza of which was interpreted simultaneously, and so it happened that even the corners of the most hardened listeners’ eyes saw first one tear appear, and then another and so on. The song in question was that old, very touching piece that was once sung wistfully in the oilseed rape fields and why not in other fields as well:

“Come and be my wife, dear girl,
but forgive me first for all my sins:
I may remain a boy at heart for all my days,
but in your straw I will root like a man.”

‘Elmo also arm-wrestled with Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström and related in a humorous manner all of his various pieces of clothing and objects which he had lost in the most extraordinary corners of the world during his time as a seaman. To get right to the point, Elmo stole the whole show from the other presenters, who ran the gamut from hot-coal dancers and sword-swallowers all the way to Russian roulette players.’

‘But now the starter’s whistle is sounding, and the announcer is apparently asking for silence in that strange language. A hush falls over the stadium. It is entirely silent. The final in the hundred-metre dash is beginning.’

‘You could easily search for a needle in a haystack … no, no, you could hear a darning needle clatter from the table to the floor …’

‘The men are standing behind the starting blocks. From the inside lane: Tela Roki, Sudan; Barry Hotwater, USA; Jermolai Novo-Aralsky, Soviet Union; Elmo, Kainalniemi and Finland; Endre Kiss, Hungary; Stig-Gustaf Göstasson, Mike Fat, USA and Göring da Kuriosita, Brazil. Now he calls them to their marks. The men crouch like cheetahs. The air is electric, but the silence is complete.’

‘The breathlessness is downright ghostly. How odd that not even the children or elderly are crying or moaning as is their way throughout the world.’

‘And now the Ready command. The steel-sprung backs tense. It probably isn’t this quiet anywhere but in the crypt: of the Capucine Monks at noon when the dead leave off their haunting.’

‘The first start succeeded! The men explode into motion! Elmo falls! Elmo is upside down! He’s up! He overtakes the others! The last metres! He passes! He lunges! He wins! What an amazing run!’

‘The unofficial time is 9.7 and change! A new world record! And a cracking one at that!’

‘Now the field announcer is reporting Elmo’s victory as well. An absolutely unbelievable run! We’ve just experienced the most inconceivable moment in sporting history; never before has a competitor who fell during the hundred-metre dash won the race with a world record time.’

‘And now we see Elmo jumping about wildly in the middle of the field like child of nature. You don’t always have to be from the jungle for that… certainly wild jumping about is perfectly appropriate in the right place and at the right time for a Kainalniemian too … Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström has charged out with a lit congratulatory pipe to place in the teeth of his protégé. During this kind of a celebration that sort of little show is in order as well. And Elmo is chomping apples as well! But the Sudanese chap is crying. my, my…’

‘And the Soviet is pulling his hair from both sides of the parting.’

‘And what is the pride of Sweden doing? Pounding his fists on the grass field near the hammer cage so fiercely that the air is thick with soil.’

‘It looks like he’s digging a hole … surely he isn’t trying to bury himself?’

Elmo’s father laughed out loud lustily at the thought of someone digging himself a grave by hand. From somewhere in the middle of the hall someone yelled that they should start up a collection and buy him a shovel! This received jubilant support. Then they concentrated on listening to Immo and Lyly again:

‘Sport is just a game, young Göstasson!’

‘And both of the Americans are making that familiar gesture that it would be better to have their throats slashed open.’

‘Come now, crew cuts, practise and practise and then maybe next time you’ll do a little better, or gooder, as they say out your way …’

‘The Honeywell computer is already uploading the results to the scoreboard: in first place and the gold medal, Elmo, Kainalniemi and Finland, 9.72, a shiny new world record.’

Back home, everyone erupted into fresh ovations, and the municipal manager went to offer official congratulatory handshakes to Elmo’s mother and father.

‘…second place and the silver, Hungary’s man of many talents Endre Kiss 9.77; third place and the bronze chock, Tela Roki, Sudan, 9.80, a new record for Sudan and Africa …’

‘And this battle was certainly a hard blow to the US sprinting tradition …’

‘And this will particularly gall the Soviet Union’s Novo-Aralsky, nicknamed “the Express Courier of Uzbekistan”.’

‘And the favourite advertised by the Swedes, the supposed sure-thing, Stig-Gustaf Göstasson got a little something to think about. By the way, do you happen to know his nickname?’

‘Isn’t it still “the Milktrain of Umeå”?’

‘That’s it. But what would you say, Lyly, about this competition and the feelings it has aroused?’

‘The most important thing has been the upstanding sprint, ending with the best as the winner, an event which after some difficulties earned him the honour of bearing the title of the world’s fastest person. It certainly is true that often we have had to suffer bravely for the fatherland both on the track and on the sidelines. But surely the reputation and glory of the fatherland has always been in the minds of both the fallen and the finishers. The Finnish runner knows how to fall in competition. And the Finnish man also knows how to fall, when the protection of faith, fatherland, and home have so required. But the blond Finnish hero, often called taciturn, also knows how to rise! He rises and spreads his enormous wings which almost evoke fear and trembling like the Phoenix of old from the ashes and flies with tireless wing strokes to declare to the four corners of the earth the past, present and future deeds of the folk of Kalevala… surely every person who saw and experienced this run are certain of this fact.’

‘Helsinki: The March of the Pori Regiment!

Back home, they rose, careful not to jostle the benches.

‘But wait one moment. What paper is this that was just flicked onto my desk? The local errand boys sure are “greased lightning”. What does this say: “If you intend to play something, then Endre Kiss, the silver man, and I demand that alto violinist Pál Lukács play the Allegro Moderato of Schubert’s Sonata in A-Minor, accompanied by Endre Petri. This piece is also chosen to replace Our Land as awards presentation music. Elmo”.’

‘There is no choice but to humble oneself before Elmo; otherwise this sort request would be unthinkable. Well then, let every kettle be warmed in Kainalniemi and then off to find more plots of land, shoreline properties, and row house units for Elmo! And Helsinki, take it away! Franz Schubert: Sonata in Minor, Allegro Moderato movement, played by alto violinist Pál Lukács, accompanied by Endre Petri. And on these notes we end this part of our broadcast from the giant stadium at Derwanga.’

As of old to the prophet Elijah, who sat by the brook of Cherith that is before the river Jordan, the ravens brought bread and flesh in the morning and in the evening, to Elmo, Kainalniemi and Finland came gold medals in the mammoth Derwanga games. He took first place in the high dive with his highly original saltos and flashy jumps, which were tinged with a black humour. He pedalled across the finishing line first in the cycling road race, leaving behind his partner in the competition, Endre Kiss, in the final spurt by 1.83 seconds. He was best in the marathon as well, during which he took up playing a card game called Berry Bag at Reijo ‘Rummy’ Petkelström’s rest station; when news of this had sped Finland, it was proposed that Berry Bag be made a compulsory subject in comprehensive schools from the lower level on up. And when Elmo went on to flatten the Federal Republic of Germany in the football final, altogether he brought Finland twelve gold medals, that is eighty-four points, which was enough for place in the unofficial competition for supremacy among the nations. The former sporting powerhouse nations, the Soviet Union, USA and GDR failed completely – a bronze and a single paltry point trickled in here and there. Instead, the outlines of the world sporting map were redrawn by such lands as Sudan, Andorra, Nepal etc. Sweden’s Andersson, Svensson or Karlsson attempted suicide while still in his hotel room in Derwanga, but had his skin saved by his team’s alert and effective maintenance wing, and thus the Swedish sporting budget auditor was saved having to record the split itemised cost of acquiring a zinc coffin.

Grand celebrations awaited Elmo in Finland. He had been bought three homes – a sixteenth-floor apartment, a large section of row house and a large brick box, for which the name detached house was used. He also received ownership of his own lake, pond and river, two fells of different heights, a bear, a wolf, a wolverine, and a wild deer, honorary mayorships of Helsinki, Turku and Tampere, a car, a train, a ship and an aeroplane, and in a short time donations tallying over 700,000 marks collected in his bank account; there were also plans to make him a cabinet minister, an Archbishop, a Marshal and a Grand Admiral, Architect of the Realm and the Chief Director of the most important theatres and other artistic institutions.

After Aliisa’s death, the spark in Elmo went dark for almost a year and three months. At the funeral, he had to be held back by four strong men to prevent him from descending after his beloved’s coffin into the bosom of the Kainalniemi cemetery. It was horrible to see his despair and suffering. He managed to drive a rusty nail through his palm before he was bundled into a straitjacket and taken to a hospital specialising in this sort of case. Elmo bawled Aliisa’s name for days on end and vowed that they would be wed again in the constellation of Lyra.

A circus, Perth, Australia:

Elmo pulled on the tight silvery jumpsuit and place a bullet-shaped helmet of the same colour on his head. The cannon was loaded and Elmo disappeared into the barrel. He was supposed to fly into a leather tarpaulin stretched between two posts. He whispered only one word: Aliisa. After that came an eerie blast. And his journey had begun.

But some inexplicable power had got mixed up in this everyday event at this desert circus. You see, Elmo pierced the tarpaulin in a blur and then turned upright and began to climb into the sky with a deafening roar, thundering like the booster rockets at Cape Kennedy and Baikonur. Soon he had disappeared into the distance.

But long did the circus manager, Mr Durchtasche, and the Italian refugee musicians stare into the sky, not able to believe the event had actually occurred.

Elmo had settled down into orbit around the Earth. At just the right time before dark he flew over Kainalniemi, slowing his speed. He saw his father sitting and smoking at the bottom of his frosty grave. And his mother was pushing a·pram across the pathway, leading along a blackish dog with her other hand. Elmo dripped a tear of greeting at the base of the apple tree sapling planted at Aliisa’s grave, and two blossoms burst out on its tender branches. The he let himself accelerate to full speed in preparation to slingshot into space towards the constellation Lyra.

Translated by Owen Witesman


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