A happy day

12 August 2010 | Fiction, Prose

‘Muttisen onni eli laulu Lyygialle’ (‘Muttinen’s happiness, or a song for Lygia’‚) a short story from Kuolleet omenapuut (‘Dead apple trees’, Otava, 1918)

‘Quite the country gentleman, eh, what, hey?’ says Aapeli Muttinen the bookseller. ‘Like the poet Horace – if I may humbly make the comparison, eh, dash it? With his villa at Tusculum, or whatever the place was called, given to him by Maecenas, in the Sabine hills, wasn’t it? – dashed if I remember. Anyway, he served Maecenas, and I serve  – the public, don’t I? Selling them books at fifty pence a copy.’

Muttinen’s Tusculum is his little plot of land in the country. A delightful place, comforting to contemplate when the first signs of summer are beginning to appear, after a winter spent in town in the busy pursuit of Mammon, under skies so grey that the wrinkles on Muttinen’s forehead must have doubled in number. A summer paradise of idleness…

It lies a fair distance from the town, in the region where he was born: a villa set on a hill, where the shores of Lake Saimaa break up into a labyrinth of capes and inlets. Through the leafy birches his balcony peeps out over the water.

There Aapeli is happy, especially during those first days of summer when he is still so weary and worn after his exertions in town, and once again the idea of idling in the country has all the charm of something fresh and inexhaustible.

So tiring has he found it, perched up there behind his counter, raking in his beloved money, that by springtime his poor brain is no longer capable of thoughts, or even of memories. He longs only to escape into the bosom of Mother Nature, to laze, to do no more than exist. Not as Muttinen, not as anything at all: not as a philosopher, not even as a fat pig. To be nothing, to be no kind of creature at all.

Happiness for him, as summer begins, is an absence of all thoughts and memories, an existence in the present, an indefinable peace.

The most beautiful days, the ones with the fewest thoughts and memories, are those very first days of summer: and the nights of clear golden light, enfolding him in a warm and wordless happiness.

On a morning in earliest summer, after a night spent neither sleeping nor waking, neither reading nor thinking, but lying back quietly, his yellowing eyelids half closed in a pleasant drowse, he gets lazily to his feet and opens the door to his balcony, which he can reach directly from his room. Straight in front of him, just below the railing, into which designs have been cut in the old country fashion, there are bird-cherry trees, white with blossom, the spreading branches exhaling a sweet fragrance. Untouched by grubs, the blossoms are fresh and sound; the trees seem sprinkled allover with rice-grains, or to have snow piled on their branches, for there are buds in plenty, and blossoms just beginning to open. The scent of them steals right into the room.

Each side of the cherry trees, the summer morning sparkles in the bright warm light. It is still early. Lygia – for just as Horace in his day had his eight slaves, the gift of Maecenas, and many ‘Lydias’, so Aapeli has his ‘Lygia’ (he would think it impertinent to give his own beloved exactly the same name as Horace gave to his) – Lygia sleeps elsewhere. The shadows of the trees over there in the hollow are still elongated and cool. A light mist, rising gently from the water and its marshy edges, hovers over the inlet’s verdant shore. Each blade of grass, even the tiniest, bears on its tip a glistening droplet, sparkling with many colours. A cuckoo calls. A tremulous beauty shimmers everywhere. Muttinen chuckles at the sight of those blades of grass with dewdrops on their noses. For a while he still idles; then, suddenly impatient, wakes Lygia  – in true Horatian style, for his great paunch is demanding tea, and he would like to enjoy it out there on the balcony, with a dozen cuckoos in attendance to provide a joyful chorus.

For breakfast there are grilled perch, with potatoes: large, freshly caught perch, of which Aapeli consumes a prodigious number, as well as six boiled eggs and half a dish-full of jam, swilling it all down with a jug-full of soured milk; after which he leans back contentedly, with a full stomach.

And now he is setting out with Lygia, who is wearing a loose dress with a swinging skirt, and carries in her hand a large bunch of spirea and purple lilac blossom, which she holds up to hide her bright, mischievous eyes: they are going to take a walk, to look about them, to pass the time, as is their custom on these pleasant summer days. In her other hand Lygia has a little luncheon basket, but Muttinen has not omitted to stuff his pocket with dried figs.

Or sometimes they will go on rowing expeditions, out on to the open waters of Lake Saimaa, and dawdle across to the mainland opposite, which shows as a pale bluish smudge in the distance. The birches on the shore have just come into leaf; their long drooping branches are soft in outline, like green ostrich feathers. From the mouth of the bay more distant landscapes can be seen: in the summer haze no details or colours are distinguishable, all is indefinite, bluish, and misty-like a dream.

The sun grows warmer and warmer. The clouds reflected in the deep water of the open lake are of many colours. When the mood takes him, Muttinen rows on, sweating and silent…

Ah, the water! Here and there on the surface are glittering patches like clusters of emeralds: they are ladybirds, every one of their green shards flashing a piercing ray. ‘Look, Lygia,’ Muttinen says, ‘some jewels for you.’ Ladybirds that have set out to swarm above the broad expanse of the sound, and have fallen into the warm water and been drowned, most of them in pairs. Some are still alive. Often they are close together, floating like strips of embroidery on the water: thousands of bright green shards, the whole sound is full of them.

On the further shore they climb gently up the slope, leaving below them the lakeside meadow, which is ablaze with globeflowers, balls of brightest yellow. They reach the ridge leading to the village. Here and there bird-cherries bloom and leafy rowans spread their branches. Sometimes, from the winding road, they glimpse the old manor house with its screen of aspen; or some humble grey farmstead set among bright fields of sprouting corn.

Anon they descend again, leaving the hilltop for the cool shade of the hollows.

Dazed by the early summer sunshine into a deep contentment, intoxicated by the scent of the birches and of the whole burgeoning forest, they become more and more silent: the further they go, the less they need to speak. On their way down they find a place to sit, in the shade of a tall and spreading birch. Taking off their shoes and stockings, they remain there a long time, Aapeli enjoying memories of his childhood, bareheaded, the wisps of hair round his bald pate blowing gently about in the breeze. He knows every stone along this path. From time to time Lygia turns and looks at him, delighting in the summer.

Then they walk on, along a track shaded by alders. Streamlets from above burble gently across it, then plunge into the dark shadow of the trees. Lygia bends down to drink from one of them, taking water into her cupped hands from between the moss-covered stones: bright, fresh, happy, sparkling water. Resting on her hands, she looks up mischievously at Muttinen, who gives her an absent-minded smile and makes some playful remark, but thinks merely ‘Lygia!’ And when they come to some spot known to Aapeli in his childhood and he mutters, half to himself, ‘I used to come along here when I was only so high’, Lygia presses close to his side and murmurs something kind and tender, as if to a child, picturing fat old Muttinen as that little boy, only so high, trotting along at her side. And she sighs, dreaming of something else…

They walk along the shore of a reedy inlet. The small, rocky islets have the sheen of slightly blackened tin. Here and there people in their shirtsleeves are fishing from rowing-boats: the sound of their quiet, happy conversation carries far across the water.

Over on the other side, shouting and squealing, some girls are swimming, some in their vests, others naked.

Muttinen and Lygia pass on, and settle down to picnic by the shore, installing themselves on a shiny, heat-drenched boulder, where they light their fire and put the pot on to boil. There they lie to await their meal, Muttinen happy, without a thought in his head, just enjoying the summer and that is all…

The sun is hot, they close their eyes, not looking into the boundless blue depths of the kindly sky. The warmth is all around them: everywhere in the woods there is the clink of many cowbells, merging into a continuous murmur, and the loud sigh of the wind in the trees is lulling and delightful. Let it pass, let the time pass, it is summer, it is warm! There is a strange melancholy in the sound of those clinking bells, like a hesitant reminder of something half forgotten…

Short is man’s life, still shorter a happy day. The afternoon is already well advanced when they begin to make their way homewards, to the spot on the shore where they have left the boat, both of them feeling on their skin the enervating heat of the insistent sun, bodies and souls drenched in an ecstasy of light. In silence across the meadows, up slopes and down the other side, to the music of the cowbells and the cuckoo’s call.

Now and then they pause on the hot granite of the capes, where the reflection from the water dazzles the eye, to linger idly for a while and take a rest. And they fall into a yet deeper silence, engulfed in a contentment vaster and vaguer than before. The sprigs of lilac on Lygia’s warm bosom have withered, but under the brim of her soft hat her smiling eyes are full of kindness.

Low down yonder on the shore of the bay stands an old cruciform church, half concealed by the luxuriant foliage of the graveyard trees. The presence of this graveyard serves somehow to intensify their happiness, reminding them how short these moments are, as they pause in the shade of a tall sallow, its leafy branches quivering as though in grief.

It is evening; the ending of a day that has filled their veins almost to bursting-point with its glowing heat, dazed their heads with the warm forest scents of summer. Coolness descends, and a deeper peace. They row, with gentle strokes, in the direction of home.

The smoky sun has veiled everything in a strange half-light, making the world mountainous, and concealing every last detail from view; it has made the shore remote, merged hills and forests in a misty unity – this evening haze of early summer, which never comes nearer or decreases or clears away, as when the sun sets in midsummer or autumn. In silence they glide over the warm water, passing many islands on either side. Lygia has put aside the paddle; she leans forward, her hands gripping the sides of the boat, as if in excitement, or in expectation of something even more wonderful to come. Sometimes a little exclamation escapes her, a short, low, tender cry of delight in the world’s beauty, or a shout of pleasure at the thrush’s song; for evening has fallen and night is near  – a night that will hardly get dark at all – and the voice of the thrush rings out over the woods. But Muttinen silences her with a jocular word or two: so deep and indefinable is this inner joy of his, that it craves silence.

The boat glides on through a deep, narrow channel leading out into more open water. Lygia feels a sudden fright: before them, like a bastion guarding the entrance to the lake beyond, rises a great wall of rock, an island that towers (or so it seems to them at this moment) many hundreds of feet straight up out of the water, so oddly does the evening haze exaggerate the shape of the high rocky edge. ‘Look, Böcklin’s Island of the Dead,’ Muttinen whispers. ‘I’m frightened,’ Lygia replies in a low voice, and the closer they come to the great wall of stone, the more she shivers in a strange ecstasy, fearful at the sight yet awed by its beauty. And now, as they pass below, it thrusts out great boulders and masses of rock which seem to be poised immediately above their heads. The hawks cry shrilly from their nests on the topmost crag. Here and there, growing from cracks in the rock wall, small green saplings of rowan catch the fading light. The boulders on the cliff appear so precariously loose that one would expect the slightest movement to dislodge them. They frighten even Muttinen. Beneath them is the water, black and immeasurably deep. Lygia’s voice becomes quieter, more tender: ‘Oh look, how pink the moss is, look at that rowan high up there on the cliffside, how tiny it looks!’ Muttinen smiles back: ‘Shh, not a sound, not a whisper, or you’ll bring down one of those loose rocks…’

The expanse of Saimaa has lost its true dimensions, so vast does it appear in the dim brief twilight of the summer night. Perhaps it is already as dark as it is going to be. Even now, the sun has not quite set. Out there a tugboat moves across the open water: its red light twinkles prettily through the haze, the chug of its engine has a mysterious sound. On board, someone is playing a concertina.

After the tug has passed, its wash fans out in swelling waves which catch the last rays of the setting sun. The waves are so big that the boat is tossed this way and that, lifted up into the air and dropped into the glinting trough as each wave rolls past. They are so smooth and rounded that they shine like mirrors, reflecting a dazzling, gleaming light, now red, now dark and metallic, from the glowing sunset.

Tusculum… an indefinable happiness, lasting for that brief moment that constitutes a summer night.

But when the twilight has lifted and Lygia has left him, wearing over her shoulders a yellow shawl embroidered with flowers; and when the sun, having closed its eyes for a moment, opens them once again, shining in through Aapeli’s windows, sending its flashing rays across the wooded hills, and peeping through the blossom-laden bird-cherry trees which he can see from his bed through the open door  – and the small birds’ morning chorus all but drowns the cuckoo’s call, Muttinen is aware of a sound from Lygia’s room: a muffled sobbing, which she tries in vain to control. Muttinen understands its meaning.

And his fat body tosses and turns in anguish.

‘A happy day,’ he murmurs to himself. ‘Yes, a happy day gone! Only one, but one is enough for me. I don’t believe in lasting happiness… I wish I could give you what you long for, my dear  – you believe in happiness. I could, if I believed in it myself. Happiness does not stay, Lygia, it slips away: love always fades, even the tenderest, as I know too well, fat old lump that I am. The days of deepest bliss pass like a day of early summer. Ripeness, decay….’

Muttinen, whose moments of happiness are so few, feels that he has no right to pass on to others, to another generation, the burden of life, which after all is mostly evil, mostly pain.

Translated by David Barrett (1914–1998); first published in Books from Finland 4/1981)

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