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Finland Then

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

My memory begins in a small town in the heart of the lake country of Finland—a town built of wood with the steep, twisting, cobbled streets ending by the shores of the lake. My father’s house had a well in the back yard which we shared with a Russian family who lived next door, and if you went out of the yard through the wooden gate, you came upon the lake at once. Beyond the lake stood the deep forests of the north and beyond these flowed other waters forming the great linked lakes of Finland.

Looking back now, it is as if I were walking through a thick fog on the forgotten shores of my childhood and only when the fog lifts, as if scattered by a sudden gust of wind, do I catch a glimpse of some day or happening that seemed at the time important to me. One of these times I see clearly —a winter’s day fading into darkness and the two sons of the Russian who was our neighbor.

Out of the chaos of things remembered, half-remembered, in my mind remains only a vague memory of the Russian boys themselves, a suggestion of thin gypsy faces, exotic and dark. Perhaps the image has grown obscure because I never knew their names. They were Russians and we were Finns, and although they lived in the house next to ours the two families had no association with each other. The way they lived and thought, even the food they ate, was so different from ours that we might as well have lived on two separate planets.

I remember the father of the Russian boys rather as a symbol of spring and summer than a man of flesh and blood.

In the spring, when the air was filled with the mist and fragrance of melting snow, he would come into the back yard with his brightly painted hand-organ and play for us some Russian tunes. He wore a red scarf tied loosely around his neck and green corduroy pants frayed at the cuffs; his brown face puckered up in a thousand wrinkles while his eyes danced with a secret merriment. He would stand in the middle of the yard and play madly the gay little tunes while the monkey who perched precariously on his shoulder jumped down to pick up the pennies we threw on the ground. If I close my eyes I can hear the music still, tinkling in the air. The monkey sits on top of our communal well, rubbing its bright old eyes; drops of water drip from every roof and tree in time to the music, and icicles hanging from the eaves sparkle in the sun.

In the summer, during the first warm days, we would see him coming down the street, pushing a small handcart before him; but now he seemed to be filled with an indescribable and aching sadness as he cried in a melancholy voice the cry of the ice cream vendors:

“A la gla-a-ass, a la gla-a-ass!”

Late in the afternoon when the wind brought from the lake a faint odor of shore rushes, we would hear his cry dying down some deserted street. We would stop in the midst of our play to listen—filled with wonder and a nameless longing.

In a way, he was part of our lives and we even felt a certain affection for him, whereas for years my brother David and I feared and evaded his sons as their fleeting and shadowy figures hovered in the dark doorways or played at dusk by the shores of the lake. Since they attended the Russian schools and went to the Russian Orthodox Church on Sundays, we were not thrown together much. We never included them in our play, nor were asked to join in theirs, and yet they delighted in teasing and tormenting us. They would hide behind trees and in cellars and would bounce on us as we were passing to take away our licorice or to pinch and slap us. Once, it happened that on a cold winter’s day they caught us alone by the lake where we had gone skating. My mother had told us not to go out of the yard as she had heard that wolves, driven by the cold and hunger, had been seen by the shores of the lake and if we had obeyed her, we would not have been in trouble later.

The lake was a frozen expanse of ice, the air shimmered in thick waves of frost, and the smoke pouring from the chimneys rose in straight columns above the town. David and I skated until the early twilight began to fall over the woods across the lake. Then we imagined we saw shadows emerging from among the trees so we took off our skates and started for home. My hands and feet were numb with cold and I had a feeling of terrible guilt when I thought of facing my mother. While we had been taking off our skates, it had grown late and the darkness had dropped like a curtain over the lake. The lights of the town seemed faint and far away and I had never before noticed how steep and slippery the bank was that fell from the street to the shores of the lake. David started to climb up the bank first, but when he got halfway up he lost his footing and slipped down again. As he picked himself up, brushing the snow off his clothes, he looked quickly across the lake where the woods had disappeared into darkness. I thought of all the stories I had ever heard of wolves coming out of the forests to snatch little children from their own back yards and I told David I would go up the bank first. I had almost reached the top when I saw the Russians boys. They were standing on the edge of the bank looking down at me thoughtfully. Above the lake, the northern lights had begun to burn, throwing green shadows on the snow and flickering across the watching faces of the Russian boys. I felt as if I were suspended high over an empty void, clinging desperately to some small crevice. Then the heavy bodies of the two boys hit me and we rolled together down onto the ice.

I had snow inside my coat collar and one of the boys had pinned my arms behind my back while the other one stood on top of my brother in his heavy boots. Every time he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, David howled with pain. The boy who had my arms pinned behind my back, picked up some snow with his free hand and rubbed my face playfully with it.

“I’ll tell my father on you,” I cried impotently, struggling to get up. “My father’s a minister.” I waited for the effect of my words as if I had said some magic charm.

The Russian boys looked at each other with a vast amusement; then they threw back their heads and laughed, their teeth showing white in the dark faces. After that, they began to whisper to each other and I cast about in my mind desperately for something to say that would make them stop whatever new torture they were planning for us. Finally, I had an inspiration:

“My father’s been to America and seen real Indians,” I said hopefully.

My words had the desired effect. Immediately the Russian boys stopped whispering and looked at me with interest, Above us on the street, snow cried sharply under the runners of a sled and somewhere a dog barked at the northern lights.

“Your father’s been in America?” asked one of the Russian boys with surprise.

I nodded my head and we stared at each other in silence. We had all read “The Last of the Mohicans” and had our own ideas about America. There in the arctic twilight of the little Finnish town, between the burning sky and the frozen lake, we saw a wilderness with rugged mountain passes, roaring rapids, and dark recesses of woods, while the yells of savages mingled with every gust of wind that issued from the endless forests of the west. We saw tangled pathways where fiercely wild and savage warriors ran with noiseless steps, and we saw the great plains where the buffaloes live.

“We are going to America some day,” said the Russian boys. They picked up their caps from the ice as if they had lost all interest in us and disappeared as suddenly as they had come. I told my brother to stop crying and act like a man.

A wood fire crackled in the tile stove in the nursery and an oil lamp threw a warm circle of light around the table. My aunt Hannah, who was visiting us, sat by the stove mending stockings and my sister Judith sat at the table cutting out paper dolls. She had designed them herself, and as she was currently admiring everything Italian, she had made them dark with “aristocratic Roman noses.” They littered the table, a sad, slightly Jewish looking paper doll family. David threw himself on his bed and burying his face in the pillow pretended to go to sleep. Aunt Hannah looked at him sharply and asked:

“What is the matter with him?”

“I bet they have been doing something bad,” said Judith smugly.

I went over to the window and hummed a tune under my breath. The cotton batting my mother had put between the inside and the storm windows sparkled as if it had been studded with diamonds and the window panes glittered with spiral frost flowers. Aunt Hannah said:

“You are singing off key again, child.”

I left the room, slamming the door shut behind me, and went down the stairs. A soft murmur of voices drifted from the parlor where Mother sat drinking coffee with three old women. They had brought their family albums with them and turning the stiff, yellowed leaves with their old-women hands they spoke proudly of their sons and a little wistfully of the past, as women always will. My mother listened quietly as they lived over some half-forgotten Christmas time or recalled snatches of conversation spoken long ago. I went in to sit on the stool before the piano. No one notices little girls who sit on piano stools, and the old women kept talking of the past in thin voices.

Somewhere in the front of the house a door slammed and Father burst into the parlor. His nose was red with cold and his mustache dripped with frost. He nodded absently to the old women and after kissing Mother on the cheek walked back and forth in the room. Finally he cried in an angry voice:

“The Russians have just published another manifesto making it compulsory for students to study Russian history in the Russian language.”

“When I was young,” said one of the old women, “I found the history of the Russian people a fascinating subject.”

“Oh, this is just another plan to Russianize the Finnish people,” said Father. “My brother David is going to write a letter of protest to the Tsar.”

“My!” cried the old women. “That seems a dangerous thing to do. Very dangerous 1” They shook their heads with regret.

My father muttered something no one heard. However, he had broken the spell of the afternoon, and the old women gathered up their belongings and went away.

At night, I lay awake listening to the creaking of the boards in the old house. There were many footsteps hurrying past the house below on the street. Mother came into the nursery, and after looking closely at David, who was crying in his sleep, she bent to pick up a discarded blanket from the floor. I asked her:

“Mother, who walks in the night?”

“The men of Finland walk in the night,” said my mother.

I fall asleep and dream I am walking through the streets of the little town at that hour of dusk when the street lamps are not as yet lighted. It is snowing and the whirling flakes blind my eyes as I try to peer ahead on the street that is already deep in snow. I am holding tightly to my mother’s hand and suddenly I feel her shaken by sobbing. My heart beats slowly, painfully, and a great sadness comes over my spirits for I have no words to comfort her as she walks crying through the snow.

In March, the snow banks piled against the sides of the buildings began to shrink, and when the wild geese came trailing their legs across the blue skies, they looked down to see patches of black earth in the back yards. Judith and I walked across the town into the woods where the pussy willows grew and picked an armful for my mother. The snow lay still deep under the evergreen trees but in the silence you could hear running water under the snows—thin, like a child’s laughter.

I said to Judith that an old woman had once told me if you kept a willow bud warm it would grow into a live kitten, but she said it was not true. At home, I wrapped one of the soft, gray buds in cotton batting and looked at it every day to see if it was growing. Since nothing happened the first few days, I forgot to look at it again. Later, when I found the willow bud behind the tile oven, it was withered-brown. I held it in the palm of my hand, wondering at the broken promise.

After the April sun and wind had driven the ice off the lakes, we rowed out to an island with my father. Father and David made birch-bark baskets for mother to bake the Easter pudding in, and I picked a bunch of white violets, but they died in my hand on the way home.

My mother’s lilac bushes bloomed under the windows filling the rooms with their heady smell, and our blood ran quick and restless in our veins. When the schools closed, mother packed our clothes in wicker baskets, we left our shoes in the closet at home, and went away in a boat with the name “Pohja” painted on its white side.

The boat went in and out among the islands that were narrow strips of land flung upon the waters, grooved by the moving ice of the past ages.

“This is the truth according to legend,” said Father, his words small against the sky and water. “In the half-forgot-ten time, hardly in the memory of man, our Lord and Saint Peter walked hand in hand through the countries and across the oceans of the world. On their travels they came to Finland—once, when the summer night had just fallen.” Judith sat on the deck, her arms wrapped around her bare legs, staring thoughtfully at Father as if weighing the truth of his story. A blue dragon-fly lighted on a rock near the shore and a fish jumped out of the water, flashing silver in the sun. Father continued:

“Our Lord and Saint Peter sat together under a birch tree growing at the mouth of a narrow sound. Its bark shone white in the half-darkness and its leaves whispered softly above the holy men. Saint Peter said to the Lord Jesus:

” ‘We have, indeed, come to a poor and miserable land. The people are ill-favoured and laden with cares, the meadows are small and rocky, and no other fruit grows except the berries in the swamps.’

“Jesus smiled and answered Saint Peter:

” ‘It may be true that the land is barren and the grain ought to have a quicker growth, but the people are not poor for they have kind and pure hearts.’

“As the Lord Jesus spoke, a curious brightness spread over the waters, the wilderness disappeared and frost lifted from the fields.”

The boat “Pohja” went slowly past the islands into an open stretch of water. On a distant hillside, a farmhouse stood in the noon sun and the sound of cowbells drifted across the lake. My Father ended the legend, saying:

“After this, the Lord and Saint Peter went again on their way but to this day as you sit under a birch tree on a summer evening, the smile of our Lord lights up the sleeping waters.”

Late that night, we saw a bird-cherry bloom among the birches staring at their image in the tranquil water and from the heart of the forest came the tentative call of a cuckoo bird to its mate. Slowly the midnight sun bathed the lake in that mystic brightness neither daylight nor dusk and Judith knew Father had told a true legend.


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