I cannot say why or how we moved to another house. When I let memories flow into my mind, I see a new house, an uneven, sloping yard partly covered with sparse trees, a sandy street, and on the other side of it a wide stretch of open ground and a cluster of small, old cottages.
But let us begin with my home. We now had the use of two rooms, but we only went into the sitting room on the few occasions when we had visitors. As a rule we lived in the kitchen. There we had our meals, there we slept, washed, dressed, and undressed, and there too was Father's rocking chair.
The special thing about the rooms was their newness and freshness. The floors and ceilings smelled of paint, and the timbered walls, as yet unpapered, smelled of wood and of the tar-impregnated packing stuffed into the cracks between the logs.[p. 30]
It was here that I first became aware of the kind of furniture around me. All I remember of the sitting room, or "best" room, is a wide, reddish-brown bed, which could be pulled out lengthwise, new rugs, new chairs, and a new table, on which was a much heavier and larger lamp than in the kitchen. Perhaps that is all there was. There was a bed in the kitchen too, but it was black and opened at the side. There was also a table at which we had our meals, some worn chairs, a rocking chair, a wooden chest of drawers and on it the water pails. There were long, narrow rag rugs on the floor, but they looked much older than the ones in the best room, and in places the floor itself soon had the paint worn off. Here too were my toys, the stones and bits of wood. On the wall hung Father's and Mother's clothes. And the most important object of all was the food cupboard, with all sorts of good things on the shelves—homemade bread, on which butter was spread, buns, sugar, and sometimes even cakes.
When I went out in the mornings, I had only to go down two or three steps and I was on the ground. For the people who lived on our left it was still easier; they had only one step, as they were at the top of the slope. But the neighbors on our right had to walk down five or six steps before they reached the yard, as the ground there was so low, on the street level.
On the left at the top of the slope was the same kind of outhouse as at the old house, but it was brand new, the color of clean boards. Our part of it was only a tiny privy, to which we went secretly for a little while, closing the door carefully. Our firewood was under the house. We had no pig since Mother and Father didn't like them, but some people kept them, and there were several in the two pigsties. One of these belonged to the two brothers who owned the house, the other to the tenants.
I usually went straight ahead after I came down the steps, and so went in among the trees. The slope rose higher here [p. 31] than by our steps. I was in a little grove, with moss-covered rocks and low-growing shrubs of blueberries and cranberries. When I went on a little farther, I reached the top of a big rock and the highest point of the ridge. I could see the house next door, their level yard and the other side of the ridge, which was very steep. In fact there was something frightening about it; the smooth rock fell sharply away, there were boulders and piles of stones. There were only a few trees, and they too seemed the worse for their difficult position, their grim struggle for life. Moss grew here and there, but not a single blueberry or cranberry. This strange side of the ridge seemed bare, desolate, and dangerous; I always stopped some distance away to look at it, and only for a little while. A sense of unknown danger forced me to turn away and to forget every time what the other side of the ridge was like.
I would turn to the right, where the ridge sloped gradually down, ending in a brink about ten feet above the street, where the roadmakers at one time had excavated the rocky bed of the ridge. The cutting at this point was even steeper than the side near the next-door house, but it never frightened me. The steepness had been made by people; it was the work of man.
Here at the broken end of the ridge, beside the road, was the foundation of an unfinished house and a lot of building refuse from one that was ready: logs, planks, broken and unbroken bricks, bricklayers' tools, clay, and sand. In the early days, this was my favorite playground. I no longer broke stones, as I had lost my stonehammer. I had taken a fancy to bricklaying and made good use of everything here.
And here I had my first dangerous experience. I don't know what I made the other days, but on that day I was making an oven. I remember quite well. I took bricks from a pile, one after the other, and carried them at a run to a small flat spot by the steep side of the ridge. Each time I laid the brick I had [p. 32] brought in place before going to get another one, and the oven I was making got bigger and bigger. But then something happened. I must have run off from the pile with a large brick in my arms towards my oven, in just the same way as before, but I never got there. Perhaps my feet led me astray, perhaps I forgot my safe path and went another way. At any rate, I suddenly stepped out of the everyday world into unknown darkness.
With the brick in my arms, I stepped off the broken end of the ridge onto the roughly levelled stone surface of the street ten feet or so below. No one saw me, and I plunged into darkness, or rather into sleep, a dreamless sleep in which all awareness of existence vanishes.
How long was it before I came back into our world? Perhaps quite soon. The day was still as fine and sunny as before, and there was not a soul to be seen in the street. The brick I had been carrying lay beside me, its edges battered. My head hurt. Not much, only a little. When I sat up and touched my forehead I felt something funny, and when I looked at my hand, I saw blood. My own dark-red blood, and it had stained my whole hand.
I gave a startled cry, scrambled to my feet, and fled. I ran home. My whole body was shaking and I rushed sobbing into Mother's arms, pressing in as deeply as I could, to get away from that strange power which had drawn me off my safe path.
"What are you crying for, my boy?" Mother said, not understanding my tears and the cause of my flight.
But when she saw the blood on my hand and my bruised head, she consoled me.
"You've fallen and hurt your head," she went on. "Dear, oh dear, you poor wee thing. Mother will bathe your head and bandage it up."
Mother washed my forehead in warm water and then bandaged [p. 33] my head with a strip of clean cloth from one of Father's old shirts. Gradually I calmed down, but I knew I had experienced something very dangerous. For a long time I didn't dare go back to the ridge, but stayed near home or went along the street.
Only now, too, did I get to know the broad meadow on the other side of the street and the cluster of old cottages. In the nearest cottage was a sauna, where I went for my bath with Mother and Father, but all the other cottages were strange to me. When I was alone, I didn't go farther than the gate, even though there seemed to be children in those cottages. I think all the people on our side of the street were frightened of them and spoke ill of them. I did not as a rule play at the gate, but looked and wondered at the big wide world and at all the different things I could see in it—the new and the old houses, the good and the bad people, the town and the woods, the level ground and the high hill just visible in the middle of the woods, much higher even than the hill from which I had seen Father both beside me and swimming far out at sea. No wonder that at the edge of the broad meadow I began to evolve the first thoughts of my own, though as yet they did not become very intelligible.
Later, the following summer, I explored farther afield and found much that was new, but now I always turned back at the gate. There was another spot that I soon became familiar with. My mother's sister and her family lived in the same house. Their steps were much higher than ours, perhaps as high as those we had had in our first home. Having climbed up to the front door, which was in two parts, I opened the right-hand side, went through a dark hall, and opened a second door. I was then in a strange kitchen, which nevertheless I knew quite well from the very first. The mother in it was much fatter and taller than mine and her face was pock-marked. I liked her because she always gave me something [p. 34] good to eat and because her five children were all bigger than me, some of them already the size of grownups.
When I went to see my big, fat aunt in the daytime I would find her alone in the kitchen. She always greeted me cheerfully and sat me down at her big kitchen table.
"Are you hungry, my boy?" she would ask. "Here we are now, have some of this pancake."
And quick as a wink she put something tasty to eat on the table, before I had time to say whether I wanted it or not. This I liked, as my shy nature refused everything when it had to resort to words. Here I had no need to speak at all, but could start eating something good right away. Today a pancake, tomorrow stewed blueberries, the day after tomorrow cranberry pudding, sometimes homemade cake or fancy cakes bought at the shop. We had these at home too, but they were never as good as here.
As I ate all the good things put before me, I would watch my aunt out of the corner of my eye as she bustled about the kitchen. I answered her questions in monosyllables, and hardly gave an ear to her endless chatter. What interested me most, apart from the delicacies, was the speed at which she worked. She cooked large pots of food, darned socks, patched shirts and underpants, ironed the girls' petticoats and dresses, hurried out with the slop pail and brought back a tub of clean water, and fetched firewood in an enormous basket. Everything here was done at a faster rate than at home or anywhere else I knew. That is why I liked it.
And the pace kept getting wilder as the others came home. First came the schoolchildren, a girl several years older than me and a big sturdy boy. They both demanded food at once, biting greedily into the bread and gulping down the milk. They took no notice of me until they had satisfied their hunger. The boy would then start abusing me with a string of stupid gibes, which hurt me. But the girl would at once take [p. 35] my part, stroking my head and praising me, saying what a good little child I was, and so pretty—the nicest and best-behaved little child in the world, and everyone must be kind to me. The boy would laugh scornfully, taunting me with still more impudent words which I could hardly understand and starting to push and poke both me and his sister. Because of me the two schoolchildren would have started quite a fight if the boy had had more time. Fortunately he was in a hurry to get to his own affairs. Having jeered at his sister and me and pushed us roughly, he usually fished out some mysterious objects from under the bed and was out of the door like lightning.
"Oh, he is horrid," the sister said, stamping her foot.
"Now don't say that," her mother said, trying to pacify her. "Boys will be boys. Even your good little boy will be like that when he grows a bit."
But the girl wouldn't hear of this, and began to play with me. I didn't care for this at all. First I was made to sit up in a chair or on the floor, then I was put to bed. I was brushed and combed and dressed in strange clothes; I had this and that pushed into my mouth, but seldom anything nice. Sometimes this schoolgirl, who was only a few years older than I was, snatched me into her arms in a rush of feeling, squeezed me passionately to her breast and whispered in my ear, "You're my own little boy, my very own little boy."
That is how emotional and passionate girls can be. If this game had gone on for long, I would certainly have made my escape. But I knew beforehand that I would soon be set free. As soon as the other schoolgirls had had something to eat in their own homes, three or four of them, sometimes more, rushed in and I was forgotten. The girls played among themselves in another room, where I was not allowed, or went outside.
The crowning point of the family's daily life was in the [p. 36] evening, when the father and two of the older children came home. The eldest boy, dressed in the handsome livery of a coachman, probably didn't come home until much later in the evening, but all the others now gathered round the big table. Auntie lifted the big pot onto the table and filled everyone's plate. Uncle cut the big loaf into slices and spread them thickly with butter. The steam from the hot soup hovered round the whole group. They all began to eat heartily, and only the parents and elder children were allowed to talk. The moment the younger children tried to say anything, Uncle glared at them fiercely, and if that didn't help he started tapping the table with the handle of his sheath-knife. That was enough. The youngest ones grew as quiet as mice. They had a stern father.
This head of the family was particularly interesting because he spoke a funny mixture of Finnish and foreign words. It was he who told me that there were also Swedish-speaking Finns in the world. My mother explained it to me when we got home from our first visit together. Even so, it almost shocked me. Every time he started to speak, I gave a start, and listened with mouth agape to every word he said. It was often difficult to understand them, and it seemed especially odd when he placed our Finnish words in the wrong part of the sentence. On top of everything else, it would have been quite laughable, if one had dared to laugh. But I kept as quiet as possible so that I would not be noticed and so that he would even forget I existed.
Uncle did not seem to bother much about his wife and youngest children. He made the children keep silent, as I said. He expected his wife to wait on him hand and foot, telling her curtly to give him this or give him that, pass this or pass that. The stout, pockmarked woman had to keep an eye out every second in case her husband wanted something, and for this reason she had no time to talk at all. It was the two [p. 37] elder and superior children who did the talking. The boy was a clerk in one of the town's large grocery stores and the girl an apprentice at a milliner's. I've no idea exactly how they were dressed, but it was because of their clothes that they seemed far above the rest of us. This lofty position was further emphasized by their speech, their gestures, the way they wore their hair, everything about them. Their stern father was humble in their presence, taking part in the conversation chiefly by asking questions. He was greedy for knowledge, and the elder children had to feed him with information about everything under the sun. And well informed they were, too. The boy, in particular, seemed to know everything about the past and the present, about our country and the world in general. No matter what their father asked, they had glib answers and were ready with all kinds of explanations, sometimes even in Swedish, as apparently they could not explain the matter sufficiently clearly in Finnish. At one time these two favorite children had gone to a Swedish-speaking elementary school, though they preferred to speak Finnish. Swedish was essential to them in their work. At that time a select grocer's and a fashionable milliner's were patronized only by the Swedish-speaking upper class.
For me, these conversations were the crowning point of my visit. As I was usually forgotten entirely, I was free to listen carefully to every word and to snap up many crumbs of new knowledge. Though I by no means understood everything, not even the meaning of all the Finnish words, I could feel my mental self beginning to grow. In fact I was now vaguely aware that some kind of spiritual ego dwelt inside me. What this part of me was like, or what it represented, I could not say, but it was at least as greedy for knowledge as the spirit of this family's father.
So much for our new home and its surroundings. To me the most important thing about it was that, from the very [p. 38] beginning, it taught me to take a much broader view of the world than before.
An historical happening confirms that I was then three years old. That autumn a general strike broke out in Finland. My memories of it are very dim. I heard rumors and at home too it was said that the town councilors and the leaders of the new labor party had met and made an agreement to fight against the Tsar. The event had caused such a stir that Mother and Father sat discussing it until late into the night, and next morning and on the days that followed Father put on his Sunday best and went someplace other than to work for several hours every day.
That is all I remember of this important event. And I had not yet come to know autumn either, though it did me harm and confined me to bed for a long time, just when I first heard Christmas spoken of.
My illness, of course, was measles. Most children have to go through it, perhaps in order to learn that life can be cruel as well as kind. I lay in the wide bed in the kitchen, breathing heavily and feeling thoroughly miserable. I probably had a high temperature. Mother would come over to me now and then to stroke my damp hair and say nicer things to me than ever before. From her I heard about Christmas. I didn't understand just what was meant by the word, but I sensed at once that by its means I would be delivered from my sorry state, and I smiled every time it was mentioned.
This first Christmas of mine was instructive in many ways. Besides teaching me to know the sufferings of illness, it taught me much else by keeping me in bed with nothing to do but look at what went on around me. I saw Mother clean our two rooms and wash the floors, beat the carpets, and shake [p. 39] the bedclothes. I was carried into the best room while my bed was aired and remade. Then as soon as the cleaning was finished, Mother set about the baking and cooking, but much more than usual. I don't remember just what food she did prepare, but during these days there was always the soft roar of a brisk fire burning in the range and on top of it two or three pots bubbled and steamed. From the oven wafted the smell of buns and rye bread, one batch after the other. Nor did Father have time to sit and rest in his rocking chair after he got home from work. First, he carried in pail after pail of water and filled the big wooden tub. Then he went down into the cellar beneath our floor and split large quantities of wood by candlelight. For a long, long time I could feel our floor shaking, and at last I saw Father carrying in armfuls and armfuls of firewood.
From the very start I had a feeling that the coming of Christmas was something remarkable; but while fighting against the exhaustion and soreness of my body I was not always up to watching what happened. Only later did the full meaning of what was going on become clear to me. Now and then I sank into a kind of torpid sleep, in which everything outside me vanished from sight and only my pain and tiredness were with me. Night and day lost their meaning, as my sleeping and waking did not follow them but went their own way. Mother, and Father too, had to get up many times in the night to stroke me and dry my hair and whisper soothing words.
The paths of sickness were confused and difficult, paths of punishment and darkness with only fitful gleams of light.
But suddenly I was free of my discomfort. I sank into a deep and dreamless sleep. I probably slept for a long time, but when I awoke I thought at first I had only closed my eyes for a moment. Looking round me, however, I saw that our two rooms had changed and were now fresh and festive. Both [p. 40] lamps were alight at the same time, and in addition our home was lighted by the candles burning on the branches of the decorated Christmas tree behind the door to the best room. The table was covered with a gleaming white cloth and was full of so many different kinds of savory food that it made my head swim just to look at it.
I was surrounded by a new light, the festive light of the dark time of year, the radiance of Christmas. I knew at once that it was protecting me with its gentle goodness and had already driven away the wickedness that had troubled me. I was still tired, but when my parents, sitting at the plentiful table, happened to glance at me, I smiled at them.
"Christmas is here now," I said quietly. "Just as you promised, Mother."
They jumped up from the table and rushed over to my bed.
"Are you better now?" Mother cried joyfully.
"He seems well enough," Father said, feeling my head. "And his hair is quite dry."
Mother brought something from the table, the sort of crisp, sweet thing I had always liked. But I didn't care for it now. I didn't want to eat, only to look.
"Just a little taste," Mother coaxed. "Just eat this little piece. I made it myself."
I merely smiled and shut my eyes again. I felt good and I knew that Christmas was all round me, though I did not look at it.
Mother and Father returned to the table and went on with their meal. I didn't understand half of what they said, but I somehow knew that they were talking cheerfully about me and believed I would soon be quite well. Only one thing did I take in clearly enough to be able to repeat it still. Mother said: "I have prayed the whole time for his life, and that is why God has been merciful to us. You should believe in Him too and pray that we never suffer another awful blow like when our first child died."[p. 41]
Only then did I hear that a girl had been born to our family before me, but that she had left this world before I arrived in it.
"Oh, I believe in God too," Father said, but his smile seemed rather vague. It was then the beginning of this century, when the old views of life still lived, but besieged by the new ones.
When I opened my eyes again some time later, they had finished their meal. Mother was clearing the table and getting ready to wash dishes. Father was standing in the middle of the floor, lighting an enormous cigar. That too was part of Christmas, as he didn't usually smoke such a thing, but satisfied his craving with a quid of tobacco. When he saw that I was awake again, he came up to me puffing at his cigar and said, "I wonder why Father Christmas is so long? Or hasn't Mother told you about him?"
I smiled and nodded. Yes, Mother had told me all kinds of things about him, though I still was not sure what sort of being he was. I had an idea, however, that in addition to being at least as good as Christmas he was also very jolly. Had I been stronger, I should certainly have been very curious about him, but I was too weak now to do anything but smile.
"I think I'll go out and see whether Father Christmas is already going the rounds of the house," Father said. "I'll try and get him to hurry up and come to us."
He gave me a slightly knowing look, his face flushed from eating and drinking, threw his best coat round his shoulders, and went out, hatless and puffing his cigar. Mother too seemed mysterious. She stood at the range washing up, saying something now and then and listening eagerly to what was going on outside. At last she went right over to the window and peered out into the dark yard.
"He's not at our steps yet."
I too tried to listen expectantly, but it taxed me too much. I lay there oblivious of whether time was passing or not. I made [p. 42] no effort to brighten up until I heard the thud of heavier steps than usual on the steps outside, like the sound of a giant's feet, and Mother exclaimed: "Now he's coming to us. What a pity Father isn't here to receive him!"
Mother took off her apron quickly and came and stood beside my bed. Our door was thrown open briskly, but no one entered. Perhaps Father Christmas thought that it wasn't worth showing himself to someone my size, and so remained standing in the dark hall. But he began tossing his presents towards my bed. Mother caught each package in the air, calling out eagerly who it was for. For you, my boy! And another, and a third. Ahaa, now I have a present, and another one! And here's a package for Father, though he isn't here to receive it. Now you again, my treasure—oh, what a big one! It must be a horse . . . Now for me . . . now for Father . . . and for you again. However many have you got?
That Christmas I certainly had more presents than ever before or since, though Father Christmas didn't show himself to me. Mother piled the parcels up on my quilt in a small mound. I watched the growing pile and the darkness behind the door out of which the presents came flying. The game seemed strange, even a little frightening, for I had not been able to make out from Father's and Mother's talk just what was happening.
But now I was so tired that not even fear bothered me very much. As the game went on, I closed my eyes again and my thoughts wandered off on their own. For a moment I forgot the extraordinary fact that it was now Christmas and that Father Christmas was throwing me his mysterious presents. All around me was summer, and now I dared to explore the meadow on the other side of the road. A lot of dandelions were growing there, and thick peat which had formed when the arm of the sea had dried up long, long ago and which squelched with every step I took. Warm summer water [p. 43] trickled sweetly between my toes. But I didn't get very far, as when the door suddenly banged shut I woke up again and opened my eyes with a start.
"Look what's here," Mother was saying. "A whistle shaped like a rooster, you blow it like this, see . . . And here are some brand-new winter boots for you. And here's a cap and here's a mouth organ . . ."
Suddenly Father appeared and began to examine the presents as eagerly as Mother. And I too tried to take another look at these things which had so suddenly materialized before me. I gazed at them in silence and touched some of them. Only when a large wooden horse stood before me and Father promised to let me get on its back when I was better, did I begin to grow excited. I seized it with both hands and snatched it into my arms. I had always loved horses, and now that I had one of my own, I forgot all my other presents.
I have no recollection of what kind of presents Father and Mother got that Christmas. The rest of my own presents were lost or broken in the days that followed, but this first horse of mine I have never forgotten. When I was well again and could get on the horse's back, I was very excited. I could ride on the kitchen floor wherever I liked and as far as my imagination could carry me. Under the horse's legs were rockers, and it was these that set me in motion and bore me from wall to wall.
But on this Christmas Eve I squeezed my horse's head under my arm with one hand and stroked its coarse mane with the other. Mother arranged it comfortably on my bed so that I didn't feel its weight. Having tired of their game, my parents sat down again at the table. Father picked up his thick bible, their wedding book, and began to read aloud in a monotonous voice. Mother sat opposite him, listening, her hands clasped.
When I shut my eyes again, I mounted my very own horse [p. 44] and, to the accompaniment of Father's voice, galloped off across the summer meadow towards the mountain and the forests beyond.
When I could get up and Christmas was over, I became familiar with winter. For a long time I only looked at it, I would climb on a chair and gaze through the window at the strange, cold, white world outside. Sometimes Mother put a lot of clothes on me and let me out. But even then all I did was to stand in front of our steps, looking around me in astonishment. It was the snow that impressed me most; it had piled up even on the roofs, and our yard was now mysteriously transformed, with footpaths twisting between the drifts.
But I could only stand a little at a time looking and wondering at this strange winter. I soon began to feel cold. There was probably a very hard frost. In any case, I soon went back inside, took off all my extra clothes, and climbed on my horse's back. These rocking, clattering rides amused me more than anything else during these winter weeks. I started riding the minute I woke in the morning, I rode when Mother went off on her errands and I was left alone, I was still riding in the evening when Father came home from work, and I rode on until sleep overcame me.
Only later in the winter, as the air grew warmer with the approach of spring and the returning sun, and the paths grew wider and dirtier, did I begin to stay out longer and make my way to different parts of the yard. But I still didn't get very far, as the drifts made it impossible to move about except on the paths made through the snow. Anyone without skis could not get across it. So my memories of this time are few, and I can recall only one interesting event, which I witnessed at close quarters.[p. 45]
It was a lovely day, and I was standing on one of the highest points of our yard, when suddenly I saw two splendid horses turn off the street and dash into our yard with the snow whirling. They stopped right in front of my stout aunt's steps, and out of the wide, black, covered sleigh stepped a handsome woman dressed in furs. She looked at our house critically and as though wondering which steps she should mount. Nor did her fur-clad driver seem able to tell her where the people lived that she had come to see.
At the same moment the whole house began to seethe with excitement. Boys appeared from nowhere and surrounded the horses and the highbred strangers, almost dumb with admiration. Some of the women peeped through the curtains, but the more daring of them gathered in a group in the yard, some distance from the new arrival, and began to whisper together eagerly.
"It's the wife of the sawmill owner," someone said. "I'm sure it's his wife. I recognize her."
"What will Mrs. Lindström say now," whispered another. "I knew all along something like this would happen," a third one croaked. "A working-class girl should know better than that."
Everyone seemed to guess why the grand lady had come to our house and everyone kept glancing at my Aunt Lindström's window as often as at her guest.
When she heard the jingle of the sleigh bells and the snorting of the horses, my aunt herself looked out of the window. Her face seemed to harden. But she did not come out, nor did she even stay at the window to gaze at the newcomer, but went on quietly with her work just as if nothing new and exciting were about to happen.
Having sized up the house and the people standing round her, the strange lady turned to the boy nearest her and asked where the Lindströms lived. The boy gave a start, straightened [p. 46] himself up, and then explained respectfully that the Lindströms' door and steps were just in front of her. The visitor turned to her coachman and ordered him to turn his horses towards the street.
"I shan't be long," she said, and began haughtily to mount the steps.
As I mentioned, I watched all that went on outside from the highest point of the yard, apart from the others. But when the lady began to go up the steps to my aunt's door, I move in my mind from the yard into my aunt's room. Perhaps I really did move inside just before the visitor, or else I'm imagining that I saw things which I only heard about later. Which is true? All I can say is that I have a clear picture of the stirring love drama that had taken place in my aunt's family.
Hearing the knock on the door, my aunt paused in her washing up and called out, a slight tremble in her voice:
The door opened, and the haughty visitor appeared on the threshold. For a moment she seemed to wait for a respectful greeting, but when my aunt went on with her work without saying a word, the lady drew herself up and said:
"I am Mrs. Kristiansson."
"Oh, I know quite well who you are," my aunt replied, glancing at her. "Everybody knows you in this town. Please take a seat. I shall be finished in a moment."
The lady did not sit down but took a step nearer to my aunt.
"I suppose you can guess why I have come to see you?" she asked.
"Of course I can."
This is the conversation, or something like it, that comes into my mind from somewhere in the past. This fine lady and her husband did not live in the town, but their large sawmill was not far outside it. Their children went to school in the [p. 47] town, and one of the sons was now seventeen. It was this lad who had fallen in love with the Lindströms' eldest daughter of sixteen, the one who worked in the fashionable milliner's. No doubt they had met in the main street, where the young people of the town, to the annoyance of the police, spent their evenings. Most of the marriages contracted at that time had their beginning on this street. No one thought any the worse of it, as the young people usually respected the class distinctions. But this was a rather shocking exception. The daughter of a common laborer and the son of a local dignitary had begun to keep company quite openly.
The reason why things had gone as far as this was that on weekday evenings there was only a maidservant to keep an eye on the lad, and he took no notice of what she said. The matter was the talk of the town before it reached the ears of the boy's parents, and in their view this only made it worse. The boy was fetched home in midweek and severely questioned, with the result that he was not sent back to school. But this did not put an end to the young people's love. Every day a strange and proud-looking letter arrived at the girl's home, in which the youth assured her of his continued devotion in spite of his parents' wishes. The girl now spent every evening reading them over and over again, weeping with sorrow and joy. That is why the lad's wealthy mama had deigned to call in person at this humble home.
So now she was standing in the Lindströms' kitchen, while her spirited horses pawed the snowy ground in our yard. No wonder all our neighbors were waiting with bated breath to see what would happen. Because the affair was common knowledge, I too can tell of it as if I had taken part in it all.
I have already said that the visitor was a handsome, haughty woman. But at this moment my aunt, for all her bulk, held herself proudly too. I seem to think that the following conversation took place.[p. 48]
"You ought to realize that my boy's future is very dear to me. He's still a schoolboy, a mere child. I think it most improper that he should go about with a girl at that age."
"So do I. A man should have some kind of profession before he goes putting ideas into a girl's head."
"You should have forbidden your daughter to see my son. Don't you realize that she is running a big risk."
"If you can separate them, I'd be very grateful to you. I can't."
"Oh, can't you!"
"I can't chain my daughter up!"
My aunt finished washing the dishes and began to dry her hands. Having glanced at herself instinctively, she noticed that her apron was dirty. She took it off quickly and threw it behind the woodbox as though to hide it.
"We could of course transfer Arthur to a school in another town," the visitor said after a moment, "but in the middle of term like this it would be bad for his studies. As it is, his teachers say that he has not been doing at all well lately."
"Naturally not, when he runs after the girl every evening and part of the night as well," my aunt retorted.
The visitor tapped her small foot impatiently. Didn't the woman realize whom she was speaking to?
"Where is your daughter?" she exclaimed. "I want a word with her."
"At work, of course. The poor girl has her set hours."
Mrs. Kristiansson swung round so quickly that the ends of her wide furs flapped. An almost stifling cloud of sweet scent was wafted even into my nostrils. She adjusted the silk bands of her muff. She knew of better measures to take for her boy's good than to waste time in this working-class home. Strong measures.
She raised her head loftily and left the room. I rushed to the window. The coachman was standing ready beside the [p. 49] sleigh, holding up the edge of the rug, as she came down the steps, and he helped her in. Then he climbed onto his box as nimbly as his large fur coat allowed. The horses snorted, the bells jingled, and the sleigh dashed out of the yard into the street in a flurry of snow, as the neighbors' children flung themselves out of the way into the drifts.
As I craned my neck after the sleigh, I saw that the sky was a dismal gray, and I heard my aunt sobbing quietly in the room behind me.
The flock of women in the yard grew larger. They were chattering excitedly and nodding their heads, now at our windows and now towards the town, while the boys and girls played at being horses and showed how splendidly they had galloped off.
I don't know how long my aunt wept, nor have I any idea what happened that day in the fashionable milliner's. But a clear picture of my aunt's eldest daughter forms in my mind. As time went on, she grew pale and thin, becoming more beautiful day by day. She no longer talked to anybody, and at the dinner table did not even answer her father's eager questions. Up to now these meal-time conversations had been one of the highlights of the family's daily life, and now they too faded. For many weeks the girl's misery spread around her like a dark cloud, and for this reason I could not go and see them for a long time.
Later, however, the two young people were married. Some years afterwards I met them in another house and for a little while this same young man became my friend.
At this time I felt closer to Mother than to Father. Sometimes in the evenings, when Father came home from work, I would still long for the vanished world and climb up into his [p. 50] arms in the rocking chair. But the old familiar father no longer existed; he had swum away from me, far out to sea. I enjoyed rocking in this present father's arms; but as he never told me anything about invisible lands far away, I soon got tired of him. I would jump down on to the floor again, climb on to my horse's back, and ride away at full speed wherever my imagination took me.
On Sunday mornings I always found this present father in bed; he stayed there long after Mother had set about her chores and I had gone out. Not until lunch was ready did he too get up and put on his Sunday best, and after the meal he usually went off somewhere for most of the afternoon.
But when the spring came and the sun warmed the world around us, he asked me to go with him on one of these after-lunch excursions. I was very excited. I had a feeling that today I would experience something new and thrilling.
We set off, and walked past a lot of houses and near the church, but not on the same side as when I passed it for the first time in my very early youth. Beyond the church, however, we came on to the road I knew and when we got to the bottom of the hill I saw the harbor again and heard the deep whistles of the steamers. We did not stop where my first outing had ended, but went round to the other side of the steep rock, where all at once I saw a lot of houses I didn't know, ornamented houses that seemed to me very big, and last of all a gay-looking kiosk. And there we met a stranger, a very nice, laughing young man. Who was he, I wonder? My memory tells me nothing about him except his laugh, his youth, and the fact that it was he who sat me down at the kiosk's only table and put lemonade and cakes in front of me.
"You stay here by yourself for a little while," Father said. "We'll be back soon."
"You can watch the harbor, the ships and the sea," the stranger said, "and eat and drink all you want."[p. 51]
They whispered to the kiosk woman to keep an eye on me while they went to the hotel for a drink of their own.
I heard them say all this, but it didn't worry me. The lemonade and cakes, and above all the splendid sights, quite made up to me for being alone. I soon forgot where I was and who had brought me here. I looked about me and I listened to all the sounds of land, sea, and sky. When the woman tried to talk to me, since there were not many customers down by the harbor on a Sunday, I listened with only half an ear. I was always a silent child, and at the moment all I wanted to do was to concentrate on looking at and listening to the world around me and to absorb all these new impressions. So I forced the woman to be still. I must become familiar with all the new, hitherto unknown things from farther away. New secrets were hidden in the midst of the harbor, the bay, the forest glimpsed beyond the sea in the distance, the clouds, and sun and the sky. It was the quiet, Sunday traffic in the harbor and on the water that made me sense that something lay concealed behind the visible shapes and signs, and it was these vital, fascinating secrets that I tried to unravel.
I did not know then, and cannot explain now, just what I felt. From the outset my mind, my whole mental being, was raised to a glorious, dizzy state of happiness. I was oblivious of the passing of time and don't remember how long I sat there, though the lemonade and cakes were soon all gone. I didn't really get any nearer to the secrets until I stopped eating and the woman stopped talking. Sitting there, quiet and still, I was aware of something rich and exalted pouring into me.
When Father and the stranger at last came back to me from the hotel on the other side of the road, I almost shrank from them at first. They were in very good spirits, talking and joking together, their eyes sparkling, their cheeks flushed. Even my father, my quiet father, was behaving in this extraordinary way. It didn't worry or annoy me, however; it was simply that, [p. 52] now that they had come back, I had to leave my secret journeys and all the new sights and sounds. I had to answer their questions: Yes, I've been all right, I've had a nice time, I enjoyed the lemonade and cakes. I had to listen to all that they had been doing, but I couldn't make it out at all, any more than I could understand why the kiosk woman was laughing at them in that funny way.
But after the stranger had left us and Father and I were on our way home, I still tried to hold on moment by moment to the fading memory of my secret experiences. Now that there were only the two of us, Father made no attempt to talk to me, nor did he disturb me in any other way, so I might have had a chance to recapture them. But I didn't succeed very well. The nearer we came to home, the more they faded away. I was so unhappy about this that Father, walking along lost in thought, at last noticed I was looking miserable. He eyed me for a moment, then took my hand.
"Come on, cheer up," he said. "Let's not go home yet. We'll go over there to the edge of the woods and make whistles and blow them."
Perhaps he thought I was sad because he had left me alone for so long and now wanted to cheer me up before taking me back to Mother. I looked at him doubtfully. I didn't yet know about willow whistles. But when I saw him smiling, I brightened.
We went a little way past our house, On the right was a small house much older than ours, and on the left the meadow ended in a dense clump of alders. We pushed our way into it. The ground was damp, and water oozed from under our shoes as we went farther into the grove. When it thinned out and the ground became drier and covered with mossy stones, Father stopped. We seemed to be hidden away in a very quiet, warm spot. My recent sadness was forgotten [p. 53] and I suddenly felt all right again. The voices of people in the street did not reach as far as this. There was nothing to be seen but the sky, and the sun shining down seemed very near.
"Sit here," Father said, "while I go and look for some willows."
He pushed about this way and that for some time in the thicket, looking for thin willows among the alders. When he came back to me, he had a large bunch of them in his hand. He sat down beside me, took the sheath knife from his belt, and set to work. I watched attentively, curious to see what would come from his hands. First, the willow switch was sliced off obliquely where it was flat and smooth, then a thin ring of bark was removed, and into the space left above it an airhole was cut. This piece of bark was slowly and carefully loosened by tapping it evenly with the handle of the knife and by holding it several times in the mouth. When this bark came away, a deep, wide groove was cut into the wood underneath it—straight on the "mouth" side and semicircular on the other side. From the sharp, straight edge a thin, even cut was made as far as the outer edge. It was along this that the air was blown so that it reached the inside. The unbroken bark was replaced and the whistle raised to the lips. A sweetly piercing sound rose suddenly into the air, a sound that was a little shrill but somehow gay and mischievous.
It startled me, and I listened tensely to this strange music. Where did it come from? Just what was it telling me? I sensed at once that I had been drawn by chance to the edge of a circle into which I would never be admitted, but despite this I wanted to listen to the strange sounds to learn something of what was within it. Although Father smiled as he looked at me, and at last burst out laughing, I remained serious. When the music stopped with his laughter, I called out excitedly: "Don't stop! Go on blowing! Blow, blow, please!"
I shouted this many, many times. Whenever he tried to [p. 54] stop, I begged him to go on, until he too grew serious and stopped playing.
"I don't know how to play," he said. "You have a try."
The whistle was pressed to my lips and Father told me how to press my lips round the whistle and blow into the hole. After a little while I could really do it, and into the air rose music that came from my mouth. Although it was softer, simpler, and less colorful than the sounds Father had made, it too delighted me. Time and again I played in order to hear what kind of unfamiliar sounds would well up from inside me.
In the meantime Father was making new whistles from the willows he had brought, big ones and small, and he kept handing them to me.
"Try this one! Try this!"
I tried, and was startled again and again, because from each whistle came a different sound. What did it mean? That the sound did not come from me at all, but from somewhere else, perhaps far away? I was only the medium through which the unknown power passed as it became audible to humans. And every time I took a new whistle, I became the instrument of an entirely new kind of being. It was very disturbing.
Father looked at me curiously and began to laugh more than ever. "Don't be frightened," he said. "They're merry, good folk who are coming to us now."
We spent a long time there in our quiet, warm hiding place. We blew our whistles the whole time, Father and I by turns. Gradually I began to notice the signs of spring around me. I saw that the alders and willows had tiny, beautifully bright leaves, that the moss crept over the rocks dressed in its dark but gay colors, and that here and there between the rocks grew fresh blades of grass and small white and blue flowers, the spring anemones. Perhaps it was the music flowing through us which taught me these things. At all events I [p. 55] began to fear it less and love it more as time went on. Though I came no nearer to the secrets of the music, I began to think that it represented merry, good folk, just as Father had said.
This day indeed turned out to be one of the loveliest days of my young life. After a long time I had seen the harbor again, I listened to the voices of the whistles, I learned to know the lushness and beauty of the earth's plants, the blue of the sky, and the swiftness of the thin clouds. I began to sense that they belonged together and that, in fact, I too was part of them. For a moment I came close to Father again, just as I had done before when I was quite tiny, and it was he who led me to these things. I have forgotten all the words, but I can still recall the mood whenever I think of it.
When at last we rose from our warm hiding place and went home, Mother was standing anxiously in the street near the house.
"Where have you been all day?" she exclaimed. "I thought you had both been drowned in the harbor."
Father grasped her arm and laughed. "We've been blowing whistles," he said. "And the lad will play for you at home. He has an armful of them."
That day I could do nothing but blow my whistles, even inside. I sat down in the corner beside my horse and raised one whistle after the other to my lips to hear their joyful sounds. I was so taken up with them that I had no mind even to eat. I just went on playing until day changed to evening and I grew tired. Then Mother undressed me and put me to bed, but I took my whistles with me as I went off to the land of sleep.
When I woke up in the morning Father had already gone to work as usual and my whistles had withered and were [p. 56] almost silent. So I too had to begin my ordinary weekdays. At first, however, I didn't really believe it; I tried to cling to Sunday for all I was worth. I pestered Mother for a clasp knife and rushed to the clump of alders, to the same spot where Father and I had sat. But by the time I had whittled several willow switches and spoiled them, I began to understand that yesterday was gone forever.
Instead, I made friends with someone who was to be my playmate for many weeks.
On my way back from the alders to the street I met a sturdy boy of my own size who lived in a small, old house. He began by throwing stones at me, but when he saw that I was timid he soon made friends. Our stone fight changed into throwing stones into the meadow, and as I did quite well at this it became a kind of competition. We spent many hours in the street looking for the right size stones in the sandy surface and flinging them first in one direction, then in another. When we got tired we sat down in the gutter to brag, then started throwing again. Only once or twice did someone drive past in a cart; and as there were very few people walking about, it was a good place to be.
So our first day of friendship passed. Next day, and on many, many other days, we met in the street. As soon as I came out in the morning I would rush to his house to meet him. We didn't bother about throwing stones after the first day, but started exploring instead. My playmate was already far more familiar with the world than I was and he knew his way around.
It was thanks to him that I came to know the old village on the far side of the meadow. In those days it had a bad name, and Mother had often warned me against going there. I did, nevertheless, whenever my pal went, and I found out how the nettles stung my legs and arms, how almost every cottage had a potato patch, and how drunk the men used to get on beer. [p. 57] There were also young boys and girls who yelled and fought, cats and dogs that had fish and bones thrown to them, and old women with big swollen bellies. In other words, the old village was an exciting place which I explored eagerly.
We did not make friends with the village boys or with anyone else. We just ran about from cottage to cottage and from one yard to the next, looking at everything and everybody like strangers, and always making off the minute danger threatened. There was only one old woman we bothered to speak to sometimes. I heard that she was my pal's aunt, a hard, stern woman. Nearly every time we stopped at her cottage we saw her set her grandson, a boy of about our age, to clean fish. The rest of her family were all dead, and as they were the only two left they had to live on whatever fish they could catch.
I did not yet understand poverty and real sorrow, although it was only a few years before they were to afflict me too. I just felt rather sorry for this boy, who could not be free like us. Nor did I understand that this dangerous village was a dying part of the town, with nineteenth-century habits and customs that were doomed to vanish.
Once we went farther afield. Somewhere behind the village we came upon a road and some woods that looked quite strange to me, surrounded by a tumbledown fence. The trees all had lush green foliage—it was early summer—and had a cared-for look compared with the rest of the forest. Some of them were old and gnarled, others mere saplings, with a few flowering shrubs here and there. Between the trees a sandy road, now overgrown with grass, had been made, leading to a rather grand house that could be glimpsed through the trees. The first time we went there my playmate told me to run past the house as fast as I could, explaining afterwards, out of breath and whispering, that the place belonged to an old and frightening baroness. She was frightening because in that [p. 58] very house the Freemasons used to meet by candlelight with daggers in their hands. The baroness' maid had seen all this through a half-open door and had told her friends about it in a scared whisper.
I didn't quite understand what was meant by all this, but for that very reason it made the place exciting and frightening indeed. Ordinary people didn't use candles for light, but oil lamps; nor did they wear daggers at their belts, but ordinary, practical sheath knives. And although there was not a soul to be seen in the house or the overgrown garden, not even the servant or her footprints, my whole body began to shake.
It was by far the most interesting place I found that summer, but even later I did not dare to explore it more closely, and the vague and mysterious impression I had of it remained far off, inexplicable, and on the other side of a dividing boundary.
Another day we went in the opposite direction, towards the center of the town, and found a deep, wide ditch, part of an old canal that had been filled in here and there. At the bottom of it was some green, evil-smelling water, and its sides were covered with thick weeds and shrubbery. It was on the edge of this ditch that we once came upon a group of boys, fifteen or sixteen years old, who had cigarettes in their mouths and knives at their belts and who were playing cards. I found out that one of them was my playmate's eldest brother. Here I learned a lot of new words which I had never heard at home. I thought these new words, and also the way these youths behaved, were very exciting and interesting.
On another of our excursions we did not go to the village at all, but to the same clump of alders where I had learned to blow whistles. We pushed right through the alders and came to the forest proper and the steep slope of the rocks. When we [p. 59] climbed up between the moss-covered boulders, our range of vision suddenly widened out. Down below us lay meadow and street, village and woods, the houses where we lived and lots of other houses and streets, and the church in all its splendor on its own hill. The view was so vast that I was speechless and dizzy. For a long time I was unable to say anything, only gaze.
Had we gone any farther, we should have come to still bigger pine trees and still higher rocks and boulders which we could just see in the distance. We had to climb down the same way we had got up, as the other side of the rock was so steep that not even moss could grow there. So all we did on this outing was to climb up, gaze rapt and silent at the view, and go back to the alders and from there to the street.
In this way time passed, spring changed to summer. My playmate had already seen all the places that he now showed to me and could explain the meaning of my new discoveries and all their secrets. The leaves of the trees became broader and denser and gradually lost their scent. The first spring flowers vanished and in their place other flowers appeared in the meadow, in the yards of the houses, and in the woods. The mass of stalks and leaves in all the potato patches shot up higher and higher, and the uncut hay began to wither. Only then did Mother notice a change in my speech; she kept asking me where I spent my time and put a sudden stop to my excursions. At first she sharply forbade me to see any more of my playmate, as he too was one of the village children though he lived near us. In spite of this, however, I ran off to meet him as soon as I was let out. Mother ran after me, hurried me home, and for the first time gave me a whipping. That was the end of our friendship. Sometimes, months later, when Mother no longer watched me, I would go along the street to wait for him outside his house, but he was not to be seen.[p. 60]
It was years before I met him again. One winter we were in the same class at school, and later we used to nod to each other in the street, but our friendship was never renewed.
When the summer was well advanced, Mother took me with her one day on an outing of her own. She borrowed a handcart from somewhere, loaded it up with dirty clothes, firewood, food, and a large copper cauldron, and off we went to the same seashore where I once swam with Father, though not quite to the same spot.
The shore we came to was on a small inlet and from there the sea looked like a lake. Here too there were boulders, but they were not very big, and in between them were smooth patches of grass; fine stretches of sand continued out under the water until they were lost to sight. I was fascinated by everything I found, perhaps most of all by the fact that three other women had already arrived to do their washing and had lighted fires under their tubs. It was a hot day and the sea lay motionless. Not a breath of wind stirred the leaves of the bushes or rippled the surface of the water. The smoke from the fires burning under the clothes boilers rose straight up towards the sky like stiff, heavy pillars. It was high, high up before it dispersed and vanished into the air.
There were a lot of children here too. While Mother was unloading, making a suitable fireplace out of stones, carrying water from the sea, and lighting her own fire, I ran about with the other children. When they undressed and went for a swim, I went with them. Some of them waded out where it was deep and began to dog-paddle. That was the only way to swim known here in those days. We smaller ones stayed near the shore, where the sand was soft and warm and the water reached only to our knees.[p. 61]
So the day began, and it went on like this almost until evening. When we had swum and splashed about to our hearts' content, we ran and threw ourselves down full length in the sand. I have no recollection whatever of who the other children were or what they were like, but I can see myself lying in the midst of a large group, now watching their antics, now gazing up at the sky or away over the water, now listening to the gay chatter of the washerwomen and the slap of the clothes. Then, when the others tired of the land and rushed back into the water, I rushed with them. We all had a special feeling of well-being, far above the way we felt on ordinary days.
At one stage of her work Mother put a small coffeepot to boil beside the washtub and after a while she called to me to come and eat. She gave me a large cup of hot coffee and several big sandwiches, which tasted better than ever before. I ate one after the other, far more than on most days. The other mothers and their children all did the same, but at different times, according to how their work was getting on.
It was late in the afternoon when I got a sudden warning that life is not all roses. At first I went swimming just as before, but when I saw the bigger boys and girls wading far out and some of them swimming still farther, I too was overcome by the urge to go on and on. Leaving those of my age with their own group, I set off after the others. Step by step I waded forward, feeling the water at the bottom get colder and the surface creep up my body, first to my thighs, then to my stomach, and right up to my chest and armpits. Then I stopped and let out a wild shout of joy and victory, splashing the water all round me as hard as I could. All the children noticed me and those of my age at any rate stopped to watch in both envy and admiration. Unfortunately the women were so busy at their hard work that they didn't happen to look our way just then.[p. 62]
When I had rejoiced for a while over my accomplishment and success, I felt I had to achieve a still greater victory. I waded forward a few steps more and suddenly the ground vanished from under my feet. With a rush the water came right to the tip of my uptilted chin, the tips of my toes touched the loose sandy bottom for a second and then not even that. I heard my companions give a frightened yell and in some way I was aware that the women screamed too and that Mother dashed to the water's edge towards me. Water poured into my mouth and nostrils and for a moment I thought I was drowning. I now knew the meaning of that word. But a second later I was filled with new strength. I started kicking and thrashing about as I had seen swimmers do, but in a frenzied way, as though I had been storing up secret life forces which had to find an outlet. And before long, just as I felt utterly exhausted, I felt my feet touch bottom. I could do nothing else but stand where I was, breathing heavily and sputtering water.
No one could do anything to help me, but Mother waded out with all her clothes on. When she reached me she snatched me into her arms and carried me to the shore, across the beach to the grassy patch behind the boulders. There she lay me down on the ground and cried out:
"Are you all right? There's nothing wrong with you?"
"Yes, I'm all right," I answered, closing my eyes.
After about ten minutes I sat up, then scrambled to my feet feeling quite myself again. All the washerwomen and all the children were standing round me, talking excitedly. When they saw there was no cause for alarm, they began to move away. Mother went on looking at me anxiously for some time, but having come to the same conclusion she too went back to her work, saying sternly:
"You're not to go into the water any more, do you hear. If you do, I'll spank you."[p. 63]
Mother no doubt thought that since I myself had invited danger, she must now be cross with me.
Still naked, I went to lie down in the sand with the others and listen to their talk. I imagined that all was well and that life was wonderful. But gradually I began to feel that something was wrong. I tried to think it was because I couldn't go swimming any more with the others, and a little later because the fires started to go out and our group dwindled. One of the washerwomen packed up her things on her handcart, called to her children, and set off for home. Before long another did the same. I also noticed that the sun was beginning to make long shadows beside the bushes and boulders, as it sank lower and lower towards the skyline behind which it usually disappeared for the night. Things like this indeed gave cause for sorrow.
But however stubbornly I tried to fix my attention outside myself, I was still aware of the tiredness and aching in my body, which was getting worse every moment. As the minutes went by, I was less and less able to look at things going on outside me. They seemed to be moving farther and farther away, growing dim, and at last vanishing somewhere into the dark.
One of the other women, on her way past us to get water, suddenly stopped to look at me, then exclaimed to Mother, "That boy of yours looks quite ill. He has a temperature, I'm sure."
Mother left off her work and rushed up to me again. "What's wrong with the poor boy now?"
"He's had too much sun," the woman said. "Our children have been running about naked and swimming ever since the spring, so the sun does them good. But your little lad was quite white when you undressed him. Now all the skin will peel off his back at least. You should've been more careful."
"Heavens above!" Mother cried. "He's all hot!"[p. 64]
"Put his clothes on and take him into the shade. He'll be all right there until you've finished your washing."
Mother dressed me quickly and carried me into the shade of some young alders. I tried to resist and pretend that this was even more unfair than forbidding me to swim, but actually I was quite content with my new spot. It was much nicer here than on the sandy beach. The silence did me good. I closed my eyes and all I could hear were the uneasy throbbing sounds of my body.
When Mother came back to me some time later, I was dimly aware that the shadows had lengthened and the sun had sunk still nearer the horizon. Mother lifted me up and said encouragingly, "Come along, dear, try now to walk home, and I'll give you something nice that will soon make you well.
Gripping the handcart, I tottered home. Mother undressed me quickly, gave me something hot to drink, and put me to bed, to wander about all night along those same strange paths that I had traveled when Christmas came.
When this eventful summer came to an end, I learned about autumn too, but not where I usually lived. Mother took me with her on a journey.
Mother was rather sad all day before we left. She still smiled and laughed, but it was different from before. At the time I didn't realize that she was recalling her childhood and the home of her youth. In the evening Father came to the station to see us off, and I saw a train for the first time. He lifted our luggage into the carriage, but when the train started he waved to us from the platform and was soon lost to sight. We sat there listening to the buzz of strangers' conversation and the clatter and roar of the train. When it was so late that [p. 65] at home I would have been asleep long ago, I fell asleep even here, too tired to take in any more of the strange things I was seeing. When Mother shook me awake in the morning, we were at our destination.
We were met by a laughing young man whom I had to call Uncle; he had with him a brown, yellow-maned horse which snorted and whinnied and pawed the ground in front of the light, yellow gig. Uncle helped us up onto the front seat with our luggage, and he sat behind us. Then he picked up the reins, the horse's mane and tail fluttered, and away we went at a spanking pace. In my fright I gripped the edge of the gig with both hands, though Mother was squeezing me against her and exclaiming half in alarm, half in delight, "Don't drive so fast, you madcap. You'll be the death of us."
But Uncle merely laughed in our ears, "Our girls have never been afraid of a drive. Or have you become so soft there in town that you can't keep your seat? But whoever comes for a drive with the Pietola stallion must make the best of it."
And the stallion flew on, its mane and tail streaming, its hooves striking sparks from the stones. The road, with already a touch of autumn about it, was hard and damp. Chill, dark-gray clouds sailed in the low-hanging, pale blue sky. The crows flew cawing across the wet fields. People with large baskets and dressed in their oldest clothes were bent double, digging potatoes. A plowman was plodding along behind his horse and plow. The rowan, maple, and birch trees growing round the houses and in the hollows flamed in all their autumn coloring. Drops of water fell from the ends of the dark-green branches of the firs. Now and then the sun slipped out between the breaks in the clouds and shed a wan light over the landscape. Here for the first time I was aware that autumn had come to the world; in any case, I felt I had arrived in a region that was strange to me.
As we drove over a small bridge, under which the water [p. 66] rippled in black eddies, Mother wanted to stop for a moment. We got down from the gig, and Uncle tied the horse to the rail. Mother began to walk up and down, furtively brushing tears from the corners of her eyes and at the same time taking a few dance steps. At last she stopped by the rail and gazed down at the black water.
"Do you still dance here on the bridge?" she asked.
"Do you imagine gaiety deserted our village just because you ran off to town and got married?" Uncle said.
Mother stared down at the water for a long time, wiping away many tears. I looked away, so that she would not feel ashamed because of me. Not far away I saw a lake; the surface gleamed the color of clay and the reeds by the shore glowed like ripe cornfields. A large flock of birds flew across the sky.
"They're off to the south, to the warm lands," Uncle said when he noticed me watching them.
At last Mother got back into the gig. The man lifted me up beside her and climbed up behind us. Our spirited young horse set off again. But for a long time Mother did not say anything; her eyes were fixed ahead dreamily, far, far into the distance where I could not follow.
Before long the horse turned off the road into a lane leading to a small, modern farm. This was where Uncle lived. A young woman and two girls of my age appeared on the steps of the house to receive us. Mother jumped down and rushed towards the woman with open arms. They gazed into each other's eyes, laughing with joy and weeping at the same time.
"So I'm able to see you again at last, the best friend of my childhood," the strange woman exclaimed.
"And I you," Mother sobbed.
"You're not a day older. The years have merely made you more beautiful than ever."[p. 67]
"What about you? The prettiest farmer's wife in the district since you married the heir to Pietola."
Actually, Mother and her friend expressed their feelings in different words, in a more old-fashioned, country dialect than I now use. But I can only describe their conversation in my own words and hope you will forgive me.
When I was lifted down from the gig, I watched the little girls with great interest, and they paid far more attention to me than to my mother. We were too shy, however, to make friends immediately.
We spent the whole day there. We had dinner at a huge, splendid table. We went to see the animals—a large angry sow which had seven piglets, pretty, bleating lambs, three cows which sighed softly and heavily as they went on munching hay and gazing at us with wondering, gentle eyes. We even saw the horse in its stable, but only from a distance. We were told it was wild and did not like strangers.
"It takes a man to manage Pietola's horses and daughters," Uncle said with a laugh.
But Mother replied gravely, "I've never been one of Pietola's daughters. I was only a servant."
He glanced at her and grew serious, but said nothing. He was one of the rightful heirs of the farm to which we were going.
Next morning the horse with the cream-colored mane was harnessed again to the gig. Mother and I got up into the front seat with our luggage and Uncle behind us. The horse tossed its mane, snorted, and broke into a trot. The road continued level and dry for a long time across a heath with tall, straight pines and gleaming red cranberries. The sky was even more gloomy and low-hanging than the day before, and now and then it flung short, cold rainshowers at us. The high tops of the pines swayed and moaned in the wind; it sounded as [p. 68] though the whole of space were playing on a mighty organ. One flock of birds after the other flew past, to the south, to the warm lands. Mother was silent and thoughtful. Uncle did not speak either. I realized more clearly than yesterday what autumn meant.
After a long time we came again to tilled fields, through which flowed a narrow, clayey river. Beyond the river the ground rose to a kind of ridge. At the top was a house. I guessed at once that it was Pietola, the house where Uncle had grown up and where Mother too had spent several years of her life. It was large and gray and had a lot of small windows. Growing in front of it were two enormous birches, whose sparse foliage seemed to darken the whole sky and whose bark was full of deep grooves in which moss was growing. The house appeared to look down proudly, almost contemptuously, on the world from its high position. One could see at once that it was used to being above others, above the humans who even now were hard at work in the muddy fields. The people stooping in the potato fields were like black insects, and the men plowing the stubble did not look much better. And we who were approaching the house had to drive for a long time uphill; sturdy, spirited horse though it was, it had little desire to snort after the steep pull.
On the wide gray porch there was only one person, an old woman, gray and small like a mouse. As the horse stopped in front of the steps she got to her feet with the aid of her stick and gazed at us in silence, her chin trembling slightly. Mother rushed up to her and hugged her.
"Mother, mother!" she cried, her eyes full of tears.
Then she took my arm and drew me solemnly in front of the old woman.
"This is my son."
The old lady's crooked hand brushed my head and her chin began to tremble more than ever.[p. 69]
"He's a sturdy lad," she said. "He looks like one of us, even if he has strange blood in him."
Mother was the second youngest of a large family, so by this time Grandmother was very old and ailing.
We went inside, into large, silent rooms smelling of smoke and old, worm-eaten wood. The living room-kitchen was so huge that I could hardly make out the far wall. The stove was black and looked as big as a mountain. Beside it stood a buxom woman stirring a large pot. In the other rooms were massive beds, large cupboards and chests, tables, benches, and in one room a leather-bound book, an alarmingly large, heavy book. I hardly dared to walk through these rooms except on tiptoe.
Just what was this house, I wonder? Grandmother was taken from there to her grave, and Mother had been a dairymaid and servant there at one time. Perhaps in reality it was not at all how I remember it. At any rate it was said to have been quite a prosperous farm.
When Uncle left us, Mother and I were alone. Grandmother had stayed in the big kitchen.
Mother sat down on the wide, thick wooden bed and looked at me smilingly, at the same time trying to keep back her tears, as she had done the day before on the bridge where there had been dancing.
"I slept in this room for many years," she said. "I was a dairymaid and servant girl then. It was from this room that I set off for the town where we now live."
We sat in this room for a long time without saying anything in particular. Once Mother got up and looked out of the window at the fields, above which the crows flapped, cawing in the wind. Then she sat down again on the bed and remained lost in thought until we were called to dinner.
We stayed in this house for many days and many nights. Years later I heard that we went off once or twice to see [p. 70] Mother's brothers and sisters, but I remember nothing about them. I have not even the vaguest recollection of what they looked like. They have meant nothing to me. But there are a lot of things I can tell about this house.
Here I met, apart from my grandmother, an elderly man whom I was told to call Uncle. He was the master of this big old house. There were several women here too, some elderly and some very young, and two boys only a little older than myself. I also met another old man who was constantly chewing tobacco; his trousers hung down so low that at first I was always expecting them to fall to the floor. There were more of the yellow-maned horses in the stable, a large number of cows in the barn, and pigs in the pigsty. In fact there were all kinds of interesting things here, but the whole time I was fascinated most of all by my old grandmother, though for days on end she usually did nothing but sit by the window, gazing out. If I went right up to her, she would often put her hand on my head and say those same mysterious words:
"Yes, you're one of us all right. Even if you do have strange blood."
These words sounded solemn and frightening, they stirred the very depths of my being and made me feel I was an extraordinary creature.
During these days Mother seemed to forget entirely that she was a married woman from the town. She took off all her town clothes, put on high boots and an old skirt and blouse she had found in the servants' quarters above the hayloft, and went off with the others to dig potatoes. She seemed quite wild. Shrieking with laughter, she leaped over fences and ditches, climbed on to a yellow-maned horse's back and galloped along the road so fast that the horse's hooves struck sparks from the stones. In the evenings, other young women and girls gathered round her, even from the neighboring farms, and they laughed and giggled until late into the night. [p. 71] And on Saturday night, the first Saturday night of my life, the local fiddler came to the house, a man with only one eye, and in addition to the girls there were a lot of strange young men. Mother danced with them, one after the other, and almost forgot me for the entire evening.
Outside it was autumn, autumn. The wind howled and moaned round the house on the hill day and night. The yellow leaves went with it, far away to the wet fields where the crows were cawing. In the gray sky flock after flock of birds flew to the south, to the warm lands.
And all the time the little gray grandmother sat in her solid chair by the window, staring out. I was sure she sat there all night too, because she was still there when I went to bed and already in her chair in the morning when I woke up. She was as quiet and gray as a mouse, but I sensed that it was she who was the most important part of my origin. Perhaps, as I gazed at her, I began to think of bigger things, even to wonder whether man's beginning and end were more than what we merely see with our eyes. Every day Grandmother repeated the mysterious, frightening, and impressive words: "You're one of us, but you have strange blood in you."
But on the morning of our departure Grandmother got up from her chair and came to the porch, where she had been standing when we arrived. She stood leaning on her stick, her chin trembling slightly. Mother embraced her with tears in her eyes. "Mother, Mother, I wonder if I'll ever see you again!" she exclaimed.
I still have a clear picture of Grandmother's wrinkled face and bent shoulders. Once more she put her hand on my head and repeated the same words: "You're one of us. But you have strange blood in you."
This time it was the elderly master of the house who drove us in the gig. The yellow-maned horse's mane and tail streamed in the wind and its hooves began to strike sparks [p. 72] from the stones in the road. Once the wind rushing towards us snatched the cap from my head and the horse had to stop for a moment. The cap was lying among the heather and the cranberries, and as soon as it was found the horse broke into a canter again. This time we went straight to the station.
For a long time Mother was very quiet and serious. Perhaps she was thinking of her own mother, my grandmother. But after we got on the train she began to laugh and smile again. That is all I remember of our journey home, for I must have fallen asleep as quickly as I did when we first set out.
The autumn was already far advanced. The rain pelted down from the gray clouds hanging over the town, the plants vanished entirely, the days grew shorter and shorter and the nights longer and longer. But the most important thing this autumn was not what I noticed of the world about me, but what happened to Mother.
One morning when I woke up, Mother was not at home; beside the bed stood my pockmarked aunt. She smiled at me and said, "Up you get, young man. I'll dress you and take you over to us for breakfast."
I started up in bed, looked about me, even glanced into the other room, but Mother was nowhere to be seen. My aunt laughed so that her fat belly wobbled. "Mother went to get you a baby brother or sister," she said at last. "You're going to spend the next few days with us. Your father will come and bring you home in the evenings."
I was very restless in the days that followed. Auntie fed me well, giving me as much as I could possibly eat, but otherwise she had no time to keep me company. I wandered about the yard and the house as though in search of something. With Mother away, life seemed insecure. I was bored and miserable [p. 73] and didn't even want to be with people. I mooned about from one place to the next, every now and then running inside to my aunt to ask the time and if Father would soon be home, I had never noticed before that time could pass so slowly that it seemed as if day and night had stopped dead in their tracks.
Father always came home so late that the world outside had been dark for a long time. When he finished work he went to see Mother every day before coming to fetch me from my aunt's. Then he led me home across the dark yard, undressed me, and put me straight to bed. For the first few days he looked so sad that I didn't dare to ask him anything about Mother, but shut my eyes at once so as to get into the lovely safe world of dreams as fast as possible.
But one evening Father was all smiles and came in carrying cakes and sweets. He was talkative and gay and kept telling my aunt, her husband and children, "I've another son now. A fine strong lad, much stronger than this first one."
When asked how Mother was, he looked serious, but was quite sure that she would soon be well. The doctor had told him that now the baby had been born Mother would be rid of all her complications.
When the two of us got home Father gave me all sorts of good things to eat and kept telling me what a fine big baby brother I had now. With a pang of jealousy I realized that Father was more proud of him and liked him better than he liked me.
Next day another sister of Mother's arrived all the way from Helsinki. She looked just as young as Mother, but she was taller and she carried herself better. Her clothes were so elegant that I couldn't get used to her, though she promised now to look after me until Mother was well enough to come home. Every day she dressed me in my best clothes and took me with her to lots of shops downtown to buy this and that. When we got home she would lie down on the bed and find [p. 74] all kinds of things for me to do. In particular, I remember that we took a lot of newspapers at that time, whatever they were, and my chief task was to carry them one at a time from room to room. When the whole bundle had been moved from the kitchen to the parlor, I had to start moving them back from the parlor to the kitchen, and then back again. I was not often allowed out, as I was told I would get myself and my best clothes dirty.
I wonder how long those disturbed and anxious days lasted? Sometimes when Father came home he was happy and proud and told us a lot about his new son. But at other times he too was restless and worried just as I was. I realize now that my brother's birth had made Mother very ill, but at that time I imagined it was all my brother's fault and I almost began to hate him before I had even seen him. It was he who had taken Mother away from me, pushed me out of Father's mind, and turned my whole world upside down.
Every day I kept asking and asking when Mother and my little brother were coming home. I had vague hopes that as soon as Mother saw me she would forget that other one, and hug me and kiss me as she had always done. Then the new boy would have to keep out of the way and just watch us, and perhaps even Father would notice that it was me they must think of first.
Then one day Mother did come home, but her homecoming was quite different from what I had imagined. A horse cab suddenly pulled up in front of our steps, my aunt rushed out, snatched a white bundle with some invisible object inside it from my father's arms and began to bring it inside. Father took hold of Mother, who was sitting beside him—a very strange-looking, pale, thin, and wrinkled mother—helped her down and then supported her up the steps. When they got inside, Mother looked at me, smiled wanly, and put a tired hand on my head. Without saying a word she went straight into the front room with Father.[p. 75]
That same evening I was allowed to see my brother. When Mother had been safely put to bed and the bundle set down beside her, I was taken in to see her. When the baby began crying with his shrill voice, he was given a small nursing bottle, which he grabbed greedily. Because of Mother's illness he had to accustom himself to cow's milk right from the start, unlike me earlier and the ones who came after him, but it didn't seem to bother him. As soon as I saw his red, wrinkled face, his thick head of hair and chubby hands, I had a feeling that, small as he was, his strength was greater than mine. When the bottle slipped from his mouth, he opened his eyes angrily, let out a lusty howl, and grabbed anything that came in the way of his thrashing arms.
"Isn't he adorable!" my fashionable aunt kept exclaiming. "He's certainly a wonderfully fine, sturdy lad!"
Mother and Father smiled happily, looking now at each other, now at their younger son. They had almost forgotten my existence.
When he grew up, this boy became a very good athlete and was for many years a champion diver. When war broke out, he was killed the first time he went into action. A piece of shrapnel ripped his chest open, but he battled for his life many hours before death claimed him.
But I must keep to my childhood.
Next day Mother's sister went back to Helsinki and in her place came an old woman with her small grandson. Life gradually got back to normal. I was well fed, I had a nice playmate and so I enjoyed being outside. We spent most of our time in the yard, where it was highest, building all sorts of things. But once or twice he took me home with him, right to the other side of the town, where I came to know the strong smell of the cellulose works and saw its chimneys reaching far into the sky. There was never anyone at home, as both his parents were at work in the daytime, so we didn't stay there either. It was just that my playmate got homesick now and [p. 76] then and we would run and have a look at it, but having seen it we hurried back to my place.
As soon as we got inside, I would rush straight into the other room, and life felt more and more secure. Usually my brother was asleep in the basket placed beside Mother, and she would smile at me and begin to talk to me more and more. Her face lost its whiteness and thin wrinkles and in other ways too she began to look herself again.
But it was only in the evenings when Father came home that I really began to get used to my brother. As a rule we all shut ourselves in the inner room, as the old woman who was looking after us occupied the kitchen with the little boy. Mother would even sit up, her back propped against a pile of pillows, and start combing her hair. Father had also moved his rocking chair in here and would sit rocking in his quiet way. Only when the baby despot awoke and began to cry was there anything of a stir. But when he had been fed or washed and changed into clean, tightly wrapped cloths, he fell asleep again, and peace and quiet surrounded us once more. At a time like this I would often go up to my brother, gaze at him searchingly, and be inclined to agree that perhaps he was a more important member of the family than I was. And at the same time I began in one way to love him and feel as proud of him as Mother and Father did.
One day Mother got up for the first time and took a few turns up and down the room, tottering but smiling happily. From then on she got well quickly, walking up and down the room for longer at a stretch, and doing all kinds of odd jobs. After that it was not long before the old woman and her grandson went out of my life. I did not miss them particularly, not even the boy. It had been fun playing about outside with him, but it meant much more to me that we now had our home all to ourselves.
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