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The Literature Collection

Pekkanen, Toivo / My childhood. Lapsuuteni (1966)

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Chapter Three


  [p. 77]  


Father's income at this time must have been less; at any rate Mother began to insist on our finding a cheaper place to live. Father seemed to take this to heart, but one day—about a year after the birth of my brother—we moved with our belongings into the middle of town, to a cheap and old-fashioned building in the yard of a dignified house next to the police station. Our new home consisted of one small room which we reached by going through the laundry room and bakery.

Perhaps it was so unpleasant living in such a place that from the start my memory lowered a thick veil over all that happened. I can mention many different things, but I cannot bring any of them to life. From near this house I saw the first stagecoach, drawn by two horses, set off for Hovinsaari; it tempted people living far from the center of town with a   [p. 78]   comfortable and cheap ride home, but old-fashioned people did not understand such new-fangled things and laughed the attempt to scorn. Here I earned money for the first time, when our landlady, an elegant Swedish-speaking woman, paid us small boys to stack a large pile of firewood into the shed for the winter. Unfortunately we were not yet very strong and would not have finished by nightfall if my father had not helped us when he got home from work. While in this house I once ate so many bananas that I kept throwing up all night and they became so repulsive to me that not until I was a grown man did I dare to put one in my mouth. In this house I saw for the first time the rapturous beginning and the dismal end of love. The landlady had a plump servant who did the washing for two days in the laundry room in front of our room, and almost the whole time she was visited by a handsome young man. Every time I ran through the laundry room on my way out or in, I saw the girl sitting in the man's arms in an ecstasy of passionate and never-ending kisses. After we had moved from there I heard that a fatherless child had been born to an out-of-work mother who was driven to misery and destitution. In this house, too, I came to know the dreaded police and the important and respected town doctor on the other side of the street.

I could mention many things that were new to me, but I can describe none of them in detail. Everything is vague and blurry, sunk into oblivion. After about a year, when we moved again to another, more comfortable place, my memory begins once more to clear.

To my mind I was quite a big boy when I moved to this new place. I no longer bothered much about Father and Mother, as long as I was fed. I spent more of my time out of doors. My younger brother was not dressed in white petticoats any more, but in short trousers and a shirt just as I was in the summer.

  [p. 79]  

The house to which we now moved was close to the woods, to the old ramparts, and to a large meadow enclosed by thick birch trees. Beneath our window ran the same road along which I had gone with Father the first time I went swimming. But now I saw everything with different eyes. New houses had been built around us and our yard was very wide. Where we were, there were four houses, one of which was a two-story brick house containing, besides living premises, two saunas, a bakehouse, and a laundry room. The outhouses, pigsties, and storage sheds were also big. Everything was large and solid.

Here, too, we had only one room to live in, but it was more comfortable than the previous one. There were many grownups and many children all around us. From the hall four doors opened straight into four homes; the windows of two rooms opened onto the street and those of the other two onto the yard. Under each room was a large cellar, where, during the winter, there was space for little else but firewood; in the summer almost all the food and the kegs of homemade beer were kept there as well.

It was here that I got to know my pock-marked aunt's eldest daughter. I had not seen her for a long time. Now she was a sweet, pretty young wife of eighteen expecting her second child. She and her husband lived in two rooms of an older house next door, and every day she would ask me to come in and see her. She loved all small children.

At the same time I got to know her husband, and began to like him even better than his wife. He was the son of the rich sawmill owner and his proud wife. His parents also owned this block of houses with their saunas; but as they felt he had been foolish and disobedient, he had been taken away from school and had become a sauna stoker.

It had been a blow to this spirited and virile young man to be separated from educated people and thrown amongst workmen.   [p. 80]   But in my eyes at least he seemed happy and contented. As soon as I was awake in the mornings and had drunk my coffee and eaten my bread and butter, I would rush out and go straight to him. Usually he cleaned out the refuse pit in front of his workshop first and put the rubbish under the outhouse. Then he would clean the boilers and begin to cart firewood from the shed to the boiler room. I thought this was exciting. The boiler room was about six feet above ground, and a long, sloping gangplank had been made into it from the side of the steps so that the barrows of wood could be easily rolled in. As he wheeled the load up at a gay, youthful run, I would trot happily behind. To my even greater joy, when the empty barrow had been turned round, I was lifted in and became its load, and away we went at a dizzy speed. The planks creaked and sagged under the bounding barrow and the air sang merrily in my ears. These rides were a great experience, as they produced in me both a chilling fear and a courage which developed my strength and widened my knowledge. I felt that with the help of these experiences I was really growing up to be a man.

When enough wood had been carted the young stoker would light the boiler and then go to see how the saunas were getting on and if the pipes were in order. Downstairs were the men's and women's public saunas, upstairs the gentlefolk's private sauna. The men's public sauna was the only one I knew; I was taken there at intervals to be bathed.

In addition to the young married couple and the sauna, I gradually became acquainted with the whole block of houses and the people living in them. I still remember very well what they all looked like, though most of them are dead by now and I can recall the names of only a few. I also have a clear picture of some of my playmates from that time, though I have lost touch with them since then.

  [p. 81]  

There were always a lot of children in the yard, girls and boys, big and small. My younger brother was among them, but I only joined them when I was tired of the sauna and the young mother. The boys of my size formed a group of their own which often went off exploring the more exciting nooks and crannies. All the others would lose sight of us as we climbed onto roofs and into attics, poking about amidst the lumber and junk hoarded up in corners. When at last we came back to the others, we were always black from head to foot and made our mothers angry or sometimes even cry.

Another interesting place was behind the sauna's storage shed, where this building narrowed into a cluster of sheds and outhouses belonging to the families who lived on the other side of the sauna. In front of these doors was a level plank bridge about three feet high which you could reach only by the steps at the end. Since an old water barrel had been left lying on the bridge, it was quite a dizzy jump from the top. At first only the biggest boys dared to jump off; but as the ground underneath was black soil it soon grew soft and then the smaller boys too were bold enough to try.

Behind our outhouses ran a solid fence about six feet high, and a few yards on the other side were our neighbors' outhouses. The paths on both sides of the fence were very smelly and overgrown with long nettles, so it was not very nice to walk there. But it was fun to climb over the fence, and as the girls and smallest boys did not dare to follow us, we would vanish from sight and had to breathe the pungent air of these strange back ways.

I did not get to know the people in the yards next door this summer. There were two smaller yards adjoining our big wide one; in one of these there were nothing but grownups and old people and in the other only one boy. In the block on the other side of the street there were several other children; the   [p. 82]   bigger boys would sometimes stop to talk or play with them, but those of my size looked askance at them. They were strangers and perhaps enemies as well. Not until later, when we were a little bigger, did we get to know them better.

As a rule we kept to our own yard, except on hot days, when we ran to the beach along the same road down which Mother and Father had taken me to swim for the first time. Now, however, we did not go right to the point or stop at the warm, shallow bay, but ran across the point to the other beach. The bay there was wide, and between the islands in the distance we saw the sea join the sky somewhere very far away. The water was chilly and clear, although the town sewage flowed into it nearby, and between the heavy boulders the bottom was covered with coarse but smooth sand. It was a good spot to splash about in. From the top of a steep rock a little way out from the shore I learned to dive head first, though I could not yet swim and the water reached only to my chest.

It was in this house and among these people that I got ready for going to school. Before this phase of my life began another brother was born, a strong, healthy boy who grew quickly. But I also saw death at close quarters, and it was violent and dramatic. My aunt's daughter was just about to give birth to her second child when her husband and my gay hero fell ill one day with brain fever. For two days he sweated and tossed, unconscious, and as the moment of death drew near his wife's cries of pain filled the whole yard. The moment he was buried the rest of his family too seemed to be wiped from the face of the earth. The eldest child was sent away to one of their wealthy relations, and when the young mother began to recover from her agony the newly-born baby was taken away to another family. The mother was sent to Helsinki to be trained as a nurse. By the time I started going to school, they were nothing but a memory.


  [p. 83]  


One day Mother dressed me in my best clothes and set off in good time to take me to school. The doors were still shut and so everyone collected in the yard. Most of the other boys and girls also had their mothers with them, and a few had their fathers or big sisters. There were all kinds of children among them. Some had already begun their rough games even here, but the very shy ones kept close beside their mothers, holding them tightly by the hand. Between these extreme types there was of course every possible other kind.

When the janitor opened the doors we began to file slowly inside. The teachers had had a lot of tables brought into the big gymnasium, and we stood in front of them beside our mothers, sisters, and fathers. Although all that happened was that our parents handed over our birth certificates and said our names, there was something solemn about the moment. Even the very wild boys who had been playing roughly in the yard were silent. Teachers inspired great respect, but at the same time we seemed to be aware of something else. Perhaps that our life as it had been up to now was finished and a new phase was beginning.

After this I always ran to school alone. There were so many of us newcomers that we were divided into two big classes. My class was put into a smaller building next door, and at the other end of this building were the Swedish-speaking children. I heard their voices so often, both indoors and out in the yard, that I felt I was closer to them than the older pupils in the big building.

I remember that my teacher was young, very pretty and very well dressed. Almost every morning she appeared in a new dress, sometimes in two different dresses on the same day. She tried to be a stern teacher, and her sharp exclamations often made the more sensitive ones tremble and turn   [p. 84]   pale with fear, but the very rough boys only grinned and laughed. Although they were made to stand in the corner time and again, they could not take things seriously. The teacher herself was much more serious, as at least once she burst into tears when she saw that her strictness was in vain.

Learning to read and write was easy for me, and so these lessons were pleasant. I held up my hand eagerly the whole time, but after two or three tests my reading was not listened to any more. In the writing class I always had my lessons done in a flash and then I spent the time watching gleefully how hard the poorer students had to work. The teacher was not satisfied with me all the same. I could write the letters and words quite correctly, but my handwriting was appalling. All the years I was at school it remained almost as bad.

As more subjects were added and we began to learn drawing, handicraft, and singing, I knew moments of crushing depression. If I felt proud of myself during reading and writing lessons, I wanted to sink through the floor with shame during these other lessons. From the very first I had to admit that I was being left behind by nearly all the others. I sweated and strained, sweated and strained, but however hard I tried I could never get anything finished. Time and again the teacher would stop beside my desk during drawing and handicraft lessons and begin to help me by guiding my hand while all the others watched inquisitively. I went red in the face over and over again, and when the teacher left me I was always so upset that I would smudge the drawing she had helped me with or hopelessly tangle the potholder she had begun.

In singing I would make sounds with the others until the teacher made us sing one by one. At first I tried this too several times, but I soon found that my singing was just as bad as my drawing and knitting and I kept quiet. In this   [p. 85]   subject nothing was expected of me at all. On my report card there was one long stroke instead of a number.

I had a wonderfully happy time the first two winters in the school playground during recess. Nearly every day we boys played what we called "threes." The walls of the school building and the janitor's lodge opposite were starting points. We began the game by placing one boy in the middle of the playground to catch the rest of us with three strokes. As we were a big team when we started off, this lone boy could usually seize two or three during the very first run and win them over to his side with three strokes. When we started on the second run from the opposite wall our team was thus smaller and the number of catchers had increased and strengthened so that in this run we lost heavily. After several more runs the greater part of the team had been transferred to the middle of the field and the only runners left were one or two very fast and tough players. Only then did the really glorious struggle begin.

The big group of boys in the middle of the field usually picked off one victim at a time from the last runners. He was surrounded, seized by his shirt, trousers, hands, and legs, so that he was forced to give in. in this way one after the other of the best men were overcome and taken over to the other side.

I was among these, and gradually I became the best of them all, the last one left and almost unbeatable. I was not the strongest, but I was swift and unscrupulously tough. I could feel some inner joy filling my whole body and making me attack my would-be capturers despite the odds.

How happy I was! How brave, how daring, how superior to all the others!

When I started running I always headed straight for the middle, the most threatening and frightening center of danger.   [p. 86]   But when I got up to the others and they tried to throw a ring round me, I dodged suddenly and slipped between their fingers. The only opponents left in my way were one or two timid souls who kept apart from the others, and they were easily crushed. I simply charged straight at them and they fled out of my way in panic, and the road was open to the wall of the other building.

I did not win every time of course. Strong hands would seize my shirt, arms, or legs, and then my game was up and I had to begin the next game as a catcher. But it did not often happen on my good days. Much more often I raced time and again past the boys of our class or straight through them and kept my first game going until the school bell put an end to it. These victories of mine came to be the most wonderful victories of my childhood. I grew high in the regard of the boys of our class, and of the girls too.

They were the first and last victories of my life.

I myself could not then grasp—nor can I even now—what my success was based on. I can guess up to a point, but it is always a mystery how I could behave so wildly in the school yard, while in class I was usually a good boy, and out of school probably more of a coward than a hero. Fights, at least, I really dreaded and I kept out of them.

When school was over we had to carry our slates with us, as well as our books, and they broke easily. For this reason they were a great nuisance to us, for when we had broken the slates given us by the school our parents had to pay for all the others, and naturally they did not like it a bit. On the contrary, in their anger they were quite liable to seize the birch or some other means of punishment. But in spite of this, the slates got broken time and again—in a fight, if we fell when running, or if we bumped into something. Boys cannot always be so quiet on the way home that they don't knock their things about.

  [p. 87]  

Homework always seemed easy, as long as I had to write only words and simple sums on the slate. But sometimes a drawing was assigned as homework and this banished nearly all my peace of mind. On such days I had to sit inside for many hours, drawing and rubbing out, sweating and sometimes even crying. My parents could not understand why I took my homework so seriously, but deep inside me was the stern requirement that the drawing of an apple must really look like an apple, and berries must really look like berries, and when I was not equal to this I was in despair. At home these lessons for some reason seemed more important than at school, perhaps partly because the drawings done at school were wiped out straight away, but those done at home had to be carried through the town and many of the people I met often wanted to look at them. But what seemed even more important was that in this very homework my ego was really beginning to be awakened and to find out its limitations and capabilities.

Fortunately such homelessons were rare. When I had taken my things home and got something to eat, I would usually forget about school and would rush out in search of new adventure.


I first made the acquaintance of Christmas when I was ill, and I began then to honor it. When I was in the second grade at school it again drew near to me, but in quite a new way. Before the somber shadows began to fall over all our family it wanted once more to remind me of itself, to lift my spirit to heaven and to leave in my mind the memory of a phase of my life that was soon to close.

I noticed the approach of this Christmas when our class began in good time to learn Christmas songs, first in our own   [p. 88]   classroom and a little later together with another class in the gymnasium. Although, being a poor singer, I dared to do no more than hum with the others, something of the meaning of these songs flowed into me right from the beginning, bringing with it something quite new, startling, and arresting. Just what was it I experienced? I soon realized that it was something very solemn, but that was not enough. I was meeting things of which previously I had not even been aware.

And when, after a time, round dances were added to our community singing, my spirits rose still higher. In the round dances each boy had to take a girl by the hands. Every time this happened I gave a start. I became excruciatingly shy. I blushed. I did not dare to look at my partner or anyone else, and my whole body almost perspired from the strange excitement. But even so I enjoyed these times. I noticed that the girls whose hands were linked in mine did not look at me either, but gave themselves up with their entire being to the joy of singing and dancing. The plain notes of the harmonium, the equally simple words of the songs, and the touch of our hands all tended to raise me to some unknown state of being.

Christmas seemed to take on an entirely new meaning. The words of the songs spoke of games and of the outward happenings of games, and in their more solemn moments the teachers spoke of the candles soon to be lighted and of the birth of Jesus. But of the secret sources of our joy they said nothing. Perhaps the grownups had already forgotten all about them.

On other days this mood was also with me at recess and followed me home from school. On such days I did not go with the crowd of other boys, but kept to myself. Not even my great victories during recess attracted me. I felt that the inexplicable moods awaking within me were of a fragile stuff   [p. 89]   which would easily break if a stranger were to brush against it. They belonged to me alone, and the more carefully I was able to hide them from others the more precious they would be. Not even the girls whose hands I held as I floated away on the music and the songs from the circle of everyday things meant anything to me apart from the games. Sometimes I might stop to look at them from a distance, but withdrawn into their own sphere they were merely girls, whom boys always despised.

I sensed that I myself was in the process of changing.

Even on those days when the songs and games were forgotten and I went on as before with my lessons and threw myself with gusto into the battles in the playground, someone might suddenly touch me and make me think of something. The teacher would look at me in wonder and call me by name. In the midst of my wild running I would sometimes suddenly stop so that my playmates nearly crushed me beneath them in their joy. But at such moments these things meant nothing to me. I answered the teacher's questions clearly and plainly, and I submitted in silence to my playmates' enthusiastic chatter.

The nearer our festival approached the more excited I became and the more eagerly my imagination went to work. All the days were lovely and full of wonder. I came to know the sunshine and the dark beauty of heavy showers of rain, of the cold sea winds, and the late autumn evenings. They were always full of things and events which the gaily bubbling stream of thought brought with it. The nights were sometimes restless. I did not dream; but I tossed excitedly in my bed, often talking aloud at great length and occasionally uttering inexplainable cries which woke Mother and made her wake me with her frightened questioning. I could not tell her anything, nor could I understand why she had awakened me.   [p. 90]   Once awake, I was quite calm. When Mother had tucked me in again, I quickly fell asleep and resumed my unknown struggles.

On the day of the festival, Mother dressed me in new clothes and set off with me to school. A large crowd of grownups had again collected in the playground, just as when we came the first time. But now none of my pals stayed beside their parents. They formed groups of their own. I kept to myself, also apart from my mother. It was as if I had to muster my forces for what lay ahead. When the bell rang we assembled as usual in our lines and marched into class. There the teachers made short speeches to us and reminded us how we were to behave. More subdued than usual, we entered the gymnasium, and our parents sat down on benches placed in rows or stood about against the wall. We marched in front, in full view of them all. At that moment I felt the spirit of the festival encircling us and making my steps as light as the wing-beats of a bird.

The event itself is hard to describe. When the harmonium began to play and the girls' and boys' voices were raised in song around me, I kept quiet to hear more plainly what the devout voices were singing and to understand what they had to tell. I was aware of the whir of angels' wings close at hand and I saw faces surrounded by a perpetual light. Every evening outside I had seen man-made lights which were always accompanied by a dark shadow; but in this light there were no shadows. It was full of brightness.

"Never believe in evil, believe always in good," I said quietly to myself in my own childish words.

When I glanced at my mother, I saw her eyes radiant with happiness and tears. She too at this moment believed as I did.

When the hymn was finished the teacher told us a fairy tale. Its name has gone from me nor can I say now what it was about, except that it suddenly took us away from our   [p. 91]   school hall and our town to somewhere very far away in the midst of the Finnish forests. Dazzling white snowdrifts covered the ground, and the boundless forest slumbered its winter sleep, garbed in white hoarfrost beneath the glittering stars. Its white mantle protected even a small tumbledown cottage where poor people lived. A snowdrift crept right up to the window and a thick drift on the roof hung down over the eaves. A yellow gleam through the tiny frosted window and a narrow path trodden through the snow to the door were the only signs that people lived there. Everywhere that evening whiteness surrounded it.

Always believe in good, never believe in evil. Always see beauty, never see ugliness.

That evening these people were hungry, for they had nothing to eat; but as they too believed in goodness and beauty and not in evil and ugliness, Father Christmas himself brought them a big pile of Christmas presents and all kinds of good things to eat. And I believed that this happened. I was in the midst of the Finnish forests and I saw it with my own eyes.

All the girls and boys sang more fervently than ever before, and I heard that their words were full of a new, inexplicable emotion and joy. Even in poverty there was no evil or ugliness. I was certain of it. And it was proved to me in yet another way. When the singing was over, presents were handed out to us too, a small paper bag to each, and when I opened it and took a bite of the apple inside, I felt goodness and beauty on my tongue.

But all this was only the preparation for more important things. Up to now I had been merely a listener and a looker-on, but when the round games began I really took part in what was happening. The singing and the fairy tale had floated high above us; now goodness and beauty stepped down into our midst. The words of new sings began to live within   [p. 92]   me, and when I grasped a girl's hand I was no longer alone. I was part of the universe from which goodness and beauty stream and where the light is free of shadows.

Those around me were singing. I heard their words and voices. I did not take part in the singing and I did not dare to look at the face of the girl whose hand I was holding, but all my limbs tingled and floated still higher, up, up.

Always believe in goodness, never believe in evil. See always beauty, never see ugliness. Never be alone.

The girls' hands were so small and soft that they felt as if they might break into nothingness if I squeezed hard. But it was through their hands that good poured into me and with the help of their hands I could float still higher and yet at the same time be on the earth, in this gymnasium and inside my own self.

When I hear children singing their round games nowadays they seem familiar. The words of some are quite the same as during my schooldays; but at the same time they are strangely commonplace. They do not kindle faith; they do not speak of the mysteries that uplifted us then.

That day I had to take many girls by the hand as many kinds of tunes and words floated round me, and I was aware how different all the hands were. Some were like red or white flowers, others again were so delicate that one could have blown them into space like the white fluff of a dandelion, and some were so small that one could only find them by looking under the green leaves.

Never be alone.

These words rang in my head as the teacher at last spoke to us again of Christmas and the Christmas holidays and as the last song was begun. They were still ringing in my head as, tired now, I walked through the streets holding Mother's hand. It was freezing outside and the low-lying clouds were dark gray, but the words were ringing in my head even so,   [p. 93]   and I told myself that I would always believe in goodness and beauty and that I would never be alone.


After that day I tried with all my strength to keep on believing, but right from the first it was very hard. The brightness quickly began to fade.

When Christmas came to our own little home, Father gave me some small skis which he had carved from board ends; they were tarred and scorched underneath to make them glide, and both I and my younger brother got guns all the way from Helsinki with which you could shoot peas and paper balls. The very same day, Christmas Eve, I felt I must go into the yard to try out my skis and shoot my gun. Time and again I tried to say to myself the words that had made me happy on that other evening and had seemed so easy to understand, but now they made me restless. I could not keep still. My uneasiness was more easily forgotten when I fired the gun.

I spent every day of the holidays skiing down the slope in our yard and even went outside the yard where the slopes were steeper. I was on the move from morning till night. If I tired of skiing, I would fetch my gun and begin shooting it off, with all the boys in our yard crowding round. They pretended to despise it, but I could see from their eyes that they envied me and I would bang away harder than ever. My younger brother was still so small that his gun was hung up on a nail, but I was free to fire mine as much as I liked. And I fired it often. I had to hear those bangs to forget something else.

The whole winter became almost a winter of waiting. When I got to school I would sit very quietly in class and fasten all my attention on the lesson, and at recess I continued my successful running in our wild games. But a kind of   [p. 94]   vacuum surrounded me. I had no sense of satisfaction or peace of mind.

Sometimes I would go and stand by myself in a corner of the playground to recollect something and to look from afar at the girls. But these attempts felt so oddly stupid that I had to run back quickly into the crowd of boys.

I was then eight years old.

When the cold became so severe that skiing down the slope was out of the question, and when my gun was suddenly broken, I often used to stare from the top of our steps at the apartment in the house next door where the young mother had always been so pleased to see me. But now a very old married couple, whose children were grown up, lived there. On such days when it was freezing hard I used to long for the family that had suddenly disappeared, though otherwise I had almost forgotten them. At home I felt quite alone.

Eventually I intruded on another family. Their father was dead, and the mother's unmarried sister had come to live with them. There were three children, two of them girls, and the younger of the girls was in my class at school. We had not gotten to know each other very well at school, but here at home I hoped I could see her at close quarters and hear what she had to say.

In their home no one kept quiet for a second. In the summer the women worked down at the harbor; but as the port was icebound in the winter they made a living by doing handwork of different kinds. They knitted socks and mittens, patched workmen's clothes, and cut worn-out clothes into narrow strips to be woven into rugs. The side of room near the window was full of skeins of yarn and piles of clothing. The children, on the other hand, always romped round the stove. They cried and squabbled, chewed bread and drank water, climbed onto the stove to get warm, or hid from each other under the bed. I thought all this was very interesting, but it   [p. 95]   became still more interesting when the girls sometimes had to do their homework. The first few times I actually gave a start when I heard them reading aloud. The younger of them did just the same homework as I did, but it seemed peculiar all the same. The words dropped from her lips like bits of wood, and when I asked her afterwards what she had read she could not tell me. Even the elder sister, who could read fluently and who had longer lessons, was quite unable to say what her books were all about.

When I was with them I grew more restless than ever, but nevertheless I began to go there more and more often. I expected that I would gradually understand something that was difficult to comprehend. I expected to learn something which I did not yet understand.

Mother, however, was of a different mind. On my way out from a visit one day, I met Mother with the slop pail in her hand, and she began to question me about where I had been. When I explained, she seized my hand and took me inside. And there she threatened me with dire punishment if I did not keep away from these people. In her opinion they earned their bread not only by honest work, but also in some dreadful and sinful way. In addition, the children's mother was thought to have a dangerous, contagious disease in her nose.

Of course I had already noticed that the woman's nose was bandaged with a white rag, but I had never given it a thought. Wounds were to be seen almost every day, either on one's own body or somebody else's. But now my curiosity was awakened. Although Mother had forbidden me, I slipped into our neighbors' when she was not looking, my mind full of excited anticipation. I almost thought that now I would find what I had been forced to go in search of.

Perhaps I was forced to search for the shadow that is behind all living beings and behind all things.

As I entered the room, I was met by a smell quite   [p. 96]   different from the one in my own home. I immediately recognized the smell exuding from the pile of old clothes and I was also aware that neither the grownups' nor the children's clothes, nor the floor, had been washed nearly as often as at home, so that there was a peculiar smell from these too. But there was still something else hidden in the smell, something just as pungent as the smell of lysol, but different. I stared at the mother's nose swathed in its white bandage and I went as close as possible to her. But the strong odor was not coming from there. To my disappointment the nose smelled quite clean, as a clean bandage was put on every day.

The women were sitting facing each other at the window with their backs bent, cutting strips of carpet-rag. From the musty pile they snatched now a man's shirt or pair of trousers, now a woman's skirt or underclothes, and let their scissors fly along them at the most amazing rate. The bundles had arrived from somewhere in the middle of town and were returned there rolled up into round balls. And the cutters were in such a hurry that they hardly had time to glance at me.

"Believe in good. Don't believe in evil," I said silently to myself as I watched them.

But the queer smell clung to my nostrils and the people and the floor were not so well washed as at home. I could see them now quite clearly in the light of my mother's prohibition, and I could feel no belief in goodness.

I sat down near the stove and kept quite still. I listened to the girls shouting and squabbling or to the way the words read aloud fell out so oddly, almost unintelligibly, and I watched the girls chewing bread and drinking water and climbing onto the stove to get warm. I sensed that the smell and the dirt had brought me nearer to something, but the full understanding of what it might be was still hidden from me.

I went there many many times, but I got no further and I found no peace. Our relationship came to an end in an   [p. 97]   extraordinary way. One day their small boy, who was not yet going to school, had been given a ten penni bit, an unusually large coin. He was standing in the yard with the money in his hand and showing it to anyone who cared to look. When asked where he had got it, he said that he had got it from a strange man. The thought came to me that I was close to that second part of my mother's explanation of why I should keep away from them, close to those awful things which also helped them to live. Perhaps I would begin to understand if I could hold that coin in my hand.

The boy, however, would not agree to this. It could be looked at, but only in his hand. No one might even touch it.

Then it seemed as if I really must hold that money in my hand to find out what it would tell me, what it would explain to me. Suddenly grabbing his hand, I forced open the fist which he instinctively clenched and, despite his frightened screams, seized the money and began to run. I ran about a dozen yards or so, followed by the shouts of the boys and even a woman, before I threw the money down in disappointment, vanished into the other yard, and climbed up into the attic of the next house.

But, there, when I was quite alone, I began to feel that I had touched something terrible. It had dirtied and disgraced me. I no longer dared to say "Believe in goodness." I had become bad myself. For a long time I kept spitting my mouth dry, so that at least a little of my wickedness would leave me.

A large crowd of women had collected in the yard round the crying boy, gesturing and talking excitedly about what had happened. They were all amazed. No one had thought me a thief before, but now they must believe it. Now they must be careful where I was concerned and keep their children away from me. Among the poor there was no one more dangerous than a thief.

I felt that a black shadow was spreading round me and   [p. 98]   making me still more alone. Through the cracks in the attic I could see all that was going on in the yard and hear all that was being said. When the women began to lead the crying boy home consolingly, I slipped down from the attic to the yard and ran back to where I had thrown the money. It was still there. Without touching it, I called to the boy to come and get it.

He approached doubtfully, followed by the women and the other boys. And they all saw that the money had been near them all the time.

"I thought all along that he was no thief," one of the women exclaimed. "He was only teasing that other boy."

But all were not of the same mind. They had drawn their conclusions and were unwilling to abandon them.

"He's a thief all right. He threw it away because he was scared."

What the women said did not worry me at all. I was thinking of what I had gone through and I knew quite well that the boys' opinion of me was quite different from that of their mothers. That day they kept away from me, but next day only a few remembered about it, and very soon they let me play with them again.

When Mother heard about it she punished me more severely than ever before, but that did not worry me either. Not even my smarting backside bothered me. At that moment I had far more important matters to think of, so that things like that meant nothing to me. I rather dreaded Father's homecoming, but when Mother told him what I had done he only looked at me for longer than usual in silence. As I stared into his eyes I thought I saw that he was recollecting his own far-off boyhood.

Once more I spent all my spare time on the ski slope, and when the thaw set in I went over to the yard on the other side   [p. 99]   of the street. I dared now to join those boys as well. That winter snowball fights were started which lasted for many years, and as I gradually got more skillful in the art I began to like these snowfights better than skiing. In them I could forget myself for long periods at a stretch.


Summer came, and one day Mother received an urgent message from Father's place of work: "Your husband has been taken ill. Come at once." The messenger, an old woman, added that Mother had better run first to the druggist to buy some "stroke drops," as Father was paralyzed.

Quickly throwing a kerchief round her head, Mother told me in an anxious voice to look after my two small brothers while she was away. Before this there had been no need for me to bother about them and I had no idea how they spent their time. But now I took charge of them instinctively and they, frightened, clung to me. Mother was away for some hours. We went out into the yard once or twice, but quickly came inside again. We could not really comprehend what had happened to Father, but we knew from Mother's face and her tone of voice that something alarming and perhaps really dreadful had happened to him. So we could do nothing but wait until she came back.

It was evening before Mother got home. She cried and hugged us by turns. Then she made us some coffee and sandwiches. Apparently she meant to keep us out of it and bear her sorrow alone. But when I asked where Father was, why he had not come home as usual, she burst out crying again. "Father will be away for a long time now," she said. "Father is very, very ill."

When I had gone to bed, I dared to repeat again after a   [p. 100]   long time the words which once had made me happy. Now, however, I longed not for happiness, but for strength, and it seemed that they gave it to me.

Only later did I find out what had happened to Father. During the morning he had trimmed the basic stonework of a building as usual. In the afternoon he had felt ill, but had gone stubbornly on with his work until another stonemason stopped beside him in amazement.

"What's the idea," he exclaimed. "You've gone and spoiled the whole stone!"

Father stopped working, looked at his comrade, tried to say something, but could not get a word out. Then he slowly collapsed in a huddle.

It now dawned on the man what was wrong and he called to the others. They all saw that Father had cut the stone crookedly, and that he could neither speak nor stand up. But he was still half-conscious. An old woman was asked to go and tell Mother, as none of the workmen had time.

Thanks to this woman, Mother hurried first to the druggist to buy drops before running to Father's place of work. When she got there with the drops, Father was unconscious. He was just being lifted onto a stone-cart to be taken to the little hospital. All Mother could do was to go along with the load, crying. At the hospital she helped the nurse to undress Father and put him to bed.

After some time I too got to know this ward. I went there with Mother the first time when Father could already sit up on a stool beside the bed. After that, I went many times alone to take him coffee. There were some six or eight beds in the ward and one of the other men would always be sitting on his stool telling yarns. The others lay in bed, either battling with fever, their glowing eyes wide open, or wandering restlessly in the realm of sleep. But one did not bother much about them. No one could help them, and each sooner or later had to walk   [p. 101]   the sharp road of pain or set off on his last journey. These were things beyond human knowledge, and it was best to keep within the sphere of this known world as long as possible.

Father was the same quiet man here as at home and only took part in the conversation as a listener. Quite often he would smile, now and then as though transfigured. He smiled at the men's talk; they talked to keep their spirits up and to hide their individual secrets. But Father smiled at something else as well, at those mute visions of his which even as a very small boy I had seen from the rocking chair.

I was always aware of it when I entered this room without Mother. Father would take the coffee bottle eagerly and begin to drink from it and to ask how things were at home. At the same time he would look at me with his bright eyes, laying his hand on my head or shoulder now and then almost as a caress. Something light and uplifting flowed into my being. I felt at these moments that I was floating above the everyday world.

My former uneasiness had changed to another. The shadows were darkening around me. Nevertheless, at these moments, I dared to believe in good.

At home our spirits were subdued and depressed. I heard that Mother had had to take our small savings out of the bank, and now and then I noticed that she was crying, although she tried not to let us see. My young brothers too were uneasy for a time, but they soon adjusted themselves to our changed condition and began to play as before.

I tried to do the same. I became aware more keenly than ever of the loveliness and freedom of the summer. My playmates went farther afield and spent longer times by the sea than the previous summer. I went with them. I came to know new parts of the woods, new hills, and a long "canal" that had fallen into decay, a relic of the town's past. There were other places too, like the tumbledown old ramparts, now conquered   [p. 102]   by the roots of trees that had grown into a forest. I helped the other boys to find birds' nests of different kinds. Some were high up on the branches of trees or in cavities in the trunks; others were on the ground under stones or in the banks of ditches. On these excursions my eyes and ears took in all kinds of new things. When we went swimming we would go more and more often to the town's swimming-baths among the grownups. There I learned to swim properly, doing the breast stroke like all the best swimmers, although I still kept in the shallow part where I could touch bottom if necessary.

But all this time I did not forget Father. I knew peace and I knew shadow. I remembered them even at moments when I encountered something exciting or instructive. Very many times the shadow swept over me so violently that I had to drop everything and run home as fast as I could. I only calmed down when I saw Mother and could tell from her face that nothing new had happened.

What can Mother's feelings have been? At first she tried to go on with her life as before, but there was not enough for her to do now. Father did not need food or to have his working clothes washed and mended. Mother no longer took pleasure in keeping the room spotlessly clean. As there were always a few women sunning themselves or gossiping in the yard, Mother would often join them. But I suppose she was prey to the same restlessness as I was, for she could not stay long in any one place.

As the weeks passed another frightening thing began to threaten us—hunger. The money gave out and no more came in. This really roused Mother. One day she went into town to hear about work, and as she had been in service with rich families as a young girl, she went to one of them first of all. And she did not have to go any further. A few days previously an old washerwoman had been taken to the same hospital as Father and her place was vacant. Mother was asked to start work the following day with the first family.

  [p. 103]  

Next morning I had to wake up early, though I was still heavy-eyed with sleep. Mother was already dressed and the coffee was made, and when I had had a cup and felt more awake, she began to give me instructions. When the younger children woke up, I was to give them coffee and sandwiches. The pot would keep hot on the stove for another hour or two. Then I was to stay with them all day, so that they would not get lost or into mischief. And if we felt hungry again, I could take bread from the cupboard and milk from the cellar. When Mother came home in the evening she would get us something hot to eat.

When she had gone, doors were opened in other parts of the house, and from the yard and the street could be heard the heavy steps of men going off to work. The women and children were not astir yet. I crawled back to bed and fell asleep again.

When I opened my eyes again, my younger brothers were standing beside me in their shirts and the little one was crying for Mother. Getting up quickly, I fed them, put on their trousers, and took them outside. The youngest one was still crying, and my wakened sense of responsibility tried to think of something nice for him to do. As there were no other children about yet, I took them both to the nearby common, on the edge of which were some thinned-out old birch trees, and began to explain to them how the birds were singing and the flowers growing in the earth. Then the young one calmed down a little.

The day seemed very long. When children appeared in the yard, we joined them, and my younger brothers gradually forgot the unhappy morning. But my anxiety merely increased. My own pals went off someplace and I could not go with them. I had to stay in the yard with all the small children, and when I could play with them no longer I merely watched them at their games. The minutes crawled past so slowly that it felt as if the world were standing still.

  [p. 104]  

When the others were called in to eat, I took my brothers inside, gave them bread and butter and milk, and I too ate my fill. This put new life into me, and when, outside again, I saw my gang going off for a swim, I decided to take my brothers with me. My sturdy middle brother set off briskly beside the bigger boys, but the youngest could not keep up. At first I forgot to take his hand and attached myself to the others, but he began to lag behind and call out in distress. I had to rush back and console him and suit my pace to his. The others were soon lost to sight and we didn't see them again until we got to the beach.

This was the one bright spot in the day. I had a swim and undressed my brothers so that they too could splash about in the warm water. But on the way home dejection again overcame me. My small brother got so tired that I had to carry him the rest of the way home and put him to bed for a while. We had used up all the milk in the morning and had to make do with bread and butter.

When the men came home from work, the yard began to empty. All the families were sitting down to their dinners and there was the feel of evening in the air. But there was no sign of Mother for a long, long while.

By the time she did come home, we were tired out. But she herself seemed excited, for in her pocket she had a nice piece of coffee cake which she had been given and in her mind the knowledge that after she had finished work the next day she would be given the money she had earned, the first money she had earned since she was married. In addition, her work had been praised by the master and mistress of the house.

But it was now too late for Mother to start getting a hot meal ready as he had promised in the morning. Our next-door neighbor had taken in the milk which the farmer had brought us in the morning and Mother went to fetch it. We again had bread and butter and milk, and as soon as we had eaten we all went to bed and were soon fast asleep.

  [p. 105]  

Such was our life as it now became. Now and then Mother would be at home for a few days, feed us well, clean the room, wash and mend our clothes, go herself, or send me with coffee to Father. Then she would move on to some other place as a washerwoman and we had to fend for ourselves as best we could. Gradually we got used to our new life. The youngest stopped crying for Mother and began to turn more and more to me, and I made the best of my lot.

I began to understand what it was I had been seeking so urgently for so long. I must have been seeking new sides of myself which were now slowly coming to life.


When summer had changed to autumn I had to go back to school. But I was not the same boy who had left it in the spring.

Our class was moved from the smaller building to the larger one, and instead of a woman teacher we had a man, whom later, in the higher grades, I came to like very much. Books and homework increased, and our class lessons changed more and more from games to serious effort. The running races during recess, in which I had been such a leading light, were left to the new boys in the lower class; our class began to practice the rudimentary holds on the gymnastic apparatus in the playground, to play football, to run races. I may have had a bent for one of these things too, but my love of sport was dead for a long time to come. I tried to join the small group of those who had no need of moving about even at recess. They usually gathered in a little cluster and talked about their lessons. Even among them I did not feel at home; I was merely an outside listener. But when school began, I did try to escape from my loneliness.

Even this attempt came to naught. Something happened which left a deep wound in my heart.

  [p. 106]  

On one or two occasions Mother had complained to the mistress of the house where she did the washing that she did not earn enough to get new clothes for the children as they outgrew or wore out their old ones; so one of these ladies who belonged to a women's institute provided her with trousers and a shirt to fit me. I had then been back at school for two or three weeks. I recognized the clothes at once as the same which the boys from the orphanage wore—there were two of them in my class—but I put them on, happy and unsuspecting. It was, however, a great and distressing mistake. Everyone thought it natural that the orphanage boys had to wear whatever was given to them, but it branded me, who had a home, as a beggar.

A beggar!

When I came to school in the morning with these clothes on, no one said anything at first; but I saw astonishment and scorn in many eyes. And at recess a group of the more daring boys clustered round me. They asked where I had got my new clothes or whether I had been put in the orphanage. I felt the blood rush to my head. Wherever I looked I saw the glitter of derisive laughter in the boys' eyes. And when I said nothing, they spoke. They knew why such clothes were given. They touched my shirt and trousers. They wanted to know which lady my mother had been begging from.

Begging, begging! No one knew a more contemptible existence than that of a beggar. A beggar, a beggar!

In my fury I flung the nearest boy to the ground, I seized another by the throat. I lashed out with my fists and kicked with my boots. My strength boiled up so violently that the whole line of besiegers began to waver and retreat farther away from me. Perhaps the expression on my face silenced them and crushed their will to fight. Although I managed to hit several boys, no one hit me.

The two orphanage boys were standing further away looking   [p. 107]   at me quite vacantly, but watching to see what would happen. The boys whom I had tried to talk to had turned their backs to me. There was not one to whom I could turn. Although I had got the better of the scoffers with my fists, I was suddenly an outcast, degraded below them all.

I was now made to know more plainly than ever before what loneliness meant.

A beggar's son. Your mother is a beggar, and you're wearing clothes your mother begged.

As the knot of jeerers gave way somewhat, the thought came to me that I must run away from school at once, and at the same time from home. Home had disgraced me. But I had only taken a few steps when the bell suddenly rang and I stopped. As the others began moving towards the door, the sound of the bell reminded me of the unexplainable power of school, to whose authority I had long submitted. Instinctively I was aware that whoever had once been bound to it mentally would never be free. Not even if he fled to the ends of the earth. A person is bound to it by his heart, and he must bear it either as a pleasant and light load or as a burdensome and heavy one according to how faithfully he does his task.

Not even a beggar's son could run away.

I had to go to my place in the line and march with the others into the classroom, listen to what the teacher said, answer his questions, and learn as much about everything as I could.

When we came out in the next break, I kept to myself, nor did anyone come near me. All that day and for many days to come I was quite alone.

Things seemed different when I got home, too. Mother was away again washing somewhere, and as I entered the room I found my youngest brother in tears. His trousers were down and his legs and part of the floor were dirty. There was no sign of our middle brother, and the youngest one had had no   [p. 108]   one to help him. I had to take off his trousers and wash his legs and the dirty part of the floor. As I could not find his other trousers, I had to stay in and keep him company until Mother at last came home. By then it was so late that as soon as we had had something to eat we were all glad to go to bed.

The shadow which I had long felt to be there was deepening.

At school they gradually forgot who I was and what kind of clothes I wore, but I did not forget. After some weeks I dared now and again to approach the circle of chattering boys and listen silently to their talk, but inside I was alone even then.

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