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Sillanpää, Frans Eemil, 1888-1964 / People in the summer night; an epic suite (1966)

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[chapter 9]

  [p. 30]  

9

Syrjämäki-Jalmari thought the time would never pass; he kept walking to and fro between pasture and cottage, each time going far enough down the pasture to look across the rather narrow stretch of water to Teliranta. At last he saw Hilja and the mistress of Teliranta getting into the boat — after having apparently argued for a moment as to who would row. It seemed to be Hilja who sat down on the thwart. Jalmari hurried down to the shore to meet them.

"I wonder who's going to need help first," Hilja said with a meaningful look at her husband, whose face at once took on a look of grave anxiety. It was always the same, so there was no point in beginning to explain the first symptoms.

"Should I go now?"

"Not just yet," Hilja said, going toward the pasture with the other woman.

For a crofter, the time immediately before a birth was always tense, almost agonizing, in fact. Though it was not so bad at this time of year, when the roads at least were dry and help could be got. But sometimes it happened when the roads were impassable during the spring thaw.

Now the weather was favorable. Despite this, in many ways the event turned out to be unique in the life of the married couple at Syrjämäki. For that matter, not even in the   [p. 31]   biggest broods do these things ever happen in quite the same way.

Jalmari stayed by the cottage as the two women went off to look at the cow. They were not there very long, however. Soon Jalmari saw the mistress of Teliranta coming quickly toward him and behind her Hilja, walking slowly.

"You'd better be off now, Jalmari — do you know where you can get a horse?"

"They told me I could borrow one at Ollila — there's no use asking anywhere else hereabouts . . . . Yes, I'll go at once — do you think you could stay here till I get back? — if you can spare the time, that is, because not even Alviina seems to be at home, though I did say to her that . . . ."

"Yes, yes, off you go now!"

The sun was approaching the horizon; the evening was bright, although the quality of the light had changed since midsummer. A musty dampness hung about on the part of the road that led through the low wood and then dropped to the marshy meadow. Syrjämäki-Jalmari walked fast, so fast that, compared with his usual way of moving, his pace was quite remarkable. He was in a strangely pure, innocent mood. It was always the way when any of life's great events drew near. In this respect, age had not brought any change in the man's disposition. As a lad of twelve Jalmari had stood watching his mother's coffin being lowered between planks gray with clay down somewhere into a hole dug in the earth where two other similar coffins already lay, one of them quite small. Strangers were busy there in the churchyard at the time; it was as if they were observing them — the father, Jalmari, Laina, and Vihtori — and wondering what they were doing there . . . . Much the same feeling had swept over him when he stood beside Hilja at their marriage — how remote all their previous doings had seemed, doings to which they   [p. 32]   again returned. As he stood there before the parson, the only thing that weighed on his mind was that if everything were now going to be made public he would feel very small. . . . The parson spoke of God and at the same time was in some way changed into a manifestation of God, so there was no knowing . . . . And when the first child was born, the girl who had died, it was just the same feeling. The fact that a real, living child like that came into existence seemed far too big a truth, seen against their own life . . . . His father's death later had meant very little, really.

But now his mind was in a turmoil again; it was as though omens were whispering in his ear the whole time. A large bird, startled, flew across the road; the sky to the south was strangely leaden, though you couldn't call it clouded — then the moon rose, a round, red, full moon surrounded by regular, blue rings. The moon was peering almost furtively out of the dell there by Pahanoja, and quite plainly it did not intend to rise very high, just enough to see this anxious man striding along.

Jalmari came to Ollila and found not a single man at home.

"Syrjämäki's in a hurry for once," said a flabby-faced dairymaid, already past the dancing age, who was dawdling around by herself in the big kitchen, which also served as a common living room. "They're not at home, they went off to the mistress' old home this morning, and they're never back from there before midnight. But you know your way about the place. The mare's down in the meadow."

Jalmari was already rummaging around for a bridle from a peg in the stable. All the harnesses seemed to be broken in one way or another; even a bridle, which otherwise would have done for a drive to the village, was short of a buckle. He would have to try to bind it with a piece of string to stop it from dangling.

  [p. 33]  

Yes, he would try — once he had got the bridle in place. Syrjämäki knew quite well that Ollila's old mare was never in a mood to be caught; men more infirm of purpose had sometimes had to rope her in, but in spite of that he thought he could catch her now. But . . . the animal merely flattened its ears and deftly evaded the man's attempts and sly coaxing. Jalmari swore softly — and the whole time his grave anxiety was like a lump at the back of his mind; the tension of the moment he had expected for weeks throbbed in the mounting roar of his veins . . . . "Co-o-ome along, come on, old girl . . . . What the devil am I to do if I can't catch the brute . . . tseh, tseh — tsee, tsook, tsook . . . ." He was already beside the animal and was just about to grab its mane — when he just missed a kick from the back hoofs as the mare swung her hindquarters around so that the air swished in his ears. And there she was in a twinkling at the other end of the meadow, cropping grass as though to provoke him, but tripping off like any dancing master the second Jalmari took a step nearer. "Hell and damnation, hell and damnation," the exasperated man repeated as though praying with his last breath. "You bitch of Satan," he shouted at last in blind rage, starting to run after the vexing beast. It was a sight for the gods, but the only one now to see this crazy race was the full moon in its rings; as if to see better, it rose a little higher above the ominous leaden horizon.

Jalmari, a helpless, innocent small boy, ran about panting heavily, stopping now and then to collect his scattered wits. He had no other hope. What was to be done if he couldn't get the horse? Oaths — the kind of oaths that are close to tears and prayer — streamed again from his lips as, at no more than a quick walk now, he followed the mare's capricious scampering. The mare kept her distance, not letting the man even approach her now but trotting along at exactly the same pace as the pursuing Jalmari.

  [p. 34]  

Until suddenly she whinnied and was off like a shot toward the gate. There stood Emmi, the flabby-faced dairymaid, holding out her hand to the mare. It seemed as though the horse could not pull up and was going to trample the girl underfoot. But at the last second it stopped short in front of Emmi with legs outstretched, almost as if it had come down a toboggan-slide, and began nuzzling in her hand for bits of bread. All Syrjämäki had to do was walk up and slip the bridle over the head of the mare, who now paid not the slightest attention to him.

"Some can and some can't, see," Emmi said, adding something to the effect that, as far as she was concerned, she would gladly have amused herself by watching the mare's and Syrjämäki's dancing performance until morning, but since she knew that it was a matter of Syrjämäki's Hilja, she had come and caught the animal.

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