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

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[chapter 15]

  [p. 49]  


The artist — a quiet, sensitive man — was also wandering around on this night until daybreak. There are many who roam about in the northern summer night, especially as Sunday dawns. The reasons are many, but the outward condition is the same for all, the same today as in times gone by: the night's luminosity.

He was known as the artist because he had studied to be one and he was seen now and then painting or drawing something: a landscape, animals grazing, a local resident whom he had ventured to ask to sit for him and who had agreed. Old Manu from Teliranta, for instance, he had portrayed in many different positions and states of dress — even naked, as he cooled off on the sauna steps . . . . He had also published several books, whose intellectual refinement and unerring good taste no one disputed but which very few had read — and so on. It was he who was rowing about in his boat with the white sides and red bottom.

He was happier out of doors than inside. He had a home, and a family too; he lived some distance from Teliranta, in the cottage of an isolated farm. His wife had found the place for them almost on her own after the old couple at the farm had met with a violent end and their cottage had fallen vacant. Until then the artist had lived with his wife in one room at his old home. All kinds of things had happened   [p. 50]   there which irrevocably set the keynote of the family's life — until the very end. The date and manner of this end were unknown, as in other families, but nevertheless it had recently begun to make itself felt in a strange way. Perhaps not to others, but to the artist himself. Marks of age had bitten into him within a very short time. He did not suffer any actual want — his friends and the admirers of his work, though few, were all the more valued — but he . . . he groped about sometimes as though in distress.

The artist rowed slowly, watching the reflection of Teliranta as the surface of the water gradually grew smooth; he saw people moving about and imagined their life to be vigorous and happy. This summer in particular it had become a painfully sweet passion with him to watch the life of nature and of people. As he wandered through the summer countryside by day or night, he seemed to be cowering from something; he was like a young animal that had stuck its head under cover.

Now and then he rested on his oars, and under the brim of the rather shabby hat, his kind, melancholy eyes seemed as if they were listening: they had a warm, taut expression, but they were not gazing at anything. True, the man was looking across the ryefield to the far shore of the sea of heads where it joined the golden glow of the sky, but his gaze merely found support there. It was directed somewhere into his inner self.

A July ryefield's sea of heads against the wide evening glow — what an enervating sight at a certain stage of life. The crop is ripening, the crop is ripening — or is at least already certain of its maturity. The setting sun regards it — regards it like a sturdy farmer, who always has the tillage of his field and the management of his household in order and whose languishing spirit is instantly quickened by the knowledge   [p. 51]   that a succession of sons and daughters will come after him, remembering their father with respect and ready to plow his furrows deeper. His harvest mellows under auspicious signs, both in his field and in his soul. The artist gazed and imagined the lot of the farmer to be often more perfect than it really is. He had nothing of his own other than what was there in the Majanmaa cottage. And that did not enter his mind as his extended gaze stared at the sea of rye heads and the sunset.

He was again awakened from his reverie by the even stroke of oars. Looking around he saw Syrjämäki-Hilja approaching from behind him; she seemed to be heading for Teliranta with fixed purpose.

"Why the hurry?"

"An urgent matter."

"Will I soon be able to come and paint that altarpiece, Mary with the child at her breast?"

"My breasts are not going to be hung up for all the world to gape at. Anyway, you have a Mary of your own at home."

"Still, may I not come and look at the baby later on?"

"If you like. All in good time."

The crofter's handsome wife rowed away. It was plain that she was a trifle put out, yet amused, by the artist's admiring gaze — even now, in her present condition, her nostrils and eyebrows had that same peculiar delicacy that seemed to soften her cheerful but blunt speech. Usually her cheeks were an even tan, but now during pregnancy the color had all collected on her cheekbones in pretty roses that were surrounded by an unbroken pallor.

The artist rested on his oars, even trying stealthily to back a little, as though wanting to prolong this meeting on the water. A strange, childish feeling filled the mind of the solitary man as he watched the woman row away. As the distance   [p. 52]   between them lengthened, the distinctive features of her face blurred — soon they gleamed with the fierce red glow of the setting sun, which also caught the wall of the Teliranta barn and the dress of the girl walking along the road by the field. The rowing woman in the boat and the movements of the oars were an elastic point on the buoyant surface of the water. The solitary man lingered in his boat; with things the way they were, it was indeed restful to sit looking at that simple picture.

He began to row again, rowing nowhere in particular. Soon after the recent encounter, a humming was heard; a melody in slow time, taken from a folk song, vibrated softly behind the artist's closed lips while a soft oarstroke marked every third bar and the boat glided away from the scene.

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