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A Little Portrait Gallery from a Border Post in the North

1

I went to the marsh, as usual. Midsummer had passed a few days before. It was warm and it started to rain there on the edge of the marsh. A helicopter flew over me and I took cover among the dwarf birches. I stood there and saw the gnats rise for the first time that summer. They swarmed up from the marsh like water out of a fireman's hose. There were pools all over the marsh; that's where they came from. Buzzing filled the air. I watched for a while, then hurried across the marsh and up the hillock and into the forest and across the river and up into the fell, where there were no gnats or trees but where the landscape expanded like a sea, a sea of fells, toward the north. I looked south and longed for home.

2

I came here in winter, by bus. I asked the driver to stop at the border post in Karesuvanto. I got off, looked around, and surmised that the brick house on Sakkaravaara hill was my patrol station. I walked over there with my two knapsacks, one for my personal things, the other for the company kit. I held the assault rifle in my hand. It was wrapped in its bag. I was a twenty-year-old border sergeant.

3

The commander's forever thinking of his border post, what's best for it; appearance-wise, everything must always be tip-top. He's proud of it. No one else can grow a lawn at this latitude, on the verge of the tree line.

Must rig up a string to stop them walking across the grass, says the commander, an old man.

Takkinen eats away his sorrows and drinks away his thirst. If he's not drinking, you can be sure he'll be eating. The most celebrated fakir of the north. He'll come down from the Munnikurkkio border post on leave and never make it farther than Karesuvanto. Or perhaps he'll do a quick loop via Muonio or Kilpisjarvi, but he'll always spend at least a week in Karesuvanto, boozing. "I'm buying, you can count on it. There'll be liquor aplenty, you can count on it. I'm Takkinen. If you don't know me, ask anyone you like. That's who I am, Takkinen."

Vornanen prepares a roast and serves it by slamming the meat down in the middle of the table, lancing his own share first with the tip of a sheath knife. Says, There you go gentlemen, eat it up. Then he preaches a long sermon to the whole assembly about the curse of liquor, its diabolical attributes. Two hours and he's raving drunk himself. Soon afterward it's remorse, a soul on the rack. He dashes the bottles of liquor on the ice and mortifies his flesh. "This hand hath touched liquor; now the body shall suffer. It's a gift of Jesus that I broke the bottles. The joy of the Almighty doth flood into me when I do pluck off my clothes and stand shivering naked like the children of paradise. The Bible shall warm me. What the fucking Devil! The bottle's broke! Oh Satan give me liquor!" The fellow eats liquor-sodden snow with extreme relish. And shortly he's asleep in the cold sauna with the Bible under his head.

Pikkupeura's a child of nature. If a party has to go on a long mission in the wilds, Pikkupeura will make one of the number. He needs no map, seeing as he can't read one. But he never gets lost. Or if he does, he heads back to barracks and says, I was lost so I came straight back to the post.

Pikkupeura doesn't drink. Spends his leave fishing or roaming out in the wilds. He has a few reindeer, to "keep me in roasts and besides they're nice to look at when you see them, your own herd."

In spring the man's brown as a coffee bean, spends so much time loitering in the fells. Never a care in the world, so long as he can up sticks and go, like a nomad. "Yeah, I've been on at least ten of them presidential tours. President Kekkonen, oh yes, he's hard on those bigwigs but friendly to me. A friendly man that Kekkonen, but strict too, I'll say."

There's no sending that Alanko out on patrol, the commander says. Alanko never goes patrolling, he just does janitor's jobs, repairs the patrol cabins, this and that, duty shifts. Yellow fingers from rolling cigarettes. When he's on leave, he stops for a drink at the Ruska bar. He'll go and start drinking at noon and come back no later than six, switch on the television and watch, drunk, alone. The duty officer might bring him a cup of coffee. "Doesn't bother me, the dark dayless winter, or the white nights of summer for that matter. Time passes, the grave gapes."

Isokoski has oversensitive nerves. Poisons dogs because of the noise they make. Thin, tall, teetotaler, a believer. A first-class radiotelegrapher, quick tapper, sensitive fingers, as sensitive as his nerves. Isokoski listens when he has his earphones on, dit-dit-dah-dit-dit-dah, and when he's asleep and dreaming--always on the alert. It's good to schedule a lot of "listening" on his border patrol assignments. When you read his patrol reports, they're full of entries about noise: a bird, a car, a person, a dog, a fish. "The racket those dogs make is quite intolerable. Again last night Hamu barked, twice. After that it was impossible to sleep. When will Hamu be shot?"

Puustinen likes to tinker at his dinner table at home, making fox traps with cyanide. The children fuss around beside him doing whatever, eating, drinking, drawing, pulling one another's ears, fighting, chasing gnats, while Puustinen prepares his poisons. His wife makes coffee in a two-gallon pot. Puustinen leaves all his gear helter-skelter. His snowmobile sank in the bog after it conked out, in the spring. It sank during the summer, and someone who was gathering cloudberries found it in the fall, its runners jutting out of a watery hollow.

"I should repair the fence, it's just I've got all these other urgent chores. But come fall, then let's see, it's even better to do it toward fall, like. I've lost my coat. How can I go anywhere without a coat that's vanished, oh deary me, but now it's coffee time, I have to drink my coffee."

4

Dawn. I approach the border post with a kayak on my shoulder. I've paddled through the night at Lataseno, spent a day off there.

The commander's mowing the lawn. I lower the kayak onto the grass, and he snaps at once Not there, not on the lawn. I leave the kayak where it is and head for a wash and a nap--my shift begins in a few hours. The commander's on holiday, and I'm in charge of the post.

Morning coffee, the usual routine, send a surveillance patrol out, change of duty. Isokoski takes over. He complains that the commander started cutting the grass at five, no hope of sleeping.

A helicopter stopped by midmorning, leaving Takkinen with us. The copter's been on patrol and touched down at Munnikurkkio to pick up Takkinen on the way back. Takkinen has a week off.

Takkinen and I go and check out the commotion at the village. A festival of indigenous peoples is kicking off. Already we see Inuits in their hairy knickers and Indians and Sami herdsmen and tourists. They've erected tepees and lean-tos all over Sakkaravaara hill. Takkinen goes to the Ruska bar for a drink; I head back to the border station. When I get there, Alanko is heading for the Ruska bar.

In the afternoon a patrol returns and we hear there's been a bit of confusion between the Inuits and the Sami. The patrol's sorted things out, no big deal. We speculate as to whether there'll be trouble at night.

My shift's over. I go and change into mufti. Then coffee. The phone rings, it's the Hotel Ratkin, they need men. I put my gray uniform back on and call the police at Muonio. They promise to send a patrol. I also telephone Takkinen at the Ruska bar and order him over to the Hotel Ratkin. Meet you there. Takkinen's extremely compliant. I head for the Ratkin with a pistol in my belt.

Takkinen and I arrive outside the Hotel Ratkin at the same time. As we enter we find a wrestling foursome. The bouncer looks on innocently. A crowd has gathered around the wrestlers, drunk to a man. Takkinen goes in first. A couple of roars from him puts an immediate end to the wrestling. We ask the reindeer herdsmen, Now what's all this about. The men agree to sit at opposite ends of the bar. That's that sorted; we leave.

At the post I change into mufti again. Takkinen's got hold of some whiskey; we drink some.

We decide to spend the evening at the Hotel Ratkin. The bouncer refuses to let us in. No entry, no matter what we say. We tell the man what we think of him and vow not to come should he ever need our help. We head for the lean-tos of the indigenous peoples and carry on drinking there.

In the middle of the night we're in an empty little cabin finishing off the whiskey. Takkinen's already half-dozing, and a guy I don't know is curled up in a sleeping bag in the corner. Another stranger enters the cabin and asks: Is this the celebrated Takkinen? Your very man, I reply. He attacks Takkinen. I belt him on the cheek and he leaves the cabin.

I head back to barracks and bed. I'm on patrol duty the next morning. At daybreak, the duty officer comes and wakes me. They've phoned from the Ruska bar. Some Inuit's been thrown through the window and is lying in his blood on the floor. I call the Muonio police again. They're sleepy. They promise a patrol by and by. I call Pikkupeura and he agrees to join me. We head for the Ruska bar.

A semiconscious Inuit lies on the floor, covered in blood. We bring him over to the border post and clean him up.

"Scratches."

"The hairy knickers protected him well."

We can't understand a word the man says. We put him to bed in the guest room. I ask the duty officer to call the Muonio police and the platoon commander. Then I go back to sleep.

The police arrive in the morning, ask all kinds of questions. I'm a bit fuddled. The Inuit's ready to hit the festival again. The police drive him over to the lean-tos in their car.

The patrol is scheduled to travel by foot and on bikes, but I revise the plan and borrow a car from the reindeer police. Pikkupeura and I set out for Kilpisjarvi. Pikkupeura drives and I sleep.

On the way back we're surprised by a thunderstorm at Kelottijarvi lake. We have to stop the car, the rain's so hard. Suddenly a massive thunderbolt strikes right next to us. A little timber house beside the lake catches fire. I radio the border post and tell them to call the fire department. We run down to the house. A man is in the yard with buckets in his hands. The flames burst out under the eaves and through the windows. The man says, What an awakening, it came through the phone, damn, I don't have any insurance at all. All we can do is watch.

The fire department arrives but the pump doesn't work. They call the Karesuvanto firemen on the Swedish side, who soon arrive, but nothing remains to be done, the house is a goner. The man who lived in it decides to move into the sauna on the shore.

Pikkupeura and I continue our journey. When we reach the post, the commander's in the yard cutting the grass.

5

When Pikkupeura arranged an orienteering competition, no one found any of the checkpoints. He'd gone and scattered the crosses wherever. He found a suitable stone, put one there. Found a suitable bog, put another there. Then he returned and drew circles in the map, wherever, and numbered them. No one found a single cross, but Pikkupeura went out and retrieved them all. A new competition was held the following week.

6

Once I was napping on the duty officer's bunk. Isokoski's small son, a five-year-old sprout, crawled up next to me. He pushed his head into my armpit, and deeper: You're not a soldier.

7

I had the lyrics of Hector's album The Lost Children on my wall.

We came back from the hotel, me and two tourist girls and a colleague from the neighboring border post, back to my place. Spotting these wall mottoes one of the girls said with immense disdain: "Who here pretends to comprehend the poetry of Hector?"

8

Suddenly in a dream, suddenly a girl appears in my dream, comes to me, approaches, I look at her, her face beams at me, I want to be there, she smiles, then walks away, without disappearing, halts and speaks, such a beautiful girl speaks to me, I can hardly believe it, but she says: "Listen how the wind moves in the birches, now it grabbed that, and again, it shakes and strains the branches, and now it quit, there it goes, and this birch like a lifeless pole. Go, what are you waiting for?"

I wake, rise, walk across the floor to the window, the floor of the patrol cabin is cold, I look outside, the dark profile of Puunasvaara hill, behind it, Norway, the border runs across the hill, along the ground, here, Finland, this is a log cabin for patrolmen, Pikkupeura's asleep over there on the lower bunk, there's a fire in the stove, our boots are hanging from a nail above the stove, there's a carton of milk in the corner, the sound of the wind up in the roof, I look outside, birches, dwarf birches in the middle of the snow, it begins to snow over the empty land, and this dream clings to my mind, this girl in the dream, I don't know her, I don't recognize her: What was it she said?

The next day there's a snowstorm, we lose our way and travel in a circle, the snowmobile loses a fan belt, we fall through the ice and there's a terrifying snowstorm, but I live in another land, I have a dream, an awful yearning, dreamward, womanward. I'm indifferent to the hardships of this land, I'm not cold nor tired nor hungry, I'm indifferent, I have something here in my heart, I won't give it to anyone, I won't say or speak, I'll move through the winter. Move, ski, exist, live in the middle of winter, inside the winter, I have something warm in my heart, hidden.

In the yard in front of the border post the sky arches over me, the entire blue frozen sky, the whole universe arches swiftly over me from infinity to infinity, the stars pierce the vault into brightness, the snow creaks, my breath steams. Dreamgirl, white beauty: What did she mean?

9

I walked in the forests; I explored the marshes, the rivers and the fells. They wondered why I roved, even though I had no reindeer. What type of guy am I, what are the others, how hard it is for people to understand one another's words: drinking, lawn mowing, dog poisoning, solitary roaming. A broad stretch of virgin snow between all people. What happiness it would be to ramble and paddle alone if you had someone to think of.

In the summer they held entrance exams for officer training. I applied in Rovaniemi and some time later a message reached the post that I'd been accepted for the next course.

Farewell whiskey, courtesy of Takkinen. Then I left.

A Brilliant Future

I find a good excuse to visit Oulu: Lauri, my friend, former lumberjack turned entrepreneur, trained in Uppsala, comes to see me, says he's got himself a boat, a sailboat, and asks me along, to collect it in Tenala. Where's Tenala? It's near Tammisaari. So next weekend then. Sure, why not, a train to Helsinki and on to Tenala, together. Lauri lives in Helsinki, he buys sailboats and apartments, but he's a lumberjack by temperament. With such a temperament, he'll do well in Finnish business. So I've got an excuse to stop by at Umur's; I'll leave Taika with her.

I take the day train to Oulu.

I ring the bell, Umur answers the door. Taika leaps about, mad with joy, Taika has been pining, Taika is always waiting for you to come, Taika dreams about you, Taika walks through crowds of people, snout in the air, trying to catch your scent, sometimes he thinks, some familiar gesture, a movement, for a moment he thinks you're there, but no, Taika won't even eat properly when you're not there to feed him, he's restless, he wakes up in the night and looks out the window to see if maybe you're coming, Taika walks with you forever in his mind, there's nothing he does without remembering you, Taika has been sad, look at the state his coat is in, the little guy's sick with longing.

Pretty good, nothing much, so you're sharing with some girl, well, there's plenty of space, two rooms and a big kitchen. I'll take the night train to Helsinki, Lauri's coming to meet me, we'll continue together, Lauri's friend will make a third.

Umur makes some coffee, I sit in a chair like a beaten dog, a mongrel, unjustly punished. The other girl, Eija, comes home. We drink coffee.

The phone rings. The father of Eija's boyfriend Ari is phoning to say that Ari is dead; he was run over by a car and killed instantly, an hour ago.

Eija wants to be alone. Umur comes outside with me and Taika. It's drizzling outside, dusk is thickening, the yellow leaves shift in the wind. We walk past the athletics field, we climb up to the road, the cars pass, we walk along the streets, side by side, not speaking.

Umur sees me to the station, I hug her briefly, mount the steps, Taika would like to come along, he tugs at his leash, Umur is standing on the station platform, we glance at each other, I go inside, step straight into the rest room, wipe my eyes, enter the coach, the train leaves, I look through the window, Umur and Taika, Umur with tears in her eyes.

In Helsinki, I drink my morning coffee in the station restaurant. Lauri and his friend Tapsa show up shortly. They have a hangover. We board a train that will take us to Tammisaari. From there we take a taxi to Tenala, then we buy supplies from a store and continue to the marina.

The boat is small, a twenty-two-footer built of pine. Dark, stained sides, a veneered deck with plastic matting on top, race rigging. Inside the cabin are four berths, the forepeak and two bunks. An old boat, made in 1933. It cost ten thousand marks.

We hoist the sails. A good tailwind and fair weather. We're speeding like crazy toward Hanko. Lauri has brought some rum, we take a shot after food, the water is lapping in the bows, the wind drives us forward.

The light begins to fail. Lauri starts looking for the charts in the cabin to see how far it is to Hanko. Discovers that the bilge hatches are waterlogged. Looks like the boat leaks pretty badly. There's a pump under the afterdeck, we pump until the bilge is clear again. But Lauri can't find the next chart, can't find it, although it should be there, was supposed to be included in the price. Tapsa has sailed this route once before. Tries to recall it, can't picture it very well. The wind sends black clouds up into the sky.

Now we sail off the last chart, there are rocky islets and islands ahead, buoys and beacons, and the black clouds above, the wind picks up, dusk, no other boats in sight, Tapsa is trying to remember the route. Rocky waters near Hanko, apparently. The wind rises.

Should we go to shore on an island somewhere? Not just yet anyway. A flashing light of some sort ahead. Almost dark. Again the bilge is full of water. The wind rises, creating whitecaps. The black sea. There's no lamp here; it's started to rain, over that way, toward the glow over there.

Over there the lights of Hanko shimmer on the horizon. Hell, this is a storm already. What's the light that's bobbing on that side? What lights are those? Lucky we brought the land compass. How so, it's useless. A strong gale, the cleat flies off, the foresail starts to flap loudly. We tie the foresail to the sheet bench, no but let's haul in the foresail. It's a boat, that light over there. Damn this, not having brought any rainproofs. Damn cold. Let's have some rum. A cigarette. That's the way I reckon, we turn soon, I remember, it's left after that lighthouse. Christ, turn will you, there's a rock! Fuck, man. Two fucking yards. Wow. Wow, you don't spot them, black stones, smooth rocks. Where did that other boat go. Hold a course for that. Which one of those lights, which of them. The bilge is full, complete darkness. Lights there and there and there, flashing, constant, red, white, green, the sea is swaying, whitecaps, the boat is leaking, not even Tapsa knows where we're going, but it's fast, our speed is.

Tell you what, let's head near that lighthouse, toward it, hey what's that, a spar-buoy, didn't see it at all.

A black night, wet men, cold, a fall storm, but Hanko is over there on the left side, we still have to circle round the Hanko headland, now Tapsa knows where we are, more or less. What's the draught of this thing did you say, four feet, the water's always deeper than that. As long as we make sure we don't hit a rock.

At last, Hanko, the marina. We maneuver alongside the jetty. Secure the ropes, sails down. Damn it, it's two o'clock already, the bars aren't open anymore. The boat is soaking wet inside, the mattresses, sleeping bags, everything, we're soaked through to a man. We step on shore. It has stopped raining. We light a fire on the sandy beach. We burn some trash, paper and junk from the garbage cans. We dry our clothes and drink rum.

Swedish-speaking men come and start saying, No open fires here. Lauri, the businessman, trained in Uppsala, does the talking. The men leave. We're starting to feel warmer.

I fetch cigarettes from the boat. I notice some steel containers beside the jetty. I peep inside: mattresses and sails and all kinds of nautical equipment. You could sleep in there. I don't feel like getting into the boat, the cold wet boat. I stroll back to the fire. The boys immediately agree, definitely, spend the night in the container.

We get inside the container. A candle from the boat is burning on the floor, we sit on mattresses, wrapped in sails, the bottle of rum goes round.

The same Swedish-speaking guys return, and they say, Get out at once. Lauri, grand champion at hanging off balconies with just two fingers, speaks a few words of Swedish. The harbor watchmen won't give up. Lauri goes and shows them the boat. They return. No way, we have to leave or the police will come. Well fine, fuck you, we'll continue, sails up and into the night. The fat guards return to their caravan. It starts to rain. We cast off the ropes, hoist the sails. One of the guards comes along carrying an umbrella and starts squeaking, What's the point of setting off now, in the night, it's already dark and there's a storm. He stands squeaking on the jetty, our boat is already free. Lauri hops onto the jetty and hurls the man into the sea, the man flies, his umbrella floats in the water, the man surfaces like a cork, Lauri hops onboard, we tighten the sails, the boat is moving, the man clambers onto the shore, swearing. Hey-ho and a bottle of rum.

The jetties are like traps and the islets lurk, invisible. Right then, out toward the open sea.

The water splashes about in the bilge, the boat sways on the dark sea, soon we'll see the island of Jussaro on the left. We swim onto the map. The wee hours. Dawn breaks slowly. Tapsa says, Better bring her in, take the coast-side passage before we reach the open sea at Porkkala, it's so damn cold, let's go ashore at some island and take a break beside a fire.

The dark silhouettes of the islands, Tapsa doesn't know where we are. Soon we should come to the coastal passage. But what lights are those, on the left, in the stern, and there, back there on the right. Shit, looks like we passed it already, just here there's a ... crash! the boat stops, the prow swings slowly to starboard, the boat is moving again, but in the cabin you can hear the merry din of water as it rushes in through a hole the size of a cat. Blasted surface rock! To the island!

The island is close already, the water comes flooding in, I jam sweaters and rags into the hole, then I hear a thud, the boat stops. I emerge from the cabin, the boat is aground on a sandbar near the shore. We grab our wallets and cigarettes off the pipe rack and our knapsacks from the bows, Lauri is fumbling for the bottles of rum in the bilge, the water is lapping above the bunks, the boat tilts. We walk to the bows and jump into the water, wade ashore. The boat tilts farther, sinks into the shallow water on its side, the mast juts out of the sea like a monument. It has a brilliant future, the pole where the last brotherhood tested its strength, a wooden mast standing out of the sea with a faded blue streamer hanging below the acorn, a fixed point for the eighth brotherhood in a world afloat on nothingness, a positive, howling, furious totem of the will to live in the midst of unsinkable speed cruisers with their yachting shoes and their dead souls, a turning pole in the middle of the world, the point where Finland stopped and took a new course, a brilliant future, northern thinking, this world that's visible, that's gone already, it no longer exists, glossy trinkets on the TV, they no longer exist, Finland has turned already, northern thinking, we start gathering roots from the ground, herbs become valuable, it's happened already, that wooden mast standing out of the sea is a totem of hope, the new brotherhood is coming.

Translated by Philip Landon
COPYRIGHT 1996 Review of Contemporary Fiction
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Sairanen, Petter
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:4543
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