Karin Månsdotter and the snails
Karin Månsdotter is walking on the shore, back and forth in the wild patterns of increasing hysteria. The autumn wind is already so cold that she would normally need to cover her head. But since her head feels overheated by thoughts about the transience and randomness of existence, it gives her a sense of freedom and oneness with nature to let the wind bite at her skull and numb her mind.
Her beloved, King Erik XIV, is still imprisoned in Turku castle on the far side of the water. Uncertainty about his fate has changed her life and created new, desperate habits. Several days a week, when the weather permits, she rows over to the island opposite the castle, the one that the local inhabitants call Hirvensalo. From there she can see the tower of the castle and imagine Erik sitting by one of the barred windows, perhaps watching her. Sometimes, standing there, she imagines flying up into the air and meeting Erik on one of the clouds in the clear blue sky, where they make love joyously and weightlessly. But then the cloud becomes ice-cold and she drifts alone back to earth, like snow.
Now, back in reality, she walks in the cold autumn wind into a little clearing that forms a protective haven below a steep rocky cliff. She sees something gleaming on the ground next to one of the wild apple trees. Although she knows she should get home quickly before the darkening weather gets worse, her curiosity gets the upper hand.
She leaves the safety of the path and ventures out on the wet ground towards the apple tree. But she trips on a protruding root and falls, gashing her leg and hip on a stone. She screams in pain and loses consciousness. Waking later from pain and cold she tries to get up but can’t. Providence, that has given her so much of love and power in her life, now seems to have abandoned her, helpless and alone on the ground in the woods. Time passes, panic grows. This is a road that few people use, and she has no idea when or even if they will start looking for her.
Lifting her head she notices that her white dress has provided a painterly canvas for the red blood as it meets and mixes with the blue-brown wet clay into various shades of umber and autumn. And despite her predicament, in a kind of reverie, she cannot help but reflect on the unexpected beauty of the deep red where it meets the intense white. It makes her think of the beautiful colours of life in the royal court, which she had experienced for such a short intense time.
She has fallen close to one of the apple trees, whose trunk has been turned almost black by damp and decay. There are still patches of grass between the flecks of newfallen snow that are already being stained a dirtier white by the heavy clay on the ground. The green colour of the grass has gained a brilliant intensity against the white of the snow. Near her is a fallen apple, so black that no animal has touched it. The last thing she sees is an army of small black creatures crawling slowly up her torn dress. She had never thought of snails as dangerous, but seeing them now in their hundreds, she loses consciousness and waits for death.
The blue ferry
The little boy lies on a hill. In the bright moonlight of the Brazilian night the hill is not black but white. His father has disappeared, gone with Alzheimer’s into the silence. The boy gazes up at the stars that look different here in the Southern hemisphere than they do in the North. He turns his head 180 degrees and admires the silence that speaks from outer space in the steaming night that smells of hot sand, palm-leaves, decaying wood, and oil from the generator in the village. He remains slumbering the whole night on the sand. In the morning he is woken up by a colibri that has stopped in midair in front of his eyes. Everything is still, safe in ultra-rapid. Today the boy is due to go to meet a teacher who works with the children in the little village on the island off the Brazilian coast.
He sets off, but when he reaches the place where the school is supposed to be, the only thing he sees is a big tree. Then he hears laughter coming from the tree, and discovers a group of children — ten of them — sitting in the branches. One by one they jump down onto the ground, followed by their teacher, a young woman from Sao Paulo who has come here as a volunteer to teach the children. Why yes, the school works in the tree, she says, but we also have a table with benches here next to it, where we can work with paper and pencil. The boy sits down and starts drawing what life looks like in a country that has ice and snow. Meanwhile the other children draw their reality, with colourful fish, turtles and canoes.
After some time the boy leaves school, carrying in his mind images of sun and sand, leaving behind a sheet of drawings filled with black, white, grey and blue. The boy wanders for a long time along the abandoned sandy beach, with the ocean on one side and the impenetrable jungle on the other. He sees no one, except for one man who approaches him wielding a huge machete. But the man passes by without pausing or saying a word, just as a woodsman might back home in cold, old Finland.
The boy reaches a village that has a ferry connection to the next island. The ferry only goes a couple of times a day, and is just about to leave. It’s small, made of iron, its deck a rectangular plate on which wooden benches are fastened, just like in a church. Blue painted posts sprout from the deck, holding up a roof. The boy sits down among the other passengers, mostly very dark-skinned women dressed in white. The ferry chugs slowly out from the harbour. The boy thinks of his father, a ship’s captain who sailed the seven seas. He remembers seeing photos of his father tarred black, a ritual that was carried out on cargo ships whenever they crossed the equator, heading south. Now, in a way, he feels he’s following in his father’s voyaging footsteps, but doing it his own way.
The boy wakes from his daydream and discovers that the ferry is not heading towards the next island at all, but out into the open sea, the Atlantic Ocean. He also notices that nobody else is with him anymore. The ferry moves forward, ghostlike, the coast behind disappearing and the waves ahead growing bigger. This was the way that the Portuguese had come when they first arrived in South America. Now the boy is heading on the same route but in reverse, back, straight towards Africa. The little ferry moves steadily onwards, under the huge blue sky.
Hidden in the Prow
The little boy held his legs tightly together, bending them closer to his body to keep whatever little warmth was left in him. His fingers were white, even though it was the middle of June. But summers in Finland can be cold when the wind comes in from the ice sea in the North. Under him he felt the hard, uncomfortable construction of the little tree boat, hand carved by his uncle. His eyelids fell slowly in time with the rhythm of the waves, and he was lulled into a dreamlike anguish in that little boat, sensing the immense black sea beneath him. He was vaguely conscious of the a mild smell of wood varnish mixed with the steam of the old Seagull engine that slowly, but loudly, moved the boat forward through the narrow coastal inlet.
The boy held his breath to hear the waves better, lapping against the prow of the boat, a quiet churning so different from the waves that hit the boat with a roar and a bang in stormy weather. Here he lies, the son of the sea captain, under the little bench in the bow of the boat. This is his place; he is safe here. There is no need to talk, only to be, with his father steering the boat. The boy looks at his thin white fingers; not the fingers of an old sea dog from the salty seas, alas, rather they are sensitive and very pale. He believes this is because there are so many thoughts in his head that all his blood is needed there: his fingers and toes just have to do without it.
If I could ever build a house, he thinks, I would build it shaped like the bow of a boat. Then it would be a house where I could sleep without nightmares.
But it was summer now and the sky was clear blue. The terrifying school is gone, the one that turns his speech into a jumble of stuttered vowels and consonants, and into a silence so loud that it seems to speak — yet never says what he wants, wants, wants, wants, wants.
Looking up, he notices that his father is wearing a funny white seaman’s cap. An ordinary seaman’s cap on a captain! And the thought occurs that perhaps his father doesn’t really want to be captain. A captain has to make decisions, always know where he is heading, has to sit and eat alone. Maybe he would rather be an ordinary seaman, just following orders. And just then — hey! — there goes the cap up in the air, heading over the water towards land!
His father steered hard to one side, so that the small wooden boat lurched heavily, because he wanted to get his cap back. Luckily the boat happened to be close to land and he and his father went ashore on a small stretch of sandy beach that lay between the surrounding dockyards. The cap had disappeared a little higher up in a clearing near the steep cliffs, and father and son ran after it with little hope of getting it back.
On and on the cap travelled, up the cliff and into some woods. The boy wondered whether it was worth all this effort to get the old, yellowed cap back. But his father continued further into the woods, where walking became difficult. Maybe Daddy needs a new hat, thought the boy, and saw in front of him a huge over-nourished bluebell, whose colour was so bright it competed with the sky. Maybe this could make a new hat for Dad! The boy snatched the bluebell from its stalk and was just about to give it to his father when suddenly they halted in surprise. They had arrived in a clearing, with two blackened shapes on the forest floor in front of them. The shapes looked like grave mounds and were surrounded by giant hogweed plants that seemed to stand guard over them.
On the ground, between the mounds, an object gleamed strangely. Both the boy and his father remained still, breathless, looking. They could feel that this was a special place, haunted yet calm, a solemn place where something significant had happened, maybe long time ago.
On top of the first black mound there was a very large birch leaf. Without thinking, the boy reached out and put the bluebell, not on his father’s head, but on the leaf. This is what my house will look like, he thought, a house in which it is possible to make silence speak.