Spring 1985, Volume 2
Essay

Therese A. Nelson
The Maiden Walks Upon The Water

Alma Virtanen sat by the roadside on a dry, peeling spruce stump resting her legs. She had walked over six miles. Her new, highheeled button shoes were side by side at the bottom of the ditch on the white, cracked clay. As Alma watched them fondly, the left shoe tipped slowly and* fell onto its side.

"Just think," said Alma to her fallen shoe, especially to its stamp that now barely showed in the lining but which this morning had been bright silver, "just think, this used to be a swamp, covered with water. It had a footpath down the middle, and cloudberry vines and places where moose hid. The huge birds with flapping wings rushed along the ground." She carefully tipped her hat back. The smell of unwashed, but not unclean, hair mixed into the sundrenched odor of decaying black-ripe wild strawberries, evergreen needles, and wheat tops.

"It's been at least thirty years. Almost forty. And now it's a dry heath. Just think, who would have believed it - that I've been away so long, lived at Pleasure Palace and everything. And now it's a dry heath."

When she looked again at her shoes, the right had also listed to its side. She took the shoes into her hands and wiped away the dust so that the patent leather showed through. Then she jammed her swollen feet into them, as one stuffs a too-liberal blob of dough into a mold, and pulled the straps closed with a button hook. She rose and shook out her skirt, swayed a couple of times on her narrow heels, checked her pocket, and went on again. Her steps had the sureness and egotistical peace of the pilgrim.

She pressed forward at an even pace on her sturdy legs perched atop spike heels. Her delicate upper body swung inside her spacious muslin blouse. Around her hips, however, the cloth stretched tightly. Her body seemed to belong to two different people. The long slender neck and wide, thick thighs didn't belong together. To shield her hips she had tied on a fringed purple shawl.

When she had reached the top of the hill she began to hear the rumble of a cart below. She pretended not to notice it, but when it came closer, she lifted one hand to the small of her back, and, pressing an aching spot with her knuckles, stepped aside. Her shoe straps had pressed deeply into her flesh. The narrow shoes caused her feet to glimmer delicately, in great contrast to her inflamed, unhealthylooking calves.

"Let's take this lady along. " The vigorous voice of a youth stopped the horse, and a milkcan slid dizzily toward the wagon shafts. A woman who looked like a milkmaid grabbed it with one hand and held onto the side of the cart with the other.

"Climb up onto the cart," she said, and moved the milk strainer to a different place.

Alma Virtanen glanced hurriedly at the man and woman. When she saw that she didn't know either of them, nor they her, she calmly and a bit snobbishly refused.

"No thanks. I'm walking. Just thought I'd go for a stroll, you know and I don't have far to go now."

The cart squeaked to itself, but stayed where it was.

"Oh really! Well. But there aren't even any houses close by."

"It's not far." insisted Alma. "I'd rather walk. It isn't more than another three miles."

The man and woman looked at each other and the man grinned mockingly. The horse started forward without an order. Alma Virtanen stepped out at the same time as the animal.

She had to walk. It was part of the plan. She had promised to do so once as she walked this same path in the opposite direction. She had promised to walk this same road back in store-bought shoes and a store-bought skirt, with the money to pay her debt in her pocket. And just about everything was done. Only three miles left, and then, well, the return trip. But there was no use thinking of that, for by then everything would be different.

And then I'll have shown them. That I have money, that I'll pay up. That no one needs to think that I'm just getting by.

This morning she had left the factory worker rental dormitory "Pleasure Palace," in her best finery and stood in front of the bank doors until they opened. Then she had poured an enormous pile of change onto the counter out of an old cloth sack onto whose side the word "laundry" had been stitched and asked the clerk to change it into bills. As the man briskly counted the change, Alma Virtanen felt now the significance of this moment made her feel young and proud. She wanted to smile, but didn't know how right away. Too many decades without smiles had passed.

"Taking the day off, huh?" said Pleasure Palace's limping shopkeeper when she stuck the laundry bag inside the door and promised to retrieve it in the evening. Right now she didn't have the patience to climb to her room on the second floor. Or maybe she just wanted to show the shopkeeper her new shoes.

"I'm going to the country, homeward."

"Aha." said the shopkeeper, and bowed. "Send my greetings."

"Thank you," Alma answered graciously, and shut the door without slamming it. They had no acquaintance in common in the country.

Now when Alma had walked so far already, she somehow felt that the bills in her pocket actually weighed too little. They rustled, and touched her hip with every step, but they couldn't tell the story as could the change upon the bank counter. The change had kept her company for so long. She hadn't spend a night without it, whether she had other guests or not. At first she had stored it in the sugar box under the bed, but when that had been covered with black crepe-paper and pressed into service as the coffin of a dead child, she had kept the change in just any old bundle or shoe box, until finally, when the children had left the nest and the evening visits at the carnival and other foolishnesses had slowly ceased, she had kept it in a proper Ostrobothnian wicker basket. The money was always at the bottom, so that to get it out or put more in, Alma first had to remove all the other things: a hymn book and a Holy Bible, a silk headscarf which was nearly threadbare along the fold, a book which she had gotten from her mother after confirmation school, an unused hairbrush bought at a market in Salo, and the most precious item of all, a pair of sugar tongs wrapped in a rag, the gift of the young master of Mikola farm on some long-ago All-Saints Day.

The cart creaked away. At a bend, Alma saw the woman grasp the man's pants waist, supposedly for support, and shook her head. It goes on and on, people's absurdity and sin. In the country and the city, on the milk cart and at the carnival, on and on. She yanked her hat into place and tied it again. Then she gave a short and bitter growl.

Alma had taken part in a good amount of absurdity herself. It was sad to admit, but she confessed anyway. Many an evening she had sat on the edge of her bed at Pleasure Palace and caressed the sugar tongs with her hands, shined them with her sleeve, breathed on them and shined still more. Last night they had shone like new. Their lion claws were spread, and when one flt them around a finger and pressed, the claws closed in nearly to the bone. The marks that remained were the prints of all that had been and had forever gone and that had almost been forgotten: love, moonlit walks beside the barn, sitting in a chilly parlor on February nights after devotionals, the willow warbler singing along the road to the drying barn his tender national anthem about the beginning of summer, and the scent of mint and buttercups in the garden. It was a time when Alma had chewed cherry tree twigs and forgotten the black window of the attic chamber, and the nightmarish old mistress.

Alma growled at herself as she continued. She had had to look at the sugar tongs every time she had been forced to spend a little of her money. For instance, when Taavi had needed money for his bottle of beer, or when she needed to buy food for the children, whose birth had given joy to no one, and whose death - well, they had the mark of death from the start. They had lain for a time in the bed, looking in turn at their hands and at the door. It was no use trying to do anything about it. So she had said many times to the fine women who came uninvited and wiped their eyes in front of the frightened children. Her dying boys were like puppies separated from their siblings, they just whined to be back. It was no use trying to do anything when a child looked at his hands and at the door. He wanted to go, and should be allowed to. Only two had survived: the first, Helmi, and the second-to-last, Reino. Nor did she owe any thanks for that to the fine lady visitors.

And wasn't Helmi now an imposing woman! Peculiar and skittish, and a bit too sensitive perhaps, but a strong worker. When she walked in her best clothes with a basket over her arm to the store, other people shrank into the earth, invisible. And Reino, too, was better than most. His mother had not needed to shed any tears for him, although she hadn't exactly wreathed herself in smiles either. But no help from the fine ladies. Always, always Alma Virtanen had had to yank her box or bundle from under the bed, count her money and caress the sugar tongs, and then with great lamentation give up a coin or two. And the years had gone by swiftly; only now could she walk this road.

The road had been straightened at some points. She wasn't exactly sure how many miles remained before Mikola farm, but suddenly she stood at Maikkala fork. Here, the young master had once stopped the load of hay in the middle of everything and run to the side of the road. For a moment he groped in the spruce copse, then twisted a sapling into a knot. When he returned and climbed to Alma's side on the hay rack, his forehead was covered with sweat as after terrible exertion, and he looked at the young woman at his side with bulging eyes.

"Did you see?" he asked. His broad chest rustled and sighed. Alma nodded, and her chest also began to rise and fall. At that moment she knew that Mikola's twelve milkcows, three horses, and twenty sheep were like a dipper of water in her hands. She could decide whether it went into her mouth, or onto the ground.

Old factory worker Alma Virtanen didn't feel the ache in the small of her back, nor the swelling of her legs when she looked now, today, at the tree which had been twisted into a knot. The trees surrounding it had been felled, so that it stood alone at the road fork like some battle memorial. Its loop had grown shut, and the branch tip pointed straight up. It was not a pretty tree. Its lichenous branches dangled, and the initials of three pairs of lovers had been gashed into the knot. Farther down on the trunk some disappointed suitor had carved an ugly picture. Alma couldn't remember anyone whose name would have fit the initials, but then again, her acquaintances here were few.

Alma felt the sun slowly swinging in the sky. It was on its way down now, but still she sat by the side of the road before starting the last leg of her journey. She didn't take off her shoes, for she would never have gotten them on again, but she blew into the rosettes to lessen the dust. Then she took a pin from her hair and dug at her ear with a thoughtful look. Her face was calm and immobile. Her look was decisive still, but no longer cruel. The eyes which had looked at the world from between wrinkled slits for so many years, bitter and mistrustful, tried to open, flutter, look east and west, heavenward and toward the ground, like anyone who finally feels successful in at least one thing. She stuck the hairpin back in her bun, straightened the scarf which covered it, fanned some air through her shirt-neck to her sweaty back, and straightened her turned up sleeves. She did up the buttons and turned them to the right position. Then she left on the last miles of her journey. Be things as they may, it was worth it to take a little trouble in one's life; the reward would come certainly in time,

The mistress of Mikola farm gazed for a while at the poor, unfamiliar woman who stood in back of the upright harrow in the yard, and who stripped the tops off the dry witchgrass with her fingernails. But no matter how long she looked at the woman, she couldn't understand her. The woman stood by the root cellar looking as though she had lost something, her head or something just as fundamental. Nobody else was in the Yard. Finally the woman moved to the side of a small cage where the wide, squat mother hen poked her chicks with her beak. The woman gazed at them, and at the one who circled the outside of the cage and tried to stick its head in at every third slit. Once the woman picked a piece of grass and tossed it in through the cage roof.

The mistress, careful like country folk are, turned again toward the pig-pen and laid a fire in the tiled oven under a pot. Then she washed potatoes for a time in a tub, and ladled them into the pot. The pigs pressed against the fence, devout and sincere. When the mistress had gotten the potatoes into the pot, she discussed the abundance of life with the Pigs. Finally, when the potatoes started to boil she put a lid on the pot and went outside,

By then the woman was no longer to be seen in the yard. The mistress glanced at the chickens and headed for the house. As she grasped the door handle, she knew that the woman had come the same way. From the inside room came the voice of the master of the house and the woman's short questions which rose in the air violently, and then stood like a building's first posts. The master's speech covered them like straw and moss. When the mistress came into the room, she heard the master rise and the woman after him. They both came to the doorsill.

"Well, I guess it might be as you say," said the woman, and looked at the mistress. When the mistress looked back at her, she felt that the woman looked completely different from the way she did a moment ago in the yard, but that she still did not look like herself.

"What didn't I do? Should I have done something more?"

The master laughed effeminately and tossed his head. He was still a young man, not yet forty, and though he had the reputation of liar, he could also be truthful if the situation warranted it.

"She's come to find old Mikola. Come on foot from Virmo and refuses to believe that we've lived here for over ten years already. Just keeps demanding to see old Mikola."

"Well where is he? Where could he have gone?"

The visitor looked from one to the other; the sad folds of disappointment worked to find a place in cheeks which the old decisiveness still kept taut.

"Have a seat," said the mistress, and herself went to the stove. When she stepped, the floor creaked near the rocking chair.

"It's still the same floor," the visitor said, and sat. She wrenched her shoes off and looked for some time at her huge, swollen feet and the deep depression which showed through her stockings at the front of each leg. She could move her toes only a fraction.

The master hopped lightly up to sit on the dish counter, and tapped his heels against its edge.

" You must have known him well, Mikola?"

The woman looked ahead and then at the master and nodded. She wanted to tell all about the sugar tongs and the spruce twisted into a knot, but she didn't. Instead, she turned her face away and stared at the unfamiliar edges of the rug, and then at the old sideboard fastened to the wall.

"Do you keep your pots on the bottom shelf?" Alma looked at the woman softly, shyly, as if she couldn't help asking.

"No, they're in the dishcupboard," the mistress answered, and only after answering did she glance at the master, who lounged on top of the counter, laughing.

"But knives and spoons are in the small drawer?"

The mistress nodded and looked deeply into the hearth at a small chink in a log toward which the fire was striving. The yellow flame looked dangerous, portending ill. She poked it with a roll of birch bark so that it spread more quickly into a proper blaze.

"Well," the master began the matter manfully. "Old Mikola got a bad case of rheumatism. He had to lay in bed on top of piles of hot oats, and wasn't good for anything. That was how he was when I first met him."

His comment jerked the woman from her memories of the sideboard. She shook her head slowly. It was all so hard to believe about a man who had been as strong as an eagle.

"And when the old mistress died and the servants left he sold the house and moved away. Maybe he's in the city . . . but he left from there also. I don't know where he might be right now."

"You wouldn't understand." The woman bent and rubbed her feet. When she grimaced with pain she looked nearly like her usual self. Only in the eyes did one note that suspicion would change soon to tiredness. The years of eking out a living and torturing her body, with the same cellulose factory stench in her nostrils with every breath, tired her completely when she realized it had all been a waste.

"You'd never understand," she repeated. And it did seem impossible now looking at it from this familiar bench. She sat there holding the corners of the shawl that she had loosened in her hands. They were like purple wings ready for flight.

Nearly forty years had gone by since she left from this house, and all those years she had saved money. And when she came to pay it, she could no longer find the person to whom she was in debt. She had walked through these forty years as if through a black tunnel and emerged now into the light of day. Now, looking back, it seemed senseless. It would have been so much better to go around a bit and walk in the light.

Forty years ago, in this house, the willow warbler's tree of songs had snapped. There was no devotional that evening. Instead the old mistress stood at the gate, and her mocking words followed young Alma Virtanen down the path. Alma Virtanen wasn't only a hard woman, she was a women of hard luck.

Forty years ago, at this house, in a barn behind which the sun now shone so that it grazed the necks of those in the room, she had waited for the cows to come in. It was a fall evening. She had stood at the mouth of the door, whip in had, and coaxed. The master had driven the herd from behind, and the mistress watched that the cows didn't get in to eat the rutabaga tops by the side of the barn bridge. Alma was cold. She was wet to her waist, and also chilled by the many nights she had spent awake in the garden and by the lake, surrounded by mist and the hum of mosquitoes. Water stood in her boots, and the cold rose from the pit of her stomach.

The cows stepped one step today, one tomorrow. Two cows were barely inside when the third stopped completely in front of the threshold. It tossed its head backwards and sniffed the rotting grass with the joyous freedom of summer. Its forehead was wrinkled and its eyes closed, and it whispered a song of farewell. Nor did it know how appropriate was its song, for Alma Virtanen was a hard, tired, and cold woman, and she didn't have the patience to wait. She threw away the whip and took a better weapon into her hands, whatever weapon it happened to be. She struck the cow with great energy. Her luck was bad, however. The weapon was a bar, and because Alma Virtanen was a hard woman, the bar fell on the cow's back with such strength that all songs stopped. The herd scattered into the rutabagas and the mistress ran to get the slaughtering knife. The master did what he could. There was no longer anything left for Alma to do but hold the blood bucket. In the evening they found that the cow had been the best of the herd: it became pregnant easily and was good-natured. And the well-bred master of Mikola, a man like an eagle, no longer looked up from his porridge to glance at the servant he had intended to marry.

For part of the night Alma had considered drowning herself. After all, why should Finland's many lakes go to waste? Many there were in this land too, and very deep. But in the morning the master had put a newspaper in front of her, and with white face and roughened eyes she read about the great light which had appeared on the shore of Birmo Lake, a cellulose factory. The light had spread its hands like a messiah and said: come unto me all ye that labor, and are heavy laden. When Alma left the house, she took with her a piece of the slaughtered cow's rib which had been made into headcheese. Unfortunately, it turned rotten before she had a chance to sink her teeth into it.

She didn't feel compltely guiltless, however. At the gate the mistress had put a scrap of paper into her hand, the bill for the breeding cow, and ordered her to count her money three times daily. So, as she had walked over the swamps toward that great light, she had decided that she would show them. She'd pay for that cow. She could earn the money and return in store-bought shoes and a storebought skirt. People went to the factory with many different hopes, but Alma Virtanen didn't think of anything but money.

And here she was with her money - but no one was here to receive it.

"It's strange," she said, "all your life you work and take trouble, and then . . . "

"Yup, that's how it is," breathed the master, "while the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. So it's said in the word, and that's how it is, that's sure the way it is."

I would really like to look in the barn," Alma Virtanben said after a moment, asking the same way as she had asked about the sideboard. "The old tables and calf stalls might still be there."

The mistress took off her head scarf and tied it on again before she answered. With a new tight knot at her neck, the scarf poked out over her ears. She looked timid and frightened.

I don't think so. Bang's disease is going around and everything's just been cleaned and whitewashed. There's nothing old there."

The visitor nodded, but her face fell childishly. Later that evening as the mistress undressed in the back bedroom and spoke to her husband as he wound the clock, she said that she had been worried that the woman would begin to cry. She probably should have let her into the barn - but a stranger! At least he could have given her a ride a little ways and gotten her more quickly away from the place. Even from the lane she had looked back and stared into the manure room door. It was as if she had seen into the past. Witches took the form of women even then ...

The stranger had drunk two cups of coffee, but hadn't taken any bread. Then she had sat and stared at the flies drying on the formaline plate as the master continued to drink. When the coffee was gone the mistress had gone out and the visitor rose as well. She had stooped stiffly and taken her fine, wasted shoes from under the bench. Then she had turned her back to the master and stripped off her stockings, pushed them into her shoes, and gone out the door, barefoot on her sore feet. At the door she had felt her pocket and stared at a log. Only when the master coughed did she remember to step outside and shut the door behind her.

Excerpt from the book by Eeva Joenpelto, noted Finnish author

Translated from the Finnish by Therese A. Nelson.@

@Published with the permission of Werner Soderstrom Osakeyhtio, Bulevardi 12, 00120 Helsinki 12.