Srping 1986, Volume 3
Essay

Therese A. Nelson

Helmi Meets the Devil
Eeva Joenpelto

Editor's note: Vol. 2, Weber Studies, Spring 1985 published an excerpt from the novel The Maiden Walks upon the Water by Eeva Joenpelto, translated by a former Weber State College student, Therese Nelson. The novel will be published in Finland in 1986 in English, This introduced Alma Virtanen, a woman who had been catapulted from the life of a farm hand in rural Finland to that of a menial worker in a cellulose factory, Unable to forget the blow to her self-esteem occasioned by the abrupt dismissal from the farm due to her inadvertent killing of an valuable cow, Alma has saved for many years to pay for the loss. Years later she returns dressed as a city woman with painful, high-heeled shoes, to impress the employers who had so callously rejected her. She finds many things changed on the farm, most disturbing of which are the new owners who are uncomprehending and indifferent to her urgent need to knit up her present life with her past. Alma's life in the city as a factory worker has been one of squalid drudgery. She has made a disastrous union from which she has a child Helmi. Living in a slum area near the factory and in proximity to a summer carnival she has been "suspended between the carnival and the factory ... always tired and wide-hipped, always before people's eyes and part of their talk. She was bejeweled, vexed and hard." Helm!, her daughter, like all children of this social strata, has had to shift for herself, a victim of neglect and abuse but acquiring the wisdom and toughness of the street children which insures her survival in this grim environment. The following excerpt is a delightful, poignant and searingly true protrait of this kind of child.

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, Baulevardi 12, 00120 Helsinki 12.

 

"Don't you like the little flowers?" the woman asked in a sugary voice. But Helm! just looked at her.

It was senseless to ask Helmi if she liked something so remote. In the spring she had tugged a yellow bunch of flowers from the ground. They were the first that had appeared beside the wall of the woodshed. She had shown them to the old woman behind the fence and the woman had said they were dandelions. Then Helmi had scattered them and thrown them away. Flowers did not exist; there were only dandelions.

"I like potatoe casserole," said Helmi after great forethought. The woman could not guess how much effort and work, and then rushing relief it had brought the girl to form that sentence while standing next to a strange woman. The woman just laughed, and then sang a short song to the girl, because she had imagined that her own unborn dream child would like something like that. But Helmi was watching the road. The woman's delicate song about a white sheep paled in comparison to the drunks' brisk racket in the middle of the night at Pleasure Palace.

Helm! went out every day. The rope which had been wound twice around her now stayed where it was, and her hat no longer fell so far into her eyes. She had learned to push it up so far that her white forehead was laid bare and her hair turned back from her forehead. She swaggered when she walked, and nearly every day she, too, visited the carnival like the grownups.

Grown people visited the carnival in the evening what else, after all, was there to do during the long, beautiful, purposeless night? But tielmi slithered underneath the fence any time, sneezing and puffing as her face ploughed the sawdust. The tent was usually still unswept when she arrived. From the sawdust, especially at the edge of the dance floor, one could find any number of treasures: entrance tickets, empty cigarette packages, pieces of shoe laces, or a beautifully woven suspender. Helmi collected everything in her pockets. Once she found a pair of glasses, and when she lifted them, she saw that one of the eyepieces was still whole. She kept everything she found between two rocks underneath the woodshed. tier treasures were worth almost as much as her mother's in the sugar box under the bed. The two stashes were much alike.

But one morning the wind had turned to the east. The sky was full of sheep's wool and rain was approaching. Fall had truly come. helm! shoved both of her fists into her mouth to warm them as she journeyed towards the carnival. The carnival's tent had been struck, and its advertisement board lay face down. A

vicious wind blew over everything and a yellowing birch swished its pain-filled

branches. Right now livari was nailing the lids on the snake boxes. His face still

bore the residue of last night's clown paint.

This morning, when it was no longer necessary for Helmi to slither under the fence to get into the carnival area, when everything was too open and too free, she felt a desolate longing. She tried to slide on the dance floor, but it was no longer any fun now that only God's naked sky curved above her. She'd gotten her fill during her life of looking at that sky. She wanted the cloth ceiling of the tent where cobwebs and pieces of rope and soft spider cages hung. Like the grownups, she longed for the tent roof to separate earth and sky. Ilvari would leave, too, and then no one would give Helmi the last drops of weak beer from his bottle.

A big green rattlesnake looked sadly and stiffly out through the cracks of a wooden crate and the snake dancer, red-eyed, leaned against the shooting counter. Instead of her loincloth and snakes she wore a tubular padded winter coat with a sweaty fur collar. Even she was no longer beautiful. flow then could anything else be?

"Nice of you to come," said liveri to Helmi, despite everything. The sawdust boiled around his wide clown pants as he walked. A couple of the other men laughed. They were unpleasant men with dry faces and narrow clothes.

"Hey! Next year you can be my bride and we'll leave together to tour Finland and even to visit foreign countries as far away as Porvoo."

Helm! slid on the floor in her, hard, beaked boots. Her coat was belted like a noblewoman's. She gazed out into the open field, took one more good slide, then another, then the men began to dismantle the dance floor and Helm! moved away. For a while she stood looking at the dancer, but the woman just leaned her head on her hands and sighed. Helmi sighed also, she well understood the woman's sorrow; what with that tiny, wrinkled face and such paltry hands. Helmi set no worth by small, skinny things. It was fat that made a person beautiful.

Helmi's livarl, a sturdy, heavy man, brought the woman a bottle. She tipped it up and her face brightened a little, but when the man patted her backside, it fell again. She must have remembered something, Mother cried also when she remembered.

"Get that child out of here," the dancer said and turned her back to them both. "She might have lice."

"You do!" Helmi retorted immediately, so that everyone around heard her. Even the dancer laughed. She swallowed and her dry face worked. Helmi left. She flounced away and forgot the carnival, and with it the whole past summer.

Directly behind the carnival was the Puntti's hops garden. It rose luxuriantly on a low knoll. It was full of hay poles in the shape of crosses that had been set up for the vines, and great grey alders grown just so. The garden was appropriate as a background for the carnival, but it had already been there hundreds of years - a small eternity before the Puntti's rented the small space to the carnival at a high price. The present Puntti's father's great great great great great grandmother had planted it on the warm hillock, and for many years its hops had been exported to Stockholm. Now, though, the local drugstore bought these at a few pennies a pound.

And there was more history to the hops garden. Many years ago the been built on that spot, where the brawlers from every wedding,

devotional were sent to cool off. But Puntti's master then was a big . In his opinion the jail was much too close to his property. He tied emptied the jail, freed an old crone suspected for arson, and converted the building into a sauna. The authorities grumbled, but the Punttis were very rich and had just donated a candelabra to the church, and in fact the master's real purpose had been to test his power. And so the Punttis took saunas and washed on the prison bunks every Saturday, and sometimes even in the middle of the week. When the jail sauna burned down from overheating, Puntti's wise wife staked off the place, commanded hops to grow, and the Puntti's property expanded to the west. Truly, toughness had won this land.

I But today Helmi Virtanen forced her way boldly into the hops garden. She didn't want to miss any of the excitement.

It was dim in the shadow of the big alders. Even the wind did not visit here. Dense hops wound around the tree trunks and around a few leaning poles. The hops' big cones, as large as goose's eggs and as light as sighs, dangled in meditation toward the stem-strewn ground. The garden smelled like weak beer and a little like sun on fresh tar.

Helmi stepped forward through the tall grass with her eyes closed. In a little clearing she found a prickly branch bearing dry, red berries and she ate them all. When one was on the road it was always possible to find something. Even as a 'grownup she would often follow that instinct. Her black cap peeked above the grass tops like the helmet of a lurking soldier. When she found a Mountain Currant bush, she emptied it systematically. For many years the shouts and bellows of the dismantling of the circus and backing up of horses was connected in her mind to that warm autumn day inside the Puntti's hops garden. But now she did not give the carnival a thought. Even the stench of the cellulose factory did not penetrate here, She didn't need to remember Alma's silly speeches and endless talk.

As she was picking berries in that drowsy place, Helmi saw a strange old woman moving in the woods. She was unbelievably tall, almost as tall as the trees around her, and thin. She dragged a huge sack behind her. Helmi had never in her life seen such a tall woman, even her white scarf was tied so that it reached long to her waist. The woman looked constantly to each side, bowing nearsightedly. Her eyes were strange, like empty, oblong hollows.

When one desperately tries to be careful, one sometimes does something stupid, as if by compulsion. And that's what happened to Helmi; she was desperately afraid that the woman would notice her, but suddenly she popped straight up and shouted: "nah nah na na nahl" Perhaps she needed to know if that kind of creature could hear at all.

Yes, she could hear, and could see a little too out of those empty eyes.

"Why don't you get out of here? Brats ... brats are out stealing other people's hops. Why don't you go? Factory brat. Never come back! Remember that."

Helmi was used to being called worse things but this woman's voice made the innocent hops tremble and swing above Helmi's head, and she looked so cruel that Helmi dived into the thicket, from the thicket into the meadow, and from that meadow over a ditch to another meadow.

Now she had seen the Devil, and she was sure she would be paralyzed. She had seen the Devil that mother always threatened her with. "If you don't sleep quietly, the Devil will come and take you away ... If you look into the well, the Devil will hook you with his fingernail and drag you into a burning lake ... If you touch the fireplace, the Devil will scorch your hand with a red-hot iron." Helmi's knowledge of the Devil was quite colorful; she knew the Devil better than anyone else - he was her only companion. I

But now she had seen the Devil, ranting and raving in the Puntti's hops garden. The Devil was a woman with a long sack in her hand. It was many years before Helmi could believe that Puntti's mistress was no more the Devil than most women. She never gave up the idea completely.

While fleeing from the Devil, Helmi ended up on the other side of the ditch; the awaited paralysis never came.

But then she forgot both the Devil and her fear of death. The world never ceased to amaze her. Here was another place where she had never been. With her eyes fixed on a big, two-story country house she stepped over the boggy meadow. She stumbled, but got up again and walked toward dilapidated buildings, upon which flapped the hides of animals that looked as though they had been badly mistreated. She saw men running, and one big, red building, enormous as a castle. She was fascinated by a veranda with blue and red glass squares. They were as beautiful as the gate posts of Heaven ... no, much much more beautiful.

She stopped once to roll up her sleeves. While she was running to escape the Devil they had unrolled to their full length, and covered even her fingertips. Then she continued on until she fell into a stinking darkness that covered her head.

Did the Devil get Helmi after all? No. She had only fallen into the Puntti tanning vat, and when her feet hit the bottom she pushed herself violently upward and found her head again in the open day under God's sun. The hides swayed, naked, as she flailed the foul mixture, making a great noise and whacking. She knew how not to cry when the world battered her - and it hadn't spared her - but now she screamed. Her voice only quieted when the tannic acid mixture covered her head. This was a question of life and death.

In the tannery a small argument was taking place. A hired hand listened to the girl's bawling with scraping knife in hand.

"There's a person in the vat. Be quiet and listen."

"It's the gulls screeching."

"T'aint. It's a person."

"It's a gull and shut up," snarled the tanner.

"Damn it, it's a person."

"Gull."

"Person."

"Gull."

Helmi screamed more loudly and the hired man went off with a cracker in his hand. You could argue away several people's lives with that tanner, he'd never give up. The hired man pulled Helmi to dry ground, and none too soon. Her shoe had come off her foot and was floating in the mixture like a steam ship in the ocean. Every once in a while it hid under a big bull calf hide. The hired man had to flail around and do a lot of spitting before it was retrieved. Coughing, the tanner stepped inside the tannery, back to his business. Another hired man, rolled a cow's horn energetically over a hide to polish it.

Heim! had had enough of this house for today. She remembered Pleasure Palace and its yard: kind, desolate, and inescapable. Stinking, dripping with tanning solution, and persecuted by devils and demons, she sloshed homeward. The tanner's big hounds accompanied her as far as the river.

When her parents came, Helmi was standing in Pleasure Palace , s yard just where they had left her that morning. It looked as though she hadn't even so much as turned during the day. How in the world then had she become so dirty, so smelly, and so wet to the roots of her hair? Alma, crushed with monotony and fatigue, didn't know what else to do but shove the girl before her toward the stairs.

"Get going like you were already there. And get the whip ready and pull up your skirt. This is going to be quite a dance."

domitably, and joyfully. Father stayed in the woodshed a long time.

Mother didn't even seem angry, she just seemed to hate: roughly, in