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by Riikka Pulkkinen

Copyright © 2010 Riikka Pulkkinen. Originally published in Finnish by Otava Publishing Company Ltd. as Totta. Published in the English language by arrangement with Otava Group Agency, Helsinki. Translation copyright © 2011 Lola M. Rogers. Published in English by Other Press LLC, 2012. Reprinted here with permission.

Book Cover

Chapter One.

A woman was running toward him.
Martti had had the same dream many times. The woman was just about to say something, and he was on the verge of comprehending. He never managed to hear what she was trying to say; he always woke up before comprehension came.

He woke up again. His eye fell on the clock on the night table.


Elsa was sleeping beside him. Her breathing was slightly labored, but no more so than when she was healthy. Martti had been able to fall asleep, even though at bedtime he had felt like he didn't dare close his eyes.

This was Elsa's first night at home in more than two weeks.

At first he had opposed her coming home, not because he didn't want his wife beside him—on the contrary, Elsa belonged here. She had been here for more than fifty years. But he was afraid that he would wake up one morning and find her dead beside him, her feet gone cold.

I'm rotting, she had said to him a week ago in the hospice, like a call for help. Don't let me rot. I want to go home.

So in the end they arranged it.

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It had been only six months since Elsa got sick. In December Martti remarked that she had dwindled to half her previous size. She weighed herself at the spa and made an appointment with the doctor.

It's nothing, she said. Nothing at all, Martti said. Elsa wiped the worry from his face with a kiss.

Everything happened quickly—the examination, the biopsy, the diagnosis.

Martti cried on the way home from the hospital after the hardest news. Elsa was quiet, squeezing his hand the whole way, even in the elevator.

They stood in the entryway for a long time, leaning against each other. A Christmas star in the window, afternoon dusk in the room.

Let's have a really good Christmas, Elsa said. Just in case.

Eleonoora came with her family on Christmas day. Elsa hadn't had the heart to tell her yet.

But Eleonoora guessed—it was the kind of thing a doctor notices. It started right away—her worry, which to the less observant could seem like bossiness. Elsa didn't take any notice of her instructions, she just said, as she had to Martti, Let's enjoy Christmas.

It was a happy Christmas, in spite of everything. On Christmas Eve they went skating, and on Boxing Day they skied. Elsa was surprised at her strength, ate half a chocolate bar and slid down the hills as sprightly as a girl.

The treatments started at the beginning of the year. They only gave her the cytostatins for a few weeks, a month. Then they used the phrase "palliative care." That meant hospice. This time Elsa cried.

Martti tried to be strong and keep up his hopes. He asked her what she wanted to do.

We could drive somewhere, she said. We could just drive off into the dusk, without any destination, listen to music like we always do on road trips.

They had gone driving every evening now, since the end of February. The spring was light pink and pale yellow, like every spring. Elsa often urged him to drive slower so that she could see the sky better. The clouds moved across the sky like big buildings. At the beginning of March, in a parking lot in Lauttasaari, they heard a blackbird singing.

They sat there for a long while, with the lights off, in the dark, listening to the blackbird.

It's surprising how little there is to fear, Elsa said.

No, there's nothing to be afraid of, Martti answered.

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But that was a lie. Martti was afraid of the nights, those nights when he would wake up alone from a dream that he couldn't get hold of. He was afraid he would wake up beside her and she wouldn't be breathing anymore.

Maybe Eleonoora feared that, too, because she had firmly opposed Elsa coming home.

Believe me, I know what to expect, she had said, when they were left alone together for a moment after a treatment consultation. I can't do it alone, and neither can you. And we can't expect the girls to look after her. It's too much to ask. They're hardly more than children.

Eleonoora's worry was certainly different than Martti's. Her sadness would be different, too, when the time came. But still, he wondered at her attitude. It was impossible to know anything about her but what he could see: meticulousness, an almost expressionless determination on her face.

More and more Martti was seized with a thought that had troubled him ever since Eleonoora became an adult: this woman had stolen his daughter from him, she was hiding the pigtailed, smiling Ella somewhere deep within her pragmatism. If Martti could just find some magic word from her childhood years, and say it, Eleonoora would be Ella again, jumping up and down in the doorway, grinning at her own reflection in the mirror, and they would go and get some ice cream.

The final decision about home care was made when Eleonoora's daughters themselves offered to help. She questioned both of them, told them in unvarnished detail what it was like to take care of a dying person.

I'm not afraid, Maria said without hesitation. Although she was the younger of the two, she seemed more mature than Anna. Anna had a moodiness about her. Martti recognized it as his own: he had once been sensitive in the same way. But in spite of her uncertainty Anna nodded decisively when Eleonoora asked her about helping.

In the last few weeks, Elsa had been doing better. She had a new pain medication, stronger than the others. It worked, but the doctor had said that it could cause disorientation and immobility.

Martti had panicked at the possibility that she could be disoriented and asked the doctor outright: how much longer? How many weeks?

Don't focus on the weeks, the doctor answered. There will be good days and bad days. There's tremendous variation in these illnesses. She may be almost symptom free at times.

Martti contented himself with what the doctor had said. He watched Elsa, putting all his hope in those three words: almost symptom free.

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The hospital bed and other equipment had been brought the day before.

Two taciturn men rang the doorbell, brought the metal contraption in as if they were delivering a table or a sofa, and put it together in the bedroom. Then came the IV equipment—which had been ordered just in case—and diapers, lying coyly in the corner in a cardboard box. The medications were in packets on the dresser.

"Splendid," Elsa said from the bed. "More splendid than any hotel I've been in."

"Glad you like it."

"But," she said, lowering her voice as if she thought the movers were still outside the door listening and she didn't want to offend them, "I still intend to sleep with you."

"Yeah? If you want."

Elsa glanced disapprovingly at the box of diapers in the corner.

"I intend to take care of my own business, of course," she said briskly.

"They're just here in case we need them," he heard himself say.

The role of the infirm was difficult for Elsa. She was used to being the caregiver. She had always taken care of others, to the point of exhaustion. That was a psychologist's job. Martti remembered the time when Elsa changed irrevocably from a girl to a woman: during those years when she defended her doctoral thesis and was offered a position in an international research group.

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Martti lay in bed without moving. Elsa didn't waken.


The dream hovered above him. It was a dense quilt, woven from time.

He got up and went to the window.

Some nights when he woke up from this dream, the sorrow weighed on him like a lid. He was under the lid, couldn't breathe. I'm not going to make it through this, he thought. If I feel like this now, what will I feel when Elsa's really gone?

In the end he found a way to calm himself. He would go to the window, open it, look at the sky, listen to the blackbird.

The sadness came and he let it come, felt it, as if getting to know it. He found it in the position of his hand, half reaching out. He had to make room for the sadness, to take it in his arms. Otherwise it would come as a dread, sudden and unexpected, on the corner as he was crossing the street or in the store when he was picking out mandarins or potatoes.

At those moments it was sheer panic.

Now, as he held the sadness, Martti was almost happy. The swallows had come early this year, they'd been carrying on boisterously since springtime. Up and down, up and down they flew, their voices filling the air. He stood at the window for a minute, another, letting the languor spread. The sound of the swallows was not in the sky but within him; there was no clear line between himself and the world outside.

These were the first moments in many years that Martti had thought he might be able to paint: the sky, the swallows, the light floating in the room.

He'd never grieved the end of his working days. He had been happy even without working. His studio in the garret, the building's lone tower, was still there. It was like a museum. Now and then he went up there, sat in the armchair, watched the sunset, opened the window, smoked. Last year he had given an interview to the monthly supplement of Helsingin Sanomat. The photos had been backlit. A visionary in a tireless search for the perfect scene. Actually he had regretted the interview a little afterward. He had succumbed to pomposity and then tried to make up for his grandiloquence with self-deprecation, but the humor had been lost in the final version of the interview. What was left was the true statement: Art evades its maker just as reality evades us all.

When he thought about his career he often noticed that he considered his most esteemed works and his highest achievements banal. It was as if he had spent his whole life tinkering with a sand castle.

Maybe it was this childishness that had kept him from mixing colors or stretching canvases, or even sketching on paper, doing anything to get started working.

He went up to the attic once in a while, sat and watched the changing light, melting from minute to minute into the corners, the silence.

That was just how the need to paint used to come to him, when he had the feeling that he was pure perception. Some people called it inspiration, but it was something much plainer, much more natural than that.

He was often asked about it in interviews. Journalists and biographers and exhibit curators presented the question as if they were asking about the existence of God.

He remembered how once in the sixties, sitting at a table on a damp evening, he had told a curator, just to amuse himself, "There's nothing mystical about it. I give up myself, and get the world in return."

Now he had that feeling on those evenings when he sat at the window looking at the sky and the swallows. He was pure perception, pure gaze.

But the dream wouldn't let go of him, and that surprised him.

At first he had pushed the thought out of his mind. But when the dream kept coming back, he started to have doubts. The feeling was just a glimmer, something like a scent, as elusive as the mental image you have of a person when you've met them a few times and don't yet know them but you start to think about them unconsciously.

When he woke from these dreams it was as if he could hear a smile, the sound of it floating above him.

Now he let the thought come. The woman in the dream wasn't Elsa.

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