Yesterday's Rain

By Lars Landgren

 

When at long last Aino returned, it was nothing like the way she had left. Boats, forever representing disaster, had been out of the question ever since. Instead, she arrived half-supine on the misaligned passenger seat of Kari’s overheated and quivering minivan. The car had absorbed sunlight all morning and now, in the afternoon heat, convulsed like a dying black star. It was unbearable, really, though not to her son, who added discomfort by letting tobacco fumes seep incessantly from his nostrils, his mouth too busy talking to let anything but words escape. 

When he lit the first cigarette, she had declared, “I wish you wouldn’t,” as a mother ought, but that was hours ago. Now she merely wished it. They travelled east on a thin highway transporting them over the tip of the Baltic Sea. Its dual arteries pumped people through the cold landscape between Sweden and Finland, past lakes and forests in a Nordic circulatory system. Contraband vodka flowed uninterruptedly alongside, occasionally unloaded in congested towns where biochemical reactions sprang up and registered as peaks in the ECG of traffic death data, leaving behind a scenic trail of empty bottles, fistfights and teenage pregnancies. Aino felt faint. 

Kari had stopped talking and seemed to be expecting an answer to a question she hadn’t registered. He looked at her. “I can’t understand why you waited so long,” he said. Aino had no answer for him, and so, turned to look out the window where innumerable trees raced before her eyes. There was no exact purpose to her return, not of the sort her son had in mind. Why, after so long, was she going back? Because she was old, expiring? Yes, but that was not a thing to tell your son. 

Two nearly identical Nordic cross flags flapped on either side of the border. Above, swallows chased each other, changing nationality several times per second. She leaned against the window staring at the flags. “Liars,” she whispered. “You lying rags.” Below her they appeared again, mirror images reflected in the river that separated the two countries. Pockets of air under the bridge caused a gurgling sound. The river laughed. Silly flying rags, all flags are lying flying rags. Maybe she was just as silly, shooting across the border only to ricochet back, fearful of what she might find there? The water laughed at her too, laughed at human indecisiveness. The river only ever went the one way, returning in the end, of course, but with a majestic circularity to its motions. Aino traced a circle with her finger on the inside of the window pane. 

“Got any change?” Kari asked. Aino sat up straight and rummaged through her handbag. She found and placed two coins in his palm. 

“For passage?” she asked dreamily.

“For parking, Mum,” Kari laughed, “not for passage.”

Across the border, the horizon crinkled and low mountains appeared to the northeast. They parked near Kemi’s port, where fog departed the bay in clusters like wool shorn off a giant slumbering ram. More than sixty years had passed since she was here last. She had stood on deck, mouth open, as the boat pulled her away from the conflagration which, before her eyes, consumed the city whose boundaries had until that point defined the edges of her existence. New people stood here now, oscillating heads on anxious lookout for the approaching ferry. She imagined sympathy, saw in their movements a communal nod of recognition that reverberated across the parking lot. But perhaps that was wishful thinking. Most likely, they had nothing in common.

It had seemed practical not to remain too much in the past. Instead, she had read about it, a second-hand experience that was more vivid to her now than actual memories of her early life. Books and documentaries had gradually reshaped them so thoroughly that it sometimes felt as though she had not actually lived it herself, not lived it first. She had grown accustomed to seeing double, had tried to explain this to Kari, unsuccessfully, and wouldn’t try again now. Two departing boats, two burning cities, two town-halls through which wide yawning holes had been struck, a town which was either a vague outline, or a picture she had tried to sketch from newspaper clippings. 

The real Kemi through which she now moved, a lifetime later, looked nothing like either place. It was remarkably ordinary, a town like many others in which ordinary people lived, as she might have. She followed Kari through a park. People moved with determination and purpose. They carried shopping bags, walked dogs, and had conversations like there was no tomorrow. She looked down at her own feet. The grass over which they moved rose defiantly after each step, as if to demonstrate that she left no visible trace at all. A sudden feeling took hold, of another picture she was attempting—and failing—to draw, of something erasing her from top to bottom.

“Is there anything left?” Kari asked her. “Is anything the same, I mean?” She shrugged, but again felt faint, and held Kari’s arm for support until they reached the house where, as it happened, something was unchanged.

“It’s the same door!” She hesitated, hadn’t expected to be confronted with such a demonstrable relic. The house had been renovated, so why had they kept the door? 

Kari was unimpressed. “Mum, it’s only a door. Are you going to knock?” She should, of course. But it frightened her. This door quite conceivably knew more about her than she did. It had already been well-worn back when she had first observed the constant flow of older relatives passing through it in both directions. She remembered their faces, manifestations of that vertical continuity she had later noticed in photographs, a past spiralling upwards through time in snapshots of elusively reminiscent family features. Such persistence! The door had remained where she had been uprooted, and God knows what it remembered. Above the frame, two swallows came to rest on the gutter, flapping their wings so that some of yesterday’s rain sprinkled her forehead, but she couldn’t look away. Kari sighed, lit a cigarette, and knocked.

An ancient and breathless man who was possibly a cousin opened the door and greeted them in the forgotten language. Kari tried a phrase, but the man only groaned in sympathy with his incompetence, and turned, shouting. Soon, as if on standby, an anaemic son materialised ready to translate. 

The son, Hannes, introduced himself in a flu-stricken voice that made the n's come out as d’s, and genially motioned for them to follow. Leaving his father behind, the god of the underworld escorted them to a cold cellar. His eyes moved hesitantly up and down as he spoke. How good of them to visit, and how his mother would have loved to meet them! Yes, she had been the cousin -- not his father. They would like to see photographs, no doubt?

Aino was seated on a chopping block, a folded newspaper for a cushion, and handed a shoebox. Inside she found, flat and faded, an infant held by a sombre pair of grandparents, a girl, hesitant with her mother and baby brother on either side. In one photograph, she was four or five, an arm being pulled by her mother, who was gesturing impatiently, reading the reactions off spectators’ faces as they queued with food stamps in the street, as it had looked before the shelling.

Creaking stairs heralded the descent of the old man who wasn’t a cousin. He paused on the final step and coughed out a question. Hannes translated, and Aino nodded. “Yes,” she added, “adopted.” The old man pulled a comb through his diminishing hair and spoke again, his face reddening. Again, Hannes translated, now with some reluctance. 

“My father says it was good of you to come back.” His eyes moved between Kari and Aino as he continued. “He means nothing by it, but my father believes a lot of ‘your kind’ have been a little unmindful of the whole situation.” He wouldn’t meet Aino’s eyes as he said it, and carried on, embarrassed, briefly summing up and undoubtedly editing his father’s words. “My father’s impression is that many of you had a good life in Sweden. Didn’t go hungry, had families, houses, and so on.”

Kari offered the old man a cigarette, and Aino mournfully sighed at her son, and his universal remedy for discomfort. The old man continued, and the son translated hurriedly. “State compensation, my father didn’t get any.” The father prodded his own chest for emphasis, and broke the cigarette against his shirt. Kari uselessly counted his remaining cigarettes and offered a replacement, while under strict supervision from his son, the non-cousin took a deep breath and forced out a good-natured smile, exhibiting his polychrome set of teeth. He went on for some time, and seemed not to care that his son’s translation became sporadic.

Oh, things were different now, they learnt. Then, at least there were cod in the sea. One of the father’s hands swam in the air in imitation of a swimming fish, and he waved to indicate that he meant beyond, in the sea, not there in the cellar.

“It’s the Russians,” the son explained, “they sell cod-liver to the Chinese, who use it in their wacky medicines. Chinese people go crazy for that sort of thing, did you know?” The three men nodded in grave acquiescence, and no more was said.

Aino climbed the stairs, not once tempted to look back, and her head swam when they reached the top. Hannes offered compensatory pomegranate tea. No? They were quite sure? The garden? Certainly! They were most welcome, the garden was lovely today. Warm day, the good third of the year, as they say. Regrettably, his father needed him: they would have to go alone. He thanked them for coming. “My father is an old man,” he murmured apologetically while retreating into the darkness of the hallway until only a whisper remained. “Life wasn’t easy for him.” 

Behind the house, the sun had begun to set. “Nice garden,” Kari observed, and for once Aino thought her son’s words were entirely appropriate. It was a very nice garden, still. A magnificent Norway spruce grew here once, with a hole beside it. Life itself had been rooted, stabilised by an undeclared depth. Aino wanted to tell him about that, but somehow the words turned on her tongue, grew inward. She felt nauseous, and sat down on the stump that still remained of the tree. Behind her, a procession of swaying birches stood at ease.

“Mum,” Kari asked cautiously, “you feel ok?” When she nodded, the headache struck as if a pendulum hung in her skull, and when she moved her tongue across her teeth she could taste blood. Teeth and trees had seemed equally dependable once, eternal as bedrock. She had known children’s teeth, mouths grinning, shouting, teasing, crying. Like balustrades on a castle, grinding in concentration behind schoolbooks. After school, children’s teeth had congregated to play in this garden, had told stories, turned the uneasy military service of their fathers into brisk tales of courage and daring.

Once she had climbed all the way up the tall spruce, very close to the sky. The memory was enough to evoke a sensation of falling, or the potentiality of falling, and the dizziness returned. Her memory floated upwards, caught sight of the children in the garden, teasing and joking in the forgotten language of her childhood. She saw herself in the tree, holding on to branches and looking down, skirt flapping a warning in the high wind, as if ready to take flight with or without her.

“Run,” she wanted to shout. But the past could not hear, and she was stuck in old age with all the knowledge and no way of sharing it with herself or anyone else down there. Something terrible was hiding in the wind that tore at her dress, it would overwhelm them. They would vanish. Vanish, that was a terrible euphemism to use, but she dared not tell them the whole truth. She had read the accounts. Some would cower in unseaworthy boats and end up on the bottom of the icy Baltic. Many would burn in their beds.

“Mum?” Kari squatted next to her.

“Teeth,” she told him. “They are what remains. After a fire.”

Aino stood up, but shakily, and had to put her hand against one of the thin birches for support. Kari put his arm around her. “You’re not feeling well.”

She waved her hand dismissively and moved the other along the coarse bark where insects scuttled to keep away. White flakes rubbed off and mixed with her dry skin.

Birches, she knew, were interconnected below ground in vast subterranean networks. “Trees are only above-ground outposts,” she told her son, “that seem separate.”

Kari swallowed. “Mum, what are you talking about?” His face appeared blurry. He didn’t understand such things, but she had read about it.

“As a fish would imagine your legs, if you waded through water.”

Kari turned to look for help. The garden was empty. 

“Listen, mum. Sit down for a while. I’ll get someone.” He offered his hand for support, and she slapped it. Kari looked so genuinely shocked that she had to laugh. She held her palm high, showed him the crushed mosquito, blood and biomass mangled past recognition. This part she remembered well. Arms and legs at peculiar angles. It was on the street. She had read afterwards that there were Finns and Russians together, so in her memory that’s what she saw, reds and whites in clearly marked uniforms. She wouldn’t truly have been able to tell the difference. Most likely they were all polar white where they lay strewn across the road, frosty and punctured, terrible pallid holes lined with red. Her mother had either not had the sense or the strength to carry her, to hide the dead from her sight. Was she carrying the brother? Aino couldn’t recall. 

“Mum, listen.” Kari was pulling her arm. “Mum, you need to sit down. I’ll get help.”

There was a hole. Her mother had dug a hole, left something. She couldn’t quite see it; the memory resisted her. There must have been something. Surely they hadn’t lingered for an empty hole? She had asked, many times, in dreams, but her mother’s answer was in the forgotten language, indecipherable. She wanted to tell Kari about the hole, but her son’s voice had turned to muffled shouting. He wouldn’t listen. They had come back for it. Her mother had held it above her head, crying. Aino called out to her, ran the interrogatory dream routine. She wanted to sound merely curious, but as always, the questions emerged like accusations. Why did you send me across the sea? Why couldn’t I return? 

She leaned forward in anticipation of the answer, but the horizon tilted and she smelled earth and grass.