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Kerttu - K. A. Laity

Etemenanki - No subtitlesEtemenanki è un contenitore di storie senza sottotitoli. Lo abbiamo chiamato con il nome sumerico di una ziqqurat costruita quattromila anni fa. Oggi come allora vigono gli stessi limiti, le torri oscurano il cielo e la letteratura è rinchiusa nei confini di una lingua. Etemenanki proporrà racconti inediti in lingua originale. Questo è il quarto racconto, la quarta strofa della pietra angolare.

Author: K. A. Laity

K. A. Laity is the author of the novels Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Pelzmantel, The Mangrove Legacy, Chastity Flame and the collections Unquiet Dreams and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and writer of other stories, plays and essays. Her stories tend to slip across genres and categories, but all display intelligence and humour. Myths and fairy tales influence much of her writing. The short stories in Unikirja found their inspiration from The Kalevala, Kanteletar, and other Finnish myths and legends: the stories won the 2005 Eureka Short Story Fellowship and a 2006 Finlandia Foundation grant.

Collabora a Etemenanki:

Alessandra Bava (traduttrice e editor per la narrativa anglofona).

 

Kerttu

 

The mice have not gone. It was not our winter stores that drew them in, as we first thought. They do not even seem interested in food. I put bread outside the door. I thought it would draw them away, outside, but they do not leave. "The mice have not gone," I tell Lalli, but he ignores me and hunches lower over his gruel. He knows. It is he they are after.

At first we did not notice how many there were. There are always some. No matter how good a housekeeper you are (and I am very good, Mama saw to that), the mice will come. One day you pick up your bag of flour and out pours the milky stream from the hole they have chewed. Sometimes there's a tail, glimpsed quickly—so quickly you are not even sure you saw it—disappearing behind the stove. Mostly there are the droppings, little black pellets to be swept into the bucket and tossed out the window into the flower bed. But never so many as now.

The first time, I had just come back in from getting a bucket of water for the morning meal. The rain barrel had frozen over, so I trudged down to the lake's edge where the spring flows. The cold handle had clung to my fingers as if trying to share its misery as I heaved it down into the icy crust. The cold water had splashed up from the bucket, the drops also objecting to the frigid air. My lips and fingertips had become numb as my arm stretched down, while the wind fondled my cheek with unpleasant familiarity. The bitter cold off the lake's frozen surface—always cutting,, always fierce—you could not get used to it. You merely withstood it for as long as the chores held you there.

My body had curled into a fist-like retreat by the time I returned to the door. The wind fought me for the latch, roaring with laughter. His wind, no doubt. I jerked the door open at last and, with some considerable trouble, slammed it behind me, sloshing cupfuls of water to floor. Then I gasped. A hundred, maybe more, two hundred—they covered the table, a seething sea of little mice, all rushing over one another in their excitement at having been discovered, trying to escape the blows they knew would come. Yet I was so astonished I could do nothing but stare slack-jawed, while the bucket swung in my hands, its own tide running up the wooden sides, as if the lake too would take over our house. Mice are no strangers to me, to any of us, but so many— Fear clamped onto my guts like the jaws of a wolf. It was wrong. It was magic: his magic.

But that wasn't the worst of it. That was just the first time. The worst was in bed. Maybe two nights later, the last full moon—it's waning now, almost to nothing, to darkness—when it was at its highest and I had already been asleep for some time, I awoke to the sound… What sound? Rustling? Crawling? They make no real noise. I guess it was Lalli's groans. At first even he did not wake. Their teeth, so tiny, so sharp, and yet—he must have thought he was dreaming. Horrid, horrid dreams of the pricks of their mouths on his flesh as he lay there, thrashing and moaning. Then he was waking and screaming and we beat them away, shaking the feather bed, throwing the pillows on the floor, across the room, their small bodies tumbling. Those who lived skittered across the planks, dashing under the door and into the corners. Lalli shrieked and that frightened me more than the mice. I finally calmed him with vinegar and water, a handful of dried herbs. I washed his wounds and the mixture stung, but that pain was familiar, expected. Lalli grew quiet, muttering angrily, but no longer shrieking.

The bites covered his right shoulder and back. How long were they gnawing? How long were they in our bed? And why did they not bite me? I should have been grateful, but instead I was horror-struck. Did that one still intend to get his boon? It sickened me.

In the bluish light of the almost dawn I rose today, determined to keep this enemy at bay. While the porridge bubbles over the fire and Lalli cares for horses and the cows, I turn my thoughts over Mama's recipes, counting them one by one on the threads of my belt, as if the real secrets might be buried within the knots. The magic of the old ways: when I was a child, Mama would visit the other women when she had no recipe or chant or song for a situation. Sooner or later we found someone who knew the right incantation, or the right mixture of herbs, though occasionally we had to walk many miles and stay in strange beds, or even just sleep in the hay. She usually dragged me behind her, pushing me into a corner to shuck peas or grind grain while she memorized the song or the list of ingredients, only then trusting it to a new knot on her belt. Only when I began to bleed did she allow me to learn the charms and the potions. By then I stood at her shoulder and repeated, time and again the patient words, the careful concoctions. Long lists of herb, complicated procedures—tinctures, salves, and poultices—I had to learn them all. I had to repeat each one three times perfectly for Mama before she would let me add a new knot to my own red belt. When we gathered in the kitchens with the others, the crones would cackle with delight as my Mama had me rehearse the recipes, proud she could pick at knot at random and I would launch into my recital without the least hesitation. All those old women, sun-wrinkled, wind-kissed, gone. The few women left in this blasted landscape, those not driven away by the screeching winds or the endless snow—sometimes still evident even in the brightness of Midsommar—too many follow the new ways, his magic.

I spit into the fire. I cannot comprehend it even now. His magic of pain and suffering—where was the appeal? An invisible world in the sky full of gold and bright music, he promised them, but only once you die. And now, I asked my brother Hannu once, and now what? To make a virtue of our suffering, obtaining credits in the world in his world of clouds? What about now—as we suffer and struggle? Can his gods—no, god—not help us now? Hannu shrugged, as much convinced by his gold as by his stories. New stories, that was the thing; how long since we have had new stories around here? So they would invite him to supper, they would give him their pledges and they would be rewarded with gold and the little crossed sticks, reminders of a god who suffered—who makes his people repeat his agony.

Not for me; better to turn to Ahti and Vellamo, even if these gods seem a bit morose at times. Their watery realm provides us with food all year, and they do not ask us to suffer each day, only to do our part. The fish do not leap into our cooking pot after all. But to say toil is the nature of the world is not to say we make a virtue of our pain. Pain is pain—it is not to be delighted in. Lessened, yes, avoided whenever possible, and healed when it must be endured—which brings me back once more to considering Lalli's condition.

It was no trouble finding a good poultice for his scalp. I soothed the pain and stanched the flow of blood quickly. But the hair will not grow. His pink flesh still looks raw and remains sensitive to touch. I try to keep him from picking at the livid scars, but he scowls when I slap his hand, for he does not even notice that he worries the flesh. If only he had not put the hat upon his head, that hat so full of that one's magic. But, no, Lalli had to crow, he had to boast—because of course he was so frightened by what he had done. My Lalli is not a violent man. As husbands go, he has been very tolerant. He rarely hits me and only when I have really tried his patience, or have been especially stubborn. I am stubborn. I know what is the wise thing to do, usually. But Mama told me years ago, wisdom goes out the window when a man has made up his mind about something. Better not to fight. Just clean up the mess when he's done. So I cleaned the mess when Lalli finally got tired of boasting,, pulling the red cap off with a generous stripe of hair and skin. He roared with pain and surprise and I rushed to get a cloth to stop the blood, a measure of ale to dull the throbbing hurt, and a jar of soothing cream to help the scalp heal. But my magics were not strong enough.

So he sits at night by the table, the flickering fire dancing before him, bathing his form in fingers of light and dark while he touched his head gingerly or contemplates his missing finger. The ring too, that was a bad idea. He should have known. More magic. But gold, we all know the worth of it. And this one was heavy with potential wealth. How many cows, how many horses—it was hard to calculate. I understood, even as I knew I would do nothing with that man's magic except bury it deep in the earth or toss it to the bottom of Ahti's lake. Lalli agreed afterward, chopping through the ice with his axe, but even then it was too late. And then the mice came.

I stir the porridge and contemplate the possible removers I can concoct. Salt perhaps, the most efficient, but these are no ordinary mice. Regular mice would have taken the first few hints and moved on, never mind that this is the middle of winter. Normal mice never would have come nosing around all together like that, with so few pickings in midwinter. Burrowed in their little dens, they would be safe and warm. These have gathered from who knows where, trekked across ice and snow to gather here, to plague Lalli. Unnatural. They have been charmed. His ghost must still be here, and I shiver now too. The tendrils of chill air that wrap around me—drafts? Or his frosty touch? If I drive him out, will they go too? But what if his hat and his ring call him? They are on the bottom of the lake. I cannot destroy the physical remnants. Perhaps Ahti and Vellamo can be persuaded to help, to drive this spirit from their realm.

I can see that day yet in my mind, pictures that run in a constant stream like a dream. His cheerful good humor and brash carelessness. Here was a man unaccustomed to having the least concern what anyone else thought. He had all the right answers. Lalli had gone that day to help Hannu break up some fallen trees. The winds had been fierce all night, whistling wild tunes for our sleep, prying their fingers through the planks and the mud. Hannu came early, wrapped in his bearskin, stomping loudly to let us know he had arrived. I sent them on their way after steaming bowls of hot bread soup, Hannu especially pleased as he had no wife. His meals are poor and tasteless, yet he refuses to live here and eat my meals more than once in a while. He lives like a bear himself, snuffling through the woods, seeking game and digging roots. Stubborn, my family, like we ought not to be.

Barely had their steps filled with snow when I heard a sledge approaching. I did not know him, but I knew what the big gold cross on his chest meant. The words had come through other means, whispered in corners or shouted across tables depending on one's confidence in the new ways. Gold paved the way as he made the rounds of our region. Even Hannu had succumbed to his words. No one really knew what it was, but I recognized it for magic, a new kind of magic, so I was curious. And here was the man himself at my doorstep. He rapped on the door with his walking stick, shouting out a halloo. I greeted him and asked his name and his people. He cheerfully told me his name was Henrik, but he said I should call him by his title, Biskup. His people lived far to the west and spoke a different tongue. He removed his red hat and suggested I should kiss his ring because he came from the king of Sweden who sent his greetings. I said I would kiss his ring if he would kiss mine, but he does not seem to know that saying, and I let it pass. He asked for some hay for his horse as I put a bowl of soup before him, and I was happy to oblige. Company this time of year is such a rare thing, what is a little hay to share? I was sure he would prove entertaining, but I had no idea what dangers lay ahead.

He told me of his god, the white Christ, who died but lives again. I asked a lot of questions. He seemed to get irritated very quickly. Apparently people usually keep their questions to themselves. But Mama always said ask questions. Better to ask than to forget. Be sure and you will not get confused. This man, though, he expected me to be awed by his big gold cross and his living-dead god. He told me his staff could bring death to a man and I laughed and said, no doubt it could. An axe can do the same, I added. He grew pink then, insisting that it was the magic of his staff, not the weight of it. His word for magic was " blessed." I found that confusing. We blessed a house when it was built or a bed when it was to hold a young couple. His blessing was different—it was the power of his god, living in the staff. In his hands too, he claimed. That made more sense. I did not have it myself, but my auntie had had healing hands. It was a good power but it did not pass to me. Still, he was most odd in his opinions and I held my own counsel. No need to disparage his beliefs.

But he pressed me to accept his god. I told him I had gods enough, from Tapio's forests to Ilmatar's winds, right on down to Akka's grain. He insisted though that I take up his god, that I acknowledge his superiority. I demurred. My gods built the world around me—what need had I of some foreign god? Your god does not even speak my tongue, I told him somewhat crossly, I admit. He grew angry then. He cursed my stubbornness and my soup equally. I did not mind the cries against the obstinacy of my heart, but I knew my bread soup to be superb, flavored by the dried herbs hung all over the cabin to dry throughout the year. Even a man with burnt lips would know my soup was divine. This man had no taste. Or else he was equally stubborn in his heart.

I could have just said yes, pretended. It would have cost nothing. But as I have said, I am pig-headed. I argued. I reasoned. And perhaps, worst of all for this man, I laughed. I realize now that was my mistake. It was the beginning. It was the first cold wind that means winter has come. He struck me with his blessed stick. The first blow was unexpected. After that I curled up and ducked. He got so angry so quickly, I could hardly believe it. Even my own father did not get angry so quickly. His face grew red as he chased me under the table with his stick and I was overcome by giggling fits, as the scene reminded me so much of childhood escapades, ducking under the table to escape punishment for tasting the cakes before they cooled, for neglecting chores, for speaking out of turn. My mirthful outbreak infuriated him further and he sought in vain a better chance to rain blows upon me. I was thankful in my heart for the big birch table Lalli made for me when first I came to him as a bride from my poor family, even as I could not halt my laughter in its shelter.

But then as I paused, breathless and giddy, he got in a good blow. The mighty hardwood struck my brow with loud crack, and a blinding white light filled my head. It was the power of his god, I felt at once, filling my head with his fury. I could see nothing as the hot sun grew in my eyes and the voice of his god filled my head, swearing how I would suffer and pay for my obstinacy. And like clouds moving away in a storm wind, the light parted and it was as if I flew on the raven's back into time rather than the sky, seeing the new life unfold under this white god, a world of bright light and dark shadows, worse, a world where my arts were not needed, my wisdom was lost and all the recipes Mama made me memorize were gone and forgotten. This I saw as I lay on the floor, half under my own table, feeling the lump grow on my forehead. I looked up at this new magic man and, to his credit, he looked somewhat aghast at what he had done.

It took some effort, I had to struggle up on one elbow, wave away his hand, and steady myself with the table's leg, but I stood on shaky legs, looked him in the eye, and spat.

He was unprepared. I think he was so certain the image of his white god would cow me that he could not imagine any defiance. He did not know us, coming from his far away land, he did not understand what it takes to live here, to dig through the earth, to cast deep nets, to survive the winter's dark. He did not know my own family's cavernous willfulness. He does now. Wherever his spirit dwells, he knows now.

And so he left. Jammed his hat on his head, threw some coins on the floor and went out to prepare his sledge to depart, angrily strapping his horse back in, muttering all the while. I picked up his shiny gold, knowing what it meant for us, how Lalli's eyes would open wide and he would smile and rub his hands eagerly thinking of the cattle we could buy. I stepped outside, still wincing from the blow to my head, wiping away the sticky blood, and I threw the coins after his departing back, striking him and calling forth a string of curses.

When Lalli returned and saw the purplish knot under the poultice I had held to it for hours, he said nothing, but grabbed his hand axe and set out at once across the icy lake in the tracks of the sledge. It was no weapon. I thought, at most he might threaten the man. But I did not understand how his white god worked, that death is a transformation, and this Henrik, he wanted that transformation. He got it. Lalli returned bloodied and stunned at his own change. He was embarrassed by his love for me which had propelled him to pursue the stranger across the ice and rain blows upon him. He sat at the table, a sullen look of pride on his face and the red hat upon his head, the occasional boast breaking the silence. It was only later that we realized the magic in that object, when at last he tired of the show, snatched it off and howled with shock and pain. The ring, too, which took his flesh off as he slipped it over his knuckle, leaving him almost too frightened to scream. Strong magic, vengeful conjuring.

It's no good, I conclude at last. I cannot fight such magics. My paltry store of cures and charms cannot kill, cannot fight a ghost. We will simply have to endure, as we always do. We will have to endure the mice, the anger of this ghost and his white god. We can do it. I will reach down into the black depths of my resistance and find my most gloomy persistence, and remain. We can both.

The chills run like hunting dogs up my spine, as if my body senses before my thoughts do the danger here. Lalli's cry freezes me upon my stool by the fire. But as he continues to shout, I jump up at last and run to the door. I cannot believe it, even after all that has happened, I cannot trust my sight. My stomach rises, crimps, and struggles as my eyes take in the scene.

There must be thousands now. The tiny mice cover the ground and every bit of skin and cloth they can cling to, even as he bats them away, cursing and crying. I can only gape as he passes, picking up speed, heading for the old tree on the lake's edge. He will try to climb it, perhaps the mice will fall into the soft ice and water where the spring feeds the lake. Perhaps he can shake them off. He climbs up the lowest limb, stretching out over the ice, the tree swaying with his weight, and at last I begin to run, paying no attention to the biting wind, the throbbing in my head, thinking only my Lalli, my Lalli. But I am too late, as I see the ice crack and open beneath the limb. It is not Vellamo's breath that rises from the floes, not Ahti's arm that stretches forth from the water. My heart sinks as I hear the limb echo the sound of the ice, a crisp snap, and still too far ahead of me I see Lalli tumble into the dark waters, many mice clinging yet, joining him in the depths. I have a mad thought of rescue, throwing a stout branch out to him, seeing him cling desperately to it and lugging his water-soaked body back to the shore. I could warm him by the fire, fill him with potent herbs and steaming soup, and he would not even get a fever. But I see the white arm close about his struggling shape, and I know now I must live with two ghosts.

K. A. Laity

TN DX

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