Kuva: Jan Kahanek, Unsplash

Toivo-kirjoituskilpailun helmet - Christopher Ryan: Toivo

Helsingin kaupunginkirjasto järjesti kaikille avoimen kirjoituskilpailun toivon teemalla. Voittajien tekstit julkaistaan Helmet-verkkosivuilla.

Aikuisten sarjan toinen sija: Christopher Ryan, 44, Helsinki.

Toivo

The northern lights have a sound, you know. Like static but grander. The electricity of eels, not machines. The first time I’d heard their song, I was fifteen years old and had just arrived at the upper reaches of Finland’s Bothnian Bay, and while standing at the edge of the sea, with the lights shimmying and quavering above me, for a moment, finally, I wasn’t staring at my feet or the grains of snow. With my problems thousands of miles away, my gaze was tilted skyward, and I was actually watching, truly listening.
Then the lights retreated across the sea toward Sweden, the dark waves rolling to shore with such force it was like they were urging me to return home. I proceeded nonetheless, determined to reach the island of Hailuoto—“shark isle”—where my grandfather Toivo lived. I’d only met him once, years ago, long before my grandmother died. Now he was alone on that isolated hunk of snow-dusted rock. We were to keep each other out of trouble for a few weeks.
Mom said Toivo, who was 75, had left the stove on a couple times before setting out for his daily walk, and once he’d left the back door open all day. As for me, my problems were too numerous to list, but it included: breaking my sister’s hair dryer, punching numerous holes in the wall, and smashing windows throughout the neighborhood. More than anything, my mother wanted to get me out of her sight.
I walked slowly but steadily toward the ferry landing, then boarded the ship at no cost and took a seat in the passenger lounge among a few others who either stared or refused to make eye contact—islands unto themselves. The windows quickly fogged up with body heat and coffee steam, and soon neither the northern lights nor the mainland were visible.
What awaited me on Hailuoto, I had no idea. This was my first time to Finland, or anywhere for that matter. I’d yet to see the world. I’d yet to see anything, really. Our family didn’t travel much. And now—it wasn’t much of a family. My parents had split up a year earlier, not long after my grandmother had died.
An hour later we stepped ashore. An old friend of Toivo’s named Joukahainen (I didn’t even try to pronounce it) met me there in his battered van. “Long ago I see Toivo at pubbi,” he said, “the pub. Not anymore, but once upon time. Good you come. He alone since Reeta die.”
Joukahainen drove fast, skidding to a halt in Toivo’s gravel driveway fifteen minutes later. The house was situated in the middle of the island, no other houses or lights in sight.
“Are you coming in?” I asked as I climbed out of the van.
“Is best you go alone,” he said. “Long time you no see, get big hug.”
I sensed something else behind his words, some fear of catching the whiff of grief and death, but I only thanked him and waved goodbye. He sped off in a flurry of snow and dirt.
The house was blood-red, huddling behind an army of pines. I stood there a long moment, not so much angry as perplexed, until the cold grabbed me by the bones and propelled me forward. Lights came on; the door opened. Toivo’s thin smile greeted me.
“Terve,” he said. “Long journey over.”
I shook his raw, bony hand, surprised at his strength. He helped me with my backpack and told me to take my shoes off. My feet smelled like a thousand-mile flight.
He made us cups of weird tea that we sat sipping in front of a dying fire in the living room. He looked older than I’d expected, and smaller, and he said so little I was hesitant to break the quietude. Eventually I yawned; it was only seven o’clock, but I’d been traveling a full day.
“Yes, yes, night has come.”
But it seemed there was only night that far north, bringing a darkness so dense it settled on me like an extra blanket. Still, I slept well in my mother’s old bed. I only knew morning had come because of the sounds of Toivo stirring in the kitchen. When I joined him, he set down a mug of coffee. I didn’t usually drink the stuff, but everything was supposed to be different here. That’s what Mom had said, anyway, before pushing me toward the airplane.
“Today we walk,” he said. “I show you.”
“Show me what?”
“This land. My history. Your mother’s history. Yours.”
So after breakfast we put on a hundred layers of clothes and stepped out into the early Finnish winter. Toivo didn’t cover his big ears, which soon turned red. We trudged along the gravel road, then veered onto a faint trail. He wasn’t exactly spry, but he moved steadily. He pointed out things like the rock my mother had always hidden behind, the stump of a tree that had been turned into a ship’s mast a hundred years ago, a cave where some beast lived. He’d point, say something cryptic like, “Once upon, cat came wander there. Meow, it say,” and I’d try not to crack up.
Eventually the sea appeared in the distance. “Good here,” he said, gesturing toward an open-faced hut fronted by a fire pit. An axe with a chipped blade was wedged into the chopping block, and I split wood while Toivo gathered kindling. Once he got the fire going, he removed a thermos from his pocket, almost like a magician. Inside it was more tea, only sweeter and creamier. He filled the cup for me, then sipped straight from the bottle. Then we just sat there a while, listening to our own breathing and birds bouncing around in the trees.
“Where you go?” Toivo eventually asked me.
“What do you mean? I’m right here.”
He sighed. “We have saying, jääkasa sen takana on. It mean ‘ice stay behind.’ You leave ice home. Here now, with Toivo.”
I looked around. “There’s ice here. Mom said the sea freezes and you can drive on it.”
He grimaced. “Is saying, not bible. Now add wood.”
I fetched some more logs and stoked the flames. I remembered that I was supposed to call home. Had I forgotten, or did I fear the voices at the other end?
Then my grandfather spoke again. “This hut remind of when I am boy,” he said. “You know, I am born much far north. There deep snow.” He made a chopping motion across his thighs to indicate the depth. “One day, lost in storm, I find baby wolf.”
“You did? Just sitting there in the snow?”
He nodded. “Like bird. So light, so little.”
“What did you do?”
He smiled, then told me the story.
Toivo said he had put the cub inside his coat to keep it warm. He had no food or water to share with it and only a vague notion of which direction was home. For hours he trudged across vast rolling hills of whiteness, hoping he might see a house or road. All he spotted was a forest. He leaned towards it, hoping to get out of the wind and perhaps erect a lean-to and build a fire. But as he hiked, he had a strange feeling he was being followed—perhaps by the mother wolf. Every now and then he turned and looked back to see a tall figure standing like a totem in his wake. It wasn’t a wolf though. The figure was antlered and remarkably tall.
Toivo, unnerved, took shelter in the trees, but he dared not stop, not with that creature at his heels. The hiking was even more difficult in the woods. He pushed onward, the cub writhing against his ribs and mewling softly. “Shh, shh,” he’d told the little one.
Then, finally, sanctuary: a hut with a fire pit, much like the one we were sitting at. Someone had passed through recently, leaving the pit clear. My grandfather no longer cared about the tall antlered beast stalking him. He chopped some wood, shaved some kindling, and used his lighter to get it going (he smoked back then, always had cigarettes and a lighter on him). The flames were essentially an invitation though, and by and by the creature emerged from the trees, edged forward one step at a time, entered the camp, and took a seat across from Toivo.
“Has rakes for hands,” he said to me of this creature.
“Rakes? Like for working in the garden?”
He nodded, then laughed to himself.
According to him, the creature had the head of an elk and the body of a man—dressed in a long green army coat—but steel rakes for hands. I couldn’t believe my ears, and I’m sure he couldn’t have believed his eyes—or mind. The cold does that to you. Anyways, he stared at this visitor, and the visitor at him, neither speaking until the cub squirmed free and leapt onto the ground, at which point the elk-man bleated with delight. He reached down and with his rake-hand stroked the cub’s silver-black fur. The cub mewled and hurried back to Toivo.
The elk-man then reached into his own coat. Toivo couldn’t imagine what this creature had to offer, but wonder of wonders, he produced a can of beans. Only, with his rake-hands he couldn’t open it. It fell to the ground between them—at which point Toivo produced his pocket knife. He opened the can and warmed the beans on the fire. The elk-man did not want any, however; he only wanted to stroke the cub.
“Good trade,” Toivo said to me.
Once my grandfather and the cub had had their fill, the creature pet the cub once more, then rose onto his long legs. Just before leaving it said, “Toivoa.”
“You mean your name?” I asked my grandfather.
“Yes. And no. It mean ‘hope.’ It was saying to me, when two come together, is hope. Yksin, alone, is not so much hope.” He lifted his strong, cold, bony hand and settled it on mine. “Share a meal, share flame. Share the sky. Look here comes revontuli. It welcome us.”
The northern lights had indeed returned. We looked up; we listened. The foxfire cast its spell across the land, warming us. Maybe I could leave the ice behind after all.

***