23. The Last Chapter of the Book of Maria
It was still light. The summer evening had reached the moment where reality suddenly began to seem transparent, soft and so beautiful that it felt painful. Linda walked through the yard, back toward the river. She stopped under a flowering apple tree and tried to remember whether there were apple trees in Helsinki and whether they also blossomed so white. She reached out to brake off one of the branches. The white petals dropped off, over her hands, onto the ground, and she let go of the flower.
The river had turned to gold. Far off, at the end of the boulevard, the dark orange disk of the sun sank slowly toward the cool forest. It was already so far down that the tops of the tallest trees seemed to be touching the light. Linda waited until the orange light darkened to red and finally disappeared behind the trees. She raised her hand to the warm stone wall and looked at the city. On the opposite shore a row of yellow brick buildings could be seen and between them, a strip of green. Then came the bridge and after that more buildings. The warm summer evening surrounded the buildings and they appeared to be gliding slowly into the soft white haze.
Linda started to walk toward the forest. She didn't know where she was going and didn't have the strength to think about it. It just seemed to her that she had to keep on moving, she had to walk and walk and walk, until exhaustion got the upper hand and she would reach at least a small piece of the world which she had lost, some long time ago. The sweet fatigue of childhood, before the dark August night, the quiet love for her own body and the world, a healthy appetite, which hadn't been spoiled by too many sleepless nights. Oh my God, where did all that disappear to? Tell me what I've done wrong, and I'll do a hundred, a thousand, a million penances.
Linda stopped to listen. In some strange way it seemed to her that if she would just wish sincerely enough, then someone would come. Someone would come and tell her that she wouldn't have to search any more. If she just wished, then surely someone would come. A car passing by would stop on the shoreline boulevard. Someone would step out and walk over to her by the low stone wall. The yellow silk would rustle in time to the footsteps. It would be soft and heavy and the sinking evening sun would glisten on its folds. Then that someone would take her by the hand and tell her that she was right. That she was right at least a little bit. That what she had searched for existed and although she hadn't found it, it still existed, and she was right, because, after all, she had searched.
* * *
Already, from far away, Linda saw that something had happened. She stopped at the corner of the building and stood there waiting. A blue light was turning around and around and around in the midst of the dark green trees. One of the trees was bent down very low, so low that the lowest branches touched the white roof of the car. Blue, green, blue, green. Then someone turned off the flashing light and the tree vanished into the darkness, where there were no more colors of any kind.
There were only a few people in front of the entrance to the building. Linda threaded her way between the people's backs to the narrow asphalt path, which led past the green benches to the door. A man wearing a white medic's coat stood on the path and waited. He glanced at his watch and dug a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket. Linda stopped on the path next to the man.
"Do you have a light?"
Linda handed her cigarette lighter to the man.
"What's happened here?"
"Oh, some old woman again. Had some stroke. They're always having strokes. Then we drive like mad through town. And then they just talk nonsense for a little while and we give them an injection in the backside and bring them back. Do you want to know what I think about these strokes of theirs? I think that..."
The door of the building opened. Two white-clad figures carried something heavy out of the door. Linda took a couple of steps toward the bearers but stayed where she was when she realized that the stretchers would pass by her anyway. The bearers came close to her and she saw the figure lying there. Her thoughts stopped first on the flowered dress. After a little while Linda made out the face and hands. Nastya's lips were dead-white and she clutched convulsively at the edge of the stretcher.
"What?" Linda said and bent down to the level of the stretcher.
Someone grabbed Linda's arm and tried to pull her away.
"All right. The show's over! Break it up! There's nothing more to see here."
"What?" Linda said again.
Nastya's lips moved, but no words came out. Linda put her head down lower but she couldn't hear anything but faint wheezing. They picked up the stretcher again and started to move toward the back of the car. The last thing that Linda was aware of was Nastya's look as the doors closed.
* * *
Linda rang the bell. She waited a while and pressed the bell again.
"Open the door, please."
"Nastya, is that you?"
"Open the door, please."
"Oksana, is that you?"
"Open up, please. I'm your neighbor, from thirty-four. Please open up. I have something to tell you.'
Linda stood waiting behind the door. Once again time had become frozen. She tried to start it moving again by thinking that strictly speaking, she didn't even know Antonina Maximovna and Nastya and whatever might happen, it didn't actually affect her life. Nastya's face rose up out of the darkness. In her hand she was holding a tin can with a colorful red label on it.
"Antonina Maximovna will be pleased when she sees," Nastya said. "She has so few things left to be happy about."
The door opened a crack and Antonina Maximovna peeped out.
"Who are you?"
"I'm your neighbor, from thirty-four, on the floor above you. I have something to tell you."
"I can't talk with you. Nastya's coming soon. Come again a bit later."
Antonina Maximovna tried to close the door in front of Linda.
"Come again a bit later. Nastya's coming any minute now."
"Antonina Maximovna," Linda said. "Nastya's not coming back. They took her to the hospital. The doctor told me to give you this piece of paper. It's the name and telephone number of the hospital where you can find out more. There's no sense in calling any more today, they said, but tomorrow morning you can try, right after nine."
Linda held out the piece of paper toward Antonina Maximovna. She was startled and took a step backward.
"Where is Nastya?" Antonina Maximovna asked, staring at the piece of paper.
"Antonina Maximovna, you have to call this number tomorrow morning. Do you understand?"
"Where is Nastya?"
Antonina Maximovna had come out of the apartment into the corridor. She was wearing a nightgown and had red felt slipper on her feet. She glanced around anxiously.
Antonina Maximovna's voice trembled and finally collapsed into a falsetto. She started to go down the stairs, holding onto the banister.
Linda ran after Antonina Maximovna. She hadn't gone very far.
"Come on, let's go."
"What shall I do now? Antonina Maximovna stammered. "What shall I do?"
Antonina Maximovna had left the apartment door open. Linda went to close it. She took Antonina Maximovna by the arm and began to lead her. The skin was soft and limp under the thin cloth.
Natasha was sitting on the floor of the corridor in front of the door. When she saw Linda she stood up. Antonina Maximovna remained in the middle of the landing.
"Antonina Maximovna, come. It's only Natasha from the apartment next door. She's my friend."
"She'll probably come quite soon. Let's go inside to wait. Why are we standing here in the dark corridor anyway?"
"She won't find me here," Antonina Maximovna said and turned back toward the stairs. "I have to go home and wait for her."
"Of course she will," Linda answered and led Antonina Maximovna to the door. "I'm quite certain she'll find you."
Antonina Maximovna sat on a corner of the sofa and stared out of the window. Natasha sat on the floor next to Linda's feet. She had put her head down on Linda's lap.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"Ssshhh," Linda said, stroking Natasha's hair.
"I thought that it went somewhere alone and then it died. And that we wouldn't find it again. I was afraid that we'd never find it again."
"Of course we'll find it," Linda whispered. "We'll find it, I'm quite certain. It will come back. I'm quite certain it will come back. We just have to wait. We just have to be able to wait."
Antonina Maximovna had started to sing. Her voice was soft and trembling. Toward the highest notes it broke and disappeared, at times becoming almost inaudible. On Linda's lap, Natasha's hair was warm and soft and it smelled of dust and the sun. Linda leaned her head against the wall and listened.
* * *
So you did come back! I'd already given up hope. I thought you'd gotten bored of my company and had gone away altogether. No, no, I didn't mean that... Never mind. The most important thing is that you came back. It's so dark and quiet here and I couldn't have gone on sitting here alone much longer. What did you say? Now? Already? It's not all that late yet. Wait, I'll go pay for these drinks. It won't take long. Then I can take you home, so you don't have to walk alone.
Come, we can go along the lanes and across the yards to the river, and on from there to your lodgings. It's a somewhat longer route, but the river is so indescribably beautiful late in the evening. I'd like to show it to you. The sun's just set, but usually it leaves a pale glimmer of itself above the river, just like a promise that it hasn't forsaken us forever, but that a moment later it will come up again and rise above the roofs of this gray city.
Well, there it is, our gray giant. Isn't it strange how something so ugly can be so astonishingly beautiful? If you look past that muddy, green water, a little further off, almost by the other shore, first the river gradually turns pale blue, then silver and finally gold. Do you see now?
No, now you're mistaken. You're so sadly and fundamentally mistaken that I have to contradict you. Besides that, some time long ago I also thought in the same way, so I know that you must be mistaken. Let me explain:
Do you see that gray night sky and the mist that's stopped above the river, shimmering silver? Wasn't there something there a minute ago? For an instant, reality was transformed and stretched out its hand toward us. Admit it, you noticed it, too. Some indefinite feeling of awareness, a light, somehow different from what it usually is, a fragrance, perhaps? Then the instant escaped and everything was back to normal again.
The most important thing is to know how to wait. Then, when you've waited long enough, the instants don't escape any longer. They become small bright stars. The muddy water stops looking like mud, hatred vanishes into tired, white moments that are so light that they fly away like weightless downy blossoms. Time slows its pace and finally stops altogether. Until somewhere near three hundred fifty-nine degrees, just before the full circle snaps shut, you find a barely noticeable opening to crawl through--or at least, for the fraction of a second, to reach out toward that little crack in the eggshell of reality.
Translated from Finnish by A.D. Haun