The Phantoms of Power (extract)

Anna Heinämaa


2. The Father

At this point I have to say a word or two about my father. He stuttered. What caused the troublesome affliction--that was never properly explained to me. Sometimes Mother spoke about a weakness of character, sometimes about a childhood trauma and sometimes about an inherent structural abnormality. Just like the explanations, Mother's attitude to the problem changed constantly. That was understandable, of course, because the cures for weaknesses of character, childhood traumas and inherent structural abnormalities differ noticeably from each other and my mother's sincere aim was to cure the affliction.

Whether it derived from the actual nature of the affliction or from my mother's changing attitude--the only thing that was certain was that the affliction didn't disappear, but seemed to worsen from year to year. I remember the excitement, mixed with fear, with which I and Jonna waited for Father's return from work: is he stuttering today or not? We developed that waiting to such a great perfection that at last we were able to predict the stuttering from Father's footsteps and from the way he opened the outer door.

Since verbally my father shrank and vanished, or broke apart like a shattered mirror, my memories of him are all somehow dreamlike: Father with a fishing rod in his hand, a tall man, slightly round-shouldered, with his back turned toward me under his flannel shirt; Father fitting a curved iron lock onto a wooden box at the kitchen table. On the table there are tiny nails (do such small ones exist?), sawdust and Father's open pack of cigarettes.

(In the kitchen, the Father pounds a nail into its place, smooths the wood with sand paper.)

Can I look at it?

(The Father hands the box to her across the table.)

It's really nice...(murmurs softly) Will he stutter?

Of course it isn't as fine as the ones in the store.

(whispers to herself with relief) He isn't stuttering. (louder) I think it's much nicer.

(She hands the box back to the Father.)

Since it's so long since that time, it's hard for me to describe my attitude toward my father's stuttering with complete honesty. It might be that I'm lying--you know how we all beautify past events and feelings, get nostalgic about them and finally water them down--but at the moment it seems to me that the stuttering itself didn't disturb me as much as the changing attitude toward it. Because of that variation my father changed into some sort of a chameleon, that was sometimes a lovable pale yellow, sometimes a nasty dark blue and sometimes a pathetic grey. It was as though I didn't have one father but an endless number of fathers; I could never be sure which one of them would greet me from behind the morning paper or meet me in the doorway of the bathroom.

Because of that hysterical variation--ironic in itself, because ultimately there were only two alternatives: stutter or else don't--I never learned to know my father properly. Father shrank through Mother's despair--or pity or bitterness--like the world seen through a magnifying glass, turned upside down. It was as though he no longer existed, there was only that endless spectrum of feelings which none of us could get any sort of grasp on--not me, or Jonna, or Mother or Father himself. The whole family was floating there as though drowning in jelly, which finally swallowed us all, so that there were no longer separate human beings, there was only jelly.

At later stages in my life I have sometimes asked myself what form my life would have taken if the nature of the stuttering had been explained. The question is of course completely theoretical because at no stage was the essential thing the true nature of the stuttering, but the end of the stuttering.

But let's suppose--merely for the sake of curiosity--that God, or for the lack of anything better, one of his angels, had appeared one fine Sunday afternoon in the middle of our living room. Let's pretend--just for a moment-- that it's as easy to believe in God, the angels and innocense as in despair, bitterness and causal reality.

Thus: one fine Sunday afternoon an angel appears in our living room:

(music starts in the back ground)

On the angel's wings you can see thin red blood vessels. There are no feathers on the wings--they are wrinkled and creased, like the ears of a newborn mouse. The angel has folded his leather wings like a cloak and seated himself on the window sill.

(The living room.)

(bursts into loud laughter) Ho, ho! (starts to laugh again) Ho, ho! (surpresses a new outburst of laughter by pressing his hands over his stomach)

(in a voice mingled with tears) Why are you laughing at other people's sorrow?

Wh-wh-wh-wh... (unable to finish his statement because of his stuttering)

Who am I? I'm a messenger. I am a conveyer or words somewhat as you are an obstructor of words. (starts to laugh again)

What right do you have to laugh at other's sorrow?

There's nothing wrong with laughing.

The angel lights one of Father's cigarettes. He blows blue smoke rings into the air, larger an larger ones all the time. The rings don't rise up and dissolve into nothingness, but descend to the floor and remain there, swaying at the edge of the carpet.

Then the agel tells us what the reason for Father's stuttering is. He says it indifferently and ordinarily, as though he was only stating that the world is round or that angels don't exist. Finally he spits onto the window sill and stumps his burned-out cigarette in the spit. Mother tries again to say something, but in her confusion, she can't get any sound out, she just gasps like an astonished fish.

But don't think that it changes anything.

Then the angel is gone, just as unexpectedly as he appeared. The only thing left from the angel is a little smoke--and the sweet smell of sweat from the warm folds of his leaher wings...

All right--we can stop pretending: no angel even visited our home. In a way, it seems to me that it's better like that. It would have been difficult for our family to break out of the familiar world of stuttering--granted that each one of us vowed fervently, with desperate tears in their eyes, that if only that small matter would change, then life would be happier, better and fuller in so many respects. But--permit me to ask--if the angel had visited our family, then what of who could we have blamed for the ugliness, shortage of money, bitterness, my obesity and Jonna's lack of musical talent? Or if all those misfortunes had disappeared along with the angel's visit--which is really improbable--then what would we have filled our lives with?

Thus: it's better that the leather-winged angel never made it to our home.

Translated from Finnish by A.D. Haun
© Anna Heinämaa 2008