English translation: Tuuve Aro & Donna M. Roberts
It’s inside the storage locker, diagonally above my head, un-opened, in a brown paper bag. I got it just before we left the mainland. On the street corner I stopped and slapped my forehead: “Potatoes! I forgot the potatoes!” Linus and Sam went on blabbering. I turned back and walked one block towards the supermarket, but then took a right turn and purchased the jar.
My tongue tastes like yesterday’s herrings. Sweat drips between my breasts, although a moment ago I was shivering cold. I listen to the water lapping against the boards, the constant chafing sound of the ropes. We’re floating in a peaceful creek, Linus and Sam asleep in the prow. Their breathing can be heard in turns: Linus’ long inhale, Sam’s lighter sniffle.
It’s dusky, the oil lamp hanging from the ceiling sways a little. The pans and ladles and metallic spatulas hang in a row on the cabin wall. Sam uses the brightest spatula as a mirror. He combs his hair fixated on arranging his blonde curls.
The storage locker has a small bronze latch that makes a sharp click when opened. I should do something about that. I could leave the latch open in the evening when taking out a fishing line or a float. But then the locker door would swing open and Linus could wake up.
I sit up, the bed creaks and I freeze. But the two familial slumberings continue. I squirm out of the hot sleeping bag and dangle my bare feet over the side of the bed.
As I slowly stand up, I lean on the draining board, which is spotless after Linus’ scrubbing. The cold metal feels good against my sweaty palm. I peek through the round window out at the sea, slightly darker than the September sky. Now I see the water’s edge, too, and the trees standing quietly on the island.
Sam turns in his bed and snorts. I prepare to lie back if he wakes, and pretend to be sleeping. I can’t handle his nightmares. He describes them in detail (to me, never to his father), and they don’t sound like the dreams of a child.
I calmly turn my head, then my body, like a programmed fembot. The floor creaks. Sam and I varnished the planks together, in the spring sun when I was feeling okay for a change. We sanded and polished the whole day; even Sam managed some elbow grease after being bribed with ice cream and soda.
The last step. I raise my hand onto the latch and put my finger through the hook. Should I cough to hide the click? If they wake up I can say I’m looking for tissues. “You know we don’t keep tissues there, are you running a fever? Why aren’t you wearing a jumper if you’re cold?” I decide not to cough.
Even sharper at night. Linus’ breathing pauses. I stand still with my arm raised in an unnatural position. For a moment it’s perfectly quiet, then his breathing continues. I open the locker door, it doesn’t creak as I’ve oiled its hinges. I push the roll of fishing tackle, the float and the sticky worm pot to one side (I know Linus wouldn’t touch them with a stick). The brown paper bag is in its place. I take it in my hand, rustling the paper a bit.
I sit on the bed and lift out the jar. Its smooth surface glints in the dusk. I grip the lid with my left hand and move to twist it. Saliva surges salty across my tongue. I study the jar closely. I weigh it, and can sense its content. I twist again without pressing the lid too hard.
I am now the master of the jar. It doesn’t open if I don’t want it to open. The thought makes me giggle, I cover my mouth with my arm and sit still for a while.
Another snort from Sam’s direction. But now there’s no alarm, I’m on top of the situation. The weight of the jar is familiar, it is shiny and unopened and mine.
Sam’s lying on his stomach with his legs spread and bum slightly raised. Blonde locks falling under his pillow. He’s kicked the duvet onto the floor, along with one sock, the other’s stuck on his toes. The green terrycloth hanging from his bare foot makes him look vulnerable.
Sam bursts into tears at the littlest of things. He’s obsessive with his clothes. I persuaded him to come see the Tall Ships’ Race with me; he wailed about his sneakers getting wet. I tried to teach him to read the nautical chart; he yawned. I managed to drag him onto this boat trip by threatening to toss away his favorite toy, Maja the rag-doll.
Linus agreed to come along only after long negotiations. Too many “bad experiences”. We talked about trust. I promised that this time there would only be good experiences. And if not, you can leave me. If you go with me just this once, you’ll see.
No computer games or other distracting apps on board; just Linus’ ancient phone for emergencies. In the end, I managed to get them almost excited about this Robinsonian concept.
I make the same moves in reverse, now twice as fast. Jar into bag, bag into locker, line and worm pot in front, locker shut, click, back to bed, sleeping bag zipped up. Suddenly Sam’s up, staring at me in the half-light.
“Mommy, I had a dream.”
I swallow. “That’s ok. Was it scary? Everything’s fine now, mommy’s here.”
“There was a steam boat with paddle wheels and you were the captain. You had long hair like before, and you were holding the rudder.”
“It was a good dream then?”
“You were steering but the boat wouldn’t obey and then it turned into a great big fish. It ate us all up. You didn’t do anything but lay still when the fish started to digest us in its stomach.”
I try to think of something to say. “Tomorrow we’ll sail to the Big Island and you get to steer, ok? Daddy can cook.”
“No, I will cook. Potatoes and salmon rolls. And I get to wear the apron with a big heart on it, and for dessert we’ll have bananas in fudge sauce.”
Sam’s voice has risen to its full high-pitched shrillness.
“Great”, I whisper. My head’s buzzing from exhaustion.
“…And I’ll set the table with real forks and spoons, not the plastic-ones, and serviettes with ladybugs on them, and I can make mash with loads of butter and I’ll wear the heart apron the whole day and won’t come up to the deck until we’re back on the mainland.”
“Quiet, Sam! You’ll wake up daddy.”
“He’s got earplugs. What were you doing with that jar?”
I look him in the eye. He doesn’t blink.
“It’s just an old jar you know, oil for the fishing gear”, I mutter. “So it doesn’t turn rusty.”
Even in the dark I can see Sam smiling. Little white teeth. He doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t have to.
I raise my hand, he startles. I stroke his head, and correct his pajama collar. I turn the boy around and nudge him gently towards his bed.
I can hear he’s not sleeping. He lies there silent as a mouse. I try to breathe normally, cold sweat running down my neck. It’s already light when I sink into a fitful dream.
“Daddy, let mommy sleep. I think she was up in the night.”
“What do you mean she was up, what was she doing?”
I keep my eyes shut. I can feel Sam standing next to my bed, watching me. With a clear voice he says: “Mommy just woke up to comfort me, because I had a bad dream.”
I sit up and look at him. “Well you seem better now. No bogeymen around?”
My son prances around in the cramped cabin, smacking his mouth contently. Linus is whisking eggs, the clacking hurts my ears.
“No bogeymen, no no…” Sam’s twittering. “Mommy oiled the fishing gear from a shiny jar. Well I’m not going to fish but stay in the cabin and eat as much liquorice as I want. And on the Big Island we’ll go to a restaurant. Mommy promised to pay.”
Linus gives me a look with raised eyebrows. “Did she now?”
“Didn’t you want to cook, Sam?” I try. “Those salmon rolls.”
“No! I want salmon in the restaurant.”
“Well doesn’t that sound nice”, Linus agrees. “Do we have proper clothes for the occasion?”
“Yes!” Sam shrieks. “I want to wear the new flowery hat, the one with yellow and red poppies! Mommy said I can wear it every single day if I want.”
He looks at me challengingly. I wipe my forehead. Linus keeps on whisking, his right arm moving rapidly clack clack clack clack. I notice a reddish eczema patch on his elbow, which gives me a quick hue of satisfaction.
“Whatever you say”, I reply with a forced smile.
Linus’ back’s trembling, along with the bow on his blue-striped apron and the broad lovehandles around his waist. The old stained T-shirt that used to be too big is now tightly covering his wiggling chubbiness. If I focused enough, maybe they would disappear: first the back with the bow, then the fatty ass, and finally the head and its green holiday cap.
And who’s wearing the beloved apron with a big red heart? Sam is. There he is posing with his father, humming something unmusical. My son looks like a girl with his blonde curls and the waist he inherited from Linus, not me.
I can tell the expression on my face isn’t motherly. Behind my eyes I feel the darkness creep in.
When I open my mouth, a strange voice says: “There’s nothing in the world like a good morning swim!”
I take off my sweaty night shirt. I hurry past them, and climb the metallic ladder up to the deck.
Why did I boast about swimming? The water looks freezing, as it would this time of year. The mere thought of going in makes my skin shiver. I stand in the morning wind and wish I could avoid it. But of course Sam’s curious head peeks up through the hatch.
I turn my back on him, secretly holding my nose, and jump. Before I hit the water I think about what this looks like: me holding my nose, legs awkwardly ahead of me, not at all what my father taught me. I think of the slimy seaweed clinging to my feet, the sharp rocks at the bottom and the awful stiffening coldness. How would I manage back up?
The water engulfs me. I keep my eyes shut, and feel the pressure in my ears. I return to the surface with a mouthful of salty water. My paddling feels like ineffective floundering. I know Sam’s watching.
“Like warm milk!” I shout. Small sharpened knives are tearing my skin. Coldness bolts my breath. I gasp and sputter while a cramp grips my calf. I swim with just my arm muscles, the few meters to a rock seem like kilometres.
I grab the rock but it’s hard to hold on to. I hang from its edge with my other hand pressed to my aching calf. I try to smile and wave to Sam. I can’t make out his expression.
“Will you get me a towel?”
Sam’s lingering as if wanting to irritate me, and then vanishes down to the cabin. I make an effort and manage to haul myself on top of the rock. The rough surface scratches my stomach. For a while I lie there helplessly, then Sam hollers: “Mommy what are you doing?”
“Exercising, can’t you see?” I start making swimming movements with my arms and legs. The rock grates into my skin. Sam stares at me. Finally, I manage to stand up. My stomach is burning red. Sam’s poking his nose with one hand, dangling my towel in the other.
“Would you throw it to me?”
I married a slouch, and my son is turning into one. I can imagine what my father would’ve said about them.
“Yes you can, it’s easy. Just a couple of meters. Roll it into a bundle and throw, mommy will catch it.”
Sam makes a lazy, half-baked motion. The towel flies straight into the water. I look on as the red fabric floats for a second and then sinks.
Suddenly I don’t feel the cold. I jump to the next rock, reach the stern steps and climb up to the deck.
Sam’s standing with a finger in his mouth and moves aside for me. I don’t speak.
I descend into the cabin, where Linus has set the breakfast table. Without looking at him I dash to the storage locker. The familiar click. Linus turns to me. I take out the jar and tear away the paper bag.
“Seize the day, said the former fisherman!” I articulate carefully.
I open the lid.
A wonderful tingling sensation. The stuff has remained cool in the locker.
I stand straight and look around. After a second the cabin remains still: the table, the seat, the cupboard and the old seaman’s chest, all in their proper place. My body’s filled with a kind of rounded warmth. My chest, stomach and thighs are no longer cold.
In the back of my head a small motor switches on. The weight on my heart is lifted. I smile at Linus and wipe back my hair, feeling beautiful. I look down, and yes, the red nipples of my bold breasts are hard as rocks.
“Now you’ve really gone and done it”, Linus utters, his seething voice barely distinguished from the background.
I take a piece of mettwurst from the table. The stripy apron is thrown onto the floor. The mettwurst is pocked with small white spots a perfect distance from one another. Linus disappears somewhere. I spread mustard on the sausage. “Now you’ve really gone and done it!” I mimic and laugh.
I’m a logical part of this glowingly warm cabin, and of the big white space outside. This day, too, has started. I sit in our own boat, it smells comfortingly of tar and salt, and the world feels orderly. There’s more than half left in the jar.
After an appropriate amount of time I stand up, put on my corduroys and a t-shirt, no bra. I peer through the hatch, but can’t see Linus or Sam.
“A-hoy there, where did you go? Are we playing hide and seek?”
With the jar in my hand I climb up to the deck. That was natty. I feel strong. Now I go find my family.
A beautiful island. So many shades of green and brown, it is autumn after all. I leap onto the ground, rustle through a pile of yellow birch leaves, and onto a sandy path. The sun strokes the back of my neck and I’m warm even in a t-shirt.
“A-hoy, where are you?”
No one can be seen.
The sea shimmers to my right. A couple of birds shoot out of the reeds. Grebes or what? Why isn’t Sammy here? I could tell him about birds. Mothers should do things like that if the fathers fail to. Enlighten them about the wonders of nature.
I reach the edge of a forest. If my family were here, we could sing together by a campfire. I would teach my son a song I learned in the Girl Scouts ages ago: the one about the old times of magic and battles ever so heroic.
The path in front of me narrows and the copse thickens. I push the branches aside. A squirrel dashes onto the path. It glances at me sideways, its nose twitching frantically. I crouch and offer my hand. “Hi there, are you stressed out, too?” The animal’s bright brown eyes monitor my every move, which suddenly makes me uncomfortable. I quickly straighten up and hurry on.
A sudden flash. What was that? Linus’ yellow T-shirt? I look ahead but see only thick trees. I start to run. It’s not easy on this rugged ground, but I’m moving my legs faster, dodging the whipping branches… Where are you?
My foot snags on a root or something, and I fly through the air. The path, with its black and brown twigs, swiftly approaches my face, and while I’m flying I think about my life and Linus and Sam, but most of all the fragile jar in my right hand. I raise my arm just as I hit the ground.
The jar is intact. There’s a cracking pain in my jaw and a nasty graze on my forehead, but the jar is intact.
I turn over and lie there for a while. The tall spruce-trees tower over me, and above them the clear blue sky.
What kind of a mother am I? I ask the jar as I enjoy its contents. A caring one, that’s what. I risk my neck for those two, and where’s the thank you? They run away like chickens, hide from me just when I need them the most. I’m a decent wife to a wimpy man, and an excellent mother to a sissy son.
I open my eyes to a darkening forest. There’s something sticky on my forehead: I touch it, and my fingers turn red.
I lift my head, which feels like it’s been run over by something enormous. My muscles are cold lead, and the whole world seems like a dusky pile of branches.
“Linus!” I try to yell, but nothing comes out.
I fumble for the jar. My hand reaches the smooth familiar surface: it’s empty.
A growing fear in my throat makes me choke.
The forest feels vengeful. The spruces lean over me, whispering I’m a wrong-doer and should disappear: maybe sink into a slough and rot, so the little red squirrels could nibble on me.
I stumble to my feet. Every step punishes my knee. I don’t have the will to dodge the branches lashing my face like sharp whips.
Linus, where are you?
But Linus doesn’t answer, nor does anyone else. I falter and sway. I fall a couple of times, and then I reach the edge of the woods and the shore.
The boat has gone.
I rub my sore eyes. I gasp and look again. There’s the big rock I sat on this morning. That’s where the towel sank. The yellow rustling leaves lie at my feet, and there’s the birch to which I tied the boat last night. The boat has gone, and so has my family.
I fall to my knees. I throw up a little.
A chill breeze shivers my skin. I raise my head: the gloaming sky seems immense and the steel grey sea endless. In every direction is just empty space, infinity.
I didn’t even know Linus could steer the sloop.
I walk the beach back and forth, trying to grasp my situation. I realize I’m parched.
Then I stop to breathe and make myself undress, although a chill crawls up my spine. I step into the water, fill my lungs with air and dive. This time I don’t hold my nose and I keep my eyes open. The water’s muddy, I see black and grey shapes, moving and immobile. A glinting shoal of fish darts past me as I push myself deeper.
I see it. The towel has descended to the bottom in a neat red square. I grab it and scoot back to the surface.
The last glimpse of sun has vanished behind a firm wall of clouds. I squeeze all the water I can out of the towel, and hang it on a branch. I get dressed and leave to find drinking water.
On the edge of the forest I kneel down by a small tussock of lingonberries and chew ravenously; hardly any juice in them.
The path leads me to the point where I fell. I pick up the jar, wondering when it last rained. After an unparalleled dry summer an early rainless autumn. My throat feels like asphalt.
I arrive at the opposite shore of the island: rugged rocks with pretty stripes, dark grey and almost pink. But no brook, nor spring. The notches in the rocks are dry, so is a promising looking triangular crevice.
The rising wind makes my thin top flutter. I try to blank out the malicious stirring in the trees.
Rocks, woods, more rocks. No water, except for the repulsive open sea. A distant light house licks the blackness with its yellow tongue.
I really have to watch where I step. Soon I’ll be back at my original starting point. Desperation tightens my chest. My tears are caused as much by fear as by the wind.
Something glimmers to my left. A runty trickle of water slithers down the grainy rock surface. I collapse and set my mouth against the trickle for at least a quarter of an hour. Then I remember the jar in my hand.
When it’s about half full, I straighten up. My limbs are stiff, it’s hard to walk. I hobble back to the boatless mooring.
This is the most sheltered spot on this godforsaken island. Steep ledges embrace the cove from both sides. I feel the red towel, it’s begun to dry thanks to the past afternoon warmth and the wind.
My teeth are chattering. I need a fire.
I feel about in my pockets: a square bulge on the left. Thank God. The box is flattened and contains only three sticks, but it’s enough.
I collect brushwood. The twigs are crackling dry, I pile them up orthodoxly in a sandy niche. I rip some bark from the birches and place the strips amongst the twigs, then light one of the matches and try to cover the flame with my body, but the wind blows it out.
I bend over the twig pile and light another. The flame catches the dry bark. When it reaches the leaves and thin branches, I blow it carefully, causing the fire to leap.
I hang the towel next to the fire. The flaming twigs crackle. I can feel my toes again, and I almost cry.
When the towel has dried, I wrap it around me tightly. It’s a big and thick beach towel, an ancient present from Linus. I lean against the rock wall, chewing lingonberries one by one. I must not fall asleep or else the fire goes out.
Darkness surrounds me. The only sound is the steady sighing of the sea, and then a distant foghorn. The rousing fire looks pretty, I poke it with a stick. A heavy weight presses my eyelids.
The boat is steady, the good old sloop. I’m holding the wheel and moving securely through the sea. It’s calm, the sun’s shining against Linus’ young face and I stretch myself to kiss him. Sam comes to us, holding a fishing rod. “Mommy look what I got!” He points at a barrel, I’m delighted that he has done something concrete. I peek inside it. A maggot. It’s thick and black and it starts to grow. It’s hot. Suffocatingly hot… The maggot slithers out of the barrel and I’m broiling in the sun, my feet burning.
I awake to a droning sound, heat surrounding my head and body. Why is the cabin so warm? I open my eyes: flames are rampaging across the grass and the leaves and the dry bed of reeds. They’re already licking the lowest branches of the birches.
I can’t move for a second. Then I pull my feet from the fire and start up. I make a helpless gesture with the jar, a drop of water doesn’t do a thing. I stand paralyzed with my back against the heated rock, but gradually start to inch towards the shore.
The fire’s humming, rattling, roaring, and my face feels as if it’s burning at even fifty meters away.
It can no longer be snuffed out.
With the empty jar in my hand I follow the line of the shore and the fire follows me. It has rapidly turned from a local combustion into a high wall of flaming columns. It dashes furiously into the forest, diving amongst the trees and destroying their crowns.
Feebly, I wade to a low rock in the beach water and sit down. I stay put for maybe an hour or two, watching the island before me dwindle away.
When the heat becomes intolerable, I paddle to the furthest rock. Now the whole island is one roaring mass. The forest can no longer be seen, just a few black sticks falling here and there, crisscross. I think about the animals: birds and voles and what not, the squirrel I met today.
I stay on the rock, the wind is high, foamy waves hit against my seat. I’ve been holding the jar in my hand this whole time. Why did you take me away from the homely warmth of the cabin?
Would Linus ever forgive me? Would he appreciate the fact that I wasn’t being quite myself? Actually, I’m a vigorous person, straight as a die. Most of all I’m a good mother. I’ve done everything I can to raise Sam to be an honest man. But it’s not always so easy. Circumstances tend to turn against me.
A noise behind me. A human voice cutting the air. I turn to look, and can’t believe it’s true: less than a hundred meters away sways a one-mast cutter with its sails down. The fire island has been an effective beacon in the darkness.
I stand up, waving. Someone on the deck with a red beanie waves back and shouts something, but the distance between us swallows the words. I guess he can’t come any closer because of the shallows. But there’s a dinghy behind the cutter, which the man starts to unfasten. The good man!
God that was close. I thought I was doomed. But no, I’m alive. That wonderful cutter will take me to safety. There will be a warm cabin, fresh water and a bite to eat. And then I will meet my family again. The bad things will be forgotten.
The light dinghy bobs in the surge. As I wait I take one last look at the scorched island. The fire has started to die down for the lack of sustenance. The forest once so green has turned into a grey gauze field.
Swallowing my tears, I look at the smoking ruins and then the jar in my hand. It’s your fault. In some sort of a symbolic gesture I throw it over my shoulder as hard as I can. Into the deep blue sea the jar will sink for eternity.
I hear a splash, and turn.
The dinghy has capsized, plunging the man into the water. Did the jar hit him on the head? He floats with his face down, and then starts to sink. His yellow raincoat bulges for a second, and then disappears under the water.
I stand on the rock, watching the dinghy recede rapidly with the waves. The cutter has vanished somewhere in the dark. Black water surrounds me like death.
I stumble down, wade into the water up to my waist, then reach the shore. All about me are heaps of burned branches, like skeletons billowing white smoke. I take one insecure step, and feel the ground jolt. Another step, another jolt. A crack appears on the ash-covered beach. It widens and grows before me, forming webs of smaller cracks around it. The ground is trembling. The remains of the trees collapse as if bowing down for one last prayer.
The ground opens up in deep harrowing gulleys, and from under me emanates a hollow moaning of destruction. The moaning intensifies into a deafening howl, as if the rusty axle of the earth were being wrenched in the wrong direction.
I think of Linus, Sam, and everything I once had, as the island lapses into the sea, and with it I lurch into a black abyss.
Tuuve Aro is a Finnish writer who lives and works in Helsinki. While Aro’s nine literary publications include two novels and two children’s books, she is best known for her short stories. Characterized by a distinctive black humour and often absurd twists, her work has been compared to Kafka and Cortázar. Aro has been touring with her work internationally, her stories are widely anthologized and have been translated into German, English, Swedish, Russian, Hungarian, Serbian, Romanian, and Bengali. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuuve_Aro
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