Viima, by Seita Parkkola: excerpts
Before I start my story, I want to show you a place. It’s a vacant lot and a factory. It doesn’t belong to anybody. Nobody owns it. Nobody takes care of it. It’s on the other side of the tracks, in the middle of a run-down section of wooden houses. It’s big, like a castle, and black, like an animal, or a mountain cave. I liked it as soon as I saw it.
The factory is empty, its windows and everything else in it are broken. Even before you go inside you can see that it’s dark in there, so dark that you’ll need a flashlight, or eyes like a rat’s. Standing at one side of the factory is the tower. It floats high above everything else, and you can see practically the whole town from up there. You can get to the top by feeling your way with your hands, but if you use a flashlight you’ll see that the walls of the tower are covered with painted pictures and messages. For a moment the place looks like it’s decorated with ancient cave paintings. I WAS HERE… I’LL BE BACK… TOMI & TITTA… DORMEZ-VOUS?… DON’T FALL ASLEEP… DON’T FALL… FINE, FALL THEN.
When we get to the top of the tower, I hand you a telescope. It’s an important thing. I got it from my mother on the same day that this story begins. Through the telescope you can see the harbor and my new school. You can see the house I live in, when I live at my dad’s house. It’s the middle skyscraper of the three. Doesn’t look like much, does it? You wouldn’t want to live there. I only live there half the time. Our apartment has four rooms and a kitchen. There’s a clothes closet, a covered balcony, and Saturday sauna nights in the basement. There’s a sign on the door that reads ‘Steele and Pitt’. Me and my Dad are Steele. Dad’s new wife is Pitt, Crystal Pitt. She’s skinny, even though she eats all the time. She sort of reminds me of one of those spiders that digs a hole and lurks in it waiting for its prey. And when it comes to adult things, she knows something about the rules of engagement. Pitt got to know my dad when she ate goulash in his restaurant on the first floor of the skyscraper. They fell in love. Pitt’s a school counselor. You know the ones–they take care of the kids who are having problems in school because they’re being bullied, or they’re bullying people themselves, or they’re sick, or they just moved there from someplace else, that sort of thing. The school counselor is the students’ friend. That’s the basic idea. Crystal Pitt was the counselor in the school where I got my last chance. You may have guessed how that happened. She arranged for me to go to school there. Thanks to Pitt, I got one more chance. She told my dad about the school. She talked about it very persuasively. She said the school was experimenting with new child-friendly methods, and that they might work on me.
Crystal Pitt thinks she knows all about boys. She can imagine what she wants, but the truth is that she doesn’t know anything about boys. Her own kid is a girl. She’s named Mona and she’s in the eighth grade. The first time I saw Mona she was standing in front of a mirror combing her long, black hair, and she called me “little brother”.
“You look like a prince, little brother,” she said, and she asked if she could put eyeliner on me. She had one of those pencils that girls use to draw on their faces. She wanted to put my eye out. That’s what I think.
Mona has a white face and listens to gloomy music. One look at Mona and you expect blood to spurt out of her mouth at any minute. She looks like a vampire. She calls a lot of boys princes. Especially if she wants to poke their eyes out. She has the names of all of these princes on her pencil bag and on her arm. She calls them tattoos, but they’re just drawn with a marker.
When you look out from the tower, you can see the center of town. That’s where my mom lives. That’s where I live, when I’m staying at my mom’s house. You can see the tower from her window, too. You can see the tower from almost everywhere in town, just like you can see the whole town from the tower.
Now that you’ve seen all this, we can come down from the tower and run across the courtyard.
Now I’ll begin.
This is the first day.
It starts here.
* * *
“Viima’s not as lucky as all of you,” the teacher said. “Viima has two homes. He’s had problems, but now he wants to do better. And we’re going to help him. Aren’t we, class?”
Twenty-six pairs of eyes stared at me without blinking, and nodded.
“Just to be safe,” she said, “Keep your desks locked for now, and keep an eye on your bags. Viima is just setting out on this road, and the situation could cause him to stumble into crime.”
I stared at the floor, my cheeks burning red.
“Can he keep his hair like that?” somebody from the back row asked. “Isn’t it against the rules?”
“That’s a valid question,” the teacher said. “Viima’s hair is untidy, but we’re not going to make him do anything he doesn’t want to do. He will no doubt cut it after he’s been here among better influences for a while. He’ll see for himself soon enough how ridiculous it looks. We’ll give him time.”
Then she squeezed my shoulder and steered me toward the boy who had just spoken.
“This is Wille,” she said. “Wille will be your chaperone here, a best friend chosen for you by the school. Stand up, Wille, and say hello.”
Wille got up. He stood up straight like a soldier. We looked at each other. His icy-grey eyes flashed. He didn’t like me.
Just then we were interrupted by a knock on the door and Assistant Rector Roope’s head appeared between the door and the doorjamb.
“The Rector wants a word with you,” he said, beckoning the teacher to come with him. She ordered the class to wait for her and disappeared into the hallway.
I was left alone, on display, and I was expecting things to get out of hand, like they always had in these kinds of situations at my other schools. But nobody started acting up. They all looked at me and waited. I looked back. I was trying to stare at them as long as I could without blinking. It’s something you can get good at with practice. I was holding my breath, too.
You could hear the steady murmur of the rector’s voice in the corridor.
There was a completely lifeless feeling in the room. Like we were playing the staring game to the death. Finally I had to blink.
“He flinched,” the boy next to Wille said. He didn’t say it to me. He said it to
Wille and the rest of the class. “This guy will never make it through the year. Believe me, this is going to be fun.”
My best friend nodded. And laughed.
Then the door opened again and the teacher stepped back into the room. She grabbed me by the shoulder.
“Go put your things in your desk,” she said, and pointed me to an empty place next to the window.
“Is he going to sit in India’s place?” a girl in the front row blurted. Then she put her hands over her mouth.
The teacher scowled.
“There is no more India,” she said.
“But…” the girl began, and the teacher raised her hand for silence.
“This matter will not be discussed,” she said, and opened her geography book. “We will now move on to a discussion of life in Germany. Open your books to page twenty-five: Industry.”
* * *
The morning was uneventful. After a couple of hours it was lunchtime. We had lunch in the classroom. We sat at our desks with napkins on our laps and stared at the blackboard as the teacher wrote the words tikka masala. That was the name of the food that was piled on our plates, at least according to the teacher. “An exotic dish,” she said, although it was actually just rice. I told the teacher that, and she answered by drawing an arching line on the board.
“Gallows hill,” she said, and looked at me. “Who wants to tell Viima? Santeri!”
A boy behind Wille spoke.
“Gallows hill,” he began, “The idea comes from the game Hangman, where there’s one person who’s it and the rest make guesses. Whenever they guess wrong, the hangman grows a little bit. The first person to be hanged loses.”
I knew the game, of course. The one who’s ‘it’ writes a blank for each letter of a word. They use long, complicated words like monogram or kaleidoscope, and whenever somebody guesses the wrong letter, another mark is added to the hangman. Everyone guessing has their own drawing, and the loser is the first person with a rope hanging from their gallows.
“What happens when you lose?” I asked.
”Tell Viima, Anton,” the teacher said, turning to another boy in the class.
“Then you’re punished,” Anton said.
“But what’s the punishment?”
“A practical one.”
The teacher raised her arms like an someone making a speech at a rally.
“Examples, children, examples. Tell him.”
“Painting,” someone said.
“Cleaning,” said another.
“Demolition,” said a third.
“Building,” said the fourth.
The teacher nodded.
“Work that you do for the school, after class,” she said. Then she told us to to get back to eating our lunches.
I stared at my gallows hill, empty for now, with my mouth full of rice, and wondered how long they could tear things down and build them again before the year was over and I was in seventh grade. What would happen if I refused to do the practical punishment? Would I fall into a hole that had at the bottom, not a sea monster, but a colony of children who had dropped out of the game for good? But then I remembered that I had decided to stay. There were other drawings on the board besides mine. Some of them were just hills and some were hills with the beginnings of gallows on them. Some of them had flowers. A name was written under each one. Santeri’s hill already had a couple of support beams. In one corner of the board there was a pile of gallows that all had ropes dangling from them. That spot looked very much like a scene from a massacre.
Under every one of them was written the name…
“India,” Santeri said, before I had time to ask.
I leaned closer.
“So India got a lot of punishments?”
The boys looked at each other. Anton looked quickly toward the teacher.
“The most impossible kid of all time,” they whispered.
* * *
And then, suddenly, there it was in front of me.
The empty factory.
The place that changed my life.
The story could begin from this moment.
Here’s what it looked like. It was big and complicated. It was like the body of a horrible, prehistoric lizard. Or a wounded monster. Its towers were like horns and its windows were like the pecked-out eyes of some big animal. Low out-buildings leaned against either side of the factory. The place looked like it could take off on wings at any moment.
“Wow,” I said out loud.
When I stepped closer, a rock slipped out from under my foot and rolled down the railroad embankment. Instantly, a huge flock of some kind of black birds flew up from the courtyard. On one corner of the factory you could see the remains of a fire. Or maybe there had been some kind of explosion, because it looked like stuff had been thrown here and there. There was a charred wall, gaping, slanting pillars, torn open barrels, and pieces of the building, plus an incredible amount of broken glass.
I jumped down from the embankment into the courtyard and bounded past old scraps of cars, toward the building. On the tracks behind me another train clattered toward the harbour.
I slipped inside and clicked on my flashlight. I never go anywhere without my flashlight. And my machete. Well, not really a machete, just an ordinary pocket knife.
There was something written on the wall… I stepped closer…
That’s what it said, in a really amazing style. You could have used the letters for skateboard ramps. You could have climbed up them and thrown yourself from the top of each one. The painting was bright red, orange, blue, and white. Later on I learned that red is never just red–it’s red ochre or alizarin crimson. And yellow is Naples or bile or cobalt yellow, and white is titanium, lead, or French white. I also found out that asbestine and aurum mussivum are colors, and that it makes a big difference what colors you choose. But the painting was excellent and I intended to remember it, along with all the other details of the place. I would have liked to paint something like that on my wall.
I pushed onward from the doorway and got a whiff of the place. The painting smelled like fresh paint, but inside I met a wave of all kinds of worse smells, like wet plywood, lumber, metal, rust, grain, mysterious strange-colored stuff, and too much of all of it. I let the beam from the flashlight move across the walls.
From the corners of the room, I heard noises, all kinds of noises. Squeaks. Splashing, dripping, and trickling water. The moaning of the wind through the sheet metal walls. The patter of rats, birds, and bats. I aimed my flashlight into the corners one by one and found piles of all kinds of stuff. Other than that the place was empty. The tall windows had been boarded up at some point, but the planks had come loose here and there.
And then I heard a sound. That sound. A sound that was quite familiar.
It was a rumble. A kind of rumble.
Then there was another rumble. Then another.
I quickly turned off my flashlight.
My heart was pounding, of course, and my blood froze. All the little hairs on my body stood on end. I listened to the sound with every nerve tensed. I was terrified. I grabbed the handle of my pocket knife. The knife was just a scare tactic, of course. I could never hurt anyone.
When it started to feel like not just me but the whole place was listening, and that I could stand there for the next ten or twenty years, somebody shouted and broke the silence. The first thing I thought of was hungry ghosts, and although I don’t believe in ghosts, I was starting to feel stupidly afraid. But I still didn’t turn and run. To tell the truth both alternatives seemed just as good, or bad, at that moment, but it was easiest to stay put.
“Who’s there?” I yelled. I was trying to use a threatening, booming tone, but my voice cracked in a high squeak. I sounded like a scared kid who would be easy to frighten, and even easier to swallow.
When I didn’t hear any answer, I decided to investigate. I crept deeper into the darkness. The first room was followed by a second, and then a third. The floor under my feet felt unreliable. I groped my way forward and found a hallway. There was a light at the end of it.
I continued haltingly, and when I got to the end of the hall I was in a room that wasn’t as dark as the others. But it wasn’t bright either. It was maybe more like a hall or auditorium than a room. Rugged, crumbling columns stretched up toward the ceiling here and there. The boards had been taken off the windows, and the light pushed into the room through the glass and through cracks and splits in the walls. Rain had come in through leaks in the walls and ceiling and formed a huge pool on the floor. Spray-paint cans floated in the puddle like vacationers relaxing in a hotel swimming pool. The water was yellow and poisonous-looking.
I wasn’t alone in the room.
There was a boy at work there.
He was doing something familiar. He was building a ramp. He had piled up quite a tall stack of junk, and now he was rolling a barrel over to add to it. When the barrel was in place, he tugged a big crate onto the pile. Then he ran and got his skateboard, put one foot on it, and pushed off.
He started to practice.
I stepped closer, into the shadow of a pillar. I stood there with a dred between my teeth. I have the stupid habit of chewing on my hair. I eat the cuffs of my shirts and coats, too, and anything else that’s hanging loose.
When he took off into the air, suffice to say I bit my tongue and nearly choked on it. He was good.
He was really good.
I watched him doing jumps for a while, but pretty soon I got impatient and I got the nerve to step forward. The floor creaked underneath me, of course. If you haven’t noticed, floors, stairs and doors creak in these kinds of situations.
He noticed me now. He kicked his skateboard into his hand and waited for me to come closer. I went.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
“I was wondering how long you’d spy on me,” he said.
I bit my upper lip with surprise. He had known I was there. He had noticed me a long time ago. Maybe he’d known about me since I first set foot in the factory and groped through the dark to watch him at work.
“Can I try?” I asked, and pointed at his skateboard.
It was kind of blunt and rude, but to tell you the truth I could already see myself in the air, doing all kinds of stunts and I couldn’t wait any longer. There was this vibration inside me the whole time, like somebody was playing some unrecognizable instrument. I was longing to have a board under me again, with every darned cell of my body.
The boy looked at his skateboard with his brow furrowed like somebody thinking deeply about cause and effect, or who knows what. He was copper-colored, with tangled hair, and he looked a little bit like Mowgli, the jungle boy in that cartoon. But pretty soon he smiled and handed me the skateboard.
“Go ahead,” he said. “You want me to show you how? It kind of like…”
“I know how to do it,” I interrupted, and grabbed the board confidently.
I dropped it on the ground and jumped on. Then I headed toward the ramp.
He stayed where he was, behind me.
When I tried the ramp, I fell. I may have cussed a little, but then I tried it again. Actually I tried to jump a lot of times before I had any luck at all. It was as if he’d put a spell on the ramp. I couldn’t even do the tricks that I can usually do when I’m just messing around.
But he didn’t laugh at me. He just looked at me, with his hair hanging in his eyes.
I was flying all over the place.
“I don’t get it,” I said, angry. “I’m actually not this pathetic.”
“That’s what everybody says,” he said, and took the board from me. “It’s hard to do if you’re scared.”
I was starting to get really annoyed now.
“I’m not scared,” I growled.
He shrugged his shoulders and then he did a jump, and made it look easy.
I swallowed and grabbed the board from him again. When I took off from the ramp, he whistled, and I fell. It’s no big deal that I fell on my belly in that poison yellow puddle of water, no big deal that I hurt myself, but I got angry anyway and got it in my head to do something that I shouldn’t have done.
I broke his skateboard.
I jumped onto it and it broke. As easy as breaking a little splinter. Or a rye crisp. I didn’t mean to do it. It’d be funny, somehow, to say that it was an accident.
He didn’t think it was an accident.
“Stop! Don’t!” he yelled, and lunged at the board. He clutched the two pieces in his arms.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said.
I hung my head.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You have to leave,” he said, straightening up.
“Really. I didn’t… I’ll make it up to you.”
“Get out,” he said again, and ran off into the shadows. Pretty soon I couldn’t hear his steps anymore.
“Wait,” I yelled, and ran after him. He was moving away from me sure-footedly, like he’d been born in this wet, dirty factory. He obviously knew the place well. It was hard to keep up with him.
“Hey, wait!” I yelled.
I wanted to fix things somehow. A thousand ideas were spinning in my head like a quick-cut music video. Not one of them was any good.
“Who are you, anyway?” I yelled. “Who are you?”
He didn’t answer.
When we got to the courtyard, it was already dark. I thought about how darkness would look if it wasn’t just darkness, but was a tangible thing. I didn’t want to think about the ruined skateboard, but I thought about it anyway. He was still holding it in his arms. Then suddenly he just shoved it at me.
“You can have this,” he said.
He glanced over his shoulder toward a tangle of bushes growing on the edge of the lot.
“You need it,” he said. “Don’t lose it! Don’t show it to anyone. I’m going now.”
“Hey! You… boy… wait!” I yelled after him. “What’s your name?”
Then he turned around.
He looked at me for a long time with his head to one side, then he laughed.
“You think I’m a boy? You must be blind.”
Then he just pushed the hair away from his face and wiped his muddy cheek with his sleeve, which only made it dirtier. I squinted, and then something happened; he started to look like a girl. Not any kind of girl I’d ever met before. Not like the girls at school, and definitely not like the girls at Second Chance. But a girl, anyway.
Before I had a chance to think, a train roared past. I looked up at it, because that’s what I always do, and then I turned right back around to look at the girl again.
She had disappeared.
* * *
Wille had his nose in the map of the school storage room, checking the marks carved into the end of each shelf as he went along. After the sixth or seventh turn, he found the one he was looking for. He ordered me to climb the ladder to the very top shelf and get the boxes numbered 505XY and 601KB.
They weren’t very heavy.
“What’s in these?” I asked as we put them in the cart.
“None of our business,” he answered.
When we had started walking again, a surprising thing happened.
Just as Wille was disappearing around a corner, there was a short circuit or who knows what, and the lights went out. I was in complete darkness. It was weird in that school, where it was never dark. I wondered if they’d gone out in the whole building. I tried to feel my way in the direction that Wille had gone. I called for him and when I didn’t hear an answer, I stumbled onward. The darkness around me was the kind of total, greedy darkness that eats sounds, the kind you can’t adjust to. That kind of darkness can’t be tolerated indefinitely. Not at Second Chance School, at least, which is always filled with light. I continued onward between the shelves, and I wasn’t sure any more whether I was headed back, or deeper into the bottomless depths of the storeroom.
I yelled for Wille again.
“Wille!” I yelled. He didn’t answer. He didn’t answer, because he couldn’t hear me. And I couldn’t hear him. My shout drowned amid all those boxes. There was no echo. It was like yelling into velvet.
When I came to a corner, I turned it, when I came to stairs, I climbed them, when I came to an obstacle, I went around it. I knew, of course, that if you’re lost, in the woods or something, you have to figure out where you are first, before you go forward. A person who’s lost can go in circles and waste all their energy trying to find their way. But in spite of that I kept walking, because I also knew that you can die in the snow, if you stop, and fall asleep.
Then the floor fell out from under me and I fell. There was suddenly nothing but empty space, and some hard objects that I was falling against, but I couldn’t see them. When I finally came to a stop, I lay where I was. I was afraid to move at first, and when I finally dared to, I hurt all over. I was at least bruised, and it felt like I might be broken to bits.
I tried to figure out where I was, and by feeling around on the floor I found some stairs. Then a wall at the top of the stairs, and finally, an open doorway.
I listened to the darkness. It sounded like breathing.
I want you to remember what I just said… the first thing I called it was breathing. That was my first thought, the first image in my mind. There was someone down there, breathing. That’s what I was thinking. It was only later, when the lights came back on, that I thought about air-conditioning, ducts, and plain, ordinary things like that. It’s what I was thinking as I stood there in the dark, injured and lost. It was the dark’s fault, just like when you’re in the dark and you start to think there’s someone under your bed, and someone in the closet, too. The dark makes the familiar things in a room unidentifiable. It makes the world a colorless shadow. When the lights finally came back on, I understood that what I heard was just the air-conditioning. I stopped thinking about breathing.
But I won’t talk about it any more.
Let’s stay in the dark for a minute.
I had fallen into some kind of open space. The room was as cold as a refrigerator, and I broke out in goose-bumps.
I called for Wille. The echo of my voice spread out into the darkness like a frightened shadow. Between the echoes, I heard a faint rustling… sort of like a creaking sound, or like footsteps. My first thought was that Wille might be down there, too, maybe injured. I thought he might have fallen down the same stairs, that the boxes might have fallen on him. It seemed possible, even likely, since he had been walking in front of me. Although I didn’t like him, I was afraid that he might be somewhere nearby, hurt.
I felt the floor in front of me with my toes. It hurt every time I moved.
“Wille, are you here? Did you fall, too?”
Then the lights suddenly came on again. At first they sputtered for a moment, flickering on and off, but finally they lit up the whole place.
Everything changed all at once. In the darkness, I had imagined that I’d fallen into some kind of underground dungeon, but I was wrong. The room wasn’t dirty, and it didn’t look like a cell or a cave. It was a large hall, and it looked like a sterile operating room that I saw once on a field trip to the hospital downtown. Shiny blue and white tiles covered the floor and the walls. The lights revealed every nook and cranny of the place.
There was a bed in the middle of the room, a kind of table, covered in green sheets. The walls were lined with glass cases.
I walked cautiously toward them like I was walking on very thin ice or glass that couldn’t carry my weight. I knew there was something waiting for me there.
And there was. But what I saw surprised me.
There was a face under the glass. There was a little boy, staring at me with unblinking eyes as if he had fallen asleep suddenly in the middle of a game. Something about his expression made me almost expect him to open his mouth and start to talk or sing.
I went over to the second case, and then the third. I was gasping for breath, but I kept going. The fourth, fifth, and sixth case. There were dozens of them in the room, with more faces under all of them, more children, and then…
My heart fluttered anxiously. Under the next glass there was a face that I knew. It was Wille.
I sobbed out loud, and the floor started to pitch under my feet. It was almost as if I’d been thrown into a storm and I was seasick. I felt like I wanted to throw up over the railing. But I made myself open my eyes and look more closely at him. He stared at me with startlingly lifelike eyes. But when the first shock had passed, I realized that he wasn’t alive. He was just a doll, and so were the others. He had no arms or legs. He just had a face.
I looked at him closely. His face was strange and familiar at the same time. There was something there that I didn’t recognize.
“So you found them,” a familiar voice said from behind me.
I swung around.
“Wille!” I said. He was standing behind me. He stared at the face in the glass case with an indecipherable expression.
“What are they?” I whispered.
“They’re death masks,” he said.
“Death masks,” I gasped.
“They make one of every student in the school. This is a very impressive gallery.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
“Why death masks? You’re not…” I swallowed the word dead.
Wille shook his head.
“They’re just portraits,” he said. “It’s an old tradition. Did you know that you can tell all kinds of things from the shape of a person’s head? You can tell if a child has anything criminal about him, or if he’s a genius. Come on! I’ll show you.”
He snatched up my arm and steered me along the row of glass cases. I was looking at kids I knew now. Some of them were in my class.
“That’s our team,” he said when we got to the back of the room.
I peeked into the case and sure enough, there under the glass was every player on the team. The entire student body was there, except for me and a few other marked students.
“Am I supposed to see this?”
Wille stared blankly at the goalkeeper’s face.
“Maybe they want you to see it. It’ll be your turn soon,” he said. “See that?”
He pointed to a sign under Santeri’s case.
“What does it say?” he asked.
“Liberation ceremony, fifteenth of April,” I said.
“It was last year,” he said. “You should have seen Santeri before that. He was hopeless. But now…”
I took a step back.
“I don’t think I want to,” I said.
“Don’t you want to get your mark lifted?”
I stared at Santeri under the glass. I wasn’t sure.
“Does it hurt?”
“Nah,” he said. “You don’t feel anything. It’s like… Like a dream. If you don’t do it you won’t get your mark lifted and you can’t be on the team.”
I looked again at the face under the glass and thought that it was as if he were under water. Every face amazed me, and scared me, too. There was something more there than in the kids at the school, or there was something missing in them that I saw in the masks.
“This is the procedure,” Ville said, pointing at some posters on the wall.
They showed step by step how there was a plaster cast made of the child’s face, then a mold was made, and wax was poured into it. Then the finished product was touched up and placed in a case.
“Who does this?” I asked, and my voice was hardly more than a whisper.
Translated by Lola Rogers