Friday, September 10, 2010

Independence by Seija Kerttula


© Seija Kerttula

I hopped happily on the long quay, towards the water. I had a pair of shiny new shoes on and the water looked black. It was not a lake but a deep natural pond, surrounded by marshy land. On the edge I stopped, but kept hopping. Suddenly one of my shoes flung to the water. I watched after it, shocked. Without thinking I jumped.

I sank deep down in the cold pond, not feeling the bottom. The unexpected change of element was baffling and left no time for fear. Still while falling I knew I might die. I could see the sun rays above the green water covering me become more and more distant. I remembered being told that ponds have no bottoms; they just go on and on. Unexpectedly, a recollection of what my father had once said entered my mind: ”If you are under water and curl yourself into a ball, you’ll move up to the surface.” I did so and it worked, I started rising towards the surface. I was relieved but not surprised; the successful application of the theory merely verified it to be a law of nature. I could see the brownish roots of the grass coming out of the edge soil and with some effort managed to grasp them. Finally I got my head through the surface. Between the wet hair plastered at my face I could see and hear my little brother run away crying that I was drowning. I had already struggled myself to the ground when my mother came hurrying. I said, choking: ”I did not drown, after all.”

We walked a couple of kilometres to our home. The sun was shining. My hair and clothes were dripping and I only had one shoe on. Butterflies flew around us playfully, grasshoppers made hot-summer noise. We passed a pile of rusted old bars of iron near one of our strawberry places. It was one of the exotic spots in our kingdom, which was nearly isolated from the rest of the world. We reached our small house on the top of the hill, in the middle of woods.

This was the year of my first disillusions. Facing a potential death was not one of them. It belonged to the drowsy childhood fairytale in which you never question anything, not one thing in life. A child’s life is intact, whole and perfect, without wants and desires others than those for basic needs: food, sleep and warmth. If there is the minimum of love, you never notice anything is lacking.

Later in the summer something else happened. I was awoken by noises in the middle of a night. I opened the bedroom door, but could only discern some figures in the dark. There was a fight in the porch. Some men attacked my father. My mother threw liquid from a pail on them. Then she pulled me in and closed the door.

It was only later that I learned what had taken place (or how my father told me it to have taken place). My father, who was a devoted Socialist, had distributed Communist newspapers to people in the villages around, also in the border area, near which we lived. This irritated rightist border guards and some neighbours. When my father left a nearby small village with a moped heading home along a forest road, some neighbour called the police telling that he was drunk-driving. Unfortunately he later asked some friends to visit him in the evening and had home-made beer with them. When the policemen came to arrest him, he had alcohol in his blood. And what worse, he fought back. While the policemen tried to capture him, his artificial arm flew out of the window. This was mentioned in a newspaper clipping my father saved as a memory of the occurrence. He also used to tell this story, like other important events in his life, many times. I massaged his amputated arm and he continued talking. When the massaging ended, he stopped telling, so I had to go on to hear the rest. Sometimes he told fairy-tales too.

After the incident with the policemen, my father was arrested for some days. Although he was formally accused of driving drunken, he was interrogated for delivering Communist propaganda to neighbours.

Some days later he returned home and our life went on as usual. Or so I thought.

In the same summer, a girl named Birgitta and her parents had come to visit us in our apparently meagre paradise. It was a rare event since I had hardly ever seen other children except my little brother who was four years old at the time and most of the time absorbed in his inner world. While the parents were having coffee inside, Birgitta and I went out and my little brother followed us. I had no idea how girls were supposed to play together, so I made no initiative of that sort and neither did Birgitta. Instead, she started boasting that she was attending the first class as a listening pupil, because her mother worked as a cook in the school. She also showed off her skill of counting from one to ten in an abbreviated way and very fast. It all sounded very intriguing to me: that she could do something I could not; that there was a world out there, full of mysterious knowledge. If she could access it, I might as well. When I think of it now, it seems absurd that the first trace of this world reached me through Birgitta. I had no idea for what purpose she or I could use the skill of counting from one to ten. But from then on I wanted to go to school.

And so, at the age of six, I managed to change my life twice. First I saved myself from drowning. My mother or my little brother might not have been able to save me, she was too far and nearly blind and he too small. Secondly, I got the idea of going to school earlier than scheduled. My mother said why not, you could try if they take you.

Before the autumn the school moved farther away. The children were to be taken to the new place with a school taxi. On the first school-day I walked with my mother to the crossing-road where the taxi would come. The taxi-driver was not very pleased, when my mother stopped his car, but she said: “She wants to go to the school. Take her.” Already then I realised our differences; her being what I regarded as pushy and insensitive; my being shy and far too sensitive to people's reactions, seeing all their hidden expressions and meanings. At school I was turned down and told that I needed a doctor’s certificate if I wanted to go to school earlier than scheduled. The taxi-driver took me back. I cried all evening for not getting to school. My mother could do nothing but to take me to a doctor, who gave the certificate, and I started the school.

I soon learned to hate the taxi trips. We were many children in the small cab and there was no place to sit for all. I was unused to being so close to other children. When I entered the car, all seats were already taken and I had to stand pressed between their legs and the front seat. Others would tease me in many ways and call me "Communist's daughter". I hanged on the back of the front bench, the only place and position I could find for myself. To survive the ordeal, I started observing the car meters as if they were the only thing that existed. When I now think of these school trips, I only see the meters of Volga, some hardly changing at all, some less stable. This technical world was emotion-free. Just the progress, faster or slower, was reflected in the world of cold meters and their patterns into which I was able to escape the noisy and ill-meaning children. I learned that what happens around you disappears if you focus your mind on something.

Thus, at the age of six I not only changed my life twice, but also developed a method for intellectual distancing, a defence mechanism that obviously suited me best.

The teacher was a nice young woman, but I never had any contact with other children. Nobody spoke to me. Birgitta and her family had moved to the town and I only once saw her briefly later on. I used to stay alone by the school wall during breaks, waiting for next lesson. It is only now that I wonder whether what had recently happened to my father made others turn away from me, thus making my first encounter with the outside world so discouraging.

Towards the end of the year my father got his verdict: He was sent to a labour camp for drunken-drivers. My mother was left alone with two small children. Because of her bad eye-sight, she could not manage alone in the middle of woods, and my father rented for us a small flat in an old red house in the town.

We did not move until after the end of the first term, when I had my first report. My teacher poured some tears when she heard that I would not come back. It surprised me. I had felt to be invisible at school. Perhaps the sense of being invisible was born from car trips during which I tried to become such and from days spent at school where no one spoke to me. It has followed me ever since and I feel I can throw the cape of invisibility over me at any time by just withdrawing inside my head.

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