Translator’s Note: The story takes place in 1918 Finland, right after the end of the Finnish Civil War, where some 30,000 Finns were killed, most by summary execution or in detention camps. This novel is built around a documented incident. Lander focuses on three characters-prisoner, captor, and military judge-to force readers to probe questions of truth, perception, power, duty, and conscience. In this extract a Red prisoner writes to her White foster father.
Ruukkijoki 1 May 1918
Dear Captain Broman,
I am writing to you from the Ruukkijoki prison barracks because the guard gave me paper and told me to write my last letter ever, home or to a lover. I actually don’t believe this is the last one at all. They just want to frighten me or get me to reveal some other Red hiding somewhere. But just in case I want to write to you anyway because I feel sad about the things that happened before I left.
I know that you felt very bad about our soldiers, you were always so nice to them when they came to the Atelier and you let them pose with their guns and their bayonets and their flags in front of your best backgrounds. Like that scene with the brook and the lovely bridge and brushwood fence-and you let them use the flower pedestal, too, though of course you did not have much to say about it since the Reds were in control of the whole town. But still, that in the end they tore apart Atelier into a thousand sauna-sitting-boards, as you put it, and even the cameras were smashed to bits, I wanted to cry, too, when I thought of our beautiful furniture. Forgive me for saying our, but I’ve been so used to them ever since I was so young that I think of them almost as my own.
You must have thought me terribly ungrateful when I joined them and not your side even though ever since I was a small errand girl you always treated me so kindly and taught me all you knew, which is not little. And you were right when you predicted I would be just one more flea to smash in the swirl of the bloody revolution. But later I thought of that time I went to Puutori Square one Fall to see the flea circus from London. Do you remember? Handsome ivory carriage with six horses harnessed in front and a coachman in livery sitting on the driver’s bench with a little dog between his legs. A postman rode on the back of one horse. There were four travelers in the carriage. Two footmen in back and the whole procession was moved forward by one single flea. And the man said that the flea leaves Sampson in the shadows, Sampson who by himself brought down the whole temple of Dagon on himself and his enemies. A flea has no trouble moving a load that is eighty times heavier than itself or jumping two hundred times its own length. To match that, Sampson would have had to leap about twelve hundred feet, and the world’s fastest mammal, the panther, would have to jump a whole kilometer.
I know you were thinking of what was best for me because now I guess I just look like a dumb flea that worked hard with other fleas to tear apart something too big and just managed to dig a grave for itself.
There is much I have to thank you for, like the fact you never said an angry word even though I got married without telling you and I will never forget when the divorce came after four years because we had no children even though my husband loved children so much. Back then when I was depressed all the time, you gave me your wife’s embroidered blouse and brown jumper, you took that picture and you said look, you are a true beauty, there will come a day when you get a much better husband. And then you said you were going to put that photograph in the glass cabinet at Lehtinen’s café with your other masterpieces so everyone could see how snappy I looked even when I was sad. You made me laugh many times when I thought I would never ever smile again, let alone laugh out loud.
Not everyone can have children, you said, the Creator set it up that way and perhaps it’s good because there is no greater sorrow than the death of a child except of course if a little one is orphaned. I could tell that the worst thing for you was taking pictures of dead children, like the Janssons’ three-year-old Greta who suffocated from whooping cough. It was horrible for you when she was placed sitting on a chair in her best clothes but her legs dangled, limp and odd, no matter how they were arranged. You said many times, it sure is good that we are easing away from that custom, why bother the poor things when they’re dead, let’s let them rest in the Lord’s peace. I didn’t say anything to you but I stopped believing in God when I became a working class fighter or even a little before that already.
There is sorrow enough on the Red side, too. Even here there are lots of children whose fathers and mothers, too, are inside the fences and the children often stand hungry there behind the gate and beg for food. One little boy even figured out to call, Help me, please, I’m not a Red orphan, I’m a genuine butcher’s kid.
My hand is starting to get tired but even so I wanted to tell you happy memories even though I am not very good at writing because when all is said and done there is nobody else who gives a damn what happens to me, perhaps you don’t care either after I betrayed your trust that way. But if you could know what happened to many of the boys who posed with their gun in our Atelier later when people like you caught them, you wouldn’t be as angry at them any more even though they did so much harm to you. About myself I don’t want to tell any more in case this lands in the wrong hands anyway, and my troubles surely don’t interest you because you have plenty of your own. Sometimes memories that are not so nice cross my mind but there is no point talking about them any more because they all belong to that other life which is over for me.
This is a pretty place even though it used to be a crazy house that’s why there are high stone walls here and bars already in the windows so it is easy to keep watch over us. Yesterday a curious squirrel almost came in through the window, it must be used to getting food from the crazy people but I don’t have anything to give it since I don’t have enough for myself, either. A judge whose name is Emil Hallenberg has been interrogating me. He is a famous writer though I never heard of him before. You certainly must know him but I’m not telling you this because I want you to do anything.
Don’t try to send me help, either. It would be pointless and you might get into difficulties because of me. I am not going to give this letter to the judge but instead I’ll try to deliver it another way so no one connects your name to mine. I hope you can decipher the handwriting. The names are written right, in any case, I’m very careful with them, the way you taught me. I will remember till the day I die the time I wrote Miss Nora Dahlström’s name wrong on her pictures and you turned bright red and said listen you good-for-nothing girl don’t you know that a person’s own name is the most loved word a person learns in his whole life and the only piece of property which no one may take away or ruin even after death and nothing insults customers more than when the name they have given you is written all screwed up. That was the first time I heard you use that kind of language and I understood how deeply disappointed you were in me then and I resolved you would never again ever have complaints about mistakes in names because of me. And the day you gave me permission to start signing the pictures I took, I understood how right you were.
One more thing I want to confess to you that when I had been at your home just a little over two years one time I heard you tell Professor Helenius when he wondered why you let me take the garden party pictures you said that you thought I was a wunderkind with a natural instinct for the golden cut. That made me terribly happy, it was the most wonderful moment in my life, but I will confess to you now that it was not really such a wonder at all. I had just studied your pictures very closely when I developed them and also watched how you arranged the people and camera in place and listened closely to what you said, so what I mean is, all the credit belongs to you, in the end I was a perfectly ordinary girl who just had the good luck to get to be your pupil.
Even though I don’t believe I am at the end of my life-I would have died long ago if it were my time to die-even so I want to tell you anyway that in spite of everything that happened I will be grateful till the grave for your kindness and that from the moment I first saw you, you were the finest and best man I ever met in my whole life and I will never forget you.
That’s all for this time, long live equality and brotherhood.
I hope your rheumatism hasn’t bothered you much.
From Käsky. Published 2003 by WSOY, Helsinki. Copyright 2003 by Leena Lander. By arrangement with the author. English translation copyright 2007 by Jill Timbers. All rights reserved.