“Indicium” by Paavo Haavikko, translated by Douglas Robinson


Image source: British Library (via.)

Now Ehrensvard starts building a great fortress on the Wolf Islands, every year a barrel of gold is shipped all the way from France for it, also a lilac bush, which he didn’t order. It takes root tenaciously in the barren soil, ten years from now you’ll have to hack it out with a shovel. It spread fast from the islands, at first, then made shorter journeys in a basket. It comes in two shades, light and dark. It’s never been written about before, but it will be something to watch it spread. It must have been in bloom. Indicium. Look, see, now it’s gone.

A great many birds hanging dense from the sky like a chandelier being installed in an endless skyey room now that it’s gone five o’clock, here, not far from here, or maybe it was meant differently, shaped like a long thin necklace made of black birds, long and straight and pendant like tremendous hands, the woman’s who had just stormed over the placement of the chandelier, and it was taken away, her hands, and these must be her eyes, these her hands, and they held the necklace as it lengthened and filled with birds, lifting it up till it touched her skin which must have been warm. This is indicium. It must have been late March for the ice was thin in places and had started to boom and crack, and the crystal in the lamps that were hung from the beams in the centermost house in the fortress, for the time it took to fire twenty-one rounds on the old cannon. Indicium. But a great many birds per cubic kilometer flew across the channel.

Everybody’s gone now, no poor even from that time, tenaciously as they take root, the wind no longer blows there for time is past, and the poor woman whose clothes are worn and wrinkled like skin, and her lips are quite visible but tightly shaped and she is thin and yet teardrop-shaped like one who is with child. She passes the lilac. The wind no longer presses the poor thin cloth against the richness of her thighs. Not even hers whose face surrounds a birthmark, a proud one, like a coat of arms, or like the side of an apple that has only a face, and like an apple seen from the side her face is large and very much visible. Lilac. Best transplanted by the roots. They were brought here from Versailles, one solitary plant, like Adam. Women of that period are all two hundred fifty years old, or else dead.

And like skin that you don’t really need and like darkness that you don’t really need and like a strong wind, even a storm doesn’t make up for lovers’ lost darkness, and like love that stays green too long like a lilac bush, and like light that you don’t really need, just candles, melting flaking ice, and like a door that’s opened so many times, and a room, so too it’s enough for this tale that you be a book again, one you put down on a stone bench, one you put aside and stop reading. The stone might have been a sundial.

No court martial could ever determine once and for all why you have four arms and why they should have started from you, and whether you aren’t some kind of monster, but no, no indicium in the world will make me think differently, four. You had butterflies in your brassiere, rose blossoms. As surely as eyes that, once shut, must open, you did. One closed his eyes, one lifted finger to lips, one covered your mouth with his hand, one unbuttoned you, one kept the cloth from falling, one spread all his fingers. And in this room you became a door.

As death dances the senses, bureaucratic word as if we’d been made of substances, positions, and could be rebuilt like the same house out of paper, as if this were all a play, things that never were and were only copied, so mute that you hear music playing, and as the bathwater when you step out of it climbs up to where you were, though it has no hands and though it’s so mute, weren’t there three of you, three women who were forever walking up and down here, and suddenly the world has turned so that you who were just leaning up against the wall see a door opening where I see a floor, and two walls are still walls, but the floor and ceiling are walls too, and one wall is the ceiling, it has windows facing upward, the door opens downward, odd little hatch. But the candles, and the crystal around them, are still there. I refuse to speculate how. Butterflies in your brassiere, rose blossoms, and you have four arms. And as and as and as.

Now the wind waves its hands through the trees and against the wall, it’s the enormous picture of your breathing, the shadow on the wall will breathe your portrait, enormous where the candle is close, your portrait which is huge on the wall, and the wind turns to beat down on the ground, it makes the same waving gestures in the air and against the ground, no, it can’t get inside, it has noplace to go but this autumn.

In the room she suddenly takes off her sweater which is a pale woolen knit. It’s that cold outside. She’s pulled her bra tight, it’ll warm her like a long walk. The lilac wants to spread, the pattern to be repeated.

And just as a woman who has some blemish is small and she has a name, her name, so I’m a man. What I like about things is their slowness, the way water boils over, the difference between birches when they sway up and down like you, and pines.

He flees the rain in under roofs, her rage out into the rain. Roofs do the drumming. He walks through the rooms one at a time. He doesn’t get sad right away. That takes time.

The years are the beating of your heart, hard and fast as just after you’ve murdered someone, and there he is, no further away when you met him, arm’s reach from you, if he turned suddenly you’d see him, embrace him, part forever. Like a good book that you put aside with that gesture of impatience or boredom, so life stops when the world plunges headlong through the tail of a dragon.

[“Indicium” was written by Paavo Haavikko (Puut, kaikki heidän vihreytensä, 1966) and translated from the Finnish by Douglas Robinson.]

RobinsonDouglas Robinson is Chair Professor of English and Dean of the Arts Faculty. [Click here to read all entries by Douglas.]

One Comment Add yours

  1. This is great! It starts slow but as you read on it feels like the words are washing over you. There’s a quiet intensity to it. Disorienting in the best way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s