To my mom, with love.
We’ve arrived at the grassy opening of the forest’s edge at the ocean shore. We're here with our little summer community to spend a day swimming and sunbathing. There are lots of people here, children and adults, many are swimming in the ocean, the bigger kids at the parts where your feet no longer touch the ground. I watch with admiration as the boys dive from the edge of the peer fearlessly into the water head first. Farther away some adults take long swims toward the open sea, the women with long, calm breaststrokes while the men freestyle competitively past them.
But I just splash next to the shore, safely in the shallow parts, since I don’t know how to swim yet. Every now and then I return to the sandy strip by the water’s edge to polish my proud creation, a sandcastle with water filled trenches and towers, and with a flag made out of a tree leaf stuck on top of the steeple.
I’m maybe three or four years old, and don’t even own a swimsuit yet, I'm just swimming in the nude like the little kids do here.
There are two older girls sitting on the pier soaking in the sun. They’re maybe eight or nine, in my eyes old already, both slender and so pretty, especially the taller one, Anna-Leena. She sits on the pier looking so graceful and lovely with her knees pulled up against her chest and her skinny arms wrapped around them. The wind is flapping in her long, blond hair as she watches dreamingly far off to the sea.
I think that she looks at least as beautiful as a princess or a mermaid.
I decide that I want to look just like her when I grow up, and so I go and sit down in the sand with my arms wrapped around my knees and gaze far off to the horizon, just like her, imagining the wind grabbing hold of my short hair too, so that I too, can look a bit like a princess or a mermaid.
A moment later I get up and go for a stroll on the pier, gliding gracefully past her.
Now we’re both princesses, I think, I’m the little one, and she’s the bigger one.
“Hey, look! Lisa’s butt is full of sand!” I hear mom’s delighted voice announce behind me.
She’s been sitting on her towel farther off in the grass watching me.
For a moment I freeze from embarrassment. My hand fumbles instinctively behind me, meeting the ring of sand that’s been attached to my wet butt. The shame wipes through me in hot waves. How dumb of me not to notice! I think. Of course you get sand on your butt if it's wet and you go sit on the sand!
But it’s too late to fix it now, I know she's found her reason again. She’s like a vulture that's tasted blood, there's no stopping her now. I hear the familiar laughter begin, oh how she laughs, laughs and laughs, she coughs and hisses, wipes her eyes and hollers to everyone how Lisa’s butt is so full of sand. Did you see Seija, did you notice Kalle that Lisa’s butt is all covered in sand from sitting over there?! Her eyes look like two glowing coals, they're drilling through me so greedily, scanning for more cause for amusement.
I go back in the water and try to wash off the sand. My eyes are slowly filling with tears, and I feel my chin starting to quiver. Why does she always do this to me? I think. And in front of everyone? And why does everyone else laugh too? I look around at the grown-ups sitting on their towels in the grass, smiling. Don’t they see my tears? I wonder.
Mom has sat herself on the peer before me and is now sitting there watching me with a smile made of steel. I look back at her from the water noticing that my tears mean nothing to her, as they just seem to add to her amusement. She stares at me with a sly look on her face, reminding me a bit of a fox. The smile is getting wider.
You can’t hurt another person like this, my insides protest, you can’t hurt your own child like this!
And gathering all my strength and courage I decide to tell her, and teach her, because I can see that she doesn’t understand anything about love.
“It is NO LAUGHING MATTER if someone’s butt has sand!” I preach to her from the water, so angry I’m shaking. “If you see a circus clown, or if you fart, THEN you can laugh!”
The clumsy words get shot up in the air, remaining there for a moment, vibrating in embarrassing silence, then they drop back to the ground, dead and unheard. Instead of achieving the desired effect, my little objection has just added to her joy - she finds it delightful. With a thrilled look on her face she turns around to seek support from the other grown-ups around her.
“Why…” she croaks…”did you hear what she said…? It’s no laughing matter…except if you fart…”
With tears freely flowing down my face now I get up from the water and return to the grass wrapping myself tightly in my yellow terry cloth towel. I sit down in the grass trying to swallow my tears, feeling like a dirty dog with her laughter still ringing in my ears, still not stopping.
It would be better if she beat me, I think. Even if it was with a leather belt, even if it made me purple. At least then people would see my bruises. But this constant shaming…it cuts through me like a lawnmower and leaves me with nothing.
Because it's shaming that's the most effective killer of the human spirit, superior to any other evil. Somehow I absolutely know this, as I sit there in the grass wrapped in my yellow towel, sniffling. I know it, not necessarily with words, but in my being, the way a child would know, feeling it deep within the body with absolute certainty. I know that shame is the deadliest, sneakiest and most dangerous attack against one’s personality there is.
Because what can you do when you fall in its hands? How do you defend yourself against never-ending laughter? It breaks down all resistance, erodes your heart from inside out like Swiss cheese, and nothing will ever be real and sacred after it’s done with you.
Not even God.
Even His face will start to fade away, disappear somewhere in blue skies where it becomes like a swirling white cloud, some shred of cotton that soon dissolves in the wind, like some distant, forgotten dream…
Later we’re alone on the shore, just her and me, as everyone else has already left back to their houses before us. The way back from the shore leads up a steep hillside through a forest. She moves ahead of me into the shade of the woods, and I follow behind her with my heart beating heavy in my chest. Every now and then she stops in the slope, on top of some rock or tree stub, and looks back at me with a clever smirk on her face.
If it only could end already! I think. Maybe then it could somehow be funny?
But of course it doesn’t end, like nothing with her ever ends in good taste.
“Mom, don’t,” I plead, and feel the tears return, and the anger and the shame. My eyes reach for her, reach for her, still, but to no avail, they’re met with emptiness and chuckles, a gleaming grin, constant bursts of laughter that go on and on, giggling and panting.
She’s not here.
I wonder why she’s even doing this. After all, there's no one here to share the comedy with her. So who she's performing to? Where's the audience?
It’s no laughing matter, if someone has sand on their butt…” she whispers in the shade of a big spruce, eyeing me knowingly.
The woods that have normally given me such joy have lost all their kindness now, turning into a place of horror, a slaughterhouse. I'm terribly aware of the fact that I can’t tell anyone about this. I can’t tell anyone that I’m dying, because it’s a secret, even though it's happening right out in the open, for all to see. And I know that it is exactly because it’s out in the open that no one can see it. No one knows about this horror, and there are no eye witnesses to this perversion, because it’s happening between her and me, and I can't reach her, because she’s not even here.
I continue up the hill swallowing my tears, with her following along, chuckling as she goes, glancing at me every now and then with a joyous spark in her eyes.
I feel my tears rotting on my face, and my arms heavy on my side, like monster’s arms, they're stretching down to the grown like on some alien, making me think that I must be really, really ugly.
An awful thought that’s been hiding in the back of my mind steps out, then slides back into the shadows again, but leaves a foul stench in the air, a hint of perversion, a fearful suggestion. I try not to think about it, but it keeps returning, wanting to take over, constantly forcing itself upon me.
Lisa, she’s a witch. Her insides are full of bones and dead things. Lisa, she hates your heart, and will not see it live.
In the old fir there’s a spider’s web skillfully constructed in between the branches, a gleaming silk star that lights up as random sun beams find their way through the forest roof on its surface. Somehow, in some unexplainable way, for a moment so long that time loses its relevance and turns in on itself – I join that spider’s web and get hung up in the tree.
The late sun peeks in through the veil of clouds with icy beams that pierce me. Crucifixion. The web shines, the wind moves it, and on the surface of the web there’s a conscience, a presence that nods to me sadly, saying: This is how it all has to be.
And I’m up there in the tree, arms stretched out to their fullest, taking in my lot.
And up there, in the tree, I sense some message coming at me, speaking to me of some future time, hidden somewhere far off in the distance, but announcing itself to me like approaching war drums of some message of sorrow and death that's still not here. But it’s coming, I know it's on its way. The knowledge of it is brought to me by the sorrowful trees, these solemn messengers that speak to me, and me alone, for that short moment of time, the longest moment.
In the evening our little attic room in the old farmhouse is filled by some residents from our summer community. They’ve come to spend the evening in our kitchen playing cards and talking. I hear beer bottles clinking together and people chattering and laughing, cards slapping and chairs moving. Sonja and I are already in bed on the bedroom side, but I’m still lying awake, listening to the noises in the kitchen, as the two rooms of our tiny attic dwelling don’t even have a door separating them, only half of a wall with a window in it. My bed is directly underneath that window.
Mom has started with her stories again. She’s not drunk like a couple of others, because she’s not that kind of a mom, she’s the responsible kind, the kind who bakes cinnamon buns and has her stuff together, and doesn’t wander around with a beer bottle in her hand, slurring her words. At the most she can be a little tipsy sometimes.
And if she gets drunk, it will be from her own stories.
The laughter makes the room vibrate, I hear them competing with each other, all trying to be the funniest, clearly trying to impress each other.
“Did you hear what happen to Lisa today at the beach?” I hear mom suddenly start.
I stiffen in my bed and shout, “no mom!”
But she goes on, not caring about my objection, or perhaps because of it. I stand up in the bed and press my palms against the windowpane, staring furiously into the kitchen. They sit underneath my window, this card playing bunch that doesn’t care about me. One of them, a guy, who wasn’t on the beach earlier hears the story for the first time as mom carefully repeats the events to him moment by moment, and while doing it, keeps glancing at my window, grinning, as if making sure that I’m still listening.
Something about me at the window makes her grin widen, somehow that's what makes it so perfect for her.
Later when she retells the story to others, she always adds this last moment as the cherry on top:
With me left standing there peering at her through the window, with my hands pressed against the glass, like a tiny sea-star attached to the side of an aquarium, listening to how my mom once again shames me before people.
Later, at night, perhaps that same night, perhaps another, the same scene is played all over again, but this time, in a dream.
A dream that’s more than a dream.
We’re in the midst of foaming rapids, rushing white waters that move fast underneath us. On the embankments rise borders of black firs. I sit with mom on the narrow wooden seat of a small rowboat and watch the water. We’re going downstream fast.
I’m sitting in her arms in the front where the cool splashes reach my face from time to time. My arms rest against hers, the way they should, and I’m leaning my back against her chest, the way I should.
Almost as if she really was my mom and I was her daughter.
There are other people in the boat too, other adults, they sit somewhere behind us in the back. I don’t know who they are, and it doesn’t matter who they are, they’re her friends. She’s chatting with them, the way she does, cackling, telling stories, doing her thing, her comical number, being the center of attention.
“Oh, tell us more Saimi!” I hear their voices behind me, “it’s so funny the way you tell it!” And she, eating it all up, keeps going, because she’s on the roll, now that she has her audience and all.
I don’t have to turn around to know what her face looks like, I already have that grin memorized, the expression in her eyes.
“Well, let me tell you what happened to Lisa today!” her triumphal voice starts, causing my back to stiffen. ”No mom,” I plead, “mom, no mom.”
But of course she goes on, as usual, my objection only excites her more, they’re all part of the plan, her number. We both have our part in this play, and my part is to offer her my tears of shame and rage, I’m like a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on her knee with her spoon feeding all her lines into my mouth.
Once again she tells everyone everything about my shame, back to that horrible beach she drags me and makes me go through it one more time. There it is, my naked, sandy butt being inspected and laughed at by the whole world. “Look!” She demonstrates, in order to release the never ending laughter, reach ecstasy, make them all laugh, friends and strangers, neighbors and relatives, even the cashiers at the grocery store, the police and the mailman too…
Maybe even my teddy bears?
And even God?
“Mom…” I cry in her arms. ”no mom.”
My tiny shoulders shiver and wobble against her soft chest, but no one seems to notice this, or care, the laughter rises upwards making the air ring and quake, it hits the wall of the dark pines of the embankment and returns back in echoes.
And no where in the world can you ever find the kind of tears or pain that would be justified enough stop the almighty laughter. Because it will find a reason. It will find it, even if it has to go look for it from the bottom of the ocean or the center of the earth.
Because everything in the world is funny and nothing is sad, because there are no sad things in the world. Everything melts into nothing under laughter.
I reach over to the side of the boat to look into the water and notice that the water has turned black. I try to find my own reflection on the surface, but all I see is the swirl of waves that break against the bow. Who am I? I ask the waves. Do I exist and does the sorrow exist? But how could I exist and how could the sorrow exist, if all I hear is laughter?
And the sorrow, which doesn't exist, comes and goes, cuts me open, rips through me uncontrollable and awful, knocking on my shoulder with a bony finger, but I can’t turn to look! I try to bypass it and forget, turn my thoughts elsewhere and ignore it, but my head and ears are constantly hammered by this screeching cackle that drags me back to the boat and forces me to face it.
It won’t stop.
I feel my love tear inside of me, being ground inside of my chest into fine sand, and I’m ashamed of it, I’m ashamed of my broken love, because I love her after all, I love her so much it hurts. She’s my sun and moon and everything, my entire life circles around her and I’m like a thoughtless planet, because she’s all I know and this is how I was made. But how is it possible that she hates her own child?
Does the sun hate flowers? Can the sun turn black?
Does she want to kill me?
And I’m no longer sure of anything, I’m not sure if my arms and legs are part of my body, not sure what is up and what is down, if there’s such a thing as good and bad.
All I know is that there’s pain that’s worse than death.
And I also know that this is not a boat, but a coffin, and this is no boat trip at all, but a funeral, and I’m the corpse!
Suddenly I’m no longer in the boat.
I no longer sit in her lap, in my mother’s arms, going down the river, but instead I stand on the embankment, watching myself, the girl who's sitting in the boat, in her mother’s arms, going down the river.
Her hair is white and puffy like the seeds of a daffodil.
And now I notice that the pain is gone too, or it’s a little better, and I’m asleep and awake at the same time, knowing everything, watching.
I know I should be in the boat, and that this is all wrong, because I know that my life – and truth – is over there, and escaping them doesn’t solve anything.
But I also know that if I return to the boat I will surely die, I know this with absolute certainty.
And I notice that here on the embankment, in this partial death, there is a new type of safety and mercy, a strange form of peace and rest.
I watch with compassion the little girl travel down the rapids in her mother's arms and I understand:
She is sleeping now.