27: or, Death Makes the Artist by Alexandra Salmela
Translated from the Finnish by Niina Pollari.
This is part of our special feature, New Nordic Voices.
KASSANDRA: THE ILLUSION OF HAPPINESS
She believes she’s very happy. She tells herself that a loving husband, three beautiful children, a red granny cottage in an idyllic countryside setting, and a newish Opel station wagon in the yard is exactly what she’s always wanted.
When she was younger, she’d never believed stuff like that would supposedly make her happy one day; she would have been full of derision, would have spit in her own face, would have shouted:
“Fuck you, you sold all your ideals, you became one of them, you got materialistic, you sold your soul!”
But now she’s old enough to understand that it doesn’t always benefit you to choose the road less traveled, and that you don’t always have to run straight at the wall and slam your head against it over and over until one of you cracks. Now she feels like she’s reached the equilibrium she wanted.
She always wanted to be different, an individual who thinks differently and differentiates herself from the faceless gray masses. But her life has always been full of half-solutions. She wanted to be present, but could never commit to anything. She wanted to travel, but didn’t know how to leave the familiar behind. She wanted to be swept up by the wild of the city, but she longed for spiritual peace. She wanted to move to the woods to clear her head, but she couldn’t make it out of town. She wanted to be environmentally friendly, but she was too comfortable. She wanted to be part of a collective, but she couldn’t stand people. She wanted to be contemplative, but couldn’t exist without babbling pointlessly. She wanted to be politically active, but she wasn’t interested in politics. She wanted to be a radical, but she couldn’t be anything but indecisive and fumbling. She wanted love, but didn’t feel it. She wanted a wild sex life, but bodies didn’t excite her. She wanted to be an absolutist, but wandering into different viewpoints excited her. She wanted to detach from everything, but she couldn’t let go.
She was continuously everywhere and nowhere, and what little creative energy she had dissolved into broad-shouldered bar bragging. She gained weight by gaining weight, dulled herself by being dull, and became uglier by being ugly so quickly and so obviously that she noticed it herself and realized everything was turning to shit. Then a miraculous accident happened, and she realized she was pregnant.
“Fuck,” she said, looking at the two red lines she could clearly make out from the small piece of white plastic. For a little while she considered the cost of an abortion, but instead decided for some unknown reason to report the happy news to the candidates likeliest to be the progenitor of the fetus. There weren’t more than two, but the more desirable (and obviously smarter) one had dumped her in time and fled on a semester abroad to Murmansk.
“Oh fu…dge,” said the less desirable man, who wasn’t quick enough to think about the consequences, as he stared at the woman’s still-nonexistent belly. Being a conservative idiot, he tried to consider the situation, but lacked the endurance to do so for very long. Instead, he asked, directly and clearly:
“Should we get married?”
The woman hadn’t thought about this plot twist, so she stared at the man’s sincere face, and before she could remember that she was going to be a noted traveling researcher, a scientist, an artist, or at least a feminist, to her own surprise she answered him:
And then haltingly added:
They decided to keep the baby, and the woman stopped messing around and worked to convince herself that it was surprisingly easy, even though, as she watched brainless tv series and read idiotic books, she longed for all kinds of poisons. She paid calming visits to the refrigerator until everything was alright. The man put his studies on hold and applied, via a temp agency, to work in an office, where he earned enough money to support his future family by providing customer service. To everyone’s surprise, the accidental parents did get married, and managed to even do so before the woman’s stomach began to distend. In front of the officiant, the man started to think about the consequences of his actions, and faltered a little, but at that point he didn’t dare object, and there wasn’t anybody present anyway to yell “NO!” on behalf of this foolish man and his life. The young couple were wed, and then the families went out to eat in a slightly nicer restaurant than normal, where they ate snails and wedding cake and the woman drank children’s champagne because the few present members of their newly joined families wanted to raise a toast in their honor and sniffle their best and most heartfelt congratulations with tears in their eyes.
After four months, their oldest was born, a spaceman with a helmet of slime on its head. Its arrival into the world was so brave, so pompous, so unexpectedly premature, and, above all, so inconsiderate of everything and everyone, that in one split second it successfully turned their world upside down. When the woman took the baby into her lap and tried to hug it with her tired arms, from some unfathomable depths of her body there came an unbearable, powerful impact, and another followed it, and another, and her body shot itself into the air, her back an Arc de Triomphe, her limp legs lifting like an exhausted racehorse under the snap of a whip and straightening into sturdy pillars. The midwife pressed the emergency button, and the man nearly panicked when someone handed him the newborn, wet with slime and blood. In a very short while another midwife ran to his assistance and gently brought the miniature man to his bath. At the same time, the first midwife yelled:
And the woman yelled for her own mother, and then suddenly, quick as a wizard jumping through a burning spirit circle into the netherworld, out popped another dark creature, and changed everything totally and irrevocably.
The woman and the man received two squalling bundles to take home, and for the next few nights they slept very little and stayed awake a lot, and the atmosphere in the tiny apartment got denser. In the mornings the man went to work to breathe fresh air, and the woman remained at home to stay awake some more, and, even though her eyes were dry and her head was about to explode into shards, she was sure she could still open her eyes and see things with a new clarity. She stared at her adorable babies with a smile on her face and cried from happiness. She understood at last that she’d fallen in love with someone else than herself and her own bloated ego. She deeply, calmly, and honestly loved those small creatures that were so much a part of her but not her. She felt like an omnipresent, omniscient Mother Nature; she felt as if she’d stopped existing herself. In that place on the invisible border between nowhere and everywhere, thousands of fireworks went off; the rusted wheels of her brain began to move, slow and noisy. Little by little, they turned, mercilessly crushing not only the accumulated dirt and debris but also all kinds of important knowledge and acquired skill. Her head emptied itself until it was an blank slate into which she began enthusiastically arranging her new, motherly love-infused experiences and views.
Later, when the next small adorable creature was born, she loved that one too, and her love didn’t shrink. The opposite happened: it grew by growing and swelled by swelling until it no longer fit into her heart, or her soul, or her own big body, or the tiny delicate bodies of her children. The love spurted outward still, and the woman fell in love with her glum, terse husband. That’s when she understood who she was, and what she was capable of, and what she was made for. She understood that otherwise ordinary people and their lives were actually the greatest miracles, and she concentrated on making those miracles happen. She didn’t weep anymore for what she wasn’t, but celebrated what she had. She finally found her place and became whole.
Or so she believed.
When her husband inherited an old shack in the middle of the woods, she, Mother Nature in her pursuit of love, explained to him that they weren’t meant for the city, then went to the store and returned with banana boxes into which she packed the family’s few belongings. The man muttered: “Ok, gladly,” quit his job, broke the lease on the apartment, and packed the children and boxes into the old canary-yellow car.
Then they moved here with me, into the red country cottage in the woods, and the woman turned into the matron and the man turned into the patron. Without asking my permission, they walked right into my life. I was forced into the middle of their noisy and quarrelsome chaos, and I’ve decided to tell you what happened from right here.
Its main character is the pretend-perfect mother and the demons that haunt her.
Published on April 17, 2018.