Hannu tucked into his whitefish, a slab of bread thick with butter gripped in his other hand. All was silence and consumption until Eero took a long swig of milk from his blue enameled mug and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. Everyone looked up, knowing this was the preamble to a statement. Hannu took another generous bite of bread, butter shining on his upper lip.
“This spring is going to be a little different from usual.” Eero’s voice was slow and even.
Mother brushed at invisible flecks on her arms.
“I know you boys usually go hunting and playing up north with your cousins. But this year you’ll need to do some work.”
Hannu gulped, rolled his eyes, and exhaled dramatically. Oh God, he thought, another lecture.
Eero glanced at him and raised his palm.
“You think you’ve heard this before, but it’s not housework. The barn can wait another year. This time it’s your country.”
Hannu looked over and saw Magnus nodding. He tried to catch his attention with a face, but his older brother was locked on their father.
“The Civic Guard needs some help, and I’ve been asked to assist in reinforcement building in Summa.”
He stopped, leaned forward, and scanned the eyes of his sons. Hannu waited for the inevitable punchline.
“This is going to be a difficult year. Finland is being pinched between the crab’s claws.” He raised his hand and brought his fingers together as he spoke.
“Look, the Third Reich is terrorizing Europe, and Leningrad sits almost on our border.” His voice was rising and Hannu felt the air in the room sticky and still.
“The Russians want breathing room. Karelia is the bridge between these two monsters.” He sighed. “It will be a bloody place if it comes to war.”
“I can go with you to Summa,” Magnus said.
Perfect, thought Hannu, he’ll do the work on this one.
“Good,” Eero said nodding, “I hear it’s going to be hard work.” He turned to Hannu, eyebrows raised.
“What? I’m supposed to become a soldier because war is coming? I want to go to school!”
“Hannu,” Mother began, but Eero raised his hand and nodded to her.
“Your mother and I both think you need to work this summer. School and books aren’t free. The Civic Guard would be good…”
“…but I’m not interested in the Civic Guard or what they do. Can’t I serve in another way?”
“In what way?” Eero’s voice rose to a sudden crescendo, filling the small wood room. Time hovered on his final word.
“War is coming and I don’t think anyone will be here to help us. Hannu,” he continued more softly, “you are needed whether you like it or not. Everyone is making sacrifices.”
Hannu looked around at his family and pushed back from the table. What, I’m on the wrong side now?
“So that’s it, then. Civic Guard for me. And if they want me for five years? Ten? Is it decided for me?”
“Come with us to Summa,” Magnus said.
“Listen to your brother. Some hard work now could really save us when war comes.”
“If it comes.” Hannu rose and walked to the steep stair that led to the boys’ room.
“Let me know when I’m going to be drafted. I’ll be in my room until then.”
He slumped back on his bed and looked at the wood rafters. This was just like Magnus, to play the good son to make him look bad. Well, he should have a say in it, and wasn’t going off to the Civic Guard because Magnus was doing it. He didn’t like war, soldiers, the stupid posturing and strutting. Eero didn’t really understand him, fine. But how could Magnus turn on him?
Magnus clomped up the stairs and sat down on the end of the bed.
“Hannu, I don’t know why you have to make such theatre out of this. Just come dig ditches for a week or so.”
“You don’t know that’s what it is. What if someone sticks a rifle in your hands? Jams a helmet on you and pushes you in a trench?”
“Then I’ll do what I’m told until I can come home.”
“Jumalauta, what a good son you are!”
Magnus looked at him and shook his head. “It’s not like we can decide everything for ourselves. Plus, war won’t come up here.”
“Yeah, sure.” Hannu ran his hands through his hair and exhaled, looking at the rough planking over his head.
“I’ll think about it. But don’t tell father you’ve conscripted me or I’ll tie your legs together during the night and light your sheets on fire.”
Magnus huffed. “Like I would fall for that again.”
“Boys, it’s ready.”
Mother stepped from the sauna and pulled a wet strand of hair behind her ear. The sauna, a white pine box inside a thick squat wood shed, sat in the shadow of the barn. Hannu walked barefoot ahead of Magnus, feeling the moss between the stones brush against the still-soft soles of his feet. By late summer, he thought, they would be thick and strong again from barefoot days in the forest. He pulled off his shirt as he walked, then pulled off his pants and shorts, hopping on one leg, and threw them in a heap in the alcove next to two stacked linen towels. As he opened the small door, the humidity and heat wrapped around his body and pulled him in.
He sat on the worn pine bench and let the steamy air sink into his skin. Magnus stepped over the threshold and shut the door behind him with a click.
“Move over. I’ll water the stones.”
Hannu acquiesced. It was too hot to argue, and this was a place of peace. Hannu slid down the bench and savored the feel of grainy wood sliding against his legs. The boys sat in silence for a while, inhaling deep and feeling their skin breathe in the fragrant heat.
“Do you really want to join the Army?”
Magnus lifted one lid and looked across at him.
“I think so.”
“Hmph. Is that enough? What else would you do, I mean?”
“Well.” Magnus sighed and rubbed his hands through his wet hair. “I want to go to back to Helsinki. Maybe work for the government.” His eyes closed again.
“You never said that before.”
“I never did. It’s not that important.”
“But it is!” Hannu slapped his hand on the damp wall of the sauna. “Remember how much fun we had on our trip there in January?”
Magnus waved his hand through the steam, shushing him. “Easy now.”
“Okay, but if you want to go to Helsinki, you can do it. The army will have plenty of men. Don’t do this to make Eero happy.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s…what I should do, for now. Helsinki can wait.” His voice came out in the same even tempo of his father. Hannu sighed.
“Well I’m not waiting, that’s for sure. You have to admit you had fun. I think you got more drunk than me, you hittolainen…” Hannu rubbed his face and reached for the fan of birch branches beside the ladle. He slapped his back and arms, and inhaled the sweet essence of the leaves.
“Where will you go, hmm?” Magnus asked.
Hannu passed Magnus the fan and thought for a moment.
“I don’t know. I want to go to school. I’m not cut out to be a soldier.”
Magnus smiled. “You’d be paska trying to take orders.”
Hannu laughed softly, the sweat running down his neck.
“It’s true. I don’t know why father thinks I’d be good at it.”
“Well, he wants the best for us both, you know that.”
“Best for me is to stay far away from the war. You too.”
“You’re probably right. But I’m going to do it anyway. I don’t think I’ll have to serve long. Then I can go to Helsinki.”
“Why don’t we go together?” Hannu sat up and gesticulated with his arms, flinging sweat around the sauna. “We could look for jobs in town, make some money…”
“…and probably fall flat on our asses and have to come back here in the winter,” Magnus replied.
“But we try. We see something new. Imagine it, Magnus, us in jobs in Helsinki, women on every corner.”
“Ah, I knew it,” Magnus laughed.
“Come on, you know the few sheep here are nothing compared to the thousands, tens of thousands, of good-looking girls in the city.”
Magnus stroked his stubbled chin and looked sideways at his brother.
“You know you wouldn’t have a chance competing with me, little brother. I always had the looks in the family. And you’re the clown.”
“Hey kusipää, if I wasn’t so relaxed…no, I ought to. Hand me that branch there so I can give you a proper beating.”
© Peter Soutowood 2010