Late May, 1939
Hannu stepped out the front door into the cool night air, spring dusk growing longer with each step towards summer. The distant sun still left some warmth in the air. Eero’s voice droned through the kitchen window as he talked with mother. Probably about him, he thought with a shake of the head.
He followed a worn path snaking through the woods. The sound of lowing cows in a distant field hung in the air with the fallen dew and Hannu breathed deep the newness of spring. God, he thought, there was so much to enjoy here, rushing off to Army and the war would be a waste. Why not be a scholar? Lasse’s books bounced in his shoulder bag as he leapt onto a small trail that cut to the back yard of his neighbor’s farm.
Lasse was sitting outside the kitchen whittling with a massive puukko, curls of pine scattered in the dirt like butter waiting to melt on toast.
“Ja,” Lasse replied.
“No chores tonight?”
“Da’s in town buying something so I’m just killing time.”
Hannu dragged the wood-splitting log over to where Lasse sat on his canvas chair. He brushed off slivers and wedges of pine before he sat.
“I read them.”
“Ja vitut! All of them?”
“No way. I got them from a weird old guy I chopped wood for this winter. He lives out past the Matti-Latvala farm. On the far side of the lake.”
Lasse chucked the carved wood chunk into the forest and spit dramatically before sliding the puukko into a scratched-up leather sheath. He’d be perfect in the Army, Hannu thought. I wonder if he’s joining.
“Well, here they are back.”
“Don’t give ‘em to me. Keep them, those are hot items, especially if the Russians take over like Da says they will.”
“I think someone’ll find them. Can’t you take them back?”
“Take them back to him yourself.” Lasse stood up and cracked his back. “Helvetti, this place is boring.”
Hannu held the books in his hands and looked around.
“You think I should?”
“Doesn’t matter to me. Guy’s name is Timo.”
“Perkele.” Hannu muttered. “Fine.”
“Oh hey, is your dad making you join the army?”
“No need. I’m going myself to join next week. I gotta get out of here.”
Hannu snorted. “Have it your way. Don’t let Ivan shoot you in the ass.”
* * *
Timo’s voice was a rake dragged through gravel, his blue eyes had the fog and water of old age, but his hand was motionless, the growing ash on his cigarette in temporary defiance of gravity.
“Finland can be strong, as it was. Once.”
Hannu regretted having come. Lasse was right, this guy was off. A log popped in the woodstove and Hannu tugged at his sleeves. By God, it was hot in the small cabin.
The old man jabbed his hand at Hannu and the ash whisked into the air in a snowy cloud. “Once, when we decided not to let the bourgeois run things. Rich colonialists like…Mannerheim. Ryökäle,” he spat.
“I’ve got your books. I read them all, I…”
“Young man, how can we bring Finland to its feet while pushing the rich to their knees, the rich who claim to represent us but make fools of us in front of the world?” Timo turned his head, the strings and bags of his neck lit by the cool blue light of spring dusk.
Timo’s pale eyes regarded the sky through the window. Hannu licked his lips and shifted his weight on the wood stool.
“Sir, I…I just want to study. Away from here.”
“Good. These books aren’t studied here anyway.”
Hannu bit his lip and glanced at the pile of books he placed on a rough bench when he came in.
“You…could.” He lifted his cigarette to his mouth and paused before inhaling. “If you love your country, abandon it. Yyou can find other countrymates abroad, and together found a movement for change without Mother Finland hovering over you. In times like this, revolutions require youth in numbers.”
“I want to be part of something bigger. I…I speak Russian.”
Timo flicked his eyes back to the boy without turning his head. “That will be of little help unless you can act like a Soviet.”
A gust rattled the window and a blade of cool air squeezed through the frame and refreshed Hannu’s ruddy face.
“I can try sir. I want to study. History, language…” his voice faded as Timo turned to face him.
“You’ll go to Leningrad.”
”But…there might be a war.”
Timo waved his hand. “So they say. But Stalin seems distracted now. After paska mess in the courts he seems…more conservative about hunting out intellectuals. Yes…this could work.”
Hannu felt his stomach twist. This was not what he had in mind.
“I have an acolyte in Leningrad you could meet. His name is Kuusinen.”
With the cigarette still wedged in his fingers he pulled open a drawer in the table beside him and retrieved a small worn book, bound in red.
“Take this,” he said as he handed it to Hannu, “This is my copy of the Manifesto with my notes. There is more between the lines than in them. Read it and see if you still believe. Come back if you’re willing to do the right thing for Finland and I can make some contacts for you.”
Timo pointed at his open palm. “Take the book just for the words in it. The message. Don’t worry about the color of the cover, or what people think they know about it. You read. Think. Choose what you want to do for your country. For our Finland.”
He ended by coughing wetly and deeply, before finally wiping his eyes and taking a draw on the stub of his cigarette.
Hannu took the book and flipped through it. Magnus would not understand. Father would be quiet and furious. Mother would sigh and shake her head. They would only see the color of the book and wouldn’t want to read it. Or understand it.
He dropped the book into his jacket pocket and rose to leave.
“Sir, I should get back while there’s still light.” He paused, feeling equally proud and foolish. “I want to help Mother Finland.”
Timo barked out a short laugh. “So you do! If you feel it in your heart, don’t let other people extinguish this…passion. Go.”
The smile disappeared from his mouth and eyes. “And I needn’t tell you, such a smart boy, how these times are dangerous.” He dropped his voice.
“People listen and talk, you know. In a revolution, timing is everything. Keep this…quiet.”
Magnus sprinted through the forest, his pack jumping on his back. Filled with rocks, it gouged into his lower back and the straps were burning into his shoulders, but he increased his speed. With a grunt he leapt over a fallen tree, tumbled in the moss, regained his footing, and continued on with hardly a break in pace. In his arms he held the shaft of a rake with a rope tied to it, a makeshift carbine.
This was his second week of personal training, a way to ensure he’d be chosen for the elite vanguard rangers of the army. When his father had mentioned this new unit, Magnus’ heart soared and his mind steeled itself for training. This was his springtime goal, and if what his father and friends were saying was true, the Soviets would be crashing up against the Mannerheim Line before long.
Magnus dodged around a tree then dove into a bed of moss and lay motionless for a ten-count before slithering forward and taking aim at a distant tree stump. “Take that, Ivan,” he said between deep breaths.
Jumping up, he continued his race through the forests, transforming the branches flicking by his body into flying bullets, shot by wild-eyed and helpless Russian soldiers. With enough training, he would be a camouflaged snake spying his targets, eliminating them, and disappearing into the forest without a noise. He stopped and ducked behind a tree with his rake handle at attention, then spun around and fired once into the forest. “Go back to Moscow, this country is free of your communist shit!”
June 8, 1939
Silverware clinked on the enameled plates, speckled white platters with dents from years of service in the Häkkinen household. Mother cleared her throat and reached for Magnus’ plate, efficiently cleaned of cream sauce, a neat thorncrown of fishbones perched on the rim.
“Hannu?” She gestured to his plate, a picked-apart fillet barely eaten.
He shook his head and raised his hands. “I’m not hungry.”
She clucked and sighed but pulled the plate away.
“Boys.” Eero tented his fingers and leaned away from the table. “We have to finalize your summer plans. Magnus, you’ve already said you’d come with me next week for the fortification project. I found out today it should be no more than a week or so before we can return. They need men all summer for preparations, and this will be the first rotation. And Hannu, you know there is talk of conscription. Volunteering is a better…”
“Father,” Hannu interrupted with a sigh, “I’ve already told you I want to study. Abroad.”
“This again,” Magnus said under his breath, earning him a shove on the head from his brother.
“I know you don’t think I’ll do it, Magnus, but I’ve made up my mind. And father, you can’t convince me to join the army and fight Russians. War’s not in my blood.”
Magnus leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head.
“Very high talk brother, but what about the practical things? Money for books and tuition? And where? France? You don’t speak a word. Germany’s not the place to go now, and Sweden wouldn’t take you based on your grades. And looks.”
Hannu slammed his palms down on the table and stood up. “Right then. You mean for a fight. Come on, ox, if you can squeeze your stomach out from under the table.”
“Boys.” Eero sighed and raised a finger. “No wrestling in here. Last time you almost broke our table. And Hannu, there is the question of the war in all this. Where do you want to go?”
Hannu braced himself and addressed the room in what he hoped was a stentorian voice.
“Jumalauta, he has gone mad!” Magnus laughed.
“Language!” scolded mother from the kitchen.
Eero rubbed his cheeks before looking up at Hannu who stood in the center of the room immobile.
“Hannu. Your timing could hardly be worse. I know you enjoy your reading and all…”
“Father, it’s so much more than that. It’s the next great thing for Finland. Can’t you see it? Can’t any of you?” He felt his face flushing again, judging eyes around the room on him.
“Hannu, why can’t you stay in Finland to study?” mother called out from the kitchen. “I’ve heard that Annti’s son is going to study in Helsinki. They say it’s very progressive there.”
“Oh come on, it’s frozen in the past. The whole system. The whole country. When this little conflict is over we’ll still be neighbors with Russia and the world will move on. Then what? How is Finland going to survive without cooperation? Without the coordination of the laborers?”
“Hannu, sit down and have some cake. Mother’s worked hard on this one. It’s got lemons.” Eero gestured to the empty chair. “If tensions ease, if an agreement is made, maybe in some time Leningrad will be a friendlier place. Can we wait for news in the next few weeks and decide then?” Eero’s question hovered in balance before Hannu sat with a huff.
“Don’t try to delay this, father, my mind’s made up,” he mumbled.
“We’ll talk about this more when Magnus and I get back. It’s not finished.”
Hannu stared at the table as mother brought her lemon cake out among the silent men.
© Peter Soutowood 2010