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This book came about because one day I sat daydreaming and wondered on which side of the war Finland fought. Axis? Allied? It turns out the small Baltic nation was neither, and the more I read about how it made it through WWII with Nazis and Soviets pinching from both sides, the more I was intrigued. A little isthmus called Karelia used to belong to Finland and was hailing distance from Lenengrad. What happened to the families that lived there just as war broke out? What if two brothers somehow ended up on opposite sides? Thus began The Ash of Winter’s Work. For expert Finnophiles and literati, the title of the book comes from a line in the Kalevala, Finland’s epic mythological poem:
Said the smith, said Ilamarinen
“Annikki, my little sister! I will make a shuttle for you,
Lovely rings for your fingers,
Two or three pair for your ears,
Five, six hangers for your belt.
Now just heat a sauna for me,
Make the vapor sweet as honey,
Make the fire up with small kindling,
Sticks and splinters quickly burning.
With a little lye and ashes
Make some lye soap ready for me
So that I can clean my head,
Scrub my body till I’m white
Wash away the soot of autumn
And the ash of winter’s work”
“Magnus, your father said he needs you in the barn.”
Mother was kneading bread, her knuckles and fingertips rosy from the work, her blond hair in an orderly braid over her shoulder. Magnus watched as she lifted the bread in a pale cream billow and then slapped it down again, fingers tracing lines in the flour-covered woodblock.
“Magnus.” Her voice was soft and lyrical, a cuckoo calling lazily in the forest.
“Yes, I’m going.”
He stepped outside into the humid morning air. The sun had been up for a while and the late spring smell of sweet shoots and rich earth swirled in the air like milk in coffee. He thought as he crossed the dirt yard to the barn that its faded red paint would need repainting this summer. Maybe he could convince Hannu to help him, though he usually managed to disappear when these chores came up.
His father’s voice echoed indistinctly from the darkness of the barn. Magnus stepped through the narrow side door and was greeted by the smells of dry grass, sun-baked wood, and the gamey reminder of livestock from long ago.
Eero bent over the workbench, wiping something with a rag. Sunlight cut through the sideboards of the barn in yellow stripes, draping across Eero’s back and the dusty floor.
As Magnus approached Eero raised and turned. He held out a large leather scabbard with a horn handle curving out the top.
“This puukko was my father’s. I think it’s time for you to have it.”
Magnus reached forward and grasped the carved handle.
“Thank you, father. I’ll take good care of it.”
Eero smiled and exhaled deeply. “Well, it’s a good knife. It can keep an edge for a long time without honing, and the carvings make it easy to hold with mittens. Here, let me show you one thing about the scabbard.”
Eero took the knife back and pulled it from the sheath, dark oiled leather revealing the pale gray blade. Light refracted off the ground edge showing tracery of scratches from years of hard use.
“See, this little pocket here holds a sharpening stone so you can keep it sharp when you’re out.”
“Maybe I can drill a hole in it and make a small lanyard so I don’t lose it?
Eero looked up and smiled then handed the knife back, handle first.
“Good. Make it your own.”
Magnus turned it over in his hands and stroked the edge of the blade with the flat of his thumb.
“Thank you father.”
He slid the blade in the scabbard and tucked the knife under his arm. What a gift, he’d have to show he deserved it. Hannu would be jealous. He stepped forward and wrapped one arm around his father’s shoulders, who did the same while patting Magnus’ stomach.
“That knife should take care of you if war comes. I hope you don’t have to use it.”
“I think it will go quick,” Magnus replied. “If they come here in winter they won’t have the stomach for it. I think those Muscovites will be like Italians in the snow, slipping and cursing. We’re better than them, Father.”
Eero dropped his arm and ran his hand through his thinning hair. “There are a few good Russians. But man to man, we could beat them, I think you’re right about that.”
He paused and took a deep breath of the musty barn air.
“Don’t be too quick to judge anyone, Magnus.”
He turned and looked at his son and Magnus felt love and scrutiny coming through his father’s pale blue eyes.
“Now let’s go have some breakfast. That bread will be ready soon.”