the short story project


Raija Siekkinen | from:Finnish


Translated by : Lola Rogers

Introduction by Rami Saari

What types and varieties of hunger are we familiar with from our everyday lives as well as our accumulated experience? The hunger that growls in our stomach and forces us to give in to our daily toil, hunger for human contact with others—for affection, understanding, touch and the echoing of our physical and mental feelings and needs, the hunger for experiences that will allow us to find meaning to life—the experience of a journey, since life is but a journey through time and place, and we experience it—tourists in our own country as well as outside its borders. The journey of writer Raija Siekkinen in the land of the living spanned a mere fifty-one years. Her story “Hunger” documents in a faithful and rather representative manner not only the style of her writing and her unique way of using her language to describe her inner and external worlds, it also portrays the long way she had come on the tumultuous journey that enabled her to wonder about her own nature and to find out who she is, what she is, and in what kind of world she lives in. This is perhaps always the role of the story: to connect us to our lives through a brief interlude, i.e., to place a real mirror in front of us in which we will reflect, each in his own way, each to best of his ability, comprehension and grasp.   

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What is it that drives and compels people? I thought as I moved with the crowd of people toward the passport check. What gypsy blood moves me? I thought when I saw my bag x-rayed, and the jumble of books and clothes and all the blank and filled papers there. What’s the hurry to see all the good and evil of the world? I thought as I stepped into the transparent plastic tunnel that arched ever upward toward the ship. What hunger. What thirst. If you want to see beautiful sights, like I do, I thought as I came out of the plastic passageway onto the ship, you have to go through ugly ones to get there. Is that what gives beauty its sad luster? Is that why we cry at weddings, and when a child is born? Carousel horses, linked to spin in an eternal circle while happy music plays. I remembered a carousel that had been shut down and covered with a tarp for the night, the horses resting, the music faded, the children carried to bed. Why had I suddenly felt afraid? I had imagined the horses’ snorts, their delicate shapes all alone under the tarp, in the dark, a vision of the future.

I sat near a window and the ship moved away from the dock. I sniffed my skin, but the smell was gone. In this country there was a smell of poverty, and it was a different smell than the scent of the South’s sun warmed indifference; this was the smell of a cold and poor northern land’s fear, and the fear was contagious. I remembered a dog that had feared my fear, remembered its teeth. I had kept an eye on my bag; there was nothing in it, but I sat like a dog watching it. I wasn’t a woman anymore. I felt like growling. I rode in a car across this country, toward ever greater poverty. I knew that the car was a time machine here; I remembered history. In vain I tried to think of who I was, to think of a skirt that I had just bought, which I hadn’t yet worn even once – clean, white, no memories attached to it; it didn’t exist. I’d seen a train track that ran through the middle of a low country where willow bushes grew, round, the way they grow in open space, and I knew that they were beautiful, but I didn’t understand it. The train track, and always the thought that the rails led to the great illuminated cities, but I knew: the rails led away from them, to the middle of the plains, to the wilderness, where no one will hear a scream. I remembered Auschwitz, remembered the smell of straw bedding. And then Dachau, I had to go there, too, and everything had been there that should be in concentration camps, but the Germans had cleaned away the smell. What a shame to take pride in the tears that fell there, a few of them, on the cement floor.

Every day that I spent in this country I was hungry. I ate everything that was offered to me, I ate the whole time, but the hunger didn’t diminish.  Soup and bread and caviar and vodka were brought to my little table. In every room a radio was on, all on different stations, which should have been pleasant, and in the yard children were shouting. I ate everything immediately; more was brought. I was shown landscapes appeared, driven over roads that ran through the middle of fields. Grain was already sprouting in the black soil, but I wasn’t able to forget what soil is. I dreamed about the procession of people, unending, those who had gone and those to come. In the morning I had sniffed my skin: soon it would be my time to join that procession. That’s why people are in a hurry, I thought.

I was far from home, but not as far as another day this spring. I’d traveled seven hundred paces from home across heroes’ graves, to a strange building, halted there in front of the white-painted window and looked through the unpainted part of the window, across the park to the house where I lived. On the graves in the park, on the already green grass, snow had fallen. There in the snow I had looked at my own feet. I was ordered to undress. The room was cold. I was flattened between cold sheets of glass, lit through like a bag at customs. I looked at the May snow that fell outside the window. The machine buzzed, the carousel stopped. I’d never been that far away. I traveled back across the park following my own feet, but it was a long trip. The day came when I woke up in the hospital. There was a tube attached to me that carried saltwater from a bottle and another tube that went to a little plastic bag of blood and fluid. I couldn’t go anywhere. And although they said that I was healthy, that I could go home and live again, the feeling of hurry stayed with me. I had to find time for everything.

I had once invited death, now I was afraid that the invitation had been answered after all this time, put off until now, when I was different and wanted something different. In this country, on the city streets and in the crowds at the stations, I saw the same thing in peoples’ faces. All of us were hungry, and in a hurry. We could kill each other over a crumb of bread. We smiled at each other like wolves of equal strength, and not yet sufficiently hungry. We moved past each other. I smelled the smell. And so I started thinking about peoples’ skin. Just a very small piece of skin, dark, with a man’s nipple in the middle of it, around the nipple black silky hairs, and of how the heart beat under it and moved the skin and the nipple just a shade. I thought of the steady, even movement continuing, how I had watched it, and thought; Keep going, heart. Don’t stop, heart. Don’t give up, person’s heart. I thought about it all the time, never gave in, and the carousel jerked back into motion, with its light-footed horses, and on each one a burden, and horror in the eyes of the children, and the deceitful music played again.

I was taken to see an old German cemetery, a hill among the fields. On the hill grew large trees and under the trees blue anemones. I didn’t see a single cross or headstone. The ground was the same ground as everywhere else. A burial ground. I picked an anemone. It didn’t smell like    anything. I crushed it between my fingers to smell its juice; I smelled only my own fear.

Next to the hill there was a barn. Don’t come in here, they told me, It smells in here. I went in anyway, opened the wooden door, stepped onto the straw that was spread on the floor. A spotted rooster ran in front of my feet. A large sow lay in the straw. There were ten newborn pigs, little and slender and pink. One after another they were held up, their mouths were opened, their needle sharp canine teeth were pulled out with pliers, and they were set down next to the sow and immediately began to suck. There was a smell of manure and wet straw and last night’s birth and a smell of sow’s milk, the sweet, pungent scent of life. I filled my lungs with it, and was healed.

I woke on a spring night. It was the dark of morning. Outside a bird sang in a tree in the park, over the heroes’ graves. I got up, went across the room, opened the front door and sat down on the lowest step of the entryway. I felt the smooth wood under my feet. I stroked the wood with my hand, thought of everything that had happened on these steps all the time I’d been in this house. I thought of different weather, different seasons, different shoes and bare feet, steps heavy and light. In front of me was the yard, its grass and bushes, where you could already see the    beginning of leaves. In the dimness of the morning I could see the moving flow of the street in front of the harbor, slowing in its passage, and I saw all the vehicles, all the people on foot that had embarked there, the weary, laden horses, the old women, the barefoot children. I saw the church, then I saw the church builders on their scaffolds, then the place where the church would be built. When I looked at the road again, it was full of people wandering like a stream, everyone in the same direction, and among the crowd I saw myself.

I saw the morning light. It came through the thick branches of a bush, making every branch shimmer and ripple darkly. Suddenly the light touched the dew on the grass, glistening. On the branch of the bush a grey bird sang lightly, a monotone song, beautiful.

I saw all this, watched it, then got up and went back to bed. In the morning I awoke, just like everyone else.