by Philippe Arseneault
VLB éditeur, 2014
Éditions des Équateurs, 2014
In mid-September Tuomas and Zora spent three weeks in the capital, as they had done each year since they wed. First they made their way by cart to Grigol, then travelled south by train. It took a little over thirty hours for them to reach Helsinki, and they felt a thrill each time they passed through the southern reaches of the duchy, always teeming with greater numbers of people than the previous year and urbanized by the thriving sawmill industry. The train emerged from the forests and cut out onto the great swaths of farmland surrounding the capital.
Until that year spending the summer in Helsinki had always been an inexhaustible source of wonderment for Zora. At first she had been amazed at how Tuomas seemed to be on the very best of terms with the capital’s upper crust. How could an old alchemist who lived as a hermit in the far-flung reaches of the north be received with such respect by the professors, men of science, industrialists, and prominent artists who moved in these affluent, blue-blooded circles constructed on logic and reason? For Tuomas was treated with genuine affection everywhere they went, and few could say the same. Zora would look on while a pretentious parasite—who before a small audience of yes-men and toadies had been gossiping minutes earlier about some illustrious figure or other—would shed his haughtiness upon seeing Tuomas and exclaim: “Well, well, well, is it yourself? Why yes, it is you! Here you are and in September, too. Last year we had to wait until October before we could hold you in our arms at last!” He would shake the old man’s hand frantically, occasionally going so far as to embrace him, then inundate him with questions and generally do everything in his power to remain by his side for as long as possible.
“You have so much charm it makes me giddy!” Zora would sometimes tease her husband. “You could make heathens of the Romans!”
And so they spent their evenings in Helsinki’s finest salons. Zora had a handful of friends there, girls for the most part, but also a few young men—polished and full of wit—whose company she had come to enjoy. She chatted and played cards with them while Tuomas discussed habeas corpus with a British gentleman, tea with a Japanese ambassador, or misandry with a French couturière.
But it was her husband’s “underground” meetings (as she called them) that Zora had come to love best of all. Tuomas’s past work had made him famous within the secret inner sanctum of Europe’s alchemists and he would discreetly meet with members of the chemistry department at the Imperial Alexander University of Finland, with geologists, doctors, and biologists, old friends all. They supplied him with mercury, sulphur, cinnabar, stibine, galena, and a host of other products he required for his experiments. Tuomas even brought back live insects and parasites with him to their home on the Plains of Archelle. From the botanists he knew, he bought balms that Zora insisted on putting in their luggage and that had imbued the young woman’s garments with invigorating perfumes by the time they returned home.
Above all else, more than anything Zora loved going down to the docks with Tuomas. Every year she had to beg her husband to let her go with him. Tuomas took some convincing because he was afraid: the docks were full of gallows birds. There was no shortage of burly tattooed sailors, brandy, and brawls, and Tuomas was no longer twenty years old (even at twenty, truth be told, he had been a scrawny little thing); where were the muscles he might need to come to his wife’s defence? But Zora was tall and sturdy, and resourceful. So each time Tuomas eventually consented.
On the docks Tuomas had appointments with merchants from far-off lands. He bought jaborandi leaves from Brazilian dealers. Zora had heard him lose his temper in Chinese with a merchant from the court of the Qing dynasty who had been asking an exorbitant price for three swallows’ nests. She had seen him kiss on both cheeks a hirsute Iberian who had come to sell him bismuth. On the wharfs, in the grimy little cafés where Tuomas conducted his business, Russians, Swedes, Asians, and lanky Saxons with greasy moustaches drank alcohol, played dice, hurled abuse at each other, and stared at Zora with wide animal eyes. While Tuomas haggled, Zora sipped bergamot tea and listened to the travellers babble around her. To make themselves understood, the merchants (most of whom were meeting for the first time) exchanged a flood of hellos in a multitude of languages until a face lit up in recognition: “Yes, I know a little of that language, too! I say, I’m in need of something to apply a little galipot to the hull of a small whaling vessel. And would you happen to know where I could get my hands on a plug hole?” and then “I think so, aye. See the cripple yonder at the counter selling roband and dicksocks? He sells plugs, too.” In this way a trader from India and another from America sometimes managed to bargain in an animalized pidgin that drew on five or six languages. Thusly at the counter, amid the smoke and the shouts of drunken sailors, a Japanese and an African Bedouin could do business in Sandalwood English. These Babel-like exchanges would bring a smile to Zora’s face, not because she found any beauty in them—the din, truth be told, was overwhelming—but rather because there was something comical about this community of men from all corners of the globe, driven by an urge for money that brought linguistic barriers tumbling down.
Once he had traded and bought all he desired, Tuomas placed orders for the following year. He and Zora then left the docks with masses of rare and curious goods. Among the innumerable products he had purchased, Tuomas would always have a gift for Zora: a china plate decorated with pastoral scenes, a bag of candy from Nantes, a bundle of sweet alyssum in bloom, macadamia nuts… Holding the gift, Zora would be as excited as a little girl. She would take her husband by the arm, smother his timeworn cheeks in little kisses, then drag him outside for a walk along the wharfs to breathe in the sea air. She admired the spectacle of enormous breakers that crashed against the ships’ hulls. And she and Tuomas cast admiring glances at the scowmen, proud and smart and with flowers in their buttonholes, who paraded along the pier. One year they had gone yachting in the marina, but Zora had been seasick. She had never again gone back out on the water. “I guess I don’t have good sea legs,” she grinned. “I’m a girl from the plains!” And Tuomas, without being able to say why, was touched that she did not say “from the forest.” Zora simply could not get enough of the variety performance that was always showing down by the port. Two eyes were not enough to take in the crowd of rapscallions and the huge cathedrals of the sea, the latter the very embodiment of the human ingenuity that was curiously absent in the people inside them. Zora felt as though she were strolling through an enormous zoo—a strange zoo that was strictly off limits—a sensation from which she derived immense pleasure.
When she had had her fill, when her feet ached from walking, she and Tuomas would sit down on a bench and she would rest her head on the old alchemist’s shoulder. Tireless, he would continue to point out boats and sailors, and tell her funny, magical stories. Zora thanked her lucky stars she had a husband who never tired of applying a coat or two of poetry to even the gentlest of surroundings. For Tuomas, Zora’s happiness made these trips to the docks nothing short of heavenly. The memory of the strolls they took together lingered with him until the following summer.
But that particular year, for the first time in her life, Zora found their stay in Helsinki to be unbearable. Friends she had not seen for a year seemed to her to be entirely empty-headed. She found the people of the house to be deathly boring. In each salon they visited, Zora sought refuge in a corner and would not move until evening’s end.