The Value of the Earth

(Central Finland. July 2003)

I came to Juorkuna before the day was hot. Veikko arrived at the same time and sat in his Lada smoking a cigarette.

There was a store at Juorkuna. A square, yellow building with a sloping roof and newspapers in the windows. Behind it was an abandoned wooden house painted a deep, rusty, red. Buttercup and red clover came up through the cracks in the asphalt. Geraniums grew in a long, white plastic window-box that hung just below the windows. They blossomed a brilliant red. The rye in the fields was not yet ripe.

The store owner was a round, middle-aged woman who pursed her lips when she smiled. Her hands were long and slender and beautiful. She had been trained as a pastry chef. On a box of apples and in wicker baskets she had arranged fresh cinnamon rolls, danishes, croissants and glazed strawberries that glittered in the sun.

There was coffee in a silver thermos, paper cups and a bowl of sugar; the milk was ice cold.

I took a cinnamon roll and coffee. She refused my money. “They aren’t for sale. They are for eating.” She said and pursed her lips. I thanked her, picked them up and went outside to sit at a wooden table and look at my maps. Veikko continued to smoke.

A gray van arrived and a thin, weather beaten man with a tired mouth and loose jeans climbed down and went into the store. His wife stayed in the van and shouted for him to bring an ice-cream. She was impossibly fat and struggled to breathe. She was all sweaty.

Other cars pulled up in front of the store and the fat lady shouted instructions to the drivers. They ignored her. The thin man reappeared with two ice-cream cones. He gave them both to the fat lady, then returned to the store. Veikko came, introduced himself and sat down beside me.
“Where are you going?”

“Oulu.”

“From where?”

“Suomussalmi. Raate actually. At the Russian border.”

Veikko knew Raate. “I was at Raate during the war.” He said.

He said that he turned 18 in October of 1939 and immediately joined the army. When the Russians came he mowed them down with his water-cooled Maxim machine gun and left them in piles to bleed to death on the snow. In the morning, he would take his puukko and slit the throats of the ones left alive.

That was how Veikko knew the Raate Road.

He said that he prayed they would stop coming, but each night they came and each night he killed more. In the spring, he was at Taipale and he ran when they broke the line. He wasn’t scared, he said, he was tired of killing and didn’t stop running until Seinäjoki. “The Ostrobothnians though, they ran all the way to Vaasa.” He smiled.

A woman came on a bike with a metal basket. There was a dog in the basket. It was fuzzy and brown with a pink bow in its ear. “Looking at maps. Looking at maps. Men are always looking at maps.” She shook here head sorrowfully and went into the store.

“I’m walking.” I said.

“The best thing is to walk.” He replied and went inside.

I sat in the sun and drank the coffee. The cinnamon roll was hot and fresh. The fat woman continued to shout orders and berated a young German couple for trying to use the broken gas pump. The thin man brought her a third ice-cream and returned to the store. “Make it licorice next time!” She hollered after him.

The morning quickly grew hot and children appeared on bikes. They too bought ice-cream. No one else took one of the fresh pastries. Veikko returned with a small bag of groceries. He asked me what I had seen, walking from Raate.

“Yesterday I saw a family of Vietnamese gathering blueberries near Särkijärvi. They must have had 50-60 liters!”

“Yes. Two Estonian women take cloudberries near Pello, in Lapland. They call me in September, on their way home, and I buy several liters. There is nothing better than cloudberries and vanilla ice-cream.” He smiled softly.

“Does it bother you, so many foreigners coming to Finland?”

“No. Why should it? Its God’s Earth, not mine. I’m just here for a few years. It doesn’t belong to me. Who am I to say: you can come or you can not. No. It’s not my place to say.”
Then he smoked another cigarette, climbed into his Lada and drove toward Särkijärvi. The store owner came out, pursed her lips at me and asked “Are you from Michigan?”

“New Mexico.”

“Does New Mexico look like Michigan?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve never been there but I imagine it looks more like Finland than New Mexico.”

“My husband was born in Michigan. His parents emigrated to America but they didn’t like it. They came back when he was five years old. I always wondered what Michigan looked like, but I think life in Finland is better.” She pursed her lips and returned to the store.

In the evening I slept in a room above a bar that smelled like vomit. Mickey Mouse posters hung on the wall and drunken men stumbled in and out under the midnight sun.