It began with news of an elevator, in 1901 an instrument unknown, unheard of, undreamed of in the tiny Finnish village where Esko grew up, as close to the Arctic Circle as to the capital Helsinki. At that time, at the beginning of the fresh century, the village was almost untouched by the modern world, by a future that would, in a few years, sweep aside a way of life unchanged for hundreds. In 1901, when Esko was eleven, the village boasted no railroad and one telephone, which resided, crownlike, atop a narrow throne of solid oak in the study of the vicarage, the only house with electricity for fifty miles. Armies of spruce and pine creaked with snow during the frozen, infinitely long winter, trees that towered above a narrow, deeply rutted track that led into and out of the tiny village of Pyhajarvi. The track ran past a small general store that smelled of leather and mildewed potatoes and burlap. It weaved its way among four graveyards lit at Christmas time with ice lanterns, thousands of ice lanterns, one beacon for each departed soul, flickering bravely in the northern dark. But the track did not run between the sparse scattering of farms set among forests so dense, wild, and uncharted that strangers required a guide to show them the way from one farm to another. There was a lake, twenty miles long, frozen eight months of the year, and you had to be a local to find it among the trees. There were bears, wolves, and mountainous warm smelling ant heaps where a booted foot might sink up to the thigh. It was a world of poverty, famine, frequent suicide, a world where most recalled how it was to have to eat bread made from pine bark. Despite this there was no complaint, indeed little dialogue at all, except when coaxed from gruff throats by vodka. The villagers had wary eyes and faces that aged quickly in this place where the ownership of land and winter were the most pressing realities: land that was miserable to work even if it belonged to you, and it almost certainly didn't. The villagers cared little for history or events in the world beyond. They were foxy, hard, and sly- fatalists who for the most part smiled and shook their heads at displays of hope or statements of ideals, these being considered the province of fools and very dangerous men. Esko's father, Timo Vaananen, was known to be one such dangerous man.
This severe place had its hothead- Timo- as well as a building of true magnificence. Viewed from afar, the old wooden church seemed to have two towers, both painted red ochre, one peeping over the shoulder of the other like a parent. Moving closer, you saw that the two towers belonged to two different buildings: there was the church itself, with a twenty-four-cornered ground plan in the shape of a crucifix and a steeply pitched roof giving rise to a dome like an onion; and there was the bell tower, strangely taller and more slender, elegant, with a steep shingle roof and a needlelike spire shooting out of the bell compartment. In years past Esko had climbed the stairs and the narrow ladder that led to the top of the tower with his friends, so they could play hide and seek among the ropes and bells, and with his mother, so they could stand together and admire the midnight sun as it dipped toward the lake and then, at once, miraculously, began to rise again. By the summer of 1901, however, his life had taken a different turn, and he didn't go to the bell tower anymore. When he did happen to notice it, it seemed ominous to him, a warning, saying don't stray, don't go too far.
When they finished supper on that June night Esko cleared and washed the dishes, anxiously hoping to be done and escape, to flee before his father was ready to begin. No such luck: Timo was brisk and determined, decisive as ever. He put a book with a pebbled brown cover on the table, then a glass, then a bottle of schnapps, which he uncorked with a pop and placed beside the glass. Then Timo nudged the glass. Then he poured the schnapps, knocked it back, slopped in another shot, and one more, and commanded Esko to sit. "Now we learn," he said.
The Cloud Sketcher. Copyright (c) 2001 by Richard Rayner. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
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