The Bystander

"The Nineteenth Letter," from the Finnish classic, Tainaron

Leena Krohn (1947 — ) is one of the most respected Finnish writers of her generation. In her large body of work for adults and children, Krohn deals with issues related to the boundary between reality and illusion, artificial intelligence, and issues of morality and conscience.  Her short novel Tainaron: Mail From Another City, from which this self-contained passage is taken, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and International Horror Guild Award in 2005. Tainaron shares some affinities with the work of Kafka, while being utterly original. Each section of the novel illuminates the next, with the weird element serving as strange adventure and but also containing a philosophical subtext. The city of Tainaron is both an enigma and uncomfortably familiar. You can read the entirety of Tainaron: Mail From Another City in The Weird compendium.

Translated by Hilda Hawkins

This morning as I woke up, in bed, I was overcome by a prurient restlessness whose reasons I could not immediately divine. For a long time I sat on my bed and listened. Although it was already late in the morning, the city was silent, as if not a single citizen had yet woken up, although it was a weekday and an ordinary working week.

I dressed myself in yesterday’s clothes and, without eating my breakfast, went down to the street, seeking [my friend] Longhorn’s company.

But before I could open the front door a surprising sight opened up through the round window of the stairwell: the pavement in front of the building was full of backs, side by side, broad and narrow, long and sturdy; but all were united by stillness, the same direction and position.

All at once I thought of a picture which I had once seen, perhaps in a book, perhaps in a museum; I cannot remember. Perhaps you too have seen it? The crowd in the picture had a common object of interest, which was not visible; it was outside the edge of the picture, perhaps in reality too. But more than the invisible event and its observers, my attention was drawn to a man in the background of the picture who was looking in the opposite direction to all the others. Do you remember him too?

When I then stepped out on to the outside step – and I can tell you that I did it hesitantly, almost unwillingly – I can confirm that a fair number of people were standing in front of the opposite block, too, but that there too silence prevailed. I do not think I have yet mentioned that the boulevard on which I now live runs from east to west. When, this morning, I eyed it from my front door, it looked as if the entire city had gathered along this long, wide street and had been standing there silently – that was my impression – perhaps from the middle of the night onward. The din that, with such numbers of people, generally rises like puffs of smoke, is impressive, but the rage or joy of the crowd could not have dumbfounded me as completely as its silence.

Since autumn is already approaching here, the sun was hanging, at this time in the morning, fairly low at the eastern end of the street, but as far as I could see every single citizen was staring in the opposite direction, at the point in the distance where the boulevard shrinks to a small yellow flower: where the linden trees stand in their autumn glory.

The street was empty. I have often examined its surface, skilfully patterned in stone, but now, as it spread, deserted, before me, when not a single walker was crossing it and no vehicle was rolling along it, I hardly noticed its unique beauty. In the pure dawn of the new day the tramway rails sparkled as if they were made of silver.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps some national day was being celebrated in the city, and that the boulevard was closed to traffic for a great festival parade. It might be that we should soon see the prince himself – if he is still alive – driving past us, perhaps acknowledging us with a slender hand.… Or were we expecting a state visit to the city? Would a procession of closed carriages glide past us, taking noble guests to a luncheon reception at the city hall?

But I was soon forced to abandon such thoughts. For nothing about the appearance of the Tainaronians suggested great festivities. There were no bunches of flowers, no balloons or masks. Not a single child was blowing the kind of whistle which, whining shrilly, unwinds from a roll to a long staff, and no one was flying a miniature Tainaron flag, a white pennant printed with a spiral (or perhaps a nautilus; I have never been quite sure which).

Yes, they went on standing silently, and the eastern sun infused the strong heat of copper into their back-armour.

Despite the disapproving glances which were cast at me, I pushed right through to the front row and found myself balancing on a narrow kerb-stone of the pavement.

Beside me stood a gleaming black shape that reminded me of a diver. I knocked echoingly on his polished surface and said: ‘Excuse me, but please would you tell me what day today is?’

He glanced at me, disturbed, and after making the rapid and sullen reply, ‘The nineteenth’, he turned back at once toward the west.

I was none the wiser, but I had only myself to blame – the timing and phrasing of my question had been badly chosen.

Then, my dear, there was a sudden gust of wind, and the Tainaronians suddenly began to crowd around me, so that I had to stand with one foot in the gutter. That did not matter, since I had managed to secure a lookout spot for myself. For something was now happening at the point where the boulevard dived into a dusky tunnel under the linden trees. From that direction, some kind of procession was approaching, something very long and pale; but however much I screwed up my eyes I could not make out any details.

It progressed slowly, and our moments stretched with it, but inch by inch it approached our building; and the better I could make it out, the more astonished I was.

What a parade it was! I could see no glittering carriages or brass bands. Quite the reverse: as it approached, the silence deepened still further, for on the broad boulevard of Tainaron silence combined with silence; the silence of the procession merged with the stillness of the crowd. No flags or streamers, no songs, shots or slogans. But neither did this procession have any of the solemn brilliance of a funeral cortège; not a single flower or wreath gave it colour, and there were no candle flames to flutter and smoke.

When head of the endlessly long ribbon, which took up almost the entire width of the street, reached us, new battalions rolled forth far away from under the trees. Battalions, I call them, but even today I still do not know whether these were in any sense military. I shall now try to describe to you what I saw before me this morning.

The procession was so uniform that it recalled a snake, but in fact it was made up of countless individuals. Its speed was leisurely, so that I had plenty of time to examine the beginning, which broadened like a reptile’s head and which — apparently like the entire procession – was covered by a transparent, slightly shiny membrane, like an elastic cellophane bag. Inside this membrane, in rows and fronts, marched small creatures; as far as I could see from where I stood they were like grubs, almost colourless and about as thick as my middle finger, but a little longer. I shuddered slightly as I watched them as one shivers when one comes inside from the cold.

The procession was made up of two or even three layers: those below carried the surface layer, which moved more slowly than the lower layer along a living carpet. I think what happened was that when those on top reached the head of the procession, they joined the bottom layer and, in turn, carried the others. It was impossible to estimate the number of members of the procession, but I should imagine that it was a question of millions rather than hundreds of thousands of individuals.

As I gazed at the torrent that surged before me, I remembered that a few nights previously I had dreamed a dream in which this same street had become a river. Now I was, of course, tempted to see it as a prophetic dream, although I do not habitually do that.

I tell you, I would like to understand the nature of the silence with which the city greeted the march-past of this mass. Was it respect? fear? menace? Now, when I remember our morning, I am inclined to think that it included all those emotions, plus something else, which I shall never understand, for I am in the end a stranger here.

I – like the others who stood around me – saw at the same time that a small figure had appeared in the middle of the roadway, some kind of weevil, which stared dispiritedly at the approaching flattish serpent’s head. There was nothing that was open to interpretation about its motionlessness: it was pure terror and catalepsy. The great head, which glistened unctuously in the sun, by now shining from high above, and which was made up – as I have already said – of hundreds of smaller heads, drew ineluctably nearer to the point on the cobblestones where the poor creature stood. At that petrified moment it did not even occur to me that I could have dashed into the roadway and dragged the creature to safety. For my part, I was convinced that the weevil would become food for that living rope; or, if not, that it would at least be an unwilling part of that strange procession.

But what happened was this: when the slowly undulating river reached the creature – which looked as if it was benumbed into a hypnosis-like state – its head split in two and left a space for the weevil without even brushing its unbudging form.

There was a sigh – it was unanimous – and the front part of the snake merged once more, but in the middle of the broad flow the little creature stood like an island, while the masses that seethed around it flowed, glistening, onward.

I do not know whether you will find this description strange. Have you ever, on your travels, encountered anything comparable? You have told me so little about the time when we did not yet know each other.…

For my part, I am still bewildered by my morning experience. I do not know how long I stood on the spot, one foot on the pavement, the other in the gutter, as new battalions, divisions, regiments, rolled past us. I should like to say, too, that (with the exception of the case of the weevil) nothing about the procession suggested that anyone in it might have seen or noticed us, that we, the citizens of Tainaron (I am, after all, in a sense one of them) existed in any way for them, let alone that this great march was organised with us in mind.

If you were to ask, I would answer that I do not know. No, I really have not been able to find out what it was and why it went through Tainaron, where it came from and whether it had a destination. It could be that it was searching for something; it could be that it was fleeing something. If the others know something, if you receive any information about this matter, then tell me; do not hide anything!

When the tail of the procession, so thin that its tip was formed of just a few individuals – and they themselves were unusually slender and transparent — had finally slipped out of sight beyond the square where the boulevard terminates to the east, the crowds dispersed incredibly quickly. I looked around me and stood there, alone on the kerbstone, and the sun was at its highest. Everything bustled around me as before; the shops opened again and vehicles rolled both eastward and westward. Some dashed to banks and offices and secret assignations and others to meetings or to prepare the day’s dinner. But in the middle of the street – as far as the eye could see, in either direction – ran a moist, slimy trail.

This afternoon, when I walked across the boulevard, I could no longer see it. It had dried up and was covered in the same sand and dust that dances before winter in each of the streets of Tainaron.

Insect Procession

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