Excerpt: Troll, A Love Story

Weirdfictionreview.com is proud to present an excerpt from Johanna Sinisalo’s novel Troll: A Love Story. Sinisalo was awarded the Finlandia Prize for literature for Troll, originally published in her native Finland as Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi, and later received the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2004. The novel is about Mikael – known among some as Angel – a photographer who adopts a troll cub he rescues from some hooligans outside his apartment. As he nurses the troll back to health and conducts research on his new companion, the creature begins to exert a powerful influence over Angel and sets in motion a stunning chain of events. The POV of the novel switches between Angel and several other characters, including his former (and sometimes would-be) lover Martes, his current lover Ecke, and his downstairs neighbor Palomita. These accounts are further interspersed with various articles, encyclopedia entries, folk tales, and other documents taken from the world of the novel, where trolls were discovered as a real mammalian species in 1907. In this excerpt from Troll, we find Angel some time after he has taken the troll in, receiving a phone call from Martes, who has commissioned work from Angel on an ad campaign for a jeans company and, dismayed with his progress, gives him a sobering ultimatum. (Slider art by Jeremy Zerfoss)– The Editors

***

ANGEL

Martti’s vanished from my mind completely. Seems inconceivable. But, now, hearing his voice on the phone turns my legs to jelly.

His voice is soft and a bit husky as always, but I don’t want to believe his words, not those words.

He’s wondering why I haven’t reported how I’m getting on with the Stalker project. Or am I really spending all my time running after some horse-doctor in the city night, as the whole town seems to know?

I try to blurt out an explanation: there’s still time before the deadline, I’ve certainly come up with ideas, but just now there’s been a tiny bottleneck … But a poisonous sarcasm is drizzling into Martes’s words: obviously I’m not approaching his brief with the slightest seriousness, obviously I’m not taking this whole cooperative enterprise of ours seriously enough. The Stalker campaign’s crucial for him, one of the biggest challenges of his career. I’m not thinking of letting him down, am I … in this, too?

I hear everything that’s hidden between the lines.

There are tears in my eyes as the line goes silent.

EXCERPT FROM THE TELEVISION PROGRAM ISPREDATORY ANIMAL CRUEL? (OCTOBER 19, 1999)

Professor Martti Soikkeli of Turku University reports: “Cruelty is knowingly — consciously — causing another being mental or physical pain, agony, and doing it regardless of the knowledge that the other is suffering anguish. So now, asked if predatory animals kill and rend their prey with the knowledge they are causing pain and agony, then the answer is categorically no: they do not know. In the animal kingdom there is no such thing as what is called morality — in other words, knowledge of good and evil. We human beings are moral beings: we know the difference between good and evil; but animals do not.”

ANGEL

In the studio I take Pessi in my arms then whisk the Stalkers on to his back legs with a single pull — knowing I’d not manage it at a second shot. If Pessi had thought of spreading his hind claws, the jeans wouldn’t have slipped on: the legs would have been torn to shreds. A size to fit a three-foot-six-inch child suits him stunningly. I’ve got the zip and metal button fastened and have twitched his tail through the hole I’ve made in the Stalker backside before he realizes he’s been diddled. Then I throw Pessi — now a hissing, whirling ball bristling with razor-sharp claws — in front of the backdrop, and I start the automatic camera rolling.

Pessi hates the Stalkers — so fiercely he doesn’t take a jump at the walls but stays put, right there where he should be, against the backdrop, illuminated by the lamps, in my viewfinder. He’s somersaulting, pirouetting, doing his damnedest to get rid of this indigo-blue straitjacket imprisoning his back legs. The lights must be causing his night-vision eyes intense pain, but it’s the struggle with the Stalkers that takes priority in Pessi’s mind. He leaps a meter high with his amazing springs of muscles, twists and turns like a grotesque boy go-go dancer, does a break-dance roll on his back, and tries to rip the jeans with his foreclaws. But the denim’s holding, it’s holding for the time being, and Pessi stretches upright, stands on his two legs, nails ripping at the belt loops, and I almost shut my eyes — it’s such a perfect frame. Then he presses his black mane into the backdrop’s white floor, raises his backside, crowned of course with an impotently flourishing frenzied tail, and screams through his legs at the camera. And the shutter’s whirring. And a tightly coiled coal-black and indigo-blue spring is hissing and wriggling and hurtling and jerking and circling and squirming, and it’s all being shot, two frames a second, almost as if Pessi’s own scintillating energy was blazing the shots onto the silver.

When the denim does finally rip, it’s a relief for me, too. When the first rent comes at the hip, where Pessi can reach most easily with his claws, it’s as if I’m drawing my first breath in ages. And after that I see a whirlwind of indigo denim-shreds, with Pessi panting in the middle and then springing with a single leap out of the glare of the spotlights. He leaps at me with a snarl, his eyes burning, his nails bared, but when I raise my hand he remembers the threat, remembers the rolled-up newspaper and dashes into a corner to curl up. I reel the diapositive onto its cassette, drop it in my hand, and squeeze it. And there in the dark corner I can make out Pessi’s tail, switching, switching, and lashing like an angry whip.

TROLL TALES, EDITED BY THE FINNISH LITERATURE SOCIETY, 1990

Told by Roope Hollman, a Hired Hand from the Village of Haukivuori, 1884

Once some foemen came to a house in the evening, claiming to be traveling men, and asked a lodging for the night. But the man of the house said, “So few sheds we have here, we can give thee no lodging for the night. By the wood, though, we have an outhouse. If that will serve thy turn, then lay thee down there for the night.”

The foemen went to the outhouse. But, lo and behold, the morning brought a troll that had set up home in the out-house. The troll began to ransack the foemen’s backpacks and stuff the meat it found there in its mouth. When the foemen woke to this, they began to shout to the farmer, “Hey, man, call off this black tufted-tailed cat of thine!” The farmer made as if he didn’t hear the foemen’s jabbering and just lay there, at his rest. Again a foeman bellowed, “Hey, thee there, an end to this tufted-tailed cat of thine, or I’ll do the thing myself!”

The farmer said not a word. Two or three more times the foeman bellowed “An end to it, an end to it!” and then made to seize the troll. But the troll was no ordinary cat, and in two shakes of its tail the foemen had taken to their heels through the window and away in the field.

Seven years later came a foeman again to the same village. He asked the children at the field-end, “Hast thou still that black tufted-tailed cat here with thee?”

Yes,” the children said. “That we do!”

At that the foeman never dared return to the house again.

MARTES

I look at the screen again, zoom closer, and find myself taking a deep breath. “Fucking brilliant,” I mouth to myself, silently and with emphasis.

God, it was worth it, it was worth it.

Mikael’s beaming away somewhere behind my back, so close I feel the glowing warmth of his thighs, and it makes me uncomfortable. I swing around on my revolving chair, perhaps too swiftly.

You did this with Photoshop?”

That’s right.”

I shake my head, smile against my will, and see my smile’s instantly reflected on Mikael’s face — I’ve flicked it on as if with a switch.

You’re an actual wizard. Not a wipe or intercut in sight anywhere, even when I’m looking for them. Well, maybe where you’ve linked the tail to the trousers there’s a faint blur, but you’d certainly need my professional eagle eye to spot that.”

Mikael grimaces, embarrassed.

Mind you, we’ve seen this sort of stuff before. Take a bunch of good animal pics, then get a model with jeans on to take up the same postures as the beast, scan the stuff, and the job’s done. Still, impressive work you’ve done, anyway.”

Didn’t take so very long.”

Always the modest violet. And the troll pictures — from the Ähtäri Animal Park archives or what?”

Mikael laughs nervously. He knows the joke, and it’s an old one. In the office whenever we have an ad idea with any sort of animal in it — a bear, a mole, a penguin, or whatever — and someone starts headaching about where we’ll get the rushes, someone else always says “from the Ähtäri Animal Park archives,” even if what we’re looking for is a white rhinoceros.

There won’t be any trouble over the rights for these pictures, will there? Presumably you scanned the source pictures from some international nature-picture archive … You can’t have done these takes crouching in some hide near a reindeer carcass. Where did you download them?”

Mikael explains he’s got a brother whose job is photographing nature pictures for a photographic agency. He took a trip to the Russian Karelian area, where trolls are more numerous. There some local Russki found the troll in an illegal bear trap he’d set, and Mikael’s brother turned up before the animal was finished off. That does explain the frames’ astonishing focus, the impression of close-ups and the fact that there’s no undergrowth or anything. Otherwise Mikael has cleaned up and intensified the pictures so masterfully you’d think they had been taken in a studio — even the lightest shadow-inserts have been computerized so realistically — it’s a knockout.

The rights?”

Mikael rattles on, somehow too quickly and as if covering up, but no wonder. He’s bound to be onto what a treasure-trove this CD is that he’s pushed into my computer. These pictures belong to them entirely, his brother and himself. It’s a deal between the two of them, reciprocal, from this one old photo-shoot. No need for a photographic agency to get mixed up in this at all. Even the invoicing can be done through Mikael’s business name: the brother’ll want it like that for tax reasons. All that interests me is for the rights to be ours, altogether ours, by God.

Well, so what do you think of it then?” Mikael’s cheeks are flushed a delicate pink – the man’s like a shy bride. His eyes glow with a dreadful hunger for recognition.

Quite okay.”

Mikael was clearly hoping for a little more than this, but now I have to be really on my guard. If he wakes up fully to what’s fallen in our lap, he’ll also wake up to the price he could ask … Well, one we could no doubt afford, but there’s no point if we can get away with less.

I presume you can use them?” Mikael’s voice has a tone of actual distress in it now, and I realize it’s time for the coup de grâce. I lay my hand on his shoulder, with a weighty, manly purposefulness.

Of course we can use them. As one alternative anyway.” A glimmer of hope dawns in Mikael’s eyes, a hope not just centered on pictures or money.

What occurred to me as well is — it’s a topical theme. All the papers are stuffed with these stories about wild animals in the towns, and … well, it’s as if the publicity was already made: people’s fears, all this talk that’s going on, and …”

Poor guy, I think. No need to go on selling it any more. It’s sold itself already.

Come on, let’s go and have a coffee and talk about money.” My hand on his shoulder’s ushering Mikael out of the room, and he almost wobbles trying to walk away without making it leave his shoulder quicker than necessary.

ANGEL

I’m sitting in the pub, and I’m having a beer, and my heart’s still thumping with happiness and excitement.

You did it, Pessi, you did it, I whisper quietly. I undressed you, I dressed you, together we’re a perfect team.

AN EXCERPT FROM THE JOURNAL OF YRJÖ LUUKKONEN

frontiersman from the village of Suomussalmi near the Russian and Lapp borders, 1981

Fri. 7.10.1981: At 18.20 I arrived at the cabin and put a gummed tape on the roof against the mosquitoes. The ravens were at the carcass. The cuckoos were cuckooing near the cabin; I took some photos. The ravens finish feeding at about 21.00 hours and thereafter the neighborhood is dead quiet. At 22.50 the sun so low the tops of the trees along the shore of the tarn turn reddish in the light. At 23.00 I see a troll coming to feed. A large male. It approaches the carcass slowly, stops from time to time to listen. The troll keeps in the shade of the trees, so that I have difficulty getting it in the viewfinder. It advances with extremely fast strides straight at the carcass, tears off some ribmeat, and puts it right into its mouth. There is so little light I take no photos. Then the troll begins tearing off a bigger piece of the carcass, making very careful use of its foreclaws. I then decide to try a photo. The first click of the shutter stiffens the beast, and a second starts it upright. It disappears with its lump of meat into the forest, so quickly I can only catch a few dim shots. I stay awake until four in the morning, but the troll does not return.

Sat. 7.11.1981: During the night I look at the carcass several times to see if there is anything — there is not. I have been hoping to get my lens on a troll female with her young. No one has yet taken a picture like that. But yesterday’s male sighting has been my only prize.

Sun. 7.12.1981: Still nothing. I readily understand that the sharp-eared male scared off by the sound of my shutter will not return, but I thought some other troll might stray this way.

Mon. 7.13.1981: I draw a blank. Just two cuckoos near the cabin, and at 21.00 hours three ravens came to feed. They flew off Hartikkalampi way at 21.45.

Tues. 7.14.1981: I arrive at the cabin at 19.30. At first there is altogether too much light for trolls, but a bear is soon at the carcass. Above the bear’s left eye there is a hairless patch about 4 centimeters square, and that spot is swollen, almost closing the eye. White tissue showing on the edge of the eye, on the right cheek the slash of a claw. The bear feeds and departs at about 20.20. At 23.00 comes bear 2. Perhaps the trolls dare not come to the carcass now the bears have found it.

ANGEL

But when I get home, drunk with happiness, the door’s ajar and Pessi’s gone.

PALOMITA

My bag’s weighed down with joy and clinking with defiance. I’ve bought some more cat food, a different brand this time. I want to know how the troll’s getting on. And Mikael. I got the money back on bottles and collected little coins and asked for a separate receipt for the cat food so that Pentti—

A scratching noise on the stairs.

A black flicker, a patch of night hurtles into the shadow behind the banister, and I know what it is.

I’ve seen it before. It’s somehow managed to escape from his apartment.

I put my bag down and quickly pull the ring on the cat food can, push my finger into the light brown paste, and crouch, beckoning with my hand in the air. I hiss a soft invitation. The animal smells the food straight away. Its ears perk up from the shadow of the banister, then it comes closer, sidling up, ready to bounce off, its tail’s trembling, but finally it crouches in front of me, nostrils twitching in its little slender face. It stretches its muzzle out uncertainly, then licks my finger, as if it remembered — perhaps it does remember — the moment when it was sick and weak and I was its mama.

And footsteps, footsteps! From above. I look up. The troll starts and gets as tense as a bow and arrow but doesn’t fly off. Mikael.

Thank God, thank God, thank God!” he keeps saying. “Oh heavens. Hell. Thank you.”

He comes and takes the animal in his arms as devotedly as a child. It doesn’t resist but grips his shirt with its paws like a baby ape. Mikael says nothing more but goes back up the steps, running, taking them two at a time, and I follow, because I can’t do anything else. The bag and open cat food are left on the stairs. I don’t care.

ANGEL

Palomita follows me through the door. I close it, go into the sitting room, and put Pessi on the floor.

I’m at a loss whether to get the rolled-up newspaper or give him as many quails’ eggs as he could ever want.

How the hell did he do it?” I ask aloud, and I don’t care whether she understands or not. I’ve gone cold, yet sweat’s flowing from every pore. Supposing that old gossip, that nosy old cow of a caretaker, had seen Pessi on the stairs?

I sit down heavily on the sofa. Palomita sits next to me. I start rattling away in a hurried, almost hysterical English.

I beg you, let me hope you won’t mention, ever, won’t tell about this darling pet, not to anyone? Maybe animals aren’t even allowed in the building — I’ll lose him if anyone finds out. He’s no trouble. He’s terribly intelligent, he always obeys me, but he wouldn’t necessarily obey others. Something might happen.”

She keeps nodding, smiling in a way that makes her narrow face with its big eyes almost beautiful. This is the second time she’s saved Pessi for me. I ought somehow to be able to thank her, but I don’t know how. She looks at me like a cocker spaniel.

There comes a rattle from the hall.

I leap up, and both Palomita and I see the same thing: Pessi has stretched up as tall as he possibly can, the middle of his body looks weirdly elongated like a cat that’s trying to grope for something high up, and, concentrating hard, with his long-nailed fingers, he’s turning the knob on the doorlock.

Click.

The door opens.

Pessi looks at us with a perky curl in his tail. His whole being speaks pride.

Pride. Joy that he can imitate me, who always opens the door like that, before I go out there into the world that doesn’t belong to him.

He’s opened it himself,” Palomita breathes.

In one leap I’m in the hall, and Pessi backs off from me. I shut the door, dig the keys from my pocket, turn one in the keyhole, and click: double-locked.

Then I start laughing, laughing, and laughing quite irrepressibly. At first Palomita’s puzzled, but then she begins shyly tittering, and I slap my thighs, hooting. Pessi’s ears tremble with amazement.

MARTES

When I see the layout I know this is it. This is the Tops, the year’s Gold Standard, the Clio, or whatever. It’s just fab. The image left nothing else to think about but the title — and that had to be fucking perfect, too. That’s it now. In tiny type — and nothing but the title. For nothing can be allowed to detract from the force of that image.

Against a pale neutral background there’s the troll. It’s snarling and furious — God knows what Michelangelo had to do with Photoshop to get its eyes blazing like that. In the pictures it looks monstrously tall, two meters at least, and, in spite of that, it’s got a slender and whiplike suppleness and its muzzle isn’t protruding, as in those rare troll pictures I’ve seen. No, it’s confusingly like a human face. Its mane is wavy. Its coal-black coat shines. The long hooked claws on its forelimbs and back legs are sort of clutching the air. And it’s in the middle of a wild skip-and-a-hop routine that’s something between ballet and break-dancing. The crackling energy in the image makes you tense your every muscle instinctively, poised to jump back. And this punk-god of the animal world has Stalkers on its legs, which look as if they were made to measure.

Above the picture, in an extremely modest, almost whispering font, is the title: STALKER, THE MARK OF THE BEAST.

PALOMITA

When Pentti dresses me in the split hot pants and wants to stuff me with two penises at once, I bite my lips and moan as I’ve been taught to and think about him.

When Pentti decides the food I’ve made has too much white pepper in and throws it in my face, when Pentti counts the shopping money again and again to prove I’ve pocketed fifty cents, when Pentti takes all my clothes off for the whole day just because I’ve spilled some tea on the blouse he’s bought me, I think of him. It’s as if I’m hitting back, and I’ve no feeling of remorse.

I think of when I was helping him with his pet. When I left the open cat food and shopping bag on the stairs, and when I came back, the lady with the quilted jacket and the big dangling earrings was staring at them. Why had I left cat food on the stairs? Had I got a cat? And I told a lie and said I’d found a lost cat in the yard and given it food, and the woman was rude and angry. In this building no one brings in all the world’s stray animals. And she grabbed the can and took it away.

But I get into no bad mood because of what the lady says, no; for then, too, I think about Mikael, who has been laughing his relief and his pride out with me in the hall. When he stopped laughing I knew I had to go, and suddenly there was a strange, empty, disappointed feeling in my stomach. But when I was almost outside the door, stealing away from the one place where even if just for a moment I feel some warmth, he suddenly held out his arms to me, pulled me to his breast and squeezed me until I nearly burst. “Thank you, thank you, again, Palomita,” he said. Then he let me go and looked at me embarrassed, as if he was amazed himself. He tried to say something, “I’m so happy … you do understand, don’t you …,” but in my dizzy joy I just touched his lips with my fingers as a sign that he should be silent, and I ran away from the joy that was flowing over me.

For no one can be so grateful just because someone has brought back a runaway pet … and so I’m waiting. And I’m thinking.

ANGEL

Pessi’s sitting in my lap, sleek and black and warm. The root of his tail stirs a little against my lower belly. I stroke Pessi’s arm, which has a small, firm bicep, I raise the book I’m holding higher and continue reading. Pessi’s pointed ears tremble as he follows the rhythm of my voice.

I glance through the window. Outside there’s a soft snowfall, dense enough to make vision nil. White death, I think.

I continue reading aloud:

Illusia never ever forgot this evening. The previous day she had lost her wings and realized that from now on she had to live on the earth. Life here for her was no longer like a picture book for children, which you look at and then throw away. She knew she had to live this book, and now she had a feeling that there was something fearfully compelling in the book, that the tints of its pictures glowed on even in the night, when the dusk of the north came down to flatten them out.

I swallow. Pessi looks in my face as if wondering why I’ve stopped reading, why the words have dried up in my throat. He stretches up and sees a drop of sweat on my upper lip, his little rough tongue brushes the corner of my mouth, and an inarticulate sob flashes to my throat. And outside it’s snowing, snowing endlessly.

ECKE

Outside it’s snowing, snowing endlessly.

And I’ve left sixteen messages on Angel’s voice mail.

ANGEL

Pessi,” I whisper, and I stretch my hand out and slide it around his sweet, narrow, smooth, burning-hot waist. Pessi’s ears tremble. I have a massive erection, as if part of my stomach and thighs were rock-hard aching flesh.

I’ve locked him in here. I’ve tried to capture part of the forest, and now the forest has captured me.

3 replies to “Excerpt: Troll, A Love Story

  1. Pingback: Magpie Monday | Robert E. Stutts

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