(Tuatara skull from wiki)
This week marks the publication of a landmark volume: Leena Krohn’s Collected Fiction. A staggering 850 pages covers Krohn’s entire forty-year career through novels, novellas, short stories, novel excerpts, essays, appreciations, and even poetry. (The book is also available through this StoryBundle, until the end of the year.) The collection made the Onion AV Club’s best books of the year.
Krohn (1947 – ) is perhaps the most well-known Finnish writer of her generation. Her large and varied body of work often deals with topics like the relationship between imagination and morality, the evolution of synthetic forms of life, and the future of humankind in the context of the natural world. Krohn has received such prestigious honors as the Finlandia Prize (1992) and the Aleksis Kivi Fund Award for lifetime achievement (2013). Her short novel Tainaron: Mail from Another City was aWorld Fantasy Award finalist in 2005 and her books have been translated into more than twenty languages. Her fiction has been included in such English-language anthologies as The Weird, Sisters of the Revolution and The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy.
The excerpt showcased below comes from Krohn’s novel Gold of Ophir, about a mysterious community of “goldwashers” haunted by a woefully lost tuatara and driven by a strange alchemical figure to find an alternative lifestyle. Weird fungi and unexplained phenomena abound in the novel, which nonetheless has a precision of detail and sharpness of insight that offsets the surreal aspects. The novel is both very physical and yet also metaphysical and examining the idea of devotion.
In this section, “Eyelids That Spatter Blood,” the community ponders the death of the tuatara that creeps through the pages of the entire novel. – The Editors
EYELIDS THAT SPATTER BLOOD
Poor tuatara, what a brute it is. Some friend of a friend of one of the Gold-Washers imported it years ago from the Pacific islands. When the Tabernacle was finished, it moved in with its new masters.
The tuatara was born before the Fall, like all reptiles. It is a living fossil, it has remained alone on the face of the Earth. It belongs to a great family, the family of the dinosaurs, but all its relatives died as early as the Mesozoic era. The tuatara ought to be gliding through the dimness of ferns and calamites, in eternal heat, as droplets sparkle on its faintly patterned skin.
Was its native land the immense continent of Gondwanaland, from which America, Africa and Australia subsequently tore themselves free? Or was it born in Laurasia, still lusher and milder? Poor tuatara! It will never reach its home.
It has been flung here with finality, amid a strange species. It must live in the strange house of the Tabernacle in a land of snow and granite.
The tuatara is not large, only half a metre long, stocky and green all over, a real fright. It is slow and covered in scales, it is slightly horrifying to lay one’s hand on its cold skin, on the prickly, upright cornified ridge it carries on its back. It no longer starts when it is touched, but it does not seem to enjoy the experience, either. It is altogether different to stroke a warm-blooded creature, a cat or a dog, which looks its owner in the eye and knows him and its own name.
But this creature – does it know the hands that feed it? Similar hands once trapped it in a gentler place, where it lived in the company of fulmars. and brought it under other skies, as a pastime, an oddity, a curiosity…
I have never heard the Gold-Washers call it by a pet-name. It is just the tuatara, not so much an individual as a representative of its species. If they were to give it a proper name, it would not learn to recognise it or come to them when it is called, but only out of hunger.
Whoever loves the tuatara loves purely, without demands, for no one who sees its round eyes can expect to be loved in return.
Whenever the sky darkens, one of the Gold-Washers takes a book. Whenever the sky darkens, the second puts a headset over his ears and the B minor calms his face, makes it peaceful and broad. Whenever the sky darkens, the third rests his head on his hands and sees through the window the outdoor room where they sit under lanterns as the prey of the night. Whenever the sky darkens, Pontanus’s scales quiver, but the book-lice crawl into the crevices between the stones in their terrarium and sleep.
Only then does the tuatara wake, far away in its dark room, and returns to their company through many halls and corridors and two hundred million years.
It comes to where they are, and it is spoken to, it is stroked and it is given a meal. What does it eat? I have heard that here in the Tabernacle it eats everything the Gold-Washers themselves chew upon: fruit and meat, porridge and potatoes, but it likes flies best, so in summer the swish of the fly-swatter is often heard.
It never looks straight at the Gold-Washers, although it has three eyes, two on either side of its broad head and one on top, where it can be seen under the gleaming skin. Although its gaze slips past people, it seems to observe a great deal out of the corners of its three eyes.
What might the image the tuatara has formed of us be like? If one could project it on to a wall like a transparency, would we recognise ourselves from it?
When the tuatara has eaten, it slips past the Gold-Washers toward the outside door; someone opens it and the primitive reptile disappears, rustling, into the night. But when morning breaks it appears early on the terrace brilliant with dew, colder than before.
Tuatara, you saw us
Aah! One day the Gold-Washers had visitors, and one of them, Doctor K.C., went to look at the sleeping tuatara. A den had been built for it of cardboard boxes in one of the many empty rooms of the Tabernacle.
Of what did the tuatara dream at the Gold-Washers’ house, in the garden of the Tabernacle? Did it ever see us in its dreams, our clean hands, our long, lanky legs and the constantly changing garments with which we clad ourselves?
The Doctor went into the room where the tuatara was sleeping, bent over the lizard, gave a laugh, perhaps tickled its side, and then – was thrown backward, fell, clambered upright again and, groaning, angry, wiped blood from his face.
‘My God!’ his wife cried, and dashed to his side. ‘It tried to kill you. It bit him! It bit him! Destroy that reptile!’
‘Show me,’ said one of the Gold-Washers, and calmly went up to the Doctor. ‘Did it really bite you, I don’t believe it.’
‘He is covered in blood, you can see for yourself!’ shouted the wife.
Good lord, how furious she was.
‘But where is the wound?’ asked the Gold-Washer, and wiped the visitor’s face with a damp towel. It emerged from under it as smooth and shiny as a piece of fruit.
The Doctor felt his face in astonishment. No, nothing hurt. Where indeed was the wound from which the blood had flowed? It was not to be found on the visitor, or on the tuatara, which had curled up again to sleep in the security of its own coldness.
It was a wonder, an incomprehensible riddle. For the cloth which hung from the Gold-Washer’s hand was clearly bloody.
‘Let me explain,’ said the Gold-Washer. ‘You disturbed this lizard’s afternoon nap, it was frightened of you, and it has its own defence mechanisms. For you see, although we call it a tuatara, in fact this individual has — strangely enough — a characteristic of certain saurians: it spatters blood from its eyelids if it is disturbed. You were not injured, were you, and we can all calm down: the matter is clear, I hope.’
They sat down at the dining-table soon after this incident, but the atmosphere had changed. The couple were offended. They were no longer at home in the house where the tuatara lived. The blood of a reptile had been spattered on them, and they could not make themselves comfortable in the large rooms of the Tabernacle.
For these were forms and ways of life of which they had known nothing. The spirit of another epoch had blown over them, and its strange stench filled them with dread.
The blood-spattering eyelids spoiled their evening. Whatever they talked about — concretism, new dairy products, the moons of Jupiter — pauses opened up between their sentences, into which the tuatara breathed, two walls away.
And when they were just about to get up and say goodbye and had almost forgotten the tuatara, it awoke in its den. Evening had come, and it rose up on its short, five-fingered legs pallidly, its back-fin sticking up, and slipped past them to the door. It did not appear to notice anyone or to remember that they had already made each others’ acquaintance.
For a moment, all three paused, abreast, under the great dome of the Pantheon, ready to leave. Doctor K.C. and his wife waited, tall and straight, and the tuatara, the green lizard, much lower. The makaras carved from blocks of wood, the other wall-decorations of the Pantheon, looked at the couple, who were like them, face to face.
Then a car door slammed and a Gold-Washer came in. On his head was a drainpipe cap. He came in an unstable state of mind, drunk, intending to go on drinking.
The Gold-Washer leaned heavily on the shoulders of both the Master and his wife, swayed between them, and wagged his finger at the tuatara:
With your third eye, tuatara dear,
you transilluminated us,
looked into our marrow, bones,
and into our hearts and spleens,
pierced the timber of our skulls
sensed the purpose of our brains.
‘Shouldn’t you let it out?’ said Doctor K.C. But the Gold-Washer continued, without listening to him:
Tuatara, you saw us,
weighed us up, yet stayed.
You know who we are now.
Weep blood for all our sakes.
The Tabernacle dimmed, eye by eye and window by window. The glass harmonica no longer tinkled, the dark rooms expanded and contracted like the lungs of the sleepers.
Behind their walls, the night wind left the crowns of the trees in peace; only the murmuring was ceaseless. Locks of hair twisted in motionless whorls over Latona’s ears, her lips were as naked as her hard forehead, and on the down on her upper lip gleamed the same moisture as in the pistils of herbs.
They went inside, Latona and the Gold-Washer, the tophatted one. What a quantity of fabric they were wearing, garments, shoes and belts. They had before them an exacting task. As if everything that they had ever worn or would ever wear had now to be cast aside – everything, from swaddling clothes to shrouds, but first the hat, which glittered like a peacock’s tail.
The fabric folded like water. more and more of it seemed to flow from the darkness; they moved it aside with impatient gestures, and it fell on the floor, rustling heavily. They threw garments around them, and tarlatans and linen shirts, necklaces and fur collars, headdresses and waistcoats, greatcoats, leggings and mosquito nets flew through the room. They became entangled with sleeves, legs and socks, buckle-pins pricked their fingers, their way was barred by buttons and spun thread.
Finally: what a mountain of rags, what a hill of tatters, what a cliff-face of cloth, rose on the floor before them, and they sank into its side, knocked over by the feather of their desire. But although they had already taken everything off, absolutely everything, it was not enough, no: between them was still skin and sweat and desire, the loneliness of two cities.
‘Open your eyes,’ she said, but she could not do so herself; she had to shelter her gaze. For in the darkness their invisible bodies shone, they were golden. The substance of which they were made had been renewed. It was now the flesh of gods.
The back of a hand relaxed on to a pillow, violet streams flowed across a wrist, hearts beat in their fingertips.
The doubt that had long been eating at their insides was now absent. Certain that they existed, they looked from mirror to mirror. They were alive! It was a rare feeling. It was an amazing experience.
The Gold-Washer’s hand strayed deeper and deeper between Latona’s thighs and released from her lips – from both their lips – a silvery moan. But his other arm was wound round Latona’s shoulders, and his fingers reached her face. In the silence of dreams, they traced her image again and again.
‘I’m melting,’ she heard the other cry out as his transfixed body relaxed, fulfilled, away from her, toward her. On Latona’s face pleasure and suffering flared into a single expression that left behind it a landscape of purity like death. It was eternally the same: peace, renewable innocence.
Then someone was looking at them from the darkness and Latona rose up over her own still raging breast.
The Gold-Washer jumped up. ‘Who’s there? Who dares?’ And he could not find a switch, a lamp. Was a third person present?
Some hint of light, the dawn of the dawn or the light of the zodiac, the nightglow!, made things visible and picked out Latona’s shoulder. It was a false dawn, not real light but like something originating from the heart of the night, from their own pupils. But the gold had disappeared, and true morning was farther off than ever. They, too, were only dimness in the dimness, the darkest substance of night.
They loomed dimly at each other, but they saw no one else. Until Latona pointed to her feet, to the floor, where something gleamed like a glass bead, and a second, and a third.
She bent over and tried to pick them up, but her hand encountered cold and clammy skin, a guttural sound was heard, and they understood: the tuatara.
It remained motionless, and they two, they returned to their places, breast to breast. Was it sleeping? Was it looking at them? No, it was looking through them, with all its three eyes. It was a Mesozoic gaze, a gaze that bored its way through epochs, the triple, impersonal gaze of extinction.
Their joy and their happiness did not interest the tuatara, not enough to make it glance at them even when they groaned.
When Latona looked at the glowing eye on its forehead, she remembered something. It was like a little, round roof-window, like a scale model of the Pantheon, although it was covered with the finest of fine membranes.
A deep fatigue overcame Latona. She rolled over on to her stomach and, in the face of that unseeing gaze, the significance of what had just happened vanished; she tried to understand it but could no longer do so.
A deep fatigue overcame the Gold-Washer. Their eyes were closed once more, and there was no reason to open them. Under their eyelids, were their eyes not veiled by a membrane like that of the tuatara’s third eye?
The night went on. The tuatara was awake, but they slept.
A ring around the moon
The moon darkened. The cone of the earth’s shadow fell over the scarred face of the moon so that it darkened. But not completely. A dark, wine-red glow spread over its surface hammered by meteorites, the moon’s craters deepened, its mountains became steeper. The Sea of Serenity, which could also be discerned with the human eye, spread out as a dark dust-pool.
Now one could see clearly what had only been known before: that the moon was not, after all, a disc, but a lump of stone with its own mass, which wandered, separate from everything else, through the darkness, along a route that never seemed to change.
Babel was sitting on the terrace of the Tabernacle, looking at the moon through binoculars. The Kinswoman had come out of her chamber and sat hunched in a wicker chair, humming to herself, and peeping into her apron pocket from time to time. What was in it? Latona said there was nothing, but how did she know with such certainty?
The Gold-Washer who was seldom silent was sitting on a bench. On his knee slept the tuatara, wrapped in blankets.
‘Not to speak of her gloominess,’ said the Gold-Washer, ‘which could not resist seizing the house, too, so that it decayed and became dirty and ingrained, but nevertheless his sight was sharp, so sharp that he could see through the years, if only he opened his eye, although later he no longer — at least, that was what they said –’
And they stopped listening to his speech, which turned underground and pierced its own corridors there. ‘Siehenveten,’ said Babel, and offered the binoculars to Latona.
They were wearing many clothes, and yet they were cold.
They sat there on the terrace as if in the auditorium of an outdoor theatre. The first snow had fallen that day, and its torn lace remained here and there on the ground. The branches of a dead apple-tree crackled in the terrace fireplace. Their curls of smoke reached for the strange, old, scarred ball that hung above the flames.
With one finger, the Gold-Washer was stroking the scaly, triangular head of the tuatara, Why had it been dragged out into this red moonlight? Should it not long ago have been hibernating in the cold room where the Gold-Washers had built it a nest?
A train went by behind the forest, the lash of its whistle floated for a moment over the Tabernacle arid Latona said: ‘The Glass-Girl is coming home from work.’
Babel fetched a chair for her from indoors. When I turned my eyes away from the moon, the Glass-Girl was already sitting there, smiling her perpetual shy smile.
‘Luna ekso! Luna rota! Aurum! Halma!’
Babel fussed around the Glass-Girl, settling a rug around her shoulders. Indeed, it seemed necessary; the Glass-Girl always looked cold.
Babel’s finger waved at the glowing object, and the Glass-Girl turned her slow, gentle eyes toward it. It was clear that she had not expected to see anything like it up there in the heights. For the first time that night she looked up. Her small face became smaller and even more bloodless than before. It shrank together like a white fist. Could she, too, not believe her eyes?
We others, too, turned to look once more, except for the Kinswoman, who perhaps slept.
I knew now: we had moved over into the moon’s world. It was a mistake to imagine that we were standing on the same terrace as during the day, and that behind us was the same building. This place was different. Just as a new person changes a room as he steps across its threshold, so the rising of the moon had changed the world. Its presence — even half-hidden – set a silver-hallmark on every object.
We did not know the body that floated above us. Now it looked like an empty iron ball which the charcoal that burned inside it had heated to a red glow. It looked so heavy that it seemed astonishing that it had not already fallen. A single cloud fled before it, quickly as if in fear for its life.
The tuatara – what had got into it? It awoke with a start and slipped from the Gold-Washer’s knees into the darkness gathered by the trees.
‘Didn’t you know?’ said Latona. ‘It’s just an eclipse of the moon. At the moment it is at its fullest. By midnight it will be the same as it’s always been.’
But the Glass-Girl had risen to her feet, wringing her hands. The rug slipped from her shoulders on to the terrace floor. Her transparent face was turned toward the bronze glow, unbelieving, feebleminded and full of distress. One could imagine that the soul, if anyone were ever to see it, might resemble such a face. Something was undulating in her, perhaps liquid glass. It was set in motion by forces of different directions: the moon and gravity and a great star that had disappeared on the other side of the earth, and some field even stronger than these.
‘It’s only the moon,’ Latona affirmed once more, ‘in the end it’s only the moon. People have walked on it, you know. Their footsteps remain in the moon’s dust.’
But her voice did not sound as certain as a moment ago.
‘Lunar eclipses occur quite often,’ I said. ‘As often as three times a year. It’s quite natural.’
Quite natural! And I was ashamed. What on earth had I thought I meant?
But we were all standing in the circle of the soul and the moon, and I understood why the Glass-Girl looked at the moon in the way she did.
What was natural in the way I claimed? That rough object that hung over the Tabernacle? The cold substance that glittered in places on the ground? We ourselves, in our scarves and winter coats, just taken from the wardrobe, so heavy and self-conscious…
One of the Gold-Washers stretched out his hand and touched the Glass-Girl’s thin shoulder.
‘It’s getting cold,’ said the Gold-Washer. ‘Let’s go.’
The Kinswoman was singing again, the chairs clattered.
Indoors, lights were lit in every room. Who was sobbing over there? Probably the Glass-Girl.
The last shower of sparks flew, crackling, from the fireplace on to the emptying terrace. In its glow, heavy as a heart, the moon rose still higher into the air’s desolation.
In the morning the bush of golden rain was bare. The headless body of the tuatara lay, damp with dew, in the shadow of the mock ruin. The triangular, three-eyed head had been thrown, or rolled with the force of the blow, under a bush. Much blood had flowed; it was, to their astonishment, as red as human blood. But the tuatara’s green colour had faded to milky, and all of its eyes were glued shut by a membrane. On the sand of the path the Executioner’s axe was seen.
Many Gold-Washers had gathered at the spot. The Torso and Pontanus and the Glass-Girl and Latona stood silently around the lizard’s body; only the Glass-Girl was crying.
‘This is the dragon, but where, where is St George?’ said one of the Gold-Washers.
Then the Executioner strode in.
‘What’s happening here?’ he asked. ‘What’s that over there?’
The others made space for him in silence.
‘That’s your axe. Was it you who did it?’ asked the first Gold-Washer.
The Executioner lifted his axe from the path as if in a trance, touched its blade and looked at his finger.
‘I?’ he roared, suddenly coming round. ‘I, execute an innocent creature?’
‘Who, then?’ asked the first Gold-Washer, and we evaded one anothers’ eyes.
‘I!’ said the Torso, and laughed bitterly. ‘Who else could it be? No one else here would be capable of such an act.’
He was right. No one but the Torso could have killed the tuatara, for even his tongue was like an axe. The Torso had the heart of a murderer.
The Child of the Tabernacle came and looked at the Torso, looked at the tuatara. Suddenly there were two children, three.
‘Let us bury the tuatara,’ the Child said. ‘We have already buried a bird, and many book-lice.’
‘You may,’ said the Gold-Washer, ‘of course you may. Find a beautiful place for it and arrange a big funeral. It is so far from home.’
‘I shall make a coffin,’ said the Executioner.
But Babel was already carrying a large cardboard box into the courtyard. It was just right for the tuatara’s last resting place. He set it on the ground, sighing, and looked at the tuatara.
‘Gevange todo, friie nizani.’ he said.
We scattered to feed our own doubts. The second Gold-Washer took a spade and went with the children to seek a suitable burial place for the tuatara.
When they had come past the beehives to the edge of the forest behind which rose the waste-heaps of the City of the Golden Reed, the Child of the Tabernacle stopped and looked around him. There was a strip of waste ground, a small field, dry and sunny. It was as if summer had returned for that day.
‘Let’s bury him here,’ said the Child of the Tabernacle.
And the Gold-Washer’s spade ground, grating, through the grass-roots and into the sandy soil.
godspeed into earth’s care
Home to Gondwanaland
Let your soul repair.
Hereby we consign you
into extinction’s peace.
May you melt away
into the soil, at ease.
May you rise like hay
like grass which, night by night,
you rustled as you came and went
unknown, and out of sight.
Let the wind make music over
our graves too, and go.
So offer your forgiveness
Whether we knew, or no.