Translated from Finnish by the author, Suvi Kauppila
There is a porch in a house in a little town, painted chipped blue and shadowed by a cloudy woodcut fringe. Rosebushes grow all around it in a wild thicket. There is a rocking chair and an old lady sitting in the chair. This is my house, and these are my roses.
Underneath the chair there is a teacup and a child's applewood bow.
I have outlived my parents and my little brother. My memory isn't what it used to be. Even my own name feels strange on my tongue, the crack of consonants somehow out of place. But I remember this garden where I played as a child, the endless haze of warm days and the loss of growing up.
I sit here. I wait.
I knew my sister was different. The doctor told our parents she'd always have trouble speaking, would likely never learn to read or write. She was not good at paying attention except when she got excited over something. Then nothing could tear her away from it.
Mum and Dad argued and cried over her at night when they thought we couldn't hear them in our tiny bedroom. I would get sad and she would climb to my bed and hold my hand.
"Let's go to the Other Place," she would say in our own language of made-up words and gestures. She had so many stories to tell, and I loved stories of that place the best.
Mum always meant to cut her hair short. My sister didn't like people touching her, and her hair would get knotty and tangled. She would only let me brush it. After I had carefully pried open the knots, it was like melted gold flowing through my fingers.
The silvery stillness of evening wakes me up. The birds are quiet, the bats don’t rustle. And in the furthest corner of the garden a lonely rosebush is in bloom. Its flowers shine a deeper red than any other roses.
She called them Salikon roses. We used to sit together under the rosebush and forget about time. She told me that in our secret country she was a Queen and I was still her sister. Everyone understood her there—all the animals and creatures under the sun and moon. We had horses of our own with golden and silver hooves. We had adventures. But we always came home to our beautiful hall for pancakes and puppies and happiness. In the Other Place no one was ever lost.
Now I smile and pick up my bow. The cold tea I leave behind. Leaning on my cane, I make my way slowly down the rickety porch steps and cross the uneven ground of the garden. The grass tickles my ankles. I forget my shoes. It doesn't matter. I remember the important things.
My sister often wandered off to the woods or ended up at a neighbour’s house. Mum and Dad were worried, and I had a sense that they were embarrassed by the way she talked and behaved. They told me to follow her and keep her from harm, but I could never say no to her. I was the one who came home with scraped knees and bruises. In the end they said it was better I didn't go after her. I always did anyway.
But not that last time. The woods were dark, the smell of rotting leaves thick and the rocks slippery. I was afraid. She only laughed and held out her hand.
"I want to go home," I said.
Then she looked at me strangely, not quite angry or sad, and said very clearly:
"I never want to go home."
The following day she was found in the pond. The water was shallow, barely up to the knee. She must have fallen in the night. So they said.
Not in the night. That is not when I lost her.
On those blue summer evenings the light never seemed to fade. I remember us sitting under the rosebush where she liked to pretend she lived, in the golden hall under our feet. Mum was calling for us and I wanted to go. My sister wanted to stay. She spent more time in the Other Place than anywhere else.
I told her I didn't want to pretend anymore, and she said something in our language which made me sadder than anything I had ever heard.
"When the Salikon roses die, I am also dead."
I was six years old. I didn't know what to say. She bid me farewell like a queen and told me to visit again soon. I promised I would come. Twice she called after me. I went inside.
Mum went to get her from the garden. We had cheese sandwiches and milk before bed. Everything was as usual. We held hands until we fell asleep.
In the morning all the roses were dead. There was no hole in the ground behind the rosebush. It was all just pretend.
That is when I lost her.
My parents cried, of course. I hated them for that. They didn’t understand. No one saw what I had lost along with her. There was no key to our country. There wasn't even a door. The ache was like a hole in the world.
Her ashes were buried in the garden under the rosebush she had loved. No stone, only a small golden plaque.
My parents gave me a puppy as a consolation prize. It was never as real as my dog in the Other Place. I despised it and then grew to love it, but it was not the same. Mum and Dad tried their best.
I became afraid of losing things. So afraid I gathered very few things in the first place. I travelled the world, I searched and I tried to understand, but nothing made sense without her. I found strange coins, pomegranates, seashells, lovers. They could always see I was looking for someone else.
Now the evening has fallen and I am old. The roses are blooming again for one last time. I pick a petal with my stiff fingers and breathe in the overpowering scent.
There is a hole in the ground behind the rosebush, and down the hole there is a ladder. I sling the bow over my shoulder and leave the cane behind.
As I descend, slowly at first, I feel a growing strength. Rung by rung, my grip gets firmer. When my feet touch the ground, I am able to walk with my back straight.
I reach the end of the tunnel and the doors of the golden hall. They are open.
In time I learned to live a life. I lived through wartime and the tight-lipped peace that followed. There were times of hope and despair. I danced and played cards and I looked out for bombs. Everyone had lost someone. I tried to remember that.
I had a husband—two husbands and a child I lost. They were real, too. As real as the Salikon roses.
She would have been my daughter. I would named her after my sister, by the name she had chosen for herself in our childhood country. I would have told her all about our adventures, the kind ones and the frights and the humming brook. My daughter would have grown up to be a queen.
It was not meant to be. Perhaps the loss of my sister prepared me for future grief. But I think it only broke something in me that was not meant to be broken.
There is no one to greet me at the golden hall, no fire roaring in the fireplace. A thick coat of dust covers everything like fallen silver. This place is forgotten. I walk through the hall, hop over scattered furniture, run my fingers through the murky water of the pool. It used to be so green. When I look up, I see my reflection from the polished wall. I'm still wearing my flowery dressing-gown, but my hair spills over my shoulders, long and light. I have never seen quite this face—not young but ageless and smooth. Perhaps this is who I am in my soul. They do say no one ever feels old.
A calm has fallen over me. Though the hall is abandoned, I have no doubt that my sister is still here. I can feel her heartbeat in my bones and her breath in the wind that steals in through the window. In this place everything always makes sense. I breathe freely for the first time in a long while. I know exactly what to do to find my missing queen.
Silverfoot is waiting for me in the stables, my black horse with a silver mane and hooves. A part of me knows that horses don't live this long. It doesn't matter here. The horse nuzzles my cheek and blows hot air on my face just like it always used to do. I roll up the sleeves of my dressing-gown, tighten my belt, and adjust my bow. There is a quiver full of arrows waiting, gnarled like the branches of an apple tree. I remember making them and losing them in the woods.
There is no need for a saddle or bridle. I only have to fist my hand in Silverfoot's shining mane and think, and suddenly I'm sitting on his back.
"We're going to find her," I tell Silverfoot. "We're going to find my sister."
And Silverfoot shoots off like an arrow.
When I knew for certain I would never have children, I started writing down the things I remembered from our games of pretend. I wrote down every story my sister ever told me, and then I made up more. It turned out words were in my blood like they were in hers, only I had the means to put them to paper and let them out to the world.
People seemed to like what I wrote. I hope our stories gave joy to children and made adults smile and remember. Perhaps they offered comfort to a child somewhere who had lost someone precious.
But I could never write an ending to our story.
In the most beautiful valley in the world, there is a sweetly humming brook and a pond with trees bowing low over it. She is waiting for me there. She has been waiting for a long time, yet still I hurry.
She lies in the pond, just below the surface of the water. Her sword is laid on her chest. Age has fallen on her gently and dusted her face with lines drawn in chalk. Her hair floats around her like seaweed. She is wearing a crown of withered starflowers. Her eyes are half-closed like they used to be when she was sleeping, always ready for the next adventure. Suddenly I am unsure. She looks so peaceful. Is she sleeping a sleep better left undisturbed?
But the singing in my heart tells me different.
I say her name. “Sister, I have come."
At the sound of her true name a quiver goes through her. The surface of the pond ripples as her eyelashes tremble and her lips part. Then she sits up so quickly that water splashes everywhere, and she takes in a deep breath. Breathing out, she lets fall the words I have been longing to hear.
“My beloved Sister. Is that really you?"
“It's me," I say and laugh as I say it. “I have come for you. I promised."
As I look at her, I see the flower crown mending. All over the clearing, roses are blooming again. She is changing too. Her face is polished by the moon. Her eyes are piercing like an owl’s. I have a feeling they have seen many things since last we met. But so have mine.
I step into her arms. She is warm and alive. More alive than anyone in the world above the rosebush.
“I was dreaming," she whispers as she holds me tightly. “The sleep came over me when I was missing you, Sister. I dreamed such heavy dreams."
“We don't need to dream anymore," I say into her hair. “I'm right here."
I am here. The roses are in bloom. Everything is all right.