The Sauna Throne
by Axel Åhman
introduced and translated by D.E. Hurford
At a public swimming pool somewhere in Finland, a young man decides to take a sauna. As he sits down, giving scant thought to where, little does he suspect he will end up having to prove to some senior sauna-goers that he deserves to be sitting in that particular spot. The ensuing sweaty ninety-degree power struggle not only manages to make some points about masculinity, linguistic identity and the corrupting nature of power; it is also very funny.
To readers in Finland, that would not come as a surprise. As well as being a journalist, Axel Åhman is already well-known in Swedish-speaking Finland as part of the music group KAJ (named for the initials of its members: Kevin – Axel – Jakob). For just over a decade, KAJ have been carving out a niche when it comes to humour (see YouTube for evidence).
Åhman’s fiction debut, a short story collection called Klein (a dialect version of ‘klen’ – weak, weedy, feeble) appeared in 2020. In it, humour and seriousness go hand in hand. The focus is on male characters of different ages, often living in Ostrobothnia, generally trying to fit in, or not to feel inadequate, or not to be beaten, whether they’re shopping for a bargain, trying to act as if they understand mopeds or tools when they don’t, or, as here in ‘The Sauna Throne’, not to lose face in public. Characters are described with empathy – and there are some images that really stick in the mind – along with a sharp eye for social situations.
The Sauna Throne
The glass door slides silently open. Hot air hits me like a slap in the face. The dark of the sauna envelops me and my very short-sighted eyes try frantically to get a sense of the space. Is someone sitting there? Who’s got the water scoop? Was that a movement in the corner? I breathe out and feel the warmth of my breath against my chest. It’s almost empty in here. I’ve practically got my own private sauna at the swimming baths; what a luxury.
I head towards the blurry bucket I can see on the middle of the bench. The sauna’s typical of public swimming baths in Finland: long, anonymous wooden benches, ingrained and tempered by the sweat of thousands of backsides. The smell disguised by a strong stench of chlorine.
As I plump down beside the water scoop I realise there is actually someone sat in the corner. I give him a casual nod and mutter ‘hi’ almost inaudibly. A tall skinny bloke, sitting in the foetus position. He doesn’t seem inclined to talk.
I take the grey plastic scoop by the handle. The bucket’s full and the water’s just waiting to steam itself away on the scorching hot stove. Water becomes steam, steam becomes heat. Heat claws its way into skin and dirt becomes sweat.
The water lands on the stove with a sizzle. Scalding heat spreads stealthily over my back. I glance over at the bloke in the corner. Foetus. He’ll be out of here soon; I just know. Some people just aren’t truly made for the sauna, most people actually to be completely honest. Him in the corner looks like he’s one of the few who won’t even fake it.
The door opens and a draft of cold air blows around my toes. Me and Foetus look up like surprised meerkats and a man in his thirties enters. I jerk my head to show I’ve seen him. He sits down a couple of metres to my left. That’s when I notice the other bucket, right next to my left leg.
Shit. Without even realising, I’ve sat down on the Sauna Throne. The dream spot, three scoop-lengths from the stove, between the two buckets and with the only scoop. I’m the king, the divine ruler, the undisputed emperor of this very sauna throne. In the baking heat of the sauna, a cold sweat starts breaking out along my back.
Another man comes in, stops in the doorway and shouts to his mate. He comes in and leaves the door open. A cold draught comes in. His mate ambles in and closes the door carelessly. It starts gliding open again and instinctively I know what to do. From the depths of my lungs I hawk up my roughest cough and growl in Finnish:
‘Shut the door!’
His mate looks at me apologetically and hurries back to shut the door. I whack a scoopful of water onto the stove, as I need to make a point of showing he’s let out the heat that I’ve been tenderly and paternally fostering. I adopt my sternest expression to signal this is my sauna, and it’s run with strict discipline.
Suddenly doubt seizes me. Who am I to rule on the Sauna Throne? A short-sighted spindly twenty-year-old with a poorly-shaven scrotum. To be honest I’ve never really liked having saunas, my brothers were always the ones who sat on the Sauna Throne in our family. I was happy with my lot on the humiliating children’s bench. That was then.
The lowest bench – basically, the step that leads up to the proper bench – is reserved for the weak. Children under ten, people from Sweden and pensioners who’ve had heart operations. In the game of Sauna Throne, second-class citizens are relegated to the bench that gets soaked by the sweat of the righteous. Look the wrong way and you’ll see sights that will forever be etched into your corneas. For real men, the children’s bench is not an option.
Now though, I’m the lord of the swimming bath sauna, and at prime time, come to that. I can see the old guys from the aqua aerobics class walking around outside the sauna, they’re lining up and pulling off the sauna-sized paper towels for sitting on. The door opens and they thump in, beer guts first.
The herd pauses for a moment. Takes in the situation and works out who’s occupying the Throne. The leader of the aqua aerobics flock trains his eyes on me. He’s a podgy man with a bushy walrus moustache and a shiny bald patch. For a split second, surprise flashes across his face when he sees who the Emperor of the Sauna Throne is. Cautiously I meet his gaze. It looks as if he’s about to say something and I immediately whack another scoopful on the sauna. The stove hisses like a cat defending its territory.
Walrus accepts the situation reluctantly and gestures towards the bench. The faithful flock obeys. There’s the thud of saggy backsides landing without pity on the poor old planks. I keep the scoopfuls coming at ever-closer intervals. The temperature rises one degree at a time, slowly but surely upwards.
Splash. The stove gives another hiss. I look around to let everyone else in the sauna know how happy I am about feeling the heat spreading over my back. The next time I put on some water I’ll let out a discreet ‘oi hoho’ to show that it’s hot, but in a positive and pleasant way.
‘Oi hohho’ I mutter as Finnishly as I can. I nearly added on a ‘perkele’ on the end to give it some gravitas, but that would have been overdoing it, so I change my mind at the last minute, emitting only an inaudible ‘p’ sound.
More old guys come in. I now have more than ten subjects having a sauna on my terms. My head is reeling with heat and power. What kind of ruler do I want to be? A good shepherd who keeps a steady temperature to keep all the sheep in the flock happy? Or a tyrant who throws water on just to prove he’s a true sauna-goer who can take more than they can?
Obviously I could just throw on less water, which is what I’d like to do really, but that means I run the risk of a scoop coup. If I don’t keep scooping on water with an iron hand, Walrus will see my weakness and rise up against me. Every sauna lord fears a well-orchestrated scoop coup. Walrus possesses all the qualities necessary to lead one: loyal henchmen, seniority and a BMI that would make a first-year medical student sweat nervously. I have no desire to undergo the shame of being deposed by a bully like him.
I decide to play it safe and keep throwing on water at ever-closer intervals. A full scoop from the bucket on my right, onto the stove. The water flies in a nice arc, and for a few seconds it’s as if it will never land. It embraces the possibility of life in mid-air and decides to stay there permanently.
The charm is broken by the splashing sound of water landing on floor tiles. Shame and horror well up inside me; bollocks, I missed the stove. All conversation stops and everyone’s looking at me murderously. Walrus looks like the sneer will never come off his face. Quickly I mutter a sweary rant and throw on some more water.
Strike. I sigh with relief as the heat slowly rises.
In the corner, Foetus unfolds his gangly body. He slowly transforms from a small anonymous ball into a skinny man of about five foot eleven. I observe his retreat with satisfaction. I knew he’d give up first. He doesn’t go out though. Instead he stands still on the floor for a moment, before sitting down without warning – on the children’s bench!
All eyes are on the gangly figure now seated at Walrus’s feet. A thousand thoughts pass through our minds. What is he doing? A slight reduction in temperature would be nice, of course it would, but doesn’t he realise what’s at stake here?
I make a point of throwing a double helping of water on the stove and shake my head sadly. My breathing’s getting heavier and heavier. Sweat’s running down my face and my hair’s spreading over my eyes like tendrils of seaweed. The air I breathe out is so hot it burns my chest. He might be having a stop-over on the children’s bench, but I’m going to out-sauna him, just you wait.
Walrus is lecturing his subjects about the importance of barbecuing with charcoal. He’s bought a new Weber for the summer. Gas is for amateurs and old women, apparently. The electric barbecue on my balcony flits past in my mind’s eye. He’ll be getting barbecued in here soon.
Steam hangs over the sauna like a mist. All conversation has stopped, only sighs and murmurs can be heard. I put the scoop into the bucket. The sound of scraping as plastic meets plastic; the first bucket’s empty. A few men look up and for a fraction of a second their eyes reflect a hope that it won’t get any hotter than this. That hope dies when I reach to my left, to bucket number two. In Walrus’s eyes a flame still burns. He might be a pensioner, but the lust for power’s not left him.
Some of them give up. The planks of the children’s bench creak sadly as they haul themselves up to standing. The last one picks up the soaking wet paper towel as he leaves. He accidently kicks the bloke on the children’s bench with his foot. As they go out, several others look longingly at the door. Me most of all. Walrus and his aqua aerobic apprentices are left. Have to stick it out.
Foetus gets up slowly. He leaves calmly, unperturbed by the heat. I hear the cold downpour of the shower as if in a distant dream. A small victory: I am now the person who’s been in the sauna longest. I’m trying to feel pleased.
I’m now getting slightly dizzy and all I really want to do is drink some water. I visualise the tap in the changing room. Shiny chrome, a blue symbol for cold and bubbling water running down into my parched throat. I pinch myself in the thigh to bring myself back to reality. Concentrate! You are the lord of the public swimming bath sauna and cold water is a luxury you can ill afford right now. Awoken from my vision I notice that the heat has decreased slightly. I refrain from throwing on any more water, trying to show my amenable side to the weaker sauna-goers.
A moment later I hear Walrus whispering to one of his subjects and they look at me. A terrible premonition stirs within me. Christ, that lapse of attention’s risking me the Sauna Throne. I fumble for the scoop, reach for the wrong bucket and search, confused, beside me. Just as Walrus opens his mouth to challenge me, my fingertips sense the handle of the scoop. I plunge it into the bucket, and carelessly chuck a cascade of water at the stove. At the same time, I hastily shout out the most manly thing I can think of:
‘Perkele, let’s have some more. All that we’re missing here are some bunches of twigs!’
A few people start in surprise when I shout, but they quickly recover and nod in agreement. My Finnish was a bit clunky, but the outburst has the intended effect. ‘Too right’ says one of them. ‘That’d be perfect’ adds another. We reach a tacit agreement that heaven consists of whipping yourself with birch twigs in ninety-degree-heat in a room full of naked men.
Is it heat or power that’s gone to my head and made everything sway? In any case, I can’t keep this pace up indefinitely. My façade might be as hard as granite, but it’ll crumble like the jerry-building it is if I keep throwing water onto the stove at the same rate.
If I fake it for too long, Walrus will give a snort and shoo me away. I came far too close to that just now, I can’t risk something like that happening again. He’d gloat over my defeat with a sneer. All the blokes in the sauna would laugh at me in unison at his command. Sweaty, dishonoured, I’d have to leave my throne like a defeated weakling. Or, even worse, sit on the children’s bench.
I need to abdicate on my own terms. Whatever happens, there’s not going to be a scoop coup. I decide to throw three proper scoopfuls of water on before relinquishing my power with dignity. Three big scoops so that my subjects remember me as a stern but fair ruler.
The first scoopful is hurled stovewards. I gasp as the heat strikes my back and everything flickers for a moment. The second scoopful splashes onto the stove. I don’t feel like I’m even in control of my body any more; it’s just an arm, repeating a movement.
Scoop. Bucket. Throw. Strike. Pain.
A relentless equation, repeated infinitely.
I reach towards the bucket. My final scoop as the lord of the Sauna Throne. It’s been quite an experience. An honour and a burden. Power corrupts. I think of all the people who’ve left my sauna. On another day, they could have been me.
As I lift my hand to throw for the final time, the bench shakes. Walrus has got up. He steps down like a clumsy Lucia who’s got her feet tangled up in her dress. He opens the door and impatiently shoos out the others. As he’s closing the door, he turns back to me, as if in slow motion. He’s red in the face and his moustache, so imposing before, is now drooping pathetically. He looks me in the eyes, lingers a second, and gives a firm nod that makes his double chins wobble.
I couldn’t have asked for any greater recognition.
I stagger out of the sauna. Everything’s spinning and I feel like I’m about to pass out. Dehydration is burning like a fire in my throat and my pulse is thudding like a hammer in my head. I totter to the closest shower, turn on the cold water and let it run over my crimson body. I hear the sauna door opening behind me. Out come the few people who were still in there as I stepped down from the throne. None of them picked up the baton – the scoop and the bucket – I left behind.
Twenty minutes later and I’ve barely recovered. My clothes are askew and my hair is plastered flat against my red forehead when I get to the cafeteria where my girlfriend’s waiting for me.
‘Good God, how hot was it in that sauna?’
‘Very. It was me doing the water,’ I say proudly.
‘But why so much? You don’t even like saunas!’
‘When you’re doing the water you’ve got to do it properly. What will people think otherwise?’
She looks back at me, rolls her eyes and shakes her head as she goes out into the December evening. I follow her and the cold envelops me.
From the short story collection Klein, published by Schildts & Söderströms, 2020
We are grateful to Axel Åhman and Schildts & Söderströms for granting permission to publish this story from Klein.
Axel Åhman is a journalist, comedian and writer based in Helsinki. Klein is his debut.
D.E. Hurford is a translator from Estonian, Finnish, German and Swedish. She lives in Belgium.