from Turn My Heart Towards Home
by Ann-Luise Bertell
introduced and translated by Kathy Saranpa
The conditions that inspired Finnish emigrants to search for a better life, predominantly from agricultural Ostrobothnia, find clear-eyed, non-sentimental expression in Ann-Luise Bertell’s three-book series – she hesitates to call it a trilogy – which begins with Vänd om min längtan (Turn My Heart Towards Home) from 2016. Loosely based on the life of her own grandmother, the novel follows the story of Maria Alina Rönnblom, now ‘in Death’s waiting room’ and suffering from dementia, who writes down as much as she can for her daughter Lydia. The first segment here is her earliest memory, a family tragedy; the second returns to the present and her half-awake, half-dreaming life. The final segment is a story from her mother, Margareta, which shows that even women who must endure gruelling work tasks and cruel husbands – in this case while pregnant – have experiences infused with beauty and magic.
The title of this book refers to a ‘horse-whispering’ practice: the protagonist’s mother is hired to ‘turn the hearts of horses’ towards their new home rather than the farm where they are born. In her 80s, the protagonist herself has an adult life in Canada as well as a return to Finland behind her and is unsure where her heart now belongs.
from Turn My Heart Towards Home
My eyes saw the blood running out of his arms, his veins, down into the soil.
Everything started with a scream – a violent, heart-rending scream. I heard her scream. I looked up from playing with my doll Sara – Mother made her for me out of rags, and she was with me then. I carried her in my arms for many years. My father, Sanfrid, was ploughing behind the horse in the field next to the house. The field was wet and difficult to work. The rain had beaten down all spring. The air was open and clear – sowing was underway. The vast, silent forest surrounded us. My older brother Harald and I were playing in the yard.
I didn’t hear the curlew but I heard Mother scream. She dropped what she had in her hands and ran to my father. Konsta the horse was young and not yet broken in. My father had bought him from our relatives in the neighbouring village. Konsta had bolted. He’d been startled by the curlew, which had flown up from the bank of the ditch. A bird, a horse: two animals that frightened each other, and life made an arc down to the dung beetles and the maggots. Mother screamed and Father screamed. Father had fallen, dragged by Konsta; the reins gradually cut off his hands. He fought to get out of them, but he’d wrapped them several times around his wrists since the horse was so wild. So young, so full of life. But the reins cut into his flesh, tore apart his wrists, and the soil with its newly-spread fertiliser was pushed into his flesh, into his blood.
I saw Mother run after the horse and Father. He was dragged behind Konsta for an eternity, in a space where I’ve always been: a space where light and sound are sharp, and the usual boundaries of the earth are no longer in place. My eyes saw it happen and they couldn’t tear themselves away. They looked and looked, ate up the entire event, stayed there.
Mother couldn’t catch up to the horse. Father’s hands finally gave way: fingers, muscles, joints, skin – all of it stayed behind in the field. Father had stopped making noise. The only thing to be heard was the blood flowing down into the earth and Mother’s panting breaths. Mother threw herself on top of him. The horse slowed down once it was free of its burden and walked around the field in a circle around the two.
Mother got Father up on his feet with one of his arms around her neck. She half carried, half dragged him into the house. Harald rushed up to take his other arm. There was mud and blood all over. Their faces were black with terror and sludge. I couldn’t move. I stood there paralysed, saw everything that happened, registered every small shift, every movement in my mother’s body, every breath my father took. I stroked Sara’s back, again and again. Mother got Father into the house, started to wash his stumps, looked at Harald and me and screamed that we had to go away, out, disappear. Her eyes were large, wild; I didn’t recognise her.
We went out and saw Konsta standing there with the plough behind him. He walked to a pail and started to drink the water in it – Mother had been filling it when she heard Father scream. Konsta drank thirstily, snorted and swung his tail. He was happy to have escaped such heavy work. The air smelled like blood. Like danger. A crow perched in a birch tree and cawed mockingly.
Harald, who was red from Father’s blood, picked up a rock and threw it at Konsta, but missed.
‘Fucking horse,’ he screamed. ‘You’re gonna die!’
The front window blew open, the wind grew stronger, and I hugged Sara harder and harder. She was damp from sweat, the ice-cold sweat of terror. We couldn’t take our eyes off Konsta. Someone needed to catch him and lead him into the barn.
Then Mother came out on the steps, completely black and with her hair hanging. We didn’t see that she had Father’s rifle – not before she lifted it, aimed and pulled the trigger. The first shot hit Konsta in the back. The second one entered just above his foreleg. A sound came from Konsta that was like the sound Father had made – a deep, dark sound as if from the caves of hell. Konsta dropped to the ground. After the second shot – which hit him in the heart – the young horse keeled over, breathed a last sigh and lay stone-cold dead.
Konsta lay where he fell for many days. Flies and birds ate at his corpse, but finally the farmer next door collected a few men and they cut the horse up. They buried the pieces in the field. Harald and I followed everything with our eyes from behind a corner of the house. We wanted to see it all. Konsta’s head was dragged out of the yard – Konsta’s head with the eyes eaten clean away.
Just like J.R. Ewing’s time, mine is past. He’s not actually on TV anymore. Nowadays, Ridge in The Bold and the Beautiful is the heartthrob. And maybe not even him. Nobody’s thinking about J.R. anymore. I wasn’t either until he started to show up here and walk in and out of my apartment as he saw fit.
It all started when I got a new TV and a new remote. I couldn’t figure out how to work them. My daughter Marlene was here and explained loudly and clearly what I had to do with the remote, but I didn’t hear anything she said. And my grandson, I don’t remember his name, taped over the buttons I wasn’t supposed to push. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t learn how to use it. At some point I didn’t dare ask any more. I started to lie and say that I knew how to use it. But to be honest, I haven’t dared touch that thing for a long time.
After that, J.R. started to show up. I don’t know what he wants. Maybe I’m just imagining that he’s here. Actually it’s even worse than that. In any case, he comes and many others with him: my relatives, my friends, people who are supposed to be dead. I don’t want them here because, to tell the truth, I’m afraid of them. But I don’t dare tell anyone about it. They would simply take me away from here and say I can’t live on my own any longer.
Because I don’t count anymore. In their heart of hearts, my relatives don’t care if I manage to turn on the TV or not. They don’t care if I live in my apartment or in an old folks’ home. They have enough to do with their own lives. I just sit here day after day and have nothing to do. Especially now when I can’t watch TV. I used to watch The Bold and the Beautiful every day, but that’s over now. I didn’t know that this time between living and dying – this Death’s waiting room – would last so long. That this time would feel like my entire life, the only life I’ve had. It’s a time when I’m completely alone, and whoever wants to can simply wander around my home.
All day long I sit here in my apartment. The only time I go outdoors is when I take my walker and fetch the mail. But soon I’m going to walk all the way to the river. My home help shows up regularly – don’t ask me when. She smiles and asks me questions. Actually, she speaks a foreign language. I too remember how hard it was to start to bend my tongue in different ways. But I seldom have the energy to say anything to her, and she’s usually in a hurry.
Lidia, I’m sorry if I embellish or remember wrong. I hope you understand that I’m different. I am no longer ashamed. My senses are more open, and I can’t figure out if things exist in what is usually reality, or not. I can’t know if what I usually think is true, is still so. But I know that you have existed. I am Maria Alina Rönnblom. I know you exist.
There’s a time of year when women are expected to spend a lot of time in the forest. Margareta loved to step out onto the porch in the mornings and feel the cold north wind on her cheeks. She loved the time when the aspen and birch leaves began to shift into yellow and the maple turned blood red. That was the time, if not before, to go to the forest. The bilberries ripened earlier, but in July the mosquitoes were so troublesome. Best of all was fall and picking lingonberries. Margareta had to go into the forest although her belly was rather large at this point – the baby was going to be born any week now. But she wasn’t tired and, for the most part, her belly was peaceful and soft. There was still plenty of time to pick lingonberries. She knotted her scarf under her chin like an old crone, slid the bucket handle over her arm and walked into the forest.
Right away she found her voice. In the forest, she could howl and scream in peace. Such a mercy to get to be alone and to scream herself hoarse, damning all the people who said they wanted only what was best for her but who did something else.
Margareta walked farther and farther into the forest. She was embraced by the tall trees and began to belong to the wild rosemary and bog bilberries. She took in the forest’s strong smells with all of her senses. And then she saw the lingonberries glowing red on tussock after tussock. Lingonberries, the best of all friends.
Now she had to get to work. It wouldn’t do to come back without any berries. She had to bring something back, in any case, to make jam to put in the cupboard. She got down on her knees by the nearest tussock and started to fill her hands and the bucket with lingonberries. They were ripe-red and ready to burst. Margareta ate a few of them, tore open the skin, tasted the sourness and the soft insides. The frost hadn’t yet nipped the berries to make them sweeter.
Suddenly Margareta heard a noise – a small scratching, an animal behind her. She turned around and tried to see what it was. She couldn’t spy anything, but the forest was rather thick at this particular spot. Margareta always walked far into the forest to be sure nobody would follow her. If she was lucky in anything, it was in this: that she always found her way without trouble. She always knew what direction north was. Always, even when it was cloudy. And she also remembered all of the landmarks: the tall fir tree, the stone that looked like a head, the juniper bush that swung on its axis. She could walk several miles into the forest and come out at exactly the same place. She often saw hare, fox, and grouse. Their eyes would meet hers and then they’d disappear.
Now Margareta heard the noise again and turned around quickly, breathing through her mouth to calm down. She noticed that she was walking more rapidly because her breaths had sped up, become louder. Finally she heard nothing besides the sound of her own breathing.
Margareta whirled around and tried to peer through the trees. And there she spied something, something large and grey. What was it? It had to be a moose. Margareta exhaled. She had never seen a moose, but she knew of people who had. It was a moose cow and next to her, a small calf. They stood gnawing bark off a tree. Margareta stood for a long time watching the pair of moose. They were huge, bigger than cows, and almost black.
Margareta got down on her knees and tried to think about her lingonberries. But it didn’t work. The moose cow was now only about 20 yards away. It’s so strange that she’s not afraid of me although she has young, Margareta thought. Maybe the moose was a forest messenger, a sign to her of something new. She liked that thought. If she didn’t listen to her dreams, maybe signs were coming from a different direction.
Suddenly the moose cow opened her maw and let out a roar that sliced up Margareta’s terror like a deep wound in her skin. She knew that the moose cow would be on top of her any second. She felt how the child in her belly reacted to the muffled, dark sound. It kicked her hard under the ribs.
What was this being – was it alive, or was it simply death? Margareta didn’t know what to do. She gripped her lingonberry bucket tightly. She couldn’t run away from the moose, nor could she climb a tree. She decided to meet her fate squarely.
Margareta stared straight into the mother cow’s eyes and started to walk towards her. She can kill me if she wants to. This is a test, Margareta thought. The moose approached slowly, but veered off to the side just before their paths were about to cross. Margareta felt a chill along her entire right side where the moose walked past. Her right hand went numb and she had to quickly move the lingonberry bucket over to her left arm.
Margareta sank down to her knees and breathed hard for a long time. Her heart was thumping and the child wouldn’t stop kicking. She was full of life. The forest had allowed the moose to caress her.
Finally Margareta stood up, slowly. Her legs didn’t collapse under her. She took the heavy lingonberry bucket and walked home on shaky legs.
Vänd om min längtan
Förlaget M, 2016, 180 pages.
Foreign rights: Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency.
Winner of the Swedish YLE Literature Prize 2016.
We are grateful to Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency for permission to publish this translated extract.
Ann-Luise Bertell is an author and a theater director, born 1971 in Oravais, Finland. Her debut novel, Vänd om min längtan (Turn My Heart Towards Home) was awarded the 2016 Yle Literature Prize and the Choreus Prize. It was followed by the Finlandia-Prize-nominated Homestead (Heiman), and her third novel Yearning (Glöm Bort Din Saknad). Vänd om min längtan was reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2017:2.
Kathy Saranpa was born in the US and now works as a literary translator in Finland. A teacher and freelance translator of commercial texts, she caught the literary translating bug when she worked on rendering Ingrid and Joachim Wall’s A Silenced Voice into English (Amazon Crossing, 2020).