Selja Ahava (b. 1974) is a Finnish author, dramaturge and a scriptwriter.
Ahava’s acclaimed debut novel The Day the Whale Swam through London (2010) was a nominee for the Helsingin Sanomat Literary Prize, and it won the Laura Hirvisaari Prize (The Bookseller’s Literary Prize) in 2010.
Her second novel, Things that Fall from the Sky (2015) was awarded with the European Union Prize for Literature in 2016, and it was nominated for Finland’s biggest literary award, the Finlandia Prize, and it was also a nominee for the Torch-bearer Prize as the novel with most international potential. It has so far been sold to 24 territories, making it one of the internationally most successful Finnish novels.
Ahava’s third novel, Before My Husband Disappears (2017), was one of the most talked about books in Finland, and it was praised in reviews.
In 2020, Ahava published her latest novel, The Woman Who Loved Insects. It was a critical success and a nominee for the Runeberg Prize.
For more information about the novels and author, see www.helsinkiagency.fi/selja-ahava
THE DAY THE WHALE SWAM THROUGH LONDON (2010)
THINGS THAT FALL FROM THE SKY (2015)
BEFORE MY HUSBAND DISAPPEARS (2017)
THE WOMAN WHO LOVED INSECTS (2020)
“Hey backseat, what’s on your mind?” Dad asks and glances in the rear view mirror.
I lock my eyes with his in the mirror and say, “Nothing.”
We’ve reached the intersection at the Teboil gas station and turn right. This is the intersection where you take a right if you want to go to Förstorgård, and you take a left if you want to go to the Sawdust House. These days we mostly turn right.
Adults are always asking what’s on children’s minds. But you know what I think? I think they’d be worried if children answered them. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re three years old, and it’s a windy day. You shouldn’t stare into the horizon and say, “I’m just wondering where the wind is born.” It’s better to say you’re pretending to be a helicopter. And when you’re five years old, you better not ask too many questions about death or fossils, because adults don’t want to think about death and characters in fairytales growing older or how exactly Jesus died on the cross. When I was small, I thought Mom’s grandmother had turned into a fossil, just because she had died such a long time ago. These days I know that a fossil can be a fern, a snail, or a dinosaur—never Grandmother or a human being.
Adults think that the child sitting in the backseat is counting trucks or letters on road signs or pretending that her forefingers are little princesses, but actually the child might think about the outlines of an adult or the concept of time.
I’ve thought about time a lot. I have little grey brain cells, just like Hercule Poirot. I use them to think about how time moves onward and heals. Adults say that time heals, which means that as time passes, whatever happened will turn into a memory, and you’ll remember it worse and worse. When the memory is hazy at best you’re healed.
But I don’t want to have a hazy memory of my mother. I want to remember her properly, without an airplane, without shards of ice, without a gaping hole in the porch. The way she normally was.
MY NORMAL MOM. Mom wanders the rooms wearing furry booties and Dad’s gigantic wool sweater. She burrows a nest for me in the corner of the sofa, swaddling me inside a blanket before she heads out to the shed to get firewood. Mom dresses me up in my day clothes in front of the furnace. First she opens the shutters, then she holds my clothes near the flames and shakes the cold out of them. Then she takes my pajamas off and dresses me as quickly as she can. My Mom shovels snow with her bright blue beanie on and thaws her frozen fingers around a hot mug of tea.
That’s what my normal mom is like.
Dad says that “time heals” is bullshit. Dad says the only people who think that way are the ones who don’t understand anything about this world and who have never had to experience a single thing. And my little grey brain cells think that he may be right, because I haven’t been healed yet and it’s already summer break.
So I just sit in the backseat and say that I’m thinking about “nothing” and I think about the healing powers of time and decide that just to be on the safe side, I better think about Mom every single day before time heals me too much.
Windshield wipers swoosh across the glass and our damp clothes fog up the windows. Dad accelerates and speeds into a puddle; he loves seeing water splash.
It rains every day. At school my teacher won’t hear our protests; she just says we’re not made out of sugar so off to recess we go, in our rain paints, rain coats, rubber boots. I think about the children who are made out of sugar, dissolving slowly in the rain. They leave behind piles of sticky rain clothes on the school yard.
When we lived in the Sawdust House Dad always worried about the roof leaking or the attic rotting, and then one day it suddenly would be much too late to fix anything. Mom said Dad was just being dramatic; he’d make a big deal out of any old thing.
But these days everything is a big deal. And Dad barely notices the rain. These days Dad might be outside sawing off tree branches in pouring rain, getting soaked, but my Aunt just says, “Let him sweat it out.”
These days someone always picks me up from school. When we still lived in the Sawdust House the only times Mom would pick me up was if it rained. After a day at work, Mom smelled of cigarettes. She had sewing pins stuck in her shirt collar, paint in her fingers, and her hair was twirled up into a no-nonsense bun.
MY WORKING MOM. Mom’s workshop is under ground. It stinks of dust, cigarettes, and old clothes, and it’s covered in stuff from floor to ceiling. Mom has a pair of large, golden scissors she cuts her fabrics with. She wears a little velvety pillow around her wrist, and it’s covered in pins. One of her nails is longer than others, and she uses it to make neat folds into fabric. She always has a pencil sticking out of her bun.
No-one is allowed to touch her scissors. At night she hangs them up from a hook in the wall.
That’s my working Mom.
When I was six, Auntie Annu had seven numbers right in the lottery. She won the Double Jack Pot, which is so much money that it’s hard to explain. It’s more than all the hotels, houses, and money in Monopoly counted together, and when you get a Double Jack Pot you need to rethink a lot of things. Such as whether you really enjoy going to work, and whether you still want to play Monopoly at all. Or whether you want to live in a completely new home or start taking riding lessons or buy diamonds. Then you have to stop and think what’s really important in life. The answer is of course family, but that has nothing to do with money. Besides, Annu has no family, because she has no children. Next, you have to worry about thieves. And you might not get to go to space even if you win the lottery, and happiness cannot be bought with money, and you won’t automatically get servants move in with you.
Auntie Annu invited us to have a Double Jack Pot Coffee Party, and on our way there Mom and Dad told me how her jackpot was a secret that I wasn’t supposed to share with anyone at the daycare or with friends or at the store or on the bus. Only we knew about it, and that’s why Annu had baked a special cake because we were going to have a secret party. I like parties and secrets and cakes.
MY FANCY MOM. Mom wears a silver and black silk dress. She’s towering above me because she is wearing high heels. Her hair swirls up into the air as if a soft-serve ice cream machine had sucked it up all the way to the clouds. Dad looks at Mom and smiles; his chest puffs out when he tries to stand as tall as Mom. Mom’s wrist jangles, and she looks like she’s not sure what her hands are supposed to do when they’re not busy pushing hair off her face.
That’s my fancy mom.
I was excited to see what Auntie would be wearing, but she looked exactly like she always did, except for her bright red hair. Auntie Annu didn’t go to the hairdresser unless she had just gotten her grant money or she had sold a large wall hanging. Between those days her hair grew and looked normal. She was a large and strong woman, although she sometimes was too shy to look people in the eye, and she spoke with a soft voice that didn’t match the manly hands she had. Soap, water, and fabric dust turned her hands coarse and red, and sometimes they were so dry the skin on her knuckles would crack and bleed. Hers were the paws of a bear. She had visible muscles between her fingers.
We all squeezed into Auntie Annu’s studio apartment, where the kitchen was hidden inside a closet. The entrance was narrow and its walls were covered in hanging coats and the floor strewn with shoes so that the only way we could enter was to walk in a single line. Auntie Annu had to go stand in the bathroom doorway to let us through. We threw our coats onto an old chest, almost blocking the entire entrance.
Dad, Mom, and Auntie Annu all hugged and sighed loudly, “Well, well,” and “No way,” and “How about that,” and “Geez, what can you say?”
“Where’s that Jack Pot Cake?” I asked. Auntie Annu winked at me and then pulled me into the apartment.
Auntie had moved her work desk to the middle of the room and plopped a sheet of plywood on it. She’d covered the plywood first with a tablecloth, then with coffee cups and small plates and the world’s finest cream cake. It had raspberry and white chocolate filling, and it was decorated all over with crunchy chocolate pastilles, rolls of licorice, grapes, soft raspberry gummies, pieces of chocolate, gummi bears, popcorn, and marshmallow hearts. And in the middle of it all in formation stood a paper umbrella, a shiny stick of streamers, a rose made out of marzipan, and a single candle. As I looked at the cake I truly realized how special the Double Jack Pot really was. I turned to my Mom who was laughing with tears streaming out of her eyes. It looked like Auntie had already laughed enough because all she did was huff and puff and unfold chairs for Mom and Dad to sit on.
The Jack Pot was nowhere in sight.
“I wasn’t allowed to bring it home,” Auntie Annu said. “They deposited straight to my bank account.”
“Would it fit into this room?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Didn’t you even get to see it?”
Auntie shook her head and placed her large, empty palms together. Then she shrugged and let her hands fall down.
“Would it fit into the bathtub?”
“I guess I should’ve gone to see what it really looked like,” Auntie Annu said.
Dad opened a bottle of sparkling wine, and I was allowed to to mix orange soda and Coke without any adults complaining about it.
“Ahem, well—our congratulations to the millionaire!” dad said, and we all clinked our glasses.
“I mean, honestly. I’m simply speechless,” Auntie said. “Hey, I get to go to the dentist and see a gynecologist!”
And again the adults laughed and wiped their eyes. Then Auntie reached for the cake server and looked at me.
“Saara, you choose where I should cut first.”
And I chose the part with the gummi bears, popcorn, and the marzipan rose.
Aunt Annu thought about things for a bit and then decided to spend some of her lottery winnings on buying a manor near the Sawdust House. It was pink and old, and Aunt Annu had always watched it from a distance, from across the fields when she’d visit us. The manor was called Storgård, Swedish for Big Manor, but dad started calling it Förstorgård, the Too Big Manor, because it was quite frankly large and Auntie wasn’t all that big, and nobody should need fifteen bedrooms. Soon everyone used that name.
Förstorgård had been empty for twenty years. Before that it had been an office building, before that a warehouse of some kind, before that a children’s summer camp spot, before that was the war and the hospital’s maternity ward had moved in to hide from the bombs. Before that the manor furniture had been auctioned off, and before that Mrs. Gyllenhök lived in the manor that her grandfather had built for his family back in 1877.
Auntie Annu moved out of her apartment and became the mistress of a manor. The entirety of her old apartment would have fit into the Blue Room in the manor, including its walls, bathroom, and closets. When Auntie’s furniture was dragged in it looked somehow stooped, scruffy, and fragile in the foyer. The only piece of furniture that seemed to fit was Aunt’s old wooden hutch. It had stood dark and heavy in Aunt’s studio, partly squeezed behind a door, and you could never fully open its doors. But even then the hutch had made it clear that it was the only real piece of furniture in that apartment. Now, as it was carried into the dining room, it seemed to stand up straighter around the edges and let its inlays shine.
I loved the old Czechoslovakian coffee cups Auntie had. They were all different, yet they all matched. They were adorned with different colored roses, depictions of scenery, golden frills and frail blades of grass, hearts the color of rust, and green triangles. The cups hung from little hooks in the hutch, and their matching plates were set below.
When it was time for afternoon coffee Auntie Annu let me choose our cups. Usually I chose a cup with roses or a circle of girls wearing folk costumes for myself. For Mom I chose the bear paws or the pansies. Dad got the golden trees or the light blue sail boats. I always gave Auntie Annu an extra-large mug. On it, a girl wearing a scarf was feeding a cute baby doe.
Förstorgård manor had a thick stone foundation, a large staircase that rose through a glass verandah, two columns on either side of the main entrance, and a turret. Förstorgård stood stately like an old oak. There were three hatches that allowed people to crawl inside the foundation, but because there were no windows it was pitch black down there. The front of the manor had a piece of lawn cut into a circle. The main road led to it through the avenue of trees. The turret was at the south end of the manor, and at the top of its spiral staircase was a summer room. And from that room you could see in all directions. Auntie Annu had wanted a bed in the middle of the room. The workmen had to hoist the bed up in two pieces through one of the windows, because the bed didn’t fit through the spiral staircase. There, at the top of the turret, Auntie slept all through the summer until fall nights grew colder.
There were five rooms and a kitchen downstairs. They were all named after their colors: the red foyer, the blue, green, violet, and yellow rooms. Fifteen small bedrooms and a library were all upstairs. Each bedroom had come equipped with metal framed hospital beds and little furnaces left over from the war time, but otherwise they were largely unfurnished. The library had no books, but we found an old book case in the attic. Auntie Annu, Dad, and Mom carried it together into the library. Later, Auntie bought a sofa, armchairs, and a coffee table at an auction to accompany the book case.
As soon as Auntie Annu had moved into the manor she bought herself some sheep. She set up a corral for them in front of the manor, and because the pump in the fountain smack in the middle of their new pasture was broken it was turned into a watering hole. The sheep were her lawn mower. If needed, she moved the enclosure to either side of the house.
Förstorgård breathed. Everything had plenty of space, everything matched, any door could be opened all the way. The rooms looked like someone was living there, even the unfurnished ones, but despite that Auntie bought something new for the manor. Once she bought a chandelier.
When winter came, the beams in the wall caved in to the cold, but not without a struggle. Windows frosted over despite the moisture-sucking lichen placed in between the sheets of glass. The manor was having the chills. Auntie sealed up most of the rooms and backed herself into a small corner downstairs, because she couldn’t heat up the entire house. She made herself a winter bed in the yellow room, and the only other room she used was the kitchen. The kitchen door became the entrance to the manor. The red foyer and the other rooms downstairs became cold storage. Auntie Annu stuffed door jambs with fluffy wool and taped the doors up. As a final touch she hung wool blankets and old duvets over the doors and dumped all her wool rugs into the yellow room.
People said she was crazy to spend winters in a place that couldn’t even be properly heated. She should’ve at least installed a heating system, or hired a janitor to shovel snow—she certainly had the money for it! But Auntie enjoyed heating up old furnaces and claimed that it was actually handy to store a jug of milk on the floor instead of using a fridge.
When spring came, the manor cracked and popped. Heat brought the beams back to life and the entire house was invigorated, its circulation pumping again. It sounded like someone was constantly wandering the rooms. Auntie Annu wasn’t scared. “It’s just Förstorgård having a good stretch,” she’d say. The cracking and popping lasted until all structures had had their share of warmth. Then the manor settled in for the summer and all the phantom footsteps upstairs disappeared.
When a house is young you need to take care of it, as if you had a child. You need to massage it and fix it up, heal it and take care of it. But once a house is two hundred years old, it’s going to do fine on its own. Anything that was going to rot has already rotted away. Everything that was going to sink or split has already sunk or split. All you need to do is live in it respectfully, meaning the way people always have lived in the house.
Förstorgård was old and slow. Its beams slouched behind the seasons sort of like the sea that makes coastal weather milder. The beams didn’t begin to completely release their summer warmth until November, and they wouldn’t allow muggy heat enter until well into July. Auntie Annu became one with the manor’s cycle. She pulled on a wool sweater and her movements grew slower. She went to the store once a week, chatted with her sheep once a day, drank a cup of hot cocoa at eleven, and after her daily cocoa she walked through all the rooms downstairs and took a moment to stand in each of them. Auntie Annu enjoyed the emptiness and did not want any more furniture. She no longer needed to step aside into the bathroom doorway when she had visitors.
MY NAKED MOM. In the sauna I can see light shine between her thighs when she reaches into the water heater to scoop out hot water. Her legs are long, and her knees pop every time she crouches. Mom’s thighs are hairless, unlike Auntie Annu’s.
Mom roasts on the sauna seat and smells of coconuts; she’s wrapped her coconut-conditioned hair in a towel. Mom’s back is arched, and her legs are dangling. She twirls her ankle around and around and around. I pretend to be a troubadour—I pluck the folds in her stomach as I sing, “Blom blom blom blim!”
A long scar reaches across her belly. That’s where I came out of.
That’s my naked Mom.
Dad used to go to sauna alone at the Sawdust House, because he found it easier to breathe then. When Mom was in the sauna, she talked too much and about things altogether too serious, and she forgot to ask if it was all right to throw more water on the heated rocks before she did it. Mom would throw three scoops of water at once and then dash out the door to roll in the snow. Dad couldn’t handle that.
Sometimes, when Mom and I were the only ones sitting in the sauna, I tried to touch her breasts. Those times Mom slapped my hand.
“But I touched them when I was a baby.”
“That’s not the same,” Mom would say.
“Just this once,” I tried to convince her.
One of her nipples drooped, because I had sucked on it too hard when I was a baby. The other one behaved like a normal nipple.
Time moves on and Mom moves backward. I can see Mom’s pants and her long, straight hair. The wind plays with her hair and in one hand she’s holding a cigarette up to her lips. The other arm is supporting the smoking arm. That’s how my Mom stands and grows distant to me.
When my Mom leans over the bed to say good-night, her hair falls from behind her ears and hits me in the face along with her kisses. When I say she leans over, she’s still right here. When Mom leaned over, she’s already disappearing. Dad doesn’t talk about Mom because he can’t say “leaned.” He can’t talk Mom into the past; sometimes, he starts a sentence with her name, but then doesn’t finish it.
My Mom is unfinished.
Dad does talk about her things, because they still exist. “Hannele’s skis are in the basement,” Dad says, sounding completely normal. “These are the cupboards she painted,” or “Oh that thing? It’s right next to Hannele’s boots.”
You can draw a line around a human being, just like Hercule Poirot draws a line around a dead body on the floor. Death is easier to comprehend when it has an elbow and a bent knee and its own place on the floor. And when the dead person is carried off, a white line remains with nobody inside it. It’s like how winning the lottery would be much easier to understand if you could see a large pile of money. But memories have no body to draw lines around.
In the movies memories are black and white.
The dead person is left standing on the side of the road while a car drives away, and the viewers see from the rear window how the person grows smaller and smaller and eventually disappears completely. That’s how people die in movies.
But it doesn’t really go like that. Time can’t make Mom any smaller or her colors any fainter. Mom just explodes into pieces, and all her pieces remain floating in the air. Each piece is crystal clear: her hair, fingers, her chuckle, the little lines in her skin, her nostrils, her popping knees, her growling tummy. The only missing thing is Mom.