THURSDAY: Winter’s Breath

BY LIISA KOVALA

Copyright is held by the author.

AINO TUCKED her scarf under her chin, the wind whipping around her legs, as she watched the old truck navigate down the long driveway, crushing the brittle leaves against the gravel. She shivered as she raised her hand, a final wave to her husband Mikko, before the truck turned left onto the dirt road, winding its way to the highway before heading to the lumber camp. It would be a long winter. In her arms, wrapped in a triangular wool scarf, her baby stirred. She looked down and frowned.

“I’ll take her, Äiti,” Leena said. “It’s too cold for this little one.” Aino’s eldest daughter cooed and leaned in to study the bright eyes as they opened in smiling recognition. Little fingers reached from the scarf to grasp Leena’s long tresses.

“Good. I’m off to do chores,” Aino said. “Cows aren’t much for long farewells.”

Aino strode toward the barn, her rubber boots making sucking sounds as she dipped down the slope from the yard to the fields of rye and barley. She inhaled the fresh smell of hay and pine needles. The stench of manure greeted her as she pulled open the creaky door. Already the cows were moaning, anxious to expend their morning’s milk.

A few more steps and Aino relaxed. She breathed deeply as she made her way to the cows, stopping to stroke the barn cat’s nose and gauge the progress of the new litter of black and white kittens, already becoming independent of their mother. She watched mother pawing at the litter’s runt. Only one of the babies had died. Would the rest survive the winter? Mother seemed to be resting with one eye half open, aware of her brood, but rarely interfering.

“Good girl,” Aino said, stroking her chin. “You know how to handle that lot.”

Aino picked up a metal bucket and the dairy stool, positioning herself beside Ukko and rested her head against her flank. Before long, she fell into a rhythm, listening to the milk as it struck the metal sides.

The harvest was in and the farm prepared for the winter ahead. She was grateful that Mikko had organized everything before leaving for the lumber camp. When she had first told her parents that she would marry him they were disappointed. How could she consider marrying someone so far beneath her? When they decided to move with their two young children, Pekka and Leena, her parents questioned their decision. What kind of life would they have? Now, as she moved her stool to the other cow, she sighed. Life in Northern Ontario was difficult. Mikko toiled and still they struggled. Every winter, he travelled north to the bush, working in the lumber camp to earn a few extra dollars. For the past few winters, Pekka worked there too. He was engaged to Päivi, a lovely young girl from a nearby farm, and was trying to earn a little extra. That left Aino with four young children at home. Thank heavens Leena decided to leave Sudbury and move home to Wanup while waiting for her fiancée Kari to send for her from Karelia. Aino would need all the help she could get this winter.

“Äiti! Katri needs to be fed!” Leena’s voice travelled from the porch across the yard to the barn.

“Yes, yes. I’m coming!” Aino called. She placed the buckets near the door, opening the barn to a cold burst. Too early for snow, she thought, but it certainly smelled like it was on its way.

Leena pushed the screen door open and held out the squawking baby. “I’ll take care of things in the barn,” she said. “Saara, you’re with me. Timo, you play outside with Laila.”

“Ahh! Do I have to?” Timo gave Leena a disgruntled look, his eyes knitted closely together. Poju wagged his tail and barked, eager to go outside.

Aino sighed. Leena glared. Timo relented.

With the children taken care of, Aino sat in her wooden rocker, positioning her arm comfortably under the baby. Is this what the cows feel like, she wondered. Aino rested her head against the wooden slats, closing her eyes to the sounds of the baby suckling.

Everything was as it should be, she thought. Already Katri was working on her first tentative steps. The children were happy and healthy, despite the fact that she wasn’t sure yet how she would manage with the winter boots this year. Perhaps she could trade butter or coffee, maybe some preserves, with old Mr. Lindros.

She looked down at the baby’s face, so soft and round. Katri’s long lashes fluttered briefly before curling up against her cheeks. She remembered this moment with her other children, an intense love for these little people she was just getting to know. Looking at Katri, she felt tired. The child was perfect, she thought. Quiet, content, sleeping through the night. Nothing like Timo, who had screamed and fretted and was always hungry, or Laila, who frequently suffered from some illness or other. Katri was nothing but sweet. So why was she feeling so low?

Aino turned her gaze to the window. Red and orange blazed on the trees obstructing her view of the barn. So many chores to do. She would feel overwhelmed by it all, she thought, if only she wasn’t so tired.

“Mrs. Kivi?” A voice called from the front entrance. Aino felt a cold draft. “Mrs. Kivi, are you here?”

“I’m here, Minna. What do you want, child?” She didn’t mean to sound impatient.

Minna closed the door and pushed her rubber boots off with her toes. “Mrs. Kivi, Äiti told me to come here. My brother got sick a few days ago, and then mother caught it. She’s worried that I’ll get sick, too.”

Aino looked at the small girl with concern. “What kind of illness?”

“They’ve both been coughing for days. Äiti looks so pale and can barely get out of bed. My brother sleeps and sleeps, waking only to cough. He says his chest hurts. I’ve been trying to help, but I just don’t know what to do.” Minna’s little shoulders started to shake. She wrung her hands in her mittens, tears spilling from her saucer eyes.

“Don’t cry, girl,” Aino said. “Take off your coat and go to the kitchen. You’ll stay with us until they are better. I’ll get word to the doctor.”

Minna nodded as she removed her woolen coat, following Aino to the kitchen. Aino placed Katri in a make-shift crib, an old wooden crate lined with blankets, and passed her Laila’s rag doll. Katri smiled and poked its button eyes with her finger before putting its floppy arm in her mouth.

Aino silently listed all of the chores that needed to be done at the Järvi farm. She hoped the doctor would arrive soon. Rumours of tuberculosis in Wanup had made everyone worry, and some had even neglected the usual social gatherings, foregoing church for private family ceremonies in their own homes on Sunday mornings.

Several days passed with Minna sharing a room with Saara and Laila. Aino and Leena did what they could to help at the Järvi farm, feeding Elsa Järvi and her son, taking care of the livestock and keeping the stove fires burning. Johan Järvi had left on the same truck as Mikko, leaving his family to deal with their illness on their own. He wasn’t to blame, Aino thought, but it would certainly be better if the men were home.

“Mrs. Kivi?” Minna said one morning. “I don’t feel so well.”

“Neither do I,” Laila said.

Both girls looked pale. She felt their foreheads. Hot and damp. Rough coughs erupted intermittently, a chorus of uncomfortable hacking and wheezing.

“Leena, look after the girls. I’ll fetch the doctor.” Aino threw on her overcoat and slipped her feet into her tall boots. “And keep Timo and Saara out of that room.”

***

The snow fell as Aino had predicted; a layer of white covering the fields and barns. It laced the rooftops and balanced gingerly on the tree branches. Aino sipped a cup of weak coffee, marvelling at how the view from her kitchen window was transformed overnight. She considered the work she would have to accomplish before dark. The days were getting shorter. She glanced at Katri, sleeping soundly with her tiny fists curled at her temples, the slight frown of a baby dreaming of some unseen troubles or other flickering across her lips.

Aino’s mind kept wandering to the doctor’s visit. Dr. Rautianen had confirmed tuberculosis and sent Laila and Minna to the Gravenhurst Sanatorium to recover.

“Rest, good food and fresh air should do the trick,” he said. “But recovery could take many months.”

The Järvi’s were better, at least; Minna’s mother gaining enough strength to take on most of the day’s chores and her son making a full recovery, as though he had never suffered at all. At least there was some comfort there.

***

Months passed. Christmas and New Year’s came and went, briefly uniting the family with Mikko and Pekka. But no Laila. The snow that had briefly brightened Aino’s days became intolerable. The heavy snowfall made the path to the barn difficult to navigate. It was cold and miserable, but still Aino toiled, taking care of the livestock, cooking dinner, tending to the baby and the other children, checking occasionally on the Järvi family.

One day, as Aino passed Leena’s open door, balancing a load of laundry in her arms, she saw Leena hunched at the side of her bed, letters scattered around her. She thought to talk to her, but realized there was nothing to be done. Leena had not received a letter from her fiancée in Karelia for many months. News from Russia was never positive.

That evening, Aino sat in her wooden rocker near the blazing stove, darning a pair of Timo’s wool socks. It was pleasant and warm in the little house.

“Äiti, when do you think they will send Laila home?” Leena asked, as she knitted a tiny hat for Katri.

“I don’t know. Best not to worry. She will be getting fresh air and exercise there. It will do her lungs good.” Aino paused and looked up to Leena. “We can’t help her now. She must get stronger and then she’ll come home to us.”

Leena nodded and focussed on her knitting, leaning down occasionally to pass Katri a toy as she played at her feet. Aino watched the affectionate glances between her children. Leena would be a good mother she thought, squashing a twinge of jealousy.

Aino looked forward to receiving the mail, always hoping to see a letter in Laila’s tiny print. This must be what it was like for Leena, always waiting for the next letter to arrive. Laila’s meandering script described everything: meals, walks, books, games, patients. She must be suffering from boredom. But the letters were reassuring. Her child was safe, if far away and with strangers.

***

“Äiti! I’m home!” Laila’s voice carried on the wind.

Aino dropped her broom by the barn door and ran to her daughter, pulling her small frame against her wool coat and kissing the top of her head.

“Are you well, girl?” She held Laila at arm’s length, searching her face. “You should get inside before you catch your death from cold.”

The spring sun shone brightly, but winter had not yet released its chilly grip on the air.

“I’m tired from travelling.” Laila slipped her hand into her mother’s.

“And Minna?”

“She’s fine. We were sent home on the train with a few of the adults and then Dr. Rautianen picked us up from the station. We wanted to surprise you.”

“It’s wonderful. And you are feeling well?” Aino opened the front door, letting the fresh air swoop through the house.

“Yes, Äiti. Please don’t worry.”

I always worry, child, Aino thought, watching as Laila raced off to see the baby and her siblings.

Over time, life resumed its regular routine. Katri continued to grow, gaining strength and confidence walking. Leena, however, seemed thinner and more anxious. Still no news from Kari.

“Perhaps he will never write again,” Leena confided one night over hot tea as the children slept. “What if something has happened to him?”

“We don’t know that. You must stay hopeful.”

As Aino rocked and Leena sewed, the wind howled through the trees beyond the barn. A ribbon of light surrounded the house and illuminated the yard. Beyond, the field was cloaked in darkness. A creak on the stairs drew Aino’s attention away from her heavy thoughts.

“Aiti, you need to come upstairs. Something’s wrong.” Saara’s voice was urgent.

Aino’s cup sloshed tea as she pulled herself from the rocker. Leena dropped her sewing, the fabric falling at her feet in a jumbled heap.

“Fetch the doctor, Leena. Saara, stay away from this room and make sure Timo stays out too. Check on Katri, but for God’s sake keep them out of here.”

Aino stroked Laila’s forehead, pushing her damp hair away from her hot temples. Laila responded to her touch with a painful moan and uncontrollable coughing. Spots of blood dotted her pillow. Aino changed her soaking sheets and found a fresh nightgown. She pressed a cold cloth against her skin.

The night vigil extended into the morning with the brief interruption of Dr. Rautianen’s visit.

“Laila’s health is fragile,” he explained. “There is nothing to be done except to wait. I’ll check on her again first thing in the morning. Try to get some rest, Aino.”

But Aino refused to leave her daughter’s side, dozing only occasionally before jolting awake, only to find Laila in a troubled sleep.

In the early morning hours, Leena shook her mother. “Äiti, you need to wake up.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Laila.”

Aino turned to her daughter. Her body, draped in a thin sheet, looked small and frail. Her blue eyes stared at the ceiling. Aino swallowed a scream. She clutched Leena’s hand and stroked Laila’s forehead with the other.

***

As Aino stood over the tiny plot, she clutched Laila’s favourite rag doll against her chest. No tears came. Only a silence that seemed to seep through her body. She felt a strange stillness. Laila’s casket, a wooden crate, was lowered gently until it touched the hard ground. As if in response, the wind whipped flakes of snow that swirled around Aino’s skirt. One by one, the mourners turned away, leaving Aino and her children.

With no words, Leena passed Katri to her mother’s outraised arms and guided the other children toward the house.

For a moment, Aino stared into the distant fields before turning her attention to Katri, a weighty bundle wrapped in a thick wool scarf. Katri woke from her dreamy sleep with a smile. She reached her fat fingers to touch her mother’s face. Aino took a deep breath as she pulled her daughter closer. Her whispered prayer was carried away on the wind. She was overcome.

4 comments

  1. Pingback: “Winter’s Breath” (Short Story) | Liisa Kovala
  2. Malla

    Kaunis tarina. Englannin kieleni ei ihan riittänyt tarpeeksi tarinan sisälle pääsemiseen, mutta silti tunnelma vei mukanaan.

  3. Pingback: RERUN FRIDAY: Winter’s Breath |

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>