The Family in the Crystal Ball
One afternoon at the end of August, Moominpappa was walking about in his garden feeling at a loss. He had no idea what to do with himself, because it seemed everything there was to be done had already been done or was being done by somebody else.
Moominpappa aimlessly puttered about in his garden, his tail dragging along the ground behind him in a melancholy way. Here, down in the Valley, the heat was scorching; everything was still and silent, and not a little dusty. It was the month when there could be great forest fires, the month for taking great care.
He had warned the family. Time and time again he had explained how necessary it was to be careful in August. He had described the burning valley, the roar of the flames, the white-hot tree trunks, and the fire creeping along the ground underneath the moss. Blinding columns of flame flung upward against the night sky! Waves of fire, rushing down the sides of the valley and on toward the sea …
“Sizzling, they throw themselves into the sea,” finished Moominpappa with gloomy satisfaction. “ Everything is black; everything has been burned up. A tremendous responsibility rests on the smallest creature who can lay his paws on matches.”
The family stopped what they were doing and said: “Yes. Of course. Yes, yes.” Then they took no more notice of him and got on with what they were doing.
They were always doing something. Quietly, without interruption, and with great concentration, they carried on with the hundred and one small things that made up their world. It was a world that was very private, and self-contained, and to which nothing could be added. Like a map where everything has been discovered, everywhere inhabited, and where there are no bare patches left any longer. And they said to each other: “He always talks about forest fires in August.”
Moominpappa climbed up the verandah steps. His paws got stuck in the varnish as usual, making little sucking sounds all the way up and across the floor, right up to the wicker chair. His tail got stuck, too; it felt as though someone were pulling it.
Moominpappa sat down and shut his eyes. “That floor ought to be revarnished,” he thought. “The heat makes it like that, of course. But a good varnish shouldn't start melting just because it's hot. Perhaps I used the wrong sort of varnish. It's an awfully long time since I built the verandah, and it's high time it was revarnished. But first it'll have to be rubbed with sandpaper, a rotten job that no one will thank me for doing. But there's something special about a new white floor, painted with a thick brush and shiny varnish. The family will have to use the back door and keep out of the way while I'm doing it. And then I'll let them come in, saying: ‘There you are! Look, your new verandah!’ … It's much too hot. I'd love to be out sailing. Sailing right out to sea, as far as I can go …”
Moominpappa felt a sleepy feeling in his paws. He shook himself and lit his pipe. The match went on burning in the ashtray, and he watched it, fascinated. Just before it went out, he tore up some bits of newspaper and put them on the flame. It was a pretty little fire, hardly visible in the sunshine, but it was burning nicely. He watched it carefully.
“It's going out again,” said Little My. “Put some more on!” She was sitting in the shade on the verandah railings.
“Oh, it's you!” said Moominpappa, and he shook the ashtray until the fire went out. “I'm just watching the way fire burns. It's very important.”
Little My laughed, and went on looking at him. Then he pulled his hat down over his eyes and took refuge in sleep.
“Pappa,” said Moomintroll. “Wake up! We've just put out a forest fire!”
Both Moominpappa's paws were stuck firmly to the floor. He wrenched them loose with a strong feeling of reluctance. It wasn't fair. “What are you talking about?” he said.
“A real little forest fire,” Moomintroll told him. “Just behind the tobacco patch. The moss was on fire, and Mamma says that it might have been a spark from the chimney …”
Moominpappa leapt into the air and in a flash became a determined man of action. His hat rolled down the steps.
“We put it out!” Moomintroll shouted. “We put it out right away. There's nothing for you to worry about!”
Moominpappa stopped dead. He was feeling very angry. “Have you put it out without me?” he said. “Why didn't anybody tell me? You just let me go on sleeping without saying anything!”
“But, dearest,” said Moominmamma, leaning out of the kitchen window, “we didn't think it was really necessary to wake you up. It was a very small fire, and it was only smoking a little. I happened to be going by with some buckets of water, so all I had to do was to sprinkle a few drops on it in passing …”
“In passing,” cried Moominpappa. “Just sprinkle.
Sprinkle, indeed! What a word! And leaving the fire to burn under the moss unguarded! Where is it? Where is it?”
Moominmamma left what she was doing and led the way to the tobacco patch. Moomintroll stayed on the verandah gazing after them. The black spot in the moss was a very small spot indeed.
“Don't imagine,” said Moominpappa at last, very slowly, “that a spot like this isn't dangerous. Far from it. It can go on burning under the moss, you see. In the ground. Hours and perhaps even days may go by, and then suddenly, whoof! The fire breaks out somewhere quite different. Do you see what I mean?”
“Yes, dearest,” answered Moominmamma.
“So I'm going to stay here,” Moominpappa went on, sulkily digging in the moss. “I shall stand guard over it. I'll stay here all night if necessary.”
“Do you really think …” Moominmamma began. Then she just said, “Yes. That's very good of you. One never knows what will happen with moss.”
Moominpappa sat all afternoon watching the little black spot, first pulling up the moss for quite a way round it. He wouldn't leave it to go indoors for his dinner. He really wanted the others to think he was offended.
“Do you think he'll stay out there all night?” asked Moomintroll.
“It's quite possible,” said Moominmamma.
“If you're sore, you're sore,” observed Little My, peeling her potatoes with her teeth. “You have to be angry sometimes. Every Little Creep has a right to be angry. But he's angry in the wrong way. He's not letting it out, just shutting it up inside him.”
“My dear child,” said Moominmamma, “Pappa knows what he's doing.”
“I don't think he does,” said Little My simply. “He doesn't know at all. Do you know?”
“Not really,” Moominmamma had to admit.
Moominpappa dug his nose in the moss and was aware of the sour smell of smoke. The ground wasn't even warm any longer. He emptied his pipe into the hole and blew on the sparks. They glowed for a moment or two and then went out. He stamped on the fatal spot and then walked slowly down the garden to have a look in his crystal ball.
Dusk was rising from the ground, as it usually did, gathering in under the trees. Round the crystal ball there was a little more light. There it stood, reflecting the whole garden, looking very beautiful on its coral pedestal. It was Moominpappa's very own crystal ball, his own magic ball of shining blue glass, the center of the garden, of the Valley, and of the whole world.
But Moominpappa didn't look into it right away. First he looked at his grimy paws, trying to collect all his vague, scattered, and troubled thoughts. When he was feeling as sad as he possibly could, he looked into the crystal ball for consolation. Every evening of that long, warm, beautiful, and melancholy summer he had done the same thing.
The crystal ball was always cool. Its blue was deeper and clearer than the blue of the sea itself, and it changed the color of the whole world, so that it became cool and remote and strange. At the center of this glass world he saw himself, his own big nose, and around him he saw the reflection of a transformed, dreamlike landscape. The blue ground was deep, deep down inside, and there where he couldn't reach, Moominpappa began to search for his family. He only had to wait a while and they always came. They were always reflected in the crystal ball.
It was only natural, because they had so much to do at dusk. They were always doing something. Sooner or later, Moominmamma would bustle over from the kitchen side of the house toward the outside cellar to fetch some sausages or some butter. Or to the potato patch. Or to get some wood. Every time she did it, she looked as though she were walking down a completely strange and exciting path. But you could never be sure. She might just as well be out on some secret errand of her own which she thought was fun, or playing some private game, or just walking round for the sake of it.
There she came, scampering along like a busy white ball, farthest away among the bluest of blue shadows. And there was Moomintroll, aloof and keeping himself to himself. And there was Little My, slinking up the slope more like a movement than anything else, you could see so little of her. She was just a glimpse of something determined and independent—something so independent that it had no need to show itself. But their reflections made them all seem incredibly small, and the crystal ball made all their movements seem forlorn and aimless.
Moominpappa liked this. It was his evening game. It made him feel that they all needed protection, that they were at the bottom of a deep sea that only he knew about.
It was almost dark now. Suddenly something different happened in the crystal ball: a light appeared. Moominmamma had lit a lamp on the verandah,
something she hadn't done all the summer. It was the oil lamp. All of a sudden the feeling of safety was concentrated on a single point, on the verandah and nowhere else; and on the verandah Moominmamma was sitting, waiting for her family to come home so that she could give them all their evening meal.
The crystal ball became dim and the blue all turned to black; the lamp was the only thing that could be seen.
Moominpappa stood there for a while without really knowing what he was thinking about, and then turned and walked toward the house.
“Well,” said Moominpappa, “now I think we can sleep in peace. The danger should be over. But just to make sure, I'll go and check once more at dawn.”
“Huh!” said Little My.
“Pappa,” cried Moomintroll, “haven't you noticed anything? We've got a lamp!”
“Yes, I thought it was about time we started having a lamp now that the evenings are drawing in. At least, I felt so this evening,” said Moominmamma.
Moominpappa said: “You've put an end to the summer. No lamps should be lit until summer is really over.”
“Well, it'll have to be autumn, then,” said Moominmamma in her quiet way.
The lamp sizzled as it burned. It made everything seem close and safe, a little family circle they all knew and trusted. Outside this circle lay everything that was strange and frightening, and the darkness seemed to reach higher and higher and farther and farther away, right to the end of the world.
“In some families it's the father who decides when it's time to light the lamp,” muttered Moominpappa into his supper.
Moomintroll had arranged his sandwiches in a row in front of him in the usual way: the cheese sandwich first, then two with sausage, one with cold potato and sardines, and last of all one with marmalade. He was completely happy. Little My was eating only sardines because she had a feeling that it was somehow an unusual evening. She gazed thoughtfully out into the dark of the garden, and her eyes became blacker and blacker the more she thought, and the more she ate.
The light from the lamp shone on the grass and on the lilac bush. But where it crept in among the shadows, where the Groke sat all on her own, it was much weaker.
The Groke had been sitting for so long on the same spot that the ground had frozen beneath her. When she stood up and shuffled a little nearer the light, the grass crackled like splintering glass. A whisper of fright rustled through the leaves, and a few curled up and fell with a shudder from a maple tree onto her shoulders. The asters leaned over as far as they could to get out of her way, and the grasshoppers were silent.
“Why aren't you eating?” asked Moominmamma.
Excerpted from Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson.
Copyright © 1965 by Tove Jansson.
Published in 2010 by R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.