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YOUR PRESENCE IS REQUESTED AT SUVANTO
By Maile Chapman
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2010 Maile Chapman
All right reserved.
Chapter One Julia arrives in August, on an afternoon that is warm and damp and thick with the smell of berries and pine hung low in a buzzing blue sky. Mosquitoes are fat and hysterical, moving in from the sunlit empty meadows to float in the shade, rising and hanging at the screened windows. They are hungry like a personal affront; it is some consolation to know they won't survive the coming drop in temperature.
The car hired to bring Julia here is parked and clicking in the circular front driveway. The windshield is roughened with the yellow and black viscera of insects. The driver is quiet and polite. He had no trouble finding the hospital called Suvanto Sairaala, and he has parked at an angle, expecting to pull away again shortly. He is standing beside the car, waiting. But Julia sits in the backseat, anonymous in her dark fur coat, motionless even after the driver opens the doors and the trunk and begins stacking a set of brown leather suitcases and three silver paper hatboxes on the hospital steps.
Sister Tutor is waiting as well, bent and looking in as an encouragement. But Julia doesn't move. Her legs are bare, she wears a summer dress, she looks ready but she is reluctant, with the cool, slow circulation of the elderly. She holds a pair of peeling snakeskin gloves against her lap. She'd been dozing, and now she is disoriented, and doesn't like that this is her destination. The tall curve of the hospital wall oppresses, and so does the wide shadow cast by the canopy over the front steps, with a verse from the Kalevala, just visible, inscribed around the frames of the tall glass doors, which in English would be Though disease has not subdued you / Nor has death thus overcome you / Nor some other fate o'erwhelmed you ...
Apparently, she doesn't have any money in her purse to pay the driver.
"Who put her into the car?"
"A man did, ma'am," according to the driver, and this man told the driver to watch the lady, because she might try to get out of the car, and he should prevent her, but that if by some quick opportunity she did get out he was to put her back and bring her all the way to Suvanto as planned. The man hadn't paid the fare ahead of time, saying it would be settled at the other end. But the lady hadn't any money of her own. The driver stands waiting. He would rather not have mentioned the fare. But it was, in fact, a long drive.
Someone (Julia's husband? or who?) has behaved poorly. Sister Tutor thanks the driver, and what she means is, Let's not embarrass her, and she tips the driver herself with the little bit of money she keeps in the tiny key pocket of her apron. He declines; he was not asking for a tip.
"For your kindness," she says, insisting, and sends him in to see the secretary for the rest of the fare. And then she climbs into the backseat beside Julia and introduces herself. They are, roughly, of a common age, and a similar size, one fair, one dark, and they sit together quietly, looking through the pines, up the slope in the direction of the doctor villas and the pavilion where the nurses live.
Sister Tutor can hear the whine of one mosquito bouncing in the car with them, excited by their breathing and by the odor of their skin. She can hear the movement of the pine branches shifting overhead, and outside, falling heavily through the air, Sister Tutor believes she can hear the heat of the sun streaming down through everything. She listens, and then she says, "Well, Julia, let's get out now."
She speaks in Finnish, saying the name in the soft way, Yulia. She slides along the seat and holds out a hand. Julia's eyes are flat and dark, partially obscured by kohl that gleams and gathers in her deep orbital shadows. She puts her cold hand in Sister Tutor's, and it seems she'll agree to step out now, and follow. Instead she pulls, slightly, as though trying to draw Sister Tutor back into the car with her. Sister Tutor, perhaps misunderstanding, puts out her other hand, offering a double grip, coaxing until Julia finally slides along the seat and puts her feet down on the gravel.
"Come upstairs," says Sister Tutor, and what she means is, Let's take off that unsuitable coat, black in the heat, brown in the sun, and visibly full of dust.
Julia won't look at Sister Tutor, only down at her own feet, blinking slowly under heavy mascara. Still, she nearly misses one of the steps, and abruptly puts her hand back in Sister Tutor's hard friendly fingers.
"Finnish or Swedish?" asks Sister Tutor.
Julia shrugs to say, It doesn't matter.
They pass the reception desk, where Sister Tutor waves and the receptionist calls for an orderly to carry up the new luggage. Julia is so small that the hem of her coat touches her heels, the peach satin lining falling down on one side and gliding along toward the elevator as if this is already her nightgown showing underneath. Her hand in Sister Tutor's is only the size of a twelve-year-old girl's, but with ten ruby rings stacked between the swollen knuckles, and Sister Tutor squeezes gently, careful of the rings, the old bones, and tries to make her smile, a little, but Julia won't answer, not even with faint movements of her fingers in return. And though she studies the walls, she does not seem curious about the new surroundings, not curious at all.
Sister Tutor takes her up in the elevator, caged at the front and glassed at the rear, and they can look out over the grounds (and perhaps just see the car departing, following the road away). They walk together down the residential hall, built in a curve to open a wider surface on the southern side, to gather sunlight into the rooms. They follow the curve to Room 527. The bed has been fanned, the room recently aired, and the curtains are open. Despite the sunlight it is all as cool as camping. The windows are just above the level of the surrounding pine forest and the horizon is a rough, green, mesmerizing line duplicated by the bed: a folded green blanket, a thin blue duvet, and a small white pillow staring from the head of the bed like a square, featureless face.
Julia does not ask how to find the toilet or how to get a cup of coffee or anything else. With the makeup it may be hard to see, but she's gone waxy, lips too dark and harsh in the lipstick as she slips away from Sister Tutor's hand, sinking toward the bed (Sister Tutor guiding), her coat exhaling perfume, exhaling perspiration and the sweetish odor of tired rayon, and she shifts herself into position with the toes of her small black shoes pointed toward the ceiling. When Sister Tutor undoes the little silver buckles (how on earth did she get them on by herself ?), there is a moment of navigating them over the swollen bones, the bunions of well-used feet, but then, of course, there's relief once the shoes are off.
Sister Tutor looks up to ask if there is anything more she can do but Julia has unfolded a white handkerchief and drawn it over her face, where it moves, trembling as it hides her. She's not crying, is she, embarrassed by the lack of money in her purse? Probably not. Probably she's tired now. Possibly this is even a dismissal. But that dark lipstick will bleed into the cotton in a minute, showing through like a bruise, calling suddenly into mind the lady Sister Tutor had once seen hit by a cab, dragged in her dress and killed in the street. She'd been crossing to the Helsinki Ooppera, and she died in a crumple of torn taffeta on the black ice of the street while someone ran for help and Sister Tutor, much younger then, fell to her knees in the snow to hold the stranger's crushed hand, skinned and ominously slow to bleed, and waited.
But of course Julia is just going down for a nap, still holding her coat around her. And so, thinks Sister Tutor, pulling the blanket over her bare feet, That's all right. But I'll leave the door open just a crack.
It is unspoken in the air: What you need, Julia, is nourishment, clean cotton that breathes, and some sunlight every day while it lasts. Some diversion and some exercise and of course a firm routine. And we will give you that. And we will take away those constricting shoes. And get some others from town, we'll recommend which kind: wider, kinder, more comfortable and more suitable for what your life will be here now.
Julia sleeps. But later someone arrives to pull her sleeves, someone with clammy, uncareful fingertips. She moves aside the handkerchief as the coat is tugged away and looks up at a tucked lip, soft as a rabbit's, and a glimpse of healthy white teeth. The woman gathers the coat and then sinks awkwardly down onto one knee beside the bed, her joints cracking, her strong fingers gripping the edge of the mattress for balance. Her fat bun of dark hair, controlled behind a white cap, touches Julia's arm when she leans down to push Julia's shoes under the bed, out of reach.
"I'm Nurse Todd," she says, her hand braced on the edge of the bed as she slowly gets to her feet, moving as one who favors an old ache in the back. She is flushed as she folds the coat over her arm. Julia holds the handkerchief against her face, watching with one eye.
"I'm the charge nurse for your floor. You'll get the orientation when you wake up. You're welcome to come to me with any questions, anytime."
Julia stares up at Nurse Todd's neck, her mouth, her ear, and then up to the gleaming weight of her hair, every part of her head, but won't meet her eyes.
"Nurse Taylor says she's sorry she isn't here, but she'll stop by later to introduce herself."
Julia looks to the apron, the key pocket, and the fit of Nurse Todd's uniform.
"Say something," says Nurse Todd. "Speak when you're spoken to."
Julia says, "I'll wait for the other nurse."
Nurse Todd presses Julia's coat to her hip with an elbow and leans in, reaching to quickly snatch away the handkerchief, heedless of ripping it.
"Don't worry," says Nurse Todd, folding the handkerchief and putting it away on the far nightstand where Julia can almost reach it. "I can look after you."
But there are the teeth again, above, and a faintly cosmetic odor from Nurse Todd's breath when she reaches across. Julia turns her head to avoid it. She's chilled without her coat, and she wants a cardigan, but her bags haven't been unpacked.
"You're cold," says Nurse Todd, who is not unobservant. "There isn't nearly enough fat on you." She touches Julia's upper arm, and she squeezes, gently, to prove this. Julia moves to sit up, but Nurse Todd's grip tightens heavily in response, contracting until her fingers and thumb meet in the damp fabric at the axilla under Julia's arm.
"See what I mean?" she says. "Not enough flesh."
Julia doesn't react, doesn't acknowledge the choking, thudding pulse in the vein and a growing faintness in her fingers. Nurse Todd gives Julia's arm a tiny shake before releasing it. Then she flips the blanket up to Julia's neck, tucking it quickly, in a practiced way, tightly, too tightly, so that Julia can't easily move.
"I'm sending your coat to the coatroom," says Nurse Todd. "I'll be back."
She turns in the doorway. Julia, temporarily immobilized, stares back at her with a look of helpless hatred, and thus Nurse Todd is satisfied.
The Head of Nursing, who in a more traditional, more hierarchical, more Victorian institution would have been called Matron in the old-fashioned way, had been fairly direct with Sunny Taylor in the beginning, extremely direct, by the Finnish standards of the day: "What we want from you is competent nursing, and also patience. You might get annoyed because of them. It should be said."
"Right," Sunny had said then, cool in white and blue. She had a pleasing forehead and a perfect hairline, green veins mild at her temples, nice eyebrows and such clear skin, so reassuring, all very much on purpose. With her school pin and enamel nursing emblem worn neatly, tightly at the closure of her collar.
"And common sense, because you'll feel the isolation here. I notice you worked as a private-duty nurse."
"That's right," said Sunny, legs crossed calmly at the ankles, not drawing attention to those years of twenty-four-hour shifts in homes, in bedrooms, those years that others hadn't wanted, bad capricious pay and light sleep taken in armchairs, at bedsides, cash transactions leading into the lives of people who are always unhappy that a nurse is needed. Unhappy with her, because she was proof that someone there was ailing.
But the Head of Nursing is shrewd enough to know that some have their reasons to choose that life. She doesn't make Sunny elaborate on the years of making do with cupboards full of old towels cut into bandages and the sickening smell of a beef and cabbage dinner being prepared down the hall. She can well imagine Sunny, arriving in the clean uniform dress and bleached apron, neat cap tightly tied, entering the private homes to move the blankets, to change the saturated dressings. To reposition sweating limbs, to replace compresses, to readjust supporting pillows, and then to nap in the chair, then to wake stiffly, changing wet dressings again before going home to probably perform the same duties for the family invalid as well, doing something, for someone, every hour, on the hour, all day and every night. It's not uncommon to find oneself at the center of a ring of continuous, totalizing need.
"Your responsibility will be the top floor. The patients there are mostly the wives and daughters of the foreigners who work for Finn-American Timber. And so, only a few are local women. Only a few are Finnish women, you'll notice."
"Right," said Sunny.
"The timber wives are always up-patients. They really don't need much care."
That would be fine, she thought. That would be quite tolerable, because even though in her mind's ear Sunny heard the spoiled advance voices of the timber wives making their frivolous, unnecessary requests-bring me my applesauce, rub my feet, where's my hairbrush, now hold the mirror steady while I fix myself-she knew there would never be a repeat of the crushing responsibilities she'd faced in her off hours during the last several years, at home, with her mother. But of course it couldn't possibly be the same as anything at home, that was the point. She had written letters in response to advertisements from hospitals far away, hospitals as far from home as possible. The letters were a slim bridge to a new place, and then very heavy wheels had been set in motion. A long voyage, some parts over land and others by ship, her ticket paid for and picked up at the terminal, a long time in transit to think, after which she was to find the train station in the center of Helsinki. Board the train to Turku. It will be marked. She would be met after the train. She had followed exactly the instructions sent in a letter by the Head. On the reverse of the letter were the same instructions written in Finnish, in case she went astray. If she went astray, she should show this to someone and they would put her right. She carried one small suitcase past the bright golden buildings around the harbor of Helsinki, finding the bus that would take her to the trains. She had pointed to the letter, not daring to try to say it: Rautatieasema?
"Joo, kylla," said the driver. Sunny had money she'd exchanged on the boat and she held it out now in the palm of her hand, but the driver held up his own palm and did not take any; she didn't know if this was a good sign or a bad sign.
But that again was the reason she had left home, to know nothing and to be responsible for nothing except the work placed immediately before her. She had not been drawn all this way merely by the temptation of regular hours, the assurance of being paid, of being treated well. Who would choose such a rupture, such a risk, for merely that? No, she'd come looking for the promise of dislocation, and a quiet place in which to be left alone, protected by the order of an institution in which a natural division would be acknowledged, would be expected, a separation between herself and her previous life inserted as neatly as the emblem pinned to the uniform: My working self will now be only a version of me, one version, and this dress, this face, this detached smile are all that you can claim of me while I look after you. She had brought no more than she could carry by herself. Everything else boxed and left behind her. Unsentimental. Eyes forward, the only way. Of course she is sorry. Of course she still doesn't know what the point could have been, why anyone should be made to suffer like that, and then to die like that? Her mother was dead now, finally, thank god. But she had died terribly, and Sunny could not scratch the memory out of her mind, her mother's face, more bony and more hard over time and coming to look eventually like a part of the carved wooden headboard behind her where she sat propped against a small hill of rubber-coated pillows. She had spent years and years propped in that bed. And afterward Sunny sent the mattress to the dump and paid a man to burn it there, because after everything she did not want anyone to carry it away and sleep on it.
Excerpted from YOUR PRESENCE IS REQUESTED AT SUVANTO by Maile Chapman Copyright © 2010 by Maile Chapman . Excerpted by permission.
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