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'And do you know what happens then?'
Throughout my time as pastor in the small parish of Hurmevaara – a year and seven months today – this same man has reserved every conversation slot that has become available. On the reservation slip he even writes that he specifically wants to talk to me, Pastor Joel Huhta. The reason for this is still unclear.
The nature of these pastoral conversations remains the same, however. Only the angle changes.
The man scratches his chin. The stubble is spread unevenly across his cheeks, and in some places is so thick that his fingers come to a halt. His eyes are blue and bright, but with no hint of joy. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the nature of the topics he raises, session after session.
'I'm not a very good fortune-teller,' I tell him.
The man nods.
'But the UN is,' he says. 'I've looked at their most recent report on population growth. The human population of the Earth is around 7.6 billion. By 2030 – so basically in no time at all – it'll be 8.5 billion. In the middle of the century it will already have grown to 9.7 billion. And by the end of the century – what do you know? – there will be 11.2 billion of us. And this is only what they call a medium variant. "So what?" you might say ...'
I don't say anything. Silence sighs through the parish building. We are in the south-eastern corner of the building, in a room with Venetian blinds drawn across the windows. Without looking outside I know that the late afternoon beyond the blinds is dark, and that there's finally plenty of snow. The late arrival of winter and the as-yet-unfrozen waters of Lake Hurmevaara made me only a moment ago doubt my ability to read my diary. The room's interior is austere, its low tables and thick rugs lending it an almost Japanese feel. Naturally we are sitting on chairs and not rugs, but there are only two of them and the room is about twenty square metres in size.
'And what happens then?' the man continues, his voice as bright and joyless as his eyes. 'In Finland there might still be five and a half million of us, but what if there isn't? The population of Africa is set to quadruple by the end of the century. Right now there are just over a billion people in Africa, and by the end of the century there will be four point five billion. That's four times as many as now. At the same time there's less water and not enough food to go round. Are people going to wait around until their hunger and thirst get even worse? The average African woman gives birth to about five children. Let's imagine that by the end of the century one in five of them decides they've had enough of hunger, poverty, war and drought. One in five decides to up sticks or is sent away to make a living in better conditions. Let's assume there's an element of natural depletion and only one in ten leaves, then let's assume only one in twenty makes it all the way. That's a modest estimate. But still. If we take a slightly longer timeframe, let's say until the end of the century, to bring in new generations, then we drop the number that make it all the way to Europe, by this point we're only talking about two and a half percent of the four point five billion. How many people do you think that makes? One hundred and twelve and a half million. Where are we going to put them? Where will they settle? In what kind of conditions? And who's going to agree to it all? That's the equivalent of the 2015 immigrant crisis times a hundred and twelve. And that's a low estimate, because it doesn't factor in the millions and billions of people who will be born and die during that timeframe. It's just a figure at a random point in the future, four point five billion. Plenty of things will happen along the way, as history tells us and as the future will show. People are always being born, dying, moving on, having children. Gifts from God.'
The man looks me in the eye. He couldn't possibly know. Of course he couldn't. I haven't told anybody. Anybody at all.
'The Lord alone knows,' he continues, 'I've done my bit – before my divorce, mind. But that's another story. I'm an engineer and I've got a thing for mathematics. I don't daydream; I don't make things up – I couldn't. I make calculations. Every one of them shows that the world is going to end.'
Yes, apparently at the same time almost every afternoon, I think.
'And,' he continues, 'if we live in a world that, according to all the demonstrable facts, is going to end – and pretty soon – then, well, there's no hope.'
I don't know why the man visits me. One possibility is that he simply wants to bring me over to his point of view. It's understandable; it's human nature. Surrendering to the certain destruction awaiting us must be more pleasant in good company. By yourself everything seems bleaker and more difficult, and it appears the same applies to the end of the world. And when no one else will listen to you, the local pastor has a duty of care.
'You can learn to hope,' I say.
'One answer might be that we can use hope to help us do our best for others and ourselves.'
'I don't have all the answers.'
'Soon I guess you'll tell me God has all the answers.'
'That depends a lot on how you see things. Our time here is almost up.'
'That's what I've been trying to tell you.'
'I mean our session. It's almost four o'clock.'
'I was only just getting started.'
'Everybody has the same amount of time,' I say. 'At these sessions,' I add, to avoid confusion.
The minute hand of the clock above the door edges across the number twelve, shudders, seems almost to flinch at the straightness of its own back. The hour hand is pointing to four. The man doesn't move. There's a question on his lips. I can see it before he opens his mouth.
'What do you think about the meteorite?' he asks.
Six days. Six meteorite-filled days. Six days and nights during which the people in the village have spoken of nothing else. Meteorite this, meteorite that.
'I haven't given it much thought,' I say.
It's true, even though I am a member of the village committee, which will take responsibility for security at the War Museum while the meteorite is stored there for a few more days. The rock will then travel to Helsinki and from there onwards to London, where it will be taken to a laboratory to be examined. Security at the museum is being overseen by a group of volunteers, because the village cannot afford to hire a private security company and the nearest police station is ninety kilometres away in Joensuu. I have spent one night on watch at the museum, but even then I didn't really think about the meteorite. I spent half an hour reading the Bible, and the rest of the night with James Ellroy.
'It fell out of the sky,' the man says.
'That's where they normally come from.'
'I'm guessing it's more from outer space.'
'I can't make you out.'
Evolution made me like this, I think, but I don't say it aloud. I don't want to prolong the situation.
'It's four o'clock.'
'Tarvainen says the meteorite belongs to him.'
Half the village thinks the meteorite belongs to them. Tarvainen was driving a car that technically belongs to Jokinen, on land that definitely belongs to Koskiranta, with petrol bought at Eskola's garage, then headed to Liesmaa's house where he made a call to Ojanperä, who arrived at the scene with Vihinen, whose delivery company, Vihinen & Laitakari, is in fact run by Mr Laitakari but half owned by Mr Paavola. And so on and so forth.
'Well, it really is already four, so ...'
'They say it's worth a million.'
'It might be,' I say. 'If it turns out to be as rare as people have been speculating.'
The man stands up. His steps towards the door are so hesitant that I find myself holding my breath. He reaches the doorway, manages to pull down the handle.
'I didn't even get round to talking about second-stage Ebola.'
'Godspeed,' I say.
* * *
Once I am alone, I open the blinds. The darkness behind the window looks almost like water, so thick that you could dive into it. I've been listening to people all day, and every one of them has mentioned their children. For a while – until today – I've managed to forget about the subject, and find a bit of peace and quiet.
My big secret.
'Conflicted emotions' doesn't seem to cover it.
I listen to other people's secrets as part of my work, but all the while I'm carrying the greatest secret I can imagine. And still I haven't been able to tell Krista the true nature of the situation. It's not as if either of us has forgotten that I stepped on a mine, a homemade nail bomb, during my deployment to Afghanistan. What I haven't told Krista is that by doing so, I lost the ability to have children. That while everything looks and works the way it should, while the surgeons successfully put everything back together, I was left with a blackspot. One that is permanent, incurable, unfixable.
Seven shared years.
Right from the beginning, Krista took, and continues to take, such good care of me in so many different ways.
And Krista's most solemn wish? To start a family with me as soon as I returned from my secondment as a military chaplain.
At first I avoided telling her, because it felt like yet another explosion. I'd already survived one, but I didn't know if I'd be so lucky second time round. And now time has passed, and the longer I leave it, the more difficult setting off another bombshell seems. My wounds from the previous one were superficial – I've largely forgotten about them in my day-to-day life. Another explosion would send us back to square one. And probably further still – perhaps to a situation I thought I'd put behind me: a life without Krista.
I don't want to think about a life like that.
And, of course, I'm carrying another secret too. Doubt. For what kind of God thinks this is good and acceptable, yet allows all the evils I have seen? I have asked God these questions, and I realise the paradoxical nature of my actions.
God, meanwhile, has remained silent.
* * *
I swap my trainers for a pair of winter boots, shrug on my eiderdown jacket, a thick red scarf, pull on my woolly hat and gloves, and leave. The crisp snow crunches beneath my feet as I walk through the centre of the village: Pipsa's Motel, Mini-Mart, the Teboil garage, the Golden Moon Night Club, Mega-Mart, Hurme Gear, Lasse's Bar, the Co-op Bank, Hirvonen's Auto Repairs, and the Pleasure Island Thai massage parlour. Then, at the end of the perpetually deserted main street, the Town Hall and the War Museum. In the museum car park, cars with their motors running, red rear lights gleaming like pairs of sleep-deprived eyes. Villagers filled with meteor-mania. And, of course, members of the village committee.
I am about to turn onto the street where we live when I recall the confusion regarding yesterday's security shifts.
I walk towards the museum. A large SUV with two men sitting inside is driving towards me. The driver is short and not wearing a hat. In the passenger seat is a man who can only be described as a giant. He fills half of the vehicle. The car has Russian plates. This afternoon's fresh snow billows up and dampens my right cheek.
Four men are having a meeting in the car park. I recognise each of them even from this distance. Jokinen: a storekeeper whose acquisition methods remain unclear. Sometimes I get the sense that his yoghurts come from somewhere other than the wholesalers, and the meat he sells tastes fresher than anything I've ever bought at the meat counter in the local supermarket. Turunmaa: a farmer who deals mostly in potatoes and swedes, who dabbles in a bit of sprat fishing, and who owns so much forest he could form his own country. Räystäinen: mechanic and owner of the village gym, a man with a passion for bodybuilding, who insists that I too should take out membership of his gym and start working out properly. I have natural shoulders, apparently, and almost no fat to burn off. Then there's Himanka: a pensioner, a man who looks so old and fragile that I wonder whether he should be out in temperatures this cold.
The four men notice my arrival. The conversation instantly dies down.
'Joel,' says Turunmaa by way of a greeting. He is wearing a furry cap and a leather jacket. The others are wrapped in quilted jackets and woolly hats.
As usual, Turunmaa seems to be leading the conversation. 'We're having a bit of a pow-wow.'
'Tonight's guard duty,' says Räystäinen.
They fall silent. I look first at Jokinen.
'I have to Skype my daughter in America,' he says.
'What?' asks Himanka, shivering with cold.
I look at Turunmaa.
'I want to watch the match,' he says. 'I've got a tenner on it.'
'That time of the month, I'm afraid,' says Räystäinen. He has a frankly astonishingly young wife, and they are doing exactly what Krista wishes we were doing: making vigorous attempts to start a family. I know this because Räystäinen has regaled me with the fine details.
I don't even consider Himanka an option.
'I'll stand guard tonight,' I say.
* * *
Houses line the street at irregular intervals, and the lights are on in almost all of them. Round here people go home early. In Helsinki the lights go on around six o'clock in the evening; here they flicker into life after three. Another car drives past, and this time I recognise the driver. The dark- haired lady often sings at the Golden Moon. She gives me the same look she always does. It's not especially warm. In fact, it seems to say more than simply, you're in my way. She is smoking a cigarette and talking to the man sitting next to her. They pass me and continue driving towards the museum.
I turn at the junction, and I can already see the lights. I walk for another four minutes or so, then step into the garden.
I knock the snow from my shoes against the concrete steps of our rented detached house. Opening the front door, I can already smell the cabbage rolls. I slip off my shoes, take off my outdoor clothes and walk inside.
Krista is in the kitchen, standing with her back to me, cooking dinner, just as she has done innumerable times before. The love of my life, I think automatically. What would I have if I didn't have you? The familiar thought echoes through my mind, curling and swirling; it's done that a lot recently.
I give her a hug, press my nose into her thick chestnut hair and draw the smell deep into my lungs. I see her long, thin fingers on the chopping board, in her left hand a plump red tomato, in her right a shining kitchen knife.
'I'm going to be on guard duty tonight,' I tell her.
'I'm pregnant,' she says.
Perhaps the nocturnal War Museum, devoid of people, is the right place for me right now. Old weapons, uniforms, recoilless rifles, helmets, grenades, a cannon. Historical maps and demarcation lines. Images of famous local battles.
I'm not in the best spiritual place, as they say. I'm about halfway through the night's guard duty.
I walk around because I simply can't sit still, and I can't concentrate enough to read. The Bible seems to be accusing me of something, and in some inexplicable way I feel it should be the other way round. And the stifling heat of Ellroy's Los Angeles seems too far removed from where I find myself right now: Eastern Finland, in the centre of the remote village of Hurmevaara. Only twenty or so kilometres from the Russian border. It's –23°C outside and it's the middle of the night, the time approaching 2:30 a.m. I realise I'm thinking that if God had a back, he turned it on me some time ago.
I arrive at what's called the Long Hall and come to a halt by the meteorite – a chunk of black rock that has come hurtling through space, and that's exactly what it looks like.
I remember the facts listed in the local paper. Initial tests suggest that it might be an example of the extremely rare iron meteorite; and the thing weighs about four kilos. It contains large amounts of platinum metals. Only a handful of similar meteorites have ever been found. Of those, one – a lump of rock that came crashing through the roof of a sports hall in the United States – was auctioned off in small pieces. The price per gram of meteoric rock can reach 250 euros. The fact box at the bottom of the article calculated that, if the Hurmevaara meteorite were to be sold off by the gram, it could be worth up to a million euros.
Only a few more nights in Hurmevaara, I think as I stare at the black lump.
As for me ...
I left the house as soon as was feasible. I absorbed Krista's news, hugged her, gave her a kiss. I listened as she told me a thousand times how much she loved me and gushed that finally we would be a family together. When I finally regained my composure, and when Krista specifically asked me, I assured her I was so very, very happy.
Krista is pregnant. She is sure, she tells me, because she's taken three separate pregnancy tests. I'm sure too. I've been through dozens of clinical tests with numerous specialist surgeons, and I cannot have children. And because I find it hard to believe in the virgin birth, the only option left on the table is that someone else has put the bun in her proverbial oven. And that someone must be a person capable of producing viable sperm.
Excerpted from "Little Siberia"
Copyright © 2018 Antti Tuomainen.
Excerpted by permission of Orenda Books.
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