Prologue by Joseph Riippi

Because I want to walk out the door of a dark Finnish farmhouse and deep into November morning fields, where leaves would have fallen if there’d been any trees not yet chopped for burning, and maybe it is not quite cold enough yet for snow but you can smell it, can’t you, the snow coming on, and the smoke of the burning trees from the chimney behind you, you can smell that too, and in the distance while walking I want to see my grandfather digging something in the hard dirt, potatoes maybe, rutabaga, and he is chiseling at the earth with a shovel or sharp spade, and he is just silhouette moving up and down in the breath I see myself exhaling now before me, like the steam rising from the coffee mugs in my hands, for that is what I am bringing him, the real coffee he told me once was brewed from Finnish earth, that is the only real black coffee, he’d said, ground of ground, he’d said, and with two clay mugs, handthrown and heavy, I want to walk through that rising steam and breath and, past his digging, I want to see the herd of reindeer behind the fence, the herd his father raised and tended and meant to leave behind as inheritance to my grandfather and his sister, but this herd they would never get, because the war came, and what happened to those snorting reindeer was never told, and what happened to my grandfather’s father was not told either, but it was found out, eventually, when I went to a library and asked, and found in a book a kind of grave, a record of those who’d fallen to the hard dirt that winter when the Russians came and the Finns met them slowly, steadily, each man stepping in front of his neighbor until they’d made it to whatever imagined line history had drawn, and there met so many more than they, and then did only what they could, and held each other as they died, and together became part of the dirt that winter, buried beneath such snow and dark weight that no steam could escape or rise up, nothing could and nothing did, and when I dug up that secret my grandfather had never told it was as much a monument as any statue, for what was real had gone the way of ground coffee, from Finnish farmers bearing spades to dirt to steam and breath, now only imagined and made up in the make believe of a great-grandson, who in his own safer time spends his evenings safe in the warmth of a house on 22nd street in Manhattan, with a wife and family to love and be loved by, through no earning or fight of his own, and with a guilty conscience he wants for mornings of dirt and tundraed farms, of reindeer herds and glorious fraternal war amidst fictions and smells of misted fur, of cedar burning and the clatter of antlers, and thinking it his own kind of digging he keeps at it, wanting a stolen kind of blood on his hands, a borrowed kind, an inheritance, a duty, something to pass on to his own unborn kin, a great thing of self that cannot be butchered or erased by war, but holds firm with deep roots in cold, rock hard earth, to be dug up again someday in pages.

 

 

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