Metsänpeitto

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

There’s a phenomenon in Finnish folklore called metsänpeitto or forest cover - unexplained missing of people and domestic animals in nature.
When the storyteller and her friend come to Finland for a short getaway, they instead find the true meaning of Metsänpeitto.

There’s a phenomenon in Finnish folklore called metsänpeitto or forest cover - unexplained missing of people and domestic animals in nature. 

*** 

We are favored by 6.5 hours of daylight at best and we’re heading north from Helsinki to Central Finland. 

Wild and taciturn, with the rolling rocks, flying sand and falling snow, Finnish forest emerges from the darkness of a November day. If I could only read the sky colored in hardened copper. If I could only translate the birds’ hysterical cries and their sudden rocketing up in the air. If I could only touch the moss, look into the holes of the dead trees and listen to the silence of ants’ nests. If I could only understand the language of the forest, whether it’s warning us or inviting to enter. 

Sampo meets us with a strong handshake and a quick smile. He’s a moose-hunter and our guide for the next three days. His age is hard to guess, as of a person who spends most of his life outdoors. He might be between 40 and 60. Sampo throws a sharp glance at us, which leaves me with a feeling that he needs no more than 3 seconds to study one’s face. Without much time wasted on small talks either, he starts with reflecting on the introvert and reserved nature of Finns. For that, he brings up the Kalevala – ancient Finnish poem, a compilation of myths and legends. 

“Every deity, however petty he may be, rules in his own sphere as a substantial, independent power, as a self-ruling householder. The god of the Polar star only governs an insignificant spot in the vault of the sky, but on this spot he knows no master”. 

Sounds like a warning. I busy myself with observing the landscape. The car ride takes about 30 minutes that are blurred in the snowy scenery with the black spots of dug up ground and the shiny plates of icy water. 

“Eskimos have 50 words to describe snow. We might have more for water. Land of Finland is nurtured from 1000 lakes, should you know”. 

The cottage stands in the middle of the white field with a few serving buildings around it. The railway is not visible but reminds of itself with an occasional howling of a train. The nearest neighbor is about 2 kilometers away. We immerse in the darkness and settle in our rooms to prepare for the coming day. 

All three mornings we wake up at 7 am with the light not being born yet. The crimson rims of clouds would peak through the bending benches of the trees an hour later if we’re lucky. One cup of coffee with a sandwich and we’re on our way towards the taciturn wilderness. 

This is the gift trip to my friend: snowshoeing, hiking, resting at the fireplaces, red noses, watery eyes, tingling in the feet. Sampo is mostly silent except for the necessary lectures on laws of the forest with a Kalevala tale at a random stop. I begin to feel a strange affection for these misty talks. One of them much echoes with the Greek, Egyptian and even Slavic myths: the hero of Wainola needed three words of Master magic to finish the boat, in which he was to sail to win the mystic maiden of Sariola. So he first looked in the brain of the white squirrel, then in the mouth of the white swan when dying; then he journeyed to the kingdom of Tuoni (world of the dead), and failing there, he struggled over the points of needles, over the blades of swords, over the edges of hatchets to the grave of the ancient wisdom bard, Antero Wipunen, where he found the words of the Master. 

In reality, we’re quite far from finding words, a more appropriate version would be “remains of words”. Our first-day destination is Saraakallio, the shore of the lake that is broken by winds and time. The rocky cliff with sharp teeth looks like snapping at anyone who tries to explore it. Well, we do. Saraakallio is famous for its ancient rock paintings. The red paint is still vibrant on the grey pad of the stone, reminding a crime scene. No wonder, as Sampo explains to us, for it is made of hematite-containing soil mixed presumably with blood, urea and eggs. The paintings, some of which are dated 6000 years old, mainly picture humans, deer and boats. The themes bring a long discussion, as we move away from the famous cliff, on the sacred spirit of such animals, such as deer and bears.

I’m not much into hunting, my friend is. Nature treats me just fine, once in a while swallowing into snow hills, drying out my face skin, fiercely stubbing out burning ice in my legs as I snag on frozen bushes. Don’t get me wrong: I’m enjoying the trip. Even though I can’t get rid of that feeling when your boyfriend brings you to meet his family and they are not entirely happy with you. I hear a weird crunch behind me, turn around, and forest, looking disapprovingly at me, makes me chilled to the bone. 

On the second morning of our trip, Sampo guides us to the local tourist attraction called Devil’s tomb or hitonhauta in Finnish – a place of fallen rocks, formed in the Ice Age, although Finns believed the tomb to be designed by the devil himself. Needless to say, it looks like the devil chose a furious way to create own grave. We stop at the edge of the gorge with a sheer drop of about 700 meters and with boulders at the bottom. Holding on to the smooth body of a pine, I look down through the glassy brush, which bristles are made of massive icicles. My friend climbs a bit lower to check a cave underneath. 

Sampo stands a couple of meters from me and asks out of a blue: 

- How old are you? 

- 28. While hiking, it feels twice more. – I smile, but the joke freezes between us. 

- Thought so. – He turns away from the cliff and starts slowly moving without a single glance at me. 

My friend comes back, and we head to the less sightseeing parts of the area. It almost becomes a therapeutic experience: most of the time you walk alone, exchange a few comments with the others, but digest what you see and what you feel on your own. A proper way to get to know Finnish nature and nature of Finns, isn’t it? 

The most comfortable I feel is in the evenings when my feet get rid of snowshoes and can peacefully rest in the warmth of woolen socks. The world is sleepy. Our cottage stands alone in the darkness under the full moon with a halo around it. Sugary snow is sparkly. Looks like a perfect place for a Santa Claus residence: red cottage, white fields, blueberry sky with vanilla clouds reminding the Milky Way. I find it fascinating, the illusion of magic: twinkle of a star, jingle of a bell, promise of happiness in the most taciturn place I’ve ever been too. Turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks about the creamy clouds, carefully painted in the sky. 

Sampo refers to the Kalevala: “The Milky Way is called Linnunrata or bird path, probably because of the myth, in which liberated songs take the form of snow-white dovelets. It’s the road of paradise, and we don’t know everyone who moves along it, but we’re sure that birds do”. 

He breaks my vision of the magical place, this hunter who believes in paradise only for birds. 

In the cottage at the fireplace, after a few beers, my friend and Sampo exchange quite long conversations on hunting again, leaving a hint that the guide prepares him for a final exam of these three days. 

“Forest God of hunt is called Tapio. He’s wearing a long, brown beard, a coat of tree-moss, and high-crowned hat of fir leaves. If Tapio likes a hunter, he gives him the best prey and leads along the easiest way through the forest. Otherwise, Tapio plays cruel games with a hunter: no wild moose, no bounding reindeer. Circles of fields, wheels inside wheels, dead ends. Hunters did use to pray: 

Tapio, King of the wilderness, 

appease me 

Master of the animals, 

comply with my wishes 

Take me to the hillock with your hare 

give me my kill 

I’m going to the bathroom and on my way clearly overhear what stops me cold: 

- Tomorrow is the last day of your trip. If you want to have a good hunt, leave the girl at home. 

I’m shocked by the sudden revelation. Did he really say that or did I have too many Karhu1? Did he want me to hear or did he wait until I leave the room? 

There’s a moment of silence that is soon broken by my friend’s dry voice: 

- We do hunt tomorrow, and she accompanies us if she wants to. That was a very interesting bedtime tale. Good night.  

I hastened away from the approaching steps as if I were a child who’s just overheard an adults’ conversation she was not supposed to hear. 

They followed her for a while. My friend and I are standing on the polar opposite ends of the field with Sampo between us. The guide is just observing how my friend is preparing for the act. 

She’s frozen there, unable to move, hypnotized, staring right into the endless tunnel of the gun. I can’t bear it. I know I can’t stand seeing her dying from my friend’s shot. I don’t need to look at him to imagine his arm muscles stiffening before pulling the trigger. The tears in my eyes make it difficult to see, so I blink, try to wipe them away and look somewhere else. That moment I see him - a small calf, digging something in the snow far from the moose herself. The next second I hardly remember myself shouting: “Don’t!!! There’s a calf!!!” I run towards him and hear Sampo shooting. 

I’ve been waiting for this during the trip since the moment he shook my hand. All three long days full of coldness, unspoken spell and invisible stare. He was testing, observing, judging and deciding. I fall down as it was me who was shot, but it’s just my imagination and stress. Sampo is holding the gun upwards, the moose and her calf are safely running away, and my friend’s pale face is right next to mine. I might have tripped over a rock, snagged on a fallen bench or something, but my heart is nearly jumping from the chest. Confusion and shame altogether flood me in, so I deliberately decide to return to the van and wait for the men there. I pass them quickly and almost angrily. Sampo says: 

- Was a good thing you told us about the calf. Would have committed a crime otherwise. – I can’t tell whether it’s sarcasm or a warning. 

The van is parked on an improvised lot, surrounded by pines and bushes. It’s freezing cold inside it, so I turn the heater on. In order to avoid crazy thoughts on being a prey myself during this hunting trip, I try to read a book. Eventually, I fall asleep and see myself running through the field; my feet are drowned in the swamp of snow. There’re shots around me and the least I can do is to fall inside the white cover and close the ears. 

It’s a knock on the window, as I find out being awake, not the shot. Sampo is banging. 

- Turn the heater off! It’s been hours!!! There’s not enough oxygen in the cabin! 

I observe him unloading the gun and tying up the bag with a dead hare. I ask him about my friend, and he points back to the forest. 

- Final circle with the target. Hope he gets it. 

I never felt so frightened in my life, being next to this man with a gun and a dead animal, in the middle of nowhere, not being sure where my friend is. Cliché horror scene, isn’t it? 

He leans on the open door of the van and lights up a cigarette. 

- There’s a phenomenon called metsänpeitto or forest cover - unexplained missing of people and domestic animals in nature. – He finally says. – Now she would have been 28 years old, my daughter, you see. Just like you. You remind her of every movement and every gesture. The way you look around as searching for approval for what you do and sometimes get this eye twitching. The way you silence up the pain so as not to disturb others. The way you hate hunting even. She had this...impression, you see, of not belonging here. Just like you when I first saw you at the train station. 

I’m still not sure if I should try to run or ask a question. He continues as if he reads my thoughts. 

- Feels like I need to tell you this story, although I haven’t done that in a decade. Let’s see. It was 21 years ago, late September. Family trip, all in all about 12 people. She was upset with me for hunting the previous day, as always. So we decided to go fishing at the nearest lake instead. There were a few more kids too. She wanted to stay in the cottage with her grandmother and aunt, who was pregnant. My wife and I agreed. When we returned 5 hours later, she was not there. Plain stories: she was playing outside, grandmother was cooking, the aunt was having an afternoon nap. Hide and seek, right? No shouts, no traceable footprints, no signs. Never saw her again. 

I shiver, and he offers cloudberry tea from the thermos. It covers the uncomfortable silence, and when I’m finally able to control the tremor, I ask: 

- Do you really believe that the forest took her? 

- No, surely not. Tales are nice, could even ease the pain, you see. That’s how I use them – to silence up the wounds. 

Another cigarette is lightened up and becomes a micro-firework in the blue air. 

- That’s why you guide tourists into the forest? You are still searching? 

- Sort of, if you want to shape it in words. I’m searching at home, asleep, during breakfast and dinner. It never stops. Hunting is a part of it too. Itse in Finnish is spirit. It may stay on Earth even when the body is gone. She hated me hunting, so I strangely find her Itse in it now. And out of a sudden three days ago I found a sign of her Itse... 

My friend appears from the forest and happily announces that there’s a shot moose down there, so he needs the van to drag it. We drive there, tie up the corps to the trailer and, leaving heavy traces on the hardly breathing ground and on the half-frozen asphalt, we head back to the familiar crystal white field with the lonely red cottage on it. 

How often first impressions falsify the reality and create delusional parallel sense? How often we don’t get a chance to change that and go on living in the fake paradigm or become one in the eyes of a vis-à-vis? 

I look at Sampo, as he shuffles his feet awkwardly. I don’t see the icy sharpness in his face anymore, nor the cold weirdness of his references to the Kalevala tales, nor the danger in his razor glances of an experienced hunter. The ancient red paint faded away, the rocky cliff fell to pieces, and now I hear the heartbeat of an alive, warm-blooded but deeply suffering man. 

He shakes hands with my friend and almost shamefully stretches his palm towards mine, but I quickly lean to hug him and manage to say: 

- Even if her Itse wasn’t with me before, I’ll keep it safe from now on. Take care. 

He doesn’t say a word, turns his back to us and rushes away to his severe Finnish world of Tapio, god of the hunt, with sacred reindeer, bird paths, lakes full of mermaids, and to his never-ending search.

 

1 Karhu is a Finnish beer brand


Submitted: December 09, 2019

© Copyright 2021 Jana Avde. All rights reserved.

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Comments

bobric

A good read. Well written, combining legend with adventure. Thanks for sharing your talent and welcome. I hope you find this a natural second home to practice your writing craft within. Journey on.

Mon, December 9th, 2019 12:26pm

Author
Reply

Thank you for the warm welcome and kind review!

Mon, December 16th, 2019 12:44am

hullabaloo22

A very well-written tale. You put us right inside that snowy landscape.

Mon, December 9th, 2019 9:21pm

Author
Reply

Thank you so much! Delighted !

Mon, December 16th, 2019 12:43am

Robert Helliger

A gripping fusion of legends and thriller story line.
A great read.

Tue, December 10th, 2019 3:57am

Author
Reply

Thank you very much, Robert!

Mon, December 16th, 2019 12:41am

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