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Tainaron by Leena Krohn, 1998

Mail from another city

© Leena Krohn

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Tainaron - Mail from another city





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Like burying beetles - the ninth letter


You do not reply. It is something that stays in my mind almost incessantly. The reasons for this silence are perhaps independent of you; or then again not. But I continue writing - that freedom I do allow myself - and I believe, I trust - well, no more of that!


There is much here that reminds me of former things, particularly of the city in which we once lived, close to each other. For example, a particular office window brings to mind another shop window on the far side of the green and white Oceanos.


I walked past it almost every day, but I never stopped in front of it, because it was always the same. Behind the glass hung a skilfully draped blue curtain; in front of it were set a stone urn and a wreath of flowers tied with a white silk ribbon.


There is such a shop in Tainaron, too, but its windows display not urns but small, very beautiful boxes. One day I went inside with Longhorn, who continues to guide me patiently from day to day in this city.


Someone had died, someone who I heard only now had been alive and who had known Longhorn, perhaps well, so that it was his task now to care for the funeral arrangements. I followed Longhorn because I had often, passing by, looked at those small boxes, and I wanted to examine them more closely.


The shop was empty as we stepped inside, but on the shelves that ran along the walls I saw more boxes, of all shapes, some smaller even than matchboxes, and the largest the size of books. They were covered in multicoloured fine fabrics, or painted or engraved with marks and symbols whose meaning I did not understand. What astonished me the most was their smallness. Among the Tainaronians, it is true, there are some very small races, but even for the smallest baby these boxes were far too small.


'Are these urns?' I asked Longhorn, who was examining brochures at the counter. 'Are they used for dead people's ashes?'


'Ashes? No, there is no crematorium here,' he said. 'They are used for a single organ, often an eye or an antenna. But sometimes the family may chose part of a wing, a part with a beautiful pattern.'


I fingered one of the boxes. It was as delicate and pretty as a confectionery box, and lined in white silk. I remembered that I had once, as a child, received just such a box, in which there had been sweeties. It had been Easter morning, and I had just been allowed to get out of bed for the first time after a bout of bronchitis. I am still seeking the purity, the silken whiteness and the colours of the metallic foil of that convalescent morning, its pussy-willows, its feather-tufts, in the world.


'What happens to the rest of the body?' I asked, wrapped in my thoughts, but Longhorn did not reply, for out of the back room, at that moment, stepped the funeral director, a very imposing man. Most noticeable about him was, however, not his size, but his colours: they were as bright as the complicated patterns of the boxes. His chest ranged from green to lemon, while the knobs of his antennae were as yellow as clementines. He bowed elegantly, and was surrounded by a cloud of scent which I recognised only after a moment: it was undoubtedly musk.


He became absorbed, with Longhorn, in a conversation conducted in low voices, in conclusion of which one of the boxes was chosen from the shelf, round and grass-green, with sky-blue crescent moons.


When the funeral director turned to tap at the cash register, I went up to Longhorn and asked once more: 'What happens to the rest of the body?'


I was a little startled at Longhorn's look, for it betrayed irritation, from which I understood immediately that my question was unseemly. All the same, I waited for his answer.


'Do you really want to know?' he asked.


'Why not? I am interested in everything,' I said with some hauteur, and when he continued in silence, I asked again, with real curiosity, 'Is there something secret about it, then?'


'Very well,' said Longhorn, somewhat coolly. Suddenly he stepped up to the funeral director and whispered a couple of words to him, pointing in my direction.


The funeral director looked at me strangely, from head to foot, bowed once more in his cultivated way, and asked me to follow him. I looked interrogatively at Longhorn, and he growled: 'Go on, I'll stay here.'


The funeral director had already reached the back room and was waiting for me, silent but smiling. He opened a door leading to a badly lit stairway, which smelt of cellars and fish; or that is what I thought then. The funeral director gestured for me to walk in front of him, but when I shook my head he stepped past me into the gloom. My curiosity had now completely disappeared, but I followed the strange figure lower and lower down the steep and uneven stairs, regretting my frivolous wish for information. The deeper we went, the more uncomfortable I felt, above all because of the increasingly strong smell. Finally I stopped, intending to return to ground level without delay, but as it turned out the funeral director was now behind me, so close that his yellow chest was nearly touching my back and his musky vapours mixed with still odder scents. I continued my descent unhappily, for one way or another the man was pushing me forward, gently enough, it is true, but so firmly that it was no longer impossible for me to retreat.


'The fish is rotten,' I thought, but the smell of decay had already grown to a stench that filled my lungs with nausea. I scarcely realised that we had arrived in a great vault, and that it was filled with an extraordinary bustling.


I could no longer see my guide anywhere. I felt faint, and pressed my back against the damp stone wall. I already realised that I had been brought into a sepulchre. Before me on the earthen floor lay carcasses without number, but about them was such a ceaseless bustle that at times it looked as if there were still some degree of life in them. Around me moved dozens of creatures that were reminiscent in their appearance of the funeral director, but whose clothing was - if possible - still more brilliant. The more closely I examined them and their work, the more they reminded me of the toil of burying beetles.


I had descended into the Hades of Tainaron. I had asked: 'What happens to the bodies?', and the answer to my question was now before my eyes. One of the most prosaic and indispensable of the functions of the city of Tainaron was carried out here, shielded from the gaze of passers-by; but as I looked at their toil, my horror gave way and made space for impartial examination, even respect.


I spoke of Hades and a sepulchre, but in reality the space in which I found myself served the opposite purpose: it was a dining room and a nursery. Those who toiled here were not merely workers; they were also, above all, mothers. Now I could see that around every larger form flocked a swarm of smaller creatures, its offspring. As they did the work that had to be done for life in this city to be at all possible, these workers were at the same time feeding their heirs; and if the way in which they did it was not to my taste, where would I find more convincing proof of the never-broken alliance between destruction and florescence, birth and death?


So: there was a carcass, of which one could no longer detect who or what it had been when it was alive, so decomposed were its features. But I no longer felt sick, although I saw one of the mothers poking about in its pile of dross. For that was where the mother sought nourishment for her heirs, her snout buried in the stinking carcass, and look! there glistened a dark droplet, which one of the little ones drank, and after a moment the second received its share, and the third; no one was forgotten.


And here, then, was their work: to distil pure nectar from such filth, to extract from the slimy liquid of death health, strength and new life. How could I ever complain about what took place in the Hades of Tainaron. Truly, it is a laboratory compared to which even the greatest achievements of the alchemists are put to shame; but all that is done there is what the earth achieves every year when it builds a new spring from and on what rotted and died in the autumn.


'Have you seen enough?' someone asked behind me. I turned and saw Longhorn, who was standing at the mouth of the corridor, looking at me in a troubled way. I do not know whether his expression was caused merely by the stench, which my own nose hardly sensed any longer, or whether it was real grief. For his friend had just died, and I had hardly spared a thought for his feelings. But when our eyes met, I, too, felt the bite of suffering.


The kindness of his eyes! How had I never noticed it before. And they were so dazzlingly black, so wise and alive.... But in fact I have seen just such a gaze before, and more than once. I have seen it - do not be shocked - in your eyes, too, different as they are. I have encountered it - or seen it pass me by - among acquaintances and strangers, at parties, in department stores, in my own home, in trains, on stations and in lecture-halls, shops and caf´s; in summer, in the great lime trees in the park, where cast-iron benches have been placed for the citizens; and I am sure that at unguarded moments it has also resided in my own eyes.


That it ever disappears! It was the impossible, and unbearable, thing that, as I turned to look behind me and met Longhorn's eyes, was relentless in us both, and the strange meal we were following as onlookers offered no solution.


The soundless glitter of immense treasures - . That it could be extinguished and sink into the cold mass of raw material is if it had not been anything more than the moisture of lachrymal fluid on the surface of the cornea....


'Come away,' said Longhorn, with unexpected softness, and we left Hades without looking at each other again.


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