Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Book of Hope 21: Mirrorland

OK, I admit it: my wedding was the teeniest bit of disappointment in some ways. I mean, when you're growing up, it's natural that you fantasize about it, what your dress will look like, what kind of service you'll have, how you'll rewrite your vows, who'll be there, what kind of band will play at the reception, where you'll go on your honeymoon, what flowers you'll have, which caterers, etc, etc. All girls do that, don't they? I sure did, anyway. So from that standpoint, it was pretty much a total dud--we didn't even have a honeymoon! "We'll just have to make the rest of the marriage be our honeymoon." I told him, and come on, give me credit, I was like 90% sincere when I said it. Seriously, the marriage was what I was all about, not just a stupid social event. But still...well, you know. You open your mouth and hear yourself say those kinds of things, and then afterwards you're all like, "Whoa, did I really say that? No way, what was I thinking??"

For starters, we couldn't have it in church, because my husband (getting more used to that word now) isn't a Catholic--as if anyone really is these days, at least in America anyway--so we had to say our vows at the license office in front of a justice of the peace. In this case, he was also a notary and realtor with his office across the street, and that's where we all ended up. Not exactly the most romantic spot in the world. The Mothership was there, of course, dressed to the nines and looking all glowing and happy--incredibly and weirdly enough, she has a super-sized crush on him, after I'd spent ages dreading that she was so gonna hate him. And would try to talk me out of marrying him. Instead she acted all grateful, like he was rescuing me from a life of spinsterhood or whatever! My older bro flew in to give me away, and my other bro filled in as best man, since none of my husband's friends could make it on such short notice. And neither could any of mine, either, (including Father Mac who I'd originally wanted to read us the vows) except Kerry, who sweetly drove down from New York just to be Matron of Honor, and looked far better than the poor old frazzled bride in her second-best formal dress, but of course, no bridal gown. In fact, I was terrified Kerry and my man would run off together, but he gallantly assured me afterwards that he adored her already because she was my best friend but that she really wasn't his type.

So I was like, "Oh yeah, right, too beautiful for you, huh?"

"No," he said. "Not quite Hopeful enough." OK, he had to say it, but it still made me swoon a little. So things didn't suck totally. In fact, my biggest regret is that my dad couldn't have been there to see it.

It's really hard for me to write about my dad. About his death, I mean. Because it was like, so unfair. And all the way to Kaustinen I kept think that if Dr Praetorius really had the power to help me bring the dead back to life again, then why couldn't it be my dad instead? Why Likkanen, who I didn't actually care about at all? Of course, he didn't really have that power, it was all just crap. But I kept thinking, you know, what if...?

At first when my dad was diagnosed, he and the Mothership tried to keep it a big dark secret from the rest of us. I dunno how they thought that was gonna work out, since he had to have an immediate first surgery, which left him shaved on one side of his head with a livid scar. And then, of course, then he had to have chemo, because the tumor couldn't be completely removed, and that took care of the rest of his hair. And he lost a lot of weight. He had what was called a 'wafer' implanted in his brain before I'd even come home from school and saw him for the first time, which was a total shock, probably the worst moment of my life. At first he had fantasies of actually going back to work while he underwent treatment, but pretty soon it became obvious that wasn't gonna happen. Especially after he had a couple of seizures and had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the day a few times. His military insurance wasn't bad, but it didn't cover a lot of stuff, so they ended up taking out a second mortgage on the house (which is now, thank God, still worth way more in spite of the recent buying slump). When it became pretty obvious that the treatments weren't working out, I wanted to take the rest of the year off from school so that I could help out with the nursing and hang with him as much as possible, but they wouldn't allow it. The Mothership converted the dining room into a hospital room, because it was on the first floor and rented an adjustable medical bed, and professional equipment like trays and bedside potties, IV stands, oxygen, etc etc, because Dad was starting to have opportunistic infections like pneumonia. I took his car down to St Mary's and commuted back home every weekend--and each time he looked noticeably worse. It was so hard to imagine that such a tiny growth could destroy such a strong, vital man. A man who was the center and the bedrock of a whole family. But it was in just the wrong place. At the wrong time. Of course, it's never the right time, unless you're like 110 or whatever and die right away the first time you have a seizure--then I guess it could be a mercy.

But there was absolutely nothing merciful about those last few months. When actors die on TV, no matter how realistically it's portrayed, they always look pretty good. I mean, they're actors and actresses, for Chrissake, so naturally they look good, no matter what. Their agents aren't gonna let them jump the shark. But nothing prepares you for the reality of just how terrible-looking and shrunken and withdrawn someone you love gets when they're dying. Or how gross all the little details become, you know, like when you have to check bedpans for stuff before you empty them. Or when you're bathing them after they start getting bedsores. Or when they start getting really bitter and irrational (because most of them do at some point after the chemo) and lash out at you. Or in lots of pain when nothing helps. Well, maybe you already know all this because you've been through it yourself, so I'll shut up.

Bad as it is, though, it gets even worse when they finally pass. By that point you're like, "Oh it will be such a relief to have the suffering over with." But somehow it isn't. I can't even explain why. Maybe, in spite of everything, you still, you know, have hope even at the very end. During the funeral, the Mothership acted really weird. She didn't cry, she just looked cross and impatient and was barely even polite at times while she was doing the social meet-and-greet thing with all the Marine Corps brass who showed up for it. Inside the chapel, she said to me, "This may be the last time I ever set foot in a place like this."

So I was all like. "What are you talking about?" They were playing Sibelius' Valse Triste in the background, I now realize.

"I'm not so sure I believe in a god any more," she said. "What's the use of our Faith anyway? It doesn't get you anywhere--none of our prayers were answered. I don't believe in all that submission BS any more." "BS" being as close to an actual cuss word as I'd ever heard her use, I was pretty shocked. But when I thought about it later, I could see her reaction was pretty natural. I mean it's all well and good for the priests to tell you that Christ loves those who suffer, that it's a test from God, etc etc, but that doesn't actually the address the question of 'why'? What is pain for, exactly? What use is it and what good does it do? And what kind of god creates it, much less allows it? Or, in this case, actively inflicts it on us? Is that a god worth worshipping? Or just some sadistic monster who takes pleasure in our misery? A few nights later, the Mothership was still acting totally unlike herself, chain-smoking like a teenager, stubbing them out again half-smoked or just forgetting about them and letting them burn unattended in ashtrays, wandering around in her bathrobe, pouring herself out belts of scotch on the rocks which she would clink around while she talked. It was like suddenly having a slutty older sister instead of a mother. I didn't get that she and dad had started dating when she still WAS a teenager--and now, with him surgically removed from her life, she was reverting back to being the girl she was in the weeks and months before she'd met him. A sad and miserable and lonely girl this time who was numb with shock and fear about the future.

We talked about religion again. "I've been thinking about what you said in the chapel," I told her, "And I think here's what I believe. I think we both need God right now more than ever, so it's dumb to be mad at him. Maybe our needing him makes him love us more, too, if that makes any sense. I mean, to me, God is sort of like your parents--they give you the gift of life, they love you, sometimes to pieces, but they can't live your life for you. They can't protect you from everything or you know, try to baby-proof your whole world because that wouldn't be fair, right? Freedom is like the biggest part of their gift. Freedom to live your life the way you want it or even die young trying. But that doesn't mean they don't love you."

"But why give us such frail bodies?" She burst into tears. "Why make them age and get old and sick so fast? Where's the love in that?"

"Well, maybe bodies are kind of like cars. I mean, when Dad loaned me the Cutlass to drive back and forth from school with, he got new tires for it first and had it tuned up and lubed and everything. He didn't want his little girl dying in a car crash, right? But even with all the best will in the world, that car has broken down constantly--it's spent almost as much time in the shop as on the highway for the last nine months. Maybe our bodies are like that, too."

"I tried to get him to buy an Accord," she said, blowing her nose.

So basically it's like that old joke. The good news is there is a god. The bad news is that he's definitely a man. And probably an American, judging from all the design flaws. Definitely not Finnish anyway.

At Kokkola, we turned south-southeast and drove across a flat, boring landscape down a highway that was absolutely straight, like a military road. The Return of Lemminkainen was playing over the car stereo now--it made me feel like we were galloping across the plain on fast horses. "Are we anywhere near Lappland?" I asked Riita.

"Oh no! Lappland is much more interesting than this. But you will like Kaustinen, I think. It is called the 'Finnish Woodstock'. In our cartoons, the little bird from Peanuts is named 'Kaustinen'. We have a saying that even the rocks sing there."

"The geological harmonics are excellent in that area," Dr Praetorius informed us. "It is also at an epicenter of ley lines. That is why it was chosen for the ceremony."

Riita glanced at him shrewdly. "Why do you want to bring this Likkanen back to life, anyway? You must have a secret reason for it." In that moment, my opinion about her changed once again. I guess I had started thinking of her as being a bit pitiful, even a little helpless because of her unhappiness and the business with Erkki, but now I suddenly saw that Riita had something I didn't have and would never have, a kind of stubborn resilient farm-girl toughness that allowed her to focus only on the things she wanted to see. She'd somehow even managed to avoid discovering her boyfriend having (well trying to have, anyway) public sex with another woman--instead, she was already finding reasons to be bored and dissatisfied with him, so that when it came time to make the break, she would do the dumping, not him. And now suddenly, I could see the crazy fat old Swede was no match for her at all. He even squirmed at her question.

"It is true," he said at last, "That I have no love for Mr Likkanen. To be very honest, I was extremely bitter when his grandfather, my dear friend and mentor, Frederik Wilander chose to bequeath certain articles to him instead of me. One of these I particularly wished to buy from him, and obviously I cannot do so now that he is dead."

"You could just buy it from his estate," I pointed out. "Wouldn't that be easier than raising him from the dead?"

But he was like, "I'm afraid that is impossible. The article in question is in a safe-deposit box in Stockholm that Mr Likkanen never bothered to visit--only he knew its numeric code. We were negotiating a price for it at the time of his death."

"What is this 'article'?" Riita wanted to know.

"It is a book."

"A book of magic?"

"Ja, ja, in a manner of speaking," Dr Praetorius said irritably and with great reluctance. "It is a book written or dictated by Adolf Hitler describing his discovery of another plane or dimension of existence."

Oh great, I thought. Just priceless. Here I was stuck in the middle of nowhere in a stretch-limo with this total nut-job on his way to attend some kind of Neo-Nazi New Age cult ceremony designed to bring a dead plumbing fixtures designer back to life so that he could buy 'Hitler's Diaries' from him. I think that's a fair summary, anyway. Oh well, as my mom used to tell me before a blind date, at least I'd get fed. Though, speaking of getting fed, I made a mental note never to be stranded with Dr P in a lifeboat, as I watched him gobble down yet another 'light snack'. Oh, and have I said that all his eating utensils were made of gold, too? Heavy, brushed, non-reflective gold.

This was the very first time I ever heard of this manuscript, by the way, the book I now sort of think of as the 'Occult Mein Kampf'. Yes, it really existed, bizarrely enough. And, incredibly, it was gonna play a really huge role in my life to come, though I didn't have a clue about this at the time, and I really don't know exactly how I feel about it in retrospect. Exhausted, mostly. In some ways, I wish I'd never even heard of it. But again, in lots of other ways, it's actually brought me plenty of happiness. It's a bit like the Treasure of the Sierra Madre or whatever--I'm pretty much the only one who's gotten anything out of it at all. Including, amazingly enough, my marriage. Yep, I admit it--I owe my wedding to Adolf Hitler! Which I guess is why I'm writing this, cuz "winners write the history books", right? Survivors, anyway. And it's just too weird a story to, you know, keep to yourself. Even if I could, I mean.

Dr P (it was a typo above, but I liked it so much I think I'll keep on using it, because it majorly saves me having to type out his whole last name over and over), probably sensing that we were totally not buying into any of this Hitler stuff, started talking about Sibelius again. "It is a sad fact that my country of Sweden has never produced so great a musical genius as Jean Sibelius--or of the Norwegian Grieg, for that matter. I am myself descended from the 16th-Century father of Swedish church music, Michael Praetorius, but since his day I am very sorry to say Sweden has produced few serious composers other than Hugo Alfven, and he is, at best, an amiable mediocrity, do you not agree, Miss Riita?" He shifted position slightly, his enormous pajama-clad belly rolling around under the shawl. "For me, music dwells apart from anything else in this life, and is much more my real home than the mundane world. And Finland oozes Sibelius. I have noticed that driving through the country. Different parts of it often evoke different moments from his works. For example, a rocky pass might be shaped exactly like the savage theme in En Saga. Or the curve of a distant hillside might resemble the opening theme from the fourth movement of the Sixth Symphony. That stretch of river with the sun on it puts in me in mind of the sparkling 'Musette' from the King Christian Suite that is so often played on the radio. In fact, I would say there is no passage from Sibelius that will not unavoidably drift into the mind from time to time--and that I think is the mark of musical greatness."

Have I mentioned anything about how his voice sounded? It wasn't like it was, you know, deep or rumbly like George Clooney's for example--in fact, when he was upset, Dr P sort of squealed. But when he spoke normally, like now, it had a surprisingly pleasant sound, sort of cultured and theatrical, like he'd been trained for the stage or something. You could imagine that he'd be great at reading books aloud, because he was definitely pretty hypnotic to listen to. Of course, he could also sound very fake and histrionic, especially when he laughed, which involved a great deal of preliminary chuckling and chin-wobbling, kind of like a sad, humorless thin guy imitating a jolly fat one. If that makes any sense. Anyway, it was just as well that his was an OK voice to listen to, because the rest of the way to Kaustinen he never shut up:

"Finland is still a living country, full of magic. Unlike my poor Sweden, which is slowly dying. Our gods have abandoned us. Instead of making babies, our young people spend all their time on their computers, dreaming of becoming rock music stars or computer game programmers. Their parents retire at 50 and watch TV all day. We are committing mass suicide--soon there will be no Swedes left at all, and our country will be inherited by Finns and Slavs and Muslims. Instead of churches we will have mosques. But you Finns, by contrast, are vigorous and self-respecting with a healthy birth-rate. You still have a hearty appetite for sex."

Riita nodded approvingly. Obviously this was her kind of talk--and after what I'd seen that morning at Moominworld, I sure wasn't gonna argue.

"And this sad decline began nearly a century ago. After your independence many of Sweden's most dynamic and powerful personalities, like my dear friend and mentor Frederik Wilander, were not native Swedes but were Finlander-Swedes fleeing war and persecution in this country."

Riita was shocked. "That is not true!" she said in an outraged tone. "We Finns respect our Swedish heritage very much. No one in my country is allowed to be persecuted."

"But you hate Swedes," I pointed out. I felt like we were having a group therapy session. "You're always complaining about them."

Then she was like, "No, I don't! Of course I don't hate anyone, that is a very bad emotion! It's true I don't like Swedes very much, but that is just my personal opinion."

"And perhaps there is some validity in that," said Dr P in a soothing tone. "Sweden has treated the Finns very badly at times, it's true. And usually historical conflict of that sort leaves a legacy of bitterness, particularly among refugees, but that was not so for my dear friend Wilander. Despite his political convictions, he was a very quiet and gentle man, and in his own way, quite fearless--while as you see, I am a timid coward who merely stews in his own fears. If he were here now, he would not be afraid of Tuuslar--and he would never have lost his own shadow, which, incidentally, possessed a tail and was quite disturbing to look at. Believe me, there can be no doubt that Frederik Wilander was the most remarkable man of this past century. You are surprised? Amused at me again? What if I were to tell you that he discovered the secret of the Philosopher's Stone? That he was able to transmute lead into gold? It's true--all my vast wealth, everything you see in this automobile, I owe to his alchemical genius."

"Shut up!" I was like. "No way!"

"Nonetheless, it is true. And I can prove it."

"But if he could transmute lead into gold or whatever, and he was Likkanen's grandfather like you say, then why didn't Likkanen inherit all that?" I pointed out. "I don't get it."

Dr P sighed. "Your friend Mr Likkanen did inherit it all, in fact. He just never bothered to come back to Stockholm to collect it. He was a very careless and foolish man--in purely Darwinian terms, one might say he was simply too stupid to live."

"I didn't think he was stupid at all!" I protested loyally. "He was just sort of sad and didn't really care about himself at all, except for like his appearance. And he drank too much. I think his priorities in life were pretty much all wrong."

"It amounts to the same thing in the end," he said. "In any case, for whatever his reasons, Wilander bequeathed to him rather than to me the Hitler document. Mr Likkanen had no use for it--he was never interested in saving the world, nor indeed in saving even himself. But it is my destiny to do so."

"To save the world???"

"Yes, yes, I know it must sound mad to you. Let me explain, please, before you close your mind to this, Miss Hope. And you too, Miss Riita. Because I need your help, it is only fair that you should both understand the reason why." He gulped down another half-bottle of some bright pink soft drink. "To begin with, you must try to accept that the times were very different then. Wilander was a Nazi, it is true, but a Swedish nationalist, not a German one. I do not condone it, of course, and it is no longer an acceptable political philosophy in the modern world, but it is irrelevant to the larger issues at stake here. You see, during the war, he belonged to a secret Swedish occult order called the 'Knights of the Hooked Cross'--many prominent Swedes were members of this, including the Von Rosens, who created your Finnish air force. Some of the Swedish volunteers who fought at your side during the two Russian wars were also members. It was Wilander's duty to act as a courier between Stockholm and Berlin, where he was often the guest of Hermann Goering, whom he knew well. On one occasion he even met Hitler himself, which is how all this came about, for during their conversation together, Hitler promised Wilander a signed personal copy of his book, Mein Kampf.

Some time passed after this occasion, and Wilander forgot all about the proposed gift. In 1945, on his last visit to Germany, he found himself trapped between the Russian and the American armies, but was able to attach himself to Count Fulke Bernadotte's famous 'White Bus' convoy of repatriated prisoners and so leave the war-torn country under the neutral Red Cross flag. The night before he was to depart, two SS officers came to his hotel room and gave him a manuscript copy of Mein Kampf wrapped in brown paper. Upon his return to Stockholm, he had the leisure to examine the document more closely, and discovered that it was an altered and updated version of Hitler's work, typed out by his secretaries and with many notes and changes hand-written in pencil by Hitler himself. In addition to being somewhat pornographic, it also detailed Hitler's discovery of a world or dimension parallel to our own. This world Hitler called 'Glassland', or as you would say in English, 'Mirrorland'. He believed that it could be glimpsed in mirrors.

Hitler had first glimpsed this world late one night during one of his constant car trips between Munich and Berlin during the late 1920s. The driver had pulled his car over to the shoulder of the road for a brief stop and, left alone momentarily inside the darkened automobile, Hitler had happened to glance up into the rear-view mirror. He saw in the distance an old country house blazing with lights. Inside the windows he could see a number of figures in silhouette coming and going and conversing, rather like in a puppet theater-- these figures resembled grotesque caricatures of people and animals with large, misshapen heads or limbs, with great beaks or rows of sharp teeth. At first he assumed this to merely be a costume party, but much later he came to realize that these creatures must surely have been what we would term 'demons' or 'monsters'. He turned to look at the hill through the rear window panel but could see no house--nor could his driver or bodyguard when he sent them up the hill. The house existed only in the mirror. Or, he later decided, in his imagination, agitated by great stress and overwork.

However, some months later his car happened to pass the same way again, and he ordered that it be stopped in the same place. Once more he was able to clearly see the house in the mirror, though now it appeared dark and abandoned. But on this occasion several of his party were also able to see it, too. After this incident, discovering the truth about the Mirrorland became an obsession for Hitler. He diverted funds for its research, assigned many top scientists to the program, and even built secret factories in Northern Italy to develop experimental machinery and vehicles in order to penetrate it. During the war, concentration-camp inmates were successfully sent into it, but when they returned they were often turned inside-out or suffered other horrifying molecular changes. As the war progressed, and it became increasingly obvious to Hitler that Germany must lose it, he became even more frantic to find a way into Mirrorland, seeing it as his only escape route. He also decided that its inhabitants were able to spy on him from mirrors and glass reflections, which is why they were banned from his bunker--this was a fear that he shared with Wilander, and it is also why I am careful never to allow reflective surfaces anywhere near me. Of course, now that I have lost my own shadow such precautions are all but pointless, even comical.

But you see, unless I am able to secure this document and destroy it, it will fall into the hands of Tuuslar or some other evil warlock like him. They will discover the secret of entering Mirrorland from Hitler's writings and in so doing will open up a gateway between the two worlds..."

OK, I guess you really had to be there.

Continued here...

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Monday, February 19, 2007

The Book of Hope 20: The Man Who Lost His Shadow

Back. It sort of feels like me and Riita have been stuck on that stupid footbridge forever with our legs frozen in mid-stride, like in a nightmare. Hopefully, it's over.

So where was I (again!)? Oh yeah, after we crossed back to the harbor parking lot, we found a black 6-door Mercedes stretch limo idling in front of us, blocking our path. The back door swung open and a pink fat hand waved at me from inside it. This was the second time in the last few minutes someone had beckoned me with the exact same motion, and I was seriously starting to freak. What's more, there was something even more familiar about this hand--and I realized why when the owner stuck his face out at me from the gloom of the limo's interior. "Miss Hope? I must speak with you urgently. I am acquainted with your good friend, Miss Christina Fischer--she has sent me to you. My name is Dr Ivar Praetorius," It was the fat, orange-haired munchkin from the National Library. The Swedish magician who had made the book walk. What was he doing here? "Quickly, quickly, I'm afraid I must insist!" he hissed. "A terrible evil is near." He pointed wildly in the direction of Moominland, and sure enough, looking back I saw the trees whipping around and dancing in a whirling wind, while the sky above them boiled with clouds the color of a rotting egg yolk. Even from the other side of the channel I could hear a chorus of kids shrieking. Suddenly there was a blinding bolt of lightning, with a deafening crack of thunder at the same time, which meant it had hit really close, and then it suddenly started to pour. OK, good enough for me--I leaned over and ducked inside the car.

Riita was totally horrified. She was like, "Hoop! Do you think this is such a good idea? This person is a stranger!"

"You're getting soaked!" I yelled at her. "Get in, girl!"

"Please don't worry, Miss Riita," the fat man said, "Be so good as to join us--I'll explain everything."

"But he is...Swedish!" Riita said furiously, coming up with her final objection. Actually, he didn't sound very Swedish--he sounded almost like an Englishman, except for the occasional awkward sentence construction. Whatever, I'd had enough of the argument--and I was desperate to get Riita away from there before Erkki showed up. So I dragged her into the car after me. One of the three guys in the car with the magician--two were wearing dark suits, got out and closed the door after her. Then he got back in the front passenger seat, and we drove off.

"So...what is this 'terrible' evil' exactly?" I said. We were sitting in a pair of revolving white leather chairs turned to face the rear of the cab--the fat man was sprawled over most of the back seat with a very thin young guy in an expensive blue shirt and designer glasses squeezed into the corner next to him, sipping at what looked like a ginger ale while he listened to his iPod and stared at the screen of a laptop. Behind us I was conscious of a chauffeur and the huge hulking guy who had slammed the door closed behind us, who I assumed was some kind of bodyguard. So it seemed pretty obvious to figure that that the munchkin was both really rich and really paranoid. The rich part was easy to spot, but the paranoid part was even easier--even if I hadn't heard him mentioning the 'terrible evil--because he was half-covered, even over his head, with a sort of grey blanket or shawl covered in dark runes. Underneath it, he was sweating and seemed to be trembling with fear. He was literally wringing his hands.

"Tuuslar!" he breathed. "The greatest demon-god in Finland, perhaps in the world. You met him in the park just now. I think it is he who has stolen my shadow." He peered fearfully around, like a blind mole. His face was even more cartoonish today up close, pale and almost perfectly round, his tiny, piggy eyes and almost girlish mouth dwarfed by the droopy orange Van Dyke beard and mustache (he'd forgotten to wax the ends today, I guess) and his fleshy little bulb of a nose.

"Your shadow?" I echoed stupidly.

"Yes, my shadow--when I woke up this morning, it was missing. That's why I don't dare leave this car in broad daylight. Everyone would stare, you see." I didn't dare look at Riita, cuz I was afraid I'd burst into a laughing fit. I stole a glance at the guy with the glasses beside him though, and he just nodded solemnly, like he was used to talk like this.

"Forgive me, I'm extremely upset," said the fat man. "This is my administrative assistant, Mr Alex Rizzio."

"Hi," he said.

"You're American?"

"Scottish, actually. I'm from Glasgow--but primarily I'm based in Brussels. Would either of you ladies like a drink?" Admittedly, my gay-dar isn't the best in the world (for a whole month I wanted to marry Nathan Lane), but it was definitely pinging in his case.

Meanwhile his employer was continuing with the introductions: "Behind you is Matsson, my driver and Gailis, my security chief. And yes, Miss Riita, I am indeed Swedish."

"How do you know my name?" she asked.

"I know everything," Dr Praetorius said, waving his hand dismissively. "I am a magician. But I have been following you both, I admit. I need your help. In fact, Miss Hope, I am begging for your help." The limo had suddenly stopped, and I realized we were now parked behind Riita's yellow Ford.

"Your help with what?" I'd had a bad day, and so many bizarre things had happened in a row that I felt like I was losing it. So I figured just about any crazy thing he said next was totally not gonna surprise me. But, of course, I was wrong.

Because next he was like, "I'm very much afraid I have some bad news concerning your friend, Mr Likkanen."

"He is not Hoop's friend," said Riita. The rain was rattling on the roof of the Mercedes now like millions of tiny pebbles--I looked out the window and saw hailstones bouncing on the pavement.

"Ah, it is even better if he were your lover," he said. "The signs were very unclear to the Invisibles. I'm sorry to have to tell you this bad news in that case--Mr Likkanen is dead."

"Dead?" I said. Now I sounded like a parakeet.

"I'm afraid he was murdered last night. I attempted to warn him, but he paid no attention to me. He found me a figure of fun, I think." I was like totally in shock. I mean, the Safe-T-Man and I hadn't exactly parted on the best of terms--in fact I barely knew the guy, really--but still, it's horrible to find out that anyone you know is dead. Especially dead as in murdered. It's funny, at the time I didn't even think to question the truth of Dr Praetorius' statement about him dying, I guess because Riita seemed to believe it so instantly.

"You see, Hoop, I told you--those men we saw him with were criminals. Oh, I am so glad you did not go with them, or you might be murdered now, too."

"Yeah, thanks for that thought. Who murdered him? And where did this happen?"

"It is my belief that a notorious gangster has killed him and left his body in a lake, I cannot say where, but all the signs point to water. This man's nickname in Estonia translates as 'Shiny Hat'. I'm very much afraid that by sheer coincidence I am personally acquainted with him. His sister is a business partner of mine, in fact, and Markko has always been a great trial to his family. Why he and Mr Likkanen quarreled, I have no idea--no doubt over a woman." That didn't sound like Safe-T-Man at all--I couldn't imagine him actually fighting over a woman. Only with them.

In fact, the whole story sounded pretty tweaked to me. "It was my belief"? "I cannot say where"?? And neither of the "gangsters" I'd seen Safe-T-Man with after the concert had been wearing hats, much less shiny ones. So I was like, "OK, but what I don't get is what I can possibly do to help."

Dr Praetorius stared at me very seriously for a few long seconds and then said, "I need you to help me bring him back to life."

"Back to life??? Shut up, you mean like for a stage act? That's kind of, well, you know, tasteless, isn't it?" Unexpectedly, he made a noise like a seal barking. Since he was shuddering with terror at the same time, it took me a few minutes to figure out that he was trying to laugh.

"I'm not merely a stage magician, Miss Hope. I'm a real one. Please believe me, I have done things, witnessed things, you cannot imagine. I have stopped time and reversed it, I have traveled to the land of the dead and back again, I have transmuted lead into gold. I have had several deeply intimate conversations with your good friend Miss Christina, and so I know that you are a serious and open-minded young woman with a knowledge of miracles and spirits as the result of your own personal experiences. I can assure you there is much more for you to learn. With your help, I think it's perhaps possible that we can raise Mr Likkanen from the dead. And we won't be alone in this attempt--dozens of true believers from around the world will be gathering tonight to perform a mass ceremony based on the Kalevala. We shall meet them on a hill near a place called Kaustinen."

"You mean at the folk music festival?" Riita asked. "They are all done with that now. There will be no one there."

"Yes, that's why the Odinists and several other heathen groups have reserved it for the next three days, specifically a lodge nearby called 'Pauanne'. I should like both of you to come there with me now. Naturally you will travel as my guests, and I shall pay all your expenses. Do either of you have any particular dietary requirements or allergies?" We both shook our heads. I felt dizzy with confusion, everything was happening so fast. "Call the caterers in any case and make sure of the menus," he said to his secretary, "My appetite is slowly returning after my great shock this morning. And insist again that the bars are well-stocked inside the trailers. Miss Riita, you are free to follow along behind us in your own car--or if you would be so good as to ride with us, you may give your car keys to Mr Alex, and he will do so. He is an excellent driver." I nodded at her. I'd wanted Kalevala research, hadn't I? Besides, it was an adventure. Dr Praetorius was crazy as a coot, no argument there, and I totally didn't believe he was gonna 'raise Safe-T-Man from the dead' or whatever, but he'd struck me right from the start as sort of gentle and harmless. I mean, it was hard to get too nervous about someone who was literally scared of his own shadow. Plus, I was curious about what he could tell me about Chris.

So very very reluctantly, Riita handed over her car-keys, "Mr Alex" clambered out into the rain, now just a steady soaking cloudburst, with them and splashed over to Riita's Ford, and so we set off as a kind of trucker convoy out of Naantali. And not a moment too soon--I totally wanted to get as far away from there as fast as possible. In fact, I really didn't want to have to see Erkki ever again at all--things were gonna be way awkward enough the next time Riita talked to him by phone, if he ever turned his back on again, I mean, but I didn't have a clue how I could look him the eye now after looking him in the, well, you know. Or not warn Riita about him somehow. Then I was suddenly struck by another, creepier, thought: what if he'd been working all along for that old bum, the one that Dr Praetorious seemed so scared of? But when I asked him who this "Tuuslar" guy was and what made him so scary, he just hushed me. He said that even mentioning his name was bad luck, and that the demon could overhear our conversations if he chose.

"Even the Invisibles are afraid of him--he is a Power, an awakened reincarnation." Then he shut up and sulked. We took the highway back to Turku. The storm had put a sudden and violent end to "Sleepyhead Day". Tree branches had been blown down into the streets, and there was bright debris, mostly plastic bags and candy bar wrappers, drifting around everywhere (remind me to scan and upload some of my Finnish candy bar wrapper collection soon--some of them are super-funny, some just make you cringe. Here's a good example of the latter:

"Lakritsi" means "licorice".) A few bedraggled kids in soggy costumes were wailing at their parents as they splashed back to their cars. We turned north at Turku and took Valtatie 8, which Riita explained was part of the old "West Coast Road" leading first to Pori and Vaasa, then to Kokkola, which was the nearest large town to Kaustinen. "We will pass through many interesting places filled with pretty handicrafts," she said, and I think, due to our weak bladders, that we probably stopped at most of them. Dr Praetorius, on the other hand, was still too frightened to leave the car to empty his--when I came out of one Shell station rest room, I spotted Gailis emptying a green plastic bucket in the grass, then putting it back in the trunk of the car.

It was "Lace Week" in Rauma, so the town was packed, and we didn't try to eat lunch there, much to our host's increasingly loud gastric distress. After we by-passed it, I amused myself by trying to figure out whether Dr Praetorius' shadow was really visible or not. The light from outside was pretty dim through the tinted limo windows, and he had all the ceiling lights on. I could see a sort of patch of darkness on his seat under his enormous pudgy thighs, but that could have been from the shawl, there was just no knowing for sure. I tried to imagine what it would be like going through life without a shadow. Would I even miss mine? I looked around, but right at that moment I couldn't see it either. Or Riita's. Really, what was the big deal? Once we'd left Naantali, the sun had suddenly blazed out again--the storm had been like a purely local event, I guess. But there were still no solid shadows inside the car.

I caught the glitter of his eyes watching me from under the shawl, so I wasn't too freaked (or thought he was reading my mind) when he started talking about his missing shadow again. Apparently, he viewed it more like the desertion of a close personal friend. He told us it had been the soul of a baby who had died of neglect because his father didn't love him enough to look after him. Then in the shadow world it had grown into a kid of about 12, but without learning how to talk or knowing anything about the living world, because it had no one to teach him. So then, Dr Praetorious had undertaken the 'soul-quest', he said, going through a rite that made him sort of die (he wasn't too specific about the details) and go down into the underworld in order to gain the wisdom of Odin from sacred runestones or something. In order to enter it, he had to bribe the guardian with his own shadow--you can't take it with you, I guess--and then on the way out again, this new shadow, that of the 12 year old boy I mean, attached itself to him, actually was literally stitched to him with a sewing-needle, "because he wanted to visit the world of the living in order to learn to speak." The whole time he was going on about this, Riita was rolling her eyes and making huffing noises, so I thought I'd better interrupt to try to change the subject, even though I found it really interesting. He might be crazy or a chronic liar--or both--but just hanging with Dr Praetorius was a lot like taking a college mythology course. And for free.

"Why would 'Odinists' perform a ceremony from the Kalevala, anyway?" I asked him.

He just glared at me from under his shawl and was all like, "I confess I'm disappointed in you, Miss Hope--I thought you of all people would have recognized Mr Likkanen as an avatar of Baldur or the Finnish Lemminkainen. He was specifically bred for the role. And like all fertility gods, he has died and so must be reborn. This is not, I admit, precisely the right time of year for it, but tonight is Lunasa, and that is at least a window of great power. But dealing with the Asatru is never pleasant. They are currently the principal group in the neo-pagan Norse religious revival movement."

"So these 'Asatru' people actually believe Mr Likkanen was 'bred' to be a god?"

Uh oh, big mistake, because for most of the next hour we got lectured on Safe-T-Man's divine family history, which apparently was half-Swedish. I'm not gonna try to quote much of it--if you're really interested, you can go read all the details at: . Be warned though. This site contains a bunch of excerpts from Dr Praetorius' huge Secret History of Magic in Sweden" (Den Hemliga Historien om Magi i Sverige) translated into English by some cult follower of his and alternates between being way boring and just plain insane. But basically, the deal was this: when Dr Praetorious was in college he fell under the spell of the foremost magician in Sweden, an old geezer named Frederik Wilander. In 1930 Wilander had married the daughter of a pair of total nutcases named Oscar and Signe Krook, who had tried to breed a race of gods by the use of ritual ceremony and whatever, who they planned to raise on a farm they called "Asgard". Apparently, they were only successful in producing one goddess, who was named "Fairgun" after the Scandinavian earth mother (think "Gaia")--anyway it was her Wilander married. So next they had a daughter, Frikka (Frey or Frigg), who came to Finland and married Likkanen's father (also a local divinity), and together they parented Likkanen himself, who was, according to Dr Praetorious, an 'unawakened avatar'. Meaning he had divine powers but didn't know it. Which, to be honest, made the whole thing sound pretty pointless to me. I mean, you could pretty much make the same claim for half of Hollywood. Which I guess is what publicists do for a living, really.

So then, just for a joke, I started to like wonder or whatever which stars might be the 'reincarnated avatars' of which gods, if Dr Praetorius' crazy theories turned out to be right. For instance, would you include dead ones in your imaginary pantheon? Had Clark Gable been Zeus? Had Marilyn Monroe been Aphrodite--or was Angelina Jolie? Maybe she and Brad Pitt were more like children or proteges of the gods, sort of like Helen of Troy and Paris. Or Muses. Maybe Britney Spears was Terpsichore. Or was I being way too Greco-centric about all this? Maybe Paris Hilton was really Ishtar and George Clooney was Osiris. I decided they must have all been driven out of their native countries to be reborn in America and had just drifted naturally to Hollywood to assume their divine status, because it was like a modern Mt Olympus. And not just Hollywood. either. I remember one time when I was in high school in Chevy Chase, we went down to the White House as part of a class field trip. It was long before 911, so there weren't any Jersey barriers and actually not much security at all, really, but the main thing I noticed was that hundreds of people in wheelchairs were flooding the sidewalks and taking the White House tour--it was like Lourdes or something. They had flocked there from all over America, I guess because maybe they all had this subconscious belief that President Clinton's touch could heal them, like a medieval king with lepers. OK, you can laugh, but don't charismatic politicians and Hollywood stars perform the same functions as the old gods, really, when you think about it? Don't they publicly feud and cheat and mate with nymphs and cause big storms? Doesn't Clooney donate millions to make crops grow in Africa? Doesn't Paris Hilton make movies of herself having sex just to inspire millions of mere mortals to be fertile? Maybe when Christianity and Islam and Communism destroyed the old pantheons, they had to make their acts secular and adapt to new technologies. I'm just saying.

New technologies like this stretch-limo we were in, for instance. Which struck me as totally a sort of chariot for the new Hollywood gods, kind of like Alexander the Great's gold horse-drawn crypt, only with padded seats and a bar. Actually, it was a lot less comfy than an RV, because you couldn't walk around inside it. Or get up and use the bathroom. But a stretch-limo was faster and more anonymous and godlike, I guess. This one had a little fold-down table for Dr Praetorius to eat on, which we got to watch in action. We had stopped briefly in the small city of Pori, famous for its Jazz Festival (where Sting was appearing as we drove by), in front of the town hall, inside which was a fancy restaurant.. Alex had phoned ahead with our order, and it was waiting for us--Gailis and two waiters trundled a trolley cart across the cobbled sidewalk and unloaded steaks, lobsters, several types of fish, along with assorted veggies, sauces, and desserts in plastic containers. Dr Praetorius then proceeded to eat most of this while we drove. There was also a refrigerated bar just behind me and Riita stuffed with fruit juice and soft drinks and grossly sweet Euro-combos of both--Dr Praetorius was a teetotaler for 'mystical reasons', he told us--and he swilled these down indiscriminately between dishes. I had a feeling it would be bucket-time again pretty soon. To be honest, it was pretty gross watching him eat, because he, well, you know--slobbered. In fact, it was so nasty that it was actually a pretty cool dieting aid for both me and Riita in terms of losing our own appetites. Instead I drank a Coke, and we played with a pair of built-in DVD players whose little screens popped down out of the ceiling right in front of us, complete with iPod-type earphones. But there were other, definitely weirder custom touches inside the Merc. For one thing, there were solid gold stars bolted into the upholstery everywhere, one inside each door and a few sprinkled across the ceiling and floor. For another, there were no mirrors in the car at all--Matsson the chauffeur, a sweet clown-faced man in his forties, had three LCD screens in front of him, one mounted where the rear-view mirror should have been, all connected to external cameras and GPS. Avoiding all mirrors and reflections was another of Dr Praetorius' fetishes (I had noticed during the storm when things had gotten dark out that the tinted glass windows were all non-reflective), but I couldn't figure out whether this was connected to his paranoia about his shadow or not. Or whether it was just a whole other one. Whatever, he was turning out to be one seriously whacked-out dude. But hey, at least it wasn't a date.

And a good thing, too, cuz it would have been the longest one of my life. The whole way, Dr Praetorius played classical music over the car stereo, which normally I hate--it always reminds me of doctors' offices and makes me feel kind of woozy and constipated--but I actually started to enjoy parts of this, which sounded familiar to me.

"Sibelius?" I asked, finally.

"Ja," he said. "Specifically, the Legends from the Kalevala. This is the Lemminkainen Suite." I had heard it when I was first researching the Kalevala, which the only reason I'd have ever recognized it, I guess. I can recognize Beethoven, though.

"It is the Swedish version," said Riita sourly. "It is better to hear it performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic." The distance between Turku and Kokkola is about the same as between DC and New York, so it took about 6 hours for us to get to Kaustinen. The bulk of this was between Pori and Vaasa, which is called the 'capital of the Swedish Coast'. "This region is called 'Ostrobothnia' by the Swedes," said Riita. "I think it is very ugly here." She had a point. It was very flat and prairie-like with a lot of dried grass. Occasionally the highway strayed near the Baltic, and once or twice we even glimpsed the sea. As we traveled farther and farther north, the forest-line receded farther and farther away from the road, like a Boomer's hairline, and the trees looked more and more stunted. By the time we got to Vaasa, home to "Wasalandia", Finland's version of Disneyland ( ), Dr Praetorius was starving again--and so were we. Again, he'd had Alex Rizzio phone ahead, but this time the three of us rebelled and insisted on actually eating inside the restaurant, while he fumed outside in the car, where he was fed by teams of waiters, sort of like the Great White Whale at Seaworld. More and more this whole gig was giving me the feeling of being stuck on a camping trip with Jabba the Hut. And a 'droid from the Finnish Chamber of Commerce.

The restaurant was called the Gustav Wasa, and maybe it was just because I was so hungry, but I thought it had the best food of anyplace I ate at the whole time I was in Finland. I had the "Ostrobot Menu", which was whitefish with potato salad and lime dressing, a local Brie, and for dessert a honey parfait with orange and mint salad. Riita had reindeer, which I tried and didn't much like, really.

I also loved the decor, which was straight out of Rivendell--I kept expecting Elf-lords to stroll in with their hunting-horns full of mead, but the room was mostly full of middle-aged German and Swedish tourists in sandals with socks and way too short pants. Both Alex and Riita stayed on their cell-phones for like the whole meal. Riita called her mother to tell her where we were going and to ask if Safe-T-Man's death had made the news. "She says it is on the TV news that a man was shot at a lake in Espoo, but there are no details yet. It is thought he might be a tourist." So the evidence was mounting up. Poor Likkanen. I found myself really missing him.

Alex looked up from his laptop and started quizzing me in a sly, ingratiating way. "Did he say anything more about this 'Tuuslar' then?" he wanted to know. It was such a shame he was (I assumed) gay, because I could have listened to that accent of his all day. Glaswegians--"Weegies"--talk in a sort of cross between Ulster and Sean Connery.

"Um, no. He seemed too scared to."

So he was like, "But you know who the guy really is, right? You met him, didn't you?"

"No. Honest, I have no idea who he is," I said. But I could tell he didn't believe me. In the middle of her phone call to her mom, Riita got a call from Erkki at last, so she rang off and talked to him during dessert. Even though they spoke in Finnish, which meant I couldn't understand a word of it, her tone sound non-committal, even kind of bored to me, so when she got off I asked if everything was OK between them.

"Sure," she said and shrugged. "But now you have made my eyes wide open, and that is the problem, I think. It is because of you I have finally realized Erkki is a bad boyfriend for me. You see, with you I have many fun and frightening adventures, and life is exciting. It isn't just that Erkki has been cold and hurtful to me all this year--now I am seeing that he is not even interesting enough for me any longer."

"Well," I said dubiously, "Honestly, I think he may be a bit more interesting than you give him credit for, actually."

But it was obvious she didn't believe me either. It was the Cassandra Complex at work again--I've told you about that, haven't I? Oh right, you didn't believe me.

Nobody does.

Continued here...

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The Book of Hope 19: Grrrrrrrrrrr

OK, you are never in a bazillion years gonna believe this, but I'm running late again--this time it's cuz my 'puter died! Unbelievable! At first I thought everything was lost forever, including everything I've written here, so I was totally freaking, but it looks like all the data is fine after all, it was just the system that got corrupted. My husband (how weird is it to type that word!? All week long I've been going around trying it out casually in sentences, you know, like to total strangers, and I really doubt I'll ever get used to it) reinstalled the system on a new hard drive, and now he's in "reinstall hell". So all I get at night is the back of his head and the occasional tantrum. Which feels really weird now coming from a 'husband' instead of a boyfriend, because instead of marching out the door I have to just well, you know, deal with it. So far (and it's been, what--like a week? OK, OK, 12 days exactly, but who's counting?) my favorite parts about being married are all the corny cliche stuff you'd expect, like having someone safe and warm to sleep next to who'll get up in the night and check things out if you hear a noise. Or fix your computer for you. Whether you're kidding yourself or not, being married feels like you're getting lifetime tech support.

So when he says everything's fixed and gives me the all-clear, I guess I'll start writing the story again. See you then. Sigh. Some Valentine's Day present...

Continued here...

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Book of Hope 18: The Sleepyhead Festival

Hey, sorry I haven't posted anything for the last two weeks, but I've been like really super-busy and mostly away. Actually--I kinda sorta got married. But it really wasn't any big deal, honest. I'll tell you about it later. OK, so where was I? Oh yeah--the bordello hotel room in Turku. I woke up to the sound of Riita doing her Pilates. "Wake up, sleepyhead!" she trilled when she saw my eyes open. She found this so funny she said it two more times.

So I was like, "Huh, what time is it?"

"5:30," she said. "Hurry, you must get up and pack everything. We don't want to be late for the 'Sleepyhead Festival' in Naantali."

"The what??"

"The Sleepyhead Festival--it is a famous celebration they have every year in Nantaali when they throw some famous person in the ocean for sleeping too late. We must hurry, though! Because It starts at 7." Groan. Only in Finland.

Then I was like, "What about breakfast?" Because that was included in the hotel bill.

"We will eat breakfast at Moominworld, " she said firmly. How is it that people always know what buttons to push pretty much as soon as they get to know me? Whatever. So, feeling a little hungover, I got up, grabbed a five-minute shower, packed my stuff, and then checked out in such a hurry that I somehow left my contact lenses behind. So I basically spent the rest of my trip to Finland wearing my glasses, which are super-thick and magnify my eyes, sort of making me look all bug-eyed and owlish. According to those who love me, anyway. Which also means I couldn't wear my (non-prescription) sunglasses. And we were in for a sunny morning--the sun was already high up and blazing away when we left the hotel.

Naantali is a pretty little town--it's built around a medieval convent--that reminded me a little of Cape May, New Jersey, or Fernandina, Florida (home to 'Pippi Longstocking'!), except without a real beach, but with dozens of tree-covered islands surrounding it instead. But it had the same gingerbread-jigsaw-cut wooden ornaments on the restored old houses, all painted in bright colors. And the same sort of hand-made advertising signs every few yards. We parked in a huge lot near the main harbor-front marina, in front of an old Victorian resort hotel decked with pennants that lay at the end of a beach-style boardwalk featuring a huge wooden pavilion. The place was packed with tourists, so it wasn't so easy finding a space--Riita just drove into one that someone else was backing into, then refused to look at them until they gave up honking at her and drove away. I congratulated her. "You drive just like an American," I told her. Hee hee, she hated that!

We bought coffee and stood in the crowd staring out at the water. A yacht putt-putted into the harbor and stopped, and then a lady with high hair the color of Ronald McDonald's waved from it. There was a teeny round of scattered of applause. "That is our president, Madam Halonen," Riita informed me. "Perhaps someday America will have a woman for a president, as well, just like Finland. See the tower on that island? That is the summer home for all of our presidents--she has come from there to observe all the festivity." As she spoke, a group of middle-aged men dressed like characters from Gilbert & Sullivan's The Gondoliers in red-striped shirts and funny hats marched down to the end of the pier carrying a tarpaulin which had a gray-haired head sticking out of one end. "That is Bjorn Walroos--he is a very important man, the president of Sampo," said Riita. "Also, he is one of the richest men in our country. That is why he agreed to be this year's 'Sleepyhead', because it is very good for public relationships."

The gondoliers tipped up the tarpaulin, and the 'Sleepyhead of the Year", wearing beige long johns, suddenly plummeted down into the sea water. It looked cold even for July. After a moment, he surfaced, shook the water out of his hair like a dog, then paddled back to the pier, where he was lifted out like the Baby Jesus in a Nativity play and then wrapped up in a blanket while a succession of men in business suits solemnly shook his hand. I was like, "That's it? That's what you hauled me out of bed for?"

"No, no, there is much more fun to come, don't worry. Now there will be a parade. Let's go find a good place to see it."
The 'parade' consisted of the official Sleepyhead himself, with his hair slicked down and looking bored out his skull, holding a sign that said "UNIKEKO" (Sleepyhead) driving around the town in a tiny trolley car in front of a ragtag marching band, followed by a gang of young children in Halloween costumes with their mothers, gossiping and waving at friends, close behind. That was it. Oh yeah, there was a yellow dog with a blue scarf around his neck. Then we went to Moominworld.

Which meant we had to first retrace our footsteps back through Naantali Old Town (passing the "Moomintroll House of Surprises" and the "Moomintroll Strange House") to the harbor parking lot, and then crossing a very, very long white wooden footbridge over to Kailo Island. Riita pointedly explained to me all the way across how the family of Tove Jansson had refused to deal with Disney at all when they decided to license Moominworld, but had signed with a Finnish company instead. And I really, really hate to say this kind of showed. I mean, I'd hate for the park to have been just like Disneyworld or whatever, but it sure could have used some Epcott Center touches, you know to make you feel like you were really inside Moomin Valley, instead of stuck on a dinky little island with a few badly constructed houses full of actors in really clunky and obvious cloth suits. Oh yeah, and with the single "Mama's Kitchen" restaurant next to the "Sniff" gift shop (our breakfast was better than the food you get at Disneyworld, admittedly). Still if I'd been a kid, I think I'd of felt way gypped. Of course, it just have been me--since I was like 20 years older than most of the other kids there.
Not to make too big a deal of it, but come to think of it, Finland could actually really use a Disneyland. The whole country reminded me of a giant US military base in some ways--full of weird rules and low, clapboard buildings, where everybody knows everybody else's business. A little more crass commercialism would probably be a good thing. When I sort of hinted at this to Riita over our pancakes and honey from the "Snork Pancake Factory", she shook her head violently at me.

"Oh no, Hoop," she said. "We like our Finland just as it is. We have many big companies here already and many malls and nice things to buy. And we have the Internet. If we became like America then we would have to allow many immigrants to come here to work at the new jobs."

"Right. And that would be like a bad thing?"

Riita looked embarrassed. "Of course we have a tradition of welcome to those who are wanting political asylum, especially from Palestine and such places, but most Finns are unfortunately not so modern as they should be in their thinking. Some Finns don't like immigrants so well. That is why we have a law that to live here, you must learn to speak Finnish. Otherwise, no one would, you see." I could see that. "Hoop, I must thank you."

I was like, "Huh? For what?"

"For being my friend. And for always talking with me so honestly. Around you I have become such a happy person on this trip. You see, I have been going through a long time of not being so happy lately. I think maybe I have even been clinically depressed. It is very common here because of our culture and the long winter night. Also many Finnish people are naturally bipolar, I have read. Perhaps I am one of those. I was thinking of going to see a doctor to discuss this and why I have so few friends who like me any longer and why Erkki is now so cold to me. And then you came, and suddenly I realized that I no longer have to be in control of everything after all. It is such a relief! Now I have confidence again that Erkki truly loves me and that everything will be very good between us again. And that is all because of you." She stared at me expectantly.

"Thank you, Riita. That's a very nice thing to say," was all I could think of to tell her back.

"You are a wonderful person. So open, so full of life. You make everyone around you laugh and feel happy."

So I was like, "Are you on crack?"

She didn't get it. "Never mind," I said. "It was a joke."

"You see?" she said, beaming.

After breakfast, we took a tour of the rest of the island. By 'tour' I mean we went for a long walk--there are no trams or trains or anything. Our first stop was the Post Office, where we were encouraged to mail letters all over the world stamped with Moominworld's own special postmark, for instance. You get the picture--and if you want to see more pictures, check them out at: . OK, not all of it was dumb. The sunlight was dazzling, and it was cool to see kids running around spilling ice cream from cones and screaming. Moominpapa's ship--in dry-dock at the far end of the island--was cute, and so was the Hemulen's house, which had painted wooden butterfliy shutters on all its windows. According to Riita, the region around Naantali is world-famous for its hand-crafted wood ornamentation on walls and doorways and gates. There was a very tiny beach with like ten yards of sand and its very own sauna. Most like the book illustrations, however, was the Moominhouse, a three or four story round house painted blue with a conical red-tiled roof.

Because we had woken up so early that morning, the sound of the kids' voices and the bright sun had a kind of lulling effect on me after we'd walked back from the Moomin swimming pier, and I started feeling pretty sleepy. We stopped and bought lemon drinks called "Zingos" (they're sort of like Oranginas) at a kiosk, and afterwards, of course, Riita immediately needed to pee. But there were long lines of kids outside the beach rest-rooms.

"OK, I will go back to the Sniff shop and also buy some postcards there," she said after I declined to go back with her. "And then I will try to call Erkki again. I think he will want to hear how happy I am today in my voice. It will cheer him up, too, to hear it. I know I am not so fun to be around lately. You will be good by yourself? It will not be too boring?"

"I'll be fine. Maybe I'll find a bench and take a nap."

"Don't get too much sun. Oh no, it is beginning to be clouds." She was right--a dark haze was creeping up over the western horizon. I wandered off toward the Moominhouse, which was by far the tallest landmark on the island, then found myself in a patch of empty parkland surrounded by scrub that was miraculously kid-free. There were a few benches scattered around with dozing grandmothers lounging on them, faces worshipfully propped toward the sun--that, I thought, is what I'm about. There was a drowsy hum of hornets around a trash receptacle, and an overpowering smell of Finnish hot dogs, which are sausages fried in batter. Come to think of it, I needed to make some phone calls, too. I hadn't spoken to Kerry or Chris in days--and the only email I'd had was from Jo, containing a link to an article about the rising costs of Australian med schools. I realized I even owed the Mothership a call. I turned a corner around a copse of trees and saw two or three people gathered around some kind of strange big costumed animal on another bench that looked kind of like the "Pushmi-Pullyu" from Doctor Doolittle. I walked closer, kind of half-trying to recognize it, then suddenly I realized it wasn't a Moominworld prop at all. I stopped and just stared stupidly. I think my mouth was probably literally hanging open, like "Doh".

You know how sometimes when a flash-camera goes off in your face, the light just burns into your retina, and you sort of see it frozen in your eyes for hours afterwards? Well, as soon as I realized what it was I was seeing, this scene had exactly the same effect on me. To begin with, it wasn't a single person in an animal costume at all, it was three of them, though the woman in the middle of the three wasn't exactly wearing a costume. In fact. except for the "Snork Maiden" pink flowers in her hair and a yellow anklet, she was like totally, completely stark naked. I kid you not. She was a very unusual-looking woman, too (and probably would have been even with her clothes on): she was blonde, luridly tanned, middle-aged, in pretty good shape actually (but way too overly buff and collagened-looking), but everything about her was somehow larger than life, like the statue of Havis Amanda in the Helsinki harbor--her eyes, her mouth, her lips, her boobs, all were almost cartoon-huge. She was kneeling on the park bench with her butt in the air, while behind her a guy dressed as "Sniff" was humping away at her--he had taken the costume head off (I guess it was hot work in there) and was holding it in one arm. With a shock I saw it was Eetu, my "date" from the Madonna concert. Now I suddenly realized what he'd meant by "sexy acting" or whatever. But now I was in for another, even bigger shock. The second "actor", who was standing in front of the woman's face and was obviously pretty bashful because he was, um, having trouble performing publicly (in spite of her enthusiastic attempts to help him out there), was dressed as "Snufkin" in a green hat and scarf and artist's smock--but underneath it all I could clearly see that it was Erkki.

You know, Erkki. Her boyfriend? The guy Riita lived with and was trying to phone from the Gift Shop at that very moment? After I spotted him, I really did not know where to look. My gaze wandered, and I saw there were other two guys filming all this heavy action, one with a huge camcorder suspended from some sort of elaborate belt-chest mount, and next to him a guy holding a boom mike and staring into a laptop. Then I made the mistake of looking back at the bench for half a sec. The blonde lady spotted me and stopped what she was doing. She widened her eyes and gave me a humongous smile, which totally creeped me out because--and I know how weird this sounds, but I'm just saying what flashed through my mind at the time--well, because it was like she recognized me somehow. Something about her, her expression maybe, sort of reminded me of my mother, which was way beyond gross and spooky. And then, this woman waved at me and beckoned me over, like "hey, come on and join in!" Ewwww! By now I was actually backing away like I'd disturbed a nest of snakes or something, almost tip-toeing backwards--and suddenly I bumped heavily into somebody. I jumped like a foot and turned around, really, really hoping it wasn't Riita. Because i know I sometimes say cruel things about her here, but I so did not want her to be seeing this. In fact, I didn't want to be seeing it either.

But it wasn't Riita. It was the bum from Helsinki, the one who had crapped on the sidewalk in front of me a few days earlier. "Wake up, sleepyhead!" he shouted at me in his terrible growly English, then laughed at the expression on my face. Which to be honest, must have looked pretty funny really. How did I know it was the same guy? I just knew, that's all. The scary eyes, the face, the voice, were all still exactly the same. Actually, the rest of him looked a lot different today--cleaned up, sort of, with his long grey hair in a pony-tail. He was wearing almost-new Nikes and a soiled black T-shirt that said "Bonk Industries" on it and was holding a big round fabric light reflector. He pointed at Eetu, and said, "That's the second-biggest frog I've ever seen." I'd had enough. I turned and ran. I mean, I felt like a fool, but at the time it really seemed the only appropriate adult response to the situation. Because I was suddenly desperate to stop poor Riita from seeing it. I mean, I know Scandinavians supposedly aren't possessive or jealous like we unhealthy Americans are, but something about the scene struck me as a deal-breaker anyway.

As I ran, drawing stares from old ladies and kids as soon as I rounded the corner, I suddenly got mad. I mean, there were kids all over the place there, for Christ's sake! What if small children happened to see what was going on? What was the point of filming something like that at Moominworld? Obviously it was against the rules (if not the law, I didn't know), which I guess is what made it "guerilla film-making", but I still couldn't think of any political--or especially even erotic--statement they were making there.

And, if I'm totally, brutally honest with myself, I was pissed off for another reason, too, I mean aside from being angry on Riita's behalf. And that was because I'd had the teeniest little a crush on Erkki. Not even "one-quarter of an eighth of an inch in love", as Kerry would say, but a crush-lite. It was something about his eyes and how sweet and patient he always looked when he was around Riita. Now I was seeing all of that in a slightly different light. Which (speaking of light) began to change as I was passing "Snufkin's Cabin", first brightening, then getting that dramatic dark glare you see sometimes before a storm.

I bumped into Riita in the middle of a flock of baby strollers.

"Come on, hon" I said to her, all out of breath. "We gotta get the hell out of here!"

"But Hoop--why?" she said. Actually that was a pretty reasonable question. Problem was, I hadn't really thought of an answer to it. So I just said the first thing that came into my head.

"I'm having a really bad allergy! So we better get out of here fast, or else you'll have to take me to the hospital." I grabbed her arm and started marching her toward the front gate.

She was like, "Hoop, stop this, what's wrong with you? What is it are you allergic to?" Another good question--what was I allergic to? Finland? Public sex or whatever? Surely not Moomintrolls. Though I have to be honest here--it was gonna be some time before I could look at them again in quite the same way. Especially Snufkin. Because I've never really cared for Sniff all that much anyway, if I'm honest. Him I could live without--but not Snufkin. What is it with guys anyway? I guess I had sort of been starting to think it was me, not them, but it wasn't, was it? They were all perverts, let's just admit it. I mean, you pretty much expected that kind of lifestyle choice from guys like Eetu--but from Erkki?? He really had seemed so sweet. But I couldn't get the picture of that gross woman messing with the front of his smock with her big collagen mouth out of my head.

"Didn't you see?" I snapped at Riita. "There were whortleberry bushes growing all over the place. I could have had a seizure--I'm totally allergic to the whortleberry."

"Just like in the Kalevala," she said, allowing herself to be dragged out onto the footbridge.

"Yes, exactly like the Kalevala."

Riita dragged her feet and sulked the whole way across back to Naantali. "I thought you liked Muumit," she was muttering, half in Finnish. "I didn't see any such trees." A sudden wind sprang up, and overhead a flight of ravens flapped by us, screeching. I had a tingling feeling all over, like a volcano was about to erupt on the island. Now I had another thought stuck in my mind: how had the bum known that Riita had said, "Wake up, sleepyhead!" to me first thing that morning? Was he psychic? Had he bugged our hotel room? Or was it just a coincidence? And if it was a coincidence, then why was a majority of the people I'd actually spoken to in Finland all on the same tiny island at the same moment? I mean, I know Finland's a small country, but there's no place on earth that small.

I had no way of knowing it was about to get even smaller.

Continued here...

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