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...


Post a Comment

<< Home