Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Book of Hope 23: The Second Chamber

When I was a little girl, even before I learned to talk properly, I began to notice that my dad came home at about the same time every day, so I would wait for him at about 5 o'clock outside on the front stoop. At first my mom tried to make me stop, but I must have been a really stubborn kid, because she finally gave up and started giving me a little snack to take out with me instead, which consisted of animal cookies and a Dixie cup of chocolate milk. I guess my dad must have been desk-bound for the first time at that point in his career--I can't even remember which house it was or which base we were stationed at--but it became a kind of tradition for me even after I was in school. I can remember I even did it when he was due back from the Gulf after Desert Storm, when I was about 10 or 11.

By then of course I would take along a good book to read. The thing was I never quite knew how he'd arrive home, sometimes it would be in his car, sometimes in a military vehicle, sometimes he'd bum a ride from one of his fellow-officers, sometimes in Germany or England we even lived close enough to base for him to actually walk home. So it was like a game every time a car turned onto our street, trying to guess whether he was in it or not. I think he liked it, too--I can still remember Daddy saying at the dinner table, "No sir, I won't accept just any old posting from the Corps unless it includes a good front stoop--that's my A number-one requirement for housing. I don't care if a billet has no kitchen or bathroom, not even a roof, just as long as she has a good old-fashioned solid front stoop for the Scout to sit on." Well, that was how he talked. Until I was six or seven nothing would budge me from it in the late afternoons, except a bad thunderstorm (I was afraid of lightning and thunder when I was a kid), especially when he was due home after a long overseas posting. A few times, I remember, the Mothership would even come out and sit reading and waiting beside me. I guess those must have been times when she was secretly worried about him. More than usual, I mean.

I was reminded of this feeling sitting under the awning on the stoop of the motorhome, even to the sensation of imaginary chocolate and animal cookies in my mouth. I briefly thought of going back inside to find a book to read, then remembered I'd only brought along The Game, which didn't really seem to suit the occasion much. On second thoughts, maybe it did--a little too well. Then I suddenly wondered, who exactly was I waiting for? Dad? Or Safe-T-Man maybe? Well, why not? Sitting on a stoop was kind of appropriate, I guess, since the whole point of this gathering, aside from the music, I mean, was to bring him back to life, to create the "Return of Lemminkainen", just as in the Sibelius suite. And I probably knew him about as well as anyone did--judging from Likkanen's blog, spending one night with a woman seemed to be pretty much his average. And we'd spent two together, if you counted the airline flight. Dr P and Riita had only spent about an hour each with him, and nobody else here had even met him at all. The only other person I could think of better qualified to wait for him on a door-stoop was Riita's mom, really. And I couldn't exactly see her showing up to resurrect him, though she might have done a better job than me, actually. Obviously Riita got her girl-gone-wild streak from somewhere. Thinking about this made me sort of sad, actually, because I decided that in a way Matti really had just spent the rest of her life waiting around for Likkanen, or maybe just some guy like him. Finally she gave up and settled for just any old Pekka (so to speak)--but if she and Likkanen had actually worked out and somehow stayed together, then he would be Riita's father, which was kind of a spooky thought. But then Riita would be a totally different person, wouldn't she--probably a lot smarter and more attractive and ironic than the version I was stuck with. It surprised me a whole lot to find myself thinking that, because up until that moment, I hadn't really seen Safe-T-Man as being any of those things at all. But maybe now he was safely dead, it was OK to romanticize him a little. Certainly no one else was going to--the poor old guy had managed to construct a perfectly empty, pointless life. In my opinion, anyway. I knew I didn't want to end up like that, with just a few boastful, lying entries on a blogsite and a brass erection to be remembered by. I think that was probably also the first moment in my life that I also suddenly realized that I wanted marriage and a family. You know, children or whatever.

Strangely enough, I am now totally cured of my fear of thunderstorms. That's because when I was in high school I was struck by lightning during soccer practice. Well, almost struck by lightning--technically it hit the tree we were all cowering under. But it knocked me unconscious and left me tingling and deafened for days. But here's the amazing thing: after that, I wasn't scared of it any more! I guess it was the 'never strikes twice in the same place' thing. Wouldn't it be great if all our fears could be cured that easily? You know, like not being afraid of the dentist any more after you've had your wisdom teeth pulled. Or not being scared of getting into relationships once you've had your heart broken. Instead of the reverse, which is usually what happens. I used to think about that when my dad was dying--you know, what if I could wheel him out onto a soccer field and arrange to get him struck by lightning. Would that have somehow magically cured his cancer? It occurred to me that that was sort of what Dr P was planning to try to do with Likkanen, really--run a sort of psychic electric charge through him like Frankenstein's monster in order to bring him back to life. And what if (OK, ha ha) it worked? Would that mean that Likkanen would then be immortal?

I was interrupted in this unusually silly (even for me) reverie by Alex Rizzio. "His Satanic Majesty requests your company at supper," he said. "Christ! What the bluidy f-ck have you done to your foot?" I had put on a pair of thick yellow socks and a Nike on one foot, but because my ankle was so swollen had borrowed one of Riita's Birkenstocks for the other. Just to, you know, complete my total dork look. So actually it was a good thing that there were no seriously hot unattached guys there, or I would have probably just had to lock myself in the bathroom. And in fact Alex was being tactful--he hadn't even mentioned the Retardex all over my face, even though I could tell he really wanted to.

I was like, "I sprained my ankle. And Riita won't be joining us, I don't think. She's kind of busy." Behind me the back of the RV was visibly bouncing up and down.

"So I see," he said, arching a single slightly plucked eyebrow at the sight. "Who knew your little side-kick was such a slapper?"

"A what?"

"You know, a slut. A skanky ho. Though if I'm honest, I'd be a bit tempted myself. I have noticed," he went on as we crossed the lot to Dr P's motorhome, "That for whatever the reason, everyone who spends any time around you at all gets the urge to drop their knickers and start shagging. Or haven't you noticed?" I was literally struck speechless. Was this his way of cruising me? I'd been pretty sure he was gay, but he'd just said he was "a bit tempted". Did he mean he was into Riita or Kimmo--or me? Or was he just being sarcastic? "You're a Virgo, right?" he asked.

OK, I was. I mean, I am a Virgo. And it was kind of actually kinda a little bit true, now that I thought about it. Everybody around me was always shagging or whatever. Everybody but me.

A mobile kitchen catering van was parked in front of Dr P's motorhome. Its top side panels were opened to vent the heat I could feel coming out of it from 20 yards away, and inside it a pair of middle-aged blonde Finnish women dressed in painters' overalls were banging pans and screaming hysterically at each other. The van had the word "Harkonen" painted on its front doors, just like in Dune, and I suddenly realized that was exactly who Dr Praetorius reminded me of: the evil baron in the movie. Physically, I mean, hopefully not in any other way, though I was still pretty upset about the jail thing. Had Alex intended that as a warning--or was he just being bitchy? I started to ask, but he just opened the door for me, then waved dismissively and took off. I climbed in. The inside of Dr P's RV looked sort of like a darkened diner--every spare inch of space was either covered in food or stacked with coolers. To my left huge platters of fish and ham, jellies and pies, were spread across the countertops, and there was a mountain of hotplates on the dining table. All the curtains had been drawn, and there were no lights turned on. Through the gloom, I could see Dr P sitting on the couch dressed in a huge bone-colored kaftan stitched in silver and maroon embroidery and juggling five or six oranges in time to the classical music that was blaring from the stereo speakers. One by one he dropped the oranges back into a fruit basket at his feet, then sent the last one sailing across the narrow space to me. It hit me in the forehead with a thud and then fell on the floor.

"Khatchaturian," he said. "I find it relaxes me. Please come in and join me in a light meal. I won't try to get up. Where is Miss Riita?"

"Um, she's sort of otherwise engaged at the mo." I sat in the recliner across from him--a large meal had already been laid out on a little folding table beside it.

He was like, "Of course, of course, I do understand. To be young and on holiday is its own magic. How deeply and passionately I envy the young. Still, I have seen many remarkable sights they will never see in their own lives--I suppose that will have to be my final consolation soon enough. You see, my dear Miss Hope, I believe I may be dying."

So I was all like, "Wow, what's wrong? Are you sick?" He seemed healthy enough to me except for all the weeping and wailing--unless he was planning to eat himself to death. But he ignored my questions.

Instead he said, "Tell me, do you believe in the existence of the soul?"

"Sure," I said. That was an easy one.

"How many?"

Huh? "How many what?"

"How many souls do you think we humans have?" he began (I could tell from his tone of voice he was only just beginning). "The answer can vary greatly from culture to culture--some scholars assert, for example, that the ancient Egyptians thought that we each possess seven. Oddly enough, this spiritual complexity is shared by the belief-system of the early Finns. They believed that all humans had multiple souls or aspects. One of these was loyli, which can be translated as the spirit, ghost, soul, or life-force that animated the body of a human being, manifesting itself in breathing and the vital essences of the living body. This corresponds roughly to the fylgja in Old Norse, the soul's 'karma'. These days, of course, loyli merely means the steam inside a sauna, which I find richly symbolic of the modern disease of secularism. Itse, on the other had, was thought to be the actual identity or seat of self-awareness of the human being, corresponding to the Norse hugr and was seen as his shadow. If one lost one's shadow, this catastrophe rendered the person itseton or nithing. Such a person became sickly, pale, depressed and so unlucky that he soon died. That, Miss Hope, is what has happened to me. Please pass me that plate of lobster. Have you ever tasted Cornish Hen?" His kaftan made him look like he was wearing a giant sea-food bib.

I was like, "So what can you do about it?"

"Candidly, I don't yet know. Much will depend on tonight's ceremony. You see, there is also a third soul to consider--what we would nowadays call a 'guardian angel'. In Finnish this was called one's luonto, or as the Vikings would say, one's hamingja, or 'luck'. It attached itself to the person sometime between his naming and his first tooth. A luontowas a kind of ghost, specifically emanating from the individual's clan spirits residing in Tuonela, the Land of the Dead. Sometimes it was thought to be the mythic first ancestor of one's family line. I have myself invoked such a spirit from my own maternal ancestry, the banker Knut Agathon Wallenberg.

Upon occasion, this guardian spirit might travel ahead of a person and give others the false sensation that he had already arrived at his destination. This was called etiainen. It was assumed that people with powerful characters or great charisma attracted such spirits, so it was often considered a good thing. On the other hand, it could also happen in reverse. When a person's luonto continues to lurk about after he is gone, that is an extremely bad thing. It usually means that the person is about to die and some elements of his soul are unwilling to follow him. That too has started to happen to me--I have received several cell-phone messages today from people who claim to have seen me in Helsinki this afternoon. Do you have any idea what happens to you when you die?"

"No." And I wasn't sure I wanted to, either. At least not while I was trying to eat. But that didn't stop Dr P.

"And I thought you were a Christian like me, Miss Hope! The answer, of course, is that we go to Purgatory and thence to Heaven or to Hell."

"You're a Christian? I thought you were into Norse magic."

But he was like, "I am a devout 'occult Christian'--just like our good friend Pekka Ervast--as well as a Swedenborgian. We who believe in this fashion are informed by Gnosticism, so that while we accept Christ as our personal savior (and it is true, I have sinned most terribly), we see him merely as a human manifestation, a spiritual shell, of Jehovah Himself. But Jehovah may take many other forms as well, as He does here in Finland under the guise of Ukka Ilyjumala, the Creator. Further, as as a good Swedenborgian, I believe that we all of us carry our own private Heaven and Hell within ourselves, the appearance of which we project onto our spiritual surroundings, whatever they may truly be. In other words, a Muslim suicide bomber, to employ an obvious contemporary cliche, might immediately after death fetch up in his own perfect vision of Paradise, complete with forty houris to cater to his every whim. This vision, of course, is maintained purely by the strength of his own will. Gradually over time, cracks would begin to appear in this picture of perfection--his food might begin to rot, for example, or his women become disobedient and eventually revealed as djinn. In such a personal Heaven, the tiniest flaw renders it a Hell instead. In the Buddhist bardo, this purgatorial journey, where we are attacked by demons and devoured by every animal we have ever eaten [he belched loudly and without irony at this point] is said to take 40 days and nights. Uncannily enough, that is precisely the same amount of time the ancient Finns also claimed it takes the itse-soul to find its way to Tuonela. In the meantime, it might linger behind to appear to its loved ones as an animal or spirit--or even, as with your Billy Draper in Chicago, become a ghost. This is the position in which your poor dead Mr Likkanen now finds himself, unless we can convince all three of his spirits to re-animate his remains again. Miss Hope, I have another question to ask you."

I was like, "Yeah?"

"it's rather delicate, and I don't quite know where to begin. I've never asked this before of anyone."

"Well, spit it out, dude!" I said, doing the same with a piece of herring-bone in my napkin.

"Miss Hope, I would like you to consider marrying me," he said in a sort of nervous rush. His voice became suddenly high-pitched. "Naturally, there would be nothing sexual about such a union between us--I have in any case long ago given up a sex life for occult reasons, and of course I am now too corpulent to perform, in any case. But I am extremely wealthy, you know, and in addition to that, I own one of the largest collections of arcana in the world. I know your interests embrace such things, and there would be a great deal I could teach you in the few short weeks or months of life I have left to me. I could act as your mentor, your spiritual guide. Please don't give me an answer now--I can see that I have embarrassed us both--but I beg you to consider it seriously. You would be able to live exactly as you liked for the rest of your life. You would never have to work again. You could devote your life to study, to writing, to travel. You could live like an angel or a goddess, taking good care of your dear friends and family. Please think it over, Miss Hope, I beg you humbly."

I just sat there there staring at him. I think my mouth was actually hanging open, and a little bit of fish was dribbling out of it. After a few minutes, I just said the first thing that popped into my head. "Shut up, why me?"

He started to squirm, then turned pink and just looked at the floor. "I suppose I must be a bit in love with you," he said reluctantly. And that's when I choked--you know, one of those fish-bone-stuck-in-your-throat things where you wheeze and can't breathe and think you're dying, and your eyes are flooded with tears, and your face turns purple, and you stagger around pounding your chest and holding your hands over your head until it finally clears up-type things. And that pretty much closed the subject for the moment. But I definitely had the feeling that I wasn't gonna get out of it so easy the next time it came up.

Naturally, conversation became a little stilted after that. But at least I'd avoided the "I'm really flattered, but--" speech. When my coughing and wheezing had subsided enough so I could swallow again, I tried a few random other topics, but now he was sulking. Then, over dessert--by now I was developing a serious addiction to Karelian pastries, and I could tell I was like in for a total heart attack the next time I was anywhere near a non-metric bathroom scale--I asked him if he'd ever heard of Ior Bock.

"Who told you that name?" he demanded furiously. "Has someone invited him here tonight?"

"Um no. I just wondered if he was, you know, the Tuuslar guy you mentioned earlier." At the sound of this word, Dr P visibly cowered and quietened down.

"Shhh!" he hissed. "No, no, Bock is merely a charlatan, an old confidence trickster. But the most dangerous of fools, one with innate, yet utterly undeveloped, occult powers. In fact, we in the Stockholm Chantry were forced to threaten him to desist from his activities in 1990 or so. I realize now in hindsight that Wilander was concerned that Bock's excavations in Sibbo might inadvertently open up a gateway to the Mirrorworld. Bock spent his winters in Goa during that era taking drugs and fornicating with Indian rent-boys. We projected a psychic emissary to him on one such occasion, and the experience terrified him so thoroughly that he immediately returned to Helsinki and ordered his followers to cease their digging operations. Unfortunately, they had already broken through to a second chamber--what he later claimed to the be the 'Tomb of Lemminkainen', I believe--thus opening up our own plane of existence to great danger. After that, the Finnish government took the so-called 'mountain' (it is merely a large rock out-cropping) from him, for reasons of their own. They are, as I have told you, under the control of the person you have been so unwise as to just name, and it may well be that he has continued Bock's work, but with advanced equipment. Certainly Bock himself was physically attacked and all but destroyed by this same malevolent Power."

I was like, "So you think it was like Tuu--I mean, the person I was so unwise as to name--who caused that? You know, turned him into a paraplegic?"

"Ja, I do indeed," said Dr P. "And I don't want to share the same fate. Neither," he added almost in a whisper, "do you..."

And I actually shivered when he said that. Of course, I was already feeling a bit accident-prone that day.

I made an excuse to leave a few minutes later, when the 'Finnish shaman' Anssi showed up at the door, looking all apologetic and, you know, interested in me again. Dr P didn't try to stop me--I guess the two of them wanted to get together and plan their resurrection ceremony. Anssi stared wistfully after me, but it was too late--I guess I'd already gone off him. I didn't like his temper. Plus, I'd just noticed that in a country full of the straightest backs I'd ever seen, he had that sort of question-mark posture that a lot of geeky guys get from two many hours spent in front of the 'puter. And I already knew the answer to his question. Too bad, too, cuz he was kind of cute. But I barely noticed him in spite of that, because I was in a state of something like shock. Because, well this is super-embarrassing, really. OK, I'll say it. Because weird and crazy and disgusting though it was, it was my very first marriage proposal. And I was almost 27!

I mean, it wasn't like I was some kind of Victorian spinster sewing doilies for my hope chest or something. I was perfectly happy on my own. And I'd survive just fine if I never got married. But you can't help but keep a kind of mental body-count of everyone who seriously asks you to marry them, it's just human nature, right? And I gotta admit that as I hobbled back across the parking lot back to my own motorhome, I actually considered it for a minute or two. I mean, the thought of being financially independent for the rest of my life was amazingly tempting. Like he'd said, I'd be able to do whatever I wanted, travel the world, live anywhere I liked, and I'd never have to work or worry about money again, plus I could look after my family and anyone else I loved if they got old or sick or in some deep financial crisis. And it was true too, that I was seriously tempted by him as a sort of "teacher"--crazy though he and his theories obviously were, he still knew more about mythology and magical systems and comparative relion than anyone I'd ever met, including my professors. And it wasn't like I'd actually said "no" exactly. I'd just...choked.

But see, there was a major flaw in the idea that even I could spot: love. I totally, completely, utterly did not love him. And what if I like fell in love with someone else tomorrow? I remember the first time I ever called the Mothership and told her I had a broken heart, she said crossly, "Listen to me, Hope--your heart has two chambers." At the time, I didn't exactly get what she meant, but now I thought maybe I did. If I ever settled for anything less than totally being in love, then I'd barely be feeling anything in my heart at all--and when I got married I wanted to be using the the whole thing. Both chambers, like a double-barrelled shotgun. I guess that's where the word "whole-heartedly" comes from. I just had to have faith that someday there would be a second.

Proposal, I mean, Of course, no way would it ever be from someone that rich again. OK, OK, I know--I was crazy to blow it off. But you'd never watched the guy eat.

Besides, isn't there some Shakespeare play where a really young chick is sent for to marry the King of France, who's dying of old age? And then suddenly when she's in bed with him the dying old geezer perks right up and starts getting frisky? The thought of Dr P doing that was just too pukey to even think about. So I wasn't gonna. Go there, I mean. OK, enough, I told myself, whatever.

Still, he'd said he loved me. Not that he actually knew me, of course. But that was really like sort of sad when you stopped and thought about it, because it always sucks when feelings aren't two-way.

So I was stupidly feeling a little guilty for not liking him that way (not really liking him any way, to be honest--he was really pretty creepy!), and this made me want to take the sad old guy more seriously intellectually or whatever. You know, to kind of like make up for my dislike. He'd said something about being a Swedenborgian, so I made a mental note to learn more about that when I got home. I mean I'd come across the name of Emmanuel Swedenborg in Borges, and I knew there was some kind of old-fashioned religious cult in Pennsylvania like Quakers or Mennonites based on his writings, but that was about it. He had claimed to visit Heaven in visions and had written long descriptions of it, hadn't he? But it had sounded like Dr Praetorius believed that we all sort of visually program our own, like the Holo-Deck in Star Trek: The Next Generation or something. This thought made me wonder what my own private Heaven would look like. Probably a really great big house near a beach, maybe like in Naples or Sanibel Island, Florida. But near a beautiful old city like London or Paris filled with theaters and libraries. And maybe near some mountains where it snowed in winter. And, OK, Disneyworld. Who would be there? My parents, obviously, and my grans and aunts and uncles--everybody I had ever known and loved. But they would all be young again, wouldn't they? Or maybe they'd kind of be like every age they'd ever been, according to the moment, you know, old and wise on some occasions, young and beautiful on others, according to what was inside. This was a sweet thought, imagining Dad like that.

So what about family pets? Would Wheezy be waiting for me there, for instance? But animals don't have souls, right--that was why it's OK to eat them. So then I decided that anybody who's ever had a pet probably knows the feeling of watching them strain to understand you, almost like they were trying to 'grow' a human soul or something. I mean, that's one of the few New Agey concepts that really makes sense to me, the idea of spiritual evolution taking place at the same time as physical evolution. And to be honest, Wheezy wasn't a heck of lot dumber than some Marine Corps wives I'd grown up knowing, so it wasn't too much of a stretch imagining her being reincarnated as one of them someday. Somehow, I had the feeling that we don't get 'designer heavens' all to ourselves, though--I mean, if we did, there wouldn't actually be any difference between Dr P's hypothetical suicide bomber and St Augustine, for example--both would be pretty much projecting their own vision of the City of God onto everybody else (of course I realize that in the eyes of God there's no difference anyway, since we are all equally sinful and must be redeemed). Seen that way, Dr P's marriage proposal would have given me the chance to actually try to build my own Heaven on earth while I was actually still alive, you know, the beach house, the skiing, etc etc...but something deep down told me there would always be flaws in my vision, no matter how hard I tried to create it. I mean, would my beach house be gated? Would people dump cigarette butts and condoms on the beach--or scrawl graffiti and torch cars on the city streets nearby? These are pretty harmless things--I happen to think they're ugly and stupid, but other people might think they were cool. So do our separate Heavens leak and bleed into each other just like they do in life, or is Hell really just other people, like someone famous (I couldn't remember who) once said? What kind of afterlife did I really believe in, anyway--you know, with my instincts and not my intellect. Maybe just some grey ghostly underworld of mists and shadows. If that was the case, was poor Likkanen wandering around there now, lost and alone? The odds didn't strike me as too good of bringing him back.

Our Pace Arrow had stopped rocking up and down by the time I got back, and now loud rock music was throbbing and thumping inside it. I opened the door and stepped up and in--it smelled just like a giant bong. "Welcome to the Mirrorland", boomed out from the speakers.

Continued here...

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Book of Hope 22: Cold Comfort Farm

Kaustinen is a tiny town of about a hundred buildings on a little hill that rises up from the flat, dreary plain nestled inside a bend in an even tinier river. Riita had told me that the festival stage architecture had been inspired by the Greek Parthenon, but in point of fact it looked exactly like the Wolf Trap pavilion outside Washington DC--or basically any other modern open-air theater--built out of huge triangles of reddish wood, in this case covered by a giant yellow-and-white striped umbrella and a ring of rocks. There were several dozen people sprawled on the short yellowish grass in front of the main stage watching a bunch of musicians set up, while a few couples clog-danced on a bandstand behind them, dressed in what I took to be Karelian folk garb. We passed the oddly Santa Fe adobe-looking "Folk Art Centre" and rattled down a tree-lined gravel road to Pauanne, stirring up clouds of dust.

Pauanne turned out to be a collection of stone farmhouses on top of a second steeper, craggier hill--we couldn't climb up to it in the cars, so we parked nearby in an asphalted parking lot inside a chain-link fence. There were three or four large motorhomes, the kind you see on film sets, waiting there for us there, in the middle of a flock of old vans and SUVs. At some point, about the time he stopped talking, I noticed, Dr P had become overcome by the heat and dust and had to be wrapped up in a sort of tarp made of parachute silk and half-dragged and half-carried into his RV by Gailis and a second thuggish-looking goon who was already there guarding the site. When I tried to help, Dr P waved me off. "Later, dear Miss Hope, later," he whimpered tearfully from under his wraps, "We shall talk tonight." So Riita and I just stood there like "WTF" until Alex showed up in Riita's car and helped us unload our stuff.

"You'll be in this 38-footer," he said to us cheerfully. "I'm lumbered sleeping with the driver in the porta-loo over there. Oh, it's not that bad, I'm just taking the piss. I'm really jealous because you two get to share one of the Pace Arrows. You wouldn't believe what I had to go through to locate them in Helsinki--at one point I thought we'd have to airlift a fleet of Honeywagons in from Berlin. That's the great thing about this job," he said unlocking the side door of a gleaming motorhome beneath the triangular awning that jutted out from its roof. "I get to play God with someone else's money. Just about the only good thing, actually." I noticed that it said "Ansel Adams Edition" in red chrome letters across the door, and had white silk curtains drawn closed across every window, including the huge front windshield. We climbed a single steep step up into it and switched on the lights. It was panelled in cherry-colored wood and had brushed stainless-steel appliances and mock-marble countertops. "Look, it even has a satellite dish for the tellies," Alex said.

"If you don't like your job, why do you keep working for him?" I asked him.

He was like, "The money. That transmuting of lead into gold he tells everyone about is an absolute load of wank, of course, but he is rich. Very rich. And he pays very very well. Hence all the slavish arse-licking from the Latties." I totally loved his Scottish burr: 'verrrry verrrry'. I also loved his constant stream of casual obscenities. I wish I could talk like that! And, you know, get away with it, I mean. If I say anything rude people act all shocked.

"So he's not a real magician?" I said innocently, and he laughed.

"Is he, bollocks. [I think that's how you spell it anyway.] Know what he did in life before he decided he was really Gandalf? He was a stage magician for children's parties--he used to make animals out of balloons and pull bunnies out of hats. Ask him sometime what he went to jail for." After Alex showed us how to use the chemical potty, he left us alone to unpack and wash our faces and brush our teeth and whatever. He also left behind alarm bells ringing in my head. Went to jail? Uh oh.

The side door we had entered was sort of like the front door of a house. To the right were a couch and a swiveling recliner chair directly behind the driver and passenger seats, to the left a recessed kitchenette and directly across from it a round four-chair dining table beside the couch. Maybe I'll try to download some promotional material for it, so you can see the layout. OK, done:

As you can see, there was a little hall leading back to the bedroom, and even a small tub/shower-stall in the bathroom. And Dr P had rented at least two of these, plus a pair of smaller ones, just because there were no luxury hotels available in the area for a night or two--you don't get that rich from working children's parties, I thought. While Riita was busy in the bathroom I took out my rent-a-cell and called the Mothership to let her know where I was, then tried Christina.

"What do you know about this Dr Praetorius?" I asked her after we'd chatted about her pregnancy for a few. "I just heard he'd been to jail."

"So? That is typical--great men are always persecuted," she said.

"You really think he's a 'great man'?"

"Yes, I think he is the most remarkable man I've ever met in my life. We were his guests at a weekend party at one of his country houses near Lund, didn't I tell you? This was before I even knew myself that I was pregnant, and he just looked at me and told me so. And a few weeks later, I discovered he was right! He predicted that we will have a very important child, a daughter who will be the future savior of all Sweden. He said that she was the reincarnation of a woman he had loved very much, and that we were to name her 'Freyja', so that is what we will do. Oh Hope, isn't it exciting?" She actually sounded serious.

I was like, "But what if it's a boy?"

"Oh no, it will be a girl. He is never wrong with his predictions, you will see. You should have seen the things he knew about others who were there--some were so shocked to hear their secrets spoken aloud that they began to cry. It was amazing, because we Swedes are not usually so emotional like that. Well, you know how I am, for example. But now I am emotional all the time." Yeah, I was beginning to notice. All this was super-worrying. Because Christina wasn't like this normally. I mean, I was the gullible one--she was supposed to be the rational one!

Next I tried Kerry. who answered on the first ring. "Hey, hope I didn't wake you--I have like totally no idea what time it is in Savannah."

But she was like, "Me either, cuz I'm not in Savannah--I just got off a plane at Newark Airport. I have the procedure scheduled for tomorrow."

"Wow!" I was like. "That is so organized of you, girl. I am majorly impressed. Only..."

"Only what?" It was kinda hard to hear her with all the airport racket going on.

"Only, I don't know...are you absolutely, totally, completely sure you want to go through with it?"

"Well, duh," she said. "Of course I'm sure. Can you seriously see me with a baby? Being a single mother like in some stupid after-school special? Whose number did you think you were dialling, anyway?" Yeah, well, duh. I mean I'm not some crazed Right-to-Lifer or anything, it was just that after hearing Christina being all happy and stuff, I was suddenly sort of reluctant to hear about any final decision in the other direction. Without some thought to it, I mean. Also, and I know this was kind of tweaked of me, I was sort of having visions of a little baby version of Christina--and it seemed like a little baby version of Kerry would be equally lovable and, you know, precious or whatever. But Kerry was right, of course--this was her I was talking to, for crying out loud, the only person I knew who'd impulse-bought her college education. Somebody was tapping on the door--I opened it and Alex was standing just outside. He had changed his shirt, and the new one had purple folk art all over it. Over it he was wearing a camera and had somehow managed to cram three ear-pods into his two ears. Unless he had a third and I'd missed one. Anyway, there were three wires going up to them.

"Time to meet the heathens," he said.

"Where are you, anyway?" Kerry yelled in my ear.

"In Finland, in a place called Pauanne. I think you'd like it here--every third word ends in 'Ma'. But I gotta go now. Best of luck, hon!"

"No more 'Ma' jokes for me after tomorrow, bitch! I'll call you when it's over." How I missed Kerry. Actually, I missed being a bitch, too, I was thinking as Riita and I crossed the parking lot with Alex. Instead of some goggle-eyed grinning tourist, I mean. I was wearing my glasses, my flip-flops (a giant mistake), my only clean(ish) jeans, and a short pink and olive-drab polka-dot print dress and was feeling like a total dork in them. It was time I got back in touch with my inner bitch again, I decided. Only--it wasn't me who was just about to do that. Surprise, surprise, it was Riita.

I guess I should have seen the signs. She'd been really unhappy with Erkki pretty much from the get-go--I mean it was obviously not a healthy relationship for either of them, to be fair. They both had like really different life-goals or whatever--she wanted to play house, he wanted to have sex with porn stars. Plus she was a total control freak and had been forced to sort of give it all up first to Dr P and then to "Mr Alex" in the planning and decision-making departments that day, so I guess it was natural that the girl would go wild once she felt she was sort of on vacation. And, as I was about to find out, when Finnish girls go wild, they don't hit the Esc key.

There was an old white Isuzu Trooper parked between a rust-red VW bus and a Toyota Hi-Ace, and a bunch of guys about my age were unloading musical equipment out of the back of it. One of them spotted us and came over to say hi. "I'm Kimmo," he told us in pretty good English. He had short blonde hair, a really nice tan, and was wearing a bright yellow T-Shirt that had an elaborate 'Edrian Sun Cycle' logo on it. He looked a little like Sting, except younger and a lot more serious. "Those are the other guys in my band, Tri-Logic. We are naming ourselves after the Kingston Wall album, you know it? Over there is Kaari, Timo, and Pol, the Hindu guy." We waved. Kimmo walked with us carrying his keyboard-case and flirting seriously with Riita--who flirted seriously back. Alex, as usual, was on his cell, which left me pretty much alone to listen to the two of them chatter away in Finnish--every now and then one of them would stop and translate. Every time either of them did this, I swear to God, Riita giggled, a noise I had only heard come out of her before at the Madonna Concert (I almost typed 'Cricket' just now--what is happening to me?) Oh well, I was just being like all bitchy because she suddenly had a guy, and I didn't.

"You have never heard Kingston Wall?" Kimmo was saying. "It was the band of Petri Walli, the Finnish Jimi Hendrix, who is dead now. You must hear him, I will give you the CD tonight. He was the greatest guitar-player ever for Finland or even for all of Europe."

And Riita was all like, "Oh, that would be very nice," and giving me liitle pouty wide-eyed looks that I can only describe as 'kittenish'. Ugh. I could tell I was in for a long evening.

The trees in Kaustinen had been pretty much scrub, but Pauanne was in a deep dark wood. There was a trail leading up to the compound that crossed a rickety bridge across a dried-out creek, but Kimmo insisted we go down into the ravine with him first, where "all the cool people" were. Apparently his band and a few others called "Rihmasto", "Ihokas", "Nemesis", and a bunch more whose names I can't remember were stuck playing down here under the bridge, because the main hall in the Pauanne compound (you certainly couldn't call it a 'complex') was being used both for the ceremony and by a more popular band called "Tenhi". Electric lines snaked down from the bridge, and a huge stack of amps and speakers had been set up on a row of folding tables beneath it. "It is good," Kimmo was saying, "Because more people can listen here." But it was bad, at least if you were in flip-flops, because the ground was so rocky and uneven. And because there were mosquitoes everywhere, even in broad daylight, but especially among the trees. Riita had some kind of repellent, but it seemed to only work on Finns. I guess overseas we Yanks just aren't quite repellent enough.

Alex got off his cellphone long enough to help me cross the creek-bed. "Tell me," he said. "This Tuuslar guy--what did he look like?"

"Like a bum," I said crossly. "You know, old. Gray beard, long gray hair. Crazy expression on his face."

So then he was like, "Was he in a wheelchair?"

And I was like, huh? "" What was that about? Just then we were approached by a youngish and not at all bad-looking dark-haired dude carrying a big Canon G2 pro video camera.

"I am Anssi," he said, introducing himself to Alex. "I am making a film of the ceremony." His English was the best I'd heard yet from a Finn.

"Oh right," said Alex. "You're the pagan shaman. This is Hope from America." His cell rang again--a Queen ringtone--and he answered it. Cool. Now I had a guy, too. Well, actually, that sort of depended. On what a "pagan shaman" was, exactly.

"No, I won't be conducting the ritual tonight," Anssi said when I asked him. "That will be done by your Swedish magician friend. But I have translated the words into Finnish for him. I am not really a practicing shaman so much as a recorder. For me, learning about this lore and making films are the interesting part. I am not even sure that magic will work--it is more the traditional heritage for the Finnish people that is important to me. Forgive my English."

"Your English is great. Almost perfect, really." This seemed to cheer him up, and he walked up the hill with the rest of us to Pauanne, telling me more about it. And I gotta say it really is like one of the strangest places I've ever been in my life. For one thing, it wasn't hard to see where the mosquitoes were coming from--there were ponds and pools of standing water everywhere between the rocks as we left the tree-line and crossed the crest of the hill. In the middle of the hilltop was a collection of buildings of loose stone, formerly medieval farmhouses and cottages, some of which had been restored in the last century with Swedish wood-frame and jigsaw shingles. Some were straight, some were rounded, some had been restored traditionally, others whimsically, like there had been a super-clumsy and cheap attempt to create a LOTR theme park. There were round windows with 'elven' wooden frames in the shape of runes, round doors with metal 'serpent hinges', even a replica of a neolithic sauna with a twisting brick chimney. The interior of the great hall looked exactly like a zoo terrarium--the wooden beams were pitched over a miniature landscape of mossy rocks and pools, and a huge worn slab of of stone acted as a stage at one end. I kept expecting to see iguanas. I guess the idea was that Pauanne was supposed to like be growing organically from the rocks and soil around it, like mushrooms or something It was still daytime, and the light streamed in through the huge paneless windows and an enormous vaguely rectangular hole in the roof. So did the mosquitoes.
"Aren't they terrible?" said a loud American voice near me. It belonged to a fat, cheerful-looking black-haired lady in her late forties, who had set up a little camp of folding chairs and drink coolers on the biggest and flattest rock in front of the stage and was slapping at her own shoulders energetically. With her was another woman about ten or fifteen years younger, who had dirty blonde hair and glasses more or less exactly like mine (which was cringingly embarrassing, for some reason--it wouldn't have been so bad if they'd been a different style), and their two "men-folk", who were big, burly, darkly bearded and dressed in medieval Viking garb. Arwen's (the older woman's) husband, who called himself "Eldred Thorsson", but whose real name, she later told me, was "Harvey", was even wearing hand-made chain-mail in spite of the heat. Which, to be fair, was considerably less here in the woods and was actually about to plunge quite a bit during the evening ahead. We introduced ourselves--the younger couple, who turned out to be from quite near me in Columbia, Maryland, were named Jenn and Robb. So now the cast of characters was rapidly expanding like in a Shakespeare play. I'll do my best to keep them straight for you--I even have a few photos, in some cases. We were also joined by Kimmo (remember him? The Finnish rock singer who looked like Sting} who had deserted his bandmates to follow a very pink and smiling Riita up the hill, the dark, intense-looking Finnish Anssi, taking test pictures of us all with his video-cam and complaining about the lighting, and another Swede, a soul-patched, slightly balding journalist named Bo with a long back pig-tail, who was wearing a sort of white pirate-shirt with magical symbols on it and wooden clogs. He and Anssi seemed to be old friends (or maybe enemies, it was hard to tell) and sporadically kept us informed of what was going on.

"That will be our altar," Anssi said, for example, pointing his camera at a rounded, polished plank of wood on the stone stage. "It is called 'Tapio's table'--it is made from flattened pine. We call such surfaces 'elk-eaten'." Meanwhile Arwen pulled cold Lapin Kulta beers out of one of her coolers and handed them around to everyone. Before the four Americans drank theirs they raised the cans and said a prayer together that went, "Hail Aegir! Husband of Ran, ale-brewer. gatherer of sea-gold, father of the nine waves, feast-friend of the Aesir and the drowned, and keeper of the great kettle!", something they did every time they drank another, I kid you not. Being a pagan looked like a lot of hard work to me, kind of like being a nun.

"Harvey--Eldred, I mean--wanted to come here for our summer vacation," Arwen (and I'm guessing that wasn't her given name, either) started telling me, with that instant intimacy fellow-tourists overseas seem to assume with each other. "It's always someplace crazy with him. And of course we have Aasatru meetings all over the Northwest year-round. We live in Seattle. I have a terrible time taking time off from my work. I'm a lawyer--family law and mediation. Where are your kids, Jenn?" Jenn, it turned out, was an online sex chat-room hostess. The pay sucked, she said, but it allowed her to work at home and keep an eye on her kids. We agreed it was much better for them than day-care.

"Oh, we left them in Kaustinen for the night," she told Arwen, "Well, if you can ever call it night here--with Laurel. You met her yesterday, she's here with a few other Deadheads. Mickey Hart was at the big festival there last week. We just wanted to get away and, you know, party."

"Is she one of your Kindred?"

"Oh no, but we've done a 'bloat' together. She's Thelema. Actually, that's how Robb and I met years ago--on an OTO forum."

"Aw, that's such a sweet story. We used to be Thelema, too." Arwen turned to me. "How about you, Hope? Are you a practicing heathen?"

I was like, "No, I'm just here researching my PhD."

Behind me, Anssi and Bo were having a quiet argument in Finnish and Swedish, occasionally using an English word or phrase that I could understand, like "sh-t" or "soul retrieval healing", that kept getting louder and louder until the rest of us just shut up and stared at them. Harvey caught my eye and shrugged ruefully--he was, his wife had told me, a 'vitki' and a 'runester', which meant that he carried around a little pouch full of runes carved into what looked like mah-jong tiles, which he would cast predictively like dice before making any decision, no matter how trivial. Unlike the younger guy, Robb, who just seemed sort of innocently hebephrenic, I thought Harvey's black beard and perpetual scowl gave him a sort of sinister, villainous look. "What are they arguing about?" I finally asked Riita.

Kimmo answered instead. "They are fighting whether the ritual shall be done in the ancient Finnish or else the Bockian tradition." I expected Riita to pipe up with her usual pro-Finnish opinion, but instead she just kept her mouth shut and stared adoringly at Kimmo. Harvey interrupted, offering to settle the dispute with a rune-casting, but Anssi angrily told him that runes were not part of Finnish tradition. Bo erupted with another flurry of Swedish, then stamped off and got on his cell. Alex, still on his, came up to Anssi and tugged him out the main door.

"What does Bockian mean?" I asked, scratching furiously at my arm. I was getting eaten alive.

"I will tell you his history," Kimmo said, "But you must both come back down the hill with me to the music place. I am needed to do a sound-check, I think."

As we left, Arwen called out after me, "Put some toothpaste on those bites, sweetie. Nothing else works." Once outside, we were joined again by Anssi, who fumed all the way back to the ravine, breaking his silence only to disagree loudly with whatever Kimmo was saying. I started to pretty much give up on him at that point--he was reminding me more and more of a really bad date. You know, the intense, seething intellectual type who attacks an ex at a dance when he spots her dancing with another guy (that actually happened to me once. Plus he would ask for other girls' numbers in front of me). Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, here's a quick capsule summary of the life of Ior Bock,who, Kimmo said, was the greatest man in Finland, from the things the two of them said, plus what I learned later from websites. Like, for example, which, however, I think Anssi may have actually helped edit. This guy Bock was a Finlander-Swede who had first trained as an actor and then like a lot of failed would-be actors in Hollywood, ended up being a tour guide. In his case, at a Helsinki fortress and tourist attraction for 12 years, which sort of gave him a chance to refine his rap, I guess, which became a family 'oral history' that was later made into a book called "Bock's Saga". In it, he claimed to be the descendant of an ancient family whose lineage reached back to the time of the Norse Adam and Eve, who he called 'Frej' (the 'first Bock') and 'Freja (the 'first Svan'). He claimed they were born in a kind of Ice Age tropical paradise in southeast Finland created by warm winds of the Gulf Stream and that they and their descendants lived to be hundreds of years old by drinking their own sperm and vaginal fluids through straws (ewwww! I swear I am so not making this up). Anyway, Bock started a sperm-drinking and yoga commune in his ancestral home of Sibbo (or Sippoo or "Gumbostrand"--they all three got into a long argument about this), and convinced his followers to excavate a "family mountain" nearby for buried treasure. There they found a sort of holy chamber inside with a series of tunnels, which he named the "Tomb [or "Temple"] of Lemminkainen" but Bock ran out money before he could excavate further, and the Finnish government (Kimmo claimed) then took the mountain away from him before he could make any more discoveries that would upset the official Finnish view of history. This was in 1991. Then in 1999, Bock was mysteriously attacked in the street and his spine was severed by the knife-thrusts of a "professional assassin", and now he's a paraplegic in a wheelchair.

Duh, I thought. So that's why Alex was asking me about the wheelchair--he obviously thought this Bock guy might be "Tuuslar". I admit the description kind of fit, but the old bum in the park was definitely not a paraplegic. Plus he seemed at least 10 years younger than Bock, who was born in 1942. Of course, in his "Saga", Bock claims all kinds of miracle cures from sperm-drinking, particularly his own (again, totally gross!), which he apparently calls sauna-solmu in Finnish. Anyway, the point of Bo's tirade, according to Kimmo, was that he felt that the ceremony of raising Safe-T-Man from the dead should have been held in Sippoo at Leminkainen's Tomb--Anssi, on the other hand, thought the whole Bock thing was just typically crazy Swedish crap and that the Norse gods had no place in the ritual at all. Which didn't seem very smart politics to me, considering this was supposed to be an Asatru "folkmoot" to begin with. But what did I know?

Not enough to walk and chew gum at the same time, anyway, as things turned out. Down in the dark wooded ravine--or "Music Gulch", as I had now begun to think of it--a smallish crowd had gathered to listen to "Ihokas", which turned out to consist of just a single musician, a guy so shy that he hid behind his synths and speakers while he played what Kimmo informed us was 'drone music'. This was endless loops of what sounded like a shortwave radio being badly tuned in, and was painfully, almost excruciatingly boring. Which was the point, I guess. A number of fires had been lit inside oil-drums--the Finns are sensibly paranoid about forest fires and enforce campfire regulations very thoroughly--but these only seemed to be attracting even more mosquitoes. Most of the crowd appeared to be made up of other musicians and their girlfriends, along with a sprinkling of younger pagans and few kids. There was also the typical old Finnish drunk--at least one always seems to show up at every social event there--in this case wearing only army combat boots and a pair of graphically soiled boxer shorts. Anssi gloweringly wandered off to film all this, while Riita and Kimmo downed two tabs of E and then got to work on a joint, both of which I peevishly declined. By now I was getting really sick of waving and slapping at myself, plus I was getting a headache from all the droning, both musical and mosquitoid, so I decided to walk back to the parking lot. Big mistake. I misjudged a step from one wet rock to another in my flip-flops, slipped, and badly turned my ankle. In fact, at first I thought I'd broken it.
Very sweetly, two of Kimmo's band-mates, Timo and Pol, more or less carried me back to the parking lot, followed by Kimmo himself and the by now extremely giggly Riita, who shoved my butt up the steep step into the Pace Arrow. When I had a look in the bathroom mirror, I almost fainted. I was so badly bitten that I really did look like Safe-T-Man's insulting name for me on his blog: "Strawberry". I looked seriously, embarrassingly blotchy and awful--no wonder Anssi hadn't been more interested. I felt so miserable and desperate, I actually took Arwen's advice and dabbed a little toothpaste on a few of them. And amazingly, it worked! The itching stopped almost straight away. So basically, I went around for the next week covered in Retardex. Which was really pretty appropriate, all things considered.

When I hobbled out of the bathroom and into the little back bedroom to look for some Nikes and socks to put on, I found the two of them already in it with most of their clothes off. They were writhing around on the bed and moaning and groaning just like in a porno flick. Kimmo paused long enough to make a sort of "come join us" motion (that made what, like the third of the day? I just felt so wanted), and Riita panted, "We love life. Oh Hoop, I want to share everything with you." Seriously, she really said , "We love life"--you just can't make that kind of stuff up. I smiled and waved at them and went outside. Incredibly enough, this was not the last proposition like that I was gonna get before the night was over--though, with my luck, it was the most attractive. The waaay most attractive, as it turned out.

Continued here...

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