Katariina, by Marisha Rasi-Koskinen
First I hear the sound. It’s a repeated sharp click followed by two rhythmic thumps. Click thump thump like the soft drum of a heart. When I see her, I see two furiously treading legs, around which the hems of a skirt are entwined. Hair that sways to the rhythm of the heart and descends in a ball. Hair behind which the sun gleams.
Click thump thump.
The legs stop. The skipping rope hits the wooden surface of the landing with a single empty blow and stops at the toes. The rhythm remains. Thump, thump, I think, though the sound is gone now. She looks up and I see her face. I see the serious eyes, the freckled cheekbones and narrow lips. There is something familiar about her, it is just that I do not yet know what.
“You,” she says. “Where did you spring from?"
She doesn’t seem surprised. On the contrary, she talks as if she had been prepared for my arrival. As if she knew me, though we’ve never met before.
I draw my breath.
"Me? What do you mean?"
She laughs. Her laugh is strange, only slightly more of a laugh than a hiccup. She sounds like a little girl, though a rather big one. Too big to be skipping with a rope in a pleated skirt and with scabs on her knees. Too big to speak familiarly to strangers, especially those older than herself. Too big to lick each finger one by one after slipping something from the pocket of her pleated skirt.
"I've seen you before. Tell me who you are."
She isn’t laughing any more. Not only that: she is completely serious. Her hiccups have turned into inexpressiveness in the time it takes to blink an eye or take half a breath. To open a mouth to speak. To intend to. When I say my name, she repeats it as if she knew it in advance.
"Katariina" she says. "You're probably eighteen now."
"That's good. I’m Margareetta. Thirteen."
Then she offers a sweet. I take the sticky yellow oval. It puts up a little resistance before agreeing to free itself from the sweaty palm of her hand. The sweet is fluffy and rough, so sugary that it hurts one’s cheeks.
We have introduced ourselves, exchanged the codes that are sufficient to bring us together during the weeks to follow.
We are Margareetta and Katariina, in that order.
The rules are simple.
"We’ll only meet at your place,” she says. "You can’t come to our place, and don’t come looking for me. I’m the one who decides when we meet, I’ll come when I can and if I don’t it means that I couldn’t. Don’t ask any questions, you don’t need to know. I will take care of knowing and telling you what you need. Got it? "
The rhythm of her speech is like a poem. A slow monologue rehearsed in front of the mirror, or a cheat sheet from a civics test. A preliminary guidance lecture for youth camp participants.
Margareetta does not wait for my reply. Or what I would say if I did reply, for I don’t. I have known her for five minutes and I already know that it is useless to resist her.
"I’ve done my skipping now, haven’t I, Katariina."
I must have closed my eyes, as I didn’t see her face turning into a smile. Yet there she is, smiling, rolling up the skipping rope and throwing it over the railing. She smiles again. I see the rope fall and open up. The sun brushes the plastic surface. My heart stops. It’s a thirty foot drop.
And later, many hours or days or weeks later, we sit on the roof of the house, on either side of the chimney, with the cooling bricks under our bare legs. Behind Margareetta the sun dazzles me so that I can’t see her properly. We sit with every muscle tensed, every nerve-end receptive, in the pit of our stomachs a fist that presses and of which we are unable to say whether it feels good or horrible.
From the roof we can see far away. The cars. The trees. The dogs. The people.
Margareetta speaks first.
"How many of them are actually thinking," she asks, "those people down there?"
"Not very many," I suggest.
"None of them. They’re all just props. They’re there to make us feel lonely. In the right kind of way."
I look at the props far below, props that walk and run, props that stumble, cycle or stagger. Pee against a tree trunk, if they happen to be dogs. Shriek and fly up to the branch of a tree, if they’re birds. How real it all looks. The sound effects carry upwards faintly: a cry, a laugh, the shouting of children.
"The sounds are a bit too quiet," I say. Margaret nods gravely.
"If you fell from here," she says, "it would be a thirty foot drop."
"We’d land with a thump in the middle of the stage.”
Margaret laughs. She looks at the thirty foot drop and continues almost as if in a dream.
"If you lost your balance you’d end up sliding down the drain pipe."
"It would give way."
"Which way would you fall?"
"Legs first, then head. Or maybe head first. The head is heavier."
"It wouldn’t look good," she says. After that she doesn’t say anything for a long time. And then, at last: "I wonder what mother would say when she found you lying on the ground.”
"I don’t know. Cry, probably."
"Or maybe she wouldn’t."
Margareetta gets up and stands on the ladder. She stands with her legs apart and her hands outstretched as though she were trying to hold the sky in her arms. Her long shirt flutters. Her long hair streams.
"I wouldn’t just cry. If you were to fall, I would fly after you." She closes her eyes. "I’d fly so hard and so fast that I’d be able to catch you before you hit the ground."
I believe it. Margareetta always takes hold of me before I fall. If she wants to.
She’s a bird. Quite soon she will take flight. Quite soon she will fall. I don’t dare to look, but hug the chimney tighter and close my eyes. Then I remember the skipping rope. How it fell. How it opened like a cry. For a moment I think she is the skipping rope that fell. Or not her. I am.
Until she laughs again. Opens her eyes on the roof ridge.
"What about trying an experiment," she says, and I know that soon we will start to play again. "Let’s stage a fall. It would be great."
"It’s boring here, isn’t it,” Margareetta says, slipping another sweet into her mouth. To me she no longer offers one.
"Let's go to your place, Katariina."
We do that. We go to our place.
In the coming weeks we sometimes meet in other places too. In the city. At the harbour. Sometimes in a garden, in a park or under a bridge. Most often however, we meet at my place. At hers we don’t. I go there only once, and uninvited.
Our place. Soon, she starts to talk like that about my home.
Why did I obey? In this, and then in everything else as well? I simply obeyed. She was one of those people who are obeyed. The people who handle others like puppets and make them do things for them. Besides, if I really think about it, I wouldn’t have had anything better to do.
Katariina, by Marisha Rasi-Koskinen, Burning Bridge 2011
translated from Finnish by David McDuff