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The women open my door shyly, awkwardly. They look inside, see the dark patina of the timbers, the stark contrast with the outside, which has grayed and cracked with age. I cannot see my surface, but when they open the door, I see how the years have treated Ahava next to me. Of Kiulukka, I catch a glimpse. Ahava is the older one. His eaves have dropped at one corner. The logs have sighed big, yawning rips in themselves. I feel my own rips. I feel them like I feel the spider spinning her net in the second highest joint of the eastern corner, like I feel the ants scurrying down the southern wall.

“Why are there three of these placed so oddly?” one of the girls asks. My dear girl, I could tell you my story, should you know how to listen.      


 

The story is mine, but easier told through others. I could start it with Maria. She was the first; we were both young and shy. She spent a summer and a winter with me. I courteously courted her, she replied kindly—we had all the time in the world.

I remember when we first made love. She lit the stove shyly and took a long time to bring the heat up, but when she finally climbed to the highest bench, I burned hotter than ever. We learned from each other: we learned to love and to lust.

Ahava was a son of the spring. Maria carried him inside her, and when the time of her labor came, I warmed the steam room up a notch. Ahava was wrapped in clean linen like Finns before him, like Finns after. He was a perfect child—toes like supple roots of aspen, pudgy limbs that already hinted at grown logs' burly strength.

I was content, but Maria was changed by Ahava's birth. “I thought he would take more after me,” she said, and I could not understand what she meant. Ahava was in his core his mother's image, but she would look only at the surface. She could not look at the child without bursting into tears. She only lasted a month. She left the baby to me saying she could not live like me, in one place all her life. When she left, she left running, crying. She left without looking back.

Ahava turned to look after her. That's where he still points. He stayed in the yard and I taught him best I could, but he never listened much. He was sturdy, all right, rooted firmly in one place. I don't think he ever moved since Maria left, even though I tried to tell him it is all right to run around a little, find a place of his own. He was never much for words, much for play, and I was content just to have him near me.

Though one may be content as a father, I cannot say that extinguished the longing I had for a woman. Some years rolled by, and I met Aada. She was of a different make. Fickle, I would say. She came to me whilst running from elsewhere, stepped in like she owned me, carried the firewood before even saying hello. She lit the fire in the stove and scorched me before stepping in the steam.

We only had a couple of weeks. Aada barely bothered to put on a dress, and I was smoldering the whole time. Our love blazed every night and sometimes in the mornings too. And just as swiftly as she'd come, she left.

She returned the next winter with a bundle. “It is yours,” she shouted through the cracked door while leaving Kiulukka in the yard. She turned around, didn't bother to look back. Left Kiulukka with my longing. Do you know what it is like to long for someone for years, for decades, my darling girl? You are so young.

And so we stayed here, me, Ahava, and Kiulukka. I taught them best I could, and they grew as they pleased. Our kind does not talk so much; it was enough to be near each other.


 

That is the story of us three, but my story does not stop there. If you knew how to listen, I would tell you about Saara, Saara most of all. She was the third one, a whole other kind. She didn't burn as hot as Aada, but she didn't burn out within the year. Saara knew what she wanted. We got to know each other slowly; we circled each other without either daring to make a move. You know I'm speaking figuratively about moving, don't you?

We circled each other, for I had been burnt so many times, and Saara was slow to warm to me. It took weeks before either was ready. I waited for her to make the move.

She kindled the fire and sat on the lowest bench to wait. She fed the fire slowly, first with small branches, then with thicker and thicker woods, all whilst talking to me. When I was ready, she climbed to the highest bench, pressed her hips towards me and enjoyed herself. If you could understand speech, I'd be embarrassed to tell you this. You're such a child still.

The bathing lasted for a long time, and we were both exhausted afterwards.

Saara left after a mere few days. “I will be back,” she said. “You have the children, after all.” And unlike anyone else, she came back before the year was out.

Time is different for creatures of her kind. She said she'd missed me so much, been away for so long, while my longing had barely had time to catch fire.

After her return, Saara stayed for a year. She gave me Syksy that autumn. Soon after giving birth, she became restless. “I will be back,” she said when she went. She took Syksy with her.

She returned alone. I asked about Syksy; she said she would tell me later. She almost had me mad. I had been cold for so long, I wouldn't kindle, though she teased me with birch bark and pine cones. I wouldn't heat up even when she got the blaze going. The cold seeps into you when someone does such awful things, you cannot drive it away with a stove.

Saara finally gave in for the evening, understood that talking must come before bathing. “People need good saunas,” Saara said. “I found Syksy a home.”

I was used to the children staying with me, but Saara eyed me strictly. “There isn't anything for them here. A human may need a sauna, but the sauna needs humans as well.”

When I looked at Ahava and Kiulukka, I had to admit she was right, even though it broke my heart. Ahava and Kiulukka had taken root twistedly: the foundations were poor, the corners crooked. In Kiulukka, the joint style goes from dovetail to double-notch and back again. Ahava had never bothered to fasten his eaves properly, though I told him time and time again. They were burnt out, never lit. That was the first time I admitted it.

“I will find the children families who love them,” said Saara, and she left with the children one by one. She came back every year, told me stories about Syksy and the rest: Kontio, Osma, Vilja. They went to good houses, she always said. She'd been visiting. She told me of the families bathing in them, and I asked whether the roofs had grown strong to withstand winters' snows, whether the firewalls were sturdy and the stovepipes straight.

I once asked Saara whether I was the only one for her. “I love you,” she answered. “I will always come back.”

I do not want you to think of me as a whiner, mind you, young lady. I do not want to say it was enough for me, for you would think that I settled for second best. What she said was the most I could hope for. Time is different for me and I cared not what she did on her adventures. I barely knew to miss her when she was gone, and whilst she was out there, she whipped herself into such a frenzy that I could feel the warmth deep in my firewall.

Time is different for her kind. Saara sometimes asked whether I see the change, whether she looked less attractive. I did not see that, I thought she looked the same as always. I do not tell your kind apart by looks, but by thoughts, feelings. “You must see the grey in my hair,” Saara nagged, but I do not understand such things. She changed of course, like people change when the years go by: like a tree adds year ring after year ring, the mind grows thicker, more tangible, and that is what you first see. But the heartwood, the pith stay the same.

Eventually there came years when she came more rarely. On the last time she said she had something to tell me. She was out of breath, barely able to light the stove, much less to climb the higher benches. She spoke words I could not follow, but she meant that she was rotting inside, and it was much too late to cleanse her. She smelled of mold and death, and her pith was dark and dying.

I begged her to stay, but she said she'd go elsewhere to die.

“Let me be with you,” I begged. “I will wash you, as has always been done. A Finn should be washed in the sauna one last time.”

“But one should not die there,” said Saara, “and this will not be cured by tar, spirits, nor you.” And so we bathed together for one last time, slowly and gently, resting in the afterglow for a long, long time. When Saara left, she looked back and I saw the tears in her eyes before she shut my door behind her, I felt her hand resting on my handle a long time whilst she braced herself to let go. I called to her, but she did not come back in, and eventually she loosened her grip and went.

I had not felt such longing before, not even after Aada. You start to wonder whether it would be a bad thing to burn out. You would not have to think so, care so. But who will remember Saara, if I burn out? Maybe Syksy will, Syksy and the others, but I cannot be sure. Perhaps I still am a little bit bitter that she took them all, even if I know it was for their own good.


 

After Saara there have been others, of course. Girls, who come and go, bathe for a night maybe. Women, who tell stories of the Towers of Eihvel and the Walls of Perlin. They talk about what they felt inside them the first time they looked at the magnificent towers, and I know I am a poor substitute. “You have a good heart,” they say. “You are such a sweet old thing.” Then they go back to their churches and palaces, and I am left wondering what it means to scrape the skies. Those girls are not for me.

Lately, they've wandered here more and more seldom. It is good the way it is. Sometimes, when one comes, I talk about Saara. The women are kind, sympathetic even, but they won't stay to bathe if they hear my story. They will listen politely, they will gently pat my sooty walls, and they will quickly run away to find something bigger, something better. Someone more cheerful. Perhaps it is better like that. I am getting old by now.

I am already so used to being alone. I feel Ahava and Kiulukka next to me. They emit a soothing glow, they do not think much. I have wept for them; that sorrow is not something youth can understand. Nowadays I'm happy if someone strays here and heats the sauna before they leave again, but usually I am all quiet. Fewer and fewer of you understand my kind. You do not have the skills to stop and listen. And perhaps my voice is quieter than it used to be. Perhaps I am just an old heap of molding timber, muttering to myself, imagining us to have this conversation. Perhaps this is how my embers die out a final time.


 

Oh, child, no.

My dear, poor girl. I see it now. I see the veiled eyes you shoot at me, hiding your desire from your friends. You are one of the kind who see, of those who listen. Listen to me now, those times are long past for me. There are others in the world for you. There are big houses and sturdy walls. There are other saunas. If you stay for the night, you and your friends, I will treat you to a long, warm, steamy bath, but nothing more.

You must see my age. My position.

I might even be your grandfather.

 




Inkeri Kontro is a Finnish physicist and short story writer. Her work has previously appeared in Finnish in the magazines Legolas and Kosmoskynä. In her free time, she attempts to learn acrobatics and goes on biking trips.

"The Dying Embers" originally appeared in Finnish in Kosmoskynä 4/2014. The story was translated into English by the author.
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