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Lajityypillistä käyttäytymistä (excerpt)


Sami Hilvo

Sami Hilvo (b. 1967) is a Finnish author, translator and interpreter. Questioning and new perspectives are at the heart of his literature.
Hilvo’s first novel Viinakortti (The Liquor Ration Card) was published in 2010 and got nominated for the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize. It was translated into German in 2012, and a play based on the novel got its Finnish premiere in 2013.
His second novel Rouva S. (Madame S.) came out in 2012 and takes place in the 21st century Tokyo as well as in Kyoto a thousand years ago. It was nominated for the Tulenkantaja Literature Prize.
Hilvo's third novel Pyhä peto (Holy Beast) won the Tampere City Literary Award in 2016.
His fourth novel, Lajityypillistä käyttäytymistä (Species-typical Behaviour) was published in 2020.
Hilvo has lived Tokyo and Warsaw, Poland, and now resides in Helsinki. He is currently working on his fifth novel.

Species-typical behaviour (excerpt)

Sami Hilvo

Blood was spattered over the floor, the walls, the clock face on the wall and the hands turning on it. The clock was missing its protective glass. The hands pointed at four o’clock. It was either afternoon or early morning. The ceiling seemed spotless, but there too dark dots had sprayed around like a fragmented archipelago that would expand into crimson continents at the slightest touch. Blood had drawn the neighbourhood dogs onto the street under the windows. They were listening to the screaming coming from inside with their ears perked, whining, drooling and scratching the concrete wall, but to no avail.
In the middle of it all were two people, as if in the eye of a storm. One of them was secretly praying. He had not prayed since his childhood, but now all powers, both mundane and heavenly, needed to be harnessed for the upcoming battle.
The other wasn’t praying. She was the one who was screaming. The sound came from somewhere deep inside, from something primal. It had nothing to do with civilization. The blood was her blood. When she was told to push, she stopped pushing and screamed. When she was told to breathe, she stopped breathing until she had to draw breath again in order to continue screaming. If she had been told to live, she would have deliberately given up her life, but would have screamed her lungs out before that. To everyone’s great relief, she finally lost consciousness and fell silent.
In the hallway outside windowed double doors stood one half of the first-year students. The other half had been dragged outside to crispy autumn air. Those recovering in the back yard of the hospital had been wondering about the great number and brightness of the stars. It was early morning. They had displayed weakness and emotion inappropriate for future doctors, but the silent infinity of the sky had a way of comforting their young, bruised egos. A new day would bring a series of awkward questions each of them was expected to answer. They would have time to breathe in the night for one more moment before the day would dawn in the eastern horizon.
The students who remained in the hallway were pale and quiet. Doubt had arisen in their minds: how could the decision to become a doctor, the support from parents, the admiration of neighbours and the demanding but satisfying studies have led to this? The fall from arrogant omnipotence was merciless. Those wobbling in the hallway didn’t know about the stars, but every one of them was certain that those who had been dragged outside were losers and those who remained inside stood victorious; that now was not the time to give up; that now was the time to swallow the tears and vomit. Later, the group would be nicknamed The Seven Bright Candles. They were the future and hope of the nation. They were straight, white and resembled one another. They would swallow anything.
The priest had been woken from his sleep at the most dire hour of need. They always did that. At last minute. The priest got up. This time, the wet abscess in the crook of his arm had broken and leaked through the bandage. The priest called his abscesses stigmas. He changed the bandage, pulled his cassock right on top of his pajamas and left to deliver absolution for the mother and an emergency baptism for the baby without regard for things such as the mother being Lutheran or the father’s excommunication latae setentiae.
After arriving in the delivery room, the priest demanded names from the father-to-be – any girl’s or boy’s name, as the fetus’ gender was still unknown – but the father cursed the priest and the church loudly in an unknown, crude language the Protestants undoubtedly used in their heretic masses. A wave of nausea swept over the priest. The priest ignored the father, turned towards the mother and spoke the words of the sacrament as required by his office. After those words, the baby sprang out of its unconscious mother. The first miracle happened.
“I baptise thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” the priest continued, but his voice cracked at the word “Son”, and by “Holy Spirit” it was nothing more than a wheeze.
Unlike other animals, man wasn’t born from darkness into light, but from light into darkness. But this baby smiled, cooed happily and looked around like they knew what they were doing. The priest thought the baby’s smile was diabolical, that its cooing sounded like a magic spell and that its gaze was calculating. Under the priest’s eyes was something frightening and tempting; simply put, satanic. Despite its lack of energy, the priest’s litany split the baby’s world in two and divided the halves into good and evil. He forgot to say amen, because the only certain thing was that he really wasn’t certain about anything.
The priest’s shaking hand splashed distilled water from a brown medical bottle all over the place and didn’t stop until the midwife stopped his hand. The midwife knew what this was about. Everybody knew, but because the priest and the hospital’s medical director knew each other from boyhood, no one dared to interfere.
The human baby who had been adopted as a permanent member of the Catholic Church was still attached to its umbilical cord. The other end of the cord led to the mother and the placenta inside her. The cord began to tighten, pulling the baby back inside. Would they have to relive the nightmare of several hours as if it had been rewound? Would the birth be repeated over and over again, in and out, in and out, until there was nothing left of the mother and it? Or would it return to its mother’s womb and remain there?
The priest was so greatly distressed that he forgot to pray.
Another miracle happened.
The baby grabbed the umbilical cord, stuffed a piece of it into its mouth, pulled at it with its plump little arms and bit it off. The midwife had never seen such teeth on a newborn, but dared not say anything, especially to the priest, as there was no way of knowing what he would do in his unstable state of mind.
Having lost their power, the rest of the umbilical cord and the placenta fell out of the mother, who was still in a blessed state of unconsciousness.
The son of man had been born. The son of man laughed out loud upon meeting his father’s gaze.
The new father laughed back in relief. He counted the baby’s fingers – ”jeden, dwa, trzy, cztery, pięć, sześć, siedem, osiem, dziewięć, dziesięć” – and toes – “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.” Dziesięć palców i dziesięć palców u stóp. Ten fingers and ten toes, a large head, flailing limbs and a body like a fat maggot’s. The new father had seen and heard babies before, but this one didn’t scream like the others. This one would become an easy child: one who would always sleep when supposed to, eat whatever was given, grow up at the right pace and wander along in their life full of cheerful wonder. The father already envied his child. Even the child’s negative age and adolescence would be like a walk in the park. This child would know what it wants. This child wouldn’t have to waste its time on searching and fumbling. Maybe the child would become a sea captain like its father. For the father, the child’s gender didn’t matter. He hadn’t imagined in advance the sorts of things fathers usually imagine – him and the child playing with dolls, playing football, riding horses or building things with building sets or anything the child would want. The only thing that bothered the father was his own job, which constantly took him far beyond the oceans and to the edge of the world. Well, they would play with dolls, play football, go riding and build things with building sets every time the father was ashore. He didn’t know that he would be ahead of his time. – To chłopiec! “Se on poika!” “It’s a boy!” the father shouted in his loud voice and in three languages. He understood that those specific words were a learned reaction. Perhaps he had learned them from the movies. Then, a broad smile appeared on his face. The father was indeed proud of his son. He had demanded, pleaded, blackmailed, prayed, threatened and asked most politely to be allowed to be present at childbirth, but no. His wife had clearly articulated that during childbirth, he might experience such a shock that it would draw the married couple apart instead of bringing them closer together. She had clearly been quoting some magazine again, but after things took a worrisome turn inside the delivery room, he had been called inside.
She often quoted magazines, and details would be conveniently left out when she translated selected bits for her husband. Fundamentally important words were forgotten or got replaced, as if by accident, with other words with opposite meanings. All the colours of the world became literally black and white, every hue a different shade of grey.
He had learned to tell when his wife was saying something she was thinking spontaneously and when she had learned something by heart. The headline of the article she had quoted had probably been something along the lines of Men sow, women reap. It would surely be somewhere in her scrapbooks that he wasn’t allowed to touch and couldn’t yet read in any case. She had started subscribing newspapers and magazines as soon as they had moved to Töölö. Their flat had to be called an apartement, not a flat. He had a hunch that the magazines, Töölö and apartement were somehow vaguely related to each other, but he let the matter be.
She had many topics that she followed. She had a separate scrapbook for each topic, or several if there were many articles: Sylvi Salome Kekkonen – author, wife and mother; European royalty; Accidental explosions; Best meat dishes; the Miss Finlands of all time;
Lobotomies and penectomies and many others. Later, the scrapbooks would cover such perennial topics as The style of Mrs. Tellervo Koivisto, the Bermuda Devil’s Triangle and The most popular television series of all time. He was certain that if there was a fire at home, the first thing his wife would save would be the scrapbooks.

After the mother had been taken to the ward and woken up, she was offered the swaddled baby. She was congratulated for having a son. Upon hearing this, she turned her head away, folded her arms tightly and demanded to see the medical director. The medical director brought with him the priest – not for the mother or child, but for himself. These were clearly matters of the spiritual world of which the medical director – a modern man – knew nothing about. “You’ve had a son... a healthy son!” the medical director congratulated her from behind his never-ending smile.
“I gave birth to a girl,” Ritva continued. “You have switched the babies. Where is my daughter?”
“In his great wisdom, God has given you... a son!” the priest said and started carrying out his duties. His state of mind was already much more predictable.
“Make him a girl.”
“A girl?” asked the medical director and priest in unison, though they had heard correctly. “Everybody wants a son.”
“I beg you.”
“We have the same God, after all.”
“You’ve got knives, scissors, saws, needles and threads here, goddammit!”
“Unfortunately, our hospital does not...” The medical director cut off his sentence. He was a discreet man.
“I have already suffered enough.”
“What God has created, man must not...” started the priest, but also cut off his sentence after realising he would have had to lie.
“I don’t want this child, then.”
The baby’s father interrupted.
“If I may suggest something...” Bruno began.
“Onpa sinulla omistajan elkeet!” Ritva hissed back in Finnish.
Must be the hormones, Bruno thought.
“Oh my God, Father and Son!” “Take everything away,” Ritva said and switched back to English as tears rolled uncontrollably down her pale cheeks.
Yes, the hormones.
“Could we put the child’s gender in the birth certificate as...” Bruno started cautiously, as if treading on thin ice.
“A fucking stupid idea!” laughed Ritva with her eyes like narrow slits. There were no signs of tears. Ritva was smiling. She was upset at the attempts to fool her. Did Bruno think she was stupid?
“Maybe just temporarily?” Bruno continued, trying to sound even more cautious and conciliatory.
“I don’t want to. I can’t!”
By now Ritva was laughing out loud, but there was no joy, schadenfreude, relief, nervousness or mockery in her laughter. Her laughter was pure rage.
In the early days of their relationship, that had been confusing. Ritva would burst into loud laughter at times when she had the least reason to do so. When Bruno had accidentally knocked down a full glass of wine on the front of Ritva’s summer skirt, Ritva had frozen in place and started cackling. The wine had been cheap, deep red and very sweet. Or when a prostitute in Katajanokka tore the wig off Ritva’s head, claiming it to be hers while Bruno did nothing, Ritva laughed. Or when a familiar but drunken man boxed Ritva’s ears and Bruno again did nothing, Ritva laughed. Bruno said and did or did not say and did not do things just to keep Ritva from laughing. Bruno often made mistakes, causing laughter to ring out loud.
“Just as a first measure?”
Despite his amicability, Bruno did not give up easily.
The medical director and the priest looked at the baby’s father. The medical director and the priest looked at the baby’s mother, who was now laughing so hard she was in danger of falling out of bed. The nurse who had offered the baby for the mother to hold had taken him back to the safety of the cradle and was now raising the sides of the mother’s bed. She suggested limb restraints, but the medical director was opposed to the idea. He wanted to lead his hospital using modern methods. The medical director and the priest – men of the body and the soul – looked at each other and nodded as if by mutual agreement. The priest left the room and dashed across the yard with the hem of his cassock fluttering. It was a most beautiful day. The priest’s chapel lay in the shadow of poplar trees and was comfortable – warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The priest felt great gratitude towards his God. He also felt the contents of the blessed stigma running down from the crook of his arm towards his wrist. Would he have to learn to become left-handed?