A father spends the day with his two rambunctious daughters in this short story by Finnish writer Shimo Suntila.
"Daddy,” comes a yell from the bathroom. “There’s a bug in my bathrobe sleeve.” I leave the sandwiches half done and go to check. A daddy long-legs, or a moth? Can’t be a wasp, the yelling would be louder.
“It must have come in the open window last night.” I get to the bathroom and look at the sleeve. “Did it fly off?”
Meri stands on the toilet seat, holding her toothbrush. “No, it’s still inside the sleeve.” I squint: must be a really small bug. I bend closer and see something, a tiny bit of thread, perhaps? And then two enormous antennae peep out. I stare at them, paralysed.
They must be at least two inches long. No, four. No, six. The whole sleeve is pushing about. The Thing must be kitten-sized. At least.
Slowly I open the bathroom window, breathing very quietly, my heart beating in a primitive fear reaction. Then I catch the sleeve with two fingers and move its end first to the window, then outside. I push the window almost closed and carefully draw the sleeve inside. On the other side of the frosted-glass pane something huge spreads its wings and buzzes off.
I shut the window tightly.
Meri spits toothpaste into the basin. “What was that?” I ask, voice trembling, but Meri just rinses.
“Daddy, where’s Snoopy?” Milla asks, coming to the bathroom.
“Who’s Snoopy?” I try to remember the names of their furry toys, but can’t recollect a Snoopy.
“Snoopy’s a bug,” Milla says and starts brushing her teeth. She climbs on the toilet seat next to her little sister. “Get off, you’ve brushed yours already," Milla says and jabs at her sister.
"Daddy, Milla is bothering me,” Meri complains.
“A bug?” I manage to ask.
“We enlarged a bug while you were still sleeping,” Meri says and jumps off the toilet seat.
Milla takes her toothbrush out to speak. “It’s called Snoopy.”
I glance at the window. "Snoopy’s gone out to fly. That’s the right place for him. Remember the rule: wild animals belong outside.”
“Yeah, yeah,” both the girls say. I sigh, my adrenaline high is leveling off and I go back to making breakfast. At least the school holiday has started off with a bang.
I make the sandwiches just like yesterday and hope they’ll do without major grumbling. "Come on, kids,” I call. After the second call Milla and Meri come and sit down, arguing about which of them has lost something. I seem to make out the word “reactor,” but pretend to hear nothing. You cannot start worrying this early, it’s only nine a.m.
I switched to making my coffee on the stove when the coffee machine started making nothing but strawberry juice. Juice is fine, but I need my caffeine. I switch on the stove, take two cups of water and put the pan on the plate. The air gets steamy, the pot trembles and glows white. All the water has evaporated and the metal is about to melt. I turn the tap on, turn off the burner and use a knife to throw the pot under the spout, fleeing from the scalding drops.
"Girls, have you touched the stove?” I ask from under the dining table, though I know the answer. Hotplates don’t normally warm up to some two thousand degrees Celsius in three seconds.
“We needed some liquid gold," Milla says very seriously.
“The dolls wanted jewelry," Meri affirms.
I scramble out from under the table and check the coffee pot. The bottom is bumpy but whole. Maybe I can still use it, on a different burner. “Has this got anything to do with the reactor?” I ask, filling the pot again. I won’t ask about the gold, not before checking the morning paper for news.
"May we watch TV?” Milla asks, ignoring me.
I take a quick look out. No rain, and the sun is shining. “Nonsense, first you’ll go out for at least a couple of hours.”
“Can’t we go out later?” Milla tries.
I shake my head. “If it rains later, you’ll grumble about it. Out you go, shoo. Food will be ready in about three hours. Take your cell phones.”
"No pockets,” says Meri.
"Well, go without, then.” Guess I’ll find them anyhow, or they’ll come back when they get hungry.
The complaints start immediately on the other side of the door. "It’s boring outside.” I can’t even tell which of them is talking. Maybe it’s a duet.
“Tough. Think of something. Go build a hut.”
“Out of what, twigs?”
“Well, I don’t see any cinder blocks. You could ask for cardboard boxes from the grocery store.” The complaint chorus moves out of earshot.
I throw coffee grounds into the pot and leave them to brew. For a moment I just gather the strength to open the daily paper. Sometimes I know too much of the backstory of several news items.
The foreign news tells of unrest in the world, but nothing special sticks out. It’s been peaceful in Fort Knox. No head of state has found her/himself in a Moomin-dress in the middle of an official visit. Good—diplomatic incidents are always bothersome. Though I have to admit the miniature birchwood model of Turku city filling Tiananmen Square looked funny on the TV news.
Nothing else noteworthy in the newspaper. I get my coffee mug and go to the backyard to sit on the grass and consider the week’s schedule. Have to do grocery shopping, I’ve promised a visit to both the public swimming pool and the beach, and we might drop by the flea market. Yes, indeed. We need a new grill.
We have an old one, but I dare not touch it. Why did I have to complain about how slow it was! I lost a package of sausages and the barbecue forks when the fusion power went on. I add barbecue forks to the shopping list.
I spit the coffee dregs out into the elderberry bushes. I used to say that coffee is properly strong when the spoon dissolves in it without hitting the bottom, but I won’t say that again. Life is full enough of surprises without acquiring more on purpose.
I load the dishwasher, shove the laundry into the washing machine, and make a quick round with the vacuum cleaner. The door to the girls’ room I open very, very carefully. Their floor is relatively clean; at least it’s mostly visible. I shelve as many things as I know how and put the rest randomly somewhere. I don’t know what half of them are. Some might be some sort of LEGO blocks, but I treat them like nitro-glycerine gel. One time was lesson enough.
When I put the vacuum cleaner away it’s suspiciously hot. Well, that yellow dust in the corner was indeed peculiar. I rip the dust bag off and run across the backyard to the garbage bin. Open the lid and throw the bag in. Shut the lid. Take a step back. There it comes: a faraway boom and the lid flies open again. I push it shut.
As far as I know the garbage chute is a kind of bottomless abyss. That’s a good thing, the garbage payments are remarkably reasonable now.
Life at home is pretty hectic and there are problems now and then, but that’s the daily life of any family with children. Perhaps ours is more hectic than average, but either you get stressed or you adjust. I’ve always been good at adjusting.
I glance at the clock. Time to start making lunch. Where did an hour go to? My guess is that the time-space continuum has been folded again, out of boredom.
The fridge is quite safe nowadays. We’ve talked about that often enough. With the deep freeze you still have to be careful: you don’t play with absolute zero. I slice the potatoes and put them in the oven. I stare at the controls and count the Kelvins to get a temperature suitable for potatoes in Celsius.
Fishsticks or frankfurters? Since I don’t know where my insulated gloves are I leave the deep freeze alone and decide on frankfurters. Then a guessing game about the next complaint, vegetables. Tomatoes will usually do without a fight, cucumbers will get an argument. I grate a couple of carrots and hope for the best. No need to fry the frankfurters, they’ll do cold.
I go to the backdoor. Nobody in sight. Sure, clever enough to make temporal vortices, but no internal clock in working order. “Milla! Meri!” I shout. The sound rings through the wood, hits an apartment building, and echoes back. Nothing to hear, no one in sight.
Wait a minute, an apartment building? Since when—
Now this is my own fault. Why did I mention cinder blocks! At least this hut is easy to find. I run into the woods.
And there they sit, on a second floor window sill, swinging their legs. “Girls, you get down at once. You could fall.” While the girls take a roundabout way through the building, I stand and look at it. The city construction office would strongly disapprove. “Where did the stone blocks come from?” I ask. I don’t care which quarry, as long as the Egyptian Ministry of Monuments won’t be after us again.
“It’s not stone," says Milla.
"We got cardboard boxes from the grocery store," Meri says.
No curse of the pharaohs this time. Must be thankful for small mercies. “Take it down anyway before evening, it may rain at night," I tell them. “And now home, lunch is ready.”
"What’s to eat?” Milla asks as we walk home from the woods.
"Sliced potatoes and frankfurters,” I state.
“Potatoes and frankfurters, OK," Milla says, satisfied.
"And vegetables,” I add hurriedly.
“You did not mention vegetables,” Milla says, in her best pretend-astonishment voice.
“No, you didn’t!” Meri accompanies emphatically. Oh let me endure this same-old-same-old.
“You get vegetables at every meal. Come on, it’s no use arguing about this.”
There’s argument after argument all the way to the dining table, ending only when they get to face the reality.
“We could go swimming now,” I say after lunch, forgetting to prepare for the high-pitched decibels that only two excited girls can produce. “Get your swimsuits, towels, and toys, I’ll pack a lunchbox.” There’s something essential I must remember. “Oh yes, no motorized toys this time.”
There’s wrangling again. "So what is it now?” I go the bathroom. Both girls burst into explanations in voices best suited for communication with bats.
“It’s my turn to use the polar bear towel," Milla says and pulls at the cloth to which her sister is stuck like a blueberry stain.
“No, mine!” Meri insists. ”You used it last.”
“No you did!”
I take another towel from the pegs. “We have two of these,” I inform them with a sigh. “There is a polar-bear-towel for each of you.” I cram both into the canvas bag and snap that the bickering has to end now or there’ll be no ice cream all day. That’s an implicit promise to buy ice cream, but that cat is now out of the bag. When you promise ice cream to Schrödinger’s cat, its quantum level changes to ice cream-acquisition. Or something.
I personally check that everything necessary is there and make sure there’s no attempt to smuggle forbidden technology.
“Into the car, then," I say and chase the kids out. It’s hot outside and even hotter in the car. The air-conditioning is slow to pump the sauna out, but I’m careful not to complain. I’ve no wish to experience how Robert Peary felt, not to speak of Robert Scott.
I start the car cautiously, but the acceleration seems normal. I well remember the time when the speedometer changed from km to LY and I found myself taking a gravity sling around Betelgeuse. Due to time dilation I ended up back home a week before I left. That suited the girls admirably, we took a picnic every day.
We arrive at the municipal swimming pool and I pay our entrance fee. “And what was it you should remember?” I ask before letting the two-person Hun horde go.
“Shower before swimming," Milla answers.
“And no running,” Meri adds.
I nod my approval but keep my arms akimbo and tap the grass with my foot.
“And no mermaids,” Milla sighs.
"Exactly. Now go change into your swimsuits, I’ll go and stake out a place there," I say and point to a marginal strip of grass in between the other towels spread on the ground.
I spread two towels side by side, one for myself, the other for dripping girls. I draw my hat brim lower and start reading my book.
I glance at the time when the screaming starts. Half an hour lapsed. Not bad at all. Lazily I turn to look at the pool. Five tentacles rising to a height of at least thirty feet. I realize my mistake. Last week I was watching some outrageous monster film and wanted to break outdated gender ideas. Like, boys are allowed to get their clothes dirty, girls have to sit put in a clean dress, and wild things are for boys only. Monsters are for us all, I said.
I squint, trying to identify the creature. Suction cups, dark-green color, fishy deep-sea smell. Could it be the Kraken himself come to play? I turn back and shut my book. The armed forces usually take well over half an hour to arrive.
Since the staff of the ice cream stand have fled with all the others, we agree to buy ice creams from the kiosk by the playground. We slowly drift toward Statue Park.
“Why is it called Statue Park?” Meri asks.
“Because all the climbing places there are statues. Sitting people, castles, and other things. But they haven’t always been statues,” I mention with a mischievous smile. It’s tiresome to always be careful with your words. “Once they used to move about by night and party around the city until morning. But they got old and tired and had no energy to romp like when they were younger.”
"Just like you, Daddy!” Meri cries cheerfully.
Ouch! Though she’s not far from the truth. "Well yes, perhaps Daddy ought to bike a bit more,” I say and pat my broad tummy where one more ice cream has vanished. In the park I sit on the bench to enjoy the sun. Might go check out the gym one of these days.
"Nice day,” somebody says and sits next to me. I peek from underneath the brim of my hat to see who starts a conversation with such a banal observation. Seems to be a plumpish middle-aged woman, which is fine by me, being a plumpish middle-aged man myself. “I saw an apartment building made of cardboard today," I mention. For a while it’s silent, and I presume the lady mistrusts me and will shortly go her way, but she just says: “How many floors did it have?”
I smile and tell her there were five. It’s great to meet people whose minds have not been ossified. Normal is what normal feels. “Which are your children?” she asks. I point at the highest statue, a castle of at least fifteen feet.
“You see those two girls right on the top?”
“I do,” she says.
“My offspring are just behind them, making a hang glider from ice cream sticks and plastic bags.”
“My heirs are the kids in front.”
I chuckle. “At my pay level there are no heirs, just offspring.” We both laugh. I too can do banal when I wish.
Now and then the afternoon air gets full of enormous soap bubbles. Once, the ground shakes like a huge caterpillar were burrowing underneath the statues. The girls take a quick break to eat sandwiches and disappear again to play. Evening is settling in when I start chasing them toward the car. “Suppertime, Milla and Meri.” I dismiss the objections before any have time to emerge. “Just because it’s vacation, we are not going to let your sleeping rhythm slip. Tomorrow’s a new day and everybody else is leaving, too.”
There’s some grumbling, but I can hear their hearts aren’t in it, it’s just a habit. Seems the day has sucked the maidens’ energy.
The drive home is not long, but it’s suspiciously quick. Milla is leaning her head on the window and Meri seems to have fallen asleep completely.
When we get home I remember why the gym isn’t really necessary: both are hardly awake when I carry them inside.
Supper is a quick oatmeal porridge. The tiredness is obviously real and not pretend, since there’s just the necessary minimum of arguments after which the girls can allow themselves to eat their porridge. Then I carry them to the bathroom to brush their teeth.
There’s rustling behind the window. I open it and Snoopy buzzes back in. I’m not very pleased, but Milla and Meri promise to keep it in their own room. Besides, they intend to test the miniaturization ray in the morning. I give in, better Snoopy than my bicycle.
I read a short fairy tale, tuck them both in and hug them. I think that Statue Park will stay peaceful tonight. Then I turn off the light, make some coffee and go out to the backyard. In the dusk, a five-story apartment block made of cardboard looms somewhere in the woods. There’s time enough to take it down tomorrow.
Something buzzes. Oh, I’ve left the girls’ door open. Snoopy settles on my shoulder. I offer him a gulp of coffee. It really comes down to adjusting.
I sit down and stretch my legs. All the chairs are piled up against the wall; what am I sitting on, is this a stone, I wonder and look down. The familiar sign of radiation danger on the box reflects the red of the setting sun rather nicely. I chuckle.
So I’ve found the reactor, too.
“Milla ja Meri" © Shimo Suntila. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Liisa Rantalaiho. All rights reserved.