They had the Kaukokiito stage up in the marketplace and some of the market crowd stood over by it looking in. Karhu and Ella circled around in front of it and saw potters sitting around wheels. Some were throwing big pots, others still shaping small balllike masses. The announcer commented on the competition over the PA system. Ella smiled contentedly as she watched. Karhu thought: I bet she’s content with even just this.
A handful of flea market tables had been set up, with dishes, books, and cassettes on them. Ella flipped through an old Jane Fonda exercise book.
“If you want it,” Karhu said, “just say the word and it’s yours.”
“You trying to tell me something?”
“OK, yeah, that book’s probably too heavy for you.”
They walked up the hill from the marketplace to the church where Karhu’s mom and dad were married. Ella’s high heels must have made the cobblestones difficult to walk on, but she valiantly chose her steps with care. Karhu gave her kudos for not complaining. Of course he should have told her to wear good walking shoes in the morning, but didn’t think of it. He was trying even then, and was still trying, to find the right place. It had been a good fifteen years since he’d been in the Old Town last.
A month before some drunks had tried to burn the church down. The roof was toast, but the blackened rock walls still rose up like a half-built gingerbread house. The church was blanketed in scaffolding and you couldn’t get to it, past the fence and the security guard. Karhu asked Ella to stand in front of it for a picture.
“Later we’ll be able to tell when this picture was taken,” she said.
They circled around the church, but there was nothing even vaguely resembling the right place. Karhu led them down to the riverbank. Maybe they still had that castle hill where he’d run around on that one school trip. He could still feel his legs running on the embankments, and the time the strap of his backpack got caught on a branch.
Ella was struggling with the steep slope, so Karhu carried her piggyback. A southern-European-looking woman on the shore road watched them come down the hill, pointed them out to the other tourists, and everybody turned to look. Karhu set Ella down and they walked onto the bridge as if they did this all the time.
The river ran undeveloped to the right and toward the city center to the left, past some old granary shacks. The high hill that he had thought of as the castle hill rose ahead of them, dark and heavily wooded.
“You wanna go up to the top of that hill?” he suggested. “There’s an old fortress there. They used to protect the city from there. It’s pretty cool.”
“Can’t, really, in these shoes.”
“Oh, right. Right.”
Down by the river there was a kiosk and then an old railroad track running along the shore. There was a dock sticking out into the river, but there were people out there, and in the best spot an old bottle-collecting homeless guy sat on the bench picking his nose. The thing in Karhu’s eye stabbed him again, and he rubbed his eyelid nervously.
“You got allergies?” Ella asked.
“Nah, probably an eyelash or something under my contact.”
“I was just thinking cause your nose is stuffed up too.”
They walked along the tracks. Ella admired the shacks on the other side of the river, said how great it would be to live in one of them. Karhu remembered the tracks. Somewhere around here they’d eaten a bun and a banana and drunk some juice. He’d cut a little groove around the end of the banana to make a penis head and whacked Vappu with it. In the sixth grade Vappu asked if they could go steady. Karhu went home and read Spiderman.
Nowadays Vappu was fat.
They came to the new bridge, the one that ran high above the river for cars to cross on. Below it was a grassy knoll. On the opposite bank there was a café on a ship and people with their shirts off.
“I’m gonna take a picture of you right here,” Ella said.
As he posed for it, Karhu couldn’t stop thinking that in this picture I have a ring in my pocket. It felt hard against his fingers. When he’d tried it on his pinky, it felt like a metal Band-aid. And if it fit his pinky, it ought to fit her ring finger. Ought to.
The people on the boat would see. Not good. You don’t want people to see.
But when they started walking again and went up over the bridge and walked back to the beginning of the Old Town, he started regretting not doing it then. Stupid to keep waiting for the right moment. He was out of ideas. Ella was probably expecting something more than a bus trip to Porvoo, Karhu thought. Where am I going to give it to her before she’s all like what, that’s it, aimless hiking around the Old Town?
Ella glanced into the display windows of the little stores, but didn’t feel like going inside. They came to the liquor store parking lot that was the start of the Old Town again.
One winter he ran into this liquor store just before they closed. They’d planned it so Pihla would bring a bottle of vodka and he’d bring a case of beer and five bottles of grapefruit Gin Long Drink. The others waited in the car with the engine running and they drove back to the cottage in the dark. Someone taught the others how to recognize Cassiopeia. That night Karhu passed out next to Pihla and wasn’t sure whether he’d felt her up or not, but if he did, it felt great. You and I could be beautiful together, he’d suggested to Pihla. When Lassi dropped them on Sturenkatu Street that Sunday, Karhu asked Pihla, hung over, whether they should see each other. “Sure!” she squealed, but then toned down her enthusiasm: “I mean, OK.” Karhu had seized the day.
And now he was glad he had, though at the time it seemed like nothing special.
He walked them back down the main street, past the old-fashioned coffeehouse where he’d gone to the toilet and looked around to see whether it was the right kind of place, but there were people in every room, and now they climbed back up the steep hill to the church. Behind the church was a hotel with a beautiful empty yard, but maybe too empty, too open.
They came to a red wooden house with a restaurant. They hadn’t eaten anything since Karhu brought her breakfast in bed.
“You wanna see whether we can get something to eat in here?” Karhu suggested.
“Nice place, but looks pricey.”
“What, are you saying you’re not worth it?”
They walked up a few steps. On the right a terrace; behind it the door to the inside. A server came over to them and ushered them over to the covered terrace.
“Don’t you have anything inside?”
“Not on a day like this,” she said.
They asked for water. The view over Ella’s shoulder was beautiful, down the hill, pale green trees in the sun, the castle hill on the opposite shore.
“This is a really nice restaurant,” Ella said.
Karhu ordered, flounder and veal. The server thanked them, collected the leatherbound menus, and walked back inside. Karhu went to the restroom.
In the hall there was a table. On the right the restroom doors were decorated with Baroque portraits. To the left Karhu could see a bar and a dining room that sounded empty. In the restroom he washed his hands, popped out a contact lens, checked that it didn’t have any visible dirt on it and that it was the right side up, then popped it back in. Now he couldn’t feel anything in his eye. Then he took the ring out of his fob pocket, checked that it didn’t have fingerprints on it, slid it back into the pocket, and patted it. He tried to blow his nose. His nose was still stuffed up and the paper came away dry. No major issues with his hair or face, apart from the odd freckle on his nose, and the fact that he was sweating.
On his way back outside he glanced at the guest book on the table in the hall and under an Italian group wrote the date and his name, and then on an impulse added: “birthday and wedding proposal.” Then he had a little moment of panic when he realized that Ella could read it. He found a brochure for the restaurant and covered the guest book with it.
“I was afraid the food might have come,” he said when he sat back down.
A lady with a ponytail at the next table glanced over at him as she cut her steak.
“How many pictures do we have left?” Ella asked.
“Two. Let’s not use them up yet.”
“I’m going to the little girls’ room too before we eat.”
What if she noticed the guest book? Karhu snuck after her and watched her pull the door to the women’s restroom shut behind her. The room next to it was a dining room. Its four tables were laid and marked “reserved” with little cards. At the end of the room was the unmanned bar. He walked to the window and looked out at the same view as from the terrace, but now through the glass. Then he ran up the stairs and saw that the upstairs dining room was also empty and completely reserved. He came back down and took out the ring, rolled it up in his shirttail, then buried it in his fist. Was everything perfect enough? It was. This is the place, he thought. If they have kids, he’ll tell them: this is the room where Dad asked Mom to marry him. He tried to remember the words he’d prepared but all he could think of was the one sentence.
The restroom door opened. He went to the corner of the hall and waved at Ella. Ella came over to the window. He put his arm around her and they looked down the sunlit slope. Somewhere down below something sparkled.
“I had another present to give you,” Karhu said.
He turned and looked Ella in the eye. He lowered himself onto his left knee and raised the hand that had the ring in it, because he couldn’t stand the tension with her looking at him like that, and he had to say something right away.
“Baby,” he said, and gave a silly smirk, because it was a silly thing to say. Ella was red. Tears were already welling up in her eyes. Karhu had a sentence all worked out, and remembered it, but couldn’t get it out of his mouth. What came out was the old standby: “Will you marry me?”
And nodded. Karhu interpreted that as a yes, but why didn’t she say something?
“Yes,” Ella said, her voice breaking. She took the ring and Karhu got up and took it from her and pushed it onto her ring finger. It fit splendidly. They hugged and Ella said, “oh man” and sniffled again. She held her hand up, watched as the ring sparkled. Karhu couldn’t get a word out.
As they walked back to the terrace, he showed Ella what he’d written in the guest book. Ella popped into the restroom to get some paper to blow her nose on. As they sat back down they took each other’s hand across the table.
“I can’t imagine my life without you,” Karhu said. “And I don’t want to.”
“And I can’t without you.”
Ella teared up again. Karhu felt a lump in his throat.
“Oh man . . . I had no idea.”
“It’s so cool that the ring fits.”
“It’s beautiful . . . I love platinum. Ella Karhu. I’m gonna be Ella Karhu!”
Karhu’s flounder was full of bones, and he had to keep picking them out of his mouth. Ella said her steak was delicious.
They decided to get champagne at the old coffeehouse. As they walked down the old cobblestone hill Ella held her hand out in front of her face and smiled. Karhu had completed his mission. The weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He felt sort of gloriously empty. He was happy to see Ella’s happiness.
“I had no idea. Oh man. And you found such a beautiful place, too.”
“It’s my mom’s old engagement ring.”
“I had it polished and resized and so on. I had to guess the size. Fortunately it fits.”
The coffee house had quieted down since the morning. From the middle you could see right through to the green inner courtyard. They didn’t have sparkling wine, so Karhu ordered two glasses of dry white wine. The server checked their bottom drawer to see what they had and said they had two different ones. Should she bring one of each? Karhu asked for two of the same. It took her a long time to check the price and charge the credit card. She was pretty in that way waitresses in their thirties are.
The inner courtyard had been covered and decked as a terrace. There was some kind of workshop in the courtyard too, alongside the terrace. From the corner of the coffee house an iron spiral staircase rose up to the balcony on the second floor, right through a deep purple lilac bush.
The server returned with their wineglasses in her hands. Karhu watched until she had left and thought No more of those either. Now, he thought, I’ve made my bed.
And he remembered again: You and I could be beautiful together.
The line amused him. The line, and the fact that it had worked a second time too. He reassured himself with considerable confidence that he wouldn’t regret this, not once. At most he’d regret the ones he’d let get away. If he thought about them too much, they might stir up some regret in him.
For the first time it occurred to him that the same applied to him, too.
Ella clinked their wineglasses.
“Let’s try not to have too boring a life,” Ella said. They smiled.
Some kind of horrible squawk emerged from the workshop.
“What was that?” Karhu said.
Ella pulled the ring off her finger and looked inside.
“That balcony’s pretty romantic,” Karhu said. “There’s a well in the middle of the lilac bushes. Look.”
Ella looked up, serious.
“What? Are you speechless with happiness?” Karhu asked.
“Help, darling. I just—I’m not sure I’m all that crazy about this being your mom’s old ring.”
“What . . .?”
“I was just thinking, you know, that she’s dead. It’ll make me sad.”
Both of them stared at the ring. Images of his mother flitted through Karhu’s mind.
“It’s meant some stuff to you, and that stuff’s important to you,” Ella went on. “But it’s not my stuff.”
Karhu said nothing.
“It’s still got the date they got engaged engraved on it . . .”
“They can grind that off. I was gonna . . .”
Karhu stared at the table and took a sip of wine and then stared at the table some more.
“Sorry,” Ella said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Did I ruin it?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“It was a wonderful thought. I’m all embarrassed now.”
“Don’t be. It’s good you said something.”
“I wouldn’t want you to be wearing it around all the time and thinking this stuff about it.”
“Yeah. I just—I want for this to be just our thing.”
“You don’t want a mama’s boy.”
“No, no, I get it! It makes total sense. It’s nothing, really.”
“Let’s go pick out one just like this. It’s beautiful.”
They drank. The sun came out from behind the clouds after a long stay. The white table was blinding. Ella didn’t take the ring off.
“Give it to me, you don’t have to wear it.”
“No, no, I’m happy to wear it.”
“You don’t need to,” Karhu said, and grabbed her hand. He pulled the ring off. It slid off her finger easily.
“This is our moment. No need to bring my mother into it.”
The squawk came from the workshop again. That gave Karhu a reason to get up, leave the table. He put the ring in his left pocket, stood up, walked over the cobblestones to look in the shop.
The doorway was blocked by a chain. Behind it was a large birdcage. On a perch sat a blue parrot staring back at him with one eye. He was about to reach out to touch the parrot, but saw the sign in Finnish, Swedish, and English: “Minä puren. Jag biter. I bite.”
“So you’re a mean old guy,” Karhu whispered.
He felt the ring against his thigh again, in his pocket. As if it had been there the whole time and he’d just forgotten it. He wondered what it would feel like if the bird bit into it with its hard beak.
If we start bringing more people into this there’ll be no end to it.
“Let’s take a picture of it,” Ella said suddenly from behind him.
“We only have one left.”
“Let’s take it of us.”
Karhu turned toward the courtyard.
“Let’s keep it,” Ella said. “I want to keep it.”
“You don’t have to.”
“No, I want to. I’m just realizing what a beautiful thought it was, using this ring.”
“What, just now?”
Karhu stood there quiet, looking at the lilacs.
“It fits, too,” Ella said. “It’s a sign.”
“You and your signs.”
“We’re not keeping it.”
“We aren’t?” Ella asked.
“No. You’re right. We need our own thing.”
“Let’s get one just like it. It’s really pretty.”
They returned to the table. Karhu moved his chair around to her side. Ella pressed her cheek against his. Karhu put his arm around her and bent over in front of the camera hand, but the camera refused to take the picture.
“We’re too close.”
Karhu leaned in more. Ella tried to stay glued to his cheek.
“Oh wow,” Karhu said.
Water from his nose dripped onto Ella’s breast. He put down the camera and grabbed a napkin. Water dripped onto the table too.
“So my nose is unplugged,” Karhu said, trying to stuff it full of paper. “I’ve been walking around with my head full of water ever since I irrigated my nose this morning.”
Ella started to laugh. She laughed in gulps, and sniffled, and then grabbed a napkin. Karhu used up all the napkins in the little holder before he managed to get his nose dried out.
“Get the snotrag out of the picture,” Ella said.
Karhu stretched his arm out as far as it would go. Then the camera clicked, and the roll of film rewound to the beginning.
From Ahneet ja viattomat (Helsinki: Gummerus, 2008). By arrangement with the Stilton Literary Agency. Translation © 2014 by Douglas Robinson. All rights reserved.