J. Thomas Brown is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife and three children. Mr. Brown’s life experience includes advanced technologies management in the computer field, real estate sales and marketing, house renovator, and truck driver in the steel industry. His debut novel, The Land of Three Houses, will be available online and in print this December.
He served as Tea for Two Poetry coordinator at the Richmond Public Library, and co-produced Chin's Happy Writing Show on public access TV. He is a member of James River Writers in Richmond, Virginia, Virginia Writers Club, and WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia.
BREAKING THEM WITH WORDS
Sofia had just fallen back to sleep when she heard the gunshot. At first she thought she had dreamed a gun firing. She groped her way downstairs in the near dark. Feeling reassured no one was in the house, she entered the garage and turned on the light. Ari was slumped against the wall, sitting on a stack of Helsinki Times she had tied into a bundle, an advancing line of red spreading slowly over the headlines dated 18 September, 1952: Zarja Sets Sail for Russia to Pay Off Last of 300 Million. In his hand was his service pistol.
The funeral was held on Wednesday afternoon. They had picked a plot out together at the church cemetery, but the pastor said sorry, but no, suicide was a sin. Sofia took it up with the bishop; he agreed with the pastor. A military funeral at Hietaniemi Cemetery was granted. The chaplain was non-denominational and told her such things were not to be judged by men, and he would perform a full service.
The burial consisted of a small gathering of Ari’s and her families and an American wearing a camel hair coat and a Homburg hat. A gun salute and bugle sounded the end of the service, and seemingly on signal, it began to rain.
Her mother rubbed her shoulder and told her she and her father would be waiting in the car. Sofia remained at the end of the grave, feeling and unthinking. After a few minutes, she felt a light touch on her arm.
“Mrs. Salonen, I’m Jack Williams. I managed the IBM project for him at the bank.”
She recognized the name. “He had spoken of you highly. I hope you don’t judge him too harshly.”
“He was a deep thinker, a good man. It must be hard for you.”
“I have something of his you should have. I have to go back to the States tomorrow, so I thought I should give it to you now.” He handed her a manila envelope.
“What is it?”
“It’s a story he wrote. He wanted to have it published and asked me to help him with the grammar, but you know, his English was excellent.”
“He never mentioned it to me. Thank you, Mr. Williams.”
He handed her his card. “Call me Jack.” He offered his arm and they walked back to the road.
“Why don’t you stay with us tonight?” her father asked as she climbed in the car.
Sofia shook her head.
Ari had handled their financial matters, collecting the records and bills in his desk in the study, always paying them early. As the bills started to accumulate, Sofia began going through them. In one of the drawers was a stack of correspondence. As she examined the letters she came across one with a return address from Salla. It was a personal thank you for a loan to refinance a hotel. The last few lines caught her attention: I had the piano rebuilt, and the remodeling of the hotel came out better than I had hoped. The basement is a bistro with a wine cellar now. You and your wife must come to visit. I’ll always remember your kindness. Your loving friend, Verá. Sofia went to the living room and sat at the piano, playing the first few measures of the Appassionata too slowly. It was Ari’s favorite piece, but she never could get it right. She poured herself a drink and sipped slowly, looking over the shelves filled with busts of composers and Hellenic vases they had collected over the years. They both loved music and history. She loved his sensitivity. Sometimes he would hide the tears in his eyes when he was moved by a passage of music, and she would pretend she didn’t notice.
Sinking down on the sofa, she picked up the envelope Jack Wilson had given her from the coffee table. She opened the flap, sliding out the manuscript Ari had been working on, neatly double spaced with wide margins.
IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
I had served in the Finnish Jaeger Brigade during The Winter War in June of 1941, transferring to the 6th Division in July 1944, as a major. The advancement was more due to my language skills than fighting skills; I speak English, Russian, German, Swedish and Finnish. They decided to send me to Salla in eastern Lapland near the Salpa Line where a liaison was needed to coordinate operations with the German Mountain Corps.
When I arrived, it was held by the Soviets on the eastern fringes. Finland's resources had become depleted from the struggle against Russia, and we allied with Germany, hoping to quickly gain our lands back. Stalin threw everything into the fight, knowing Moscow was Hitler's next stop via Finland.
The locals had been evacuated, but among the few remaining was a woman named Verá who ran the hotel on the edge of town near Lake Märkäjärvi. Salla had been a popular tourist spot that advertised itself as the middle of nowhere, but the war had put an end to tourism. Verá’s hotel was used as quarters for both Finnish and German officers and the rest of the soldiers were given temporary barracks just outside town. Some of the billets were trenches with log and earthen roofs, hard to spot from a distance.
My duties were to brief our new allies on the techniques of Arctic warfare and facilitate communication between the officers of the two armies. We made some inroads against the communists, but British naval blockades and a constant influx of Russian equipment and troops pressed us to hold on to our gains.
On an unusually hot day in August, I returned to the hotel from a briefing at headquarters. As I walked through the lobby, a German major sat in a battered leather chair next to the piano, pulling sheet music from under the bench lid.
“Wie gehts? Ari Salonen,” I said.
He extended his hand. “Jon Ehler. I think we will be working together.”
We shook as the other officers began filing into the dining room. “Let’s get something to eat, before it’s too late,” I said. We found two empty places at the end of a crowded table. I yelled across the room: “Verá, go to the basement and bring up a bottle of cognac off the top shelf for my friend and me.”
“Why don't you come down and help me pick out something good? You can reach on top better than me.”
“We might be down there all night.”
Verá laughed defiantly. “The longer the better.” It was a little flirty banter we all played to take our minds off things; she enjoyed it as much as the men. Her husband was killed when he ran into the Soviets while picking up supplies. The staff had fled when the town was evacuated, so she had to serve the officers single-handedly. She was the only woman left in Salla.
She reappeared with a bottle and two glasses. “Don't you two make trouble, I've got my hands full already.”
I poured and nodded with a Kippis to my German counterpart. Jon was finely chiseled and handsome, looking too young to be a major, yet not having the superior air many Nazi officers had. We drained our glasses.
“Everything tastes good with cognac,” I said.
“Or with butter,” said Jon. “When’s the last time we’ve had any of that? So, you have a wife and family?” He held the glass in his palm with the stem between his fingers, warming the cognac with his hand and sniffing.
“I’m engaged. Her name is Heleena. She’s going to get her degree in history, then we’ll get married. How about you?”
“Pianos are my passion. My family has been building pianos for generations. At first I thought I wanted to do something else, so I got a job designing elevators, but I couldn't stand it. Then I went to work at Rönisch Piano in Dresden. Before the war I was designing a self-playing piano that plays the violin and cello sections. How about another?”
“Good idea,” I said, and poured. “That's incredible, I've never heard of such a thing. When this is over you can go back and finish your work.”
“There will be nothing but rubble by then. What are you going to do?”
“I have a degree in economics; I'll get a job in a bank. With a little luck, we may end up with a nice house and kids, and maybe a summer place on the beach.”
“That sounds nice.” He emptied his glass.
An SS captain leaned over and tapped Jon on the shoulder. “Play something before you're too drunk.”
“The piano is out of tune.”
He continued tapping. “Come on, play.”
Jon raised the lid before sitting at the bench. Composing himself briefly, he began the first few notes of the Appassionata, feeling out the tired whippens and jacks of the old grand, adjusting himself to its eccentricities and worn spots, then filled the lobby with waves of music, taking us up and out of the battered hotel and away from the tasteless food and tiredness. His large hands were ten kings, coaxing the soul from the piano with long, slim fingers. We sailed above the war on the wings of Ludwig Von Beethoven, suspended in mother of pearl twilight. It wasn't the cognac. When he ended, I fell back into the lobby, wondering, how could someone like Jon, with such a gift, end up in a shithole like this?
He had won me. There was a time when he could have played anywhere in Europe if he had the desire. In the days that followed, he would pull out sheet music from the piano bench and his orderly, who had an excellent voice, would accompany him, and so I became his prisoner.
One evening, as we sat in the lobby, he asked, “Major, where is your orderly? I haven’t seen him.”
“Killed. Hardly eighteen. They haven’t been able to spare anyone to replace him.”
“I'll send over one of ours. His name is Walter Unrau and he's a skilled batman.”
“You're generous. I've been borrowing the other officers’ orderlies and they're growing tired of it.”
Corporal Unrau was very personable and efficient. He had things ready before I asked and seldom needed drawn out instructions. I came to rely on him a lot.
As the war dragged on it became apparent things were going wrong. Due to bad intelligence, Hitler underestimated the Soviet's ability to build new armies. Fresh communist forces slowed the advance to Moscow until the winter set in, bogging them down with snow and frostbite.
Reports in German, Finnish, Russian and English were sent to headquarters in an unending stream. News of the German offensive falling apart came in, warning of a darker outcome for Finland.
As August wore on to September, I received word that we were beginning talks with Zhdanov in Moscow. An armistice between Finland and the U.S.S.R. would be signed within a week, putting an end to our collaboration with Germany.
I had returned to my room late one evening. Corporal Unrau always checked in on me to see if I needed anything or had orders for the next day, but it was late. I knocked on his door and poked my head inside. He jumped up from his cot and snapped to attention looking pale. His eyes were swollen.
I’d seen the look before. “Everything okay, corporal?”
“My brother was killed in action. His destroyer went down.”
The look on his face was the loneliest I had ever seen. I embraced him and patted his back.
“I apologize, sir. I'm the last one. My family is gone.”
“The uniform can't protect us from these things. There's no reason to.”
I wanted to get him off the front, but he was under German command. “You must stay alive,” I said to him. “I’d send you away to a typing pool, but it’s not up to me. I’ll ask for you. When things are better, maybe they’ll send you to Berlin.”
The next morning there was a clean uniform in the closet. I picked up my papers from the desk, neatly arranged and clipped together, then went down to the dining room and found Jon.
Verá came to take my breakfast order. The officer across the table was pounding his fist on the table, ranting: “No butter, no juice, no toast.”
She frowned at him sternly. “Stop your whining.”
“There are worse things that can happen,” I said.
“Worse than no butter?” asked Jon, cracking the top off his egg and getting yolk everywhere.
“You could be Walter Unrau – he lost his brother and his family. We have to get him out of here.”
He dabbed at the yolk with his napkin, making the mess worse. “We break them down with words and put them back together with words. We command them with orders to do our bidding, unspeakable things beyond description. When we ask why God, God is struck dumb by our folly. It would be better if musicians ran the world, then none of this shit would happen. I’ll say something at headquarters. It may take a few days.”
There was a light still burning inside him. Verá came to take my order. “What will it be today, Ari?” she asked.
“You seem very glum. How about eggs and ham? Get off to a good start.”
Jon scooped away the inside of the egg with his spoon. “He’s in a quiet mood, Verá.”
She moved on to the next table.
“You’re right,” I said to Jon. “Musicians should run the world. There is something else we need to talk about, but not here, it's too crowded. There's something in the wind.”
“More bad news?”
“We need to meet somewhere private. Did you ever have a real Finnish sauna - a savusauna?”
Jon raised an eyebrow. “I don't think so.”
“The stones are heated by a wood fire without a chimney. The smoke fills the room, then when the fire dies the smoke is let out. The stones stay hot for hours. There’s one by the lake, I’ll have them get it ready. We can drive out before dinner.”
“I will go only on condition that I will be beaten by an old woman with a stick.”
I hadn’t laughed in a long time. “If I can’t find one, I will beat you myself.”
The sauna was forty yards from the shoreline. The smoke had cleared, leaving a clean scent of maple and birch in the dark interior. We undressed and went in.
“Some prefer to jump in the lake to cool off, but one time I was bitten by mosquitoes so badly I decided to use the shower from then on,” I said.
He looked at me disapprovingly. “Is that why you’re always scratching your ass?”
I threw some water on the stones and we sat down. “I didn’t invite you to talk about mosquitos. We have been meeting with the Soviets and will sign an armistice that will end our alliance. We must turn over all Germans. Or shoot you if you don’t cooperate.”
“We've fought together side by side. Could that happen?”
“I don't know, we're caught in the middle.” The water stopped its hissing as it dissipated.
“What about you? Would you?” He began rubbing his forehead mechanically.
“I give you my word I'll do everything in my power to help you and your men escape.”
“When is this to happen?”
“In two days.”
Jon wiped the sweat from his brow and slid to the lower bench. “We could do it under cover of darkness.”
“There's a problem; they want prisoners. The Russians are five kilometers to the east and they'll be watching. We must make it look good. If you put your men in the underground billets, we can come in from the south and fire into the ground as they escape. That might fool them long enough for you to get to the north to rejoin your forces.”
He leaned back on his elbow, frowning. “And I have your word your men won’t hit us?”
“We’ll only shoot to miss,” I said, “you have my word.”
“And the other officers – they will all cooperate?”
Jon let out a sigh. “You are a good man, Ari, I mean it.”
At headquarters, I explained my plan to the other officers and they agreed. I turned in early that night. After I fell asleep there was a knock on the door. I forced myself awake and opened it to find Verá standing there in the hall. The weather had been getting cooler, yet she was wearing a thin summer nightgown that let the light from the hallway pass through around her body. I sometimes wondered if our playful words about the basement were a little more than just words.
“What is it, Verá?”
“I need to know exactly what's going on. There's a rumor going around the Russians are taking Salla back.”
“Don't worry, the Russians will need a good hotel to stay in. When I see their commanding officer I'll tell him you'll be serving his head on a platter if he isn't respectful.”
She shook her head. “I can’t stay. Not after what they did to my husband.”
“I can get you a letter of safe conduct. Is there someplace you can go?”
“My family is in Niesi.”
“I’ll have it for you tomorrow.”
“Ari, what will happen to you, will you be leaving?” Verá stepped closer.
“They'll keep me for a couple of days, then send me off somewhere, I suppose.”
She threw her arms around me. “Thank you, Ari.”
I cannot say I wasn’t tempted, but the moment passed and we separated as friends.
The next morning I was informed the Russians were sending a small contingent of Allied Commission observers ahead of their troops. I contacted Jon and informed him they would have to move out immediately. The timing was not good now, but the plan could still work. We moved into position near Lake Märkäjärvi and began firing as soon as they began to leave. To fool the Russians, reports were issued that there were casualties but they managed to escape.
When I returned to headquarters that afternoon, I was told by the aid de camp Soviet officers were waiting to see me. They were congregated in the hall.
I saluted. “I'm Major Salonen.”
“Poltzin,” said a haggard-looking colonel, without returning the salute. He looked up from the report and eyed me rudely. “Where are they?”
“I’m afraid they got away. They knew we were coming.”
“Do you think we're idiots?”
“Colonel, there was no way to keep anything from them.”
“Go after them. If you can't capture them, kill them.”
“We don't have the trucks or tanks to pursue. The few we had, you took away. Those are your terms in the treaty.”
Poltzin stared in a cold rage. “There will be severe reprisal if you don't capture or kill all Germans, no matter how you do it. Those are the terms you agreed to. All Nazis will be captured or killed.”
His face was nearly touching mine, the eyes dead and gray, as though covered by a third lid, like a shark's haw.
“Is that clear, major?”
“Yes, Colonel, I understand.”
“These are your new orders, effective immediately,” said Poltzin.
I took the dossier he waved under my chin, then saluted. After reading through them, I had Verá’s safe conduct letter drawn up and stamped, then headed back to the hotel and slipped it under her door. As I walked out the lobby door to return to headquarters, a truck driven by Walter Unrau pulled up. Jon got out carrying a leather satchel.
“What the hell are you doing, get out of here,” I said.
“I forgot something.”
“The Soviets are here. Get out now.”
He ran inside, returning in a moment with the bag bursting full of sheet music. Halfway to the truck it split open, spilling music on the ground. As he snatched up a handful of sheets, Poltzin came running down the street with his revolver drawn, leading a dozen of my men.
“They're escaping, shoot!”
Jon jumped into the truck. “It's no use, it’s too late,” I shouted through the window.
He motioned to go forward. “Remember your promise.”
“We have orders to shoot for God’s sake!”
He nodded to Walter and the truck lurched forward.
Poltzin aimed from across the street, but couldn’t get a clear shot. “Salonen,” he shouted. The men looked at me, waiting.
Ammuskella!” I said.
The barrage sounded like one shot and the horn went off. Jon fell out and stumbled to the ground, landing face down, his coat tattered with holes. I ran to him, kneeling down beside him. He was groaning deeply and making a rattling sound, trying to raise himself while still holding the music in his good hand. The other was a mangled pulp, slipping in the blood.
I unbuckled my pistol and held it to the back of his head. I had never killed once myself in all my time in the service, only by the orders I had given. When I pulled the trigger and felt the life go out of him, so did my own. I have been his prisoner ever since, reliving that day every day, in the middle of nowhere.
Sofia shuffled the pages together and stuffed the story back in the envelope. Weeks grew into months and she came to blame herself. He wasn’t the same when he came back, but she thought that was just something wars did. She thought of herself as a good listener, but she must have missed something. He had never talked about any of it; the story he had written was the only attempt he had made. She told herself it was only a story.
The house reminded her of Ari and she needed to get out. Sofia accepted her parents’ invitation to spend Christmas with them. During Christmas Eve dinner, her father suggested she do some traveling, then she remembered the letter from Verá.
The day after Christmas she returned home and got the hotel address from the envelope. Uncertain if she was ready to confront the ghosts of the past, she made the reservations anyway. It was fourteen and a half hours to the railway station at Kemijärvi, then an hour and a half by bus to the town of Salla. The bus let her off on Savukoskentie Street near Verá’s hotel, the Borea. It was three in the afternoon and the town was lit by street lamps and Christmas decorations.
The Borea was rustic with square cut logs painted red and balconies with views of the water. The interior had a new feel to it. It had been remodeled in a Scandinavian design of whitewoods and grays with wooden ceilings. On one side of the foyer was the dining room, on the other, the lobby with a grand piano. A life size Yule goat stood next to the desk by the door. Sofia tapped the bell gently, wondering if she might be greeted by Verá.
“Moi,” said a college-aged girl, appearing from a door behind the desk.
“I’m looking for Verá Pedarson.”
“What is this in reference to, may I ask?”
Sofia smiled. “I’m not selling anything. I have a reservation. Would you tell her Sofia Salonen is asking for her?”
The girl spoke on the phone, and a moment later, a tall athletic looking woman walked to the desk. “You must be Sofia,” she said cheerfully, “I’m glad you decided to come.” She looked about the empty foyer. “Where is Ari?”
“He passed away recently. It’s just me.”
“Oh no. I’m very sorry.” Her eyes began to tear.
“I wasn’t sure I should come,” said Sofia. “I should have written back, I’m sorry.”
Verá shook her head. “You mustn’t apologize. Let’s sit in the lobby where we can talk.” They found seats near the piano. “I saw him less than a year ago when I came to the bank to sign the loan papers. He seemed healthy then.”
“He shot himself in the temple with his service revolver.” The piano loomed in the silence. “It was on the day after the war debt was paid to Russia.”
Verá turned away. “Something happened here.”
“That is why I came to Salla. I want to know.”
“Ari had a German friend, an officer named Jon Ehler, who was different than the others. He was a gifted musician and used to play on this piano. He didn’t believe in the war any longer, and neither did Ari. When the armistice was signed, Ehler and an orderly named Unrau tried to escape, and Ari was ordered to have them shot. He had to use his own pistol on Ehler.” She let out a deep sigh.
“It’s true,” said Sofia.
“What is true?”
“Something Ari had written. Thank you, Verá.”
When Sofia got to her room, the first thing she did was open the balcony doors and look out over the frozen expanse of Lake Märkäjärvi. The Lapp sky had taken on a deep blue. Along the horizon on the far side, the clouds were tinged serenely with nacre. After a few minutes the deep cold penetrated into her pores and she backed into her room and closed the doors.
Sofia spent several days exploring the villages nearby and went on a cross country skiing expedition along the Salpa defense line. She found the earth covered billets where the soldiers stayed, and the Sotka cellar where four Finns had defended themselves against Russian grenades. They were the only reminders of the war she could find. Everything was freshly painted and inviting. The war debt had been paid, settled by the bankers and accountants. Reconstruction had hidden the scars, but she was not finished healing.
On the morning of her return to Helsinki, she sat down to breakfast with Verá. “I’m coming back. I was looking for something and I think I found it.”
“What is that?” asked Verá, cracking the top off her egg.
“There is no museum here. I have a purpose now; I’m going to build a war museum. Will you help me? Ari left me some money – I know he would want it.”
Verá soaked up the yolk with her toast. “I will do all I can. I promise.”