Editor’s Note: The Battle of Honkaniemi was fought between the Finnish and the Soviets on February 26, 1940.
A murder of crows fell upon the fields as the boy pedaled up the hill, a sprinkle of black etched into the sinking sun. Knotted willows flanked his climb, their naked branches moaning in the wind. He rode the metal horse hard against the hill but freezing mud soon clogged the spokes, its wintry hands unhorsing the boy. Wooden clogs scrambled for speed, but his legs were young and tired, and the hill tall and stubborn. Pushing his bicycle, the boy walked. His name was Erik, and he had a pocket full of secrets to protect.
At first, letters had arrived every week. Erik had picked them up at the post office and the other children had gathered in the street, gawking through the windows at the world inside. He had displayed each letter proudly, sometimes letting his friends touch a corner of the precious envelope, but never opened one despite their carrying both his mother’s name and his own. They were for his mother to read at the table and later, at night, for him to dream.
The envelopes always carried postal marks. Suomi they said, and Puolustusvoimat, and Flying Regiment 19. Magister Berg had explained to the whole class what the words meant: Finland, and the Finnish Defense Forces, and the unit of Swedish volunteers who had gone to help their sister-country in her war with the terrible nation to the East.
Magister Berg never praised anyone, but it had seemed like the teacher appreciated the idea of Swedes shooting Soviets. He had not even whipped Erik for bringing a letter to school. “Solidarity! Camaraderie! Up you Northern wolves! Strike hard before Hitler comes north!”
Whenever the big map of Scandinavia was displayed on the board for Geography class, Erik tried to look for the strange Finnish names written on the back of the envelope but either the map was too big, or the places his brother was writing from too small, for he never found them. It had been a long time since he last looked, but he would look tomorrow: Honkaniemi said the letter now burning in his pocket, the first letter in many weeks.
At the crest of the hill, the boy stopped to catch his breath. Hot blood and cold air bred thunder into his cheeks, and it hurt when he rubbed them with his mitten. Below and around him, black fields lay freshly ploughed, the smell of sleeping earth mixed with manure suddenly sharp in his nostrils. The crows rose and wheeled again, intent on something Erik did not see. How far could they fly, those birds, if they had to? To Finland?
His brother’s regiment had ridden their bicycles all the way to Stockholm which on the big school map was distant one quarter of the whole length of Sweden, but somehow Erik did not think the Swedish volunteers had gone to Finland by bicycle. It did not seem warlike enough. Besides, there was water in between — real water, immense water, not like the ditches and brooks that crisscrossed the sleeping landscape around him. Sometimes when standing in front of the map, he imagined the water full of swimming dragons and great big fish with lanterns for eyes, but such fantasies were nonsense, mother said.
“Hey birds!” he cried to crows. “If you see my brother, tell him I’ve got his letter!”
The boy rode down the hill, his scarf riding the wind behind him. He tried to remember what the last letter had said but it was hard: his brother did not write much and all the letters seemed to say the same thing. ‘It is so cold — it is so dark — we are freezing something terrible — we are so few — they are so many — the Mannerheim Line cannot hold — this winter will never end — please write soon.’
The Winter War was what they called it on the radio: Mayor Andersson’s twin daughters had come to school one day, breathless with information. No one in the countryside had a radio but everyone knew what was happening: Sweden and the other good nations would help sister-Finland kill the Soviet bear, and now that deed had a name.
The boy thought he knew what winter meant. He knew the sting of the water pump and the bitter pain of skin lost to its bite. He knew the wet chill of winter nights when ice formed on the pail in the kitchen and his mother moved his bed nearer the stove for fear that he would catch a cold of the chest. He knew that sodden fields forgot how to make turnips and wheat and potatoes, and that fallen branches would burn poorly and make no heat. Both meant poor eating. Perhaps that is what his brother meant when he wrote that Finland was cold and hard. Perhaps Finland was just like this, like the black mud with its crows and willows and endless hills. Perhaps Suomi was just like Southern Sweden.
Yet, winter in Southern Sweden was not endless, and even on the coldest days, the sun peered over the horizon to warm his face. Winter was just another season, one neatly bookended by apple picking and pumpkin gathering in autumn and by the arrival of migrant birds and outdoor hide-and-seek as soon as the last gleam of snow had melted away. Even for a boy in the poorest of cottages, winter was bearable, for it was short. Perhaps that is why the good nations had decided to call it the Winter War: they would be quick to kill the bear and set free sister-Finland. The thought was like fire in the boy’s chest.
“The Winter War! The Winter War!” His voice disappeared among the willows but the boy kept chanting anyway, cheeks glowing, mud flying, the bicycle rattling down the hill. Complaining, the crows scratched an arch into the setting sun and scattered across a field beyond the cottage at the end of the road. Smoke was streaming grey from its chimney. It was Erik’s job now to fill the wood basket, to feed the hens and to bring in water from the frosty pump, but he was proud to do the chores his brother had always done, and their father before him, and he rarely dillydallied.
“The sooner you do it, the sooner it is over” his mother would always say as if it were self-evident, but to Erik, it seemed like not everyone knew this: sister-Finland had to wait for a long time for the good nations to help her. If no one had dillydallied, the Winter War could have been an Autumn War and then his brother would have been home for Christmas.
But even Magister Berg did not seem to understand this simple thing. In fact, the big war seemed to be more about space than time. In school, the magister pointed to the big map of Europe, his pointer bringing fire to the little dots that were towns and villages and fields.
“The Danzig Corridor is named for the free city of Danzig” — the pointer made a scratching sound against the map — “and now Hitler is a stone’s throw from breathing Scandinavian air” — another scratching sound as the pointer drew a circle. “Jenny, can you tell us why battles are named for places and not people?” Small Jenny Andersson had looked petrified.
“Because the places are always there? Or because all the battles are Hitler or the Soviets, and no one will remember the little men who died?” Erik did not remember Magister Berg’s response but he recalled the impulse to retreat into dreaming: to imagine what his brother was doing in sister-Finland, and to examine memories of their playing in the wheat field, or spying on the sleeping owls in the hayloft, or chasing newborn foals through the summer grass. War, it seemed to him, was a waste of time.
The letter was alive in his pocket. Uncharacteristically, the envelope bore only his mother’s name, typed instead of handwritten, but the watermarked paper was the same as always, and the Suomi on the back was the same Suomi.
The boy patted his pocket gently. ‘Dear mother and Erik the letter might say. I am a fighter in the Winter War. I will slay the Russian bear. A flying dragon will carry me and his breath will freeze everything. Then I will ride my bicycle across the immense water and be home in time to plant the garden.’ The boy frowned against the wind. No, that did not sound right. ‘Dear mother and Erik’ it would read. ‘It is winter, eternal winter, winter without end. Day and night I freeze and day and night I must keep awake or never wake again. Snow grows in the fields. Snow grows on the lake. Snow grows in our souls.’ The bicycle crashed through a frozen puddle, carving a wound into the road. Snow grows in our souls.
Erik shook his head at himself, unsure of where the lump in his throat had come from. Magister Berg’s big ruler would have bitten into his knuckles for such fantasies. He wished he knew just one thing about the foreign place his brother was writing from, one thing to anchor his fluttering thoughts. Then he shrugged, like only boys can, and pushed on.
On the south side of the hill, the road was wetter, the melted snow but a memory of mud. Erik got off his bicycle. It would not do to fall, to soil the precious letter. At the foot of the hill, a single crow had landed in the last knotted willow. It seemed to be standing guard: a solitary soldier protecting a secret in a world of wind and whirling birds. Up close, it did not look much like a crow at all and with a start, Erik realized what it was: an eagle owl. Immobile, its feathers blended into the shadowy crown of the tree, making it as invisible as the words inside the unopened envelope. Only its eyes gave it away: eyes blinking ablaze, the same pulsating fire as the setting sun. Owl and boy looked at each other, each an echo of the color in the world around them — feathers black and white, mittens black and red; each an anchor for an unseen ship ferrying messages across the hills. Did my brother send you? The question seemed to burn a hole in Erik’s chest, in the very place he imagined his soul was dwelling.
“What are you guarding?” Erik asked instead but suddenly he saw it: yellow dots circling the tree. Inching closer, one eye on the bird, one on the ground, feet sliding, bike heavy… yes yes yes yes yes. The boy gave out a shout and threw his mittens in the air, the bicycle kissing his knee as it fell to the ground, forgotten. Mud flying, eyes brimming, he tore into the buttercups.
“Up, up you Northern owl!” he shouted to the owl as it rose westward on silent wings, the last flash of black in a burning world. “Up, up! It is spring! It is spring!”
Driven by a thin voice shouting, the woman opened the door. He had left the bicycle up by the big willow tree, she noticed, and his mittens were gone. Besides, he was late again. He was always late, her Erik, wandering around with a head full of dreams and fantasies and thoughts much too big for a schoolboy. Marrying a dreamer had produced more dreamers: first the oldest one with his fantasies of solidarity, and then the younger one with his dragons and swords and dreams. Now, her youngest was waving something in both hands, something that the gleam of sunset dyed redder than blood.
“Here, mother” he managed, chest heaving with joy. “The last letter.”
And taking it from his hand, she knew what he did not, her eyes taking in the jubilant smile, the frozen hands, the streak of mud clear across his face – a blaze in black, much like the blaze of white on a newborn foal.
Behind the cottage an owl screeched, once.
Emma Ljung is a classical archaeologist who splits her time between Rocky Hill, where she lives, Princeton University, where she teaches academic writing to freshmen, and Portugal, where she runs an excavation in the summer.