This is where life begins and life ends, Sirppa thought. Where Finnish and Soviet presidents seal their national interests away from prying eyes, where freshwater crayfish are boiled with fragrant dill and fistsfulls of salt in a man-sized watertank over a wooden fire. This is where the sweet sweat of lovers soaks into the ash or birch of the same benches where the dead are cleansed for the last time. Shadows of worries, stress and vodka evaporating in hundred degree heat. Like phoenixes, men, women and children let themselves be engulfed by the heat and emerge reborn after they’ve immersed themselves in cold water. Only to repeat the ritual, again and again.
When the first löyly hissed on the hot stones, when the first cloud of steam hit her body and rose towards the ceiling, Sirppa cried tears of happiness.
She hadn’t expected it to be so emotional. Hadn’t known that the memory of the body could be so powerful.
The ritual of undressing. Of sitting close together in a hot dark room smelling of smoke and new pine timber, with only a small window near the ceiling letting in a rectangle of hazy light. Dusk is the perfect time for a sauna, she thought. As the light grew soft, the orange flames were left to rule over faces and bodies inhabiting this most intimate of spaces. Small talk and laughter, sighs of pleasure before everyone relaxed back, softboned, glistening with sweat. Only the roaring of the fire, the hiss of water ladled onto hot stones, and the embers caving in with a rustling interrupted the meditative silence. Occasionally a sparkling pine log went off with a loud crack causing the children, who preferred to sit on the lower benches where it was cooler, to jump and giggle.
‘It’s not a good idea to breathe through the nose,’ the mothers reminded them, ‘the membranes in your nose will stick together.’
But every now and then the bathers couldn’t resist. They’d file the fresh scent of this new sauna in the back of their memories, something to bring out decades later, when amber teardrops have seeped out of the darkened pine walls and trickled down the wall like burnt sugar. The fresh pine smoothened the raw smoke from the fire, mingled with the citrus freshness of the birch leaves whenever someone picked up the vihta, the soaked bundle of leafy silver birch twigs, from its bucket and placed it on the hot stones – just for a moment to please the olfactory senses and soften the twigs – before carefully whipping their calves, thighs, stomachs, backs.
‘Careful, it stings,’ Leila reprimanded one of the teenagers. ‘Not enough space to allow for a good whipping with all of us in here. Sirppa, how about some löyly.’
Sirppa didn’t mind the hot air whirling around. She picked up Rauno’s skillfully crafted copper ladle with its wrought iron and birch wood handle, threw a scoop of hot water from the boiler onto the stones. Then she dipped her hands in a wooden pail with cool water and covered her eyes, nose and mouth. Dirt and oily residue dissolving into sweat, all worries evaporating in a cloud of steam.
The women and children had been allocated the first sauna shift, with the men to follow once they were done. No one was fooled into thinking it was an act of kindness: the men planned to crank up the temperature a further twenty degrees and bathe sauna the better part of the night.
‘Ah, yes,’ Leila said and sprawled out on a towel on the top bench. Sirppa and Leila were the last ones left, now on their fourth sauna round, and starting to sense they were nearing the point of exhaustion. ‘The lads will assess the strengths and weaknesses of the stove for hours, using every excuse to pass around the vodka bottle.’
There was a note of jealousy in her voice. Sirppa cast a glance at her friend, but it was already so dark in the corners that she couldn’t distinguish Leila’s features.
‘Then they’ll check whether the layer of smaller stones on top is sufficiently dense to protect the larger ones at the bottom, keeping them hot and dry, protecting the fire. I bet you.’ She dipped a hand in the pail of cool water, ran it over her eyes, down the slippery slope of her full breasts, her firm stomach.
Leila was a good-looking woman underneath her clothes Sirppa noted with a tinge of envy. A lusciousness to her curvy body, made for sculpting in clay with loving hands. In comparison Sirppa’s body looked like a tomboy’s with its narrow hips and shoulders, no more than a handful of breast.
Leila sighed. ‘Antero’s got another woman.’
Sirppa waited, her throat dry from her quickened breath, rapid and shallow mouthfuls of hot air. Leila seemed lost in her own thoughts. ‘How do you know?’
‘How can I not know?’
‘You could be mistaken.’
‘Do you know who it is?’
‘I know it’s not me. Suspected he had it in for that Russian bird Mauno picked up. Now, who knows? Is it you?’ She laughed, a bitter laugh.
Sirppa squirmed in the darkness and wished Leila hadn’t brought up the subject. There was an awkward silence.
‘Ah, forget what I said. I’ll stick it out, forever the dutiful housewife, no one will ever know. But the humiliation, Sirppa, you’ve got no idea.’
‘If there’s anything… ’
‘Nah. Forget it.’
They fell silent. Sirppa threw three scoops of water on the stones to get a chance to shift her limbs. The stove hissed and spat and took revenge by spewing out a cloud of hot steam.
‘No, sepäs kunnon löyly!’ Leila stretched, catlike, and with visible pleasure she started to whip herself with the silver birch bundle, heart-shaped leaves sticking to her glossy skin.
‘And later,’ she said, choking with laughter as she placed the vihta back into its bucket of water, ‘the guys will try to outdo one another in outlasting löyly after löyly, with the poor locals gasping for air, until they have to run away with their tails between their legs, out into the cool night.’
They burst out laughing, equally delighted and amused at the familiar predictability of bathing sauna again. As they dressed, she heard Leila’s voice in the darkness, fluttering like the lonely candle left on the window sill.
‘He’s a terrible flirt, you know. Always has been.’
‘This is heaven on earth!’ Antero stretched out his limbs in all directions to absorb as much heat as possible.
‘Hey, keep your tentacles and your balls to yourself,’ Olli-Pekka grunted and Eero shifted a couple of inches.
Antero chuckled and crossed his legs and arms. ‘More wood on the fire, Rauno.’
Rauno was already stowing in as many logs as the oven could hold.
‘Pity we couldn’t get logs to make a proper log cabin,’ Eero said. Tasman mills hadn’t been willing to part with that kind of premium material. The end result was a modest weatherboard structure with small windows and a chimney squatting on a concrete foundation by the river. After some deliberation it had been painted white.
‘It’s the inside that counts.’ Olli-Pekka threw two scoops of hot water on the stones and let the steam engulf him. ‘Aaaah, this is what a man needs.’
The men bathed and changed places, oscillating between the washing room, the sauna and the bench outside. Eero and Tamati entered the sauna as Antero and Rauno were discussing the construction of the stove – a hundred-pint-effort as Antero called it.
‘The stones are not bad.’ Antero nodded towards Tamati, who was struggling with the most savage löyly, but otherwise seemed to enjoy every bit of the experience.
‘Told you hangi stones would work. Plenty more where those came from,’ Tamati said, grimacing in the heat. Somebody upped and left and he quickly claimed the corner, wrapping a towel around him and putting as much space as he could between himself and the sweaty naked bodies of the others. Two of the managers at the mill had been invited, Kiwis both of them, but they hadn’t lasted long.
‘How about it?’ Antero pulled the vihta out of the bucket and offered it to Tamati. The leaves that had not been immersed in water now wilted from the heat.
Tamati’s eyewhites glinted in the twilight. ‘I’m not into kinky.’
For a moment Antero stared at him, then he roared with laughter and slapped him on the shoulder. Tamati gave him a lopsided grin and tried to squeeze himself further into the corner.
Seeing his discomfort, Eero tried to put him at ease by explaining there was nothing sexual about a sauna. ‘It has as much to do with sex as church has to do with sex,’ he said, which sparked a raft of rude priest jokes.
‘You crazy lot,’ Tamati shook his head and relaxed back against the wall.
As the laughter ebbed, the natter slid back to paper territory, traversing the week’s trials for the start up of the newsprint production. Their first year in Kawerau was drawing to a close. No one had envisaged it would take this long to get the pulp and paper production going. Looking back, it had been a most unusual year.
Olli-Pekka wiped trails of sweat off his face. ‘Remember when I told you at the pub back home that I was heading overseas?’
‘Sure do. It was after talking to you that I decided to make a last ditch attempt for an interview.’
Olli-Pekka chuckled and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, his hands dangling loosely between his legs. So close, Eero thought. He could have missed this opportunity. On some mornings he still woke with a smile, feeling a wave of amazement washing over him. Sirppa, too, seemed to enjoy living in this part of the world. She’d found a job, made friends. As far as he could tell she was doing swimmingly. He’d hoped her longing for a baby would cease over time, but it hadn’t. If anything, coming here had merely fanned the embers. He’d given up years ago. If it was meant to be, they would have had a little one by now. Maybe he was getting too old.
Fleetingly he remembered another girl, much like Sirppa, with blonde hair and a full moon belly. The way she’d implied he was to blame for her state. His refusal to shoulder responsibility for something he’d never intended. Everyone knew she’d gone out with other men. Still, he hadn’t exactly handled himself like a gentleman. Blame it on youth, more than a quarter of a century ago. He wasn’t dry behind his ears when it happened, yet he could still feel the burning shame and the sneaking suspicion at having been set up.
But once you scraped the surface, something he hadn’t dared to do in years, there loomed the what if? What if she’d been genuine? What if he had a son or daughter out there whom he’d turned his back on?
He sighed and scooped a handful of water out of the bucket to wash the stinging sweat out of his eyes.
In between the steam sessions the men hosed themselves down with cold water, or wrapped a towel around their waists and went outside to cool down before they went back for seconds and thirds.
The Finns took turns manning the bench in the cool night air, nursing their beers to make them last longer, downing a shot of vodka to celebrate their collective success while they shared yarns about their faraway homeland. Matti told Tamati that back home these kinds of benches were called liar’s benches because of the tall tales told year after year by men who wore out several bottoms of trousers in the course.
Eero listened in silence to the meandering stories. He rubbed one foot against the other, taking pleasure from feeling the clean skin between his toes, the way the bones seemed newly joined together, purged of all tension. He felt his legs and shoulders growing heavy. The stars had come out. Someone chuckled in the soft darkness.
Wedged in between the memories were new stories, new people that had caught the Finns’ attention and imagination. He noted unfamiliar threads being woven into the legend about these crazy bastards that had travelled across the world, only to end up on the Tarawera ash plains. This is our story, he thought, leaning back against the wall of the sauna building.