Summer 2007 [Issue No. 12]
Black Star out of Heaven ▪► Leif Nikunen
He was seven years old; he remembered that day.
It was on that day, Midsummerís Eve of 1922, that the owners of the threshing machine company called The Bull were to gather at Reinholt Strandís farm to decide whether to sell their machines to that old iron monger, that Old Ironpaws, Isaac Silbernagel. It was on that day, too, that he, Gustav Vilho Strand, age 7, would become part owner in a black star that fell out of heaven. Of which there may have been omens about, it seemed to him years and decades later, when he came out of the yellow stucco house that morning to stand belt-high among the men who were arriving in cars that parked south of the house under the elm trees. The very motion of those shiny automobiles seemed to him, recalling it long afterward, something like the passage of great suns and stars across the heavens, shining and swaying in great arcs and circles around him at the very center of that round circle of prairie sky, to dock on the green grass under the elms, arranging themselves in rows. As though the sons of the tribes of the great lights of heaven had left their accustomed courses and come down here to gather in a flock beside a gunmetal-gray river on a farmstead in South Dakota. It also seemed to him the car driven by Bela, the Tiillikovsí hired man from across the road, was surely the brightest, blackest of the lot; he distinctly remembered thinking it was as shiny as a black star.
Under the trees he heard the insurance salesman, Anders Hendriksson, saying to Bela, What kind of car, young man?
That? A 1915 Mercer Raceabout.
Oh, a 1915 Mercer Raceabout. And is it fast?
Fast. Ha! Yes, it is fast.
Fast. Then I hope you carry life insurance, Anders said. Because you never know what might happen in this world, this side of the Lord's country. True wisdom is to be prepared.
This was that Anders Hendriksson, fresh from the sea all those decades before, who had found in a Massachusetts library an old 1855 pamphlet published by the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York that said: "Life Assurance, then, rests on Divine Law, as its only true basis; and the assured, in so doing, at once places himself under the protection of this law. Hence it banishes speculation from society, and brings all things in subjection to Divine government and will." Enough to turn Anders, a devout Laestadian Lutheran, onto his new life's course, selling life insurance to Swedish and Finnish Lutheran immigrants. His arrival in South Dakota confirmed to him that this was God's will for him when God sent a sign out of heaven, a star that fell in broad daylight, not a month after Anders had arrived. It killed a pig.
Or truthfully, it fell into a hog pasture and might easily have killed a pig, if there had been a pig handy; and in later years it certainly seemed to Anders that it had. What kind of a pig? Old Hans Hanson once asked. That would be the kind of question he would ask; he set great weight on the importance of good bloodlines in livestock; and Anders answered that he wasnít exactly sure of the breed, the falling star had hit it so hard, but it had a red hide.
Tamworth, probably, Old Hans Hanson had said. Good bacon animal.
Yes, Anders said, the farmer had mentioned that very thing. And had stood there, grieving, while Anders and some other workmen had dug the meteor out of the hog pasture. He distinctly recalled the farmer saying, to no one in particular, And that pig wasnít insured, neither.
(Once in 1917 when he had told the story in the lobby of the James River Valley Farmers Cooperative, Anders Hendriksson had paused fatefully to recall that moment and said, I took it as a sign.
Bill Nelson, the manager, had asked, Sign of what?
Isaac Silbernagel, who was dealing in grain besides iron in those war years and happened to be there on business just then, had said, signing a grain order with the star of David over the Ďií of his last name, A sign God doesnít like pigs, it seems pretty clear. But you ought to know that, gentlemen, from reading your Bibles.)
But that wasnít it at all. These years later, Anders was sure the pig had died, and the farmer had spoken just those words, and the weight of what he was saying, his great misfortune, the fact that the pig was not insured, all these signs and tokens had sunk down deep in his spirit and made him see clear through to the Satanic disorder at the root of things and the God-given solution, namely, Insurance ó or Life Assurance, as Anders still liked to say ó the Means to banish Speculation and subject all Things to Divine Government and Divine Will. And if that wasnít sign enough, when he helped dig out the meteorite he even chipped a piece off with a spade. Nobody else could break off a piece, it was so hard, but he had the good fortune to see a small fissure in the rock and drove his spade right there and chipped it off. A piece of a star that he always kept on his desk as a paperweight, until he was elected chairman of the Bergstadius Farmers Equity Grain Cooperative. Then he fashioned it into the hammer for a gavel, which he used afterward to chair the meetings. It seemed to him then that he had the grave weight of heaven standing with him when he made decisions. In fact, it seemed to Anders that the gavel made of meteorite was the perfect expression of Divine Government, and that, metaphysically, the very act of the meteorís slamming to earth ó that is, Godís intervention in the terrestrial Ė was repeated every time he used the gavel to make a blow on the table, lending universal weight and approval to the boardís actions on contracts with the Milwaukee Road to carry malting barley, for example.
Nearly everyone scoffed at Anders and his meteorite, with one notable exception ó that old fiddler and Communist, Kasimir Lahti. Kasimir coveted it. Kasimir Lahti saw it first when he came to ask Anders about insurance for the chicken house he was living in. Kasimir thought it remarkable that a rock that had traveled round the sun and to the far corners of the solar system was now residing here, on a desk in Bergstadius, South Dakota. Before Anders could stop him, he had picked it up and was holding it in his hand.
Well, imagine that. A star, hey? he said to Anders. I'll buy it from you.
You wonít either, itís not for sale, Anders replied. And you wouldnít have money to buy it if it was. You never have money.
That was true, Kasimir had to agree. However, he had several rare books about theosophy, which he no longer believed in ó he would give them to Anders.
I donít read that heathen stuff, Anders said. But maybe I will leave you this stone when I die.
Really? Do you promise?
No, I don't promise, I have to think about it first. It's not as though we're relatives, Anders said.
But Anders was secretly honored that Kasimir appreciated his bit of star so much. Kasimir held the pocked, pebbly stone in his palm the whole time he was there, like a child, and after that he took to stopping in at Andersí office and asking hypothetical questions Ė would it pay to insure a crib of corn when the price was so much a bushel, and why or why not? A pointless question, because Kasimir Lahti had never owned a crib of corn and never would; but Anders realized soon enough that he had really only come by to visit that black star. Kasimir would choose the chair closest to where it sat upon the desk and absently reach out and touch it, maybe even pick it up and hold it, unless Anders saw him coming first and put it in his own pocket out of meanness. Sometimes on those occasions, or at other times when he saw Anders outside the office, Kasimir would say, Remember about that star. What we talked about. What you were going to think about.
But if there were other people about, he would only make eye contact with Anders and then nod, ever so slightly, so that Anders, with some exasperation, knew what he was thinking. Heís waiting for me to die, the old heathen, Anders thought. And expecting me to give it to him for nothing.
Kasimir Lahti had begun to read Veddic hymns and Indian epics at about that time, ancient fairy tales that he found as wise as Karl Marx. These things quickly led him to the realization that he had romped through past lives.
And when you have lived as many lives as I have, what is it that makes one life worth insuring over the rest of them? Kasimir Lahti said. Maybe this life is worse than the next one I will have, so why should I insure it, as though it is particularly valuable? Maybe the smart thing would be to just blunder on through to the next one.
That is more of your heathen nonsense, Anders said.
Nonsense? No. It is an education, Kasimir said. I retain much of what I learned in past lives. Navigation, for instance.
Yes. Having served as an ordinary sailor with the great English explorer, Captain James Cook. No doubt this is why I love the sea so deeply and felt quite at home on the trip over from Finland. Oh, some others on the ship were sick, but I wasnít. In fact I could sense pretty well our direction, our speed, the next dayís weather, all that sort of thing, and that is why: I still retained the knowledge of that old seaman.
Ha, Anders had said. Then maybe we should get together and trade stories. Iíll tell you some true things and you can make something up. An old seaman like you.
The truth is, it is all there, but I cannot remember it whenever I wish. It is only at certain times, a breath of wind, the flapping of clothes on the line Ö suddenly I hear wind in the sails. Or when I look at that star on your desk. It brings back for a moment the sight of the stars in the South Seas, and a great shower of them coming down upon us, a shower of fire raining down upon the sea.
It was this Kasimir Lahti whose life was to be linked forever to that of Gustav Vilho Strand on that day, Midsummerís Eve of 1922, St. Johnís Eve. For along with the farmers and the shiny autos under the trees, Kasimir Lahti had suddenly appeared in that way he had, which he perhaps cultivated because it conveyed a sense of mystery. One moment he wasnít there, and the next he was, holding his fiddle under one arm and swinging his bow like a sword in his hand, absently. He was staring intently at the gray sheen of the Jim River, sliding away toward the great duck hunting marshes a mile south.
Itís times like these I miss the sea, he said somberly, as though speaking to himself. And the unknown stars above uncharted lands.
He happened to be standing quite close to Anders Hendriksson, drawn like dust to a starís orbit to that point in time and space, and Anders said, What? Since when did you know the sea enough to miss it?
When I sailed with Captain Cook, I mean.
Oh, yes, your adventures with Cook. Iíd forgotten about that.
One time Cook said to me Ė we were both upon deck and there were stars dripping down upon us like hot candlewax, great signs and portents ó and he says to me, Blaine ó that was my name at that time ó Blaine, did you ever see such a thing in northern latitudes? Who will go and catch me a falling star? Who is man enough and clever enough to do it in the interests of science? Could you?
He was just speaking playful, you know. And I says to him, Captain, I will. And he gave a long silent pause, looking at the sea and the heavens, and then he says to me, Itís a strange thing, Blaine, but I believe you. One day you will hold such fire in your hand. To some few it is given.
Captain Cook said all that? Anders said.
Yes. Funny how his words come back to me now, when I look upon that star.
You know, Kasimir, I believe you donít even know anymore when youíre lying, Anders Hendriksson said. It is the sign of mastery in your chosen field.
Lying. And what need is there for lying when the truth is so strange, Kasimir Lahti said. Itís pure fact that some memories survive the grave and the journey into the new life. I have already verified that to my own satisfaction with what I remember of other lives.
Maybe youíve told me about all of that, but I didnít pay it any mind.
I donít like to boast of it. But the fact is, I was once a kingís son in Greece.
And thatís a noble heritage. Though it does seem a bit of a come-down now to find you living in a chicken house in South Dakota.
Yes, vicious fate. That shack is so cold when the wind is out of the northwest. But when I consider that I have also been a leatherworker in India in a past life, then I consider my present lot is not so bad. I see I seek the Golden Mean.
Well, just let me know if you ever need Life Assurance for your present life or those still to come. Iím afraid I cannot help with the ones that are past ó the leatherworker, or the Greek king, or the sailor who sailed with Cook.
You already know my thoughts on life insurance.
Yes, and I know you are foolish. A wiser head will think it through to the end. Isaac Silbernagel, for instance, will surely have insurance. Doubtless he thought about it before he ever tendered an offer on the old machinery of The Bull.
Anders went on then about how iron was one of the mysteries of this fallen world, always waiting to rebel and squeeze out from under the hand of Providence and cause accidents. True wisdom knew what the answer was to that, and it was Life Assurance ó a man with God-given reason could see it clearly. Anders sold insurance even to people who weren't Laestadian Lutherans, but he always did it with a pained look in his eyes that might have been conscience, as though he were sharing the cup of God's blessing with an infidel. Looking mournful even as he accepted payment.
How wonderful, he sometimes told Abe Jutila, the Laestadian pastor, to sell life insurance and do the work of Providence. Subjecting everything to Divine Government. Because you never know, do you? That's the long and short of it. This side of the Lord's country, you never know. God gives wisdom, and the truest wisdom is to be braced for any circumstance.
But not even he, not even Anders, could have braced for the change in perceptions, like the shifting of great continental plates, that was to toss his career off balance that very day.
There was to be an election that fall after harvest, according to the procedures set forth in the Bergstadius Farmers Equity Grain Cooperative. If Vilho Strand hadnít already known about that from listening to his father talk about the lamentable lack of qualified candidates, he would have learned it from watching Anders Hendriksson, beside him, begin laughing mirthlessly as another car drove up and stopped. It was only Pavel Tiillikov, from across the river, with Fred Bay beside him and Bill Bay, Torvald Jumisko and young Tom Rauma in back. And also someone else: Palmer Odegaard, the photographer. The Bays and Torvald and Tom Rauma wore baseball mitts on their left hands, and Torvald had a baseball that he socked into the web of his. Palmer had his big box camera and a tripod.
Anders Hendriksson took off his spectacles, mopped them and put them back on and said, Oh, my word. There he is. Torvald Jumisko himself. The man who says he is running against me for a seat on the board.
Then Anders lifted his voice and said, Ho, who is in this carload of adventurers? I did not even know you gentlemen had purchased shares in The Bull threshing machine company.
This lot? They're as poor as tailors, how could they afford to buy shares? Pavel said. No, they only came to play baseball when the business meeting is over. Or maybe before it starts. I invited them. And I asked Palmer to come and take a photo of the threshing rig. Just for old timesí sake, you know, if we really end up selling it.
Oh, you invited them. Well. And you don't own shares either, it's your brother Anton whoís the shareholder, isn't it so? But be that as it may. Welcome. Fine, take a photograph. Iíd like a print myself. And a nice day to get out the vote, if you really intend to run for a seat on the co-op board, Torvald. But maybe that was just a rumor, about your running?
It's pure fact, not rumor.
Well, good. The more the merrier. That will be an adventure for you, and itís adventure young men crave, isnít it?
Adventure, Torvald Jumisko said. I had some thoughts about adventure when I was clinging to the icy sides of an overturned boat, trying to keep my head out of the White Sea. It occurred to me that adventureís highly overrated.
Anders Hendriksson coughed; the conversation was going a dangerous direction. Anders had always felt his own voyages and adventures were distinguishing marks that set him aside from other candidates when heíd sought and won election to the co-op board. But this Jumisko had been at sea and had adventures too, of a rather ordinary sort. But the man was an extraordinary blowhard and managed to pump them up to sound more impressive. To top all that, he was on the church board for the Vaasa Evangelical Lutheran Church and could count on a good share of the high-church vote.
Well, I might be wrong about it, probably this will be a dull and boring election after all. Certainly I donít run for office because I lack excitement. Myself, I would gladly go home and tend to my business, if I could. But of course it's the will of the people that matters, and theyíre the ones who keep sending me back to serve them. Who knows why, except perhaps that Iíve traveled a bit more than most and have had more than my share of rough doings, and I donít mean on a little skating pond like the White Sea, I mean out in the Pacific, the oceanís broad back. Itís true that all that gives a man a way of setting things right. I've never lost an election, but who knows? This might be your lucky year.
There is a photograph that survives of them all standing in front of the two threshing machines of The Bull, underneath the trees by their black cars, and Bela Emberís the blackest and shiniest of the lot. Palmer Odegaard took that photograph because the clouds were so fine and heíd nothing to do just then, no one had offered him coffee or anything, and the clouds were just right and the sun just so. He gave the photo six years later to Torvald Jumisko when Torvald, after three consecutive terms on the local co-op board, was first elected to the state Senate. At the bottom someone has written in black ink, Future State Sen. Torvald Jumisko, third from left, St. Johnís Eve, 1922.
Kasimir Lahti is in that photograph, too, with his violin cradled lovingly and prominently in his arms, and two places down from him is the Lutheran minister, Abe Jutila. Some minutes after that photo was taken, or maybe it was some time before, Abe Jutila stepped up beside Kasimir and said, Itís a bit disconcerting, the way you hold that thing. Reminds me of a coffin. I had to bury a baby once. It was one of the Makinen children, Frithiofís twin.
And Kasimir Lahti said, Well, considering that Iíve come here today to sign up workers to go to Karelia and help build the Soviet State, and considering that the papers are inside along with my fiddle, you could say itís a coffin, for a fact. For the burial of capitalism.
I donít see it coming to that, Abe Jutila said meekly.
You donít see the end of religion, either, but that also is in sight. Those things are inevitable, my reverend friend. They are the imperative sentences of history, they are as sure as ó as that black star of Anders Hendrikssonís, Kasimir said. Itís another thing the universe has spoken. Neuvostoliiton nousu, the rise of the Soviet Union. The very image in society of a mighty star striking the earth.
It is Christ who spoke the universe. If the universe says anything, it only repeats what it has heard from Christ, Abe Jutila said. And what Anders Hendriksson has in his pocket there, that is nothing but misplaced punctuation from the speaking of galaxies and stars. I donít think the universe said anything with that star. Nor with the rise of the Soviet Union.
The liberty of the worker is the whole end of man. The beginning of the kingdom, Kasimir said.
But Abe Jutila, the Laestadian minister said, Well, I have asked God about that. He has told me a thing about the Soviet Union, but it wasnít that.
What did he tell you?
He said, A Babylonian captivity.
What, just that?
What does it mean?
I donít know.
It was Midsummerís Eve, 1922, and Abe Jutila, the Laestadian Lutheran minister, went to get more coffee from the table under the elm trees. And that table is in the photograph that Palmer Odegaard shot that day, and that coffee urn is at the very edge of that sepia-tinted image, merging into the dark trunk of an elm like part of the pillar that holds up the world.
Vilho found himself standing behind Natalia Tiillikov as she poured Anders Hendriksson a cup of tea from the samovar. He was saying, As long as you are pouring, Natalia. It puts me in mind of the time I sailed the bark Amphriti in the China trade. We saw the inside of a typhoon that time. The sea dead flat and still like melted lead and the sun blood-red. I felt in mortal danger when the wind began to blow. Oh, it's plenty I've seen at sea, the great whales and Chinawomen with dolls' feet and tattooed savages dancing naked on the shore. But never did I feel so close to death as then.
Vilho realized that something was going on then like cocks fighting out in the sun in the yard, only here it was in the shade of the elms and the yellow stucco house, between Anders and Torvald Jumisko. They were both speaking their bruised and battered stock of English because Andersí first tongue was Swedish and Torvaldís was Finnish, and neither would do the other the honor of coming over into his language; or maybe they both wanted to show how proficient they were in English, the language of government here in America.
Torvald Jumisko said, Close to death, did you say? Ha. As to that, it's three days I spent in the deep one time, like Jonah. And that was not in the boat, but alongside it, clinging to a capsized hull. So if we are talking about being close to death, well, that is as close as I wish to be.
Anders Hendriksson turned red with anger, like a big red toad: the mere thought of him, Torvald Jumisko, not even one of the owners of The Bull threshing machine company, leaning against the doorjamb with a cup and a rusk in his hands, and campaigning, campaigning by God, with his blowhard stories.
Anders clacked his false teeth together, coughed, and said, The sea looked like blood, really that color, when the sun came through those clouds that morning. And I could see we were in for it.
Three days in the deep, Torvald said.
Hah, Bjorn Tomasson said, it was two days in the deep, the last time you told that story. Maybe it was one day, the time before that.
It was three days, Torvald said. Staring death in the face.
Now that I think of it, Anders Hendriksson said, that typhoon wasn't my closest brush with death at sea. Believe it or not, the only time I almost lost my life to fire was on board ship, gentlemen, surrounded by water. Yes, believe it or not, on board the Amphriti ó no, it wasn't either, it was a trip I made on board a little Baltic trader called the Sarah. And Sarah was 90 years old, we used to say. As a joke, Torvald ó it's a line from the Bible. But really she was old, and dry. And we were sitting outside of Pšrnu one evening at the end of April, just after St. George's Day because we were taking on a new hand, a peasant from the country who'd just lost his lease, oh, he was a sorrowful chap, lonely for his soggy bit of barley ground and wet cattle prairies, and that evening the cook tipped over a lantern in the kitchen. An oil fire, we put it out with seawater and flour. But there was no dinner to speak of that night and maybe not for a while after, there was such damage. That poor peasant, I don't remember his name, he must have been thinking, What's this I've run to? And the shipowner, an Estonian, too, his name was Liiv, I don't even know if he had insurance. He was under-insured, at any rate. Which is pure folly in this fallen world.
Hannu Nirk said, Was it when you were fishing on the White Sea, Torvald?
It was. My brother Erick and I. Clinging to the bottom of the fishing boat after it went over and waiting for one of the Russian fishing fleet to happen past and rescue us. We had been fishing in Russian waters for nine years by then, out of Arkhangelsk. And at last one did come by, a Russian boat, her name was Brat. I remember Erick telling the fishermen, Brother, am I glad to see you. Because there we were, you know, nothing to eat, nothing in our pockets but a deck of playing cards, and the sea was too rough to play more than a hand or two.
What did you play? Pavel Tiillikov said.
Kings in the Corner. Do you know it?
Oh, it's a good game, a Dutchman in Arkhangelsk taught me. Or maybe he was a Belgian. A fur-buyer, anyway. But we played only a hand or two on top of the tipped-over boat, half the time it was raining. Also, Erick cheats at cards, that's no fun. And finally Erick says, Torvald, if we come out of this alive, let's go to America and try the fishing there. I don't like this Russia.
After all this time, I said, and when we've already learned Russian and all? And he says, What's a language more or less? If we come safe to shore, I swear I will go to America. And he looks up at the sky, it's raining again, and says, And also I will light a candle in front of an icon of St. Nikolas. Even if I am Lutheran.
St. Nikolas, that's the patron saint of seafarers, hunters and fishermen, you know. The Russian fishermen set store by him.
Do you think that would make any difference? Lighting candles in front of icons? Seems to me that's coming close to idolatry, Anders Hendriksson said.
Well, that's what I said, too. But Erick said, Look, we're in a bad fix, lying here in Orthodox waters. It doesn't hurt to promise.
So we sat there awhile in the sea, hours, and I say to Erick, I don't think he listens to Lutherans.
Oh, of course he has to tend the Orthodox folk first, thatís only right, Erick says. I expect he has a number of prayers to answer and answers them as he gets to them. We'll see what happens.
And then by and by comes that boat right past us and fishes us out of the deep. So that is how we came on shore and then we left for America by way of Norway.
And did you light a candle for St. Nikolas? Anders asked sadly.
We tried. Erick says to me, Three nights in the deep is enough for me, a promise is a promise, let's go give St. Nikolas his due. We went to All Saints Church and asked a priest there and he seemed confused about it. Finally he told us to go over to the Lutheran Church in the German district, we must belong over there, we weren't Orthodox, but Lutheran. And maybe just make mention of St. Nikolas in a prayer, he says. But we never did that at all. Erick said to me, Forget the candles, St. Nikolas must not have had anything to do with it. It sounds like people are pretty much on their own in this country, heaven isn't even looking on. Let's go to America.
Oh, Natalia Tiillikov said. It's not true. God sees. God casts his holy eye on Russia and remembers.
That might be so but that was what Erick said, anyway. And that was 1904, imagine, we came here still that year and missed all that over there. That 1905 business and what came after. Wars and rumors of wars. We might have died.
It's just as well. I believe it was the Lord Himself who kept you safe in the water, not St. Nikolas, the Laestadian pastor, Abe Jutila, said. It's God's Holy Spirit that hovers over the face of the deep in Genesis, so why not still now sometimes? To look for shipwrecked fishermen.
And it's also He who kept you from offering false worship, Anders Hendriksson said. To think of Lutherans lighting candles in front of icons.
Gustav Vilho Strand, aged 7, suddenly found Kasimir Lahti at his shoulder again. Kasimir said, Have you ever been at sea, Gustav?
Neither have I, not lately. When I came over from Finland, of course I was then. And before that with Cook. But not to my knowledge before that. Back when I was a kingís son in Greece I had no chance, Iíd never seen the sea. We lived in the north of Greece, you understand, up around the mountains and the wild Macedonians.
Is that far from the sea?
Very far. Not as far as Dakota is, of course. But far for Greece. In fact there was one time a man came to our gates ó the palace gates, you know ó with an oar on his shoulder, and I didnít know what it was he was carrying. Thatís true. I said to him, Where are you going with that winnowing fan on your shoulder, friend? And he took the oar off his shoulder Ė a great big oar from a seagoing ship ó and he says to me, This winnowing fan. Yes. As it happens, I am coming to exactly here to this place with this winnowing fan. Do you really not know what it is that I carry?
I said, Do you mean it is not a winnowing fan?
And he said, For you, yes. Let it be a winnowing fan, he says. And here I will give thanks to the gray-eyed goddess for leading me thus far, and make sacrifices to the blue-maned god. And I have left behind me thalassa.
What does that mean?
I donít know. But he stuck his oar in the earth and killed an ox he was leading and made a sacrifice, and then he went away. Those were the curious things men did in the earth in those days. It was an interesting time to be alive. But do not ask me about being a leatherworker in India.
Later they lighted the Midsummer bonfire. That was when Bjorn Tomasson broached the subject of politics with Torvald Jumisko.
So. They say you're running for a seat on the Bergstadius Equity Grain Cooperative, Bjorn Tomasson said.
Well, yes. When I've seen something of life and operated a successful business, I think why not try this, too, Torvald Jumisko said. Especially now that they are thinking of starting an oil company. And when some on the board ó who they are, that doesn't matter ó when some on the board, all they can think about is using a bit of stone for a gavel. As though that's a great advance in public policy.
The firelight leaped high in back of them and lapped at the pale liquor in the glasses they held. There was a noise of one clearing his throat.
Oh, just a bit of stone, is it. And you'd run for office having seen something of life, is it. Myself, I would never be so bold as to say I've seen something of life. The more I see, the more I know of what I don't know, Anders Hendriksson said, coming up behind them. He had his empty tea cup in his hand. You're not going to throw your vote away, Bjorn, I know you better. And what have you seen of life anyway, young man? May I be so bold as to ask? You have an obligation to be forthright with people if you are going to be pestering them for their votes.
What haven't I seen. The White Sea, great whales, the Northern Lights. If you really want to know.
Northern Lights. Who has not seen the Northern Lights?
Ah, but I saw them north of Petsamo, there's a different matter. There was no chance of a cook stove setting our boat afire because there we didn't need a stove. We just reached up with a coffee pot and held it over the Northern Lights till it boiled.
Now you just lied, Anders said. But why not, make things up if you haven't seen anything. Tell me another lie and I'll tell you something true: that bit of stone that I made into a gavel, that's from a real star that fell from the sky in broad daylight. By Bath it was, 1892, when I worked for Mullbach digging wells. Remember that, Gustaf? Remember, Anton? Or maybe you weren't here yet, Anton.
That was before I came. I remember hearing about it, Anton Tiillikov said.
Of course you do, everybody heard about it. It weighed 46 pounds. But I saw it falling out of a clear blue sky, 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Oh, the wonders I've seen on sea and land, too. Imagine what damage it would have done to a house or barn. There were some new policies taken after that, you can bank on it.
I was working for Gottlieb Muller on a job by Bath at the time and we saw it come down and we got in the wagon and drove out there to the field where it fell. Some fellows that had been passing by were trying to dig it out already, but what did they have but a couple of sticks and fence posts. They'd sent in to Bath for picks and shovels but they didn't have anything yet. But we'd been sinking a well, we had our spades, we got down and told them, Let us through, we've got tools, and then didn't we make the dirt fly! Like badgers. I might have been the first one to hit it with a spade, I think I was. And then when we lifted it out of the ground I put a hand on it, just like that. A star that fell out of heaven. And knocked a good-sized piece off, thinking it would be good for something someday. And why not the gavel to chair meetings, if I'm chairman? If itís good enough for God to pound the earth with, itís good enough for me to pound a table.
But after all that I've seen by sea and by land, hail and other acts of God and grain chest-high to a man and the weight of a star in my palm, I'd be the last to say I know something of life. I approach public service humbly, on my knees, that's the only way I can. And no liquor in the cup, I might add, I need my wits about me if Iím to do the publicís work. And did you say, young man, you'd just like to try serving on the grain equity board for a bit, hah?
Yes, why not, Torvald Jumisko said. Since I already know what it is like to spend three days in the deep, clinging to a capsized hull, and I hear that is not so much different from what I hear of the state of the Bergstadius Equity Grain Co-op. Who they are that made her capsize, why, it's neither here or there. Iím not one to shovel out blame. I only propose to set things right. Turn the thing right-side up before she founders.
And pray to icons, no doubt. Will you have one at the meetings, I wonder? Maybe remove our portrait of George Washington and replace it with some Russian saint?
No, I hadn't thought of that at all, Torvald said. Since George Washington is the father of this great country. One thing I know I will not do is chair meetings with a black dead star in my hand that fell from heaven like something that wasnít wanted up there. Like Satan.
Like Satan, Anders Hendriksson said, and laughed.
Looking back on it later, Anders Hendriksson would say that was where he lost his bid for re-election to the co-op board right there, with those two words, and where Torvald got his start in politics. Probably Anders himself would have gone on to run for state Senate eventually, if heíd got back on the co-op board, God knows heíd thought about it. But instead Torvald is the one who got elected to the co-op board and used it as a springboard to get elected to the Legislature. All because he, Torvald, was smart enough to say those two words and because he, Anders, was foolish enough to take them up.
Like Satan, Anders had said, and laughed.
But straightaway Natalia Tiillikov said, in a shrill voice, Like Satan?
And Gustaf Nikkila, with his brows knit, looking across the circle at Mattias Iljana, both of them nodding significantly at each other, Like Satan. Hmm.
And Kasimir Lahti, with a look of revelation upon his face, Like Satan, ah!
Months later, in the winter, Anders would sit in the cafť in Bergstadius with Kasimir Lahti and poke Kasimir on the button and say, Listen, how could it be bad? It is Godís star. He gave it to me. I didnít go looking for it. It was Godís star and He gave it.
Kasimir smiled kindly; he was the only one who didnít seem to judge Anders for some enormous wickedness. He said, But letís say it wasnít God. Letís say it was the universe. What then? I do not think it was a gift. I think maybe the universe was speaking to you. Or maybe to me.
You? What do you have to do with it? Anders said.
Oh, I think that is pretty clear. Since that power in the universe knew you would give it to me, Kasimir said gently. It may not have been meant for you at all, Anders. I have this feeling that that star was meant for me, and you yourself have thought about giving it to me. I did not put that thought in your head. Do as you like with that thought, but I think you and I cannot resist that power in the universe, which we frail humans may call God. These things have a way of coming about. And your losing the election, why, that is all part of the plan, I suppose.
It was a certain thing that no Laestadians voted for Anders Hendriksson, one of their own. No matter that Anders Hendriksson stopped using his stupid tomahawk-looking gavel to chair meetings and went back to using a wooden gavel. He was secretly ashamed of the star after that and no longer even used it as a paperweight. No one knew where it had gotten to.
The truth is, Anders Hendriksson gave Kasimir Lahti the starstone a few months before he died his slow death of colon cancer in 1931, glad to be shut of it, he said. But Kasimir, when he told people about it afterward, would say that Anders had a desperate longing to hold it again afterward, he pined for it as he lay dying, so curious and mysterious is the power of stars upon men. For men were bonded somehow to stars, he had read and understood it in the book of Daniel. But no one knew whether to believe him.
Kasimir used the stone to mark his reading in Pekka Ervast's theosophical maunderings about the Kalevala at night and went about in daytime in his tweed coat, a gray book in one hand and the other stroking a rusty, smallpoxed bit of rock in his pocket, eyes on the sky, saying cryptically, Where fire is born. In heaven.
But all that was still in the future, that Midsummerís Eve of 1922. That evening Ė or was it still broad day? Ė Kasimir Lahti came over to Gustav Vilho Strand, age 7, and reached down with his empty palm and found a quarter behind Gustav's ear and gave it to him.
Ho, my lad, what a spendthrift you are. Look, you left a quarter-dollar behind your ear.
Because he liked doing magic tricks. This was that Kasimir, grown old those many years later, who bought from Neil Forsting a young crow and taught it to say: Cast a spell. A toad will do. Donít tempt a wizard.
Kasimir pretended it was two crows and called it sometimes Huginn and sometimes Muninn. Saying things like: How, Muninn? Whatís become of your fellow, sirrah? Whereís Huginn?
So that the children, at least, believed there were two ravens; one or the other being constantly employed to fly about and bring back to Kasimir Lahti news that might be useful to a wizard.
Children feared to meet him coming from the Big Store with a tin of coffee and a package of chocolate-covered graham cookies and a bag of figs and a fiddle bow or a twig of rowan in his hands, and his face red and sweating. Laestadians said he looked like he had swallowed hellfire, his face was so red, and Kasimir Lahti didnít mind if they thought so; but Gustav Vilho Strand, who was grown up by that time and was in the habit of giving Kasimir rides to Edinburg to see the doctor and buy groceries, or more rarely, books, said really it was because of the niacin Kasimirís doctor had prescribed to help him manage his cholesterol.
Kasimir Lahti in those later years was said to keep a star in his pocket and wore his overcoat loose over his shoulders like a cape, and he made the change from a dollar suddenly rain down at the feet of children from his open palm while he shouted, fiercely, glaring with wild eyes, I have three bright birds who serve me, better than those dark twins: Emotion! Intellect! Will!
Or perhaps, more gently, Children, what do you know about charms? Magic words? Listen, learn them, I will say these words only once: Sanomalehti on saatavana perjantaisin!
It meant, The newspaper is available on Fridays. Surely it was that awful Finnish word, saatavana, available, that sent the chills moving along their spines even as they groped to pick up the coins he scattered, keeping their eyes on Kasimir Lahti meanwhile, and that rowan twig or fiddle bow twitching in his sorcerous hands Ö
But when Gustav, still a child, reached out to take the quarter that St. John's Eve in 1922, it disappeared.
Reino Makinen said, Hmm. And I thought you only knew how to make corn liquor disappear.
It's true, I swallow such fire, I am kin to fire, why should I lie? Kasimir Lahti said, and he pulled the quarter out of thin air again and gave it to Gustav, who put it in his pocket. And Kasimir Lahti leaned close to the boy and said, Listen, Gustav, I will give you something better, I will make you part owner in a star that fell out of heaven. A black star. I canít do it yet because I donít have it yet, but someday I will. Donít say anything about it. It will be our secret.
There is a photograph that Palmer Odegaard shot years later in 1964, when Kasimir Lahti was well on the road to madness caused, some said, by venereal disease contracted in his youth after his wife left him for a hardware salesman. It showed Kasimir with his coat slung round his shoulders like a cape and some little object in his hand and his palm holding that object before him at eye level, his mouth open in the act of speaking Ė a photograph that reminded some of an actor playing Hamlet with a skull in his palm, saying, Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well. But really it was Kasimir Lahti holding a black star out of heaven.
Itís a photograph taken on the Fourth of July in Bergstadius, and in the corner of that image is Reino Makinen, leaning against the American Legion Hall sipping punch. A moment after Palmer Odegaard took the photograph, Reino stepped forward and said to Kasimir, This is fitting, to see you here this Fourth of July. Since there is something like fireworks and stars about the trajectory of your madness.
To which Kasimir Lahti, with that same pose from the photograph, replied, Yes. It casts a glorious light, doesnít it?
Turning from Reino Makinen to regard the black star out of heaven that he held in his hand.
Which star bathed once more in fire at the end of 1968. That was shortly after Kasimir Lahtiís chicken house had burned down, and he had lost all his possessions but his starstone and his fiddle bow, he hadnít thought to rescue the fiddle, and he had no place to live and was staying in a back room of the Apostolic Lutheran Church in Vaasa Township, and then in the garage in Abe Jutilaís backyard. He used to help Abe Jutila warm the church before services on Sundays, both of them pretending that this in some way counted toward his room and board. One morning in December Abe Jutila came in to find Kasimir Lahti practicing alchemy in his woodstove. He had heated the stove to a great heat and he was peering into it to see what might become of his star. But nothing came of it.
It occurred to me that it might want to go back into the fire in which it was born, Kasimir Lahti said. Surely that is why it burned my house.
But the star lay there rust-colored in the gray ashes of the stove and the fire did not consume it.
Kasimir Lahti had to go into a nursing home after Abe Jutila died in December 1970.
The star became the property of Gustav Vilho Strand, Willow Strand, as everyone called him, when Kasimir Lahti died of pneumonia contracted after fleeing the nursing home where he lived in 1971, in February. A note scrawled in pencil in Kasimirís dresser in the nursing home said the meteorite should go to Willow Strand.
Willow fixed it to the end of a handle and used it as a gavel to chair meetings of the James River County Finnish-American Historical Society, being by that time given to some kind of crazy appreciation for the weirdness of certain individuals who would have been better left outside the history books, if wiser heads had prevailed. For there was nothing exceptionally noteworthy and historical about Kasimir Lahti, aside from his madness, and perhaps his brief bout in the 1920s as a recruiter for some Communist effort to go and help build up Soviet Karelia. And that, too, would have been better left out, some thought, with the McCarthy business still in everyoneís thoughts. Nina Rauma, for instance, thought Willow Strand was exceptionally generous to give Lahti three-quarters of a column in the history that came out in 1964. Was he so noteworthy, then, a crackpot, a madman?
But this was that Nina who had changed her name from Ninel back in 1953, the McCarthy era. She had never really liked her name. When people would inquire about it she would say she thought it was the name or a bird or flower in Finnish, or who knows, maybe a very hardy weed. But she had never really learned Finnish very well, she said, so she couldnít be sure about it. Which was nonsense, she spoke Finnish very well, if she chose to, but more and more she didnít. She was glad to have her name changed, and glad as time went on that no one had noticed that the original was Lenin spelled backward ó the gift of her father, Aksel Rauma, who only defected from the Party in 1932 to vote for FDR. Quite frankly, none of that was worth remembering, Nina said, anymore than Kasimir Lahti, an old Communist recruiter turned theosophist turned crackpot.
The James River County Sheriffís deputy caught up with Kasimir Lahti that February of 1971 by the Jim River, near where his chicken house used to stand. Kasimir Lahti, born in Oulu, Finland, in the days of the Czars, was standing mournfully looking out on the gray ice as though it were a new thing to him, but not completely foreign, and saying, Of course I have seen similar. The ice south of South America, with Cook. And there were strange stars in the sky above those waters, and fires in the heavens.
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