Copyright © 2013 Tony Richards
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
We were minding our own business. So why did she pick us out?
A couple, walking hand in hand along a busy public thoroughfare. Looking for no trouble and seeking to do no harm. What was it about us that made her approach us when she did?
But that was the way it started. A complete stranger, suddenly blocking our way and then babbling in our faces.
This entire thing began with absolute incomprehension.
Then went steadily downhill from there, until I understood too much…
Though I’d learnt some basic Finnish in my two years here since Bobby’s death, I couldn’t grasp a single word that the tall, sloe-eyed woman with the long, black, wavy hair was saying.
Her hands were moving as she spoke, though. And the tiny golden cross, clasped between the forefinger and thumb of her right one, winked continuously in the bright spring sunshine like some minuscule warning-beacon.
Wavy black hair meant that she was probably not of the same background as most people here in Helsinki. Wavy black hair meant that she was most likely a Laplander, a Saame, from the Arctic wastes up further north. They have more in common, racially, with Native Americans than your average Finn. And this one, rangy, with a hatchet-shaped nose, looked almost Apache.
She had to be in her late thirties or her early forties, and was dressed in old scuffed jeans and high brown leather boots. Had a poncho slung over her torso. Wore no hat of any kind, which made her stand out on a day like today, in the first week of April in this particular city. Just because I mentioned it was sunny didn’t mean that it was warm. Anything but. The sun was high in the blue sky and bright, but still too far away.
But I could tell, simply from her body language, she was trying to sell us something, pitch something to us. And Finland is such a civilised place that being button-holed by a street vendor comes as something of an unexpected shock. It barely ever happens. You can walk the capital all week and never get accosted once.
So I stared at her rather dumbly, wondering what she thought she was doing. And then tried to step around her.
Krista didn’t follow my lead.
Krista let go of my hand, leant forwards and then asked the woman to repeat what she’d been saying, at a slower pace.
I was puzzled by her attitude, before familiarity kicked in. And then I saw that she was, yet again, acting on some impulse, on some privately sensed intuition. She does that an awful lot. And it’s one of the things I love about her…almost all the time.
The black-haired woman nodded and went through what she’d been saying at a much more gentle tempo. I had no idea what dialect she was speaking in. But Krista, who had lived here most of her twenty-eight years, seemed to be following the basic sense of it, her brow creased up with concentration.
After a while, she turned around and told me, “She says that the cross was once owned by Rasputin.”
Really? Up until the Revolution, 1917—when the Russian Empire had been nominally dissolved—Finland had been a part of it. There was plenty of influence of the Tsar’s court around these parts, and so the story could be true. Although I very much doubted that.
“And she says whoever owns it may be granted a single wish,” the love of my life informed me, with a child’s delighted grin.
And oh—oh damn it! This was what that impulsive, intuitive nature of hers had picked up on, as surely as a radar dish noticing the presence of a jumbo jet. Intelligent although she was, Krista was deeply and quite naturally superstitious at the self-same time. Tarot readings, palmistry, lucky charms and bangles and all kinds of hocus-pocus—she just loved this kind of stuff. It seemed to satisfy her in a way the real world could not.
I was the opposite back then, certain that the everyday world was the only one we had. I would have been quite irritated if it had been anybody else. But I was so deeply in love with Krista that I actually managed to find her beliefs charming.
“Can we buy it, David?”
Which always had to be the next question, now didn’t it? I gazed at the tiny thing, then held my hand out, indicating that I wanted to inspect it closer. The Saame woman stared me directly in the eye, almost challengingly. Was I going to call her bluff? And then dropped it into my waiting palm. It weighed practically nothing.
I raised it and studied it. A perfectly plain, flat-edged gold cross, no thicker than a playing card. No filigree on it at all. None of the exquisite detail you’d expect of Russian artefacts. It might have been of genuine gold, but of the lowest carat.
“She probably has hundreds of these at home,” I objected.
Krista shook her head, though. “It’s the real thing. I just know it.”
I stifled a sigh at that point. “How much does she want for it?”
So Krista asked the woman.
“A hundred euros.”
Which was nearly seventy pounds in sterling.
And I was about to yelp “how much?” and then drag her away, when I saw that look in Krista’s eyes. The one begging, “Do this for me, David, please? It would make me so happy.”
I was being asked to buy junk. I was being conned and taken. But, at the end of the day, keeping her happy was worth more to me than any pile of banknotes.
Besides which, to be honest, I could easily afford it.
So there we stood on Mannerheimintie, Helsinki’s main shopping street, the Englishman, the Finn and the Lapp, like something out of a bad barroom joke. People emerging from and disappearing into the malls and covered arcades. Road-sweeping machines clearing up last night’s precipitation. The mufflered and swaddled crowds hurrying to the April sale at Stockmann, the department store.
And like an idiot, there was I taking two fifties out of my wallet and handing them over, for a trinket that was probably worth five euros at the most.
If there was a joke here, I had certainly become its punch line.
Krista was delighted though. Bounced up and down on the spot—a dangerous practice right where we were standing, since it was still icy underfoot. And beamed from ear to ear as the golden cross was handed over.
The Saame woman had vanished into the crowds in the next instant, which gave me my final confirmation this had been a scam. I craned around to pick her out again—I’m six foot three. But I could not see her.
All the way back home to our big rented flat off the Esplanade, I tried to figure out what had happened. Had Krista genuinely believed the woman’s story, that there was some magic power to the thing? Or had she simply asked me to buy it as a form of test, to see how far I’d go to please her? I hoped it wasn’t the latter. Surely she knew the answer to that one?
Another thought came to me at that point, though. One that left me feeling faintly guilty.
It was, If that was really a test, then Bobby would have failed it.
My younger brother might have had the charisma, the energy, the wholly winning nature. But I had always been the one with all the cash.
Was that, in itself, enough? For my own sake, I hoped so.
As so often happened when I thought about him, I could almost imagine him right there, walking beside me. Hands thrust deep in his jeans pockets, and an easy smirk on his bearded face. And saying, “Hey, loosen up, Davey. Stop being so hard on yourself—you know you’re worth a lot more than simply the cash in your wallet.”
Then he would frown at me mildly. “Davey? Dave? Why won’t you ever let me call you that? Jeez, man, I’m your brother.”
I could feel my eyes grow slightly damp, held Krista’s hand a little tighter.
He could have called me Dave or Davey several thousand times a day if it would only bring him back. Two years, now. Twenty-four months, count them. The pain and guilt and anguish, they had all sunk from the surface. But they never went away completely. They hung just below the surface, like some waterlogged tree-trunk. Not visible any longer. But large and dangerously solid all the same. Always present. Always there.
Did the fact that I was now the one with Krista make the whole thing worse? I could ask myself that till my brain went numb and still get no closer to the answer. So, most of the time, I tried to put it out of my mind.
As I said, I live in the everyday world. And that’s a place you can’t inhabit if you keep on torturing yourself. It’s not that I am any kind of immoral man, far from it. But when push comes to shove, if you’re not coping with reality then you are not coping at all.
We knocked the snow off our shoes on the porch, then took the marble staircase up. The pale oak floor of our capacious living room echoed beneath our footfalls as we went inside. The place has two bedrooms, a big kitchen and an even bigger bathroom. Is in one of the best parts of town, and expensive to rent. Home, for eighteen months now. It seemed very quiet after the sweeping machines and the crowds. A seagull called from a nearby rooftop.
Krista held the cross up again—she’d been clutching it tightly all this while—and told me, “I have come to a decision, David. I want you to make the wish.”
I pulled a face. “You know I don’t believe in that stuff.”
“Exactly. And so, here’s your chance to get it proven, one way or the other. Besides which, you have an awful lot to wish for.”
Her extremely blue eyes sparkled as she said that, and I knew exactly what she meant. I was in line for a raise that would take my salary a good way into six figures, in sterling, not euros. And—more importantly than that—we had recently decided to try for a child.
So I took the cheap, expensive little cross from her. Sat down slowly on our deer-hide couch, trying not to burst out laughing. I would make a proper show of this, if only for her sake.
Clutched the thing in both hands. Held it near my forehead. Closed my eyes.
Just one wish. What would it be?
And I don’t know why…but this suddenly ceased to be a game.
Because I asked myself—right at that moment—what I really wanted. What I’d genuinely wish for if the cross’ power were real.
A beautiful healthy baby of whatever sex, nine months from now? Yes, that seemed ideal.
And yet…waterlogged tree-trunks, large and dangerously solid? They can suddenly come bobbing up to the surface again. And can cause havoc and devastation when they do so.
The pain, the guilt, the frustration. The helpless rage. That powerless, hollowed-out feeling. They came flooding up from deep inside me when I asked myself that single, simple question.
What did I really want?
And—before I knew what I was doing—I was making a completely different wish.
What happened next simply had to be my imagination.
It felt as though the cross was growing warmer in my grasp. There was a tingling sensation spreading briefly through my palms, as if some kind of energy were running from the scrap of metal. It was over and done with in a bare couple of seconds, and the thing felt perfectly cool again.
It was my mind playing a trick on me, surely? I opened my eyes.
To find Krista staring into them. She had knelt down in front of me.
And what she saw there…?
Her smile—a happy and expectant one—abruptly faded.
“David?” she asked, her voice rather hushed. “What did you wish for?”
I looked away from her. Found that I could not look back. How stupid had I just been?
Could hear her saying, as though from a great distance, “Oh my God, you didn’t? Not that?”
“He was my brother,” I managed to get out. “What exactly do you expect?”
“I loved him too once, if you’d care to remember,” was her terse reply.
She was offish with me the rest of the afternoon. If this had been a test, I’d definitely failed it.
As for myself—I simply decided that the whole thing was ridiculous, and put it behind me.
Till the headlines started coming.