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   t h e    m a g i c    f o r e s t

--- K E V I N   F R A Z I E R

Tarja saw the baby chariot in the front yard of the house.

She liked how Finns called baby carriages chariots. Both of her parents were Finnish, but they were also diplomats for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tarja had spent the last four years in London. Now that she was back in Helsinki she heard Finnish differently than before. She heard the chariot in baby chariot.

When she first noticed the house she was thinking about her birthday party. She would turn ten next month. It seemed odd. It seemed as odd as a chariot for babies. The party would be terrible. No one would come. She had only returned to Helsinki three weeks ago. She didn’t have any friends here. The party would just be relatives. Relatives were no party at all.

The chariot was parked on the grass. It was directly below a big window. The window was halfway open. Inside the window Tarja could see a stainless steel refrigerator and part of a stainless steel counter.

The baby was being aired. This was common in Finland. Many parents believed it was healthy to leave babies outside to take as much fresh air as possible. Usually the parents stayed within earshot of the babies.

But Tarja couldn’t see anyone in the window. She stepped off the sidewalk and into the yard.

Then she bent over the chariot. She picked the baby up in her arms. Quickly she walked away.

*            *             *

The baby was asleep. It breathed softly against Tarja’s bare shoulder. She held one hand under its diapered bottom and one hand against the back of its head. Its hair was soft and sweaty on her palm.

She went up the sidewalk. At the next corner she turned left. She passed a big white modern house that was all angles and glass. Then she passed a smaller, more old-fashioned house with fairy tale turrets and arch-shaped wood doors.

She planned to walk around the neighborhood for ten or fifteen minutes. Then she would bring the baby back to its parents. She liked to picture the father crying. She liked to picture him hugging her in gratitude. She would simply explain that she had found the baby in one of the neighbors’ yards.

There was no harm in the plan. It was a game. It was like throwing a baby in the air. The first time you threw a baby it didn’t know what was happening. It felt the danger. But before the fear had a chance to grow you caught the baby and took the danger away. Tarja’s plan was the same, but reversed. She wasn’t throwing the baby in the air. She was throwing the parents in the air. But she knew she would catch them. That was what made it a game.

*            *             *

The baby coughed. Its lips were sticky. They felt like a warm, melted lollipop on her shoulder.

It was probably time to turn around. If she went back now, however, she wasn’t sure what to say. The parents might not believe her. She needed more time to think things through.

She caught a bus to the Helsinki city center. On the bus the baby woke up. She rocked it in her arms, but it only cried louder. Some of the other passengers were annoyed.

“A boy or a girl?” asked the bearded, sour-faced man who sat next to Tarja.

Tarja guessed. “A boy,” she said.

The baby wriggled uncomfortably on her lap.

“Aren’t you a little young to be taking care of a baby?” the man asked.

“I’m twelve,” Tarja said. “I’m short for my age.”

The man frowned. The baby opened and closed its hands. Its face was dirty and streaked with tears.

*            *             *

In the city center Tarja went to a grocery store. She found diapers, a baby bottle, a box of formula, four jars of baby food. But she only had enough money in her purse to pay for the diapers. So she took everything else back to the shelves.

She changed the baby in the bathroom at McDonald’s. She had changed diapers before. It was easy. Her father’s best friend in London had taught her how to do it.

She had guessed right. The baby was a boy. But he wouldn’t stop crying. She hugged him. She rocked him. She whispered how much she adored him. Yet he kept on crying.

*            *             *

She took the tram to Kallio. Then she transferred to a bus. The bus left the city. It went out to Inkoo. Inkoo was where Tarja’s parents were staying this week. They had a summer cottage there.

Tarja got off the bus two stops early. She took the baby into the forest. The forest was huge. Its birch trees and oaks and low granite cliffs went on forever. She always felt so alone, so private, when she walked here.

The shadows of the pine needles rolled across her legs. The baby hiccupped against her chest. He wiped his nose with the corner of his blue blanket, wrapped loosely around his small body.

Tarja had a special place for herself in the forest. It was a little niche in one of the cliffs. The niche was surrounded by trees. She crawled into the niche and held the baby close to her. He had stopped crying. She petted his wispy hair and soft cheeks. The longer she thought, the less she knew what to do.

After about an hour the baby fell asleep. She wrapped the blanket around him again. Slowly she placed him on the ground. Then she ran to the summer cottage, less than five minutes away.

*            *             *

Both of her parents were reading in the living room.

“What’s wrong?” her father asked. He grinned at her over the top of the newspaper.

“Yes,” her mother said cheerfully, taking her glasses off. “You look upset.”

“I’m fine,” Tarja said.

She went to the kitchen. Going through the cupboards she tried to find something to feed the baby.

Then her father came over and ruffled her hair.

“Why are you banging around in here?” he asked. He seemed more amused than irritated. “Are you sure nothing’s wrong?”

“I did something today,” Tarja said. She pulled out one of the high vinyl stools and sat down at the kitchen counter. “Something bad. I lied to you and Mom. I told you I was seeing Maija. But I wasn’t. I was seeing Elina.”

Thoughtfully her father tapped the back of his ballpoint pen on the counter. The tip of the pen clicked up. Then it clicked down. Maija and Elina were Tarja’s cousins. Maija lived only a few bus stops away from the summer cottage, so Tarja was always allowed to go visit her. But Elina lived in Lauttasaari, which was so far off that Tarja was forbidden to travel there on her own. It was in Lauttasaari that Tarja had found the baby.

Her father clicked the pen one last time. “I’m glad you told me,” he said finally. He patted Tarja on the head. “And I’ll bet you’re glad now too, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Tarja said. “I am.”

*            *             *

Her punishment was that she couldn’t watch TV for the rest of the week. She asked if she could play in the forest. Her father said no but her mother said yes.

>From her room Tarja found one of her old discarded baby dolls and its plastic bottle. She filled the bottle with milk. Then she ran to the forest.

She could hear the baby crying. She ran faster. The ground was muddy, wet.

The baby was still in the niche of the granite cliff. A small squirrel was looking at him. The squirrel turned its head to stare at Tarja. Then it bounded away in three graceful jumps.

Tarja brushed a short-legged spider from the baby’s elbow. He was gasping, trying to catch his breath between wails. His tiny chest rose and fell under the blanket.

Tarja put the bottle to his mouth. He refused to take it. His hands, with their dirty fingernails, pushed the bottle away each time she brought it to his lips.

*            *             *

Back at the summer cottage she kept starting to tell her parents about the baby. All she had to do was say she had found him in the forest. Then she would be a hero. She would be the rescuer of a child who had been kidnapped and left to die in the woods.

But all through dinner she was silent. She was scared to start the story.

She wanted to return to the forest as soon as her parents fell asleep. They stayed up late talking about their next posting. Her mother hoped it would be Canada. Her father hoped for Australia.

It was nearly midnight when Tarja snuck out of the cottage. The sky was a pale, hazy blue. One of the things she hadn’t adjusted to yet was the white nights of the Finnish summer. The lack of darkness bothered her. It made her feel that the nights were unreal. They were like a mistake waiting to be corrected.

This time the baby wasn’t crying. His face was smudged with grime. A pine needle stuck to his cheek. He barely seemed to notice when she hugged him to her chest. She tried to give him milk again but he still refused to take it.

Briskly she unrolled her sleeping bag. She climbed inside the bag with the baby in her arms. Then she zipped the bag shut. It took her a long time to fall asleep. The birches creaked in the wind. The baby coughed. His warm body made a damp patch on the front of her shirt. She pressed him against her. Twisting, she gripped him firmly around the waist.

She began to dream. Outside the sleeping bag she heard faint, whispery voices. They were singing one of the traditional Finnish lullabies. Oddly but soothingly, they kept repeating the first line over and over again: “Come, come, tobacco roll… Come, come, tobacco roll… Come, come…”

She opened the sleeping bag. All around the niche, all around the short granite cliff, was a ring of squirrels. They sat upright on their hind legs, their tall tails twitching. They sniffed the air as they sang. Each held an acorn in its paws.

The largest of the squirrels, the one with the deepest eyes and the thickest tail, came toward the sleeping bag. The baby, now awake, watched the squirrel calmly.

With a deft flip of his paws the squirrel dropped his acorn into the baby’s open, surprised mouth.

The baby laughed. He chewed the acorn hungrily.

After that, the other squirrels brought their own acorns to the baby. He giggled while he ate.

Then the first squirrel crept over to Tarja. He spoke gently in her ear.

“We’re here to take care of you,” he said. “We’re here to take care of you both.”

© crossconnect, inc 1995-2004 |
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |