Deep River - Karl Marlantes




A thread of light on the eastern horizon announced the dawning of full daylight and with it the end of a night the Koski family would never talk about and never forget. A skylark called across the rye field, full throated, pouring out its desire to mate and be fertile. The cold blue sky into which it would rise sat back and let it sing.

It was on this morning in 1891 that Maíjaliisa Koski returned from a three-day absence, helping a Swedish-speaking woman from a poor fisherman’s family with a difficult delivery. She found her two oldest daughters and her baby son laid out in their Sunday clothes on the rough planks of the kitchen floor. Although cleaned just hours earlier, the house still smelled of vomit and excrement. Her husband, Tapio; her oldest son, Ilmari Väinö; age twelve, her daughter, Aino, age three; and her now youngest son, Lemminki Matti, two, were sitting on the floor, their backs against the wall, staring dumbly at the bodies. Maíjaliisa threw herself to the floor beside her dead children and covered their faces with kisses.

She’d left them with mild fevers just three days earlier, begged by the woman’s husband who’d skied and run over thirty kilometers from the coast through the spring thaw to reach her, a midwife renowned throughout the Kokkola region. Knowing that a mother and baby might die, flattered by the heroic effort of the father to reach her, she thought her own children would all pull through.

Few survived cholera.

When she’d finished crying, she stood and looked at her husband. “We’ll bury them tomorrow in the churchyard. I want to be with them today.”

Her husband said, “Yoh.”

* * *

That terrible night marked the children differently. Aino, in whose little arms her baby brother, Väinö Ahti, had died, learned that no one was coming. She was as alone as the meaning of her name—the only one. Ilmari, ill to the point of staggering, had exhausted himself bringing snow from the remaining patches to stem his sisters’ fevers. He’d fainted and had visions of angels coming for his siblings. When he regained consciousness, soaked with melted snow, his father was slumped unconscious against the ladder leading to the loft where his sisters Mielikki and Lokka lay dead in the bed all the children shared. From that night, Ilmari knew there was a God and God was to be feared, but He sent angels. Lemminki Matti, not fully aware of what was happening, retained a vague uneasiness about the future. As he grew older, he realized the wealthy feared the future less than the poor. How wealth was attained was less important than gaining it.

The children never knew the name of the woman Maíjaliisa went to help that night nor the name of her son who survived and grew to manhood, but their fates were linked.


That September of 1901, four years after Ilmari left for America, both for its opportunity and for fear of being drafted into the Russian army, the district was still without a teacher. The Evengelical Lutheran Church of Finland would not confirm an illiterate child, and this made even the poorest of Finnish peasants different from peasants in almost all other European countries: all children learned to read in church-led confirmation classes. For further education, however, the parents had to pay. This was where the bulk of Maíjaliisa’s midwifing earnings went. Classes were rotated among farmhouses.

To find a teacher, Maíjaliisa and the other mothers had been writing letters most of the summer. The geese were already on their way south when Tapio came from Kokkola with a letter saying that a young man named Järvinen from the University of Helsinki had accepted the post.

He turned out to be a radical, giving the parents great concern. Aino, now thirteen, along with the other teenage girls, fell in love with him.

Her feelings for the teacher intensified when it was the Koskis’ week to board him.

Aino was at the kitchen table working on an essay Järvinen had assigned, when he sat down next to her. He carefully slipped a small pamphlet in front of her, The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in Russian.

“Are you supposed to have that?” she whispered.

He put a finger to his lips. “No. You are.”

Aino looked over to see Maíjaliisa knitting and Tapio snoring, the harness he’d been working on still in his hands. “Why me?”

“Your mother told me your father’s been teaching you Russian. She says he’s fluent because he worked in Saint