Another Man’s Treasure
by Janis Zelcans
A stranger came to Saniemmala today.
In that late, chilly evening I was alone, gathering kindling in the thicker part of the southern forest, when I saw him heading to our town. I could tell from afar that he wasn’t from around here by the large, cumbersome fur coat he was wearing. His slow, uncertain steps made it obvious that he didn’t belong to Winterlands or winter at all. He was dragging a pulkka; it must have made his trek even more exhausting.
He was a big man; his massive boots sank deep into the snow. When he came closer, I noticed that there was a round object behind the sled he was hauling, leaving a narrow trail. Smirking, I watched the procession, hoping the thing would fall out and I’d be able to scoop it up.
My amusement vanished when I realized that the stranger wasn’t dragging a pulkka but a stiff, frozen corpse wrapped in a dirty cloth and tied with a short rope. The round object was its head.
I’d seen dead people before, but when I had to face it alone in the sunset, the sight left me paralyzed. When my attention snapped back, I realized I was standing in plain sight of the stranger and he was staring right at me.
Without a word, I turned my skis and rushed back to Saniemmala.
* * *
Panting from exhaustion I stepped inside our home and saw my elder brother Joni cleaning the chimney.
“What’s the rush?” he asked, still scraping. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get the fire going tonight anyway.”
After father’s death, he took care of all the housekeeping but never really got the hang of it. The chimney still had no draft and as each day passed, we smelled more like smoked river ahven.
I quickly told him what I had seen in the forest.
“If he’s alone, I don’t see why you’re so bothered,” Joni said, emerging from the fireplace with a bucket of soot that he promptly emptied through the window.
“Didn’t you hear? There was a dead man,” I almost shouted.
Joni didn’t say anything. Without hurry he took our father’s rifle from the top of the old wardrobe and left. I suspected he went to tell all this to his friend Ryhanen who lived a few houses away.
Dad never approved of Joni’s friendship with this slightly older, arrogant, thick-bearded man who was always ready for trouble. I didn’t like him either; he still hadn’t returned my spare pair of skis. However, as Joni and I were on our own now, I didn’t raise any objections.
* * *
I locked the door and waited.
At dusk the stranger came in to the town. He went through the main street with a fixed gaze, dragging the dead man behind, like a disobedient dog on a short leash.
I watched as he passed by our window. When he was almost out of sight, Joni and Ryhanen came forward to meet him. I could see the movement of their lips and vapor clouds of their breath, but couldn’t guess what they were talking about. The conversation went on for no more than a minute, and I sighed in relief when they parted without confrontation.
My brother came back after a long time when I had already doused the light and gone to sleep.
In my dreams, the stranger dragged dozens of dead bodies in both hands through the streets of our town, and then stopped at our house to stare at me through the window for a long long time.
* * *
Next morning, Joni was first to speak about what happened.
“He was traveling over Tervola Mountains when his buddy died from a snake bite,” my brother said, while we ate the white, hot puuro. “He came to bury the poor guy. Ryhanen allowed him to stay at his place.”
I nodded as if it weren’t the first time something like this had happened.
“His name was...” Joni stuttered, trying to pronounce an unutterable sound.
“Ch... Chad?” I repeated. What kind of name is that?
After we’d finished the breakfast I went out to fish for some ahven. All the time I couldn’t get two things out of my mind: First, there was nothing beyond the Tervola Mountains. Second, the snakes were still asleep.
* * *
Later that evening, I spied on Chad and saw him burying the dead man in an unmarked grave beneath the pine trees, away from townspeople’s eyes. But he couldn’t hide himself from their growing suspicion.
He didn’t leave for the next three days. So the men in Saniemmala started to grow restless. They spoke in hushed voices, glancing in the stranger’s direction when he was learning to ski around the frozen pond. To ski. I couldn’t believe someone didn’t know how to do that.
* * *
Perhaps Chad knew, too, that the man couldn’t stay any longer. One night Joni asked me to come along to visit Ryhanen.
My heart was pounding as we covered the short distance between the houses in a brisk step. We entered the small dining room where Chad and Ryhanen sat at the table. They nodded conspiratorially as we joined them.
“All right, old man,” Ryhanen said sharply. “We’re all here. Now tell me what you have to say.”
The stranger nodded and spoke in a deep voice. “In two days I’m going over Tervola Mountains,” he said, studying our faces. “It’s for something that is very important for me and probably holds great value to you too. I got lost and almost died in my last attempt. You know this land better than I do; I want you to come along. The other men here are rather... unsupportive.”
We looked at him, then at each other.
“What are you searching for?” Joni asked.
“First, there’s something you have to know about the dead man,” the stranger said. “He wasn’t any friend of mine. He’s one of our long-forgotten ancestors. More than ten thousand years old. I have to pay my respects and bury him properly.”
“Do you really expect us to believe that?” Ryhanen let out a laugh and we joined him. Not a muscle moved on Chad’s face as he patiently waited us to finish.
Calmly, he took something from his backpack and held between two fingers. We leaned forward to see it in the dim light.
It looked like a rectangular piece of paper, about the size of my palm. However, it seemed to be made from something dense as no light could penetrate it. There was a faded writing in a strange language.
“Here’s something the ancestor was carrying,” he continued, reading us the cryptic words. “It says, ‘Onkalo: Emergency Access’.”
“Onkalo. The Tomb,” Joni whispered. This time we didn’t laugh.
“Just a stupid legend,” Ryhanen said, but I saw a gleam in his eyes.
“There are tales about the Tomb. The most secret place in the Winterlands. What do you know about it?” Joni asked the stranger.
“Only that it may be true. I come from a land far far away. It may be hard for you to believe, but it’s rarely covered by snow. We have an old temple. A long time ago, in this temple, there were relics that carried immense power. For some reason, our ancestors removed them and took these artifacts to the Winterlands. I want to find them.”
“Are they valuable?” Ryhanen asked.
“They must be, if they’re so hidden.” Chad replied. “We can share whatever we find. I only want to know why my ancestors didn’t leave us these relics. Were we not worthy enough? Why did they hid them away in this Tomb?”
“The Tomb.” I murmured. It was a legend that everyone in Saniemmala knew. A place so deep that it had been lost for thousands of years. Full of treasure, waiting to be discovered.
“Do you know where it is?” Joni asked.
Chad leaned back in his chair and regarded us with a steady gaze. “I’ve dedicated all my life to this and I’ve never been so close before. There are books that will show us the way.”
We looked at each other again and nodded. An hour later we had a plan, how we would reach the Tervola Mountains.
* * *
The day before leaving, I went fishing for one more time and on my way back passed the place where the dead man was buried. Some green showed all around the ground, under the pine trees, but on the grave there wasn’t even a single sprout. I tried to forget that.
* * *
The early morning when we left was gray and damp. As we walked with Joni to our meeting place, the snow, sky and fog blended into single gray mixture. In the distance, Chad and Ryhanen looked like flies, haplessly swimming in a bowl of milky puuro.
This time Chad was properly equipped. He was wearing a fine wool sweater that didn’t make him look silly and I recognized my pair of skis. We formed a single row and headed north with Ryhanen leading the way. Chad, Joni and myself followed in silence.
* * *
For a few hours we traveled steadily until Chad took over the navigation, putting his cryptic books to use. We wandered off the usual footpaths and entered the snowy wilderness. We slowed to a crawl when we took off our skis and began wading through the knee-deep melting snow.
These lands were completely untouched, as no one ever bothered to come and hunt here. The terrain was too rough for tracking, and after all, fishing was a more reliable source of food.
“So what does this thing look like?” Ryhanen asked between sips of a strongly smelling drink from his flask, as we made another sharp turn in the pine valley.
Chad sighed. “I told you I don’t know. Keep your eyes open for anything strange.”
Everytime Chad decided to study his papers, we had to stop and look around aimlessly until he made up his mind again. That got us seriously annoyed, besides we started to wear out. It came into my mind that Chad might be crazy and we’d been wasting our time.
When Chad led us to the same dirty slope for the third time, Ryhanen snapped. He grabbed the big man by the neck and threw him onto the ground.
“You know what? I think we’ve had enough for today. I’m going to take whatever you have here and go home,” Ryhanen said, opening Chad’s backpack. “You can keep your stupid books.”
While still on the ground, Chad made an incredibly swift kick to Ryhanen’s ankle and he fell. However, he was the first one back on his feet and quickly launched himself on Chad, pinning him on the ground. Joni jumped forward to separate the two, but they were already at each other’s throats.
“Is this how you repay me for the shelter? By mocking me in front of everyone?” Ryhanen snarled, unsuccessfully trying to land a punch.
“I’ve searched for this for most of my life. And you can’t even bear a few hours. Winterland scum!” Chad seemed more disappointed than angry. He parried blows with ease, glaring deeply into his opponent’s eyes.
Suddenly, with a loud thud, the snow-covered ground collapsed beneath the two, raising a red dust cloud. Chad and Ryhanen scrambled from the fresh hole. I instantly thought about hibernating bears. Joni must have too; he readied his rifle.
But after that nothing happened. We stood and looked at the small crater. Finally Joni stepped closer and cleared the snow, still clutching his weapon with the other hand. He picked up something in his fingers that instantly crumbled to dust.
“There’s rust,” Joni whispered.
All four of us began digging frantically with our hands. We worked for about half an hour to clear the ground of rocks, mud and rust until we could clearly see a flat horizontal area under our feet. Gray and dull as the sky above us, it reflected the last rays of light into our astonished faces as we stared down in surprise.
Chad touched the smooth surface with awe. His eyes widened and he seemed to be fulfilled with religious revelation.
“This must be it,” he whispered.
“Awesome. Looks pretty old,” Ryhanen said. “What is it?”
“Old? It’s thousands of years old and still standing. Don’t you admire your ancestors?”
“I”ll admire them if they’ve left something for us here,” Ryhanen said and stomped on the metal with his heavy boot.
Nothing happened but there was a crack as if a branch had snapped somewhere below. I quickly joined Ryhanen and we kicked the metallic surface, until the sound became louder and louder. Finally, something gave away and my foot went through the metallic surface. Right after that, the ground beneath my feet collapsed, sending me tumbling down into the darkness.
I landed painfully on something solid and gasped for breath. The air was like when you open a door to a long uninhabited autiotupa, made for an unlucky traveler. It smelled of something stale and thick, as if nothing had stirred the air for a long time.
“Are you there?” Joni shouted through the opening above. A shower of sand and snow poured into my eyes.
“Yeah. Either climb down, or help me get out. It’s pitch black down here,” I said, carefully getting up.
One by one the rest of the company jumped down through the breach. Joni had a lit torch in his hand. Now I saw that we were in an empty corridor with some of the walls made of metal and some from a white stone. The floor was slightly sloped, running downwards.
“How are you?” Joni put an arm on my shoulder.
“Fine,” I said, shielding my eyes from the blaze of the torch. “Let’s see what it’s all about.”
Side by side with Joni, we led the way downwards.
* * *
The corridor twisted deeper under the ground in one direction like a snake’s burrow. We walked downwards into the unknown, until the snow on our feet and shoulders had completely thawed. For the last half-verst, the tunnel broadened, stopping at a second, much larger metallic surface, running across the whole end of the corridor. This time Chad himself gave it a strong kick. Nothing happened; he might as well have hit solid rock.
“Fine. Joni, you know where I keep the gunpowder. Go fetch it,” Ryhanen said and turned to me. “You go back and bring more food and water.”
“And you...” he swirled to address Chad, but stopped in mid-sentence.
Chad was holding the thin rectangular object in his hand and in front of him. A door slowly opened. There came a bright light, illuminating the place where we stood. Now, I could clearly see symbols and letters in the ancient language, written high above the door by some mighty hand.
“I don’t think this is a good idea. This place must be cursed,” I whispered, pointing at a painted skull that looked down on me with its empty eyes.
No one heard my protests. With the gleaming light projected on their faces, one by one Chad, Ryhanen and Joni stepped through the door and were about to leave me alone, so I took a deep breath and followed.
* * *
We felt we’d somehow returned to the surface on a bright summer’s day. The enormous room was lit from all directions by some light source on the walls and ceiling. Hot air pleasantly warmed my pale skin. There were piles of long pieces of metal that had fallen out of cracked stone cylinders as if from some huge eggshells. At our feet lay deep pools of clear water. I kneeled and carefully touched it. To my surprise it was warmer than even the water we used on the rare occasions we bathed.
Joni and I quickly threw away our clothes and jumped into the pools. It was an indescribable feeling of warmth, something that I rarely experienced before. We swam in delight, yelling with joy.
Ryhanen hugged Chad, then ran forward to count and examine the long metallic rods, shouting back to us. “We found it! These must be the artifacts. There’s so many of them it’s enough for all of us!”
Meanwhile, Chad stood in astonishment with wet eyes reading the ancient words, which he hadn’t translated yet: “Onkalo nuclear waste repository.”
Copyright © 2013 by Janis Zelcans