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Jess Koski

Surprises

He is digging a peanut-butter cookie out of the oily brown paper bag when the front tires of the Minneapolis-Moline hit the boulder, obscured by fallen birch leaves. He doesn’t let go of it—the cookie—as he instinctively throws the tractor’s transmission out of gear, into neutral, and touches at the brake with his left foot.

His right thumb moves gently over the fork-prints around the edge of the cookie.

A lifetime of days in the woods on tractors has made every pedal and lever an unconscious extension of Eli’s body. And now, as the tractor slowly and dreamily leaves his control—the front end bouncing higher and higher, the angle of the machine growing steeper as it edges over the slope toward the stream—now he doesn’t feel any panic, perhaps a bit of surprise. Just a little surprise as the front end rears up toward him like an unbroken horse. And still no panic as he sees it over him—two tons of cast iron, still steadily puffing fine smoke from its exhaust pipe. Indeed, there was no need for panic upon feeling the October waters of the stream at his back and the hot tractor manifold on his chest. Only surprise.

Sylvi doesn’t change out of her black dress when she gets home but simply sets to work. She gathers up her baking supplies and carries them—the flours, the pans, the sugar, yeast, baking powder—out to the garbage can and dumps them in. Returning to the kitchen, she pulls out a drawer full of recipes and walks out the door, snatching up the box of "Strike Anywhere" matches from the shelf in the porch. Throwing the whole works into the rusty burning barrel in the backyard, she incinerates all tangible history of her baking prowess with one match. Back in the house Sylvi sits in her chair, just to the right of Eli’s and listens to the slow tick of the old tabletop clock, reset now to Lahti time, eight zones to the East. And in the distance she hears the rapid, faint clicking of the sauna timer, heating the stones, preparing the room for her grief. She is truly alone for the first time.

In the now-spacious changing room, Sylvi slowly sheds her clothing. The dress she carefully folds and places on the end of the pine bench on which Eli had cooled for thirty-five years. She slowly takes off her dark nylon stockings, her underwear, her bra, unhurried, not as before when even her husband’s appraising glance had made her feel self-conscious. She can smell a combination of cedar from the darkened walls of the sauna, and a hint of her own nervous sweat from the funeral service.

Stepping before the full-length mirror she looks herself up and down. Had she ever done this before, she wonders. And again… what is this body worth? At fifty-nine she is old, no? Yet, the breasts did not sag much, her arms and thighs were still firm and slender from her many winters of skiing the woods of Minnesota, and Finland before that. Only in the face, a bit dry and a shade darker than her chest and shoulders, did she look close to her age.

Now she walks, naked, back through the house to the bedroom that had belonged to her son until 1968. She had seen the bottle of brandy in the closet years ago—a gift from an uncle when Jack had completed boot camp. She had never had a drink on this continent and only one or two on the last. But now she takes the bottle back with her to the sauna, peels back the seal, and twists the cork loose. She takes it into the hot room and sets it on the top bench next to her and waits for the first sweat to break on her forehead and then down her arms and belly.

Sylvi takes a dipperful of water from the bucket and slowly pours it on the reddening rocks, careful to keep her hand from the rising steam. She empties another dipper of icy water over her back as steam fingers up her chest. Sliding down, bottle now in hand, to Eli’s end of the bench, closest to the stove, the wood darkened by his sweat, Sylvi listens to the hiss and pop of the steam as it rises from the stones and she puts the bottle to her lips. She takes a good pull from the brandy, letting it pool at her teeth, feeling the warm burn of it on her gums and the roof of her mouth. She closes her eyes and swallows, but there is no sense of sin that follows, as she had expected. She raises the bottle to her breastbone and tips it until a thin stream of brandy follows the curve of her breasts to her nipples, hangs in droplets for a moment and then falls to the inside of her thighs and in, to the reddish-blonde hair. She gently massages the brandy into her skin where it collects. And Sylvi feels no grief, only surprise. Surprise at the sudden emptiness around her, the fullness within her, and at the realization that she has been left here so alone and alive.


Jess Koski lives in Northern Minnesota with wife—Kate, and two children—Phoebe and Eli.  He teaches at Hibbing Community College and his fiction and poetry have appeared in various regional publications.  He enjoys sauna.  His tractor is broken down.

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