The Fillyjonk Who Believed In Disasters

by Tove Jansson
Illustration by Emei Burell 

Once upon a time there was a fillyjonk who was washing her large carpet in the sea. She rubbed it with soap and a brush up to the first blue stripe, and then she waited for a seventh wave to come and wash the soap away. Then she soaped and rubbed further, to the next blue stripe, and the sun was warming her back, and she stood with her thin legs in the clear water, rubbing and rubbing. 

It was a mild and motionless summer day, exactly right for washing carpets. Slow and sleepy swells came rolling in to help her with the rinsing, and around her red cap a few bumble-bees were humming: they took her for a flower! Don’t you pretend, the fillyjonk thought grimly. I know how things are. Everything’s always peaceful like this just before a disaster. She reached the last blue stripe, let the seventh wave rinse it for a moment, and then pulled the whole of the carpet out of the water. The smooth rock shone redly under the rippling water, reflections of light danced over the fillyjonk’s toes and gilded all ten of them. She stood and mused. A new cap, orange-red perhaps? Or one could embroider reflections of light around the edge of the old one? In gold? But of course it wouldn’t look the same because they wouldn’t move. And besides, what does one need a new cap for when danger breaks loose? One might just as well perish in the old one… The fillyjonk pulled her carpet ashore and slapped it down on the rock and sullenly stalked over it to stamp the water from it. The weather was far too fine, quite unnatural. Something or other had to happen. She knew it. Somewhere below the horizon something black and terrible was lurking — working larger, drawing nearer — faster and faster… One doesn’t even know what it is, the fillyjonk whispered to herself. Her heart began to thump and her back felt cold, and she whirled around as if she had an enemy behind her. But the sea was glittering as before, the reflections danced over the floor in playful twists, and the faint summer wind comfortingly stroked her snout. But it is far from easy to comfort a fillyjonk who is stricken with panic and doesn’t know why. With shaking paws she spread her carpet to dry, scrambled together her soap and brush and went rushing homewards to put the tea-kettle on the fire. Gaffsie had promised to drop in at five o’clock.

The fillyjonk lived in a large and not very pretty house. Someone, who had wanted to get rid of old paint, had painted it dark green on the outside and brown all over the inside. The fillyjonk had rented it unfurnished from a hemulen who had assured her that her grandmother used to live there in the summer, when she was a young girl. And as the fillyjonk was very attached to her kindred and relatives she at once decided that she would honour her grandmother’s memory by living in the same house. The first evening she had sat on her doorstep and wondered about her grandmother who must have been very unlike herself in her youth. How curious that a genuine fillyjonk with a true sense of nature’s beauty should have wanted to live on this glum and sandy shore! No garden to grow jam plums in! Not the smallest leafy tree or even bush to start an arbour with. Not even a nice view! The fillyjonk sighed and looked forlornly at the green evening sea trimming the long beach with its breakers. Green water, white sand, red dried seaweed. An exact setting for disaster; not a single safe spot. And afterwards, of course, the fillyjonk had found out that it was all a mistake. She had moved into this horrible house on this horrible beach quite unnecessarily. Her grandmother had lived elsewhere. That is life! But by that time the fillyjonk had written letters to all her relatives about her summer house, and so she didn’t think it proper to change her plans. They might have thought her a little silly. So the fillyjonk closed her door and tried to make the house cosy inside. This was not easy. The ceilings were so high that they always seemed full of shadows. The windows were large and solemn, and no lace curtains could give them a friendly look. They weren’t windows for looking out of, they were windows to look in from — and the fillyjonk did not like this thought. She tried to arrange cosy corners, but they never became cosy. Her furniture had a lost look. The chairs nestled close to the table, the sofa huddled against the wall and the lighted patches around the lamps were as dejected as a flash-light in a dark wood. Like all fillyjonks she owned a lot of knick-knacks. Small mirrors, photographs framed in red velvet and little shells, china kittens and hemulens resting on pieces of crochet work, beautiful maxims embroidered in silk or silver, very small vases and nice mymble-shaped teacosies — well, all sorts of things that make life more easy and less dangerous, and large. But all these beloved things of beauty lost their safety and their meaning in the bleak house by the sea. She moved them from table to sideboard and from sideboard to window-sill, but nowhere did they look right.

There they were again. Just as forlorn. The fillyjonk stopped at the door and looked at her belongings to comfort herself. But they were just as helpless as she was. She went into the kitchen and laid the soap and scrubbing brush on the sink. Then she lighted the fire under the tea-kettle and took out her best gold-edged cups. She lifted down the cake-dish, nimbly blew off some crumbs and laid some iced little cakes on top of the others to impress Gaffsie. Gaffsie never took milk with her tea, but the fillyjonk nevertheless put grandmother’s little silver boat on the tray. The sugar lumps she shook out in a tiny plush basket with pearl-crusted handles. While she set the tea-tray she felt quite calm and was able to shut off all thoughts of disaster. It was a real pity that no nice flowers were to be found in this unlucky place. All the plants by the shore were cross and prickly little shrubs, and their flowers didn’t match her drawing-room. The fillyjonk gave her table vase a displeased nudge and took a step towards the window to look for Gaffsie. Then she thought hastily: No, no. I won’t look for her. I’ll wait for her knock. Then I run and answer the door, and we’ll both be terribly delighted and sociable and have a good chat… If I look for her perhaps the beach will be quite empty all the way to the light-house. Or else I’ll see just a tiny little spot coming, and I don’t like to watch things that draw nearer and nearer… and still worse would it be, wouldn’t it, if the little spot started to grow smaller and was going the other way… The fillyjonk started to tremble. What’s come over me, she thought. I mustn’t talk about this with Gaffsie. She’s really not the person I’d prefer to chat with at all, but then I don’t know anybody else hereabouts.

There was a knock on the door. The fillyjonk went rushing out into the hall and was already talking on her way to the door. ‘… and what splendid weather,’ she shouted, ‘and the sea, did you look at the sea… how blue today, how friendly it looks, not a ripple! How are you, well, you look really radiant, and so I thought you would… But it’s all this, of course, living like this, I mean, in the bosom of nature, and everything — it puts everything in order, doesn’t it?’ She’s more confused than usual, Gaffsie was thinking while she pulled off her gloves (because she was a real lady), and aloud she said: ‘Exactly. How right you are, Mrs Fillyjonk.’ They sat down to the table, and the fillyjonk was so happy to have company that she prattled the sheerest nonsense and spilled tea all over the cloth.

Gaffsie said something nice about the cakes and the sugar bowl and everything she could think of, but about the flower vase she said nothing, of course. Gaffsie was a well-brought up person, and anybody could see that that wild, angry shrub didn’t go well with the tea things. After a while the fillyjonk stopped talking nonsense, and as Gaffsie didn’t say anything at all, silence fell. Then the sun clouded over and the table-cloth suddenly looked grey. The large solemn windows showed a mass of grey clouds, and the ladies could hear a new kind of wind coming in from the sea. Faint and far away, no more than a whisper. ‘I saw you’ve had your carpet out for a wash, Mrs Fillyjonk,’ Gaffsie said with great civility. ‘Yes, sea-water’s said to be the right thing for carpets,’ the fillyjonk replied. ‘The colours never run, and there’s such a lovely smell…’ I must make Gaffsie understand, she thought. I have to tell somebody that I’m frightened, someone who can answer me: But of course, I quite understand you must be. Or: Really, what on earth is there to be afraid of? A splendid summer day like today. Anything, but something. ‘The cakes are my grandma’s recipe,’ said the fillyjonk. And then she leaned forward over the table and whispered: ‘This calm is unnatural. It means something terrible is going to happen. Dear Gaffsie, believe me, we are so very small and insignificant, and so are our tea cakes and carpets and all those things, you know, and still they’re so important, but always they’re threatened by merciless-ness…’

‘Oh,’ said Gaffsie, feeling ill at ease. ‘Yes, by mercilessness,’ the fillyjonk continued rather breathlessly. ‘By something one can’t ask anything of, nor argue with, nor understand, and that never tells one anything. Something that one can see drawing near, through a black window-pane, far away on the road, far away to sea, growing and growing but not really showing itself until too late. Mrs Gaffsie, have you felt it? Tell me that you know what I’m talking about! Please!’ Gaffsie was very red in the face and sat twirling the sugar bowl in her paws and wishing that she had never come. ‘There can be very sudden storms at this time of the year,’ she said at last, cautiously. The fillyjonk fell silent from disappointment. Gaffsie waited a while, then continued, slightly vexed: ‘I hung out my washing last Friday, and believe me, there was such a wind quite suddenly that I found my best pillow-slips by the gate. What washing-material do you use, Mrs Fillyjonk?’ ‘I don’t remember,’ the fillyjonk answered, suddenly feeling very tired because Gaffsie didn’t even try to understand her. ‘Would you like some more tea?’ ‘Thank you, not any more,’ Gaffsie said. ‘What a nice visit, only too short. I’m afraid I’ll have to start on my way soon.’ ‘Yes,’ the fillyjonk said, ‘I see.’ Darkness was falling over the sea, and the beach was mumbling to itself. It was a bit too early to light the lamp, but still too dark to be nice. Gaffsie’s narrow nose was more wrinkled than usually, and one could see that she didn’t feel at ease. But the fillyjonk didn’t help her to take her leave, she didn’t say a word but sat quite still, only breaking a couple of iced cakes into crumbs. How painful, Gaffsie thought and smuggled her handbag under her arm. The south-wester slightly raised its voice outside. ‘You were talking about wind,’ the fillyjonk said suddenly. ‘A wind that carries off your washing. But I’m speaking about cyclones. Typhoons, Gaffsie dear. Tornadoes, whirlwinds, sand-storms… Flood waves that carry houses away… But most of all I’m talking about myself and my fears, even if I know that’s not done. I know everything will turn out badly. I think about that all the time. Even while I’m washing my carpet. Do you understand that? Do you feel the same way?’ ‘Have you tried vinegar,’ said Gaffsie, staring into her teacup. ‘The colours keep best if you have a little vinegar in the rinsing water.’ At this the fillyjonk became angry, which was a most unusual thing. She felt that she had to challenge Gaffsie in some way or other, and she chose the first thing that came to her mind. She pointed a shaking finger at the horrid little shrub in the table vase and cried: ‘Look! Isn’t it nice? The perfect thing to match my tea-set!’ And Gaffsie was feeling just as tired and cross, so she jumped to her feet and replied: ‘Not a bit! It’s all too large and prickly and gaudy, it has a brazen look and doesn’t belong on a tea-table at all!’

Then the two ladies took leave of each other, and the fillyjonk shut her door and went back to her drawing-room. She felt miserable and disappointed with her tea party. The small shrub stood on the table, grey and thorny and covered with little dark red flowers. Suddenly it seemed to the fillyjonk that it wasn’t the flowers that did not match her tea-set. It was the tea-set that didn’t match anything. She put the vase on the window-sill. The sea had changed. It was grey all over, but the waves had bared their white teeth and were snapping at the beach. The sky had a ruddy glow, and looked heavy. The fillyjonk stood in her window for a long time, listening to the rising wind. Then there was a ring on the telephone.

‘Is that Mrs Fillyjonk?’ Gaffsie’s voice asked cautiously. ‘Of course,’ said the fillyjonk. ‘No one else lives here. Did you arrive home all right?’ ‘Yes, all right,’ said Gaffsie. ‘There’s quite a wind.’ She was silent for a while, and then she said in a friendly voice: ‘Mrs Fillyjonk? Those terrible things you spoke of. Have they happened often to you?’ ‘No,’ said the fillyjonk. ‘Just a few times, then?’ ‘Well, never, really,’ said the fillyjonk. ‘It’s just how I feel.’ ‘Oh,’ said Gaffsie. ‘Well, thank you for inviting me. It was so nice. So nothing has ever happened to you?’ ‘No,’ said the fillyjonk. ‘So kind of you to call me. I hope we’ll see more of each other.’ ‘So do I,’ said Gaffsie and hung up. The fillyjonk sat looking at the telephone for a while. She suddenly felt cold. My windows are going dark again, she thought. I could hang some blankets against them. I could turn the mirrors face to wall. But she didn’t do anything, she sat listening to the wind that had started to howl in the chimney. Not unlike a small homeless animal. On the south side the hemulen’s fishing net had started whacking against the wall, but the fillyjonk didn’t dare go out to lift it down. The house was shivering, very slightly. The wind was coming on in rushes; one could hear a gale getting an extra push on its way in from the sea. A roof-tile went coasting down the roof and crashed to the ground.

The fillyjonk rose and hurried into her bedroom. But it was too large, it didn’t feel safe. The pantry. It would be small enough. The fillyjonk took her quilt from the bed and ran down the kitchen passage, kicked open the pantry door and shut it behind her. She panted a bit. Here you heard less of the gale. And here was no window, only a small ventilator grating. She felt her way in the dark past the sack of potatoes and rolled herself into her quilt, on the floor below the jam shelf. Slowly her imagination started to picture a gale of its own, very much blacker and wilder than the one that was shaking her house. The breakers grew to great white dragons, a roaring tornado sucked up the sea like a black pillar on the horizon, a gleaming pillar that came rushing towards her, nearer and nearer… Those storms of her own were the worst ones. And deep down in her heart the fillyjonk was just a little proud of her disasters that belonged to no one else. Gaffsie is a jackass, she thought. A silly woman with cakes and pillow-slips all over her mind. And she doesn’t know a thing about flowers. And least of all about me. Now she’s sitting at home thinking that I haven’t ever experienced anything. I, who see the end of the world every day, and still I’m going on putting on my clothes, and taking them off again, and eating and washing-up the dishes and receiving visits, just as if nothing ever happened! The fillyjonk thrust out her nose from the quilt, stared severely out in the dark and said: ‘I’ll show you.’ Whatever that meant. Then she snuggled down under her quilt and pressed her paws against her ears.

But outside the gale was steadily rising towards midnight, and by one o’clock it had reached 47 yards per second (or however they measure the big storms). About two o’clock in the morning the chimney blew down. Half of it fell outside the house and the other half smashed down into the kitchen fireplace. Through the hole in the ceiling one could see the dark night sky and great rushing clouds. And then the gale found its way inside and nothing at all was to be seen except flying ashes, wildly fluttering curtains and tablecloths and photographs of aunts and uncles whirling through the air. All the fillyjonk’s sacred things came to life, rustling, tinkling and clashing everywhere, doors were banging and pictures crashing to the floor.

In the middle of the drawing-room stood the fillyjonk herself, dazed and wild in her fluttering skirt, thinking confusedly: this is it. Now comes the end. At last. Now I don’t have to wait any more. She lifted the telephone receiver to call Gaffsie and tell her… well, tell her a few really crushing things. Coolly and triumphantly. But the telephone wires had blown down. The fillyjonk could hear nothing but the gale and the rattle of loosening roof-tiles. If I were to go up to the attic the roof would blow off, she thought. And if I go down in the cellar the whole house comes down over me. It’s going to do it anyway. She got hold of a china kitten and pressed it hard in her paw. Then a window blew open and shattered its pane in small fragments over the floor. A gust of rain spattered the mahogany furniture, and the stately plaster hemulen threw himself from his pedestal and went to pieces. With a sickening crash her great chandelier fell to the floor. It had belonged to her maternal uncle. All around her the fillyjonk heard her belongings cry and creak. Then she caught a flash of her own pale snout in a fragment of a mirror, and without any further thought she rushed up to the window and jumped out. She found herself sitting in the sand. She felt warm raindrops on her face, and her dress was fluttering and flapping around her like a sail. She shut her eyes very tight and knew that she was in the midst of danger, totally helpless. The gale was blowing, steady and undisturbed. But all the alarming noises had vanished, all the howling and crashing, the thumping, splintering and tearing. The danger had been inside the house, not outside. The fillyjonk drew a wary breath, smelt the bitter tang of the sea-weed, and opened her eyes. The darkness was no longer as dark as it had been in her drawing-room. She could see the breakers and the light-house’s outstretched arm of light that slowly moved through the night, passing her, wandering off over the sand dunes, losing itself towards the horizon and returning again. Round and round circled the calm light, keeping an eye on the gale. I’ve never been out alone at night before, the fillyjonk thought. If Mother knew…

She started to crawl against the wind, down to the beach, to get as far away as possible from the hemulen’s house. She still held the china kitten in her left paw, it calmed her to have something to protect. Now she could see that the sea looked almost all blue-white. The wave crests were blown straight off and drifted like smoke over the beach. The smoke tasted of salt. Behind her something or other was still crashing to pieces, inside the house. But the fillyjonk didn’t even turn her head. She had curled up behind a large boulder and was looking wide-eyed into the dark. She wasn’t cold any longer. And the strange thing was that she suddenly felt quite safe. It was a very strange feeling, and she found it indescribably nice. But what was there to worry about? The disaster had come at last. * Towards morning the gale was blowing itself out. The fillyjonk hardly noticed it. She was sitting in deep thought about herself and her disasters, and her furniture, and wondering how it all fitted together. As a matter of fact nothing of consequence had happened, except that the chimney had come down. But she had a feeling that nothing more important had ever happened to her in her life. It had given her quite a shaking-up and turned everything topsy-turvy. The fillyjonk didn’t know what she should do to right herself again. The old kind of fillyjonk was lost, and she wasn’t sure that she wanted her back. And what about all the belongings of this old fillyjonk? All the things that were broken and sooty and cracked and wet? To sit and mend it all, week after week, glueing and patching and looking for lost pieces and fragments… To wash and iron and paint over and to feel sorry about all the irreparable things, and to know that there would still be cracks everywhere, and that all the things had been in much better shape before… No, no! And to put them all back into place in the dark and bleak rooms and try to find them cosy once more… No, I won’t! cried the fillyjonk and rose on cramped legs. If I try to make everything the same as before, then I’ll be the same myself as before. I’ll be afraid once more… I can feel that. And the tornadoes will come back to lurk around me, and the typhoons too… For the first time she looked back at the hemulen’s house. It was standing as before. It was filled with broken things. It waited for her to come and take care of them. No genuine fillyjonk had ever left her old inherited belongings adrift… Mother would have reminded me about duty, the fillyjonk mumbled. It was morning. The eastern horizon was waiting for sunrise. Small frightened squalls of rain were flying off, and the sky was strewn with clouds that the gale had forgotten to take along with it. A few weak thunderclaps went rolling by. The weather was uneasy and didn’t know its own mind. The fillyjonk hesitated also. At this moment she caught sight of the tornado.

It didn’t look like her own special tornado, which was a gleaming black pillar of water. This was the real thing. It was luminous. It was a whirl of white clouds churning downwards in a large spiral, and it turned to chalk white where it met the water lifting itself upwards out of the sea. It didn’t roar, it didn’t rush. It was quite silent and slowly came nearer the shore, slightly swaying on its way. The sun rose, and the tornado turned rose-petal red. It looked infinitely tall, rotating silently and powerfully around itself, and it drew slowly nearer and nearer… The fillyjonk was unable to move. She was standing still, quite still, crushing the china kitten in her paw and thinking: Oh, my beautiful, wonderful disaster… The tornado wandered over the beach, not far from the fillyjonk. The white, majestic pillar passed her, became a pillar of sand, and very quietly lifted the roof off the hemulen’s house. The fillyjonk saw it rise in the air and disappear. She saw her furniture go whirling up and disappear. She saw all her knick-knacks fly straight to heaven, tray-cloths and photo-frames and tea-cosies and grandma’s silver cream jug, and the sentences in silk and silver, every single thing! and she thought ecstatically: How very, very wonderful! What can I do, a poor little fillyjonk, against the great powers of nature? What is there to mend and repair now? Nothing! All is washed clean and swept away! The tornado went solemnly wandering off over the fields, and she saw it taper off, break and disperse. It wasn’t needed any more. The fillyjonk drew a deep breath. Now I’ll never be afraid again, she said to herself. Now I’m free. Now I can do anything. She placed the china kitten on a boulder. It had lost an ear during the night and got a blob of black oil on its nose. It had a new look, slightly impish and cheeky. The sun rose higher. The fillyjonk went down to the wet sand. There lay her carpet. The sea had decorated it with seaweed and shells, and no carpet had ever been more thoroughly rinsed. The fillyjonk chuckled. She lifted the carpet in both paws and pulled it after her out in the swells. She dived headlong in a large green swell, she sat on her carpet and surfed on sizzling white foam, she dived again, down and down. One swell after the other came rolling over her, transparently green, and then the fillyjonk came to the surface again, for a breath, and to look at the sun, spluttering and laughing and shouting and dancing with her carpet in the surf. Never in her life had she had such fun.

Gaffsie had been shouting and calling for several minutes before the fillyjonk caught sight of her. ‘How terrible!’ shouted Gaffsie. ‘Dear, poor little Mrs Fillyjonk!’ ‘Good morning!’ said the fillyjonk and pulled her carpet to the beach. ‘How are you today?’ ‘I’m beside myself,’ Gaffsie cried. ‘What a night! I’ve thought of you all the time. And I saw it myself! I saw it coming! What a disaster!’ ‘How do you mean?’ asked the fillyjonk innocently. ‘How right you were, how very right,’ said Gaffsie. ‘You said there was a disaster coming. Oh, all your beautiful things! Your beautiful home! I’ve tried to call you all night, I was so worried, but the line had blown down…’ ‘That was kind of you,’ said the fillyjonk and wrenched the water from her cap. ‘But really quite unnecessary. If you feel worried there’s nothing like putting a little vinegar in the rinsing water. Then the colours keep!’ And the fillyjonk sat down in the sand and wept with laughter.

You came into this world with eyes as clear as water
You didn’t look a thing like your grandmother’s daughter
With a heart so heavy and beating like a drum
neither did you look like your grandfather’s son
Wilder than a brushfire burns deep inside the bramble
Darling, I think God made your soul born to ramble
Maybe you’ll take to the far away places
Where life is gonna deal you a hand full of aces
But it doesn’t really matter how great the spaces.

(Wilder // Brandi Carlile)


Nice view and a geologically interesting environment - these rocks, on the south shore of Crete, are very close to one of the active faults on the island that is pushing the whole block upward. The fault zone is just beyond those hills.

Text message received: November 6, 2013.
I know you love him as much as I do.

God, we were the girls left on the sidelines,
weren’t we?
He kissed me with your lipstick on his mouth,
and you watching. He kissed you
with my heart tucked into his breast pocket.
We stood each other up, when he left–
stacked like a tower of blocks,
too easy to tip over.
We cried our way through it.
You were the softest sunset I ever got drunk with.
We strapped the bed sheets to the rickety mast
and sailed our way to clear waters.
I didn’t know you could love someone
for loving like you–
for falling into the same honeytrap,
the same flypaper.
He was poison in the water supply;
we were drying out around his name.
Nothing could make up for
two girls knee deep in false promises,
wading our way back to shore.

I hope you’re doing better, now. I hope,
when he calls, you don’t answer anymore.

—  CLEAR WATERS, by Ashe Vernon