Seppo paced restlessly up and down the small pier. One by one the lights in the old farmhouse winked out, and then a lantern bobbed along the path to the boat landing. It was early, this Saturday morning in December, and dark. Winter with its long nights would soon come to Finland.
Father, Mother, little sister Eila, and Seppo climbed into their boat and cast off. They were on their way to the market square by the harbor in Helsinki to sell their wares.
“What a load we have this morning,” said Mother above the sound of the chugging motor. “Potatoes, bunches of birch leaves, and cranberries that Eila and Seppo picked yesterday!”
“And Mother’s great bundle of weaving,” said Father as he guided the large motorboat over the dark waters and through the clusters of little islands toward Helsinki. “One more rug and one more tablecloth, and there would have been no room for Eila and Seppo!”
“Oh, but we had to come today,” insisted Seppo. “This is the day I buy my new skis.”
When the Gulf of Finland froze each winter, Seppo would ski over the ice to school on the mainland. Every February he entered the ski-day race. However, his skis had been broken, so all summer and through the fall Seppo had worked for neighboring farmers to earn the money to buy new skis in Helsinki. This year he felt sure that he would win the race.
“And this is the day I buy my special candle for Independence Day,” said Eila, who had saved all the money she had earned by gathering birch leaves for Father to sell. December sixth is Independence Day in Finland and candles glow in every window to mark this special day. Eila’s heart was set on having the most beautiful candle she could find in Stockmann’s Department Store.
Father steered the boat into the south harbor, past the piers for the large ships and ferryboats, and into their own spot by the harbor’s edge. When Father hopped out and began to tie up the boat, some men were already putting up the stalls and orange canopies in the marketplace. The dome of the big white cathedral gleamed through the early morning mist.
“Seppo, will you please carry this roll of rugs to my stall?” asked Mother. “You will have time before the stores open to help me set up.”
Seppo, his arms clasping the bulky bundle, waited for Eila to climb out of the boat and onto the stone steps at the harbor’s edge. The boat was bobbing up and down, for a brisk wind was making the water choppy. Eila moved slowly, holding her purse in one hand.
“Hurry up, Eila, these rugs are heavy!” Seppo said crossly.
Eila turned her head to answer, and almost lost her balance. She grabbed the edge of the boat to steady herself, and her purse flew out of her hand into the water.
“My money!” wailed Eila, as Father snatched an oar from the boat and poked it down through the water to see if he could rescue the purse.
“I’m afraid it’s gone,” he said finally. “I’m sorry, little girl.” Gently he helped Eila out of the boat and Seppo followed with the bundle of weaving. Seppo, Eila, and Mother trudged along in silence to the stall, while Father stayed in the boat with the cranberries, birch leaves, and potatoes.
Mother quickly arranged the rag rugs, tablecloths, and mats. She put on her special gloves that left her fingertips bare for handling small coins. Mrs. Salonen, who sold birchbark baskets in the stall next to Mother’s, also wore gloves this chilly morning.
After Seppo had brought his mother and Mrs. Salonen hot possu (doughnuts) from a nearby stall, he cleared his throat and said, “I think I’ll go now and buy my skis. Want to come along, Eila?”
Eila shook her head. “I can’t go now. Mrs. Salonen is paying me one mark to help her,” she said, sighing. “Then I can buy a tiny candle, and wait till next year for a special one. A year isn’t so long,” she added, trying to smile, but Seppo knew she was near tears.
He turned and walked rapidly out of the market square, hardly noticing the people he passed, who were bundled up in their fur hats and heavy coats. Instead, he kept seeing Eila’s horrified face as her carefully saved money sank out of sight. An uncomfortable thought began to nag Seppo: If I hadn’t tried to hurry Eila out of the boat …
In the store the clerk greeted him. “Aha, you are in luck. The skis that you have been admiring all fall are still here!”
Seppo touched the skis and looked at them for a long time. Their bright blue enameled surface gleamed in the electric light. He knew that Finland’s best skiers used skis exactly like these when they won their races.
Reaching into his pocket for his wallet, Seppo seemed to hear Eila saying, “A year isn’t so long.”
“Just a moment,” Seppo said as the clerk started to remove the championship skis from the rack. “I think … I think,” he said, pointing to a cheaper pair of hickory skis just like the ones he had broken, “I’ll take these other skis instead.”
Anyway, reasoned Seppo as he rushed back to the marketplace, if I’m going to win the race, it’s more important to use the right wax and to keep practicing than to worry about the kind of skis I have.
After he had carefully stored his new skis in Father’s boat, Seppo went to Mrs. Salonen’s stall. A sad-faced Eila was still stacking baskets.
“Could you spare Eila to go with me for a little while?” he asked the older woman. “We have an important errand to do at Stockmann’s.”
Mrs. Salonen nodded her assent.
“Stockmann’s, Seppo?” Eila asked as she hurried to catch up with her brother.
“Yes, come on,” Seppo encouraged, “before someone else buys your special candle!”
And this time Eila, her eyes shining, needed no urging.