I’m five. Or maybe I’m 10.
It was definitely after I slipped from a childhood death wrestle with pneumonia, and indeed before I broke my soul promise: my vow to remain wild, willful, and shirtless.
This is a stitch in time I am remembering, imagining, beckoning at the age of 46 as I sit with eyes closed in Kotiharjun, Helsinki’s last remaining public wood-fired sauna. My palms and the back of my thighs feel how history has worn smooth the cement benches.
The unbearable heat in this bunker-esque room has been crushing discomforts since 1928. The hulking furnace squats next to the door like an ogre giving passage and belches gobs of steam into the stifling air. I close my eyes and feel something inside of me crack under the enormous swelter.
I am once again five, or maybe 10 and standing beside my cousin, Melissa, as we gap at the biggest brown puddle. Ever. It sprawls out before us like a lake with a slick, mucky hem, tempting us to feel the suck of mud swallowing our thin feet. The big, red barn beside us blocks the hazy afternoon sun and throws a box shadow across the lane, over our summer-dirtied bodies, and onto our mucky oasis.
I pull at the front of my t-shirt, and feel it peel off my tummy like saran wrap covered in honey. I itch at a rivulet of sweat trickling down my scrawny, mosquito bitten leg. This is the moment the idea sweeps in. A tidal wave of glee that no child can or should resist.
“Let’s take our clothes off and go in,” I say to Melissa.
“I don’t know,” Melissa says to me.
I am older, only by months, but older still. She and I know there is a pecking order in our family with its heaps of cousins, some born only days apart. We peel and pull out of our flowered shorts, pink underpants and tiny t-shirts smeared with blue popsicle and farm dirt.
We and our brown lake are only a few hundred yards from the bustling, white farmhouse filled with cousins and old people, but the rattling rows of silk-tufted cornstalks block us from sight.
We might as well be on Mars.
Mars, with a giant brown puddle, whose depths are unknown and mysterious.
We wade in. The mud is silky chocolate pudding, filling the space between tiny toes and slithering up skinny, bruised shins. The bliss pulls us under, and we are baptised in clay. Pigs could not root with more enthusiasm. The water on top is a thin cap over mud pie heaven. Two inches of water, two feet of muck. The barn-shadow cools our haven of brown bliss. Our sunburned shoulders, freckled noses, and sun-bleached heads sigh with relief as we flop and roll and slather our naked little-girl bodies.
I am longing for the succulent cooling mud of that childhood afternoon, the blessed big-barn shadow, the naked bliss. I open my eyes, peer around the dim room, and make two observations. First, this sauna looks remarkably like someone’s cavernous basement with stadium seating and a haphazard pile of wood in the corner. Second, every woman is naked, except me. I close my eyes again.
“What are you doing?” my mother says from the edge of the big barn shadow.
I avoid eye contact. I stare at the triangles her arms form with hands on hips. We are learning about these pointed shapes in school. These triangles I see aren’t as fun. In that instant, I go from a glorious, squealing piglet to a shame-sodden toad. I hunker in the muck. I try to bury myself, although I don’t understand why I should, and attempt to hide my muddy glory. I feel Melissa slither in behind me and clutch my greasy arm. Pecking order.
“Where are your clothes?” asks Aunt Suzy who has also assumed the triangle-arms stance. We point our drippy fingers in unison to a pile of cotton strewn amongst the golden weeds scratching the backside of the barn.
I open my eyes. I lose the thread of adult words from the figures with hands on hips, but my memory holds tight to the details of our walk of shame.
We slithered our skinny bums out of that boggy pit to fetch our clothes. We made our way back to the bustle of cousins, aunts, and uncles in the old farmhouse. Everyone stared at the two piglets dripping with brown shame.
The furnace blasts explosive heat again, and it threatens to peel the jelly off my eyeballs and the skin from my skeleton. It hurts in such a good way. I reach up, wipe a particular bead of sweat from my cheek and bring it to my lips. The tinge of bitterness in it makes me wonder if it’s a tear. I glance at the glorious female forms all around me. Some chatting. Some in silent repose. Supine and seated. All different, but none seemingly ashamed. No one, I realize, except me.
It isn’t my blessedly healthy female form I am embarrassed about. I do not possess oddities or equipment different than those around me. I have no scars or deformities I’m tempted to hide. Each of my tattoos was a well-planned affair, not heinous, indelible scenes of drunken regret.
What, then, shames me? The answer stings as much as the heat.
The fact that I have not yet outgrown that quintessential summer afternoon in the shadow of the big red barn, my first brush with the need to keep myself covered. Even when every single one of my nearly 40 trillion cells is crying out: Show yourself! Bask in who you are! Roll in the glorious cosmic muck and coat yourself in bliss!
Going the full monty in this iconic vestige of Finnish culture is only a matter of pulling two strings on my bikini. It would be a story to tell, a thing I could knock off my list, even though it was never really on my list.
“It’s not likely you’ll be here again, naked or otherwise,” I tell myself. The titanic furnace blasts the room a third time as if to encourage my unveiling.
I pull the heavy wooden door closed behind me as I leave what feels like a near miss with cremation, bikini firmly in place. The crisp night air is a welcome slap in the face as I sit on the cement curb outside with other sauna goers, as is the tradition. Steam rises from our skin like a row of cooked Thanksgiving turkeys swaddled in towels.
I bend my ear to the slant of at least three different languages floating around me. I feel a smirk lift the corners of my mouth. I close my eyes and my lift tomato-red face to the stars beyond the dome of streetlight glare. I see the amusement I missed all those years ago, barley contained, in my mother’s brown eyes.
I wriggle my grown woman toes here in Finland, a different continent, a different time, and I feel the squish of muck between them and the cool relief of the big barn shadow, the slippery mud on my little round butt, twiggy arms, and bony shoulders. And then I recall the citrus scent of my beloved Canadian pine forest at night, and how last summer, at the age of 45 or maybe it was 40, I basked sans gear under an amused full moon.
Maybe I hadn’t broken my wild, willful, shirtless soul promise after all.
Author: Melanie Maure
Image: Gary Bembridge/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman