It’s the finals of the World Sauna Championships, and the temperature is 265 degrees.
Four people are left: me, my brother, a bald Belarussian in his forties, and a blond, six-packed Ukrainian who is fidgeting, leaning back and forth like he’s perched on a ledge. Every thirty seconds, water falls onto the steaming rocks in the corner, sending a painful wave washing over us.
I close my eyes again. I’m floating in the cool summer water of the Gulf, salt crackling in my ears. The tips of my ears are smoldering. I breathe in jagged stabs through my split lips. Through the water, a voice floats into my ears like a lover’s whisper: Count to ten. Count to ten.
Yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä…
Another voice intrudes like a foghorn. “Peukalo!”
I open my eyes, raise my thumb to show the man outside. So does my brother. The Belarussian raises a beefy arm and shows his thumb. The Ukrainian rubs his face.
The Ukrainian lunges, bursts through the glass door into the cold air outside. The door shuts, and I look at it for a second like heaven has passed over me. I steel myself against the burning of my eyelids and cheeks, pretend that hot is cold, that the sizzling of the sauna rocks is another whispered Count to ten.
…kahdeksan, yhdeksän, kymmenen.
Count to ten again, I hear.
My brother’s hand is clenched in a fist next to mine, since we’re forbidden to touch each other. We are Ville and Janne Kurvinen, but the city of Kotka knows us as Big Cherry and Black Cherry. Big because Ville is taller, Black because of the way my hair stands up like black wire instead of Ville’s blond waves, Cherry because…well, look at us. We’re both short, round, and overcooked. Two cherries in a cocktail, connected at the stem.
This is our fourth year at the World Sauna Championships. Three wins for Ville, three runners-up for me. People ask me why I keep doing it, why I keep putting myself through it if I can’t beat him.
There’s no short answer, no one word to trap the steam like a teakettle lid. The best I can explain it: this is the only thing that never felt like a competition. Even back when we were children, sitting together in the sauna at our parents’ house, it felt more like us versus something great and terrible, wading deeper and deeper into hell, hand in hand, until one of us turned around.
Other than that, life was competition. Ville would usually win, whether it was taking tentative steps across a frozen lake as children, or slamming shots of vodka and Tabasco as adults. Ville exhaling chili fumes as he slurred, “Joko teet tai itket ja teet.” Either you do it, or you do it while crying.
One night, I left the bar early because I had exams the next day. He called me foul names as I walked out of the bar, and when I saw him the next afternoon, I expected the same.
But there was a woman on his arm: a tall brunette. Her Russian accent was like warm honey. “Janne, meet Jana,” said Ville.
If I’d stayed at the bar that night for another ten minutes, maybe things would have turned out very different. Another competition. My loss was his prize.
They married a month after Ville’s first win. I watched them, her pale and graceful, him red and bulbous in his white suit. When they walked up to light the unity candle together, two flames joining to become one, I thought, She only thinks she knows what that is.
I was happy for them, even though my heart was on fire.
We hear the shout of “Peukalo!” again.
My brother and I give the thumbs-up. The Belarussian man doesn’t move. I can see the raw patch on his upper lip where he’s breathing raggedly through his nose, the hot air bubbling and blistering his philtrum.
Without a word, he hoists himself up and stumbles into the open air.
I clench my fist tighter. I count to ten again.
Another stream of water hits the rocks, and the Gulf of Finland turns red.
We are both in hell, me and Ville, under hell, beneath the lake of fire, swimming down, down, breathing the fiery water into our lungs. My brother is swimming ahead of me, his hand in mine, pulling me forward. I can’t open my eyes, because the water will burn them away. I can’t touch my ears, because I’m afraid they’ve already burnt away.
I want to count to ten, but I don’t know what language they speak in hell.
“Janne. Please go.” I hear my brother’s voice, sandpapered by steam. “This is all I have left. Jana’s pregnant, and she doesn’t want the child to know he has a drunk for a father. This is it. You and this prize. You need to—”
I think of the last three years. Of leaving him at the bar that night. Of our sauna at home, hands clasped together until I wrenched away, leapt out into the cool air like it was the arms of archangels.
I’ll never walk away from him again. I want to say it to him, but he can’t hear me underwater anyway.
He says something else, and all I hear is the count to ten, count to ten coming from the steaming rocks. I look down at my arms. They’re covered in black cherries, bulging from the skin like pockets of sizzling black blood. One bursts, sending a sticky trail of dark juice down my elbow.
There’s shouting, but it’s all so far away now. I finally feel like I’m getting somewhere. Like digging a hole to China—you swim far enough down into hell, and heaven is waiting on the other side.
I feel arms carrying me, and they must be angels, because I don’t feel like I’m burning anymore.
(Previously published by apt).