Emanuella the Teacher described to the class what a bear looks like, how fish breathe, and the kind of sounds a hyena makes at night. She also hung pictures of animals and birds on the classroom walls. Most of the children made fun of her, because they’d never seen an animal in their lives. Many of them didn’t quite believe there were such creatures in the world. At least not around here, they said. Besides, that teacher never found anyone in the whole village who had wanted to marry her, they said, and that’s why her head was full of foxes, sparrows, all sorts of things people think up when they’re lonely.
Emanuella’s descriptions had only a minor effect on the children, except for Little Nimi, who began to dream about animals at night. Most of his classmates laughed at him when, first thing in the morning, he told them how the brown shoes he’d put next to his bed before he went to sleep had turned into two hedgehogs in the dark and crawled around the room all night, but in the morning, when he opened his eyes, they were just a pair of shoes next to his bed again. Another time, black bats came to his room at midnight and carried him off on their wings, flew through the walls of the house up into the sky above the village and over mountains and forests till they brought him to an enchanted castle.
Nimi had a muddled brain and a constantly runny nose. He also had a large gap between his prominent front teeth. The children called that gap the garbage dump.
Every morning Nimi would come to class and begin telling everyone about a new dream, and every morning they would say enough, we’re sick and tired of you, shut that garbage dump of yours. And when he didn’t stop, they made fun of him. But instead of being offended, Nimi would join in the ridicule. He would breathe in his snot and swallow it, and, brimming over with joy, would call himself the most insulting names the children had given him: garbage dump, fuzzy- brain, hedgehog- shoes.
More than once, Maya, daughter of Lilia the Baker, had whispered to Nimi from her seat behind him in class: Nimi. Listen. Dream about whatever you want, animals, girls, but keep it to yourself. Don’t tell anyone. It just isn’t a good idea.
Matti said to Maya, You don’t understand. The only reason Nimi has those dreams is so he can tell us about them. And anyway, he doesn’t stop dreaming even when he wakes up in the morning.
Everything delighted Nimi, anything made him happy: the cracked mug in the kitchen and the full moon in the sky, Emanuella’s necklace and his own buck teeth, the buttons he forgot to button and the wind howling in the forest. Nimi found fun in everything there was and in anything that happened. And the least little thing was enough to make him burst out laughing.
Until the day he ran out of class, out of the village, and climbed up to the forest alone. Most of the village people searched for him for two or three days. The police searched for another week or ten days. After that, only his parents and sister kept looking. He came back three weeks later, thin and filthy, all scratched and bruised, but whooping with joy and excitement. And Little Nimi has been whooping ever since and has never spoken again: he hasn’t said a single word since he came back from the forest; he just wanders around the village streets barefoot and ragged, his nose running, baring his teeth and the gap between them, skipping from one backyard to another, climbing trees and poles, whooping all the time, his right eye constantly watering because of his allergy.
He couldn’t go back to school now that he had whoopitis. On their way home, the children would whoop at him on purpose to make him whoop back. They called him Nimi the Owl. The doctor said it would pass with time: perhaps there, in the forest, something had frightened or shocked him, and now he had whoopitis. Maya said to Matti: Shouldn’t we do something? Try to help him? And Matti replied: No, Maya. They’ll get tired of it soon. They’ll forget about him soon. When the children chased him off with their mockery and the pinecones and pieces of bark they threw at him, Little Nimi would run away, whooping. He’d climb the closest tree and from up in the high branches he would whoop at them again, with his one weepy eye and his buck teeth. And sometimes even in the middle of the night, the villagers thought they heard the distant echo of his whooping in the dark.