No 2 - 1981
from Guest of Reality
When Anders was twelve he found himself one autumn day on the way out to a stone he had in the forest outside town. It was rainy and windy, without being stormy, as it often is in autumn. He kept to the railway line since, as they lived beside it, that was the natural way to take into the forest. It was grey and chilly. In the marshalling yard he saw his father walking about taking a note of the wagons, a little stooped and with his back wet from the rain. He stole past on the other side of the row of wagons so as not to be seen by his father, who would well wonder where Anders was going in that weather. He heard his father’s step when they were opposite each other, he himself walked as silently as possible so as not to be heard.
Strictly speaking he hadn’t thought he’d need to go out there today, but that’s how it had turned out anyway. He hadn’t remembered this, had been preoccupied with other things. Also, the day had been beautiful for a time, and he didn’t usually go out there in good weather. But later he had decided after all to come, had realised it would be best.
The rain was streaming down, but he didn’t walk quickly. Solemnly, and as if dejected, with his hands stuck down in his pockets, in a tight little jacket with yellow buttons. An engine was busy shunting, gave out a pleasant warmth in passing.
Yes, in the morning it had been properly clear, even if raw. He had been up early, by six, because the sailors came on the train, fifty boys off down to the naval station out by the coast. They stopped for coffee, and on the square in front of the station restaurant long trestle-tables had been set. They shouted and bellowed with their mouths full of rolls, the coffee steamed and spread its scent in the chill of the morning. And they waved to the children up there in the small windows, no doubt thought it comical to see them stuck up there. Took snuff and piled back into the train.
News of this had come the evening before, so they knew they could get up early to watch. Then he had slept a little more and so to school. In the morning break he had to see to his homework and fetch paraffin for mother. He hadn’t thought of that earlier. He never thought of such things until they were necessary. The weather changed, became as it was now. After school he had helped Gustav carry garden chairs down from the outdoor cafe area, they were to be taken in for the winter, stacked up in the bowling alley, which was now closed. Gustav bowled a shot and made the skittles clatter down for the last time this season. Then Anders had gone home on his own, stood and listened a while outside the kitchen door because mother and Signe were sitting talking quietly about something in there, thought it was about his being ill, perhaps not likely to live much longer, he had been listening to that now for about a year, though he couldn’t feel there was anything wrong with him. Sat up by the window and watched the trains shunting to and fro in the rain. Then he’d realised he must be out to the stone today. For it was a heavy day. He felt compelled, no doubt about that. He had to follow his compulsion.
By now he was passing the depot out at the edge of the station compound. An engine was there, loading up with coal, ti too gave out some warmth as he walked past. But then he was out on the line, open land on both sides, and the rain came driving with the wind, up over the high embankment, uneven and whining, it was blowing with a vengeance. He held his head down and braced himself when the gusts came. It was worst here. But it should be hard. It should be like a sacrifice.
That . . . that they talked about quietly, could it perhaps be something different? But what? Occasionally he’d noticed how he’d heard wrongly, that they hadn’t actually been taling at all, only sitting in silence. But today, quite definitely, they’d been sitting there shispering. Why were they talking quietly, if it weren’t that they thought he was going to die soon? Otherwise they could well have talked loudly.
In the greyness the wind howled over the fields, the sky drooped low. Now he was entering the forest and the air calmed a little, now it was only raining. The water dripped from the trees, the spruces trailed their branches, couldn’t be bothered holding them up for they were full of dampness. From up here on the embankment one could look down into the forest. He carried on, it wasn’t so long now. Drops were running on the telephone wires, but they were going in the other direction, towards town. He stepped on the sleepers, they were tarred, didn’t take in the wetness, it just lay in pearls over them.
Now he was there, climbed down from the track, through the fence and into the forest. As he pushed his way in through the trees the rain cascaded off them. Because of the bad weather it was already almost dark in here, it certainly wasn’t late. A little way in, surrounded by tussocks, lay a flat stone which was barely a few inches above ground level. There was nothing special about it. If anything was remarkable it was simply that there was a stone here at all, there were no others, the mossy earth let them sink. He glanced carefully round, out along the track, though no-one would be likely to come that way. And he lay down on the stone and prayed.
It was silent all around him, only the dripping in the trees. He was not to be hard either, he didn’t pray out loud, but his cheeks were burning. Straight ahead there was a swampy opening in the forest and in the middle stood a stunted pine, barely the size of a man, uneven and stunted. He looked at this all the time, though it wasn’t to it he prayed, only that this was what he always did. No, he was praying to the same God as they did at home, there was no difference. But he did it out here. Why, he didn’t know, it had just turned out that way. It wasn’t for the sake of prayer out in nature - nature was nothing solemn for him, on the contrary. But still. Praying at home was no use to him, it wasn’t eager enough, not worked-up or fervid enough for his prayers to be heard. To be sure of being heard demanded much. Therefore there wasn’t much point in coming here either on days when the weather was good, when it was nice to go out walking. Then he may as well not try. He didn’t really know - it was exhausting and strange, this need to come out here, it often plagued him. But then it ought to be hard. It had to be so.
He had his own way to follow. He lived in a world of his own making, a narrow world with tenets and prescriptions which were noch to be disturbed, not to be acted against, he went around like someone in a cellar in the daytime, groping forward. Nothing could be done about that. It was so.
His cheeks were burning hotter and hotter. He lay with his hands tightly clasped. But he was praying for no more than one thing:
That he shouldn’t die, that none of them should die, none of them! That father should live, and mother, and all the children - he counted them all - and the old people out in the country, all, all of them! That no-one should die! That things should stay as they are. That nothing should be changed!
His whole passion for life amounted to this, that it shouldn’t stop. He asked for no advantages beyond that. Only to live. Things can turn out as they like. That wouldn’t matter. That couldn’t be helped.
He was indeed insistent on that - life could be whatever it chose, he insisted, to show how little that mattered. In this way he could be so much more certain of getting what he asked for, that which meant everything. He half dozed, thought exactly about what he named, so that he really saw it, he sort of held it forward. Prayed and prayed that it should be as it was, that it shouldn’t end. That winter should come soon, that summer should come round again in summertime, that life should go on, go on - and that he and all the others should be there too.
He lay there enflaming himself into an ecstasy, more and more glowing and hot, so that he was quite filled by it. It sounded like a hymn to life within him, a strange hymn which didn’t become any kind of jubilant song, but only counted up everything, only held on desperately to everything. Yet still a hymn.
In the glade before him the rain poured down, drenching the greyish yellow moss and the tree he stared at. But in here it was quite silent, dim as evening. It was solemn in its own way, as he lay there praying on the stone in the half darkness. He didn’t stir, not even his mouth moved. Only the glowing cheeks and the fingers he pressed together as hard as he could.
After his praying he rose quickly. Relieved, as if glad it was done, dried off his wet knees.
Jumped over onto a tussock, and then to another. He knew his way around here, but it was very wet today. At least he could walk on the tussocks. The spruce twigs hung full of rain that lay in pearly drops between the needles, the elms stood with smooth shiny branches, on the small birches there were still a few leaves left in sheltered corners, they made the bushes look like big yellow flames, in the heather and the moss there were also fiery colours.
How beautiful to live, if only for a while. He wouldn’t die now at once, not today, not tomorrow either. No, not now when he had just prayed to live. The birches and the low sprigs of cowberries, the fine blossoming heather, all greeted him: Good-day, little man, you’re alive and walking about here. What are you up to?
He leaped around on the tussocks like a fledgling. Looked up into the trees, thought he heard something, perhaps squirrels? Shook a spruce branch and let the water splash down on the cowberries, shook some more down on some berries he would come back and pluck some day. And so he climbed back up to the railway line.
He moved more rapidly now. The drops up on the telephone wires ran in the same direction, they were going homewards too. He looked around, up to the treetops and the clouds in the sky. The weather had lightened noticeably, pigeons were cooing in the forest, other birds were beginning to chirp and twitter.
He reached out a hand. Was it really raining still? No, it wasn’t. The sky spread itself unevenly and thinly as if it could open whenever the time came. Sparrows appeared on the wires, sat shaking the rain off.
Yes, the world was . . . however it wanted to be. One way or the other, it wasn’t to be counted upon. It pleased itself. Not much point in having special wishes, as far as the world went, that was clear. So long as one could be alive, take part in it. And that’s what he was doing.
He went on. Passed the edge of the forest, where there were two cellar-like sheds where the ironmongers in town kept gunpowder and dynamite, thought what a bang it would make if it blew up. Came out into open country, the wind was no longer so terrible, from the embankment there was a clear view in every direction. Came to the depots and into the station. Shunting here and there, engines whistling and puffing out smoke, the two narrow-gauge locos peeped pitifully like baby birds, spat and frothed round their cylinders as they pushed together carriages for the evening trains, the big proper engines on the wide-gauge track billowed their smoke up to heaven in a more dignified manner. Shuntmen hung out from guard’s vans and goods wagons in motion, flapped and signalled with their arms. One engine had five flat open trucks with boxes of cowberries. Another came puffing along with a long line of bellowing cow-trucks. It was lively here. He stepped forward carefully between the trains, stepped over the tracks when it was safe to do so, greeted firemen and drivers, shuntmen and brakeboys on their way with lanterns down to the trains. Thought about this and that, felt very happy.
Where had he got all that from? All that about dying. He wasn’t going to die! No more than others. Not till much later, and that went for everyone. They just had to put up with it like that.
Now it was over and done with, for this time, his heart felt light, he was back again, among the others. People were walking up and down the platform carrying bags, old women came rushing, imagining they’d be late. Olsson rang the first bell, Karlsson drove out the luggage, hooted at people in his way, the fireman lit the lanterns at the front of the engine ready for the journey out into the world.
He climbed up the restaurant stairway, home to his own place. From the third class cafe came brawling noises from a couple of drunks the train was about to leave behind. But already inside the yard with all the woodsheds it was silent. He crept up the steps, along the dim passage. Outside the kitchen door he stopped and listened a little - no, no-one was whispering in there. He hung his jacket up here in the darkness, for it was wet, and he crept in.
Mother was there, making supper. They talked a little. He gathered that she thought he had been up in the park for a time. On his part he was lively and happy, talked about the sailors that morning and about Gustav’s last shot in the bowling alley before it was closed for the season. Mother moved about surrounded by the light she always spread around her, calm and quiet. He thought she was so serious.
Then in came father, and all the other children, and they ate. The lamp was lit in the room and father and mother sat down at the table and read God’s Word, while the sisters made the beds, silent, whispering, they were hardly audible. He sat curled up by the window, it started raining again, beating against the window out of the dark. The last trains hooted and drove off with the glare of their fires showing up against the sky. But in here it was quite silent and motionless. Only mother sighing now and then and her lips trembling as she read. It all made one so oppressed, it was as if she needed help, as if she were alone.
How heavy everything was for everyone here at home.
One morning the milk-churn didn’t come alone. Grandmother stepped off the train, carrying it, she was dressed in her Sunday best, in her old fine kerchief. She clambered over the tracks, looking cautiously about her, and walked up to the restaurant where the waitresses were hanging about the windows watching for customers. She curtseyed to those she met. In here in town she seemed even smaller. Her dress was black but the greyness in its folds was caused by age not by use. The skirt reached down over her feet, hiding them, and was so stiff it hardly moved as she walked. Her silk kerchief was a wedding present, it had roses pressed into the fabric. It was so big she almost vanished in it, the fringes fell down over her shoulders, and above the knot her old firm co-in protruded. Instead of a coat she had a brown shawl wrapped round her waist and knotted behind. It was winter, frosty and clear, slippy underfoot. She walked lightly for her age, only a little stiffly because of the shawl. Looked up at the towers and pinnacles on the house, the snow-filled niches and balconies - no-one to be seen in the little windows above the third class cafe. Still, she wasn’t expected. At the gateway lay a snowdrift from overnight, she had to step over it. In the yard, where there was a smell of beer, she curtseyed to the restaurant-keeper and Gustav, who were shovelling snow, went into the porch and so up. When she knocked on the kitchen door it was the youngest one who opened. They were washing themselves, getting ready for school. Mother was there, cooking porridge. No, no-one knew anything about her coming. “God bless you, my children”, she said and sat down, a little tired. “I’ve come with the milk. At the right time too, I see you’re going to have your porridge.” Mother helped her off with her shawl, the old lady seemed so small in the chair, the woollen waistband tight and creased against her breast. Her kerchief came off too, the thin white hair shone, and so did the good eyes, that lay deeply inset as they do with old people. Yes, she brought greetings from them out there. All was well with them, God be praised. Uncle Emil was in and out of the forest a great deal, with the oxen, he had a struggle of it, poor man, things just don’t go so quickly when you don’t have a horse. Grandfather was fit and well. And the cows were milking well, they still had plenty of feed left. Yes, God was good to them all. Next week they were going to slaughter the pig, they’d already said so in a note that came with the milk the day before yesterday.
But why had grandmother come to town like this without their knowing about it?
Well, they thought she should come. She was against the idea for she thought it wasn’t really necessary. It was just that she’d been feeling a little out of sorts recently, nothing to speak of, but still they thought she should perhaps see what the doctor said. It was their idea, not that it was necessary.
Mother sat close to her and took her hand, everyone fell silent. Everyone looked at her. They thought she was just as usual. Well, possibly a little more shrunken. And perhaps thin in the face? But then she always had been. The eyes lay so remarkably deep. But that’s how they were with old people. Yes, they thought she looked as she always did.
But mother sat and patted her, asked just what was the matter, where she felt sore. Oh well, it was just that she felt a little poorly and got quickly tired at her work, so it went rather slowly. But she had no pains, nothing to speak of, well perhaps a little ache. No, it was nothing. But it was them at home who wanted her to come. And maybe she could get some medicine that would help her through her chores.
She clasped her hands and looked at her offspring, at the way they lived here, smiled a little at them, though perhaps not quite as she used to. Mother sat beside her, serious, didn’t take her eyes off her. They were like two sisters, so alike. The paleness and the thin hair did it, the features that had the same fragility and calm. So alike in figure too, tough and stocky. Mother briefly caressed the old hand, more she didn’t want to show, it seemed, before the children. We must realise that grandmother was old, she’d soon be seventy-eight, some things simply couldn’t be the same as before. Well, they’d go off to the doctor’s together, as soon as he opens, that’s what they’d do. And so all would be well with grandmother again. “It’s in God’s hands,” said the old lady.
The children looked at the two of them, silent and wondering - it was strange how serious mother was. Furthest away stood Anders, white-faced and staring at grandmother as if he wanted to see right through her. They didn’t talk much more, the girls looked for something to tidy up in the kitchen, set out plates and porridge for the youngest two, who had to be off soon. Anders had to come to the table and eat, but he could’t get anything down. Hurried to say goodbye and crept out through the door with a prolonged stare at the old lady.
He and his sister plunged forward through the snow in the direction of school. It was frosty and unnaturally quiet, the town was deserted, no foot-prints led from front door steps, as if no-one lived in the houses. They strode one behind the other without saying anything.
Now the clock up in the tower rang out - Anders jumped, thought they were beginning to ring the church-bells! No, It was only the half-hour.
Children could be heard in the other streets, they came along in clusters, squealing and shoving. Down into the church park they came upon their slides under the snow, got up speed and shot away in a long line, tumbling and staggering up again. Anders and his siter kept behind, made little slides without actually taking runs, as if they didn’t belong with the others today.
They had two hours to go before break. Anders -at trying to follow the words being read, trying to cling to them so as not to be alone, trying to be among the others. But he was hardly concentrating. While he listened tensely, heard exactly what was said, he thought how he was now sitting here listening which meant of course that he wasn’t really listening at all.
What were they talking about - the words just beat against the walls, bounced right across the room, and meant nothing.
And so they were talking about God - here too, here and at home, everywhere! Who was it? What did all that talk mean? Did they think it helped!
No, he didn’t bother so much about God. Not like before. And he had never really understood him - not that that mattered.
Yet - if he could only run out into the forest, if he could get an hour free and run out there as fast as possible, dash off before it was too late, run, run, so that he would get there quite worn out, panting and excited, and then collapse on the stone . . .
If he could get free, say that he must , that there was something more important than anything else, that he simply had to rush away . . . !
No, no-one would Understand. What would he say? That he had to run out into the forest! Who would understand that? That one must beg and pray on one’s knees, positively aflame with zeal, on a stone . . . pray that they should’ live, that they should live . . . !
He was quite worked up, didn’t know what was happening round about him. Didn’t notice the pause between classes, how they’d come in again, got another teacher, something else being talked about . . .
Yes - they talked about so much. It was as if they didn’t realise it all came down to one single thing. They were always thinking about something else. Not about the fact that they would die, that they would die . . .
The bell went and they got out, scuffed and yelled in the corridor. In the playground they threw snowballs at each other’s heads, the last battle before lunch.
Anders and his sister crept home silently. They didn’t know whether to hurry or to take their time. Towards the end they were practically running.
But grandmother still hadn’t come back from the doctor’s. Only children were at home, sitting waiting.
Anders clambered up to the window, sat watching, crouched, as if ready to leap. His heart was thumping, his eyes were hot as if he had a fever.
Then they came, mother and grandmother walking up the path calmly and quietly. They were both like old ladies, both in kerchiefs, but mother had a cloak with ties. They greeted a railwayman, and a cook who was leaning out of the kitchen window, then vanished inside.
Came into the room to be greeted by all the children, sat down and made their report.
There was nothing to be done for grandmother. No, it was too late. The doctor had examined her carefully and had been so kind and friendly. But nothing would help. It was cancer and it had gone too far. “Well, well,” said the old lady. “God’s will be done.”
Mother did the talking, not her. The old lady only added a few words here and there. “It was remarkable,” she said, “how kind and good he was with me.” She had heard he could be hard on people, many hesitated to go to him. But with her he had sat and talked in a friendly way as if to a child. And he wouldn’t take any payment, just said she didn’t likely have much to spare. She thought that was very kind of him. He would be very expensive for he was so highly qualified. Yes, a remarkable person.
The children stood round in a circle, sniffling. Behind and a little apart stood Anders, deathly pale, his rigid face forward, staring intently at the old lady. Mother and she were sitting there under the windows, which were iced over. They weren’t taking the news as something dreadful. Well, mother did have an air of being somehow transfigured, just as if she weren’t actually present. But she kept on patting grandmother on the hand and fussing a little with her, adjusting her kerchief, straightening the fold in her skirt. Something had been changed between the two of them - grandmother was like a child taken in hand and tended by her prudent mother. She seemed bewildered by what had happened to her, at times taken up by it in an outward manner, as if it were an event. Sat stroking the kerchief that lay on her lap, the fine wedding kerchief with the pressed roses. Then she seemed to be thinking that the children were standing there wondering how long she would come to go on living among them. And she said that she had asked the doctor, for she wanted to know how it was, so that when her time came she would be prepared. But he had turned away and answered that he didn’t know. Then she understood him well and regretted having asked. “No,” I said to the doctor, “that’s something we know nothing about.”
The trains shunted to and fro outside, it was the start of the busiest period of the day in the marshalling yard. The smoke swept along the window panes so that the ice melted. Mother said they would now have a drop of coffee. Yes. that would be fine, said the old lady, and the girls were sent to get it ready.
So they sat and drank coffee, round the table, not saying much. The children sighed, bent over their cups, now and then had to pull out a hankie, weep surreptitiously. Anders didn’t want anything, He just walked to and fro, crept round and among them, stepping on the mats, over to the windows and down to the door, his face white. Hiseyes were quite dry, as if lustreless. At one point the old lady met his rigid stare and nodded, smiled a little to him. But nothing in his face changed and he couldn’t look her in the eye.
When they’d finished their coffee the old lady got up.
“Yes, time I went back home. You’ll be coming out to see me , dear children.”
Then it broke out, the children couldn’t keep their tears back. Mother too had tears in her eyes, but she wasn’t crying. “Of course, mother,” she said, “more than before.” “It’s nice you don’t forget us,” said the old lady.
It was the first time death had come so close to them there at home, which was why it seized them so strongly. They felt how completely they belonged together, couldn’t grasp that any one of them should go away, should be missed, not exist among them any more. All the warmth they had within themselves broke out so that as never before they felt as one. And this helped and strengthened them in their grief.
Only Anders stood as if outside the warm stream that flowed through them. He crept halfway into the other room and watched them form there, not a tear in his eyes. The children were clustered round the old lady, clumsily patting her. But not him. It looked as if he didn’t love her as much as the oethers did.
“I have one or two errands in town,” said the old lady while they helped her on with her shawl and fastened it behind her back. Some nuts from the ironmongers for the chaff-cutter. A hecto of snuff from Lundgren’s for Emil, he says he can put up with that kind better than others. Then they must have half a kilo of coffee for the slaughtering next week. Mother asked her to promise to keep away from the slaughtering, it could be so cold, she wouldn’t be able to take it. you well know I’ll have to be there,” she retorted. “there’s no mercy for me yet.”
Then at the door she said, “I don’t see how they’ll manage when I’m gone, it’s much too dear with paid folk from outside, it never works.”
She tied her kerchief and adjusted it on her head.
“Well, I’ll be on my way. And thank you.”
So off she went, the milk-can in her hand.
Pär Lagerkvist is one of the greatest figures in Swedish literature during the 20th century. He was born in Växjö in 1891, and published his first book, a novella called MÄNNISKAR (People) in 1912. In 1916 he followed this with a volume of poems, ANGEST (Anguish), that brought him his first real recognition. Thereafter he wrote mainly novels and plays - the former including THE DWARF (1944), and the celebrated BARABBAS (1951). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1951. GUEST OF REALITY dates from 1925.
Robin Fulton, born Scotland, 1937. SELECTED POEMS 1963-1978, (Macdonald Edinburgh, 1980) gathers work from several volumes. Edited the quarterly Lines Review from 1967 to 1976 & the associated Lines Review Editions also published CONTEMPORARY SCOTTISH POETS: INDIVIDUALS AND CONTEXTS (Macdonald 1974). Held writer’s fellowship at Edinburgh University 1969-71. Has translated many Swedish writers Lars Gustafsson, Werner Aspenström, Gunnar Ekelöf, Kiell Espmark, Gunnar Harding, Östen Sjöstrand & Tomas Tranströmer. For Swedish translations given the Artur Lundkvist award for 1977, and the Swedish Academy award for 1978.
Translated by Robin Fulton
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