Presence and absence

Issue 4/1993 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Urwind (Schildts, 1993). Introduction by David McDuff

Snow letter

I have written you a snow letter. The day was clear, with clouds like drifting mist, woolly and small. In January the wind’s paintbrush is allusive and creates distance. But the darkness rises from the forests around the city; a pregnant bank of cloud, blue­ violet, is suddenly there, and it gets dark in the middle of the day. Then it reaches my room, too, and the silence thickens. The first snow falls, gleams like dust and down in the light from the setting sun. Then the snowstorm is there, whirls through gateways and along streets, stops, rises, turns, rushes onwards again under the courtyard’s swaying lamps. How long did I sit there, on the staircase, after Mrs Rosendal slammed her door shut, watching the darkness rising, stair by stair? Each year is a snowflake that blows around between now and the past. A door crashes shut, a door crashes open, out flies a grey soldier’s uniform and is followed, mumbling and swaying, by a man in long johns while a woman screams: ‘Swine!’ And again the staircase booms with the sound of a door being slammed shut. People stride through one another and leave traces of blood. Groaning, he puts his clothes on there on the staircase, sees me, leans forward as though he were examining a rare insect, his breath smells of spirits, he says: ‘Goddammit, one of these days I’ll shoot that woman, it’s a damn sight better at the front! Do you understand?’ He takes me with a large, hot hand under the chin, the frost wells up like a mighty breath from the underworld, the whole house breathes under an immense pressure, ice-floes slam shut, I look into his eyes, they expire, are dead, he gets up and totters down the staircase, in the whirling snow he makes his way across the courtyard, dragging the jacket of his uniform after him, here on the staircase all is quiet, pale and shabby. If the door slams down at the bottom I hold my breath. As I pass my hand over my face the mitten is still wet, how invisible and lovely it feels, the coolness over my forehead, over my cheeks, around my neck. I feel it now, as I stand in the shower cubicle and slowly lift my face, take in my gaze, it watches without curiosity the man who is taking his shower, then turns away, a light goes on in the room behind him, it grows dark, the door closes.

A tremor passes through the air, the wind gets up, the stairwell shakes, I begin to crawl up the stairs to Victoria on all fours, I am a purposeful steambath, driven by fear, my sweater is too tight. If now I were to slip and fall I would curl up like a hedgehog, a ball of wool. It would roll down each step with soft thuds, no one would see me, I would fall like a dark ball out through the door, roll out through the gateway into the back yard. There an old woman in an apron would catch me in her wide skirt, she would carry me home to her one-room flat on D staircase, sighing she would put me on her kitchen table, shake the snow from the grey shawl around her shoulders, take out two thick knitting needles of fragrant wood and start on her spectacle – squinting, humming, quivering work of creating a sweater, one of the many sweaters in her life. Everyone knitted during the war. I rest in her lap, gradually unravel, roll around in her coarse hand. I give a squeak in there, oh-ing and ah-ing she frees me from the yarn, I am smaller than a clenched fist, so small would I be. I feel this soft fall from stair to stair hurt me in every limb. She opens her door, shows me the way back, now I sit here and write, she could have no inkling of that, she is long since dead.

How heavy it feels to struggle up this dizzying and cold stairwell while the snowstorm quietly rages out there. It is as though I had been making my way along here for decades and had slowly grown, become heavier, acquired eyes ever more hesitant, ever more difficult to find the way with. But Viktoria is surely waiting for me, why, we shall get married this autumn, she says. I sniff the air. At the Bengtssons’ they are frying herring, where did they get it from? Out under the door it streams, bones, spines, dead heads, dead eyes. At the Pietinens’ they are listening to the news, there is the sound of Sibelius, a woman is screaming: ‘If you touch me, I’ll go!’ Hot lava forces its way over the thresholds, here anyone at all may give up the ghost without anyone hearing, snow whirls in through the windows and covers all those who are asleep, they lie in rows as along wintry roads near the front. Each window is a darkness, each stair a year of my life, how many years have I left?

I no longer count my years. But it still feels as though someone were following me up the staircase, and each person who moves there stops and listens: no, that was a mistake, you are alone. Who is listening behind the doors you do not know. Bengtsson, Pietinen, Rista, Peterzen, Kivinen, Berg, and Cedermark. No, Viktoria is not listening at the door, she hears me inside herself, she is writing me a long snow letter, I hold it like an icetray on my splayed fingers, it melts and leaves only a wet hand behind it. I remember that there on the staircase I could have gone into anyone at all, slipped like an invisible letter through the letterboxes, I saw the hallway, the dark clothes, the pocket torch with its blackened eye, its white crack of light, I move about in the living room, the radio glows, the tap in the kitchen drips, the lower part of the blackout curtains are covered by a grey woollen blanket against the cold and the draught. I am the speck of dust or the snowflake in the filtering light.

Suddenly memory and silence are always shattered, a door is opened with a crash, out tumbles a shouting, shrieking, many-coloured flock of padded small children, and I stand as then pressed against the wall. There are small, round faces, windproof jerkins, boots, knitted caps, rucksacks with English slogans, some of them run down along the handrail, others shout for joy, pull at the lift door, gleam a thousandfold in the mirrors, past runs a boy whom I think I recognise, he is my eyes’ mirror image, he looks at me, yes, without curiosity his gaze his lifted and meets mine in the mirror, now the entire flock streams out across the back courtyard and scatters like sand in the snow, the door to the beating-balcony is open. A magpie flies chattering up and writes with its long tailfeathers an invisible text in the clear January air. Now I can already see Viktoria’s blue door. On it hangs a fragrant Christmas wreath, it is small, it will soon wither, as from a child’s funeral. How raw and cold it is, and near the stars. And the wind is heard, in the distance. Old grandfather Berg opens his door and peeps out, he has the beard of Father Christmas and follows with his eyes everything that moves on the staircase, lets in children he does not like and hides them under his bed, Stina told me that, she is in my class and is top of it, she knows. Beware of him, Daniel! But he smiles at me toothlessly and shuts his door, soundlessly. I stretch up towards Viktoria’s bell, I see myself already in her room, I see everything a little before it happens, it feels like an emptiness in my stomach.

The funfair

You write that you are spurning the summer and burying yourself in your work, perhaps that way you can shorten your time in the States and come home sooner. Perhaps you are deceiving yourself, something in your letter tells me that, there is a tone in it that makes me wonder, feel a vague doubt, an unease. I can’t afford to travel over, all is quiet in the bookshop, but I keep it open, in summer the books are always unusually reticent, feel almost superfluous. In the autumn they begin to live and find their natural reading darkness. I wrap myself in the city as in a weightless twilight garment, I walk along the shores and see the sea expand, a great empty surface, and white cruisers head out, gigantic, filled to bursting-point with people. I often fall asleep on the sofa in the study, the book I have been reading has fallen down on the floor, the skylight is open, the door to the courtyard also, Orpheus and Morpheus meet, there is born a faint music that follows me through the days. Towards evening the unease breaks out in earnest, I look at the telephone, it is not concerned with me, no one rings, I ring no one, the people I could ring are out in the country, who are they? Did I leave the dishes unwashed yesterday only because I had nothing to do? If I have changed the book display in the window, some summer stroller will stop and look at my Milosz and my Hesse, not to speak of my Kafka, there is such a loneliness around him and the long, narrow figures he absent-mindedly scratched in the margin of his mercilessly clearsighted life. People go past, here and in Prague, the horrible presses on, it has no face. Sometimes a moth gets in by mistake and circles blindly under the green lampshade, and I remember Olga Knipper’s story about Chekhov’s death, it is that time now, hottest summer, and he turned away after having drunk a glass of champagne, shadows lengthened, a horrible moth whirred in the room, the heat was stifling, in the silence the cork flew out of the half-finished bottle with a pop, it was over.

Yesterday, tired of the July quiet, I passed the dark gateway to the street and saw a large brick-coloured iron door that I had not seen before, it stood ajar, and behind it I could hear what sounded like the roar of a thousand voices. I stepped into a clattering world of popcorn and wilting lilac, into a mellow June evening when the worst of the heat is over and the sky is pigeon-blue above black treetops. A large funfair spread out before me, with garlands of motley-coloured lamps, they were like the screams from the giddy roller-coaster, I pushed my way forward into the dense mass of people. Children sat on the lawns with their peppermint rock and candy floss, from the shooting gallery came rapid shots, people were carried past, the violent clattering from the roundabouts and the miniature trains made the funfair slowly revolve, market stalls and tents flicker and change place, the silhouettes of roofs all round twine like a ribbon around my forehead. A withered maypole flew past, this was not a casual frenzy, this was permanent happiness, dearly paid for. I did not know where I was going, where I was, I thought I saw the dead Olof Petri flit by, there was a woman who resembled you, I followed her, when she turned round her face had disappeared, all that was left were black shadows, a grotesquely smiling mouth.

At the ghost train there was a long queue, I joined it, children screamed for ice cream. When, as if forced to, I got into the two-seater carriage beside a groaning man who looked like a wrestler, it was as though I were trying to drag with me all the weight of the crowd’s babbling and the compressed, confused yearning for adventure that drifted along spookily illumined passages. In the cave we were hurled into all the sounds were stretched out, an echo chamber was filled to the brim with fearful roars from invisible animals, luminous monsters rushed over us and vanished again, suddenly the carriage careered into a thundering waterfall, at the next moment to be engulfed by fire and rush towards a rock-face; the man beside me chewed popcorn, then threw the bag into Niagara. I wanted to cry out but sat speechless, was led through an empty darkness, through a jungle of wet lianas, I felt the acrid sweat from the man beside me, his rasping breath. From death we were hurled out into life, into the human flood that surged around me, shadows that dragged small children along, whistles shrieked, giant pandas waddled out, there were grinning masks and false noses, and children ran shrieking around the open-air dance floors. Plastic lawns gleamed, there was a sparkling round the dodgem cars as they bumped into one another, there was always a darkly resolute boy driving against the stream, he was a knife in the belly of happiness, high on a tightrope walked a white figure with his long pole, the great evening held its breath, he was across, he stretched up his arm, the public applauded hesitantly. Right at the top of the giant wheel, where the night wind beat against my face and the city spread out its ribbons of light, everything stopped. I swayed gently to and fro in my basket, I was alone with my giddiness, all unease and longing left me, I did not choose but was chosen, did not accept but was taken into my own calm, as though there were always a possibility of returning. I did not ask, merely saw and lived, released my convulsive grip on the iron gate before me. The darkness around me was mellow and full of light. Far below life murmured mechanically. I was close to the stars, and had no name, it was an inspiration, an insight into healing.

As I made my way towards the exit I passed the hall of mirrors and went mechanically inside, it was natural: that I should see myself like that, in various forms. It lay outside the amusement park proper, as though it had been built only for me. There were no visitors, only an old man who was half asleep in the ticket window, he looked at me with eyes that were scarcely open. He turned away his tortured face, mumbled something about closing time, but I knew that he had only just opened. What did he want to prevent me from doing? Where the air had been filled with colour and smell, with sausage-stand vapours and sulphurous clouds from the shooting galleries, with trampled summer and dance-floor stamping, here it was quiet. I made my way into the gleaming, slowly rotating, peculiarly ghostlike world where faces were lengthened and shrunk, where one’s body assumed grotesque forms, where one’s smile froze to a grimace and the mirrors demanded distortions, in pleasure and horror, all equally mechanically. These pale, pasty features, elongated to the point of unrecognisability, the body swollen, the neck a giraffe’s, the eye a runny egg-yolk, the ears like swollen handles, I who approached, I who backed away, knelt, mirrors that pressed me to them, filled me with loneliness and darkness where I could make my forehead run out into a formless peak, my eyes and nose press together into a pig’s snout, teeth and lips grow mooingly enlarged, chin be hurled out like a hairy spear from a dwarf’s squeezed-together body. I dragged it with me, I twisted and tore myself, I could not get free, tottering I made my way out. Right by the exit there was a mirror, covered with mist, gazing at me indistinctly was a dwarf, a shrunken head, a spherical torso. Then I hurried out into the dark July night, slipped like a shadow along the streets, gangs of teenagers moved screaming aside, like a flake of soot I was swept onwards, a bat, a stunted creature, was no taller than a child, half-ran through gateways and across courtyards, up staircases that rose before me, managed with the last of my strength to open the door of the flat, heard it beginning to rain outside, hurried past the mirror in the hall, returned, could hardly see myself, hesitated, went into the bathroom, the light struck me in the face, I raised my eyes, I was there, had grown older, my hair wet with sweat, my face furrowed, alien and confused. I rinsed my head in cold water, I had survived, exhausted I crept into bed, sank into a bottomless, dreamless torpor. The dawn was there, I awoke some hours later, stretched cautiously, lay motionless. Day returned.

Translated by David McDuff

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