The Earth is a snowball

Issue 1/1995 | Archives online, Prose

A short story from Resa runt solen (‘Journey round the sun’, Schildts, 1994). Introduction by Ann-Christine Snickars

It is a day in August and even though I can sense that the end of the summer is nearer than the beginning, my hours are still as long as days. I am a child and live in the midst of summer’s eternity.

This morning I wake up earlier than anyone else. It isn’t usually that way. Usually Mårten is the first of us two to get up, but now he is asleep with his face turned to the wall. I stay in bed for a while, listening. It is also quiet in the other room, where Mama is asleep. Now I remember that it’s today Papa is coming out to see us after working in the town all week.

I open the curtain a little and see that the sky is blue and not grey with heavy rainclouds as it has been these past few days. I quickly put on my few clothes, a thin striped cotton sweater, my shorts and my brown plimsolls. I push the door open, stand on the steps and breathe a morning air that still smells more of summer than of autumn. I listen to the familiar sounds: twittering birds, the wind in the treetops and crying gulls over the bay.

The stony path is full of snaking roots, the breakfast things lie still and silent, none of the kitchen maids has got up to light a fire in the big stove in the kitchen and boil water for the tea and porridge.

I stand on the beach and look out across the calm waters of the bay. The waves aren’t awake yet, I think, and sit down, let the sugar-fine sand trickle between my fingers. Then, I don’t know how, but suddenly everything, the beach and the sea, the stones, the trees and the sky become something else, something that, deep inside, they are. A wave of bubbling happiness fills me like a foretaste of something that exists both outside and inside me. I don’t think these thoughts. I simply am. An am in an is.

When I get up, there are no sounds any more. I can see the leaves of the alders moving in the gentle breeze, but I can’t hear anything. The gull, which has settled on a stone, gapes but does not make a sound. I put my fingers in my ears, but when I take them out I still hear nothing. I open my mouth, fill my lungs and shout a soundless cry across the bay. The strange thing is that I am not afraid of the silence. I walk on along the beach, all the way to Rafael’s jetty, where his fishing boat is moored. But now I don’t bother about the boat, but carry on until I reach the flat bathing rock where Mårten and I usually liee drying ourselves in the sun in between our water-games in the bay. I lean my back against the rock and close my eyes. Now I am not only deaf, but also blind.

This is what being dead is like, I think.

The dark silence is suddenly disturbed by a familiar, rhythmical sound.

‘Cling-clang-cling-clang-cling-clang,’ calls the triangle.

Breakfast is served.

I eat gruel and the grown-ups drink tea and eat white bread with butter. The camp boys are making a noise out on the covered verandah where they have seated themselves around a long table. Sometimes I hear Kaa’s voice, followed by bursts of laughter from the other boys, and I realise that Kaa has said something funny. I would also like to sit together with them, but as I am not a camp boy and have a blue scarf, I can’t. I think it’s boring to sit in the big dining room together with all the aunts and uncles. And today Mårten is not here, either.

‘He went to the forest with Kim and Bengt,’ says Mama, and I know they are doing something they don’t want me to be part of.

‘You’re too young,’ Mårten said yesterday when I asked if I could come too.

After breakfast, Mama wonders if I want to go berry-picking with her. I don’t, really, but I go along all the same. Mama carries a large basket and I a slightly smaller one. When I have picked enough to fill it almost half full I get tired, pour the berries into Mama’s basket and say I am going down to the beach.

‘Don’t go into the water if there aren’t any grown-ups nearby,’ Mama warns me, as I go.

The beach is empty, even though the sun is shining and the water is warm.

‘Ahoy!’ cries a brisk voice, and I see Uncle Rafael waving at me as he sits in his boat, tinkering with the engine.

I love the smell of petrol, and like helping Uncle Rafael. I sit on the narrow jetty and hand him various tools from a metal box. I already know the names of most of the tools.

After that, I collect shells for a while. When I am tired of collecting shells, I go over to stones, and when I’ve thrown the stones away I go up on to the rock and look out across the sea. It is a clear day and I can see all the way to the horizon where the Paradise Islands are. Mårten has told me that even if I were to go racing off in the Fogelholms’ fast Evinrude boat for a thousand days and nights I would never get to the Paradise Islands, which would always be just as far away.

Suddenly I catch sight of a small dot that is hovering right above the horizon. I screen my eyes with my hand to see better, but it doesn’t help.

‘Rafael!’ I shout, and jump down from the rock. ‘Rafael, can I borrow your binoculars?’ I shout, and run along the beach to the jetty.

Rafael hangs the heavy black binoculars round my neck and says I must be careful and not look at the sun. I promise, and hurry back up the rock.

At first I can’t see the dot at all, but then I discover it. I put the binoculars to my eyes and see that the dot is a ship, a white ship with tall funnels that is moving out there among the Paradise Islands.

I look at the ship for a long time, so long that my arms begin to shake. Then I rest for a bit and when I try to find the white boat again, it has gone.

I sit down on the rock with the binoculars in my lap, and squint at the sun. Kaa has told me that the sun is a fire far away in black space and that the earth is like an island that floats in the cosmic sea, round and round the warming fire. Without the sun, the earth would just be a big ball of ice, says Kaa.

I put the binoculars to my eyes and cannot understand why one must not look at the sun. The sun that is so beautiful. Now I see that the sun is not a fire but an island with high golden mountains and rivers of flowing gold.

It is only when the triangle rings for dinner that I notice I am hungry.

Mårten sits together with Kim and Bengt. They shovel down their food quickly, and when I ask what they are doing over there in the forest they glance at each other and look mysterious.

‘Why can’t I come with you?’ I ask.

‘It’s too dangerous,’ says Mårten, and Kim and Bengt agree.

It is Uncle Harry who says grace today. He has scarcely managed to thank God for our food when Mårten vanishes out through the door with his new friends.

‘I have a surprise for you,’ Mama says when we leave the dining room, and I realise she wants to console me.

Together we walk up to the Chalet, and when Mama opens the door I at once recognise the smell of blueberry pie that is still hot. She leaves a bit for Mårten and Papa on a dish which she puts in the larder. She puts the rest of the pie in a basket and then we go to the beach where Aunt Tekla and Uncle Osse, Aunt Helling and Uncle Harry are seated around the white trestle tables together with some of the other guests of the boarding house. The tables are set with cups, thermos coffee jugs, and a dish of biscuits and sliced bun.

I stuff myself full.

Uncle Rafael plays waltzes on his accordion.

I may not go and swim now, either, because first I have to digest the food, as Mama says.

I go down to the edge of the water and play ducks and drakes, but I’m not allowed to do that either.

‘Imagine how stony the bottom would get if everyone threw stones into the water,’ shouts Uncle Åke.

‘Why don’t you collect shells?’ says Mama.

But I’ve already done that.

And when at last I am allowed to put on my blue bathing trunks with the white stripe round the waist and wade out into the clear waters of the bay, it isn’t fun any more.

At two o’clock it is time for coffee and fruit juice in the dining room. I don’t like the watery juice and the bun is always dry. Mårten, Kim and Bengt are sweaty and tousle­ haired, and they sit by themselves and talk in whispers to one another. When they have gulped down the light yellow juice and have obtained permission to take some slices of bun with them as fare for the journey, they quickly set off for their secrets in the forest.

Mama and I go to meet Papa.

Scarcely have we arrived down at the big jetty than we see the Johanna rounding the point and steering into the bay.

Papa is dressed in his city clothes: grey trousers, white shirt and a spotted bow tie. But he has rolled up his shirtsleeves to the elbows and he has taken off his jacket. I am allowed to carry his briefcase, which smells of leather and surprises.

Mama laughs and is in a good mood. I don’t know what they are talking about, but it doesn’t concern me. Soon I hurry past the turning to the Wiiks’ villa, where the dachshund stands on the hill, barking. I’m not afraid, not when Papa is with me. As we walk past the pasture I shout ‘Hello!’ to the horse, who nods his big head and looks at me through his brown, fly-bordered eyes as though he wanted to say something. Papa pats him on the muzzle and we go on our way, across the sports field and the rock, and then we are home.

‘Where’s Mårten?’ Papa wonders when he has changed into a pair of old trousers, white tennis shoes and a checked summer shirt.

‘He’s in the forest with Kim and Bengt,’ says Mama. ‘They’re going home tomorrow, you know.’

I almost feel happy again. When Kim and Bengt have gone to the city I will have Mårten all to myself.

‘Why aren’t you with them?’ Papa wonders.

‘I don’t feel like it,’ I lie.

‘Go out and play by yourself, then,’ says Papa. ‘It’s such good weather.’

I don’t feel like playing on my own, but I leave the Chalet all the same and go down to the beach.

Rafael’s boat bobs up and down by its jetty, looking so lonely.

I wish I had a secret too.

I go up on the rock and look out across the sea. It’s not calm like it was this morning. Far away a boat is sailing with sails as white as the wisps of cloud that slowly glide a little above the horizon. I wonder where the ship is going.

I suddenly think of the White Ship and the sun that is an island of gold. I do have a secret, I laugh, and go into the sauna that lies right next to the beach. I have to be alone when I am thinking about something. This evening there will be a sauna and afterwards a camp fire in the camp boys’ village and there I will meet Mårten. I lie down on the bench in the cool sauna and close my eyes in order to think better.

I am the captain of the White Ship that is voyaging between the Sun Island and the Paradise Islands. I have a white cap with gold anchors on its visor. My jacket is also white with epaulettes of gold, and my white trousers have gold stripes and my shoes are gleaming black as I stand at the prow and narrow my eyes at the Sun Island. The White Ship is on its way home from the Paradise Islands with its hold full of coconuts and blueberries. ‘Full steam ahead!’ I shout through the megaphone, and the vessel leaves the horizon, rises like a giant swan with its prow pointed towards the most beautiful island in the world. I stand on the bridge and look straight ahead without being dazzled by the powerful light of the Sun Island. The Sun Island is my home, and earth-dwellers would go blind if they looked at it for long.

Am I asleep? Am I dreaming about a church with thundering bells when I open my eyes and hear the triangle calling?

The meat at dinner is tough. I chew and chew and don’t dare swallow, for I am frightened that the meat will stick in my throat. I don’t understand how anyone can think that steak is good. The longer I chew, the more disgusting does the fibrous mess in my mouth feels.

Kim and Bengt sit at another table together with their grandmother and a couple of other guests. Mårten sits opposite me. I struggle to get down the potatoes and the gravy without accidentally swallowing the meat, which I store in my cheek like a squirrel.

‘Aren’t you going to drink your milk?’ says Mama, who is sitting beside me.

I can’t speak, I just nod and put the glass to my mouth and feel the lukewarm milk trickle down my chin together with the gravy.

Mårten looks at me and laughs.

‘Mama!’ he shouts loudly. Johan’s got his mouth full of meat!’

‘What a messy eater you are!’ says Papa, looking up from where he sits beside my brother.

‘Are you having trouble swallowing again?’ says Mama.

I nod and suddenly realise that my mouth is stuffed so full that I can neither chew nor swallow. I open my mouth and let the food ooze down on to my plate like thick porridge.

‘You’re a pig!’ Mårten shouts, and makes a grimace of disgust.

‘Ugh!’ says Papa, and goes red in the face.

Mama takes my plate and carries it out to the kitchen.

For dessert there is wobbly vanilla pudding, which I hate. I eat two spoonfuls of the pudding, which is so slippery that it will hardly stay on the plate, and refuse to eat any more.

When we have thanked God for the food it is time for the camp boys’ unison: Thank you for the lovely nosh, Mum makes better, though, by gosh!’ they shout with brisk voices and then go clattering down the stairs of the boarding house and hurry off to the camp village to prepare for the evening party.

I go down to the shore and up to the rock to think about my secret. The Sun Island is so far away, will I reach the harbour at Golden Bay before nightfall?

But then I see someone who makes me forget both the Sun Island and the Paradise Island and the fact that I am captain of the White Ship.

Mårten is coming along the beach. He is alone.

‘Johan!’ he shouts, and waves to me.

I get up with rejoicing in my heart, and run dancing to meet him.

‘Where have you been?’ I shout.

‘In the forest!’ Mårten replies.

‘What were you doing there?’

‘Picking berries,’ laughs Mårten. ‘Shall we play follow my leader?’ he says then, and runs away from me.

I hurry after him, feeling light as a balloon, because Mårten is my brother and wants to play with me.

Mårten runs in zig-zags, and I do the same. Then he squats down on his heels and hops about for a bit, gets up again and goes leaping off on one leg. I laugh but fall silent again almost at once. I must do exactly as Mårten does, and if he doesn’t laugh I may not laugh either.

Mårten runs on, jumps with both feet together over the frogpond. I hesitate and go round, I am not as good at jumping as Mårten.

Now he is already down near the rocks where Mama usually washes our rugs. I am never allowed to come here, because it gets deep suddenly.

‘Catch me if you can!’ Mårten turns round and shouts, leaps from stone to stone, runs over flat, brown slabs of rock, clambers over a block of stone and disappears from my sight.

‘Wait!’ I shout. ‘Not so quickly, wait!’

It is then that I slip on the rock just as a wave washes over it. Suddenly I am falling through the air, catch a glimpse of the sky before the water closes over me, sink down through a green light.

I hear Mårten shout my name.

I see the White Ship. It is quite near now. It is huge and mighty, and high, high atop the bridge stands a white-clad figure, narrowing its eyes at the sun.

‘I am Johan, I am Johan!’

And now I see Mårten. He is sitting on the rock and looking out over the sea.

I see the blue sky again. I hold tight around the rock with both hands. My throat bums as I cough up the salt water.

‘Johan, Johan!’ Mårten shouts, rushes to my aid and pulls me up.

I cough and weep. Mårten weeps, too.

I take off my wet clothes, Mårten spreads them out on the warm rock so they will dry in the sun before we go home.

I am cold and my teeth chatter.

Mårten sits beside me, puts his soft arm around my shivering shoulders and kisses me on the cheek.

Far away on the horizon I see a small dot rising up towards the sky.

‘Do you see?’ I whisper, and point. ‘The White Ship.’

Mårten sits silently by my side. In his hand he is squeezing one of my brown plimsolls.

When I look out across the sea again, it has frozen to ice.

It is night and Mårten has gone. In the sky cold stars gleam. The sun has gone out and the earth is a snowball in the bottomless ocean of space.

Translated by David McDuff

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