From the collection of short stories Tvåsamhet (‘Two alone’, Söderströms, 2005). Introduction by Tiia Strandén
A storm blows up during the night. As he lies in bed, not yet asleep, just lingering on the brink of falling, in that soft yet sensitive state where sounds seem to grow and get bigger, he can hear the clattering, hissing sound of the wind coming up out there and sweeping up everything not fastened down, capable of being put in motion. It scrapes against the roof and window, loosens leaves and pine needles which scud across the ground, and it whistles and whines round the chimney and the windows, and it even beats against the shed door, which Dad must have forgotten to shut properly before he came in. Before he stamped the mud off his boots in the front hall. Before he had a chance to pull the front door shut firmly as well, because Joakim can hear how he brings the storm into the hall with him, and it sweeps through the kitchen faster than he ever could have imagined. Joakim shuts his eyes tighter, even though he is no longer really awake, and he hears the powerful gust flap past Dad, who is still standing with his hand on the door handle, and then Mum starts shouting because the wind is slamming into the furniture and making dishes crash to the floor and making pots and pans do the same. When Dad starts shouting as well, Joakim lets go of the last little bit of wakefulness and lets himself sink down into the cradle of dreams to be carried along until the morning. It is the sun that wakes him, or maybe the sound of the telephone, because he wakes up just as it rings, but in any case it has stopped blowing, and the branches of the big lilac bush outside the window are completely still.
Today has got ants in its pants. He can hear his mum’s low telephone mumbling in the living room and the sound when the receiver is hung up. Then he hears some hurried steps coming along the soft rug in the hall, and he dives down under the quilt. He breathes in his own air, and it starts to get sweaty in the pale blue fabric landscape before the door opens and he feels the two big hands on his body on top of the quilt. They pat and burrow and turn him over until his head is visible, and then the whole quilt slips off him and he sees Mum in her lilac sweater, her brown hair in waves. She smiles, but it’s not the sort of smile she would smile if she were in as good a mood as Joakim. He laughs and kicks his legs out, and she holds him still and says that he has to get up because Grandad is coming. Joakim is going to go with Grandad, but she doesn’t say where they will be going.
‘It’s a secret,’ she says, pressing her lips together as she tries to loosen his grip on the quilt.
It goes better once she has given him a smack on the fingers. Not so hard that it hurts, but hard enough to show that she means it. Joakim gets out of bed, and Mum leaves the room. He can wear what he wants, but nothing too warm. That’s what she said. Because it’s a proper Finnish summer’s day with clusters of sunshine in the lilac bush and glinting reflections in the window panes. He finds a pair of green shorts and a yellow t-shirt with a blue whale on the front. He doesn’t need any socks. Dad says only city folk wear socks in the summertime, and he’s not one of them. When he goes out into the kitchen, the table has been laid for him, and he finds a note Mum has written on pink paper. ‘Eat your breakfast. Grandad will be here later.’
He eats cold cuts with cucumber slices on bread and has a glass of milk. As he chews on his sandwich, he thinks about the house that flew away in The Wizard of Oz. There are storms that can pick up entire houses. He’s seen that on TV, and not just in Oz. They’re called hurricanes. He continues chewing as he thinks, and soon he’s eaten his fill, and just then there is a knock at the door – a brisk, hard knock – and he knows that it is the sound of Grandad’s knuckles, because he’s the only person who can knock in a way that forces you to go over and open the door. Joakim doesn’t need to go to the door, because Grandad lets himself in, and soon enough he comes in looking like Mark Twain with his white moustache. Once Mum showed Joakim a picture of Mark Twain, and Joakim thought it was Grandad. That’s why Mum showed him the picture. She said the resemblance was striking. That was true. When Mum explained that it wasn’t Grandad in the picture but an author who made up stories about adventures on rivers, it felt like the room was turned over on its end and was pouring its contents over him because Grandad tells stories about adventures, too. Not on rivers, but on the sea. The open sea, where the waves are wolves and men smuggle alcohol across the Gulf of Finland. Grandad comes from the islands out in the archipelago. His clothes always used to smell of fish, but he’s stopped fishing now. Except for sometimes, like today. Mum didn’t say where Joakim would be going with Grandad, but he knows anyway. That’s why Joakim is not surprised when Grandad, having patted Joakim’s head and ruffled his hair, lifts him up onto his shoulders and carries him out to the car, where the fishing rods and reels are piled up on the floor, and lifts him over the door into the front seat. Grandad drives an open-topped American-style jeep. One like the Phantom drives when he leaves his wife and children in Skull Cave and heads out to take command of the Jungle Patrol. That happens quite a lot – him leaving his children, that is – but it’s understandable that he has to do that because there is so much evil to fight. Joakim’s feet do not reach all the way to the floor when he sits in the tall front seat, and he feels light and bouncy when the wheels go up and down in the ruts of the gravel road. Grandad doesn’t drive so roughly. He’s a safe driver, he says. Better to arrive a bit late than not at all, right? They stop at a petrol station that is also a shop, and Joakim sits tight while Grandad goes in. It smells of petrol on the forecourt, and he can imagine that it would be pretty serious if someone happened to drop a burning match onto the asphalt.
When Grandad comes back, he is carrying two ice creams, and they drive a bit further on to park at the side of the road where the smell is not so overpowering. Joakim watches his Grandad when he eats ice cream. He eats it without getting any of it stuck in his moustache. Except when he’s eating an ice lolly. Then the edge of his moustache turns red, or green or whatever colour the ice lolly is. Now Grandad is eating slowly and neatly and smacks his lips a little after every bite to taste it better. He’s looking out at the road ahead and thinking about something, because sometimes he stops eating and just looks. Then Joakim stops eating too, to listen to what Grandad has to say, but Grandad doesn’t say anything and just carries on licking his ice cream and looking straight ahead. At one point he also sighs, but that doesn’t mean anything in particular. It feels nice to let out a sigh sometimes for no reason at all. When they have finished eating, Grandad takes Joakim’s wrapper and starts the engine. He doesn’t want Joakim to let it flap in the breeze for a while and then let it go so it flies off in a spiral behind the jeep. You shouldn’t drop litter outdoors. All the grown-ups agree about that. Grandad’s hands are secure on the steering wheel. They are just a little wrinkly, and there are white hairs growing on his fingers. Grandma’s hands were plump and happy. Her fingers were like sausages. Grandad doesn’t usually talk about her. Sometimes he’ll say something about her and then everyone will go quiet and smile and nod for a bit, while their eyes disappear up towards the ceiling until someone else remembers something else about her, and then everyone talks about her for a bit. Her name was Fredrika. But it’s not her Grandad is thinking about today as he takes the turning down towards the bay, where the motor boat stands hidden in the reeds and can remain undisturbed, even though there are loads of thieves who steal petrol and boat motors in the area during the summer. It’s probably because everybody knows Grandad and know the boat is his. Åke in the shop further out towards the sea can even recognise the sound of the motor, and he’s always got Grandad’s pipe tobacco ready and waiting before he’s even opened the door and said hello.
As Grandad brakes and the Jeep comes to a stop on the soft grass close to the water’s edge, Joakim thinks that it feels as if he were sitting on a swing hanging from long ropes and was pushed up and then back down again. His feet get caught in the seat belt as he climbs over the door, and he falls down and bangs his knee. It hurts a little, but the skin is not broken, so he rubs the spot for a bit and then he is on his way again. Grandad takes all the fishing rods out of the jeep and gives him the shortest one. That’s Joakim’s own fishing rod. He already used it to fish with last summer. He didn’t catch anything besides a few catfish then, but even so, Dad said that he was a real master fisherman. Dad doesn’t know that Joakim has been practising over the winter. He’s read everything about fishing, and even though he didn’t understand everything, there were details like times and temperatures and depths, and loads of pictures. He could understand the pictures, no problem. Those were the very first things he’d learnt to read. This summer there will be more than just a few catfish. Cackfish, Grandad says. But you’re not supposed to say that.
They find the boat in the exact same spot where it had been left – red and a bit rough and slivered, but just as Grandad takes hold of the bow to shift it out, he suddenly stops. He stares at a spot in front of him for some time, and Joakim thinks he’s got lost in his thoughts again, but then he turns round and the expression on his face is serious.
‘Come and look, Joakim,’ he says, and Joakim moves closer.
He leans forward against the boat and grasps the edge to pull himself up a bit further, and it feels as if somebody else took a big breath inside of him when he catches sight of the fluffy mass lying in the boat and moving about on a bed of yellow straw.
‘Well, would you look at that,’ Grandad says, shaking his head.
Joakim looks up at him.
‘Have they just hatched out?’
‘How in the world should I know?’ Grandad asks.
‘Has their mother abandoned them?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Grandad says, looking around. ‘I bet she’s sitting somewhere in the reeds, lying in wait. Probably got scared by the Jeep and flew out. I reckon it takes a lot to make a duck leave her young like that.’
‘So what should we do?’ Joakim asks. Grandad rubs his chin, but he doesn’t need to say anything, because there is a stirring within the dense wall of yellow and green reeds and they can see something brown approaching. There is an abrupt quacking sound, and the ducklings peep and begin to move about more. When the duck calls again, the ducklings get up and stretch and flap. They are golden brown and dark, with yellow masks over their tiny button eyes, and they waddle on their still-unsteady feet. Then they tumble over one another to try to get to the top rail, but however high they jump, they cannot reach it.
‘It looks like they need a little help,’ Grandad says, taking hold of the boat.
With a grunt, he turns it over onto one side so that the fluffy ducklings almost roll into the water, and he keeps the boat tipped like that until all of them have made it out and are beginning to swim away. Then he lets go and exhales with a puff.
‘Do they already know how to swim?’ Joakim asks as he watches the group eagerly paddling over towards the mother duck.
‘They can swim almost as soon as they come out of their shells.’
‘Almost like me,’ Joakim says.
He learned to swim when he was a baby. Mum took him along with her to a pool where there were other babies, and they all dived beneath the surface and could stay under water for a really long time. He doesn’t remember any of it, but he’s always had a feeling for the water. Especially the silent, pale blue world beneath the surface.
Grandad lifts him into the boat, even though he can climb in himself. His old arms are strong and do not shake. The motor starts up with a deep gurgle, and soon the bow is cutting through the calm, green water as Grandad steers a course out towards the sea and turns in towards the stifling channel where the swans and the big fish live. Where a heavy smell hangs in the air from the muddy seabed and the small fish leap above the surface with their silver-glinting tails.
‘It may be that it’s too hot here today,’ Grandad says.
He shuts off the motor, and there is silence. Not even the birds are singing in the heat. The boat drifts onward for a while and then stops, as if it has come up against something thick and gluey.
‘Well then. Shall we try our fisherman’s luck here?’ Grandad asks as he stands up.
He hands Joakim his fishing rod and takes the bucket of worms out from underneath the seat. Joakim is allowed to choose his own worm and he chooses a nice, big one, because he doesn’t want to get any little fish. The mud gets stuck under his fingernails. They turn into black half-moons, which Mum will have to scrub away with the nail brush later on. She always sighs as she does that. When he gets hold of the worm, he pinches it hard. It wriggles because it knows what’s about to happen, but if it held still, it would feel exactly like the chewy gummy worms he likes to hold between his teeth and stretch until they break. You mustn’t do that with real worms. They have got a nervous system that’s like a ladder. But you can put them on hooks and chuck them into the water until they drown or get eaten by a fish. That’s for a good purpose.
They sit silently for a long time, staring sluggishly at the bobbing floats. Sometimes a float gives a jolt when a little fish nibbles at a worm, and then Joakim will pull it up, but mostly he does it just to break the silence. Fishing expeditions with Grandad usually last several hours. This time is no exception. Now and then Grandad casts a few times with his casting rod, and his neck has turned red from the sun, which sinks its teeth into your skin. Joakim’s face is burning, and he turns his back to the dazzling rays. Sometimes Grandad gives a little groan, and after a while he puts down his fishing pole and searches for his pipe in his shirt pocket. When he has lit it, he sits there and looks at Joakim through the puffs of grey smoke. His white eyebrows are furrowed and his moustache is drooping. Joakim turns his cheek towards this gaze because he does not want to meet it. Not when it is as wordless as this.
‘They don’t seem to be biting very much,’ Grandad says, and Joakim fixes his gaze on the fishing float.
‘Maybe it’s getting close to time to head home,’ Grandad continues.
Joakim does not reply, and Grandad sighs.
‘It wasn’t a good day for fishing today. That’s what I told Kristina, but she insisted that we should go out.’
‘That’s because she wanted to be alone with Dad,’ Joakim says, and just then there’s a tug on the line. First one, and then another, and this time it’s no little fishy’s mouth nibbling at the worm. Joakim can see its dark back just beneath the surface, and then the float disappears, drawn through the glassy water. Joakim gets up and pulls his pole in towards him, and Grandad rises to his feet as well.
‘Ruddy hell, look at that,’ he says, forgetting that he shouldn’t swear.
There is a tug on the fishing pole when the line is pulled taut, and Joakim holds on so tightly it hurts. He leans to one side and feels the living, struggling energy vibrating through the hollow plastic tube. Grandad takes one large stride over to him and takes hold of his hands. As they pull together, the hefty body moves towards them and soon the grey-black, glistening head comes to the surface. The fish beats its tail and stirs up the water in angry swirls. The fishing pole bends into a bow, and Joakim’s arms tremble under the swaying weight.
‘Let’s just hope the line holds,’ Grandad says, lifting the fish as high as he can.
The tail brushes against the side of the boat as they bring in their catch, and soon everything is as completely silent as it ever was. The surface of the bay is smooth once again, and the birds resume their silent observation, out of sight on far-off branches. The fish, called a tench, is now lying in the bottom of the boat, gasping for water. Joakim touches the fish with his finger, and it is just as slippery and wet as it looks. He feels more confused than proud of his unexpected fisherman’s luck, but Grandad is standing with his hands on his hips and says that it’s a beauty. Joakim looks up at him but cannot see his face in the strong sunlight. He looks at the fish again. It slaps its tail in the little puddle in the bottom of the boat and longs to return to the coolness and have water in its gills. You’re a beauty, he thinks as he lets his finger glide along the soft, scale-free body.
They eat their packed lunches on the grass next to the boat, and then they lie on their backs for a long while, just gazing up at the sky while Grandad smokes his pipe and puffs out grey clouds. The air has already begun to cool down by the time they pack up their things and start the drive home. Grandad has slit the fish’s neck and cleaned it. Now it is in a plastic bag on Joakim’s lap and feels sticky and cold against his bare legs. The chill spreads from the fish to Joakim, and he shivers. Soon he grows drowsy and sinks further into his seat. The next time he opens his eyes, the sky has exploded into a fiery display of pink and orange. There are soft, white skid marks where the clouds have stopped for the day, and an aeroplane carries the last of the evening’s sunbeams like a campfire in its metal covering. Grandad has already turned into the driveway and shut off the engine, and the smell of petrol disappears in the gentle evening breeze, which carries the scent of honeysuckle. Mum planted the white flowers by the patio. Sometimes the strong odour gives him a headache. Now it strokes his eyelids and cheeks like a cooling hand, and he turns his head.
‘Grandad,’ he says. ‘Grandad. I want to show Dad the fish.’
Grandad stands looking up towards the house, where the kitchen light is on, and then he goes round to the other side of the Jeep and opens Joakim’s door.
‘We’ll leave the fishing rods in the jeep,’ he says and takes Joakim by the hand.
Together they walk slowly up to the house. The bag with the fish in it bumps against his leg, and he blinks away the sleep that accumulated under his eyelids.
‘Are you going to stay here tonight?’ he asks as Grandad opens the door.
‘I think that will be the best thing,’ he replies, letting Joakim go in first.
Joakim kicks off his shoes and goes into the hall. Mum is sitting at the kitchen table in her dressing gown with a cup of tea in front of her. Her hair is untidy and she looks as if she has just woken up, but she has not been sleeping. She turns her head when Joakim comes in and stays seated there, with her cup in front of her on the table and that paralysed look in her red-rimmed eyes. Then she looks at Grandad, and her eyebrows knit together before she turns her face away.
‘Where’s Dad?’ Joakim asks, but his mum does not answer.
He crosses the hall and goes into the bedroom.
‘Dad?’ he says, very quietly, because he doesn’t want to wake him if he has already gone to sleep. The bed is empty, but Joakim still switches the light on to make sure. The sudden brightness makes his eyes screw up into smarting slits, and he stands there blinking for a while to adjust to it. There is a smell of fresh sheets, and Mum has put a freshly laundered bedspread on the bed. The book she is in the middle of reading is on the bedside table. It has got a fat naked woman on the cover. There is nothing at all on Dad’s side. His reading glasses, the water glass that is usually there – everything is gone. Joakim lets out a deep breath and tiptoes over to the wardrobe. He looks out of the window, to the driveway where Grandad’s jeep is parked, and then opens the wardrobe door. The white walls seem to draw him towards them. The emptiness of the shelves, a vacuum that sucks the air out of the entire room. Joakim lets the fish drop to the floor with a thud. In the kitchen he can hear the murmur of voices, and he sits down as his thoughts slither round something slippery and wet he cannot get a grip on. He sits for a while with his head in his hands and his eyes shut as he thinks, and it feels better not to have to see that everything that is Dad is missing. Even the photos on the walls have vanished, and he cannot remember whether the big brown boots or the grey umbrella were in the front hall when he and Grandad left that morning. Joakim opens his eyes and feels that his body has grown tired and heavy again. The fish is still on the floor in its bag, but he leaves it, gets up and leaves the room.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
Tags: short story