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Her mind was as clear as a winter's day, a day as quiet and shadowless as if snow had just fallen. Harsh sounds penetrated, the clatter of dropped enamel bowls and cries. It frightened her. Like the weeping from the next bed slicing into the whiteness.
There were many who cried where she was.
She had lost her memory four years ago, then only a few months later her words had disappeared. She could see and hear, but could name neither objects nor people, so they lost all meaning.
That was when she came to this white country where time was nonexistent. She didn't know where her bed was or how old she was, but she had found a new way of being and appealed for compassion with humble smiles. Like a child. And like a child, she was wide open to emotions, everything vibrating between people without words.
She was aware she was going to die. That was knowledge, not an idea.
Her family were those who kept her going.
Her husband came every day. He also was wordless but for different reasons: He was over ninety, so he, too, was near the borderline, but he had no wish either to die or to know about it. Just as he had always controlled his life and hers, he put up a fierce struggle against the inevitable. He massaged her back, bent and stretched her knees, and read aloud to her from the daily paper. She had no means of opposing him. They had had a long and complicated relationship.
Most difficult of all was when their daughter, who lived in another town, came to visit. The old woman knew nothing of time or distance, and was always uneasy before she came, as if the moment she woke at dawn, she had already sensed the car making its way through the country, at the wheel the woman with all her unreasonable hopes.
Anna realized she was being as demanding as a child. That was no help, and as soon as she gave in, her thoughts slid away: just for once, perhaps, an answer to one of the questions I never had time to ask. After almost five hours of driving, as she turned into the nursing home parking lot, she had accepted that her mother would not recognize her this time, either.
Yet she would ask the questions.
I do it for my own sake, she thought. It makes no difference what I talk about to her.
She was wrong. Johanna did not understand the words, but she was aware of her daughter's torment and her own powerlessness. She did not remember it was her task to console the child who had always asked unreasonable questions. Still, the demand remained as well as the guilt over her inadequacy.
Her desire was to escape into silence, to close her eyes, but she couldn't, her heart thumping, the darkness behind her eyelids scarlet and painful. She started crying. Embarrassed, Anna tried to console her, there, there, wiping the old woman's cheeks.
When she was unable to halt Johanna's despair, Anna became frightened and rang for help. As usual, there was a delay, then the fair girl was standing in the doorway, a girl with young eyes but no depth in them. Anna saw contempt in those blue eyes, and for a moment Anna could see what the girl saw: an older woman, anxious and clumsy, by the side of the really old one.
"There, there," she said, too, but her voice was hard, as hard as the hand that ran over the old woman's head. And yet she succeeded. Johanna fell asleep so suddenly, it seemed unreal.
"We mustn't upset the patients," said the girl. "You must sit there quietly for a while. We'll come and change her and remake the bed in about ten minutes."
Anna slipped out to the terrace like a shamefaced dog, found her cigarettes, and drew the smoke deep down into her lungs. It calmed her and she could think. At first angry thoughts: damned bitch, hard as nails. Pretty, of course, and horribly young. Had Mother obeyed her out of fear? Was there a discipline here that the helpless old people sensed and gave in to?
Then came the self-reproach. The girl was only doing her job, everything she, Anna, ought to be doing, according to the laws of nature. But she couldn't, couldn't bring herself to, even if the time and place had existed.
Last of all came the astonishing realization that Mother had somehow been touched by the questions she'd asked.
She stubbed out her cigarette in the rusty tray at the far end of the table. God, how tired she was. Mother, she thought, dear wonderful Mother, why can't you show pity and die?
Frightened, she glanced out over the nursing home grounds where the Norway maples were in flower and smelling of honey. She drew in the scent with deep breaths, as if seeking consolation in the spring, but her senses were dulled. I'm as if dead, too, she thought as she turned on her heel and walked determinedly to the ward sister's door. She knocked and just had time to think, please let it be Märta.
It was Sister Märta, the only one she knew here. They greeted each other like old friends, then the daughter sat in the visitor's chair and was just about to start asking when she was overwhelmed by emotion.
"I don't want to start crying," she said, then did.
"It's not easy," said the sister, pushing the box of tissues across.
"I want to know how much she understands," said the daughter, adding her hope of being recognized and the questions she'd asked her mother, who didn't understand, yet did.
Sister Märta listened with no surprise.
"I think the old understand in a way we find difficult to grasp. Like newborn infants. You've had two babies yourself, so you know they take everything in, anxieties and joys. Well, you must remember?"
No, she didn't remember. She remembered nothing but her own overwhelming feeling of tenderness and inadequacy, though she knew what the nurse was talking about. She had learned a great deal from her grandchildren.
Then Sister Märta talked about the old woman's general condition in consoling terms. They had gotten rid of her bedsores, so she was in no physical pain.
"But she's rather uneasy at night," she said. "She seems to have nightmares. She wakes up screaming."
"But of course she dreams, everyone does. The pity is we can never find out what they're dreaming, our patients."
Anna thought about the cat they'd had at home, a lovely creature leaping up out of its sleep, hissing, its claws extended. Then she was ashamed of the thought. But Sister Märta didn't notice her embarrassment.
"Considering Johanna's poor condition, we prefer not to give her tranquilizers. I also think perhaps she needs her dreams."
Sister Märta pretended to ignore the surprise in the other woman's voice.
"We're thinking of giving her a room of her own," she went on. "As things are, she's disturbing the others in the ward."
"A room of her own? Is that possible?"
"We're waiting out Emil in number seven," said the nurse, lowering her eyes.
Not until the daughter was backing the car out of the parking lot did she take in what had been said about Emil, the old priest whose hymns she'd heard over the years. She hadn't thought about it today, that there'd been no sound from his room. For years, she'd heard him singing about life in the valley of the shadow of death, and the Lord waiting with his terrible judgments.
Johanna's secret world followed the clock. It opened at three in the morning and closed again at dawn.
Her world contained a wealth of images, filled with colors, scents, and voices. Other sounds, too. The roar of the falls, the wind singing in the tops of the maples, and the forest rejoicing with birdsong.
On this night the pictures she sees tremble with excitement. It is summer and early morning, with slanting rays of the sun and long shadows.
"You must be mad,"shouts the voice she knows best, her father's. He's red in the face and frightening in his agitation. She's afraid and flings her arms around his leg. He lifts her up, runs his hand over her head.
"Don't you think, girl?"he says.
But her eldest brother is standing in the middle of the room, handsome, with shiny buttons and high boots, and he's shouting, too.
"To the cave, all of you, and today, too. They might already be here tomorrow."
Then another voice, resourceful.
"Listen now, lad. Would Axel and Ole come here from Moss and would Astrid's lad come here from Fredrikshald to shoot us?"
"I think you've gone mad," says the voice, but now it's uncertain. And her father looks at the soldier, eye meets eye, and the old man can't mistake the gravity in the young man's eyes.
"Then we'll do as you say."
Then the pictures change, start moving. Feet stomp, burdens are lifted. She sees the earth cellar and store emptied. The great barrel of salt pork is carried out, the herring barrel, the potato bin, the cloudberry jar, the butter in its wooden tub, the hard round slabs of crispbread, all out on the ground, then carried down toward the boat. Sacks filled with blankets and clothes, all the wool in the cottage going the same way, down the slope toward the lake. She sees the brothers rowing. It's heavy going toward the promontory, easier back.
"The oil lamps!" It's her mother calling out on her way indoors.
But the soldier stops her, calling, too, "No, Mother, we'll have to do without light."
The child is wide-eyed and anxious. But then a brimstone butterfly lands on her hand.
The picture changes again; the daylight is miserly, and she's perched on her father's back. As so often, she's being carried up the slopes to the mountain lakes, so secretive and introverted they are, quite different from the great lake with its light and blue glitter. But just above the mill, the largest of the dark lakes breaks the stillness and looks as if it would hurtle down the falls with all its strength were the dam not there.
Father checks the floodgate as always in the evenings.
"Norwegian water," he says, with weight in his voice. "Remember that, Johanna, that the water that gives us bread comes from Norway. Water," he says, "is much wiser than people, it doesn't give a damn about borders."
He's enraged. But she's not afraid as long as she's on his back.
Dusk is falling. Laboriously, heavily, he makes his way down the slopes, goes to the mill, feels the locks. The girl hears him muttering wicked curses before he goes on along the path down toward the boat. It's quiet in the cave. Her brothers have fallen asleep, but her mother is moving uneasily on her hard bed.
The girl is allowed to sleep curled inside her father's arm, as close as she can get. It's cold.
Later, new pictures. She's bigger, she can see that from her feet running toward the mouth of the cave, in clogs, for it's slippery on the slopes now.
"Father!" she calls. "Father!"
But he doesn't reply. It's autumn and it'll soon be dark. Then she sees the light in the cave and grows anxious. Someone's shouting in the cave, and Rudolf is there, the blacksmith she's afraid of. She sees them staggering about, he and Father.
"Get on home, brat!" he yells, and she runs, crying, running and falling, hurting herself, but the pain from her grazed knees is nothing to the hurt in her breast.
"Father!" she screams. "Father!"
Then the night sister is there, worried.
"There, there, Johanna. It was only a dream, sleep now, go to sleep."
She obeys, as she usually does, and is allowed to sleep for an hour or two before the voices of the day shift explode in her body and race like ice through her veins. She's shaking with cold but no one sees it. The windows are flung open, they change her, and she's no longer cold or feels any shame.
She's back in the white emptiness.
Anna had a night of difficult and clarifying thoughts. They started with the feeling that had come over her when Sister Märta had asked her about her own babies. Tenderness and inadequacy. It had always been like that for her; when her emotions were strong, her strength ebbed away.
She hadn't fallen asleep until three in the morning. She dreamed about Mother and the mill and the falls hurtling down into the bright lake. In her dream the great waters had been gleaming and still.
The dream had consoled her.
Oh, what stories Mother had told. About elves dancing over the lake in the moonlight, and the witch who was married to the blacksmith and could conjure the minds out of people and beasts. When Anna was older, the stories grew into long tales of life and death of the people in that magical border country. Then when she was eleven and more critical, she considered it all lies, that that amazing country existed only in her mother's imagination.
One day when she was grown up and had her driver's license, she put her mother into the car and drove her home to the falls by the long lake. It was only 150 miles. She could still remember how angry she was with her father when she measured the distance on the map. He had had a car for many years and could well have driven Johanna and the girl for those few hours, the girl who had heard so many stories about this country of her childhood. If the will had been there. And the understanding.
But when she and her mother reached their goal, that sunny summer's day thirty years ago, her anger had blown away. Solemnly and with surprise, she stood there and looked. Here it was, the land of fairy tales with the long lake at the bottom, the water falling twenty meters, and the still Norwegian lakes up in the mountains.
The mill had been pulled down and a power station built, disused now that nuclear power had taken over. But the lovely little red mill house was still there, long ago turned into a summer place for some unknown person.
The moment was too great for words, so they said little. Mother wept and apologized for doing so. "I'm so stupid." Not until they had taken the picnic basket out of the car and sat down with coffee and sandwiches on a smooth flat rock by the lake did Johanna begin to speak, and her words came just as they used to when Anna was small. She chose the story of the war that never happened.
"I was only three when the Union crisis came and we moved into the cave. Over there, behind the promontory. Perhaps I think I can remember because I'd been told the story so many times as I grew up. But I seem to have such a clear picture of it. Ragnar came home. He was so handsome as he stood there in his blue uniform with its shiny buttons and told us there was going to be a war. Between us and the Norwegians!"
The surprise was still there in her voice, a child's amazement when faced with what is incomprehensible. The three-year-old, like everyone in the borderlands, had relatives on the other side of the Norwegian lakes, where her mother's sister had married a fish merchant in Halden, which was called Fredrikshald in those days. The cousins had spent many summer weeks in the mill house, and Johanna had gone with her mother to spend a month or two in that town with its great fortress. She remembered how the fish merchant smelled and what he had said as they stood there looking at the walls of the fortress.
"We shot 'im there, the damned Swede."
"The Swedish king."
The girl had been afraid, but her aunt, a gentler person than her mother, had lifted her up and consoled her.
"That was long ago. And people in those days had no sense."
But perhaps there had been something in her uncle's voice that had stuck in her mind, for some time after her visit to Norway, Johanna asked her father about it. He laughed and said much what her aunt had said, that that was a long time ago when people let themselves be ruled by kings and mad officers.
"But it weren't no Norwegian what shot him. It was a Swede, an unknown hero in history."
Johanna hadn't understood, but she remembered the words. A long time later, at school in Göteborg, she had thought he was right. It had been a blessed shot, the one that had been the end of King Karl XII.
They sat for a long time on that rock that day, Johanna and Anna. Then they walked slowly around the bay, through the forest to the school, which was still there but much smaller than Johanna remembered. In the middle of the forest was a large boulder, thrown there by a giant, thought Anna. Mother stopped by the boulder in surprise. "How small it is." Anna herself had charged her own childhood mountain with magic, so she didn't laugh.
Despite her poor sleep, Anna managed to remain a good daughter for the whole of that long Saturday. She cooked her father's favorite dishes, listened with no apparent impatience to his endless stories, and drove him to the jetty where his boat was, then sat there freezing slightly as he checked the fenders and hoods, tried out the engine, and fed the ducks with bread crumbs.
"Shall we take a trip around?"
"No, it's too cold. And I have to go see Mother."
He looked scornful. Anna had never learned to sail or start an outboard engine. Probably because he ... but she'd better be careful.
"You've never done anything in your life," he said, "but stick your nose in books."
He had intended to hurt and succeeded.
"I've made a good living out of it," she said.
"Money," he said, scorn now dripping in the corners of his mouth. "Money's not everything in this world."
"That's true. But quite a lot to you, the way you complain about your pension and watch every öre."
The mask of the good daughter cracked then, she thought, cursing her vulnerability and hunching up against the inevitable quarrel. But he was as unpredictable as ever. That's what makes him so difficult, she thought.
"You'll never know what it is to be hungry and poor," he said. "I had to learn early to watch every öre."
She managed to smile, saying, "I was only joking, Dad," and the cloud passed as she helped him ashore and into the car.
He has only two sides, anger and sentimentality, she thought. When one's let off steam, it's time for the other. Then she thought she was being unfair. He was right, anyhow; she had never gone hungry.
Things also went better at the nursing home that day. Anna did as she ought to, chattering away to her mother, holding her hand, feeding her when lunch came. One spoon for Pappa, one spoon for Mamma, then she stopped in the middle, embarrassed. It was degrading.
The old woman fell asleep after the meal. Anna stayed where she was, watching the calm face. When her mother was asleep, she was almost the same as she'd been before, and Anna, almost bursting with tenderness and helplessness, went out to the terrace for a while for a smoke. Cigarette in hand, she tried to think about the difficult sides of her mother, her self-obliteration and burden of guilt. A stay-at-home housewife with one child and all the time in the world to worship it.
That was silly and no help. Nothing hurts so much as love, she thought. What's wrong with me is that I've had too much, that's why I can't keep myself in order, neither when it comes to Mother nor to Rickard. And never when it comes to the children.
The thought of her two daughters also hurt. For no reason; there was no cause for her to worry about them. But they had had an inadequate mother, too. And nothing done can be undone.
When she got back to the sickroom, her mother woke and looked at her, trying to smile. It was only for a moment, and perhaps it never happened at all. And yet Anna was as pleased as if she'd met an angel.
"Hello, Mother dear," she said. "Do you know what I dreamed last night? I dreamed about the Norwegian waters, about everything you told me.
"It reminded me of when we were there for the first time, you and I. You remember, I'm sure. It was a lovely summer's day, and I was surprised that everything was just as you'd told me. We sat on that big rock down by the lake, do you remember? You talked about the cave you fled to when you thought there was going to be war with Norway, how you lived there and how cold you all were. Except you, who was allowed to sleep curled up in your father's arm."
Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but Anna thought she could see some life come into the old face as it shifted from surprise to joy.
I'm imagining things. It's not possible. But I can see it's possible, keep it there, Mother, keep it.
She went on talking about the waterfall and the forest, then the face vanished again. But Anna went on.
"I've often wondered what it felt like sleeping in that cave. When it was so damp and you couldn't light a fire and had only cold food."
This time there was no doubt about it, her face shifted again, this time toward amusement.
She was trying to smile at Anna. It was a great effort and she didn't manage it, so it became a grimace. But then the miracle happened again. The brown eyes looked straight into Anna's, steadily and meaningfully.
The next moment she was asleep. Anna stayed where she was for a long time. Half an hour later, the door opened and the blue-eyed girl said, "Time to change the patients now."
Anna got up and whispered "thank you" into her mother's ear. As she left the room, the old woman in the next bed cried out.
Anna made a detour by the shore and sat in the car for a while, looking out over at the promontory where she'd learned to swim. There was a boatyard where hawkweed and sea campion, cranesbill and bird's-foot trefoil grew among the coarse grass, and the once simple privately owned cottages were scarcely recognizable now, smartened up as they were with Mexican tiles and other such insensitive extensions. Over toward the mountains where her childhood meadows had been, with their wild strawberries, cornflowers, and cows, were now rows of terraced houses like horizontal high-rises.
Only the lake beyond was unchanged. And the islands, their low profiles outlined against the gray horizon.
Lost country, lost childhood.
We once walked hand in hand across that shore meadow with towels and food, sandwiches, coffee for you, soft drinks for me. I'm growing old, she thought with grief and anger. Why does it have to be so ugly, so barbaric?
Once upon a time her mother had been as beautiful as the landscape here. Now she's falling apart. I'm trying to learn to accept it. About time, for I'm old, too, soon will be.
I must go home.
But she needn't have hurried. Her father was asleep.
Silently, like a thief, she roamed through the house and finally found what she was looking for. The photo album. But the photographs aroused no memories and were largely an external confirmation. Yes, that's what we looked like.
Cautiously, she opened the drawer to put back the old album. It got wedged, and it took a moment for her to see why. Under the floral paper her mother had for years used to line the drawers was yet another photograph, this time in a frame. Grandmother. Her mother's mother.
She took it out and looked in surprise at the wall where it had always hung beside those of her paternal grandfather and grandmother, children and grandchildren. It was true, the photograph was gone and the unfaded patch on the wallpaper showed where it had been.
How strange. Why had he taken Grandmother away? Hadn't he liked her? But he had, hadn't he?
What do I know? What can anyone know about parents? About children?
Why was it so important? Why does it seem a loss not to remember, not to understand? In me, it's like a hole that has to be filled. As if I hadn't had a childhood, only a story about it, about what happened, or perhaps didn't happen.
They were good storytellers, Mother most of all with her talent for making pictures of everything.
She had known since childhood that Dad embroidered, adding things for effect and avoiding anything complicated. She'd excused that because the drama was exciting and the point fun.
She crept slowly up the stairs to her old room and went to bed, feeling how tired she was. On the edge of sleep, she made an important discovery. Perhaps she had so few memories of childhood because she had been living in a description, a story in which she never really recognized herself.
Was that how a sense of alienation was born?
She was woken by the old man clattering about in the kitchen with the kettle. She hurried out of bed, guilty conscience sending her racing downstairs.
"Oh, there you are," he said, smiling. "I thought I'd dreamed you'd come to see me."
"I forget so easily these days."
She took the kettle from him.
"You sit there on the kitchen sofa and I'll fix the coffee."
She found cinnamon buns in the freezer, put them in the oven, watched the hot water bubbling through the filter paper, smelled the aroma of coffee, not listening to the old man, now far into some account of how he met a whale one day when sailing from Skagen. An old, old story she'd heard many times--with pleasure.
He'd lost the art of maintaining the tension, though, and of keeping the threads together. His story crawled on, made detours, got lost.
"Where did I get to?"
"Yes, that's right," he said gratefully, but the thread from Varberg soon became part of another story about a girl and a dance in the courtyard of the old fortress. He broke off in confusion in the middle of it, saying it was probably Kungälv fortress where he'd been dancing one light summer night and gotten involved in a fight with the girl's fiancé.
As he described his exceptional victory over the fiancé, he was quite clear and distinct, and the story lifted and glowed, only to collapse into a muddle of other memories of fighting and winning, stopping a bolting horse, and saving the life of a child who'd fallen into a harbor somewhere.
She took the cinnamon buns out of the oven, her despair unendurable. It was terrible, all this foolish boasting, a decayed mind blurting out jumbled memories.
Memories? Perhaps they were just tall tales that had simply become enlarged over the years.
I don't want to grow old, she thought. As she poured the coffee, she thought, how can I ever be truthful? But aloud, she said, "Your tablecloth's beginning to wear out. We must go and buy another tomorrow."
When he'd finished his coffee, the old man went over to the television, the blessed, loathsome television. There, in a sagging armchair, he fell asleep, as usual. She was able to prepare dinner and even managed a short walk through the oaks between the mountains and the house.
They plowed through dinner, beef burgers with cream sauce and cranberries.
"I only get food like this when you're here," he said. "The girls who keep coming don't have time to cook real food."
There was reproach in his words. When she didn't appear to understand, he emphasized it again.
"You could just as well do your writing here."
"I have a husband and children."
"They could come and see you," he said, and she thought, actually he was quite right. She could perfectly well finish her book up there in her old room. Truth, she thought, smiling in all her misery, how do I tell the truth? Suppose I said that I don't get a moment's peace in your house, Dad. I just don't know how I'll stand two more days without going mad.
"I wouldn't disturb you," he said.
There was an appeal in his words and she felt tears coming. But she started talking about the computers she needed for her work, machines that couldn't be moved.
Truth, she thought as she sat there, lying to her father's face. When he got up and thanked her for the meal, his voice was frosty. I don't like him, she thought. I'm afraid of him. I can't stand him. I loathe him. The difficulty is that I love him.
She did the dishes. A neighbor came in, a man she liked, an amiable man. He was cheerful as usual, stroked her cheek, and said, "It's not easy, I know." She felt an incomprehensible fear as her eyes met his, as if a shadow had flitted through the kitchen.
"You go on in to Dad," she said, hearing the unsteadiness in her voice, "and I'll fix a drink."
With fumbling hands, she laid a tray with the gin bottle she'd brought with her, tonic, a bowl of peanuts. Premonitions? No. I'm tired and an idiot. She said it several times half aloud, tired and idiotic. He's still young, healthy and happy, the kind of person who lives long. As she served the drinks, she said as if in passing, "And how are you, Birgir?"
He looked at her in surprise and said he was well, as always. She nodded but didn't dare meet his eyes all evening.
They went to bed early, at about nine, when the old man suddenly became tired. She helped him to bed, as gently and compliantly as she could. His dignity was vulnerable.
She took a cup of tea up to her room. That was part of it all. Her mother had insisted on it, a cup of tea with honey before they went to bed. As she drank the sweet liquid, her childhood came to life, memories in her senses. The smell of honey in tea, a blue flowery cup, and the shriek of gulls falling from the sky in insolent joie de vivre outside.
She flung open the window and watched the screaming flock as it headed out to sea, above Asper Island and Köpstad Island. The next moment she heard the blackbird singing from the oaks where the may was in bloom.
It was too much; a melancholy of that kind was unbearable. She determinedly took a sleeping pill.
The golden light woke her early. Perhaps not just the light, for in her dreams she'd heard birdsong from the garden, as lovely and strong as the spring itself. For a moment she lay still, trying to distinguish the voices, the chaffinch's joy, the cheerful signals of blue tits, and the whirr of swallows as they flew low in toward the eaves.
The swallows have arrived and are building their nests under the eaves, she thought, for a moment able to feel that everything was as it should be.
She slipped down to the kitchen, and as soundlessly as a ghost she got herself a cup of coffee, stole a cinnamon bun, and crept silently back upstairs, remembered that the sixth stair creaked and successfully stepped over it. The old man snored in the bedroom.
She meditated, the birdsong assisting her into her own silence and the knowledge that nothing is harmful even if all is suffering. For a while, she even succeeded in thinking things weren't too bad for her mother, that she had gone beyond pain. And that her father's memory was so short, he couldn't keep up his bitterness.
Then she took out the photograph of her grandmother and gazed at it for a long time.
Hanna Broman. Who are you? I knew you, oddly enough, almost only from hearsay. You were a legend, magnificent and questionable. So amazingly strong, Mother said.
I must have images of my own. You lived until I was an adult, a wife, and a mother. But the photograph bears no resemblance to my memories of you. That's understandable. The photo was taken when you were young, a women in her best years. I saw you only as old, a stranger, tremendously large, enveloped in huge pleated black dresses.
So this is what you looked like in the days of your strength, when you walked six miles with a fifty-kilo sack of flour from the mill to the village on the border. There you bartered with it for coffee, paraffin, salt, and other necessities.
Can it be true? You carried the heavy sack on your back, Mother said. But only in spring and autumn. In the summer you rowed, and in winter you pulled a sledge across the ice.
We were born into different worlds, you and I. But I can see now we are alike, the same forehead and the same jagged hairline. The same broad mouth and short nose. But you don't have my chin, no, yours is strong and obstinate. Your gaze is steady, your eyes keeping their distance. I remember they were brown.
Anna looked into Hanna's eyes for a long time. She thought, we're looking at each other for the first time ever.
Who were you? Why did we never get to know each other? Why were you so uninterested in me?
Suddenly Anna heard a question, the child who said, "Why isn't she a proper gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?"
And her mother's voice. "She's old and tired, Anna. She's had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life."
Was there bitterness in that voice?
I must go to what I myself remember.
When Anna was small and Grandmother was still able to walk the long way from the bus stop to the house by the sea where Anna's family lived, Grandmother sometimes came to see them in the mornings. She sat on the kitchen sofa in the aroma of cakes and newly baked bread, and the table was laid with a fine cloth and the best cups. She brought comfort with her, like a cat settling in the corner of a sofa and purring. She purred, too, Anna remembered, creaking like a corncrake at night. When she wasn't talking.
Even her talk brought pleasure, a strange language, half Norwegian, easygoing, sometimes incomprehensible.
"Us here," she said. "Indeed, that's it." She always succeeded in surprising herself and others because her words flew out of her mouth before she had time to think. Then she looked surprised and stopped abruptly, shamefaced or laughing.
What had they talked about?
Their neighbors in the block. About children it had gone badly for, about men who drank and women who were ill. But also about weddings and new children born and parties and food and however could people afford it.
For the child, Anna, it was like lifting the roof off a dollhouse and seeing crowds of people. Like a game. But for the two women, it was reality, and serious. They had a living interest in the Höglunds' delicate children, and Johansson the master painter's boozing. Not to mention Mrs. Niklasson's peculiar illness.
Gossip. Not malicious, nor kindly. For the first time, Anna thought now that the endless talk was an orgy of emotions. They wallowed in the misfortunes of others, tut-tutted and lived out their personal needs without ever becoming personal. Talking about yourself was impossible. Shameful.
Grandmother flushed easily.
"Don't you ever cry, Gran?"
"No. No point," she said, flushing scarlet.
Mother was also embarrassed and scolded the child. There was a lot you couldn't ask Grandmother, who probably thought impertinent children should be reprimanded and that Johanna's spoiled daughter had no manners.
"You were so damned practical," Anna said to the photograph.
Perhaps I'm wrong, she thought as she turned her eyes away from the photo to look beyond the window, past all those small houses where anonymous people lived wall to wall and scarcely even knew each other by name. Perhaps you both had a sorrowful longing back to the village you came from. And you were trying to restore the connection and the village feeling when you came to the big city.
Anna could hear her grandmother snorting at that explanation. She liked the city, the electric light and running water, the nearby shops, and the right to close your own door.
Grandmother would come for Sunday dinner. Dad fetched her in the car, and she wore long black jet necklaces and white ruffles at her throat. She said nothing at the table until addressed, and was always submissive to her son-in-law.
Anna suddenly remembered, a perfectly clear memory, she thought with surprise. All around the dinner table were amazed voices turning over and over the schoolmistress's words about Anna being gifted.
Gifted? That was an unusual word. The teacher had talked about high school. Grandmother flushed and snorted, finding the talk indecent. She took a long look at the girl and said, "What use'd that be? She ain't nothing but a girl. She'd get superior and it'd come to nothing."
Perhaps those were the words that settled Anna's future. "Nothing but a girl" had aroused her father's anger. He, who would otherwise never admit to his grief over his only child being a girl.
"Anna'll have to decide for herself," he said. "If she wants to go on at school, she's to do so."
How had I forgotten that Sunday, that conversation, Anna thought, going back to bed and looking at the photograph again. You were wrong, you old witch, she thought. I went on at school, I took exams, I was successful and moved in worlds you couldn't even dream of.
I became superior, too, just as you said, as everyone said. And as far as you're concerned, you became a fossil, a primitive leftover from a vanished time. I excluded you from my life. You were a painful reminder of origins I was ashamed of.
That's why I never got to know you and have no memory of you. But it's also why your photograph speaks so strongly to me. For it says quite clearly that you were a gifted girl, too.
Your prejudices were different from mine, that's true. But you were right sometimes, especially when you said that I wouldn't get away, either. For me, too, a woman's life awaited me.
I didn't carry sacks of flour from the mill to the village, Grandmother. And yet I did.
From the Trade Paperback edition.