The intricate, interlocking stories of Jensen Beach's extraordinarily poised story collection are set in a Swedish village on the Baltic Sea as well as in Stockholm over the course of two eventful years.
In Swallowed by the Cold, people are besieged and haunted by disasters both personal and national: a fatal cycling accident, a drowned mother, a fire on a ferry, a mysterious arson, the assassination of the Swedish foreign minister, and, decades earlier, the Soviet bombing of Stockholm. In these stories, a drunken, lonely woman is convinced that her new neighbor is the daughter of her dead lover; a one-armed tennis player and a motherless girl reckon with death amid a rainstorm; and happening upon a car crash, a young woman is unaccountably drawn to the victim, even as he slides into a coma and her marriage falls into jeopardy.
Again and again, Beach's protagonists find themselves unable to express their innermost feelings to those they are closest to, but at the same time they are drawn to confide in strangers. In its confidence and subtle precision, Beach’s prose evokes their reticence but is supple enough to reveal deeper passions and intense longing. Shot through with loss and the regret of missed opportunities, Swallowed by the Cold is a searching and crystalline book by a startlingly talented young writer.
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About the Author
Jensen Beach is the author of the collection For Out of the Heart Proceed. His work has appeared in A Public Space, The New Yorker, Ninth Letter, Tin House, and elsewhere. He teaches in the BFA program at Johnson State College and lives in Vermont with his family.
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Swallowed by the Cold
By Jensen Beach
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2016 Jensen Beach
All rights reserved.
In the Village of Elmsta
In the village of Elmsta, which straddles the mainland and an island about two hours north of Stockholm, there is an uneven asphalt tennis court, veined with cracks and loosely traversed by a shoddy net. It was on this court that Rolf Strand played the best tennis of his life. He lost the first set, but came back to win the next three by an average margin of four games. His opponent — an aging former tennis professional whose prosthetic left arm made a swishing whistle whenever he hit from his backhand — twice broke Rolf's serve, but Rolf was hitting well to both sides and ran the tennis pro to exhaustion. Rolf was happy about this. Who can say how the tennis pro felt? He had only recently lost an arm.
In the canal behind the court, boats waited for a drawbridge to rise. The pilots and passengers of these boats looked up at the bridge impatiently in spite of the nice weather. His summerhouse was on the eastern shore of the island across a small stand of deciduous trees from a family who had twice invited Rolf to dinner and who, he suspected, must have been Buddhists because they were so kind. On his way home from the courts, Rolf rode his bicycle onto the bridge and stopped at its center. He looked at his watch. The leather strap was pliable with sweat. It was twenty minutes of the hour and he felt good. His racket was strapped to the back of his bicycle and did not cause him trouble. He looked down at a sailboat that had come to a stop where the canal narrows to a single lane. Large digital clocks mounted on either side of the bridge notified the boats of the current waiting time. At O'Mally's in Gamla stan, where Rolf had taken a young woman named Karin Johansson on a date nearly fifty years before, a similar clock counted down the minutes remaining until St. Patrick's Day. Karin Johansson died, he remembered reading in the newspaper, in 1988 or 1989.
Facing north, as this sailboat was, he knew it was possible to glimpse, just past the stubby outcropping of rock where the village ends, the open sea. There were nineteen minutes on the clock. If he pedaled hard, he could take the path that ran parallel to the canal out to the Baltic and beat the sailboat to the headland. It would be a simple victory, but still the thought pleased him. It was that kind of day. He hadn't permitted himself to celebrate after his defeat of the former tennis pro and felt somehow cheated by his restraint. His self-control was born out of respect for his opponent's accomplishments, but also the hope that the former tennis pro would agree to a rematch. A second victory might carry him through the two long weeks during which his daughter Matilda and her children would come to visit, as they did every year. These visits caused Rolf significant anxiety about his daily rituals and the various ways his family encroached upon them.
The canal path was rocky and rutted by horse and motorbike use. He considered taking the road instead. That morning he'd placed seven bottles of imported beer in a net, which he strung over the side of his sailing dinghy into the cold water of the inlet across the narrow road from his house. They were by now without a doubt sufficiently chilled. The road would bring him to these beers in the shortest amount of time. But the road was frequently traveled, making it dangerous for bicycles; and, if he decided to take the canal path, he could easily turn due east at its end, walk along a half mile of forest trail, and then bike up a stretch of fire road that ended behind his house. It was a picturesque route. There were sixteen minutes on the clock. He decided to take the path.
The day his second child was born — a boy whom he named Lennart — Rolf walked the canal path in the snow and admired the ice in the canal and the natural beauty of life and barren trees and the storm that had prevented him from driving into Stockholm to witness the birth. He was thinking about this day as he rode the path. The tennis racket shook. He and Lennart had never been close, and he began, as he often did following moments of great pride, to wonder if everything terrible about his life was his own fault. Lennart was back in Stockholm now after five years abroad. He worked for Ericsson first in Morocco then in North Carolina, where Rolf had twice visited. Rolf decided, as he passed a young pine into which someone had carved the crude image of a penis, to call Lennart that afternoon. He planned to grill a fish for his dinner and might, he thought now, give Lennart a call when he was minding the grill with a cold beer in his hand. Lennart's new number was on a notepad by the telephone. Maybe he would invite Lennart to visit the Mamma Andersson exhibit at Moderna Museet.
He tried to refocus his thoughts on his victory over the former tennis pro by listing as best he could remember the former tennis pro's professional achievements. This, he hoped, would bring him back to an appreciation of his victory and away from the regret he felt regarding his son. He thought of the former tennis pro's three consecutive semifinal appearances at the French Open; he remembered the first of these well. Two years into the open era, it was the year his mother, Agneta, died and he'd occupied his grief with an obsessive interest in the Swede's progress in the tournament. He'd spent many afternoons at his summerhouse staring at the light-green wallpaper on the kitchen wall, listening to the matches on the little radio he kept above the sink. There had also been good showings at a tournament in London, and he'd beat Rod Laver in a five-set match in Massachusetts in 1967 that was two minutes short of tying the record for longest championship match in the pre — open era.
Rolf swerved to avoid a deep furrow in the path. The momentum of the bicycle pressed him hard to the right. He leaned to his left. The bicycle wobbled. There was a rock in the middle of the path. He tried to avoid the rock, but the bicycle leaned in the wrong direction and Rolf found himself headed straight for the rock as if he'd been summoned to it. A strum of tension plucked the spokes. He thought he heard himself give a little scream. He flew over the handlebars and landed with a splash in the canal.
The canal was shallow. Rolf struck the bottom with his head. He tumbled around in the water, grabbing for the surface but touching only the ground. He'd once visited California and could now hear the voice of the lifeguard who taught him to swim in the turbulent Pacific. "Keep calm. Reach slowly for the surface." His toes grazed the rocky bottom. With two paddling sweeps of his arms, he was near enough to the shore to stand. When he did, he felt at once a considerable pain above his left eye. He put his hand to his forehead, and then brought it down to eye level. Watery blood dripped from his fingers. When he flossed his teeth, his gums tended to bleed. He touched his head again and found a large gash about a couple of centimeters above his eyebrow. The wound continued across the ridge of his temple and then turned sharply downward, where it widened to the size of his fist at the sphenoid. He pressed lightly here and, though his fingers were cold and numb, he was sure he felt smooth bone. His eye hurt. "Dammit," he said.
Again he touched the wound and again, bringing his hand down to eye level, he examined the blood on his fingers. The blood was darker. It clung to his fingers like mucus and crept slowly down his arm. His cheek tickled and when he stuck his tongue out, he could taste warm blood collecting in the coarse hair of his mustache, which he had only recently regrown. He began to feel faint. He stepped through the water to the rock-lined shore and climbed up to dry land. There, he removed his shirt and pressed it onto the wound. Then he sat down. Water and blood ran down his face.
The drawbridge rose. He watched this and thought about what to do. He could try to walk back across the bridge. Maybe he would find the tennis pro on the other side. The tennis pro would know what to do. Lacerations to the head can tend to appear more dangerous than they actually are. Even minor wounds might produce a frightening amount of blood. He probably only needed stitches. Rolf was confident in his body's overall conditioning. He'd just defeated a former tennis pro in four sets.
The sailboat, which had now made its way past the drawbridge, motored steadily up the canal toward him. He could hear voices. There was a slight wind, about five knots if he had to guess. He lifted his free hand. "Hello there," he whispered. He didn't mean to whisper, but his throat was beginning to feel constricted and the shout he tried to produce came out in a wet, phlegmy whisper. There were two men and two women all standing in the cockpit. They were tanned and attractive in their shorts and bikinis and sun hats. It was a nice-looking boat, he thought, expensive. He listened to the clean and steady sound of the engine. His left arm felt as though there were an electrical current running through it. He cleared his throat and called out to them again: "Hello there!" The sailboat's pilot appeared to notice that one of the women was pointing at Rolf. The pilot said something to the others. They all looked at Rolf. Rolf waved. He pointed to his bloody T-shirt, then stuck out his pinkie finger and his thumb in what he was sure was the symbol for phone, and held his hand up to his head. The electricity buzzed in his arm and now also in his neck. The passengers waved at him, but the boat didn't slow. He watched the sailboat drift away. On the stern, spelled out in golden letters: Angelika. He thought for a moment about this name and the beautiful lettering. He wished he were on board the Angelika. It was a perfect day, he thought, as he started to lose consciousness, for sailing. "Don't go," he said. Rolf Strand fell to his side, put his head down on his blood-soaked T-shirt, took one or two shallow breaths, and was dead.
Henrik Brandt tied his sailboat to the mooring ring in the canal. The ring was rusty and drilled into a large stone that stuck out into the canal at such an angle that he'd worried, the first several times he made the trip through the canal, that it would cause an accident. It was one of the first pleasant days of the season. Motorboats, and sailboats, and a handful of kayaks stretched from one side of the narrow canal to the other. For the most part, the people on these boats seemed to enjoy the wait. They laughed and shouted from boat to boat, gossiping about village news. A family from the south of Sweden had recently bought the old Gustafsson place and sold off a dozen acres of the eastern pasture to a developer. The pasture sat up on a small bluff and there were excellent views of the Baltic. It was only a matter of time until the island was overcrowded. Everyone on the canal was convinced of this. Henrik held the rope against the rocking boat. On the mainland side of the canal was the tennis court where the previous summer he'd lost to his wife in three humiliating sets. Even now he felt humiliated. Partly, this was because he liked playing tennis and had, the afternoon his wife beat him so resolutely, made such an ordeal of the loss that he hadn't played again out of embarrassment, and partly because it shamed him to remember how dreadfully he'd acted. It was a game. He lost. There was nothing wrong with losing at tennis to your own wife. But still he hadn't played in over a year. Slowly, he'd grown accustomed to this and had turned his attention to other activities. That summer, he and Lisa had taken their bikes out almost daily and ridden to the fisherman and back in the early morning fog. He'd been sailing the boat more frequently than in previous summers and had once or twice considered taking up kayaking. Henrik hadn't let himself watch the French Open that year, and he hadn't once glanced at the supplement in Dagens Nyheter about the Swedish Davis Cup team. Tennis was eroding from his life.
Much had changed for Henrik recently. Within the last five years, he'd left his job at Nordea Bank and taken a new position at a law firm, which tripled his salary and allowed him to buy a summerhouse on the eastern shore of the island, a few miles from the village. When he bought the house, he had a dock built, at the end of which he kept his sailboat, the Angelika — so named for his oldest sister, who'd died from leukemia when Henrik was six. On the day that the marina determined every fall, Henrik sailed his boat south to Norrtälje and paid the crane operator to lift the Angelika into dry storage. He enjoyed sailing, although he wasn't particularly good at it. Since the previous September, Henrik had been sleeping with a colleague's wife. This colleague's name was Peter, and Henrik had invited him and his wife, Helle, out for a week at the house. He and Peter were not especially close at work, but he wanted to see Helle. It was the last week of June and soon the whole country would be on vacation. He thought they might sail to Finland if conditions were good.
Peter and Helle arrived on Friday and the four of them spent the weekend walking the trails on the interior of the island, waiting out the weather. Henrik was an inexperienced sailor and it was windy.
During the Cold War, the military built a series of bunkers along the water on the island's eastern shoreline, all of which were now abandoned and derelict. Henrik and Peter spent much of Monday afternoon trying to pry open the thick metal door of the bunker nearest the house. They were mindful of snakes. The wind blew salty air at their faces, carried to their ears the arguments of the birds out on the thin tombolo, which connects the island to a large rock Henrik had been told was called Bull's Head. Henrik cut his hand on a jagged piece of metal that was obscured by a patch of thick brush. The wound was deep and bled profusely. He didn't believe he needed stitches and his tetanus was up to date, so when he and Peter returned to the house, Henrik asked Lisa to clean and dress the wound but he disagreed with her suggestion to drive to the clinic in town.
The following day, Tuesday, the wind calmed. They left at ten, taking with them a picnic of sandwiches and freshly boiled new potatoes, which they ate cold with sour cream. By the early afternoon they'd made it to the southern entrance of the canal. Henrik chose to go north up the canal to get back to the house rather than backtrack around the island's southern tip. He was eager to motor for a stretch, draw in the sails, uncomplicate his day. Elmsta was pretty from the water. They were unlucky with the drawbridge.
He watched the clock count down the minutes until the drawbridge rose. The cut on his hand stung and he concentrated on this. Lisa had helped him rebandage his hand that morning. A man on a bicycle stopped on the bridge, peering down at them. Henrik couldn't see the man well enough in the bright sun to recognize him but the stark shadow of his posture up there on the bridge struck Henrik as familiar and a little bit sad. There were dozens of sad old men on the island. It could have been any of them. Before he was able to get caught thinking endlessly about it, he was distracted by his wife and Helle. Helle and Lisa were talking about a movie they'd both recently seen. The movie had made them both cry and they were sharing this, eagerly admitting to tears. On the mainland side of the canal, near the concrete pylons, Henrik watched a man fish. The gossip between the other boats had quieted, and many people sat with their feet in the water, impatiently splashing. After a quarter of an hour, the traffic signals on the island and the mainland flashed red and the large gears beneath the arms of the bridge became visible, articulating upward. A bell sounded. Henrik let the bridge reach at least sixty degrees before he passed beneath it. It seemed only reasonable.
Not far after the bridge, Helle waved to someone on the shore. There was a bicycle lying on its side and a man sat beside it with something, a T-shirt, Henrik thought, held up to his head. He was sure this was Jesper, the village drunk who, he didn't know, had died that spring. Jesper was struck by lightning while searching for Viking relics in an abandoned pasture on the island's northwest corner. "It's Jesper," Henrik said and waved. "He's fallen from his bike." They all turned to look at the accident and the man waved to them and made some kind of gesture toward his head. Helle raised her arm to wave again at the man and Henrik looked at her right breast. As they passed, Henrik thought he heard Jesper call out to them. He turned to the noise, but was careful to keep one hand steady on the wheel. The canal was shallow at its edges. The man fell to his side. Several hundred yards inland, the spot where Jesper's body had been discovered was still marked by orange flagging tape that no one had bothered to remove. It flapped in the wind and no one saw it.
The Baltic was open in front of them. On cold days, cargo ships passed upside down on the horizon. Henrik spent hours in the early fall searching for these mirages through a pair of old binoculars he found when he and Lisa moved their summer things into the house. He rounded the headland smoothly. The wind was blowing a little harder across the open water and he could have let out the sails, had some fun. Instead, he tucked in close to the coastline, giving it just enough throttle to keep the boat at a comfortable speed.
Docking made him nervous, but he guided the boat in easily. Peter and Helle dropped the fenders over the side, and the boat nudged the dock. Lisa jumped to the dock and tied up the boat with two knots. Henrik cut the engine and began preparations. This was his favorite part of owning a boat: securing lines, covering sails, wiping up shoeprints and water from the deck. Lisa wanted to go back to the house immediately. It was midafternoon and she'd planned a marinade for the pork. Peter followed her; he needed to make a phone call. This left Helle and Henrik alone, together, on the boat. Henrik watched his wife and colleague walk up the path to the house. A low slope of red rock jutted into the path. Peter walked up onto it and then jumped down, as a child might. The sun was shining.
Excerpted from Swallowed by the Cold by Jensen Beach. Copyright © 2016 Jensen Beach. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIn the Village of Elmsta,
February 22, 1944,
The Drowned Girl,
Henrik Needed Help,
Ships of Stockholm,
In the Night of the Day Before,
The Right-Hand Traffic Diversion,
To God Belongs What He Has Taken,
Animals at Uneasy Rest,
The Winter War I,
The Winter War II,