[Swedish for “silence”]
by Gabrielle Bomgren
So, this is how it feels to die. My wooden clogs are covered with April water. I’m dancing with Emma, slowly losing the beat, my knees fusing with the lake. The water surrounding me is warmer than I’d expected. My mouth is closed – welcoming the absence of oxygen. It’s dark underneath the surface, but not as dark as the usual darkness inside my head. The box inside of me is getting smaller. I’m turning. How do I get out? The exit is small. Swirling, pounding brain. The boys playing, me yelling. Emma walking up the hill with one bucket of water in each hand. Gottfrid’s laughter. Red water gushing out of my ears. Somebody screams, “enough.”
Emma asks me to dance.
I haven’t seen father since he went down to the lake. Before he left he told me my Reader’s Digest had come. I want to read it, but I know Alfred is in the house right now. I’ll wait. Last night father told me to get out the cards so that we could play Canasta. I found a moldy smelling deck in the drawer of mother’s kitchen table. I shuffled. The kitchen was warm. Alfred told a joke about this Norwegian man who carried a portable outhouse with him on hike through the woods – just in case. We kept on smiling after we stopped laughing. Alfred went over to put the kettle on the new black stove. He even remembered to throw some more wood in.
I shuffled again and I dealt. Three even pile. Once I happened to turn over one of Alfred’s cards. It was the nine of clubs. When I got to the last round we noticed there was a card missing. Father stared at my hands while I counted the cards in the three piles. There was one card missing in Father’s pile. I knew what was coming. He stood up, leaned over, crooked his elbow, leveled it with the height of the table and swept the cards off the table. Father sat down again. He looked at me without seeing me. Then I realized he cried. The tears were miniatures compared to how mother’s used to be – the sound quiet. Father cried. I’ve never seen him cry before. I wanted to leave the room and I did. Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll go over to Hansson’s. Maybe they have some wood to chop.
People don’t think Gottfrid and I get along. They’re wrong. We just don’t talk to each other. People have a hard time telling us apart. I can’t really see why. I’m almost a decimeter taller than Gottfrid and I’m also not as heavily built as he is. His hands are big. I used to tease him for that. I said that his hands were almost as big as the lid used to cover the hole in the outhouse. It’s kind of true. Gottfrid’s hands are enormous. There’s also another major difference between Gottfrid and me: I believe in God.
We live in our house – the very same house in which our mother gave birth to us. It was built back in the 1880s. The logs are thick, the ceiling low. The kitchen is not bigger than the size of two rowing boats, but a lot of people can fit in it. When Gottfrid was born, father and Uncle Goran weren’t on great terms with each other. Goran accused father of being possessed by the opposite force of our Maker. At this time father, mother, Lill-Emma, Hans, Gottfrid and myself all lived in the kitchen. So I guess the kitchen must be big enough for Gottfrid. But I don’t know for sure. Goran lived with his family in the big room (the size of four boats). Uncle Goran and father never talked to each other after the accusation.
The year father was laid off at the mill the priest came to our hose. He was supposed to come every year to quiz us on our catechism, but he only came once. He didn’t ask us any questions. This is what he said (after he’d eaten mother’s bread): “The Swedish soul is quiet. It talks when there’s need for talking, and it’s silent the rest of the time.” I liked that priest; too bad he decided to move to Uppsala the following year.
Gottfrid and I talked a lot the day I found father in the lake. It was enough talking for a long time. We haven’t talked since then. I think it has been seventeen years now. It’s still time for silence.
I danced with Emma from Smaland last night. We had been harvesting yellow fields of rape seed all day – her eyes followed me. She’s too new in this area to know better. The simmering sunshine and her rolled-up sleeves made me forget my promise. I don’t think she knows that my father killed my mother and that he was declared insane after the deed. They’ll tell her soon enough about my mother’s body, lying in the pasture with the white wind-flowers and the yellow buttercups highlighting her pale dead face. I don’t think about it as often anymore but last night right before I knew I had Emma, I saw mother’s hollow eyes somewhere in the darkness. I left. I woke up by the old stone house halfway to Frid’s farm. How did I get there?
Knut, Hansson’s new man, asked me why I didn’t move into town. I shook my head and left. He hasn’t seen the land, I figured, as I walked home. I could never leave. I’ve seen it. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the creator of my land. My lake is formed like a big cheese slicer. Our house has a permanent spot on the left side of the handle. Home. I’m as rooted as any of the ancient firs surrounding the world of our house. My land is not necessarily beautiful, but it’s me.
My father drank vodka before he tried to dance on water. I saw him and a bottle floating upside down in the lake. He wore the sweater mother had knitted the year before he told her to leave, or two-and-a-half years before the fever took her. It depends on what even one wants to measure time with.
He was heavy. I dragged him up to the rocks by the new apple tree. I couldn’t stand up anymore. The ground was wet. My face was wet. I wanted Gottfrid to come home. He did, but not until later. Without moving I let the view of our lake dry my cheek, chin, eyes, throat and nose.
I woke up this morning and saw her face. I didn’t say anything. What would I say? I couldn’t say sorry. It had been used too many times already. Maybe Goran was right after all? I couldn’t think about it without seeing the darkness moving in. It had power. I knew I had to send her away. I love her.
We talked over our dead father. Words falling over us.
“Do you think father is in hell?” I said.
“I don’t believe in hell,” Gottfrid answered and said something about roots and I think I know what he meant even though I can’t remember now.
“I wish I had talked to him this morning,” Gottfrid said.
“Do you think he was scared when he died?” I said.
“I don’t know.”
We talked about mother – her death. We talked about father’s darkness. We talked about the absence of women in our house. We talked about when we were kids. We talked about Gottfrid’s pig who got drunk on old apple peelings.
Gottfrid wished that the deck of cards last night would have been complete and that he had never left the room. I wished I had been able to tell father I would miss him – not his darkness, but him. We talked about our home. We talked about having to bury our father. We didn’t talk about the fact that custom wouldn’t let us go through the graveyard entrance with our father’s casket. He was a self-murderer. We didn’t mention the stones that strategically stuck out from the stone fence by the graveyard gate for the men carrying the casket to use in order to climb over the fence.
Then we talked about guilt. What could we have done? Then we didn’t talk about guilt, because I, and probably Gottfrid too, felt uneasy when we did. We talked and then I went to get Anderson – the villages part-time marshal. Gottfrid stayed with father.