Sunday, 15 March 2009

Aunt Elsie

Aunt Elsie

by Kjell Westö

In August Aunt Elsie arrived.

The city’s noise and the hard wooden desks of school had already made their way deep into my thoughts. The sun set ever more swiftly behind the cluster of large pine trees on the other side of the water. I was convinced that if I could get permission to take the motorboat and sail round the Dark Rock and its empty green cottage I would be able to hear the hissing and watch as the sun fell into one of the bays behind the pines; but Father said the boat was far too cranky.

Some years went by, our boxer Bruno won a third place rosette at a major dog show and ran away less and less often, my brother Kenneth moved away from home, the winter Saturdays became free of school, but at the same time the summers were gelded – their end no longer marked by September, but by the sixteenth or seventeenth of August. We ate crayfish, Uncle Walle got them in Tammerfors, blue-grey and ugly, they crawled about in their cardboard boxes, were tossed into the pot and turned dead and red. The predatory fish revived after the torpor of July, the pikeperch swam into the net again. In the midst of the heavy, dark greenery there was an abyss, and I could feel it, though it was only much later that I learned how to find words.

In August I waited for Aunt Elsie.

She arrived with a fragrance of tobacco and musk, city and laughter. Aunt Elsie inserted full stops, her voice was loud and voracious, punching holes in the bloated calm and content that rested over Lönnbacka in August. Her hair rolled down to her waist, as black as the mounds of coal that gave the city warmth. The city! Perhaps that was Aunt Elsie’s secret: she reminded you of Helsingfors. She was quick and hectic, she smoked her Kents with energetic puffs that drew her cheeks together, forming two large large cavities, and the steps she took as walked were so short that it looked as if she were running. Four books always lay on her bedside table in the room next to the sauna, each with a dog-ear somewhere in the middle of it.

Aunt Elsie was not like the rest of us; she was excessive, played football with my fat cousin Robin and me, wandered restlessly around Lönnbacka, chain-smoking, reading books from cover to cover, and taking such voracious enjoyment and talking about so many things at once that Grandmother, who lived out there in tranquillity for half the year and was also old and wanted to think about things in peace and quiet, often seemed not to understand.

‘Elsie, my dear,’ she would say. ‘You should not stuff your head with so many things. The ones you can’t digest may be bad for you.’

Aunt Elsie laughed, and shook her head so energetically that the black surge fell down over her eyes like a curtain.

‘I’m still young, I think I can manage.’

I didn’t think Aunt Elsie was young. To me they were all old and nearly dead, and disappearing in a way that sometimes caused me to feel a pale white terror of being left alone: Father and Mother, Grandmother, Uncle Walle and Satu, who was Uncle Walle’s wife and Robin’s mother and spoke Finnish, and Aunt Elsie; they had all been living for such an inconceivable length of time.

But if Aunt Elsie wasn’t young, she was still beautiful, beautiful in the same way that Helsingfors was beautiful when one came back the day before school began and the city lay there at the end of the motorway, with all its people and all its voracity.

In the mornings Aunt Elsie stands outside the sauna. In front of her is a cracked enamel basin. Aunt Elsie leans forward over the basin. It is always early, everyone else is asleep. Aunt Elsie washes under her arms, her breasts sway like mighty pendulums, from left to right and back again, the water splashes and Aunt Elsie whistles to herself. Robin and I stand at the edge of the forest, crouched behind the Big Stone, our eyes bulging.

Then Aunt Elsie takes a swim, if the weather is right. Robin and I sneak after her and hide behind the Giant Spruce. The inlet glitters with a hundred eyes, the fish leap up and down as if someone were pulling them on threads, yellow and white water-lily leaves bob on the surface. Robin and I are struck speechless how beautiful it all is. Aunt Elsie’s hair is so long that it hangs right down to her bottom that gleams white against her brown back and brown legs. We wait for the moment when she swims out, stands up and wades back to the land. I raise one of my legs on to a stone and lean forward, so Robin won’t see what is happening to me.

In the summer before the one when it all happened, Robin had started to do the same.

Grandmother stood at the stove making scones. Music flowed from the old transistor radio on the desk, beside the portrait of Grandfather and Great Grandmother and the other dead people.

‘Will Aunt Elsie be staying long this year?’ I asked.

‘Viljaaaoooooviljaaa,” sang Grandmother. As she raised her voice, she swayed her body dreamily. I never found out how she did it, but even though this was long before the era of multiple radio stations, Grandmother never had any
trouble in managing to find a wavelength that carried the Merry Widow.

‘When are you going to tell me where Aunt Elsie lives in the winter, and how she’s related to us?’ I ventured.

‘When you’re a little older. Now off you go down to the shore and fetch some water for your old grandmother.’

Off I went.

‘Be nice to Aunt Elsie when she gets here,’ Grandmother said when I returned. ‘She’s been working hard, and she’ll bw tired.’

I nodded. Grandmother was still at the stove, and had started to sing again: ‘Viljaaaoooooviljaaa…’

While Father took the car and drove down to the Big Road to meet Aunt Elsie, I sat out on the bay and fished. I was angry: driving down to the Big Road would have been a welcome break in the routine. Although I didn’t want to admit it, I was already longing to be back in the city, and on the Big Road the cars would have rushed past, giving me a foretaste of it. What was more, with a bit of luck I might have caught a glimpse of someone in the Crazy Family.

The Crazy Family’s farm lay on the edge of the forest a few hundred metres from the Big Road. Between the road and the farm there were a few small patches of field that they cultivated. Father had forbidden me to call the Aaltonens the Crazy Family, but it was hard not to as Mr Aaltonen was the only member of it who was normal.

Mr Aaltonen was tall, stocky and silent. Whenever he saw Father, Mother or Grandmother he always beamed, shook our hands and said: “Helloo,helloo” – that was what it sounded like. He was taller than Father, though it looked as though it were the other way round. I don’t know whether it was Father who stretched or Mr Aaltonen who hunched, but Mr Aaltonen always seemed to be looking up at Father.

Father, who liked to tell how he had worked at a garage for two years before starting his studies and gradually becoming rich, often seemed embarrassed.

Sometimes Father and Mr Aaltonen talked so quietly that I couldn’t hear what they were saying. If I went closer, they both raised their voices and arranged to go on a fishing trip together one day very soon. On one occasion they didn’t notice me standing right behind them, and it was then that I realized they weren’t talking about fishing at all.

‘Father, what does ihmisen on taakkansa kannettava mean?’ I asked afterwards.

‘It means that a man must live with what he’s given in this life,’ said Father. ‘People who believe in God usually say that.’

Mrs Aaltonen only lived on the farm from May to September. In the winters she rested up in Tammerfors, seven miles to the south, Grandmother had said so. In the middle of a heatwave Mrs Aaltonen might come to the mobile shop dressed in thick skiing socks, brown winter high-legged boots, a woollen sweater and a long coat. The children would be sweating in their swimming trunks, the grown-ups in shorts, bikinis and beach sandals. Mrs Aaltonen would smile a sad smile, which said:

‘I can see that you’re staring, even though you’re not saying anything.’

I had only seen the Aaltonens’ daughter once. She had come to the mobile shop in tow to her mother, with short, shuffling steps and her empty gaze fixed stubbornly to the dusty road. I had never before seen anyone so pale, she was white as the fish when they die in the water and turn their bellies upwards. Her eyes were two black holes, two wells one could look down into, further, further, further, without ever find anything.

On that occasion I was struck with terror, the smell of lye and summer meadow faded and vanished, I stood as if bewitched, and goggled. That evening I remember that when Lönnbacka lay bathed in red light and I saw the Aaltonen’s daughter and her staring eyes behind every stone, I went downstairs to Grandmother, whom I thought had answers for everything, and told her what I had seen.

Grandmother had a town flat in Tammerfors, but preferred to live out at Lönnbacka where she could immerse herself in what interested her most: nature. At the Little House I used to sit with Grandmother in front of the fire. We would listen to the Nature Hour. Sometimes Grandmother went into the weaving room where the telephone was and called the radio station in Helsingfors. I stayed in my chair, and as I listened to the radio could hear Grandmother asking questions down the faint, crackling line.

The things that Grandmother wanted to tell me when I was a child she told in the form of stories about creatures, trees and flowers. I was a town child, and didn’t always understand. On the evening I told her about the Aaltonens’ daughter, Grandmother enlisted the help of the birds, asking me if I had noticed what different temperaments they had, the family of black-throated divers on Little Island, the pair of magpies that lived on the jetty, the Tammerfors pigeons and the flock of cranes over at Kontuniemi marsh. Kids’ stuff, I thought, having had my tenth birthday in the spring and soon about to start grammar school as the youngest in my class. When I reluctantly answered yes, Grandmother said there were also birds one rarely saw: the sort of birds that folded their wings and were frightened of everything.

‘How do you mean, everything,’ I said impatiently.

‘Themselves, tomorrow, people… everything.’

‘I think she’s lonely,’ I said.

‘She certainly is,’ said Grandmother.

‘I think living in the country makes a person lonely,’ I said.

‘You don’t get any more lonely than you do in the town,’ said Grandmother. ‘But you have more time to notice that you’re lonely here.’

I ran up from the beach and threw myself breathlessly into Aunt Elsie’s arms.

She took hold of me and tried to lift me up, but couldn’t.

‘How big you’ve grown!’

Aunt Elsie’s breath smelt of tobacco, as usual; but there was also something else, a sharp odour I thought was peculiar.

‘Do you want to see my dribbling track?’ came bubbling out of me. ‘I can run with the ball between the sticks in fourteen seconds!’

‘Now let Aunt Elsie change and get used to the fresh air,’ said Grandmother, and turned towards the guest:

‘There’ll be tea and sandwiches, but I daresay you’ll have time to rest for a bit.’

Aunt Elsie took her suitcases, one brown and one dark blue, and went down to the sauna. Halfway down the hill she suddenly stopped, looked up at me and Robin kicking the ball between us, and laughed loudly.

Robin gave a start.

‘Huh,’ I snorted, ‘don’t be a coward. Aunt Elsie always laughs like that, it’s her special laugh, you know.’

Robin still looked frightened, and that made me angry. His fear was an accusation against Aunt Elsie.

‘You little weakling,’ I said as scornfully as I could.

At tea, Aunt Elsie was as eager and loud-voiced as ever. I didn’t understand everything that was said, but now and then I had a feeling that the others were trying to hold Aunt Elsie back, make her talk less.

The conversation eased. Uncle Walle puffed at his pipe. As Aunt Elsie smoked her dazzlingly white cigarettes there was a wrinkle directly above the root of her nose.

‘That’s a fine summer we’ve had,’ said Uncle Walle.

‘Yes, so delightful. And I can’t remember when the little birds had so many young ones as they do just now,’ said Grandmother.

‘A blessed, light time of year. Just a pity it’s so short,’ Mother filled in.

‘There you go again,’ said Father, and got up to pour himself more coffee.

‘I know what you think,’ Aunt Elsie said suddenly, in a tone of voice I didn’t recognize. ‘You think I ought to give up my research and my travels and get married instead. You think I’m going to…’ She broke off in mid-sentence. This time the laughter, loud and bold, somehow excessive, became shrill and was suddenly cut off, like a metal wire by a welding flame.

‘The boy,’ said Grandmother.

‘We just think you shouldn’t brood so much,’ said Father.

U jumped up into Aunt Elsie’s lap.

‘’Look how yellow your big finger is,’ I said. Aunt Elsie looked at her left hand and then at me. Her eyes were grey and slightly slanting. My eyes had a similar colour, but were large and round.

‘I’m not scared of you, though Robin is. But you smoke too much. Granny says it’s not healthy.’

Everyone laughed.

‘Perhaps it’s time for bed,’ said Uncle Walle.

In the morning the sun crept up over Lönnbacka veiled by a white mist. I sneaked up the staircase, past Uncle Walle and Satu’s bedroom, through the kitchen and along to Robin’s room. I stuck my head in and whispered.

‘What time is it?’ asked Robin, who was wide awake.

‘Half past six.’

‘Shall we go down to the Giant Spruce and wait?’

‘All right, let’s.’

We ran along Root Path down to the shore. The dew was still on the ground, and there were slippery roots across the path; from a few yards away they looked like fat snakes.

We stationed ourselves behind the spruce tree, waited for quarter of an hour; nothing happened. Ten more minutes. The veil over the sky disappeared, and the shore was bathed in a sharp light. Two people came out on to a jetty on the other side of the bay. Otherwise all was still. Many of the cottages were already barred and bolted for the winter. The water level was low, and down by the shore the air was still quite warm. School was due to start in a week.

In the room next door to the sauna the curtains were drawn.

‘Why isn’t she coming?’ said Robin impatiently.

‘Look,’ I said, pointing to the window. ‘The curtains are too short. Shall we peep inside?’

‘Dare you?’

‘Of course.’

We sneaked up to the window. I leaned carefully against the wall, craned my neck and looked through a crack of dirty window that was exposed between the side-ledge and the curtain. The room was dim, but I could see Aunt Elsie sitting on the edge of the bed, and I gave a start. Aunt Elsie’s hair was dishevelled, it clung in thin, black wisps to her sweaty forehead. By narrowing my eyes I could see that there were also locks of black hair lying on the floor; Aunt Elsie had cut her own hair during the night. At the back of her neck it was greasy and matted. Aunt Elsie took quick puffs at a cigarette, and then threw it away with a violent jerk. It landed beside a black ashtray. The ashtray was full. Aunt Elsie bent forward, took something from a small, flat box that lay on the bedside table among the books, swallowed it, and sat down on the bed again. Her eyes stared large and bright at a point on the wall, somewhere diagonally opposite the tiled stove. I looked there, but saw nothing. Aunt Elsie’s lips moved, but I could hear no sound. Perhaps because of the window. Her eyes remained fixed to the point on the wall. There was still nothing. Nothing.

‘Can I look?’ Robin panted in my ear.

‘If you want. But don’t blame me.’

Robin leaned forward. I saw that he was frightened and pulled at the waistband of his trousers.

‘Come on.’

‘Tom,’ said Robin as we ran up the hill.


‘Aunt Elsie’s grown dangerous.’

I looked to one side and watched him as he pounded away beside me. He was small and fat and afraid. I was afraid myself. He ought not to have said it. I felt a sudden urge to do him harm.

‘Rubbish!’ I said, as firmly as I could.

‘Her eyes looked like a perch’s,’ said Robin.

‘Aunt Elsie is a human being,’ I said.

Back at the Big House we had early morning coffee as usual

I looked along the path that led to the Little House, and saw Grandmother digging in the rose-beds with a garden spade. Aunt Elsie was nowhere to be seen.

‘Well, did Tom dream about sirens last night?’ Uncle Walle ventured. He knew that I liked Aunt Elsie. Robin and I looked at each other in surprise. Sirens were something you heard in the city, they had them on police cars and ambulances. I saw that Robin was still frightened, almost on the point of saying something, and kicked him on the shin. He bit his lip and said nothing.

After breakfast I had planned to beat my own dribbling record. Fourteen seconds wasn’t good enough. Robin wanted to play croquet, and when I said no he slouched sullenly off to the lawn alone.

My dribbling sticks lay on the ground, strewn here and there at random. Bruno, I thought, and began to knock them back into their holes again. Then Robin came running along. He was howling. Uncle Walle was running after him. Robin stopped, turned round and dived into his arms.

‘Father, Aunt Elsie ran past and kicked the croquet hoops away, she was all white in the face, Father, Aunt Elsie is dangerous!’

Satu came running from the house.

‘I think it’s gotten worse,’ said Uncle Walle, and began to run down to the shore.

I remember the day that followed in clouded fragments. Robin and I had to stay by ourselves. Father, Uncle Walle and Satu set off for the forest. Bruno was locked in, he was too obstinate to be any use as a game dog. Grandmother and Mother took turns at talking on the telephone. They didn’t always dial the same number, sometimes they called the village, sometimes Tammerfors or Helsingfors.

I wanted to go and look too, but I wasn’t allowed to.

‘You’re staying here,’ said Grandmother, and her jaws were tensed.

Late in the afternoon, Father and Uncle Walle appeared. They shook their heads and drank their coffee noisily. Mr Aaltonen drove up in an old car, and with him he had a big dog with pointed ears and a watchful look. Blue thunderclouds towered up behind the pine trees on the other side of the bay, but the storm didn’t break.

The grown-ups began to talk about getting people together for a search party, and I was pushed away.

The men disappeared again. Satu had come back, she made a meal for those who remained and we ate fish soup without much appetite. The sun was shining in spite blue-black clouds that were still there, brooding, and the red August evening light spread over Lönnbacka. Grandmother said they were now searching the meadows on the other side of the Big Road.

‘Is Aunt Elsie a witch?’ I asked.

‘Don’t be so silly,’ said Mother. ‘Take Robin with you and row out and examine the nets.’

We set off across the inlet. The water was already starting to change colour, from bright blue to dark blue to black.

‘How horrid it is when the sun sets in August,’ said Robin.

‘It’s just autumn,’ I said, as nonchalantly as I could.

‘Do you think they’ll look for her as far away as Devil’s Drop?’ Robin sounded anxious.

‘Oh, Devil’s Drop is at least twelve miles from here.’

The nets were out at Little Island, almost halfway across the bay. I leaned down over the dark water in order to take hold of the float and the red rope.

Then we heard the sound.

‘Wolves,’ said Robin. ‘Wolves can’t swim, can they?’

‘Be quiet,’ I said, alarmed, and tried to make out where the sound was coming from. I spotted them right out at the end of the Dark Rock promontory. They stood on the flat rock, the last outpost before the cluster of large pines. It was now rapidly getting dark, but I could still see the thunderclouds that hung above the treetops. I could hear the lapping of the waves on the rocky shore over there, but above both the waves and the screaming of the gulls over our heads we could hear the long drawn-out sound. Of course it could have been a dog or an owl, yet there was something unmistakably human about the call, and we would have understood even if it had been pitch dark.

Robin began to cry. I let go of the rope, even though it was jerking and quivering. The thunderclouds gave a distant rumble.

The plaintive sound continued, it didn’t sound like someone calling for help, more just like a sound on the air.

I rowed as fast as I could, the stern of the boat rushed with water. When we reached the shore I heard the sound of a motor vehicle.

‘Run up to the house and tell them that Aunt Elsie’s standing on the Dark Rock with someone else and shouting,’ I said to Robin.

Mr Aaltonen was the first who came running. He was quick on his feet even though he looked stocky and lumbering. He raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes and trained them across the water.

‘There they are, thank the Lord.’

He gave the binoculars to Father, they both stood there looking out across the darkening water. All the differences that usually existed between Father and Mr Aaltonen, the delicate complexion against the stockiness, the coolness against the joviality, they were gone now, and no one needed to look up or down at the other; on the shore stood two worried but relieved middle-aged men.

Father, Mr Aaltonen and Uncle Walle got into the Aaltonens’ pickup truck, and for a long time afterwards the sound of its engine cut through the silence of the inlet. The sound of the vehicle grew ever fainter. Occasionally the beam of its headlights went searching among the tree trunks on the other side of the inlet. They drove along the narrow, almost overgrown sandy road that led to the Dark Rock, where the green cottage had stood uninhabited for as long as I could remember.

Then the call was heard again.

‘Come up to the house and have your tea now,’ said Mother.

‘Can’t I look?’ Now the vehicle’s engine was switched off. It was almost dark; I could make out the green roof ridge of the ghostly cottage, but not the figures I knew stood out on the rock.

‘Mother, who is the other person? Is it Mrs Aaltonen?’


Now the call was silent.

‘Is it the daughter, then?’

‘Yes. If you come now you can have marmalade sandwiches.’

After many telephone calls and much heated talk an ambulance arrived and took Aunt Elsie to Tammerfors. Uncle Walle was going to go there and see how she was the following day.

Grandmother sat at my bedside and wanted to tell me a story.

‘I’m too old for stories,’ I said. ‘Tell them to Robin.’

But Grandmother told me a story all the same. She told of the sorrow that people who live on their own sometimes feel when the summer falls silent and the autumn settles like a quilt over everything, and she told of another sorrow, the one that people in the city feel when they run and run and run and are never able to stand still and hear silence, they just go on living, hunkered down in a noise so loud that they hardly notice the sounds from within themselves disappearing, until one day they wake up and hear an empty place rattling, an empty place they can never fill with wine, machines, candy or any of the other things that money can buy.

Even though I couldn’t admit to myself that I liked Grandmother’s stories, Lönnbacka felt like a lighter place again, and I reflected that tomorrow all the familiar places would be themselves again, the jetty and the Giant Spruce and the Big Stone and Little Island and the Climbing Rowan and the Green Moss Stone and all the others.

Grandmother sat in the kitchen for a long time. I heard Uncle Walle come down the staircase. The whispering penetrated faintly and indistinctly to my room, mingled with the sound from the old house borers that stalked around inside the walls, with the scraping when the bats landed out on the roof of the veranda, and with the soughing of the treetops outside the window. Sometimes a whole sentence penetrated through the door. I realized that Satu was sitting in the room upstairs, trying to comfort Robin.

‘He’ll forget it, Robin’s a healthy boy,’ I heard Grandmother say.

‘How is Tom taking it? I expect he’s brooding a bit.’ Uncle Walle.

‘What do you mean? Are you saying that…’ That was Mother, in a sharp hiss.

‘You do know that Elsie gets it from her mother, not from us, don’t you,’ said Grandmother, firmly.

Then Father’s voice came, low and growling:

‘… worry yourselves unnecessarily… has all the interests a boy’s supposed to have…’

I dozed off, no longer knew if I was dreaming, fantasizing or was wide awake. Finally I must have fallen asleep, for I forgot to ask God to give Aunt Elsie her wings back, though I had been promising myself to do so all evening.

We got up early. Robin, Uncle Walle and I went down to the shore. The air in the room next to the sauna was heavy, and the overfilled ashtray was still there. Uncle Walle emptied it into the open fireplace and opened the window wide. We took the boat and rowed out on the bay. The nets were empty.

‘There was something in them yesterday,’ I said.

A few days later we closed up Lönnbacka for the winter. Father and Bruno went round locking doors, Uncle Walle carried the pontoons of the jetty to the woodshed, Mother and Grandmother took the covers off the garden furniture and Robin and I fed the tame hedgehogs, which we had christened Igor and Alexander. The hedgehogs lapped up the milk and vanished. Father loaded my suitcase into the boot of the red Taunus. I waved to Grandmother, who was going to stay on
for another month in the Little House, and to Robin, who was sulking because my family was starting before his.

I stayed at Lönnbacka four more summers after that. By the time we arrived there for the first of them, the Aaltonens’ farm stood empty.

Aunt Elsie was never seen again. During the first two summers I often thought of her, I wondered why she wasn’t like Mother and Father. Why was she the way she was, and not like us? Then I did the awful thing: I turned the thought around. Why am I not like Aunt Elsie? How can I know that I’m not? Have I always been very fond of Aunt Elsie? How do I know that Aunt Elsie isn’t me? Sometimes I asked the others questions: ‘Where's Aunt Elsie? Is Aunt Elsie coming this year?’, but I got no answers, and tired of it.

As the years went by, we at Lönnbacka began to see faults in one another, blemishes came to light. I was seized with loathing for cousin Robin. Father and Uncle Walle had a quarrel about road tax, and Grandmother thought that Satu wasn’t seeing to Robin’s upbringing properly. Father and Mother began to look at one another with increasing hesitation. Life went on, Uncle Walle bought a summer cottage for his family in Barösund, I sent Mother and Grandmother dutiful picture postcards from my language courses and train journeys, and they received them out at Lönnbacka; my cards to Father were sent to a district in another part of the country.

In certain cultures, I know as an adult, only God is allowed to be perfect. If a believer makes a carpet, he diligently weaves a mistake into it, so as be quite sure that his carpet is not an act of arrogance. Whoever had woven the carpet that was us had done the same. We were the perfect family carpet, soft and easy to tread on for each and every one of us. Aunt Elsie, whoever she was, was the weaver’s apology.

What I would like to know is if, after that August evening when we found Aunt Elsie and the Aaltonens’ daughter on the rock near the green house, any of us stopped accepting the carpet’s small mistake, or if we all really did what we could. Did we ask her to come, was it Aunt Elsie herself who didn’t want to? Was she ashamed, or did she want us to see our own mistakes?

Even today I sometimes have an impulse that is hard to control and makes me want to ask in letters and postcards that I write: ‘Where is Aunt Elsie, have you seen Aunt Elsie?’ But I restrain myself. I ask the question inside my head. There are millions of wingless people in the world, and few carpets are woven without mistakes: that, if anything, is a good reason to devote oneself to things as seemingly useless as telling stories.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

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