Authors: Åsa Larsson
“Oh, no. Well, yes, I have got a daughter, but she’d been confirmed several years ago. She works in the pub down in the village. No, it was my cousin’s boy, Nalle. He’s got special needs and Lars-Gunnar didn’t want him confirmed. So she came to talk about him. Would you like a coffee?”
Anna-Maria said yes.
“She seems to have upset people,” she said.
Lisa Stöckel shrugged her shoulders.
“That’s just the way she was… always straight in. As if she only had forward gear.”
“What do you mean?” asked Anna-Maria.
“I mean she never went round the houses about things. There was no room for diplomacy or fancy words. She thought something was wrong, and she just went for it.”
Like when she got all the churchwardens against her, thought Lisa.
She blinked. But the picture in her head wasn’t so easily gotten rid of. First of all it was two brimstone butterflies dancing around one another above the sweet scented arabis. Then the branches of the weeping birch swaying gently to and fro in the breeze from the calm summer river. And then Mildred’s back. Her military march between the gravestones. Tramp, tramp, tramp over the gravel.
* * *
Lisa scuttles after Mildred along the path in Poikkijärvi churchyard. At the far end the team of churchwardens are having their coffee break. They have a lot of breaks, more or less all the time really. Work when the priest is watching. But nobody actually dares to make any demands of them. If you turn this lot against you, you’ll end up holding a funeral in the middle of a pile of earth. Or trying to shout over the top of a lawn mower working two meters away. Preaching in a freezing cold church in the middle of winter. The parish priest is totally bloody useless, he does nothing. He doesn’t need to, they know better than to mess with him.
“Don’t start an argument about this,” Lisa tries to divert her.
“I’m not going to start an argument.”
And she really means it.
Mankan Kyrö catches sight of them first. He’s the informal leader of the group. The boss of property services doesn’t give a damn. Mankan decides. He’s the one Mildred isn’t going to start an argument with.
She dives straight in. The others listen with interest.
“The child’s grave,” she says, “have you dug it yet?”
“What do you mean?” says Mankan apathetically.
“I’ve just been talking to the parents. They said they’d chosen a spot with a view over the river, up there in the northern section, but that you’d advised them against it.”
Mankan Kyrö doesn’t answer. Instead he spits a huge lump of chewed snuff onto the grass and rummages in his back pocket for the snuff tin.
“You told them the roots of the weeping birch would grow through the coffin and go right through the baby’s body,” Mildred goes on.
“Well, wouldn’t they?”
“That happens wherever you bury a coffin, and you know that perfectly well. You just didn’t want to dig up there under the birch, because it’s stony and there are so many roots. It was just too much like hard work. I just can’t get my head round the fact that you valued your own comfort so highly that you thought it was okay to plant pictures like that in their heads.”
She hasn’t raised her voice the whole time. The gang around Mankan are staring at the ground. They’re ashamed. And they hate the priest who’s making them feel ashamed.
“So, what do you want me to do, then?” asks Mankan Kyrö. “We’ve already dug a grave—in a better spot if you ask me—but maybe we ought to force them to bury their child where you want.”
“No way. It’s too late now, you’ve terrified them. I just want you to know that if anything like this happens again…”
He’s almost smiling now. Is she going to threaten him?
“… then you’ll be testing my love for you beyond the limit,” she concludes, and walks away.
Lisa runs after her. Quickly so that she doesn’t have to hear the comments behind her back. She can imagine. If the priest’s husband gave her what she needed in bed, maybe she’d calm down.
* * *
“So who did she annoy?” asked Anna-Maria.
Lisa shrugged her shoulders and switched on the coffee machine.
“Where do I start? The headmaster of the school in Jukkasjärvi because she insisted he had to do something about bullying, the old biddies from social services because she got involved in their territory.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there were always women with kids at her house, women who’d left their husbands…”
“She’d set up some sort of foundation for the wolf,” said Anna-Maria. “There was a big debate about that.”
“Mmm, I haven’t got any cake or milk, you’ll have to have it black.”
Lisa Stöckel placed a chipped mug with some kind of advert on it in front of Anna-Maria.
“The parish priest and some of the other clergy couldn’t stand her either.”
“Why was that?”
“Well, because of us, the women in Magdalena, among other things. There are almost two hundred of us in the group. And there were plenty of people who liked her but weren’t actually members, quite a lot of men, although no doubt people have told you the opposite. We used to study the Bible with her. Went to services where she was preaching. And did practical work as well.”
“Loads of things. Cooking, for example. We tried to think of something concrete we could do for single mothers. They thought it was hard, always being stuck on their own with the kids and having to spend all their time on practical things. Working, shopping, cleaning, cooking and then just the TV for company. So we have lunch together at the parish hall in town Monday to Wednesday, and out here at the priest’s house Thursday and Friday. Sometimes you’re on the duty roster, you pay twenty kronor for an adult and fifteen per child. It means for a few days in the week the mothers don’t have to shop and cook. Sometimes they look after each other’s kids so they can go off and do some exercise or just go into town in peace. Mildred was all for practical solutions.”
Lisa laughed and went on:
“It was fatal, telling her something was wrong in the community or whatever. She struck like a pike, ‘what can we do?’ Before you knew what had hit you, you had a job. Magdalena was a really close group, what priest wouldn’t want something like that around them?”
“So the other priests were jealous?”
Lisa shrugged her shoulders.
“You said Magdalena was a close group. Don’t you exist anymore?”
Lisa looked down at the table.
Anna-Maria waited for her to add something more, but Lisa Stöckel maintained a stubborn silence.
“Who was close to her?” asked Anna-Maria.
“Those of us who were on the committee of Magdalena, I suppose.”
A movement of the iris in the eye, Anna-Maria spotted it. There was something there.
Lisa Stöckel, there’s something you’re not telling me, she thought.
“Of course,” replied Lisa Stöckel.
“Did she feel threatened or afraid?”
“She must have had some sort of tumor or something that suppressed the part of her brain that feels fear… No, she wasn’t afraid. And threatened, no more recently than at any other time, there was always somebody who felt the need to slash her tires or smash her car windows…”
Lisa Stöckel glared furiously at Anna-Maria.
“She stopped reporting things to the police a long time ago. It was just a load of trouble for nothing, you can never prove anything even if you know exactly who it is.”
“But perhaps you could give me some names,” said Anna-Maria.
* * *
Quarter of an hour later Anna-Maria Mella got into her Ford Escort and drove away.
Why get rid of all your books? she wondered.
Lisa Stöckel stood at the kitchen window watching Anna-Maria’s car disappear down the hill in a cloud of oily smoke. Then she sat down on the kitchen sofa next to the sleeping Labrador. She stroked the dog’s throat and chest just as a bitch licks her puppies to calm them. The dog woke up and thumped her tail affectionately a few times.
“What’s the matter, Majken?” asked Lisa. “You don’t even get up to say hello to people anymore.”
Her throat constricted in a painful knot. Her eyelids prickled. There were tears in there. She wasn’t going to shed them.
She must be in terrible pain, she thought.
She got up quickly.
Oh God, Mildred, she thought. Forgive me. Please forgive me. I’m… trying to do the right thing, but I’m afraid.
She had to get some air, suddenly felt ill. She made it out onto the porch and threw up a little pile of vomit.
The dogs were there at once. If she didn’t want it, they could take care of it for her. She pushed them away with her foot.
That bloody policewoman. She’d got right inside her head and opened it up like a picture book. Mildred on every single page. She just couldn’t look at those pictures anymore. Like that first time, six years ago. She remembered how she’d been standing by the rabbit hutches. It was feeding time. Rabbits, white, gray, black, spotted, got up on their hind legs and pushed their little noses through the chicken wire. She doled out pellets and shriveled bits of carrot and other root vegetables in little terra-cotta dishes. Felt a little bit of sorrow in her heart, because the rabbits would soon be in a stew down at the pub.
* * *
Then she’s standing behind her, the priest who’s just moved in. They haven’t met before. Lisa hadn’t heard her coming. Mildred Nilsson is a small woman, about the same age as her. Somewhere around fifty. She has a small, pale face. Her hair is long and dark brown. Lisa often hears people call her insignificant. They say “She’s not pretty, but…” Lisa will never understand it.
Something happens inside her when she takes the slender hand that’s being held out to her. She has to tell her own hand to let go. The priest is talking. Even her mouth is small. Narrow lips. Like a little red lingonberry. And while the lingonberry mouth talks and talks, the eyes sing a beautiful song. About something else altogether.
For the first time since—well, she can’t remember when—Lisa is afraid the truth will show on her face. She could do with a mirror just to check. She, who has kept secrets all her life. Who knows the truth about being the prettiest girl in the village. She might have told people what it felt like to hear “look at the tits on that” all the time, how it made her stoop and gave her a bad back. But there are other things, a thousand secrets.
Daddy’s cousin Bengt when she was thirteen. He’s grabbed her by the hair and twisted it around his hand. It feels as if it’s going to come out by the roots. “Keep your mouth shut,” he says in her ear. He’s forced her into the bathroom. Slams her head against the tiled wall so she’ll understand he means it. With his other hand he unbuttons her jeans. The family is sitting downstairs in the living room.
She kept her mouth shut. Never said a word. Cut her hair off.
Or the last time she ever drank spirits, midsummer’s eve 1965. She was well gone. They were three boys from town. Two of them still live in Kiruna, it wasn’t long ago she bumped into one of them in the supermarket. But she’s dropped the memory like a stone down a well, it’s as if she dreamed it long ago.
And then there are the years with Tommy. That time he’d sat drinking with his cousins from Lannavaara. Late September. Mimmi can’t have been more than three or four. The ice hadn’t taken hold. And they’d given him an old fishing spear. Completely worthless, he’d never realized they were only playing a joke on him. Toward morning he’d rung her for a lift. She’d picked him up in the car, tried to get him to leave the spear there, but he’d managed to get it into the coupe somehow. Sat there with the window down and the spear sticking out. Laughing and stabbing out into the darkness.
When they got home he decided they had to go out fishing. It was two hours until daylight. She had to come with him, he said. To row and hold the torch. The girl’s asleep, she said. Exactly, he said. She’d sleep for more than two hours. She tried to get him to put a life jacket on, the water was freezing cold. But he refused.
“You’ve turned into a real fucking Goody Two Shoes,” he said. “I’m married to Goody fucking Two Shoes.”
He thought that was very funny. Out on the water he kept repeating it to himself quietly. “Goody Two Shoes.” “Steer her a bit nearer the point, Goody Two Shoes.”
Then he fell in the water. Plop, and a second later he was clawing at the rail trying to find something to hang on to. Ice-cold water, dark night. He didn’t scream or anything. Puffed and panted with exertion.
Oh, that split second. When she seriously wondered what she should do. Just one little push with the oar away from him. Just let the boat drift out of reach. With all that booze inside him. How long would it take? Five minutes maybe.
Then she pulled him up. It wasn’t easy, she nearly fell in the water herself. They didn’t find the spear. Maybe it sank. Maybe it floated away in the darkness. He was cross about it anyway. Furious with her too, although it was thanks to her he was alive. She could feel how much he wanted to hit her.
She never told anybody about that cold desire to watch him die. Drown like a kitten in a sack.
And now she’s standing here with the new priest. She feels quite peculiar inside. The priest’s eyes have climbed inside her.
Another secret to drop in the well. It falls down. Lies there sparkling like a jewel among all the rubbish.
t was almost three months since his wife had been found murdered. Erik Nilsson got out of his Skoda in front of the priest’s house. Still warm, although it was September. The sky bright blue, not a cloud in sight. The light piercing the air like sharpened knives.
He’d been to call in at work. It had felt good to see his colleagues. They were like another family. He’d go back soon. Give him something else to think about.
He looked at the pots and containers lining the steps and the veranda. Wilted flowers drooped over the edges. He thought vaguely that he must take the pots in. Before you knew it the grass would be crisp with frost, and the cold would crack them.