Father and I

PÄR LAGERKVIST, who received the 1951 Nobel Prize for Literature, is Sweden’s foremost writer, Novelist, poet, and playwrigh, he is the author of many books, and two of his novels have been translated and published in the United States, The Dwarf and Barrabas. This story of childhood teas translated by Alan Blair. Critics in Sweden and elsewhere recognize Lagerkvist as one of the most powerful literary figures on the European scene.


WHEN I was getting on toward ten, I remember, Father took me by the hand one Sunday afternoon, as we were to go out into the woods and listen to the birds singing. Waving good-by to Mother, who had to stay at home and get the evening meal, we set. off briskly in the warm sunshine. We didn’t make any great to-do about this going to listen to the birds, as though it were something extra special or wonderful; we were sound, sensible people, Father and I, brought up with nature and used to it. There was nothing to make a fuss about. It was just that it was Sunday afternoon and Father was free. We walked along the railway line, where people were not allowed to go as a rule, but Father worked on the railway and he had a right to. By doing this we could get straight into the woods, too, without going a roundabout way.

Soon the bird song began and all the rest. There was a twittering of finches and willow warblers, thrushes and sparrows in the bushes, the hum that goes on all round you as soon as you enter a wood. The ground was white with wood anemones, the birches had just come out into leaf, and the spruces had fresh shoots; there were smells on all sides, and under foot the mossy earth lay steaming in the sun. There were noise and movement everywhere; bumblebees came out of their holes, midges swarmed wherever it was marshy, and birds darted out of the bushes to catch them and back again just as quickly.

All at once a train came rushing along and we had to go down onto the embankment. Father hailed the engine driver with two fingers to his Sunday hat and the driver saluted and extended his hand. It all happened quickly; then on we went, taking big strides so as to tread on the sleepers and not in the gravel, which was heavy going and rough on the shoes. The sleepers sweated tar in the heat, everything smelled, grease and meadowsweet, tar and heather by turns. The rails glinted in the sun. On either side of the line were telegraph poles, which sang as you passed them. Yes, it was a lovely day. The sky was quite clear, not a cloud to be seen, and there couldn’t be any, either, on a day like this, from what Father said.

After a while we came to a field of oats to the right of the line, where a crofter we knew had a clearing. The oats had come up close and even. Father scanned them with an expert eye and I could see he was satisfied. I knew very little about such things, having been born in a town. Then we came to the bridge over a stream which most of the time had no water to speak of but which now was in full spate. We held hands so as not to fall down between the sleepers. After that it was not long before we came to the platelayer’s cottage lying embedded in greenery, apple trees, and gooseberry bushes. We called in to see them and were offered milk and saw their pig and hens and fruit trees in blossom; then we went on. We wanted to get to the river, for it was more beautiful there than anywhere else; there was something special about it, as further upstream it flowed past where Father had lived as a child. We usually liked to come as far as this before we turned back, and today, too, we got there after a good walk. It was near the next station, but we didn’t go so far. Father just looked to see that the semaphore was right — he thought of everything.

We stopped by the river, which murmured in the hot sun, broad and friendly. The shady trees hung along the banks and were reflected in the backwater. It was all fresh and light here; a soft breeze was blowing off the small lakes higher up. We climbed down the slope and walked a little way along the bank, Father pointing out the spots for fishing. He had sat here on the stones as a boy, waiting for perch all day long; often there wasn’t even a bite, but it was a blissful life. Now he didn’t have time. We hung about on the bank for a good while, making a noise, pushing out bits of bark for the current to take, throwing pebbles out into the water to see who could throw farthest; we were both gay and cheerful by nature, Father and I. At last we felt tired; we had had enough, and we set off for home.

It was beginning to get dark. The woods were changed — it wasn’t dark there yet, but almost. We quickened our steps. Mother would be getting anxious and waiting with supper. She was always afraid something was going to happen. But it hadn’t; it had been a lovely day, nothing had happened that shouldn’t. We were content with everything.

The twilight deepened. The trees were so funny. They stood listening to every step we took, as if they didn’t know who we were. Under one of them was a glowworm. It lay down there in the dark staring at us. I squeezed Father’s hand, but he didn’t see the strange glow, just walked on. Now it was quite dark. We came to the bridge over the stream. It roared down there in the depths, horribly, as though it wanted to swallow us up; the abyss yawned below us. We trod carefully on the sleepers, holding each other tightly by the hand so as not to fall in. I thought Father would carry me across, but he didn’t say anything; he probably wanted me to be like him and think nothing of it.

We went on. Father was so calm as he walked there in the darkness, with even strides, not speaking, thinking to himself. I couldn’t understand how he could be so calm when it was so murky. I looked all round me in fear. Nothing but darkness everywhere. I hardly dared take a deep breath, for then you got so much darkness inside you, and that was dangerous. I thought it meant you would soon die.

I remember quite well that’s what I thought then. The embankment sloped steeply down, as though into chasms black as night. The telegraph poles rose, ghostly, to the sky. Inside them was a hollow rumble, as though someone were talking deep down in the earth, and the white porcelain caps sat huddled fearfully together listening to it. It was all horrible. Nothing was right, nothing real; it was all so weird.

Hugging close to Father I whispered: “Father, why is it so horrible when it’s dark?”

“No, my boy, it’s not horrible,” he said, taking me by the hand.

“Yes, Father, it is.”

“No, my child, you mustn’t think that. Not when we know there is a God.”

I felt so lonely, forsaken. It was so strange that only I was afraid, not Father, that we didn’t think the same. And strange that what he said didn’t help me and slop me from being afraid. Not even what he said about God helped me. I thought He too was horrible. It was horrible that He was everywhere, in the darkness, under the trees, in the telegraph poles which rumbled — that must be He — everywhere. And yet you could never see Him.

We walked in silence, each with his own thoughts. My heart contracted, as though the darkness had got in and was beginning to squeeze it.

Then, as we were rounding a bend, we suddenly heard a mighty roar behind us! We were wakened out of our thoughts in alarm. Father pulled me down onto the embankment, down into the abyss, held me there. Then the train tore past, a black train. All the lights in the carriages were out, and it was going at frantic speed. What sort of train was it? There wasn’t one due now! We gazed at it in terror. The fire blazed in the huge engine as they shoveled in coal; sparks whirled out into the night. It was terrible. The driver stood there in the light of the fire, pale, motionless, his features as though turned to stone. Father didn’t recognize him, didn’t know who he was. The man just stared straight ahead, intent on rushing into the darkness, far into the darkness that had no end.

Beside myself with dread, I stood there panting, gazing after the furious vision. It was swallowed up by the night. Father took me up onto the line; we hurried home. He said: “Strange, what train was that? And I didn’t recognize the driver.” Then he walked on in silence.

But my whole body was shaking. It was for me, for my sake. I sensed what it meant: it was the anguish that was to come, the unknown, all that Father knew nothing about, that he wouldn’t be able to protect me against. That was how this world, this life, would be for me; not like Father’s, where everything was secure and certain. It wasn’t a real world, a real life. It just hurtled, blazing, into the darkness that had no end.