ABOUT WINTERTIME IN THE BIG FORESTS
Now I want to tell you about wintertime in the big forests, what it’s like when the last motley of leaves has been torn from the trees and settled on an uneven, rock-hard bed among ant-hills and deep-frozen heather to become earth once more and be reborn the following spring in the form of a fungus or a shy flower and then once more turn its yearning – though to us invisible – eyes towards the great, infinite vault of the sky, from where the light of summer and the cooling rain come. I want to tell you what things were like when Yxsjö-Anders died, and what they were like before he died and what he thought and felt, what he was dreaming of before his consciousness drowned in what we call endless night, since we know nothing about it. If you ask me how I can know all that I now intend to relate, I answer: I have dreamt some of it, experienced some of it, carried out some research and the rest I have heard from the dark logs of the cabin, from the rotting timber around the bed fixed to the wall, from barrels and buckets and pots and utensils he once held in his working-man’s hands, from axes and scythes that he has sharpened and worked with. Oh, don’t say that I can’t know all this – if I didn’t know it, how could I possibly be able to feel such a great love of it that I have to sit down and relate it all. I know a great deal, so much that I don’t dare tell everything. Just listen – and when I’ve finished, you will understand that it’s the truth!
He’d been in the grocer’s shop and for the last of his money bought herring and flour and matches and salt, enough for him to be able to manage for the rest of the month and not have to trudge the dozen miles yet again before the stocking up started for Christmas. He had gone out into the twilight heavily weighed down and a bit clumsily, as he had downed a couple of drams from the grocer, whose nets he used to repair and who he was distantly related to. Since his wife had died and he had buried his only daughter, who had gone mad from love and drowned herself in the small lake near Tvåmyrarna, things had steadily gone downhill for Anders. He had once been a wealthy farmer, but not one of the haughty kind – he had a disposition that led him to help all those who were poor. There wasn’t a crofter who didn’t owe him money – if they needed a cow and didn’t have the money, they went to Yxsjö. Anders admittedly wrote an IOU, he was a meticulous businessman when it came to writing things down, but he never demanded repayment. You might have thought that in his poverty and old age he would have enjoyed consideration and care from his neighbours — but —
There’s nothing people forget as quickly as good deeds.
When he turned off onto the shortcut across the neck of the bog at Brännfallen the light was already so dim that he couldn’t see the path properly, and he was seventy years old. He walked slowly, leaning heavily on his large, thick juniper stick and thinking of how fast winter had come and how severe it was. The last time he had walked here had been in an afternoon heat, with hundreds of rustling lizards slithering off the path and hiding in the shadows when his hobnail shoes plodded on through the three-foot-tall heather on either side of the path. Here at a bend he had pounded a female adder to death that was swollen with young and then flung her aside with his stick so that she ended up hanging from a bush. And he had heard the crows screeching above the fir trees, probably grieving at the snake’s funeral, ha, ha! He recalled that Bark-Petter, the local sorcerer, had stood holding a live adder down with a fork in an ant-hill so as to torment it, for after all it was the serpent that had caused sin to enter the world, but Yxsjö-Anders had grown flaming angry and made the sorcerer kill the snake. Bark-Petter had been furious and threatened Anders – but he merely laughed and squinted up at the stars: a man in the right did not need to fear sorcery, for he had God on his side, and that was the end of it, oh yes, oh yes.
Now it was dreadfully cold, with the north wind roaring like an angry bull and snow whirling madly down over the bog. He was very tired and his sight was very weak, but he felt his way forward – as long as he had solid ground under his feet, he was sure he was on the path, and he had already walk three miles or so. He was now inside Bandarberg forest, and it was growing dark. It was then that he suddenly felt his knees give way and understood that now he would have to take things calmly, for otherwise he would be the bridegroom in Brangen mortuary the following Sunday. He was an old forester and knew that he must not sit down – but he had matches and a knife on him. If he could strike a match and break off a little kindling, there would be no danger in taking a rest and roasting a bit of herring in the embers and — — —
It was terrible just how little dry kindlewood there was! With fumbling hands he felt his way forward under the trees in search of dry branches. Finally he had collected a few fistfuls of twigs and he then laid them professionally up against an old, tarry kindlewood stump and struck a match. Within ten minutes, he had a bonfire going. He then crawled out to the path again, to make sure that it was close by. He stamped and trampled around with his feet, but it was just as soft and loose everywhere in the snow – he had lost the path. But no worry, he would find his way home just as soon he had rested.
Laboriously and shakily he broke off thin branches to sit on, sat down and gazed at the stump, which was burning with huge, spluttering flames and great clouds of billowing smoke. A stump like that would keep burning for the rest of the night, at least, so he need not worry at all about that.
He felt hungry, but was too tired to consider frying some bacon, he needed to rest first, and he leant against the roots of an overturned fir tree and gazed dreamily into the blood-red flames around the kindwood stump. It was strange that it could snow so hard even though it was so cold – and the strangest thing of all was the freezing cold and violent storm at one and the same time, he thought. Great clouds of snow danced spattering into the fire without being able to put it out – it was as if even ice and snow would burn in the avaricious, stubborn fire.
It was good to have a fire and to have a ‘toppled-root-post’ behind his back, which even so was freezing cold. Anders lifted his fumbling hands to his fur hat and pulled it down almost over the nape of his neck and ridge of his nose. He curled himself up and made himself as small as possible, just looked into the fire and wondered at the din of the storm in the tree-tops round about him. He was deep in the forest, a long way from his cabin – and he would not have the strength to walk home if he stayed until the snow had drifted to the height of a man. He had better start walking – at once. His reason was stronger than his fatigue and inertia, and with an almost superhuman effort he rose to his feet and dragged himself a few steps from the fire. Then he felt compelled to stand there and watch it burn, for a while.
He stood staring at the friendly, warmth-giving fire for a while, at the thin branches of fir he had been lying on and at the protective ‘toppled-root-post’. Then he tore himself away and set off in the direction he thought his home lay. There was no point in thinking about the path, but he sensed that he was moving in the right direction.
Several times he felt close to giving up and to lie down, but his old tenacity helped him, and when he came across the roundpole fence three hours after he had given up all hope of finding the way home, the snow was so deep in the cleared land that he almost had to only take one step at a time and then stand still and rest before taking the next. His big boots must surely be frozen solid onto his feet – he could not feel either of them, and his back ached terribly. When there were only ten steps left to the door of his cabin he fell down, and then crawled forward to the doorstep, got up onto his knees, just managed to unlock the door and crawled inside. He still just had enough strength to close the door, but that was all. He was unable to reach his bed, he just lay where he lay.
He thought there was a fire alight in the stove, a great, crackling pinewood fire, and he wondered who had lit it for him while he had been away. He couldn’t understand that he was lying so softly, that it was so warm and that his body did not ache any more. He rumble around him with his hand, caught hold of a package, tore off the paper and lifted the small piece of cured bacon to his lips, took a bite and then let it all down beside him. He would eat later, he hadn’t the strength right now, and he was also so sleepy. The fire grew stronger and stronger, he thought, the room became warmer and warmer. The door opened and people went in and out, looked at him, stepped over him and talked to each other. Then he saw Maja, his wife, stirring the fire, then the children who sang hymns with piping voices. Wasn’t it Christmas? Oh, the room became as large as a church and full of crowns with candles in them, oh, how they gleamed. And just as the hymn swelled, he closed his eyes and smiled – and died.
They said, those who found him, that he was lying on the plank floor with his boots on, and that he had completely frozen to stone. But they also related that it almost seem that his face was laughing – it was his smile that had frozen solid in his aged face before he had finished it. But in a chest a sheet of paper was found that he once had written, and on it stood: ‘All IOUs and mortgages have been burnt, so none of them are to be collected from the poor, for everything has been remitted.’
Could not a man die easily, when it comes to it? Yes, and then – he had no did not suffer at all! It was a beautiful death!
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