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Hanna's Daughters: A Novel of Three Generationsby Marianne Fredriksson
Her mind was as clear as a winter's day, a day as quiet and shadowless as if snow had just fallen. Harsh sounds penetrated, the clatter of dropped enamel bowls and cries. It frightened her. Like the weeping from the next bed slicing into the whiteness.
There were many who cried where she was.
She had lost her memory four years ago, then only a few months later her words had disappeared. She could see and hear, but could name neither objects nor people, so they lost all meaning.
That was when she came to this white country where time was nonexistent. She didn't know where her bed was or how old she was, but she had found a new way of being and appealed for compassion with humble smiles. Like a child. And like a child, she was wide open to emotions, everything vibrating between people without words.
She was aware she was going to die. That was knowledge, not an idea. Her family were those who kept her going.
Her husband came every day. He also was wordless but for different reasons: He was over ninety, so he, too, was near the borderline, but he had no wish either to die or to know about it. Just as he had always controlled his life and hers, he put up a fierce struggle against the inevitable. He massaged her back, bent and stretched her knees, and read aloud to her from the daily paper. She had no means of opposing him. They had had a long and complicated relationship.
Most difficult of all was when their daughter, who lived in another town, came to visit. The old woman knew nothing of time or distance, and was always uneasy before she came, as if the moment she woke at dawn, she had already sensed the car making its way through the country, at the wheel the woman with all her unreasonable hopes.
Anna realized she was being as demanding as a child. That was no help, and as soon as she gave in, her thoughts slid away: just for once, perhaps, an answer to one of the questions I never had time to ask. After almost five hours of driving, as she turned into the nursing home parking lot, she had accepted that her mother would not recognize her this time, either. Yet she would ask the questions.
I do it for my own sake, she thought. It makes no difference what I talk about to her.
She was wrong. Johanna did not understand the words, but she was aware of her daughter's torment and her own powerlessness. She did not remember it was her task to console the child who had always asked unreasonable questions. Still, the demand remained as well as the guilt over her inadequacy.
Her desire was to escape into silence, to close her eyes, but she couldn't, her heart thumping, the darkness behind her eyelids scarlet and painful. She started crying. Embarrassed, Anna tried to console her, there, there, wiping the old woman's cheeks.
When she was unable to halt Johanna's despair, Anna became frightened and rang for help. As usual, there was a delay, then the fair girl was standing in the doorway, a girl with young eyes but no depth in them. Anna saw contempt in those blue eyes, and for a moment Anna could see what the girl saw: an older woman, anxious and clumsy, by the side of the really old one. "There, there," she said, too, but her voice was hard, as hard as the hand that ran over the old woman's head. And yet she succeeded. Johanna fell asleep so suddenly, it seemed unreal.
"We mustn't upset the patients," said the girl. "You must sit there quietly for a while. We'll come and change her and remake the bed in about ten minutes."
Anna slipped out to the terrace like a shamefaced dog, found her cigarettes, and drew the smoke deep down into her lungs. It calmed her and she could think. At first angry thoughts: damned bitch, hard as nails. Pretty, of course, and horribly young. Had Mother obeyed her out of fear? Was there a discipline here that the helpless old people sensed and gave in to? Then came the self-reproach. The girl was only doing her job, everything she, Anna, ought to be doing, according to the laws of nature. But she couldn't, couldn't bring herself to, even if the time and place had existed.
Last of all came the astonishing realization that Mother had somehow been touched by the questions she'd asked.
She stubbed out her cigarette in the rusty tray at the far end of the table. God, how tired she was. Mother, she thought, dear wonderful Mother, why can't you show pity and die?
Frightened, she glanced out over the nursing home grounds where the Norway maples were in flower and smelling of honey. She drew in the scent with deep breaths, as if seeking consolation in the spring, but her senses were dulled. I'm as if dead, too, she thought as she turned on her heel and walked determinedly to the ward sister's door. She knocked and just had time to think, please let it be Märta.
It was Sister Märta, the only one she knew here. They greeted each other like old friends, then the daughter sat in the visitor's chair and was just about to start asking when she was overwhelmed by emotion.
"I don't want to start crying," she said, then did.
"It's not easy," said the sister, pushing the box of tissues across.
"I want to know how much she understands," said the daughter, adding her hope of being recognized and the questions she'd asked her mother, who didn't understand, yet did.
Sister Märta listened with no surprise.
"I think the old understand in a way we find difficult to grasp. Like newborn infants. You've had two babies yourself, so you know they take everything in, anxieties and joys. Well, you must remember?"
No, she didn't remember. She remembered nothing but her own overwhelming feeling of tenderness and inadequacy, though she knew what the nurse was talking about. She had learned a great deal from her grandchildren.
Then Sister Märta talked about the old woman's general condition in consoling terms. They had gotten rid of her bedsores, so she was in no physical pain.
"But she's rather uneasy at night," she said. "She seems to have nightmares. She wakes up screaming."
"But of course she dreams, everyone does. The pity is we can never find out what they're dreaming, our patients."
Anna thought about the cat they'd had at home, a lovely creature leaping up out of its sleep, hissing, its claws extended. Then she was ashamed of the thought. But Sister Märta didn't notice her embarrassment.
"Considering Johanna's poor condition, we prefer not to give her tranquilizers. I also think perhaps she needs her dreams."
Sister Märta pretended to ignore the surprise in the other woman's voice.
"We're thinking of giving her a room of her own," she went on. "As things are, she's disturbing the others in the ward."
"A room of her own? Is that possible?"
"We're waiting out Emil in number seven," said the nurse, lowering her eyes.
Not until the daughter was backing the car out of the parking lot did she take in what had been said about Emil, the old priest whose hymns she'd heard over the years. She hadn't thought about it today, that there'd been no sound from his room. For years, she'd heard him singing about life in the valley of the shadow of death, and the Lord waiting with his terrible judgments.
Johanna's secret world followed the clock. It opened at three in the morning and closed again at dawn.
Her world contained a wealth of images, filled with colors, scents, and voices. Other sounds, too. The roar of the falls, the wind singing in the tops of the maples, and the forest rejoicing with birdsong.
On this night the pictures she sees tremble with excitement. It is summer and early morning, with slanting rays of the sun and long shadows.
"You must be mad,"shouts the voice she knows best, her father's. He's red in the face and frightening in his agitation. She's afraid and flings her arms around his leg. He lifts her up, runs his hand over her head.
"Don't you think, girl?" he says.
But her eldest brother is standing in the middle of the room, handsome, with shiny buttons and high boots, and he's shouting, too.
"To the cave, all of you, and today, too. They might already be here tomorrow."
Then another voice, resourceful.
"Listen now, lad. Would Axel and Ole come here from Moss and would Astrid's lad come here from Fredrikshald to shoot us?"
"I think you've gone mad," says the voice, but now it's uncertain. And her father looks at the soldier, eye meets eye, and the old man can't mistake the gravity in the young man's eyes.
"Then we'll do as you say."
Then the pictures change, start moving. Feet stomp, burdens are lifted. She sees the earth cellar and store emptied. The great barrel of salt pork is carried out, the herring barrel, the potato bin, the cloudberry jar, the butter in its wooden tub, the hard round slabs of crispbread, all out on the ground, then carried down toward the boat. Sacks filled with blankets and clothes, all the wool in the cottage going the same way, down the slope toward the lake. She sees the brothers rowing. It's heavy going toward the promontory, easier back. "The oil lamps!" It's her mother calling out on her way indoors.
But the soldier stops her, calling, too, "No, Mother, we'll have to do without light."
The child is wide-eyed and anxious. But then a brimstone butterfly lands on her hand.
The picture changes again; the daylight is miserly, and she's perched on her father's back. As so often, she's being carried up the slopes to the mountain lakes, so secretive and introverted they are, quite different from the great lake with its light and blue glitter. But just above the mill, the largest of the dark lakes breaks the stillness and looks as if it would hurtle down the falls with all its strength were the dam not there.
Father checks the floodgate as always in the evenings.
"Norwegian water," he says, with weight in his voice. "Remember that, Johanna, that the water that gives us bread comes from Norway. Water," he says, "is much wiser than people, it doesn't give a damn about borders."
He's enraged. But she's not afraid as long as she's on his back.
Dusk is falling. Laboriously, heavily, he makes his way down the slopes, goes to the mill, feels the locks. The girl hears him muttering wicked curses before he goes on along the path down toward the boat. It's quiet in the cave. Her brothers have fallen asleep, but her mother is moving uneasily on her hard bed.
The girl is allowed to sleep curled inside her father's arm, as close as she can get. It's cold.
Later, new pictures. She's bigger, she can see that from her feet running toward the mouth of the cave, in clogs, for it's slippery on the slopes now.
"Father!" she calls. "Father!"
But he doesn't reply. It's autumn and it'll soon be dark. Then she sees the light in the cave and grows anxious. Someone's shouting in the cave, and Rudolf is there, the blacksmith she's afraid of. She sees them staggering about, he and Father.
"Get on home, brat!" he yells, and she runs, crying, running and falling, hurting herself, but the pain from her grazed knees is nothing to the hurt in her breast.
"Father!" she screams. "Father!"
Then the night sister is there, worried.
"There, there, Johanna. It was only a dream, sleep now, go to sleep."
She obeys, as she usually does, and is allowed to sleep for an hour or two before the voices of the day shift explode in her body and race like ice through her veins. She's shaking with cold but no one sees it. The windows are flung open, they change her, and she's no longer cold or feels any shame.
She's back in the white emptiness.
Copyright © 1999 by Marianne Fredriksson
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