Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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from In the Distance

Håkan Söderström was born on a farm north of Lake Tystnaden, in Sweden. The exhausted land his family worked belonged to a wealthy man they had never met, although he regularly collected his harvest through his estate manager. With crops failing year after year, the landlord had tightened his fist, forcing the Söderströms to subsist on mushrooms and berries they foraged for in the woods, and eels and pikes they caught in the lake (where Håkan, encouraged by his father, acquired a taste for ice baths). Most families in the region led similar lives, and within a few years, as their neighbors abandoned their homes, heading for Stockholm or farther south, the Söderströms became increasingly isolated, until they lost all contact with people—except for the manager, who came a few times a year to collect his dues. The youngest and eldest sons fell ill and died, leaving only Håkan and his brother Linus, four years his senior.

They lived like castaways. Days passed without a word being uttered in the house. The boys spent as much time as they could out in the woods or in the abandoned farmhouses, where Linus told Håkan story after story—adventures he claimed to have lived, accounts of exploits supposedly heard firsthand from their heroic protagonists, and narratives of remote places he somehow seemed to know in detail. Given their seclusion—and the fact that they did not know how to read—the source of all these tales could only have been Linus’s prodigious imagination. Yet, however outlandish the stories, Håkan never doubted his brother’s words. Perhaps because Linus always defended him unconditionally and never hesitated to take the blame and the blows for any of his brother’s small misdoings, Håkan trusted him without reservation. It is true that he most likely would have died without Linus, who always made sure he had enough to eat, managed to keep the house warm while their parents were away, and distracted him with stories when food and fuel were scarce.

Everything changed when the mare became pregnant. During one of his brief visits, the manager told Erik, Håkan’s father, to make sure everything went well—they had already lost too many horses to the famine, and his master would welcome an addition to his dwindling stable. Time went on, and the mare got abnormally big. Erik was not surprised when she gave birth to twins. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he decided to lie. Together with the boys, he cleared a spot in the woods and built a hidden pen, to which he took one of the foals as soon as it was weaned. A few weeks later, the manager came and claimed its brother. Erik kept his colt hidden, making sure it grew strong and healthy. When the time came, he sold it to a miller in a distant town where nobody knew him. The evening of his return, Erik told his sons they were leaving for America in two days. The money from the colt was enough for only two fares. And anyway, he was not going to flee like a criminal. Their mother said nothing.

Håkan and Linus, who had never even seen a picture of a city, hurried down to Gothenburg, hoping to spend a day or two there, but they barely made it in time to get on their ship to Portsmouth. Once on board, they divided up their money, in case something happened to one of them. During this leg of the trip, Linus told Håkan everything about the wonders that awaited them in America. They spoke no English, so the name of the city they were headed for was an abstract talisman to them: “Nujårk.”

They arrived in Portsmouth much later than expected, and everyone was in a great hurry to get on the rowboats that took them to shore. As soon as Håkan and Linus set foot on the wharf, they were sucked in by the current of people bustling up and down the main road. They walked side by side, almost jogging. Now and then, Linus turned to his brother to teach him something about the oddities around them. Both of them were trying to take it all in as they looked for their next ship, which was to leave that very afternoon. Merchants, incense, tattoos, wagons, fiddlers, steeples, sailors, sledgehammers, flags, steam, beggars, turbans, goats, mandolin, cranes, jugglers, baskets, sailmakers, billboards, harlots, smokestacks, whistles, organ, weavers, hookahs, peddlers, peppers, puppets, fistfight, cripples, feathers, conjuror, monkeys, soldiers, chestnuts, silk, dancers, cockatoo, preachers, hams, auctions, accordionist, dice, acrobats, belfries, carpets, fruit, clotheslines. Håkan looked to his right, and his brother was gone.

They had just passed a group of Chinese seamen having lunch, and Linus had told his brother some facts about their country and its traditions. They had kept walking, gaping and wide-eyed, looking at the scenes around them, and then Håkan had turned to Linus, but he was no longer there. He looked around, backtracked, walked from the curb to the wall, ran forward, and then back to their landing place. Their rowboat was gone. He returned to the spot where they had lost each other. He got on a crate, short-breathed and trembling, screamed his brother’s name, and looked down at the torrent of people. A salty fizz on his tongue quickly became a numbing tingle that spread over his entire body. Barely able to steady his quaking knees, he rushed to the nearest pier and asked some sailors in a dinghy for Nujårk. The sailors did not understand. After many attempts, he tried “Amerika.” They got that immediately but shook their heads. Håkan went pier by pier asking for Amerika. Finally, after several failures, someone said “America” back to him and pointed to a rowboat, and then to a ship anchored about three cable lengths off the shore. Håkan looked into the boat. Linus was not there. Perhaps he had already boarded the ship. A sailor offered Håkan his hand, and he got on.

As soon as they got to the ship, someone demanded and took his money and then showed him to a dark corner below deck where, among berths and chests and bundles and barrels, under swinging lanterns hanging from beams and ringbolts, loud clusters of emigrants tried to settle in and claim some small space of the cabbage-and stable-smelling steerage as their own for the long trip. He looked for Linus among the silhouettes distorted by the quivering light, making his way through screaming and sleeping babies, laughing and haggard women, and sturdy and weeping men. With increasing despair, he rushed back on deck, through waving crowds and busy sailors. The ship was clearing of visitors. The gangplank was removed. He shouted his brother’s name. The anchor was lifted; the ship moved; the crowds cheered.


Through the light snowflakes that melted before touching the ground came the cry of a baby. As always, Håkan’s first reaction was to wrestle his horse and burro down. In the mist, the weeping continued. The small, airy drops felt like a cold halo hovering over his face, contrasting with the warm glow coming from the horse’s muscles twitching under his cheek. No voices of men or women. No jingling of harnesses or creaking of springs. No rumbling of wagons or trampling of beasts. Just the lonely wail. Håkan’s horse got restless, but he pressed on his neck and made him stay down. A long time went by. The weeping never stopped, always issuing from the same spot in the white mist. Other than the cries, complete silence. It stopped snowing. The fog thickened. Cramped and soaked, Håkan got up, mounted his horse, and rode into the crawling clouds. With each step, the wails grew louder. The plains barely insisted against the fog. Håkan got out his knife. As he moved along, the ground ahead of him faded into reality from the whiteness ahead. Then, in a slight depression by some shrubs, a lion took shape. It was lying in a pool of its own blood, lightened by the snowfall. Next to it, a wailing blind cub. It was getting hoarse. Håkan dismounted and immediately saw that the cougar had died trying to give birth to its second, breached offspring, still stuck halfway out. Håkan rolled the mother over and put the crying kitten to one of her teats. From its outstretched hind legs to its head, the lion was taller than Håkan. The cub nursed greedily. After a few moments, realizing that nothing came out, it started crying again. Håkan tried to milk the lion. Then, he went through his provisions and offered the kitten everything he had—charqui, sugar water, dried meat from different animals, oats, bacon, and moistened biscuits. Håkan now heard rage in the cub’s desperate cries. He made a cut into his own forearm and put the kitten’s snout to the blood, but it would not taste it. Håkan looked into the crying mouth and saw the ribbed vault of the palate, the sharp little teeth, and the white scales on the pink tongue. He smelled the clean breath coming from the empty stomach. Then he looked into the creature’s watery eyes and wrung its neck. Mother and cub were skinned.


Their small caravan moved on, leaving a trail of slashed birds, dogs, reptiles, and rodents.

During their lessons, Lorimer often reminded his student that his remarkable talent with the scalpel would amount to nothing if the knife was not held by a loving hand guided by a truth-seeking eye. The study of nature is a barren enterprise if stones, plants, and animals become frozen under the magnifying glass, Lorimer said. A naturalist should look at the world with warm affection, if not ardent love. The life the scalpel has ended ought to be honored by a caring, devoted appreciation for that creature’s unrepeatable individuality, and for the fact that, at the same time, strange as this may seem, this life stands for the entire natural kingdom. Examined with attention, the dissected hare illuminates the parts and properties of all other animals and, by extension, their environment. The hare, like a blade of grass or a piece of coal, is not simply a small fraction of the whole but contains the whole within itself. This makes us all one. If anything, because we are all made of the same stuff. Our flesh is the debris of dead stars, and this is also true of the apple and its tree, of each hair on the spider’s legs, and of the rock rusting on planet Mars. Each miniscule being has spokes radiating out to all of creation. Some of the raindrops falling on the potato plants in your farm back in Sweden were once in a tiger’s bladder. From one living thing, the properties of any other may be predicted. Looking at any particle with sufficient care, and following the chain that links all things together, we can arrive at the universe—the correspondences are there, if the eye is skillful enough to detect them. The guts of the anatomized hare faithfully render the picture of the entire world. And because that hare is everything, it is also us. Having understood and experienced this marvelous congruity, man can no longer examine his surroundings merely as a surface scattered with alien objects and creatures related to him only by their usefulness. The carpenter who can only devise tabletops while walking through the forest, the poet who can only remember his own private sorrows while looking at the falling snow, the naturalist who can only attach a label to every leaf and a pin to every insect—all of them are debasing nature by turning it into a storehouse, a symbol, or a fact. Knowing nature, Lorimer would often say, means learning how to be. And to achieve this, we must listen to the constant sermon of things. Our highest task is to make out the words to better partake in the ecstasy of existence.

Håkan had been converted.  

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