Ulla-Lena Lundberg



Sort of Books gratefully acknowledges the financial assistance of FILI – Finnish Literature Exchange.


Chapter One

No one who’s seen the way a landscape changes when a boat appears can ever agree that any individual human life lacks meaning. The land and the bay are at peace. People gaze out across the water, rest their eyes, then look away. Things are what they are. In every breast there is a longing for something else, and everything we long for comes by boat. It’s enough that what comes is me, Anton, with the mail, for I might have anyone at all in the cabin. Expectation sweeps across heaven and earth when they first catch sight of me. The landscape is no longer quiet, there’s movement everywhere when the news goes round. Some are already running, shouting, “Here they come!”

It’s the same with those who, ancient and invisible, exist beyond our range of vision. When a human being approaches, the air grows tighter, you feel how they crowd forward and want to know something about you, though you suspect that they no longer understand what it means to be human, that they are no longer human, that the shapes you sense no longer resemble us. All the same, you feel their insistent desire to find out who you are.

Even though I have the throttle at full speed, we move slowly. Restlessness everywhere, as I can see from the way people move. I know they’re waiting and trying to stand still while they do, and I come as I come, steady ahead, cut the engine when I should and glide in towards the dock. Kalle stands there with the hawser, his foot out just in case he has to fend us off, but as usual I barely graze the edge, and so we land. The passengers have left the cabin, people call out and talk from boat to land, and the world looks very different than it did when we were out in the bay by ourselves and the people ashore were unaware.

Today, for a change, I am landing at the church dock, because we have the new priest aboard. Which is why they’ve been watching for us a little more keenly and why they came running as soon as we were spotted in the bay. It’s the verger who kept watch and the organist who saw to it that the boats they and the others came in were all pulled up on the rocks so that we could reach the dock. There is warm smoke rising from the parsonage chimneys, for the women have made fires and have food on the stove. The wind is perfectly calm at this hour of the morning, in coldest May, but oh how glances and thoughts fly through the air. What’s he like? How will it go? But no doubts are visible, for they must receive him heartily and without fear, as if getting used to a new pastor was the easiest thing in the world.

The priest has stood out on deck for quite a while, though his wife has tried several times to pull him in and told him he’ll catch cold. But he stays outside, and when he sees his church climb the hill, signalling to him with its red roof, he grows solemn but wears a broad smile, and when we finally pull into the cove he looks so happy that everyone decides it will all go well. He waves from a long way out, and they wave back and shout “Welcome!” He shouts, “Thank you!” and “Here we are!” and “You good people, you’ve had to get up in the middle of the night to welcome us!”

He has been here once before, so he knows the organist and the verger and Adele Bergman, who is on the vestry and is mightily supportive of the church and the priest. But it’s different now that he is the acting pastor and is going to settle down here with his wife and child. He’s made a good first impression. But when he’s about to step ashore, the boat glides out a bit as if the sea wanted to take him back, and a cold breeze draws across the bay. What that might mean I don’t know.

Adele Bergman knows very well that guests out here are always easy to please. If they’re coming from Åbo, they’ve been travelling for at least twelve hours, not counting the time it took them to get to Åbo in the first place. They’ve been thrown about in all sorts of weather and covered with spray. And when they finally stagger ashore, they have sand in their eyes and cold, damp clothing twined about their bodies. They’re hungry but seasick, shivering but sweaty. They snap at each other and wish they’d never come.

This is the basis of the widespread reputation for hospitality that the Örland Islands enjoy. Human beings are put together in such a way that it takes them only half a day to grow hungry, bored, and tired, so when they finally get a roof over their heads and are presented with a hot stove and warm food, they truly believe they have been snatched from the brink and cannot adequately thank those who have taken them in. Of course the people of the Örlands have been showered with gratitude many times over, but the feeling is always sweet, and they have enjoyed firing up the kitchen range and tiled stoves even though it shortened their night.

They stand there looking pleased—Adele Bergman and her Elis, the organist, the verger and the verger’s Signe—for rarely are people so much appreciated for such a relatively modest effort. It is always a pleasure to observe new arrivals, and now, moreover, these five people constitute an official ecclesiastical reception committee with every reason to stand on the dock and inspect the newcomers and take them under their wing and guide them up to the parsonage.

And guide them into the parish, because it might not be such a bad idea to give the pastor a hint or two about certain tensions within the congregation. This fellow is young, and his wife is even younger, and for the sake of his future success, one can hope that they’re smart enough to learn from others.

The priest is happy. For young people, the trip feels endless because they can’t move and there’s so little to do, and now he’s happy because he’s arrived and can go ashore and shake hands and see to the baggage and shake hands with the mail carrier and thank him for landing at the church dock with all their things. But he’s happy in another way as well, because it’s in his nature, and because there’s a fire burning in his breast, fed by everything he wants to experience and accomplish in his life.

How nice it would be, Adele Bergman often thinks, in her heart of hearts, to have a Catholic priest who would come by himself and belong more to us alone. In our Lutheran church there has to be a wife and children and furniture tying him down and making demands on his time. People almost think there’s something wrong with a priest who doesn’t have all that, and so the wife gets terrifically friendly looks from everyone as she steps ashore and sets down a child so small it’s a wonder it can stand on its own two feet. It’s a girl, in a cap and coat slit up the back. “A real little parsonage lassie,” says the organist, who is gallant and loves children and who greets her personally. “Welcome to the Örlands,” he says, and the child doesn’t start crying but gravely returns his gaze.

The pastor’s wife is small and quick. She doesn’t realize that the boat will stay at the dock until it’s been unloaded but glances angrily at the priest who stands there talking, with the child on his arm, while she scurries about carrying ashore valises and boxes and rolls of bedding and asks what they intend to do about all the furniture lashed to the deck. “Petter, come here!” she finally shouts.

The priest hands the child to Signe, as if he understood how she longs for children. He hurries over to the railing and the others follow. The skipper and Kalle are on their side of the railing, talking, and then they quickly heave ashore the large and the small sideboards and chests and tables and chairs, which now stand newly awakened on the dock.

“Ready to move right in,” says the organist. “Sea view and high ceilings.”

Two beds and a crib follow, then a kitchen table and benches and a dresser and a commode and two bicycles, and finally the household appears to be complete. The pastor’s wife counts and checks while the pastor dandles the child, who squirms in his arms and wants down. Adele looks into the cargo space and wonders how much merchandise the skipper has brought from Åbo for the Co-op, the islands’ only store. “Not so bad,” he assures her. “Things are starting to get back to normal, bit by bit.” Which in truth they all have a right to expect, a year and a half after the war.

The skipper and Kalle will take the boat over to the Co-op’s dock to unload its goods before they can head home, and now they look at the pastor’s wife and wonder if they’ve got everything off. She thinks they have, and the skipper looks to the engine and Kalle loosens the moorings and the priest thanks them once again. The boat starts to leave, but on the dock they all stand around talking, though they ought to go inside where it’s warm and get something to eat. As usual, it’s all up to Adele. “Can’t you all see these people are done in?” she says. “Now let’s put the most important stuff in the cart and go up to the parsonage.”