Agnes Lidbeck
Courtesy Creative Commons

The barrel for collecting rainwater, the largest of the Vessels: Kim is mending it. Filling the cracks with splinters, small pebbles, later a putty, which he will have chewed from bark.

Legs crossed, head bent, hat shading the planes of shoulder. He would be able to see my toes, if he were to shift his concentration from the barrel. But he doesn’t.

I found a book that lists and characterizes the old clouds. Cumulus, cirrus. Altocumulus lenticularis. Cumulonimbus, ahead of the storm. The sky, if I squint, I can imagine it veiled. Or maybe I’ve been staring into the light for too long, flat on my back. There are things that should be done, while Rain is asleep, but the heat makes me lazy.

I have another book, and I hold it above me, arms straight. On the cover is a picture of an ocean, and on the ocean a boat sails toward the horizon. It’s just a drawing. No one could mistake it for reality, people afloat in that poison. Still, Kim doesn’t like non-reality. He’s diligent, methodical. He keeps us safe.

I wrapped the book in paper—at some point I had the energy to trick him. It’s been a long time since I shouted at him: What’s the fucking point in living? Now I rarely have the energy to fight him openly.

We don’t shout much, now that Rain is too old to be kept out of it. Even when she is inside, she can hear us; two windows have been broken. I know she sneaks up to them, listening. Invisible, but a mother can tell.

The book isn’t even about that boat. The first time I read it, I was disappointed, chasing through the pages for the moment when they set sail and steer across the waves. Like in the photograph that used to sit on our piano: the woman trailing a hand through the water, smiling at the sun and at the camera. Grandma, maybe even Mom. Even if she weren’t touching the water, you’d know it was an old picture. The leaning over the railing. Kim got rid of it as soon as Rain could walk. I stood on the balcony with her balanced on my hip as he threw it into the sea.

That was back when I still yelled at him, for taking risks he wouldn’t allow me to take. Back before he tied me down that time. Even if it was just for a few days, it was enough to make me see the seriousness of the situation.

I do see the seriousness.

Still, it’s difficult, with Rain. I want to break her, so he won’t have to tie her as he did me. At the same time, I want to shout at her to run, run far and fast. The way I would shout at the television, when there were still shows on it. I wish she’d run far enough that there would be no more rope.

Not that there’s anything out there to run toward. There is nothing out there, Kim has said.

Kim, sitting with the barrel. He’s not moving, probably he doesn’t hear Rain calling. Or maybe he won’t move because of the agreement: she is my responsibility. My fault, my life, my child. Except the last isn’t true. My fault, but our child.

The body is a whittled thing, heavy with its own weightlessness.

We do puzzles on the living room floor, Rain and I: the big one with a train stretching boards long, an animal in each car. Alligator, bear, circus horse: names written on pieces. We move away from the sun coming through the window. Rain is gentle. Her fingertips stroking the horse’s coat. We read the book of clouds.

They all begin with C, because they are clouds, Rain says, smil­ing her question.

Like circus horses, they were, across the skies, I tell her. With plumes, stomping hooves, thunder.

Mommy, the horses, they couldn’t fly, could they? Rain says.

You never know, I answer. Maybe the circus horses could fly.

She closes her eyes.

it woke me, Kim’s rushing from our bed and out on the balcony. I didn’t tell him he misheard. We stood in the still and dry air, noth­ing smattering like gravel, nothing like pebbles thrown on the roof.

Kim did not cry very many tears, but still he offered his face to me so that I could lick them from his cheeks.

I feel as though the whole house thirsts, its boards cracking, paint peeling like the cracked heels of feet, and the gardens of course. It’s not just us. I worry that every drop should go back into the ground, that collecting the rain for ourselves is selfish.

I know I am being silly, investing things with souls they do not possess, but I can’t stop myself.

When we were very young, when I was tasked with setting the table, I would ask the plates and glasses I did not use for their for­giveness for not letting them be present at our meal. When choos­ing a tomato from the bowl on the counter, I would ask the other tomatoes to forgive my dismissing them.

Life was brimful of choices.

We don’t have choices anymore, Kim has told me so.

If it doesn’t come soon, it won’t matter either way. Rain sleeps now, almost all through the days. I don’t have the energy for the chores I should be performing, emptying the traps, searching for roots.

The body is a whittled thing, heavy with its own weightlessness. Even Kim gives himself time off. When he does his tour, placing the Vessels, it takes longer than before; he drags himself through dusk or darkness. I stand on the balcony listening to the sea, listen­ing to it beat at the bottom of the garden.

Kim was angry, finding me there this morning. Rain had woken, crying for me. He had licked the tears himself. You can’t give up, he said. You can’t just lay down and die.

Rain was a shadow on his face, his worry for her lining his skin. I don’t want to think of my child in terms of cost. She is precious, this girl: slight, pale, never burnt. Shielded. I think her hair would have been blond, if she had ever had any.

I reached my arms to her, and she lay against the hollow at my shoulder. We looked at the sea. What is the worst that can happen, anyway? I won’t let her go near it, of course I won’t. I’m not a bad parent.

She wanted to hear about the circus horses again. I repeated how they raced the skies, how, untethered, their hooves were thun­der, their manes whipping rain.

I told her of droplets, heavy. I told her of mud, of the puddles I would jump, jump into, with Kim, Mom watching through the window.

She wasn’t outside with you, Rain asked, the way she always does.

In those days we didn’t collect the rain, I said, the way I always do.

this may be the point where her breathing stops. I am not sure, as I am watching the waves, which look blue under the sky, even with the poison. I am not watching her rib cage.

There aren’t any tears, no rushing from room to room. She passes in a different way, like the clouds I remember.

I suppose we should carry her to the sea. Her body is without weight. Her body is terribly heavy. On the balcony, I lay her body down. I hold her head on my lap.

in the morning, Kim doesn’t come outside. But he must know what I am holding.

There is an itch at the back of my throat and another itch at my eyelids. I remember Mom covering our exposed parts with sun­screen, the way the sticky white in the creases of our skin some­times resembled melted ice cream.

I remember licking the back of my hand, expecting something sweet. I remember washing my hands, I remember the raisin-like texture of fingertips.

An orange umbrella opens. I remember umbrellas, but never any this shade, this bright.

For a while, we washed our hands too much. There was a sick­ness. Our hands got so dry. And later, I think I remember fires, the ones Kim told me about, and the soot also needed to be washed from our hands.

I do not remember the fires the same way I remember the taste of ice cream, or the puddles splattering my shins, but Kim remem­bers them clearly, and that is why he is in charge, I guess. He remembers much more about the dangers than I ever even learned.

He has had to remind me so many times to hide, hide at the turning of a car at the gate. Had to remind me so many times not to look. Not to look at the people who take the shape of arrows and plunge into the waves.

You don’t want to see them, he tells me.

So I haven’t seen them go in, haven’t seen them emerge again, sometimes staggering against the surf, but strong. I haven’t heard their shouts shading into laughter, haven’t seen the blankets they shake in the wind or the rinds of fruit they leave behind them in the sand.

there is silence. I trap a rat. There is more silence, and because Kim does not have the strength, or breath, I am the one to place the Vessels: the jars and cans and pots, the heavy barrel rolled into place. I find him on the balcony, sit down beside him. Then he is gone.

one morning, not too early, it might be afternoon, I do wake from the rain, but I don’t feel relief.

I stand in the rain. There is a car at the gate. The car door opens. An orange umbrella opens. I remember umbrellas, but never any this shade, this bright. This doesn’t look like an artifact, something found in a bush by the road.

It looks like something Mom would bring home from the store, take out of its plastic, and hold out in front of me. Look what I bought today, she’d say. That is what it looks like.

A man, the man under the umbrella, lifts his hand and waves at me. Since I don’t have Kim to remind me anymore of all I mustn’t do, I also lift my hand.

Agnes Lidbeck is one of Sweden’s most prominent writers, a novelist, poet, and playwright. Her next novel is a counterfactual psychological thriller set in a post-fascist Sweden. This is her English-language debut.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023


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