The Stockholm Car
translated from the Swedish by Steven Hartman
When you’re the child of a small family farmer your back grows crooked already at an early age from you trying to bear as much on it as the grown-ups. It’s only fitting that we bear their burdens, seeing as we already wear their outgrown clothes and speak their castoff words. Our haunches burn from the strain of trying to keep pace with their long strides. It’s not easy walking in these grown-up shoes, no sir. But it’s what we’ve got to do, ’cause being children is a choice we’ve never really had.
There’s not much room in our lives for child’s play. Like hired help, it’s a luxury our fathers can’t afford. This is why we’re raised right from the cradle to work the farm. Visitors to the house lean in over us, whispering “Now this little guy’s got some horsepower in him!” or “There’s as fine a pair of milking hands as I ever saw on this girl!” So on those blue moons when we do get to play, we pretty much find ourselves acting out scenes of farm labor, hitching each other up to the wagon, carting endless loads of hay to barn and stable, or just squatting and grunting in quiet obedience—this being the first quality we must learn to master, obedience to the small fields of sandy soil, to the mossy tufts of meadow grass, to the First National Bank. Whoever’s turn it is to drive the team always makes sure to work the whip with a relish and that’s a lesson we can appreciate, ’cause it reminds us of the need to get on with our young lives.
We hurry home from school to a thousand chores awaiting us: potatoes to be scrubbed, stakes to be driven, carrots to be scalped, cows to be led to bull. Every potato harvest sees the outbreak of another two-, three-day illness that unfits us for school, a seasonal ailment that never fails to afflict the children of smallholders that time of year. When we go back to school we run into accusations from the kids whose fathers work in factories or run the large farms, their whispers so overdone the teacher can hardly help hearing how they have seen us squatting out in the potato fields as they walked by on the road. But this just isn’t true. We lay down flat between the furrows and hug the ground at the first sign of any of those other kids coming down the road—I mean the ones that actually get to be kids—so there’s no way they could’ve seen us. Otherwise I guess it’s true enough. We can never hide the symptoms of our ailment, as our hands are dirty all fall. No matter how hard we scrub or scour them with a hard-bristled brush, the October soil clings to the folds of our knuckles, staining the roots of our nails.
So no, we’re not like other kids. But that’s not really the idea anyway. The idea is that we should stop being kids as soon as possible. If ever one of the regular kids stops by and asks us to play, we just get red in the face. We might take them out behind the stable for a while, ’cause no one can see us back there as we play their childish games. We’re no good at those games, of course. We get tangled up in the jump rope or flick the marbles way too far. So it doesn’t take long for our new friends to grow weary, call us clods or ignoramuses, and then leave us on our own for good. And true enough, that’s just what we are. Or it’s how they make us feel. So we’re relieved to see them leave, even if we understand they won’t ever come back.
It’s only when we’re left to ourselves that we can play for real, and then our clumsiness and stupidity just sort of drift away. There’s only one game small farm kids really play, and it helps us deal with pretty much anything and everything without giving in to tears. What we do is play at being grown-ups, and by doing that we sort of forget that we’re expected to be that way anyway. And so we walk and eat and swear just like them. It might not be so nice or proper, but it’s needful. And like all things of use, the sooner we master it the better. The way we play the game is to think of these needful ways not as coarse or hard but as beautiful. And it’s really easier than you might think, especially in the summer when the other kids don’t come around and draw attention to the freedom we lack. We can see them from the fields, of course, riding by on the road in the distance, free as birds on their bikes, or swimming down by the docks like fish flashing free in the river. To our relief it never occurs to them to seek us out and try us with their freedom. Not that they wouldn’t realize from the start just how pointless it would be to try and tempt a dismal crew like us anyway, us with no bikes to ride or money to spend, and dogged by guilt the moment our splintered, dirt-stained fingers let go of a rake.
Still, small farm kids like us aren’t as hobbled as those freer kids might think. We imagine ourselves free and by doing that we become what we imagine. When we rake the roadside embankments we aren’t just out to scrape together some meager piles of straw. No, we’re hunting snakes, the most poisonous breeds of India or Africa. And when we’re out mowing the rye we hold our breath as we hear the sputtering of the harvester behind us, our hearts pounding harder and harder the closer it gets, like it’s some kind of great beast fast on our heels, fixing to devour us. The final round is always the most exciting one of all, when all the rats left in the field huddle together in the small square of uncut rye, fearing, as we well know, for their miserable lives. As we bind and shock the cut grain with our fingers getting bloody at the nails, in our minds the rats turn into larger and more ferocious beasts, terrible creatures of the dark forest wilds, roaring tigers or mountain lions. But the fantasies we get caught up in the most come later, as the hay swells and swells under our trampling feet in the murky loft, pushing us ever closer to the long and dangerous nails sticking down through the splintered roof bottom. From overhead comes the hay that we must stamp down to make room for more, but we pretend it’s water. Shipwrecked on a stormy sea, we can sense yet another wave about to break over us in the dark, wave after breaking wave. But we always manage to cling to our lives, invincible, if not in the world’s eyes then at least in our own.
So this is how we small farm kids swap our lean lives for large ones, as heroes in our own private dramas. And why not? The tighter our belts or shackles, the more powerful our dreams are of other lives shaped by freedom and honor. There’s no reason to pity us as long as we can imagine these things. Not until our private dramas stop playing and the dreams lose their hold on us is there any reason to speak of pity. Not until we recognize ourselves for who we really are will pity be a needful thing. And then tears may be all we have left.
Of course, every now and then we can’t help really seeing ourselves for what we are. We hear it whispered back at us in the schoolhouse after October’s potato harvest illness. We sense it during the eternal lunch breaks as we hide our crude cucumber sandwiches behind our backpacks, or as we trail the rumors from mouth to mouth that our home is infested with lice. But these are things you meet and move beyond. In the free rein of the hayloft or the barn’s dark and liberating cubby holes we almost manage to forget them altogether. But then comes a time when forgetting isn’t possible. And I do mean a particular time when no amount of dreaming, not then and maybe not ever, can change how naked and unimportant we become in our own eyes.
It happens one summer afternoon to me and Siri and Sixten. There’s a firestorm raging on the sun this summer, so hot and dry the yellow grass burns underfoot. Still, we’d rather let it burn our soles than wear our wooden shoes. The river is down, the well running dry, and on the horizon the woods are ablaze, a great plume of white smoke forming the one and only cloud in a clear summer sky. The grain withers in the heat and the dusty fields smolder each time there is the littlest breeze. The road is full of cows nuzzling muzzles to the gravel, lowing desperately from thirst. They should be in the woods, but there’s no water there, so they’ve come drifting back homeward in the middle of the day, their bells clanging sorrowful chimes in the heat. That same morning we’d driven them into the woods ourselves with pride, cowboys with birch-switch whips saddled clumsily on oversize bikes we’ve borrowed from the men. We let them back into the yard as we begin hoisting up pails of water from the well.
Just a bit later, as the cows are crowding around the troughs near the well, we look out over the manure heap between the stable and the barn and see a beautiful shiny car making its way down the road in the distance, a long train of dust rising behind it. We love to watch fine cars drive past. So to get a better look we run out to the shoulder of the road and line up just outside the gate, the three of us there tight together at attention. The shiny hood gleams, the engine humming. On the roof is a great silver trunk. We once rode in a car. It was to a funeral. As the car gets closer we can see from the plate that it’s from Stockholm. We’ve never been there, but we’ve heard about it. And then just as the car is practically on top of us we suddenly hear the sound of hooves against gravel. We have forgotten to close the gate and Rosa, that stupid heifer, comes clomping right out into the road. We stand there stunned and petrified, bearing dumb witness to what we can’t keep from happening. The Stockholmer at the wheel probably does all that he can do to avoid it, but then—scratch!—the cow’s horn scrapes the fine lacquered finish right off the door.
We ought to run now. Our leg muscles clench in anticipation and we want to bolt, but we can’t. It’s like we’re paralyzed, nailed in place, our eyes locked on the car as it skids to a halt right in front of us. The trailing cloud of dust settles and then there’s nothing left to hide behind. The scratch from Rosa’s horn grows and grows under our gaze. A long moment passes without as much as a squeak. The scratch swells. We’re not doing anything but we break out in a sweat all the same. Through the car window the Stockholmer is probably staring at us, though we can’t bring ourselves to raise our eyes to his. Our gaze sinks lower and lower, losing itself in the gravel under the car. Then the Stockholmer climbs out. He’s tall and is wearing a white suit of clothes. The car door slams. Now he moves out to the middle of the road and just stands there in his white shoes, which is all we can bring ourselves to look at. We have never seen shoes like them before. As they step around the car in the gravel, a wisp of dust whirls up. And suddenly they turn away from us.
It’s not until then that we dare to look up at him. The Stockholmer turns his back to us and crooks his head so that he can get a better look at the scratch. He says nothing, just throws his back to us. That’s what’s so odd, so hard to grasp. It’s like we’re not there. The Stockholmer moves two steps back in our direction, so that he can have a fuller view of the scratch, we figure. And still we’re not there. He nearly steps on us. We have to duck away a bit to the side and scrunch right up along the fence to keep from getting stepped on. We’re terrified as usual that a trashing is coming our way, but I think what we fear even more, what terrifies us most of all, is the possibility that the Stockholmer won’t even acknowledge us, that somehow we don’t really exist.
And yet that’s just what happens. Still with his back to us, the Stockholmer brushes off his hands, like they’re dirty from taking hold of us. It makes a sound we will never forget. And then we catch sight of something else we will never forget. Sitting up front in the car is a girl, about the same age as us, but otherwise different. She is pale and delicate, the way people probably look when they ride in a car every day. She is wearing a white hat. We notice suddenly that she is looking at us. She’s probably sitting a little higher up than us, but not as high as we think. It feels like we have to crook our heads back a good deal to get a decent look at her, which of course we all need to do. There is a pane of glass between her and us and a great deal of distance. One time we were taken to the market town, and we got to look around in all the storefront windows. There was so much beautiful stuff for us to look at, but we weren’t allowed to go inside. And now it feels sort of like it did then, with us standing there looking on but not really being there. Now, like then, the only thing that really seems to be there is the window. Then the Stockholmer goes around and climbs in behind the wheel again. He doesn’t look at us—he just turns the engine over and lets it hum for a bit. But before the car starts to pull away the really white girl rolls down her window. We think maybe she wants to get a better look at us, but we’re wrong about that. Her eyes aren’t focusing on us anymore. She sticks her arm out and empties an ashtray on the road, and then the car pulls away. It’s only then that we notice how badly the sharp ends of the stake fence are biting into our backs. We pull ourselves off them and in the back our shirts are dotted with little pricks of red. In the road a cigar lies smoldering in the gravel. It smells like town and dress clothes, like the parsonage or one of those big houses that’s got its own name. We stand for a while in the road circling around the cigar, as if it was a campfire, letting the smoke tickle our rough, thick noses. And still we’re not really there—only the cigar is there. In the distance we can see another car appear on the road. Before it reaches us we kill the cigar in turn with our bare feet, me first because I am the oldest, and Siri last of all because she’s a girl. Then we walk back into the yard. It’s not a Stockholm car, this one. It has an “X” on the plate, so it’s just another car from Gävle.
Rosa is back in the yard now, over next to the hay wagon rubbing her muzzle against its wooden slats. We get our hands on an old link chain and start to beat her and beat her with it until she bolts off, clomping down toward the row of lilacs. We don’t run after her. We drop the chain, and it slinks into the burnt grass with an empty rattle. We’ve discovered one thing anyway: that we don’t get anything out of beating Rosa like that. And actually we’ve discovered another thing: that there’s no remedy for what we know, that we can only ever be what we are—three grubby poor kids in other people’s hand-me-down cut-off overalls, three dirt farmer’s kids, the lowest of the low.
Still together, sure enough, we walk back to the barn. Up in the loft we squirrel away in the hay, each of us digging out our own separate caves. And we lie there in the dark sucking on salty braids of hay as the noon hour passes, as the day passes, as the cows bellow from thirst in the pasture, as one after another the grown-ups fling open every door, scythes at the shoulder, shouting our three miserable names over and over. But to these things we’re insensible. All we can see, all we can hear, is a Stockholm car hurtling down a long straight road, bearing on its roof a great silver trunk that holds all our longing and our shame.
Stig Dagerman (1923–1954) was the literary wunderkind of his generation in Sweden. By the time he was twenty-six, Dagerman’s literary corpus consisted of four novels, a collection of short stories, a book of literary journalism, four full-length plays, and several volumes’ worth of uncollected essays, poetry, and stories. Surpassed in Swedish literature perhaps only by August Strindberg’s in terms of its compressed intensity, Dagerman’s remarkable literary output came to an abrupt end when he committed suicide at the age of thirty-one.
Steven Hartman, born and raised in the U.S., now lives in Sweden with his wife, Jenny, and their four children. The recipient of the New York State Thayer Fellowship in the Arts and several other awards for his literary production, Hartman has published fiction, criticism, and literary translations widely in such journals as The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Grand Street, and Black Warrior Review. With active university affiliations at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Uppsala University in Sweden, as well as City University of New York, Hartman is chair of the Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (NIES). His translation of selected stories by Stig Dagerman, Sleet, is due out from David R. Godine this month. (6/2013)