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Extract from the novel Total Loss by Helena von Zweigbergk

Extract from the novel Total Loss 

Translated from the Swedish into English by Kate Lambert

 

Part 1

 

I see five dead hares and try to smile.

“Urgh, that’s awful. So many.”

Xavier doesn’t look proud or happy, although it was him who shot them. In fact his beautiful smile has something distorted about it. He has never killed an animal before and I think it has unsettled him. His smiling mouth droops, like the wings of a wounded bird.

“Mm,” he says, not looking me in the eye. “But now I’m going to have a hot bath. I’ve never felt so frozen in my life.”

The forest means everything to Xavier. For thirty years, ever since he came to Sweden from Argentina, he has monitored the condition of the forest for his job at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Every summer he travels from Skåne in the south to Lapland in the north looking for changes, noting how the trees are doing, studying leaves and bark and rings. He takes samples and sends them for analysis. I don’t ever go with him on these trips but I know he walks long distances with a tent and a camping stove and I can picture him chatting, unguardedly open and engaged in a way he rarely is at home. As if he’d put a comforting arm around his own shoulders and taken himself off to a sheltered spot. Out there, under the spruce branches and canopies of pine trees, he tells himself over and over again that he is safe.

Xavier is a man who carries a life-long sorrow in his soul that he mostly keeps dormant. But he says the forest understands. The forest understands sadness, understands love. The forest has courage, the forest knows consolation. The silence of the forest speaks better to him than any human can. At the start of our long marriage I used to be jealous, feeling I wasn’t enough for him. Now I think it’s both of us, the forest and me, who hold him in our arms and hold him up together. And that I couldn’t have managed it on my own if the forest hadn’t offered him its embrace.

Xavier’s colleagues at the University can hardly have understood him deep down when they gave him a hunting licence course as a retirement present. They probably didn’t mean to be unkind. They like Xavier and his quiet, slightly dry style, a lot.

‘You can’t just wander about aimlessly,” they told him. “You have to conquer the forest. Get out there and grab what it has to give.” Xavier came home from his leaving do with the course paid for, high green boots, a folding stool and a pair of binoculars.

He was going to go out and shoot things now.

When I tentatively wondered whether he really wanted to do that, he got cross with me.

It was nice of them. They meant well. They wanted him to still be part of the gang. Why did I have to ask questions and ruin everything? They were right. He was going to learn about the forest in a new way now.

I think his colleagues wanted to challenge Xavier’s gentleness and see him unearth a more brutal side to his character. His younger colleague Johan, who offered to take him out hunting hares, probably thought it would be funny seeing Xavier with a rifle in his hands. They called him Professor Calculus. Professor Calculus is going hunting, take cover!

While Xavier is in the bathroom, cleaning himself up and getting warm, Molly, our two-year-old Border terrier, and I stand on our own in the garage examining the hares. Their bodies are long and narrow and stretched out. Their coats are slightly tousled as if the hairs don’t know what to do now there is no life beneath the skin. Molly’s nose twitches and her trembling excitement makes her seem more of an animal than usual. She sniffs at the hares and licks her nose. I pluck up the courage to cautiously touch one, as if the hares could be roused back to life again any second and claw themselves loose, kicking their way out with their powerful hind legs. But they lie there motionless and silent on the workbench; close together as if they were trying to keep each other warm. There is a strong smell.

Poor little things. Did you stretch out your ears listening for Xavier and Johan? Did you quickly turn your heads trying to locate where the sound was coming from? Did you suspect it coming? Their fur is soft when I warily stroke it with a couple of fingers. Their claws are long and sharp. When I find I am looking into the unseeing eye of a hare, I turn away.

I drag Molly away with me. At first she resists, but then gives in.

“We have to leave them alone, Molly. Let them be.”

It’s so cold that my fingers start to hurt and my cheeks sting in the mere thirty seconds it takes to get from the garage to the house. The door is locked. I stand in my cardigan and swear out loud because it’s hard to get the key in the lock when your hands have gone numb with cold.

Xavier comes out of the bathroom drying his hair with the energetic movements of someone trying to shake off a hat stuck to their head.

“You’re supposed to gut them straight away, really,” he says. “But I’m too tired. We left at six this morning. It won’t matter, will it?”

I have no idea and I tell him so, adding reassuringly that it will probably be fine.

“Since when are you a hunting expert?”

“What? I never said I was.”

“Sounds like it.”

“I thought it sounded like you were asking me. Fine, I’ll just keep my mouth shut then shall I?”

Xavier has been touchy recently. I understand that it has to do with his having retired. It’s a life crisis that seems to grow bigger with every day he spends pacing around the house on his own. He doesn’t do very well without structure. He’s started walking about with his hands in the air in front of him, as if they’re ready to get stuck into something – or someone. In my strictest internal voice I tell myself to be patient. Be there. But one day, one evening, one night – there are so many moments to be focused. Moment, moment, moment. It’s impossible to be in control of all of them.

I say nothing and go into the kitchen feeling hurt. Xavier follows me and opens the fridge.

“You’re supposed to slice them open and take the guts out and put twigs in there instead. Then they have to hang for a few days.”

“Nice,” I say.

Xavier spreads butter on a piece of bread. Plenty of butter and two slices of sausage. He sits opposite me at the table, eating while looking out at the patterns of frost against the winter sky as it turns to blue. He runs a hand through his hair. It has got thinner at the temples but it’s still thick and curls at his neck. And I can still be stunned by how beautiful he is. His big, elegant nose, bent like that of a large, arrogant, preening macaw, the broad knuckles with the sensitive long fingers, the inquiring look in his green

eyes, his strong, healthy ivory teeth. His angular profile is so gorgeous that it’s embarrassing, almost banal. So many times in our years together I’ve had to rein myself in so as not to look far too smug. I’ve tried to seem unmoved, as I stand there secretly gloating next to my eye-catching trophy, even if my scalp is greyer and more worn than before. There are fourteen years between us. But still.

I stretch out a hand.

“Have you eaten hare before?”

“No, just rabbit. When I was little I used to stroke them and feed them leaves before they became Sunday’s stew. I always felt sorry for them because their back legs were tied together. Carmen, who cooked for us, used to laugh at me sitting there comforting them and feeding them. When I asked her to take the string off their legs, she said if we did that, they would claw holes in my stomach when we ate them… What strange things people say to children. Oh, well. But they were plump and tender. Those skinny things in the garage have probably been scurrying around, afraid and hungry.”

“I haven’t eaten hare before either.”

“It might taste foul. Which would mean I shot them for no reason.”

“No it won’t. Isn’t hare said to be a delicacy?”

“Yes, like pickled herring.”

“Hmm. It’s still just meat. If you turn them into ordinary manageable chunks of meat, I promise I’ll cook them. Just as long as I don’t have to skin them and butcher them.”

“Leave it to the executioner why don’t you?”

“Oh Xavier,” I sigh. “OK. I’ll help you. I think it’s revolting but what the hell. We have it easy eating meat without asking where it comes from.”

Xavier swallows the last of his sandwich and smiles vaguely.

“Yeah.”

“We’ll have game for dinner,” I say, suddenly reckless. “We’ll make a stew and invite our friends.”

The idea instantly starts to take hold. Come round to ours, a Saturday night in the middle of a freezing February. Game, red wine, baked potatoes. That kind of thing. Because we’d like to see you. Celebrate Xavier’s new life of freedom. Celebrate spring being on the way although it’s not as if there’s any sign of it. Have you ever eaten hare? Really? Ah, well now’s your chance then. They’ve been hanging in our garage and Xavier shot them and we butchered and skinned them all by ourselves.

No-one is going to believe me capable of it, or Xavier come to that. Imagine. Getting to overturn our friends’ assumptions about us at our age. That alone will make the evening a celebration. A gentle tilt to the way you thought things were.

We decide to ring round some friends. Xavier agrees, says it’s a good idea, but his vague smile has disappeared.

There is something missing. I think about it as I stand on the steps smoking my evening cigarette. It’s the only one I treat myself to a day, but it feels vitally important. Xavier hates me smoking and I love smoking. But I don’t want to die prematurely or have a husband who turns away from me, so I just have the one. The smoke sharpens my mind. That moment on the steps with a cigarette, looking at the tops of the trees and the sky. It’s mine alone. I’ve done it ever since the children were little. As soon as they had gone to sleep, I’d come out here, light a cigarette and with every puff it was as if my responsibilities and my role as a parent floated away. Not that I found motherhood a burden, truly not, quite the opposite. But I needed to say hello to a more original me.

There’s something missing now between Xavier and me. There’s an unspoken emptiness between us that I talk over with cheerful ideas that Xavier probably goes along with because he doesn’t know what to do otherwise.

He goes along with it. But isn’t really engaged.

The emptiness hasn’t always been there; it’s come about and grown as the children moved out. It isn’t just the silence they left behind that has crept in. It’s between us too. Both of us are, or I would say were, hot-tempered and I don’t know how many times I’ve stood there with tears running down my cheeks shouting that this was the last time and if it’s going to be like this, he can go to hell. And I don’t know how many times Xavier has mangled and stumbled over the Swedish words that he otherwise speaks perfectly and used the Spanish ones in cascades of fizzing sparks instead. There were reconciliations too. Not because the argument had got us anywhere. But we’d get tired, we’d start longing for each other. A hand, a smile, an embrace. And then we were so happy to see each other again that we just laughed at whatever we had been fighting about.

Until the next time. And then it would all blow up again. These days I don’t really see what on earth I could have got so horrifically angry about. Probably I was mostly scared. Thought I had lost my grip, that Xavier was sliding away. I think that Xavier, with the tragedy of his life behind him, carries a burden of guilt and so was easily provoked when I made demands of him.

Over the years our combativeness faded away and since the children moved out we might have the odd little spat from time to time, but the idea of starting a fight feels almost absurd. We live by a tacit agreement that the fights are over. Things are allowed to pass. Peace is calm and comfortable and not something we really want to question. Not me anyway. At the same time, I realise that it comes at a price. After more than twenty years together the structure we built has become stable out of habit, familiarity, developed tolerance. We can lie on the sofa each with a laptop on our knees and each wearing headphones without feeling nervous about what has become of us. We don’t need to question where we are going like we used to, because we are sitting here now. And we don’t really have anything to complain about.

Still there are moments when I detect a brittleness in the stability. As if a fissure could spread deep in a different way from before, growing into a thunderous cracking noise, something irreparable. Or that hairline fractures were spreading while we powerlessly looked on. No-one would rush to help us. It’s just us and the silence.

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