Bees decorated the tops of grass blades, and faint shouts and laughs from the beach sounded through the stonewall. The air was unusually still.
In the south of Sweden, on the west coast and two hours away from the Swedish-Danish border, stood a house encased in a low, stone wall in the middle of a nature reserve and beside a dense forest. The house, L-shaped and built of thick stone with a stiff straw roof, was surrounded by a garden with rose bushes, fig trees, apple trees, and pear trees. A creek populated with hyper tadpoles and hungry toads ran along the edge of the garden. Inside the spider and moth-filled house, the longer side of the L was a large living room with a small curved hallway that led to the shorter side of the L where the kitchen, dining room, and bedrooms were. The living room had one window that looked out on a field where cows roamed. To the left of the field in between a hill of viking graves and a flat rocky landscape that wrapped around the coast was an indent. The indent, approximately 240 meters wide, consisted of a small beach surrounded by rocks on both ends. The house, 200 meters behind the beach, could only be seen when atop a rock because the stone wall only revealed the straw roof. The forest on the other side of the house was populated with birch trees, many with their own aggressive woodpecker.
Past the forest lay more empty land where the sheep and cows passed their days chewing and swallowing grass. The cows would tumble over the stacked stones encircling the forest and stampede through the trees toward the house, their large bodies thumping against one another. My mother, dressed in a long skirt, followed the cows hastily with a wicker broom, whacking their bulging bellies, redirecting them toward the water. The pack of 1,500 pound animals— ranging from fully black to red to black-and-white— lived in the nature reserve, huddling in a furry congregation during the winter and sneaking up on nude sunbathers during the summer.
A temperature of fifty-nine degrees and a forecast of frequent rain described the Swedish summer. Simultaneously, the sun was forcefully present and the warmer days came in patterns. June was colder, July was warmer, and August was a combination of the two. When it rained, the sun either interfered, producing a vivid rainbow, or the sky was stained with dark gray cumulus clouds that hung above us like sopping wet laundry, as murky fog infested the air, and rain sharply smacked against the thin glass windows. Lightning impaled the house, breaking the electrical box in the closet, while the thunder shook the house and all the little blades of grass, grains of sand, clusters of rocks, and lanky trees, as they convulsed along with the ground. After the violence, the wind stopped and the sun returned as if nothing had happened.
In the garden, I often saw snakes slowly piercing their fangs viciously through the scaly skin of a meaty frog or slithering rapidly through the uneven sunlit stones clad in dried lichen. My father occasionally examined the bushes by the stonewall until he lanced a snake with a pitchfork and waved the dead serpent above our heads, laughing at my squawking younger sister, Louise. Within the world of flowers, plump blackberries, blue skies, and the heavy blood orange August moon hanging above the fields, I saw a sheep seize to death while her lamb hysterically cried, the red and purple rotting August corpses of washed up seals, and the dark storms that ate up the quiet region, foretelling the future submerging of the land. My grandparents, Ulrika and Rolf, lived in a house with a cobalt blue door where they played cards and watched the cooking show, Halv Åtta Hos Mig. Their house was located by Ätran, the river that separated the town from the countryside. The oak tree behind their house arched over the array of rhubarb plants in the neighboring garden. Stig, a frail old man with a flushed, purple-spotted scalp rode in and out of his house and around his fruit trees on the installed ramps that wired his garden like a computer chip. Around the corner from the house was a playground behind a mass of eight meter tall trees. A paved path splitting through the trees was the required route in order to reach the park. I bit a penny-sized hole through my tongue when I was three on the sloped path when Ulrika let go of my bike, giving the package holder a nudge with her perfectly warm hand on a perfectly damp and gray day. I flew into the metal fence, the tight helmet strap trapping my tongue between my little sharp teeth, as I screamed through the trees. Ulrika’s white sweater turned to red as she held me and my whipping limbs, the mangled meat in my mouth releasing a stream of syrupy blood down my neck. She carried me up the slippery front stairs, which were covered in snails. The sky darkened as the two largest clouds overlapped each other with a clap of thunder as the door was drawn shut. Inside, I sat in the bathroom next to the window where rain spat angrily against the glass. Calmly, Ulrika pinched my little tongue between her warm fingers and poured water in my mouth as I gurgled and sobbed with the sound of the rain.
Upstairs inside the house, Rolf sat at a wooden desk full of rulers, pencils, ink bottles, and scissors, painting buildings and portraits of young children. A circular window that looked out on the beige house built by a Lebanese family was the main source of light in the room. Thin leaves the size of pinky fingers trembled— an audience of screaming people— outside the window, as his hair, a neat configuration on top of his scalp known as the meringue, was freshly trimmed. Slowly he rose from his cushioned seat and walked down the black stairs past the humming laundry machine and the hanging damp yellow sheet until he emerged from the door, his stained lavender bare feet sinking into the Persian rug. He walked into the kitchen to retrieve a handful of almonds. His paint-stained fingers placed an almond, one at a time, in his mouth while his brittle teeth grinded down the nuts inside his saliva-marinated mouth.
Rolf and Ulrika drove their white 1974 Volvo down the long road lined with fields of horses along the beach to the countryside. The car rumbled down a long driveway between tall pine trees. They parked the car by a tree in the circular yard and walked down another path and opened the gate to the house. The black eyes of the two sheep in the garden widened as they scurried to the sides when Rolf and Ulrika walked toward the house with a canvas bag filled with baked bread. Outside, Carin, my mother, put a bouquet of flowers on the table along with coffee mugs and a small bowl of sugar cubes. The sun was warm. The cows were basking under the sun, their hooves in the water. Bees decorated the tops of grass blades, and faint shouts and laughs from the beach sounded through the stonewall. The air was unusually still.
At one o’clock, my mother laid on a small towel on the part of the beach that blended with tall, stiff blades of grass in front of a cluster of rose hip bushes. A group of teenagers from a camp had decided to visit the beach that day. The sea of forty pale bodies with bright blonde heads of hair chattered, screeched, and moved like mice looking for dinner until all of them ran into the water, the two camp leaders sleeping in the sand. The teens emerged from the water, migrating back to the land, as the cows stood on the edge of the beach. A hefty black cow stood still in the middle of the rose hip bush casting a shadow over my mother. The cow looked down at her, an unfazed sunbather, and then continued down the ridge, into the grass, and finally stumbled onto the warm sand. People who were new to the beach excitedly watched the well-fed animals slowly amble around, examining the people munching on buns and applying sunscreen. Like soft-serve dipped in sprinkles, the wet snouts of curious cows brushed the sand. As a few cows approached the camp teenagers, they shouted and dramatically claimed the cows would trample them. Sitting up with a straight spine, my mother watched them flail about as the cows stood by them. Amidst the clamor, the camp leaders were scared, too, as they made a pathetic fuss. Without hesitation, my mother shouted, “Sluta! Kossorna är inte farliga! Det här är ett naturreservat!”, instructing them to not yell at the cows and that the humans were, in fact, on the cow’s land in their nature reserve. They all grew quiet and, as a group, dimmed down as if they were a room and my mother had just switched off the light. The cows proceeded to walk into the water, one of the spotted ones galloping, its hooves thudding against the ground as it staggered over a rock coated in limpets.
The day rolled by as the temperature decreased. The summer days were long. The sun never fully set, so the sky only turned a faint blue or white at night. “Vill du följa med till bryggan, Lotta?” asked Rolf. I decided to go with him. We walked out of the garden and up to the car. Rolf firmly held onto the steering wheel as he drove us to the pier near town. He stopped the car on an empty paved road near the sea. He took off his clothes, his translucent skin painting him whiter than glue, put on his swim shorts, and draped his striped bathrobe over his forearm, making his way up the stairs to a platform that overlooked the ocean. The water barely moved and there was a white trail from a jet above the low sun. He took off his glasses and stared at the horizon. I walked down the metal stairs that ended underwater. On the stairs, the green seaweed crept through the grates and danced under my feet, swaying in and out between my toes. I concentrated on the quiet, soft brush of water pushing up and down my ankles when suddenly a flash of white flew by on my right. A stomach with two arms and two legs soared from the top of the rock mound before plunging into the dark water. I heard a loud splash. I stood up, looked over the railing, and saw a pale fish, Rolf, swimming far out from the rocks. The dark blue water swallowed him as he went under until he emerged even further away, closer to the sun. He threw his arms back and floated on his back like a balloon drifting farther from the earth’s surface after being released from the small, grubby hand of a child at a birthday party hosted in a park. He always swam back, climbed up the stairs, and darkened the wood with his dripping swim shorts. His thin white legs made their way back down to the road. He stood by the open trunk and pulled off his shorts. Naked on the road, the cold air drying his skin, he put on his striped bathrobe and got in the car.
Long green strands of seaweed twirled with the running current in the river. I sat on the edge of a thin wooden bridge four meters above the water watching my legs move back and forth with the wind like flags. Ahead of me ran a long stream between two dense forests. I swung my feet until the left sandal fell into the current, a small splash disrupting the fish. I looked up at my mother and she pointed to the path down below along the water’s edge, silently ordering me to retrieve my sandal. I ran down the bridge and began to chase it. After passing the curve where the bridge was no longer visible, my legs slowed as I gave up and sent the speeding sandal on its way down the stream with the momentum of the current through the whitecaps. I panted, a wisp of hair stuck to my forehead, as I turned back to the bridge where my mother stood, a statue with a wide mouth and dilated pupils, disappointed.
It was seven o’clock in the evening when we drove past the sugarcube houses lining the big beach. Seagulls filled the sky as people walked around clutching popsicles and sandy towels. We approached an empty lot next to an ice cream kiosk where I saw a woman walking with her friend. Her eyes were covered by sunglasses, but her mouth looked glad. She was tall and wore a pink shirt and dark shorts. Two crutch handles embraced her elbows. She was missing a leg. I was eleven years old. I did not know if this would work or whether it was appropriate. Impulsively, I ran out of the car and asked her if she wanted my sandal. Delighted, she giggled and slid on the sandal. It fit her perfectly. Her single foot molded into the sole like a rock landing in soft clay. She quickly thanked me and I sprinted back to the car, a feeling of bliss filling my chest. I thought to myself, That was so cool. There was nothing else to it. We drove back down the road to the countryside where we ate spicy sausages dipped in tzatziki and then threw ourselves into the cold ocean after the sun had slid below the tops of the rocks and been replaced by the August moon that illuminated the water. My sisters and I ran behind my parents through the dewy cold grass until we reached the stonewall. We packed ourselves into the sauna and poured water over the rocks, my younger sister crying that she couldn’t breathe. That night, as I listened to the mice running inside the walls, I thought about the woman. I wondered if she would wear the sandal often or if it would be tucked away into the depths of a cluttered closet.