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from A Door Stands Ajar
Walter Ljungquist

Translated by Chris Dann and Bo Georgii-Hemming.
This article appeared in the 2004:2 issue.

Ljungquist has never been published in English. He was born in 1900 in Östergötland and died in 1974 just a few miles from his birthplace. His widow, Gerda Antti, a well-known and widely read author, still lives in the area.

Unsuccessful attempts were made to categorise him as a writer, eg. “Apprentice Hemingway” or “Modernist”, but he was finally regarded as “odd”, “an outsider” – just like his characters. When first introduced to Walter Ljungquist’s work, one enters a new world. He was an avid reader of detective stories, and many of his books have elements of mystery. He admired Dostoyevsky and Faulkner; he also read Katherine Mansfield and Louis Bromfield. A Door Stands Ajar, his third book and only collection of short stories, was warmly received and established him as a writer.

The book consists of seven short stories, which grow in length and culminate with a hysterical outburst in the penultimate and longest. All the stories depict the Swedish countryside, its lakes, mountains, forests, often the sea: the dramatic landscape Ljungquist knew well. As always in his books it is summer, and the central characters are often writers, artists or musicians – people apart. The deception of children by adults is also a feature. In the title story featured here the deception is obscured by memory then re-established via a deserted house and a room empty but for a man's dead body. This story contains a real, literal door found standing ajar.

One is at once drawn by the concept of a door only half-open, permitting the observer to see but a very small part of the scene; the rest remains to be conjured up by the imagination of the reader attempting to solve the mysteries related in the stories.

A deserted house and garden, a door left open, an eerie, metaphysical atmosphere over everything. Are even the sun-drenched trees and little birds in on the secret? Stifling hot summer days depicted so tangibly that one begins to feel the sweat pricking on the forehead and to long for the cool of evening as the birds head home over the parched meadows. But an even darker secret may lie behind this door, involving a death, neither violent nor untimely, nonetheless mysterious and concealing ancient secrets. There is more that could be known if the door were fully open. That is the ultimate attraction of these stories. If only we could open that door just a little further. But then there would be no mystery...

Walter Ljungquist took 10 years and much toil over the writing of his last book, Grieve For Thy Trees. He died only a few days after sending the manuscript to the publisher, an end worthy of the mystic he was.

Chris Dann

This took place the summer Jeanna and I went on a walking holiday, when we were scarcely a day’s hike from our destination. We had started from my parents-in-laws’ home in Sörmland where we had been staying for a few days, and were now on our way to my brother and sister-in-law who owned an old royal rest-house at Södra Tjust in Småland. The first two days, still not used to walking, we had travelled by car a few times, but after the third day had said “No, thanks” to all the friendly offers from passing motorists. The weather had been splendid the whole time, and we had had better than usual luck in finding excellent overnight lodgings and friendly people. I had not seen my only brother and his wife and children for a couple of years – Jeanna had never met them. In the spring of that year they had written to me that they were curious about my young wife and, when our holiday time came round, they very much wanted to have us there for a few days; we wrote thanking them and accepted. That aged, tree-shaded royal rest-house in Tjust was a suitable goal for a good long hike. It was called Olshyttan, dated from the end of the 17th century, and lay only a few miles from the earl’s estate, where my father had been master gardener before, setting himself up as a market gardener with the help of the earl. I was born on the estate. Father had died five years earlier; mother survived him by just a year.

Jeanna and I had worked together for a long time in the editorial office of a newspaper in the capital, so there was rarely an opportunity for us to meet relatives who lived some distance away. Both she and I were natives of Småland. Her father came from a Småland iron-foundry family of French-Belgian origin. He had moved to Sörmland a few years after Jeanna was born and had conducted his foundry business there ever since. It so happened that Jeanna’s birthplace was in the same district of Småland as mine, but she had never been back there after the family moved. We had been married only a year, and this was our first month’s holiday together. We were as excited as two children about it six months ahead, so when we now finally found ourselves in the midst of all we had so much looked forward to and on the seventh day of our walking tour were standing by a stone wall on a dusty, white, country road just inside the Småland border, looking out over a new-mown field of fragrant clover, where a group of lovely birch trees stood sighing in the shimmering heat, the air almost completely devoid of wind, we thought that the frenetic atmosphere of a modern newspaper office was something extremely, unbelievably trivial, and our little flat in Söder a ludicrously enclosed and dingy cubby-hole, situated in an impossible, made-up, illusory world, a far cry from reality. Of course we did not think any more deeply than that about it just now, for it seemed too remote and irrelevant, we just stood there knowing we were in Småland. We heard a lark sing in the warm air above us as we leaned against the dry-stone wall looking at that genial, bright group of birches, their slender trunks and sunlit foliage standing out against a shining blue expanse of sky with fluffy, shimmering cumulus clouds.

And while we still stood there, a cloud passed in front of the sun, so that the colour of the stones in the fields deepened to violet, and the new-mown clover and the grass by the side of the road darkened and became more tangible and vivid. We saw the shadow of the cloud pass across the open landscape, followed by a light wind, which vanished with it. A cloud of dust from the road still hung in the air for a while. In the far distance on top of a hill, we saw three single, very tall and slender pine-trees against the sky, and the road we were to take winding away towards them before disappearing in the shadow of the hill.
Around eight in the evening we came to a silent and solitary guest-house hiding behind a row of stately, sweet-smelling poplars. It was just that time of sunset when the shadows of the trees were at their longest, and since the road we were walking on was bordered with trees, we were wandering through streaks of sunshine and shadows of leaves and could see dust dancing in the sunbeams slanting between the trees. We had left the fir woods behind and passed by lonely marshes where sparse pines grew tall and slender, standing out in individual relief against the sky and the heat haze, and there too we had heard an unseen lark, but now we were on a road through open meadow-land, where there was a stream with reedy banks and clumps of deciduous trees and cows grazing. As we walked we could smell the billowing fragrance of meadow flowers and grass, a scent quite different from that of resin, and we saw the shadows of stones and hillocks against the light on the sun-drenched fields. In the golden haze between us and the sun, the trees stood with their branches pierced by shafts of sunlight and shadows in a halo of overpowering light.

We were hungry, thirsty and tired. Now and then I looked into Jeanna’s face, which was bronzed and taut, and her eyes had that faraway expression which always comes on around evening, when physical tiredness gets the upper hand as one approaches one’s goal for the day. When she saw me looking at her, she smiled bravely and managed to look radiant and enthusiastic for a few moments, but I knew she was tired. And I knew as well that never in her life would she admit she was. She had been looking forward to this walking holiday and had devoted great energy to bringing it about, just because at the beginning I had doubted she could cope with the physical effort required to reach Olshyttan. That had infuriated her. I now realised she was afraid that, if she showed any signs of tiredness, I would become over-cautious and stop her walking any further. Amongst other things she was terribly afraid of showing me her feet in the evenings, and often quite simply afraid of looking at them herself, but despite her anxiety they had managed well. She was extraordinarily proud of her stamina, but every evening strain and tiredness came over her, and I saw how she ground her teeth so as not to betray how thoroughly wretched she was feeling. I tried to pretend I had seen nothing and did so now. I felt the scorching dry heat in my skin when I smiled back at her and thought of cool sheets and cold fresh spring water.

We were now approaching the group of houses I knew should be here and had been expecting for a long time. I did not recall then what the village was called, it was not marked on the map, but later I remembered its name. I also knew the guest-house was a little further on. When we came into the shadow of a big long cowshed and chased chickens and geese before us, we saw the first people for several hours, except for those we had seen from afar, out in the fields. We heard the rattle of milk churns, though it was a good while past milking time, and when our sun blindness had let up a little, we saw faces amongst the shadows and sunbeams inside the barn. One of them caught sight of us and whispered to the others, then we saw their vacant, cow-like eyes directed at us, and they at once put away whatever they were occupied with and came out and stood and stared hard at us in curiosity. I noticed a young girl, barefoot, in a red dress, and I saw how she was pushing her toes firmly but lovingly into the earth. Her dress was a very pretty bright red colour, but her ankles and feet were fantastically dirty. There was steam coming from warm manure here in the blessed shade of the barn. We saw white drifts of flowering wild chervil, as well as other types of weeds of various colours I remembered from my childhood. A solitary pig wandered out into the sunshine on the pile of manure where the chickens were, and their shadows were so long that they almost reached us. We also saw a few pompous peacocks staring at us, and, just as we passed them, the cock extended his magnificent tail-feathers.

The air was unusually still that day, and we had walked so far in this stillness through deserted and uninhabited areas that to us it now seemed like a dream to wander between silent houses on a dusty white village street. The road here was bordered with maples, and their heavy fragrant foliage reached out to touch our heads. When we had gone past the houses and come out into the sunshine again, I saw the slender poplars in the distance against the sky and knew then that we would shortly be arriving at the guest-house. I even recalled that in my time the people there were called Lilja. When in former days my father used to go to town by horse and cart to sell his vegetables on the market, I had often been allowed to accompany him and, as it was a long way, we almost always spent the night at the guesthouse with the Liljas. I had not seen old man Lilja and his daughters since that time; presumably he was no longer numbered among the living, and the daughters must surely be married and living elsewhere. It was possible that nowadays the guest-house had an owner unknown to me, maybe it was no longer even a guest-house at all. The old country inns are getting more and more scarce.

The sun had just gone down behind the hills and the trees when we arrived, and the light in the thick branches of the poplars had faded, but the tops continued to glimmer and gleam for a while. We brushed the worst of the dust from ourselves before stepping inside, and as our rough shoes tramped over the boards of the veranda, we heard the cries of the swallows in the air above us. They belonged to the cool and peace of the evening, and at the sound of them I stopped and listened, as their clear, delicate voices gave me such overwhelmingly strong memories and clear visual images from my childhood. It was as if someone had opened the lid into my brain.

Jeanna took my arm and we stepped into a dark, cool entrance hall, smelling of bread and old wood or whatever lovely things they were; anyway there was something quite special about the scent in that hallway, but it was so rich and complex that I was unable to analyse it. When I stood there in the half-dark and knocked on a door hanging crookedly on its hinges, another door opened and a thin, pale woman of about fifty, dressed in black, came out. We could not see her face properly in the evening dusk, but in a soft voice she asked what we wanted and on learning that we wanted food and a room for the night, she said we should follow her and went before us up a narrow, creaking staircase. We came out of the dark hall and stairs into a bright little room with flowered wallpaper and white curtains round an open window. She looked at us warily and became noticeably stiffer in her manner. I did not recognise her. Perhaps she thought that Jeanna and I looked a trifle flighty: Jeanna had on a white jersey blouse, which fitted tightly and provocatively round her pert breasts, a red scarf with white spots tied carelessly round her neck, wide blue trousers and stout shoes with thick soles. Her shining dark brown hair was quite long and brushed back round her ears, and she was bare-headed. She also carried a little cane and a small rucksack, as well as a camera with brown leather straps. She began at once to stride round the little room like a conquering Amazon. When, in the frank, open manner of all Stockholm women, Jeanna looks around her or examines a new face, I always feel a little embarrassed deep in my Småland soul, and I did so most particularly just then; I don’t really know why. I had on a pair of sack-like, unbelievably baggy flannel trousers, blue shirt open at the neck with the sleeves rolled up, and was wearing sun-glasses pushed up onto my forehead, a map in a case on my chest and a huge rucksack. I do not think the thin woman dressed in black looked at our clothing for more than a moment, but that was certainly enough; then she gave us forced, hard looks straight in the eye, but only when she spoke to us or when we said something. She was clearly avoiding looking at our funny clothes. It was as if she thought we were naked and that propriety and politeness required her to pretend she had not seen our improper nudity. I believe she thought that such clothing as we were using – well, yes of course that was the custom and usage nowadays alas, but surely no-one could require her to understand it or the strange people who dressed in such a way, and no-one could accuse her of staring at such nasty things. It was best to keep one’s eyes averted from it! She had a strict, ascetic face, reminiscent of an old daguerreotype print, with straight shoulders and a stately bearing, as well as thin, ringless, veined hands, which she held down in front of her. I noticed that, when by chance Jeanna’s and the woman’s eyes met, Jeanna gave a start, looked embarrassed and stopped striding about the room in her rough walking shoes; it amused me to see that Jeanna’s eyes are incredibly disconcerting in a way which, despite many years' acquaintance, I have not succeeded in working out. I only know that they are as blue as cornflowers and ruthlessly honest as well, that they have a definite ability to thwart every attempt at lies, dissembling and self-importance from the one she is looking at, but in this Småland woman she had met her match, her eyelids quivered, and at one moment she actually looked as if she suspected she might have lost her pretty blue trousers. She did not know what to look at, nor why, quite needlessly, she raised one brown arm to stare at her wristwatch.

When I said that we were married and wanted a double room, I saw the woman cast a quick glance at our hands and, noticing we were wearing plain gold rings, she looked noticeably satisfied. Then she said that we could have this room then, if we were happy with it. We said we were very pleased. She showed us the wash-room and the full water jug and explained that she would let us know when the meal was ready. When she had said that, she looked straight into the air, with unexpected speed caught a moth or whatever it was, and glided towards the door. We pulled off our rucksacks and began to spruce ourselves up.

An hour later we were eating a substantial evening meal in green twilight in a large room with small windows and starched curtains. We sat there eating, surrounded by a strange silence, and through the open windows came the first cool of evening and the distant sounds of cows and geese, as well as a long drawn-out cry from some marsh bird. We could see the poplars through the windows. Jeanna stroked one hand over the dazzling white tablecloth and looked at a blue milk-jug and the clean, neat rag mats on the large floor. I glanced at her face, and for a moment it looked as if someone had whispered something nice in her ear. When she looked up I noticed that once again her eyes had that faraway look, but suddenly something of fear came into them, they sought mine, and it was as if she had heard something and wanted to see from my face if I had heard it too. I put my hand on hers as it lay on the table and asked what the matter was. She smiled, made an uncertain gesture with her free hand and said that she merely thought it was so peculiarly quiet. It was as if everything was standing still, waiting for someone, and the next moment someone might perhaps come and open a door, and then we would be able to see into the deep stillness of the earth, and experience the rich, overwhelming reality encircling us, our destinies and the heavy stillness of that moment – and everything. Didn’t I feel it too? I did not reply to that but asked her why she was afraid. She looked at me. It was just the silence, she said, she had never experienced it like this before. When she said that, a door opened somewhere in the house, and we heard steps creak on the floor-boards then die away.
We had not seen anyone other than the woman in black who had received us and also waited upon us, and she had been unusually silent and reserved all the time, though very friendly. We had certainly heard the voices of other women in that part of the house where we assumed the kitchen was, but we had not caught sight of any of them. When the woman served us, I had thought several times of asking her if she had known old man Lilja and his daughters and my father, but asked her instead if they had a radio here. She looked as if I had asked something improper and shook her head. Telephone then? No, but at the house of the former parish clerk, and at a farm three kilometres from here, where her sister and brother lived, there they had a telephone. I was just on the point of asking her name, when she glanced around the room as if looking for a fly or a gnat to catch, and, when she did not discover anything, she left.
We sat silently staring into the room which was filled with flitting shadows. When someone went by on the road outside, their steps could be heard for a long time in the stillness, and when the horrible screech of a peacock came, we started. Jeanna gave an amused schoolgirl giggle, asked for a cigarette, and just then the woman came in. She was carrying a tray of china which she put on the round table in the centre of the room, then she opened the door to a dark cupboard and began to put the china in it. When I asked for an ashtray, she looked at me as if I had said something improper again, then told us no such thing was to be found here. She went out but came back after a little while and had a cracked, flowered plate with her, which she put down on our table with a bang. It was as if she considered an undamaged plate something much too nice to put ash on. She did not look at Jeanna’s cigarette, but I think it annoyed her more than our strange clothing had done previously, for as long as Jeanna had a cigarette in her mouth, she did not look at us, not even when speaking to us.

“I’m sorry, do you mind if we smoke here?”

“Mind?” she said, then went quiet. I said I meant that we could go and smoke outside if she did not like us doing it here.

“Like?” she said, busying herself with putting plates and glasses into the big cupboard. She would not like it any the more just because we did it outside. We should not think she’d like it wherever we did it. We looked at her. She did not look at us, she was busy sorting the china, but she did not seem at all angry. Then she turned her back on us and towards the cupboard again, and out it came: Sir and Madam should not imagine that she was the sort of person who would die of a little smoke. She was quiet a while, then said in a muffled voice that you should not turn up your nose at a bit of smoke along the path God had allotted you. No, one had to be prepared for worse things than that! Oh yes. But to like it, that was quite another matter! We ought not to ask what she liked or disliked. Life was not such that we got what we liked!

It was quite a long speech, and Jeanna and I were a little surprised. Then the tray was empty, she took it under her arm and closed the cupboard, but before she went, I asked who owned the house and what her name was.

“I own the house, and my name is Paulina Lilja”, she said gruffly, all the time not looking at us.

I was silent for I immediately became frightened by the gulf between my childhood and the present. I had not recognised her. When she had gone I told Jeanna that Paulina was the oldest daughter of old man Lilja; also that I now remembered she had a brother too. When Paulina mentioned her own name, which I’d forgotten, I recalled also the names of her brother and sister, Carl-Johan and Eleonora Lilja. Had she not just said that the sister lived with the brother? The beautiful Lilja girls had evidently remained single. I sat a while amazed by the dark depths of memory a name can open up, and I thought too of what Jeanna had said before, but I remembered only these words: “the next moment someone might perhaps come and open a door”. In a way, however, that was quite enough, and I thought I understood what Jeanna had felt and perhaps subconsciously meant. Of Carl-Johan I could remember nothing other than his name, but the fact that I recalled that suggested I knew something more. What? Had I met him some time and spoken with him? It was so close I felt I could trip over it, nonetheless it was inaccessible at that moment, just as inaccessible as the scent of a flower recalled to memory only because someone has just mentioned its name.

When we went up into our room, a bird flew against the pane of the open window, and when I leant out through the window and watched it disappear over the field, I heard the thud of a weaving loom somewhere in the house. There came a smell of mist and marshy earth from the garden outside, and I caught a glimpse of the fields lying beyond the garden and the mist rising from them. I remember so well the stuffy oppression of that summer night and the dim, shimmering light in the room when we were in bed. I recall that I stared at the ghostly white surface of a picture with a bible quotation on the wall opposite me. I could not make out the letters in the twilight, nor remember what was written there. And when I think of that, I can also hear the rustling of the clean, white, starched sheets in the bed and the light rattle of the window catch at the slightest breath of wind, and the constant sound of the corncrake out in the fields. I remember a millipede creeping over the flowery wallpaper right next to me, and I recall lying there thinking of the heat of the day and its dust, the squeaking straps of my heavy rucksack, the roads we had walked on, the lakes we had bathed in, the resin scent of the fir woods and the desolate lonely pines on the marshes. And through everything I see Jeanna’s happy face and hear her hearty laugh with such surprising clarity it is as if there were two Jeannas in the room, one sleeping and one laughing. I lie there longing for a small breath of air through the open window from the cool fields, and sometimes it comes, and then the window catch rattles as if wanting to draw my attention to itself, in case I happen to overlook it. I hear Jeanna turn over and murmur in her sleep and I hear the loom again. Then the corncrake, my childhood, the passage of time, Paulina Lilja – everything seems all of a sudden like something enigmatic and unfathomable, living in stairways and furniture, trees and shadows of stones against the light, weeds by a cowshed wall, the cries of swallows and footsteps on a country road, and then finally in a name floating up into the memory, a thing omnipresent and of unimaginable depth; and so I fall asleep.