Solitary Swedish Houses (April 2013 Story of the Month)

by Gwyn Ruddell Lewis

I am large, strong and my hands are as soft as the day I lost my mother. She left this world giving birth to me. I am not so old and it is strange to think that these kinds of things still happen. Facing me, across the fjord, I see the cottage I had been told about. The cottage behind me is small, with white paint peeling away. The windows are black. That is the cottage where I lived as a small child. Just me and Father. The cottage across the fjord has brightly lit windows that stand out white, the rest of the cottage a black silhouette. I am about to swim out to that cottage, hoping to meet someone half way. The water is cold. The moonlight, reflecting on the fjord's gentle peaks, hides its dark depths. It is almost winter and the fjord has not yet frozen, but it will in a few days, I feel the fresh bite of it.

The locals—living in sporadic houses, spread thin in nature, somehow centred on the small white rectangle and tall square steeple of the Lutheran church—talk of a large salmon living in these waters. The stories have been going around for thirty years, much longer than the lifespan of a salmon. There is superstitious whisper about the salmon.

Although she was gone from me on the day I came to this world, I did not feel that I completely missed my mother until the day we moved to London. Father had married a narcissist, an awful stepmother formed in the mould of German fairy tales.

Before London, before the stepmother, Father taught me to tickle salmon. In our cottage, quietly hidden, we cured the salmon and sold it to the Lutherans leaving church on Sunday. We never went to church, Father declared the spruce his nave, the fjord his font.

There was no salmon to be caught in London, but still I cured it. Every day I bought the best salmon, with gills shining fresh-cut red and eyes inquisitive. I kept Father's knife, worn thin from sharpening. With fins cut away and the salmon filleted, I pulled out the sharp, clear pin bones running down the middle. The salmon were never orange, they were better than that, shimmering with a hint of pinkness, broken by gentle layers of off-white fat which grew thicker at the belly. It was a magnificent thing, a sight that ended up perfectly composed once the salmon had spent some time in my salt, sugar, clean grassy dill and the mix of spices (not many) that Father had told me and I tell nobody. Cured, the soft flesh that had flopped and folded develops a pleasing firmness; the salmon has greater substance and stronger standing in the world. This is gravad lax. The restaurants and delis I sell to say it is the best they have ever had; subtle, the perfect show of the salmon's quality. I do not know how it tastes. An architect does not need to live in the houses he designs, they trusted me. I made gravad lax and nothing else, they trusted me to make their salmon. I have not eaten salmon since I was four, over twenty-five years ago.

I once turned into a salmon. Right where I am standing now. The woods are as I remember them, they come right to the edge of the fjord. Our cottage was a part of the forest. This was my context and content as a child. Standing here again, I feel the solitary quietness always missing in London. On a bright night, when I was four years old, moonbeams snuck into my room, waking me. I heard splashing from the fjord, playful and light. Sneaking out of my bedroom I saw Father, asleep again in the armchair turned towards the window, looking out over the fjord. The front door was never locked and I eased the door open and made my way down the short bank. Salmon were jumping and splashing, flicking the water with their tapered tails. Their silver and blue scales shivered in the moonlight, warming to coniferous green at the top. Their bellies shone white like the moon on the ripples reaching the shore. I took off my pyjamas and walked into the water. The salmon did not stop, they jumped higher, calling me in. I waded through, until the water reached my young chest. The salmon played around me, cooling droplets splashing my face. I took a deep breath and dived into the salty fjord. Under the water, I saw everything clearly: the salmon dashing and leaping, the moon's beams, clean lines lighting the bottom of the fjord. I stayed under and held my breath until my lungs ached. I held my breath to the stinging point of panic. Instead of swimming back up to the surface I swam deeper. Agile and quick, I turned and swam, flicking my feet. The sting in my lungs had gone; I was breathing under water. With that, I swam up and jumped through the air, swishing my tail. I had become a salmon and, in that moment, knew that the same thing had happened to my mother.

Salmon swim many miles and find themselves hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from their ancestral home. In hollow dipped nests, like holes, mothers lay their roe. Thousands of young fry vie for life and learn the smell of that special place. Salmon eat krill that turns their flesh pink. They fatten, developing wood pine-patterned flesh. Later a longing draws the salmon back to their gravel nests, guided by their sense of smell.  In the wild, salmon will eat other fish, but not their own. The salmon are, themselves, eaten by others and that is their unyielding context. I do not eat salmon but others do and my affinity, along with what I learnt from Father, promises the most dignified consumption.

After Father died, I left the house. I see the stepmother once a year, on the anniversary of his death. We attend his grave and visit a restaurant, it is usually difficult and we do not say much. I left the house, taking with me Father's filleting knife, whetstone and, in my head, his recipe for gravad lax. I rented a small industrial unit to prepare my gravad lax. I could not afford to rent somewhere else to live so I stayed in the industrial unit. It was cold and I had to be careful not to let the landlord find out, but, at night, when the other workshops were empty, it was quieter than most of London. In the beginning, I slept in a sleeping bag on a single mattress, but as the business improved I was able to make enhancements to my nook. Convincing the landlord that I was building a smokehouse (he did not know the difference between gravad lax and smoked salmon), I built a small log cabin from spruce pine. The smell reminded me of the cottage by the fjord, the solitude of the woods. My olfactory keenness wished me home. There were no windows, so I read the poems of Tranströmer and imagined the confusion of trees outside, the cottage low by the fjord, not a sign of London.

Two weeks ago we met for the eleventh anniversary of my father's death. The visit to the graveyard went by in silence, quiet contemplation and machination. After we had ordered our drinks in the restaurant, my stepmother, the stepmother, broke the silence between us.

'How have you been, Tomas?' She held her head high, tilted back, breathing out after speaking, as if she were smoking a cigarette. Classy but cold.

I shrugged my shoulders and read the menu. The restaurant was small and newly furnished in clinical fashion. Perhaps the stepmother held herself more like a surgeon with a scalpel. Her eyes frozen hard, hiding calculation.

I was not hungry and ordered what seemed to be an open sandwich: fine sliced rye bread, brown crab meat, shaved celeriac and a powdered remoulade. Winking at me or the waiter, the stepmother ordered salmon confit served with shards of crisp salmon skin and a liquorice tea broth.

'So, Tomas,' she said. 'Still don't eat salmon? How is mummy dearest?'

I sometimes find it hard to forgive Father for taking us away from the fjord, but then I remember the life and journey of a salmon.

'Your father only told me because he was worried about you,' she said. 'Thinking your mother was a salmon. Oh dear. You were an odd one. I have no idea why you moved to London with us. I'm sure you would have been much happier up there by that lake in nowhere, Sweden.'

'I was a child.' I was only eight when we moved to London.

'I suppose you were. But you're not a child now and I see you, and somehow don't imagine that you've changed any of the ideas you have about your mother. Tell me, you don't ever worry about making your mother into gravad lax, do you?' she laughed.

I excused myself to the bathroom.

When I came back from the bathroom the food was waiting at the table. The stepmother had started.

'No need to stretch this out any longer than necessary,' she said, eating another forkful.

I ate my food, more canapé than open sandwich, in large mouthfuls. As she had said, no need to stretch this out. The last small rye tasted different; richer, with a fatty crispness. I looked at the stepmother. She was laughing.

'Oh dear. What have you done? Hope that wasn't mummy?'

I did not say anything.

The crisp of salmon skin, so tasty and wrong, had given me something, a knowledge. A message transferred through taste - a call back to the fjord, back home. The instruction was precise: swim towards the dark cottage across the fjord. I did not remember a cottage across the fjord as a child, but I knew it would be there now. My own cottage, reflected across the black mirror of the fjord. Swim towards the cottage and meet my mother. As I stared beyond the cold, insincere restaurant, the stepmother reached across and, out of guilt or curiosity, touched my hand.

'Your hands. They're soft,' she said.

It was the salmon and the salt. The salmon's oils as I prepared the gravad lax; every day my hands received the treatment of fish oil and salt. Cleansing and softening. As I said, hands as soft as the day Mother left and now as soft as the day I will see her again. Smiling, I told the stepmother I had to leave and that we were unlikely to do this again, unless she was a good swimmer. Her eyes shone bright and wet, her mouth dumb, caught in question.

I have made the run back to this shore. The black cottage stands across from me, its windows whiter than moonbeams. A release of sweet, light, smoke from the cottage transcends the scene. The fire burns my childhood diary, pages coiled tight in the forest's dark spruce. The locals helped me find my way back to the fjord, although now that I am here I think I could have smelt it from London. Two lonely cottages, struggling to hear each other across the fjord. I wade in and my blood cools. As context and content again converge, I discard my legs and dive into the water.

BIO: Gwyn Ruddell Lewis lives in Cardiff. He is a full-time father and is also currently studying for a Master's degree in Creative Writing.