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A coastal story from Ångermanland

A coastal story from Ångermanland
1959: Nordingrå parish, Ångermanland. Photo: Hilding Mickelsson / Hälsingland Museum (CC BY-NC)

A coastal story from the Swedish Tourist Association's annual journal 1920.

If you see a great mountain in a great landscape, with the wide sea below and the sky above, you say to yourself: this is beautiful, this is great, this is magnificent. But the mountain stands there dead, anyway, like a sculpture. But if you suddenly see a human being at the foot of the mountain, a fisherman untangling his nets, a farmer ploughing his field, or a she-goat stumbling along with a grain of rice on her back - immediately the mountain comes to life, immediately there is a real, if inexplicable, connection between the motionless mass of stone and the little creature that moves forward under the protection of this mass. The mountain is reduced to human proportions, and man, in all his smallness, gains something of the mountain's infinite majesty. Thus they give each other of their qualities, and the whole is given balance, coherence and meaning.

There is a high mountain in central Ångermanland, called Ringkalle-berget, and at its foot a bay enters from the sea.

Once upon a time, an old fisherman named Fredrik Åström lived there on the beach; he lived alone in a moss-grey cottage and a rowan tree grew in the yard.

One day in late autumn he came out of the cabin, with a big leather hat on his head, woollen scarves around his neck and sealskin boots on his feet.

It was a sunny and cold day, the sky shone occasionally over the sea, as if the sunbeams had broken into snow stars, and the air was perfectly still. There was ice on the shore, and the whole landscape was white, making the bay seem doubly black and cold. Nothing moved in this desolate region; that day, no birds flew, no animals grazed on the rising tuffs; the only thing that moved was this old Fredrik Åström, and precisely because he alone represented the movement, he seemed so mysterious and peculiar, and the Ringkallen bestowed on him all its hundred thousand years of majesty. The mountain itself took on a caring and paternal air, it seemed to follow Åström's every move, and when he pushed his boat from the shore and rowed out into the bay, literally Ringkallen sank down, like an old man sinking into his patricide during high mass.

Åström rowed slowly along the shore, the water was as smooth as ice, sometimes grass-green, sometimes barley-blue, sometimes brassy-yellow. But it clearly showed the reign of winter. It lay heavy and dead, and the shores had fallen in and leaned, for the puffiness of summer was gone.

Åström spent his days going and berthing around the shores in this way, and he had done so year after year since he was young. He went ashore, now and then, on an island, pulled up the boat, slowly took his right hand out of the bellows, sniffed his fingers, stroked his nose thoughtfully, put the bellows on thoughtfully, coughed and croaked for a while, it sounded: hrm (if that sign can be understood!), and then he dragged his feet up the island and disappeared between the rocks. (He was known locally as the Sengångar.) Now he noticed harelips, encountered birds, stopped in front of the emblems that steamboat boys had painted with oil paint on the rocks, while they had been anchored for the storm with their timber grimes during the summer. There were initials, hearts with a flame shooting up as if from a factory chimney, and other epitaphs of what filled their hearts and minds. Hrm! croaked Fredrik Åström, slowly pulled off his bellows, sniffed his fingers, stroked his nose thoughtfully, put his bellows back on thoughtfully, coughed, croaked and hurried across the island to the boat.

However, he followed the life of nature in this way, and he was in possession of knowledge of the course and times of the currents, he knew the bay, where the scrapers hit down, he knew the place of the lemons and the ducks, he lay and drank, where the herring voice released the air bubbles up through the water, and he knew the seals so well, that he could put away the titles with them.

Well, the seals! This day he had gone out for a particular seal, which had been for some time on the eastern side of Germunds Island, and he intended to shoot it with his old plumb-bob.

I can't help it, it seems to me strange, mysterious, cunning, when I see in front of me, how this old maid Fredrik Åström slowly rows out to Germunds-island, while Ringkallen stands and looks after him suspiciously, as if the old mountain knew something. And not only does Ringkallen know something, but all the other mountaintops around the bay have also been told by Ringkallen, and they all look after Fredrik Åström, heavily, expectantly and silently, like a group of aldermen at the court.

But Fredrik Åström himself, he just roars but knows nothing at all.

The seals east of Germunds Island don't know anything either. He dives down and swallows a can of herring, and right as rain, he comes up to the surface again, shiny in the head like a barber's companion but sly in the eye like an unwashed peasant.

And over this small icy spot on the globe the sun shines a little matted and kneels away to the west to finally get to bed.

Yes, and so the story begins, then!

Germunds Island, like the other islands, was covered with ice, and around its shores were ice floes which had frozen.

When Fredrik Åström's boat scraped against the ice edge, Fredrik Åström screeched, stood up, got down on the deck and pulled the boat. He rocked it to feel if it was safe; it was. Then he pulled his hand out of the gauntlet and twisted his fingers. Then he fetched the plumb-bob, and hastened away over the shore.

When he had disappeared from sight and everything was once more motionless, there they stood, those dark, angry mountains as dead as incomprehensible antediluvian sculptures.

What would happen now?

Fredrik Åström stood motionless on the beach looking for the seal, which he intended to shoot. He yawned and scratched his chin, whereby his lower lip shot up and made him as ugly as one can ask of a human being that he should be able to be. And when he lowered his face again, and let his eyes search the surface of the garden, it was as empty and dead.

But now he knew that the seal, whatever it looked like, would turn up, and so he lay down in a little step-room at the end of a hill, and there he felt quite well in fact; digested his food, chewed his snuff, and wondered what he would get for his money.

For those who spend their lives in the wilderness, there is a peculiar way of perceiving life and its fleeting moments. And Fredrik Åström perceived no differently from others. He lay with his neck against a rock, closed his eyes and felt the sunshine as a warmth over his face. A red glow stood before his closed eyes, and within this glow slowly alternated images of his cottage, of dips in the sea, of seals poking their heads above the surface of the water, and of other things that formed his soul. But at the same time he felt his pulse rise and fall inside his head, and from this came the real sense of his existence. This steady motion rocked him, so that he was lulled, and all the sounds around him arranged themselves under the beat of the pulse; he no longer felt his head, he did not distinguish between the heaving of the swells and the heaving of the blood-wave, he himself was lost in the red glow, and so he was immersed in his sweetest state.

But sometimes he has to spit like everyone else, like chewing snuff. Then he'd turn his head and let a little river run down the hill. At the same time he could separate his eyelids and look out to sea.

Once when he looked up in this way, he saw the seal, and it was almost within range. Åström let out a tremendous yawn, rubbed his eyes, closed the door of the red nirvana where he had felt so good for a while, and began to watch, all the while yawning, again and again.

Now the seal lies in the sunshine, he behaves like a man bathing in warm water.

There he was lying in the water and was in every way fine - here Åström was yawning and didn't think it was so bad either. But very slowly the seal approached, and just as slowly Fredrik Åström woke up and became almost a man. He felt a little kindly disposition for the shiny head out there and the growler and all. It was a real pleasure for him to look at the unsuspecting animal; he could almost have petted the seal and skinned it without fear, and then let it go back into the water a little leaner. But the safest thing to do was to put a bullet in the ear of the fox.

And right now it should.

Thus Åström let off a stream of snuff, then leaned the plumb-bob on a stone, yawned a little, and after he had yawned, he began to aim. He had to do it carefully and carefully, and he did. When he had thus taken aim for a good while, he looked up - there was the seal. Then he bent down again and looked to see if he had aimed right. Yes, quite right. Then he let down, carefully, another stream of snuff, a great stream of snuff, for his teeth were welling up. And then he put his cheek to the butt, and let his eyes go along the barrel to the seal's skull, and then he squeezed. When the smoke cleared, the seal was still there, and he was dead.

Åström sat down on the stone, and now he looked down into the depths of the narrow beehive, there was only darkness. Then he smelled the mouth, and it smelt very good. Finally he took out the snuff-box, put a coarse batch in his mouth, and went off after the boat.

It was a pleasant hike. He now owned a whole seal, which represented both brandy and snuff; besides, the day was so clear, the air so icily fresh, and everything so calm and fine.

Extremely pleased with everything, Fredrik Åström slowly stepped out of the pine forest and walked down to the beach, where his boat - -

Where was the boat?

Fredrik Åström stopped and looked straight out into the icy blue air.

Yes, by all means, the boat was out there, drooling, a few yards from the shore. The sun was already black and red, and the side of the boat obediently reflected its gloomy glow.

Fredrik Åström let out a stream of snuff and coughed, and then he said to himself:

Yes, damn it!

The boat had no speed, it lay almost perfectly still, and the water only splashed against the sides. Fredrik Åström, who for many years had not given a thought to what his old boat really looked like, now found it lying so infinitely, so strangely beautiful on the lake. But ta'n!

He sat down on a stone and looked at it. There was nothing to make the moment more solemn than usual, the weather was beautiful, the day was beginning to darken, the air was clear, in a few hours it would be dark.

Germund Island was not an unfriendly island, especially if you could get there without trouble. But to stay there until the ice was gone, to be left without food and without a roof over one's head, that could not be a miscalculation. Fredrik Åström realised this at once. Nor was there any help to be expected, no boats were passing now. It was just to get the boat back somehow; well, it was to go into the lake and swim out after it.

Fredrik Åström spat slowly, when he had thought this thought out, and then he went down to the beach. He did not dare to take off his clothes, for it might be death with them, but he trudged out into the sea with his sealskin boots on and his woollen scarves round his neck and his leather cap on his hat. But the bellows were still on the rock beside the capstan.

Fleeting as a sheep, Fredrik Åström swam in the burning cold water, and his eyes stood on end, his lower lip touched the tip of his nose, and his immortal soul was huddled in the mucus of his throat - for the journey was by no means a pleasant one.

So he caught hold of the boat's staff, cut the tether, took it between his teeth, and then they went ashore again. True, the boat looked a little embarrassed, but all the mountains round the bay were glowing red with ivory, and the sun was falling handless down in the west like a fried apple in the ash-butter.

But once Fredrik Åström had come ashore, he turned, spat thoughtfully, kicked the boat and said lowly:

You bastard!

He then loaded the capstan and bellows and went after the seal. It was still lying in the water. Fredrik Åström hauled the heavy body aboard, and now twilight was already noticeable.

The cold had increased, the air was blue, the imman was floating on the water, and the clothes were immature too, they froze and crackled, and the old man began to rattle his teeth.

Damn chilly! he muttered to himself and rowed away.

When he reached the shore in the middle, he could row no longer, he pulled up the boat and tied the tether to a trunk, and the seal's body, now stiff and hard, was left in the boat with the capstan.

But he himself began to run through the forest, which was so dark that a few stars were already visible.

He ran, and the crust of ice that covered him crackled. He ran and ran and panted. The ice was already narrowing, and the damp fabric shivered and stung. And before he got home, it was pitch black.

But soon he had a fire in the stove and brandy and coffee ready, and he lay in his cases, and drank himself so full that he sang and shouted, while the logs in the stove glowed down and the stars in the window grew rounder and bigger.

The whole village lay black, and the mountains stood there in a circle around the bay and around Fredrik Åström's cottage, whose windows glowed and from whose chimney little red stars danced out and flew up to all the white stars in space.

But not a sound was heard, all was as if dead, as if it had never been anything but dead, and it was a desolate land, a desolate sea, and what was happening out here no one knew.

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