from The Aboveground
by Mikael Berglund
translated by Anna McGroarty
On one of the last days of his summer job at a nursery school in Ammarnäs in Sweden’s far north, Oskar meets Eija, the much-older sister of one of the children. Oskar, though well-liked, is an outsider in the community, one linked to the lands only by his family’s distant past. Eija, meanwhile, is a Sámi reindeer-herder, a strong woman who holds her own in the rigorous demands of her work. Despite their differences, the two of them share an instant connection, and their meeting marks the start of a transformative relationship in Oskar’s life – not only with Eija, but also with her community, culture, and the nature around them.
Written in a suggestive, starkly poetic language, The Aboveground traces Eija and Oskar’s relationship through the years, as their lives are drawn apart and back together. It is a complex, charged narrative that explores questions of belonging, identity and trust, all set against a rich backdrop of local landscapes, from the monumental mountains and waterways to the whine of the ever-present mosquitoes. Berglund’s third novel, it has been nominated for a host of awards, including Norrland’s Literature Prize, Svenska Dagbladet’s Literature Prize and Sveriges Radio’s Novel Prize.
The following extract is taken from the very opening of the book, when Oskar meets Eija for the first time.
from The Aboveground
The little guy stands with his hands in his mouth, bouncing his back against my chest. He follows the movements of his kin as they pass through the hallway. Hunched forward to keep their bodies in motion, they stagger into the kitchen carrying the last containers, crates, and bags, leaving a trail of mud in their wake. No one asks me to pitch in. They see me with my arms around the boy, not expecting any further contribution from me. I’m just Jon-Erik’s nursery nurse.
His eyes scan the filthy, petrol-smelling, smoky, almost unrecognisable bodies for his big sister. Muddy footprints trap reindeer and dog hair, petals, scraps of lichen, heather, and gravel. Trousers and jackets lay strewn on the floor, rigid with dirt.
The boy in my arms, I make my way out into the yard to get out from underfoot, and for a chance to be the first to spot her. It’s 3 am and although the air is dank, the sun has risen over the top of Rijbuovárdduo and is already offering a hint of warmth. We sit down on one of the slate paving slabs to wait. The mosquitoes have emerged from their crevices and are attacking any exposed skin. The boy barely fights them off, his eyes wide as he tries to stay awake. I rest my chin on his head and feel him slowly begin to relax. We’ll wait for her, even if that means sitting here until the dawn chorus; even if our eyelids swell shut from the bites. As we wait, I feel a longing bloom inside for someone I’ve only ever seen from a distance. The little guy in my arms, the village, the mountains, his big sister and I grow simultaneously and evenly in every direction.
He’s taken refuge inside my jumper and fallen asleep. I stroke his little back and scratch his bites. I let him sleep, even though I’ve heard her engine for a while now. I want to see her with my own eyes first, away from the opinions and expectations of others.
She dismounts and lays the motorbike on the ground. Both her and it are covered with mud and seeds. She pulls her helmet off and kneels in the grass in front of us. Clumps of dark brown hair drop slowly towards her neck. Underneath wrinkles, mosquito bites and freckles, her face is coarse and broad. She mustn’t have slept for days, and yet she looks stubborn and strong enough to catch and bring down an ox if she needed to.
She removes her gloves and shuffles over to me and the boy, carefully lifts him out of my arms. The furrows of her palms and her nails are black with soil and dirt. A strong smell of sweat, petrol, reindeer, and wood smoke lingers as she pulls back, still on her knees. She presses her lips into her little brother’s forehead and speaks at him until he wakes up. Her words cascade over him, but he says nothing. He balls her scarf up inside tight fists. She watches me through his silken hair, her own slicked back from her sunburned forehead by the sweat. Slowly, little brother’s grip on the scarf begins to loosen and he drifts off again.
I watch the muscles of her face cut new wrinkles, pulling the skin so taut across her cheekbones that it seems to glisten; the slow widening of the nostrils, the dip of the tip of her nose, the deepening and stretching of her snot-trough, the pursing of chapped lips. A mosquito fumbles across her lash line.
‘You falling in love with me over there?’
The dirt crackles as the corners of her eyes crease. Everything the little guy has told me, and far more, is reflected in her narrowing eyes. I try to justify myself.
‘Your little brother’s talked you up so much that I’m all starstruck.’
I flinch as the door behind me is flung open, like from another world, ruining the moment. Greta steps into her clogs and onto the slates. She pulls Jon-Erik out of Eija’s embrace, shoots me a sharp look but retreats, leaving me and her daughter alone in the yard.
Eija sniffles and brings her hands to her centre. Her jacket makes a crunching sound, dried mud rains from its sleeves. She looks down at her belly as she speaks.
‘Can you feel that? Someone’s trying to come into being, pulling themselves up from the underground, little hands tugging on heather roots.’
Eija succumbs to sleep, slipping away from me. Her eyes become shuttered, her hands fall into her lap, and she sways back and forth. Surely, any man in his right mind would feel discouraged by the fact that she’s carrying someone else’s child, take it as a sign to back off. Instead, I feel warm and heavy. She just told me something that she’s never told anyone – a deep, unearned confidence. She hears my whisper even though we’re sat several metres apart.
‘Are you scared?’
Effortfully, she prises her eyelids open and looks at me; gives a feverish shudder. My instinct is to grab her to stop her pitching forward, but I don’t have to. It’s not necessary. She nods faintly.
Greta comes back outside to tend to her daughter. It’s alright, Eija and I had our moment. The mother and I drape Eija’s arms around our necks and help her into the hallway. She is unnaturally heavy, pulls me downward until her warm temple is level with mine and her breath tickles my ear. She smells like heather and fire. We sit her down on a wooden chair and peel off her outer garments. Some hair has stuck to her scarf. Great sheets of mud fall to the floor as we unzip her jacket and pull it off her shoulders, and a wave of bodily warmth hits me. There’s no sign of any bulge yet beneath her bobbly base layer. We remove her knife belt and pull her trousers down. She puts her arms out, asking to be carried, though not by me. Greta’s eyes signal that it’s time I got going. She helps her daughter to her feet and guides her into the gloom of the house.
Suddenly, the acrid smell in the hallway stings my nose and my eyes. This air is not mine to breathe; not meant for my senses. I’ve dropped Jon-Erik off, there’s no reason for me to linger among these people. Now that she no longer inhabits them, Eija’s clothes collapse slowly in a heap on the floor.
Empty of people, the place is unrecognisable. Bits of gravel drop from Eija’s motorbike. The exhaust ticks. The only parts that are free from mud are the handlebars and a small patch of the saddle. I push my bicycle onto the old country lane. The child’s seat I used to transport Jon-Erik rattles every time the bike crosses a seam in the tarmac. Two unfamiliar dogs follow me a good bit. As I look over my shoulder I see them sit down to watch me pedal away before turning around and limping back.
At the junction, I spy someone coming towards me from the other direction, heading down from the mountain. About 100 metres out I recognise Áilo. He lies almost horizontal across the handlebars, wobbling and weaving. The outermost fingers of his left hand twitch in greeting. The smell and the sound linger long after he’s disappeared from view. He simply belongs, which makes the intimacy I just felt give way to utter alienation. Not that we know each other all that well. What little I do know of him has been enthusiastically told to me by Jon-Erik. As we pass each other, it’s suddenly obvious to me that he and Eija are an item, that he is the father of her baby.
I continue to ride my bike down the middle of the road all the way into the village. I try to picture a new day.
It’s 3.30 am and I’ll be opening the nursery in three hours. Still, I can’t bring myself to go into the apartment and go to sleep. Instead, I lie down on the patch of grass behind the row of terraced houses, hide my face in the crook of my arm and surrender my ears, forehead, neck, and scalp to the mosquitoes. They crawl into my sleeves to drink their fill and shuffle out sated. Sunshine replaces birdsong. ‘You should probably leave now, Oskar,’ I whisper to myself. This summer gig will be finished in three weeks, and I’ll be heading back home. I lie on my back, my head resting on my forearms, merely blinking as the mosquitoes clamber all over me. It seems I’m fit for eating, at least. My head is pounding from having spent so long trying to mirror Eija’s expressions. They weren’t a good fit for my face.
‘Are you alright, Oskar?’
Alva is out walking her dog. It must look terrible, me lying here like this. I prop myself up, squinting in the sunlight. Did I sleep at all?
‘Did you get locked out?’
‘I gave Jon-Erik a lift home last night when his family were coming back from the calf-branding. I got home late and didn’t make it inside to bed. I’m fine.’
‘Have they left you with enough blood left to make it into work?’
‘I think I’m running on empty.’
‘We need you alive so you can come back again next summer. You should take better care of yourself.’
I scramble to my feet and enter the building through the back door, which has stood ajar since yesterday. I leave no mud trail behind, just a sprinkle of soil and grass. I shave, brush my teeth and hair. Avoid meeting my own gaze in the mirror, not wanting it to replace Eija’s just yet. It’s probably best if I never see her again. I can bring the memory with me to someone who wants me to see them as I saw her last night. I won’t be returning. This will be my last summer in Ammarnäs. Grandad’s tales of growing up here, the reluctant childhood fishing trips dad made me go on and the years at the nursery, the lonely hikes in my spare time. I’ve never felt particularly at home here, no matter how much the locals say they appreciate me. Today I get to be there for the other nursery children. That’s something.
I’m having a snack with the three little ones at the fire pit around the back when I hear a motorbike pull up at the front of the building. Áilo comes around the corner carrying Jon-Erik. He looks surly; the boy looks inconsolable. I can pick out individual blood vessels on his ruddy little cheeks. He’s cried himself out of reach, his eyes unseeing.
‘I think someone’s got something to say to you.’
I stand up but won’t reach for the boy unless he reaches for me first. Áilo is wearing work trousers that are threadbare in patches and a plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The forearms encircling the little guy are sinewy and pocked with bites. A web of scar tissue and seemingly permanent grime cover his hands. His forehead remains creased even when relaxed. There’s still a pungent smell of smoke and pine tar about him.
‘Have you got something to say, Jon-Erik? If not, we’ll go home.’
He doesn’t wait for the boy to answer.
‘Do you want to go with Oskar back to Lycksele?’
I lift Jon-Erik down and crouch a little bit away. He leans back against Áilo’s leg, holding onto his chapped hands as he fixes me with a penetrating stare, his lips clamped together so tightly that they’re white. Why would he say that, when he’s been yearning so for Eija, almost beyond all reason? When he looks so at ease propped up against her boyfriend? His gaze shifts to the children eating gáhkkuo behind me – will they mock him for being upset? Having approached stealthily, Majvor raises her arms to signal that she wants me to pick her up.
We remain in this constellation, all of us, trying to find a solution to the little guy’s feelings that doesn’t exist. The children’s hands are in their mouths or at necks as they cling to us adults like tree trunks, while we conjure up smiles for each other. Calm now, Jon-Erik scrapes at the ground with his feet and Áilo sees an opportunity to break away. He picks the little guy up, nods a curt goodbye and we part. The motorbike’s engine engages on the other side of the house, and they leave me behind.
Majvor presses her forehead against mine until two pale eyes become one. She pulls the corners of my mouth up with her fingers. Can I really just leave you all, and never come back? She toddles off to play with the others in the låvdagåhtie. Their high-pitched voices carry far and wide. Oh well, the children will probably forget me quickly.
Swallows zigzag across the sky in pursuit of each other, shrieking. I run my nursemaid’s fingers across my face. Majvor is crying now. The big kids are making excuses. I find out what happened, who said what and what they actually meant. I’m standing at the entrance to the gåhtie with my hands in my pockets, adding nothing to the situation except my mere presence, as usual. The children who have reindeer talk about them.
‘Will you be here for the slaughter?’
I shake my head.
‘I’m going back home to Lycksele the day after tomorrow.’
‘What are you going to do there?’
‘What do you think I should do?’
‘You could work at the nursery here in Ammarnäs.’
‘I was thinking I might go to work in the woods instead.’
All three kids laugh. Majvor falls over. It wasn't that damn funny.
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2022, 211 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to Albert Bonniers förlag and Mikael Berglund for permission to publish this translated extract.
Winner of Sveriges Radio's Novel Prize 2023, and Nominated for the 2023 Norrland Literature Prize and the 2022 Svenska Dagbladet Literature Prize.
Mikael Berglund is a writer, graphic designer and web programmer. Ovanjorden is his third novel.
Anna McGroarty is a translator working from Swedish to English. She is based in the UK and her previous work includes an excerpt from Writing Over Your Face by Anna-Karin Palm, published for Swedish Book Review's focus on Translating Memory.