from Bill Nilsson’s Last White Shirt
by Björn Ranelid
introduced and translated by Paul Norlen
Björn Ranelid is a prolific Swedish author who has received numerous awards, including the prestigious August Prize in 1994 for his novel Synden (The Sin). He also makes frequent appearances in Swedish media and in other public settings.
Bill Nilssons sista vita skjorta (Bill Nilsson’s Last White Shirt), published by Bonniers in 2020, is Ranelid’s thirty-eighth book. The novel is centered around an inexplicable family tragedy, when a minister’s wife, abused by her controlling husband, commits suicide after killing her four young children. The setting is a village in southeast Sweden in the 1950s, in the seemingly idyllic coastal landscape of Österlen in the province of Skåne.
The first chapter, presented here, takes place in the village church, as villagers, friends and acquaintances of the deceased gather for the funeral of the woman, Karin Blom, and her four children.
from Bill Nilsson’s Last White Shirt
The minister was sentenced to life-long exile from the village and this happened outside the written law.
All the rumors in the village flapped like partridges. The farm dogs howled and lunged after dark. Then it got so quiet you could hear a deer nibbling in the grove next to the parsonage.
Suddenly the sun turned black when the slug carried it on its back. The village slept calmly and quietly, but it was hiding a knife, a rope or an ax under the surface. The dove on the ground blinked so quickly that it was only a flash of pearl.
I was a blood-red climbing rose on my grandmother’s cottage wall that was moved to poor soil and I was infected with black spots, Karin wrote about herself in her diary in the last sentence of her life.
Every child who has died ought to give a name to a star in the sky and then the parents and other survivors could point and say that there shines Anna, Greta, John and the minister’s four children in the little village in Österlen.
Certain people had gathered so much light that they became self-illuminating, but there were happenings that seemed to be made solely of darkness.
It was such a beautiful love story that it turned into a moon at night and a glowing sun in the day and it shone over the whole district, but it was just as much a campfire for people to warm themselves by when it was dark and cold on earth. This happened in the old time-reckoning in the village, before the nightmare woke the people there.
The words were sensitive, living lights, and it was easy to blow them out and extinguish them. In a beautiful fairy tale the nun Sara Hall and the fisherman Johan Tilly traveled a thousand miles under the lamp of night and in daylight to the Sargasso Sea to spawn, but they were just as real as the trees, the cottages by the sea and the old well in the village which still gave potable water for people and animals to drink from.
Death was a birthmark and now it was stuck to the foreheads of the villagers like a Hindu speck of paint. No one could wash that mark away. Love was thirsty and it was possible to drink water, but suddenly there was drought in the district.
Forgiveness and Accusation arm-wrestled with each other up by the five white caskets. The mother, Karin Blom, was in one of them, and the four small children in the others, but the regular minister in the parish was not there. He was the father of the children and married to their mother.
The minister, Gustaf Blom, had dug his own grave and he would be forced to lie there the rest of his life with eyes always open while an unmerciful light blinded him and slowly burned his heart to ash, but for him no punishment was severe enough.
The angels of heaven had flown in terror to the gaze of God. Jesus Christ was hanging on the cross in this country church and he was crucified in all the countries of the world. The crown of thorns lacerated his forehead and blood seeped out. The savior closed his eyes as if not even he had the strength to see the five white caskets by the altar, the mother and the four small children.
Later, when evening and night settled over this village and the surrounding area, the heavy church bell would be transformed into small sheep bells on the lambs so that the mother could hear them as they grazed on the expansive heath by the sea where Karin Blom had played and bicycled as a little girl, before that paradise was transformed into a firing range.
This story was connected with threads that were reminiscent of a web and the spider was the minister. When he moved the whole web rocked, but it didn’t break, because the threads were strong and sturdy.
To start with the web stretched over a limited area in the village, like between the branches of a tree or in a cellar where there was no light unless someone lit a lamp or a wax candle, but later it grew and extended from the parsonage and farther to the church, the surrounding farms and everyone who lived their lives there.
The spider had the habit and instinct to capture and slowly kill flies and small winged insects, but this time it risked becoming a prey itself. Suddenly it quieted as if in contemplation of something holy, but appearances could be deceiving.
The spider was black with a small white collar around its neck and it could frighten people, even though it was actually harmless to them. Historically this creature had puzzled researchers, but even more induced fear and terror in thinking beings who walked on two legs. It was a species that frustrated many researchers and it was called the parson spider.
The spider spun for almost a year and thereby exceeded what was customary for this arachnid, but the black parson spider with the white collar was a unique specimen.
The truth was a bird that settled down on people’s shoulders and flew away if someone suddenly came near. Life pushed death ahead of it in a baby buggy. Four small children had lain there as their mother Karin pushed them on the paths around the parsonage.
The nun Sara Hall and the fisherman Johan Tilly were sitting in the second row in the church. They held each other by the hand. They had been close friends with Karin Blom and they saw the five caskets through a prism of tears.
Sara Hall had left the convent in Spain, but she would never be called anything other than the Nun when people in the village talked about her. Johan Tilly, on the other hand, always used her real name.
Johan had built a wooden cart for the four children and a swing that he set up on the lawn at the parsonage. On one occasion the oldest girl had sat on Karin’s lap in the sidecar of Johan’s motorcycle as he slowly and carefully drove on a little gravel road between the grain fields one summer day.
It took almost six years after Karin and Gustaf were married before their first child was born, but then there were short intervals between the three girls and the boy. Sara had relieved Karin many times when the minister’s wife had too much to do. Gustaf Blom was not a man who took responsibility for the household and childcare in their marriage.
When Sara closed her eyes she could picture the four children around their mother on the grass. The girls were wearing their colorful summer dresses with blue and yellow dots and stripes. They called to mind big beautiful flowers that shot up from the ground and moved in the wind from the sea.
The minister saw to it that the children said evening prayers before they had learned the letters and could write. His wife was an invisible shield between these small lives and the husband. She had learned to find openings in his smooth, hard surface.
The minister Gustaf Blom’s sermons tended to be bitter as sea wormwood in aquavit. It didn’t help that the shoots were picked in May and left in the crock for two full days. The villagers picked them by Haväng and Backåkra.
Misfortunes had happened before, but none like this. Now it was as if they all had something stuck in their throats and had difficulty swallowing and were gasping for air. The pheasants were anxious and flew low and awkwardly when they were frightened. A particular village idiot could have been a sibling of that bird.
The barn swallow dived quick as an arrow from the roof-ridge toward the floor in stables and barns, and the farmer didn’t like its jerky flight. A person should preferably sail neatly and calmly over the area and the field at a low altitude, if at some point she should rise a little above the surface. Otherwise she rested between two screams or walked heavily with high-shaft boots in the clay on the fields.
Several women and men in the village had tried to spell their way through the language of love for 30, 40 or 60 years without learning its alphabet, but Sara Hall and Johan Tilly had a degree in that art even before they had been together for three weeks.
The women read ladies’ magazines like Idun and Husmodern while the men kept to the agricultural Såningsmannen. The inconceivable event in the minister’s family settled between the pages in the magazines and after that it was impossible to erase it with eyes and will.
A horse bolted deaf and blind along the main road. The wagon stayed on behind in harnesses and tongues when it reached Bluebell Meadow. The wagon got stuck in the outermost tree and then the horse was free to take short cuts the rest of his life.
There were signs everywhere for the people, but many didn’t see them. Certain children had a hard time learning to read. The letters stood up on their hind legs and hissed at the children. It didn’t help that the girl or boy petted the vowels and consonants, because these were self-sufficient and didn’t let themselves be appeased and bribed.
Karin Blom’s oldest girl was supposed to start second grade on the twenty-seventh of August that year, but now she was lying motionless and mute in the white casket. It was inconceivable to everyone except Death.
A spirit hovered over everyone who had gathered in the church for the funeral of the mother and the four children. This spirit was not at all unholy but on the contrary calm and collected and extremely concentrated to be able to observe what was happening in the sanctuary.
A human spirit was approximately like the soul, although perhaps even more free and boundless in relation to time and space. Without this quality in humanity the art forms of a William Shakespeare, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Astrid Lindgren or Selma Lagerlöf would not have existed.
The church had a head, a ribcage, a spine and a heart, but it could not run away on its legs and flee. It stood where it was on the ground in the little village in Österlen in Skåne near the sea.
Here people had cried and mourned, but had also been filled with love, happiness and consolation. Women, men and small children had been in the caskets after they died of the Spanish flu, pneumonia, cancer and maladies that doctors could not cure in times past. Even suicides who were relegated to unhallowed ground had been in wooden boxes by the altar in the church and the minister had said prayers over their dust.
Never before in the history of the village had a mother who had killed her four small children lain dead in this church. The sunlight on this lovely day warmed the lead frames in the large windows and broke through to the minister, the sexton and the others gathered in the pews.
The light was filtered through the ribs in the large rib cage. The heart was beating at an uneven rate. The thoughts in the brain were running amok like wild horses that had bolted. The questions were already crowded in the narthex and they pressed against the white-plastered walls, but they didn’t slip out. The inconceivable tragedy throbbed in their fingertips as they shook hands and greeted friends and acquaintances.
Occasionally the lids fell over the tear-filled eyes, but they were not made for a coffin and opened again. It was easy to count the farmers in the congregation, because their necks were sunburned after long work days on the fields in May, June and July under an open sky. Many of them had dirt under their nails. Their women were dressed in black fabric and they glanced to the right and left at familiar faces. Almost no one was absent, because the minister’s wife Karin Blom had been well-liked and even beloved by many in the village.
The nun Sara Hall held her beloved Johan Tilly by the hand almost the whole time during the ceremony in the church. If she closed her eyes she could imagine that she was shielding her eyes from the Spanish heat in high summer, but now she was in the rib cage of the village in Österlen and there only the Scanian dialect was spoken with one or another imported tongue.
Bill Nilsson, for example, could cleave his tongue, because as a child he had lived with his parents in Chicago in America. He was the first one who saw the four children lying dead on the kitchen floor in the parsonage while their mother Karin Blom was swinging from the noose of the rope like a timid pendulum. Now they were lying in the spacious rib cage. The heart bolted and almost stopped completely from terror and bottomless despair.
The sincerely sorrowing, but also the nosy and simply curious were now seated in the church. The lungs breathed in and let out air through their mouths. The oxygen-rich blood flowed from the heart to the brain in the boundless body. The kidneys did their work, but no one got up to go to the churchyard and empty their bladder.
One or another absently or restlessly fingered the black cover of the hymnbook placed before them in the pews. Emma Vik had the most beautiful singing voice in the village, but she was locked up at Sankt Lars Hospital in Lund.
The spirit moved freely between walls and ceiling and when it pleased it slipped out through the tiniest crack and hole and even through plaster, granite and brick. It was both a migratory bird and world traveler that without difficulty traveled weightless from Bill Nilsson’s childhood memories in Chicago to the church here. It settled down unseen on one of the coffin lids with a message in its beak.
There it could be read that Bill’s father had fallen from the forty-second floor of a skyscraper in Chicago when he was inspecting the construction and died. For that reason the little boy could identify with the grown man’s grief.
Almost all scientific knowledge and technology denied that human beings had a soul and a spirit, for these were not visible and they could not be measured, weighed, defined or described in words.
Bill Nilsson maintained with complete seriousness that each and every apple had a soul. He was a trained pomologist and scientist in his profession. Now he was sitting next to his wife Anna, crying in the church. It was the human soul that was shedding tears, not the physical body.
Bill Nilsson wore a black suit and light-blue shirt and tie. He had worn a white shirt and black suit when his father was buried in Chicago. Then Bill was seven years old and he had promised himself to never again wear a white shirt at any future occasion in his life, because it reminded him of the great sorrow after his father’s death and burial.
Bill Nilsson had a magical relationship to the apples that he cultivated. He had taught Karin Blom quite a bit about the fruit and she had listened and taken in that knowledge.
Bill knew how wild apple trees were best grafted. He had a gene bank of his own and he followed the development of the various varieties. He kept a diary of when all the trees bloomed. Karin Blom wanted to know that and she read his notes.
Bill promised her that one of his grafts would be named for her, and so it would be. This meant that the apple variety would survive her for an incalculable time.
No physicist could explain what energy was in itself. Biochemists had no concept of human awareness and no mathematician could count the number of cells in the human body.
There was so much in the world that science could not explain. No one knew where misfortune started and ended, and it was weightless and unique in its kind. So it was with the minister’s family.
Bill Nilssons sista vita skjorta
Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2020, 227 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to Björn Ranelid and Albert Bonniers Förlag for permission to publish this translated extract.
Björn Ranelid is a prolific Swedish author who has received numerous awards, including the prestigious August Prize in 1994 for his novel Synden (The Sin).
Paul Norlen is a freelance translator and editor. He is currently President of STiNA (Swedish Translators in North America).