from The Flight of the Swallows
by Majgull Axelsson
introduced and translated by Kathy Saranpa
Christel is an aging psychologist and therapist who’s just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, or ‘Evil Mr P’ as she calls it. Barren after a serious gonorrhoea infection as a young adult, she’s felt invisible most of her life, excluded from having children of her own, and she lives alone in a beautiful home that she cleans on a strict routine.
One day Zadie enters her practice, a severely abused and neglected teenager with an armour of foul language and a combative, defensive attitude. The girl’s most fervent dream is to have a flat of her own where she can be unseen – in particular by those who would harm or judge her. The parallels between Zadie’s situation and Christel’s own teenage years are striking and ultimately lead the two into a relationship that comes to resemble that of grandmother and granddaughter rather than therapist and patient.
The following scene takes place right after their first encounter, a meeting that Christel at first believes was an utter failure.
from The Flight of the Swallows
It began to rain just as Zadie left the building. Of course. She pulled up her hood and stuffed her hands into her jacket pockets before starting to walk. She hurried along as quickly as she possibly could, but was careful not to run. Running would get attention. That’s why it was probably a good thing it was raining. It might mean people would stare a little less, if there was anyone who was actually staring. She didn’t dare look around until she had put a little distance between herself and the psychiatric building, but then she did. Carefully. But no. Nobody her age. Definitely no cluckers from school who could whisper and giggle that she’d been seen leaving a place that qualified as an insane asylum. So the coast was clear. All she saw was a man with a walker staggering a few metres ahead of her and a girl who was dashing through the rain, dressed in white hospital trousers and a blue tunic. Zadie had to stop for a moment. Her eyes followed her. She saw how the girl was hunching a little and how she held her right hand over her head, as if that would protect her from the rain. At the same time she saw that the girl herself realised how silly it was. But she didn’t seem to be ashamed. She just laughed at herself and lowered her arm. By this point she had already made it to a glass door, which she pulled open, and she disappeared inside the building. Into one of the hospital buildings that wasn’t an insane asylum. A different one.
That girl could have been Zadie.
At some point in the future, that could be her.
Zadie Moonbeam could be an assistant nurse who ran through the rain laughing on the way to her department. Or maybe she was headed for the changing room, maybe she was just finishing her shift and was leaving for her studio flat in Hageby. Once there she could lock the door securely behind her, light a candle or two and then sink down on her bed among heaps of soft pillows. Rest in the silence. Maybe she could be holding a kitten in her arms, a grey, soft, cuddly little kitten… Its name could be Moonbeam, a name too crazy for an assistant nurse – she had started to realise that – but it would be a totally cool name for a cat.
Although, no. She didn’t really want a cat in her flat. Litter boxes stank
She started to walk on.
It was three kilometres to the city and there was a fuckload of traffic, but she had no intention of taking the bus, no matter how much it rained. Malin, her host and supervisor, kept close tabs on her, which was why Zadie couldn’t let even one of Malin’s gossipy lady friends see her near the hospital. She didn’t want to answer any more questions today – she’d only visited the library, of course. She’d sat in the periodicals reading room and done her homework, just as she always did, to give her ears a break from Malin’s cute, noisy kids, ha ha! No way had she seen any stupid psycho-cologist and there was no way she had stopped by the Southern Cemetery on her way back, either. (And yes, of course, she knew that it was psychologist, not psycho-cologist, she wasn’t a complete imbecile, but on the other hand, her father was. He always said ‘psycho-cologist’, and that mispronunciation had bored its way into Zadie’s brain like a worm into an apple. Which was probably the only inheritance she would ever get.)
When she was almost out of the hospital complex, a cyclist whooshed by, but stopped just ahead of her and removed her glasses. It was her, the psycho-cologist herself. Finished for the day, then. The sleeves and hood of her parka were already stained dark from the rain. So weird that she was on a bicycle. Shouldn’t she be able to afford a car?
Malin and Sverre had two cars: a small, old Kia and a big, new Volvo. Sverre drove the Volvo. Of course. People with a penis were always supposed to have the best car. Zadie kept her distance from him. She was always cautious around people with a penis. They fought and …
Stop. Thinking about that was forbidden.
She could think about the psycho-cologist instead. About how she looked so diluted. Maybe once her hair had been chestnut-brown, but now the colour was grey in places and looked rather washed out. Though she had a nice haircut – about shoulder-length. Pretty pale about the gills, but not particularly wrinkly. She dressed OK. Adult without looking like an old lady, not like Zadie’s ridiculous grandmother in Finspång who always, every single day of her entire life, had worn floral print blouses and dresses, preferably with grey flowers. Without a bra underneath. She looked like shit. But Zadie couldn’t think about that. Either.
Head down. Big strides.
The psycho-cologist had told her that she wouldn’t reveal anything Zadie said to anyone. Not a single person. Not Dagmar. Not Malin. Not even the police. On the contrary: if she said anything to them, she herself would be committing a crime. She could be ordered to pay a fine or be sent to jail.
That sounded good, Zadie thought. Nice. Reassuring.
Even so, she couldn’t tell her everything, of course. She could never tell everything…
There was a small gap in the traffic. Across the road, over to the other lane. She veered off to the left, walking in the wet grass of the verge. Better to have ice-cold toes than to be a sad little traffic statistic.
Big strides, really big strides.
She walked and walked and walked.
She walked past the first roundabout and then the second, until finally there was a real pavement. She knew exactly where she was, and she took care not to glance to the right. She didn’t want to see the bloody street that started there, even though she knew that the brown house was a long way off and you couldn’t see it from here. She wondered fleetingly if her grandmother still owned that dump or if she had sold it. She probably hadn’t. Most likely, her other sons, the motorcycle boys as she called them, though they were both grey-haired geezers with enormous beards, had got to take over. And she was most likely still paying their electric bills while complaining loudly. The crazy bitch was prepared to do anything at all except remove the electric heaters in her fucking house, because that would be way too expensive and inconvenient. There were two heaters in each room, so for the most part it was pretty warm. Except out on the porch, of course, where Zadie had had to sleep when she’d been particularly naughty and disobedient – that is, rather often. It was cold there, especially in winter.
She stopped for a moment and zipped up her jacket a little more before she moved on. The hood of her sweatshirt had become sopping wet, but her jacket didn’t let in any rain at all. Strange. But good. It was a decent jacket, one she’d bought with the money she’d earned working at the hot dog stand over the summer holiday. It was just enough. Nobody was going to say she came to high school in some kind of old-lady used jacket. And nobody had done so, either. She knew that the cluckers whispered and talked shit about her, but at least nobody could say anything about her clothes. Wearing black was a signal, an important message: Don’t get any closer! Keep your distance! And it worked. They had hardly ever said an unnecessary word to her, only stared and looked a little nervous. The rumours, of course. The idiots were obviously worried that she was like her father, though she could have informed them that her mother was a whole hell of a lot meaner and twice as smart, but that Zadie herself wasn’t like either of her charming parents. Because she was her own person. Just her. She wasn’t like anyone and she didn’t need any dad or mum. She didn’t even need the bloody damages they owed her, according to the court, but which had never appeared. And what she really didn’t want was cutesy friends, so that’s why she didn’t talk to anyone either, except during class. She had decided to become the best in class, just to show that it was only because she had to start working right after graduation that she was on the pre-nursing track, no other reason, and it didn’t have a fucking thing to do with her grades. They were actually quite outstanding compared to the cluckers’ grades and would have easily given her a spot on the science track if she had tried, and it seemed as if they had understood that. Nobody tried to challenge her. And everyone called her Zadie, nobody dared to use that dog’s name even behind her back, except that one sub, but Zadie had quickly enlightened her. During recess she mostly went off by herself, checked her phone, laughed out loud now and again as if she had got a fucking awesome message from some fucking awesome friend and then pretended to text a response that was just as smart. Iejfoiwhe or something like that. That’s what it usually was. Or whatever. Just a bunch of letters without any meaning. She deleted them before she returned to class.
But she liked school. Not that she would ever say so out loud, but still. She’d always liked school. Nobody could hit you there. If she made sure she watched how she acted around the cluckers, nobody yelled at her either. It was nice.
Here she was now.
The street lights went on just as she took her last step. She looked up and let the light shine down on her, felt the rain on her face. The drops were ice-cold, though they felt good, but she still pulled out a tissue from her pocket and wiped her eyes. She wanted to see properly when she got inside the cemetery. In theory she ought to have walked to the other side of the block and through the gate on the other side, but instead she looked around quickly, threw one leg over the fence and glided over. She hugged herself and shivered, not because she was scared of the dark or anything, but because her memories took off: She opened a door and saw Mio. He stretched his arms towards her and, half sobbing, half whispering, said ‘Siss, siss, siss’ and she didn’t see, she didn’t notice…
She glanced around quickly before taking a few steps into the dark. As if she was sneaking. As if she was going into her little brother’s room although she wasn’t allowed to, as if someone was waiting…
No! Yet another forbidden thought.
By now it was pretty dark and the cemetery wasn’t lit, but that didn’t matter. The streetlights were casting their beams on the pavements and people had started to turn on their kitchen lights in the homes around the cemetery. There was enough light. Besides, she knew the way to his grave.
Yes, he had a grave. A small one, but with a gravestone and everything. His foster mother had paid for it. She had also organised the funeral, despite the run-around from Social Services. Zadie didn’t go – she didn’t want a bunch of journalists catching sight of her, but it had made her happy to think about how angry her monster-mother would be when she read about it. Isebel wasn’t that fun to deal with, especially not when she was somewhat sober, which by this point Zadie guessed she was sure to be. She also began to think that Mio’s foster mother would be in hot water once…
No. Forbidden, that one too.
She couldn’t think the thought that Isebel could be let out. She should never be allowed out.
Zadie turned left and the darkness deepened further, but she kept her eyes fixed on a lit window in a kitchen on Sankt Olofsgatan, played with a fantasy about the people who lived in that apartment. A mother and a daughter. The mother was cuddly and had an easy laugh, and the daughter blonde and…
What was that?
Did the gravel just crunch behind her?
She halted mid-step and didn’t move.
No. It couldn’t be.
He was paralysed.
He couldn’t even talk anymore.
She started to walk again, her fists clenched in her jacket pockets.
One, two, three, four.
She knew that his own mother, Zadie’s charming grandmother, had come to pick him up and got him admitted to a place in Finspång. Zadie had been disappointed when she heard. She had wanted him to die, wanted them to have burned him up afterwards, allowed his hands and his face and his brain to melt and burn until there were just a few bones and a pile of grey ash left. Afterwards they would have ground what remained of his bones in a mill. That’s what they did with people who were cremated, she’d read about it online. They were ground to bits. The only thing left was crumbs. Grit. Bone grit.
Zadie wanted her father to have become grit and ash.
There was another crunch. It couldn’t be him.
He was lying paralysed in a bed in Finspång.
He didn’t even know his own name.
Still, she heard herself whimper. She whirled around.
What an idiot she was!
In just one-tenth of a second she saw that it wasn’t him, of course, it wasn’t even a person with a penis, but a little granny with an old-fashioned raincoat and an umbrella, but that didn’t help. She lifted her fists anyway and rushed the old woman, who in some mysterious way had become her father, and howled:
‘YOU’RE GONNA DIE, YOU FUCKER…DIE, DIE, DIE!’
And then she shoved her. She shoved her so hard in the chest that she felt the old woman give way, but if she fell down or broke her hip or had a heart attack and died on the spot – that she didn’t know. Zadie didn’t look around; she just ran, rushed like a bloody lunatic towards the gate, the entire time feeling that he was after her, though she knew quite well that it couldn’t be him, since he was in fact paralysed and a complete vegetable and would never be able to speak or even sit up again.
She didn’t even slow down when she made it to the pavement, didn’t stop to listen for whether the granny was crying or screaming after her. Instead she continued to run, as fast as she could, until she made it down to Södra Promenaden. There she ran out of breath and heard her lungs wheezing strangely, so she stopped and bent over with her hands on her knees and tried to catch her breath.
Her hood had blown off while she was running. Her hair was wet. Her neck was cold as ice.
She didn’t give a fuck.
Norstedts, 2023, 350 pages
Foreign rights: Norstedts Agency
Nominated for Bonniers Book Clubs Book of the Year Award 2023
We are grateful to Norstedts Agency for permission to publish this translated extract.
Majgull Axelsson is a journalist and author with several bestselling works behind her. Her books have been translated into 23 languages. Reviews of her previous works can be found in SBR 2021:1, 2014:2 and 2009:2, among others.
Kathy Saranpa was born in the US and now works as a literary translator in Germany. A teacher and freelance translator of commercial texts, she caught the literary translating bug when she worked on rendering Ingrid and Joachim Wall’s A Silenced Voice into English (Amazon Crossing, 2020).