Red, Yellow and Green Lights Shine
a short story by Kerstin Ekman
Translated by Linda Schenck
Well, to begin with it’s just an ordinary Monday. Moa comes in with a big box balanced on her tummy, and I’m annoyed because I don’t know how many times I’ve told her she shouldn’t be carrying anything heavy now. Aw, this one’s so light. It’s just the manger. You and Lydia can put it up now. I’m busy with the red cabbage, just adding the corn syrup, and I don’t want it to stick.
Lydia jumps around shouting The manger! The manger! Daddy, you and I are putting up Gran’s manger! Clear off the little table and put on a pretty cloth. A red one, Lydia insists. But we can’t find a red one so I put the on beige one and tell her it will be the sand. Didn’t the whole thing take place in the Middle East?
Now we lift out the bits and pieces. Here’s the stable. It’s not wrapped in tissue paper and has an open front. Like at the theater. The theater! Lydia yells. I correct myself: It’s just so you can look in.
Unwrap another bit now, so we can see what there is. She rustles the tissue paper and out comes a figurine with a crown. And another. Rustle, rustle. Out come a monkey and two crocodiles, one big green one and one smaller one that’s brown and has gaping jaws. It’s hard plastic and I say no. Jesus loved all the animals, Lydia claims. Maybe so, but the crocodiles will have to wait outside, I say very firmly. In the desert sand. She actually gives in.
Moa said this morning that she’d been having some contractions. Contractions! Calm down was all she said. To be honest I’m terrified and chaotic inside. I can’t calm down, only externally and only barely at that. I’m scared for so terribly many reasons. That the baby might die or that Moa might or that it will be the kind of creature that has to be tube-fed for its whole life. And then there are the people in power. Insatiably wealthy with enormous arsenals of weapons and chemical warfare and even atom bombs and nuclear warheads. Mullahs, generals, Xi and Kim Jong-un and that burly fellow in mental dissolution who is supposed to be the leader of the Western world.
Is this a world for children? Will they even be able to breathe? I’m scared of everything. That woman in Yemen who sat asking over and over What did we do? What did we do? They hadn’t done anything. Yet Mohammed bin Salam still had bombs dropped on them, destroyed the houses that were their homes, killed their children. Or was it some of the Mullahs in Iran?
The next figurine has a turban and he’s black. I think carefully. You’re not allowed to swear or read about Little Black Sambo any more. So I explain he’s probably from India, which is where they wear turbans. In the old days the clergy were the ones who kept people in line, and then it was the KGB and the Stasi and McCarthyism but here and now fortunately it’s only the preschool teachers. In any case, I give her something else to think about by telling her the red gem in the turban is a ruby.
More rustle, rustle of tissue paper. The very little crib where Jesus is to lie finds its place, and Jesus’ mother Mary is seated now on a sort of stump attached to it. Soon there are a row of ordinary animals in there too, wooden horses with little yarn manes. Two gently peering cows. Sheep with neatly glued-on wool. And a second king and a man holding a black staff. I stand him just behind Mary.
Lydia doesn’t miss a trick. Is that Jesus’ daddy? Well, you might call him that. He looked after him, anyway. A bonus daddy, she proposes. Something like that. But who was his real dad, then? Wait, I say. I need to see how Mommy’s doing. She looks the same as before but a little tired and distracted and she’s stirring the red cabbage meditatively. It’s getting difficult out there, I say. She keeps asking questions. Was she like that last year? No, she’s a year older now. What’s she asking? Who was Jesus’ Daddy. Well, that is a tough one, Moa smiles. You’d better get back in there and talk your way out of it.
I try; No one is really sure who he was. It’s a secret. Someone delivered the news to Maria. Like a pizza delivery boy, Lydia asks? Or was it the mailman? Maybe so. What did he tell her? Well, that was the secret, I say. His name was Gabriel, Moa shouts from the kitchen. Jesus’ Daddy? No, the messenger. Was God the Dad? Maybe. So why didn’t he take care of him, then?
Right, my dear child, why? How am I to answer? Why did he let him be tortured and die on a cross, like one of hundreds of thousands of slaves and hundreds of thousands again.
But now Lydia says very firmly: Daddy, I want to know God’s name. His name is God of course. But she isn’t satisfied because her teacher has said there are lots of gods. Allah and others, too. Sure, I answer. But I am positive that this one’s name is God. Unwrap more of the little packets now. There’s only one left and it has angel’s hair in it, she says. That’s supposed to be on the tree. Grandma put it in the wrong box. Put the packet of angel’s air away and check if there might not be one more very little one. We haven’t found Jesus, have we? We search and search through all the tissue paper we’ve already unwrapped but we can’t find him. The box is empty. I’m totally fed up with the whole thing and flop down on the couch. Isn’t that just as symbolic as hell, I say, but quite softly.
Right then Moa comes in, waddling and bow-legged. She has both hands at the small of her back. Pale, too, and just tells me to sit up so she can put her legs and feet on my lap. Lydia’s playing with the figurines and moves the monkey and the crocodiles back into the manger. She says Jesus loved all the animals.
No, I tell her. They have to be outside. But Grandma said … that was in the old days. Now the crocodiles are all around. Us, I almost said, but stopped myself at the last moment.
Lydia’s had an idea. If the baby is born on Christmas Eve and is a boy, we can call him Jesus. No, you can’t call a child that. Of course you can, says Moa. In Spain for instance. But then they pronounce it Shay-sus.
And the baby isn’t coming until the first week in January, I say. Moa takes my hand, saying very softly that you never know. I’ve got such weird … well, contractions. Pains? I whisper, panicked. Not really, just kind of … well, I’m not really sure.
We can’t find Jesus, Lydia fusses. He’s missing. Have you really looked everywhere? Yeees! Grandma always put him in angel’s hair because he was so fragile, says Moa, and I get up and so does she. But she sits down heavily again. Moans softly. Well, not so softly really.
Lydia and I sort through the tissue paper we set aside, and find the angel’s hair. Right! There he is. Lydia is beaming as she sets him in his crib. He’s tiny and his face is pink. I see that she has put the monkey in the manger again, but it doesn’t matter. Anything but the crocodiles.
When I turn around Moa has the strangest look on her face. And she says:
My water’s burst.
Oh my God! Take it easy. I know, I know. Don’t panic. Everything is ready. Call our neighbor Berit who never goes anywhere and has promised to stay with Lydia until my mother can get there. Call my mother. When she arrives, we’ll leave. Moa pulls herself up on the couch, cursing. There’s a big wet spot on the middle seat. How could I be so stupid. Our new couch, I’ve ruined it. Relax, I say. I’ll buy a new one. Ha ha! Don’t you remember how much this one cost?
Then the whole world becomes a women’s universe. Old Berit comes in and her home help is with her because she happened to be there just then and was going home in fifteen minutes. I have to stop Moa who is on her way up the stairs to get some dry pants. I call my Mom and she arrives as promptly as the express trains used to, but by taxi. She walks up the stairs in a dignified fashion to get the little valise that’s been packed for ages and brings a pair of turquoise velour trousers down with her along with two huge pairs of white underpants Moa must have been hiding from me. And the home help unzips the couch pillow and soaks it in the kitchen sink. Mom groans, one hand on her forehead. It’s not urine, says the home help. And it won’t smell at all after it’s been washed. But use baby shampoo if you have any and wash it in lukewarm water. Of course we do. We have everything.
And finally we are ready to leave all this women’s gabble.
But we go on to a different women’s universe. The voices there are soft. After examining Moa they take us to a room with a big bed where we can lie next to each other. She’s wide open now says a woman in blue hospital trousers and lab coat, but her pains aren’t very close together yet. We’ll wait a little and see. But it’s quicker the second time around, she smiles.
Moa, who has mainly been whimpering up to now, starts groaning sometimes. I’m going nuts because I can’t remember what it was like last time. I take out my phone and look up delivery on Medline and try to read, but the letters are slithering, and I wish I was the one lying there. I really do.
Moa seems to have some idea what I’m thinking, because she says: It’s just hard work. But she can’t fool me because I was there the whole time when Lydia was born. It’s going to be terribly painful. In the end she was screaming.
So we lie there with me in a cold sweat while Moa is hot and thirsty. She doesn’t like the sweet drink they brought her. I don’t know if hours pass. I imagine they do. I’ve dozed off a minute but wake up when she says she’d like a smoothie. From the cafeteria. But I don’t want to leave her until the woman in the pale blue comes back. When she does, I run to the elevator and take it down to the ground floor. That’s when I realize it’s night now and nothing is open. Red, yellow and green lights shine from a plastic Christmas tree. No cafeteria. No smoothie. Up in the elevator again and then she’s not in the room.
Worse panic than when her water burst on the couch. But in the end a woman comes down the hall and takes me to the delivery room. There she is. Sweaty at the hairline. She gives me a little smile and there’s a bundle on her chest. It’s a boy she says. The midwife pulls back the corner of a thin, white blanket, and under a knitted cap a wrinkly little face appears. Worried, I’d be inclined to say. Which I understand.
Under the blanket is a hand with little fingers. When I touch the hand, it closes around my index finger. Trustingly. A large creature with a giant hand touches him and he trusts it not to hurt him.
I bend over and whisper into his finely creased little ear: Hi there Shay-sus.
Red, Yellow and Green Lights Shine
Natt och röda, gula, gröna lampor lyser was first published by Dagens Nyheter on Christmas day 2019. We thank Kerstin Ekman and Linda Schenck for permission to publish this translation.
Kerstin Ekman remains among the most prominent living Swedish authors, and a number of her works have appeared in SBR. Most recently, Linda Schenck’s translation from Gubba's Hage (Gubba's Field) appeared in SBR 2019:1-2.
Linda Schenck is a native English speaker who has lived in Sweden for many years. Professionally, she worked as both a conference and court interpreter and a translator of both fiction and non-fiction. Today she devotes herself entirely to literary translation. In 2018, she received The Swedish Academy Award for translation of Swedish Literature.