LET’S START HERE. One morning, September 2014.
Gusten Grippe is walking down to the waterfront. Kallsjön, Villastan: it’s been a long time since he’s come down here on his own. A few years ago he moved away from the suburb where he grew up and vowed to never come back. So what’s he doing here now, on this specific September morning at the beginning of a fall that’ll throw him back to what he’d once left behind? The right answer: nothing. No reason, no mission. He just sort of ended up here on a morning jog. Yes, sometimes he still goes running here in Villastan, drives out from the nearby suburb where he currently lives, extravagantly, in a swanky bachelor pad with two floors (this here Gusten is a real estate agent, the realtor from hell as they say, his nickname, because he’s that good). Perhaps it’s an omen, a sign, something from the sixth sense. Most likely just a coincidence, an ironic fluke.
But at one point, when Gusten was a child, this was his world: Villastan, Kallsjön, the encircling shores, the properties surrounding the lake, and the little patch of forest and the wooden footbridge that runs along the perimeter of the muddy stream that wasn’t deep or cold or dangerous or even the least bit mystical, as they’d imagined when he was little – he and his buddy Nathan. When they would stand here side-by-side, in matching caps. Squinting their eyes and fantasising, telling each other stories about all sorts of exciting things that COULD happen, even here, but the stories were left unfinished, hanging in the air, loose threads. Just open your eyes again and it was clear: mere fantasies, daydreams, without reverberation in reality – anyway, it was shallow, the water, browned by soil. And the properties around the lake – it was Gusten’s own mamma Angela who was in the habit of making these kinds of proclamations, right here on the footbridge where she and her son would go on their morning walks, almost as if it were showtime, because that’s how she was. Or is: Straight from the opera, fresh off the stage even before she even made it onto the stage. Anyone writing a biography about Angela Grippe today would assign these episodes from Gusten’s early childhood in Villastan to the first chapter, which would be titled ‘Groundwork’ and deal with the years when the then up-and-coming opera star – granted, only according to a fairly small circle of connoisseurs, of course she was no Callas singing Puccini for the masses – was diligently training her voice for her debut. Walking round and around the lake, she and her son who was four, five, then six years old (today Gusten is 26). And all of a sudden, as he’s standing here, right now, on this day, he realises that he’s still able to see it as clear as yesterday ‘…and that used to be ours and so was that, and that too,’ Angela on the narrow footbridge shouting, pointer finger darting around in all directions across the unwieldy, densely reeded beaches. ‘And that…’ Since she wanted to communicate that at one point, at the dawn of time, all of the land around the lake had belonged to her extended family – something that Gusten himself, back when he was still little, didn’t know if it was actually true or a joke or…which was something else she was good at, mamma Angela, putting things in different ways, since the actual circumstances of Gusten’s childhood produced pretty scant evidence for this grandiose landownership in the family. For as long as Gusten could remember, he and Angela lived one-on-one in the same little two-room apartment in a high-rise in the centre of Villastan – the only high-rise there was at that time (naturally in Villastan you would live in a villa, it’s fancy there) and he’d also never met or spent time with any relatives. Still, he liked the little game, he was in on the joke. ‘All of this was ours!’ Mamma Angela on the footbridge, pointing, laughing, and he’s laughing too, it happens again and again, because this anecdote was repeated in the same way in this exact spot, at an opening in the reeds next to a slab of rock that you could step up onto and get a clear view of the lake and the beaches. And of course, he knew what came next: Angela would let her pointer finger halt in the direction of the beach in the middle, somewhere in between the Crow Ship (that’s what the Häggerts’ house was called) and the long bathhouse-equipped dock at the Grawell’s home for troubled girls (note that these two spots were the only visible buildings on the lake), in an almost jungle-dense alder tree grove… After which she’d lower her voice to an obvious whisper that he could sink into like in an old rhyme, if he wanted to: ‘And there, yeah right there…that’s where the shack is, where the Stablemaster lived with his wife and daughter’ – a theatrical pause, and a wink at Gusten: ‘The Stablemaster’s daughter, Gusten, the gifted girl. So my father, a real good-for-nothing even though he was kind-hearted, was keen to support her…while we still had money, of course. Since he later lost most of it speculating on bad investments.
Even from the beginning I mean. Paid for her schooling, made sure she had everything that she needed. Extremely talented, forward-thinking, this daughter, absolutely brilliant, but as they say, of slender means.’ And then, simultaneously, on the footbridge, an audible rustling in the bushes, the sounds of steps and voices approaching, and Angela perking up, reviving. ‘A real high achiever, Gusten, and her name was –
Annelise!’ they call out in tandem. ‘Annelise’ like an invocation; as luck would have it, she would usually show up at precisely that moment, right on time, Annelise Häggert, her dear friend of many years. She’d be walking towards them on the narrow footbridge from the opposite direction with her son Nathan in tow, and there would be many happy exclamations, well hello there, the ritual of cheek-kisses between the women, because of course the whole point is that Angela Grippe and Annelise Häggert are the best of friends, former classmates in this very town even though their respective career paths have sent them in different directions in life, busy, busy life, which they often talk about in exactly that way. But at this moment in time, in Gusten’s early childhood, Annelise was the one who travelled the globe as a speaker and lecturer at symposiums and conferences – she’s a corporate lawyer and an economist and a board member, who’s just gone through her first job as a CEO even though she’s only 27, and she’s also a newly appointed professor in economics at one of the country’s premier universities. Meanwhile Angela is more stationary. She won a big international competition in the world of classical music, but nothing’s really happened since, which, granted, is nothing out of the ordinary. For an operatic voice to reach its full potential it needs first to mature and be honed and trained away from every spotlight and stage light; this means staying at home and, under the guidance of skilled pedagogues, practicing and practicing to prepare that voice for the opera stage. Which is where, again, she will come to gain recognition primarily as an interpreter of the postmodern tradition, for example of the works of the experimental composer duo Schuck & Gustafson. Right now, in THIS present, in the autumn of 2014, Angela Grippe is making a splash in the lead role in the premiere of Dissections of the Dark Part III at one of the small opera houses in Vienna. Where, by the way, Gusten recently saw her, on stage, over the weekend – accompanied by a friend, Saga-Lill (his ex-girlfriend, Emmy Stranden’s best friend, whom he has lured into a – let’s face it – far from frictionless on-and-off sexual relationship after Emmy left him for someone else – it’s been almost three years ago now, and he’s still not over it).
But back to childhood and the narrow footbridge. Back to Annelise, and her son Nathan. Nathan Häggert, Annelise’s and Albinius ‘Abbe’ Häggert’s only child, same age as Gusten, and therefore, due to the long-running friendship of their mothers, also Gusten’s childhood friend and schoolmate throughout the Villastan years, right up to the end, the penultimate year of high school, which ends in catastrophe.
Yes. Catastrophe. No exaggeration – there’s no glossing over or redeeming it either. Everything crashes and burns. For good. And just as clearly: it’s his fault. And (most of all) Nathan’s.
‘Brutal gang rape in Annelise Häggert’s home.’
‘Young woman tortured for hours in the basement of luxury house in upscale suburb.’
‘The four perpetrators, the “golden boys”, all schoolmates from the same crew.’
‘Nathan Häggert was singled out as the instigator.’
Nathan. But still here, in childhood, he’s just Little Nathan, the straggler. And yes, sure, he is still small at the time. ‘He could almost fit inside a matchbox,’ the two mothers laugh, all smiles and laughter on the footbridge. Small, pale, and quiet.
Here he comes at last, peering out from beneath his cap (which for some reason will inspire Gusten to nag his mother when they get home ‘I want one too!’ – and be given one).
But he will grow into himself – and that silence will cease even as it eerily lingers.
Time – Nathan who’s dancing, dancing alone on a huge floor, to that music, to Prince, always Prince, Nathan loves Prince –
And he opens his eyes mid-dance, spots you, and yells – there’s no getting away from Nathan – ‘GRIPPEE!’
Later in his teens, Nathan with his first real love (who leaves him). Sascha, that’s her name, she’s new to the school, from the Grawell girls’ home.
No, I’ve X’d you out of my world (that’s what Gusten currently thinks).
There’s no other way.
Like this moment on the footbridge: full stop. The women’s laughter fades into memory, dies out. Everything’s changed, nothing remains.
The house across the bay that peeks out between the trees. The Häggert house. Not a sound to be heard. The Crow Ship. These days it’s dilapidated: broken windows on the top floor. Grass and saplings encroaching around it, debris covering the yard. Like a fucking monument (but to what?) – The house is an organism, like a Crow Ship moving in the dark… At the same time he’s always going to remember, that feeling, it’s back again, imposing: how he loved that house.
Like a Crow Ship at dusk – that’s what he would think when he was a child, young – fascinated by the flashy architecture, an entirely unique style. Its simultaneously unparalleled and subdued luxury…elusive, when seen from the opposite shore, yes from this exact spot, at a few hundred feet’s distance from this chunk of rock poking out of the reeds, the one he and Nathan used to climb up on to survey the shores –
And make up stories:
The house is an organism (a childhood rhyme)
Like a Crow Ship moving in the dark
Attic, living room and cellar
The boy in the attic, The boy in the cellar
The house that
Two boys in identical caps
Who were friends (and their mothers, Angela and Annelise, so proud of that friendship).
Two boys in caps (or The Interchangeables, one of the games they’d play).
Making a pact to each other.
Nathan on the boulder as he gazes at the house that is his home, at a distance (a childhood memory): ‘I’m gonna be an architect. What are you gonna be, Grippe?’
Gusten, after a moment of hesitation, because he suddenly feels so strangely hollow, empty, clears his throat: ‘I don’t know.’
And then, later, in their teens, he too ends up living in that house, sometimes for long stints at the end of middle school and in high school. It’s his own choice – he doesn’t want to trail after his mom from city to city, stage to stage, across the continent where the songstress’s career finally begins to pick up. He wants to stay in Villastan, go to school here, stay with his friends, stay with everything that’s familiar.
‘But of course,’ says Nathan’s mom Annelise. ‘Absolutely. Our doors are always open for you, Gusten.’
The house is an organism
Attic, living room and cellar –
A Crow Ship moving in the twilight
There, somewhere in the middle, in the kitchen, for a short time, that final autumn before everything comes crashing down, there’s music playing. Standard opera music. There’s Gusten, and Annelise (when she’s home), at the kitchen table, one on one.
‘What a frozen little hand, madame.’
Two poor bohemians in Paris singing Verdi.
‘For,’ mamma sometimes used to say, ‘the great masses.’
‘But Gusten,’ says Annelise in the kitchen – ‘it’s not much fun to ONLY sing those experimental works like “Dissections of the Dark.”’
(a little laugh)
‘INTERESTING music, Gusten, but what does it have to do with us?
I’m saying: isn’t the whole point of music for it to touch US in our hearts?’
She turns up the volume.
‘You have touched my hand, madame.’
And he takes it –
while a hard bassline thumps on in the basement – Nathan, and sometimes Sascha, are there, in his atrium, during this final fall.
But whatever – memories, fantasies – it’s all over now (life has moved on, there’s nothing left).
Annelise is dead, taken by an aggressive cancer, it happened in August two years ago. Just one name in the obituary: Loved and Missed, your son Nathan.
‘You know, Gusten, it feels like being a survivor. But the price for surviving is becoming a parody of yourself.’
Mamma, filling up the entire computer screen, in a turban and big, round sunglasses (her and Gusten have been Skyping with each other this summer; she’s at the Secret Spot, her ‘secret’ summer home where she usually stays during the increasingly rare occasions when she’s in her old home country. She has a new life now, a new house, a dog, and someone she lives with, who’s known as the Partner).
Mamma. That skin, her skin, wrinkled, stretched, leathery. How old is she now? (The answer, after straining to remember: the same as Annelise when she dies, about 52.)
In the years following the catastrophe Annelise and Nathan lived alone in the Crow Ship. Pappa Albinius ‘Abbe’ had left, abandoned them. Anneliese’s own career was in the gutter. ‘The higher you climb, the further you fall,’ Angela sometimes said on the rare instance when Annelise’s name came up, though without calling what happened by its proper name. Angela never mentioned the beating, the gang rape –
just (and only if she absolutely had to) ‘that thing.’
All those years afterwards, after the contact between her and Annelise – and Nathan and Gusten, and Gusten and Annelise – was, and would remain, broken (and after Sascha Anckar, the rape victim, had died from drugs somewhere in the USA).
Yes, and psst, there’s something about Annelise that must be cleared up, too: that the Stablemaster, the Stablemaster’s daughter that Angela went on and on about on the narrow footbridge during their walks when Gusten was little: it indeed was just a way of saying something else. No, there was no Stablemaster with a family; there was never a family in the first place. Because Annelise married Häggert (one of the illustrious family names in Villastan) – at one point the whole town’s mascot and favourite pet thanks to that brilliant career of hers that reflected so well on all of them, voted Woman of the Year, Businesswoman of the Year, Fredrika of the Year, Ulrika of the Year, and so on – well, in reality she was an orphan, raised at the Grawell Orphanage, the orphanage that also used to be down there by the lake. A girl from Grawell’s in other words. Though when Sascha lived there for a while, many years later, from the autumn of 2007 and a bit into the spring 2008 up until the catastrophe, Grawell’s was no longer an orphanage but a privately run youth care facility for at-risk girls and young women, who for various reasons could not live at home, or had no home. Like Sascha for example, who – as a result of various criminal activities, such as shoplifting and drug use – had been kicked out of the home she shared with her father. (‘I mean , the old man,’ she said, ‘fucking pimp.’)
Nathan stayed in the house. Still lives there. Oh no, no, no…they don’t see each other, him and Nathan, they have no contact, absolutely not, but of course Gusten knows what’s up, it’s part of the job since he works in real estate. He’s kept in the loop thanks to another childhood friend by the name of Cosmo Brant. Who’s always calling, writing, asking to hang out. And dragging him down here to Kallsjön.
‘The house is called Bad Karma or The Careless Life. Right, Grippe? You remember?’
Gusten doesn’t say anything, but of course he remembers.
‘And Gusten…’ Cosmo continues, once the least-likely-to-succeed guy in this glorious group of bright young things in Villastan that they were members of (although Cosmo was mostly a hanger-on) – now a film producer (perhaps the most successful and famous of them all; it started already in film school and now he both directs and produces documentaries and feature films, has his own production company, travels to festivals, wins prizes).
And the sole member of this friend group that Gusten is still in touch with, for some reason (perhaps because Cosmo absolutely wants to keep in touch, even after he’s made it big in the film business).
‘…Sometimes all that old stuff is just TOO MUCH…’
Cosmo with his fey but deliberately disguised Truman Capote voice (with its own boisterous tone) in one of their phone conversations. Or when they walk around Villastan, down to Kallsjön – which is something they actually do, not often, but sometimes – because Cosmo is gonna come here anyway, and make him come with in order to be able to speak to the facts of the matter.
And in that moment Cosmo transforms himself, becomes someone else once again, someone other than the film buff he is now, someone valid, seen, with a stable identity and therefore some social standing in the world.
Instead of this: who he was then (the one you made fun of, mocked, taunted and howled at). A figure who, against all odds (he was bullied a lot, especially by Nathan), possessed an admirable energy and toughness, madness, stubbornness even at that time; had a hundred start-ups going on at the ‘office’ at home at Brant’s Bend, where the whole Brant clan had their villas and houses, in the western parts of Villastan (and where there was also, at the ‘office’, a film club for the exclusively invited where art films were shown, Haneke, Pasolini – that kind of stuff).
An Entrepreneur at Heart.
A stubborn little man in a boy’s body.
That’s how he dressed too – ‘relaxed‘ in a suit and tightly tied tie made of genuine silk (a very expensive brand).
An Entrepreneur at Heart, that’s what it said on the business card he had made 500 copies of at some supermarket machine. Which of course (for some people) was further reason to laugh and taunt.
At the same time, when Gusten thought of Cosmo he (also) thought of a vacuum cleaner.
Eyes and ears wanting to suck up everything –
Once upon a time there was an ugly mug that pressed up against windowpanes, locked doors, walls in order to hear, see, snap up.
One who suckedupsuckedupsuckedup – what use was it? Cosmo, the guy least likely to succeed, the closeted gay bullied to bits in school (and outside of school, by his friends, Nathan most of all).
Sissy Stefan until he changed his name. It was Nathan who called him that, right before he punched Cosmo in the jaw so hard that Cosmo ended up in the hospital.
And once Cosmo got out of the hospital he changed his name.
To: Cosmo fuckin Brant (‘sounds almost cosmological, Grippe, doesn’t it?’)
But now, this morning in September, again.
The house. Visible between the trees – as placid as the lake, like the strong sense of timelessness down here. The Crow Ship. Dark windows, no movement in the yard, nothing. Decay – you can imagine –
shining all around
(The careless life, worthless) –
‘Almost like a rape…in such ruins. Don’t you think, Grippe?’
‘Just think about it, Grippe…Nathan actually still lives there, in the middle of all that shit’ (says Cosmo Brant).
‘And sometimes, Grippe, it’s as if everything just washes over you. All that old stuff, you know…So. What should we do Grippe?’
‘Should we just let the old dog sleep, Grippe?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The film…it could be called “Bad Karma”, for example. Or “The Girl in the Basement”, obviously also a clever metaphor. And it would be about, well, you see where I’m going Grippe.’
‘No, wait, now I know,’ Cosmo continues. ‘“Who Killed Bambi?” You know – the deer. That perfect innocence…Who Killed Bambi, it’s an old Sex Pistols song, too.
‘You get it?’
‘THE SILENCE. It’s so calm again, such a smooth surface – ’
Cosmo throws a rock
And then bloop bloop
The surface cracked for just a moment. And then it was quiet again.
‘What about Nathan? You think I’m afraid of him?’
Suddenly Gusten feels his heart starting to pound, the adrenaline rising. And, it hits him again again again: No , seriously, I have nothing to do with this.
And Gusten Grippe, 26, all grown up now, successful realtor and so on – turns on his heel, sets off –
The phone dings, a text. Thanks for a lovely weekend! Saga-Lill. And for a moment Gusten wanders through the memory of night: softness, darkness, bodies and closeness – they have good sex, him and Saga-Lill, but –
there’s nothing else
not during the day, not here.
He swipes the message away, doesn’t respond.
The spell has been broken. Gusten runs on into the morning.
This is an excerpt from Who Killed Bambi?, published in 2019 in Swedish by Förlaget (Finland)/Bonniers (Sweden).
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Bradley Harmon is a writer, translator and scholar of Nordic and German literature. His translations have appeared in journals such as Poetry, Astra, Firmament, Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Plume, Words Without Borders, and Swedish Book Review, among others. In 2021 he was invited to attend the Översättargruvan translation workshop in Sweden. In 2022 his translation of Roskva Koritzinsky’s ‘I Haven’t Yet Seen the World’ was awarded second place for the Anne Frydman Translation Prize and published in the Chicago Review. He lives in Baltimore and is a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, where he also co-organizes the JHU Translation Circle and has taught classes in German, philosophy, literature, and gender studies.