In the Shadow of Memory

Picture credit: Daniel Álvasd

What happened the morning after Kjelläna’s funeral was an omen I’ll never understand. It was dark, as there was little sunlight for months on end. Having lived here all my life didn’t make it any easier.

I remembered bumping into bewildering syllables or grammar I couldn’t grasp. Words tripped me up. Lately, “funeral” was a word which did just that. I kept seeing “real fun” in it. Oh how hellish!

The morning after Kjelläna’s funeral… a miserable Friday morning. Pitch-black when I woke up. My bladder was bursting and I dragged myself to the bathroom. My mind still full of images of Kjelläna: of her laughing, dancing and singing in our garden; of her cooking in the kitchen, listening to Pärt, and murmuring to herself; of her lying in her coffin, ashen-faced, frowning ever so slightly, absolutely somewhere else.

Just look. Leaves densely packed together in different shades of brown, giving body to a stately beech tree in autumnal grandeur. The tree spreads its crown wide. With generosity. The sky, the field and the horizon are gradations of greens and blues. Light and shadows; it is a world.

Yes, the morning after Kjelläna’s funeral… I stood in front of the toilet bowl for ages, but didn’t pass a single drop. I squeezed and cajoled. Nothing. I tried imagining which muscle to use, and got thoroughly confused. Then I sat on the toilet seat to see if that would work. No, it didn’t make a blind bit of difference! Nothing came, despite my bladder’s urge to get rid of its contents. I sat for a long time before giving up. My bladder was still full, but the need for release had mercifully disappeared.

Since that day, I never had a proper pee. At first I was plagued by fear, but gradually I got used to it. I gave up tea, coffee and beer. Couldn’t not drink water though, but my body kept it all in, like it was a bottomless reservoir. And I accepted it with good grace.

The beech leaves are rustling in the breeze, but the sound is faint. Occasionally the frame shifts, albeit only slightly. Looking with undivided attention, something can be seen. The shape of a life? A meaning?

The morning after Kjelläna’s funeral was an omen. Three months on, I realised that my bladder was changing during the last year of Kjelläna’s life. I wasn’t aware of it then, because nursing her demanded all my energy. I only had to go for a pee once or twice a day; it was often a trickle instead of the usual voluminous flow. It didn’t bother me until the trickle vanished altogether the day after the funeral. But I didn’t want to see the doctor. I remembered the shock I felt when Kjelläna was given her diagnosis. At first we both thought it was something simple. After all she only had a few fainting spells. Nothing serious, surely! When the judgement was pronounced I nearly burst out swearing. God, I should’ve left well alone! Why on earth did I persuade Kjelläna to go to the doctor!

The whole thing turned into a total mess. But it quickly became an unremarkable part of a barren landscape, like much else in my life. Many words were used during that time by the medics, all long and unpronounceable, which made no impression on me. I didn’t want to be tripped up by those words. And dust soon settled over the mess.

Dust always played a pivotal role in my life. Before Kjelläna, my existence was dustily subconscious, mere execution of computational routines. It was a rude awakening for me when Kjelläna appeared. I fell fearfully in love, head over heels. She took the decisive step, although I was eleven years her senior. I had no experience; she was the first woman I went out with. But I couldn’t shake off the dust.

In the bluish-green field stood a heavy-looking chair with light-yellow upholstery. Although rather pale, an episcopal emblem on the back of the chair is visible, giving the chair an austere appearance, in contrast to the natural simplicity of the beech tree behind.

After Kjelläna’s death, Sølveig visited less often. I wasn’t surprised; she was closer to Kjelläna than to me. I met her when she was nine. Kjelläna was twenty-three, the big sister. Sølveig lived with us because both their parents died shortly before Kjelläna and I got married. Sølveig was a difficult child; she didn’t talk much. I was awkward with her, but it got easier after she started high school. She made some friends and became more comfortable with herself.

Early on in our relationship, Kjelläna made it clear she didn’t want me to keep in touch with Mirreni, my sister. I didn’t know why she disliked my sister so much. (Come to think of it, I’m not sure if this had anything to do with dislike as such.) I didn’t ask questions, for fear of her telling me something I couldn’t cope with. So there was complete silence between Kjelläna and me regarding Mirreni. And, sure enough, dust gradually gathered round my sister. To my eternal shame.

Kjelläna was forty-five when she died. After the diagnosis, she suffered the humiliation of becoming incontinent and lost her mobility rapidly. Her deterioration was heartrending. I was deeply troubled by a passage I came across in the Bible: Rabbi, why was he born blind, who sinned, this man or his parents? I was horrified when this first hit me. Did I doubt the innocence of my wife?

Kjelläna lingered on in agony for months. I gave up my job to look after her. I felt hatred towards God, even though I was sure there was no God. Very quickly Kjelläna seemed to have gone somewhere else, often not noticing me. It hurt, but I didn’t mind. My love for her never faltered. During that year, my sister came into my head a lot. But I couldn’t bring her up. In any case, Mirreni was already dead for five years, and there was no point raking up the past. My parents had never forgiven me for not attending my sister’s funeral.

Three white paper cranes are hanging separately on fine dark threads, swinging motionlessly in front of the beech tree, to the right of the episcopal seat. The smallest one nearly touches the ground. In the shadow of memory, light passes through gaps in the leaves, shimmering. 

Widowerhood – is that the word? – should’ve been unremarkable and bland. That would suit me: the continuation of my dull and uneventful life. No plot, no drama, just heading inexorably towards a dull and uneventful end. But yesterday, three months after Kjelläna’s death, the unfathomable future broke into my unremarkable past, scattering dust everywhere. I wasn’t sure what time it was when I woke up with deep angst from a slippery dream. I tried to hold on to it, but it disappeared straight away. It was baffling how the mind could lose something so blatantly. I had an inkling of a dark place, but nothing else. Agitated, I lay in my bed, staring at the painting on the opposite wall.

Are the paper cranes really swinging, or are they not in a tableau that moves ever so slightly? Or perhaps someone is getting impatient?

Before she gave up teacher training, Kjelläna wanted to teach art at school. I didn’t know the details, but she’d suffered some serious health problem and couldn’t continue with her studies. She never talked about it, and I felt unable to ask questions. Gradually I realised she was often plagued by depression. From time to time, she’d lie in bed, not eating and not doing anything. She’d never worked – not properly. She helped out for a month in the office I was working in and that was where I met her. After we got married I changed job, because I’d been finding it hard to cope with office life. I became a lorry driver instead, and was happier. I worked more or less on my own. Whenever I was doing a long-distance delivery and had to stay overnight in the cabin of my lorry, I’d be content with my books and my radio.

Bereavement was a strange beast. Sometimes it attacked you, other times it’d go quiet, caressing you with numb indifference. To my surprise, I found the latter more difficult than the fury, as if indifference would rob Kjelläna of her humanity. I always believed death was the end of everything. But the sense of Kjelläna being diminished after death by my indifference was something I couldn’t handle. And the word indifference began to bother me no end.

A small drawing of a leafless tree rests upright against the back of the bishop’s chair, and an acoustic guitar hovers high up in the air, to the left of the beech tree. Music could be heard, if a way of listening is found.

My mind was still elsewhere when the doorbell went. It was Sølveig.

“You look unwell,” I said to her while handing her a glass of water.

She nodded, “I’m exhausted.”

“Something’s happened?”

“No,” she said. “I mean, yes. Last night. I had a dream and you walked straight into it. I couldn’t sleep afterwards.”

“You dreamed about me?” I wasn’t sure what to make of this.

“No, it didn’t feel like dreaming. You just walked in! I can’t explain it. Everything was real.” She paused.

“What was it about?” I asked, mildly alarmed.

“I was arguing with Kjelläna. It was dark. She was very weak. And then you walked in. I mean… I don’t know what I mean, but you actually walked into where I was, like, my bedroom, like it wasn’t a dream. I knew it was a dream but it wasn’t. It was real. Do you know what I mean?”

“Sorry, Sølveig, you’ve lost me.” I felt uneasy.

She had a sip of water, and went on, “I wasn’t sure why Kjelläna was so angry. She was shouting and bawling, like I’d done something unforgivable. She was crying, and I couldn’t hear her.” She stopped, tears in her eyes.

I tried to calm her down. “Sølveig, it’s alright, it’s only a dream!”

“No, it isn’t.” She looked at me through her tears, “It’s real!”

In all the years I had known Sølveig I’d never seen her cry. Kjelläna told me that as a child, Sølveig never sought comfort when she hurt herself, not even from her parents, or her big sister. I started to feel anxious.

“You were there!” She said. I flinched, as if she was accusing me of something.

The blue is intense. Is it the bluebell that makes the field so blue? The episcopal chair remains reticent. Will the paper cranes fly away? If they do, what would the beech tree say?

Sølveig was still sobbing. “Her shouting wasn’t the worst, it was what she said that hurt me most.”

I waited, my heart thumping, a fear brewing fast in my head.

“And then she said something so awful I shouted back you’re my sister, not my mother, you’ve no right telling me what to do!

In a flash my dream came back – I was stunned.

“She threw a glass of water at me, shouting of course I’m your mother, but I should’ve got an abortion instead!”

Yes, I was there! I was in her dream! No – they were in my dream! My mind went blank.

Sølveig stopped, staring at me. I tried hard to concentrate.

“It was only a dream, Sølveig,” I repeated, lamely.

Sølveig left home at eighteen. She went to university but later dropped out. She didn’t come back to live with us though, and managed to make a life for herself. Kjelläna was agitated and worried, but gradually I was able to calm her down. She’s an adult now! I kept saying. Then Sølveig got a bank loan and opened an art shop in the city centre. Despite a difficult start, her business thrived. And we felt relieved.

The three paper cranes are alert and attentive, as if an important announcement will shortly be made.

After a few moments’ awkward silence, Sølveig got up, paced around and stopped by the mantelpiece. “Was she my mother?”

“No, of course not!”

She didn’t move. 

“I didn’t have the chance to see your parents much, but I know for sure they were your mum and dad.” I tried to sound authoritative.

She didn’t say anything. I tried again, “Look, Kjelläna was so close to you, why would she keep you in the dark about something so important?”

Sølveig was quiet for a while. And then she sat down. “No, we were never close.”

She wasn’t wrong. I knew they weren’t close.

After a moment, she continued, more like talking to herself. “I always had the feeling she hated me. Now I know why.”

“No!” I shouted, barely hiding my irritation. “Your sister loved you like a mother did her daughter, but she wasn’t your mum!”

“We were never close.” She repeated.

“Sølveig,” I tried my best to be reasonable, “Kjelläna was a kind person. She never hated you! You know that!”

“We were never close.” She closed her eyes.

I could feel she was distraught, and wanted to give her a hug. But that wasn’t the done thing. I’d never seen Kjelläna hug her. Whenever I tried to hug Kjelläna, she’d only let me do so occasionally. And she’d make sure I knew I was allowed to do it on sufferance.

“I never knew… who I was,” Sølveig said, as if murmuring in a dream. “Not even now.”

Bewildered by her distress, I wanted to say something comforting, but my mind had stopped working.

Are the paper cranes the centre of attention? Or the episcopal chair? Is the chair saying there’s something absent, something graceful that should be here? There’s disappointment in the air, but the beech tree is content to wait stoically.

I stole a look at Sølveig. She was lost in a reverie, with her eyes tightly shut. For a moment, all I could hear was the hurried ticking of the clock. It was nearly midday.

Suddenly she opened her eyes. “Kjelläna said you knew everything!”

My heart jumped! Yes, in my dream Kjelläna did say I knew she was Sølveig’s mother: I remembered feeling flabbergasted.

Sølveig looked me in the eye, “She said she’d told you everything. That was why she didn’t want any more children.”

Was that the reason? How would I be able to find out? I had long given up hope of becoming a father, as Kjelläna never let me near her. Our love life was largely confined to verbal endearments. Occasionally she did allow me to hold her while we fell asleep, but normally there was clear blue water between us down the middle of the bed.

“Kjelläna was always angry with me,” Sølveig said without rancour, as if merely stating a self-evident truth.

I tried my best to listen attentively, but my mind was wandering. I was exhausted and sleepy, and could hardly keep my eyes open.

She stared into the distance, and continued. “I remember one Sunday morning many years ago.” She stopped, pondering.

I waited.

Then Sølveig stood up and paced around, before turning to me. “That Sunday morning, mum and dad were too tired to go to church and told Kjelläna to take me to Sunday school. She did. But she said nothing while we walked the mile or so between our house and the church.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and began to feel nervous. Sølveig must’ve seen the expression on my face – she shook her head and said, while sitting down, “No, nothing happened.”

My sleepiness was getting difficult to resist.

She paused a little, and then said, “But I could feel something horrible sizzling underneath Kjelläna’s blank face when she came back to fetch me. I wanted to hold her hand while walking home, but she resolutely kept both her hands in her coat pockets the whole time.” 

I felt awkward, not knowing what to say. Fortunately Sølveig didn’t seem to expect any response from me. We stayed in silence for a long while before she spoke again. I desperately wanted to go back to bed.

“She was…” Sølveig began to say something, but I couldn’t hear her words, as if I’d gone deaf. At the same time, a strange sensation rose in my belly and I began to feel hot in my face.

“It wasn’t much… otherwise…” Sølveig was still speaking, but I was unable to make sense of her words.

Suddenly I felt numb on the left side of my body. And for a split second I had the terrifying thought I was suffering a stroke, but instantly I realised I wasn’t. It was a disturbing memory that had gate-crashed into my head. Something sinister was ballooning, blocking my hearing and my thinking. In no time it turned into a hurricane tearing through my mind. And the brute facts of the memory tumbled into my consciousness. I gasped.

It was a trip I made to deliver a lorryful of electronic components to the other side of the country, three years before Kjelläna died. It was nearly midnight when I arrived at my destination, and had to wait till seven the next morning before the factory opened. A restless desire somehow took hold of me and I locked my lorry and went to a well-known red-light district in town. There were several women standing in the shadow of alleyways as I walked by furtively. Suddenly one of them stepped out and grabbed my arm, whispering something in a lewd voice. I shuddered, my heart beating wildly and my face turned red. For a moment I wanted to follow her; but abruptly I swore and struggled free, and walked away briskly, with the women’s laughter trailing behind me.

It’s a wonder to see an ancient beech tree so at ease with an episcopal chair; almost a sign of peace.

“You knew everything!” Sølveig’s urgent statement was hammering my ears. I came to my senses and saw her watching me with an anxious look. But my head was still shrouded in cotton wool and intense shame.

“She said she told you everything. You knew everything.” She repeated. Indeed an accusation.

“No, Sølveig. Nothing of the sort had ever happened. It was only a bad dream!” I said, my voice cracking.

She continued to look at me. As if trying to work out whether I was telling the truth.

“Please don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” I regretted as soon as these words tumbled out of my mouth.

We sat in silence, trapped in a trance.

Then I shook my head vigorously and tried again. “Sølveig, we’ve just lost Kjelläna. It’s normal to have nightmares about it.”

At the back of my mind, I was telling myself I mustn’t let on I had exactly the same dream.

Tears were forming in Sølveig’s eyes, and I couldn’t bear watching her cry. “Let me make you a coffee,” I said, and went into the kitchen without waiting for her reply. I was desperate for some breathing space.

Five years into my marriage, I wanted to go and speak to the priest and ask for an annulment. In the end I never did. Things between Kjelläna and me hadn’t changed. One long winter after another came and went, and my heart gradually froze. My desire to do something about the marriage soon disappeared. Kjelläna and I found it hard to talk about intimate feelings, and I got the impression she’d taken for granted this was what normal married life was like. My consolation was I continued to feel a deep love for her, and our life together was, to be fair, not an unhappy one. In fact, a year or so prior to her falling terminally ill, her mood seemed to have lightened, and she’d taken to singing and dancing in our garden, though never with me. I was happy to see her happy. There’s always mystery in any marriage – the bond between husband and wife can never be explained, or explained away.

Paper cranes are memories. If they fly away, memories will vanish. The beech tree remains impeccably patient, bearing witness to whatever the paper cranes might wish to say.

Sølveig was lost in thought when I brought her the coffee. I sat with her, waiting apprehensively.

At long last she said, “My world’s been shattered, and I don’t know how to pick up the pieces…” She stopped, and then continued, “I’ve never seen my birth certificate. If Kjelläna was my mother, who was my father?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“I have to find out who my father was!”

I could see she was tormenting herself. Promise me, don’t let Sølveig come to any harm! The last thing Kjelläna said to me before she lapsed into a coma which ended in her death. She was so weak I could hardly make out her words. At the very last moment, she wasn’t thinking about me but about her young sister. Twenty-two years of marriage was impossible to describe in a sentence or two. In the end, it was rather like old habits that would never change. Like the arctic weather of this northern land. You’d wonder what the point was after all.

Sølveig stared at me. “Could you help me find my birth certificate?”

I didn’t want to do that.

“Sølveig, I don’t think it’s here, I’ve never seen it.” It wasn’t a lie.

“But my mum and dad – I mean, Kjelläna’s parents – must have given her my birth certificate.” She was insistent.

I couldn’t fathom why she was so sure about the truth of her dream. But did I not have the same dream?

“Please, you must help me.” She pleaded. “You must!”

“Okay, I’ll have a look, but I think it’s best you leave it. It’s just a dream.” Then I added, “After all, dreams are meaningless.”

Later on last night, I dreamed about trying to find my way out of a desert. Everything was parched. My thirst unquenchable. Suddenly a white paper crane, rising from a sand dune, flew past, lonely and lost. In the dream I was thinking to myself: That must be one of Kjelläna’s paper cranes, she’s still making them!

This morning I was wakened up by a distinct sense of being watched. Feeling groggy, I looked around in alarm. And then realised it was the painting of the three paper cranes glaring at me. The painting seemed to have changed overnight – the colours were not quite how I remembered them, and the position of everything had subtly shifted. What troubled me most was the feeling that the picture was accusing me of something. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

While getting out of bed, I remembered my promise to Sølveig about her birth certificate, and reluctantly spent the morning looking through every box, drawer and cupboard in the house, but found nothing. Then a thought flashed through my head. The teddy bear! That was what Kjelläna kept by her pillow for years.

I took a penknife and cut open the teddy bear’s belly. And there it was, a piece of paper folded into a small paper crane. I unravelled it carefully. Yes, Sølveig’s birth certificate. Mother’s name: Kjelläna Weg. But it was blank under “father’s name”. She was only fourteen.

My head started spinning, and I stared at her name for a long time, not sure if I really knew her.

Without warning, a sharp pain ripped through my abdomen, and I realised my bladder couldn’t hold out any longer. The reservoir burst its banks, and water came rushing out, like the Great Flood…

Chin Li

About Chin Li

Chin Li, born and brought up in Hong Kong and now living in Scotland, has published poetry, short fiction and other work in Big Fiction Magazine, Confluence, Glasgow Review of Books, Gnommero, Gutter, Ink Sweat & Tears, Litro, MAP, Southword and Visual Verse, and has turned some writings into audio pieces, the most recent of which are three audio short stories broadcast by the Glasgow-based art radio station Radiophrenia in May 2019, November 2020 and February 2022 respectively. Chin Li worked as an NHS clinical psychologist for many years before turning to writing full-time in 2015.

Chin Li, born and brought up in Hong Kong and now living in Scotland, has published poetry, short fiction and other work in Big Fiction Magazine, Confluence, Glasgow Review of Books, Gnommero, Gutter, Ink Sweat & Tears, Litro, MAP, Southword and Visual Verse, and has turned some writings into audio pieces, the most recent of which are three audio short stories broadcast by the Glasgow-based art radio station Radiophrenia in May 2019, November 2020 and February 2022 respectively. Chin Li worked as an NHS clinical psychologist for many years before turning to writing full-time in 2015.

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