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In These Dark Woods
by Frederick Kwesi Great Agboletey
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In These Dark Woods
I have lived in this land for well over twelve years rolling on to thirteen. There is a quietness of an odd kind hat belies its sparse populated vastness. Long dark winters and an adaptation to low population density has made the people to the outsider a reserved and quite sort, standoffish and cold. It might seem the cold has frozen their mouths shut; on the other hand words carry a lot of weight in this place and are carefully weighed before uttered. It would seem people here speak just enough and no more. In between is the loaded silence and impressed meanings.
I met Astor through a small church that had assembled together a group of locals and a few spattering of foreigners who desperately needed a gathering to torch their faith through Christian worship. He has a man who looked the better side of sixty but as always in this land where long life is the norm rather than the exception he has the better side of seventy. A stout, well built man, who still in maturity of gentle ageing indicated strength of musculature well beyond the norm. He was quite, with a benign smile plastered on his face, at times absent minded in appearance. His wife was the chatty type and they had in tow a well rounded four- year old, their grandson.
The church was an independent charismatic set up, whose leader was a man who believed and with practical emphasis believed that a church group needed good “fika”; that is coffee and cakes after services to hold itself together as a functional and well heeled group. Coffee break is a definitive aspect of Swedish social life and is invariably a part of any social activity from school meetings to board meetings and any of the innumerable group activities from the housewives nursing a hot, strong brew to share the latest gossip to the workers drowning themselves in these stout, dark brews not meant for weak stomachs. Coffee, normally goes together with “bulla” a sweet, aromatic seasoned cup cake of sorts, twisted in a unique mold. It was during one of those after church coffee breaks that I happened to share seat with Astor and the wife and their chubby grandson. We got round to chatting and inevitably we planned to share a dinner sometime soon.
They lived a few miles outside the community center in a quiet and small development on the outer suburbs of this northern Stockholm community. Their yellow façade house was built from stout timber with a ruggedness that defied time. Noticeably, I remarked about the sturdiness of the structure. He pointed out that he built the house with his own hands, literally, with wood that he had transported from his birthplace, a small village far in the northernmost parts of Sweden’s pine forested northern extremities. A seemingly idyllic place set in evergreen, dense pine forests in quietness and remoteness all unique to this land. A land of vast forests and many water bodies, from the Baltic along its eastern margins to the North sea in its Southern portion and the Western seafront facing the vast Atlantic, in between these oceanic borders, this ice scoured Nordic region has grooved, deep, dark lakes, in granite pits scoured by receding ice eons ago, quietly set in vast pine forests. Though there are no major rivers of the likes of the Amazon or Rio Grande or Rio Negro, there are a few medium sized rivers of remarkable splendor. Splendor best appreciated in its unique setting.
His village; Jokkmokk, probably isn’t identified on any of those off the shelf maps from the local shopping centre. Maybe a few geomorphologic, and specialty contour maps might mention it. The namely roughly translates to dark earth but what’s in a name anyway. The house was undergoing some renovations and a new bathroom was being installed upstairs. He indicated that he was doing it all himself but has been slowed down by recurrent pains in the right foot, where diabetes had led to a immense pain and difficulty of movement, from completing the task. I must admit, I do not know the first thing apart tiling, but I offered to help anytime an extra hand was needed.
At the meal table, the wife had prepared a meaty dish of goulash and a variety of breads and sweet white wine to go with. It was a simple and tasty meal. After meals, coffee followed with ice cream and cake. In that quiet moment of satisfied ease that follows every peaceful dinner, he told his story in simple plain language. It felt at the time he was telling his story as though he needed someone to know something abut him, and a sudden awareness of his consequent demise in a few short months was strongly impressed upon, even though at the time it felt foolish for such a thought to impress itself so strongly upon me.
His life is a splattering of efforts to support himself through tough and arduous work; drilling in ten metre deep snow piles in isolated parts of Norway for an American research project seeking for a rare mineral deeply buried in the black granite high in the mountains of Norway, through to house building jobs with some strange twists. Once he fell 20 meters from the roof of a house he was roofing and missed impalement by a jutting iron rod just a few centimeters, to the time he had put in extra hours trying to complete a cellar job in the newly constructed house of woman in Uppsala. It was the 23rd of December; he needed the payment from the work completed to buy Christmas presents for the family. He eventually completed the cellar flooring only to discover after inspection of the external perimeters of the house that the construction crew working on the main house had left uncompleted the piping. The owner of the property was returning from a long journey with family members and it will be impossible during the forthcoming Yule period to get anyone to come and finish the uncompleted piping job which of course will make it impossible for anyone to live in the house. He decided to complete the job and several hours of work in the cold and ever decreasing December temperature of Sweden’s severe winter, he returned to the cellar and suffered severe chest pains which later examination showed was a mild heart attack. Alone, in a dark house as the pain wracked and bent him over, doubled in quit agony, he laid for what seemed forever on the cold floor praying for relief. It was the morning of 24th December when he was awakened by the lady house owner who to his consternation had not withdrawn any money from the “bankomart” as it is known in these parts but to the outside world, cash machine. A quick trip to the community centre showed that withdrawals in the Christmas shopping rush had emptied out the “bankomart”. It wouldn’t be filled until the holiday period was over. Heavily disappointed he returned to his home buying a small woolen bear for the youngest son, at a late Christmas shopping stand.
A few moments of recollection and that distant look of transference to another place and time, then in measured tones of a story than had probably been told more than once he continues his story; plain, simple and lingering. It fell into the category of one of those things that the mind tends to wander through every now and then, a reflective excursion through other persons’ worlds.
“My father comes from Jokkmokk, a small settlement set in the green pine forests in northern Sweden, close to the border with Finland. It is a small, pleasant place in its own way. We are woodcutters, my family owned vast acreages of pine forest that we cut and sell to the lumber yard, and we also build wooden houses. This is how we earned our living. My father was born in Northern Sweden near the border with Finland, his father, my grandfather on the father side, wanted to be a teacher but in 1932 there were no teacher’s training school in Jokkmokk. His father owned a large tract of virgin pine forest and he entered the family trade of logging and trimming trees at the lumber yard which they owned. They also built most of the houses in that area. Wooden houses of sturdy, solid wood. They were woodcutters and house constructors.
When I was born since we lived on a farm, by ten years, I was engaged in small ways in contributing to household work on the farm. Those who come from such background understand these things. I never met my grandfather; he passed away before I came into being. From what I was told, he was a solidly built man with muscles toned and maintained by hard manual labour, twisting like cords in powerful ripples across chest, arm and legs. In all his life he never visited a hospital. Matter of fact visiting hospitals as far as I can recall were so rare as to be memorable, if they ever did occur. When my father was 18 he was formerly inaugurated into the time honored profession of a lumber man. In those times, trees were hugged down with a double edged saw maneuvered by two men, rhythmically pushing and pulling through the stem. It was a demanding, tiring work and only with the passing years was the mind conditioned to focus on the task, falling into its own rhythm and in so doing forget the pain; wearing, tearing pain. The development of rudimentary mechanical saws also helped a lot with passing time. Those early mechanical saws were prone to erratic performance and were liable to cause accidents.
In those days, for a good pay day for a single family, one needs a minimum of fifty trees cut a week, that was fifty, single trees brought down manually. My grandfather of great physique was known to bring down a hundred trees a week with seeming indifference.
My grandfather attended the village school but for him to continue to teacher’s training required a daily trip of thirty kilometres one way each day. Given the times, its demands and circumstances, it was a commitment he could not meet, so he was stuck to lumber jacking. A hard job that paid just enough to provide the basic essentials of life without any frills. He never got to be a school teacher. Man needed to provide for the needs of one’s dependent.
One early spring, when they went to their site for cutting the day’s allocation something went wrong, very wrong, with tragic consequences. They had gone into the woods early in the morning as usual, they were cutting lots located a few hundred meters apart. Just when the tempo of the work had had normalized, my grandfather takes over the story-
I heard a terrible cream, it was a deep groan which seemed to cut through the woods like a vibration. When it struck my ears, it chilled me with a foreboding without comparison. All I knew was that something, terrible, irreversible of such dire consequences had happened where my father was working, I hurried dropping my saw and looping through the woods in a hurried scramble. When I reached his location, there was a stillness of heavy dampness. It was as though the blood had not only leached into the hardened ground but by some cosmic reorganization had soaked the air in the clearing. A heavy stillness through which I walked in slow, heavy steps and with ice cold hands laid it upon the half sawn body, crumpled in a low pile of splattered flesh and coagulated, dark blood, running extremely bright in the middle. By a freak accident that only could be conceived in the strangest of enactment, his saw had sprang off the stem like a coiled spring and struck in the stomach with such force that the dulled edge had sliced through cloth and leather, cutting almost in half. Glazed eyes looked up with far look, seeing into places far beyond the this hard grounds of bleached soils and the silence hung heavy in the mild spring morning, while nature was waking from a long hard winter, a man’s life was seeping into a patch of darkened earth.
All these blood seeping from my father had a strange effect on me, inasmuch as I was in the grips of a severe shock, I was incapable of reacting with any strong emotional outbursts. I laid my hands upon his cheeks, there was a thin film of sweat that was already becoming cold. He was gone from the world of humans that much was obvious. I knew something had to be done and whatever it was it had better been done. At the same time, I was conscious of the fac that we were isolated an hour from the nearest human contact. I took another look and with a mechanical action, I put the two heavy pieces of body part together, covered him with his jacket and with my thumb and forefinger closed his still opened eyes gazing far into infinity. In the midst of the forest, in this particular clearing death held a macabre court of purest sobriety. I was the only one present and I was the only one capable of any action. With a clarity of awareness, I laid him face upwards and with determined steps headed back to the village. As I took four steps away I saw his brown, well worn fedora, by the side of a clump of brass, I gingerly picked it up and laid upon his face. Then, began the long way back to the village.
The woods had a path hat allowed transport to pick the logs, we had packed our truck by the roadside a 45 minute walk away. Time was insignificant, the silence that encircled was total, I was very conscious that my closest link to humanity laid almost cut in two pieces, with intestinal matter sprawling out unto early spring grass in the middle of this silent forest. It was not a picture appearing before my mind’s eye just awareness. I was also aware that, alone I was not capable of repackaging that spilling load and carrying that broken body to the truck.
I sat in the drivers seat of the old truck, some left over army truck that has served a worthy purpose. A slow drive of self awareness led me to the village. It was past the first farm house church house, where the priest was my recourse for regrounding into reality. I knew the days ahead were going to be grey and solemn and mourning had a way of drawing the deepest gloominess when the bread winner had suddenly departed. And certainly, the bread winner had taken leave in a quiet, violent and sudden manner, most unexpected. This situation required a heavily anchored
Just after eleven in the morning just like very other morning that we left for our days labor, I drove the old Albion truck back to the village. I brought it to a stop before the church parking yard. As I stepped out and walked towards the doorway, a part of me took in the quietness of the church premises, its neatly laid out gardens, just budding with spring flowers, the low wall hedging the small cemetery that over the generations has been a resting place for the generations from before and soon to be a place of rest for the quiet giant lying forlorn on a forest floor somewhere in those dark woods ringing the village.
I needed a support person of more capable than I am, to break the news to my mother. She was not given to wild, tempestuous display of emotions, yet I was more afraid of what that quietness in her response to my impromptu delivery of the sudden death of her husband could do. Here in these laid back parts of the world, strength is evidenced in quiet endurance. That however, does not minimize the inner pain, that may never fully find public display.
To tell her that a bizarre and unexpected accident in the pine forest, where her husband had gone logging has cut the silver chain of live, severing almost in half that strong body and the yet stronger inner person, and that suddenly, the two feet that quietly departed the house that morning would be borne by bearers, head first was a message that I detest to contemplate at length, worse still deliver . To admit that he who was always a pillar of strength for the family and the community took sudden leave of live alone, away from loving family and community. To tell them that if they were at that moment to follow me, they will find a bundle of flesh amidst a pool of coagulating blood with a fedora gently set on its face, as its vacant eyes gaze skyward was beyond my emotional capability. I needed a support, a prop of solid lean on, a man educated and fully experienced in handling the full measure of human sorrow; the priest.
He stood a few metres inside the doorway, long experience had sensitized him to the approach of despair. Despair borne by a human, a load heavy that only the intervention of God could alleviate. For when all is said and done, when every avenue contemplatable has been exhausted, man is left with only one resort. The picture of man painted for eternity, in a thousand variations of singular theme. The prophet despised, standing atop the windy hilltop raising his scarred emotions to God: His shout of “Adonai” breaking heaven’s silence. A mother clutching a telegram of a son lost in some meaningless aggression to prove nothing but man’s immaturity and blood lust. A wife cradling a sick child that no human could serve, turning away from supporting , limb arms of a husband and all the world is a point of light lost in darkness of despair, shouting in silence “why, father, o why!” Who else is there to turn to but the source of all things, he gives and he takes and man prays for mediation, seeking mercy. The many things that happen quietly in hidden places, deep in the inner parts of a person, silent pain borne by the lone soul, and only God exist for such and their burdens. Their exclamation is a silent echo of sharp edges riffling through heavens expanse.
He who stands these things, relating to them through others and enabling them to resurface to breath the peace of God amidst his works, he is the one to turn to. For, as the thoughts come to an end, emotions silent hold is cast off and hot tears run over rims of eyes flat in their unwillingness to accept dawning truth. A had reaches out and touches me firmly and gently on my shoulder, comforting voice, quiet and strong gentle speak words of reassurance. “Son, it all fine, it will be fine. He has ordered his purpose; he came to save the world and not to condemn it. Be strong my son.” Words spoken unto a mind predisposed to receive them, like ice cold water in the mouth of a man whose has just stumbled from burning desert unto a quiet oasis, my shoulders relaxed, I was ready to tell him what happened.
When I finished my simple and short tale more of a need for help to bring home my father. The priest, gently said, “I may not be capable of much help in this hour of severest of trial but this much I can say, in man’s darkest times, the light of God shines brightest, you will make it, not only for your sake but because your mother needs your strength and your father’s will is for you to honour his achievements, in carrying on, the good he has began.” He paused, momentarily, made eye contact and then abruptly said, “Son, we have work to do, let’s go get help in the village and bring your father’s body home. Before we do that we must prepare the womenfolk”
First, we drove to the Andersen’s who lived on the outskirts of the village, Mr Andersen the gentleman of the farm and his two able bodied sons were ever willing to lend a hand. Then we drove to our house, where the priest in a few well chosen words broke the news, were it ever so gently to my mother and the two aunties who lived with us. I have often wondered at the two opposing sides of female emotional reaction, the one is the calm finality of acceptance to some unarguably horrendous event and the other is flaming outburst at things so petty and from the male point of view totally forgivable. My mother, took the news with a sense of resignation and quietness that was unnerving. The two sisters on the other hand burst into loud tears. By this time, in one of those interesting ways that news and information seems to filter through the grapevine, news had gone round that tragedy had struck our household and a few other women had gathered in our kitchen to offer whatever assistance they could as we went back to the logging area. The priest, informed them that we were on the way to bring home departed and they should prepare themselves for his receipt. On the way back we stopped by the Andersen’s again where we loaded several sheets of plastic and a door was brought forth to used as a stretcher.
Here, the story teller paused meaningfully, and said, “now, these was way back in the early part of the past century, things were a little different then. No mobile phones, not to talk about a fixed line phone in each house and no ambulances rushing to the scene to polish the gore of bloody accident scenes with chemical foam. Then he was lost in that world of the past and its tragic events.
We drove back, Mr Anderson and the priest sharing the front seats and four other men from the village. When we got to the place, we had to park the truck half kilometre distance from the logging site. It was a quite drive, with each person locked in their own thoughts. We clambered out of the truck. There was a chill lining the frisk spring breeze blowing stiffly through the woods. The noise of the wind swishing through the trees seem to overemphasise the overall silence and isolation of these woods. The priest stood amidst the group and motioned for me to take the lead, it was a brisk, quite walk to the place he laid, seemingly undisturbed and the fedora still perched atop his face. The saw had come flying towards him face upwards and had ripped apart the stomach, laying back down was the only possible way. The thought passed through my mind and the silent grouped, considered how to lift him and set on the door. The plastic sheet was first unrolled and the body edged and nudged firmly but gently until everything could be rolled in layers of rubber sheeting, then we lifted him and set upon the made to do stretcher. Quietly we came and quietly we bore our burden of sorrow through the woods to the truck, quietly we drove back to the village. He left on his own feet and we brought him back to his own dwelling borne by six strong men, head first, we carried him into the living room. The women set to task, in those days the nearest health centre was miles away, the body had to be sewn and prepared for burial. A messenger reported the event to the police and a doctor came late in the night and sewed the torn body which was then readied for burial. He was carried in a pine coffin to the church where candle vigil was kept and in the morning light when everyone had gathered for burial service and internment, he was laid to rest, amidst the buds of springs coming bloom. Well, that was my father’s departure. I followed in his track, continuing to log and build log houses.
When I was 28 years, I met my wife; he nodded towards the stately lady of greying hair seated across the coffee board. She smiled. I looked at him and I could see in his eyes that his story had come from a place deep in the inner man and would not be oft told. I just knew. He continued we moved to Orebro when I had accumulated a fair saving from the logging and building work. There we bought a comfortable house and had all our children, in peace and quiet, I started a small lumber yard that retailed lumber and it grew over the years to be a successful endeavour with rewarding ends. After thirty years we decided to move to Stockholm and here we have lived in this house that we built twelve years ago. We could afford it and I had the means to deconstruct and assemble our old family house from Jokkmork to this place. This rugged wood panels bear with them history and
The old grandfather’s clock rhythmically kept the time, a serene atmosphere reigned, the story of events of years long past recalled this late afternoon kept us in a time capsule and when we turned to the world outside our sitting places, evening had descended.
Soon we left, it was the last time, I met Astor, a few months later, I heard he had succumbed to a foot infection. There is a quietness of a solemn kind that pervades this Nordic climes. A silence clings to these landscapes of dark lakes, blues seas and dark green forests, a solemnity that Astor’s story deeply impressed on me.
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