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Pär Lagerkvist, "Guest of Reality"

Pär Lagerkvist's lovely short story "Guest of Reality" (included in The Eternal Smile) is an extended meditation on faith and death, as the young boy Anders struggles with his family's timeworn faith and faces death for the first time, that of his aged grandmother. She lives on the family farm in her ancestral country parish, a modest train ride away from Anders' home in a small town.

   In the winter, after she'd had to take to bed, the old woman slowly dwindled away. She left them gradually, no longer saw them so clearly and couldn't quite follow when they talked to her. She couldn't follow the work on the farm either; sometimes she asked, wanted to know about this or that, but when they told her it was if she hadn't heard. Once, one evening, she'd asked where she was. And when they told her she was in the little side room she was astonished; she'd thought the room was a lot bigger.
   They wrote and told them things of this kind in the note that came with the milk. It came early every morning with a few lines from them. It was a cold winter and the note was always frozen; Mother had to breathe on it before she could unfold it without spoiling the writing. She went out more and more often, and towards the end she stayed there. She and the old man, her father, were the ones who always kept watch by the dying woman. He sat over by the window and read out of the Bible. She looked after her, crept quietly in and out of the door, bent down to hear when she whispered what she wanted. The old man could no longer hear her. But she whispered to Mother that she could hear what he read. So he sat there all the time and went on. The snow lay in drifts high up against the windows; in other places the earth was bar and several fruit trees were killed by the frost that winter.
   All the children went out there one evening to say goodbye to her, but she couldn't really distinguish them. A few days later Mother wrote with the milk that it was over.
   Anders felt it almost as a relief. His brothers and sisters talked about Grandmother the whole day, what she'd been like that time and the other--often from a long time back--what she'd said that time, how early she always had to get up in the morning, what bread twists she could bake, how she looked after her flower beds, her peonies, how as a girl she'd once got lost in the woods and had to turn her jacket inside out--about everything. Anders kept joining in eagerly. He could remember, too--yes, ever so much, ever so much! He talked, he remembered--and whenever the talk went on, in the kitchen, in the living room, there he would be. He was glowing with eagerness and his eyes shone...It was as if she were alive again.

It's said that someone who has died still continues to live as long as they are remembered by those who survive, as well as future generations who are told of that person's life. I firmly believe that.

June 1, 2005 in Books | Permalink