Between the Hammer and the Anvil

By Maya Norell

 

The light of the lantern allowed John to see the shovel as his boot pressed it deeeper into the grass. The rain had turned the surface into a slippery mud puddle, but the dirt was still hard a few inches below. He was careful not to lose his footing. The grave had to be deep. A proper grave, nothing else would suffice. One shovel long and one shovel deep, lest the rot attract scavengers when spring set in. 

Filling the grave had nearly sent him to his own, yet he felt no relief in having finished. His dungarees were wet, and the cold wind had glued the denim to his shins. It felt like someone was writing Morse code on his bones with a rusty nail. The painful messages flickered from his ankles to his kneecaps where they accumulated in a throbbing ache that reached his hips. John shuddered and paced back and forth, trampling the soil of the filled grave to pack it. He stopped and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, grabbed the lantern from a moss covered rock, and trudged back to the cabin. The path was slippery and full of tree roots. Not meant to be walked on a night like this. He shuffled over to the shed behind the cabin and unlatched the door. The wind slammed it open against the wall and then thrust it about before John pulled it shut from inside. He placed the lantern on the top shelf before hunching down to grab dry firewood from the wheelbarrow, grunting as he straightened his back to carry it into the cabin. 

The cabin had been built by his father’s uncle Helmer eight years before John was born. It had been used for shelter during longer hunts, and was the place where Helmer had spent his last days in solitude after his wife Frida had died of the influenza. No one was shocked when John’s father found Helmer hanging from a noose tied to one of the roof beams in the shed. But his horrific facial expression had traumatized Erik. John had overheard his father’s detailed description of Helmer’s engorged face, frozen in agony. His eyes had popped and his blackish-blue tongue seemed to stretch beyond his chin. By the look of things, Helmer had suffered through a prolonged death struggle. What had surprised them all was his resolve. As a tall man in a low shed, Helmer had had to keep his knees bent to allow himself to be strangled.

The furnishing inside the cabin was spartan. A rocking chair in front of the fireplace, a chair in front of a working table cluttered with paint brushes and jars of paint, a bed, a wooden chest, a cupboard, and a radio. A rusty tin bucket collected the rainwater that seeped in through the ceiling. 

The warm humid air enhanced the smell of old wet wood, and the floorboards creaked as John’s boots left muddy prints across the cabin floor. Silence had been his solace throughout the years. He had never anticipated that it could feel so loud and scornful. He fiddled with the radio until a symphony by Tchaikovsky layered with radio static tore through the silence with the cries of violins. In six days, the ballet Swan Lake would debut at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm and the national radio station was playing one of Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies every evening leading up to the premiere. John dropped the firewood by the fireplace and threw three pieces onto the fire to keep it alive before heading back to the shed for the wheelbarrow. He latched the door behind him and the sound of the orchestra was gradually replaced by the wailing wind.

The shelves in the shed gaped empty, but the upcoming Easter holiday would soon see them overcrowded with goods. John swept a low-hanging noose aside, grabbed the lantern from the top shelf and attached it to one of the handles on the wheelbarrow. Its wheel squeaked loud enough to cut through the dull drumming of raindrops pummeling the ground as John pushed through the door. He stopped behind the shed and struggled to load a large rock onto the wheelbarrow. Weighted down by the rock, the wheel kept getting lodged in the mud. The bones in his shoulders seemed to grate against each other and the pain caused his arms to tremble. John resorted to dragging the wheelbarrow behind him as he made his way back to the burial spot.

The shed served both as storage and as an unmanned trading post between him and the inhabitants of Lingbo. Folks from the village brought him items they wished to have painted, along with payment of some sort. They’d leave both item and payment on one of the shelves in the shed and return a week or two later, once the paint had dried. If John disliked the choice of item or payment, he’d leave both untouched.

Mrs. Hemlin, the shopkeeper’s wife, had once left a wooden tray along with three home baked loaves of bread on one of the shelves. John scoffed when he walked into the shed and saw what she’d left him. He had no use for three loaves of bread. They’d go dry or moldy before he’d have time to finish one, and the tray reminded him of a regular canvas with its smooth surface and framed edges. John had refused to use a regular canvas ever since moving there. He preferred everyday items that told a story of their own without a single layer of paint. The items were his muse. He could have overlooked the shortcomings of the tray, had she possessed the decency to trade his hours for something useful. The village had only one shop and it was abundantly stocked. Thinking of Mrs. Hemlin brought a frown to his face.

“She must think her bread is out of this world.” John shook his head and snorted. “I bake me own bread just fine,” he mumbled on his way out of the shed.

She was not pleased to return a week later to find her tray untouched and the bread loaves hard and green with mold. Her face red, her eyes bulging, she loomed on the threshold of the shed and growled, “You imbecile. You ungrateful, godforsaken imbecile of a man. They are ruined!”

John stared at her with a blank expression and took a sip of his morning coffee. His German spaniel crouched next to him in the grass outside the cabin, snarling and growling back at Mrs. Hemlin. The dog was his oldest friend, and he had named her Rita.

“Calm your tits, woman.” John remained calm and snapped his fingers at Rita who let out a whimper before lying down, chin resting in the grass. He took another sip of his coffee. “I never asked for bread, did I?”

Mrs. Hemlin folded her lips and inhaled loudly through her nostrils. She was just about to speak when John cut her off.

“I prefer payment that won’t rot before I have use of it.” He turned around to go back inside when Mrs. Hemlin emitted a primal scream that stopped him in his tracks.

Her nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed to slits. “You dim-witted wretch! I will have your shelves empty by the end of summer.” 

“Good riddance I say.” John sucked his teeth at her and went inside with Rita at his heels.

Mrs. Hemlin warned the customers at her husband’s store of John’s ungrateful and unsavory person: ruining bread baked with the best of grains and kneaded by her own hands. Being the words of a woman who, given the chance, would charge her customers for so much as inhaling the aroma of the shop’s groceries, the villagers knew to take her words with no less than a pinch of salt. Much to her dismay, her attempts to besmirch John’s reputation only served to raise the quality of the trading goods that people brought him over the years. 

The way back to the burial spot was more treacherous than he had anticipated. The Helsingian forest was still engulfed in the darkness of Swedish winter. Its snow blanket was ripped to pieces and scattered by warmer days, but fragments of it still endeavored to reflect the lacking moonlight. Digging the grave had taken its toll on his arms, and gripping the wheelbarrow handles was a strenuous task for his stiff fingers. The rock tumbled onto the trampled soil with a thud, and John kneeled in the mud to position it on the grave.

“Once heaven stops weeping, I’ll decorate it for you.” He leaned on the rock for support as he rose, and unhooked the lantern from the wheelbarrow. John looked back at the grave one last time before plodding back to the cabin.

He unbuttoned his navy blue raincoat and hung it on a nail that protruded from the wall before reaching for the remains of a bar of soap from the shelf above the fireplace. The cold water in the tin bucket exacerbated the pain in his swollen fingers as he hastily lathered up his hands and rinsed them off. He had meant to repair the leak, but he wasn’t foolish enough to climb the roof.

The death of Joseph Stalin was announced in a special broadcast on the evening radio. He had passed away last night and the Soviet Union declared national mourning. Would the Cold War now escalate into a heated conflict, or would there be peace? The reporter expressed concern, but John could only muster up a sense of cynical indifference. He’d had enough death for one night. He dried his hands off on his damp shirt before turning the radio off. Amplified by silence, guilt and grief tore at his heart.

He paced back and forth in the small cabin. “I did it for her,” he reassured himself.

Slouching down in the rocking chair with his face in his palms, John wept. The image of Rita looking back at him just before he fired the shot plagued him. Her neck had jolted, and the bullet had gone clean through her head. She went limp without making a sound, tail wagging spastically while her life leaked out into the grass. He had thought of hanging her to avoid the gore. He had even prepared a noose inside the shed, only to realize that he was being selfish. She would have had to struggle for minutes before dying just to save him the sight of blood. John had left the noose hanging in the air.

A bullet or two to the head should be as close to painless as anyone could go, he’d reasoned.

Rita’s hind legs had been limp for a month, and he had carried her everywhere. She had refused food and water for close to two weeks, and he spoon-fed her watered down fluid replacement until he realized his selfishishness.

He stared into the fire from the rocking chair and his mind wandered to the days of his youth.

Brita.

They had planned to marry and raise a family. A daughter named Rita. They'd had dreams before the illness took hold of the village. Tuberculosis.

He tried to remember why he had gone to see her that last time. It had tormented him ever since.

Her household was put in quarantine, and four of her siblings had already died. John had climbed in through her bedroom window, and he almost fell back out when he saw her. 

She was dressed in one of her sleeping gowns. The luster in her eyes had been replaced by agony. Brita looked like she’d been dead for days.

“Please.” She wheezed the words through the handkerchief that covered her mouth. “I feel like I’m slowly drowning. In my own blood and mucus." She grabbed the fabric of his sleeve with her other hand. “But I can’t die. Help me, Love.”

John ripped his sleeve free of her grip and staggered back against the wall. “She’s mad,” he repeated to himself.

“Please,” she managed. “You’re the only one.” She coughed into the handkerchief and wiped her mouth. “Press the pillow onto my face. Please.” Her front teeth were covered in blood.

With his back pressed against the wall, John moved sideways towards the door and clasped the door handle behind him.

“Please,” she repeated, “If you love me – ”

He leaned with his full weight on the handle and tumbled backwards into her parents' hallway. He ran off into the darkness and kept running until he reached Uncle Helmer’s cabin.

The village's gossip of her death had left him with little to live for. He gradually decreased his contact with the world. The cabin became his home.

The bittersweet mercy that Brita had been denied in her death struggle had now been bestowed upon his dog.

John stared blankly into the fire. Did I do right by Rita? She never asked for it. He tugged at his unkempt beard. Is it alright to assume that a creature wants to die, just because it’s suffering? The questions harrowed him. He had been suffering for decades and could not endure another winter. Relocating to a more accommodating place to eventually become incapacitated and dependent on the society he’d fled seemed a fate far worse than freezing to death.

He closed his eyes and saw a pale Brita reaching for him with an outstretched hand and pleading, bloodshot eyes. Or Rita lying still in the grass, paws twitching as she bled out.

“I’m a selfish coward and a murderer.” John grabbed two fistfuls of gray hair near his temples. A sharp pain radiated from his knuckles, forcing his fingers to release their grip.

He got up and grabbed a bottle of homemade apple brandy from the cupboard, uncorked it and returned to the rocking chair. The brandy warmed his cold bones as he guzzled it down, straight from the bottle. He rocked the chair in rhythm with the water drops plopping into the tin bucket. Eyes fixed on the fire, John seemed to be in a trance. Suddenly, like a puppet yanked by its strings, he got up and sat down by the working table.

A wooden spoon needed painting, and the brandy had been payment for the work.

“Best get to it, then.”

John reached for a palette and a paint brush. The first layer of paint had dried, and its pasty blue color reminded him of the otherwise brown lake on a summer day, when the sky was reflected on its surface like an image projected onto a living canvas. He poured some colors onto the palette and painted foliage and a family of swans inside the spoon’s bowl. Brita had loved swans. His reminiscing was interrupted by scratching on the door and a loud meow.

He cracked the door open just enough to let the cat in before latching it again. John called him Egon, a striped tabby that had appeared during the last of the cold winters, the year of the battle of Stalingrad. He had sought refuge with John and Rita, and had returned many winters since. Egon came and went as he wished and expected a full share of anything he could find.

John opened a can of tinned meat and placed it on the floor. Egon’s tail vibrating, he arched his back and purred, rubbing up against John’s leg.

“There you go, old chap.”

John watched Egon from his bed. The cat didn’t leave a crumb. He squinted and licked his whiskers before leaping onto him, kneading John’s paunch and rubbing his head against John’s chin. The fireplace kept the water in the tin bucket from freezing, but the warmth spreading within John came from the brandy and his feline company.

John needed Egon, but Egon didn’t need him.

No one needed John. The thought was liberating.

Come November, the frost would yield resolve.