Cages

By Ulrika Fredriksson

“What lake is that?”  

“I think it’s called Stone Lake, or something like that.”

“Huh. Haven’t we been there before?”

“Nah.”

“Are you sure? Weren’t we there with the caravan once?”

He snorted with a chuckle. “Nah, you can’t camp there.”

“No, but, we had that new one? The one with the red seats. We just wanted to take it for a drive and we went there?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged his shoulders and looked far ahead up the road.

It had to have been the same lake. Mom and Dad were still together and we had just gotten a new caravan, the one with the wine-red seating that felt like velvet. Dad had taken a turn from the main road and driven for a while through some woods I didn't recognize. When he'd stopped by the lake he got out of the car, into the caravan, and lay down on the bed. He didn’t say anything. I lay down beside him. The sweet, moist smell from the previous owner had oozed from the sofa and mixed with our clothes scented with Mom’s apple laundry detergent. Staring at the ceiling, I thought that if he had wanted to, he could have just knocked me out and dumped me in the lake and I would have been gone. Of course he wouldn’t have done that.

I hated it when my brain went rogue like that. It was just that it had a tendency to do so when I was with Dad. It was his silence. It freaked me out. But I would rather be back by that lake than where we were heading now.

I looked at him in the driver’s seat. I have a vague memory of him turning slightly mad once when I was a kid and spilling an entire glass of milk over the kitchen table. We never talked about me quitting school, or my job, or seeing Grandpa. We just drove. We entered a village that I thought might be it, but Dad kept driving.

“Is it far?”

“Not very.”

When we started the drive, we passed through the fields and farms that I had driven past so many times when I was a kid. The cows, horses and sheep lingered carelessly in the tall grass, as if they had been doing nothing else for the last four years. The yellow and red barns stood in their old spots, some repainted and some on their way to decay. Now we were driving through countryside I had never seen before. New cows and new sheds, looking like the old ones, yet not quite.

“Do you remember when I brought home an egg?”

“An egg?”

“Yeah, I brought home an egg that I'd found in the hay barn.”

“Why did you bring home an egg?”

“I thought that if I just kept it warm it would hatch, and I would have a cute little chick. I hugged it in the car all the way home. You don’t remember that?”

He looked straight ahead. “Well, did it hatch?” he asked and laughed. I laughed.

I wanted to ask about Grandpa. I wanted to ask how he was doing, why he was in the hospital the last time, or how he liked it at the nursing home. But I guess I felt ashamed to take a crash course twenty minutes before the test.

He'd had to move because he couldn’t take care of himself anymore, and because his sons couldn’t take care of him either. That I knew. One spring morning they'd found his walking frame lying outside on the cellar staircase, and him beside it, like a fallen wizard who’d lost his powers. The grass had still been white from the frost. No one knew why or when he had gone out there, only that he'd been as cold as the concrete he'd been resting on. Dad had called me not long after that, asking what I'd had for dinner and telling me that he'd had salmon, and by the way, we'd moved Grandpa. One Sunday morning they'd packed some of the furniture from the house he was born in, bought some new stuff at IKEA, and Sunday evening they'd left him at the new place.

“That’s it,” Dad said and nodded towards a big white cube by the side of the road. I drew a deep breath. When we entered the parking lot I spat out the words that I had been chewing on since we left.

“We won’t be that long, right? An hour or so?”

There was a moment of silence and a million thoughts of regret. I gnawed the insides of my cheeks, caught a glimpse of my distorted lips in the rear view mirror and decided I would never chew my cheeks again.  

“Well, you never know, you know.”

“Yeah.”

We got out of the car and walked up to the white cement block and I decided to be brave. It had been at least ten years since I had been to a nursing home, and learning what you do about nursing homes and death in general, it was different now. The automatic doors opened with the push of a button and we entered a hallway with dense air and a faint smell of soap. Despite the large windows, it was as if the light could not really get in.

Right by the door sat a man in a wheelchair, peering at us from under his bushy eyebrows. Was I supposed to say "hi"? I was in this man’s home, after all. Dad did not say anything, so I huddled up in his shadow and slid past. I needed a rock to cling onto, but Dad just was not the right kind.

We went up a staircase and the personnel in their blue grey robes smiled and said hello. Maybe it was not a home after all. You don’t have people in papery blue robes in your home. The corridor on the upper floor was lined with cornflower blue double-doors, each with a little sign next to it saying who lived inside. All the signs were in Times New Roman, printed on a piece of A4 paper that had been cut to a suitable size, except for one naively drawn in red felt pen on a lined paper ripped from a notepad. That one made me feel a little bit better. The sounds in the corridor seemed to reach me as if through a thick quilt. I could hear a television and someone speaking Danish, and the low thumping sound of plastic wrapped shoes touching the floor. Close to the end of the corridor came the Times New Roman name I had been looking for, and Dad opened the blue doors without knocking.

“HELLO,” he called once he was inside. I followed through a hallway-pantry, into a pantry-living room, and stopped in the living room-bedroom.

“HELLO,” Dad cried again, and Grandpa answered from the bed. I had braced myself to see him in ruins, white nightgowns, catheters, tubes up the nose and stuff like that, but he was just lying there like anyone would. He had the same big ears, freckled cheeks and economically placed teeth.

“ . . . here,” I heard him mumble. It wasn’t really that he mumbled, more that he had this really blurry way of speaking and a heavy dialect. This was partly why I was panicking about this visit. I had never been able to understand him very well, and I knew Dad would not be a sensitive interpreter.

Grandpa and Dad chatted for a while, Dad up by the bed and me spinning slowly in the middle of the room, putting my hands on my hips, crossing them, scratching my neck, pealing off my nail polish.

“Who . . . with you?” I heard from the bed. That was my cue.

“IT’S KARIN,” Dad cried. I took a couple of steps towards the bed. Grandpa looked at me, light gray eyes gazing off into the horizon.

“You’ll have to get closer,” Dad said, “He can’t see very well.” So I went closer.

“ . . . .”

I smiled.

“You’ve gotten big and . . . .” What did he say? Pretty? Shitty? Well I felt quite shitty but I hoped he said pretty.

“Yeah,” I said, trying my hardest to smile as much as I could without looking insane. I should have said something, of course I should have, like “How nice to see you” or “How are you?” But I didn’t. As Dad and Grandpa started talking again, I slowly backed off and reclaimed my previous position.

“I WENT TO THE FUNERAL ON TUESDAY,” Dad shouted.

“ . . . .”

“YES, IN MALMÖ. I DROVE THERE FOR THE DAY.”

“ . . . was . . . there?”

“YES, ELSA WAS THERE.”

“ . . . same . . . .”

“I DIDN’T RECOGNIZE HER, YOU KNOW. SHE RECOGNIZED ME, OF COURSE.”

“ . . . .”

“KARIN LIVES THERE.”

“Who?”

“KARIN.”

Grandpa looked at me and I nodded to validate Dad’s claim. “Huh,” he said and kept looking at me, or through me.

Did he remember me? He seemed to be quite well now, but Dad had told me stories of sitting next to Grandpa and Grandpa looking at him and asking who he was. I looked around the room knowing just how little there was to look at. I couldn't even pretend that I was studying the fine brushstrokes of the still life flower arrangement, because there was no such thing in it to be studied. The portrait of the horse head did not help me either. The two paintings in the room were not even third-rate art, but at the farm they had just blended in with the flowery brown textile tapestry. Here they just made the white walls look whiter.  

When Dad started the electric kettle we sat down at the table together.

“ . . . you  . . . b . . . ?” Granddad asked and looked at me. This was it. This was him talking directly to me and me not understanding. I turned to Dad even though I knew he wouldn’t have gotten it.

“He wonders if you have a boyfriend, if it’s the same one as before or a new one,” Dad said to me, and he even said it with a little laugh.

“Oh, I think it’s a new one since last time.” I turned to Grandpa and smiled.

“ . . . . ”

I smiled.

“ . . . ?”

“He wonders if you go out dancing sometimes,” Dad translated again.

“Yes, sometimes we do,” I answered, smiling, and thought about how I hated dancing.

“Yeah . . . ,” Grandpa chuckled. I smiled and smiled and smiled and tried to show how pleased I was to be there, behind those blue doors, with that flower painting, with him.

When the instant coffee was put forth, the pack of store bought cookies opened and three tiny little coffee cups placed on three tiny little plates, Dad went to the bed to help Grandpa up. I looked at the flower painting. I looked at them. I looked at the horse head. I did not want to watch as my dad helped his father get out of bed because he could not do it on his own. Neither did I want to ignore it. And just like that, the ninety-something-year old invalid had hauled himself into his wheelchair and was rolling over to the table. Dad stood idle by his side.

“It looks cloudy,” he said, as he placed himself in front of the window.

“Yeah, I THINK IT RAINED earlier,” Dad said.

I knew he was in a nursing home because he was sick, because he really, really could not live on his own. If it had been up to him he would have stayed on the farm and died on the farm, but he did not have a choice because he kept falling and breaking. But he looked the same. He could get out of bed, and he could chat with Dad about distant relatives he had not seen for twenty years.

Not knowing where to put my hands, I drank the coffee too soon and burned my tongue. I mixed another cup. I noticed that both Dad and me embraced the top of the cup with both hands when we drank. When I was a kid, Grandpa would always pinch a sugar lump between his lips, pour the coffee on the plate and filter it through the sugar. Now he held the cup by its ear, just managing not to spill when he brought it to his lips. He looked outside.

“It looks cloudy.”

“IT MIGHT HAVE RAINED BEFORE,” Dad answered.

Dad and Grandpa continued talking about Elsa and everyone else there was to talk about. Sometimes when Grandpa spoke, Dad looked at me as if he was thinking about something, but I couldn’t tell what. There was a slight shine in his eyes, as if they were glazed with a thin layer of sweat. I thought about Dad getting old and me living three hours away from him.

Grandpa pointed out the cloudiness again, and Dad leaned towards the window trying to see if the asphalt was wet or not.

“It rained AT HOME but I don’t know if IT RAINED HERE,” he concluded.

Suddenly Grandpa started talking, and talking, and talking. He was telling a story. I could not make out what it was about, something about birds behind a shed. Something that had happened at the farm, or used to happen at the farm. I listened attentively. This was the kind of story you want to hear from your grandparents. I did not quite understand though, so I waited for Dad to ask him about it. But he didn’t. He just looked at the clouds.

“There are chickens outside,” Dad said, and looked at me.

“Chickens?”

“Yeah, they’re in a cage outside.”

I looked out the window.

“You can’t see them from here. You have to lean out. They’re right around the corner of the house.”

“They don’t crow,” I heard my grandpa say as I hung my body over the windowsill and spotted a box made of chicken wire on the lawn.

“That’s nice,” I said and sat down, “We should go out and look at them.” And so it was set that we were going for a walk. I liked having an activity. When Dad started clearing the table, I stayed in my chair next to Grandpa. Dad did the dishes, and sometimes he called something through the running water, and Grandpa answered something that Dad couldn’t hear.

“The roosters don’t crow here,” Grandpa said, looking out the window. “At home, our chickens would . . . run loose, all day.” I looked at Grandpa. He did not look at me. I looked out the window. “There . . . never an end to it. They crowed every second . . . .” I smiled at Grandpa. Grandpa looked at the clouds. “Here, they don’t crow here. They don’t crow when you put them in . . .” He turned silent, and I nodded my head slightly to conclude what he had said. We sat silently for a minute or two, waiting for Dad. He should have known about that too, the thing about the chickens. I wished he would tell me everything he knew about chickens. Or eggs. Or anything. When the water stopped running in the kitchen, we got ready to go out.

Dad tried to put on the footrests on Grandpa’s wheelchair, but once he managed, Grandpa didn’t want to use them anyway. I opened doors for them and smiled, trying to show how much I made myself useful. There was a walkway circling the nursing home complex, so that was our route. White boxes were scattered on the grass, some with white frilly curtains in the windows and some without. Outside the circle of asphalt, the road was edged with trees blossoming with green leaves and berries.

“Wonder if you can eat those,” Dad said thoughtfully.

“ . . . sour,” Grandpa answered with that jokey snorting sound Dad made too.

There was a low whooshing from the wind grabbing the treetops, some birds chirping in the bushes, and a veil of calmness over the three of us. A low moaning sound fought its way through the air, like a baby crocodile making its way out of its egg.

“Aaaaoouuuh.”

The soft wailing seeped into our Sunday, but none of us raised an eyebrow. Could be a TV. “AaaaUUH!”

We had gotten closer to one of the white cubes, and I could hear it coming from a window on the second floor.

“AAAAUUH, THEY’RE . . .” I turned to Dad. He looked straight ahead. I could see that he was biting the insides of his lower lip. It looked just as stupid as when I chewed my cheeks. Like you are about to say something everyone knows you will never say.

“THEY’RE KILLING ME!” It was a voice. It was a voice from the window with the white frilly curtains. I looked at Dad again, waiting for him to say something, to comment.

“What . . . someone,” I heard him murmur. Great, now he spoke like Grandpa. I could have asked him, could have commented. It was as if I had a lucky shot. Like finding money on the ground but just walking past it because it isn’t really yours. Like it could be yours, if you were someone else. We walked on, and even though we were just passing the building it felt miles away now. Everything was miles away.

“THEY’RE KILLING ME! … FIRE!” It moaned. It screamed. We walked. Then the fire must have consumed the voice or someone stuck a needle in its arm, because it died out.

The chickens were on the other side of the complex. A man with a red walking frame passed as we arrived. I said "hello" and he said "hello" and then he went away. I sat down on a bench facing the cage and Dad put Grandpa’s wheelchair next to me. He was scouting the surroundings, looking for some healthy grass to feed the chickens with.

“Wonder if they’ve laid any eggs,” Dad mumbled and opened the roof of the little chicken house.

“They don’t lay . . . eggs,” Grandpa muttered.

“There’s three of them in there,” Dad said, and closed the lid.

These hens were only half the size of those that used to be on the farm. They were so dainty that they seemed like decorations. I thought it was nice, at first, Grandpa being able to live near chickens like he had done his whole life. Now it just seemed like a mockery.

Soon, we made our way back to Grandpa’s room to say our goodbyes. I presented him my hand and said, “It was nice seeing you.” I felt more ashamed than proud now that I had finally managed to produce some sound.

“Thank you and welcome back,” he said, imitating a salesman, and chuckled.

I laughed, looked at him, and thought that this was probably the last time I would see my grandfather alive. I closed the blue doors behind Dad and me and thought about just how blue they were.

Once we got into the car, we slid into our calm silence. Dad had the road to think about and I everything else. When we had been driving for a while, I spotted the lake we had passed before. “Couldn’t we stop there?” I asked.

“Where?”

“By the lake. Stone Lake,” I pointed.

“Yeah. Sure.”

We drove there accompanied by the humming sound of the car engine. When we had parked and gotten out, the breeze in the trees relieved the motor. We walked out to the end of a long wooden pier and sat down on a bench there.

“It looks quite big,” I said.

“Yeah, I think it is.” Dad adjusted his cap.

“Which do you think came first, the chicken or the egg?”

“What?”

“The chicken or the egg, which came first?”

“The chicken,” he snort-chuckled, “of course.”