By Evan Farbstein 

An excerpt from the novel  

I remember the early days of my time in Sweden as a blur of cities whose names I couldn’t pronounce, of low-hung clouds gathering and cresting and crashing over flat green fields, of the spires of towns seen approaching from train windows, of narrow cobblestoned alleys, of restaurants and cafes, of roads lined on both sides with tall brick apartments with windows that showed me quick glimpses into the homes of people whose lives were kept from me like secrets, and of people my age, sitting behind the windows of those cafes and restaurants, talking in a language I didn’t know about things I didn’t understand, going home to those apartments I would never be in.

I remember feeling how new it all was – I had felt hyper-sensitized to the world, a pins-and-needles tingling of the soul. The places I would go, the stories I would live, the people I would see and the people who would see me. I had wanted to lead every life, to stand on every street and look up into every window, to be in every window.

What I’d wanted from life was all of it. And, back then, that hadn’t seemed like too much to ask.


The island of Ven is a checkerboard of wheat fields and flower-starred meadows that juts from the Öre Strait a non-committal halfway between Denmark and Sweden. On clear days the island is visible from both countries’ shores, but on the morning of my first visit there was a blanket of low-strung clouds that swallowed the horizon, and I didn’t see the island until its tall yellow cliffs began to resolve slowly over the bow of the ferry.

I don’t know if she was on the same ferry as me. She may have been, and I might have seen her without noticing her – you know what I mean – and that would explain why there had been something so familiar about her. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

In the mist of the morning the island was all mystery and discovery, and I chose at random from the dirt paths leading off into the fog. I didn’t have any plan. I just wanted to wander, to see what I would happen upon, what the fog was concealing. Here appeared a cliff above a grey sea that dissolved into the lighter grey of the sky. Here was a barn against which the fields lapped like waves against a shore. Here were houses, square white wooden houses that could have been in any Californian suburb but which seemed out-of-place on this tiny island. Who might live in those houses, and what would their lives be like? The seclusion of the houses made me think of old husbands and wives with patient expressions, of walks at dusk and peaceful fire-side evenings, and for few moments I imagined myself old and patient, married long and happily, living a simple and good life together with my wife in one of these secluded houses.

I wandered through the morning and into the afternoon, and by three, when the sun had burnt away the mist and only a few tattered clouds were left in the sky, I found myself at the top of a gently falling slope where the plateau dropped off into a small harbor. Scattered about the littoral were a dozen people who were lazing at picnic tables or walking together along the sea, all families, everyone a parent or a child.

I stopped a moment to take the scene in. There was the smell of sun-warmed dust, the sounds of the gently moving ocean and the loud unembarrassed laughter of children. Then, growing louder from behind me, there was the sound of footsteps approaching on the dirt path. I moved to get out of the way. The path was narrow, forcing the owners of the footsteps to pass close by me, and as I turned to make room I glanced up at them. They were two women, one middle-aged and one young, my age or slightly younger.

The younger woman caught my curious glance with her own – had she felt the same thrill of sudden intimacy that I had? Her eyes were not quite blue and not quite green, but a light tropical shade of teal, and they had glanced out, curious and serious, from above freckle-spangled cheeks. The sun had been behind her and the light had caught in the errant strands of her hair and outlined her. After meeting my gaze she had looked away almost immediately – almost. There had been the smallest linger, a hint of reluctance to take her eyes from mine: an “if.” If what? If she had been alone? If I had been . . . what?

She and her companion – her mother? – had continued past me down the slope and to the picnic tables, where they sat facing away from me, toward the sea. In front of them was a thin wooden dock lined with small sailboats flying the flags of Sweden and Denmark and others, flags I didn’t recognize. I imagined them as the flags of faraway places, of distant harbors and the quiet seaside villages that surrounded them, of islands in the tropics and water the color of the sky. Water the same teal as her eyes. Her hair was honey-colored and ungathered and was made lively by the mild sea breeze. She was mostly listening, nodding, smiling, her older companion mostly talking. What could I tell her that she would listen to, nod, smile, and how could I make her look at me so attentively with her serious gaze? Would she be impressed that I was from California? That I was training to become a pilot? Would she be impressed when I told her about Isla Vista’s glittering, untamed nights? The boats’ flags were the flags of places I’ve never been and might never go, and it was painful in an almost physical way to think that I might never sail in one of those boats to those imagined faraway places. Painful, even though I know nothing about sailing, am afraid of the open ocean. A ridiculous pain. Their conversation had a confessional intensity, and in a moment of tenderness she had put a gentle hand on her mother’s arm – she was kind, then; she knew how to comfort, to console. There was no sadness or pain I could confide in her that she couldn’t make better with a tender touch. There was nothing I could tell her that she wouldn’t understand, and I would never fear reproach or disgust from her kind, serious eyes. Did she see the sailboats and their flags, and did she hurt for the same adventures? I could still learn to sail. I was young, not even twenty-one yet, and there was nothing I couldn’t still learn or become. I could sail to those imagined harbors, to those sky-colored waters. I could bring her with me. She, with her kind touch and her serious eyes, she was world-wise, privy to secret things. There were things she could teach me. She had friends in obscure places, places far away and under unfamiliar flags, and together we would visit them all. Her friends would invite us to share their lives, and she and I would live a thousand lives in cities and towns and villages, in seasides and deserts and mountains and tundras, the quiet and the bustling, the old and the just beginning . . . .


And then she was gone. I’d fallen off the island and into my imagination, and by the time I came back to myself she and her companion had left their table and vanished.

She was gone from the harbor, gone from the falling slope, gone from the dirt paths between fields, gone from the windows of every home I hurried past in search of her. In a few hours I had searched the whole island, and I thought I had found her a hundred times: every woman I saw from a distance was her, but every woman seen up close was not. She was simply gone.

My search had brought me back to the little harbor with the sailboats, and as I looked back at the boats I tried to feel again the excitement of possibility I’d felt in their strange flags. I couldn’t. The feeling had vanished with her.

The sun was setting as I took the ferry back to Sweden, and from the stern I watched as the island faded into a sky strewn with the maroon-tinted clouds of sunset. All I could think of was the woman, and how just the sight of her had shaken those strange longings from my imagination. She was gone, and I would never see her again. I felt again the ridiculous pain I’d felt at the thought of the places I might never go, stronger now and without the thought of her to relieve it, and, unable to look back at the fading island any longer, I moved to the ferry’s bow. The lights of the Swedish mainland were moving toward me, beginning to stand out against the deepening dusk. Was she somewhere there, in the country that would be my home for the next four months?


This is an excerpt from the novel Tillbacka.