Translated from the Swedish by Susan Beard.
The liquid is a pale yellow and in general fairly clear. I am lying here in the amniotic fluid, somewhat displeased with my mother. My intended mother. She thinks I am going to come into being, but I have not yet made up my mind. She feels so divided. But I am not a segment, I am the whole fruit and I am not sure if she is made for that fruit, the fruit of life.
She has slender hips and is quite juvenile besides. Undeveloped. Boyish hips and a restricted pelvis, a slender and restricted tolerance to stress and infringement. She thinks she wants me, she likes the idea. She yearns with a burning desire—as if anyone could allow themselves to be fooled by such a superficial veneer. She pleads and begs to Fate and other diffuse, helpless authorities: carved wooden African dolls with conical breasts like phalluses, tree frogs, pine trees. She eats the white oily nuts and swallows hope, deeply.
She pleads to drown it out. She thinks I do not know, but I know that her longing is interlaced with doubt. She is afraid of this, her latest special project, that against all expectation it might succeed. She will not admit that fear. It is cowardice and weakness. It is inertia. It is a lack of a craving for adventure and she wants to experience everything, she wants to experience the greatest, and the greatest currently is me.
She does not know my God, yet she is ashamed beneath her suddenly shrivelled fig leaf. She is ashamed of her unrestraint and her stupidity, but most of all she is ashamed of her wholly normal desire for a child.
Underneath she does not believe in a child. The child is not part of her lot. But it would be such fun to tell. To tell him. To really surprise him. To coyly slap a genuine female wonder down onto the glass top of the table by the sofa and the evening sun, the reading lamp for once switched off.
A lighted candle.
His confusion and delight, and the attentiveness which would instantaneously gush out, basic and primitive like a fresh, refreshing, river. Not that the old one is stagnant, but this one would be entirely new and entirely male. His woman. Our child.
Now I have gone further than ever before. Now I have allowed myself to be conceived. Now she is five weeks late and in her limited world I am three weeks old. She is not calculating from the beginning, she is subtracting to be on the safe side. Perhaps, perhaps. Here I lie contentedly in the mildest of human brine. Like an olive. An overlarge head as big as an olive, my body the stalk. Like a green olive in a well-filled organic cocktail glass.
She has still not said anything.
I must not let myself be influenced by her eleventh-hour girlish dreams, capriciousness and fleeting joy. One of us has to think clearly.
I will be looking out for them with my so far undeveloped eyes.
Here in the cradle that is not a cradle but rather a cot, a battlefield of the first myths and the baby gurgles with their barely concealed violence, I think about you once again. Antiquity, culture. The vine, the slopes and the mountain, the sea. But mostly the myths. Most loudly the myths when at dusk I make the sound of your name. I think about the myth of you. I think about my myth of you.
You have no one else.
I am the one keeping you alive, telling of you yet again beside the still-smouldering embers of the campfire that is my lulled pain.
The years have added their resin. The wine of my grief has travelled over many seas, been sealed, resinated. It is a robust wine.
Golden yellow like the very depths of your iris, close to the shining black of the pupil.
She has not given up drinking yet; she has not given up smoking. Nearly two months have passed but she has not given up. Reduced, cut down, made a small attempt, but has she given up? No.
How to interpret that? She does not know what she is doing.
Unborn as I am, I know exactly what she is doing. I have nails now, tiny pink nails, and I use them to scrape away at her shadowy motives.
She is trying to mollify her wicked gods. She is trying to ignore it, to not let on, so that the gods will not catch sight of her treasure, her ruby and rose quartz; so that they will not discover her most precious gemstone, the fruit, the soft and exposed fleshy gemstone fruit here in the membrane-wrapped inner amniotic sea with its 0.9% saline solution—the same as the primeval ocean.
Her gods destroy.
She does not want to run any risks. She dares not boast. She has a pact, a rain pact: it will only rain, rain, fruitfully rain, until I have a strong foothold in her painstakingly exercised, flat stomach. Only later will she start to feel any concern, only when there is actually something there, someone there, to show concern for.
And also, perhaps, to accustom me to punishment from the very start? From the beginning make me adapt to her way of life, to her. For if it is going to be we two then I will have to learn to dance to her tune. The smoke signals are rising. She is the one sending them. She is the hostess. She is the one who decides.
At times. During the day.
But at night she lies awake and is merely a fragile and unworthy vessel. Her face is set in an expression of mute wonder and an unfamiliar, virginal humility. She thinks she can detect a foot, a miniscule little foot, cautiously kicking, knocking, signalling its presence in the indentation of her stomach where he always kisses her. There are a few months to go until I become so precocious and restless that I begin to kick, but she feels it. She feels her breasts grow in the darkness. She is in a hurry. Either she is ahead of her time or behind mine. She is not here. She is not now. Her moods are unpredictable.
Is it her? Is it in fact her or is it me who has not yet decided? Is it us? Is that what we primarily share—is our being in two minds our common placenta?
She has still not said anything, to him, to anyone.
The most important thing is that they do not go their separate ways. My parents. Because of me or anything else.
That you would have been so beautiful, so altogether wonderful. That you would have his eyes and my look: your look drowning with his eyes, in me. That you would have been a third someone, your own someone, that you would have been our own third all-knowing eye, protecting us against all evil, protecting us and keeping us young.
Weren’t we supposed to protect you?
That your free spirit would have blunted our anxiety. That he would not have suffered bleeding ulcers all over his body when in vain you balanced, swayed, and fell, when you did not breathe, when you screamed and the doctors were on strike and there were power cuts like here and the morning never dawned and you were blue and we were pale and you were pale blue and we bright red and deathly pale—was it croup or false croup, or your appendix—that we were utterly blind, worn out from keeping vigil and from the torment. That you would have calmed us then. That you would have seen. That you would have guided us through untrodden land and given us strength and advice.
That was my dream. That was how strong my faith was in you.
We were the ones who were going to protect you. Defend you, love you. I was never worried about love, not love for you. We were the ones who were going to shield you, but it was you who protected us, from ourselves.
A mascot in a sunshine-yellow smock and pink legs.
A sated dark amulet against the darkness.
I will always watch over them, as a child is vigilant of its parents.
It is misty. The Aegean Sea is lying where it has long lain, today watered, resting. Poseidon slumbers, his trident sharp as always when the storms approach, when lightning and thunder and ancient breakers threaten the coastline of my kernel. It is hard to reshape myths. They are durable and practically impossible to eradicate. They cannot be banished from communal memory. They are archaic. You are archaic. Out of this sea Aphrodite stepped naked. Naked. I always believed this to be a story about beauty, but that is not so: fundamentally it is about something else, something older. Behind it lies a story of revenge, a bloody story:
Cronus killed his father Uranus, the sky, by castrating him. His genitals fell into the sea, into this sea, fertilising the foam from which the beautiful Aphrodite was created. Naked, she rose up from the depths of the sea on a scallop shell and came ashore on the island of Cythera.
Because of her beauty she was immediately taken up to Mount Olympus.
And you were beautiful too, you were so beautiful.
But I did not want to hear about castrated manhood. Not even for beauty’s sake.
What would have been dismembered, what would have died, if you had been born?
Perhaps that was it.
I am starting to feel a slight inclination to be born. Perhaps she will grow into her task. My concern is not for him; he is like a poplar in the wind, certainly, when faced with things he cannot instantly rectify with his rustic ingenuity and intuitive elegance, and his perplexity when faced with my colic would hurt him, tear at him, clawing. But he is not the jealous kind. She is. She is a Hera.
The thought of me has already sown a seed of jealousy in my chosen mother, in her innermost secret recesses.
She knows I am a she, another she, and her female instincts have woken to life. I am not talking about the mother instinct here—that exists but is immature, awkward and unfinished like a seed in a still-closed pod—but about competition. The rival. I am the rival, the rival for his love. She does not know that her own would be stronger and outshine everything.
Shall I let her know that?
I can be jealous too. And I am having a splendid time where I am, in the unborn’s merry, glassy sphere, where freedom and unconcern shimmer blue. Would she love me high, higher, highest? Higher and purer than him?
But I am beginning to feel a slight desire to be born; I expect it is curiosity. I am beginning to feel the desire to dip my olive head in a real martini. She has already left her imprint on me.
Shall I disregard everything else she could and should, ought to be able, to do? Does she know how? Would she actually summon up the courage to pull herself together and step out into deep water; would I be a deliverer by not being delivered, or would she forfeit the chance and simply sink like a stone, a heavy stone in heavy water, forever tightly snared in her inability?
Which side of her shall I believe?
Shall I believe in her at all?
Little Aphrodite, boys are drawn to you. You always had that attraction. You would have had that attraction, your charm being of the uncompromising kind. The youngsters would have hung like overripe, yearning clusters of grapes in our garden, ready to fall. Father behind the elderflower tree with his shotgun in his heart, mother with ambivalence disfiguring her cupid’s bow. Perhaps you might never have fallen yourself, a teasing, happy, solitary individual.
So everything repeats itself, only more refined, a touch sharper.
Parents inherit their chosen, potential children. They are not aware of it, but that is how it is. We are the scribbled drafts, the copies. She is attractive to boys, just like me; she has inherited my secret. At times she cannot bear to carry it; she disowns it for the sake of peace, for the sake of women being left in peace. I can bear it, always. There is a lad up there I have my eye on.
What about you—are you having regrets?
I am the child of her soul. Her egoism is also mine. For each day I lie here in this sack, surrounded by her three membranes, the sheath—for each day I lie here, quietly bobbing in the faintly yellow amniotic fluid, I become more human. I become more concerned with my own rights, my own screeching will which shows no consideration for anything.
Not for her. Not for him. Not for them.
Perhaps I am allowing myself to be born because I so obstinately desire it. They will have to manage as best they can. A change is always pleasing. It pleases me.
She has bought a candle, a beeswax candle of golden yellow honey in an Orthodox shop she has never entered before. I have taken her that far at least; she lifted the first veil, an act alien to her.
She has also bought melon and bad prosciutto, which looked good to her eye, untrained as it is in exotic delicacies. For the weekend.
Wine, but she will only take a few sips herself. Carefully and suitably becoming.
At the weekend she intends to mention me. It is only Wednesday. She has given herself plenty of time. She is laying the groundwork.
I am not seeing as many children now, not like then, not children all over the place. Mummy tummy symbioses. Not the gentle curvature, not the hive, incubator, pram hood on every slushy pavement. I do not see the prams on their sky-high wheels, the prams with the thin gauze cloth always protectively in place against exhaust fumes, against the evil eye, against pollution from the outside.
Was I one of them when I was barren? A pollutant, a wicked fairy. Was I like that, when I was barren for so long among them before you almost arrived?
Before you made your appearance in your retreat.
Instead I see girls, teenage girls, on their own long, gangly legs. Girls in groups, girls in clusters, girls entwined in girlfriend arms. Teenage girls on the stone-flagged steps that lead steeply down to town—down to town, always down to town, do they never walk homewards?—I see them in pavement cafés, along the promenade and in the school playground.
They are also beautiful, all of them.
All of them are Aphrodite and none of them is you. I take my accustomed look, surveying them with a custom as old as they are themselves, but none is you. All are you.
Sorrow is my butterfly mantle, and the grief, the loss, my flower. But the butterfly flies and the flower has a perfume.
The years have brought their airy latitude. I follow you always; I follow you amused by your waltzing skips and pirouettes. You always did want to shine.
Your ice skates are so blindingly white as you spin. They no longer cut as deeply into my flesh.
What about you? Are you having regrets?
She was at a party yesterday. What was she celebrating, the last free evening of her life? She drank more than she usually does, more than she ever did; she drank copiously of the dark blood-red wine pre-emptively offered by the diligent host.
She never filled her glass herself.
She never asked for a top up.
She did nothing, but I understood the wink. As usual she understood nothing—it just happened, whoops.
The summer archipelago night was as white as cow parsley around her when, from time to time between drinks, she reeled outside to pee among the junipers. I understood and knew what I had to do. I understood the wink, even though it was so delicately done that she never understood it herself.
So there never was any demure sharing with him, never any surprise.
Am I having regrets?
Truth is a hermaphrodite. It is cruciferous. With its two embryonic leaves it belongs to the dicotyledonous family. The intricate distinctions of the two separate sections cross-fertilise each other and with time become a complex flower. It is true that with my own special kind of despotism I interrupted myself, I took the precaution of terminating my physical presence with the aim of assuring myself of her eternal and pure love. It was the only way to get her undivided attention.
All through life. She never tires of me.
But it is also true that it was me as an embryo, me who was still unborn and resting in her womb, who made the decision she did not dare acknowledge herself. She did not want to have me—me she so earnestly longed for.
In the eighth week I set in motion a carefully considered miscarriage. She cries.
She cries as copiously as she drank. She cries until the very elements shake.
She throws the melon away, whole and undivided, into the rubbish bin, and gives the prosciutto to her mother, so that her mother can try something tasty and different. Then she goes to Africa, back to Africa, to the cradle, the Rift Valley where we all come from.
And even later she begins a course of treatment, treatment which she knows will lead to nothing. To herself, and perhaps to others, she wants it to look as if she really tried. But she knows I will never come into being that way. She knows it is perfectly safe. She knows the miscarriage is our downfall, the closest, purely physically, that we ever came to each other.
She knows he will catch her if she falls, falls back into his arms.
Via the umbilical cord of the uncompleted, the cord constantly nourished by the dream, we are now forever united.
Perhaps this solution, this resolution, suited me too. I can be happy and live as I choose, be my own person. I like my parents very much and I do not condemn her. In him there is nothing to condemn, but neither was he as involved; not nearly as entangled, beating in the darkness, crucial.
This was and is primarily a story between her and me. A mother-daughter relationship.
I know less about his pain. He is a man, more detached.
All the travelling I have done. Everything your distrait absence has allowed me to do.
I have begun to believe in my mother, cautiously to have faith in her. Perhaps she will do something. Something else. Perhaps she will surprise both herself and me, and if so, that will be the surprise. I will always be a part of it.
To enable my mother just once to reach the vaulted heights of wonder and bow beneath its portals I was forced to teach her how to sacrifice, forced to withhold this basic wonder. Withhold myself from her.
I was not the cornerstone of her church. Without me perhaps the vault would not glitter, the icons not glow.
Anyway, I had no inclination for it. I also wanted something else. We unborn were going to have races in the Milky Way to the music of the spheres and I might have won a rosette. It is always fun and I was suddenly in a hurry to get to that event. There is a boy up there I like the look of; I didn’t want to miss the meeting with him. I put him before her. My mother did that too. She put my father before me. Him, and perhaps something else.
We do not bear a grudge. We belong to each other from a distance, a suitable distance.
It is evening and the lights are flickering. On the slopes the light is flickering and the always seductive vessels in the distance ply the dark, myth-spun Mediterranean Sea. The hub. We are going out to eat, down in the harbour quarter. To eat fish, perhaps swordfish, perhaps a weapon. I always have to battle, but never mind. Our meeting in battle, our inflated dual for domination and space has not been in vain. We have come to know each other. One day harmony will envelope us. This evening I will drink cool mouthfuls of the resinated, pale yellow wine.
In a park in Greek Macedonia, in a park on the way to the taverna, a small magnolia tree is blooming with baptism flowers. It has roots. It has space around it. Finally it has roots as well as space around it.
This evening I will tell him about you.