She visits me often, usually at night. She stands by my bed, looking down at me, and says, You’ve aged. She doesn’t say it in a nasty way, though, her voice sounds affectionate, almost merry. She sits down on the side of the bed. But then your hair, she says, tousling it with her hand, it’s as thick as it ever was. Only it’s gone white. You’re not getting any older though, I say to her. I’m not sure if that’s a happy thought for me or not. We never talk much, after all, what is there to say. The time goes by. We look at each other and smile.
She comes almost every night, sometimes so late that it’s starting to get light. She was never one for punctuality, but I don’t mind about that, the less time I have left, the more time I allow myself. I don’t do anything but wait anyway, and the later she comes, the more time I have to look forward to her.
This morning I woke up early and got up right away. For once I didn’t want to be in bed when she came. I put on my good pair of pants, my jacket, and the black shoes, and sat down at the table in front of the window. I want to be ready.
It’s been cold for days, there’s been snow lying on the roofs and fields, and thin lines of smoke twisting up out of the village chimneys. I take the little passe-partout frame with Magdalena’s photo out of my desk drawer, it’s the picture I clipped from the newspaper ages ago, and you can hardly make her out on it. The paper is yellowed, but it’s the only picture of her I have, and barely a day passes that I don’t at least glance at it. I run my fingers along the narrow frame and it gives me the feeling I’m touching her, her skin, her hair, her body.
When I look up again, out of the window, I can see her standing outside. Her breath is steaming, and she’s smiling and waving. Her lips are moving, and I’m guessing she’s calling me. Come on! she repeats, so exaggeratedly that I can lip-read it. Let’s go for a walk. I’m coming, I call back, wait for me! My wheezing alarms me, it’s an old man’s voice, a voice that’s just as alien to me as the frail body that imprisons me. I pull on my coat and scarf as quickly as I can. I hurry downstairs, stumbling on the hollowed-out stone steps. By the time I’m walking out of the home, I see Magdalena has already set out. I set off after her, in the direction of the river, toward the footbridge that leads across to the village I grew up in, passing the little pond where we used to feed the ducks when we were little, the place I had a bad fall on my bike, and that other place we used to meet at when we were teenagers at night, and light bonfires. It feels to me as though I’ve become part of the scenery here, which has hardly changed over all the years.
Magdalena has almost reached the bridge. Her step is so light, it’s as though she’s levitating over the snowy footpath. In my haste I’ve forgotten my cane, and I’m torn between my fear of slipping on the ice and falling and my other fear of losing Magdalena from view. Wait! I repeat, I’m not so fast anymore.
Images surface of her vanishing into the mountains before me, how we wandered around the city together, how we traipsed through Stockholm arm in arm, that night I told her my story, and hers, the night she kissed me. She turns to face me and smiles. Come on! she cries. Come and get me.
Magdalena must have been perplexed by my message. I hadn’t left any number or address, only a time and a place and my first name: Please come to Skogskyrkogården tomorrow at two. I have a story I want to tell you.
I waited for her at the exit to the Underground station. Quarter past two, and she still wasn’t there; briefly I thought she might have taken a cab. But her lateness wasn’t significant, she was always unpunctual, not in the aggressive way of showing the person waiting that their time is worth less than hers, more from a kind of vagueness with which she approached everything in her life. I was certain that she would come, that her curiosity was greater than her suspicion.
Five minutes later, the next train rolled in, and I was already thinking she wasn’t in this one either when she came down the steps with her twinkling feet. I had meant to indicate my presence immediately, but in the instant I saw her, I couldn’t breathe, no more than I had been able to the night before when I had stood outside her hotel waiting, and hadn’t managed to speak to her then. She must be almost thirty, fully twenty years younger than me, but her manner was that of a girl, and anyone seeing us together would surely suppose we were father and daughter. I let her walk past without addressing her, and then I followed her in the direction of the cemetery.
She didn’t make the impression of someone with an appointment to keep, walking down the street with rapid steps, as though she’d been that way a hundred times. I had expected her to stop at the entrance to the cemetery, but she walked straight in, and without the least hesitation climbed the hill that was surmounted by a ring of old trees. At the foot of the hill was an enormous stone cross, and yet the whole site had a heathen aspect, landscape and nature seemed stronger than the consecrated buildings and their Christian symbolism.
Magdalena had sat down at the foot of one of the bare trees up on the hill, and was looking in my direction, as though we were having a race and she’d won. Out of breath, I came level with her, and although she had never seen me before, she seemed to understand straightaway that it was I who had summoned her. Lena, she said, holding out her hand. Christoph, I said, and shook it, in some perplexity. Not Magdalena, then? No one calls me that, she said with a smile. A slightly unusual place for a meeting. I just wanted us to be able to talk undisturbed, I said.
I sat down next to her, and we gazed down at the yellow stone buildings that were probably from the Thirties. Next to a few slabbed structures was a monumental roof supported by square pillars, with a large, frozen pond in front of it. The gently contoured lawn was flecked with snow. From the entrance to the cemetery came people in dark coats, some alone, others in pairs or small groups. They stopped in front of one of the buildings, a scattered group that didn’t seem to cohere properly.
I like cemeteries, said Lena. I know, I replied. It’s cold, she said, shall we walk a bit?
We walked down the hill. The mourners by now had vanished under the jutting roof of the chapel, and the plaza was once more unoccupied. Next to the building stood a candelabra with a clock. Curious, said Lena, doesn’t it look like something on a railway platform? She stood under the clock, looked up at it, checked her watch like a traveler impatient for a train to leave. Final destination, I said. She laughed at me, but carried on playing her role, till I clapped gently, whereupon she gave a clumsy bow.
We walked on into the cemetery, past geometrical rows of graves towards a thin copse of firs. We were walking side by side, so close that sometimes our shoulders brushed. Lena was silent now, but it wasn’t an impatient silence, and we could have gone on like that for a long way without talking, just preoccupied with our own thoughts. Finally, just as we stepped between the first trees, I stopped and said, I’d like to tell you my story. She didn’t reply but turned towards me and gave me a look that wasn’t so much curious as utterly open. I am a writer, I said, or rather I used to be a writer. I published a book fifteen years ago. My boyfriend’s a writer, she said, or hopes to be. I know, I said, that’s why I want to tell you my story.
We walked slowly along the gravel path that led in a straight line through the wood, and I told Lena of the strange encounter fourteen years before which had led to my abandoning writing.