The following is from Johanne Lykke Holm’s Strega. Holm is a writer and translator. Her novel Strega was a finalist for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, won the PEN Translates Award, and was short-listed for the European Union Prize for Literature. She lives in Malmö, Sweden with her family.
There came a day when we were to go out to the park and harvest the fruit before it fell to the ground and spoiled. There were apple trees and plum trees, cherries and mirabelles. We lifted our hands and lowered them. We had baskets and knives. I knelt by the rose-hip bush, running my hands over the plump, flame-colored fruits. A red mist hovered above the lawn. I sat within it and inhaled the red.
There came a day when we were to make dumplings. We filled them with dark berries. We filled them with meat. We lowered them into boiling water. Watched them sink to the bottom only to come rushing back to the surface, like drowning schoolboys full of desperation. The perforated ladle scooped them up and rescued them to a hand-painted plate of thick porcelain. A complicated pattern of roses and insects. I imagined the hand that had painted the plate. Thin and bony and with red-painted nails.
There came a day when we were to learn the forms of address in various languages. We said: Mademoiselle. We said: Gnädige Frau. If we met a child in the corridor, we were to tilt our heads and ask: Where is the young gentleman’s mother?
There came a day when we were to iron, mangle, and fold. The room was filled with a hazy light. Wetted sheets in swelling piles. We had placed the ironing boards in a row. In the window was a black porcelain vase, out of which a lone sunflower was drooping. Rex handed out wrinkled linen. We were given small glass bottles of water with which to wet the fabric. The irons crackled. The air in the room grew hot and sort of aromatic, as if someone had lit a scented votive candle. I lifted my hands and lowered them. The hands knew all about this work. Starched fabrics to bring to the face. Pale pink, steaming.
There came a day when Costas taught us all about lactic acid. We cut cabbage heads in half and picked at them with our hands. We were to pluck out the cabbage leaves in as pristine a state as possible. It was a strange plant. It looked fake, unnatural. Like something that couldn’t possibly have come from the earth, something made up, the product of a peculiar thought. The leaves came in all different shapes. Light green ovals. Kidney-shaped leaves with a bright sheen. I held a leaf up to my mouth. The coolth of crops. The moisture they bear: the memory of the earth and darkness, wetness.
There came a day when Toni spoke for two hours on the topic of Woman’s Plight. We found it hard not to laugh. There was something touching but also very ridiculous about this woman, who seemed to come from another time. She spoke of men and their desires. She spoke of women’s lack of the same. She said: One stands in the kitchen fixing the potatoes. The telephone rings, it’s him. One’s heart is pounding in the chest. One goes to the little mirror in the hall. One wants to apply eyeliner, but must give up, for one’s hand is shaking too much. A woman’s happiness is serving a man potatoes. One wants to sit upon an upholstered chair, legs crossed. One wants to place one’s hands in one’s lap and let them lie. I leaned against Alba and pressed my mouth to her neck.
There came a day when we were to learn about the convent. We read about the nuns and their palladia, their holy books. If we met them by the lake, we were to be polite but distant. We were to bow our head to our chest and mumble a brief greeting. We were not to enter into conversation. We understood that the nuns’ life held a certain power of attraction. We understood the great risk it would imply if we happened to get too close. Perhaps we would be drawn into their magnetic field and forced to stay there forever. We knew that they lived out their youth outside of youth. Beyond the time of female friends, forever in the time of nuns. They hid their hands in cotton gloves. They arranged mortar in particular patterns. They had long conversations about herbs and saints. There were no mirrors in the convent, but one could use a glass shard, the backside of a spoon. They sanctified the carnation because of its preternatural ability to survive. The nuns studied death as they did any other subject. Toni said: They do not work for the living, but for the dead.
There came a day when Rex told us about the electricity, the disciplined force. She wanted to show us the difference between artificial and natural light. She held a light bulb in one hand and a candle in the other. In the light of the bulb, she looked like a lit-up tombstone. In the other, she looked like an actress, soft and veiled in mist. She fixed her eyes on us. She said: Never switch on the electric light in the dining room without my permission. I looked at Rex, and she looked at me. She held up the candle in front of her. Her hard face in the warm light.
There came a day when we were to stand with our backs to the wall and perform a series of uncomfortable movements.
The days passed, no guests arrived.
We quickly learned that each day was a reproduction of the last. Morning after morning, we set out coffee and bread in the conservatory facing the park. There were large porcelain bowls filled with black marmalade. There was silverware on linen napkins. Morning after morning, a metallic light fell through the room like a butcher’s knife. I stood and watched it happen. At the same moment, Alba walked through the room with a large platter on which fake fruit was glistening. The others folded napkins, set out drinking glasses, topped up sugar bowls. I stared into the park. For a moment I thought I saw someone coming, but I must have been mistaken. I went back to work. Refilled the coffeepots, sliced the tin loaf. No guests arrived.
We made the beds on the first and second floors. We laid out small blue and pink soaps. We smoothed our hands over the decorative pillows and aired the bedcovers. We gathered the hotel’s every fabric and washed them. We washed the silk sheets from the suite by hand in brackish water and hung them up to dry in the park. We ironed them on a low temperature, we did not mangle them. We wore gloves. We sprayed orange-blossom water. We boiled the cotton sheets, then ran them through the mangle while they were still damp.
We stood in a row along the kitchen worktops. Costas let us whip cream, she let us proof dough, she let us wash thin porcelain in large tubs. Alba loved being in the kitchen. This surprised no one. She could carve vegetables into beautiful flowers with the help of a paring knife. From a block of cold butter she could make a pale yellow rose. She’d wear a hairnet, so no one would have to find a long hair in her legume salad. The knife she stored in her back pocket, wrapped in a handkerchief. It happened that she took it out and held the tip to my chest.
With Costas, we were happy for brief moments of time. When she wanted to, she could be a rest home, a palm grove. She would put out edible herbs in low glass vases. A great armful of sage that gave off a greenish purple dust. Bishop’s-weed and red clover, a bowl of dried nettles. Everywhere, the good smell of coffee and cherry compote. She gave us food to eat. In this way, she was a mother. We were given bread and oil and tins of pickled fish. She gave us milk to drink, because she had a notion that it would make us round and strong and spare us from all that was evil. She gave us generous breaks. We walked slowly through the park, we smoked. We rubbed each other’s hands with arnica salve. Alba and I stood for a while, staring out into the forest, where a thick mist came rolling from the moss. We said nothing, we smoked. When the break was over, a little bell rang in the kitchen. It was a beautiful sound that rose into the sky.
The afternoons belonged to Rex. These were the day’s most difficult hours, not because the work was hard, but because she was both unreliable and a disciplinarian. She watched our hands as we set the table in the dining room for the evening. We set out ashtrays and drove in the drinks trolley. We arranged the flowers harmoniously on the tables. We fixed our faces in front of the mirrored wall in the lobby. We set out meat and vegetables and crème caramel on glass platters. Rex observed us. I looked at her. She leaned on the mantelpiece, where a violet glowed in a vase made of silver. She looked like a person who had been alone since birth. The clock struck seven. No guests arrived.
Two hours later, the dinner service concluded. We stood in a row in the dining room in our aprons. At a silent signal from Costas, we began to put everything back on the serving trolleys. We rolled them into the dumbwaiter. Staring down at the tainted meat as the waiter sank toward the basement floor. A slice of lemon had slipped off the platter and landed on Alba’s shoe. I had the urge to put it in my mouth but didn’t. In the kitchen, the fridge was humming. We switched on the light and saw how everything was bathed in the same cold light. Through the airing window, which was open, the metallic smell of wet earth could well in from the park. Someone turned on the radio. The late broadcast from Tirana was on, with dance music and world news. We wrapped the food in aluminum foil, put the wine bottles back in the cupboard. We sat down on the kitchen floor and stretched out our legs. Lorca made coffee in her special way. We drank it with sugar, we smoked. Bambi wiped off her lipstick with the back of her hand and yawned. Outside, the park was silent. I leaned my head on Alba’s shoulder. Breathed in her scent of rain and sweat. The break lasted for thirty minutes.
For the rest of the evening, we kept to the ballroom, where the walls were covered with mirror shards arranged in a kaleidoscopic pattern. An electric chandelier bathed us in its hysteric shine. Toni instructed us in conversation and rhythmics. She said: It’s important that a woman be competent, but she must also be spiritual. She had us line up. She had us lift our feet in one synchronized movement. She had us pronounce vowels as softly as possible. She had us laugh like women. We were to be beautiful children with the proficiencies of adults. We were exhausted and moved through the room like rag dolls. She handed out liqueur and herbal candies from the convent to keep us awake. The room steamed with the sweet scent of malt syrup and thyme. One stretched out a foot, one bent forward. One imagined a businessman’s face and his smile upon seeing us come walking through the lobby.
Only at midnight did we fall into our beds. In spite of the rain, the nights were still hot and dense, they quivered. The moon was up, I saw her through the curtain. I sat in bed and studied my face in my pocket mirror. The night air wafted around me with its sweet scent. I noticed that one of my eyes was glistening in an unsettling way, as though black obsidian had moved into the socket and replaced the eyeball. The others fell asleep in the blink of an eye, facedown, like corpses in a very old funeral rite. Their hair welled across the sheets like spilled ink. When night reached its deepest point, I fell asleep too, submerged in their sleep. We all dreamed the same dream. It was a walk on the beach in summer. We came walking together. The sun, white, vibrating above us.
From Strega by Johanne Lykke Holm. Used with permission of the publisher, Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2022 by Johanne Lykke Holm. Translation copyright © 2022 by Saskia Vogel.