Una was a tree growing in a village between the river valleys, below the mountains and beyond the seacoast. In the village there were thirty-two homesteads, a church, a smithy and an ancient stone circle. The church was a recent construction, built out of mighty granite boulders at the north end of the only street. A weathercock sat on its roof; it would wiggle with the wind.
No one knew what sort of tree Una was, if she was ash or rowan or maybe birch or if she was some ancient species now extinct; she was simply so old that it did not matter. Her name made it evident she was female, a tree-ess, but this bore no significance either. This is the case with people as well, after they reach a certain age they cease to belong to a particular race or a particular sex, they are neither this nor that, but a third.
Una cured two types of conditions: first, all forms of atrophia and dwindling and withering, second, all types of unstopped sprawl and dilatation and swelling. Things that had become too small or threatened by disappearance, she restituted between the two nethermost branches on her east side, the sick or affected elevated with ropes and hauled over the lower branch. Swellings and proliferations and carbuncles, on the other hand, she healed in an inward bend of her trunk on the west side, the supplicant shoehorned through the space that had appeared between the trunk and one of the thickest low-hanging branches.
Her healing force dwelled in the crown, thereof all agreed, and so strong were her powers that, defoliated in the winter nights, she glowed.
* * *
An artist had come from the Far South to ornament the interior of the church with angels and demons and apostles and omens. He was a short, sinewy man and had a penetrating high-pitched voice, he painted day and night to make use of the summer light. He had no disciple or apprentice to assist him, in fact he wanted no one by his side, everything he had to do himself.
Sometimes he slept a quarter-hour, never more.
* * *
One evening he indulged in a short break, he sat on the church stoop with his legs folded under his body and his palms resting on the cold granite. And all the village youths gathered around him. The sun rested safe and snug and motionless on the fur tops to the west.
If only you knew! said he to them.
What do you mean? asked the youths.
How deathly wearisome this is, said he. Pray for me!
Of course, said the youths. We shall pray for you.
Today, he continued, I have painted the Saint Erasmus on the Southern wall. Such effort! Such torment!
And the gathered youths asked: Erasmus?
His martyrdom, said the artist. He was cooked in the emperor's caldron. With a winch his guts were ripped out of his torso. And he bore it with his mental poise intact! Do you appreciate what it means to paint something like that!
No, said the youths, we cannot appreciate that.
Martyrdom, said he, martyrdom also for the painting hand, the right one.
Short moments, he mused, he was, by mercy, forced to let it rest, the right hand, and let the left hand paint lilies and vines and roses. But human figures, he wanted to emphasize, could not be entrusted any body part but the right hand.
In a far and distant future interpreters of art would say that here had been two artists working side by side, a great master of figures and a slightly less significant master of flowers. He and his hands would, however, not need to trouble themselves with that, they had troubles enough: The lime sludge would not be even enough, the small surfaces of plaster would dry too fast, the patina and the rust that ceaselessly had to be harvested from the sides of pieces of metal, the malaise from the flower-of-sulfur. The endeavor was altogether martyrdom.
Well? said the youths.
And the real meaning of my work, I have never understood it. I do not portray the world as we see it, that would be meaningless. If I may suggest: It is already at hand. When I portray Thomas the apostle, is my painting the Holy Apostle or merely a painting of Thomas? Could it be the case that Thomas never existed before I portrayed him? Do I create him in the moment I portray him? Or is he recreated? Has he been dead and I resurrect him? The same question I ask myself when I paint the fallen Lucifer, John when he sees the Bride of the Lamb, the ascension of Maria Magdalena, the man who is hung from his tongue over fire by a hook, the naked woman possessed by the devil while she churns the butter, the shivering soul receiving the crown of eternal life. Not to mention the man whose naked bottom has taken the form of a chalice. And so forth, questions without end.
Yes, said the youths, we see that this is somewhat problematic.
In such ceaseless asking, said he, painting persists. And the more difficult, the more ecstatic and breathlessly one paints. Painting seems to me inexorable, it must take place. If the painting does not do its duty, what then?
Endless numbers of things will not exist, said the youths. Endless.
Then they asked many questions he did not answer.
But he revealed to them some of the secrets that must never be exposed, the enigmatic elements: turd of rat, Daphne Mezereum, azurite, blood of frog, intestine of dog, flowers of Caltha Palustris, Huperzia Selagom, root of Rubiaceae. And much more. By the way he asked: Did anyone know where he could find some natterjacks?
And he mentioned he was from the South, from Simrishamn. From the day he left when he was fifteen he had never returned. But I often paint Simrishamn, he said.
Now, said he, now I will paint the nightingale that the Saint Barlaam spoke of.
No nightingales exist here, said the youths.
My nightingale will exist, said the artist. A man caught this nightingale. And the nightingale said: If you let me go I will give you three pieces of advice that are much more valuable for you than my little body with its meager breast and skinny legs. And the man was thoughtful and asked to hear the advice.
Never try the impossible! said the bird. Never mourn what you have lost! Never believe the preposterous! Remember this, and you will never be a fool!
The artist, who had cited Saint Barlaam, who in his turn had cited the nightingale, then said: Well, actually it went like this: 'Never try to attain to the unattainable: ever regret the thing past and gone: and never believe the word that passeth belief. Keep these three precepts, and thou shalt do well.'
The man let the nightingale go. In flight the nightingale shouted to him:
Alas, what misfortune! You knew not that in my bowels lies a precious stone larger than the egg of an ostrich!
The man tried to make her come back, calling and coaxing, with bitter tears in his eyes.
The bird, who mind you was a nightingale, spat at him and shouted: Now I know that you are a fool! You regret that you let me go and you try to entice me back though you know it is impossible and you believe that my belly contains a stone larger than my whole body, which is outrageous!
Now, yes! Within minutes the painter would take on that motif.
Is it indeed possible to paint such a nightingale? asked the youths.
It is my unyielding conviction that it is, said the artist. I will do it.
Then asked he: Will the sun never set?
No, said they, not for the time being. But when it does, it is forever, almost.
He mentioned to them that ultimately, as the arch centerpiece, he would paint a fine and decent perch. That he anticipated.
* * *
So he vanished into the church again, to his artistic deed. He made calcimine and chipped old paint away and crushed secret elements in his mortar and trimmed and polished and girded brushes of horsehair and cow's tails and drew lines and shades with charcoal from the hearth in the weaponhouse.
But above all, he painted.
Indeed, he painted so strenuously and impatiently and zealously that his right hand, the hand that habitually held the brush, began to wither. At first, it became wan and limp and difficult to master, then it began to shrink and shrivel, it became peculiarly thin and flaccid.
And the atrophy spread in his body, the flesh beneath his elbow dried up and vanished in the narrow spaces between the bones of his forearm; at length his whole arm hung from his shoulder like a desiccated hops bine.
On the morning of the day of the Apostle Simon, he came out of the church and said: I cannot bear any more.
At that moment he had yet to portray the Archangel Rafael, the prodigious spirit of healing.
The people of the village immediately recognized his condition, that his devotion and artistic zeal, had, well, consumed his right arm. And so they took him to Una, the healing tree. Or more correctly, the blacksmith lifted him and carried him in his arms.
* * *
About the same time a mysterious and dreadful condition had afflicted the village doyen: His belly ballooned and swelled so that he could no longer stand on his legs. For many days he had laid motionless, belly-up on his bed, his bowels swelled, and filled half the sitting room.
Notwithstanding, his sons had finally succeeded in prying him through the door and heaving him into the dung barrow, he was going to Una to be healed.
* * *
Thus it came that Una at one and the same time, indeed simultaneously, was compelled to undertake two of the most difficult cases she had ever encountered in her long tree life.
While the high-strung and asthenic artist was elevated with ropes and slowly slipped over the lowermost branch on Una's East side, the corpulent village doyen was shoehorned or scooped or poured by his stout sons through the space between the trunk and the thick low-hanging branch on Una's West side.
And right then, right when Una should have been more composed and attentive and purpose-oriented than ever before, right then, a whim of absent-mindedness passed through her crown. Those moments can happen to any of us in old age.
She simply confused her healing powers, and sent the diminishing and astricting and densifying energies to the East while the powers of expansion and abundance and proliferation were released to the West. This blink of confusion and mental absence had devastating consequences.
Before the eyes of the awestruck villagers the poor artist shrank and shriveled, transformed into something resembling a clean-gnawed gnome carcass. They put him in an old birchbark shoe and buried him. But the village doyen bulged and swelled until his skin burst with a little snap. He flooded the surroundings in the form of gray-greenish foam, like the froth of a rich ale. They needed not bury him since the sun dried him up and all that remained the next morning was a thin salty crust that produced a light chinking sound under the shoe soles of the villagers.
Now the men of the village gathered by the stone circle. They did not need to confer at length. The fire they lit in the midst of the circle hardly had time to eat into the wood before they had passed a death sentence over Una, the tree-ess, for her carelessness. No one, not even one beset by senility, can go unpunished for crossing and obliterating the fine, almost non-existent, dividing line between healing and smite.
* * *
Ten men worked their axes for three days, then she fell.
While the furious chopping took place it was declared many times that, in this area, there would be no lack of firewood for years ahead.
But on that point, they deceived themselves.
No one fathomed the tremendousness or the eldritch of Una's powers. Certainly she had grown a bit inattentive in her old age, but her powers were intact.
When her crown fell, it fell not only to the ground, but further, the mighty trunk and vast branches cut through the earth's crust like butter and all parts of the tree that hitherto had been visible, heaved with a horrific and frightening roar through what the villagers had, up till now, referred to as steady ground. The crater that appeared was called, simply, The Great Hole.
And all people remained standing around it for two days and two nights, muted and overwhelmed.
But then, they had to mobilize again.
A gigantic stump had been left; it stood on the brink of The Great Hole Through The Earth. And it began to flourish: It propagated sprouts and layers and branches and roots and red and green and yellow fruits to an extent that no one could ever have imagined. The powers of Una were apparently still present, they dwelled in her roots, and had only temporarily taken the shape of her crown. If they did nothing about it, the village and the surrounding area would soon be drenched and buried under the unbridled fecundity that bulged from the stump.
Therefore, all men and women ran off to find tools that could be of use in such a situation: axes, pickaxes, scythes, saws, sickles, knives and hoes. They began to chop and hack and haw and carve with all their might. Now and then they ate of the red and yellow and green fruit, chewing without interrupting their work. And everything that they cut, they threw in The Great Hole.
From then to the present, nothing of interest has happened in the village, generations succeed each other and the procreative powers of the stump have not weakened. The Hole is never filled. This life has become to the villagers the only natural and morally acceptable one: One chops and hacks and haws from birth to death, and when that time is up, one falls into the Hole.
* * *
This peculiar form of life has resulted in an overgrowing and erasure of all roads and trails from the village to the rest of the world; due to its unilateral industrial life, the village has been completely closed off from the world. We cannot find it. It is, in a sense, regrettable, as we could find there a not-at-all-uninteresting object for contemplation and research: a place where not only eternal and unstoppable growth could be studied but also The Unfillable Hole that, with eternal patience, consumes all the products of that growth.
The image of Archangel Raphael was never completed, but that too lacks significance. Who, in this area, could make use of a healing spirit?
We shall not see this either: The Holy Perch who calms all desiring faculties and gives peace to the most sensuous of hearts.
Translated from the Swedish by Erika Sigvardsdotter and Bradley L. Garrett
First published in Asymptote
Editor: Lee Yew Leong
Mission: Asymptote is a new international journal that seeks to present the best in contemporary literature. Edited by Lee Yew Leong (Taiwan/Singapore) with a global team of editors, each online—and free—issue showcases fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, visual art, criticism, and interviews. Since January 2011, Asymptote has published new original and translated work from 40 over countries; past authors include: Mary Gaitskill, Sven Birkerts, Robert Walser (via Susan Bernofsky), and Shen Congwen (via Alice Xin Liu).
Torgny Lindgren was born in 1938 in Raggsjö, Västerbotten. He is one of Sweden's most loved and admired novelists and poets. Lindgren's major breakthrough was the novel The Way of the Serpent, published in 1982, and for the screen by Bo Widerberg. The novel depicts life, poverty, oppression and faith in a village in northern Sweden, a landscape that he returns to in many of his works. Lindgren has been a member of the Swedish Academy since 1991, and has been awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Umeå and Linköping.
Erika Sigvardsdotter (translator) was born in 1981 in Örnsköldsvik, Northern Sweden. A researcher of geography at Uppsala University, she has spent the greater part of her childhood summers in the landscape Lindgren's magical realities spring from. She is writing a book about places of migrant refuge.
Bradley L. Garrett was born in 1981 in Riverside, California. A researcher in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, he has published a number of academic articles and films on issues relating to landscape and place. His most recent production is the film London's Olympic Waterscapes, hosted by the British Library.