Crayfish Rhapsody

Aug, 2019

When I was young, I went crayfishing with my father in Sweden. Although I can’t remember the exact year, it must have been on August 7, for that was the day the season began. My father and his brothers were fortunate enough to have their own fishing waters. They had long since moved from the countryside to the city; the farm where they grew up was sold. Their crayfishing privilege, however, was for life.

In my father’s Volvo, we traveled on curvy gravel roads deep into the forest of Västergötland. The couple who now owned the farm greeted us, never profusely — that was not their way. The wife served strong coffee and seven kinds of biscuits. Time and again she would urge us to have more; Swedish decorum forbade us to decline. Form facilitates, we know what to expect, and so we sampled them all: rågkakor, drömmar, spritskransarklenäter, nötkakor, berlinerbröd, and mandelkyssar (my very own madeleine).

The farm children stared glumly at me from a corner. My youngest uncle, I thought, was unnecessarily boisterous, the farmer and his wife unduly quiet. My father asked the farmer about the crops. The farmer asked about my father’s business and what he thought about the Social Democrats. Slowly we adjusted and reached some sort of common ground. The children took me outside to inspect the fishing gear. Shortly before 5 o’clock, the hour when the season officially began, we all marched down to the river, loaded with wire cages and buckets.

The Ätran was a drowsy, meandering river. Dense reeds made it all but inaccessible, unless, as my father did, you knew where to approach. Covered by old branches, the river bottom offered perfect hiding places for our elusive game. Early in the evening, we encountered poachers, their conscience less restricted than their fishing rights. Some arguing ensued, almost friendly, until one of the poachers, bolstered by aquavit, knocked the cap off my youngest uncle’s head. In the debacle that followed, the intruder took one false step and fell backwards into the water. I can still see him clambering back up onto the opposite bank, drenched but unrepentant, as my uncle’s cap disappeared down the river, merrily bobbing along.

For bait we used carp bream and dace, ignoring old wives’ tales about squirrel meat. We used round wire cages with openings at the tops. The crayfish, determined to reach the bait, climbed up the side of the crate, dropped down through the hole and were trapped inside. It worked if done right – the bottom of the cage had to be well tied (we untied it to shake out the catch), and the cages had to be placed horizontally against the river bottom, not at a slant, which sometimes happened as the night progressed and some fishermen partook too freely of the aquavit, at first discreetly behind the trunk of a car, later more openly, and often with a dare.

The first catch was rushed up to the farmhouse, where the farmer’s wife was waiting with dill and boiling water. A couple of hours later, while we were still lowering and lifting cages, a mound of succulent, glistening crayfish in bright lacquer-red shells, crowned with dill blossoms, came back to us on a wagon pulled by a tractor. There were other delicacies too: meatballs, Jansson’s Temptation (anchovy and potato casserole), oven baked omelets, smoked eel, pickled Baltic herring, sausages, gravlax, liver paté, and curd cake. 

Crayfish was the food of kings. It was recognized as such by the splendor-loving Erik XIV, who ruled Sweden in the sixteenth century. King Erik coveted luxury and foreign novelties, introduced napkins and forks, and insisted that his barbarian courtiers wipe their mouths with napkins, not with the tablecloth. Crayfish soon became fare for the upper classes too, but the peasants resisted these cumbersome critters, which took so long to eat and yielded so little nourishment. In finer kitchens, crayfish was prepared from complicated recipes with the many spices so loved by the chefs of the baroque era. Not until the mid 19thcentury did Swedes reach their true understanding of crayfish: it’s to be served cold with lots and lots of dill.

Eating crayfish is an art. The true connoisseur savors each delectable morsel of meat. I, for one, never neglected to scrape off the delicious “butter” from the inside of the shell. Blom, the principal character in one of August Strindberg’s short stories, believes that he’s the only one who knows how to eat crayfish the right way:

“He makes an incision around the head and a hole against which he presses his lips and sucks. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is the best part of the whole animal.’ He severs the thorax from the lower part, puts his teeth to the body and drinks deep draughts; he sucks the little legs as if they were asparagus, eats a pinch of dill, and takes a drink of beer and mouthful of rye bread. When he has carefully taken the shell off the claws and sucked even the tiniest tubes, he eats the flesh; last of all he attacks the lower part of the body.”

Living in California, I haven’t eaten crayfish for years. Still, I gather not much has changed. The Swedish kräftskiva or crayfish party may be an informal gathering of friends on an open veranda with paper moons swaying in the breeze. It may be a party in Stockholm’s Old Town, where illustrious celebrants convene, men in white tie and tails, women in gala gowns, to see and be seen. But no matter where, it’s always a marvelously noisy, messy, and happy affair, redolent of dill, with guests in colored bibs abandoning themselves to lustful finger-sucking and songs of revelry.

But in my mind, nothing could ever come close to that black and dewy August night, when I was crayfishing with my father. As the farmer’s wife served up her feast, people from the nearby village joined us, men and women who told me stories about my father, which he, in good humor, called untrue. Albert of Kråkebacken, who once taught my father to fish and hunt but by then was too old to do either, was still a virtuoso on the accordion. His scuffed boot stomping in rhythm, he played the waltz, the schottische, and the hambo. We whooped and danced – I in the arms of the schoolteacher’s son – while down-river, in the light of the grinning moon, the poachers emptied our cages.


 Photo by Mamma Matmor on Pixabay



by Birgitta Hjalmarson

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

The girl’s breath misted the glass as she pressed her nose against the windowpane and looked out at the street. An eerie stillness ruled out there, no movement seen, other than snowflakes falling slowly from a black evening sky. In front of the house, a solitary lamp post shed a small circle of light. The father and the boy had shoveled the garden path free of snow, all the way from the white wooden gate to the front door.

In this town, on the west coast of Sweden, winter had come early that year. The war had ended less than a decade earlier. Memories of the camps already seemed distant, the guilt assuaged, for all the claims of ignorance of something that should have been known. But the girl and the boy knew nothing of that, especially not on an evening like this, the house warm and snug, the oil furnace humming in the cellar, the Christmas creche on display in the fireplace, the wise men in their richly colored robes, the ceramic ox looking down on the infant in the manger. Out in the bicycle shed, the hedgehog had bedded down for the winter, underneath a pile of twigs and leaves, its breathing suspended, its torpor all but complete.

From the sofa in the living room, the sister-in-law watched the wife. The sister-in-law came rarely to the house. She was a stranger to the children. Even the husband, her younger brother, had long since tried to understand who she was, or perhaps he understood it all too well, her desire for his wife, her need to see her, if only from a distance, and only once a year, as this evening in the living room, her mind taking note of the wife’s every gesture, her quietness and content, and yet that hint of strain, the skin below her eyes tinged with blue, and now the news, as the wife had whispered in her ear, even as they greeted each other in the hall, that she was expecting a third child.

The boy joined the girl at the window. He wore his new pullover sweater, an early Christmas gift. Early that morning, he and the father had gone to the country, the boy in the back seat of the Volvo, as they traveled along winding forest roads, with glimpses of the frozen river against the gray winter light. At the farmhouse, the grandmother had been waiting, a devout woman in black, made even more devout by the death of her husband years before the war. A horse dealer, he had lived on too grand a scale in a place where most of the forest had already been felled, leaving the ground scorched and too stony for crops. No one, not even the grandmother, had been willing to admit that his death had been a suicide. Rather, it was blamed on a sudden dizziness, which must have struck as he crossed the old stone bridge, his body floating ashore a couple of miles to the south.

While the grandmother stayed behind, the boy and the father had walked out into the forest, following the tracks in the snow, the boy carrying his grandfather’s rifle. The fox had waited for them, or so it seemed to the boy, at the far end of a meadow, the boughs of the fir trees weighed down by snow. As the father guided him, the boy raised the rifle to his shoulder, his finger on the trigger. The fox looked straight at them, as if in anticipation of what the boy would do next. Blood hammering in his ears, gun oil stinging his nostrils, all the boy could think of was the stillness of the fox, the frozen landscape around them, and the father wanting him to shoot. Just then, the fox turned and loped back in among the trees, and the boy lowered the rifle.

On their return to town, the boy and the father had found the Christmas tree toppled by the cat, ornaments scattered all over, the cat on the windowsill licking its paws. Order had been restored, the Christmas star rewired to the top of the tree, the tree itself secured to the wall, and the shards of the broken glass balls, covered with fake frost, swept off the floor. At last, after hiding in his room, the boy had come out to light the candles in the tree, not electric, as in the houses of his friends, but real, the candleholders made of brass with drip pans for the melting wax. He bowed before the aunt and joined the girl at the window, who kept wiping the mist off the glass. He was not at all sure that Santa Claus would come, especially not since the father was still in the house. In the past, the father had always disappeared just before Santa Claus arrived. Now, looking at his father converse with the aunt, the boy felt sorry for his sister, who clung to the notion that Santa Claus was no less real than the grandmother’s God.

The wife was still in the kitchen, preparing the sauce for the lutfisk, rich enough to conceal the blandness of the cod. The afternoon had grated on her nerves, and she had reached for one of those pills she kept hidden in the corner of the cabinet, behind the crystal glasses. She could hear her husband’s voice from the living room. A month earlier, her sister-in-law had helped her with a dress that needed to be let out. It was only natural that the wife should have asked her, the sister-in-law being a seamstress with clients coming to see her as far as from Berlin. In the bright atelier, the sister-in-law had bent at her side, one knee against the floor, as she pinned the dress around her waist, the porcelain pin heads like pricks of blood. Even now, the wife could feel the hands of her sister-in-law resting on her hips, longer than necessary, long enough for the wife to respond, as if a small animal had stirred inside her womb. That night, unable to forget, she had turned away from her husband in shame. The following morning, a messenger delivered the dress with a note from the sister-in-law, embossed in blue and gold, with hopes that the dress would now be a better fit.

To this day, the wife could see the husband enter the shop where she used to work, his collar raised, his coat of the latest cut. He had asked to taste almost every cheese in sight, buying two or three, as the other customers waited in line, the matrons smiling behind his back. When she married him, she had already been pregnant with the boy. Crushing his dreams to become an architect, she expected him to provide for her in style, all those dinners and bridge parties, the maids in starched aprons and caps. Once he became a successful businessman, he took her to Milan and Paris, the two of them sitting in their own loge at the opera house or walking hand-in-hand along the Seine. Even now, after all these years of living in this small Swedish town, when he thought she was asleep, he would leave their bed for the room in the attic. Here, when cleaning, she would see his blueprints spread on the drawing board, his pencils sharpened and lined up, his compass and triangles laid out the way one might set the table for a long-lost friend, someone who might still return, all those dreams stashed away, like her pills.

Now, as the wife entered the living room, she found her sister-in-law talking to the husband, the cat purring in his lap. Both children were at the window, looking out. This year, aware of the boy’s suspicions, she and her husband had agreed to hire a Santa Claus. Other parents in the neighborhood had asked to join, and an advertisement had been answered. The man, named Linder, was given not just the addresses but also the names of the children, their grades at school and the subjects in need of improvement. He should already be making his way down the street, sacks of presents waiting for him in garages and cellars, a glass of snaps offered him in each house, strong enough to warm his insides. The wife did not know this man, nor did her husband. According to the agency, he lived east of the river. People there had little to do with the people who lived in the villas to the west, but the agency had presented him as a retired engineer, very respectable, his own son long since grown.

Approaching the house, Linder saw the children’s faces in the window, noses pressed against the glass. His mask had holes cut for his mouth and eyes. Rubber bands attached his cotton beard to his face and dug into the skin behind his ears. He did not need the money, but he was willing to suffer it all, as long as he did not have to be alone on this one night, when once, underneath the stars, the shepherds heard the angels sing, “Glory to God on high!” Before he knocked on the front door, he stomped the snow off his boots, loud enough to make sure the children heard him. The husband and the wife shook his hand, as did the girl and the boy, curtsying and bowing, neither one brave enough to look him in the eyes. The woman, who introduced herself as the sister-in-law, remained seated, while the cat hissed at him and hid under her chair. He had seen women like that in the other houses too, widows and maiden aunts, their relatives taking turns in having them over for the holidays, as inconvenient as it was, and in this particular case clearly putting added pressure on the wife, whose hand had been cold and wet in his, before she quickly took it back.

Linder sat on a chair in the middle of the room. He emptied his glass of snaps, uttered a few Ho-Ho-Ho’s, pulled the presents out of the sack, and read out the names on the tags. When still in his thirties, he had come down from the north, building railroads through the wilderness, living in barracks with the other men, carousing and fighting, until a young woman from one of the villages stood at the barrack door, wanting to save him, her face tapered and pale. She had a child by a man, whose name she never knew. The boy, she said, needed a father, and so a deal was struck. She had been pliable, adjusting to his ways to please him, quoting from the Scriptures, and calling him a decent man. In the end she had bent too much, and she broke right under him, something erupting inside her; the doctors were unable to save her, or even explain what had gone wrong.

After the funeral, he moved with the boy to this town, where the railroad company paid him handsomely and called him an engineer. When Germany occupied Norway, the Swedish government allowed German trains to travel through Sweden to transport wounded soldiers back to their own country. He stood on the platform, as did many of the other townspeople, watching the trains roll by, the soldiers leaning out the windows to wave. Several newspapers published articles in protest, claiming that the trains carried not just wounded soldiers but also Swedish iron to be forged into guns. The townspeople jeered and shook their fists, the air hot with hatred, but one man – he recognized the husband, who now stood behind his seated wife, cupping his pipe, making sure his children behaved — had raised his right arm in salute, palm down.

The distribution of presents over, the mood in the room was one of comfort and warmth, all meant to convince the children that they were somehow in good hands. For a moment Linder too felt drawn in, but only until he met the stare of the cat, still crouching under the older woman’s chair, its pupils opening and closing, yellow slits against black. At the husband’s insistence, he accepted a second glass of snaps. It was then that the girl climbed up on his knee, her stockings white and crumpled at her feet. Someone ought to have stopped her, but no one did. She was too close to him, her scent of vanilla and milk, her slight body trusting his. He heard himself burst into song, his voice like the cranking of a rusty shaft, raucous words about lonely men around a fire, miles and miles of forest to the nearest town, the curses and profanities shielding them from the dark, but the girl still leaned against his chest, until he wrenched her away and the wife rushed in to gather her up. The girl was crying now, not loud, more a drawn-out sob, as if she had glimpsed the hunger in his eyes and made it hers.

From the window, the boy and the girl watched their father walk Santa Claus down the shoveled garden path, through the gate and out into the street. Stopping under the lamp post, the father handed Santa Claus an envelope, slapped him on the back, and returned to the house. The snow had stopped falling now. Pressing her cheek to the misty glass, the girl looked up at the stars. She told the boy she could see the star of Bethlehem leading Santa Claus on his way, his red hood bobbing and disappearing in the night. The boy put his arm around her shoulders and told her about the fox, all that wood stacked in front of their grandmother’s house, enough to take her through the winter, the empty stalls in the stable, halters hanging from iron hooks, the wood nicked from kicking hooves. He told her he was all she had.

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