Updated: Sep 18
The small village on the coast was known for not being extraordinary. The foundation of the village had no special history, the buildings were solid and pleasant to look at but nothing special. The people were humble in what they did and what they were. Not much happened in the village. The people who lived there did so out of tradition. There were few newcomers, most of the people had lived here for generations. The village was big enough to survive, but it had no attraction for tourists. Sleepy and lonely as it was, few outside the residents knew it.
And yet it attracted a stranger who moved into the small house at the end of the main street. The house rested a little away from the village on a small hill and had recently been abandoned after its occupant had died at the age of 84. The master of the house had been well-known and liked in the village. He always had a kind word for everyone and baked wonderful cinnamony kanelbullar. His death was not unexpected, but it affected the village deeply. With him went one of the first witnesses of his generation and with him, a piece of the essence of the village was lost.
The stranger came at the end of the first summer after the death of the former owner of the small cottage. She came on one of the last warm days before the sea rebelled and the sky changed from bright blue to a stormy gray. She came early in the morning in a gray car with Stockholm license plates. This unusual event was witnessed by one of the few children in the village.
Rickard Fredrikson was just twelve years old when the stranger moved into the village. For his age, he was tall and looked older with an even face and a serious appearance. But the outward impression was misleading. The boy was clever and loved to play tricks, but he never crossed an invisible line that would have turned him from a harmless mischievous boy into a real troublemaker. He was a smart child and the lack of playmates of the same age had driven him to make friends with older people at an early age. So not only was the boy immensely well-read for his age, but he was also filled with old stories, fairy tales and legends. His old-people-knowledge came from the older generation of the village who taught him everything they knew. One of his closest companions was the late old man from the little cottage at the end of the main road.
The old man and Rickard had spent hours sitting on the worn terrace of the small house, looking at the coast and the endless sea. They had talked and philosophized. The old man in particular had told stories, explained his life, and given the boy all the wisdom he could. Together they had wandered through the forests and along the coast. The old man taught the boy his recipe for kanelbullar and showed him his secret ingredient for the special taste of the pastry. Rickard revealed his ideas and impressions to the old man and when the old man's eyes grew too tired to read, Rickard read his favorite books to him.
The end of the old man came after half a year during which the man, who otherwise remained so young, weakened greatly. Suddenly his body became heavy, his limbs stiff and his vision blurred. Shortly after the onset of his suddenly enhanced aging, he sat down on the veranda with the boy and a coffee, as usual, and explained to the boy that the end was now near. With a certainty that was incomprehensible to the boy, he told him that death was now coming and that his journey had come to an end.
This conversation lingered in Rickard for a long time. The certainty with which the old man explained the situation to him was irrefutable and yet he did not want to see that this was really going to happen. The boy spent the last six months before the old man's passing fighting against the inevitable. He did everything in his power to support the old man and give him a hand. He brought food that was cooked at home, cleaned the house, and helped the old man with daily tasks. He spent hours reading to him. Only when the old man could no longer make it to the terrace and only left the bed to go to the bathroom did the boy realize what the old man had explained to him long ago.
But he also got angry. Why was the old man so calm? Why didn't he fight against dying? Why was he just accepting it and getting weaker day by day? The old man saw the anger and incomprehension in the boy's eyes. There was little he could do about it; words could not reach him now. The evening before his passing, the old man asked the boy to read him a poem. The boy did as he was asked.
There is nothing that replaces the emptiness, that a person leaves behind.
A loved one is a joy, a gift.
But the dearer a person is to you,
the greater the emptiness they leave behind. The more beautiful the time spent together, the stronger the feeling of loss.
But there is always something that remains. You look back with gratitude.
Because the joy of having had each other gives you relief.
There is nothing that replaces the emptiness, that a person leaves behind.
But you carry them with you forever, It’s a precious gift.
As the boy recited it in his childlike yet mature voice, tears came to the old man's eyes and despite his refusal to admit the inevitable, the boy understood that this was the end. The old man had been right, and death had now come to claim its victim. As Rickard made his way home that evening, he knew with the certainty that was peculiar to only the old in his eyes, that he would never see his old friend from the house on the coast again. He held the book of poems in his hands, with the poem that was like a death fairy, and felt the emptiness rise within him.
Half a year went by, and winter struck with force. The cold crept through the cracks and made the villagers stay indoors. Even the children preferred to stay in their rooms and let the old people entertain them. Rickard had become more silent, and the village missed his outgoing nature and his pranks. As winter gave way to spring and the first flowers struggled through the frozen ground, people were drawn outside again, but Rickard stayed inside. Only after his parents drove him out of the house into the fresh air did he start wandering again. He walked the old paths his friend had shown him and remembered. The sun became stronger, and the trees turned a vibrant green. Although the little house on the coast had been sealed up after its owner died, Rickard found a way in. He came here often now and kept it clean. He read in the books and sat on the terrace. And when summer reached its peak, it was again Rickard's habit to sit on the terrace overlooking the waves with coffee and warm kanelbullar. He sorely missed the conversation and company of his friend, but in his house and on his veranda, he still felt his presence. And although he did not like coffee, he made it every day the way the old man had shown him. The smell of the bitter drink mixed with the scent of the sea and the cinnamon aroma of the channel made him think his friend was there.
As the summer drew to a close and some morning foreshadowed the coming cold, Rickard had taken on the duty of delivering newspapers. So it happened that on the morning the stranger drove into town, the boy was on his bike and witnessed the event. The car meandered through the sleepy village and passed the boy on his bicycle. People knew each other in the village, and they knew the cars, so Rickard knew this was a stranger. From a hill, the boy watched as the car stopped at the house on the coast and a woman used a key to gain access to the house. A restlessness took hold of the boy. He spent the whole day in uncertainty and for a reason he could not explain he did not dare to go to the house.
He stayed away from the cottage for almost a week, listening to the rumors of the old people about the mysterious woman in the house on the coast. They said it was probably a relative of the old man. No one knew for sure who inherited the old man’s belongings. They only knew that it had been sealed through a Stockholm law firm. But it was common knowledge that the old man had neither a wife nor children. The boy knew this too because the old man had told him about his life and his loved ones. He had told him that he had loved but that he had never had the urge to turn this love into something like marriage. In his previous life, he had decided to live without children and that was how he had kept it.
Knowing that the strange woman remained a mystery and that all that was said in the village was that she was polite but vague, Rickard decided to go to the house on the coast. He stood irresolutely in front of the door because he had never knocked. When the old man was still there, the door was never closed, and after he died, the boy used the porch door. But it was as if the house had changed. Something was missing and a strange shyness took possession of the boy. So, he approached the door and knocked timidly. The stranger opened and smiled warmly at the boy. She extended her hand to him with the words, “You must be Rickard. I was wondering when you would come.”
Her handshake was strong and warm, and Rickard thought to himself that the stranger was smiling with her eyes, just as the old man had done. She invited the boy into the house, where the smell of coffee and kanelbullar welcomed him. They sat down on the veranda overlooking the rolling water and the last remnants of summer.
The house felt different and yet the boy felt at ease in a vague way and the restlessness that had gripped Rickard after the stranger had arrived subsided. The presence of his friend in the house was still there and the strange woman revived the small house. The boy did not know what would happen next and he did not worry about the future. He let the stranger entertain him and chatted with her about everything and anything. But most important was what she said about the old man. She told him stories about him and when he tasted his kanelbullar, he immediately tasted that she shared the secret of the secret ingredient.
She was no substitute for his friend, Rickard knew that. But she managed to liven up the house and calm some of the emptiness he felt inside. On that sunny afternoon, Rickard learned something that the old man had tried to explain to him. But it was only now, over half a year later, that he finally understood it, through a stranger with whom he shared nothing but stories about an old man and a sweet pastry.
Rickard was written by India Wittmershaus.
Cover photo by Merle Emrich.