Palmberg, who took out death in advance – short story
When Adrian Palmberg was fifty-three years old, he built a big wooden cage that he placed on the floor in the parlor. He nailed boards over the parlor windows on the outside, and thick cardboard on the inside. Then he crawled into the cage and let his housekeeper lock the gate.
And there he sat.
Twice a day the housekeeper unlocked it. Palmberg crawled out of the cage, stretched, walked around the house a couple of times, and stood outside on the steps, drinking in the fresh air and looking at the garden. Then he went inside, sat down in his cage and had the housekeeper turn the key.
In the second year he had her buy a thick, black cloth which he himself fastened to the cage with carpet tacks. After that, he never went farther away than to the toilet that stood in the closet under the attic stairs.
Years came and went, but Adrian Palmberg sat in his cage and nobody else but he grasped what purpose could be served by this spectacle.
After three years, he had the cage taken apart and moved down into the cellar under the house, into the innermost, pitch-dark room. Then he sat inside the cage again, in the deepest darkness, and people quit complaining about him since he was a quiet and peaceable man, and completely inoffensive just at that time. But when the minister came with a candle in his fist to talk him out of it, Palmberg groped toward him and said, in his awful, tremulous bass voice:
“Don’t take my darkness away from me, Pastor. You ought to be sitting in the dark, too, you really ought to get yourself used to the dark in the grave before you’re lying there.”
But why, besides that, he had to sit in a cage he did not explain, Father said when he told me this story one winter evening in 1953. And what would he gain by getting accustomed to the darkness of the grave while he was alive?
Once he had an old flute with him, and he played it so that the farmers stopped with their wagonloads of grist and listened. But then he broke the flute in two and sighed and seemed to be full of remorse, like one who regrets committing a sin.
For eleven years Palmberg sat as a voluntary prisoner in his cage. By the twelfth year, time had become as nothing for him, he knew nothing of days or hours. He did not ask whether it was summer or winter. The housekeeper explained that he no longer knew how to read the clock. But he knew what he was waiting for. Once, when he received his daily bowl of porridge and a piece of bread from the housekeeper, he was heard to mumble:
“A person’s got to hold Death in his hand all the time, otherwise he’ll go under.”
In the twelfth year, at last, it happened, the thing for whose sake he had lived so long inside the cage. It is something that maybe has to happen sooner or later to anyone who shuts himself up in a cage, in such deep darkness. He could stand up in the dark and know that he was transformed. He had lost all love of life and fear of death, and when he came up out of the cellar and looked around, his skin was as white as a corpse’s and his eyes as red as a rooster’s, but his gaze was as empty as the gaze of a skull.
He stood on the steps and seemed to know: it is enough, now I can go out into life without living it any longer.
Palmberg sawed up his cage and burned it out in the yard. After that, he began to go from farm to farm, as if to show himself and let people know that he existed; and now he became the fright of the countryside. He was sixty-five years old, short and stooped, wrinkled of face, trembling of hand, and pale and blotchy as though already rotting, but his hair stood up around his head like a bush. He was like Samson; he didn’t want to cut his hair.
When he came into the neighbors’ he usually carried a chair over to the tile stove and sat down as close to the fire as he could get. He nodded to each in turn and put on a big smile, to make sure of his welcome. The people of the house sat silent, hoping he would go soon. It was terrible to meet him out in the neighborhood and even worse to have him within four walls. A half-decayed corpse that had risen from the grave could hardly have been more ghastly than Adrian Palmberg.
He could sit there, humming with his awful bass voice, and smile all over his face, and when he began to speak it was like hearing a minister preaching Doomsday:
“I pity you, unfortunate people! The way you’re living, you’re being forced into the grave. You should all do as I did, before it gets too late, you ought to take out death in advance.”
He usually got a crust or a little snort or a splash of coffee, however disgusting it was to see him. One simply could not let anyone go out of the cabin without any portion at all. Not to offer anything meant letting him carry away one’s hospitality. Sometimes it happened that he rose and grasped his chair and pressed right up to the table like one of the family. That was almost unbearable. But in the beginning, the first years, people were curious and wanted an explanation of why he had sat inside the cage.
“Consider,” rasped Palmberg, “how short the time we are alive and then how long we lie there in the grave. But the time in the grave is like just nothing because we are dead. Doesn’t it make more sense to take out death in advance and then to live and live and live?”
He was convinced that he would never die, because of how he had sacrificed himself. He had experienced the eternal darkness, he had seen it with his own living eyes and let it run through his soul for eleven interminable years. In a fully conscious state he had seen death’s emptiness and the death that afflicts others would never reach him.
That was his belief, and in that belief he lived.
He was already so shaky and miserable that he could have toppled over and died right there, sitting by the stove. People made bets he wouldn’t live till Christmas.
But years went by, new kings ascended the throne and the nineteenth century grew old just like all other centuries, and Palmberg seemed to be right, he didn’t die, and he didn’t prepare himself for death, either. At the age of 80 he was like a heathen. He didn’t go to church, he never took the blessed sacrament, he didn’t even know the catechism when the minister told him to recite it. His housekeeper died, and at her graveside he gave a speech that was so awful it sent chills down your spine. He reveled in others’ rotting. You lost all joy in living when you heard him. That night, somebody burned his cabin down, but Palmberg wriggled out of it with his clothes alight and survived.
The farmers stood around him where he lay and muttered that he ought to be killed. But nobody did it; despite everything, it is a terrible thing to kill a human being.
As long as the autumn lasted, he lived in his empty barn, where he made a bed with hay in a calf pen. When winter came, he was allowed to move into the shed where corpses were laid out till the thaw permitted burial. He knocked a hole in the roof and built a kind of stove in one corner, and then, with the church’s wood he heated up the place so fiercely hot you couldn’t put a corpse in there. To amuse himself in his solitude and to earn a few coins he whittled wooden spoons. One time he broke up a coffin lid to get wood for his whittling. When the funeral guests saw what he had done, they kicked his stove over and drove Palmberg out into the woods in the middle of winter.
He began to wander among the farmers. Here and there he got a little food, sometimes he was allowed to sleep in the hayloft. In this way, several years went by. At the age of 86 he was finally admitted to the poorhouse. The other paupers refused to live in the same room with him, so the chairman of the Poor Board had a little shed built against the back just for him.
“Build it well,” he told the carpenters. “It has to last a long time; I’m not going to die like the others.”
He got an old tin stove and a chimney pipe that stuck up through the roof, so he could warm himself.
Just at that time, Palmberg became one-eyed. He shuffled down to Vaxjo in the spring, when the moon was full, and got himself admitted to the clinic. King Oskar had donated a couple of porcelain eyeballs to the Vaxjo Clinic just recently, and now Palmberg got one of those. One week later he was back in the poorhouse and seeing with both eyes. He saw with King Oskar’s porcelain eye, he said, he saw like an eagle and the question was, whether he didn’t even see through solid walls. The matter was discussed in the Smaland Post. Rumors of the Palmberg miracle spread beyond the Swedish borders. Father told me that it even happened that people wrote to King Oskar all the way from Turkey to beg a porcelain eyeball from him.
In this way thirteen years went by. Thirteen miserable years which saw paupers die and new paupers move into the house, and every one of them cursed Adrian Palmberg because he did not die like other people. He lived like a scarecrow, like a shuffling ghost, like a guest from the grave; he did not live like a living person, and nevertheless there was life in him. It happened that the paupers just disappeared, that they had tottered out along the roads toward Rydaholm or Moheda, out into the woods, and nobody ever saw them again. It was unbelievable, the Smaland Post. wrote about it, and the chairman of the Poor Board had to bear the shame of it. Many funerals never took place for that reason: the paupers had fled the parish to escape from Adrian Palmberg. Paupers who had gotten to know Palmberg usually sat speechless and staring for week after week, then might seize their canes and totter away without bidding anyone farewell.
Even clergymen moved because of him. There was something dreadful and ghastly about a man who said he could not die even though he was ancient and looked like he was dying. Palmberg shuffled around in the parish, reminding everyone he met of his years in the darkness of the cage and of his having put death behind him. As soon as a new minister moved into the parsonage, Palmberg was there introducing himself. His reputation spread throughout the diocese, he had become like the shadow of the Evil One, it was a fright that he existed.
Palmberg’s birthday fell in August, right after the harvest. Already, when he turned ninety-five, many had begun to fear he would become one hundred. There had not been a centenarian in the parish since Queen Christina reigned. People whispered and made plans. It was urgent to do whatever honorable men could do, short of breaking the Fifth Commandment, to insure that Palmberg would die. He had lived too long; they wanted to be rid of him.
At dawn on his ninety-ninth birthday, the field hands of the neighborhood came, carrying long tables that they set up in the meadow behind the poorhouse. The women set the table for a celebration. People streamed in from all quarters, carrying food in baskets. They set out dishes and glasses and a cask of aquavit was propped up on the woodpile outside Palmberg’s door. Coffee was brewed in big kettles inside the poorhouse. Fiddler Mans Persson Lundman brought his violin and began to trill. Even the pastor came by, as if by sheer chance, and stationed himself at the gate with his hands behind his back; he was informed of the spectacle, but did not want to give it his blessing.
Palmberg took his time coming out. Maybe he was even sitting inside and watching, maybe he could see everything through the wall with King Oskar’s porcelain eye. When they banged on the door a shuffling and dragging went on for quite awhile, then the latch snapped open and there he stood in the doorway, puny and miserable, almost transparent, grinning his death’s-head grin, with his hair whipping around him like a clump of reeds in an autumn gale.
He snuffed in the aroma of coffee. He examined the aquavit keg and chuckled. He made a tour of the table, smirking, let himself be offered drinks, poked his finger into the cheesecake and licked it. There was an unnatural quiet around the poorhouse; one only heard the fiddler scraping and quavering. Everybody knew what was impending, that they meant to drink Palmberg to death.
A farmer called Hurva-Nils rolled up a chopping block, mounted it and gave a kind of speech. Palmberg listened, grinning. Nils praised the man who had been clever enough to take out his death in advance, he waved a glass and emptied it in honor of Palmberg’s living clear to the end of earthly time, into the millennium. Palmberg shuffled over to the keg and got himself a shot. People started taking seats. The pastor stood at the corner of the house shaking his head, out of place and iii at ease as a saint in Hades.
By one of the short sides of the table they had placed a heavy armchair, an old town councillor’s chair from Alvesta. In this they seated Palmberg. Glasses were filled, the tray went round, people exchanged toasts, the aquavit keg chuckled. Everybody drank with Palmberg, even the women. They had agreed to that, out in the churchyard. In that way they would spread out the sin they were now committing, if it actually were any sin to drink to death such an abominable and godless person.
It was around nine in the morning. Somebody hollered that Palmberg should give a speech. Palmberg brushed the hair from his face and stood up, he faced his chair and took hold of it as if he meant to climb up on it. People held their breath and hoped he would make a fatal slip. But Palmberg mounted the chair, he stood on it and got a glass in his hand and emptied it without a quiver. He threw it away and demanded another. The parishioners rejoiced. Palmberg grinned like a deaths head.
Then someone – one of the children, Father said – pointed west and began to shout. Palmberg started, and stared, and threw up both hands as if to ward off an accident.
At first nobody understood what it was. Horrified, they saw it come, something big, reddish and unreasonable – a wingless bird, a moon that had come loose from the heavens. An enormous ball that had been hurled at them from space to crush them. God’s vengeful hand, or a creature of the Devil.
Then they understood. The Smaland Post. had related that such things existed, a balloon. It came drifting toward them on the morning breeze, over Boms’ cabin and Kleramoen and over the meadow below the church.
It came slowly and soundlessly and it glided past, north of them, a mighty, dark red, gleaming ball that just by its color reminded them of the misery of Sin and the Fires of Hell. A man was standing in the basket. They saw his tall hat, his black clothing, the strange black bags that hung on ropes along the edge of the basket. He was turned toward them as though scrutinizing them. The lenses of his spectacles glittered. They watched him glide by, and such a chill descended on them that it could as well have been winter.
When the matter came up long after many said they had grasped at once that it was Beelzebub himself who was flying in the balloon.
The breeze was light that morning. The balloon moved slowly. One’s gaze could follow it a long time, as when one sees a cloud drifting away toward the horizon. Then it disappeared into the east, over the woods this side of Alvesta, right below the sun.
The parishioners sat dumb and paralyzed in their uncertainty; they couldn’t fathom what had happened to them. Was it a human flying ship that went by, or had the powers given some kind of a sign? Was the balloon an act of God, a reminder of the Fifth Commandment? Some at the table wept, as one weeps over one’s sins and as one weeps at the thought of Hellfire, as worshipers weep when they kneel down in the houses of prayer. Some crept away, utterly demolished, whimpering like little children. The pastor had disappeared. The aquavit never was emptied. The coffee and the cheesecakes and the rest got consumed, but nobody drank himself to death.
Palmberg had sobered up. He didn’t want to stay in the councillor’s chair. He shuffled out onto the road, searching for the balloon. He stood there staring, long after it had vanished for everyone else, and the tears ran copiously down his face, tears even welled from the porcelain eye.
His hair stood up around him like congealed smoke. He breathed like one asleep. Maybe he was dreaming, maybe his soul had flown away with the balloon as the soul can leave the living body when a person suffers a stroke. Who can tell what a person like him might have seen with King Oskar’s porcelain eyeball? Then he turned slowly around and shuffled back, letting the tears run down.
Yes, the tears ran as though a tremendous sorrow had come over him, they ran so that his face gleamed, so that his beard lost its curl, so that his coat darkened over his chest.
The sun began to beat down and the wind diminished. It turned out to be a hot and stuffy August day, one of those days when the birds take shelter in their nests and everything falls silent as noon approaches. The paupers grabbed whatever they could and disappeared inside the poorhouse. The party ended in confusion. When everyone else had left, Palmberg stood at the poorhouse gate, still looking for the balloon.
From that day on, he had lost his pride. His death’s-head grin was seen no more, often he had tears in his eyes, and sometimes one saw him standing on some hill or rocky knoll peering at the horizon to the east. It was hard to grasp what had happened to him. He had become both younger and older at one and the same time. His cadaverous qualities dropped away; he turned into a feeble ancient among all the other aged paupers, an old man tottering toward the grave. The pastor explained as best he could:
“Now Palmberg has found something to long for. Now he is living again. And if he’s living, he’ll have to die.”
Palmberg, who had taken out death in advance, had now been seized with a longing no one else could grasp. Once again life had become a temptation for him. He became even more stooped and even shakier, he declined and decayed so that no one had ever seen so wretched a pauper in the poorhouse. But now he was living, just like all the others, there was never any more talk about his escaping the grave.
He became 103, Father told me. The parishioners celebrated all his birthdays at a table that was laid behind the poorhouse, but they measured out the aquavit and never again dreamed of drinking him to death. And no more balloons came flying over the parish. Whenever anyone reminded him about the balloon, Palmberg wept. His living eye failed him and now he could only see with King Oskar’s porcelain eye. He could take out the eyeball and hold it in his hand, and then he was back in the pitch darkness of the cage that was supposed to have rescued him from eternal darkness. The eyeball wept, dripping where it lay in his hand. Once they heard him say:
“If I get to fly before I die, God will be kind. Otherwise, I’ll probably get to do it in Paradise.”
In the fall of the year he turned 103 he heard a rumor that they were flying in balloons at Tivoli in Copenhagen. A girl who had worked as a maid in a Danish home had seen it herself. Palmberg shuffled over to see her and had her repeat the story to him.
That same day, once he had put a little veal pancake and bread in a parcel and had a shot of aquavit to brace him, he shuffled out through the gate and set his course for Copenhagen. Not five miles away, at a place where you could see the weathercock on the steeple in Alvesta, they found him dead beside the road.
Translated from the Swedish by David Mel Paul
David Mel Paul has translated the work of August Strindberg and Hjalmar Soderberg
Peter Nilson is known for his work in astronomy; his collected writings include stories and novels
COPYRIGHT 1995 Fairleigh Dickinson University
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