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from The Look of the Nasturtium
Ann Granhammer
Translated by Julie Martin

This article appeared in the 2007:1 issue.

Ann GranhammerOn a warm August evening in 1762, Elisabeth Christina Linné saw a flash of light from the nasturtiums in the garden. Night after night came a light from the flowers in the darkness. What kind of force was making the nasturtiums shine? An electrical phenomenon? And what was it that could put out the light in a human being? The daughter of Carl von Linné was also discovering the system of the sexes and the order which governs life, an order against which she was to struggle throughout her life.

According to the Linnean Society of London, the intriguing title of this haunting little novel refers to a phenomenon caused by fluorescence in the petals of the nasturtium, which, in conjunction with the setting sun, reacts with the rods in certain eyes.

Ann Granhammar is currently working on an embroidery project linked to this novel. She and three other artists will show their work in an exhibition in Sweden called “Växtriket” (The Plant Kingdom) opening in May 2007.

She has previously published several children’s books. She also writes plays and is a stage and costume designer. She is one of the founders of Byteater, now known as Kalmar Länsteater.

See: www.granhammer.se

There’s a party in Hammarby this evening. Everyone is talking. They’re going to search and sort and study and attribute. They’re going to press flowers and observe usages and habitats and temperatures. And carefully write everything up. They laugh and have fun. Bread, fish, vegetables, wine are all placed on the table and on the floor there is meadowsweet to welcome the guests. All the lamps are lit.

He pretends not to see her. She’s invisible. She speaks to him. He answers her as if there had never been anything between them. She has a taste of metal in her mouth.

But she gets him out on to the veranda. Out of the way. Quietly, quietly they talk. Nobody must suspect anything. The party is going on behind them. She draws him away to the patch of chervil on the bank behind the house. Other people are making their way out into the summer night. They move further away like courting couples. Now it’s different. The important things have to be uttered in whispers. It is urgent because otherwise she will die. Perhaps he will too.

He says they can’t go on. She tries to talk to him. Persuade him. He says it won’t work. It’s over. There is no point in dragging it out. They cannot go on. He has to think about his future. She needs to think about her future. She is already promised to another. He will be leaving the next morning. And so he leaves. Her beloved cuts their conversation short, so as not to leave any bad feeling behind. Now, in this piercing moment it is impossible to go on.

He goes into the house. She follows like a dog.

He has sat down again and turns to his neighbour. How do they dare? Sit there and just talk. But she sits down obediently in her place.

Father watches and wonders what is the matter with her. Suddenly she hears herself speaking out loud.

“Cut them off, flatten them and press them. Take home living bulbs and seeds. And living monkeys and black people. Linnaeus sends his apostles out into the world and plays at God the Father himself. Why should you lug home shrivelled plants and corpses. That’s lifeless junk! Live instead!”

The guests fall silent and she blushes. That’s how easy it was for her disappointment to seep out. Father says they need imprints. For the sake of knowledge.

She doesn’t fit into Father’s plan. Into any of his plans. What had she expected. For this is the established order. Father has chosen a fiancé for her. Nothing will change that. She pales and blushes at the same time. Everyone’s eyes are upon her. Mother sees that there is a storm coming and gestures to the servants to clear the table. Lisa stands behind her chair. She is frozen to the spot. She drops her napkin on to her plate and says that she doesn’t intend to be pressed, ever.

She is hiding in the forest. She has run away from the party. She needs to pull herself together. Tense, swollen with weeping, she needs to hide. Ugly, ugly. Nobody need see. The red-hot fire inside and the sobbing outside have to stop. It will never cease. She, the ugly one with the swollen skin red all over from crying. And it breaks out again and the tears fall. The hurt pours out from deep inside. Brands her skin with red lashes and wounds. It feels as if the pox is breaking out again. If only she had never met him she could have avoided being cut off, sorted and separated. If only it had not happened. The sweetest time with him.

She walks and walks. Her feet find the way without worrying about her thoughts. When she reaches the hollow she stops. The thickets of reeds are full of small birds. They twitter and fly around. One of them swings on a reed.

She shivers. The weeping is nearly over now. Just long sighs. The body is recovering. The long thin stem bends and bows towards the earth as long as the bird wants to play. Then it flies away and the reed gently straightens itself again. Without snapping.

“I need to bend like that too.”

It’s over now. We had our secret wedding in hiding but now she is to marry the Lieutenant. She must be good. She respects her parents. They brought her into the world. Obey and bend without snapping. Bend in order to be able to rise up. Be sensible and submit. For everyone’s sake.

She walks the long way round the forest before creeping into her room. The next morning he is gone. But it is not over.

She’s reading Robinson Crusoe and feels equally shipwrecked. Daniel Defoe writes and she wonders. If you are in distress and shipwrecked, surely you are allowed to break God’s law. Robinson performs his womanly tasks without hesitating. For herself she has no idea how she is going to survive. Try to drag herself up on land or just sink. Down to the corals.

Why has Father imbued her with curiosity? How can she submit and know her place? For several nights she believes that the life of a nun is her escape. There she can choose the inside of the world and shut herself away with her science.

Mother takes her on a distant journey to rid her daughter’s head of thoughts of the nunnery. Lisa asks such questions that the abbess turns pale under her white wimple. Lisa wants to know whether she will be allowed to work in the library and pursue her own knowledge. The abbess is explicit and stern. One can never know exactly what tasks will arise in serving God. One should not have a purpose of one’s own when applying to enter the nunnery. One can never work it out.

She slumps in her seat on the way home. Mother wonders what is the matter with her. She cannot understand her daughter. She can’t seriously want to be a nun. Mother chatters on.

“It’s all arranged with the Lieutenant. Soon you’ll have your own household and a lovely estate just a day’s journey away. Not like when I went off with Father when we were married. We never visit my family any more, for Father has tried to make Hammarby be like Småland. Surely for once everything can be straightforward and I am looking forward to being a grandmother. To being able to settle down.”

Lisa wants to be left in peace. But Mother won’t let go. There’s no point in talking to Mother. She will never understand. The only thing Lisa wants is to learn more about science and the world.

The carriage jolts on home towards Hammarby. Mother means well. Just like it was for her. Lisa cannot break out. Where would she go.

Dully she picks the fruit from the currant bushes in the July heat. The nettles sting her even though she has her thickest petticoats on. She removes the stalks and chaff from the currants. You can think clearly when you have chores to do. Her fingers are sticky from the juice of the fruit. She rinses her hands in gentle water. Soon the juice will come to the boil. She weighs out the sugar and stirs it in. She pours the syrup into the jars and seals them with paraffin wax. She writes the labels. She intends to find a solution. Father pops his nose into the kitchen area.

“What are you sitting there thinking about?”

“Do you really want to know,” she says.

He nods eagerly. So she tells him of her new ideas for the future. After all, Father has been sorting through the Queen’s collections. But they need someone to look after them, make notes and keep them in order when new donations arrive. Father won’t have time for that. She smiles as she rapidly tells him all about it.

“I could look after the display cabinet like the Queen wants. I can do it! And I can put everything Father has taught me to good use! And I have beautiful handwriting. You always say that.”

“Now, now, I don’t want to hear any more,” he says. “We finished talking about all this a long time ago. What is more, we just can’t change your mother’s mind. She is as obstinate as you are.”

Lisa jumps up, overturning the chair as she does so and spits straight on the kitchen floor.

“Well I don’t want to hear any more from you either.”

She walks out with a decided step and he follows her. She is screaming her head off. He cannot get her to stop.

“Can’t you see that I am going mad? It’s all hopeless.”

When she reaches the plum trees she sinks down on the bench. She hides her face in her apron and wants to give up.

“Nothing is hopeless. This wedding will work out,” Father tries to tell her awkwardly and pats her on the shoulder. “It will be fine, you’ll see.”

She pulls away from his arm. That is not what this is about. She does not want to give in. No suggestions, no solutions. No making it all better. And another thing! She will say this one last thing in any case. Then it will all be said and done.

“It’s the science I’m thinking about!” she says. “All I want is to be allowed to devote myself to science. If I can’t I don’t know what will happen.”

She falls silent.

“What do you mean, what will happen with what?”

She says nothing more.

“We’ve always been able to talk to each other,” he beseeches her.

She looks at her father and decides to test him.

“How things are going with the observations of the nasturtium. If only we knew what was happening when it flashes. It might be something to do with this new Electricity. If I don’t do something perhaps nobody else will bother and we might have missed something important.”

Her ideas gush forth. Father sits down next to her and soon they are both in full spate. If you could collect up the force and capture it so that it could then shine indoors like lamp oil. Why not? After all Father’s ideas about cultivating mussels in the Fyrisån creek to create pearls worked, didn’t they?

Father nods. It is comfortable now in the shade of the plum trees. He says that the important thing is being able to connect ideas with knowledge. For a long time they speculate about how the phenomenon of the twinkling nasturtium might be transformed to produce electricity. That this might become an industry for Sweden. It is conceivable that the farmers could cultivate nasturtiums. Father is in a good mood and immediately wants to draft an essay, perhaps she could work at the court after all.

“If only you had been of the male sex. You have a scholar’s mind. You have the talent and the interest. Everything your brother lacks.”

But he checks himself and sighs. The wedding, the future and everything are already decided.

“You must resign yourself. That is the way it is.”

He expects another outburst and is prepared for it, but she sits down with her hands in her lap. Currant-stained fingers, bitten down nails and scratches from the fruit-picking. So it is Mother and Father’s law which rules. Now she knows. She is to enter the marriage bed. To become a bride of Christ in a nunnery would be an even greater lie for her.

“So I shall be married. To the one you have chosen. The Lieutenant. Without a fight. But not at peace.”

They walk home in silence. Neither says a word and Linné ponders.

I would love some rhubarb cordial. Is there anything nicer than rhubarb cordial! Why am I thinking about that? Water is good enough. Raindrops would be fine too. Rhubarb. It’s unnecessary. If rhubarb didn’t exist then the pinky red rhubarb shoots wouldn’t need to thrust up through the earth almost when the frost is still in the ground. Rhubarb wouldn’t have to unfurl its leaves. It’s really quite unnecessary to go to so much trouble. First tiny little curled up leaves and finally the very biggest ones which offer protection from rain and sun. The flowers would not need to be yellowish-pink pearls glistening like the foaming crests of the sea’s waves. The seed head would not have to stand there far too long and then much later shrivel up and decay. The leaves would not need to be cut off for nothing. I can do without using the stalks for jam, cordial and stewed rhubarb. Everything ends up on the compost heap anyway, where the rhubarb subsides into a sticky mess. Everything has to die anyway. Pass away. Come to an end. There is really no point in rhubarb from the very beginning.

It’s just a matter of time. Everything has to be transformed. Water becomes ice. Ice becomes water. Children become adults. Adults become children. And so the changes go on. Is my hair already grey? She pulls a wisp of hair forward and laughs – but her lips are glued tight and crack open.

I’m thirsty. It wasn’t what I wanted. I promised to submit for your sake. Instead I snapped. Why didn’t you believe in me more?