Vanja woke to the sound of thunder. The little windowpane showed a brightening sky, halfway between black and the grey of the daylight hours. She waited for the patter of rain against the glass. Nothing happened. Instead, more thunder.
She had gone to bed early, shortly after dinner. They’d had boiled turnips and carrots with savory fried mushrooms, a small round variety Vanja had never seen before. Ulla, who turned out to be old and bent but with a sharp gaze, had joined them at the table. She asked countless questions about Essre: how many people lived there nowadays, what did they wear, who was on the committee, and above all – was free production really a good idea? It seemed that the general population of Amatka didn’t receive much news from the rest of the colonies.
Vanja replied as well as she could. The last question she had no answer for, other than the official statement: to stimulate the people’s pioneering spirit and encourage cooperative development. It’s just my job, she’d said, I do what they tell me. Ulla shook her head and wondered how Vanja could be so uninterested. You’re completely inane, she’d said, and Vanja stared down at her plate. Nina had told Ulla that she ought to think before she spoke. Ulla had replied that she was too old for that.
Vanja excused herself, washed her plate and cutlery, and retired to her room where she got into bed with her clothes on. No one came after her. It seemed that a closed door was respected in Amatka, too. She had lain awake for a long time, sorting through the things that had been said and done, coming up with all kinds of caustic retorts she could have delivered. Essre and its committee was ambitious and thinking ahead; free production was a necessary step in the expansion of the colonies. The people were ready to give it a try, in a carefully controlled effort. Amatka seemed to be doing well, no matter what Ulla might think. Did Ulla not have faith in her comrades?
Her boots lay next to the bed; she’d managed to take those off at least. She pushed the duvet aside and shuddered in the sudden cold. She fumbled her shoes on, fetched a towel and washcloth from the cabinet and went downstairs.
Ivar was at the kitchen table, eating with an opened book on the table in front of him. He nodded at her and jerked his thumb at the frying pan and the steaming pot sitting on the hob. Vanja nodded in reply and went into the bathroom. There was just enough room for a toilet bowl, sink and bathtub. The third shelf on the wall was hers, not that she owned anything other than some washing products and a toothbrush. She reached for her toiletry bag, mumbled “toiletry bag”, and opened it.
She twitched and almost dropped the bag in the sink when she saw the contents. The bottom of the bag was coated in a thick paste. It was the toothbrush. She’d been careless. She’d noticed it on the train: the letters TOOTHBRUSH etched into the shaft had begun to lose their definition. Still, she’d thought it would last a little while longer.
Vanja forced herself to close the zipper. Now that she knew what was inside, holding it made her fingers tingle. She had a sudden vision of the contents escaping, slithering up her arms. The thought made her throat burn. She backed out of the bathroom with the toiletry bag in both hands.
Ivar’s hand and fork stopped midway between the plate and his mouth. “Yes?”
“I need to scrap this.” She turned around to show him the bag.
Ivar lifted his eyes to look at what was in her hands, then at her, and nodded curtly. He rose from the table, went over to a cabinet under the sink, and pulled out a box. He opened the lid and held the box out to Vanja, who carefully placed the toiletry bag on the bottom. Then he put the lid back on and left. Vanja heard the front door open and close. Ivar came back in and sat down at the table.
“I apologize,” Vanja said.
Ivar smiled at her for the first time, a small smile with lips closed, and his face softened. “Don’t worry about it. Make sure you eat something.” He returned to his book.
Vanja fetched a cup and a plate and looked out the window. It still wasn’t raining. In the frying pan she found reheated leftovers from yesterday’s dinner; the pot contained coffee, so strong it was nearly brown. Vanja let the grounds sink and tasted it. It tasted unfamiliar, spicy and both sour and sweet, made from some mushroom unknown in Essre. She filled her plate and sat down across from Ivar. From what she could make out of the upside-down text, he was reading about planthouse farming.
When Ivar had emptied his plate, he stood up and closed the book.
“I’m off to my shift now,” he said. “Nina’s already at hers, she started early. You’re on cooking duty tonight. But you don’t have to get anything from the store, there’s plenty in the pantry.”
Vanja nodded. “What time?”
Ivar shrugged. “We’ll be home around five.” Saying nothing more, he washed his plate and left. “Let’s mark all the things in here,” Vanja sang under her breath, letting her eyes wander around the room. “Table, chair, and a pot here; stovetop, fridge and pantry there. We mark all things in our care.”
The marking song was part of everyone’s life, from the first day at the children’s house. When Vanja was younger, marking day at children’s house was the best day of the week.
Her teacher Jonas would walk around the room, pointing at objects one after the other. Sometimes it was hard to make the name of a thing fit the rhythm of the song, and they laughed. Vanja’s voice was the loudest. Then they’d sing The Pioneer Song and When I Grow Up. Afterwards it was nap time.
It was not until much later that they were told the reason for all this marking and naming. It was a special lesson. The children had spent several days before this lesson retouching signs and labels, singing extra rounds of marking songs. Teacher Jonas monitored them closely, punishing the careless. Finally, the children gathered in the classroom. The lecture was short. Teacher Jonas stood at the desk, his face tense and grim. In a silence so complete one could hear one’s own pulse, Jonas spoke. His powerful voice sounded thin.
A long time ago, when the pioneers came here, they built five colonies. Now only four remain.
When the lesson was over, the children spent the rest of the day singing marking songs and retouching signs and labels with a new intensity. It wasn’t a game anymore.
Vanja had been in a storeroom, tasked with marking pencils and rulers, and she took to the job in earnest. Pencil pencil pencil pencil pencil pencil, she had chanted, touching the pencils one by one, until the stream of words inverted and made a sound like cil-pen cil-pen cil-pen cil-pen cil-pen cil-pen, and the row of pencils had shuddered and almost turned into something else, and she realised that this is how it happens, and her whole chest tingled. Right then, the door to the storeroom opened, and Teacher Jonas was in the doorway. He looked at the row of pencils, at Vanja, and then he grabbed her by the arm and steered her into the classroom.
The other children were already in their seats, except for Ärna who was standing at the teacher’s desk with a strange expression on her face. Teacher Jonas pushed Vanja ahead of him and made her stand next to her sister. Vanja looked down at her shoes and waited. He was going to tell the others what he had seen, and she would be sent away. The silence seemed endless. She was about to look up when teacher Jonas spoke. “Vanja’s and Ärna’s father, Anvars’ Lars, has been taken into custody on charges of subversive activity.”
A murmur rippled through the classroom. “We have just talked about Colony Five, and what happens when rules are broken. Now you all understand just what a terrible thing that is. A truly terrible, terrible thing. Do you want to destroy our community, to ruin everything we’ve struggled so hard to build.”
He turned to Vanja and Ärna. Vanja’s head filled with a buzzing noise. His voice seemed remote. “It’s important that you girls renounce your father and his actions. Because you don’t want to be traitors like him, do you?””No.” That was Ärna. “Then say after me: ‘As a loyal comrade of the commune, I renounce Anvars’ Lars and his actions’.”
Ärna repeated his words, her voice so bright and loud Vanja could hear it through the growing roar in her ears. Vanja had to be guided through the sentence word for word, three times until Teacher Jonas was satisfied. Then they were allowed to return to their seats.
Teacher Jonas held a speech about the importance of reporting infractions immediately and renouncing anyone who tried to bring harm to the commune. When Vanja burst into tears, Jonas took her to see a committe official.
You’re just a child, the official said. You didn’t know that what you did was wrong. Now you know better.
Yes, Vanja had replied, eyes downcast. I know better now.
We will be watching you, the official said.
It was time for Vanja to register at the commune office in Amatka. She left the house dressed in two pairs of trousers, with three sweaters under her anorak, and her notebooks in her satchel. She pulled down the anorak sleeves over her hands. The sky had brightened to a light shade of grey. Further down the almost empty street a woman in bright yellow coveralls pulled a cart from door to door, collecting scrap boxes. Vanja turned away with a shudder and started walking toward the centre.
The commune office of Amatka had rounded corners and small, recessed windows. Like all central buildings in all colonies it was built from concrete, that rare material that the first pioneers had brought with them. And like all other things from the old world, concrete didn’t need marking to keep its shape. It was solid, comforting. The plaque next to the entrance read Colony 5, Amatka, central building constructed and erected year 15 after arrival. Long live the pioneers! Long live Amatka’s commune!
Immediately inside the entrance a lanky receptionist sat behind a counter. Vanja showed him her well-thumbed papers and received two copies of a multi-page form to fill out. Complete name, age, home colony, temporary address in Amatka, profession, names of children and their place of residence. Education, employment history and other skills. Was she aware that she might be drafted should any of her skills be needed by the commune during her residence in Amatka? Did she have any diseases or other conditions of which the commune should be informed?
At long last, Vanja handed over the completed forms to the receptionist, who bent over the counter to read them through. He tapped his pen on one of the boxes.
“Here. You haven’t filled in the section ‘children and their place of residence.'”
“No,” said Vanja.
The receptionist tapped his pen on the box where Vanja had given her age. “I see.”
Vanja looked down at the floor. Her cheeks were hot.
He asked for her credit book and stamped it with hard little thunks.
“Welcome to Amatka,” he said as he handed it back to her. “You’re registered as a visitor and may move freely within the colony. Thank you.”
“I would also like to fill in a request for information from the archive.” Vanja avoided his eyes.
“Next floor, first door on the right.” The receptionist turned around and continued stamping documents.
On the next floor, Vanja presented her papers once more and filled in a request for a list of local independent businesses. She was told the procedure would take a few days, thanked the clerk and left.
The necessary formalities thus taken care of, Vanja visited the clothing depot, Nina’s shopping list in hand. After wandering about among work clothes and outer garments at the front of the store, she eventually found her way to the section for sweaters, underclothes and small items. The store had few visitors at this time of day; the only noise came from a clerk who moved from shelf to shelf with a marking pen, mumbling at each garment.
The fabrics were different here, the materials warm under Vanja’s hand. Most clothes were monochrome and bright. Vanja, who was entirely dressed in brown, hesitated. She thought of Nina’s blue overalls and Ivar’s green shirt, and chose clothing in shades of blue and green: a sleeping cap, long underwear, a thick shirt, gloves, socks, a scarf and an outdoor hat with ear flaps and a chin strap. She tried some of the garments on in front of a mirror. She looked a little peculiar with the hat on; her hair stuck out from under the rim and the ear flaps stood straight out. She pushed the hat back a little, tucked her hair in and tied the flaps. That made it look a bit better. She fingered her thin anorak. It was worn at the elbows and shoulders, but it was freshly marked and would do for now. Her trousers were still decent enough, with plenty of space for underclothes now that they had become so loose.
The company hadn’t given Vanja extra credit for clothing, but her general disinterest had led to savings substantial enough for all the clothes she’d picked out.
The pharmacy was a couple of doors away. Products were stacked according to category on the shelves, most of them packaged in the red and white of the commune. A couple of dispensers were busy serving customers at the back of the store. Vanja walked slowly along the shelves, reading labels. The range was virtually identical to Essre’s, but the proportions were different. Amatka’s inhabitants apparently suffered from skin problems: a whole section was devoted to eczema, fungal infections and other skin conditions. The general hygiene section was sparse in comparison. Vanja grabbed all boxes not decorated with the commune’s colours, and filled in a requisition form handed to her by one of the dispensers.
“Do you import any independent products from Essre?” she asked, as the dispenser, a young woman with her hair in a tight bun, packed the items into a brown bag.
The dispenser paused with her hand in the bag. “No. I don’t know why we would. We can barely get rid of the stuff made locally. By the independent businesses, I mean. So I don’t know how something from Essre would do.”
“Why don’t people want them, d’you think?”
“You’re not from here, are you? It’s new. People don’t like new. It never turns out well.”
The dispenser bagged the last of the items and rummaged for something under the counter. She brought out a couple of pamphlets and stuffed them into the bag.
“Take these too.”
Vanja lugged her heavy load back to the house. She put the bags down on the kitchen table and found some coffee powder in the pantry. It looked home-made, stored in a jar with a mismatched lid. Ivar probably brought coffee mushrooms from work and dried and ground them himself. Vanja filled the pot halfway up with water, added a couple of spoonfuls of powder and put the pot on the heat. While it simmered, she emptied her bag and went through the bottles, jars and tubes, arranging them on the table. All in all, she’d brought back thirty-two products from two different manufacturers. When the coffee had finished brewing, it came out out of the pot a pale yellow colour. Vanja retrieved her notebook out of the satchel and started taking down the names of manufacturers and products, as well as content lists. It was soothing work.
A sudden laugh made her look up. Nina stood by the kitchen door, eyebrows raised. She looked at the jars and bottles covering the table, then at Vanja and then laughed again, not at all in an unfriendly way.
From Amatka. Used with permission of Vintage. Copyright © 2017 by Karin Tidbeck.