PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
It all started in a strange way in that Jacob fell wildly in love – not in Viola, but in a magic lantern that was exhibited in the fancy-goods-dealer’s window.
It was love at first sight and completely irrevocable. There was something in the then twenty-seven-year-old grocer’s heart that melted at the sight of the round, soft, colourful slide projected on to the white disc in Jonasson’s window in the rain and the darkness of that miserable October evening, something that warmed him deep down in his soul and almost brought tears to his eyes.
This piece of magic was not cheap, and he couldn’t really afford it, but all considerations were a waste of time. Jacob Sif turned up the following day in the fancy-goods shop and bought the lantern.
It was Viola who served him, and they were alone in the shop. She taught him how to work it. She took him into a small room at the back of the shop, in which the window could be darkened by means of an internal shutter, and in the darkness here the magical spot stood out on the wall to show a submarine landscape of red and violet sea anemones, shining eels and rays, deep palm groves of seaweed and hanging spring-green veils of algae and dark corals.
Jacob Sif was so taken by all this colourful dream that he was scarcely aware of Viola. But later that evening, when he was sitting alone and again seeing the magical images of the bottom of the sea, he couldn’t but feel quiet surprise at the thought of how obliging and sweet the young girl had been. Indeed, she had stood close to him in the dark, and he had felt her hair against his cheek and sensed the delicate perfume of her skin. And the way in which she had talked had been so sweet and friendly. Well, of course, the sweet thing had been a saleswoman, and she knew the art of persuading people to buy, something she had learned from her father, who was a very clever and smart businessman.
But when she came to buy two tins of meat balls the following day, Viola was to his surprise still as friendly and charming. She asked how he was getting on with the lantern; she gave him a warm look, and their eyes met almost tenderly – what was all this hocus-pocus really about? Perhaps she was making a fool of him. She presumably thought he was silly for buying the Magic Lantern. But, then, why did she stay? Why did she not go off and forget the whole thing now that the sale had been made once and for all and the goods paid for?
But Viola took her time, and as there were no other customers in the shop she and Jacob had quite a long conversation about this, that and the other, and the coquettish look of affection did not disappear from Viola’s eyes. Jacob felt confused and anything but at ease; he burst into a sweat and made a series of clumsy remarks, and when Viola had finally gone, he hurried into the office to see in the mirror how foolish he really looked. Right enough, his cheeks were flushed and puffy, one eyelid was trembling idiotically and his mouth was smiling an alien, foolish smile. Jacob Sif was not accustomed to female company, and he had always felt ill at ease when together with ladies and well-to-do girls.
I suppose she thought it’s such a pity for you, he thought with a sigh. She feels sorry for you because you are simply an innocent fool who bought her Magic Lantern and perhaps paid far too much for it, and here you are now playing with it at night.
And sadly, despondently and in some inner intoxication and madness, he recalls the young, pale blonde beauty with the intense blue eyes. This amazing girl had stood and as it were caressed her lower lip with her little finger and with her head a little on one side while submitting him to a warm and quizzical examination that seemed to emanate from some profound inner understanding.
“Rubbish.” He dismissed it all and set about blowing at the counter and scratching away a little black stain with his thumb nail.
But the following evening, after closing time, something remarkable happened, something quite incredible, something completely unthinkable.
There stands Jacob Sif making up the till, when there is a gentle knock on the little window in the door. He writes down the figure 87.37 so as not to forget it and goes across and looks out through the window. It’s Viola. He lets her in. She is wrapped in a pale shawl. Her eyes are wild and demented. She says in a pleading voice,
“You must help me, Jacob. You must help me in my distress.”
“Do you hear?” she adds almost threateningly and takes his hands.
Jacob Sif is dumbfounded. It’s impossible for him to reply, impossible for him to make a sound. He hears the new pencil he had pushed up behind his ear fall to the ground with a tiny metallic sound and thinks, “There, that’s fallen down.” He feels her hands and her arms; he allows himself to be led into the dimly lit little office and flops unresisting down on the lumpy oilcloth sofa from Sofus Woolhand’s days. Silver dots and stars dance before his eyes, and he can’t get the figure 87.37 that he wrote down out of his head again. He is aware of perfume and breath and of someone clutching at his arm and his hand. And a heartrendingly private and captivating voice:
“You’ve got to help me. I won’t marry Hjaltalin! My parents are expecting me to, and so does he, but I won’t! I can’t stand him. I’m not interested in his money. He’s been married twice before and besides he’s just got married for a third time. He’s so arrogant, a disgusting piece of work.”
Jacob Sif feels warm tears on his hand. He suddenly recovers the power of speech.
“How do you think I might be able to help you?” he asks, completely flabbergasted.
“Well, couldn’t we two get engaged?” Viola replies.
Her voice has suddenly grown calm. She presses his hand firmly and seeks to encourage him.
“I have already told my mother we are,” she whispers tenderly in his ear. “So you mustn’t let me down now.”
“Well yes, but it’ll never work,” says Jacob, shuffling in despair. “No, please leave me now, Viola. You must be mad. You know, you’re a ... no, you’re perhaps the most beautiful girl in town; that’s what everybody says, as I’m sure you know?”
He laughs long and foolishly.
“And as for me?” he adds and suddenly grows silent.
“And besides, I’ve heard he’s got some incurable disease,” Viola whispers.
A brief pause ensues, during which he can hear his watch ticking in his waistcoat pocket. “Ah,” he thinks, “if only I were alone with this watch, with this tiny watch.”
But now he suddenly finds himself embraced by soft arms, and he feels a large, loosely closed mouth seeking and touching his and slowly opening and breathing on him in a long, low sigh. She breathes and sighs in pain, like some stricken being; he feels something resembling repulsion, but this quickly gives way to a feeling of tender satisfaction. The darkness opens, full of secret hot springs, full of paradisiacal marine plants, submarine coral plants, live animals on stilts and with soft tentacles, kindly soft molluscs and crazy polyps, millions of years older than all human time.
Like a drowning man who to his unspeakable relief discovers that he is a fish, the little grocer Jacob Sif glides down into the depths of this eternal ocean and disappears in the blissful muddy world on the bottom.