The Pomegranate by Katy Darby
by Katy Darby
Johan is brooding when I get home.
He is watching television in the living room of the apartment, and even though it’s still only March and it’s dark early, he hasn’t closed the window-shutters, and he hasn’t turned the light on. I see him out of the corner of my eye when I take the groceries down the hall to the kitchen. He is slumped on the sofa, not moving. The TV light makes his blonde hair and pale face look blue, and he’s perfectly still, frowning at the screen. Perhaps it’s something on the news. The bad news that never blows anyone any good.
I take the shopping out of the bags – Slott’s mustard, black bread and white bread for what Johan calls my “zebra sandwiches”, rollmops which he loves and I hate, and tins of things. Johan doesn’t like to cook just for himself, so when I’m on nights at the hospital, he opens tins instead. You wouldn’t believe the things you can get in a tin these days.
When I first came to Sweden I was thirteen and a half, and I quickly became obsessed with food in tins because they represented the only meals I could make for myself. The ingredients for the fresh dishes my mother liked to cook were either non-existent or very expensive, and so I think she was quite relieved when I seemed to thrive on a diet of tough, chewy rye bread and tinned meatballs. Even after she found a food market in Stockholm’s tiny African quarter, mother always used to stock up on tins for me because they lasted so long. We never needed a can-opener in the house though – she just used a knife. Mother was good with a knife.
I finish filling the fridge and go into the living room. I stare at Johan for a moment and he doesn’t look back at me, deliberately. I think he’s spoiling for a fight but he hasn’t found the excuse yet. I cross the blue-shadowed room and close the inside shutters to keep the heat in. It’s triple-glazed but every little counts. He’s so precise about money you think he would care about all the heat we waste, but no. I love my country, but ice and snow I can do without – my God, I couldn’t believe how cold it was, that first winter – the breath would freeze in my nose and I was scared my lungs would frost over and crack!
As I cross back I glance at the TV. It’s a programme about nature, which means it’s a programme about global warming, or deforestation, or extinction. I sometimes wonder if he watches these things just to make him sad and angry. As though he doesn’t see enough to make him sad and angry all day.
“Skog,” he says as I pause, watching a polar bear lose a fight with an enormous walrus, “I’m sorry. Give me your hand.”
I give him my hand and he covers it with his own and pulls it down to rest on his shoulder; his white skin on my brown, like a cliché of unity. Skog or Skogsra is his nickname for me, because we first met on a university camping trip in Fulufjället National Park. Skogsra are the spirits of the forest, tempting beauties, tall, dark and willowy. From the front they look like normal women; but if they turn around they are instantly lost in the shadows of the woods, because from the back they look just like trees.
“Bad day?” I said.
“Tired,” he says. “Fulufjället’s a long way, and it wasn’t pretty when we got there. The pollution’s stripped half the trees naked. Even you couldn’t hide yourself in there.” He sighs and then remembers to ask, “How about you?”
“Good day,” I tell him. “Nine today. Three boys and six girls. All healthy, no complications.”
“You females are taking over,” he grumbles, squeezing my hand.
“And why not?”
“Good point,” he admits. “What’s for dinner?”
“Up to you,” I say, “it’s your night to cook.”
“And for dessert?”
“I got some fruit.”
I don’t tell him what kind of fruit, because I’m afraid he’ll laugh, and I don’t want to be laughed at tonight. The last baby I delivered on my shift was the most beautiful one I’ve seen in a long time. All babies are beautiful, of course, and all babies are ugly too, when they first come out – but not this one. Pink and white like a chrysanthemum, with a blond fluffy quiff and depthless blue eyes. He looked like Johan. When I passed the market and saw that they were selling pomegranates, it seemed like a sign. I thought of taking some round to Mother, but she’d only start laying into me about living with Johan again.
“Cool,” says Johan.
I wriggle my hand out of his. It’s warm and slick with sweat. I think of us tangled together, hot under the high-tog duvet, watching the snow fall through the triple-glazed bedroom window. I stroke his hair and go back to the kitchen.
In the kitchen I take the chalk down from the little blackboard where we write shopping lists, bend and quickly sketch a circle on the black slate floor tiles. I need to do it before he comes looking for me, before he finds me at it. I pick the ripest of the two pomegranates and hold it over the dead centre of the circle, and close my eyes.
“Is that a pomegranate?” says Johan. I open my eyes again. He’s lounging against the doorway with his hands in his pockets. I blush.
“Where on earth did you get it from?”
He picks the other one up and I eye it like it’s a bomb. If he drops it, it will be bad luck.
“The market on Hallfur Street.”
“Do you know the legend about pomegranates?” asks Johan.
I shake my head. The name sounds familiar, but that’s all.
“Is it a Swedish legend?” I thought I’d heard all the Swedish ones.
“No. Greek.” Johan weighs his pomegranate in his hand, like he’s hefting it to throw, and I wince. “Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Demeter, the corn goddess. She was kidnapped by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, but she refused to eat and drink while she was down there, because she knew if she did she’d have to stay there, in the cold and the darkness, forever. But she got so hungry that one night at dinner she sneaked just six tiny pomegranate seeds and ate them. When her mother came to claim her Hades said that because Persephone had eaten the seeds, she’d have to stay with him six months of the year – and so we have six months of winter when Persephone is in Hades and Demeter is crying, and six of summer when she’s above the earth and her mother is happy. See?”
“More like nine months of winter up here,” I said.
Johan grinned. “That’s because I’ve spirited you away from your Mum with my sexy trickster ways.”
He pulls me to him and kisses the top of my head.
He’s looking at the chalk circle on the floor.
I try and squirm out of his embrace, but he holds me tight. It’s a game to him.
“It’s silly,” I say.
“It’s just something Mother taught me. A Berber tradition.”
“Come on, you know I love to hear about all that folklore stuff.”
I feel like a complete idiot now. I don’t even know it’ll work if I don’t do it alone. Mother never said. I shouldn’t have bought the damn things, except that I saw that baby and I thought of him and I thought our baby will never look like that. It will be beautiful, but it won’t look Swedish like Johan does, like the blonde girls in the supermarket and the blue-eyed women on the buses and the flaxen, waxen children and everyone else in the country does. It’s bad enough for me, with my not-quite perfect grammar and my slight Siwi accent, to see the disbelief on people’s faces when I tell them I’m Swedish. How much worse for a child who is born here?
And I had to know.
“God, all right. I’ll show you.”
He releases me.
“Don’t be angry, Skog.”
But I am. I stand with my legs apart and hold the fruit over the circle.
“It’s for when a girl is with a man she likes,” I glance up at him, “or tolerates, at least. She drops the pomegranate.”
I drop it, and it bursts with a fleshy squelch, scattering glistening garnet-coloured seeds all over the kitchen floor. Johan jumps. I don’t think he really thought I’d drop it. I’m normally so frugal.
“And then?” he asks curiously.
“And then you get out of the kitchen, and I read the seeds.” I say, pushing him out and closing the door. I squat on the black tiles and examine the pattern of the seeds. I drew the circle big deliberately, so as not to raise my hopes. The seeds that fall outside the circle, so Mother told me, long ago, represent the children I am going to have. There are two of them. A boy and a girl, I think.
Quickly now, I fill my cupped hand with the seeds. I’ll have to throw them out now they’ve been on the floor. But standing over the bin, I remember Johan’s story about Persephone. I take my fistful of seeds over to the sink and run it under the tap, and then I pop one in my mouth. It’s sweet and tart and chewy. I eat another, and a third. Four, five, six. I stand at the sink, scoffing them guiltily, like a thieving dog. I eat months of them, years.
Perhaps Persephone wanted to stay? Did Demeter ever think of that? Let it be winter and darkness all year round, as long as Johan and me, and our children, are inside, safe and warm.
I eat every last one of them; a lifetime of pomegranate seeds, and I don’t stop until they’re all gone.