I had not heard of this Swedish writer, whose work appears in volume 19 of the 20 volume set. He was born in 1858, but the story, of an elderly couple, living beyond a Peat Bog, and on the far side of the lake, deep in a wood, could have been written any time since antiquity. There was an almost medieval feel to it, and a distinct whiff of the supernatural. It was such an archetypal tale that I repeatedly got the feeling that I had read it before, or heard echoes of it.
It’s one of those stories, like this blog, in which not much happens – but stories, long or short, are not always about events. The elderly couple live in peaceful seclusion leading a simple life. Their children have left, but they trade with the local village, and live off the bounty of the woodland and the lake. Eventually though, the husband, Jacob, falls ill, and as Martina nurses him they slide into poverty. Martina cannot manage to provide enough fodder for their cow, which sickens and dies. She is reduced to begging. At first neighbours are only too willing to help, but as Jacob’s illness persists they become less co-operative.
Finally the bedridden Jacob recognises that the day of his death has arrived, and persuades Martina to carry him out to their punt, place him upon it, and to push the boat out into the waters of the lake. When the punt floats back to the shore Jacob is no longer aboard. His body is found several days later.
What is the eponymous secret? It is that ‘everyone understood that that which had happened should be kept secret, for it was the secret of the wood, and Martina had not really known what she was doing when she helped Jacob to his death’.
This revelation came as a surprise to me; partly because I had expected the secret to be something magical. Gustaf had put the idea into my head that the woods were a magical place, and that Jacob’s wife was fey. The more so it surprised me though, for the issue of assisted dying, and society’s response to it, seems such a modern, contemporary issue to be found in a story that is otherwise so apparently timeless.