In the winter of 2005, Erika went to see her father, Isak Lövenstad. The journey was taking longer than expected, and she felt a strong urge to turn around and drive back to Oslo, but she pressed on, keeping her mobile phone on the seat beside her so she could ring him at any time and say that the visit was off. That she wasn’t coming after all. That they would have to do it another time. She could say it was because of the weather, the heavy snowfall. The change of plan would have been a great relief to both of them.
Isak was eighty-four years old and lived by himself in a white limestone house on Hammarsö, an island off the east coast of Sweden. A specialist in gynecology, he had made his name as one of the pioneers of ultrasound. Now in retirement, he was in good health and his days passed pleasantly. All his basic needs were met by Simona, a lifelong resident of the island. Simona saw to it that he had a hot lunch and dinner every day; she gave the house a thorough weekly cleaning; she shopped, dusted, and did his laundry, of which there was not much. She also helped him with his annual income tax return and payments. Isak still had all his teeth, but in the past year he had developed a cataract in his right eye. He said it was like looking at the world through water.
Isak and Simona rarely talked to each other. Both preferred it that way.
After a long, full life in Stockholm and Lund, Isak had moved to Hammarsö for good. The house had stood empty for twelve years, during which time he had more than once considered selling it. Instead he decided to sell his flats in Stockholm and Lund and spend the rest of his life as an islander. Simona, whom Isak had hired back in the early seventies to help Rosa take care of the house (in spite of knowing that Rosa was the kind of woman, quite different from his previous wife and mistresses, who rarely needed help with anything, and especially not with the house, which by Rosa was kept to perfection), insisted that he allow her to take him in hand and cut his hair regularly. He wanted to leave it to grow. There was no one to cut it for, he said, but in order to restore the mutually preferred silence between them, they reached a compromise. In summer, the crown of Isak’s head was blank and glossy and as blue as the globes he had presented to each of his three daughters, Erika, Laura, and Molly, on her fifth birthday; in the winter, he let his hair grow free, giving him an aspect of towering grayish white, which in combination with his handsomely lined, aging face suggested the beginnings of a rauk
, one of those four-hundered-million-year-old island outcrops in the sea, so characteristic of Hammarsö.
Erika seldom saw her father after he had moved to the island, but Simona had sent her two photographs. One of a long-haired Isak and one of the almost bald Isak. Erika liked the long-haired one better. She ran her finger over the picture and kissed it. She imagined him on the stony beach on Hammarsö with arms stretched aloft, hair streaming out, and that long, fake beard he would wear when rehearsing his lines as Wise Old Man for the 1979 Hammarsö Pageant.
Rosa—Isak’s second wife and Laura’s mother—died of a degenerative muscle-wasting disease in the early 1990s. It was Rosa’s death that prompted Isak’s return to Hammarsö. In the twelve years the house had stood empty, there had been only occasional visits from Simona. She had swept up the insect life that forced its way in every summer and lay dead on the windowsills all winter; she had the locks changed after a minor break-in and mopped up when the pipes burst and water leaked all over the floor. But she could do nothing about the water damage and rot if Isak was not prepared to pay for workmen to come in and fix them.
“It’s going to get run-down whatever I do,” she said in one of their brief telephone conversations. “You’ll either have to sell it, do it up, or start living in it again.”
“Not yet. I’m not making any decisions yet,” Isak said.
But then Rosa’s body let her down, and though her heart was strong and wouldn’t stop beating, Isak and a colleague agreed in the end that Rosa should be spared. After the funeral, Isak made it plain to Erika, Laura, and Molly that he intended to kill himself. The pills had been procured, the deed carefully planned. And yet, he moved back to the house.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Blessed Child by Linn Ullmann. Copyright © 2008 by Linn Ullmann. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.