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Authors: Gaute Heivoll

Before I Burn: A Novel

BOOK: Before I Burn: A Novel
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Before I



Before I


Translated from the Norwegian

by Don Bartlett


Copyright © 2010 by Gaute Heivoll
Translation copyright © 2013 by Don Bartlett
First published with the title
jeg Brenner ned
in 2010 by Tiden Norsk Forlag, Oslo. First published in English in 2013 by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd, London.
This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota. Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation,, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.

A Lannan Translation Selection
Funding the translation and publication of exceptional literary works
This translation has been published with the financial support of NORLA.
Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America
Printed in Canada
ISBN 978-1-55597-661-3
Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-084-0
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First Graywolf Printing, 2014
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013946919
Cover design: Scott Sorenson
Cover art: Rob Dobi,
Child Drawing
(background photo); Sally Lucinda (drawing)
Most things are so meaningless.
But then something unparalleled occurs,
which rises in the sky
like a flaming cloud
and consumes everything.
Then everything is changed
and you yourself are changed
and what you thought had value before
has no longer any value for you at all.
And you walk through the ash of everything
And you yourself are ash.

A STORY CAME UP IN CONVERSATION while I was visiting Alfred. At first I didn’t consider that it had anything to do with the fires. I hadn’t heard this story before, it is absolutely heart-rending, though at the same time full of, well, what could you call it?


It happened a little over a hundred years ago in the region where I was born and bred. A man committed suicide by blowing himself up. He was thirty-five years old. He used dynamite. Afterwards, it was said, his mother went around gathering the fragments in her apron. A few days later, after a brief ceremony, his remains were laid in grave number 35. According to the cemetery records, under ‘Other Remarks’ was added

I don’t know if this story is true. However, it is something you can understand. If you sit down and reflect, you do slowly understand. Ultimately, it is clear it was the only right thing to do. It is what you do. You have no choice. You walk around gathering all the fragments in your apron.


A FEW MINUTES PAST MIDNIGHT on the morning of Monday, 5 June 1978, Johanna Vatneli switched off the kitchen light and carefully closed the door. She took the four steps through the cold hall, opened the door to the bedroom a fraction, causing a strip of light to fall across the grey woollen rug they had spread over the bed, even though it was summer. Inside, in the darkness, Olav, her husband, lay asleep. She stood for some seconds on the threshold listening to his heavy breathing, then went into the small bathroom, where she let the tap run quietly, as she always did. She stood bent over, washing her face, for a long time. It was cold in there; she was standing barefoot on the rag mat and could feel the hard floor beneath her feet. For a moment she looked herself in the eye. This wasn’t something she usually did. She leaned forwards and stared into the black pupils. Then she tidied her hair and drank a glass of water from the tap. Finally, she changed her knickers. They were covered in blood. She folded them and put them in a bowl of water to soak overnight. She pulled a nightie over her head, and at that moment, in her abdomen, she felt a stabbing pain, the one that was always there but had worsened recently, particularly if she stretched or lifted something heavy. It was like a knife.

Before switching off the light she removed her teeth and dropped them with a plop into the glass of water on the vanity shelf under the mirror, beside Olav’s.

Then she heard a car.

It was dark in the living room, but the windows, strangely shiny and black, gleamed as though from a dim light outside in the garden. She walked to the window and peered out. The moon had risen above the treetops to the south, she saw the cherry tree, which was still in blossom, and had it not been for the mist she would have been able to see right down to Lake Livannet in the west.

A car with no lights on drove past the house and continued at a slow pace along the road towards the collection of homesteads known as Maesel. The car was black, or perhaps red; she couldn’t tell. Not moving at any great speed, it finally rounded the bend and was gone. She stood by the window waiting for one, two, perhaps three minutes. Then she went into the bedroom.

‘Olav,’ she whispered. ‘Olav.’

No answer. He was in his usual deep sleep. She hurried back into the living room, knocked into the chair arm, hurting her thigh, and reached the window in time to see the dark car returning. It was coming out of the bend, and continued slowly past the living room wall. It must have turned around by the Knutsens’ house, but no one was living there, they had travelled back to town the night before, she had seen them leaving herself. Outside, she heard the crunch of tyres. The low purr of the engine. The sound of a radio. Then the car ground to a halt. She heard a door open, then silence. Her heart was in her mouth. She went back into the bedroom, put on the light and shook her husband. This time he woke, but he didn’t get up until they both heard a loud bang and a tinkle of breaking glass from the kitchen.

As soon as she entered the hall she smelt the pervasive stench of petrol. She yanked open the kitchen door and was met by a wall of flames. The whole room was ablaze. It must have taken a matter of seconds. The floor, the walls, the ceiling; the flames were licking upwards and wailing like a large, wounded animal. She stood in the doorway paralysed with shock. Deep within the wails she recognised – even though she had never heard it before – the sound of glass cracking. She lingered there until the heat became too intense. It was as though her face was being detached, dragged down from her forehead and over her eyes; her cheeks, her nose and mouth.

That was when she saw him. She caught no more than a glimpse lasting two or three seconds. He was a black shadow outside the window, on the other side of the sea of flames. He was rooted to the spot. As she was. Then he tore himself away and was gone.

The hall was already filled with smoke; it seeped through the wall from the kitchen and lay under the ceiling like thick fog. She groped her way to the telephone, lifted the receiver and dialled Ingemann’s number at Skinnsnes, the number, after the events of recent days, she had written in black felt pen on a notelet. As her finger turned the dial she considered what to say.
This is Johanna Vatneli. Our house is on fire.

The telephone was dead.

At that moment the electricity short-circuited, there was an explosion in the fuse box, sparks flew from the socket by the mirror, the light went out and everything went black. She grabbed Olav’s hand, and they had to fumble their way across the floor until they reached the front door. The cool night air was sucked in at once, and in no time at all the fire had a better grip; they heard several dull thuds and then a roar as the flames broke through the ceiling into the upper storey and were soon licking at the inside of the windows.

In my mind’s eye, I have seen this fire so many times. It was as if the flames had been waiting for this moment, for this night, for these minutes. They wanted to burst into the darkness, stretch skywards, illuminate, be free. And then they really
free. Several panes cracked at once, glass tinkled and the flames were unleashed, they reached outwards and upwards, into the air, and immediately bedecked the garden in an unreal, yellow light. No one has been in a position to describe the fire to me because no one was there apart from Olav and Johanna, but I have seen everything in my head. I have seen the nearest trees edging even nearer in this light, seeming to collect and glide silently and imperceptibly to the centre of the garden. I have seen Johanna dragging Olav down the five steps, into the long grass, beneath the old cherry tree that seemed cast in stone, with thick grey moss up the trunk, through the garden and out onto the road where she considered them safe. There they stood staring at the house they had occupied since 1950. They didn’t say a word, there was nothing to say. After perhaps a minute she tore herself away while Olav remained where he was, dressed only in a nightshirt. In the flickering light he resembled a small child. His jaw hung open and his lips moved as though struggling to form a word that did not exist. Johanna dashed back through the garden, past the fruit bushes and apple trees that had only come into bloom a few days ago. Dew had fallen on the grass, and the hem of her nightie was wet around her ankles. Standing on the steps, she could feel the intense, billowing heat from the kitchen and the whole of the east-facing floor.

Then she went in.

Some of the smoke inside the hall had dispersed, so it was possible to see the kitchen door, which was still closed, and the living room door, which was wide open. She ventured a few cautious steps across the floor. On all sides she was surrounded by roaring and cracking, but it was upstairs that she was heading. Every forward movement was accompanied by a stab in her lower abdomen. The knife was wrenched out and thrust in. She grabbed the banister and hauled herself up until she was on the landing between the rooms on the first floor. She opened the door to what had been Kåre’s room, and inside, everything was as before. There was his bed, white and neatly made, the way it had been for all the years since he died. There was his wardrobe, the chair on which he had rested his crutches, the picture of the two children playing by the waterfall and the angel of the Lord hovering above them, they were all there. Her bag, too, the one containing three thousand kroner. It was in the top drawer of the dresser, which was still full of Kåre’s clothes, and the moment she caught sight of one of his old shirts – it was the one with a little tear above the chest – she felt she no longer had the strength to make her way back down. It was as if she suddenly gave up everything at the mere sight of the shirt. She dropped the bag on the floor with a thud and sat down gently on the bed. She sensed the mattress springs and the old, familiar, comforting creaks beneath her. The smoke was rising through the cracks in the floor, collecting and advancing to the ceiling. In front of her eyes a serene figure of smoke appeared to be slowly taking shape. It had arms, hands, feet and a hazy face. She lowered her head and mouthed a silent prayer with no beginning and no end, a couple of sentences, nothing more. But then there was a loud, sharp report from directly behind her, and it was enough for her to forget all else, jump up and beat a hasty retreat. She was back inside herself, the smoke wraith had gone, the room was totally befogged and it was hard to breathe. She snatched the bag and ran onto the landing. Hurried down the stairs and descended into a thick, acrid blanket of smoke that stung every part of her face. She realised it was coming from all their clothes in the bedroom, which were smouldering and on the point of catching fire. Her throat tightened, she felt nauseous, her eyes streamed, but she knew exactly where to go to reach the door. For the last few metres she fumbled blindly, but of course she had been this way so many times before and she found the door with ease. Once on the steps outside she felt the heat seeming to press her from behind and push her several paces from the house. She filled her lungs with pure, fresh night air and sank to her knees. I have seen her in my mind’s eye, kneeling in the grass surrounded by light that changed from yellow to almost white, to orange and almost red. She knelt with her face in the grass as she gradually recovered her breath. At length, she dragged herself to her feet, but by then neither Olav nor anyone else was anywhere to be seen. She scrambled up the slope to her neighbour’s house, which was now fully illuminated by the fire. Her neighbour came charging out before she had time to knock. It was Odd Syvertsen. He had been woken by the light. She grabbed his arm, either holding him tight or supporting herself so as not to fall. All she could manage was a whisper, but he heard every word.

BOOK: Before I Burn: A Novel
12.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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