Authors: Tarjei Vesaas
Copyright © Tarjei Vesaas 1957
Copyright © Gyldendal Norsk Forlag AS 1957
English translation copyright © Peter Owen, 1968, 1995
First Archipelago Books Edition, 2016
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Originally published as
by Gyldendal Norsk Forlag AS, 1957
English translation first published by Peter Owen, 1968
This edition published by arrangement with Peter Owen Publishers, London
232 Third Street #A111
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Vesaas, Tarjei, 1897-1970.
The birds / Tarjei Vesaas; translated from the new Norwegian by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes. -- First Archipelago Books edition.
ISBN 978-0-914671-20-6 (paperback)
1. Brothers and sisters--Fiction. 2. Orphans--Fiction. 3. Birds--Fiction. I. Støverud, Torbjørn, 1918-2000 translator. II. Barnes, Michael P., translator. III. Title.
Cover art: Simon Hantaï
Distributed by Penguin Random House
Archipelago Books gratefully acknowledges the generous support from Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-914671-21-3
MATTIS LOOKED TO see if the sky was clear and free of clouds this evening, and it was. Then he said to his sister Hege, to cheer her up: “You’re like lightning.”
The word sent a cold shiver down his spine, but he felt safe all the same, seeing the sky was perfect.
“With those knitting needles of yours, I mean,” he added. Hege nodded unconcerned and went on with the large sweater she was making. Her knitting needles were flashing. She was working on an enormous eight-petaled rose which would soon sit between the shoulders of some man.
“Yes, I know,” she said simply.
“But then I’m really grateful for all you do, Hege.”
He was slowly tapping his knee with his middle finger – the way he always did when he was thinking. Up and down, up and down. Hege had long since grown tired of asking him to give up this irritating habit.
Mattis went on: “But you’re not only like lightning with eight-petaled roses, it’s the same with everything you do.”
She waved him aside: “Yes, yes, I know.”
Mattis was satisfied and said no more.
It was using the word
that he found so tempting. Strange lines seemed to form inside his head when he used it, and
he felt himself drawn toward it. He was terrified of the lightning in the sky – and he never used the word in hot summer weather when there were heavy clouds. But tonight he was safe. They had had two storms already this spring, with real crashing thunder. As usual, when the storm was at its height Mattis had hidden himself in the privy; for someone had once told him that lightning had never struck such buildings. Mattis wasn’t sure whether this applied to the whole world, but where he was at least it had proven blissfully true so far.
“Yes, lightning,” he mumbled, half to himself, half to Hege, who was tired of his sudden bragging tonight. But Mattis hadn’t finished.
“I mean at thinking, too,” he said.
At this she looked up quickly, as if frightened; something dangerous had been touched.
“That’ll do for now,” she said and closed the matter abruptly.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing. Just you sit quiet.”
Hege managed to suppress whatever was trying to come out. The fact was that the tragedy of her simple brother had haunted her for so long now that whenever Mattis used the word
she jumped as if she’d been stung.
Mattis knew something was wrong, but he associated it with the bad conscience he always had because he didn’t work like other
people. He rattled off his set piece: “You must find me some work tomorrow. Things can’t go on like this.”
“Yes,” she said, not thinking.
“I can’t allow this to go on. I haven’t earned anything for—”
“No, it’s a long time since you came home with anything,” she blurted out, a little carelessly, a little sharply. She regretted it the moment it was said; Mattis was very sensitive to criticism on this point, unless he was doing the criticizing himself.
“You shouldn’t say things like that to me,” he told her, and there was an odd expression in his face.
She blushed and bent her head. But Mattis went on: “Talk to me like you talk to other people.”
Hege kept her head down. Whatever could she do with the impossible? Sometimes she couldn’t control herself and it was then her words hurt.
BROTHER AND SISTER were sitting on the front steps outside the simple cottage where they lived by themselves. It was a fine, warm June evening, and the old woodwork gave off a lazy smell after a day in sunshine.
They had been sitting there for a long time without saying a word – until they began talking about lightning, and about earning money. Just sitting there, side by side. Mattis sat looking at the treetops with a steady gaze. This sitting of his was a familiar sight to his sister too. She knew he couldn’t help it, or she’d no doubt have asked him to stop it.
The two of them lived here by themselves – there were no other houses – but there was a road and a large cluster of farms just beyond the line of spruces. In the other direction sparkles of light were coming from a broad lake, with distant shores beyond. The lake came right up to the slope below the cottage, and here Hege and Mattis kept their boat. The small clearing round the house was fenced in and belonged to them, but beyond the fence brother and sister had no say.
Mattis thought: She doesn’t know what I’m looking at. He felt tempted to tell her.
Mattis and Hege – they’ve got doubles! Hege doesn’t know that.
He didn’t tell her.
Just beyond the fence stood two withered aspen trees, their bare, white tops jutting up among the green spruces. They stood close to each other, and among people in the village they were called Mattis-and-Hege, though not openly. It was only by accident that Mattis had got to hear the names. They were almost contracted into one word: Mattis-and-Hege. They must have been in use for a long time before Mattis heard them.
Two withered aspen trees side by side, in among the green growing spruces.
He felt a stirring of protest against the names and couldn’t stop looking at the trees. But Hege must never get to know the secret, he decided, every time they sat there like this. She’ll only fly into a rage – and the trees have got their names now anyway.
At the same time the very fact that the two trees remained there gave Mattis a quiet sense of protection. Admittedly they were nothing but a nuisance, and did damage were they stood, but the owner didn’t come and cut them down in front of your very eyes and throw them onto his fire. That would have been too awful somehow, here, in front of the people shackled by their names – almost like murder. And that’s why he doesn’t do it. I should like to meet that man someday, thought Mattis. But then he never comes here.
Mattis went on thinking:
I wonder what he’s like inside, the man who found such pleasure in inventing those names for the treetops? Impossible to say. All you could do was sit and think about it during summer evenings here on the step. But it was a man who’d done it. Mattis refused to think it had been done by a woman; his feelings toward women were friendly. He was angry, too, that Hege had been compared to a withered treetop, it was nothing like her! Surely anyone could see that. The clever and wise Hege—
What is it that hurts so much?
You know very well, came the reply, somehow meaningless, yet straight to the point.
I ought to turn away and not look – instead I sit staring at them, first thing in the morning and last thing in the night. Nothing could be crazier than that.
He was jerked out of his thoughts,
“What is it you can see?” she asked.
He knew these questions of hers so well. He mustn’t sit like that, mustn’t do this and mustn’t do that, he ought to be like other people, not Simple Simon as they called him, the laughingstock wherever he went and tried to work or do anything else. Quickly he turned his eyes on his sister. Strange eyes. Always helpless, shy like birds.