Read To Siberia Online

Authors: Per Petterson

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

To Siberia (4 page)

BOOK: To Siberia

“I don’t think anyone can do that. You’re always imagining things. Everyone knows that.”



ut that was not all. When they cut Grandfather down they found a scrap of paper in his jacket pocket. He was wearing a white shirt and his best suit with watch chain and waistcoat, his thick hair was brushed back like shining fur, and there was no gray in it, because he had eaten bones and gristle all his life. His beard was gone, and the men who found him said he looked naked and ten years younger, and I have wondered whether they really saw him right away in there. For it was dark and early morning and they might have brushed against his legs so he swung to and fro with a creaking sound from the beam in the quiet barn with the row of cows’ rumps. And was Dorit standing up in her stall, or lying in the straw chewing the cud, and did she know the man who owned her was hanging there on a rope from the ceiling with a scrap of paper in his pocket?

The paper was folded twice without a speck on it and bore a note in his handwriting:
I cannot go on any longer.
I was sure that was something we understood, both Jesper and I, that he could not go on any longer, but what it was he could not go on with we had no idea, because he was as strong as an ox and could work harder and longer than anyone else I have ever known.

Once a month he harnessed Lucifer to the trap and set off at a trot into town, and then no one else was allowed to go with him. It was always on the same day, he had done it for years, and the route he took never varied either. He was known to many people in the town and they saluted him with their hands to their caps as if he was a general and some sneered openly after he had gone by. But Lucifer trotted up the hill past Bangsbo with the lions at the gates, past Møllehuset Allé, gravel spurted from under the wheels all the way along Søndergate where the fishermen’s houses lay close together down to the shore, and all the lights were on in the Mission House. And perhaps someone in the doorway stood there staring and thought, Dear God, preserve us from the deluge when that comes, but it was Grandfather coming and he did not greet anyone. Lucifer just kept on trotting through the town along Danmarksgate, across the church square, past the Løveapotek and past our road where I stood on the corner in my coat, waiting and stamping my feet to keep warm. I had been waiting a good while and finally he came, sitting big and stiff in the trap behind the horse on his way to the Aftenstjernen to get drunk. That was the first place he stopped at, with a thick rubber band round his wallet. I had seen that wallet. The rubber band was red, and when he had taken some money out and was folding the wallet up again, he held the rubber band between thumb and fingers and slapped it back with a snap that was
to be heard.

Lucifer’s hooves clattered on the cobblestones, but there was no need to hide, Grandfather never looked to the side, and I was freezing and pushed my hands up the sleeves of my coat like a muff, and if he had seen me he would not have recognized me, because he didn’t really

I gazed after the trap after it had gone behind the houses on Nytorv, and as I turned to go home Jesper was standing right behind me in the shadows, gray jacket, gray trousers, only his eyes were shining. He looked up the road where Grandfather had disappeared and said:

“That’s a hundred kroner gone for sure.”

“Have you been here long?”

“As long as you have. You’re not the only one who knows what day it is.”

I pulled the collar of my coat round my ears and turned to look up the road again.

“He’s going to the Aftenstjernen,” I said.

“Mm. And then he’ll go on to the Færgekroen and the Vinkælderen and Tordenskjold’s Kro.”

“And to end with he’ll go to the bar at the Cimbria Hotel,” I said.

“And there he’ll be chucked out because he can’t stand on his feet, and then he’ll stumble out to the trap and slump on the seat and fall asleep while Lucifer trots all the way to Vrangbæk, and if he doesn’t fall out he’ll get home instead of freezing to death.”

“He did fall out once.”

“But that was in summer and the whole town saw him lying in the ditch snoring with his face in his own vomit. Ugh. And tomorrow he won’t speak to Grandmother.”

“He never does that anyway.”

“Shall we go after him and watch?”

“We’ve done that before. It’s no fun, it’s horrible, and I’m freezing.”

“You always are. But I’ve brought your gloves, and cap and scarf,” said Jesper. And so he had, hidden behind his back in a bundle. He held it out saying:

“You must plan things, Sistermine, you must think it out beforehand,” but I seldom did that. I knew I would leave this town one day, I knew I was going to take the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok, but I did not always know why I did what I had just done.

I put on my warm things and tied the scarf tightly round my neck, and together we walked up the main street to Nytorv and forgot that we ought to be home for supper. I held Jesper’s hand though I knew he thought he was too big for that, but it was dark out and nighttime and not many people could see. Only one man turned into an alleyway and we could hear he was drunk and being violently sick down one of the house walls.

At the end of the square was the Court House with the lockup on the left. We looked in on our way past but there was no one there, and then we crossed over Gammeltorv to the Aftenstjernen on the opposite side. The old inn lay at a crossroads where one way wound down to Frydenstrand health resort, which was closed for the season, and another led straight past the Home for Retired Artisans. Forty years later my father would end his days there.

We saw Lucifer standing by the inn door, he was restless, tossing his head and snorting, and there were shadows playing and golden light in the windows and golden light on the cobblestones from the streetlamps above, and when we came to a point midway between two of them we threw shadows in both directions. Jesper had clogs on so you could hear us coming from a long way off. But we were not the only ones. Suddenly there was shouting and hoofbeats and wheels on the cobbles. We turned around and saw a big landau rolling up Danmarksgate, it sounded loud between the houses where the road was narrow and doors flew open, people came out and some boys began to run after the black carriage with its silver embellishments. They hallooed and yelled:

“Throw us some coins, Baron!”

It was Baron Biegler, squire of Bangsbo, in his heavy sheepskin furs, he slapped the door and yelled:

“Faster, coachman! I’m parched as flaming hell!” The coachman whipped up the two horses, they strained against their harness and each would have run to the side if they had not been yoked together. The carriage swung across the square and as it went by the baron leaned out and threw a handful of coins through the night, they sparkled in the light from the streetlamps and jingled on the cobblestones before us, rolled to right and left and came to rest in the cracks between the cobbles, but we did not bend to pick them up. We were strictly forbidden to touch that money. It was blood money, my father said. I had no idea whose blood it came from, but they were shinier coins than any I had seen, and Jesper put his hands to his sides and shouted after the carriage:

“Keep your blood money, Baron! You’ll soon be dead, anyway!”

I threw myself at him and pulled at his coat:

“What are you saying! You mustn’t say such things,” I hissed at him as loud as I dared, and one of the boys came up close to us, dropped to his knees, and started to pick up coins.

“Get away with you, everyone knows he’s got a disease that’s killing him.”

“But he
the baron, isn’t he?”

“A circus baron, a pantomime baron, an upstart, and a damn brute!” Jesper yelled with words that were not his own, that he had learned heaven knows where, and the baron’s face loomed out of the carriage window like a white mask with three empty black holes before the horses turned in beside the Aftenstjernen and stopped.

“What’s he going there for?” said Jesper, “surely he’s got plenty to drink at home with all those fine bottles of his.”

“Perhaps he’s lonely,” I said.

“He’s a blockhead,” said Jesper. “Come on.”

He walked across the square as soon as the baron had gone into the inn, the boys had vanished with all the money, and we were alone again. I followed him quietly, feeling uneasy.

“Maybe we should go home now,” I said, “we should have been in for supper long ago.”

“Grandfather is in there, I want to see him. He is my grandfather, and yours too,” he said without turning around and then he was at the windows peering in. His face turned yellow and his back was all black and the coachman sat on the driver’s seat staring at the wall and not even looking at Lucifer who was still more restless now with the two new horses beside him.

“I’m going home!” I called.

“All right, then,” said Jesper to the windowpane, “I can see quite well alone.” I could barely hear him, his black back had diminished until it was just a streak against the golden light, did he really want to be alone? I could not believe it, he was older than me, he was going to die first, and if
didn’t know that,
had known it for ages, and was it really wintertime? I remember it all as winter, the early dark and the empty streets and the cold that crept in under my coat and up my back, and I turned and walked across the square thinking of my mother who was sure to be standing in the doorway by now waiting. Then I stopped, turned around again and ran up to Jesper. I pressed my nose to the glass and felt him against my shoulder.

“I knew you’d come back,” he said, laughing softly, and I do not know if I thought it then or several years later, I definitely can’t have been more than twelve and Jesper was fourteen, but the cold down my back was unbearable, and I knew I would not always have to stand outside in the dark looking in at the light. I was shivering all over and I felt a sudden urge to smash the window in front of me or get away as fast as possible. But I stayed there with my shoulder against Jesper.

One of the windows was ajar and heat came flooding out with the light and we saw the baron leaning against the barroom counter. He cleared a place for himself with one hand so the glasses toppled and rolled over the edge and broke on the floor.

“To hell with it, I’m paying!” he yelled, turning round with a brimming glass in his hand and being
The Baron.

“This town is full of peasant farmers. Skål, peasants!”

There were no farmers there apart from Grandfather. I knew who they all were. Most of them worked at the shipyard, some were fishermen and a few were artisans like my father. He knew them and met them sometimes, and every summer they went on an excursion to the west coast with the retired workers, but he never went to the Aftenstjernen at night.

The baron was annoyed and raised his glass again.

“Drink up then, for Christ’s sake, peasants! Do I have to pay for you?”

Grandfather sat at a table near the door. I could only see his hand holding a glass, but I knew it well and we heard the scraping of chairs and table when he got to his feet and said:

“I pay my own way and I don’t drink with any toy baron,” and took two steps forward so that his whole body came in sight. He wore his flat-brimmed hat, he was tall and thin without his coat and not quite steady as he walked between the tables towards the counter where the baron was standing.

“I’m going in,” said Jesper.

“They’re going to fight.”


“But you’re not allowed to, you’re not old enough.”

“I’m fourteen, that’s more than enough,” he said and I looked in again and saw Grandfather and Baron Biegler standing close together each with a glass in his hand. They both had beards that almost touched and Grandfather’s hat cast a shadow over the baron’s face and his own so you could not see where one ended and the other began. The baron hit out with his arm to protect himself and the spirits in his glass splashed down Grandfather’s dark suit and then Grandfather took hold of the sheepskin and started to shake and tug.

“Now they’re off,” I said.

“I’m going in then,” said Jesper. And he went, straight past the coachman who still sat there as stiffly as before, in through the double doors and only when I could see him inside from my place at the window did I hurry after him.

The heat hit me. It came from the four-storied stove in the corner and from all the bodies sitting and standing around the tables, and the way across to the counter was clear like the walkway through a barn where the cows stood steaming on each side. I could just glimpse Jesper in there, he clung on to the baron’s back with his arm hard around his neck, and the baron kicked backward with his iron-tipped heel, but there was so much smoke and steam in there it was difficult to see much else, and for a moment I was certain it
a cow barn I had walked into.

A voice that brought everything to a halt cut through the smoke.

“Where did that lass come from? Get her out of here!”

I had seen but not realized that only men were in there, and now I saw all the faces and eyes staring at me. Dead silence fell. Grandfather turned around slowly. He was still holding his glass. It looked ridiculous, and he seemed to realize that because he looked down at the glass and was about to put it on a table, but instead he took a gulp and only then put it down. Now it was empty. He stared at Jesper hanging around the baron’s neck, and he put his hand to his hat and shook his head and turned right around, followed the direction of the eyes around him and caught sight of me standing in front of the door in my coat. It was bright blue and quite visible, and I was sure he had seen it many times before. But all the same he peered at it vaguely, took his hat right off, and bent forward before he drew a breath and roared:

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