Read To Siberia Online

Authors: Per Petterson

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

To Siberia (6 page)

BOOK: To Siberia

On the way home from school I walk right behind Lone and mimic the way she moves. She minces along. I go on doing that as long as it is fun, and Lone never once looks back. She lives in a big house on Rosevej almost at Frydenstrand. I don’t go as far as that, but in the same direction. We never walk together. Lone is upper class and must not be seen in my company. The feeling is mutual. But as I’m about to turn up Asylgate she does turn around. She stares at me with eyes full of hate, takes hold of her scarf and wrenches it around so the knot is at her nape and hitches it up until it’s really tight, sticks out her tongue, and squints at me. At once I start to run, hit her with my shoulder, and knock her backward into a snowdrift. I give her a thorough ducking. She may be the headmaster’s daughter, but no one makes game of me. No one.

There are several big houses on Rosevej. When my mother goes out for a walk that is where she often goes, down the road and back again, and I know what she is thinking. She’s thinking what a good life the people there enjoy. They must be happy. To live so well. Once we went out together, my day was aimless anyway, nothing but empty hours one after the other until darkness fell and my body getting in the way wherever I turn. We walked past one of the houses and looked into the yard. It was a big yard, and in the middle of the lawn a young girl sat in a wheelchair. It was summertime then, her face was in shadow and she wore a red dress with a ray of sunshine over her chest. My mother turned and said:

“There, think of that. Better to be poor and able to walk than rich in a wheelchair.”

But she is talking to herself. What I see is a girl without a face in a red dress, often at night when I’m asleep, and at first there is just darkness and then the red comes and spreads until it fills everything and I have to wake up or explode, but I do not dream of being rich. My mother does that, somewhere behind the place the hymns come from.

“Why couldn’t he at least have given us a house,” she says when we hear Grandfather has not left us anything. The Aftenstjernen had taken its share and the house we live in is not our own but belongs to the Baptist church next door. My father is the janitor there. The only thing we own is the carpenter’s shop, and though it may be true that my father is the best joiner in town he is not the best at making money. He has so many acquaintances, the town is too small for a professional. They come in from Danmarksgate, across the yard where the cobblestones are slippery with ice and into the golden light from the lamp above the workbench, throwing shadows over the sawdust and wood shavings and the piles of moldings along the walls. They stand fingering well-used yellow-brown tools, keeping at a safe distance from the bandsaw in the middle of the floor, chatting about the times that have never been worse, and my father nods and asks after someone’s mother and has she recovered from breaking her thigh and is the son better now? It’s not often that things are better, and my father nods again, he knows how it is. When they have gone away they leave a dusty emptiness behind them, the air is stuffy and lifeless like the bottom of a purse, and my father gets to work on the cupboard or the chest and shapes up and remakes and polishes and rubs until the surfaces shine with the glow that is at the heart of all wood, shining without any varnish and with handles of finely carved bone. After a few days they come to fetch it, and then the piece stands there in the center of the floor as good as new, better than new, and I have searched for the word year after year, looked it up in books and thought and pondered and found
They bring a wreck and leave with
and they see it and look dumbfounded and praise my father until his ears flame. When they have gone he has charged them the same amount as last year and the year before that and the year before that again.

In the evenings he sits at the living-room table gazing at the bills with his pencil in his right hand and the rationed cigar in his left. There is rent for the Baptists and coke for the stove and gas for the kitchen range and a new blade for the saw. There is Jesper to be confirmed. Jesper doesn’t want to be, but he must. He will have his first suit and the whole family will be invited. My father sits writing down numbers on paper, he only takes every other pull at his cigar. He should have had a house built of wood that would smell like the workshop from floor to ceiling and not of mold as it does here after the autumn and driving rain on the outer walls. Here everything is brickwork and cement. The water seeps in through the cracks and spreads in damp flowers through the wallpaper so it peels off and the kitchen floor is icy to the feet even in summer with the sun shining in. There is no glow in bricks. In Siberia the houses are built of timber that gives off the good smell of tar and warmth in summer, and when the long winter sets in the glow stays in the logs and never fades. The wood contracts and waits and stretches out when spring comes and drinks in the wind and the sun.

When no one is listening my father grinds his teeth. But I listen all the same. I show him books with pictures of Siberia and the houses there, and he slowly holds it at a long-sighted distance and after a while he says:

“That’s a good piece of craftsmanship. But it is cold outside, terribly cold.”

I do like it when summer comes with warm wind inside my dress on my bare thighs, but I don’t think the cold will bother me. They have different clothes in Siberia that I can learn to wear instead of now when I have only my thin coat against the wind that comes in from the sea between Denmark and Sweden and blows straight through everything. They have caps made of wolfskin and big jackets and fur-lined boots, and lots of the people who live there look like Eskimos. I might pass as one of them if I cut my hair short. And besides I shall sit in the train and look out of the window and talk to people, and they will tell me what their lives are like and what their thoughts are and ask me why I have come all the long way from Denmark. Then I will answer them:

“I have read about you in a book.” And then we’ll drink hot tea from the samovar and be quiet together just looking.

I brush the snow off the front of my coat and see Lone disappearing with her schoolbag under her arm and her cap in her hand. She isn’t mincing now, and then I still don’t go up our road, but down the main street until I get to the gateway and the rear courtyard where the workshop is. I walk through the gateway and see my father coming out of the door of the workshop with his coat on. I wait until he has locked up before I say hello, and he comes up to me and brushes snow off my back and looks at my face that has a scratch on one cheek.

“Have you been fighting?” he says.

“Yes. With Lone.”


“Grandfather,” I say, and demonstrate what she did, turning my scarf back to front and pulling it until it’s tight, and then he says:

“Are they talking about it at school?”

I nod, and he tightens his lips and walks out through the gateway and locks that too and won’t be going back today.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

aren’t going anywhere.
am going to the savings bank.”

“What are we, I mean what are
going there for?”

“To borrow money. You can come along if you stay behind and wait nice and quietly.”

He goes in through the heavy door, and I wait nice and quietly till he comes out again only a quarter of an hour later. He stays there on the steps beside me saying nothing before I look up into his face, and then he says very very softly:

“That didn’t go too well.”

I don’t know what to make of this.

“That’s a shame,” I say a bit too lightly, running down the steps and starting to walk off. But he does not follow. He stands there with his hands in his coat pockets staring straight at the wall on the other side of the street, and when I speak to him he doesn’t answer. He runs his hand down his chin and turns.

“Wait here,” he says and goes inside again.

This time he’s gone half an hour. It’s too cold to stand still so long. I jump around and walk up and down the street looking into the windows and thinking what I could have bought if I’d had any money. But it’s not good to borrow money, and it was my father who said that. “If you’re broke they’ll tear the ears off you if you’ve borrowed money,” he’ll say.

His ears are red when he comes out and I think they may have tried to tear them off in there, but I don’t say that, I say:

“Did it go better this time?”

He takes out a cigar and lights it, it’s the last but one, and he takes a long drag before replying:

“You could say that. They’ve lent me money, but I’ve pledged the workshop as security.”



he missionaries travel all over the world, to the benighted regions, to Tasmania and the negroes in Africa and further to the Far East. They spread God’s grain among those who wander through barren valleys, and have to suffer bitter hardship. Sometimes they are slain, their heads struck off, or thrown to the lions or buried in the earth with only their heads showing so the ants can slowly devour them. But they do not give up, they have God’s hand of authority at their backs. Each year new ones start out from the mission centers and every week we get the missionary journals through the post. Sometimes I read them if there’s nothing else, but my mother really studies them. She shows me the journals with pictures of fair-haired women and men who stand tall beneath distant stars, and she says:

“Perhaps you can be a missionary,” because she knows I want to travel and to her that is the only route. But I don’t want to be eaten by ants and I don’t want to be a missionary. I am too short, my hair is dark, and I would much rather sit still keeping quiet and listening to the people I meet telling
about themselves.

But when the journals arrive I’m the first to look through the contents to see if anyone has gone to Siberia. They never have, but I can’t be sure. One day my road is suddenly blocked and the train trapped in a wall of Bibles. There it stands with steam from the valves swirling out on both sides groaning without hope over silent steppes.

My mother sits by the window in the evenings, there is a lamp between her chair and my father’s, and she reads and smiles with delight over each soul that is saved, and when someone in the Congo has perished from malaria, she puts down the magazine on her lap and sniffles:

“Dear oh dear, the poor soul!” And then she goes to the piano and plays and sings one of her own hymns, and her high-pitched voice fills the room until the walls crack. It seems as if she will never stop, my father rustles his newspaper, but that doesn’t help and he puts it down and says:

“For God’s sake stop it, Marie!” The flood of sound breaks off and she bows her head and looks down at the keys.

“Oh, Magnus,” she whispers. My father repents all over, but he cannot stand it. I can’t either. I stand at the door not knowing whether to go or stay, and yet
is the one who chose
I don’t understand it, they never touch each other, but she has told us about the young man with his powerful arms and a back bent over at the top like a hump. He came cycling along every morning in rain or shine when she was on her way to Søndergate to stand behind the counter in Jensens Tailors and Dressmakers. He passed her at the crossroads where Vrangbækvej meets Møllehuset allé, and he never said a word, just cycled past and came back and cycled past again, and she tried to look straight down at the road in front of her. But he did not give up. He did tricks on the bicycle to attract her attention. He stood with one foot on the pedal and the other straight out like you see on old circus posters, he hung from the side with his right leg under the bar, he
up on the seat with his hands on the handlebars and he
over the seat with his knees on the luggage carrier, and in that position he let go of the handlebars and sailed imperiously by. He did all this with a perfectly serious expression, and at last she could not help herself and began to laugh. Then he smiled cautiously, pleased. He was twenty, one year younger than her, and too young to get married. But he applied to the King for permission, for he could not wait.

“Christian X, King of Denmark and Iceland, makes it known that Magnus Mogensen, carpenter’s apprentice, born 13.3.1889 at Vrangbæk, is hereby given leave to manage his own interests and property before attaining his majority and is permitted to marry shop assistant Marie Aaen, born 25.5.1888 at Bangsbostrand,” runs the document he received. It is in my possession now. It is kept in a black box with his obituary notice, and when I think back and try to see him clearly, I more often remember the young man on the bicycle whom I never saw, hanging over the handlebars with a straight and serious face, than the man who was my father when I was young, or the retired joiner at the Artisans’ Retirement Home at Kløvervej 4.

In the wet light of a July morning Jesper and I stood at the very end of the breakwater watching the boat from Læsø come in between the lighthouses and make fast where the old corn silo divided the harbor into two. There had been wind and rain for several days and now it was Sunday and sunny. It was chilly so early in the day and wet on the concrete and the air was damp and still. But big breakers rolled in from the sea and the boat from Læsø rose high between the lighthouses and listed on the inner side until it settled into the harbor basin. I was glad I was not on board, I would have felt queasy and leaned over the rail to vomit into the green water.

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