Authors: Per Petterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
“I cried through most of the priest’s address,” she says proudly. The girl’s name was Irma, she was in the sixth form and was seventeen. I’m thirteen and I feel strong, stronger than Lone and her brother Hans, almost as strong as Jesper. Lone feels it too, I notice by the way she touches me. Hans has called me a peasant girl several times, that’s what they’re like, he thinks. Their mother follows me with her eyes when I walk about the house. She’s afraid I may break something. I have had rickets, but I got over it, I got stronger by fighting, my mother says, almost unfeminine, only the enamel on my teeth was damaged in several places so I have to take good care and brush them often.
They have all Nexø’s books in Lone’s home, but not because they like him.
“He is a danger to the country,” says Lone’s father, “he is a Russian communist and a mole who undermines natural respect,” but he wants to keep up to date on what the man in the street is reading, so he gets the books sent from Copenhagen. I’ve come to borrow Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel
because Jesper hasn’t read that, and maybe Knud Rasmussen’s book about the great sledge journey across Greenland. I want to read them too, but first I’ll take them out to Jesper so he has something different to think about wherever he may be. When my father and I went back from the harbor after the Læsø boat, Jesper wasn’t at home. My mother had not seen him, but he had been in, because his wet clothes hung over a chair and dripped on the floor. He didn’t come home to lunch at twelve o’clock and not to afternoon coffee either. My father went out in the evening saying he was going to Aftenstjernen, but we knew he never went to that place so late.
Lone is disappointed because I only want to borrow books, she keeps hold of my arm longer than necessary and then she goes to fetch them obediently. I don’t go in with her, I stand in the shade of a tree and watch Hans and his mother playing croquet on the lawn. There is a quiet clucking sound from the wooden balls. The grass is lush and green.
“You won,” says the mother. He puts his hands on his hips and smiles at her patronizingly. Then he drops his mallet on the grass and turns to walk up to the house. She watches his back the whole way, then she turns and looks at me and her eyes are swimming and her neck looks pathetic under the pinned-up hairstyle, and I am glad Lone comes out with the books under her arm. On top is a book on butterflies as camouflage, and Hans gives her a shove with his shoulder as they pass each other at the glass door. She drops the books on the stone steps, they slip apart and he bends down and says loudly:
“You’re not allowed to take them!” I’m there in a second, pick up the books and look him straight in the eye.
“I’m borrowing those,” I snarl quietly. I hate his sailor suit and his water-combed hair and I know he knows it. He turns aside without a word. I carry the books openly past their mother and Lone goes with me to the gate and right out on to the road where my bicycle leans against the railings. I tie the books firmly to the carrier and half turn to her saying:
“So long,” before I spin off down the road to Frydenstrand and feel her eyes on my back.
“Where are you going?” she calls. I just wave without looking back. She is begging, but guilty conscience only troubles me for a few meters.
I cycle along. There are hedges and roses along white-painted fences and suits and dresses in the shadows behind, and then come cornflowers in carpets of blue and violets in clumps and poppies at the edges of fields next to the gravel road. At the end of the road the smell of cornfields and cow manure drifts from the north, and I conjure up the steam off the milk through the air and straight ahead I see the sea glinting between the trees near the public swimming pool. I have the sun in my face when I turn at the crossroads by Frydenstrand house and out on to the coast road where a puff of wind brings the stench of fishmeal from the harbor and factory there.
I cycle with
behind me on the carrier and put my hand on it now and then and Lone disappears among the houses and gardens until I’ve forgotten her existence. Dog roses are in bloom on Tordenskjold’s earthworks, they grow and spread a little more every year and the undergrowth hums with honeybees and bumblebees. When I stand on the pedals I can see the sea above the bushes and the waves sliding in to the beach with white crests in long streaks as far as the eye can reach and further still and all the way north to Skagen.
I cycle on and think of my father in the streets in the evening, he stops and looks around him at each crossroads, I think of Jesper at the bottom of the harbor basin with clenched hands, the green face that will not breathe, and the pig that drowned without making a sound. Over the sea in the east the weather that has passed lies in a dark line at the far end of the world and it is warm now and a big sky rises like a film of blue over the whole of Denmark and behind it no one knows what there is. Sometimes at night I lie gazing out of the window and up at the sky and force my thoughts through the firmament to see what they meet on the other side, but in spite of what I learn at school, everything dissolves into small pieces and I have to go to sleep or my head starts to ache.
Strandby is north of our town. All the people there are Baptists and fisherfolk, and halfway there I cross the Elling brook. It is deep and green and full of shadows under a bridge across the road, and soon after that another road leads down to the right. It’s just a cart track with parallel wheel ruts, and I cycle first in one and then in the other, it bumps so much I have to stand on the pedals so as not to get a pain in the bum, and then I look out over mustard fields growing a meter high on each side. A puff of wind and everything moves.
And then the road opens up and the walls of crops turn into clover and marram grass and the road ends in a hollow of sand which makes cycling impossible. I wheel the cycle for a while until it cannot be seen from the cart track and hide it in some undergrowth before I walk on, carrying the books under my arm. I slide down a sand dune and come out on to the white beach. I see Strandby to the north and the breakwater there just above the marram grass and my town to the south with the big roof of Frydenstrand health baths as a landmark and straight out to sea are the islands of Hirsholmene with the finger of the lighthouse pointing at the sky. I take off my shoes and carry them and walk barefoot on the sand the sun has shone on all day; it burns my feet at first and after a few meters that is really nice. There is not far to go. On the inner side of the beach black and white spotted cows stand chewing the cud behind a barbed wire fence and on the seaside there are big piles of seaweed and stranded jellyfish drying and slowly dying in the sunshine.
Jesper built the little shack out of the driftwood that always lies strewn around on the beach after gales, and I used to go out and help him, dragging heavy waterlogged trunks and long planks from the beach and laying them to dry in the sun. We imagined they were the wreckage of boats that had been sunk and cast ashore here. But of course boats are not built of wood anymore, and anyway that was just a game we played.
The shack lies between two slanting dune walls and is invisible until you get right up close, it has a turf roof and a view straight out to sea. I walk silently without seeing anyone, it is quite silent and I wonder whether he has gone somewhere else. But there is nowhere else, only Vrangbæk and we go there as seldom as we can. After Grandfather died and Lucifer disappeared there is nothing but coldness in the rooms out there even in summer. We are sent for when it’s time to sow potatoes and mow the first hay and have to work hard for no pay, but that is all.
“You’ll have to go,” says my father and will not come with us even though it is his childhood home. Then Jesper and I cycle out alone, for we have seen them together, Grandmother at Vrangbæk and her only son, and she stands stiffly at the end of the potato rows with a chalk white face and sees to it that our backs are not straighter than necessary, and Jesper curses into the furrows and says:
“That feudal-remnant of a squire’s hag! One day we’ll come back with scythes and pitchforks and there’ll be many of us, and then!” Just what will happen then he does not enlarge upon, but I can see in his face that it will be grim.
After Grandfather was in his grave and some days had passed, Lucifer rebelled. The two of them had been together every single day, and Grandfather slept in the stable many times and came out early with straw in his hair, harnessed Lucifer to the trap and went to our town and inland to Hjørring and once all the way to Brønderslev to drink at the inns and come home next morning with the sun.
Now no one could get near the horse. He left his oats and hay untouched in the manger, he kicked and lashed out in his stall so the walls were smashed to splinters. Grandmother grew so fed up with it that she decided the horse must be shot, and sent for Uncle Nils. The night before he was going out there with his gun there was such an uproar in the stable that the whole farm sat up in their beds, and when Grandmother went running with a lantern in her hand and her nightdress flapping across the yard, the stable door was broken and Lucifer far down Vrangbækvej. Before she could gather people for a search, Lucifer seemed to have vanished from this world. Perhaps he had gone to join Grandfather. That was some horse!
Jesper and I took off our caps and wished him luck, and not a week passes when we do not look for him when we go out of town on our bikes. When I spin past Aftenstjernen in the evening I always have to look twice at the space outside the door, but there is nothing there except sometimes Baron Biegler’s landau. So Lucifer must have gone forever.
I walk right up to the shack and around to the back and in through the door that isn’t a door, but a blanket Jesper has hung in the opening to keep out the sand. He is never there in winter and the gales usually sweep in from the sea, so there is no need for it now, and when I get inside it’s suddenly dark after the sunshine outside. I stand still and wait, breathing in the smell of salt and seaweed drying in the sun and sun-scorched tarred poles, there is a strong smell of wood and warmth and my brother Jesper lies on a mattress under the window breathing in and out in all this. He is asleep and I can see him better with each rise of his chest. It is naked, he lies on top of the covers and is naked all over in the faint light from the window where we have hung a little embroidered cloth my mother made. She had embroidered
on it. It’s a joke, Jesper and I do not believe in either Jesus or God, and I stand quite still holding my breath, for I have never seen Jesper like this, not so clearly, not so whole, even though we have shared a room for several years. There are sun-bleached stripes in his black hair and he is sunburned with a pale area only over his hips and his hips shine and I want to turn around and go out, for I can’t stand here. But I see everything plainly in the half-darkness now, his clothes on the floor and the fishing rod in the corner and the cutout picture of Lenin on the wall and a photograph of himself and me in front of Aunt Else’s house at Bangsbostrand. I with my round face and mane of hair and he in his shorts, brown as an Arab with a ball under one arm and the other one around me. It seems to me now that we are so small in that picture, but I do remember when it was taken. Remember the sun we are squinting against and my father who is not in it because Aunt Else said, “For heaven’s sake, Magnus, can’t you smile for once,” and he would not smile and angrily walked out of the picture. I remember Jesper’s arm around my shoulder, still remember it today if I just close my eyes, even though I am sixty years old, and he has been dead for more than half my life.
I walk forward and put the books on the floor beside the mattress and he does not wake up, just breathes evenly so I can feel it on my face. I stay there standing over him, a long time perhaps, and cannot make myself straighten up. My back will not obey, it hurts from my neck down and heat spreads in my hips, and then I start to cry. I cry as quietly as I can, for I am afraid he will get tears on his face, afraid he will wake up and see me looking at him and my chest hurts when I cry and hold it in at the same time. I look at Lenin’s shining scalp and the photograph and think of the ball Jesper holds under his arm that was red and the little black dog Aunt Else had then and the shirts Jesper wore that had buttons on the shoulders so his collarbones showed straight and clear on both sides. I fill my head with thoughts till it feels purple and hot like the glowing iron at the blacksmith’s forge while I stand bent over my naked brother weeping because he is beautiful as pictures I have seen in books of men from other times, grown men, and if I could remember why I came out to find him, it would not mean anything now. He is not the same anymore, cannot be and his arm around my shoulder will never be the same again.
y father works his way downward. To start with he had the workshop and a little furniture shop he was given as an advance on inheritance because he was a thorn in the flesh and had to leave the farm before his majority.