Erling had again been to Venhaug and Felicia drove him to Kongsberg. She followed him inside to the ticket window and stood beside him when he bought a ticket to Lier. She watched the train until it was out of sight. Should she call up Lier tonight? No, that she couldn't. She had no acceptable excuse. Nor could she ask Julie to call. Erling would take it the same way regardless of who called from Venhaug. He might just say: I don't appreciate control-calls. If he was there. But he hardly would be. If he wasn't there she could do nothing. If he was there his voice would turn ice-cold and it might be a month or two before he showed up again. It was bad enough that she had followed him to the ticket window, indeed stupid; she had seen he had not the slightest doubt why, and of course he had bought a ticket to Lier.
Why had it hit him so unexpectedly? As a rule she could feel it in the air for two or three days in advance, and it had happened she had managed to avert it. When it came to full explosion she could only let him go. There were some things she didn't wish to have take place at Venhaug, and suddenly he would have disappeared anyway.
Early in the morning he had come over to New Venhaug; he had walked about restlessly, looking at the clock. Jan came in, threw a glance at Erling and walked out to Felicia in the kitchen. "Where is Julie?" he asked. "I think in her room," she said, and didn't look up. "Well, I [p. 203] suppose so," said Jan. He stood for a few minutes with his hands in his pockets, looking out in the yard.
Then he cleared his throat: "I noticed it as soon as I came in the door. You'll take care—"
"Of course," she said, without turning about.
At Drammen Erling did not change to the local but remained in his seat and bought a ticket to Oslo. A few weeks passed before he returned to Lier. Then he dragged himself heavily up the slope to his house. He was tired, cold, his feet hurt. His bag was heavy. He felt chilled and wondered dully why, since there was still a little summer in the air. He lit a fire, hurriedly as best he could, his joints stiff and aching.
He stood close to the fire to warm up a little while the water was coming to a boil on the stove. He felt like a ghost. In the mirror his face looked lined and gray. It had been bad, this time, and he was apprehensive of the demons he would meet. It was a good thing he was home.
It didn't feel like a sickness. He was empty. His teeth were of iron, his stomach a gravel pit. He supposed he should eat but the thought of food nauseated him. He wanted coffee but knew it would taste terrible. Sleep, sleep! Slowly he shuffled over to the bed, picked up a couple of blankets and hung them before the fire. He walked with infinite slowness to the corner and performed his trick with the secret cupboard. He took out a bottle of whisky and sat down at the fire. A warning voice almost shrieked inside him that he should turn off the stove and not wait for the water to boil.
He switched it off, returned to the fireplace, and sat down at the low table. He slumped down, feeling like death. The tall glass he emptied gave him an attack of heartburn and he shuffled over to the cabinet for a pill. It eased the burning immediately and he poured another glass. Like the first it lay in the stomach and had no effect. The whole time his nerves were tense at impending calamity. He knew he was on the brink of a delirium attack but felt gratified to think he would escape a cerebral hemorrhage. Walk the tightrope through the dark with the balance pole. Balance himself past the demon. Wasn't something moving back there in the corner near his cupboard, his secret liquor cabinet? Or inside the cabinet? He stared that way and stiffened: there stood a footstool. He had never seen it before. Was it there when he picked up the bottle? But he didn't have any such stool; a most ordinary stool at that.
Perspiration started to break out; then it struck him it must have been Felicia who had driven up and brought him the stool. How silly! He [p. 204] didn't need it. He felt a stab inside his head. He was walking slowly along a street and knew he must not make any sudden motions or turn his head. Only walk slowly and look down. Something rose up before him and remained hanging in the air at the same distance as he walked along; it reminded him of an old-fashioned barometer with clear black lines marking the degrees up to one hundred. The heaviness in his body was difficult to describe; he seemed to be filled right out to his skin with something heavy that had been poured into him and had congealed. It didn't hurt though, nor was the weight particularly uncomfortable. On the contrary, it gave him a feeling of showing off, not unlike carrying a log on one's shoulder, impressing people with one's ability to balance it. The barometer hung before him. The red indicator rose slowly toward one hundred. Only a few degrees were left. He watched it carefully. It stopped one millimeter below a hundred, and he read in black letters on a level with the top degree Delirium Tremens. He was not afraid. Still—better walk slower.
The indicator trembled a little at the top. Quo vadis? he whispered for he dared not ask in Norwegian. No doubt about it; the indicator was sinking, only infinitesimally, but it was moving toward ninety—nine. His heart started to think by itself and whispered to him that his burden was too heavy. His head was heavy, too, but it balanced proudly. It bragged a little to itself: A good iron head! He moved cautiously over to a shop window so people might think he was interested in sanitary goods, like shiny pipes, cranes, a green bathtub, and four white toilets trademarked Niagara. But all the time he watched the barometer. He wasn't afraid for a moment, only interested, and it felt good to be interested in something. Good to have something happen again that could so thoroughly engross him. Wonder what a barometer of such strictly personal use, and a yard tall, might be called? Wasn't it called the alcohol-meter? Now it showed a fraction below ninety-nine.
He walked slowly to the next window, which displayed a wonderful collection of leather straps, riding quirts, handmade shoes. The alcohol-meter stood immobile in the air above an instrument of leather with a pair of round glass openings. It might be a pair of spectacles for an immense animal, a buffalo for example. The indicator reached exactly ninety-seven now. It was sinking, but very slowly. The next window offered spades, hayforks, a garden hose with sprayer, and other tools for people who poked about with flowers and vegetables. He noticed a pair of hedge-clippers with red-lead handles. The indicator hardly reached ninety-four. It struck him it must reach zero, or one, to show a person's decent condition. He walked on, crossed the street cautiously, and came [p. 205] to a cellar door with a sign Wines; he opened it and managed to get inside but yelled and screamed—he didn't want to see what he saw. He backed off and landed in something like clay that his feet got stuck in. It was better there but he was cold. There were several newspapers about and he read: The World Council of Churches has asked Billy Graham to come to Geneva in the middle of July to supply the chiefs of state of the Great Powers with a spiritual basis. Billy Graham has declared he is willing to accept the task.
He hung on to the chair, he must sleep, sleep; he poured himself another glass but his mouth hung open while he drank. It was cognac. He had thought—
It was a cognac bottle that stood on the table, and he felt relieved, for then it meant only that he was drunk; the liquor had worked after all. It was what is called an atypical drunk when bottles changed with contents and all. Pathological intoxication. Excessive liquor consumption. And what might Gustav call it? Elephantiasis, probably. Cholera.
He shook the bottle to see if it would vanish. It didn't. It was cognac. An unusual brand. He had never seen that label before. Probably some prussic acid had been mixed in, Felicia must have managed that, better call Venhaug and tell them all was progressing according to the program so she could stop worrying. It was nice of her to worry about him and think of him. Julie was the same way—
It was difficult to manage but he called Venhaug. Some talk about Jan having bought a motorcycle. He was sitting in the same place, drinking; he realized he hadn't called, after all. It jingled and then came Felicia's voice, it could be so deep, as it was now when she was serious: Are you at home, Erling?
At the same moment something grabbed at him. He turned violently and saw a gray shadow disappear into the floor. He started to shake.
He looked suspiciously around and replied: Well, as long as you ask. I believe I'm here in the house. Can't you find something for me, Felicia. I started the fire, it was so cold.
He thought a moment and added to the air: and so strange.
A bald dwarf with long tusks and narrow face was sitting back there on the stool. He looked at Erling and said with a sneer: Peder P. Helldale was born at Søndre Land October 30, 1769, and lived only a few minutes because the midwife had drunk a bottle of strong plum-liquor. The mother was a poor widow. Erling moved his lips but couldn't get anything across. The dwarf looked about the room and at the ceiling with an all-knowing grin: Olle Grøtterud from Rjukan, on March 27, 1931, jumped out of a window from the jail in Hønefoss and smashed [p. 206] himself flat. A post mortem indicated he must have fainted before he reached the pavement.
Erling realized it was Snorre[1*] sitting there, wishing to tell him Norway's history. Cold sweat ran down his face and smelled obnoxious. Snorre went on without moving, only his lips moved a little around the long teeth that resembled knives and forks: You have prophesied in your brother's name. You are changelings, you two, but don't worry, Gustav doesn't want to change back.
Erling let out a howl and the little man wasn't there.
It's he who keeps poking in the cupboard, thought Erling.
He twisted an old newspaper and dried his face without realizing what a devilish appearance the printing ink gave him (it was something a demon had thought up to make him kneel in horror before the mirror half an hour later; Felicia had given him that mirror, but she only wished him evil). He sobered up a little. There was no stool in the corner. He looked at the crumpled paper. In a column that was still legible he read about Billy Graham word for word. It was the liquor-god who wasn't very smart today—all he could scare him with was happenings in the news.
The door opened—the wrong way! He cried out. It was the portal of hell when it opened the wrong way! The portal of hell was in his house in Lier.
A hell of a discovery, he thought suddenly, and looked about wide-eyed—but then there was something behind him. He yelled again, he wanted to get away, but couldn't get anywhere for there wasn't any anywhere. The door blew open the right way and in came six pallbearers with a coffin. They put something slippery and cold and living under his head and he yelled, but it was only placed there so he could watch the pallbearers and see what they were up to. They sat down at the table and ate the food they had brought with them. Each in turn drank from the bottle. One started to howl like a dog and a piece of bread dropped from his mouth, there was something about that bread—
All six assumed stiff iron-faces and whistled like dreary civil defense sirens. Someone had poisoned them and it was their death-song they were howling, they knew it by heart. They did not free Erling before they died, all six crawled on hands and knees out through the door and left the coffin behind. The piece of bread that had dropped from the mouth of the first howler started to move. It reached the edge of the table [p. 207] and fell to the floor and turned into something gray that dragged itself toward the coffin.
Erling was sitting in his chair. A fear so tremendous it would be impossible to endure seized something inside his head. How much was real of what took place? Would things always be mixed up from now on? Would he never be able to tell which of the happenings actually took place? The piece of bread emerged back there where the dwarf had been sitting; a bit of clammy, dirty, nasty bread, actually evil, disgusting bread, it dragged itself painfully back to the old chest which hadn't been there before, flattened out and squeezed under it, and became an eye that stared at him from under the chest. When he had a moment of reality—or what he desperately hoped was reality—and waited shakingly for new horrors, he could not control his inclination to investigate phenomena, and he thought: this is being registered while it takes place, exactly like dreams. How could consciousness take part in such, if it didn't also stop it? No, here was one observer who had nothing to say, one consciousness unable to rise to its own plane and call out: Get thee hence, Satan! Tears streamed down his cheeks, as something yellow, fluttering rose from the floor—is there no one to help me, I can't stand any more—
But in his lucid moments, which came like patches of blue in a stormy sky, he cursed and gritted his teeth like an epileptic. He didn't ask for any help, come what may; he would not give up, he would die if he gave up—and he started to yell again.
I have never in my life been afraid of anything, he thought, and pushed the matted hair back from his clammy forehead—with one exception: an insane person. Someone I knew to be crazy tried to get inside once, banged at the door and looked at me right through the wood, a man of flesh and blood I knew, a man with an honest name and a place to live in. Never have I been so terribly afraid as then. I am afraid of crazy people, not any others, not of anything else.
His thoughts went the compass round for comfort, for something to squelch the fear that might come, fear that his brain would rush off by itself, like a car on slippery ice. For a moment he tried to cling to the memory of a night's adventure in Stockholm with young Vera Poulsen, whose name now was Vera Arndt—forbidden territory—and he found a pleasant memory that brought rest. It had been early in spring, probably in the middle of April; at dusk he had sat down on the shore of Glommen, not far from Arnes. The evening was mild and light, a pungent fragrance rising from the earth. He ate from his lunch basket and drank warm coffee from the thermos. It tasted a little of metal. He [p. 208] took a drink afterwards and surrendered himself to the beautiful evening—
But the earth opened her mouth, he fell through and was in a land with a burning sun. Now I'm dying, he thought. But it was only something that had burst in his head and he had fainted, or perhaps gone to sleep. I'm dreaming, he whispered, you can't fool me, I'm getting well again, I'm lying here dreaming. He could have cried from gratitude when it felt as if the hunted brain might come to rest again. With great presence of mind he ordered his troops and hoped they wouldn't notice his being a little abnormal. The men couldn't find the rope to tie the girls' hands behind their backs in order to drive them to the slave market. He only had one long rope and that was too good to cut up. One must keep expenses down. The last shipment had been poor, pure swindle, and one must report it. Insulting to send such well-shaped samples to an experienced merchant like him who must realize at once that everything important was missing: there was no fizz to any of these lifeless girls, either front or back. Well, take this rope anyway, he said angrily, and tie them up in one bunch all together.
He hit them with the whip when they complained and then they stopped, even though the rope couldn't have hurt less because he whipped them.
At the market place he scratched his head. He was a clever man. Put all six of them on the block, he said, then they might impress through their numbers. Well, not so bad, if you were nearsighted. Has anyone seen stupider heads? Turn your backs, all of you! he yelled out.
He examined one of them a little closer once more. It might be sufficient to examine one carrot of six, all alike. What's your name? She giggled and said her name was Viktoria.
As if that would be of any help, he grunted. Turn around!
She had a sort of beauty, like the others. A synthetic sort. Perfect in appearance, but without gunpowder. He shook his head and cracked his whip irritably while he took inventory: breasts and hips right, shoulders good, back satisfactory, behind fine. Worth looking at from all angles, all equally boring. Arms and legs cheap, glossy standard type. Face tries to look attractive, framed with blond, common hair, ordinarily put up. The stupid asses even thought it would be enough to have a hairdresser fix them. Well, he thought absent-mindedly (he had just sold a few suckling-pigs), one needn't offer them for breeding purposes, but skinny as they were and raised for a different purpose they wouldn't bring in much if sold by weight either. And the high taxes and one thing and another.[p. 209]
He sat down on an empty box and eyed the collection disapprovingly. If he could only sell them the way they stood, with their backs to the customer. But buyers always wanted to turn things and find faults. There wasn't a thing they refrained from putting their noses into, and in his line there would be no object in hanging up a sign: Merchandise Must Not Be Touched.
He concentrated again on the carrot farthest to the right, the one who bore the artistic name Viktoria. Viktoria, indeed! Sieg heil! Her name could be changed, of course—no, no use, they always took such curious names, they had so little liberty, and too little sense to use it. He recalled with annoyance how in his younger days he had been cheated by an old merchant who had said that in the dark all cats were gray. He had quickly been cured of that delusion.
Aside from some inconsequential minor differences all six were exactly alike, a source of pride to girls of that sort. He could confine his melancholy appraisal to Viktoria. Well, the sack might be good enough, but nothing in it, he couldn't get away from that. No cat in there. Someone ought to invent something to give a spoiled product that little spark, the life, the aura. Silly—he sat here growing lyrical as the Koran from pure shame. That one there had looked at him as she had seen the others do. It was a disgusting sight. He didn't understand these modern times, with mass production among the girls, this destructive rationalization. It was different when he was young. Now they could obtain all sorts of spare parts for Adam's rib, but lacking the paradisiacal fragrance of manifold delicious fruit. Girls without topsails (in his youth he had been a great seafarer) and no evening wind in the shifts.
People came and looked at the prices of his merchandise; they had no faults to find, but once they had stated this they walked off. Later in the day Erling climbed up on the block with the girls and removed from their backs the price tags they had hanging in a string around the waist. Anyway, he must try something else, people would climb up on the block and lift the tags to see if they were hiding birthmarks. He cut the price in two and put up a sign: Close-Out Sale. Then he sat down on the box again and drank a mouthful of beer. Still business was slow, and the price was slashed further, for he couldn't keep those girls to feed, nor could he starve them, that made them look so sulky, and he couldn't whip them to make them look happy. Fortunately, at last he got rid of five of them to some underpaid office-workers, and Viktoria stood alone. She shivered and had goose pimples from inferiority feelings, when the sun set. The other merchants were taking down their tents and people were returning home to beat up their wives, but look! there comes finally [p. 210] Steingrim Hagen walking across the square. And he bought Viktoria at bottom price and got the rope in the bargain. He thought she might get the idea of running away.
Erling had raised his hand to stroke his long beard, but it wasn't there—look! the damper stood ajar, a fumbling hand emerged with long emaciated fingers. It felt about for something along the fireplace wall, next to the damper, but couldn't find it and withdrew. Nebuchadnezzar was on the 'phone. A Spaniard came in and stooped over a stone on the floor to sharpen his knife, while staring at Erling. He had Felicia's eyes when she rose and soundlessly approached him in her low-heeled shoes. Erling started to yell again. A naked foot protruded slowly from under the blankets on the bed; he wanted to hide behind the blankets hanging before the fire, but he was unable to move, could only yell and howl—
He wept helplessly as he saw Steingrim climb in through a window at New Venhaug, he himself standing impotently in the yard. Steingrim had a knife between his teeth—but Felicia only laughed inside. Now he noticed it was whisky standing on the table and he wondered dejectedly if he could manage to get into bed before anything more happened. He took the bottle with him, reached the bed, and took off like a rider in the night for three long, bloodcurdling days.
[1*] Snorri Sturluson, Icelandic historian and poet (1178-1241).
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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