The summer passed like the previous one, except that there was more work suitable for Per.
You do it, Per. Per can do that; he has plenty of time.
Do you love earth, Per? asked God, rising up enormous from behind hills and out of valleys. You only had to shut your eyes to see him.
No! replied Per in fear.
Then God did not ask for a while.
Sometimes it was God who asked, sometimes Father. Sometimes both of them as one man appeared out of the hollows and asked.[p. 79]
Father dug on his cleared land again in the autumn after he had finished the harvest. In the field beyond was the new horse. He was yellow and was called Goldie. Father and Goldie had got to know each other that summer. Now, after the harvest, Goldie was browsing on the second crop in the meadow, wandering about in an atmosphere of great peace and repose, feeling at home on this farm. In the evening when it began to grow dark, he stood in the home meadow, tall and solitary and comforting, and grew dark too. But Father never forgot to go down and fetch him in the twilight and put him in. They would appear in the yard, emerging from the soft darkness, large and indistinct. Then they were gone.
The yellow horse had known for a long time who Father was. Per did not know, however much he wondered about it.
Per and Olav were in the fourth grade that winter. So were Åsne and Signe—but that wasn't important; they were never with them. They seemed to be quite clever, the two girls, but it wasn't important. And yet, not entirely unimportant either, perhaps.
To be the first! That was the first commandment, now as before. And then you were the first.
There was much more homework to do now. The world widened around you. Some of the big boys were preparing for confirmation. Some girls too. It was not so easy to show off in front of them, but Per and Olav slaved away and surprised the big ones on one occasion after another: there was Per on their heels, sometimes even in front, and Olav close behind. They were praised and looked about them boastfully. It was no fun.
In the morning darkness on the way to school God would tower unbelievably huge behind a hill and say: Per—
Per stood still. He could see nothing, but there was a presence round about him.
Per, it said from behind the hill.
He hurried on, his conscience pricking him. You're only doing it to get away from Bufast, said the hill.
It was no use denying it, but he did so just the same.[p. 80]
Yes, that's why! he made haste to say, and ran past the threatening hill.
Late that winter he noticed something that surprised him: Åsne Bakken was the center of attraction at school.
How had that come about? Had it happened now, all of a sudden? He had noticed it all of a sudden. He had noticed that she was often the most daring and had heard that she was unafraid and frank in her speech. But he had thought no more about it. Olav and he had been self-sufficient. Now they noticed Åsne. She was number one. She gave orders, and they were carried out. Boys who were older than she allowed her to boss them about. She had no control over the oldest of them, but they let her do as she liked. After Christmas many of the biggest ones had left school, the ones who were preparing for confirmation. Then Åsne's power increased.
Per and Olav were displeased when they caught on to the situation.
One day towards spring Åsne laughed at the two of them to their faces.
"And what about you?" she said teasingly.
"What about us?" they replied, but without much resolve or certainty, for Åsne had her whole crowd of friends behind her.
"What are you up to?" she said, laughing fit to put you in a fury.
"Mind your own business," said Per.
"Couple of dopes," she said.
She even stooped to that. That insult which had only been thought up in envy, which had never meant anything and had not even been heard for years.
This was aggression. They were in the woods near the schoolhouse. School was over for the day, but here in the woods the snow was lying in the trees, and there were fine glades, a suspicion of spring light over it all, and mild air. The [p. 81] afternoon sun fell in broad patches of gold. At night there would be crackling frost. It was like a fairy-tale in the woods—but what was it now? Per and Olav saw that they were surrounded by the whole bunch of schoolchildren and were going to be made fools of.
And it was Åsne's work.
Here she stood, alone in front of them, rosy-checked, round, and laughing. Her eyes flashed at Per and Olav, alight with mockery, and her mouth pouted.
Was this Åsne?
Per stared at her in disbelief: Åsne whom he had met in the river one day that summer before they started school; Åsne whom he had longed to be with. Since then she had been at a distance. Now she had suddenly come forward again in order to make him look foolish in front of everybody.
He stood rooted to the spot with astonishment, trembling before the unknown. Olav seemed to be taking it more calmly; he simply laughed scornfully back. Per was incapable of it; he could only remember that he had led Åsne through the water, and looked at her, and cried when she had to go. This was terrible: here she stood, about to say something scornful so that the laughter would rain down on him. They were standing around waiting, in such a tight circle that they had the courage to laugh, every filthy little brat among them.
Why would the laughter rain down if Åsne let it loose? He had not done anything laughable. But it would rain down if Åsne opened her mouth once more.
He wished wild, silent wishes: Don't do it! Be quiet, Åsne! Åsne, have I done you any harm? Don't—
But the crowd wanted blood, and Åsne let them have it. She stood there laughing happily.
"Did you know your homework today?" was all she said. But she said it in such a way that the laughter rained down. Per and Olav were laughingstocks. Each one who was envious of their being the best laughed heartily. Each one they had fought and crushed because of their superior strength laughed. Some of them laughed coldly and nastily.[p. 82]
The afternoon sun sent broad patches of gold into the glade where Per and Olav were being sacrificed.
Then Åsne had finished. It was all over in a moment. Per could not see anything clearly any more. A flaming tongue of sunshine fell on Åsne's face and seemed to set it alight. In the circle he made out other faces. He heard Olav hurl a couple of nasty cracks around him and saw him hit somebody. Yes! That was the only thing to do now. Hit them.
Olav had already started, and Per rushed in blindly beside him, hitting out. He got into a ray of sunshine and had to blink his dazzled eyes for a moment; then he planted his fists into the dark heap once more.
There was uproar. The girls shrieked and cried. Per and Olav were dizzy with shame and anger and cleared a space around them. And then a voice that they did not seem to recognize, perhaps someone who had never spoken up in any commotion before, said, "Onto them quick and get hold of them."
The voice had authority, and in a flash Per and Olav were powerless, crushed, knocked down, beaten up, and held under. Beaten up yet again. Then this voice that had never spoken before said, "You don't need to keep so much to yourselves. Why can't you be with us?"
They left them lying there in the snow. Their heads throbbed; everything throbbed. They looked up sideways at the person who had spoken. It was one of the big boys, one who never said very much. He left, and Åsne went with him.
All of them left. Not one of them bothered to see whether they could get up or not. They lay thinking it over. When the last one was out of sight, they got up. The world was hateful. Life was hateful. They might as well have killed them; it would have served them right. Then they would never have dared go home afterwards!
The evening sun was shining into the glades like flaming swords. The spring snow sent up a slight fragrance. There was a trace of frost in the air wherever there was shadow. It [p. 83] would be chilly tonight. Tonight Åsne will cry, thought Per suddenly.
"What's the matter?" asked Olav.
Per was about to tell him that Åsne would cry that night. But he stopped himself.
"Nothing," he said roughly.
Olav drew back, hurt.
They parted to go home, each with his swollen face. Things would be different at school after this.
As Per walked home he considered what Åsne's face had looked like. A ray of sunshine had set it alight; that was the last he had seen of it.
Åsne had reappeared suddenly and powerfully and let loose revenge and envy on him. Tonight she would regret it bitterly. He worshipped her.
Later that spring things were different at school. Per and Olav spent more time with the others. But they kept ahead. Per had to.
Åsne was a leader. All she had to say was, "Let's!" and you wanted to at once. Per came no closer to her, only watched from afar and wished many vague wishes.
Soon school was over, and the wishes lost their urgency. He began reading the paper. The whole world was in the paper, and at school he had been given a clear picture of the world.
Copyright © 1934 by Olaf Norlis Forlag, Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1967 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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