The story of Gulnare
They had one more day, spent mostly outside in the sun against the wall, before they said good-by and Felicia drove home to Venhaug. It was warmer than the day before; the sun, so high, and the good wine put them beyond time and place as they sat side by side, exchanging a word now and then. Cars would approach, rush by and disappear, but they [p. 27] couldn't see the road from where they sat. Erling experienced that day something that was mostly in the dim past but at times reappeared with amazing vividness: a great love that once had left deep scars and driven him hither and yon over the globe. It had also sent him to Las Palmas, just as Felicia had done now. He smiled as he thought of it; it must not happen a third time.
She had been the first woman to come into his life, and she had had a rather unusual name, Gulnare. After she had receded several years into his past he would often use her name for girls he knew only casually, as a sort of secret caress. He had at that time just undertaken his first job away from Rjukan, in sprawling Christiania, where his brother Gustav also lived. Gustav had been greatly upset when Erling arrived. "Must I look after you too?" he had complained, and they had argued. "A pup like you ought to stay at home!" Pup yourself, thought Erling, but of course he said nothing. In the main he had taken care of himself since he was eleven, been entirely on his own since fourteen, as Gustav also and his other brothers and sisters had done. But there was something self-righteous and almighty about Gustav, and at the same time one had to admit that he was the most capable and keenest of the brood that the invalided, philosophizing village tailor had sired. Indeed, Gustav had acted like a grown man at the age of seven—at least Erling had thought so in those days, when his brother obtained a job as helper to the horse-butcher; it was there also he had joined the temperance movement and learned manners. Gustav had talked like a grown man before he was eight; Erling remembered his own admiration when Gustav one day had said to the butcher who was returning home with an old nag he had bought: "Good morning, Olsen, what have you paid for this beast?" The butcher chewed on his cud, spat, and said he wouldn't tell while an outsider listened. He glared at Erling, five or six by then, and added wisely: "People go around telling tales."
Gustav took the rebuke like a man: he stood with his hands in his pants pockets and looked in derision at Erling who had been stricken with the suspicion of carrying tales about prices and such. "Well, you are so right, Olsen," he said.
Already then Erling had been aware of Gustav's courage; he dared do things without being told. He acted as if the butcher business was his and always occupied himself with something. He learned to sharpen knives, an art Erling never could acquire, regardless of how long he lived. He would push Erling aside in utter disdain, but did not object when this lowly being admired from a distance his great sharpener-brother. Gustav never played with other children—it would have been [p. 28] beneath his dignity—and later he never became intimate with anyone except Elfride, whom he married. Really not with her either, she was just another piece of furniture in his house.
When the butcher clubbed a horse in the head, back in the narrow yard, and its joints folded and it fell, then Gustav was right there fast, yet with a man's calm, sure movements. The knife sparkled, the blood spurted, but Gustav was not touched, either by the squirting blood or the kicking hoofs. Erling was hiding behind the fence, pale with admiration. Whatever Gustav did he did as if he had never done anything else. Erling did not learn until much later how this was possible: secretly Gustav would lure people to teach him their tricks, and with equal secrecy he practiced on dead and living objects until, with the self-assurance of a grown-up, he would step forth and perform his feat. Gustav did not accept praise; no one was worthy of praising him. If someone tried, he would turn an imaginary tobacco cud, spit, and move on. He was a man after the butcher's heart, and together they carried on wise conversations about innards.
Gustav was fifteen when he became a handy man in a blasting gang. Since then dynamite and blasting had been his life. He had an inclination toward the violent, and violent he was, rebuffing and brutal, but as he grew older he would avoid fights. In later years, when he thought no one could see or hear him, he might frighten a child or a dog merely by muttering something he considered endearing. His other brothers and sisters Erling didn't bother to think of; they seemed only pale, skinny ghosts. To Gustav he was tied by evil, and an unmistakable blood-bond. Erling thought of him as always ready to spring, always tense, always ready to hit, spit or spew abuse, filled with an ever-consuming belief that his almost unfathomable egotism was nothing but hunger and thirst after righteousness. Gustav was a worker worthy of his pay, and strikingly stupid. He mastered everything within a certain limit, but that limit was indeed his ceiling, a solid, yard-thick ceiling of reinforced concrete—his low, gray, flat heaven. Above it, according to his honest, irrevocable conviction, nothing existed except nonsense and damned rubbish on which Erling and similar parasites made a living. He was a repulsive person, lacking imagination, cruel from principle. Erling wondered if Gustav, perhaps already as a small boy, might have been fed up with their father's gibberish; for many years Erling too would grow hot when he recalled it. Their childhood and early youth had been a ghost-world, no less so in retrospect; semidark, damp, unreal, a sort of small community of mentally defective demons, reminding one of jackals in a cemetery at night, digging for corpses, brother Gustav rising between desecrated [p. 29] graves like an absurd wrought-iron monument, surrounded by an impregnable wall with broken pieces of glass on top, in case anyone might try to climb over—God knows why—when the monument slept.
When Erling arrived in Christiania, his working clothes in a neat bundle of gray paper for which he had paid ten øre right off the storekeeper's roll, he went to live with Uncle Oddvar. Welcome he was not but neither was he thrown out, for where should he have lived if not with relatives. This was something taken for granted, but with Uncle Oddvar and Aunt Ingfrid there was also this, that they were too passive to throw out anyone at all. The misfortune was that Gustav already lived there and made life miserable for his relatives. The first evening when he came home and saw Erling he stood mute a few seconds before he exploded as only Gustav could explode. He raved like a dangerous beast in a trap. As an unwitting compensation he didn't speak for three days. Then he came home, after work-hours—no one in the world must be in doubt about the fact that Gustav had a permanent job—dragging an old leather trunk with many straps. It was worn but strong and solid; it was meant for lifetime and so it turned out to be; there was something invincible about Gustav, and Erling observed with admiration that for the first time a trunk had come into the family. Still threateningly silent after the storm, Gustav opened the trunk in the small bit of unoccupied floor space and methodically placed his belongings in it, there being room for ten times as much; Gustav had looked to the future in buying his trunk. When he had gone out, Uncle Oddvar said, still shaken and cautious, that he had believed, sure as hell, Gustav was going to live in the trunk. This was long ago when Uncle Oddvar still was capable of a thought. When Gustav had closed the trunk, as a noisy farewell gesture, and fastened the straps well and locked it, he pulled this piece of property out through the door, which he kicked shut as a "Thank you! Good-by!" Hiding behind Aunt Ingfrid's long-deceased aspidistra plant they watched him cross the street with the trunk on his head, and they could plainly read in his back that never had he free-loaded on a sorrier crowd. Erling could still feel vaguely the pangs of guilt he had had because he, the troublemaker and the useless one, had caused Gustav inconvenience; nor did Gustav ever let him forget it. Even now, sitting there in the sun against the wall, Felicia at his side, Erling realized he was arguing with his brother—now more than forty years later: Didn't I have as much right as he to go to Christiania? And we would never have thought of living with anyone except Uncle Oddvar; that was what relatives were for. Oddvar and Ingfrid had, uninvited and as a matter of course, dragged their brood to Skien and later to Rjukan. We were a rat- [p. 30] family; if eight lived in one room and four more arrived for a visit, what difference did it make? If there was heart-room there was house-room, said the dismayed hosts, sure of a similar reception themselves another time. Rooms for transients they had heard of, but did not consider these as places to stay in; they were considered temporary abodes for high-falutin society folk. Yet Gustav and Elfride had been forced to stay at a hotel for one night shortly after they were married. This led to another tenet in Gustav's creed: decent people did not stay at hotels. It had been expensive, and Gustav had refused to pay until threatened with the police, and they had got vermin. Gustav still took pleasure in relating the circumstances of the vermin: the host had dared insinuate that Gustav and Elfride had brought the vermin, because the night before a very refined gentleman, a sea captain, no less, had slept in the bed. This only caused Gustav to harbor a lifelong disdain for all sea captains; his generalizations and his inexorable stupidity made the world foursquare and secure. The way past Gustav was over his dead body. Thirty-five years later Elfride would still blush when recalling the hotel manager's saying she was lousy, and she was unable to sleep when she thought of it. Gustav ought to have spared her this, thought Erling, but no, outrage must be kept alive. "Lice?" Gustav might say, and add with unassailable inconsequence, "Never seen a louse in my life!" This would make Erling think of the family fine-tooth comb at home in Rjukan—Gustav himself had named it the Lice-Chaser. Yes, thought Erling, Gustav had in all respects torn himself free. So had Elfride too, who had come from a similar family. She and Gustav did not raise vermin; not even the most bashfully unobtrusive louse would have escaped them.
It had been early one evening near Midsummer when Erling first saw Gulnare. He had strolled along the silent streets, almost empty now between dinner and promenade-time. He had come from Aker Street through City Passage down to a corner where he stood for a while and looked at the Church of Our Saviour, it too deserted, staring with its single clock-dial eye. Then he crossed the square and looked at shoes in a window. It had struck him that life actually was very depressing, still more depressing when one was looking at signs in a window; nor would it be better looking at something else. He heard slow, light steps and turned around. It was a girl. She glanced at him, and he thought how nice it would be if people wore a sign indicating willingness to talk. His shoulders straightened as he saw her stop to look at shoes, she also. "Aren't those nice," said Erling, and pointed toward a pair of ladies' shoes, so shocked at his own temerity that he almost took off around the corner.[p. 31]
She looked at him quickly and blushed: "But too expensive," she whispered, and stared at the shoes.
Erling had nothing more to say. Was this accosting a lady in the street? He began to perspire profusely and his hands felt clammy. What was it one should say now to appear casual and experienced? He remembered something about the weather but this she could see for herself; if only it were raining and he were carrying an umbrella; he had read about such situations. She was a beautiful girl. Two heavy braids hung down her back, but there were some short, fluffy locks on her forehead that she had been unable to tuck in; the sun played on these. He had often remembered those sun-kissed locks, and now he turned to look at Felicia. She was leaning far back in her chair, her head to one side, and was looking at him inquisitively. "You must be thinking of some old flame," she said. "Out with it!"
But he turned away and did not reply; it was another Gulnare Felicia knew about.
Blood, sweat, and tears.
She had been so young, only a schoolgirl, the one he had stood beside in the pleasant sunshine. So young that his courage had come back to him. He had asked if they couldn't go for a walk down to the pier, the weather was so nice. He had purposely suggested the pier because he knew where it was; he couldn't appear to be a country bumpkin who didn't know Christiania as well as she. Then she had turned crimson red. Probably no one had asked her to go for a walk before, but now it had happened. "Why do you want to walk with me?" she had asked, and sitting here now, next to Felicia, his remembrance of the emphasis on "me" made his heart tender.
Confronted with an unsure, dubious child, all airs had fallen from Erling, who wasn't much older himself. "Because I'm alone," he had answered. "I am from Rjukan, please don't be so formal with me, I'm only sixteen."
"I'll be fourteen in August. My name is Gulnare Svare."
"How wonderful to have a name that rhymes!"
"Yes, everybody says that. What's your name?"
"Erling Vik. I am—"
He stopped, but honesty got the upper hand: "I'm an errand boy." But he must embroider it a little: "I couldn't get anything better just now, and one has to live." He had been looking at her nice clothes and his courage rose. He added, "I have to earn my own living."
But Gulnare, without hesitation, went him one better; she looked [p. 32] admiringly at him and said, "How lucky! I don't think I ever will be allowed to earn my own living."
Erling was astonished and thought she must be rich. He had some vague recollection of reading about "gilded drawing rooms" and "Her Grace." And here he had been bragging to her that he was an errand boy. But so it went with a great many things in life.
He had always measured everything in victories or defeats, in spite of the fact that life was neither the one nor the other.
"Why would you never be allowed to earn your own living?"
"I must only go to school—all the time 'til I'm eighteen. It's disgusting to think of it. And then I must go to school again—home economics. You're always chaperoned there too. When people go to school they're always watched over, even if they're grown. Does anyone tell you when to come home at night?"
"Tell me? Who would that be? I live with my aunt and uncle; I think they would rather I never came home."
"How funny! I must be home before nine, and in the wintertime I can't go out at all because it gets dark so early."
They had started to walk. Gulnare was still scanning him shyly out of the corner of her eyes while they talked about one thing and another. Suddenly she blurted out, "Suppose someone should see us!"
He had been thinking the same but hadn't said so. That they might meet anyone who knew him was almost unthinkable, but if it should happen he would be very proud. He was apprehensive about the humiliation if they should meet someone from her family, her father, an older brother.
"What would your parents say?" he asked.
She explained they would be upset. Terribly upset. They would tell her to come home at once.
He noticed a few people on the street and wasn't happy about it.
Now out in the bright sunshine he felt ashamed of his clothes; for a moment he comforted himself with the thought she was only looking at his face, until he remembered the two front teeth with great cavities; he kept his mouth closed as much as he could.
Gulnare had worn flat children's shoes. Lying here in his chair now he recalled how Felicia had walked across the floor toward him that time in the restaurant in Stockholm, wearing flat shoes. Gulnare wore a blue dress with a gray belt. When she wasn't looking at him he became quite excited about her profile; he was immensely taken by this serious, wistful face, longing for something in the distance. How wonderful it would be to tell a girl to her face how he felt while looking at her. There was so [p. 33] much one couldn't say and had to keep to oneself. He must learn how to say it, and say it to Gulnare. Why wasn't she his sister? He thought of his own three sisters with their red-rimmed eyes. Better tell Gulnare he didn't have any. If she asked.
Gulnare was trying to make conversation. She said, "When do errand boys take their vacations?"
Erling was immediately on guard. Was she after all trying to make fun of him? But her eyes looked open and querying. Well, so that's all they know about us, he thought. And he flirted with the idea he might say, casually: A littler later in the summer. About the middle of July. But the thought of a vacation—he connected it with long journeys abroad, murders on the night-express, coral reefs—was too ridiculous, and he found it easy to be honest: "You're mistaken. Errand boys never get any vacations." And since his imagination couldn't grasp that one might receive pay without working, he added. "What would one have to live on? And someone else might take the job. Then what would happen?"
Gulnare knitted her brows a little; she had come up against one of life's realities. But for the moment she only registered that errand boys did not take vacations.
"Father isn't taking a real vacation this summer," she said. "Someone asked him to do something and he agreed. He says the money will come in handy. Then Mother also wants to stay in the city, even though he nagged and told her she needed a vacation. Then I too must stay at home and do a lot of chores.
Erling felt secretly he had nothing against the father's money difficulties.
Early evenings with sun in Upper Castle Street, summer of 1915. It always amazed him in later years how little the First World War had occupied him and his contemporaries. The shock in August 1914 had been violent and would never be forgotten, but afterward—well, that was the war business and that was that, but they were growing youths in puberty and had more serious things to think of than a war far away. He could only smile as he recalled that the Swedish police, when he escaped across the border, had in detail recorded his membership in a socialist club for a few weeks when he was fourteen.
He wondered for a moment how old Gulnare would be by now. It was easy enough to figure out but he brushed it aside; she was and remained for eternity the fourteen-year-old with her healthy, beautiful hair in virtuous braids. Only once had he seen that hair tucked up as an attractive crown on her head—to keep it from getting wet—so that for that short moment she wasn't dressed even in her braids. No, they had [p. 34] not gone swimming together, the fourteen-year-old and the sixteen-year-old, that summer of 1915, when the world was so gropingly new and unbelievable and displayed visions of bliss, and let him see that Gulnare was grown, and made him feel that then he must also be the same. Everything was permissible, everything must take place, down there among the pines at the shore!
But it didn't happen. It never happened. Yet the "great" had happened anyway when he saw her down there on the rocks in the glittering sun and the world caved in to recreate itself from the beginning. Until then there had been a dissonance in him, a sickly melody in all the continuous joy. He had thought he could silence it if they could go to a place where they were entirely alone, with no possibility of anyone pointing him out as a grown criminal, pursuing a young girl.
He smelled the fragrance from Felicia's hair and smiled in his chair in the sun. He need only reach out to touch her hand. He might have tried to tell himself that there was no difference in age between him and Gulnare, but it didn't hold—she the schoolgirl with braids, while he sported the clothes of a grown man, with a high, stiff, painful collar, and a lacquered straw hat. The impossibility of it all had also given ripeness to his years: he had felt like a paternal protector for the child Gulnare. A great wave, like one of those long, heavy ones in the Atlantic, had in a short moment swept away all the exalted nonsense from his mind, as he sat there crouching behind the bushes that summer day of 1915 and for the first time saw a naked woman—not an indifferent schoolgirl unlike the boys in only one respect, but a young woman, full-fledged from nature's own workshop, a miracle that in a moment dissolved something in the chafed boy-soul and, at last released natural, good tears for once, a miracle that would always remain his. O Lord! he thought, sitting there at the side of Felicia, O Lord! that youth of the summer of 1915 had gained insight from such a revelation only to suppress it shortly and forget he had cried in joy. Insight and insight—he could not possibly have realized that everything that day was true and right and good, but had long ago been forbidden because it did not fit in with offices and schools and factories. Long ago it had been banished by morality's smooth words and by the law's bombastic edicts: Love as much as you wish once you have passed the crest and have been registered in Love's black-book, but not at other times, places, or ways than those decided on.
They reached the pier, Gulnare and he, and he was pleased that it was quite calm. Otherwise he might have had trouble with his straw hat. He had bought it with much solemnity for Whitsun, because one bought a [p. 35] straw hat for Whitsun if one wanted to be up to date for the summer; one did not argue about customs. He had never wasted a thought about how idiotic the hat was, stiff, impossible to keep on one's head, carried away by the least breath of wind. Admittedly, it came with a black string, wound around the crown, the storm-line, which could be unwound and attached to a coat button; but custom prescribed that the line must be used by old men and farmers only. Anyway, it wouldn't be nice to have the stiff, sharp-edged thing fluttering round one's head like a kite. Consequently, one must hold on to it in a sort of continuous salute, rewarded by a kind of slimy paint on one's fingers. Or one might make murderous attempts to press it down over the skull, and then hold one's head at the right angle so the wind didn't catch the brim of this jewel, or tilt one's head backward if the wind came from behind. This would cause a red streak across the forehead, with sores and eczema, but this had to be endured. Some men learned a trick, though never with perfect success: they pressed a layer of skin under the front of the hellish hat, making the head thicker above than below the edge and giving the wearer a stiff, military look, since he couldn't blink. This arrangement demanded excruciating concentration and discipline on the part of the wearer, and if he wanted to turn around he had to do it slowly. The original thought with this hat must have been that it would shade against the sun—thus in some magic way persuading the sun to shine in Norway—and offer an airy comfort. God knows the hat was worn from Whitsun to October in all kinds of weather. The most elegant type came with a multicolored band, but the price of this elegance might prove ill-spent when the colors failed to withstand the rain and trickled down the face of the dandy. As soon as this summer hat had been purchased every young man went to the photographer to have his picture taken in it, against a background of snow-covered mountains.
Erling was one of the many who never needed a hat at any time of year, but like others in the same situation he never questioned why he should bother with so much unnecessary trouble; it was understood that a grown man wore a hat.
It was Gulnare who for the first time, perhaps unconsciously, made him feel that one could have conversations with those awe-inspiring people who lived in a rarified atmosphere, that perhaps they were indeed the only ones he could talk with. He had a dawning, feeble suspicion that talk might not be a good word for the quarrel, bragging, and treachery he was familiar with. He was so terribly willing to believe that this other place existed in the world, willing like a dog with teeth bared, ready to jump on anyone daring to deny it. But his dream of this other [p. 36] humanity was turned into snobbishness; Gulnare had been saying that her father was superintendent of schools, and Erling already prided himself that in spirit he associated with so high a person; soon he let it slip out that he knew the daughter of a superintendent. He let it slip out quite frequently, but felt himself that it sounded flat, empty; after all, it could only be repeated to other little snobs who believed everyone bragged as they did.
Suddenly Gulnare had to catch the streetcar; she dared not wait for the next one. He hadn't got up courage enough to ask if they might meet again. She waved to him from the tram and he waved back and was almost run over by a brewery truck loaded with old furniture. The driver started to give him hell, but Erling got even with him, for he was not backward when it came to using foul language: "You must have stolen that brewery truck to move your dirty belongings, you old drunkard!" The driver laughed until he almost fell off the seat when he recognized that Erling came from the same background as himself. This made Erling still madder, for he had scratched his knee; he put his hands to his mouth and howled, "Beer-truck thief!"
He kept roaming the streets until the sun was going down. Perhaps there was another world for him too. Gulnare had been so happy—was she always like that? Down on the pier they had been all alone for several minutes, walking among the lumber piles, with no one in sight, but Gulnare had not been the least bit afraid. He thought this a mark of honor. Not that he had intended to attack her; however, that seemed to be what they always expected, those upper-class people.
He recalled Olga at home in Rjukan and shut his eyes tight for a second, a reflex that had stayed with him through the years when he encountered something that smelled bad. Olga, the girl of his own kind, Olga whom he had meant to seduce, but instead managed to rouse the whole town with.
A dream of something he didn't as yet have words for, which had been with him from early childhood, but had been so badly mauled—this dream rose great and golden from its imprisonment that June evening in the year 1915 and throve for long in his heart, the dream he dared not believe in or profess until many years later, the dream of a better humanity, forgiveness, good will, talks about world situations, without a knife in the sleeve, the dim dream of peace and thaw in the heart, the dream that made him long and weep.
He stole in silently at Uncle Oddvar and Aunt Ingfrid's, with its familiar smell of beds, beer, and brandy. Those happy drunkards were sleeping deeply and noisily in the same bed, as they often did even [p. 37] though they had their own beds; they were like an insoluble knot of two short snakes. "Sure as hell!" groaned Uncle Oddvar in his strained sleep. He never closed his eyes while sleeping, but turned them inward as if searching his soul. The children slept silently on their bunks along the walls; it was like a storeroom of brats, for future use. Erling undressed quickly, hung up his good suit in the communal closet, donned his working clothes and stretched out on the floor, happy and tired, with a roll of toilet paper under his head; he had never seen one until he came to Uncle Oddvar and Aunt Ingfrid; they bought a few rolls every Saturday night for the children, who liked to play with them, especially on windy days when they could let the paper flutter from the window, if it was dark enough outside. Their parents each raised a bottle to the mouth and laughed loud and long. While the children were still small they were a happy family.
One time in 1940, during the Occupation, Erling had figured out he would tell the Gestapo if they picked him up that he had a bad back that caused him great pain during the night; then they might put him in a cell without a mattress and consider that punishment enough; he felt at home on a floor.
But it was not easy to sleep during those early morning hours after he had met Gulnare in the evening. Every detail assumed great importance and he felt that finally he had experienced a miracle, as a result of stopping to look in a silly window at some silly shoes. He lay on the floor, happy and warm, filled with the warmth of early youth, and when he went to sleep he swam naked and with easy strokes down a river of warm blood and refreshed himself with it when he grew thirsty. He would never give up until he found Gulnare again.
After work he went immediately to the place where he had met her, but he hid in an entranceway. His heart beat with joy when he caught sight of her across the street and he stepped out from his hiding place as soon as she had passed. He followed her a few paces and then they stood again face to face, both equally embarrassed to admit why they had come, but it was Erling, naturally, who spoke: "I thought you might come by here again." He was too proud to say he had just happened by. Gulnare looked away and replied, "I too thought you might come. I am terribly embarrassed," she added, and blushed until her whole face was rosy.
This time she decided the direction of their walk but she pretended it only happened so. Erling noticed a sign which read Willow Street but soon he didn't know where they were and didn't look for signs. They came to a suburb with gardens and trees. When they had gone that far [p. 38] Gulnare said, innocently honest: "In this direction I'm not afraid of meeting anyone. I'm not supposed to go out—like this." "I don't know the city too well," said Erling. "I'm glad you decide where to go. I've had some trouble finding my way but I'm improving. I really should've worked overtime tonight but I asked to get off."
Gulnare looked at her shoes and said, "That's nice of you. I would have felt terribly silly—"
And then she had to tell what she had done: "I told Mother a story so I don't need to be home so early tonight."
Tensely, Erling asked how late she could be out. She said, her voice trembling, "About half past ten or so, but I can go home earlier if you're busy."
They followed a country road with a hawthorn hedge alongside. Through it they could see a low, wooden building with a large door in the center; on the whole door was painted a green pedestal surmounted by a dove, a nice, fat dove about half a yard high. In its beak it held an olive branch and there was a nest of palm fronds on the socle below with a few plucked quail in it; they were gaping at the olive branch. On either side of the painted monument and of equal height, probably for symmetry, or perhaps to emphasize the stonecutter's importance, one could read in the same color: "Paul H. Thoresen Wiig, Master Stonecutter."
They inspected the art work on the door and accepted it automatically, the way things are accepted by youth without argument and often buried inside without question. Erling was occupied with a practical thought: some place where they could sit down and talk and perhaps hold hands. There were many such places in there on the other side of the hedge; half-finished tombstones were strewn all over. The house seemed locked up and no one around. Erling was born with at least one prerequisite for becoming a fairly capable burglar; if he wasn't too absent-minded he could always tell if there were people in a house he passed. But he had never had any particular desire to steal. Here he realized easily that no one was around: it was only a workshop. One highly polished black granite stone reflected the sun so sharply it hurt the eyes to look at it. On the top of the roof sat a wagtail, and in the field a starling waddled about. The strong colors stood out blatantly on the door's inscrutable symbolism. They heard a finch in a tree, otherwise silence. The remnants of a rotted gate, like a decaying skeleton, were strewn in the grass at the entrance road. "Shall we go in and select our tombstones?" suggested Erling. He tried to be humorous.
Gulnare was hesitant. Were trespassers allowed? But here Erling felt on safe ground: "We can't steal a big stone like that, and anyway there's [p. 39] no gate. If the owner should come I'm sure he would only say 'Good evening!' The worst would be if he told us to leave and I'm sure he won't. After all, he must think of his future customers; he hasn't any others," Erling said finally, but his joke was not appreciated. He became a little unsure of himself; either Gulnare did not understand a joke, or she must have heard it before. This was disappointing since it actually was his own great joke, created in this very inspired moment.
One of the polished stones lay on two smaller blocks; it made an excellent bench. Gulnare sat down, with hesitation which gave way suddenly to the surprised look of a person who has been burnt. She jumped up, with both hands at her behind. The stone had sucked up sun into its black soul all day long. Gulnare dropped her hands as if they too were burnt. She blushed. "It's warm," she said. "The stone is warm," she added, and turned still redder.
Erling pretended, a little too convincingly, that he had seen no double meaning in her words—he who a moment before had tried to use a double meaning. He felt the stone and fetched a planed board which stood leaning against the house, placed it on the stone, and tried it: "Now you won't burn yourself!" She smiled, and they had grown a little more intimate because she had burned her behind. She felt the plank. "How strange," she said, "the sun has been shining on this plank as much as on the stone."
"It is that way with so many things," said Erling, profoundly. As an experienced person he refrained from any attempt to explain nature's mysteries to a woman. He was conscious of his heartbeat now, sitting there beside Gulnare. He accidentally touched her hand and felt waves rush through him. They looked at each other and grew dizzy.
"We should have a snack to eat now," Gulnare managed to say.
Erling felt poor and miserable. It was just such a moment he had dreaded. And here it was. He had no money.
"I can see through the hedge back there," said Gulnare, and inclined her head. "That made me think of it. They have soft drinks and cookies there."
Erling did not reply; he wondered if it was a request. People were apt to think about things just to be talking. Perhaps her thoughts weren't on drinks and cookies at all. But one should have piles of money. Then life would be easier. Here he was without any at all. Suddenly he felt it unendurable, he became a hopelessly lost child. But he didn't say anything. One couldn't say to one's beloved that his pockets were empty, that he had no money for cookies and soft drinks. Only a few nails and junk. That wouldn't get him far.[p. 40]
"What's the matter with you, Erling?"
It was the first time she had used his name and in the midst of all his shame it knocked him over. What a wonderfully beautiful name he had, and he hadn't known it before! He looked down on his plain clothes and said in a hard voice: "It's the middle of the week. Where would I get money from?"
Gulnare breathed heavily, looked at him in fear, suddenly pale. What had she done? Money? Money in the middle of the week? Then she understood in a second: in the middle of the week was the same as the middle of the month, and now she was on sure ground. In the middle of the month she was always told, when she wanted something, that there was no money, and now Erling had thought . . .
Suddenly her tears started falling. "I have money—I wasn't thinking of that at all, I was only talking—"
She jumped up from the tombstone, dug up a little purse from her skirt pocket. "Let's see what I have—" She poked among the coins with her index finger. "I've lots of money! Enough for drinks and cookies! I'll run over and get some!"
She was already on her way. Forgetting she was a lady, she ran like a boy.
She stopped still in the middle of a jump and looked at him: "Can't I?"
He didn't know what to say, so she started running again. He looked after her between the branches of the old, thin hedge. Here he sat on a tombstone, perhaps it would be his own one day—"Here Rests Erling Vik, Beloved, Missed"—and waited for drinks and cookies.
Erling turned in his chair and looked at Felicia. This time she hadn't noticed it; how long ago that had been! All that had taken place before Felicia was born. Next to him now sat the one he loved, the woman who had killed—not in cold blood, but the way the werewolf kills. Step by step one night, through back yards, up staircases, the knife in her clothing, only the point still safe in a bottle cork . . .
At one time people had contrived to distinguish between assassination and war. Which one when Rotterdam was leveled?
Something had held him back; Felicia had not known the connection, she had not known that the informer's widow was the Gulnare of his youth. He himself had known it for a long time now. Strange, how little interest one now had in such matters. Friends were not particularly interested in what friends had done during the war. Erling had by chance, long after the war was over, happened to learn who his potential [p. 41] murderers had been, but he hardly remembered their names. Nor had he cared to report them.
And it was a summer day so long ago:
Gulnare returned with the cookies and the drinks and spread them attractively on the stone. She was greatly amused by popping the corks. In those days the sound was so innocent. "I've had champagne once—have you?"
No, Erling had never tasted champagne; horrible how honest he was: "Is it good?"
"I had only this little, but I think soda pop is much better."
Erling drank his pop from the bottle and felt he was superior because Gulnare's tongue stuck in the bottle throat. The cookies were delicious. He thought of the liquor at Uncle Oddvar's and felt soda pop was much better, but this he couldn't say. To a man liquor must be better than soft drinks. "You are more of a man than your brother!" Uncle Oddvar had said. "While Gustav was here I couldn't take a drink in my own house, sure as hell! Putting on airs to me, his uncle!"—"He was a turd, that's all I can say!" added Aunt Ingfrid, and poured herself an extra drink to Gustav's dishonor. "Oddvar who is as kind as the day is long, and I too, and the only time we could get a drink was when Gustav went down to the privy. It was a dog's life!"
Gulnare kept wondering every now and then what the time might be. He quieted her by assuring her he could see from the sun what time it was; this made an impression on her at least a dozen times that evening. They held hands as they left the premises belonging to Paul H. Thoresen Wiig, Master Stonecutter. It was hard to come away from the peaceful road, and they walked slowly. The finch was still singing. Erling let go of her hand and took hold of one of her braids. It gave him a trembling sense of power, he wished he could walk behind her, one braid in each hand—"Ride, ride to church!"
She looked frightened but let him hold the braid; he saw that something was happening to her too. She said, lips trembling, "If somebody comes you mustn't hold my braid."
It was a Sunday morning in July that they had taken the same boat to Nesoddlandet. They went aboard separately and pretended they didn't know each other. When they landed Erling walked a little behind her until she sat down on the edge of a ditch and waited. He would never forget the way she sat there in the grass and flowers, in a flowery dress, and smiled her happy, embarrassed smile. They walked into the forest along narrow paths she knew and arrived at a flat rock to the east, a place where she apparently felt no one would disturb them. They sat in the [p. 42] sun for a while and looked at the water, but when they were ready to eat they went in among the pines. Gulnare had brought a lunch basket. Again she had told a story about a girl friend. "One day I'll be discovered," she said, "I don't dare think of it even, but I think I'll die if I can't see you any more."
Erling opened his eyes and looked out over the fields at Lier. He felt Felicia's presence more intensely than before just when, in his thoughts, he repeated Gulnare's words: "I'll die if I can't see you any more!"
She had been right. They had killed Gulnare, they had beaten to death that Gulnare when she was fourteen.
Gulnare asked, her mouth full of eggs, "Don't you ever get tired of me, Erling?"
She knew very well she was asking the impossible. That was why she asked. He had never lived before. Many years later—and Gulnare living deep in memory's vague mist—he had thought the same, but was able to add: I had never lived before, and for many years there was no reason to believe I would live again; I know better now, but didn't then.
They sat for a while virtuously apart and looked out over the fjord and the white sailboats. He leaned on his elbow and looked up at her. She must have been reading his thoughts, or her own. She too leaned on her elbow, but a little away from him so that the next move was up to him. Most important were the excuses and the crooked paths around the hot porridge. During the month they had known each other they had only held hands, or he had held her braids; otherwise it had only been the electricity in their nerves when they happened to touch each other, and also one Sunday morning when they had stood pressed against each other on the tramcar and couldn't help it. Erling had all the time been afraid, as afraid as one is to frighten a bird, or a child; how could he know, she might desert him and leave him forever. She did not come from his kind of people, she was no Olga whom he had attempted to make love to in the wash house at Rjukan. That was why his love was so great and strange and profound and all his nights and days so rosy. Now he moved apprehensively closer and soon her head rested on his arm. They were very conscious of each other's bodies, through all the clothes of 1915, for people loved in those days too, and so strong was his emotion that it might happen for years afterward that Gulnare, who was never his, robbed him of his power when he was with some other woman.
There was a line in one of the books Erling had devoured at Rjukan: "She blushed like a young girl at her first kiss." He had often tried to visualize the duke strolling across the floor to kiss some young girl. Kisses had seemed something a lord graciously strewed around him. Erling was [p. 43] nervous about this, for it must come, he must one day kiss Gulnare for the first time. Perhaps it was not unlike being without money when a girl asked for a soft drink; he didn't know how it was to kiss, only that it could be heard at some distance, and this was rather annoying, but he was willing to make any sacrifice, except to look like a fool.
Gulnare cautiously freed herself from his arm, took his face shyly between her hands, and began to kiss him lightly. He chose to lie completely still and passive and he immediately benefited by it. She kissed him lightly and fleetingly—eyes, forehead, nose, and ears, and her lips touched his mouth like a breath of wind. His heart had stopped pounding, he lay with his eyes closed, and now he was lying on her arm, passive, in bottomless bliss. He felt her face was warm and moist, her skin seemed to have taken on a different smell; for a moment he opened his eyes and looked into hers, they were big and clear, and gradually he dozed off.
Erling had gone to sleep in his chair next to Felicia, perhaps only for a few minutes but he was always a little unclear for a moment when waking up, he might confuse an old situation with the present. He came to and recognized with joy that he had gone to sleep with the sheer memory of Gulnare's bewitching of him so many years ago. He wasn't sure Felicia would be pleased to learn that she had been a sort of medium for Gulnare. Or had the fourteen-year-old herself been here?
He had awakened that Sunday at Nesodden with Gulnare sitting and watching him. A new expression had come over her face, almost frolicsome, a touch of wise irony. She reminded him of a cat who sits and purrs and is expectantly happy with her whole body. He had felt so strangely weak and happy, in some inexplicable way older than when he went to sleep. He remained still and looked at her. She had pulled her legs under her and was chewing on a blade of grass without moving her mischievous eyes from his face. "You are the one!" she said at last. "Going to sleep!"
She kept chewing the blade and looked out over the fjord. She said clearly and as a matter of fact, without looking at him, in a sure voice, "I love you, Erling. I am in love with you, Erling, and it won't change if I live to be a hundred."
Erling sat up but did not reply. He couldn't; he didn't know what there was to say. Greater than this nothing could ever be.
Gulnare turned to him and said, "But this is terrible. I've been thinking—you are sixteen and I am only thirteen. I won't be fourteen until August. Something terrible is going to happen to us, but I don't care a bit now."[p. 44]
She pulled the blade from her mouth and pointed toward the water. "I would rather go down there and drown myself than give you up. They can do what they want!"
Erling kept fumbling with a parcel he had, some candy he had bought; he felt it was silly with candy just now but didn't know exactly what to do. And it turned out to be a good move; Gulnare quickly became the child again, she cried out in joy at the sight of the candy, and they shared a bottle of pop with it. "Candy and pop are awfully good!" she said, her mouth full.
"Wonder if I dare take a swim!" she exclaimed impulsively, still the child.
He had of course had this crazy thought in his mind, too. As soon as he felt able to control his voice he replied, "You could swim at the little beach where we first sat, below the cliff. I'll wait for you here."
Did he really think it would be all right? Yes, of course he thought so. "Please, go and have a dip!"
She moved nervously and pulled the grass beside her. "Well, I will then, if you don't think . . .?"
"There couldn't be anything wrong in you swimming all by yourself."
She sat yet for a while before she rose, full of apprehension, and left.
When Gulnare returned, Erling had first thought he would pretend to be asleep, but in his confusion he sat down exactly where he had been sitting when she left. She sat down without looking at him, and neither one spoke. At last she asked, as naturally as she could manage, if he didn't want to take a dip too. Yes, he said, he was just thinking about it.
He walked over the cliffs down to the little beach, took off his clothes slowly and laid them on a stone, the same stone where hers had just been lying. The whole time she was in his thoughts. He walked about naked in the warm sand for a little while, stretched himself in the sun. Then he waded out and swam a short distance. This was the first time he had swum in salt water; he observed it was true what he had heard, it was so much easier to stay afloat in salt water. Here he could lie on his back and keep his toes up, something he had not managed before.
The water was tepid; a light wind made it splash over his body. He paddled a little with his hands to keep floating. Even here in the water he felt his desire for Gulnare, and he idly watched his erection and the black hair around it which lifted with the waves and sank again like seaweed. At the same moment he caught a glimpse of her there at the big pine—he had thought that only boys would do a thing like that. He had learned that only boys peeked, street-boys, and they were spanked for it [p. 45] in school. He had never heard of girls peeking. Much later, having become rather cynical, he tried to accuse himself of expecting it and wishing it, but that was not true.
Surprised, ashamed and frightened, his first impulse was to drown himself at once. Then it would be over. He couldn't live when Gulnare had seen him like that, he would never get over the embarrassment. But he felt differently even before he waded ashore. She had done the same as he. At this moment also she was looking at him from somewhere. That was all right and not his fault, like that time in the tramcar. There wasn't, then, such a great difference between him and those others in high society. He was more in love with her now than before. If that could be possible, he added cautiously, as if she might hear him where she sat and looked at him. She had wanted to see a naked man; it was good it had been he and not someone else. She had wanted to see a person of the opposite sex. So had he, and he was glad it was Gulnare he had seen.
While he was dressing, a great assurance took hold of him: he would have Gulnare now, at once, up there among the pines; and if she refused it would be too late, he would have her anyway.
But when he returned and found her in the same place where he had left her, and in the same position, they were not alone—Sin had joined them, for they were so young. They had seen that they were naked and now they sat there in their fig leaves. Even she knew, at least by now, that each had seen the other. It was too overwhelming, and when Erling had time to think he was wise enough to understand; her voice was within him, there was no mistaking it: Wait till we meet again. At last he met Gulnare's look, it was the look of a friend, and they confessed mutely to each other.
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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