The myth about Erlingvik
Erling Vik, sitting at home in Lier, August 1957, was thinking how fateful a name might be. Even as a child he had identified himself with an imaginary spot called Erlingvik. Wherever in the world, he had happened to be—and he had been in many and far-away places—he had never been far from Erlingvik. It was a narrow shore on a lake somewhere in Norway. He knew it better than any other shore he had seen or was ever to see. About Erlingvik no one else had ever been given a hint, until he once had said a little about it to Felicia when he was in his fifty-fifth year. He had regretted it, for there are secret places that must be just one's own and no one else's. In no other place in heaven or on earth can one develop, no other place can one populate in one's imagination. If you feel you must say something, tell then about a secret forest if you have a shore in mind, but don't disclose your shore to the profane. Felicia had indeed asked where Erlingvik was located, for women are so earthbound, and he had been forced to reply: east of the sun and west of the moon. And he had felt uneasy lest he had said too much. The following night he dreamt that he was trying to lead Felicia astray—Erlingvik was not at all where he had said it was; then he felt safe. Again Erlingvik lay in some unknown place in Norway. No people had ever been there except those who were in his heart. Yet Erlingvik had seen much.
An outlaw had come to the shore one time, with longbow and spear; a few hundred years earlier a group of Stone Age people had camped on the hillside where they could look down on Erlingvik, but the men gruffly called the children back when they tried to run on the beach, and told them they mustn't go near it. And the children ran uphill again like fleet animal-babies at their mothers' cries of warning. They stood beside the grownups and imitated their faces as they looked at the shore. The men stood a bit below the place where the women had made a fire, scanning the narrow shores, spitting, making water, and the little boys did the same, their legs apart. The men twisted their beards with one finger, picking out bits of trash and inspecting them; they rubbed themselves contentedly against an oak trunk, shook themselves like dogs, and agreed silently to leave the shore alone. One of them looked up [p. 57] among the tree tops and expressed his belief that it might rain. A second man also took a peek and said there wouldn't be any. The rest of them looked up, scratched their matted heads, caught a louse or two and said perhaps and perhaps not. They ate at the fire and went to sleep there. Next morning they left, they had been in the picture and were out of it, and were never seen again.
Another time, about sunset some time in October, a wounded moose bull swam ashore, the arrow still quivering askew up into his left side. His legs struck bottom, his body heaved in a violent splash; he walked from the water but stumbled to his knees on the shore, rolled over on his side, and tried to lift his heavy head, blood oozing at the mouth. He made a few kicks and lay still. Four bearded and hairy men, clad in skins, had lost track of the moose; they paddled across the bay in two hollowed-out oaks and searched the shore; but in the dusk they took the dead moose to be a moss-grown boulder among many others.
Very long ago an old roaming cat had come to Erlingvik, a giant cat with silent steps and cuspids hanging down like sabers. The other animals happening by at Erlingvik did not see the saber-toothed tiger whose ferocious head was bent over the water while it drank, scanning the bay meanwhile. They did not see it go to rest on the beach, dangerous, unpredictable, like a mine washed ashore. The saber-toothed tiger was the dangerous, the alien, the eternal; it only opened its eyelids ever so little, letting a swimmer pass by undisturbed, a youth on the edge of manhood, still hairless on chin and body. Wet, his head bent low, he walked close by the saber-cat, by the skeleton of a human being, its sun-bleached neck turned up, with the spine-hole gaping like a searching eye, past boulders hollowed out for fertility rites no longer in use, and farther on into the mountain which closed behind him, and it was as if nothing had ever happened.
Fish played in the summer evening, beavers swam out and in as night darkened. The marten sat half entwined on its branch and waited. The wagtail tripped on the shore, proudly, flipped aside as the sparrow-hawk came after it—confine yourself to finches and robins, my friend, I'm too quick for you. Ducks sailed down in an arc before hitting the water; they listened, spied cautiously about, and paddled along the foot of the cliff to the shore to see if they could find something good today.
Erlingvik was not broad; one might throw a stone across it at its widest place if one was in shape. Yet it was a miniature Norway; there was a beach of a few yards, a few underwater reefs; a steep cliff, a piece of flat land like a field. Birches grew there, alders, aspen, maple; there were pine and spruce, heather and wildflowers. In a corner which the sun never [p. 58] reached there was a cave into the mountain; the waves gurgled hollowly and forbiddingly in there, even in calm weather. Otherwise a great silence most often reigned at Erlingvik, and it was as if neither animals nor people had ever been there, nor birds flown over it—nothing had been there except what his wishes had sent to Erlingvik, and this God only knew, but perhaps again some time a man might swim ashore at Erlingvik, make sure he had solid ground underfoot before he walked out of the water in his wet, heavy clothing.
Who might you have been, Felicia, if you had had another name, Hansigne, or Lene? How could I without this name of mine have lived in Erlingvik? A person mentions his name and it strikes us—of course, such must be the name of this one. Then we suppress the ridiculous thought, for the person must have been before the name; the name had come as a final addition; one can't imagine a person without a name, or one unable to live up to his name. If someone is killed in an accident it makes a great difference to you whether he is nameless, or if you have heard who he is, even though in either case it doesn't concern you. If a girl is called Olava she is denied personality and identity. Erling knew it was a pure happenstance that Felicia had not been called Maria, and he Valdemar. He grew silent and preoccupied when, as a grown man, he heard of this Valdemar who had disappeared in thin air—who would Valdemar Vik have become? In any case, he wouldn't have been sitting in this chair as Erling Vik; he would have been at most like a relative of the Erling who had almost taken form.
Felicia—Maria? Jan—or for example Petter? Maria and Petter. Very possible that this Petter never would have married this Maria who might have been Felicia. Erling himself and she who didn't happen to be called Felicia, would never have had their nights together at Old Venhaug; this he knew in a cheating sort of way, because he had been attracted to the name before he noticed the girl. He and Jan with other names could not have come to experience a friendship that had been so durable for so many years. This imagined Maria could never have been the Felicia Ormsund whom Jan (formal Jan!) so solemnly proposed to in Stockholm and who the following day had answered him: "Yes, I'll marry you, because I like you, and you are kind, but not stupid-kind. As long as you understand that I am also in love with Erling, and sometimes wonder if I don't love Steingrim most of all."
They could be peculiar, these strongly conservative people like Jan, when fate willed them a name which guaranteed its owner ability to meet any situation. "He did sit down on a chair," Felicia had related, "when I gave him the answer, but that was all." He had looked at her [p. 59] like a faithful dog and said: "I've already thought of that, and if you will just let me know always what I'm up against, in other things as well as this—for I can't handle something that sneaks up on me. It's the same way with informers and anybody who attacks from behind. They make me marvelously angry."
They were with him in Erlingvik and did not know it. So was also—forever now—the late Steingrim.
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.
TEI markup and other features Copyright © 2000 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
To buy the paperback book, see: http://www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/1693.htm