Our own genocide
Oh, all the poison that had been pumped into us, thought Erling, as he turned and tossed in his bed, listening to the rain pouring down. One day at Venhaug—it had been in July some years ago—they had been sitting and talking about the genocide Hitler had planned and in some degree carried out. Then Felicia left to attend to something, saying, "Speaking of genocide, why don't you, Erling, go out and destroy a Babylon for me?" She pointed through the window with her hand, a cigarette between two of her fingers: "You see that little hill behind my workbench—it's an anthill; they're all over me when I sit down there."
Jan had started to fumble with a bunch of keys. "Don't burn the grass there," he said. "It'll leave a spot; there are all kinds of poisons in the closet out in the cottage; here are the keys—this is the one to the outside closet door, this one for the inner door. Double doors for poison," he added proudly. "DDT should do it but use what you want."
In the big closet Erling found enough poison to kill a small army—disinfectant pills, sprays, hormone mixtures, small and large packages and bottles, everything carefully labeled and marked with skull and crossbones the way Jan was able to draw them—precise, careful Jan!
Erling espied a thin wire far back on a shelf. He didn't quite know why he picked it up and weighed it in his hand; it was twisted together in a roll and could easily be carried in a pocket. He unrolled it—it was a pig-snare.
His hand jerked and involuntarily went to his throat. Something dark was taking shape in his thoughts, but at first there was only a touch of wonder: why was this snare here? Then he thought of the wild ideas children and thoughtless youths might get into their heads. Eternally careful Jan! And then the dark connection stood clear for him suddenly: it was the object Jan Venhaug had used a few days before Christmas in 1942, when he liquidated another Jan, the informer Jan Husted. He brushed his hand across his forehead: Jan, Jan—here you have locked it up so no one else can use it when slaughtering pigs. You incorrigible Jan Venhaug, never able to forget that Jan Husted in spite of all was a human being. Erling still recalled the stammering words in Stockholm: "You understand I couldn't let him cry out, and I couldn't shoot him just there, and so I brought along something to choke him with."
The sequel Jan had not related, but Erling knew that after he had strangled Jan Husted he had taken down a large picture, leaned it [p. 66] against the wall, and hung the victim on the strong hook to make sure. Jan Venhaug was a thorough man, and thoroughly the deed had been done. No one doubted that if Jan returned from a job, it had been well done. Jan had waited there for a quarter of an hour and then let the body down; when Husted was found it was as a suicide hanging by his own belt.
Erling looked over the poisons and felt an impulse to mix everything together to destroy the ants. He suppressed the thought because he knew so little about such matters and was afraid the mixture might explode. He would manage with DDT.
He walked over to the anthill, stirred in it with a stick, and watched the swarm of ants before he dusted on a thick layer of the soapy white powder, which left a repulsively sweetish smell in his nose and mouth. Surely, twenty, thirty times too much, he thought, but at least no ant can come out without getting some of the poison on its body, or return without spreading it down inside the hill.
A week later he had remembered the hill and returned; now there was only a little of the white powder left, but it had rained one night. A few ants, at most about fifty, were still wandering over the hill, but there were none on the ant paths leading to the nest. He bent down and observed something peculiar; every time two ants met they started to fight. Some didn't give up, others stopped after a while. Most of them seemed so confused that they only fought for a few seconds, then took off to encounter a new enemy in a moment.
Erling had started an all-out war of each against each. The odor of their comrades-in-misfortune was not the odor of the hill—that their own odor also had changed they apparently did not realize. All were enemies, they had lost their tribal instinct. Survivors were still busy killing each other.
Toward evening the following day he walked out again and looked. There were still a few ants chasing each other but fewer than the day before. As he was about to leave he discovered something alive moving somewhere near the center of the hill, about as big as a half-crown. He stooped and stared; it was a clump of ants, ants so small it was almost impossible to recognize the individual bodies. He had never seen such small ants, each one no bigger than a pinprick. He went to fetch a jar, in order to look at them with a magnifying glass, but he was interrupted and then the sun went down. When he returned they were gone; he looked for them the following day also but could not find a single one, not even when he dug down into the hill. A few of the forest ants were still fighting, for none must survive. Where had they come from, those [p. 67] dwarfs, surely many hundreds of them, in the middle of the poisoned hill?
Not long ago he had read something he thought might explain the dwarf-ant puzzle; at last he remembered the book and located it on a shelf in Felicia's room. It was an adventure novel titled The Jester of Bokhara, by Leonid Solovjev. He found the place:
From time immemorial the potters of Bokhara have lived outside the east gate of the city on a large clay hill and they could never have found a better place. Here is clay in abundance and they get water from the ditch which runs outside the city wall. The potters' grandfathers, great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers had dug out half of the hill; they built their houses of clay, they made pots of clay, and were buried in clay while relatives wailed. Through the centuries it had happened, and probably not so seldom either, that a potter made a vessel, dried it in the sun, hardened it in fire, and marveled at the strength and resonant purity of the vessel. He did not suspect that one of his distant forefathers was contributing to the welfare and success of his descendants in blessing the clay with part of his dust, making it ring like silver.
Then into a closed community like this came foreigners, with overpowering weapons or as thieves in the night, or else brimstone stolen from the sacred hearth rained down from the heavens. Then all attacked all, and at the same time a pygmy race sprang up. Missionaries incited brother against brother, as they were told to do, slave-hunters forced the Africans to sell each other, bombs falling on the cities drove the inhabitants to assassinations among their own ruins. Negroes in South Africa became the most reliable policemen for the whites, India and Polynesia were kept down by soldiers who were the very children of those countries, and by overlords who were allowed to keep their hoarded possessions. In China, the country's own merchants became the trusted allies of the Europeans. One could also send natives money and weapons, assuring them solemnly that these were purely friendly gifts without obligations, thus letting the people themselves handle the situation without outside control; the weapons were used in deep gratitude for the purpose intended.
When a people has been suppressed, by force or by so-called peaceful means, they declare war against themselves, a secret civil war that brings them to their own destruction. The movement by the suppressor to take over the suppression begins at once. During these latter years the great [p. 68] powers apparently have been a little too eager: they can't wait to let the poison run its murderous course, perhaps they are afraid there won't be time enough, and they interfere to hasten the process. In so doing they lay bare their own tactics, with their too obvious quislings. The poison must be given time and not shown up too soon. This mistake is perhaps our only grounds for hope of not drifting into slavery for centuries: their great urgency exposes them, and keeps resistance awake. The suppression ought to take place through well planned and patient flattery of those sheep who are always in the majority. Vidkun Quisling was a born loser, and the resistance movement could not itself have concocted him better. The executioner's ax should be kept hidden behind the back (those who understand these things say rightly people should know that the rod is behind the cupboard). One must inch along toward the goal where the suppressed believe they are living under a law they themselves have passed and are allowed to enforce in their free junta.
Erling wished Felicia would stop bothering him about moving to Venhaug for good. Each time it was equally annoying and unsuitable. It seemed that this question disturbed their being together even when it was not mentioned. Their mutual telepathy was something they undoubtedly had to take into account—they knew each other so infinitely well. Erling might meet her eyes when she looked up from a book and know she was planning a new attack on the subject; then he prepared himself silently and could be quite caustic before she had time to begin.
She knew quite well that the problem wasn't the same for both of them. Perhaps she had solved it, as far as it concerned her. It was possible she didn't even see it as a problem. To him it was great and had many facets. He thought of the nights when he sat here at his table for hours, or paced back and forth on the floor, deep in his own thoughts. Or the very early mornings, at any season of the year, when he decided that he had worked long enough; spring mornings with the song of the woodcock; still, daylight-light summer mornings when no one was out on the roads in flat Lier which spread before him in the distance; winter mornings, black and glitteringly white, the frost and the heat working at the walls from either side until one heard it like cautious, stealthy steps. Most of all perhaps the late fall mornings! A morning when he would open the door to the raw darkness where the leaves clung to the flagstones; a piece of wood against the door would keep the wind from closing it. There he would stand and listen to the soughing in the trees, alone and happy, thinking of nothing in particular, just ordinary thoughts: that all the tobacco smoke would escape; that the air in the room was renewed with an abundance of oxygen; that the water would [p. 69] soon come to a boil on the stove; that people round and about were just getting up; that he must bake a couple of loaves today; that he needn't eat the monotonous store-bread; that he would write to Copenhagen for a piece of real cheese; that it was odd of people to ruin their coffee with sugar and cream.
Here I stand alone, darkness facing me. No one knows I am standing here. Now we'll have another shower. Listen to the rain beat against the walls, splash across the threshold!
And then close the door again, make coffee, fry an egg or two, or exactly as many as he desired, or none at all, but a slice of his delicious bread and spread butter on it. Listen to the fire crackling when he added new wood, and think sweet thoughts of a woman now that he had shed all responsibility.
Such a morning, satisfied and happy, before he stretched out on his bed to sleep, away from all respectable people's workday—wasn't this the very symbol of all he had gained? He was far from a misanthrope indeed, but you do better by others when you follow your own course. He had seen enough of depressing friends who ought to have gone home and to bed.
It was here that his thought-world at last had taken root. This room was his brain, like the box-frames the beekeeper puts in the hive where the honey is collected. Here his thoughts fought their fights, continued while he went for a walk. How often hadn't the result hung ready here when he returned. It was to his thought-world he returned from Oslo, from Venhaug, from Las Palmas. Only a little of it could he take with him. Like a sample in a briefcase.
Steingrim Hagen in his day had written much about how to avoid war, Steingrim who besides all his other attainments had the brain of a politician. He dealt only with economy and power when he dreamt of a better humanity. The concept of politics had come to him as a sort of contagion from other politicians; after all, it could only come through mental contamination. Political ideas never absorbed anything new nor gave up anything old. There were only so many false coins in Beelzebub's Bank that the Devil had managed to put into circulation before Hell was closed and the director was sent into political asylum in Stavanger. Even with Steingrim the concept of politics had not developed beyond the eternally same, differing from original sin only in that it had to be learned. He might shake his head leniently and say, "Politics you do not understand, Erling."
Erling had never replied, and now he knew why. It was because of the politicians' solemn seriousness, which is part of the Devil's pontification. [p. 70] Politicians always began by clearing the throat, and as a rule this was enough to silence the ironic. For political questions are holy and are posed by serious, grown people, who early have been given the impulse to look for a more or less actual revolver if anyone ridicules them. For the sake of their own self-importance politicians consider themselves great individualists, but mostly they are nothing but mediums mouthing established opinions. It would create a sensation if a newspaper printed that a politician had said something he himself had thought up. As a rule he only ogled his Moloch and listened: What might one of the big boys say about this just now? Should one telephone to ask? And it might happen that one of the big boys gave a gracious nod—in order that he himself might not be responsible for such nonsense; if nonsense must be spoken, let someone else speak it.
No newspaperman had as yet proclaimed: "Now foreign minister so and so has again said something only in order to say something, and it has no apparent meaning. When I called to inquire what it meant, a secretary replied that His Excellency had nothing to add. As I do not wish to visit an oracle with less information than any street urchin has, I only want to state that the paper I write for does not pay me to play the Fool to His Excellency, and his statement is pure nonsense, without meaning, and he would have done better by keeping his mouth shut."
But the newspaperman does not do this. He takes the speech seriously, knits his thoughtful brow, he too. And His Excellency is told—in the bathroom, or wherever he might be—that the man must be a climber, or possibly an ass. It was pleasing to remember that Steingrim Hagen had not spared his irony on such political gentlemen.
Erling pulled up the blind and looked out at the dawn over the countryside spreading before him. In a month it would be autumn. A few crows sailed over the landscape, flying low now before people were up. In early morning they would alight in his yard, spy cautiously about with shrewd and impudent eyes, before they approached the garbage, waddling like old women, unable to realize it had been thrown there for them to pick up. It had been bred into them long ago that people were the wisest of all animals in the world and did not like crows because they stole chickens and eggs. Especially during early summer mornings Erling liked to stand at the window and peek at them in the yard through a hole in the blind. The crows knew that people only seldom were up at three in the morning, but they could never feel sure. When Erling watched them through the hole and thought he fooled them, he wasn't quite sure either. The ironic glances those wily garbage thieves cast at the window [p. 71] might well indicate they knew he was standing there peeking. Erling had a weakness for crows.
Now the light summer mornings would soon be over. In foggy weather they could be pitch dark. He picked up his glass but moved it only a bit farther in on the table, trying to fool himself that that was all he had in mind. But he wasn't even sure he could fool a crow.
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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