Just before reaching Venhaug he asked Kristiansen to take the side road to Aunt Gustava. The old woman was sitting in her kitchen sorting berries. She could not entirely hide her pleasure at seeing Erling. Her legs were poorly now at ninety but she must get down to the cellar for some hard cider.
Aunt Gustava was, as far as people knew, nobody's aunt. For many years she had helped with the baking on the farms at time of festivities or other events, but most of her time she had spent at Venhaug where, before Felicia's time, she had run things better than anyone else; but she had been cautiously kept at a distance, for Aunt Gustava had a tendency to tyrannize. She came from a cotter's place on one of the neighbor farms and had lost her parents at eighteen—so long ago that youths of today weren't sure there had been such a time. Shortly after being left alone she met a man who took over the place as well as herself, but there had been a long engagement which Aunt Gustava often recalled with caustic remarks. She might also relate how the marriage had turned out. Perhaps he might have become a good man, she would say, guardedly. Aunt Gustava was never enthusiastic and perhaps she didn't remember her husband too well. We had been married about half a year when it happened, she would say (and everyone knew what was coming now). It was raining, she observed. That kind of persistent rain early in [p. 93] November. He went to the forest at dawn and was carried home at dusk. He had found a spruce which the storm had felled during the night. The roots rose up like a wall of earth and stones that had peeled off the mountainside, and anyone should have realized it would fly back when the tree was cut off. But Per hadn't used good sense that day. If indeed he ever had any, Aunt Gustava would add, as if talking about a stranger who was only to be judged from one single action. Perhaps he didn't have much in his head, how do I know? They found him a great distance away—in the top of a pine! He must have had a real jolt to sail through the air like that; and of course he was dead, but then, he had the disgusting habit of boozing a little in rainy weather. Imagine, he stood on the root end of the tree trunk while he sawed it, he must have been off his rocker that day, decided Aunt Gustava. To fly through the air like a bird! A note of humiliation was apparent in her voice. When she reached this point in the story of her marriage, the listeners might look away abstractedly. Aunt Gustava would mumble something about a big head and small sense, and then it would come: Wasn't there someone called the Flying Dutchman?
Aunt Gustava had experienced another great disgrace. Her son was born after she had been a widow for a few months. On some birthday or other of mine, she would add (with remarkably great disgust in her tone of voice). In that way we had the same birthday. The boy went to the States and for five or six years he would ever so often send me a few dollars in a letter. No one knew what I could do with them, but the storekeeper wanted them, and I'm sure he cheated me. He always wrote he was doing well. Then he stopped writing. Not a sign of life from him after 1916. Aunt Gustava was annoyed with him; that he might be dead never entered her head; she suspected he might have done some stupid thing like his father. Anyway, they were a little off on that side of the family; perhaps he had gone to dig for gold. But in forty years he might have had some minutes left over to write to his old mother. People thought that Per—he was named after his father—should be about seventy-two by now, but Aunt Gustava thought of him as a youngster.
The farmer had taken back the fields but he let the widow live on in the cottage, which had a small garden. There she had lived these many years with her potted plants and her caustic outlook—which apparently lengthens life—and kept an eye on what was happening around her.
Some ten years ago the old farmer had died, at an age that staggered even Aunt Gustava, and this had given her something more to talk about besides the flying husband and the son who didn't write letters. The seventy-year-old son-in-law who had taken over the farm wanted her out [p. 94] of the cottage. This had annoyed her—and Felicia had once said it even scared her. To Erling and others she only seemed angry about it; Aunt Gustava did not wish for any changes in her world. She most emphatically pointed out that she was too old for that. If anyone investigated further it might become apparent that she never had paid any rent, but then why should she? She was born in the house, almost a hundred years ago, and the old farmer had never thought of anything so stupid as to ask for rent. It must be something they had thought up down in Kongsberg.
Erling always enjoyed a visit with Aunt Gustava and often spoke about her to his friends. But he could never quite figure her out; if you asked her if she was satisfied with life she would look suspicious, surmising some trap. Why shouldn't she be satisfied? In a moment she might get back to Per and his flying-stunt, and the boy who didn't write, but outside of this, life was as it ought to be, thought Aunt Gustava.
"She is a lovely parasite," was the way Felicia expressed it. "A parasite with style. She doesn't aim high, but she insists on getting what she wants."
Erling did not quite agree with this; it wasn't entirely correct, he thought. Aunt Gustava had an unusually hard life behind her. She loved flowers, and children loved her. She was helpful. She never carried gossip. On the other hand, she was reserved and sceptical, and had an almost ridiculous interpretation of those two happenings in her life which had stuck in her mind. He himself liked the old lady immensely. So did Felicia, Julie, and all the others at Venhaug. But it was like hitting one's head against a wall, as it were. There was no crack and no door in that wall. She was tart as vinegar, but pleasant to visit with. She was full of cavil, she was tyrannical, and amazingly free of snobbery. Erling had more and more come to the conclusion that Aunt Gustava was a cool number who gave humanity hell, but once long ago had realized that as long as she herself wanted to have an enjoyable life, others too might. Consequently, she was a representative of one of the most ethically enduring philosophies—built on egotism as conceived in the mediocre but practical mind of a farm woman to whom two and two still make four. And Aunt Gustava and children? Was it perhaps so, that children—always unsentimental if no one has ruined them—just liked a woman they realized was indulgent and kind because this was easiest? One who viewed them with such indifference that they realized it was all the same to her if they cleaned out the plum jam or fell down from the roof and broke their necks? Much of what Erling had seen in different homes made him suspect that it wasn't always love that created [p. 95] a sense of security in children, rather a combination of solid nerves and lack of useless interest in the brats' doings. And some people had been born with this.
Aunt Gustava had always been ample in size and after the war she had grown immensely rotund. Comparing her with a hippopotamus might be as exaggerated as to say you have been hit by an atom bomb if you should happen to win two-hundred-fifty kroner in the lottery. Yet, Aunt Gustava did remind one of a hippopotamus, and Erling avoided contemplating her weight. He had seen her for the first time in the autumn of 'forty-five when she already had grown out of all proportion, and thus he imagined her also when she spoke of her youth.
She came panting with the cider jug and poured him a full beer glass. Herself she supplied with bread and cheese from the table drawer which she had pulled out until it rested against her massive paunch. Outside stood the taxi and ticked away, but she was always above such matters. "Now you must tell me everything," she said, and pushed almost a whole slice of bread into her mouth. Out of one drawer and into another, thought Erling, and sipped the cider before he emptied the glass. "You always have such good cider," he said.
"Empty the jug!" admonished Aunt Gustava, while pushing the rest of the bread slice down her throat and arming herself with a knife for another slice from the loaf. "What have you been doing lately—fooling around with girls, you old buck?"
Erling said he had been busy with his writing.
"Writing again?" said Aunt Gustava disdainfully, and pushed in some more bread. "Don't understand people who never do anything. But then, you live a great deal at Venhaug."
Erling laughed heartily. Aunt Gustava chewed and looked at him fiercely: "What in hell are you laughing at?"
It really wasn't anything to laugh at; most writers in Norway might well need a fattening-up time at Venhaug; but that was the way it always was, he thought, suddenly serious. Few or none would have found their way to Venhaug, until they already had security and a home of their own.
"Is it true that you are the son of a village tailor?"
This came almost as if she had read his thoughts; he answered quickly, "Why do you ask?"
"Well, at least that is a sensible occupation—I wish my husband had taken up sewing."
Erling emptied his glass again and rose, he was longing to get to [p. 96] Venhaug; otherwise he might have listened again to the tale of the man in the treetop.
"By the way, how did they get him down?" he asked.
Aunt Gustava's thoughts were already so deep in the story that she understood at once: "That I have never told because it was revolting," she said, throwing her head back and filling her gaping mouth with a handful of bread crumbs and cheese scraps. "They pulled him down from the pine-top with a logging-hook."
We end up in different ways, thought Erling, as he hurried out through the pouring rain to the taxi. Some are choked to death in a pig-snare, others are pulled down from a treetop with a logging-hook.
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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