Felicia with the birds
Felicia looked up from a bowl of black currant berries and said, "Jan dear—I've asked Erling to come and live at Old Venhaug."
The children were playing outside while the rain let up for a spell; a whole swarm had gathered from neighboring farms. Intermittently they would rush by the windows like a flock of frightened sheep, their shoes clattering on the flagstones, yelling at the top of their voices. How are they able to, thought Erling, and looked at Felicia. What was she up to now?
Julie brushed a few berry-stalks from her slim fingers as she looked from Felicia to Erling and then to Jan, who sat lost in the Sunday morning radio concert. Jan came to slowly, as if arriving from some other place. He walked over to a window and looked out toward Old Venhaug. If he had heard what Felicia said he might already have forgotten it—one couldn't be sure. Now he was looking at something outside, they could see from the motions of his head he was trying to get a better view. "Well," he said, with a last look at the interesting happenings outdoors, "if Erling wants to, all right. It stands there anyway—why not? Or perhaps—why? It wasn't Erling who suggested it."
He looked thoughtfully straight ahead. "There is one drawback. If Erling should move here and didn't feel at home—? Then it would have been an unsuccessful experiment for him."
Jan left the rest hanging in the air, for anyone who wished to complete the thought, and started walking across the floor.
Felicia picked up another cluster of berries and Julie did the same. No one spoke. Jan was as far away as before. Children shouted in the yard. Erling did not wish to move to Venhaug. That is, naturally he might hanker to—at least sporadically—but that seemed to belong to another dimension. He ought not to. So it was. It would be wrong to say that Jan might adjust himself to anything; in his case it wasn't a question of adjusting himself, rather an almost total neutrality. The problem was with Erling himself. He wanted long days and nights alone—and he was not sure Felicia would accept his aloneness. She said he would never be disturbed, but this he didn't believe, and he would only be sitting waiting for her interruptions. He must know that no one was coming. [p. 108] He wanted to put a bottle on the table when it suited him (even as an occasional guest he must more or less hide his supply at Old Venhaug). Felicia had the same attitude toward liquor as most educated people insist they have, which in reality means no attitude at all; she thought he should drink like "other people," meaning herself. Like all "decent people" she didn't realize what she was doing when she put a bottle on the table and then removed it. Anyone who doesn't know the God of Alcohol is bound to behave stupidly with bottles. Another thing—he wanted to eat only when hungry and not when others said it was time for eating. The few times he had lived what is called a regular life he had all day long felt himself so stuffed and nauseated that his brain worked slower and slower, like a clock running down audibly. Felicia would never cease popping food into him. If he failed to show up some day she would feel forced to look in—he might be sick. Well, even if he were dead, what could she do about it? Within a week she would suggest an extension telephone to Old Venhaug.
Felicia knew what he was like. Take care of him, she had said. Men must be taken care of, and they liked it, otherwise they would have no joy from their escapades, those silly fools. Be taken care of. One might get wet feet. Once he had taken a Norwegian lady about in London; sitting on top of an omnibus, during the rush hour, she had remarked, thoughtfully, "How difficult it would be to keep an eye on one's husband here!"
"You are an ungrateful character," said Felicia, inspecting her fingers, sticky with currants. "I offer you a house with eight rooms, big kitchen, lots of closet space and everything, and furniture too, you can have a comfortable bed, and a nice view of New Venhaug. And you start to sulk. Can't you understand I've tried for years to give you something? Now we have moved out of Old Venhaug and there it is!"
"You have forgotten to offer it without strings, Felicia."
This was only gently malicious in intent, but nevertheless her suggestion did have the drawback that he never could invite a guest, without bringing him over to the manor, eating with them there, sharing every acquaintance with them, which would force him to leave home more often than before. There was no use mentioning it. He could never lead a private life at Venhaug. There Felicia and Julie sat with their ideas. He knew Julie agreed with Felicia. She always did. He had once called her down because she took sides automatically.
Nothing was said for a long time. Felicia was thinking about a visit to her greenhouse a few days ago; she had gone in, locked the door and walked over to the opposite end and peeked out through the ventilator. It [p. 109] was sufficiently open for her to see through four of the horizontal slats, giving her a view of the path that led to the clump of silver-tipped spruce where quantities of old junk had been piled up to be out of sight.
Felicia's greenhouse ran from north to south. The double glass roof slanted from the high east wall steeply to the low west wall. In the east wall a wide, yard-high window had been built of the same construction as the roof; the lower edge of the window was about six feet above ground. The house had a high ceiling because Felicia had insisted on this; she wanted birds in there also. And the one who pays the piper can have what he wants. The panes in the steep roof were of greenish glass, and double so one couldn't see through them even when the lights were on. In summer all windows were given a coat of whitewash to temper the sun's rays. Inside there was a path down the center between the two cement slabs that ran the length of the house. The heating plant was just inside the door, on the north end, opposite the main building some two hundred paces away.
Felicia had begun to dream of a greenhouse when she was fourteen or fifteen. In their garden at Slemdal they had an aloe that was too large to bring inside in winter; then it was moved to a gardener's greenhouse. One day her father had asked her to look in at the gardener's on her way home from school and arrange to have the aloe moved back for the summer. She encountered a boy in the garden who pointed to a greenhouse where the owner was busy with something. She had been greatly taken by the artificial summer in there and had made a long visit with the old white-haired man who was pruning plants. There was a beehive in there, and the bees flew about from flower to flower. He told her that these were especially friendly bees, and at first she had thought he was making fun of her, but he went on explaining that there was a great difference in the temperament of the bees from hive to hive. "All come from a single queen," he said, "and if her disposition is unfriendly, then this trait is inherited by all her descendants, but if she is friendly then her children are friendly too. That is my explanation, but animals are like people—you can't be too sure about anything." He walked over to the hive and placed his hand cautiously on the entrance board. Soon the fuzzy little insects were all over his hand, their wings buzzing, but they seemed as contented as pups. When he slowly lifted his hand they flew off and attended to their chores. Felicia asked if they recognized him. He looked at her with his kind, old-man's eyes and said he didn't know; there were so many theories. "Do you know what a theory is?"
Yes, Felicia knew what a theory was.
Well, then, there were many theories. He himself was of the opinion [p. 110] that there were people whom animals liked, be they bees or birds or horses, and other people whom animals did not like. "Look at the little birds there," he said, and nodded to a large cage. "They too like me, but unfortunately they have to be in a cage now, otherwise they would eat the bees." He put his hand into the cage, and the birds fought with each other to perch on it. "You understand, they are at liberty to fly anywhere they want when I move out the bees." Why were the bees there? He explained to her about pollination, and here in the little greenhouse's concentrated sample of nature she understood at once all that had been completely incomprehensible when her teacher had made her poetical allusions. But then, the gardener was telling her facts, calmly and directly, as if speaking to an equal who just didn't know the facts. Felicia felt she was blushing when so much more than the gardener had said dawned on her. She had not been in ignorance as to what took place with people, but it had been a painful knowledge until this very moment when nature in its whole was taken in. She said, eagerly, "The kind bees—they are helping the flowers because they can't themselves?" "Well, one might put it that way," he said, and smiled to himself, "well, yes, that is correct. But some flowers don't need any insects to help them, there the female flowers are fertilized with the aid of the wind which carries the pollen along with it." She asked, "But if it happens to land on another kind of flower?" "Then there is no result, unless they are very closely related," he informed her. "I've heard that tigers and lions might get offspring together, but if someone tries to tell you that this happens when the animals are quite unlike then you must never believe it. Only silly people believe such."
Felicia had been so taken by the old man that for a time she thought of becoming a gardener. At the same time, but without having formulated it in so many words, she had learned what it meant to adjust oneself to life's demands in one's own little circle and be happy there. And he had had this effect on her by his mere being, sitting there on his stool. At last she must leave, she shouldn't stay too long. In the door she turned and said good-by once more. He was still sitting there, looking after her with a sad smile she always would remember. She forced herself to hurry away, for she had wanted to run back and hug him, and one didn't do such things. Many years later she could at will recall the smell of growing earth and feel the moist warmth with the old man looking after his plants among birds and bees. And, strange to say, some ten years after this encounter she had thought of him one evening, as she passed a group of Germans marching across Valkyrie Place, and she had [p. 111] become so terribly depressed that she had to cry because they were allowed here in the old gardener's homeland.
In April 1947, she had got her first pair of finches. It had been quite simple; she had seen them fly in and out through the ceiling shutter. This was propped open with a small stick with a string. She sat down back at the fireplace and pulled the string when both were inside. Then she covered the opening with wire so the shutter could be opened for airing. When the babies were hatched she experimented by removing the wire, and it worked out well; the finches flew out and in and supported their babies themselves. When the fledgelings left the nest she replaced the wire. Now she had seven finches that wintered with her. When new broods were to be fed she removed the wire again. It became her custom, every August, to shut up as many birds as she wanted for the winter. Later some confusion had arisen over the seasons: some started to build nests already at New Year, and she had to supply baby-food during the winter. Others, which she had shut out, returned from abroad and came back to the greenhouse. A few years she had been forced to wire the opening until sufficiently many gave up and built nests in other places outside. Birds were always fluttering about her when she came to the greenhouse and they alighted on her head and shoulders. She had built a bird-bath from an old copper pan and there they splashed about. She withdrew entirely within herself when she watched the bathing birds and had a flock of them on her shoulders and knees.
Tor Anderssen had undoubtedly been spying on her long before she discovered it (when would the others discover it?). He had happened to overhear her when she was telling Julie that she usually spent her time in the greenhouse with her clothes off. It was shortly after Julie had come to Venhaug. Felicia was embarrassed when she realized the gardener must have heard most of what she had said—he was on his knees with his tools in the bushes close by. But it didn't bother her for long; already that same evening she felt quite unconcerned about whether he had heard her or not. But it must have been at that time that she gave him the idea. She could recall his surprised look then, of one who had heard something unbelievable. Probably the thought had not come to him that a woman might be undressed even in the bathroom. The Kinsey reports were the most boring books she had ever read; they gave her the impression of a tedious and pallid foolishness which most people practiced and which she couldn't see the necessity of forbidding or protecting anyone against. If it was like that she would refrain voluntarily. But it had made an impression on her that many men were [p. 112] of the opinion that nudity was perverse and actually unimaginable when making love—and made the act difficult if not impossible. They seemed to believe the very thought of it was something the police should handle.
There was hardly any doubt that Tor Anderssen had felt he was dreaming. There, in full daylight, Felicia had said that she often took off her clothes in the greenhouse, and enjoyed walking about naked while she tended her flowers and talked to her birds. Or reclined on a straw mat and read a book. It was a pleasing sensation to be in air potent with growth and warmth, to inhale the smell of earth and plants with finches chirruping around her. She had said that just so did she imagine Paradise, albeit on a larger scale—and by the way, she was curious to know where Paradise was located; according to Holy Writ it was somewhere on earth with guards posted outside. But the guards one might get rid of with modern weapons, at least scare them off. Surely, Paradise must still be where the Bible had said, for its destruction would have been a happening that undoubtedly would have caused enough of a sensation to be known.
Felicia had spoken of Paradise and nudity in such a way that less than ten years later she might have been prosecuted for it. Possibly extenuating circumstances might have been found in the fact that her unsuitable remarks had been educational in intention, even if misguided, and had under no circumstances been intended for publication. She had gone beyond hints when she read one of Erling's poems, a ribald piece he had composed at request for a wedding and for which he had been promised ten kroner. It was called "To Kristine's and Nils's Wedding in Mo in Rana," and the contents, which fitted the occasion like a hand in a glove, might be understood through the lines: "Of future bliss one well may hint, but not be more precise in print." Only one handwritten copy was in existence, beside the one that had been mailed to Mo in Rana. It had come about because someone in Rana had a son called Nils who was about to be married to a girl called Kristine, "and you know, Julie, they wrote your father and put ten kroner in the letter and said they wanted a wedding poem." If his fee was less, he might return the difference in stamps. And Erling had not been able to resist, he had sent the poem, and the ten kroner also, to Mo in Rana.
Felicia had indeed meant to shock Julie a little, certainly not the gardener. It had bothered her that Julie in those days had exceedingly narrow views of almost everything, having been terrorized almost to idiocy. Felicia had drawn a deep sigh the day Julie at last was able to laugh. From then on Felicia shortened the rations of depravity and injected it only in quantities she considered absolutely necessary to bring [p. 113] the cure to a conclusion. It was an unintended side effect that Tor Anderssen had stationed himself at the ventilator.
The greenhouse had become her own world, and she could picture herself in it even after she had grown very old and everything at Venhaug had become different from what it was now. She knew Jan and Erling often thought of death. She herself never did. Old age she might sometimes look forward to with something resembling longing; she had once got it into her head that perhaps one could endure oneself better when advanced in age and wisdom.
She wanted to put her stamp on Venhaug, which she loved. She wanted to remain here after succeeding generations had taken over and she could sit with her birds and look down into the well of memories. She dreamed ahead to a grandson who resembled her and who was master of Venhaug; she dreamed of great-grandchildren who would call her Old Felicia with the Birds. She would sit alone and recall the men she had loved, and she would remember her father, and her brothers who had died so young. She would sit alone among youths in days to come, a remnant of all the past that had become a dream. She would live out each of man's ages in the same way she had lived out the years gone by of her mature age. At Venhaug she would remain. Here she would wish to be remembered as long as Venhaug stood. After that she didn't care. Eventually people at Venhaug would say: That happened in Felicia's time. That took place while Old Felicia with the Birds still sat at Venhaug.
Tor Anderssen had been looking stealthily about him; now at last he dared emerge from the little clump of trees; he approached, staring intently at the ventilator.
Felicia had watched him, smiling. Today you have to find another game, you shaggy wolf, you have to wait until tomorrow, or some day when it suits Felicia.
She did not touch the ventilator, she simply turned her back on it and walked away. She was in no hurry, she wanted him to see her, and let him think what he wanted, for she was leaving.
She banged the door shut behind her, locked it, and walked up toward the manor house.
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