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The Literature Collection

Sandemose, Aksel, 1899-1965 / The werewolf; Varulven (1966)

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Until we meet at Erlingvik

When Steingrim left after his visit with Erling he borrowed a handbag full of books he wanted to read, political literature and travel books. Half a year later he packed all the books into the bag again and made it ready to be sent back, or perhaps he had intended to bring it with him on his next visit. Anyway, this was one trifle unaccomplished when he no longer wished to live. One of Steingrim's relatives forwarded the bag to Erling and it stood unopened for more than a year. One evening at the end of August, after he had returned from Venhaug, Erling decided to open it.

While putting the books back in their places on the shelves he opened one because it had no title on the cover. It turned out to be a sort of account book which Steingrim had used for a diary. The cool, guarded script was Steingrim's and he had written his name in the upper right-   [p. 175]   hand corner of the first page, which otherwise was empty, except for the date: September 9, 1945. The book was dated until June of 1956.

He walked over to his writing desk, lit a cigarette, and looked for a long time at the book. Here, then, was all that was left of Steingrim Hagen. How or why the book had happened to be included in the bag, no one would ever know, and perhaps it had been a mistake. Or perhaps Steingrim had put it in with the intention of going to Lier.

The thought never occurred to Erling that he should give it up. On the contrary, perhaps Steingrim had meant for him to have the book and purposely placed it in the bag. Methodical Steingrim had tidied up thoroughly before he took the pills; he had emptied the desk drawers, burnt the contents, put his books neatly in order, and had mailed a letter to the police after the mailbox had been emptied for the last time (it was a Saturday evening, the letter would not be delivered until Monday, he did not wish to shock his maid when she came to clean on Tuesday). With such prudence Erling believed he could not have overlooked the diary. Besides the three lines to the police he had written on a sheet of paper "Keys to the Apartment," which were placed on his desk. These were the only written instructions he left behind, nothing else at all, either written or oral, nothing. He died as he had lived, undramatic and a little disgruntled. The landlord would want the keys—well he could have them. No need to frighten the maid, and was there anything else he had forgotten? He might have felt in his pockets to be sure he had matches. But concerning the catastrophe he was about to perpetrate, no further telltale marks, even though Steingrim Hagen must have pondered it as deeply as a human being can. When a person left this earth he might as well say the opposite, that the earth went under for him; Steingrim had envisioned this and made it happen.

There were less conscientious suicides than Steingrim Hagen. One of that type might one day explode a hydrogen bomb over London in order to feel, for a fraction of a second, the consolation of fellowship in disaster.

"I must not read the diary this evening, or during the night," Erling said to himself. "I'll look through it tomorrow morning—a sober morning with my fried eggs and coffee."

He stood staring at the book; it had life in it as it were, it seemed to breathe calmly and evenly. He shook his head slowly as he did when something engrossed him deeply. Will I find the key to Steingrim here? the Steingrim no one knew? He recalled what Felicia had said: "Actually I didn't know him, although we had lived as man and wife in a small apartment for almost a year. There was one facet of his nature he never   [p. 176]   expressed. If I woke up during the night and watched him sleeping at my side I realized I knew no more about that man than I had known the first time I met him in Oslo. And he would sleep like a dead person—his face was closed like a wall even more so when he slept; he was on his guard even then."

Erling recognized the picture, but he had seen that face in a different light also. To Erling it had not always been a wall without cracks, but he wouldn't hurt Felicia by saying so. Yes, Steingrim's face had been like a wall, but there was something Felicia had not seen and so much the worse for her—she would have been richer in a great memory. He had a feeling that with Steingrim she had experienced only defeats, she had never won over him, never had he let her through the wall, she who could raze all walls or walk right through them. Nothing could have brought her greater happiness than if she could have been the one to blow the trumpet at the walls of Jericho. She had not discovered that in one's relation with Steingrim, neither assaults nor the sound of trumpets had any effect; he only pushed forward his reserves to the wall. It was not in her nature to sneak into a Jericho by stealth. Yes, Erling knew—Steingrim had grown colder and colder until he seemed frozen to the bottom. Then he had left Felicia.

Erling had twice seen Steingrim smile, and he was inclined to believe he alone had seen this. Obviously Steingrim had learnt to display a grin, like a vacuum-cleaner salesman. He was sufficiently intelligent that he might also have learned to stand on his hands, and that time when he acquired his sales-grin (probably before a mirror) he must also have learned how to wiggle his ears. But no one would have thought of saying he had seen a smile on his face. Erling had seen him smile and he would never forget it. He had never imagined one could see such a smile on the face of a grown person. It was the smile a mother first of all sees in the face of her month-old baby, a light breaking through from unconsciousness, indicating that finally and indubitably a human being has been born! Erling had expected Steingrim to start out of the chair—the child's first attempt to jump down from its mother's knee, a sort of excursion into space, the tiny hands closed and waving. But Steingrim had remained sitting calmly in his chair looking at Erling until the inner light was turned down and extinguished. The second time he had seen Steingrim smile had been a day in July, 1945, when they were sitting in a ditch somewhere along the road at Asker, their borrowed bicycles beside them, sharing a bottle of whisky. Steingrim had obtained it from an American officer he had snared and flattered for over an hour. Neither Erling nor Steingrim was particularly interested in cycling but they had   [p. 177]   got it into their heads to see a Norwegian summer from bicycles with no Germans about any more. They stayed longer than they had intended there in the ditch for when they were ready to leave it appeared that their bicycles were quite drunk.

This recollection gave Erling an idea. He picked up a screwdriver with a bent point, walked over to the corner, and stooped down; he stuck the screwdriver into a hole and opened his secret cupboard. Whenever he did so he thought of Felicia. She had been very clever in discovering it that time. And she kept after him about settling down at Venhaug! Next time she broached the subject he would remind her of a certain snooping. He closed the safe and returned to the table with a bottle of whisky. He thought a moment—straight? or with coffee? He went to the kitchen and turned on burner number three and put on water. He never drank whisky with soda or some other mix, and since he didn't like it he could not understand that others did. Whisky with good coffee—everyone must know this was best! When Felicia came into his room at Old Venhaug and there was a bottle on the table she didn't say anything, but her look told him enough. I would have liked to see her face when she broke into my wine-cellar, he thought. She must have gone to a lot of trouble and she was sure to know that I would see she had been there. Well, let him know, she must have said. When nothing is stolen he must know it's me. Then the tears had come to her eyes, and in a fit of anger she would have given the wall a kick.

The wine-god had no children. Carefully interpreted and partly rewritten from the language in use when everything had to have a name other than the real one, this line must have meant that neither Bacchus nor anyone else in the Dionysian company was much of a lover—but then, tomorrow was also a day, and not all days were dedicated to the wine-god or to whisky. Except for a few times in his early youth of blessed memory, when he did not yet know that one could not mix work and drink, he had unsuccessfully tried it. Liquor was a cuckoo-fledgling that pushed everything else out of the nest. Now that he was near sixty it was a false notion in Felicia to put all the blame on the Wine-god. He would make a nice drawing and hang it on the wall with the sentence: I am not forty years old. More honestly not even Viktor Rydberg himself could have expressed it.

It was eight in the morning when he awakened in his easy chair (it is almost like a bed, he comforted himself). His eyes fell on a bottle on the table, surrounded by rings from the glass and the coffee cup. About an inch of whisky was left in the bottom. Cigarette stubs and ashes were scattered all over. He had on only the right shoe, the other one was lost.   [p. 178]   A glass plate was tramped to pieces on the floor in a mess of tomatoes and mayonnaise. Good to be at home, in one's own chair, one's own house. He pulled off his clothes, went out to the currant bushes and poured water over himself. The lost shoe hit him in the head; it had been in the bottom of the bucket. He dried himself, put on pyjamas, and went to bed. Peace and rest flowed out to the extremities of his body, the tension in all his nerves eased, and he could feel Felicia's friendly hands, as he went to sleep. He awakened a few hours later, at peace with the world, cleaned up the room, and drank some coffee. At first he tasted it suspiciously, even though he had brewed it himself.

Erling started to leaf through the diary. He soon discovered it was a potpourri of the most widely separated subjects, from political observations to purely private matters, besides addresses, telephone numbers, quotations, references to newspapers, books, and magazines. It even included a few halting attempts at poetry, of little credit to the author; this he must have realized, for below one of he poems Erling read: It is remarkable that some can write verses which don't make people laugh when they want them to cry.

Steingrim in his poetry-attempt had apparently only wanted to try how it felt in his hand and his head when writing something that didn't require a full line; he had found no reason to continue such waste. Perhaps he had also given up because he appreciated good poetry. Quite apart from Steingrim's lines and some rather curious attempts by others, Erling had never understood why people without the talent spent their time making verses; he found it inconceivable they might have any joy in doing it.

Erling came across his own name and read: "November 17, 1947. Yesterday Erling and I met at somebody's out in Asker. Late at night we walked out on the balcony for some air. It blew hard and was dark. We stood against the wall and did not feel the wind, only heard it roar about us, like on the leeside aboard ship. We had been drinking, and perhaps it was the nasty weather, like in a detective story. Anyway, I asked Erling what he finally did with the one he had liquidated before he came to Sweden, and who never was found. Erling cowered over his cigarette and match; I thought it was stupid to try to light a cigarette in such weather, and I think he did it to gain time and not have to answer me roughly. I would never have asked if I hadn't had too much to drink—and my asking it in that place, where I had to roar above the wind and a lot of people inside who might hear. It was stupid. Then I grew mad at him when I saw his face in the light of the match before it blew out—he is forty-eight, he ought to act his age. He straightened up, his cigarette   [p. 179]   aglow; it annoyed me that he had been able to light it. I asked again, I was irritated because he didn't seem to want to reply and perhaps because I had asked in the first place.

"He leaned toward me and said between gusts of wind: 'He is in a place no one knows but me; it's called Erlingvik and no one will ever find him.'

"I was drunk-mad at him by then but said nothing more. When I woke up here at home this afternoon I remembered what he had said and felt it was uncanny. It had made me think of the entrance-road to my home, which was lined with tall trees.

"Perhaps Erling only meant to say 'Shut up!' which he had every right to say, but the answer was strange, the whole thing was strange. It was very strange that I was standing there feeling he was talking about the entrance-road at my home where I never dared walk, always had to run; a place that has some meaning and which one is afraid of; something that has become a terrible part of oneself. Well, both of us were drunk."

There was nothing more about the incident. Erling could not recall the conversation on the balcony during the meeting at Asker but it must have taken place. He himself must have used the word Erlingvik.

It reminded me of the entrance-road to my home—

One morning long ago, many years before the war, he and Steingrim had been sitting talking, he couldn't now remember about what. They had got onto happenings of childhood that had left unusually deep impressions. Someone had written an article about modern authors exaggerating the importance of childhood impressions and enlarging them beyond actual facts, and that this probably was due to the influence of "that doctor in Vienna whose race-need for originality at any price had not hesitated at the absurd." (We have got no further today, thought Erling—now, in 1957, all that is written in America or the Soviet Union one need not consider seriously: it is ridiculed in one half of the world or the other.) Erling had ignored the reference to the Jew Freud; even before his time literature had been filled with child-descriptions which indicated that in childhood, obviously, character and viewpoints were formed. It was only a few hundred years later, during Freud's systematical investigations, that one realized what an insult it had been. People who claimed that "the grown person's grave conflicts obviously are of greater importance than a few scattered impressions of childhood," had suppressed everything, then, except some "scattered impressions"—there must be oceans they did not wish to remember; besides, they were talking pure nonsense when they refused to understand that the same experience is not of the same importance to the strong as it is to the weak   [p. 180]   person. There was the old story of the cure for the blacksmith that killed the tailor. Erling remembered a pair of high leather boots someone had given him as a child; they had not kept the water out so his father had had them repaired—which, he emphasized, cost plenty. After the repair they were too tight, but Erling had not wished to mention it lest he hurt his father. Then the old man had discovered it anyway and was unhappy because Erling had suffered from wearing too tight shoes. When the father reacted this way it made Erling even more unhappy, for his father must have suffered when he no longer remarked about all the money he had spent for repairs. This experience was still with Erling: a feeling of shame at having made his father, he thought, throw away money for repairs, and the sorrow over the crushed dream of fine boots. Of course it was true, as the psychologists maintained in different words, that if an unhappy experience was pushed into the corner and left there it did not evaporate because it was kept in the corner; on the contrary, it grew the whole time with its owner and retained the same relationship to him. But—a deep memory of sorrow did the same thing. The sorrow also kept its proportion. Besides other unhappy memories, death had struck close to him when he was twenty-one. He had been quite beside himself with grief but long ago it had turned into something that almost didn't seem to have happened, while the memory of a younger brother who died when Erling himself was a child, remained as a tragedy, albeit eased and distant; but obviously he carried it with him and was as conscious of it as he was of the tattoos he had awakened with one morning in Cartagena some forty years ago.

Steingrim had been listening, his eyes now alive but his face otherwise as closed and vacant as ever. Now he spoke up: "I have a memory I never can get rid of. I never talk about it. There is always something that prevents me from doing so. Perhaps it is too sensitive a memory. It has to do with a tree-shaded road at home."

With this Steingrim shut his mouth and said nothing more. Erling knew it would have been futile to ask Steingrim further when he assumed that attitude, but in this case there was nothing to ask; Erling had many times heard the story of the "avenue of trees" and what had happened there—when Steingrim had been drinking so heavily that he couldn't remember the following day what he had said. Now he only remarked, "You specialize in awakening curiosity, and then, unlike others, you shut up like a clam."

The last time Steingrim had told the story had been at Lier about a year and a half ago. Erling had not been able to say that he had heard the story before; indeed, Steingrim seldom repeated himself, and there   [p. 181]   was always a certain caution between them, perhaps a fear of crushing something. The only time they had approached anything resembling a misunderstanding must have been the incident at Asker, which Erling had just read about—and he couldn't even remember it, had never known about it until today.

Steingrim's story always varied a little, but not sufficiently to indicate he contradicted himself; new details might be added, old ones forgotten. That he spoke the truth no one could doubt, though perhaps not a plumb-line truth, rather an intensive fantasy-creation of childhood which covered all he had experienced in life and which had become a reality in a higher sense.

As was his habit, Erling had written it down.

"Steingrim's avenue of trees. A road with old linden trees on either side led from the main highway up to the farm. Between the trees on either side ran a hedge of hawthorn. Father had kept the hedges down, never allowing them to reach higher than a man's height, perhaps he wanted to be able to see over them. Over the years the hedges had grown to be about a yard thick and were cut square on top. I imagined them as two narrow roads I might walk on. The thorns were as big as darning needles, points about an inch long. I can see those hedges before me as if I were looking at them this minute, even though they were cut down soon after my parents discovered what I feared there. I really don't know if this was the reason for cutting them down. We burned them in the biggest Midsummer-fire we had ever had. A man came and dug up the roots, many wagon-loads of them, he wanted to plant a hedge at his house, and so it didn't cost Father anything to get rid of them. No one else in our neighborhood had hawthorn hedges.

"In early summer when it was still twilight all night the hedges swarmed with moths. I believe this was mostly in humid weather; at dusk you could see a cloud rise over the hedges and across the road, visible a great distance; then there was a nice, pungent odor from the hawthorn; I remember I had a notion I could eat that smell and satisfy my hunger. Father said those insects were a terrible pest but I thought they were beautiful. They laid their eggs in the bushes and the larvae were held together in some gossamer that ruined the hedge. I don't think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than those yellow moths hovering around the hawthorn during warm, moist summer evenings, but I always feel a little peculiar in talking about it—although it seems quite natural when others do. Write poems about it, for example, or just describe it.

"Our road was about a hundred paces long and rather wide. It was a   [p. 182]   wonderful feeling to walk along it from early spring until fall; always something was happening in the hedges, especially when the moths were there, but also a great many songbirds built their nests there, and I was aware of the family life among them. They became quite accustomed to me every summer. I have never been much for animals the way many people are but they soon discovered I wasn't unfriendly. I liked for them to think I wouldn't hurt them. In winter the road was depressing; the hedges looked bare and dead, there was slush in the ruts, horse-droppings and other dirt, until the snow covered it. One winter there was so much snow that the hedges disappeared entirely and only the tops of the linden trees waved above the drifts as I watched from the window.

"I have figured out it must have been shortly after I became eight years old that I stopped following the road and instead ran across the fields. Quite near the house on the right-hand side it seemed a man would push through the hedge and try to grab me. This only happened when I was on my way home. He was a big fat man and I never really saw his face, but one time I had seen his eyes and didn't want that experience again. His eyes were outside the face and after me. When I entered the road at the bottom of the hill he would crane his neck out of the hedge and look for me. I never knew how he managed with all those thorns. I didn't think anyone else had seen him; it's difficult to say why I thought so; perhaps they weren't meant to see him. I didn't think of him as a ghost. Actually, I don't know what I took him to be. I never saw him in any other place. It was only late in the day he was there, about dusk, or a little before. I didn't know if he was there at night, for then I never went there, but I was afraid he might break into our house. Even now I have an eery feeling when I remember how afraid of the dark I was at that time. Now I'm not. I presume I used up my whole supply of darkness-fear when I was eight.

"But then I would start to run across the fields when I was on my way home to avoid him. It wasn't easy to run through a rutabaga-field, or when the rye stood tall. Soon my parents discovered what I was up to and scolded me, but they couldn't make me walk the road when the man was there, soon not at any time. Mother saw how disturbed I was and kept talking, just talking to me, and finally I told Mother because she kept insisting. They tried to talk sense to me now that it finally was out, but I refused ever to walk on that road; I took another road that led to the opposite side of the house. I never saw the man there but I was as frightened as ever. You should have seen him when I ran across the field before anyone knew about him but me! He poked his head out of the hedge, even over it, he must have been standing right in the road! The   [p. 183]   day after I had confided in my mother, Father took me by the hand and walked with me to the place where I had seen him. I explained to my father how he had looked across the very top of the hedge to espy me. I remember how I held on to Father's fingers while we stood there. My father looked about in the hedge but didn't say much; in fact, I don't remember he said anything. But he looked very seriously at me. My father was a serious person."

A big fat man in a thick hawthorn hedge, thought Erling, who wanted to grab Steingrim when he was eight years old. One who poked his head across the hedge and looked for him when he ran over the field. Good Lord, haven't we all experienced the same sort of thing, but perhaps not just like Steingrim. Someone appearing through a wall, leaving no hole behind him, to grab you too. Or one evening on the forest path you turned quickly about and something got away, but not fully.

What was it Steingrim had written in the diary?—"I thought it was something eery he had said. It made me think of the road up to my childhood home." If we are to meet, Steingrim, you and I, let's swim side by side into the bay at Erlingvik. Don't ever let's meet on Steingrim's road.

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