Into Felicia's world
Julie Vik, or Julie Venhaug as people in the neighborhood mostly called her, kept a great deal to herself, but she did not feel lonely. During the first years she had slavishly imitated Felicia, but how much had stayed with her of her older friend's point of view was of course impossible to tell. One could not get away from the fact that she had accepted most of Felicia's opinions as her own, but assuredly it would be a mistake for her to think that she knew everything that concerned Felicia Venhaug.
Felicia was in the habit of thinking aloud, and too clearly. When alone with Julie she always did so, and this might lead Julie to believe nothing was hidden; it seemed to the younger woman Felicia held back nothing.
What Julie heard she absorbed like a fairy tale, almost her own. Her father was dissected and described—a rare experience for daughters, who generally hear such only from a mother intent on blackening a hated mate. Here it was done in a way that made the daughter like her father so much better because of his faults. She never doubted that Felicia was deeply in love with Erling, but it was difficult for her to accept a relationship so contrary to established rules for love and marriage. She hoped one day to be married herself and could not reconcile herself to a marriage such as Felicia's.
It was a fairy tale she heard. She learned subconsciously how an oral tradition is created and almost word for word is handed down to a later generation. Felicia was not averse to repetition and thus Julie heard the same happening many times, and incidents also were repeated in other connections.[p. 212]
She still felt dazzled with the world she had been permitted to look into, as unlike the one she had known as a city in flames is unlike a burning rubbish-heap. It made her proud and inspired self-confidence—but since she was a wise girl it also evoked her critical appraisal—that this woman, so far removed from anything she had been able to imagine in her confused surroundings, could confide in her because she was fond of her and in love with her father. She could never rid herself of the hope that Felicia would turn out to be her mother, and that that other horrible mother was someone who had been paid to assume the shame because Felicia had only been seventeen or eighteen and had such a severe father. It was through Felicia's eyes she saw the world, and with a much calmer temperament. In her looks she was strikingly like her father and resembled him also in other ways. But in the important traits of her character it didn't seem as though she would ever take after him. At least Felicia didn't think so.
Julie might sit with her work and repeat to herself all Felicia had told her, in the same way as teen-agers have their favorite poet; or she might feel that she herself was a part of it and had experienced all:
"Mother died the day before I was ten, and after that it was always as if I had become a mother to Harald and Bjørn. It bothered me to hear it for I had always dreamed of being a boy. I would have preferred to be one of my brothers but I could never decide if it should be Harald or Bjørn. Harald was almost exactly two years younger than I, but Bjørn was only one year younger than his brother. Sometimes I felt it would be silly to be Bjørn for then I would be one year younger than Harald, but then again it might be nice—to be his little sister. At other times I thought it would be nice to be Harald and act the good big brother to Bjørn. In that way my love went in waves, and I couldn't rid myself of my daydreams until I met Erling. From then on it was only something half-forgotten about an old love.
"Harald and Bjørn became fast friends when seventeen or eighteen or thereabouts. Of course they had always been friends, but before that time they would get into the worst fights with each other. As young men they always stuck together, and when they first dated they found girls who were close friends, and paired off in greatest harmony. That foursome used to spend many evenings in our home. I remember how it annoyed me that I was treated as some sort of an aunt; a girl turns older than her years when she has young brothers; she should have a big brother to make her feel young. Perhaps girls subconsciously fall in love with their fathers to gain something called eternal youth; it's said to be quite natural, and that explanation might be as good as others that have [p. 213] been invented. Obviously it was quite ridiculous that I became jealous of those two girls. They didn't take anything from me and they were not the worst the boys could have found.
"There was no doubt but that Father wanted them as daughters-in-law and this added to my discomfort. Yet, I realized all was as it ought to be. They were daughters of people he knew, well-to-do like himself. The father of one was a doctor, the other belonged to that mysterious profession called businessman. But after one year the whole thing came to an end in a dramatic mess, and each one of the four soon found consolation with someone else. Father said nothing, he seldom said anything, but it was easy to see that he felt a little uncomfortable with two new girls flirting in the house. People said he had aged when Mother died but I have no memory of that. To me he was always the same, to the very day he died, late in the fall of 1940. He was a little stooped and had a face like a friendly wolf. As far back as I can remember I had loved him terribly and unhappily. I felt so sorry for him I would sit and cry by myself when I thought of him. I couldn't imagine my father ever had been happy. And it does sound a little strange that he started to age when only about thirty-four, but many people have told me so. According to my information, that is when a man should be in his prime; he has his desire and his humanity well balanced, and he has passed the age which Kinsey records as most ruttish, yet has a mature heart. But things are always out of line when a person isn't viewed as a whole. To me a man halfway between thirty and the dangerous forties is always in full bloom. Then he has the world by the tail as never before and never again, however much he may think he can improve with the aid of position, money, influence, and power. It is a dangerous age for him if he is weak in the head: his horoscope has been drawn, all experienced people can see what he is good for—or not. Women ponder him from a wider angle than before, as male, as an ornament in society, as a triumph over other women, as a prospect for the future. If he misjudges what is happening to him and forgets that this age is a period of trial, then he is in for a rough punishment. I think a thunderbolt killed Martin Leire when he had wasted his gifts. It may be unjust but it's tempting to look at it that way.
"After all these years, Father and Mother would by now only be sixty-four and sixty-three years old. The last picture I have of Mother was taken in 1926, the year before she died, and there she looks a woman much younger than I am today, a woman who never was anything but young. My wish that I could have known her grows stronger every year. I read once that even parallel lines must meet somewhere in infinite space. [p. 214] She stayed in people's thoughts and they talked about her, and eventually they talked to me, and her stature grew. Her pictures show a superior woman with great kindness—my eyes fill with tears each time I look at them, these feeble reminders of something that is so close to me night and day. She is not dead. It is incomprehensible that I don't remember her in any other way, don't retain the slightest memory of ever having seen her. And I was ten when she passed on.
"On the contrary I have a clear memory of Father, who was robbed of his courage to live when he lost her. He never said so in so many words, or perhaps he felt there was nothing to say. Nor was he a great talker. There was a mixture of melancholy and banter in his brown eyes, and occasionally but very rarely he expressed himself with dry humor, especially if he felt someone exaggerated. He was moderate in everything. Only once did I hear him repeat what might be called a joke, and that was on his deathbed when he knew the end was near. He desired to speak with his lawyer, who came at once in his car, so fast I realized he must have run away from whatever he was busy with. Then Father fought a desperate battle with fever and unclear thoughts; there was something he hadn't brought up to date in his will—it was a last and desperate effort for his three children, but he made no provisions that interfered with our freedom of action. When all was over Father adjusted himself for the last time in his bed and said to the lawyer: 'Now Lie, I expect you to plead for me when you follow.'
"I am sure Henrik Lie will do so, but he is still with us. I was told how devoted I had been to Mother and how they were apprehensive about me when I was told she was dead, and that makes it even more difficult to understand how she completely vanished from me within a year. I can feel her presence and something tries to come to life when I look at her pictures—then I sense the shadow of a great sorrow, not mine, another sorrow than my own. She comes so close she completely envelops me, and I might be seized with a terrible fear that she no longer is, that I can't recall her face, never remember her voice that was said to be so beautiful. In the pictures I can see her clear, big eyes and what might be called a sensuous mouth. She looks at me as if she wished simultaneously to reproach me and forgive me for having forgotten her. She was only thirty-three when she died; Father lived to be forty-seven. Mother died of pneumonia, which in those days still was quite dangerous, Father from some sickness in the blood which they hoped to cure to the last, but he suddenly grew very feeble and died in a couple of weeks. I had expected it, after the Germans came. He didn't have much resistance. I think hopelessness got him that day in April; he felt he didn't care any [p. 215] longer after that. He would stand stooped at the window and look at the German soldiers marching by. Then he would shake his head slowly as old people might do at a grave where a young person is being buried who had to leave first.
"When I was fourteen, Father considered getting married again, but no one mentioned it and for a long time there was nothing exactly to indicate it. But a woman of fourteen feels such things in the air. One evening Father brought the lady home. Harald and Bjørn greeted her courteously and withdrew to their wild-west stories; I noticed them throwing glances at her on the sly. I was supposed to act sociable, and I felt at an immense disadvantage. I would never be able to compete with this strong, beautiful woman. I was shaken as one might be after a bad accident, and fought my strong impulse to rush up and throw my arms around her neck and cry, but also to shout and to hurl things at her, a cup or a pot or anything. Point for point the same thing was repeated three years later when Cecilie Skog took Erling from me.
"I'll never forget Harald's crushed look when Father introduced her as Mrs. Haraldstad. Mrs. Sissel Haraldstad.
"I knew in that moment as sure as the sun shines, I would forever remember Mrs. Haraldstad's face, even if I never saw her again, but not my dead mother's face.
"That would forever be denied me, but I would remember the face of Sissel Haraldstad.
"And so it has remained. Two women have cut me out, Sissel Haraldstad and Cecilie Skog and to this day I am afraid of them; I shudder when I happen to recall them. They appear in my sleep and laugh at me.
"Many times the eyes of this lady happened to fall on us, the two silent boys and myself. One single time when she looked at me I realized she said a great many things to me with those eyes. Today I know it was mostly of me she was thinking—that she with her experience could read me like an open book and that her eyes said: Why not do it, Felicia? I cannot push myself onto you in your father's house.
"Father walked with her to the station, telling us he would come right back. This he did, too, but not until they had had time to talk it over. Only a few minutes after they left, Harald and Bjørn went to their rooms without saying anything. They never mentioned the evening later, and I believe I knew them well enough to say they didn't say anything to each other either.
"I pretended I was reading the newspaper when Father returned. He walked about the room aimlessly for a few moments, then he pulled out [p. 216] his keys and opened the liquor cabinet. 'I'll take a crutch,' he said. It was something he did seldom. Father was very moderate, like Jan. 'You want to get me a glass and the soda, Felicia?' he asked so kindly my eyes filled with tears. I realized I had cut out the stranger-woman.
"He mixed a grog and I noticed it was dark brown; its usual color was light brown and sparkling, and I wondered why the difference. He replaced the bottle and locked the cabinet, because our maid—she was nearly sixty and we had inherited her from an old widow who had died—could not control herself when the cabinet was left unlocked. When she first came to us, shortly after Mother's death, she would sometimes get drunk. Then she acted like an old gypsy reviving her stormy, youthful days. Otherwise she was quiet and capable. Father took it mildly the first time, not quite so mildly the second, and the following day he pointed out to her that his particular brand of cognac was rather expensive. He always attacked a problem sideways like a crab. Elvira broke down and asked permission to sit down, and during tears and sobs she admitted she could not leave it alone: 'But it isn't as bad with me as you think, Mr. Ormsund. It's only that I need the crutch of the cabinet being locked,' she sobbed.
"She was right, and from that day a drink in our house was always a crutch. But Elvira must often have tried the cabinet door, for twice she found it unlocked, and then the mess started all over again. Elvira danced for us and announced jubilantly that it was Mr. Ormsund's own fault. She was overjoyed because now she need feel no shame the following day. I always think of Elvira when Erling drinks more than is good for him, but he doesn't get happy like Elvira.
"Father sipped his dark grog and said nothing until the glass was nearly empty. Then he raised it with the last few drops, and I could see from his moist eyes it had taken effect: 'Skol, my Felicia!' he said and smiled. 'We'll always manage, we four.'
"I cried almost the whole night through, and afterwards I felt like a criminal. In a way I still do, but time lightens the imprint of one's own evil deeds also. Now that I am the same age as Father was then I realize more clearly than ever how older people might wither under the tyranny of children and youths. Has she thought of me and perhaps hated me? Does she hate the one she stepped aside for, but who never herself showed any such consideration? Does she know of me today, does she sit at a window when I am in Oslo and follow me with her eyes? Does she muse, there goes Felicia Ormsund Venhaug who was so mean she begrudged her father being a man—and how hasn't the covetous Felicia grabbed for herself?[p. 217]
"There is so much I have learned since I grew up, about Father and Mother. I've been obliged to think how very much Jan's and my marriage is a repetition of theirs. All of us children took after Mother we were told.
"Not that Father and Jan are alike. They are as unlike as two men of the same race could be, and Father would turn in his grave if he knew I had married a man who spoke a dialect. Yet he was broadminded and perhaps he would have been pleased to learn it was too late to throw me out.
"One wintry night I returned from Old Venhaug, the snow crunching underfoot; earlier there had been a new moon, it had set now, but it was half-light with snow and stars. I felt warm and joyous in the crisp air, and when I reached the cozy sitting room at New Venhaug I had no desire to go to bed although it was after two in the morning. I found some cigarettes and a glass of wine and sat down in front of the fire; I happened to sit facing the two large pictures of my brothers. First my thoughts lingered for some time on my arrival at Venhaug—November 3, 1945. I recalled Jan's expectant and perhaps a little nervous smile as he stood there waiting for me to say something—would I maybe not find it good enough? Now it is almost impossible for me to recall how I felt, standing there with our sleeping child in my arms, looking about the sitting room of Old Venhaug. But I had a feeling that many generations of dead ancestors were accepting me; I had a feeling of security and assurances with all these faces of the ancient family watching me, having gathered for just this purpose. 'You smile so nicely, Felicia—can't you put the brat down some place?' said Jan. That was the welcome that scamp of a father gave his first-born, and then she was laid in an old loveseat, and I was laid on an ancient sofa that never had been constructed for so reasonable a use; it was so comical and so beautiful that it has been worth remembering, even though we never tried to do it on that sofa again. It's the only time I've heard Jan swear. He doesn't usually swear and carry on like Erling, nor is it in his nature to use the bawdiest words in the language in the heat of passion. I must say Erling's erotic lyrics are not intended for children's books.
"I sipped my wine and looked from one of my brothers to the other where they hung and watched me from their portraits. Harald had picked up the nickname The Pious One, and as Bjørn was interested in metalwork he was called The Blacksmith. Harald had really chosen his own because I used that name for him; I don't think he was particularly pious but he wanted to specialize in religious history. 'I have for sons a religious historian and a blacksmith,' my father used to say with his tired [p. 218] smile, but I don't think this implied any disappointment that neither of his sons was to carry on his work. He would never have dreamed that I might do so, and the subject was not even broached; I was afraid I might see first his surprise and then his forgiving smile. I knew only too well I was just a daughter in the house—I studied, yes, but only as a pretense; I would one day marry someone, or become plain Aunt Felicia. He was that way in his thinking, and it was quite out of the question to oppose him—even when he had said nothing."
It was obvious this was something that had bothered Felicia.
"While I sat there looking at the portraits and sipping my wine a strange feeling took hold of me that Erling and Jan were standing behind my chair and also looking at the portraits. I didn't turn though, because I knew so well they weren't there.
"It struck me that I had never known any men who were younger than myself except Harald and Bjørn. Yes, it struck me, yet it was something I had always felt and known. I had never felt younger than my father, nor younger than the teachers in school or the older pupils. I knew people my own age, like Erling and Jan, but no younger acquaintances or friends.
"But didn't I, now? Didn't I have my own children, as well as Erling's young daughter? No, a calm voice replied within me, you know no younger persons except those two dead ones. All others are your contemporaries.
"Isn't there then anyone who is older than myself? No, I couldn't think of a single person older than myself either.
"I felt this so strongly and as something I had always known that I must try to analyze my fantasies a little closer. It was a sort of exciting search for something inside my head—a search for the key to my own life.
"I heard a floor board creak in the upstairs hall and then someone coming down the steps. It must be Gudny who wanted a bite to eat; it wasn't unusual for her to come down to the larder at night. But it was Jan, in his slippers, and pyjamas, his hair ruffled.
"'I was awake and felt you were sitting here,' he said, and pushed his fingers through his hair. He saw me look at the portraits and asked, 'Am I disturbing you?'
"I fetched some wine for him because he sleeps so well on a glass of wine; I had to tell him about my strange sensation concerning Erling and himself while sitting there looking at the pictures. He took a sip of wine and said, 'I had thought something of the sort.'
"I dared not look at him. I didn't know what he had thought, or what [p. 219] he was thinking now, but something was implied in those words. I knew also I had had the same experience with him many times before—not concerning the same thing as now, whatever it might be—but this: that Jan knew more about myself than I did. Strange though, it had never made me feel uncomfortable with him; on the contrary, it had inspired in me a feeling of security, of being at home with Jan. He has also been aware of things I thought were my deep secrets, and it sounds paradoxical but it has made me cry in joy. With Erling I have never encountered anything similar. When Erling thinks he has discovered something—mostly wrong—then he becomes insistent and annoying like a policeman who must force a confession from somebody. More than once I have wished to tell him to mind his own business. Leave me alone, I've thought—have you any right to plague me?
"Once there was something I wanted to say to Jan and I found him alone in the barn, grinding turnips for the cows, sweating and turning the crank; some of the help were sick with influenza. He wore dirty overalls and a handkerchief on his head with a knot in each corner.
"He sat down on a box and looked at me. He brushed away some dirt from his face and said quietly, 'Better not tell me, Felicia.'
"I can't imagine that he knew what I had in mind. He couldn't have known. Then I talked of other matters I hadn't intended to take up with him, and we walked over and looked at a calf that had been born during the night—I had been up to see about it myself. It was dry now and perky even though it didn't as yet quite know how to use four legs. We talked some more and he gave me a hug before I left, and it turned out that his judgment had been right: I shouldn't have told him. What surprises me is not so much that he is that way, rather that I, so self-willed, find myself liking it. I have seldom felt so happy as once when he and I went bathing in a pool at Lagen and he carried me like a child to the edge. It was so wonderful that only for a moment could I get up any anger when he unexpectedly threw me into the water which was very cold.
"I was staring into the embers of the fireplace and did not wish to ask. By and by I will understand what he means, I thought, I nearly always do. Yet, I was so anxious to ask the question that I brought up something quite different: 'What made you think I was sitting here?'
"He had kicked off his slippers and was studying his toes. He has quite ordinary toes.
"'You might at times say a little more than you do, Jan.'
"'Yes, but—but these matters are only inconsequentials,' he said in surprise. 'I couldn't sleep. Then I went into your room since I couldn't [p. 220] sleep alone, and then—well, you weren't there. I went back to bed, and then I heard you here, and so I came down here. Have I left out any of the details, Felicia?'
"'Don't make me start crying, you devil!'
"He rose and shuffled out of the room. I heard a vague jingle and he came back with a whisky-grog. It was dark brown. So unlike him. Absent-mindedly he drank from the glass a few times, without saying anything, but I could see the liquor had affected him—he is not accustomed to drinking. He leaned his head back and poured down the last of the drink—and started laughing at me. He plain and simple laughed at me. Then he said in his most ordinary voice: 'Now stop your vigil below those pictures for tonight, Felicia. It's almost half-past three and I see you're getting cold.'
"I followed him up the stairs like an ashamed schoolgirl, and I have never more closely relived my experience of twenty-three years ago with Erling, that evening when he and I walked up a staircase.
"It is the only time Jan has ever frightened me; he took me like a soldier in a sacked town who rushes in with his weapons, stomping through the house in his creaking boots until he finds the girl in the last room."
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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