The dove hunt
It was a morning in the middle of October and the day promised to be raw, possibly rainy. Erling came into the kitchen, gloomy and morning-sulky. He screwed up his eyes against the bright illumination and wondered what need there was for so many lights being turned on. It was only half past five, he had stumbled across the yard in darkness and sworn because no one had thought of turning on the outside lights. Did they take him for a cat? Erling was not in the habit of showing himself to anyone when just out of bed. He couldn't stand people then, least of all himself. Jan, the gardener, and some youths had already assembled in the kitchen, all disgustingly awake and talkative. Well, the gardener kept his mouth shut, his jaws worked like a feed-cutter, he ground bread with his head, a most repulsive sight; why didn't he turn his head since he couldn't eat decently? Erling pulled up a kitchen chair and stared in annoyance at the bench where Jan sat and poured a cup of coffee for him. He drank the coffee and waited apprehensively for someone to speak to him, but apparently they had been warned and talked as if he weren't there. He slowly overcame his first morning-orneriness while he drank the coffee. It could have been both stronger and warmer. No one except himself could brew coffee nowadays. He espied the milk pitcher, poured the large earthen stein full, and raised it to his lips with hands still trembling with anger. He ignored Jan's faint smile to the others as long as he was left in peace. He emptied the coffee cup and looked around sullenly for the pot. Where in hell had those idiots put it? He wouldn't ask for the coffee pot but picked up a slice of sausage and pushed it into his mouth. His heart began to calm down. He chewed, raised his eyelids, and looked around murderously for the pot. It stood at his elbow. And when he finally got his bearings he discovered a large plate of fried, steaming eggs. With the fork he shoveled a couple over onto his plate, tore them to pieces, and ate them. Still another degree calmer he refilled the coffee cup and emptied it with a few swallows. He poured himself some more coffee and at last felt peace rise in him slowly, not unlike the feeling of some warming matter spreading to all his organs and turning him into the everyday man Erling Vik. Rain started to stream down against the window beside him; it too was—friendly and calming. His breathing became deep and even; he felt it no longer as some sort of nuisance in the upper part of his body, rather as a sensuous suction down to his legs, to his fingers, from the stomach. He reconquered [p. 233] his body as he had been forced to do every morning since childhood, forced to do as far back as he could remember. Only as a grown man had he realized that many others had a similar problem, and that he and his like were a flock punished with moral-preachings because of an inborn peculiarity, a peculiarity they themselves suffered from as if it were the mange or a clubfoot. Before he realized this fact he had struck out in fury at any living or dead object that crossed his path. It had helped him greatly when he realized that this morning surliness of his was a sound, natural reaction to the demand of starting all over again, and that it was the early birds who were crazy enough to greet a new day with welcome:
The blessed day which we now see
In goodness dawn to us,
It shines from Heaven more and more
With comfort and joy for all.
So do we know, we children of light
That night has passed away!
Did you ever hear the like! Thus they chirruped, those morning birds. Nothing in the world could make a sane person more furious than someone barging in bellowing: "Get up, Hans! Get up, little Hans! The lark is already singing!"
Or get up and beat the drum.
He remained sitting yet a few minutes, staring into his coffee cup, before he started to poke about in his pockets for tobacco, his head still bent down. Only when the cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth did he rise like the others and pick up his outdoor clothing that he had dropped in the corner. His leather jacket increased his feeling of calm and warmth. Now let them beat drums to their heart's content, although he rather wished they wouldn't. He pushed the cartridges into proper pockets where they wouldn't get wet, and added a word to the conversation now and then as the men checked their guns. Jan was very cautious and wanted others to be careful. Never aim a gun at anybody, whether it is loaded or not. This was his morning-song—to people who had been big-game hunters before he was born. Today they would shoot doves. Five youths were in the kitchen, in great anticipation of the hunt, although not one of them would ever dream of eating a forest dove. Eight men to hunt doves, ready before dawn. Felicia was responsible for this. People of mature age like himself should go on a dove hunt a few hours before dusk. There was more atmosphere to it then, and one could get closer to [p. 234] the birds as dusk fell, and especially as they were feeding just before roosting. But perhaps doves were like certain people, more alive in the morning. With that statement Felicia had interrupted: if several people hunted together, the morning was the right time. It would grow lighter so one could see better and better; just the opposite was true in the evening, and that was when people shot each other. Even though no one had paid much attention to her opinions about anything concerning hunting Felicia had with more persistence than ever driven through her thoughts. Well, had they gone last evening at least it wouldn't have been raining.
All this Erling was commenting on cheerfully as they were getting ready, stomping about in rubber boots, feeling pockets to make sure of matches, pipe, tobacco, cursing the rain—well, perhaps once out in it . . . This gave Jan an opportunity to say one shouldn't curse any weather one could be out in; Jan was always chivalrous to the weather. He had the same attitude toward the different times of day, and now that Erling had his circulation going, Jan defended even the morning hour. Erling agreed that the morning hour could be very pleasant, provided one hadn't been in bed during the night. They got into that especially pleasant mood that blossoms among a group of rested men who—sated and satisfied, pipe in mouth, gun on arm—are out on the same errand which has nothing to do with girls. In their hearts each one was equally embarrassed that this great gathering concerned only a few doves. It should at least have concerned the siege of some neighbor farm.
Everything people undertake, even the smallest thing, has a background of causes that date back to time immemorial; but to be precise, the latest and most apparent causes for the dove hunt at Venhaug in October, 1957, must be traced to the outbreak of war in April, 1940, and the death of King Haakon seventeen years later.
Jan Venhaug, a graduate in animal husbandry, before the war had made journeys to foreign countries. There he had revised his ideas about food. This could be a long chapter, but let's stick to the doves. He had reached no farther than Copenhagen before he found dove on the menu. He was to have the same experience in many other places before he discovered that Norway was the only country in Europe where the delicious dove was in the same class with the magpie and the buzzard when it came to game food. He obtained the recipe for the first dove he ever tasted: "For 6 people take 3 doves; pluck and draw. Save brains and giblets. Place in each dove 8-10 seeds from fresh grapes; salt birds, wrap in bacon, and brown on spit. Use first very strong heat, and as they begin to brown, spray gently with good cognac. When birds are attractively [p. 235] brown, lower the heat, or finish in oven 20 minutes. Baste generously with game bouillon. Meat should be left pale red. Toast six slices of bread. Take brains and giblets, mix with cognac, boil a few moments, crush in a mortar, strain. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Put the toasted bread on a plate and spread with the sauce. Split the doves, put one half on each piece of toast and serve."
With the arrival of snow the doves disappeared from the Venhaug forest, and in spring they nested early. One brood after another was hatched until August, but beginning in the middle of that month one could pick off a few any time for dinner. Jan started to study the habits of the doves; and as a consequence he planted a few peas in some openings in the forest. He also strewed some peas above ground so the doves always found something to eat. Since then he had shot forest doves every year, except during the occupation years; but this was the first time he had gone hunting in such a large company. Jan had always preferred to hunt alone. Because then no one counted his misses, he would say, but the fact was that hunting to him had always been more of a meditation and friendship with the forest than an actual hunt. He liked to roam about and pretend he had an errand.
The morning he heard over the radio that the king was dead, his thoughts, like those of many others, went back to the spring of 1940; if there were any dormant ideas about Norway as a republic they must have died out in those days. He himself had always been a republican but failed to see why the king's title must be changed to president. This was actually all the republicans were fighting about, those few that survived after 1905; now it was no more than a matter of semantics. He realized that the disadvantages inherent in birth-succession were generously compensated by the absence of eternal fights to determine which demagogue was the greatest scoundrel in the race for the top position; in fact, since 1905 the republicans have had only two candidates of importance—Michelsen and Nansen. And he refused to speculate on the rush for patronage that would have ensued. The only changes he considered reasonable were, first, freedom of religion for the head of the country (that old restriction about his being a Lutheran would hardly increase his piety). Secondly, females must have the right to inherit the office. Thirdly, the human right to a marriage of his own choice must be restored to the king; anyway, he must not necessarily marry a foreigner. But on the last point Jan had begun to have his doubts. If they only refrained from spreading far and wide that it was a love-marriage one could believe it might be.
In any case, it was the war years Jan remembered at the time of the [p. 236] king's death. Concerning the national mourning that had been proclaimed he shared the sadness one feels when an old gentleman goes to rest, the man who first said no to the Germans, and later to Norwegians who thought they were unable to stand on their own feet.
Jan had been sitting in the kitchen when Felicia and the children came down; he had been up early and had chanced to hear a bulletin at half-past six. He told them what had happened, and the children were a little confused as to how to take it that the king was dead. He helped them by telling them a prominent man had passed on, a very tired and very old man had gone to his rest, and there was no reason for sorrow; except sorrow at death in general, not for the one now taken away.
To say this last to children was justified, he thought, because to them death was something so distant their thoughts were unable to grasp it. But was it right and true to say we had reason to feel sorrow at death, at our own death? He had been looking out through the window, across the wide yard toward Old Venhaug, with its tall, autumn-yellow birches, and he had shaken his head slowly. It might sound flippant to say one would not wish to miss one's death since it was so ordained one couldn't escape it either. But he had long known he would not wish to miss what was the most incomprehensible to the individual. He did not wish to be without the knowledge that one day he would indeed die. Not doze off into something called eternal sleep, not depart to return at the blasts of trumpets and other noise. He wanted to experience his irrevocable passing, never to awaken again, never be conscious, see or hear any more, never himself be heard or seen, never. He could not understand that anyone would wish to miss this definite, total, final drama. That was one reason he and Erling had become so close: they two were ready to meet the final drama. Oh Lord, people run to their churches and rage over their feeble faith or worry about it, because they do not wish to admit what their own knowledge tells them, or have insufficient strength to see it as a knowledge good to possess, a knowledge the foremost minds have fought to convey. (Jesus died on the cross that you might understand it—he thought he might put an end to that trouble-maker from Sinai.) A knowledge of the total drama that makes one a human being while one exists. This doesn't happen until one has seen in a vision the handwriting on the wall. Then there is no longer a Jan Venhaug, and never will he know if he has been, and that's good.
Julie had also come down. They were sitting talking inconsequentials until Julie said, "Please, Jan, why don't you for once think out aloud?"
He looked at her with a smile and from her to the others: "I was thinking something rather ordinary and decent; it came to me when I [p. 237] listened to the radio. It is still somewhat vague but I'll be glad to tell you: how would it be to invite a few of those we knew so well during the war. Invite them to gather now that the king is dead. Now that in a way something has had a period put to it. If we can say nowadays that anything ends, period."
He thought of adding, "Anything except ourselves." But he did not say it.
The children and Julie started to talk about it back and forth. Jan listened absent-mindedly. Compared to the two children Julie was grown-up in a double sense. Twenty-two and hard hit by the war in the early years. To the two others the war was only an empty lesson at school. So shortsighted we are. Why didn't we insist in 1945 on a special schoolbook beginning with a general review of the then just finished war, continuing with a description of the occupied countries (as well as a description of a people without a country), and then a description of Norway under the iron heel? Now it will never be done. We have committed ourselves to large and small lies to our children—in school. How about telling the story of one of our military chiefs, of German origin, a general who might now have been sitting in the Oslo Palace as Norway's executioner if the fortunes of war had not turned in 1942. Now it will never be told in school. It is remarkable the use we make of schools and schoolbooks. In one of them I read that after the war a Norwegian became the most important man in the world. Trygve Lie—a little Puck travelling by express from country to country.
We live in our own time and with its current banalities, he thought further, but also in a future and a past dimension. Thought spans milleniums back and forth—and comes to rest for a short second on a stupid opinion concerning the world's greatest man. We live in a strange age when people at last have managed to rob words of any meaning. Everything means anything and nothing. The result is that what a person says becomes completely meaningless. An article of today assumes the meaning intended by the paper that prints it, and if the editor should change his opinion, it would never be noticed. Perhaps the editor no longer need go to the office, perhaps he has been honorably pensioned off already. In Sweden, two of the country's leading papers changed sides, and they lost fourteen readers—fifty percent more than anticipated.
Felicia was hesitant about accepting Jan's idea; it wasn't the bother of preparing for the party she feared, even though she took this into account. Her first reaction was simply: Jan is and remains the most innocent person I know. Whom and how many of those people could we invite together? We live far away from most of them. A list of names [p. 238] passed through her head, and suddenly she showed her teeth in a smile Jan seldom saw. She enjoyed for a moment the memory of the fight, but her face darkened again when she recalled her brothers, Steingrim, and the other dead ones; she recalled secret as well as open discords which had arisen as a result of the war. How could such a party be arranged to give it any kind of meaning? One couldn't at any rate invite people who long ago had become one's enemies. Nor a great many who perhaps had been important in the final outcome but whom they hardly knew any more. Neither Jan, Erling, the gardener Anderssen, nor she herself had been central figures, far from it; they had hovered somewhere out in the periphery, perhaps as satellites around satellites, but who cared about that now.
Some of the first on the list were gone as if they never had existed. A few were chronic alcoholics at such a stage one could not expect another sensible word from them as long as they lived; they would sit and drink and entertain each other with drunkards' bedtime stories, and would return uninvited once they had been permitted to come to Venhaug. The living must retain the right to wash their hands of the dying. Am I getting old? she wondered, remembering first one, then another—no! I don't want those sots at Venhaug.
Nor some others she could think of—good people all right, but a little out of place here, the kind of patriots who might say anything, stunted in their growth, as it were, thinking they knew Jan, which they didn't; and she didn't wish to see Jan take off across the room after any one of them, his neck bent like a young bull ready for a fight. She had seen this happen before. Jan was quick in his movements if anyone insulted her; he never learned to differentiate between women who could defend themselves and those who couldn't. There were people who never looked behind the placid Jan, they knew nothing of how thin was the shell of the farmer who guarded his inheritance. Those two or three she now had in mind were a little stupid, they had seen how far he could go when it concerned the defense of a greater inheritance, but never would they realize there was more than the kind, accommodating Jan. It was the same sort of people who learned to their chagrin that they didn't know Erling Vik. People in this country think they know and can judge a man because he happens to turn over a table at Blom's, and they never change their opinions however often they burn their fingers on their mistakes. They think they know the man when they see him out in a car with someone other than his wife. They only see the waste-products of a person. It would take a sledge hammer to make them change their opinions once formed.[p. 239]
It didn't take long for these thoughts to sift through Felicia's head. She said, "You know without my saying how many apprehensions I have, and you must have your own. Of course I would like to, but—"
"There are many buts," said Jan, "and we must think it over thoroughly to avoid unpleasantness. You know we have often thought of something like it, but a gathering in a restaurant becomes just another meeting, with stiff speeches and a lot of trivial talk."
"We could wait and decide when Erling comes," interrupted Julie. "He wrote me we could expect him any day now. There are so many he doesn't want to meet."
Felicia was trying to gain time. She wasn't very keen on having guests, but she would make the effort if Jan insisted. She felt he would soon change his mind. The group from those days was scattered. There would be the problems of children, new wives, and new husbands. The war had been a regular divorce-mill. Then there would be the previous wives and the previous husbands. She thought further, and as a result was completely exhausted. Except for one permanent bachelor, and Erling who hadn't remarried, and of course the dead ones, everyone had discarded wife or husband (one had shot his wife and was now in prison). Her first conclusion was that they must invite married people without their current spouses and together with previous wives or husbands. That could certainly turn into a gay circus. She felt relieved; Jan would jump back as if something had stung him.
She looked at the many names she had written down. There was the bachelor Øystein Myhre. She had nothing against inviting a bachelor. Why had Øystein never married? Good-looking, masculine, gifted, not without money, good position. Girls still made eyes at him.
With somewhat less interest she studied the list of women. There was Birgit Orrestad, who had a daughter although not married. At least she hadn't been last summer when Felicia had lunch with her in Oslo. They might invite Birgit and Øystein. And perhaps Birgit's daughter, who must be grown by now.
Felicia hesitated again; Birgit was still attractive; well, one might say very attractive even. And her daughter resembled her greatly, at least at that time in Stockholm. Her name was Adda.
It was Erling Felicia had in mind. She didn't hesitate to envision the consequences. She would like to invite Øystein Myhre; it was not quite so exciting to have Birgit Orrestad. Well, perhaps. Øystein and Birgit, then. But if Birgit brought her daughter, Erling would have someone to ogle anyway.
I'll suggest it, she decided. I'll mention it. That the others are only a [p. 240] crazy notion Jan will realize as soon as I remind him how terribly mixed-up they are. So much wasted trouble. So stupid they've been. And all those children spread all over.
A recollection struck her; in one case the children had first gone with the father. He remarried but divorced wife number two also, or perhaps she was number three. In any case, the children remained with their stepmother who wouldn't give them up, and legally they were hers as much as her husband's. She was eligible for an invitation, but she had nothing to do with the whole thing—indeed, Felicia had no idea who she was. There she sat, with someone else's children, and wanted it that way. So complicated had situations become for everybody, more or less. But me they'll criticize, she thought annoyed. Fools that they are in their own mess. And some of them—who still will criticize me—will talk about what luck people with money have, able to do anything they want. They dare not, and will not, admit that I have managed with less money than it has cost them. Then they would be forced to see the truth of their own actions. They must invent some special explanation when others seem wiser than they themselves. Those who have money! they cry out when messed up in financial misery which they could have avoided. If one only had money! But even without money they could now have been without debts, if they only had managed their lives without running in and out of marriages and accumulating more and more obligations which shouldn't have been theirs. They borrow from banks to pay off present wives and buy new ones, not to mention sending their children into a maelstrom of trouble. What do they mean when they say I can manage my situation because I have money, when I never have used my money to create anything similar to their debacles and their expensive bank loans? It is I who have managed things as if I were poor and had to watch every penny, while they carry on as if they were majority shareholders in Morgan's Bank, or kept a printing press under the bed and made their own money.
A few days before the Etruscans and Øystein Myhre were expected, the idea of a dove dinner had come up. And now the men set out westward from the farm, up an almost unclimbable hillside. Jan was ahead, Erling made up the rear. As soon as they were drenched the rain stopped. They hiked about an hour before Jan called them together and indicated where each one should take up his post. Below them they could distinguish an irregular opening in the thin spruce forest, perhaps a few hundred paces long and maybe half as wide. It was not yet light, and each one was sent to take cover under indicated bushes round the opening. Farthest away lay the little pea-patch where Jan would take his [p. 241] post. They were given strict orders not to shoot until Jan had fired the first shot; all must crawl on hands and knees to their posts and remain rigid behind their various bushes. All firing must be done against the sky only.
Tor Anderssen and Erling, being the oldest ones, chose nearby bushes. The younger men spread out; they were unable to take this hunt very seriously. "If you see a fox let it run!" was Jan's last admonition.
Erling sat down, leaning on his elbow, and felt the moisture through his clothing. The morning was quite still now. Night-frost and wind had not yet stripped the leaves from aspen and birch scattered here and there against the dark spruce. He heard a sleepy crow far in the distance and cautiously lighted a cigarette. Not a sound from the other seven, and he wasn't quite sure of their positions. The feeling of total solitude in an autumn-still forest put him in a pleasant doze, from which he was awakened in about ten minutes by the whir of the first dove. It came down over the middle of the opening and looked guardedly about. It seemed hesitant, braked with its tail ready to take off again, but then alighted near the withered, rain-beaten peas. Erling's heart beat faster and he knew the others had the same reaction, with the exception of that wooden-head Tor Anderssen; but they would soon relax. One more came down; it repeated the maneuver of the first one. Then three more followed in quick succession. A few minutes elapsed, and still more fluttered down. He wasn't quite sure how many had arrived but he guessed about thirty, when one of them suddenly lifted. Others followed, and the tension was insupportable until Jan finally fired. Erling and the other men fired simultaneously, and the shots echoed through the forest until they died down like distant thunder in summer. Erling had managed four shots and was sure the last one at least had missed. It was difficult to decide who had shot the doves they collected, but of course there was much argument. Tor Anderssen did not enter the conversation. The only conclusion they agreed upon was that Jan had downed two with his first shot; fifteen were gathered up in all. The youths had never participated in this kind of hunting before and wanted to nail down the one who had scared the first dove. But Jan knew his birds: there was always one or another stupid bird that got it into his head to start too early, he said; it was rather annoying, but there was nothing more to be done before evening. He suggested a few other places they might try, but then they must be very cautious, for even though far away the shooting might have warned the doves there.
Farther on in the forest they sat down on a wet, roughhewn log, all in a row, while Jan poured some cognac into a tumbler. They talked forest [p. 242] and hunting while the tumbler passed from hand to hand back and forth along the spruce log. Erling, as usual, felt a little on the outside, not quite belonging in this company; Jan and the youths were of the same sort. It was master and servants unlike anything he had experienced. Nothing condescending, nothing fawning, and a communion in matters intimate to them all; he was ashamed that it bothered him a little to drink from the same tumbler as they.
"Now the drinking is over," said Jan. "It doesn't help one's aim." He handed the bottle to Erling and added: "You take charge of the feed-bag."
The boys broke into laughter, surprised and relieved when all the gossip about Erling and the bottle was turned into an ordinary joke. Even the following day they were still cracking jokes about Erling and the feed-bag, which he himself happened to overhear: "Handed him the bottle and told him to take charge of the feed-bag," he heard through a wall. But Erling also realized that the released laughter did not quench the curiosity in their eyes, the curiosity he had always seen when at Venhaug, and which did not have to do with bottles.
He felt uncomfortable lest Jan had had something else in mind when he used the expression—far-fetched perhaps, so far-fetched that Jan himself hadn't seen it. Let the lecherous billy-goat look after the feed-bag—no, it was too much like speaking of rope in a hanged man's 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.
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