The Vik brothers
Erling had managed to obtain a hotel room, and Sunday morning he lay in bed thinking of his parental home in Rjukan. It was strange how one could never get away from the place where one had spent one's childhood.
He had never seen his parents' graves since they were open and waiting. His father had died half a year before his mother. At his mother's funeral he had noticed some twigs of spruce that had been placed to one side of the grave-bottom; some wood was visible, and this, he realized, must have been the corner of his father's coffin, which they had tried to hide with spruce twigs. The surviving children, with the families they had formed, stood around the hole with the coffin, while the minister said some meaningless words. It had been a raw autumn day, withered leaves had blown into the grave and lay there motionless. Erling had waited impatiently for the service to come to an end. Gustav, his oldest brother, cleared his throat and took a step forward. "I wish to speak a few words on behalf of the survivors," he said, and Erling did not lift his eyes while Gustav said them. Later it had been hard to decide who had been worse, the brother or the minister. The brother spoke of the temperance movement. He also touched on the fact that some of the dead one's children had managed well for themselves. Since he was the only one with a steady job, and considered Erling a little off, there could be no doubt as to who the well-managing survivors were.
When the brother had finished, Erling raised his eyes and looked at him. This stone-dead man, he thought, is my brother. That awful person with his temperance movement and his good job. He looked down at the coffin, looked about in the grave, shook the minister's hand, and looked [p. 295] at his brother again; and at the relatives who lowered their eyes every time he turned toward them. He knew well enough that he was their only topic of conversation when they met: how horrible he was, how conceited, but it would surely end badly. He hadn't heard them say this in twenty-five years, but—
He was as far beyond their reach as if he had been a tribal chief on Borneo. Now he realized he had done something that in their eyes would cast its shadow far into the future: he had failed to bring his wife along, whom they hadn't seen, and he could hear the hundred interpretations they would give to this during the next twenty years.
He had seen Gustav a few times during the years since their parents had died, and he had remembered to send a greeting when Gustav turned sixty, half a year ago. They had nothing in common, but he knew neither of them realized this, and therefore never could accept it as a reason for not meeting and drinking coffee together. It had never been difficult to keep the distance. Erling only failed to make an appearance, and Gustav, being the older, would not stoop so low as to seek out the younger brother. Open breaks had never taken place. Gustav considered himself worthy of veneration, expressed in coffee-calls on Sundays, the presentation of wives, and such. This both Gustav and his wife had hinted at in a manner they considered diplomatic, but Erling had never taken the hints.
Now he wanted to look up Gustav, whom he hadn't seen for at least four years. He opened the telephone book and found that his brother still lived in the same old tenement-house at Sagene. There he had lived since he was married thirty-six years ago: Vik, Gustav, Labor foreman. Gustav was the boss of a blasting-gang, and this was his pride, but he didn't think it looked well in print. He knew everything about blasting away mountains and handling dynamite. "Never a single accident," he would say, "but then, I'm a teetotaler and have never broken my pledge." He wouldn't look at Erling when he said this. He didn't mean to boast; he only insinuated the reason for the younger brother's many accidents.
Erling was ready to telephone but stopped himself. It would entail a coffee-feast with mountains of repulsive cookies, and neighbors with red faces, present and staring. He would rather take the chance of finding them at home.
He thought of his relatives as he rode in the taxi. There was one question he had heard oftener then he could keep count of: "Why do you bother with your relatives? You seem to be more interested in them than they ever have been in you."
Perhaps they were right, but when they imagined his family could be [p. 296] written off mentally, too, with what is called a summary decision, he felt they revealed something about themselves. They knew little or nothing about the tensions that had existed; they must have grown up under circumstances where tensions had been so weak that they themselves, so they thought, not only could have gone their own way, but also could have forgotten their antagonists forever if the relationship became too obnoxious. They knew nothing about ties that only could be broken externally, geographically as it were, but never psychologically. When family feeling has assumed an inner state of war it can never be rooted out. One might put a great ocean between, and thus feel much better, but the ties hold, all the unsettled remains, and will remain as long as a single member survives. In a family riveted together through hate, not even death can break the bonds, hate hovers as a poisonous gas over the graves. People who have never lived with such an incarnate pestilence, do not know the forces rampant, that must be killed and made impotent. They do not realize that these are high voltage power lines, with no one to turn off the juice.
To Erling everything had changed character, yet deepest down all was the same. At different ages the problem assumed different aspects but the same problem-complex appeared on the surface. What had lain uppermost now for many years and therefore seemed always to have been the essential thing was the suffering he had endured at the hands of unreason. Through his whole scared and suppressed adolescence he had been among people who spit on logic, connection, cause and effect, insight. Not that he would have recognized such elegant words for these conceptions, but one needn't know the name of something to love, hate, or miss it. He remembered Gustav's washing himself once in the kitchen, the wash bowl on a stool. When he finished drying himself he had flung the towel through the air, so that it landed in a bowl of milk on the kitchen shelf. His fury over the fact that his mother had placed the milk bowl just there was like an outburst from a lunatic. The family had trembled with fear for several days. His mother had prayed and pleaded and promised to cover the milk bowl next time, but Gustav was not to be pacified.
Is it possible to find a logical line in such actions, something that might offer a sensible explanation? Erling, at least, had not succeeded. It was obvious enough that when Gustav encountered something he didn't like, someone must be blamed, and the guilty one must not be himself, not under any circumstances. Never was he the miscreant; he was defending himself against attacks. The warrior must become a Wehrmacht. The pattern was clear enough, and Erling felt poisoned by it. If [p. 297] Gustav should find a ten kroner bill on the street, and someone else saw it simultaneously, Gustav would have insisted on his rights: he had seen it first, and, deeply offended and with the indignation of the righteous against the other finder, he would have appropriated the third man's possession.
His behavior could be described in detail, but who would have understood more because of this? There were any number of worthy men who were clever at gathering material about human behavior, and equally clever in calling it a science; Erling had little respect for behavior-psychologists, people who had taken up collecting behavior-patterns instead of postage stamps.
Elfride opened the door, and she did not recognize Erling since she hadn't expected him. Then her features took on the confusion he knew so well of old. She had industriously supported Gustav in the early days when it was the older brother's task to instruct Erling in life's responsibilities and in the unprofitableness of folly. "Look what happened to your mother's father!" Elfride had one thrown at him. "Good Lord!" replied Erling, "but Grandfather had no hands!" "Neither have you, as far as I can see!" Gustav had come to her aid. "I don't see it matters much whether you have hands or not!"
Yet they had never, not even Erling, said anything that led to an irrevocable break. If one of them realized he had gone too far, he would try to cover up at once. Neither Gustav nor Elfride had hesitated to drive home that "of course you must understand you are free to do as you wish—it is entirely your business that you are stupid." And Erling on his side might ask Elfride if she liked his new tie; she would not refuse an outstretched hand, and after carefully inspecting the new tie, she would say that it could have been much worse.
But all this was in their younger days, before any one of them was more than twenty-five. When Erling began to make a name for himself, it turned into an open hatred on Gustav's side. He was not one of the kind, simple-hearted ones who, without objection, accept something they don't understand. His heart was granite. But there was no doubt that his contempt for Erling was honest. Erling was a good-for-nothing who wouldn't work like decent people; he drank, and did worse, and it would be only right and proper if somebody went and told the newspapers about him. Then Gustav started another tune, and it was impressed on Erling what life was really all about. Elfride had added her bit, and she had no more perception than Gustav; but she never missed an opportunity to get a word in about her brother-in-law, when Gustav was absent. This angered Gustav greatly when he learned of it. Indeed, his [p. 298] relationship with his brother bothered him increasingly with the years, for he could never rid himself of the dream that Erling one day would come to him and confess his pig-headedness. The situation had not changed even now, when both of them were grandfathers—Erling, admittedly, along illegitimate lines, something Gustav secretly considered a mitigating fact, confirming all his worst expectations—and there was no hidden jealousy, only pure disgust, when he described his brother as a damned whore-buck.
Thus the connection between the brothers had come to an end without formal notification. It had not been confirmed with great exclamations that "you'll damn well never see me again, you idiot!" Postcards arrived on important birthdays, but not at Christmas, and certainly not at Easter. The temperature became established a little above zero through postcards on important birthdays. Nothing would have prevented them from speaking of the weather, had they happened to meet on the tramcar. Gustav was hurt, but liked it best the way it was, and Elfride gossiped across the hall that "my brother-in-law has grown—uppety." Then a few years later their father died and they met at the grave. Again they pretended to be brothers and saw each other at long intervals. In a way Erling was interested in his brother, who on his side enjoyed a vague comfort in the thought he had been right on all points, and only due to sluggish law-enforcement was Erling still at liberty.
He stepped into the room where Gustav was sitting in a chair smoking his pipe, a rough laborer's hand on each armrest. He remained sitting and said between his teeth, "Well, you did find your way here again. You manage to put on worse togs each time I see you—it's a wonder where you get the money. You seem well fed too. Well, some people have their sources."
He blew a smoke cloud with a whinnying sigh from deep in his stomach: "Let's have some coffee then, since it's Sunday. I've hurt my foot. A stone rolled over it day before yesterday."
Erling thought, thank heaven, at last an accident has happened.
"But it wasn't caused from blasting!" said Gustav, triumphantly, as if reading his brother's thoughts. "Some man was fooling around with a stone on top of the hill, the fathead, and let it roll down on my foot where I was sitting with my pants down."
Erling quickly turned away to look out the window; his brother was no humorist. "Could just as easily have hit me in the head, or the knee, or in the ass," complained Gustav. "Or broken my back. But at least we have insurance which a working person deserves."
That hit home, thought Erling, and dared turn and ask if it hurt.[p. 299]
Gustav only grunted.
"I guess now you too get compensation?" he asked, presently. "Anybody gets it these days, and it's a hell of an injustice that people who don't work now get their compensation too. Make an out and out profit if a stone happens to roll over them. It was different when I was young."
He forgot that Erling was almost as old as he. It was odd with the age-difference between brothers; when Gustav became ninety he would still consider his eighty-eight-year-old brother a pup; and even then, mused Erling, I will not have lost my feeling that Gustav is my big brother.
Erling recalled the time when he had received the message to go underground and had had to leave the house immediately. Something didn't work out right that time, and he had found himself on the street without knowing where to go. For several reasons he had been unable to use a telephone, and he had thought of Gustav. But that recourse too had been barred: early in the occupation Gustav had gone to work for the Germans. A worker not familiar to Erling had one day stopped him on the street and asked if it was correct that Gustav Vik was his brother, and then the story had come out: the resistance people had gone to Gustav and berated him, but he had only been furious. What kind of a country was this if they tried to prevent an honest man from taking a job that suited him? He had—probably for the only time in his life—mentioned his brother Erling's name for no reason: It was pig-heads like him who started such notions; they should stop interfering with decent workers.
Erling had replied he could do nothing with his brother, who was stubborn and never gave in once he had taken a stand. It would be futile to threaten him: Gustav would rather be skinned alive than change his mind. (It is in the family, thought Erling, surprised at discovering a character trait he had in common with his brother.) Nor would reasoning or explanations have any effect on Gustav; he had the strength of the rhinoceros, and its mixture of stupidity and blind courage. He was the only person Erling knew whose eyes became bloodshot when fury seized him—seized him and tortured him until he howled in his insanity. Did his brother belong to Nasjonal Samling? No, Erling was sure he didn't. He had his temperance lodge and his union. (Of course Gustav must be a temperance adherent of the most militant sort, it struck Erling, for with his temperament he must harbor a deep fear of liquor.) But, said Erling, Gustav might apply for membership in Nasjonal Samling if someone told him he couldn't—for this, to be a free man in a free country, was his foremost thought.
Nothing had happened to Gustav after the war was over; probably he [p. 300] was one of the many they never found time for, because there were simply too many.
Erling had been quite aware of what would have happened to him had he gone to Gustav that time when he had to go underground during the war. First a triumph over the gullible brother who never had listened to the older, but knew where he was when needed. Then the rest would come as a spring flood: about people who never had done a day's work in their life, mixing in things not concerning them, until they must come creeping and pleading, imagining decent folk would set themselves up against police and law. "Don't try here! No one must say that I harbor criminals and useless fools who never have worked at anything decent! To prison with them, that's my opinion!"
The following day he would have told all about it to his gang while they were eating their lunch, eyeing each one of them with his pig-eyes under the bushy brows. At last he would have been able to speak out. All good reasons to disown his brother would have disappeared. He would have started with something like this: "After all, there is justice in the world."
Justice had now fallen on a man who had never been willing to work. Now he was caught in a trap he had long escaped. After all, these Germans might have something, if they only could pick up Quisling also, that lazy son of a bitch! Yes, he was the son of a clergyman! And keep their fingers out of the unions, or the devil take them!
Erling knew that it would have been one of the greatest days in Gustav's life. If Gustav hadn't been against the clergymen, who in his opinion had invented God as an excuse to be lazy, and if he had known the words, he might have quoted: The mills of God grind slowly but exceeding fine.
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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