"An ambitious book, Christensen has conflated the novel of ideas with a family saga, a coming-of-age novel, and 'a portrait of the artist as a young man.' . . . His inventiveness is astonishing."
At the end of World War II, twenty-year-old Vera is brutally raped by an unknown assailant. From that rape is born a boy named Fred, a misfit who later becomes a talented boxer. Vera’s young son, Barnum, forms a special but bizarre relationship with his half brother, fraught with rivalry and dependence as well as love. “I should have been your father,” Fred tells Barnum, “instead of the fool who says he is.”
It is Barnum, who is now a screenwriter with a fondness for lies and alcohol, who narrates his family’s saga. As he shares his family’s history, he chronicles generations of independent women and absent and flawed men whom he calls the Night Men. Among them is his father, Arnold, who bequeaths to Barnum his circus name, his excessively small stature, and a con man’s belief in the power of illusion.
Filled with a galaxy of finely etched characters, this prize-winning novel is a tour de force and a literary masterpiece richly deserving of the accolades it has received.
"An ambitious book, Christensen has conflated the novel of ideas with a family saga, a coming-of-age novel, and 'a portrait of the artist as a young man.' . . . His inventiveness is astonishing."
Barnum, the youngest son of the family, slowly unveils his story, piecing together critical moments in the lives of each family member, from his great-grandfather, a Danish explorer lost in the ice of Greenland, to his half brother, Fred. Though Fred's name means "peace" in Norwegian, he is the product of an assault on their mother that occurred as Norway celebrated the departure of the Nazis. Defined by his anger, Fred begins to disappear, first for days, then for weeks, and eventually for years at a time, until their mother insists on holding his funeral. But Barnum continues to hope for his half brother's return, as if only Fred's presence can redeem both the family's failures and Barnum's own. The Half Brother is an enchanting tour de force woven with intelligence and grace, evincing that rare combination of page-turning suspense and substance that characterizes -- dare we say it? -- a masterpiece. (Summer 2004 Selection)
Boletta, Vera’s mother, was anything but religious — rather quite the opposite — she’d had enough of miracles. But now she opened the door onto the narrow balcony over Gørbitz Street, stood there and drank in that moment to the last drop; the church bells ringing together across town from Majorstuen, Aker and Fagerborg, even the bells of Sagene and Uranienborg audible. The wild, sweet clamor seemed drawn and carried by the light and the wind, and rose in one tremendous sound to deafen once and for all the sharp, white echo of the air-raid sirens. “Can you close the door! There’s a draft!” Boletta turned toward the living room, almost blinded. The dark inside had grown bleaker still. The brown furniture resembled immovable, heavy shadows, bolted fast by the hard ticking of the clock in the entrance hall. She had to shield her eyes for a few seconds.
“Do you really think we want to get colds today? When we’ve been fine and healthy the whole of the war!” “There’s no need to shout, Mother.”
Boletta closed the door to the balcony and now she could see the Old One over by the bookcases. She was standing there in her ankle-length petticoat and red velvet slippers tearing out books that she proceeded to throw into the fireplace, talking all the while and evidently just to herself. The cacophony of church bells diminished to one single song. Carefully Boletta went closer. “What are you doing, Mother?”
But the Old One didn’t answer, or rather didn’t hear her, and for that reason didn’t reply. For the Old One was deaf in one ear and the other one didn’t function as it should. The damage had happened when Filipstad exploded in December 1943. She had been sitting in the dining room twisting the dials on the radio back and forth, the radio she had refused to give up on the grounds that she was a Danish citizen and considered it inconceivable not to listen to programs from Copenhagen. She maintained that the explosions came out of the loudspeaker in varying degrees of intensity, accompanied by an unauthorized jazz band from America, and this was how the anvil in her left ear was put out of action, and the stapes in the other pushed forward. Deep down, Boletta was sure that her mother’s ears were in perfect working order, but that she had decided it was her prerogative to hear just what she wanted to hear.
Now she realized that it was the novels of Knut Hamsun that the Old One was tearing from the shelves and stuffing into the green stove. “What are you doing?” Boletta shrieked a second time, and grabbed her mother’s arm. “I’m finished with Hamsun!” “Hamsun? But you love Hamsun!” “I haven’t read him in five years. And he should have been out of this house a long time ago!” The Old One turned to her daughter. She waved The Crops of the Field in front of her nose. “Particularly after what he wrote in the paper!” “What did he write?”
The Old One laid The Crops of the Field in the stove too and fetched the afternoon edition of Aftenposten from the previous day. She banged her finger at the front page so hard it almost made a hole in the paper. “Now I’ll tell you word for word what that wretched creature wrote! We, his close followers, now bow our heads at his death.” The Old One looked up. “Could you imagine a worse time to write Hitler’s obituary? There shouldn’t have been an obituary for him in the first place. Better that we danced on his grave!”
She dropped the paper in the stove and attacked the shelves again with venomous rage. Her long gray hair waved about her; she swore mightily as she threw out each of Hamsun’s collected works. And I’d have given anything to see this sight — the Old One, our great granny, removing all trace of the deaf Nobel Prize–winner in our living room in Church Road on May 8, 1945. But suddenly she stopped, just as she was about to throw away the last part of the August trilogy, Yet Life Survives, and she remained standing with the first edition in her hand as she silently bent toward the bookcase and maneuvered out something else that had been hidden behind the traitor’s novels — an untouched bottle of Malaga from 1936. The Old One lifted the bottle carefully and for a second forgot Hamsun and all his works. Boletta came beside her to see what it was. “The thing I’ve been looking for everywhere,” the Old One sighed. “In the dirty laundry basket. In the fuse box. In the resevoir. And it’s here, for heaven’s sake, right behind the stiff covers of the August books!” She gave the bottle a quick kiss and turned back toward the bookshelves. “Thank you for your company, Knut. Now we’re going our separate ways!”
For safety’s sake she took a peek behind Herman Bang and Johannes V. Jensen, just to see if there might be some bottles there too, but there weren’t, neither there nor behind the collected works of Ibsen. The Old One was already on her way toward the kitchen. Boletta stopped her. “Did you hide that in the bookcase?” “Me? If so I’d have found it an eternity ago and drunk it before Hitler invaded Poland! It must have been you who put it there.” Boletta leaned in against her mother’s working ear. “There aren’t other things you’ve hidden in there, are there?”
But the Old One heard nothing of this and instead began twisting the cork with her crooked and wrinkled fingers, and Boletta had to hold the bottle for her while the Old One twisted and pulled, and they stood there long enough laboring and panting. But all of a sudden the Old One let go of her hold and looked down at herself in horror, as though it was only now she realized she certainly wasn’t dressed properly. She took the bottle from Boletta and was almost offended on her account. “One doesn’t drink Malaga from 1936 in one’s underclothes! But where on earth is Vera? I wanted my dress right away!”
Boletta spun around toward the oval clock that stood on the cabinet out in the entrance hall, the magic clock from the life insurance firm Bien where we always put our premium on the first Saturday each month. For that reason, for long enough, I believed that it was money that made time go. Boletta looked closer. It couldn’t be so late. It wasn’t possible. Vera should have been down with the clothes ages ago. The clock must be fast; perhaps, improbable though it seemed, it was because of the stresses of the last twenty-four hours that it had gained time; when the prisoners in Grini were released and General Rediess shut the door on himself on the second floor at Skaugum, put his gun as far into his mouth as he could, and fired. Boletta could just hear the beat of the second hand’s jagged wheel and the coins that still clinked in the drawer under the clock face.
She looked quietly at her own watch. The clock was showing the right time. “I’ll go and see what she’s doing.” Boletta turned and gave her mother a hard look. “Don’t you dare touch that bottle before we come back down.” The Old One just smiled. “I can’t wait to see King Haakon again. When do you suppose he’ll come?” Boletta bent toward the other ear. “Don’t even think about opening it! Not before Vera and I have come down!” The Old One kissed her daughter on the cheek and shivered. “I honestly think I’ll put the fire on for a bit. The war has made the walls cold.”
Boletta sighed, threw a shawl over her shoulders, hurried through the apartment and began to climb the steep staircase.
The door into the loft is open. It’s so still. Boletta can hear neither voices nor music from the town and the streets, nor even the wind that always makes the walls tremble, as if the whole block is shifting just a little each time it gusts. “Vera?” she calls. But no one answers. She goes along the corridor, past all the storerooms, drawing the shawls tighter around her. It’s drafty, but the wind is soundless. Bright dust shimmers down from the high beams under the roof.
“Vera?” she calls again.
Why isn’t she answering? Perhaps she’s sneaked off to Majorstuen. Impossible. Boletta laughs. As if Vera would sneak off!
She’s probably just far away in dreamland again. And today of all days there’s no law against dreaming. Today one can forget and tomorrow remember exactly what one wants. Today one can do anything. Suddenly Boletta freezes. A stroller full of logs for the fire lies tipped over in front of her.
She stops. “Vera?” Even the doves aren’t cooing. The quiet is twice as intense. The door to our drying loft is still trembling in its frame. And then she does hear a sound — a constant chafing sound, a buzzing, like a swarm of insects that is coming closer all the time but that is impossible to see. It’s this sound that she’ll never be able to forget. Boletta shoves the stroller to one side and runs the last part of the way to stop out of breath in the doorway. That’s how she finds her own daughter. Vera is squatting beside the clothes basket. In her lap she’s holding the newly washed dress, and she strokes it, over and over again, humming softly to herself all the time, as if some distorted tune has stuck fast inside her. Slowly Boletta goes over to her. Vera doesn’t look up. She stares at her own hands as they smooth the thin material, faster and ever faster. “What is it, Vera?”
Vera just turns away, rubs her fingers over the blue dress. Boletta kneels in front of her daughter and presses her hand in Vera’s lap to make her stop what she’s doing. She was almost becoming annoyed and felt like shaking Vera, but this day of all days was not fit for being cross or for scolding. Instead she tries to laugh. “The Old One has found a bottle of Malaga behind all the Hamsuns, but she won’t drink it before she’s wearing her dress. Are you coming?” Vera turns slowly toward her mother and smiles. Her lips and whole face are twisted, her left cheek is all swollen. She has a cut on her temple, under her hair. But it’s her eyes that are worst. They are huge and clear, and they focus on nothing and nowhere.
Boletta almost screams. “My dearest love. What on earth has happened?” Vera just hums. She tilts her head to one side and keeps humming. “Have you fallen? Did you fall on the stairs? My love, say something, Vera!” Vera closes her eyes and smiles. “Remember to let the dove out,” she says. Then Boletta realizes that the new dress is damp and sticky. She lifts her hand. Her fingers are dark with blood. “The dove? Which dove?”
But Vera makes no answer. Vera, our mother, has withdrawn into silence and utters not another word for eight months and thirteen days. Remember to let the dove out, those are the last words she speaks. Boletta gazes up as the blood drips from her hand. The sun has long gone from the attic window. Instead shadow, like a pillar of dark dust, falls jagged through the room. And on the clothesline right above them the gray bird sits motionless.
Boletta shakes her hand. “Good Lord! What have you done with all this blood!” Vera leans against her mother, who lifts her carefully and carries her through the corridor and down the stairs. Sheer terror has made Boletta, small soul that she is, strong and frantic. One of them is crying, or perhaps they both are, and Vera will not let go of the blood-drenched dress. The clothespins spill from her apron pocket with every step that her mother takes, and they lie strewn behind them. But it doesn’t bother Boletta; she can pick them up again when she goes to fetch the clothes basket, which is still in the drying loft. And I remember the bird we found inside the storeroom one night, Fred and I; a hard and dried-up dove, like a mummy with feathers, that time when Fred had bought himself a coffin and wanted to practice dying. But all that’s still far away.
The Old One stood by the white sideboard in the pantry and poured equal measures — to the last drop — into three wide glasses, for Vera was old enough now to drink Malaga, indeed all those who had survived a world war deserved at least one Malaga. The smell of the dark, flowing flower of 1936 made her dream of Copenhagen’s harbors — decks of ships, sails, hawsers and cobbles — it was as if the mere scent of it could conjure up each image from her shadowy memories. The Old One thumped the table and wept a little for sheer joy. This was a sorrowful joy! Underwear notwithstanding, she proposed three toasts — one to him who had been lost in the ice, one that she might never forget him, and one, finally, to peace and to the sun that shone upon it. Oh yes, it was a sorrowful joy! But sorrow was seldom joyful. Life wasn’t just top hats and slow waltzes. Life was also about waiting for those who never came back. And she drank that sorrowful joy and emptied her glass, then filled it exactly as before, and only then became aware of scuffling in the kitchen. She put the cork back in the bottle and saw Boletta coming toward her with Vera, who had fallen asleep in her arms like a little child. She could look like that too, on first glance. “Boil some water!” Boletta shouted. “Get vinegar and bandages!” The Old One lifted her glass and put it down again. “What on earth has happened?”
“She’s bleeding! She won’t say anything!”
Boletta carried her daughter into the bedroom and laid her down on the double bed. The Old One immediately got ready the largest pan with water and hurried after them. Vera lay with her eyes shut and her arms clasped tightly about the blood-stained dress. Her face looked more twisted than before. A blue shadow covered one cheek. Boletta sat by the edge of the bed and didn’t know what to do with her own hands. “I found her like this,” she breathed. “And she won’t speak! Not a single word!” “Hasn’t she said anything at all?” “The only thing she said was that I should let the dove out.” “What dove?” “The dove on the clothesline. There was a dove on it. What do you think she meant?” “She just meant you should let it out. The dove.”
The Old One sat on the other side of the bed. She passed her hand carefully over Vera’s forehead and felt the warmth and dryness of her skin. Then she put two fingers against the girl’s thin, pale throat and felt, barely, the rhythm of her heart, slow and even. And the same sound came from far back in her mouth: a low, dark intoning that made her lips vibrate. Boletta could stand it no more. She pressed her hands over her ears. “She’s hummed like that ever since I found her.” “She isn’t humming. She’s cooing. Oh, Lord.” The Old One tried to take the dress from Vera but couldn’t manage. The girl’s hands were white, with three of the nails broken. “Shall we call the doctor?” Boletta whispered. “The doctor is bound to be here, there and everywhere today. Do you think it’s her monthly?” “So much blood isn’t possible!” The Old One looked at Boletta sharply. “Oh, don’t be so certain of that. We have more than enough blood.”
They heard the water boiling in the kitchen, and while Boletta fetched the pan, the Old One rummaged for vinegar, camphor, cloths, iodine and towels. Carefully they lifted Vera, undid the knot of the apron on her back and softly laid her down once more. They took off her shoes and stockings, and unbuttoned her blouse, but when they once more attempted to wrest the dress from her grasp they found it as impossible as before. They had to use force; they had to pull away finger after finger, and even then they didn’t manage it. In the end the Old One took the scissors and cut the whole garment loose from the hem of the skirt right through the bloodied fabric, up to the collar and down the length of both arms. Now and again Vera opened her eyes almost as if trying to find out where she was, or to see what it was they were doing around her. But that lasted only a short while; thereafter she sank cooing into her own blue shadow. They pulled up her clothes and saw that her panties were bloody too. They removed everything, and she no longer resisted at all. Boletta cried the more when she saw her own daughter like this on the huge bed; she was almost see-through in the dull glow from the chandelier above, and her hands kept searching for something, her fingers kept twisting into hard fists, as if they were still holding on to a blue dress that would never now be worn.
After that they washed Vera with a sponge, pumice and brush — always using the mildest of soaps. They dried her then with the softest towels, changed the bedclothes, laid a greased poultice and a cloth sprinkled in vinegar on her cheek, and gave her three layers of towels just for safety’s sake. She was given hot tea and they let her wear the Old One’s Chinese nightdress. Vera wasn’t humming any more. Vera slept soundlessly, and even her hands finally let go of their hold and found their rest in silk.
Then the Old One fetched her bottle of Malaga and two glasses, and sat down with Boletta. “We’ll celebrate peace indoors,” she whispered. They could still hear the rejoicing from Majorstuen to Jessenløkken, from Tortberg to Bislet, St. Hans’ Hill and Blåsen. Now and again someone would fire off shots and windows were broken. But Vera never woke from her sleep.
The Old One poured another round. Boletta drained her glass immediately. “I should never have let her go up there alone,” she mumbled. “What do you mean?” “I should have gone with her.” The Old One leaned closer so that her gray hair fell down over her face. She slowly pushed it away. “There weren’t any others up there? With her?” Boletta shook her head. “With her? What do you mean?” “You know perfectly well what I mean!” Boletta was on the point of shouting, but she stopped herself. “She was alone,” she said quietly. “But there could have been someone there before you arrived?” Boletta glanced at her mother. “Tomorrow we’re going to the hairdresser’s,” she suddenly announced. “All three of us.” The Old One giggled. “Speak for yourself. The two of you can go to the hairdresser’s if you want. But I’m not coming.” Boletta sighed. “Your hair is far too long. But just go on looking like a tramp. If that’s what you really want.” The Old One got worked up now. “I refuse to be dressed up like a dog’s dinner just because it’s the end of the war.” “And you’re shedding like a cat!” “Vera can put up my hair. When King Haakon comes home!”
A thump against the window made them start yet again. The two of them were brittle and jumpy. Someone was standing outside throwing stones at the window. The Old One put down her glass on the bedside table, went over and opened the window a fraction. It was just some boys from the block. They had boutonnieres and Norwegian flags in their hands. They were cocky and friendly and invulnerable.
They were looking for Vera. But the Old One had already raised a cautionary hand. “Vera isn’t too well,” she told them. “Besides, you’ve chosen the wrong window. Unless it’s me you want to go out with.”
The boys down below laughed, and then ran on to other windows, other girls. Here and there between the tenements across the road bonfires burned — bonfires of blackout blinds. People came with them in their arms and threw them into the flames; the black smoke rose into the chill skies and stood like pillars to the left and to the right, and the smell was luscious, almost sweet, filled as it was with the heavy scent of new-flowering lilac. The evening sun made the asphalt glow, as if the whole town had been hammered from soft copper. And along Church Road there marched a battalion of young men in sportswear; they had guns over their shoulders and they were singing. Where had all these people come from? The Old One wondered at it all. And she thought to herself, War is silent, peace is loud. She shut the window and sat down by the bed again. “This is my second world war,” she sighed. “And it can be the last.” The Old One knocked three times on the wood of the bedpost. Boletta changed the cloth on Vera’s breast and gingerly lifted the nightgown to see if more blood had appeared, but the towels were still white and dry. “I just don’t understand how she hurt herself like this,” the Old One breathed. “She must have fallen,” Boletta said quickly. “Yes. You’re right in what you say. That she’s fallen.” Boletta leaned close, and when she spoke her voice was scarcely more than a whisper. “Do you really think there could have been someone else there?” The Old One drank in the scent of the bottle and then looked away. “No, for who would it have been? It was you who said she was alone.” They talked thus, their voices low and anxious, back and forth, our great-grandmother and our grandmother, each with their glass of Malaga. And I somehow believe they never quite managed to get rid of the odor of that dark, sweet wine, and that when many years later I was allowed to lie there, either because I’d had a nightmare or else was pretending that I wasn’t well, I always breathed as deeply as I could and at once my head began swimming. Malaga was a memory that floated into my blood, and I dreamed tipsy dreams, and I loved those dreams, which washed through me in my tipsy sleep.
But for now it was Vera, our mother, who lay there in vinegar and silk, as peace reigned outside. And sometimes I’m gripped by the thought of what would have happened it she had spoken then, if she had recounted what had taken place up in the drying loft — the rape? Then our story would have been otherwise. Perhaps it might never have been told at all; instead it would have gone down other roads that we would never, ever learn of. Vera’s silence is the beginning of our story, just as all stories must begin with silence.
Boletta moistens her lips with water. “Little Vera,” she whispers. “Has someone been bad to you?” But Vera makes no reply, she only turns away and Boletta looks at the Old One instead. “I just can’t comprehend where all that blood has come from,” she breathes. “Never has she bled like that. Such a tiny body!” The Old One is bent over and holds her empty glass with both hands. “When I heard that Wilhelm was to go to Greenland, I bled continuously for two days.” Boletta sighs. “I know, Mother.” The Old One smiles suddenly as if she has been reminded of something she’s almost forgotten.
“And then he came to me the night before and stopped the bleeding. He was a sorcerer, Boletta.”
Vera turned slowly in her sleep and they removed the poultice on her cheek. They saw that the swelling had gone down. She almost looked herself again. The Old One gently combed her hair with a wooden comb. “You’re right,” Boletta admitted. “It was all too much for her. Everything that’s happened. She hasn’t been able to cope with it.” “And little Rakel who’s gone,” whispered the Old One. “Imagine how Vera must miss her.” “Maybe she’ll still come back,” Boletta said quietly. “No. Don’t believe that. Don’t say that. May we not have any others to wait for here in this house.”
And I still haven’t managed to tell you anything of Rakel’s story that began before this and is already over. Mom’s best friend, the dark Rakel, is dead in a mass grave in Ravensbrück, and no one will ever find or recognize her again, for she is lost in the anonymity of death. She has been wiped out by matter-of-fact executioners, genteel murderers who kiss their wives and children each morning before leaving for the offices of annihilation. Little Rakel, fifteen years of age, from the corner apartment on Jonas Rein Street, a threat to the Third Reich. They came for her and her parents in October 1942, but they were magnanimous and generous-hearted, and let her run across the yard in the rain and come up to say goodbye to Mom. “I’ll be back soon,” Rakel told her. “Don’t be afraid, Vera. I’ll be back soon.” Two girls, two best friends, in the midst of war: the one our mother, the other her best friend who has to leave. How much do they know? How much does she know? A raindrop runs down Rakel’s nose and Vera wipes it away and laughs, and for an instant it’s almost an ordinary goodbye. Rakel is wearing a brown coat her mother used to wear, which is far too big for her, and she has gray mittens that she hasn’t had a chance to remove. She doesn’t have time. They’re waiting for her, her parents and the police. She has a long journey ahead of her. The ship is called Donau. They hug each other and Vera thinks, as she says the words inside herself, She’ll be back soon, that’s what she said, don’t be afraid. “Be careful,” Rakel whispers. “Say goodbye from me to Boletta and the Old One.” “They’re out trying to find potatoes,” Vera smiles, and both of them laugh again. But suddenly Rakel lets go of her, takes off the mitten on her right hand, and tugs loose the ring on her middle finger to give to Vera. “You can borrow it until I come home again.” “Can I?” But Rakel changes her mind, just as suddenly. “No. You keep it!” “I don’t want to,” Vera replies at once. “Yes, you keep it!” “No,” Vera insists, stubbornly and almost angrily. “I don’t want to keep it.” Rakel takes hold of her hand and pushes the ring into place. “At least you can look after it for me then!” After that Rakel kisses her on the cheek and starts running back because there’s no time to lose; she’s off on a long journey and she mustn’t be late. And Vera stands in the kitchen wishing Rakel hadn’t given her the ring. She hears her quick feet going down the stairs, those small brown shoes taking step after step, and Rakel will never return. I remember something Mom said, and she repeated it often: It’s those footsteps I hear disappearing out of my life. I made those words my own. And sometimes I like to believe that Rakel is there at the edge of this story, or at the very core of my mother’s silence, watching us, sorrowful and merciful.
The Old One put the cork back in the bottle. “So you think I look like a tramp, do you,” she said. Boletta was packing the ruined clothes in paper and tying the parcel with string to banish it to the back of the closet. “I only said that all three of us could go to the hairdresser’s,” she sighed. “You said that I looked like a tramp!” “Vera and I can go ourselves. If you don’t want to.” “Oh, go to the hairdresser’s then, and tart yourselves up now the war’s over.”
It would soon be night, and still the Old One hadn’t managed to get properly dressed. She sat by the bed in her faded petticoat and red slippers, and I would love to know exactly what she was thinking. Did she feel that yet another disaster had befallen them? Boletta stood behind her and lifted the long, gray hair with both hands. “You don’t look like a tramp. You look like an angry witch.” The Old One cackled at that for a bit. “And tomorrow Vera is bound to be better again. Maybe she’ll go for a walk with the witch?”
And they tried to comfort themselves with this thought, that it was Vera’s menstrual blood that had driven itself through her with extraordinary force on that extraordinary day — May 8, 1945 — and taken her feet from her up in the drying loft.
“I’ll call the doctor all the same,” Boletta whispered. “He’s bound to be busy,” the Old One insisted as she had before, her voice as low as her daughter’s. She crossed herself three times, very quickly. Boletta let her mother’s hair drop against her hunched back and came around to face her. “What was that you did just then?” “What? What are you talking about?” “You know exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t make such a face.” “I’m tired,” the Old One announced sulkily and tried to get up. Boletta stopped her. “You crossed yourself. I saw you.” The Old One freed her arm. “Yes, yes. So I crossed myself! An old witch who crosses herself! Is it of such importance?” “I thought you’d given up on God and wouldn’t talk to Him again. No?” The Old One crossed herself again. “It’s a long while since God and I stopped being on speaking terms. But now and again I let Him know I’m there. So that He won’t feel lonely. And now I’m tired!”
The Old One went into the dining room and slept there on the divan, while Boletta lay down with Vera, her arm around her, just as they’d lain many times together during those last five years. Sometimes all three of them had slept together, after they came up from the cellar in the wake of air-raid sirens and explosions. And then it might be that the Old One would read from Wilhelm’s letter, as they lay together waiting for night and sleep and peace, and Vera would always cry when the Old One neared the end, that last beautiful sentence that Wilhelm, Boletta’s father, had written before he disappeared in the land between ice and snow.
Boletta lay awake a long time. She thought of the Old One, who’d crossed herself, who’d found it right to converse with God with finger language that evening. Boletta trembled, she shook so violently she had to raise both arms so as not to waken Vera. Was Boletta as disturbed by the Old One’s sudden piety as Vera had been when Rakel gave her the ring? Oh, when we consider all we do that backfires — our actions that are turned on their heads — the comforting that is transformed into pain, the rewarding that becomes punishment, the prayer that changes to cursing. Still laughter and shouting echo from the streets. Peace. Terboven had dropped the corpse of Rediess into the bunkers at Skaugum and ordered the guard to light the fuse of the enormous explosives container. It was said that for a second Terboven was filled with regret, not for his deeds but for this final action — the fuse that glistened along the stone floor. He attempted to stop the fuse’s burning but didn’t succeed (he was too drunk), and no one noticed the massive explosion that made the birds cloud upward from the surrounding woods. The war was over. For the first time Boletta felt afraid.
She must have slept nonetheless but had no memory of doing so. When she awoke, suddenly and exhausted, Vera wasn’t there. The space beside her in the bed was empty. It was already after seven. Boletta had to go to work. It was just an ordinary Wednesday, a Wednesday in May. Someone was talking in the dining room. Quickly she got herself there. The Old One had gone to sleep with the radio on. This is the Norwegian Broadcasting Service. The genuine, bona fide broadcasting service. Boletta turned it off, and through the stillness that swam back she could hear something else, the same humming, cooing, except that it was even deeper now, almost like gurgling. The sound was coming from the bathroom, and it chilled Boletta to the marrow. She woke the Old One up and brought her out with her into the hallway. The bathroom door was locked. Vera was in there.
Boletta knocked. “Vera? Would you open the door, Vera?” The humming died away, almost with a sigh. Everything was silent. But now and again they heard water dripping and something rubbing, the same sound Boletta had heard up in the drying loft, only it was stronger now, like a shoe on a doormat. “Are you coming, Vera? What is it you’re doing?” The Old One bent down and looked through the keyhole. She felt a slight blowing, a draft against her eye. “I can’t see anything. The key’s in the lock.” All at once Boletta rattled the door handle and shouted, “Vera! Open this door! Stop this nonsense at once! Are you listening? Open this door!” The Old One had to intervene and calm her down. “Pull yourself together and don’t bring down the whole building!” Boletta let go of the door handle and, forcing herself not to shout, she whispered behind her fingers, “What are we to do?” “Stop shouting, first of all. There’s nothing I like less.” Boletta gave a laugh. “Oh, really. Are you hearing so well that it’s a nuisance now?” “That’s none of your business.” “Has the world healed both your ears?” But the Old One had nothing to say to that. Instead she produced a hairpin and stuck it in the keyhole, and twisted and turned it until they heard the big key fall onto the floor inside. At once Boletta tried to push open the door, but it was no less locked than it had been. The Old One looked through the keyhole again. “Can you see anything now?” The Old One whispered: “I think she’s sitting in the bath. I can see one arm.” Now Boletta herself bent down to have a look through the keyhole. She felt a cold wind against her eye, and always, for as long as I can remember, it was this she blamed, the times when that one eye became red and swollen and started running, as though that eye, alone in her face, was weeping.
Boletta saw it too; Vera’s arm, her bare arm over the side of the bath, and her hand, the thin fingers and Rakel’s heavy ring. “We’ll get the caretaker! He can break it open!” Boletta was already on her way to the kitchen, but the Old One managed to stop her and hold her back. “He’s probably up to the eyes with other things right now,” she told her. “But someone has to get that door open!” “Would you really want that nosy fool to see her like that in there? Naked!” Boletta was crying now. “But what are we to do?” “Talk to her. Talk to your daughter!”
Boletta took a deep breath and went back to the bathroom door. “Vera? Will you be finished soon?” But she wouldn’t answer. And all at once Boletta became aware of the clock in the hall and the seconds that were ticking away; it was as if the shadow of the clock face itself fell over her. “I’ve to go to work, Vera! I have to get ready or I’ll be late!” The Old One caught her arm. “Work? Today?” “Even though the war’s over, don’t you imagine people phone each other?” “No, in all honesty, I think they’ll neither think of it nor have the time.” Boletta shoved the Old One to one side. “Vera, love. Do you know what I thought we could do tomorrow? When I’m off? We could go to the hairdresser’s in Adamstuen.” Now it was the Old One who shoved Boletta out of the way. “The hairdresser’s in Adamstuen! What rubbish!” “Be quiet!” “Do you really think the hairdresser’s will have the time to be open? Not a chance.” “It was just something to say!” “Just something to say! You talked about nothing but hairdressers all yesterday!”
“I did not.” “You said my hair was like a tramp’s. I won’t forget that!” “I said you looked like an old witch!”
Then Vera began humming again inside, so low and softly it was all but impossible to hear her. Boletta went to pieces completely and had to be supported by her mother. “I’m so afraid,” she whispered. “Just so long as she doesn’t harm herself.” “Harm herself? What are you talking about?” “I don’t know what I’m saying any more!” “No, that goes for all of us.” The Old One turned to face the door and knocked on it hard, three times. “It’s my turn now, Vera. And if I don’t get in right away there’s going to be an accident!” But Vera neither answered nor opened the door. She just went on humming and humming. Three more times the Old One knocked on the door as hard as before. “You don’t want your poor grandmother to have to sit on the sink, do you?” They listened, the two of them, they stood with their faces close together, so close they were aware of the other’s breath, and suddenly everything fell silent inside once more. Vera stopped humming and there was no sound of water either. It was then the Old One went at the door at full tilt. There wasn’t much “tilt” to draw on, but she ran at the door with her shoulder nonetheless. It did no good, and so she tried again, her neck bent, her shoulders lifted, her head down. She was like a bull; the Old One became like a bull — it was as though an inexorable power rose within her, the muscles of grief, and she threw herself against the door so it broke open with a terrific crash. She all but pitched over onto the floor, but Boletta caught her, and together they stood there on the threshold beholding that which made them utterly terrified, terrified and yet at the same time relieved and thankful, for Vera was alive.
She’s sitting in the bath, one arm hanging over its curved edge, and in the water, the dark water, a brush is floating — the floor brush from the kitchen. And Vera doesn’t notice them, or else she doesn’t want to look at them; she stares away somewhere else, just as she did up in the drying loft, and her eyes are far too large for her, they’re clear and almost black. The skin on her breasts, her shoulders, her throat, her face — is discolored and streaked, as if she has tried to wash it away, to scour it from her body. And that thin body is trembling.
Boletta knelt beside the bath. “My dear, beloved Vera, what have you done?” Water was trickling over the edge of the bath, gray and tepid. Vera made no answer. “It’s over now, Vera. It’s over. There’s nothing to be afraid of any more.” The Old One sat down on the laundry basket in the corner; she sighed and massaged her shoulder. Boletta gently caressed her daughter’s arm. “Rakel will come home soon, that’s for sure. You don’t want to be ill then, do you? You’ll get pneumonia lying here.” The Old One gave an even deeper sigh. “Take out the plug,” she said simply. “That’s enough talk.” Vera drew back her arm. Boletta tried to keep hold of it, but it was far too thin and slippery, and it just slid from her fingers. “Say something!” Boletta shouted. “Say something to me!”
But Vera remained cocooned in her muteness, and the only thing she could do was hum. Her lips were almost blue — they quivered as she kept cooing. The Old One got up and raised her hands toward the ceiling and folded them there, like a clenched fist above her head. “Pull out the damned plug, for God’s sake! Or do I have to do it myself?” Boletta put her hand into the water. And then Vera hit her. She hit her smack in the face with the floor brush, and Boletta screamed so shrilly Vera had to cover her ears. And people in Church Road and Jacob Aall Street, those who have lived long enough to remember those days, say that they can never forget that scream, which was talked about for years. It loosened the plaster, shook chandeliers and caused whole slates to fall — indeed it almost made some believe that the war had started up again. It wasn’t that the blow itself hurt so greatly; Boletta screamed more out of sheer terror, for she was sure that now they had lost the plot completely, that finally the war had robbed them of whatever sanity they’d ever had. For now Vera was hitting her own mother, she was sitting with a floor brush in the bath hitting her own mother in the face. The Old One had to calm Boletta forcefully, and when finally she’d managed to do so and the two of them were kneeling breathless together on the stone tiles, Vera began scrubbing her neck. She scrubbed at it with the hard, stiff brush, as if there was some speck there on her neck that she hadn’t managed to get rid of. “I can’t take any more,” Boletta sobbed.
And right then the kitchen doorbell rang. For a second, the briefest moment, Vera stopped scrubbing herself. Perhaps she thought it was Rakel, Rakel finally home and ringing the kitchen doorbell because she wanted Vera to come out and join her. Perhaps she did believe that, in the fleeting blink of an eye between two seconds, but then she continued scouring, even harder; she bent her head and her neck vertebrae stood out like a taut bow of glowing coals. “Who can that be?” Boletta hissed. The Old One leaned against the side of the bath and let her hand trail in the water; five twisted and wrinkled fingers in that dark water, carefully trailing around Vera’s body. “There, there, child. You’re clean enough now.”
The doorbell rang again. The Old One pulled her hand out of the water. “Who the devil? Can’t we be left in peace! Don’t you think so, Vera?” And Vera turned toward them; it almost looked as if she wanted to give in, to give herself up to Boletta and the Old One, but she remained in her cave of silence nonetheless. The Old One plunged her arm into the water again and pulled out the plug. “Now I’m going to throw someone down the steps,” she said.
Gradually the water began to sink around Vera. Boletta put a towel over her shoulders without her protesting. The Old One struggled out to the kitchen and opened the door. Of course it was none other than Bang, the caretaker for the building who had his own subsidized apartment in the very bottom corner by the garbage sheds. It was Bang — protector of the flowerbeds, guardian of the laundry, terror of tomcats, and commander of law and order. He was forty-two, a bachelor, a former triple jump champion, and he was hopeless when it came to conflict. He was standing there in all his finery — a wide, blue jacket hanging from his gangly frame, pants that were too short for him and with saliva stains on the worn, thin knees. From his top buttonhole there waved a bow composed of the national colors of Norway — it was so enormous it almost made him topple forward. Bang’s face was shining with sweat; it was as though he had rushed up all the steps to the loft and down again and around the yard and back, or perhaps he had just rubbed spit on his forehead too. Inquisitiveness was glowing in his eyes, and he smiled with a full set of teeth as he raised his hat and bowed. “So, it’s the handyman,” the Old One said. Bang’s mouth puckered. “Has something happened?” he asked. Behind him, on the next landing, stood the neighbors — the chatty housewives from their kitchen sinks. They were jostling each other to see better — the Old One still in her petticoat — and the time already quarter past eight on May 9. She’s standing there in nothing but her petticoat and with her hair like a gray avalanche down her hunched shoulders, this strange creature from Denmark who talks pretty much as she looks and whom they’ve never quite got the measure of, even though she’s almost the oldest resident in the place, living in this apartment on the corner of Church Road and Gørbitz Street, where to that day no man had been in residence. “Happened?” the Old One repeated. “What makes you think something happened?” The caretaker leaned against the door frame. “I heard a scream. Everyone here heard a scream.” The neighbors nodded and took a step forward; yes, they had heard it too, an appalling scream. The Old One smiled. “It was only me — I burned myself on the stove.” And she wanted to shut the door on them now, but Bang remained standing there with one shoe a little too far forward. He looked hard at her wet arm. “Are you quite certain that everything’s all right?” “I am completely certain, and thank you so very much for your concern.” Bang wasn’t about to give up so easily. “And how’s Vera, by the way? Some of the boys said that she wasn’t well.” “What did you say?” The caretaker smiled again. “They said you’d said so. That Vera wasn’t well.” The Old One looked down at his shoe; it was misshapen and the lace didn’t reach through all the holes. “If you don’t move your foot right now, you will be the next one to scream in this neighborhood.” Bang took a hurried step backward, but his eyes remained fixed on her all the while. “I only wanted to ask, ma’am. These are troubled times.” “I’m aware of that. But house-to-house searches are, I believe, a thing of the past now?”
The Old One attempted to close the door yet again, but the caretaker leaned his frame in and the smile had disappeared now. “I think you forgot this on the stairs.” He rummaged in his jacket pockets and at last produced a bunch of clothespins. “Careful with those. Someone might have had a nasty fall. Hope your hand’s better soon. And Vera.”
Bang limped up to the housewives, who immediately encircled him. The Old One shut the door, put the clothespins in a drawer and hurried out to the bathroom. Vera sat in the empty bath, the towel over her shoulders, hugging herself, her head against her bony knees. Boletta gently caressed her back and Vera allowed her to do so. Together they carried Vera into the bedroom again. There they put on her blankets and quilts, silks and creams, and she fell into dreams immediately in the warm light. “I looked at the towels in the laundry basket,” Boletta whispered. “She hasn’t bled any more.” “Good. That means we won’t have to get the doctor here.” They went out into the dining room so as not to wake Vera. Still dust glittered over the furniture and along the walls, on lampshades and over paintings. The windows were streaked with soot and dirt. Soon they would have to begin the spring cleaning. “Who was it who called?” Boletta asked. “That fool of a handyman.” “Don’t call him a handyman, Mother. His name is Bang. He’s the caretaker.” The Old One stared out of the window. “What did you say?” “His name is Bang!” The Old One laughed. “That handyman had a whole flag in his buttonhole. And what did he do in the war? Search the attics for Jews?” “Be quiet!” Boletta snapped. “Don’t tell me to keep quiet! I’ll say what I want to.” “What did he want then?” “To hand in the clothespins. That you dropped on the floor.” “Did he say anything?” “What about?” “Perhaps he’d seen something.” The Old One sat down on the divan and sighed. “It’s only nine in the morning, and it’s already been a long day. I’m exhausted.” “Why don’t you lie down with Vera then?” “I’ll keep an eye on her, that’s for sure. Off you go to your work. And if you happen to see a bottle of Malaga on the way, please bring it home with you.”
The Old One turned around and fell asleep without another word. Boletta went into the bathroom to wash. There was no more hot water, so she drenched herself in the perfume she’d been saving up for long enough now. At least she wouldn’t smell bad when she arrived late for work at the Telegraph Exchange on the first day after the end of the war.
She peeped in on Vera. She was asleep, and at that moment, in such light, she resembled the child she had been, not so very long ago. The Old One heard the bang of the door and the quick steps on the stairs. She clasped her hands over her breast and gave up a short prayer, almost shameful, for hadn’t God, if He was indeed somewhere in us or between us, in the power of word and thought, enough to sort out as it was?
Lars Saabye Christensen, one of Norway’s most acclaimed novelists, is the prize-winning author of nineteen novels as well as many short stories and poetry. His works have been published in the United States and throughout Europe, as well as Pakistan. He is the recipient of the Cappelen Prize, the Brage Prize, and the Nordic Council's Literature Prize.
Kenneth Steven is a translator, writer, and poet. His longest translation, The Half Brother, was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and short-listed for the international IMPAC Award. He often completes work for NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad).
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Phenomenal book. Wonderful character development. I could not put this book down
U on yet?
I wont be able ti talk tommariw bjt i can sunday