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"As readers, we relax into the author's skillful hands, allowing his luminous writing to carry us, and the tale, along. . . . Remarkable storytelling."--Los Angeles Times
"Bulges with all the wonderfully strange, arcane information of centuries ago--how to read nautical charts, interpret rock formations, create aquamarine paint or gild a detail on a fresco."--Newsday
Copyright © 1998 Erik Fosnes Hansen.
Translation copyright © 2002 Nadia Christensen.
All rights reserved.
Tantus amor florum et generandi gloria mellis.
begin. The old man was finally dead, and he had a splendid funeral. No expense was spared. The church was decorated with flowers from the altar rail all the way to the vestibule; floral wreaths had arrived from far and near, from business connections and competitors, from Lloyd's of London, from the government and the industrial association. The royal palace had sent a garland. And since the old man had also held his protective hand over a few painters, memorial wreaths had come from them, as well as from the artists' association. The family was represented by large and small floral arrangements, of course; there were wreaths from the Greek and Japanese embassies, and from several giant foreign corporations. A casual glance at the floral splendor in the old church would make one think the old man had been much loved, but there was scarcely a greeting from a single friend, because he'd had no friends. At least not in recent years. He had grown very old, and most of the few friends from his youth had crept under their coffin lids long before he did. In a sense, the old man had probably helped to drive his friends into an early grave with his difficult, nagging ways and his everlasting whims, follies, ideas, and attacks of rage that had caused those closest to him agonizing moments and long, wakeful nights. He had been one of those people who seem to absorb the strength of others, and perhaps that was why he had grown so old. He had also been miserly. For the last thirty years he'd had no close friends at all, so it was a lonesome man who lay in the oak coffin up there by the altar; respected, of course, for his power and glory, but lonely. People bowed before the casket when they came in, bowed for the mining company, for the shipping company equities and the art collection, bowed for the fruit imports and large stockholdings in the paper industry, but no one bowed for a friend. His wife had died early, and he had no living children; however, a long string of nephews, nieces, grandnephews, third cousins, and an endless number of more distant shoots on the family tree were now gathered expectantly in the three front rows of pews. It was a rare family gathering. None of them had been particularly close to him. And despite all the beautiful memorial tributes, and despite the preacher's arduously prepared sermon---he shone like a grief-stricken orange from the pulpit—nobody had really known him. With the possible exception of one person. And that possibility was what everyone feared.
Cheerful white sunlight streamed through the windows as the preacher spoke, the floral arrangements glowed in pastel spring colors and put the entire congregation in a festive mood somehow. Even the organ music in a minor key could not destroy the impression of something beautiful, something proper, here within these white wooden walls. For the expectant family the only fly in the ointment was the girl sitting there, somewhat hidden in the third row.
Now and then they stole sidelong glances at her; yes, she looked sad, but not too sad. For the most part she sat staring down at her blue corduroy skirt. It looked homemade. "Too bad she has long arras," whispered Aunt Gussi to Aunt Ella, who promptly began busily looking in the hymnbook. That Gussi—she could never restrain herself. But what if it was true, about the tattooing? At least they hadn't seen the much-discussed ring in her nose, the ring Peder always called the enfant terrible ring, whatever he meant by that. But it probably could be removed for solemn occasions.
"As we bid farewell today," said the preacher. Uncle Christian sat in a dark suit in the middle of the front row, squeezed in next to his brother Peder. Company manager Christian Bolt had a good grasp of the firm's day-to-day operation, and everyone assumed that he ... Yes. It must be he. He was not at all sure himself. He stole a quick furtive glance at the girl sitting back there with downcast eyes. He saw only her hair, not her face. God knows what the old man might have come up with. That would certainly be a feather in Peder's cap. The thought did not make Christian Bolt very happy. And he suspected the old man might have come up with a little of everything just to annoy him, Christian. The brothers were in their fifties and were like two peas in a pod—as businessmen often are. Peder, the younger of the two, was assistant manager and had the least to do, so he was always suntanned. Christian looked at his brother's brown hand resting on the pew beside his own pale one; he felt tired and overworked, and in moments like this he sensed he was moving too quickly toward the Great Beyond. He just didn't want Peder to think he had missed out on anything. The workday in the old tyrant's service had been much too long; the old man had never wanted to die, let alone give away anything. God knows what he might have come up with. He stole another quick furtive glance at the girl.
"But Death is a friend," the preacher intoned, "who releases and opens." The sermon dragged on, and the audience began staring up into the air. A strange custom, thought Aunt Gussi, to hang a boat under the ceiling. Outside was the early summer day, bright and enticing, and lawyer Holst had already set a meeting for that evening at the old man's estate. There was much to divert attention from the sermon that day.
Despite discretion and the duty not to divulge confidential matters, the family knew the old man had been to town just once in the past year, when he had gone to the lawyer's office. Suddenly he had stood in the doorway of the venerable office on the third floor; he had climbed all the steps alone and had created an infernal commotion because the secretary did not immediately recognize him but, on the contrary, asked if he had an appointment; and also because lawyer Holst, who did not have extrasensory perception and so could not anticipate the old man's unexpected arrival, was out of the office. The old man was like a comet, a truly unpredictable one that usually stayed in distant invisible celestial spheres and only showed itself near Earth once in a blue moon. The lawyer was tracked down with the help of a mobile phone; he was in an important bankruptcy meeting at the bank, but when he heard who was in the waiting room at his office he turned pale and trembled so violently the mahogany table reverberated and instant coffee could not alleviate his shaking. Lawyer Holst left the failing bank at once and reached his office, fourteen minutes later, a personal record for that distance. Then the old man disappeared into the lawyer's office and stayed there a long time. The lawyer had requested the folder containing his will, and Andersen, the old man's jack-of-all-trades, had to witness something or other along with a secretary. Then Andersen drove the old man home. And that was the last time the testator was seen in town. It was disturbing.
The preacher had much to say about the old man's long adventurous life, from the time he mined gold in Africa as a young geologist in, the thirties and survived both malaria and murder attempts, to the mysterious and dubious years when he was said to have worked with rubber and rashness in the Far East and to have discovered a revolutionary new distillation method that made him even richer, until he resurfaced again in London during the war, where he attracted attention by turning up at lunch with King Haakon at Foliejon Park in January dressed in a tropical suit and sandals. The preacher had to slide over what happened after the war; he did not mention that the old man liked to shatter glasses at board meetings and that he sent his exhausted brothers to an early grave. Instead, the preacher said a few words about his support for art. After the old man moved to the family residence at Ekelund his appearances in the capital city grew increasingly rare, but he still held the business in a firm grip and regularly called the family to Ekelund to take them to task. This was also the period when he got his research notion, and when the: senile old alchemist enthusiastically poured money into crazy projects, from nuclear physics to zoology and horticulture, and filled Ekelund with strange animals and things—until he disappeared entirely into great and lofty loneliness and his isolation became complete. The family gnashed their teeth. The preacher said nothing about this either.
During the final decades of his life, he had been almost inaccessible; he buried himself in his studies and his sumptuous estate with his art, his garden, and his bees.
With one exception, however. In the very last year of his life the old black sheep had had company in his tyrannical loneliness, from the family's black lamb, a slightly peripheral grandniece. Lea. Months went by before the family heard that Lea lived at Ekelund, helped the old man with the garden and beehives, and also assisted Andersen in the house. For that matter, it was just like old Bolt to shower his love on precisely her. It was very disturbing. She had been sweet as a child, they recalled, serious, mature for her age, and somewhat remote, with black ribbons in her hair—always black ribbons; her widowed mother put them on the child. But then came the difficult years, and the black ribbons disappeared irretrievably. Lea probably resembled her mother. Or maybe she simply resembled her granduncle. In any case: somehow or other these two family rejects, the old man and the young girl, had met each other. The family cast stolen glances toward the slight figure in the third row, while the preacher talked and talked, about the resurrection and the life; her face was tilted down toward her lap the whole time and was almost hidden by all the blond hair. They shuddered at the unpleasant thought of the past year's symbiosis between those two out there at Ekelund. God only knew what it might lead to.
The family thought about all of this.
"And the peace of God," the pastor quoted, "that passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and your minds."
But Lea, sitting there in the third row, thought about the silent trip in the ambulance and about the old man's face, helpless and frightened as a baby's. His hands fumbling for hers. The tires singing, singing in the wet spring night. And the strange feeling of time, of an eternity of time, the feeling that nothing was urgent where they were driving. She remembered the oddly reassuring look he gave her when they arrived at the hospital, friendly and resigned at the same time, while she gently stroked his hair. His hair was clammy with cold sweat. She had never touched it before. She thought about what he had whispered before they came with their tubes and everything suddenly began happening so quickly again and his eyes seemed to fill with smoke. As Lea sat looking down at her skirt, she told herself that he was the only person in the family who had acted real toward her, even until the last evening.
"Brothers!" quoted the pastor, "I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal."
In her mind, Lea saw her uncle; from beneath his white mustache he sent her a gruff, uncertain laugh as she opened one of his beehives for the first time, her hands numb with fear—as if he wondered whether she was good for anything at all. Sitting there, Lea did not know if she had been good for anything.
Was she good for anything?
"I wonder," he answered her from far away in the sunlight of that day, "how bees can know, even before the day begins, that precisely today the red clover will bloom, and fly toward it, while the next morning know that today it's the heather's turn, and set out in a completely different direction. How can all these small insects simultaneously know, without a brain, without knowing anything, that today they should visit this meadow, and tomorrow that one?"
The bees buzzed around them, numbed and sleepy; the air was pungent with smoke and beeswax. The sight of tens of thousands of creeping insects had an unpleasant effect on Lea, it made her scalp prickle, but the old man's face was serene behind fine-meshed black netting. "On the whole," he said, as he carefully put down the smoke blower, "it's a question of knowing without knowing."
"Knowing without knowing?" she had to ask.
"And wanting without wanting. If you want something too intensely, things fall apart in your hands. You start to doubt everything. As soon as you let go, everything comes to you. Then you know, without knowing."
"Is that true in business too, Uncle?" she asked in a slightly mocking tone, which she immediately regretted, but he was not offended.
"In business too. Here, hold this for a while." He gave her the smoke blower. Slowly and carefully he lifted out a dripping golden honeycomb. "Actually, it applies to everything one does," he grunted, "or it ought to apply. To everything. Careful now, you've got to move slowly, or they get irritable. Like me."
But Lea also remembered the very first day, when she had stood outside the big house in the rain and rung the bell, without wanting anything at all, without knowing how she had gotten there, almost without knowing who she was.
"And who ate you?" he barked. He towered in the doorway, tall and thin and terrible, with white hair and rubber boots. The depths of his eyes glittered with old age and primitive rage as he scrutinized her. "Well?" he snarled, when she had introduced herself. He looked disapprovingly at her backpack and wet clothing. "You can't stay here. Nobody is welcome here. Andersen will drive you to the train." And how should she reply to that? Ever since she was a child she had heard how awful he was, how impossible and stingy and hostile toward the family; she had heard all the stories about the strange things he did, heard that he sent family members a bill for each minute it took to read the letters they sent him, heard all the whispered suggestions about nursing homes and a legal declaration of incompetence; but an old man who cared for ten beehives and a park with a greenhouse all on his own did not let himself be declared incompetent so easily. When Lea met the old man she was terrified and did not know what to say. She did not know anything, was just soaking wet. So she said nothing. The old man gave her a hasty look, turned on his heel, and disappeared into the house. She noticed that he limped. He shut the door firmly behind him.
As she sat on the front steps looking out across the coarse gravel driveway, the tears had come. She clung to her backpack, clutched it as if it were an old traveling companion who had seen and understood everything. When the door opened behind her, she thought it was this Andersen who was going to drive her out into the world again, send her out into the breakers from which she had just struggled ashore. But it was the old man, and he said:
"All right. It's getting late. There are no more trains tonight. I'm a bad host. Do you want to come inside?" He did not apologize; that would not be like him. But he said: "We have a room, if you'll take what you get. Until tomorrow," he growled. Then two strong hands arrived, Andersen's, and helped her to her feet, She remembered almost nothing from the trip to the second floor, just a few glimpses of dark furniture and a tapestry hanging in the stairwell, along with the look the old man sent her from below as he watched her being shown upstairs to bed. He looked a little worried. A little. Then she remembered the cool sheets and sleep that came like a gentle kiss; in a final whiplash of wakefulness she thought: Just so he doesn't call home. Then she slept. When she woke, she had slept half a day and a whole night. Bees tapped gently on the windowpane, sunshine filled the room. Outside, the world was green and light. For a moment she felt completely calm; she jumped out of bed, peered outside. There lay the garden with all the flowers, the garden she had heard so many stories about, and there, down there in the corner, something brown padded around on two feet, a pair of wise old eyes met hers, frightened. Then the eyes disappeared behind some raspberry bushes and were seen no more. So it was true after all, everything in the stories she had heard.
Excerpted from TALES OF PROTECTION by Erik Fosnes Hansen. Copyright © 1998 by Erik Fosnes Hansen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.