Before I Burn: A Novel

Before I Burn: A Novel


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555976613
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 01/07/2014
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 606,090
Product dimensions: 10.10(w) x 7.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Gaute Heivoll's Before I Burn was a bestseller in Norway. The novel won the Brage Prize and was nominated for the Critics Prize and the Booksellers' Prize, and has been sold in more than twenty countries.

Read an Excerpt

Before I Burn

By Gaute Heivoll, Don Bartlett

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2010 Gaute Heivoll
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-084-0



A FEW MINUTES PAST MIDNIGHT on the morning of Monday, 5 June 1978, Johanna Vatneli switched off the kitchen light and carefully closed the door. She took the four steps through the cold hall, opened the door to the bedroom a fraction, causing a strip of light to fall across the grey woollen rug they had spread over the bed, even though it was summer. Inside, in the darkness, Olav, her husband, lay asleep. She stood for some seconds on the threshold listening to his heavy breathing, then went into the small bathroom, where she let the tap run quietly, as she always did. She stood bent over, washing her face, for a long time. It was cold in there; she was standing barefoot on the rag mat and could feel the hard floor beneath her feet. For a moment she looked herself in the eye. This wasn't something she usually did. She leaned forwards and stared into the black pupils. Then she tidied her hair and drank a glass of water from the tap. Finally, she changed her knickers. They were covered in blood. She folded them and put them in a bowl of water to soak overnight. She pulled a nightie over her head, and at that moment, in her abdomen, she felt a stabbing pain, the one that was always there but had worsened recently, particularly if she stretched or lifted something heavy. It was like a knife.

Before switching off the light she removed her teeth and dropped them with a plop into the glass of water on the vanity shelf under the mirror, beside Olav's.

Then she heard a car.

It was dark in the living room, but the windows, strangely shiny and black, gleamed as though from a dim light outside in the garden. She walked to the window and peered out. The moon had risen above the treetops to the south, she saw the cherry tree, which was still in blossom, and had it not been for the mist she would have been able to see right down to Lake Livannet in the west.

A car with no lights on drove past the house and continued at a slow pace along the road towards the collection of homesteads known as Maesel. The car was black, or perhaps red; she couldn't tell. Not moving at any great speed, it finally rounded the bend and was gone. She stood by the window waiting for one, two, perhaps three minutes. Then she went into the bedroom.

'Olav,' she whispered. 'Olav.'

No answer. He was in his usual deep sleep. She hurried back into the living room, knocked into the chair arm, hurting her thigh, and reached the window in time to see the dark car returning. It was coming out of the bend, and continued slowly past the living room wall. It must have turned around by the Knutsens' house, but no one was living there, they had travelled back to town the night before, she had seen them leaving herself. Outside, she heard the crunch of tyres. The low purr of the engine. The sound of a radio. Then the car ground to a halt. She heard a door open, then silence. Her heart was in her mouth. She went back into the bedroom, put on the light and shook her husband. This time he woke, but he didn't get up until they both heard a loud bang and a tinkle of breaking glass from the kitchen.

As soon as she entered the hall she smelt the pervasive stench of petrol. She yanked open the kitchen door and was met by a wall of flames. The whole room was ablaze. It must have taken a matter of seconds. The floor, the walls, the ceiling; the flames were licking upwards and wailing like a large, wounded animal. She stood in the doorway paralysed with shock. Deep within the wails she recognised – even though she had never heard it before – the sound of glass cracking. She lingered there until the heat became too intense. It was as though her face was being detached, dragged down from her forehead and over her eyes; her cheeks, her nose and mouth.

That was when she saw him. She caught no more than a glimpse lasting two or three seconds. He was a black shadow outside the window, on the other side of the sea of flames. He was rooted to the spot. As she was. Then he tore himself away and was gone.

The hall was already filled with smoke; it seeped through the wall from the kitchen and lay under the ceiling like thick fog. She groped her way to the telephone, lifted the receiver and dialled Ingemann's number at Skinnsnes, the number, after the events of recent days, she had written in black felt pen on a notelet. As her finger turned the dial she considered what to say. This is Johanna Vatneli. Our house is on fire.

The telephone was dead.

At that moment the electricity short-circuited, there was an explosion in the fuse box, sparks flew from the socket by the mirror, the light went out and everything went black. She grabbed Olav's hand, and they had to fumble their way across the floor until they reached the front door. The cool night air was sucked in at once, and in no time at all the fire had a better grip; they heard several dull thuds and then a roar as the flames broke through the ceiling into the upper storey and were soon licking at the inside of the windows.

In my mind's eye, I have seen this fire so many times. It was as if the flames had been waiting for this moment, for this night, for these minutes. They wanted to burst into the darkness, stretch skywards, illuminate, be free. And then they really were free. Several panes cracked at once, glass tinkled and the flames were unleashed, they reached outwards and upwards, into the air, and immediately bedecked the garden in an unreal, yellow light. No one has been in a position to describe the fire to me because no one was there apart from Olav and Johanna, but I have seen everything in my head. I have seen the nearest trees edging even nearer in this light, seeming to collect and glide silently and imperceptibly to the centre of the garden. I have seen Johanna dragging Olav down the five steps, into the long grass, beneath the old cherry tree that seemed cast in stone, with thick grey moss up the trunk, through the garden and out onto the road where she considered them safe. There they stood staring at the house they had occupied since 1950. They didn't say a word, there was nothing to say. After perhaps a minute she tore herself away while Olav remained where he was, dressed only in a nightshirt. In the flickering light he resembled a small child. His jaw hung open and his lips moved as though struggling to form a word that did not exist. Johanna dashed back through the garden, past the fruit bushes and apple trees that had only come into bloom a few days ago. Dew had fallen on the grass, and the hem of her nightie was wet around her ankles. Standing on the steps, she could feel the intense, billowing heat from the kitchen and the whole of the east- facing floor.

Then she went in.

Some of the smoke inside the hall had dispersed, so it was possible to see the kitchen door, which was still closed, and the living room door, which was wide open. She ventured a few cautious steps across the floor. On all sides she was surrounded by roaring and cracking, but it was upstairs that she was heading. Every forward movement was accompanied by a stab in her lower abdomen. The knife was wrenched out and thrust in. She grabbed the banister and hauled herself up until she was on the landing between the rooms on the first floor. She opened the door to what had been Kåre's room, and inside, everything was as before. There was his bed, white and neatly made, the way it had been for all the years since he died. There was his wardrobe, the chair on which he had rested his crutches, the picture of the two children playing by the waterfall and the angel of the Lord hovering above them, they were all there. Her bag, too, the one containing three thousand kroner. It was in the top drawer of the dresser, which was still full of Kåre's clothes, and the moment she caught sight of one of his old shirts – it was the one with a little tear above the chest – she felt she no longer had the strength to make her way back down. It was as if she suddenly gave up everything at the mere sight of the shirt. She dropped the bag on the floor with a thud and sat down gently on the bed. She sensed the mattress springs and the old, familiar, comforting creaks beneath her. The smoke was rising through the cracks in the floor, collecting and advancing to the ceiling. In front of her eyes a serene figure of smoke appeared to be slowly taking shape. It had arms, hands, feet and a hazy face. She lowered her head and mouthed a silent prayer with no beginning and no end, a couple of sentences, nothing more. But then there was a loud, sharp report from directly behind her, and it was enough for her to forget all else, jump up and beat a hasty retreat. She was back inside herself, the smoke wraith had gone, the room was totally befogged and it was hard to breathe. She snatched the bag and ran onto the landing. Hurried down the stairs and descended into a thick, acrid blanket of smoke that stung every part of her face. She realised it was coming from all their clothes in the bedroom, which were smouldering and on the point of catching fire. Her throat tightened, she felt nauseous, her eyes streamed, but she knew exactly where to go to reach the door. For the last few metres she fumbled blindly, but of course she had been this way so many times before and she found the door with ease. Once on the steps outside she felt the heat seeming to press her from behind and push her several paces from the house. She filled her lungs with pure, fresh night air and sank to her knees. I have seen her in my mind's eye, kneeling in the grass surrounded by light that changed from yellow to almost white, to orange and almost red. She knelt with her face in the grass as she gradually recovered her breath. At length, she dragged herself to her feet, but by then neither Olav nor anyone else was anywhere to be seen. She scrambled up the slope to her neighbour's house, which was now fully illuminated by the fire. Her neighbour came charging out before she had time to knock. It was Odd Syvertsen. He had been woken by the light. She grabbed his arm, either holding him tight or supporting herself so as not to fall. All she could manage was a whisper, but he heard every word.

'I can't find Olav.'

Odd Syvertsen moved first, leaping for the phone while Johanna rushed down the slope and back onto the road. The house was now fully ablaze. Loud crackles and bangs were still echoing around Lake Livannet and into the mountain ridges westwards. It sounded as if the sky itself was being torn apart. The flames were like large wild birds twisting around one another, above one another, into one another, they wanted to break free, but could not. In the space of minutes the fire had grown tall and powerful. Yet all around her there was this strange silence. I have seen all of this. A house is burning at night. It is the first few minutes, before people have been alerted. All around there is silence. There is only the fire. The house stands there alone and no one can save it. It has been left to its fate, to its destruction. The flames and the smoke are being sucked up into the sky, or so it seems; there are creaks and groans, like distant responses. It is frightening, it is terrible and it is beyond comprehension.

And it is almost beautiful.

Johanna called Olav's name. First once, then twice, then four times. It was eerie to hear your own voice alongside the sound of the flames. The trees seemed to have moved even closer to the house. They were extending their branches. Curious, panic- stricken. With stabbing pains in the pit of her stomach she ran around to the outbuilding. To her it felt as if a huge abscess inside had been lanced and hot blood was escaping.

He was standing between the house and the barn, caught in the intense light. His nightshirt flapped around his body, although there wasn't a breath of wind and he stood without moving. Coming closer, she discovered that the wind was issuing from the fire itself, a gust that boded ill, a gust that was both ice cold and voraciously hot. She pulled him away and they ran back up to the road, where they stood, huddled together, as Odd Syvertsen came bounding down the incline. He was flurried and out of breath as he joined the elderly couple. He tried to move them away from the overpowering heat, but it was impossible. They wanted to watch their house burn to the ground. Neither was able to utter a single word. Olav stood like stone, though the nightshirt softened his appearance with the cool white fabric wrapped around his shoulders and arms. Their faces were lit up, clear, pure, as if age had been erased. Then the fire suddenly took hold of the old cherry tree outside the kitchen window. The one that always flowered so early and that Kåre had always climbed. In late summer it was laden with fruit, I have been told, and the largest and sweetest cherries always hung on the branches furthest from reach. Now it was alight. The fire swept through the blossom and branches, and then seared the entire crown of the tree with a distinctive crackle. Afterwards a high-pitched voice was heard, but it was impossible to tell whether it belonged to either Johanna or Olav: Lord God Almighty. Lord God Almighty.

I have seen it all in my mind's eye. It was the eighth fire, it was a little after half past twelve, early on the morning of 5 June 1978.

Then the fire engine arrived.

They heard the sirens from as far afield as Fjeldsgårdsletta, or perhaps even further away, perhaps right up by the chapel at Brandsvoll, perhaps they heard the fire alarm wailing in Skinnsnes, too? It is not inconceivable, since you can hear it from the church. But, anyway, they heard the fire engine. The sirens grew louder, shriller, more piercing, and soon they could discern the blue lights racing past the old sand-casting works at the end of Lake Livannet, past the slaughterhouse, the Shell petrol station and the priest's house with the balcony, past the old schoolhouse in Kilen and Kaddeberg's shop, before the fire engine slowed as it climbed the hill to the few houses at Vatneli.

It stopped and a young man jumped out and came running towards them. 'Anyone inside?' he yelled.

'They got out,' Odd Syvertsen said, but the man didn't seem to hear. He ran back to the fire engine, unhitched several coiled hoses and threw them out in no particular order. They rolled down the road like wheels and toppled over. Then he opened some sliding doors, tossed a couple of axes onto the ground, and a solitary helmet, which rocked to and fro on the gravel. He stood for a few seconds gazing at the flames, his arms hanging limply by his sides. For a few seconds he stood beside Olav, Johanna and Odd Syvertsen, and they had the appearance of a group, observing the incomprehensible event that was taking place.

Four cars arrived at great speed. They each parked some way behind the fire engine, turned off their lights, and four men dressed in black came running over.

'There may be people inside,' the young man shouted. He was wearing a thin, white shirt that fluttered around his lean chest. He uncoupled two of the hoses from the powerful water pump at the front of the fire engine while two other men stood waiting for the water to issue forth. At that moment there was such a huge explosion within the blaze that the ground shook and everyone doubled up as if they had been hit in the stomach by a shell. Someone burst into laughter, it was impossible to see who, and Odd Syvertsen put an arm around Olav and Johanna, and shepherded them away with an affectionate but firm pull, leading them up the slope to his house. This time they obeyed without a word. He got them inside and dialled Knut Karlsen's number. He and his wife came at once – they had been awoken by the sirens and the vivid mass of flames – and in the ensuing hours it was decided that Olav and Johanna could move into their cellar until things had eased.


Excerpted from Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll, Don Bartlett. Copyright © 2010 Gaute Heivoll. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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