Children of God

Children of God

by Lars Petter Sveen


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Daring and original stories set in New Testament times, from a rising young Norwegian author

Lars Petter Sveen’s Children of God recounts the lives of people on the margins of the New Testament; thieves, Roman soldiers, prostitutes, lepers, healers, and the occasional disciple all get a chance to speak. With language free of judgment or moralizing, Sveen covers familiar ground in unusual ways. In the opening story, a group of soldiers are tasked with carrying out King Herod’s edict to slaughter the young male children in Bethlehem but waver in their resolve. These interwoven stories harbor surprises at every turn, as the characters reappear. A group of thieves on the road to Jericho encounters no good Samaritan but themselves. A boy healed of his stutter will later regress. A woman searching for her lover from beyond the grave cannot find solace. At crucial moments an old blind man appears, urging the characters to give in to their darker impulses.

Children of God was a bestseller in Norway, where it won the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize and gathered ecstatic reviews. Sveen’s subtle elevation of the conflict between light and dark focuses on the varied struggles these often-ignored individuals face. Yet despite the dark tone, Sveen’s stories retain a buoyancy, thanks to Guy Puzey’s supple and fleet-footed translation. This deeply original and moving book, in Sveen’s restrained and gritty telling, brings to light stories that reflect our own time, from a setting everyone knows.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555978204
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 10/16/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 590,580
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lars Petter Sveen was named one of Norway’s ten best authors under thirty-five by Morgenbladet, and has received Tarjei Vesaas’ Debutant Prize and the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize. Children of God is his first book to be translated into English.

Read an Excerpt



It was in the days of Herod the Great, in Bethlehem, and we were on the lookout for a little king of the Jews who'd been born. The stars were out, and we'd come to kill him.

Tuscus barged through the door ahead of Cato, who took the lead, sword in hand, while I followed. Celsus stayed outside. An old married couple were kneeling in the small room. A weak oil lamp cast a flicker of light on the pair. Cato pointed his sword at them. He was in charge; he was our officer. He opened his mouth, but instead of saying something, he doubled over and threw up on the floor. Tuscus took a step away.

"Cato," I said, but he paid no attention to me. The old couple stared at Cato and at all the vomit pouring out of him. I walked toward them with my hand resting on the hilt of my sword. If anything happened, I would have to take over; we'd trained for this. A dog, or something like it, howled outside. My breath smelled rotten.

Cato vomited once again. His sword made a groaning sound as he let it scrape along the floor. It was too much for him, all these babies.

How many boys had we killed just to get one little one?

I looked at the old couple. I looked around at what little they owned.

"Are there children here?" I asked.

The old man shook his head. "No children," he said, his wife beginning to cry.

"Celsus," I shouted. Celsus appeared at the doorway.

"We're coming out. We're finished here," I said. Celsus looked at Cato, nodded, and hurried back to his position outside. Tuscus turned around, touched what was left of the door he'd torn down, and muttered something. I went over to Cato and helped him up.

Cato looked at me. His eyes were red and slaver was hanging from his mouth.

"I'm sorry, Capito," he said. "You shouldn't have to see me like this." He got up, sheathed his sword, and spat on the floor.

"Come on," he said, and we went out.

We changed formation. Cato and I went in front, with Tuscus and Celsus right behind us. Tuscus's large hands swayed back and forth in a strange rhythm. Celsus, with his blond hair gleaming in the night as if he'd been sprinkled with dust from that bright star.

Celsus just stood outside each door, listening and pushing back inside anybody who tried to come out. "Oh Celsus," said Cato at one point, his eyes bright and a strange warmth radiating from him.

"You're always the one holding the fort, Celsus." To which Tuscus added: "The only thing he's holding on to is his dick. We're the ones who have to do the dirty work."

Our orders were hopeless. We'd been summoned from our base in Caesarea to serve in Jerusalem, and then, out of nowhere, we were asked to put together a small elite unit — only purebloods — and travel to Bethlehem. There was talk of some Jewish king having been born. King Herod wanted to put an end to the rumors. He hired us, paid us to do his bidding. We were to kill all boys in the town aged two or younger. King Herod couldn't trust Jews to do such a thing to their own people, but it was hard even for us. How many were there in this city? Who knew where the baby boys were? We broke into houses where people couldn't understand what we were saying. When we found children, who knew how old they were? We asked their mothers, who screamed back. We asked their fathers, but they refused to answer. Cato said we were to kill every single one we found, no more questions, just get it over and done with. As the night went on, Cato spoke more and more, his voice getting higher and weaker. He hailed us after we came out of each house, telling us General Pompey would've been proud of us.

"They'll hear of us in Rome. We'll get our own section in the victory procession after this feat."

He carried his sword in his hand, never stopping to dry the blood off it. The men we shoved aside didn't dare look at him, while the women stood against the walls, whimpering their children's names and the name of their god.

But we were getting tired. We'd started off counting all the children, but I lost track of the number as the night went on. Our orders were hopeless: this wasn't what we were fighting for. How long had we trained, how much had we practiced with sticks, with those damned wooden swords, how much had we yelled at each other? We'd been trained for major battles, we'd been trained to be powerful opponents, but instead we'd been sent to this place at the edge of the Empire, where everything was so mixed up, so confusing.

The enemies didn't line up with their armies on the battlefields; it was impossible to keep track of all the groupings and all the factions. Herod ruled as a client king by the grace of Emperor Augustus. Some people supported Herod and cooperated with him, while others moaned and grumbled. We were sent a number of times to clear out insurgents, whether they were poor people with no weapons or small gangs hiding in the hills. We often had to help those who despised us, going on patrol to chase away thieves, getting only angry looks in return, before being ordered to move back into the same areas to suppress revolts among the very people we'd been helping. All those small rural places were like a tinderbox ready to be set alight.

"We're done for this evening," said Cato. He spat and asked us to find water. He stank. We all stank. The stars were burning in the sky, one more brightly than the others. None of us had ever seen anything like it.

"It's cold," Tuscus said in a hushed voice, while Celsus said he wanted to sleep. A woman started wailing behind a wall just next to us. Cato looked sleepily toward the noise. Several lights were lit. I asked the others to check if they had all their kit. Tuscus answered that he did, Celsus too. I reported to Cato, who nodded. His face was dim in the night, like dying embers. The sounds of howling cut through the cold air.

"Dogs," I said. Cato turned toward me.

"What have we become?" he asked. I asked him what he meant.

"Let the dogs come," he said. Tuscus and Celsus were standing behind us; I could hear them breathing.

"I beg you, dogs," said Cato, his voice lower but facing out into the night. "Come and help yourselves so all this can be over."

"Cato," I said.

"Come on, dogs," said Cato. "Come on."

"What are you talking about?" said Tuscus.

"Nothing," I said, as more screams rang out. It was like a song dissipating between the buildings, before suddenly striking up again like a vast, displaced choir.

"Let's go home," I said.

"Home," said Cato, the word taking a strange form as he said it.

"We're going back," I said. Cato nodded vaguely. Tuscus looked like he wanted to say something, but he kept it to himself. Then he did open his mouth after all, but I told him to shut up.

"Let's head back," I said. "We need to rest."

None of us had been home in ages, but I didn't want to talk about it then. I cursed myself for using that word. There in Bethlehem, we were supposed to stay a few nights in an empty building on the edge of the small town. It wasn't far from Jerusalem, where we'd been quartered in the Antonia Fortress. But I liked it best in Caesarea. It was right by the sea, and on clear days I would try to see all the way across the water, all the way home to our own land. I could see home when I closed my eyes to sleep or when I smelled the plants damp after the rain, but it was happening less and less. I didn't think I was doing anything important for the Empire being where I was. It wasn't where the battles would be fought. All we did was wait and do our duty. Something bigger would come our way, I was sure of it.

But it was night, Cato was ill, and it was my responsibility to get us back after we'd completed our mission.

The chorus of wails had not died down and could still be heard like a wind blowing from the wilderness. I thought of the dogs that always came to scavenge the bodies of people we hung up, and the others we left lying, and I thought of the noises they made as they fought for their food, but this was something different. It wasn't snarling or howling; it wasn't the sound of four-legged animals. It belonged to the wind or the rain or the sea or whatever grows in the depths below. I had no idea how I'd get to sleep. None of us had any idea how we'd get to sleep. We did whatever we could to put off having to shut our eyes and be left alone in the dark.

Cato got undressed and stood there, naked in front of the small square opening in the wall that led out to the night. I lay down on the floor and tried to stretch my back. Tuscus and Celsus kneaded each other's muscles while they stared into space.

"It wasn't right, what we did," Cato mumbled. "We shouldn't have accepted this mission, it wasn't worthy of the Empire."

"I thought we would fight for Rome," said Tuscus. "Not go around sacrificing Jewish babies."

Celsus lay down and rolled over. Cato scratched his genitals as he went on muttering to himself. He was getting on my nerves. What was wrong with him? He was supposed to be a leader. He was the best among us; I could never beat him when we fought or trained together.

I asked how he was doing and whether his touch of sickness had passed.

"Shut up," said Cato. "I'm not sick, it's gone now."

"Are you sure?" I asked. "I don't want that damn stuff all over me tonight."

Cato came across until he was standing over me.

"Young or old, who cares?" I said. "I wasn't the one who started throwing up like a girl. Shit, you've probably caught some Jewish disease."

Before I could even get up, his punches hit me on both sides of my face. I pinched my nose and felt around to see if any teeth had fallen out in my mouth. Cato told Tuscus to bring me the washbowl.

"Get yourself cleaned up," he told me.

I called him a damn fool, a wet rag.

"Shut up and get washed," he said. I took the washbowl.

"Who's a little girl now?" Tuscus smirked. Celsus lifted his head before quietly lying back down. Cato got dressed and lay down.

"I'm not sick," he said. "It's gone now."

I looked over at him with his crooked nose and great chin. His mouth twitched like the small shivers of a hurt animal. He shut his eyes, then opened them again. Closed them and opened them.

"Those were our orders," he whispered. "It wasn't our fault, they were orders."

That very moment we heard a strange sound of weak laughter.

We stared at each other. There was the laughter again, louder this time. There was somebody in here with us. Tuscus was already on his feet. Cato signaled at him to stay calm.

"Oh, you can hear me, can you?" said a voice. It was a sharp voice, yet deep at the same time, like a knife grating through black sand.

"It wasn't nice of me to laugh at you," the voice continued, "but you're like little children, trapped in those beastly bodies of yours."

A man was sitting there, hidden in the shadows by the door. How had he got in? How long had he been sitting there? Cato got up and walked over to the stranger. Tuscus followed him. They'd both taken out the knives they always kept on them when they slept.

"Stop," said the stranger. "What good will it do you to cut holes in me? You've cut so many holes tonight that the town can't hold all the blood pouring out."

The stranger's eyes were a grayish white. He was older than any of us. A walking stick was leaning next to him where he sat.

"Who are you?" asked Cato.

The stranger breathed in, then let out a slight sigh of sorts before he spoke: "I'm blind, and yet I see many things. I'm what stays in the shadows while the light falls elsewhere. I'm here as an envoy of King Herod, but my knowledge extends all the way to Emperor Augustus and his generals."

We were all taken aback. I felt myself stand up straight.

"Everything changes," said the stranger, "but you men here may endure forever. The ancestors of those who belong in this land were kings. What about their descendants now? They're under your heel.

And what about your descendants, where will they be many hundreds of years from now? Under the heel of others. Even with all that's happened before, all that's happening now, and all that is yet to come over the hundred or thousand years of night ahead of us, know this: there's a place for you in this story. What you do now may be remembered. Children will sit and listen to their mothers and fathers telling the story. There's no yesterday or tomorrow in tales like these; there's no thousand years ago or thousand hence. Everything is now. Everything. Even the creatures that walked over this land before we existed. Even the things they'll build in worlds yet to come.

Roads, walls, palaces, and castles. The air will be filled with all of creation, and the birds will no longer fly alone."

The stranger stopped, leaning down toward the ground and shaking his head, before turning back to us, his eyes open.

"But now it's nighttime, and day will soon be upon us, so I'll be brief," he continued. "I've got a few little stories for you, if that's what I may call them. I want to tell you that you mustn't worry about what you've done tonight."

"We're not worried," I said. Cato turned toward me and told me to be quiet.

"Capito," said the stranger, suddenly seeming old. "You'll become a great warrior in this army. Maybe there's an officer in you too."

"How do you know who I am?" I asked. "I've never seen you before."

"I know who all of you are," said the stranger. "Otherwise I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now."

Then Cato spoke, asking the man to tell us who he was and what he was doing here, but I wished Cato would shut up. I just wanted to hear more. The stranger smiled, and his teeth were white, as if he had shining stones in his mouth. He held up his hands, and even though he wasn't near us, it felt as if he were touching our faces, stroking us on the cheek.

"You're skilled soldiers," he said. "Better than any Herod has ever had in this wretched realm of his. The best the rulers in Rome can send to a backwater like this. And you know that. You know what you are. Nobody can guard you like Celsus can, keeping an eye on everything that's going on in the evening darkness or at the market."

Celsus was still lying on his side, turned away from us. Nothing of what was being said appeared to stir him.

The stranger continued: "Nobody can walk like shadow better than Tuscus can, striking with the force of a lion, coming at an enemy like a leviathan from the ocean depths, dark, heavy, precise, and without mercy. You're a warrior melted down and reshaped into a new kind of soldier, a kind that generals dream of, and that the weak fear."

Tuscus looked down at himself. His giant hands hung down along his sides, and there was a strange motion in his fingers. It was as if Tuscus's whole body began to glow, and I was about to say how ridiculous he looked when the stranger said my name again. And now he seemed younger, his hair soft, his skin taut, and his eyes as clear as the coldest water.

"Capito, Capito," he said. "Maybe you're wondering what I'm about to say now. There's nothing to wonder about: you already know it. Everyone in this room knows it."

Then he said the words that have followed me ever since. I can still hear those words. They're like honey, like sweet wine. They make me feel warm, they sharpen my senses and make me drowsy at the same time. I dream of those words moving me through valleys, over desert sands, along walls, and over city squares with my sword in my hand. I am indestructible. I do things I can't explain, and so quickly, so accurately that I struggle to remember them. The world beneath my feet, a soft breeze brushing over my brow, the weight of iron in my hands, the sound of leather on my shoulders.

The stranger went quiet and straightened up. He turned his eyes to Cato.

"Cato," he said, but Cato gestured at the man to stop.

"Stay away from me," said Cato.

"I see you, Cato," the stranger continued. "Here you stand before us, handsome and ruthless. The generals in Rome know about you, I've seen it for myself, the people in the streets of Rome whisper about you: 'Cato, Cato, a future general, a man you can depend on to lead his soldiers through the deepest valleys and into the hardest battles, his men always trusting him like their own brother.'

Don't worry about the people we've defeated, those miserable subjects, don't listen to what they think is right or what they think is wrong. Look at this light," he said. Suddenly, the stranger was holding a burning stick in his hands. "Look at how the light falls. One moment one of my feet is in shadow, and the next it's in the light. It keeps changing," he said, moving the burning stick back and forth in front of him. "What's in the light, what's in the shadows, what's right, what's wrong. We'll go on living, we'll survive, from one day to another, from one ruler to the next."

"I don't know who you are," said Cato, interrupting him, "but you're talking crap. I don't believe you."

The stranger got up. He was tall, much taller than I'd thought. His head almost touched the low ceiling.

"Don't argue with me, little soldier," he said. He reached out to Cato, palms open. "You're carrying this load for us," he whispered.

"You, Cato, and your soldiers. Nobody can rule an inch of the Empire without you and your men."

"I've been cutting up children," said Cato.


Excerpted from "Children Of God"
by .
Copyright © 2014 H. Aschehoug & Co. (W. Nygaard), Oslo.
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Little Children, 3,
2. The Firstborn, 15,
3. I Smell of the Earth, 43,
4. Children of God, 59,
5. The Black Bird, 83,
6. We Are Alone, You Are Here, 115,
7. A Glimmer of Light, 137,
8. A Light Gone, 161,
9. All We Have Is the Water, 173,
10. Found and Lost, 189,
11. It Won't Go Away, 199,
12. Martha's Story, 211,
13. The Great Fire, 233,

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