The Ocean Doesn’t Care
– Now –
We drive West from the airport to where the rivers meet. For eight years, several hundred kilometers have lain between the Arctic circle and me. I’d forgotten that here nothing escapes scars. The shapes of the mountains, with sharp lines like screams, tell of millennia-long torture by ice. The birch trees, suffering from a disease, are withered and yellowing despite the spring. Trolled is the word for everything unsettling. We pass a trolled river which, for some reason my mother can’t remember, looks as if it’s running up the mountain. I play Dylan. My mother asks me to play something else. Her ex whom she doesn’t like to talk about loved Dylan.
Why were you with him, I ask.
I thought he’d be the next Hamsun, she says, so he told me. Turns out he was just a narcissist.
I don’t know how you figured marrying the next Hamsun was a bright idea, I say.
She stops the car to let a group of reindeer, three calves, five grown, across the road.
Do you remember, my mother says, how grandpa would always tell us the same stories over and over when we drove here?
Yes, I say, about playing soccer with the Germans, right?
Yes, and the tunnel they built all across the mountain, she says, because they couldn’t stand the wind.
Oh and when that American plane was shot down and nearly hit him, I say.
Yes, the pilots were Russian though, in an American plane. Can you imagine that? It hit a shed with a ton of coal that burnt for a week. It was hard to tell the bodies from the rest of the debris because they were so burnt. The first thing your grandmother remembered of life was witnessing that crash. She was three.
She starts the engine once the reindeer are safe on the other side.
I remember his basement, I say, how it was filled with things from all over the world that he’d gathered sailing.
Yes, she says, he had those pictures of topless Thai women which my mother only referred to as his darlings.
And a taxidermy puffer fish, I say.
The motel is run by Estonians. Their language is related to the language my ancestors spoke and which a lucky few still speak. There are more taxidermy animals than guests on site. A rabbit, a reindeer, a small wolf and even a sorry magpie, half black, half white. We check in, sleep shielded by thick curtains blocking the Sun, which barely sets at all this time of year, and the next day drive to the town.
My mother parks the car by the church. We climb the mountain towering over the town and the fjord. A memory surfaces once we pass the tree line, where nothing taller than heather grows. I was five, climbing up here for the first time, and saw a dead sharp-snout mouse in the moss. We’d buried my grandmother months before. I’d insisted on coming to the vigil in the hospital, not yet understanding what death meant, not yet being able to tell a goodbye from a farewell. Her lips were blue and she was wearing the gold dress she wore when she got married. I hid behind the curtains.
We reach the graveyard while walking down the mountain after our hike.
The church was the only structure left after they’d burnt everything, my mother says looking for the graves of our relatives. Every other building is from after the war.
The graves remind me of their names: Julianne, Johanna, Olaug, Ande, Kaspara, the American, Aksel and Bjørn. My mother reminds me how they died and who they were when they lived. I want to pull them out of darkness, out of the valley of the forgotten, out of the dirt and into memory.
– Before –
Eight months pregnant. Johanna has insomnia. Apart from two blue hours, the winter is painted by a darkness deaf to prayers. The arms on the bedroom clock might as well have stopped. Mikkel bought the watch when the ship he labored on before the invasion was resting in a harbor half a world away. It is of no use to her who cannot sleep when others do, made by the hands of people who have never been abandoned by the Sun. More than sixty hours have passed since she slept last.
Her stomach kicks. She turns in bed. Mikkel has not come home yet. Liquids separate them. When he is not at sea, the contents of a bottle carry him away with the determination of the ocean. Her parents never drink, her father fearing God too much, her mother because she doesn’t like it. Johanna’s pregnancy is further along than her mother’s was when she gave birth to her. At seven and a half months she fell off a ladder and went into labor. Johanna’s mother had told her she fit in her palms. In the day she slept in a shoe box with cotton. At night she slept by Olaug’s chest.
Sleeplessness corrupts her surroundings when she switches the light on. The hallucinations arrive in groups of three, as her nervous tics did, when she was young. In church she was forced to sing every line of the hymns thrice, standing and singing long after the rest of the congregation had sat. Some whispered that the Devil was compelling her to do so, but the priest parried back that Satan would twist her tongue to whistle, not sing the words of the gospel.
Her stomach kicks. Cotton sticks to her skin bound by cold sweat. She’s anxious that her sanity is melting under the heat of her thoughts. She switches the light off to see an end to the shadows, only to be overwhelmed by sound. Johanna gets out of bed. Her feet take her outside. She is dressed in only a nightgown, with only socks between her skin and the scarring snow.
Through a lashing blizzard she runs towards her parents’ house, on the opposite side of the field. The insomnia distorts the otherwise intimate knowledge she has of her land. Johanna doesn’t see the well fence veiled by a layer of snow. The ground vanishes beneath her feet. Her body enveloping the baby beats hard against the bricks as she falls. She plummets down the abyss. Johanna would’ve kept falling, if it wasn’t for the snow which reaches deep into the well, and is hard from the cold, and makes her able to suspend her legs and secure herself between the walls. She’s hanging above what seems like endless darkness, with her back fastened to one side of the well and her socks glued to another, her knees nearly touching her chest. The child in her womb weighs her down, making climbing up to safe ground impossible. She screams for help.
Past midnight. Julianne, her twin grandsons and her son in law, the American, are rowing across the fjord. The American prays to a God he fears more than death. He is terrified of the sea, even on quiet days. He is said to be of Northern Norwegian lineage, but there is nothing about him testifying to it. He is of no use to anyone, except the priest, and the men bet on what day he will die from boredom. Next Thursday, no, the following Sunday.
He came to the village from America after the daughter of a preacher accepted his proposal. His faith was firm going across the sea. He was sure of God while smelling only the stench of guts and salt from the water splashing onto deck, furious and never-ending like a torturer’s whip, for weeks. His faith was firm while the ship flooded in a storm. While he was mouse steps away from death by seasickness, clenching the photograph of the preacher’s daughter against his chest to shield him against it. He doubted God only when he reached Norway and she was married already. She never received his confirmation and plans of travel; the ship carrying the letter had sunk. He thought about going back, but it would be years before he could summon enough faith to face the waves. So he stayed and married Olaug, the daughter of Julianne and a fisherman who knew better than anyone how to follow the streams of fish by looking at their movements reflected on the Northern lights on the horizon.
He picked up the language quickly. He learned the names of everybody. Nobody learned his name. They called him the American. He has long since stopped correcting them. The newlyweds bought a farm in a foreclosure with the American’s money, which they came to regret when the bankrupt family cast a curse on them. They were trolled. Keeping animals proved impossible. The sheep gave birth to still-born lambs. The cows fell over and died if you looked at them the wrong way. The horse had a limp and could barely walk. The couple was childless until every member of the house’s original family were in the ground. Some said the conditions in their new home were to blame for their untimely deaths. Some said it was the curse firing back. In any case, Olaug and the American were married for ten years before Johanna was born.
Prayers won’t help you now; row, says Julianne, his mother in law, annoyed.
The American tears his hands apart and clenches the oars as he whispers amen. At age ten, his twin sons and Johanna’s younger brothers, Aksel and Bjørn, are better seafarers than he is. Ande, who works for the family and lives on their premises, has taken them out to fish for several years and Bjørn already knows that the storm does not pose a great risk. Aksel is ruled by senseless courage and wouldn’t know it if he ought to be scared. Julianne, their grandma, knows that they will reach the shore if God wills it. And the American’s crotch heats up then freezes from a stream of piss.
Hard to tell where the darkness ends and the waves begin tonight, he thinks, trying not to notice the crystals forming on his thighs. Yes, he goes on, the polar night dissolves borders, robs it all of distinction and meaning, sucks the essence out of one’s surroundings, and erases the outlines of everything. It doesn’t respect the difference between what floats and what sinks. We could be upside down, surrounded by bubbles instead of snow. It wouldn’t make a difference to the darkness. The darkness doesn’t care if my member freezes and falls off when I piss myself going across the fjord in the wind, he thinks. And what’s worse; neither would Olaug.
His eyes are weakened. The others see a great deal. Contours of the houses in the village where signs of life and light have been outlawed and covered by blackout curtains. Snow near the boat. A battleship. Julianne’s pipe, dead in the wind. Just as well if you asked the officer who had gone around saying that even the spark of a match failing to light up can be spotted from the air in a landscape as opaque as this. Julianne didn’t believe it.
They reach shore at one. The weather delayed them for several hours, and Kaspara, Julianne’s granddaughter and the cousin of the twins and Johanna, had been sent by her mother to ensure that her relatives got across the fjord. She helps them pull the boat back on land. Julianne pinches her cheek and reprimands her for staying up late when she is due to start making breakfast at the Battery in just a few hours.
– Now –
We visit my mother’s uncle in a home for the elderly. His skin is yellowing from either chemo or cancer or both. My mother would never admit she was Sami, he says. It was illegal back then, you know.
We nod. His fingers are trembling holding a coffee mug. The ocean is visible through the window.
Did you know I spent my seventh winter in one of those caves, he says, pointing to the sea.
My mother nods.
Now I know better than to call internal displacement evacuation, as they did, but in any case, my father didn’t want to be evacuated so we hid in a cave, he says, with your relative Johanna, her husband and her newborn son. His index and middle fingers shiver as they release from the mug to form quotation marks around the word evacuated. They were so sure it would only be a few weeks, he says, but the Sun was back on the sky by the time we could leave, only to find our house and everything else turned to ashes.
A nurse enters. Heia, she says, are you telling them all your stories? Without waiting for an answer she takes the coffee mug from his hands and puts it on the table and hands him three pills. He swallows and a frown forms between his brows. We’re all set, I won’t interrupt you any longer, she says, and smiles, and leaves.
Your aunt was born the summer after the war, he says looking at my mother. But she still understood, so that wasn’t a problem when we got married. She never judged me for the nightmares.
A tear runs from the corner of his eye when we leave. Thank you, he says, for visiting an old bloke on his overtime shift.
– Before –
Ande is sleeping in the barn. He has slept there since he lost his herd, getting shelter and a modest pay in return for work on the American and Olaug’s farm. He dreams of a reindeer calf, one antler broken off, falling off a mountain and wakes up abruptly. A warning. No doubt. He runs outside.
The wind lashes against his face and deepens the furrows of his skin. Running against the gusts slows him down, but the hard snow gives him a good grip. His father, whose name has already faded on the wooden cross which marks his grave, is standing by the well, body faint and incomplete as though seen through a frozen window, tall and upright with his arms hanging by his sides. When Ande gets closer, he turns, walks away, his arms still stiff, and fades.
He hears Johanna. Reaching the well he slows down, gets on his knees and bends over the fence. I’m here, he yells. He makes out her white nightgown in the darkness. She is beyond reach.
I need rope to get you out, just a little while longer love, you’ll be alright I promise.
Meanwhile, Kaspara is mute, walking alongside her grandmother. When they reach the road marking the end of the beach, they part ways with the American and his sons.
Entering the field, the American and the twins see Olaug and Ande running from the house towards the well. Ande sees them and calls out for help. They linger. He calls again. They run.
The girl is down there, Olaug yells as they approach.
The American says What? How?, Through heavy breaths.
How should I know, says Olaug. Stop talking and help us pull her out goddamn it.
Ande has a rope; he drops it down the well. Olaug instructs her husband and sons to hold it, tells them to throw their mittens on the ground to get better grips, while Ande coaches the girl. His voice does not betray his fear. Following his directions, Johanna gets her right hand through the loop. The rest of her arm follows, gripping the rope above the knot. Her left arm lets go, and she slips and screams. Burn marks form on the hands of her brothers, father and mother holding the rope. The American screams too. The loop tightens around her right hand. She hangs vertically. Blood is blocked at the limb which holds her body above the pit.
Johanna uses her feet to create momentum. She swings back and forth like a pendulum, and get her feet back up against the wall. Her left hand supports the right, which is white and bloodless and close to beating the rest of her flesh to death. She climbs and they pull. She uses her last strength to push herself over the fence and collapses onto safe ground. Olaug and Ande carry her to the house. Her father and brothers run ahead to prepare the bed.
Johanna sleeps until the following night. Her mother and Ande sit by her bed. The American prays on a bench in church, his ass numb and spirit consoled from hours against the wood.
Olaug asks Ande how were you warned?
While I slept, he says. My father was standing there when I got outside.
Julianne and Kaspara are there when Johanna wakes. Her lips are still blue and she is still confused when they ask her what happened:
Devils were dancing in my room and climbing up under my night dress, she says. Their shadows were hunting me.
She looks at her mother and asks what will happen to the baby?
– Now –
What happened to Johanna after the war, I ask my mother driving back to the motel after visiting my great uncle.
She was in and out of asylums, she says, probably what we’d call birth psychosis today, among other things. She was convinced her son was the devil. Olaug took her to a noaide in Finland, but he couldn’t cure her. Her heart stopped beating while she was still quite young. He didn’t turn out well though, her son, so in one way she was right. He moved to Oslo, used heroin and did some jailtime for violence. We went to his funeral when you were in high school, remember?
Yes, I say, I do.
On our last day we set out for The Home of Thousands, a natural formation of rocks by a lake which I’ve only visited once. It looked like a crown from a distance, with black and sharp stones huddled together vertically, pointing furiously towards the sky like they were about to penetrate it. My brother and I ran inside it and played that we were mountain kings, while our mother made lunch on a camp stove.
Walking up a path towards The Home of Thousands, we see a dead reindeer calf and stop. The mother is running around confused, without the rest of the herd, at a distance from us. She starts making angry noises and gets closer, so we continue our walk. She’s grieving, my mother says.
Wasn’t it around here that Johanna fell into a well, I ask, while we hurry up the hill to get away from the distressed deer.
Yes, while she was pregnant, she says. She’d had what was probably a psychotic episode. Ande, who many thought was her father, was warned in a dream by his father that she was down there. They were able to pull her out and she gave birth a month later.
The stepping stones across the last river before The Home of Thousands are submerged by snowmelt. We walk for a while to see if there’s somewhere we might be able to ford to the other side, but no.
That’s anticlimactic, I say. Going to The Home of Thousands might have been the most amazing event of all my childhood.
Just as well then, my mother says, because redoing the experience would probably have let you down. Do you remember how you’d complain every summer that your grandpa’s shower kept getting smaller and smaller?
Some memories might be better off left alone, she says.