Love (3 Excerpts)

Hanne Ørstavik
Martin Aitken
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

When I grow old, we’ll go away on the train. As far away as we can. We’ll look out through the windows, at fells and towns and lakes, and talk to people from foreign lands. We’ll be together all the time. And forever be on our way.

She gets through three books a week, often four or five. She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffee, lots of cigarettes, and a warm nightdress on. She could have done without the TV too; I never watch it, she tells herself, but Jon would have minded.

She gives a wide berth to an old woman waddling along pulling a gray trolley behind her on the icy road. It’s dark, the snow banked up at the roadsides blocking out the light, Vibeke thinks to herself. Then she realizes she’s forgotten to turn the headlights on and has driven nearly all the way home in an unlit car.

She turns them on.

Jon tries not to blink. It’s hard for him not to. It’s the muscles around his eyes that go into spasm. He kneels on his bed and peers through the window. Everything is still. He’s waiting for Vibeke to come home. He tries to keep his eyes open and calm, fixed on the same spot outside the window. There must be at least three feet of snow. Under the snow live the mice. They have pathways and tunnels. They visit each other, Jon imagines, maybe they bring each other food.

The sound of the car. When he’s waiting he can never quite recall it. I’ve forgotten, he tells himself. But then it comes back to him, often in pauses between the waiting, after he’s stopped thinking about it. And then she comes, and he recognizes the sound in an instant; he hears it with his tummy, it’s my tummy that remembers the sound, not me, he thinks to himself. And no sooner has he heard the car than he sees it too, from the corner of the window, her blue car coming around the bend behind the banks of snow, and she turns in at the house and drives up the little slope to the front door.

The engine is loud, its sound fills the room, and then she switches it off. He hears her slam the car door shut before the front door opens, and he counts the seconds until it closes again.

The same sounds every day.

Vibeke shoves the shopping into the hall and bends down to undo her boots. Her hands are swollen from the cold; the heater in the car is broken. A co-worker she gave a lift home from the supermarket last week said she knew someone who repaired things like that on the cheap. Vibeke smiles, thinking back. She hasn’t much money, and what little she has isn’t for cars. As long as it gets her from A to B, that’s all that matters.

She picks up the mail from the table under the mirror. She feels stiff, though no more than normal after a busy day, and stands for a moment rolling her shoulders and stretching her neck, arching back and releasing a sigh.

Now she’s taking her coat off, he thinks to himself, and pictures her in the hall, in front of the mirror, hanging her coat on the peg and looking at herself. She’ll be tired, he thinks. He opens a box of matches and takes out two, snapping them in the middle and wedging them cautiously in his sockets to keep his eyelids from blinking. You’ll grow out of it, Vibeke tells him when she’s in a good mood. The matches are like logs, it’s hard to see out. He thinks about his train set; he can’t help it, it doesn’t matter what he thinks about, a train always comes running into his mind, tilting into the bend with its whistle blowing, hurtling by. Maybe he could give her a face massage, he thinks, rub her cheeks and forehead the way they’ve learned in gym class, it’s supposed to be good for you.

She carries the bags into the kitchen, dropping the mail down on the table before filling up the fridge and putting some cans away in the cupboard. The engineer in the building department, the dark-haired man with the brown eyes, sat opposite her at the Culture Plan presentation. Her first project as the new arts and culture officer. The cover was in full color, she’d insisted on it, an inspirational painting by a local artist.

She lingers at the table, drinking water from a glass.

It went off well: people came up afterward and said how glad they were to have her aboard. Her presence spurred new visions, they said, opened their eyes to new potentials. The brown-eyed engineer had smiled at her at several points during the presentation. In the Q&A session he made a comment about being interested in extending interdepartmental collaborations.

She sweeps her hair away from her face, gathering it in front of her shoulder and smoothing it with her hand, pleased at how long it’s grown at last.

He hears her footsteps on the floor above. Her shoes. Vibeke always wears shoes indoors. Sandals with a low heel. He removes the matches. He strikes one against the box without blowing it out, wanting to hold it as long as it burns. Skirt and lipstick for work. At home she changes into a gray jogging suit with a zip neck. Maybe she’s changing now. It’s so soft inside, come and feel. She gave him slippers when they moved in. Brought them home with her after work, one of her first days on the job, wrapped in flowery paper. She tossed them to him, he had to catch them in mid-air. Woolen slippers, ankle-length, with leather soles. A metal clip to keep them closed. If the clips aren’t done up, they rattle when he walks.

Vibeke puts the glass down on the table. She looks out the window, at the darkness outside. The street lamps are on, lighting up the road between the houses. To the north, the road through the village joins the highway again. It’s a kind of circle, she thinks to herself, you can drive into the village, past the council offices and the shops, through the housing area, then pick up the highway again farther up, follow it south, and turn off toward the village again. Most of the houses have their living-room windows facing the road. We need to address architecture, she thinks, the way it can bring things together. The whole village backs onto forest. She jots down some keywords on a sheet of paper: Identity, pride. Aesthetics. Information.

She goes into the front room. On the sofa is a gray woolen throw with white circles on it, the reverse is white with gray circles. She gathers it up and pulls her armchair over to the panel heater under the window. She takes a book, nonfiction, from the small round table.

The book has a waxed cover, it feels pleasant to the touch. She smooths her left hand over its surface before opening the pages. She reads a few lines, then puts it down in her lap, leans back, closes her eyes. She sees faces from work, people stopping by her office, how nice it’s looking now. She goes through situations in her mind, repeating her facial expressions and gestures.

Jon stands in the doorway looking at her. He tries not to blink. He wants to ask her something about his birthday; tomorrow he’ll be nine. He tells himself it can wait, she’s asleep now. A book in her lap. He’s used to seeing her like that. A book, the bright light of the floor lamp. Often, she’ll have lit a cigarette and his eyes will follow the smoke as it curls toward the ceiling. Her long, dark hair fans out over the back of the chair, trembling almost imperceptibly. Stroke my hair, Jon.

He turns and goes out into the kitchen, and takes some cookies from the cupboard. He puts a whole one in his mouth and tries to suck it soft without breaking it.

He goes down the stairs into his room again and kneels on the bed. He lines the cookies up on the windowsill.

He looks at the snow outside and thinks of all the snowflakes that go to make a pile. He tries to count how many, in his head. They talked about it at school today. Ice crystals, they’re called. No two are ever the same. How many can there be in a snowball? Or on the windowpane, in a small speck of snow?

Jon passes along the length of Vibeke’s car. He pauses, wedges the book of raffle tickets tight between his knees, scrapes a handful of snow from the trunk of the car and presses it together in his palms. It’s a poor snowball, dry as powder. He blows it from his mittens, then claps them together, a crisp, loud report. Sounds become so weightless in the cold. Everything does. As if he were a bubble of air himself, ready at any moment to float into the sky and vanish into the firmament.

He takes the raffle tickets in his hand, crosses the road, and walks up the little path the old man has cleared in the drive. The snow crunches under his feet. There’s a lean-to by the front door with firewood stacked up under the pent roof. Snow has blown in between the logs. The outside light is switched off. Jon finds the doorbell. He presses it, but can’t hear a sound. Everything’s so still, he thinks to himself. But then the old man opens the door, so abruptly it makes him jump.

“Would you like to buy a raffle ticket?” Jon asks, holding out the book. “It’s for the sports club.”

He looks at her as he listens, smiling when she’s finished. She feels like touching the stubble of his beard with the tips of her fingers, smoothing her hands over his face the way she does with the covers of her books.

The old man looks at him, his eyes then darting toward the road. It’s been a while since a car came by, and it’s too cold for people to be going about on foot. He gestures for Jon to come inside. He closes the door after him and goes through another door into the house itself. Jon stamps the snow from his feet and follows.

They enter a living room with a small kitchen area attached. On top of the kitchen counter is a small television set. There’s a black-and-white film on with the sound turned off. The old man shuffles over to a wood burner and bends down stiffly on one knee. He puts a log into the fire, wraps his hand in his sweater and opens the vent to a crack, then turns around and smiles at Jon.

“That should keep it going for a bit. Can’t have people freezing when they come to see the old crow.”

A rocking chair by the window is still faintly in motion. He must have been sitting there when the doorbell rang, Jon thinks to himself. Maybe he saw me coming.

“The sports club, you say.” The old man wanders over to the counter and pulls out a drawer. He asks how many tickets Jon’s got and what they cost. Jon tells him. He takes out a wallet and says he’ll buy them all. He writes his name in the book and puts a ditto mark in curly brackets on all the stubs. It takes him a while. Jon glances around.

Three oval photo frames hang on the wall above the rocking chair with old portraits in them, the photos are the kind that are blurred at the edges as if the people in them are fading away. In a corner of the kitchen area is a fishing rod. Jon wonders if it’s a fly rod. Last year Vibeke had a boyfriend who said he would teach Jon to fish with a fly. Just the two of us, he told him, guys together. He took out a map to show him where they would go, showing him where the river ran and describing the various pools. There, he said, you’ll catch a big one there. He looked up at Vibeke with a smile. But then one day he was gone. Jon hadn’t even heard them argue.

The old man turns toward him, handing him the raffle book and the money.

“You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“Yes. We came four months and three days ago.”

Jon puts the money and the book of stubs in his bag. He feels glad.

“And already out and about selling tickets, eh? They know how to put you to work in that sports club.”

Jon says he’s only just joined so he can start skating.

The man’s hair is white as chalk, long, thin, and untidy. His face looks flushed, Jon thinks to himself, as if he just woke up.

“Let me show you something,” he says.

“What is it?” says Jon.

He tries not to blink.

“You’ll see. I’d nearly forgotten all about it, forgotten altogether.”

He opens a door and flicks a switch. A lightbulb goes on, fixed directly to the wall. Jon sees a flight of stairs leading down into the basement.

Vibeke goes to the bathroom and stares into the mirror. She can tell from the way she looks it’s been a good day. She feels glad and full of bounce. At one with herself. A tiny crystal twinkles from the right wing of her nose. She winks back. My lucky star. She picks up a brush and bends over until the long, dark mane of her hair nearly touches the floor. At first she brushes with care to remove the tangles, proceeding then with gentle, sweeping strokes from the scalp. She tosses her head back when it’s done. She wants her hair to look like a cloud caressing her face. She looks in the mirror. It lacks volume, and wayward strands strive toward her forehead. I could go to the library, she thinks to herself. Normally she keeps the library until Saturday, and today’s only Wednesday, but she’s already run out of books to read. She decides to take a bath first and wash her hair, treat herself.

Jon follows the old man down the stairs. They’re steep; the man takes one step at a time and there’s a thick rope he holds on to at the side like a banister. At the bottom they go through a little passage, a mat of artificial grass covering the floor. The place smells rank and strange; Jon thinks it smells of soil. The man stops at a door at the end. He turns toward Jon, his hand on the handle.

She takes off her clothes while she runs her bath. There’s no bubble bath left in the bottle. She takes a cotton ball from a box on the shelf and removes her nail polish with some remover. She waits until it’s nearly full before turning the tap off and climbing cautiously into the tub, water sloshing over the side. She feels the goose pimples as they appear on her skin, her nipples harden, and a tickle runs down her spine. She lowers herself gently down. Such bliss to immerse the body in hot water, she thinks to herself. Bliss, in every respect. And then she lies there, motionless, savoring every second.

“You’ll like this,” the old man tells him.

There’s a daybed up against the wall, and shelving full of old wooden boxes from floor to ceiling. The room smells of dust and mold. Jon thinks maybe the man’s got a collection of old model trains, the first electric ones in Europe. He feels a need to pee. The man crosses the floor to a shelf, pulls a box out from the middle and dips his hand inside. A leather dog collar and a metal chain hang down from a hook on the wall.

“Have a look at these,” says the man.

He turns around, holding up a pair of brown skates.

“Handsewn. My father gave them to me.”

He offers the skates to Jon. Jon steps forward and feels the stiffness of the leather between the tips of his fingers; the skates quiver, the old man’s hand a-tremble.

“Luxury in those days,” the man says. “Handsewn leather on iron blades. No one in the village had anything like them. I won the Kalottløpet in these; the young men came from all over, from Rovaniemi, Utsjok, Neiden, and farther inland, Russians. On the lake it was, the Storvannet. A thousand meters. Before Stalin and Hitler and that whole hellish mess. On black ice, when the water freezes before the snow.”

Vibeke rubs the shampoo into her hair, her fingers moving in little circles like at the hairdressers. She closes her eyes to shut out all external stimuli, wishing to be present inside herself, sensing the world from within. She remembers a dream she had, a man saying, “You look gorgeous.” They were standing at the foot of a carpeted staircase, in front of some mirrors with gilded frames; there were doors, deep red, leading off to some bathrooms. They were at a party, the party was going on at the top of the stairs; there were people, lights, a babble of voices. The music was loud, but downstairs was quiet. The man had come through a door and noticed her and said, “You look gorgeous.” She felt so excited and leaned forward to give him a hug, and he kissed her gently on the cheek. Then he turned and left through a revolving door, in his dark suit and white shirt. He didn’t have a coat on, just a thin woolen scarf draped around his neck. She stood there for a moment, looking at herself in the mirror. Smiling. Elated. That was the good part. The rest wasn’t worth thinking about. All of a sudden the party was over. The lights went off, the staircase was no longer there. She saw that she was alone in a public toilet; a stench of urine filled her nostrils, the floor cold against her stockinged feet. She went through the revolving door where the man had gone and came out onto a waste ground of asphalt and ice, a single street lamp shining just ahead. There was a wall, and in the wall was a gateway; she walked toward it, thinking it would lead out to a road.

At least the beginning was good, she says to herself. A party would be fun, though. She could have one here in the house, invite the people from work. Break the ice, get herself a network. She imagines the living room done out with candles and cascades of flowers. The gleaming eyes and peals of laughter. In her living room. She could do a lovely written invitation with a quote from a poem.

She rinses the shampoo from her hair with the shower head. The pipes shudder as she turns off the tap. She sweeps the shower curtain aside and looks at her body in the mirror, its image blurred by steam. What would they drink from? She won’t have enough glasses for that many people. She’ll have to buy some in town on Saturday. She’s seen some with tinted stems and bowls. Then again, perhaps that would be overdoing it. She decides to find some others that are pleasing and simple, and of good design.

Jon dreams he’s walking home with Vibeke. They turn into the big yard at the back of the building they lived in before. It’s been snowing, the white of the ground is bright against the darkness of the yard. They go toward the far entrance. Vibeke goes first; her movements are normal, as if she can’t hear that everything around them is so still. Inside the entrance the mailboxes have been vandalized, the lids hang from their hinges. It seems like the whole building has fallen into disrepair: no one lives there anymore and there’s no more mail to deliver. Vibeke opens their own mailbox as if she hasn’t noticed. The entire row of mailboxes almost comes away from the wall with a scraping sound. Everything goes so slowly. He hears footsteps on the stairs. He was sure the building was empty, but now someone’s there. They stand still and wait. It’s the downstairs neighbor; he says the soldiers are on their floor now, in the apartment across the landing from theirs. He whispers the words and creeps back upstairs again. They follow him without speaking, climbing the staircase as though nothing was wrong, perhaps more quietly than usual, though not silently by any means. The door of their flat is open. They go inside. The place is dark. A uniformed man sits eating in the kitchen. The man is his father. Light shines down on him from a bulb above the table. All the neighbors are gathered around, standing or seated. The man munches the fat cheese, the slices of ham. The butter. The white bread. He cuts thick wedges from the cheese. It’s all the food they’ve got. They’ve been saving it, eating only sparingly. He piles layers of ham on top of his cheese. They watch him as he eats. They watch in silence. He eats and eats, and as he chews the food he tells sad stories about his life that make him cry.

Jon stirs, his mouth dry. The light is on and he sits up. The girl is asleep on the other bed. She must have dropped off too. He tiptoes over and stands there looking at her. She’s pulled the cover up, her right hand still clutching it under her chin. He touches her hand. Her skin feels soft and warm. Her hair is almost as fair as his, curled by the perspiration on her brow. There’s a ticking noise and he glances around. It’s the tape recorder, it’s still on play after the tape has run out. His finger presses stop. The walls of the room are painted pale orange. A poster hangs above her bed, tall, leafy trees with a path leading among them, winding away into the forest. At the head of the bed hangs a small cross, next to the curtain some jewelry on a nail; he sees a little heart of gray stone on a chain. Someone has stuck stickers on the bedframe. On the floor between the two beds are some comics. He bends down and looks at the covers; there are some he hasn’t read. He sits down on the floor and starts reading while he waits for her to wake up.

Vibeke curls her hands around her mug as if to keep them warm, but there’s nothing in it yet. The man from the fair is in the shower. She doesn’t know his name. I must remember to ask, she tells herself. She thinks he might be a foreigner; there’s something different about him. The nose, she thinks. Maybe he’s Jewish. But he doesn’t have an accent.

The kettle switches itself off, and she gets up to put the coffee in the mugs. There are some teaspoons in a jar on the counter, she uses one to measure the amount. The cold spoon in her hand makes her think how tidy the trailer is, too tidy almost, and clean. There’s a photo stuck to the cupboard over the counter with a drawing pin. It shows some people posing together in a huddle by a table set for dinner. They’ve all got mustaches, drawn in with what looks like charcoal.

“My family,” he says behind her.

He’s pulled the curtain at the rear of the trailer slightly to one side and stands toweling his hair.

“Christmas dinner last year. My sister always takes some pictures with the self-timer and sends us all copies. Says it makes her feel like we’re a family.”

Vibeke sees him now, to the left at the back, next to an elderly man with a beard. His hair is shorter in the photo, he looks younger. She wonders how his sister can send him letters when he’s always on the move with the fair. Most likely they’ve got an itinerary so people know where they’re going and when. But if they do well in one place maybe they stay longer, in which case there’d be a domino effect and the itinerary would go to pot.

“I made it a bit strong,” she says, and sits down again.

“That’s all right,” he says, looking at her as he combs his damp hair back.

He sits down on the sofa on the opposite side of the table and bends over his coffee, almost dipping his nose in it. Mm. Then he leans back against the cushions, studying her and smiling, as if this is all he’s been waiting for. It feels nice, she thinks to herself, being together like this. She feels an intuitive sense of knowing him. The person he is. The things he needs. The direction he’s going in life.

“It must be such a freedom, traveling from place to place, meeting new people. Nothing to cart around apart from what can go in a trailer,” she says.

“Well, it’s not all roses.”

His voice is warm. She feels his eyes upon her again, it’s like his gaze is so powerful it lifts her off the ground and keeps her floating in the air.

“Roses aren’t as harmless as you might think.”

She almost whispers.

He smiles again. He’s a man for me, she thinks. Her body senses it to be true, the insight is physical. The body can be trusted.

She feels a draft from the window behind her. The air in the trailer is muggy after his shower, the windows are probably all steamed up behind the curtains. The cold air nips at her upper back and neck. She lifts her shoulders to her ears and folds her arms around her chest. Her lips shudder. Brrr. He says he’s got a sweater somewhere. He’s responsive to signals, she thinks to herself and laughs. He leans forward and rummages in the storage under the sofa.

“This cold spell’s been going on for ages,” she says. She wishes she could think of something to say that would bring them closer, open things up a bit more. He pulls a woolly blanket out.

“Here,” he says, rising to his feet and handing it to her across the table.

Stooping under the low ceiling, he knocks his mug over in the process. He swears, spitting the words harshly as the coffee runs over the edge of the table onto the floor. She can see the dampness of his brow at the hairline.

Jon puts the last of the comics down and gets to his feet. He needs the toilet. He looks at her again. She’s still asleep. He can see the whites of her eyes. She must be waking up, he thinks. He stands quietly and waits for a moment, but she doesn’t stir. He thinks maybe her eyes are always like that when she’s asleep, with the whites showing. He feels an urge to wake her up so he can tell her. Then abruptly she opens her eyes wide and looks at him.

“I need the toilet,” he says.

She closes her eyes again. Jon can tell she’s gone back to sleep. He wonders if she was asleep when she looked at him too.

The woolly blanket helps. Vibeke watches his strong, slender hands as they snatch wads of paper towel from the roll and lay them out on the table and floor. The coffee seeps through and turns the paper brown.

The bedroom door creaks as he opens it. He can’t hear any other sounds in the house. The landing is dark. He thinks the people he heard before must have switched the lights off and gone out. Or maybe they’ve gone to bed. Vibeke must be wondering where he is. He can see some carrier bags and a heap of clothes by the railing at the top of the stairs. He pulls his water pistol from his back pocket and holds it at the ready in his right hand. He listens, crouching forward before edging toward where he thinks the toilet must be. Cautiously he opens the door, only to find it’s another bedroom. This one has two beds in it as well, one by each wall, a rag mat in the middle under the window. One of the beds is still made. A little lamp shines above the other one. It looks like someone’s just been lying in it: the sheets are messed up, and on the floor next to it, in the light of the lamp, is a book with its pages open.

He closes the door. At this very moment in time, someone, somewhere, is being tortured. Maybe there’s a torture room in this house. Maybe someone’s a prisoner here and it’s his job to find them and get them out. He doesn’t know where to begin. He opens another door that looks like a cupboard, only with a proper handle to turn. He finds the switch inside the door and turns the light on. There, under the sloping wall, is a toilet with a wooden seat.

He draws rings in the bowl with his pee. It smells different here from at home. He watches the water as it flushes away, thinking suddenly of the light of summer, the way he can lie in his bed and look out the window, the sky completely white, feeling himself dissolve.

“We’re moving on tomorrow,” he says, stirring coffee granules into another mug of hot water. Vibeke asks where they’re going. He says they’re off west first, south after that.

“It’s too cold here,” he says with a smile.

Vibeke nods.

“You get used to it,” she says.

He asks what she does.

“Arts and culture officer in the local council,” she says. “I’ve only just started. The people are nice and there are some very exciting challenges in an out-of-the-way area like this. Identity and community are important concepts to theme if we’re to counter the drift toward the urban areas, and culture’s a very appropriate instrument in that respect.”

He looks at her as he listens, smiling when she’s finished. She feels like touching the stubble of his beard with the tips of her fingers, smoothing her hands over his face the way she does with the covers of her books.

“Apart from that I like reading, that’s my way of traveling,” she says. “I was actually going to the library tonight, only it was closed.”

She falls silent for a moment.

“So I came here instead.”

He gazes into the curtain next to her. She feels like they share something now. It feels like pushing a boat from the shore, the moment the boat comes free of the sand and floats, floats on the water.

Hanne Ørstavik is the author of more than ten novels, including Love (Kjærlighet).
Martin Aitken is a translator of Scandinavian literature.
Originally published:
November 1, 2017


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