She wakes up stiff and hunched on the sofa. The clasps on her bunad are digging into her middle and the silver brooch at her collar is pressing against her throat. The television is still on, a flickering source of light in the darkening room. There’s an old comedy on the box, a lively dinner party in black and white. Glamorous guests raise their glasses in a toast, before leaping up and starting to chase each other. She fumbles for the remote control and manages to switch it off, unlaces her bodice and loosens her waistband. Air.
She can’t remember ever having slept in her bunad before. But then her memory isn’t what it used to be. Is it evening already? She lifts her head. The food is still on the table. And her best china that only comes out on special occasions. The silver tongs and canapés with prawns, roast beef, and smoked salmon lie untouched on the platter. The eight-ring kransekake, iced and decorated, is a splendid centrepiece between the flowers and the kangaroo wine.
She hauls herself off the sofa, wanders into the kitchen and out into the hallway. Nothing, darkness, silence. She calls up the stairs.
Evelyn climbs the stairs. Peers into the bedroom, then the sewing room. Nobody. Of course not, if anyone had come, they would have woken her. Besides, the new doorbell she had put in last year, made an awful racket. She hobbles back down the stairs, stops to look in the mirror above the dresser. The sleeves on her linen blouse, so perfectly pressed earlier in the day, are now completely crumpled.
She makes her way down the dark hallway, opens the door and goes out onto the step. Nobody outside either. No vaguely familiar man coming up the hill with a suitcase, looking around in surprise. It’s just as it used to be. Everything’s changed in town, but here everything’s exactly the same. Where’s he got to? What does she mean, he? What is she thinking of? She’s got no one. No one at all. No one for generations. Of course he’s not coming back. Why on earth would he do that? She’s not much to come back to.
The sun has set. She breathes in the fresh evening air and gazes up at the deep blue shade of night, so typical of autumn. It’ll soon be winter. Soon everything will seize up, become hard and brittle. Soon the biting winds will whistle through the cracks in the old house and it’ll be cold no matter how high she turns up the heating. Soon the ground will be treacherous. She won’t be able to go anywhere without her ice grips and even then she’ll still be afraid of falling. Can she bear another winter?
Spring came so quickly this year. Summer flew by. The birch trees suddenly sprang to life. Before she knew it they were in full leaf. The hagberry blossom was barely white before it withered away, she didn’t even get a chance to take in the scent. The tulips were only red for a moment, before they wilted and fell apart. Not to mention the lilacs, the most beautiful of all her flowers, but so briefly in bloom. Were they even white this year, before they turned brown?
Evelyn starts to go back inside, but notices the flag’s still up. She shuffles into the dark, over to the corner of the house and stares up at the flag mounted on the wall. How on earth did she manage to get it up there? She must have been taller. She’s gradually shrinking. She’s been shrinking all day. If she doesn’t watch out, she’ll end up like one of the seven dwarves. Then she’d have six friends to look out for her. But of course, that’s not the case, there is no one, she’ll keep shrinking all alone. Shrinking and shrinking in a big, empty room.
She wipes away a tear. But she’s not crying. Oh no. She looks up at the flag again. Thinks about how worked up she was this morning. How excited and full of anticipation. She’d seen them. Seen them all sitting there, round the table. Sitting with her. They talked to each other, a proper conversation. It was the great reconciliation. And she was going to tell them everything. How life had been. How she’d missed them. And then she would tell them her deepest secret. It would be like Christmas, like something off the telly. One of those programmes that always made her cry, no matter how hard she tried not to. Stop this nonsense now. Look at yourself! You’re being ridiculous!
But then she realises there’s a more pressing matter than taking the flag down before nightfall. She desperately needs a pee. Now. She hurries into the bathroom, hikes up her skirt with one hand, using the other to support herself on the toilet roll holder and plops down onto the seat, sighing with relief – but all too soon. The urine is already streaming down her legs. She’s forgotten to take off her knickers.
‘Bloody hell!’ she hisses at the expanding yellow puddle in front of her. She hoists herself up from the toilet and tugs at the heavy embroidered skirt, eventually manages to pull it over her head and sling it over the shower rail. Then she peels off her sodden underpants. But instead of landing in the sink, they slip from her grasp and fall onto the floor with a splash. She stares at them in disbelief. How could she be so clumsy! Impossible to pick them up. Simply impossible without her grabber, and she hadn’t seen that for weeks. Now she’d have to search every room with a fine-toothed comb. Find it before the whole house started to stink.
She stumbles into the living room, looks over the floor, searches every corner. Goes over to the sofa, lifts the cushions. Carries on looking, down the sides of the dresser, around the fireplace. Nowhere to be seen. As she passes the table, her eyes fall on the food, and she suddenly realises how hungry she is. She sits down, comforts herself with a smoked salmon canapé. Still tastes alright. She takes one with roast beef. She looks out the window, down the road. No. Nobody. She must have misheard him on the phone. He must have said something else. She must have misunderstood, got it wrong. He probably wasn’t coming, that must have been what he said.
She goes into the bathroom and steps over the puddle, looks at herself in the mirror while she brushes her teeth. Who’d have thought she would end up like this, so small, white-haired and shrivelled. Once she was the fairest of them all, a platinum blonde, an Aryan cover girl. You wouldn’t think it to look at her now, nothing left. It happens to the best of us. Those who live, that is. But those who die young, stay young…
She jumps at the piercing ring of the doorbell, throws on her dressing gown, then shuffles across the living room. A loud knocking. Polly squawks excitedly in her cage.
‘See, he is here!’ she exclaims. It’s a pity he didn’t get to see her in her bunad, but it doesn’t really matter, that’s not so important. What is important is that he’s here. She opens the door and stops short, staring – Aslaug, fat and out of breath, leaning heavily on her walking frame. Her piggy eyes peering out from her red fleshy face. Evelyn stifles a sob.
‘Well, this is a fine time to come calling,’ she says.
But Aslaug isn’t listening. Aslaug never listens. Just says the same thing over and over again. She’s already through the door, squinting down the hall.
‘What’s happened to the light?’ she asks.
‘The bulb’s gone.’
‘You’ll have to get it changed then. Have I told you about my handyman?’
‘Such a handsome young man, you know, and ever so helpful! Aren’t you going to ask me in?’
‘I’m on my way to bed.’
‘Oh really, Evelyn, on such a big day! Let me say hello.’
Aslaug pushes her to one side, bustles past and, too late, Evelyn realises what she’s up to.
‘Cooee!’ she calls.
‘He’s – tired from the journey,’ Evelyn mutters.
‘I see,’ says Aslaug, who has already reached the living room and spotted the canapés and untouched cake. No point trying to hide anything from her.
‘Didn’t he come in the end?’
‘The flight was – um, delayed.’
‘Oh right. Did he call to let you know, then?’
‘Yes, yes,’ Evelyn lies, racking her brains for a way out of the conversation. But the only thing she can think of is Aslaug’s family do and she certainly doesn’t want to hear about that. All the same, she says: ‘How was the Grand Hotel?’
‘Oh, it was just lovely! Everyone was there! I’ve got some pictures, do you want to see them?’
‘No thank you.’
‘So much lovely food, you wouldn’t believe how good it was! I’m still stuffed, I am.’
Aslaug stares at the towering kransekake.
‘Oh, what a shame he didn’t arrive on time. What with the cake and all.’
Aslaug’s eyes are fixed on the cake. I bet you’d like to scoff the lot, Evelyn thinks.
‘Would you like a bit?’ she sighs, finally giving in.
‘Oh no, really I couldn’t,’ says Aslaug, but quickly changes her mind. Before Evelyn can do anything, she’s already reached out and broken off the top ring, which should have been saved until last, and plunked herself down on Wilhelm’s chair.
‘Mmm, Delicious,’ Aslaug says, through a mouthful of cake, and helps herself to another ring.
Evelyn bangs the full coffee pot onto the table, and stays standing, glaring at Aslaug as she crams in the cake, until at last she leans back in the chair, fat and happy. She really is too fat.
Do you remember the forest, how beautiful it was. The forest was so beautiful. Needles scratching, branches swaying, leaves rustling before being ripped loose by autumn. Sometimes I’d take a dry birch leaf. Rub it between my finger and thumb. Instantly turning it to dust. Yellow dust in the wind.
If I could paint again, I would fill the canvas with all the colours of the forest. I wouldn’t give up until I found every one. Springymoss green, blackbird egg blue, oak leaf ochre, cloudberry yellow, pine bark brown, wood pigeon grey, snow crust white, December night black, and bloodred like the spots on a Cinnabar moth.
The ground still smoulders. The trees towering columns of charcoal, embers glowing inside. No bed anymore, no walls, no roof. No window with a crack, it shattered, gone. No place anymore. No past. Nothing to give it shape. I feel it. Know it. Forget it. The sleep that takes me, lays me down. Everything dissolves. Evaporates.
Nothing grows as well as it does in ash. Another day, a different life. Become a flower, a bluebell, ring in the summer. Be that summer. Become the seeds that are sown by the wind. Be that wind. Become a cloud, the rain, that first summer shower. All will be green again. Everything will turn green. The lush grass will return. The deep moss, the sweet-smelling heather. The grass and the heather will cover it all.
Consensus translation by Adam Kirkpatrick, Nancy Langfelt, Siân Mackie & Mahala Mathiesen, with workshop leader Kari Dickson and author Kari Fredrikke Braenne, at the BCLT Summer School 2013.