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The Ice Palace
By Tarjei Vesaas, Elizabeth Rokkan
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 1963 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag A/S
All rights reserved.
A young, white forehead boring through the darkness. An eleven-year-old girl. Siss.
It was really only afternoon, but already dark. A hard frost in late autumn. Stars, but no moon, and no snow to give a glimmer of light – so the darkness was thick, in spite of the stars. On each side was the forest, deathly still, with everything that might be alive and shivering in there at that moment.
Siss thought about many things as she walked, bundled up against the frost. She was on her way to Unn, a girl she scarcely knew, for the first time; on her way to something unfamiliar, which was why it was exciting.
She gave a start. A loud noise had interrupted her thoughts, her expectancy; a noise like a long-drawn-out crack, moving further and further off, while the sound died away. It was from the ice on the big lake down below. And it was nothing dangerous, in fact it was good news: the noise meant that the ice was a little bit stronger. It thundered like gunshot, blasting long fissures, narrow as a knife-blade, from the surface down into the depths – yet the ice was stronger and safer each morning. There had been an unusually long period of severe frost this autumn.
Biting cold. But Siss was not afraid of the cold. It wasn't that. She had started at the noise in the dark, but then she stepped out steadily along the road.
The way to Unn was not long. Siss was familiar with it, it was almost the same as the way she went to school, only with the addition of a side path. That was why she had been allowed to go alone, even though it was no longer light. Father and Mother were not nervous about things like that. It's the main road, they had said when she left this evening. She let them say it. She was afraid of the dark herself.
The main road. All the same it was no fun to be walking down it alone now. Her forehead was boldly erect because of it. Her heart thumped slightly against the warm lining of her coat. Her ears were alert – because it was much too quiet along the roadsides, and because she knew that even more alert ears were there, listening to her.
That was why she had to step out firmly and steadily on the stone-hard road: the clatter of her footsteps had to be heard. If she gave way to the temptation to go on tiptoe, she was finished, let alone if she foolishly began to run. Then she would soon be running in panic.
Siss had to go to see Unn this evening. And she should have plenty of time, considering how long the evenings were. The darkness came so early that Siss could stay with Unn for a good while and still be home by her usual bedtime.
Wonder what I shall find out at Unn's. I'm sure to find out something. I've been waiting for it all the autumn, ever since the first day Unn came new to school. I don't know why.
The idea of meeting each other was so completely new it had only come about that very day. After long preparation they had dived in head first.
On her way to Unn, quivering with expectancy. Her smooth forehead breached an ice-cold stream.CHAPTER 2
On her way towards something exciting ... Siss thought about what she knew of Unn, as she walked stiff and erect, trying to shut out her fear of the dark.
She did not know much. And it would have been no use asking people here; they were not likely to be able to tell her more about Unn.
Unn was so new here. She had come to the district last spring, from another district quite far away, so there had been no communication between the two. She had come last spring after she had been orphaned, it had been said. Her mother had been taken ill and died, somewhere in their home district. She had been unmarried, with no close relatives there, but here in this district she had an older sister, so Unn had come to her aunt.
Her aunt had been here for a long time. Siss scarcely knew her, though she lived quite close. She kept house all alone in a little cottage, managing as best she could. She was seldom seen, except on her way to the store. Siss had heard it said that Unn had been made very welcome in her house. Siss had gone there with her mother once; Mother had needed help with some sewing. That had been several years ago, before she had known of Unn's existence. Siss could remember a lonely person sitting there, full of good nature. Nobody ever spoke ill of her.
It had been the same with Unn when she came: she had not joined the group of girls straight away, as they had expected and hoped. They caught sight of her on the road and at other places where one could not help but meet people. They looked at each other like strangers. There was nothing to be done about it. She had no parents, and it put her in a different light, an aura they could not quite explain. They knew, too, that this strange situation would soon be ended: in the autumn they would meet at school – and that would be the end of that.
Siss had made no move to approach Unn during the summer either. She had seen Unn now and again, together with her kind old aunt; had met her and noticed that they were about the same height. They looked at each other in astonishment and brushed past. They did not know why they were astonished, but for some reason or other -
Unn was shy, it was said. It sounded exciting. All the girls had looked forward to meeting Unn, who was shy, at school.
Siss looked forward to it for a special reason: she was the acknowledged leader in their noisy breaks. She was used to being the one who made suggestions; she had never thought it over, it was so, and she did not dislike it. She had looked forward to being the leader when Unn arrived and had to be taken up.
When school started the class gathered as usual round Siss, the boys as well as the girls. She knew she was enjoying it this year, too, and perhaps made an effort to keep her position.
Unn was standing shyly a short distance away. They looked at her critically and accepted her at once. There didn't seem to be anything the matter with her. An attractive girl. Likeable.
But she stayed where she was. They made small attempts to entice her to them, but it was no use. Siss stood in the middle of her group waiting for her, and the first day went by.
Several days went by. Unn made no sign of approach. Finally Siss went across to her and asked, 'Aren't you going to join us?'
Unn replied with a shake of the head.
But they were quick to see that they liked each other. A curious look flashed between them. I must meet her! Perplexing, but beyond doubt.
Siss repeated in astonishment, 'You're not going to join us?'
Unn smiled in embarrassment. 'No.'
'But why not?'
Unn still smiled in embarrassment. 'I can't.'
At the same time it seemed to Siss that they were both playing some game of enticement.
'What's the matter with you?' asked Siss bluntly and stupidly, and regretted it at once. Unn did not look as if there was anything the matter with her. On the contrary.
Unn flushed. 'No, it's not that, but -'
'No, I didn't mean it like that either. But it would have been fun to have you with us.'
'Don't ask me about it any more,' said Unn.
Siss felt as if cold water had been thrown on her, leaving her speechless. Mortified, she went back to her companions and told them.
So they did not ask Unn again. She was left to stand alone, taking no part in their games. Some of them said she was conceited, but it did not gain currency, and nobody teased her – there was something about her that put a stop to anything like that.
In class it was immediately apparent that Unn was one of the brightest. But she did not put on airs and they acquired a grudging respect for her.
Siss took note of it all. She sensed that Unn was strong in her lonely position in the schoolyard, not lost and pathetic. Siss used her power to win over the group and was successful; all the same she had the feeling that Unn over there was the stronger, even though she did nothing and had no support. She was losing to Unn, and perhaps the group saw it this way, too? It was just that they dared not go over. Unn and Siss stood there like two combatants, but it was a silent struggle, a matter between herself and the newcomer. It was not even hinted at.
After a while Siss began to feel Unn's eyes on her in class. Unn sat a couple of desks behind her, so she had plenty of opportunity.
Siss felt it as a peculiar tingling in her body. She liked it so much she scarcely bothered to hide it. She pretended not to notice but felt herself to be enmeshed in something strange and pleasant. These were not searching or envious eyes; there was desire in them – when she was quick enough to meet them. There was expectancy. Unn pretended indifference as soon as they were out of doors and made no approach. But from time to time Siss would notice the sweet tingling in her body: Unn is sitting looking at me.
She saw to it that she almost never met those eyes. She did not yet dare to do so – only in a few swift snatches when she forgot.
But what does Unn want?
Some day she'll tell me.
Out of doors Unn stood by the wall without taking part in any of their games. She stood watching them calmly.
Wait. Better wait, and it would be sure to come some day. For the time being she must be content with things as they were, and they were strange enough.
She must never let the others notice anything. And she thought she had managed it. Then one of her friends said to her, a little enviously, 'You are interested in Unn, I must say.'
'No, I'm not.'
'Aren't you? You stare at her the whole time. Do you think we don't notice?'
Do I? thought Siss, stunned.
Her friend laughed sourly. 'We all noticed it a long time ago, Siss.'
'All right, I have then, and I shall do it as much as I like!'
Siss had thought about it all constantly. And then at last it had come, now. Now, today. That was why she was walking here.
Early this morning the first note had been lying on her desk: 'Must meet you, Siss.' Signed, 'Unn'.
A ray of light from somewhere.
She turned and met the eyes. They were at one with each other. Extraordinary. She knew no more than that; she could think no more about it.
Notes had crossed on this wonderful day. Willing hands helped them along from desk to desk.
'Would like to meet you, too.' Signed, 'Siss'.
'When can I meet you?'
'Whenever you like, Unn. You can meet me today.'
'I'd like it to be today, then.'
'Will you come home with me today, Unn?'
'No. You must come home with me, or I shan't meet you.'
Siss turned round abruptly. What was this? She met the eyes, saw Unn's nod confirming the note. Siss did not hesitate for a second but sent her reply: 'I'll come with you.'
And the notes ceased. They did not speak to each other until the school day was over. Then they stood talking quickly and shyly. Siss asked whether Unn would come home with her all the same.
'No, why should I?' asked Unn.
Siss hesitated. She knew it was because she thought she might have something that Unn's aunt did not have – and then she was used to her friends coming to her. She was ashamed and could not tell Unn this.
'No, nothing special,' she said.
'You've said you'll come to me now.'
'Yes, but I can't go with you straight away. I must go home first, so they'll know where I am.'
'Yes, I suppose so.'
'Then I'll come this evening,' said Siss, fascinated. It was the mystification that fascinated her, the aura she seemed to see all round Unn.
This was what Siss knew about Unn – and now she was on her way to her, after going home to let them know.
The cold nibbled at her. It creaked underfoot, and the ice thundered down below. Then she caught sight of the little cottage where Unn and her aunt lived. Light shone out on to the frosted birch trees. Her heart pounded in joy and anticipation.CHAPTER 3
One Single Evening
Unn must have been standing at the window watching for Siss, for she came out before Siss reached the doorstep. She was wearing her school slacks.
'It must have been dark?' she asked.
'Dark? Yes, but that doesn't matter,' replied Siss, though she had been quite nervous of the darkness and the short cut through the wood.
'It must have been cold, too? It's dreadfully cold here this evening.'
'That doesn't matter either,' said Siss.
Unn said, 'It's such fun that you wanted to come. Auntie says you've been here only once before, and then you were quite small.'
'Yes, I remember that. I didn't know about you then.'
They took stock of each other as they talked. Auntie came out, smiling pleasantly.
'This is Auntie,' said Unn.
'Good evening, Siss. Come along in quickly. It's too cold to stand out there. Come into the warm and take off your things.'
Unn's aunt was friendly and placid. They went into the warm little living-room. Siss took off her boots, which were frozen hard.
'Do you remember how it looked when you were here before?' asked Auntie.
'It hasn't changed either. It's exactly the same as it was then. You were here with your mother. I remember it very well.'
Auntie seemed to be talkative; presumably she seldom got the chance to chat. Unn stood waiting until she could have her guest to herself. But her aunt was not ready yet.
'Since then I've seen you everywhere but here, Siss. Of course there was nothing to bring you here either – until Unn came to live with me. It makes such a difference. I'm lucky to have Unn, you know.'
Unn waited with impatience.
Auntie said, 'I know, Unn. But don't be in such a hurry. Now Siss must get something warm inside her.'
'I'm not cold.'
'It's all ready on the stove,' said Auntie. 'I think it's too cold and too late to be out at this time of day and in this weather. You ought to have come on a Sunday.'
Siss looked at Unn and replied, 'I couldn't do that when it was today,' Auntie laughed good-naturedly. 'No, in that case ...
'And I'll get home easily before Mother and Father go to bed,' said Siss.
'Yes. Come over here and drink this.'
They drank what Auntie had made them. It was good, and warmed them. Siss's excitement lapped around her, subtle and enticing. Soon they would be left alone.
Unn said, 'I have my own room. We'll go there.'
Siss's tension snapped. Now it would begin.
'You have a room to yourself, too, don't you, Siss?'
'Come on then.'
Auntie, so friendly and talkative, looked as if she wanted to come with them into Unn's bedroom. She was clearly not allowed to do so. Unn interrupted so decisively that Auntie was left sitting in her chair.
Unn's room was tidy, and Siss immediately thought there was something strange about it. Two small lamps made it bright. All kinds of newspaper cuttings had been hung on the walls, and a photograph of a woman so like Unn that there was no need to ask who she was. After a while Siss saw that the room was not at all strange; on the contrary, it was very like Siss's own.
Unn looked at her enquiringly. Siss said, 'It's a nice room.'
'What's yours like? Is it bigger?'
'No, about the same.'
'There's no need to have anything bigger.'
'No, there isn't.'
They had to make small talk for a bit before they could get going. Siss sat on the only chair, her trousered legs stretched out in front of her. Unn sat on the edge of the bed, swinging her legs in the air.
They pulled themselves together, looked at each other searchingly and took stock. This was not so simple – for some mysterious reason. They were embarrassed as well because they wanted each other's company. Their eyes met in understanding, in a kind of longing, yet they were deeply embarrassed.
Unn jumped down on to the floor and pulled at the door handle. Then she turned the key.
Siss started at the sound and asked quickly, 'Why did you do that?'
'Oh, she might come in.'
'Are you scared of that?'
'Scared? Of course not. It's not that. But I want us two to be alone together. Nobody is to come in now!'
'No, nobody is to come in now,' repeated Siss, beginning to feel happy. She felt that the bond between Unn and herself was beginning to be tied. Back in their places they fell silent again. Then Unn asked, 'How old are you, Siss?'
Excerpted from The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, Elizabeth Rokkan. Copyright © 1963 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag A/S. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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