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The Boat in the Evening
By Tarjei Vesaas, Elizabeth Rokkan
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 1968 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag NS
All rights reserved.
As It Stands in the Memory
There he stands in sifting snow. In my thoughts in sifting snow. A father — and his winter-shaggy, brown horse, in snow.
His brown horse and his face. His sharp words. His blue eyes and his beard. The beard with a reddish tinge against the white. Sifting snow. Blind, boundless snow.
Far away, deep in the forest. Sunken roads in the drifts, gullies dug out of the drifts, logging roads walled in by snow.
Blind, boundless forest — because the horizons have disappeared today in the mild, misty snowfall. Here everything is silent, no sound is made on the logging-road in the loose snow as it piles higher and higher.
What is outside?
Nothing, it seems.
There is something outside, but it's a boy's secret, deeply concealed.
He shivers occasionally and glances at the wall of snow and mist. Of course he knows what ought to be there, but it is easy to imagine very different things when you are a child, or half-child, and too young to be with a sharp-tongued father, among heavy, soaking wet logs and a horse strong as iron.
Why think about what's outside all the time?
Only more snow.
And hillsides that I know out and in, every hollow and cliff.
No use saying that.
I'm here to clear the snow. To make a logging-road.
No use saying that either.
It's not so certain that there is anything outside. During the first hours you spend digging, before you're too tired to think and imagine anything, life starts teeming outside the ring of mist and the wall of snow. Animals crowd round in a ring, their muzzles pointing towards me. Not ordinary animals. Animals I've never seen before. They're as tall as two horses one on top of the other, and they lower red muzzles and strike at the wall of mist while they are thinking. They switch at the snowflakes with long tails, as if it were summer and there were flies. There are so many of them that they can stand side by side in an unbroken ring — and they have small eyes that they almost close as they stand wondering and thinking.
Supposing the snow suddenly stopped falling — would they stand there exposed?
What would they do then?
What will they do anyway?
I want them there, that's what it is.
So there they are. All day long.
Yes, they stand there thinking — while I clear the logging -road, digging and digging and thinking and thinking too. In the snowfall in a blind forest.
The shovel becomes idle in my hands.
Supposing it stopped snowing, supposing they were standing there.
What would they want?
They are so real that they have a slight smell that reaches me. It is probably much stronger close to them, and a little of it reaches me. Perhaps it is not a smell; it is not easy to decide what I sense it with. They stand side by side in a single ring of flesh — but between them and myself there is the wall of mist and the falling snow.
Much too tempting to think about them. The snow collects on their muzzles, and their tails wave, raised as if in fight.
There is a sharp, 'What is it?'
The boy starts.
What a question!
What is it? he says, that one over there with his heavy shovelfuls of snow. An odd question when you can see that splendid ring of strange creatures. What is he thinking about over there? Must be thinking about something, he too. But you can't ask him about it.
The question only meant that the shovel had been idle too long. He has a watchful eye for such things, and for many others, that one over there.
This is the toilsome daily round.
The man and the horse have hard tasks. The logs have to be taken the long way through the forest to the river. All the bad weather this winter makes such work endless drudgery.
The stern man gets no answer to his question. But the shovel moves into action again, so all is well. It always goes as that one over there wishes. The gully in the snow has to be opened up farther, to fresh piles of logs lying deep in the snow. There was a road here, a gully, but now it is completely wiped out by the storm and the wind. The horse is sent ahead, and he wades through the snow and finds the road again with some delicate instinct of his, then the two of them follow him with their shovels and tramp about, widening the track the horse has made. So it goes, piece by piece.
Don't think about it.
Think about the solid ring of big animals close by in the twilight. Curious creatures that have not been seen in any book.
That's not thinking, it's resting.
Breathe in what must be their smell. Here as everywhere else there is a smell of the hanging weight of fresh moisture. Wet snow, and snow melting on your face.
Restful to think about. Exciting to think about.
* * *
Everything will be gathered here.
The horse, you and I, gathered here.
But we are inside a ring of something no human being has ever seen. He ought to have known it, that one over there. He of the few and sharp words.
There, he has stopped shovelling.
What is he doing? He's leaning on the snow shovel, staring straight in front of him.
It was quiet before, yet it seems as if it has only become so this minute. He is not leaning on the shovel because he is tired, not so early in the day. It must be something else.
He is looking at something.
A strange warmth runs through one's body at the thought.
Look at him.
No sound now. The slight noise of the shovelling has stopped. The horse is standing in the snowdrift tearing strips of bark off a birch sapling with his teeth, but that makes no sound either. The horse is wet high up on his flanks from his wading. There the moisture from the driving snow meets the dripping blanket he has on his back. He is wet all over. He looks at the two of them with his gentle, fathomless eyes, stops stripping the bark and simply stands still. You can see he's thinking.
There are three of us.
We are thinking, all three of us.
What are we thinking?
Out of something. Perhaps out of this.
Yes. Out of this.
This never-ending weather. The snowflakes fluttering down in a senseless dance, settling on the horse's back, on father's shoulders, on everything that provides room. They dance as if in fury, determined to fill all the gullies, and today's work may yet again be wasted by tomorrow. Out of this.
Might as well switch off the ring of animals and get out — since father's standing like that.
Look at him.
A few tense minutes.
Father is dreaming a secret dream. It's unbelievable.
No, it's not unbelievable. One has heard one thing and another down the years.
Perhaps I know what he's dreaming about. Sometimes he's said things that gave the rest of us an inkling of it, and a twinge of conscience — because he was so hopelessly far from his dream, a dream that would never come true.
I expect that's where he is now.
He has wandered there in the middle of this snowfall, during this exhausting shovelling. These stupidly heavy logs that have to be lifted, lifted by a bad back. He looks strong, but once he overtaxed his strength and will never mend. He is not strong — he has that build because he was strong once upon a time.
Perhaps he was not strong then either? But they say he was.
These are good, exciting moments. Nothing is moving except for the dancing snowflakes. The horse listens, his head turned away from the driving snow. Are we going to stand like this for a long time without moving?
Then they would perhaps start to move in from their ring and run among us with their muzzles and their tails, and all the tails would stand straight up in the air.
What would they do?
Do they eat creatures like us? In the twinkling of an eye?
No, no. They don't eat anyone.
They can laugh. They would stick their tails up in the air and laugh.
A start goes through the tableau. He gives a start, that man over there. Out of his dream.
A quick, keen glance this way. No, nobody's going to be allowed to stand idle too long.
Was there perhaps a slightly ashamed expression in the eye too? But the movement continues. He grips the snow shovel, and drives it into the drift.
The one who doesn't see anything, or doesn't bother about what he sees, is the brown horse. He doesn't bat an eyelid.
The horse, yes.
Is this what he's thinking?
Snowbound, snowed under, and trapped in the snow.
This is my song and thus is my song, the day is long and this is my song, let me simply get snowbound and trapped in the snow. The day is long, and the day is long. It is good to sleep, snowbound and trapped in the snow.
The horse, yes. It happens to be the horse's turn.
He has to go ahead, wade into the snow, and find another piece of the road. The man comes out of his dream to set him in motion. He seizes the reins.
He does not look at his big boy. He seems to be embarrassed about something.
The horse looks ahead, his eyes are fathomless. The snow sprinkles over him, melting on the wet, warm blanket on his back.
The man guides the horse in the right direction. The patient horse does not falter, but throws himself into it, leaning against the drift, wading and trampling a passage for himself. They have no sled with them today; the horse must move freely if he is to get through this.
He manages a few feet, then has to stop to get his breath. His master understands this. He turns the horse, and they go back to the big boy who has begun shovelling. The horse, half swimming in the snow, arrives back on the cleared road. There he is allowed to stand and tear at the birch twigs with his teeth, and perhaps sing his song somewhere deep inside himself, in an unknown world where human beings have no business intruding.
The man seizes the shovel.
The big boy shovels.
The big boy stands inside his ring of wild animals, shovelling snow.
Who is singing?
The horse is singing his song somewhere deep inside himself, and the man and the boy are dreaming their dreams. It has to be. The potent melody that the boy feels is coming in waves from his secret ring is another matter. He hears it as he shovels until his arms grow stiff.
The weather is improving, the snow stops falling. They can see a little farther, but still into the mist.
I'd rather the mist didn't disappear. I don't want to look over to long ridges and hillsides, and even farther, just now. They must be gathered here. I am too young for this — if I were to look across to all the mountain tops I would lose courage altogether. I must have that strange, secret ring just outside.
There they are standing side by side, and this fact turns to strength in him, lending power to his arm. He tries to turn his image of them into a kind of defiance, to turn it into shovelfuls of snow. They call out something that has this effect. They raise their muzzles as they do so.
It is not a beautiful sound, but it is a sound for the perplexed young boy shovelling snow. He does not know what it is, but it will become stronger later, stronger than now — for it is not now, it is not now.
Shut in by walls of snow on a blind and mute midwinter's day.
The child watches his father. His father lifts huge, heavy lumps of snow with his shovel. He is steaming with sweat. His face is again severe, closed. It is like hearing a word of gratitude to recall the moment just now when he, too, was resting on his shovel and thinking about something that was certainly not in this place, and that was restful to him.
They do not exchange a word now.
They do not look at each other. In turn each starts in surprise to see that the other is watching him. Something hidden is gathered here, of which they are unaware. This does not mean anything — yet it means so much that it makes one double up.
* * *
The man takes out his watch. The child pays careful attention. Perhaps it is time for a break?
It is. It does not have to be mentioned — since as little as possible should be spoken about. He can see it is time for a break by the way father puts the big, silver turnip away in his pocket.
Almost nothing need be said when you have eyes, and when you have your own song.
The break has been in the forefront of their minds for a good while. And it comes punctually. The fir-tree is standing ready to receive them, a tree all hanging, wide-spreading branches; with the help of the snow a house has formed beneath it. The man sees to the horse. Green, fragrant hay. His son coaxes a flame on the hearth quickly assembled out of three stones, and puts the kettle on. Neither of them has said a word. The horse munches hay. It is pleasant to listen to in the snow; more expressive than any speech. It is as if they are sending one another pleasant messages by means of the only sound in existence.
The fire warms up and crackles. The kettle boils. They munch cold sandwiches mixed with hot liquid and with steam from their wet clothes. The warmth enters their bodies and their sight grows blurred.
The man's eyes are dim, he is staring inwardly at something. The child is strangely struck, almost scared to see the stem man staring into something far beyond the present. The child is frighteningly alone.
Where is the wordless man wandering, this man who is not wordless when he's with the right people? The sight of him makes the boy forget his childish ring of animals. What is he thinking about at this moment? It's not about the people at home — he's sure of that.
The child ponders this anxiously. And then the question is blurted out. The same question given back from earlier today:
'What is it?'
Without meaning to, it sounds frightened.
The man gives a start of surprise.
'Is anything the matter, then?' he says quite sharply. His tireless manner of dealing with unwelcome questions.
'No,' mumbles the child hastily.
The child withdraws again. He has a guilty conscience, that's the trouble. Because he always sides with the quiet, strong partner at home, is always on her side when something is the matter — and therefore seems to be against this man of few words — who is not at all a man of few words, who is made welcome and makes people laugh as soon, and as quickly, as he likes.
But here there is no one to be happy with, to talk to about horses. The child knows all this far too well. On especially exhausting or boring workdays the man takes on the expression he has now. He stares out into something one dare not ask him about.
He is lonely, and I am lonely — and she who is at home and so very different, what is she? Yet they talk to each other just the same, about many things.
The one who is least lonely here is the horse.
The warmth has found its way in. The food and the warmth and the work are all having their effect on the man. He nods and drowses.
The child watches him intently while he is asleep. He cannot discover anything.
He's dreaming about something now.
What can it be?
What is reflected in his face? There is life in it as he sleeps.
Are they fond of each other?
Yes! Many signs of that.
But strangers to each other.
So very brief — his eyes are open already and looking round in confusion. A quick movement to take his watch out of his pocket.
'Oh!' he exclaims in amazement and puts his ear to the watch, to see if it has stopped.
The child has a desire to call to him: Do you think you've been dreaming as long as that? But he cannot bring out a word on this occasion either.
The horse is not munching, only half-dozing.
'My word, this will never do,' says the man, in rebuke to someone, and gets to his feet.
His eyes are still distant. He is not here. He puts the bit into the horse's mouth. The horse opens his lips slightly to make room.
* * *
They have finished that section and the horse is set to trampling down a new piece. He knows what he is supposed to do; all that's necessary is to take hold of the rein with scarcely a word.
But something is said to him, at least, so that he will feel they are working together, that there are three of them. He wades, darkening with the wet, is given a breathing space, tears at a piece of birch bark, and wades on ahead again.
Using all his strength.
The only one who has any strength.
His steel-shod hooves trample erratically in the deep snow. It is difficult to control his feet in it. He tramples and wades, determined to go forward. A long, long time until supper — and thus is my song.
What was that now?
Was it a sound?
No sound, but something has happened. Something red on the lumps of snow tossed up by the struggling horse's hooves. Blood on the lumps of snow.
Not a sound. No pause either.
But the man turns the horse in a flash, so that he wades the short distance back again. The child gets out of the way, knowing what this is.
'Has he kicked himself?'
Shortly after: 'He's kicked himself badly.'
The man cautiously strokes the bloodied snow away from the horse's foot. There is a long red weal in the leg just above the hoof. The shining sharp shoe on the other hoof trod in the wrong place. Cut by his own shoe. Dirty melting snow trickles down the leg and into the wound.
The horse droops his head as if dreaming, takes his weight off the leg, then droops lower. He is with man, with man in good and evil times. Has given himself over to man.
* * *
His stem master is hurriedly searching his memory. He does not see his staring child, but looks back into distant times, searching for the threads of experience: Never be at a loss. Don't stand uncertain in the desert places and the blizzard. No man must do that.
Excerpted from The Boat in the Evening by Tarjei Vesaas, Elizabeth Rokkan. Copyright © 1968 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag NS. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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
Contents1 As It Stands in the Memory,
2 In the Marshes and on the Earth,
3 Spring in Winter,
4 Daybreak with Shining Horses,
5 The Drifter and the Mirrors,
6 The Wasted Day Creeps Away on Its Belly,
7 Washed Cheeks,
8 Fire in the Depths,
9 Words, Words,
10 The Dream of Stone,
11 The Heart Lies Naked beside the Highway in the Dark,
12 The Tranquil River Glides Out of the Landscape,
13 Beyond One's Grasp,
14 Just Walking Up to Fetch the Churn,
15 The Melody,
16 The Rivers beneath the Earth,