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The House in the Dark
By Tarjei Vesaas, Elizabeth Rokkan
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 1945 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag
All rights reserved.
In a Bewitched House
If anyone should ask what this huge object is, heaving and cracking in the darkness, it is a bewitched house.
Here, beneath a single, gigantic, convex roof, are collected countless rooms and corridors and narrow passages, cut off from the rest of the world by dense, oppressive darkness. There are open courtyards inside this extensive house, but the darkness lies over it all like a crushing weight. If anyone were foolish enough to climb up on to the roof in an attempt to see something, he would simply feel as if his eyes had been torn out. He would come down again quickly and crawl away home.
The house is cracking. No one knows exactly why, or how it started, but it is cracking all the time. A silent storm is raging inside it: a mounting tension that is being encouraged, and suppressed too, until it splits apart.
It's this darkness.
It came while the house was asleep, settled over it, and will not go away. It sprang up like a seething spring, so that the windows were blinded and mouths became dumb, and from out of the darkness came people who held power. They lit up the corridors with their beautiful shining arrows. Then they set about making their own house within the house, and at once the silent storm began wearing it down.
So that now the stifled house is cracking from within and quaking from top to bottom. It can be felt as soon as you put your hand on anything connected with it.
Then some of them are afraid that the house is going to fall, and remember in sadness what it has meant to them. The darkness presses down as if an enormous, heavy helmet were arching over everything.
But inside the broad corridors it is light enough. Between the rooms go broad passageways with light shining from glistening, gilded arrows that have been hung there.
Now and then people pause and look at them. In their heads is a hammering and a buzzing, and their temples are seething with this fearful pressure. They stand looking at the arrows. The long arrows are fastened horizontally along the corridor, all pointing in the same direction. They are pointing the way to something. They curve around the corners of the passageway to other shining, well-lit corridors between the countless closed doors. Further and further away the arrows beckon, towards something, towards the centre, where the darkness wells up. In flight, alive, the glittering arrows hang there, pointing the way to the centre. A man goes the rounds polishing them. It's the kind of gold that needs polishing. Nobody stops to talk to this man.
Nobody seems to walk here. People cross the corridor on tiptoe. You will find life in the side passages, that are dark and narrow. In the arrow corridor everyone is in a hurry to get across. They look, afraid, in the direction in which the arrows are pointing.
Come, come, beckon the arrows, and their beautiful, naked forms are beguiling, but people scurry into the passages and cellars and into their cubbyholes.
Then a noise may be heard: a cry somewhere near. A choked cry comes from a neighbour: 'They've just been there. He's been taken away in the van.' Someone is left behind calling his name in farewell. Left behind, grieving.
And they look out through the blank window, as if a streak of light must come. But it does not grow lighter at all, only more blank, more dense.
Now heart rests close against heart. The bewitched house has gone for a brief moment, has disappeared with its oppressive rooms. Now there is only you. Ourselves.
A single name is spoken: 'Karen.'
No more. Let it be so, this little moment that we have on credit.
Other things, too, will become clear in a while, out of the strangely drifting dusk. His name. The man.
'Yes, Stig –' breathed rather than spoken, and then silence.
This is ours. We are from the beginning, where all things are created. We too have taken part in it.
Then the house cracks. It has been doing so all the time. But now they are aware of it again. Aware of what is happening, and what may be happening.
'Let's be alone together just a little bit longer,' she begs, when she notices that his thoughts have begun circling.
He answers, 'Of course, Karen.'
She is a part of the house. This thing that is wearing down the house is wearing her down too. He feels closer to her on account of it. He rests his large man's hand on her body, as if it could still the waves and calm her heart a little. The cracking makes her clutch him tightly.
'Why can't there be an end to all this?' she says in a moment of weakness.
He replies that it will surely come to an end. But it's bound to take time.
She is caressing his body.
'I wish we could stay like this for ever.'
It is natural for her to talk this way in times such as these. Stig is part of a hidden, desperate struggle, and nobody knows what the coming hours will bring.
'Don't let's talk about that,' says Stig curtly.
'I know I ought not to.'
'If I get into hot water I'll call for you,' he tells her unexpectedly. She does not reply from where she is lying in the darkness.
'Did you hear what I said?'
'Yes. But that mustn't happen!' she says.
But he knows very well that she is prepared for it. She is a part of this house.
Now she is silent. It is quite dark, so he cannot see her face. As soon as she is silent she recedes into the darkness.
She is there again.
'You must try to answer when you know I'm calling you.'
'Yes ...' she answers hopelessly.
She starts to talk about other things.
'Stig,' she says with difficulty, 'what will become of Rascal if –?'
That's where her thoughts are. With the child Rascal asleep in his corner. Stig can only register it.
'You'll manage all right with Rascal,' he answers calmly. 'I'm not worried on that account.'
'You know you will, Karen.'
She recedes into the darkness.
Stig lies there thinking about it. She is beside him, but her thoughts are with her child, as they must be. He is forced to put other matters first. The responsibility for many people and many vital tasks means he must put Karen and Rascal second. Don't think about them. Don't get your own affairs mixed up in it. It has become an iron law. Only in that way can the hidden struggle be continued.
She is there again.
'I'll try to answer,' she says.
He replies gratefully, 'If you do, I'll know. And you'll hear about it later. That you were there too.'
She does not dare ask him how. He is strange and strong beside her in the darkness.CHAPTER 2
High and Dry
Martin is sitting at his desk. There are stamps of all colours spread out over it. Martin is supposed to be working with them, classifying them and studying them, since it is his job – but at this moment he is sitting stock-still, without even glancing at the scraps of paper.
It's not safe enough here, he is thinking. One can't feel safe. And I must if I'm to work.
The thought flashes through him: The house is cracking.
Dreadful things are happening outside in secret, he knows. But why should it concern me? It's not convenient for me. I have this work to do. I, too, wish with all my heart that we could be rid of all that has befallen us, but it's not my job to join in a crude struggle against it. Let those who have the talent do so. I haven't.
He listens to the cracking, to the pressure, a deep, low buzzing through the immense, bewitched house. But above all he listens to the door of his room, in case someone is tapping on it, warning him.
Three sharp taps. They can be heard on the doors now and then, sometimes here, sometimes there, a warning from the people who are active in the cellars, that you must come out and join them, that they need your help. Martin knows what it means. He knows he can expect it at any moment. Three sharp taps on the door – and then out!
I won't, he thinks. If they tap at this door it'll be by mistake. It has nothing to do with me. I'm too deeply involved in all this.
He looks at his stamps again.
I must work and not think about this nonsense any more. I'm wasting precious time.
But soon he is listening once more. This muffled, threatening cracking – what is it? As if the house were straining at every joint. You could imagine that out of doors it would have looked as if the house were swaying backwards and forwards, gaping cracks appearing in the foundations. As if now, now the endless tension must snap.
But it doesn't collapse. It stands. There probably wouldn't have been anything to see from outside, anyway. Only an immense, complex house standing there, solitary and silent.
Martin listens. No three taps on the door. But he ought to be certain they would never come, that's the point. His thoughts go to a safer room, a room that nobody would find if they wanted to tap on his door.
Why should they try to force me like this? he thinks, getting a little angry. Obviously it's a question of force, I've seen that for myself. People should leave each other alone.
He tries to silence the nagging voice with all kinds of advice, but it will not fall silent; it remains, throbbing and smarting, and he is forced, reluctantly, to think about those who are to blame.
Sometimes his mood changes. The thought of those three taps is the reason. It arouses a fascination in him for the people he is afraid of and is trying to hide from. He becomes one of their comrades.
Here we are, he thinks.
Nobody can escape this, so here we shall stay; but here we are, and there are countless rooms in this house, and we have something to do in every corner of it, prising out the people hiding away in their cubbyholes.
Listen to the three taps!
Yes, he has been waiting for it impatiently, and he comes out. There they stand, irresolute and full of doubt. They have knocked on his door but are uncertain.
'Come along!' he says to them. 'Follow me!'
'We will,' they say, their eyes lighting up.
'Let's go to the centre.'
'Let's go to the centre,' they echo. 'But you're going first, aren't you, Martin?'
'Yes, of course.'
'But then you're finished too.'
'I'm ready for that,' he says.
Then he hears laughter somewhere so clearly that he is struck dumb, and cringes, and speaks the truth.
'No, no, the three taps must not come for me! The house must not see what sort of a person I am. Let them believe I am somebody.'
He drops his eyes in shame, although there is no one to see him here in private.
He has nothing particular to look back on. Thirty years. Years of study. He sits here at his desk, as he has always done, among piles of paper. There is dust on the table. Books and thick stamp albums. He has huge collections of them. And he sits here working on them, writing about them for smart magazines and periodicals. He is alone in the world. His closest relatives are gone, the others are strangers. He has a friend called Anna whom he visits now and then. He has a room in the huge house, and he has a job that permits him to stay in his room all the time. He consults enormous tomes and measures perforations and watermarks. He looks for possible faults in drawings of post horns, presidential profiles and parrots.
But who can work in such a state of unrest, when the house is cracking, when one can feel the pressure in one's body as if one's ears are stopped up?
It is a long time since any proper work was done at his desk. Dust is collecting on the surface.
He goes across to the blank window-pane. He leans his forehead against it but finds no coolness. Then he goes back to his chair. The stamps lie in front of him but he doesn't touch them. He is simply listening to the house cracking. His eyes are vacant from listening.
Of course, he thinks, food. Mealtimes. It must be time for a meal. One must stick to routine.
His apartment is well organized. He goes over to the wall and opens a door. Food is laid out there on a small table. Food already prepared, a warm drink on the hot-plate, and plenty of it, at a time when many people are ransacking their homes in search of bread. There is a chair for him in there as well. He sits down on the chair and picks up his food, listening anxiously for the cracking sound and for the expected three taps. He eats only a little at a time and chews slowly, listening all the while. Then he has no more appetite, closes the door, and returns to his desk, his papers and stamps.
Ah yes, and now I must regulate my digestion, he thinks after a while.
He goes across to another wall and opens a door there too. A door to a narrow passage. He disappears down it.
Then he is back again, listening.
The house is quaking in the soundless storm. It feels as if the black window-panes are bulging outwards. They do not crack, but bulge out from the pressure.
How are things in the other rooms? he thinks abruptly.
But he brushes this thought aside just as abruptly. I haven't the time. Everyone must attend to his own business in his own room, and leave everyone else alone. That's the solution, he tells himself. I could have gone out and told them, but what's the use of saying anything to people like that?
He goes on listening to the cracking.
Why can't I work in peace? All I want is to be allowed to work in peace on what interests me. I don't demand much! If only everyone thought like that, he says, wishing someone could hear him.
Well, back to work.
His pen is lying on the desk, but when he tries to pick it up his arm seems numb and he makes a grasping movement at one side of the pen, his nails clawing in the dust on the desk, making a scraping sound.
He gives a start and looks at the scratches he has made. That was a near thing, he thinks, without knowing what he means.
But what are they doing in the other rooms?
I don't want to be bothered with that!
His body turns cold in the midst of its feverish trembling: perhaps someone from the other rooms might come in here?
What about the door?
He jumps to his feet and inspects it. The door is strong and solid. The lock is strong and solid too, and makes a satisfactory, oily click when he turns the key in it.
He turns it, but it has already been turned twice so it will go no further.
So he sits down at the desk again. And listens.
What is this thing in the storm? It passes through you as if you were nothing but a sieve....
Time passes. Eyelids droop quietly in a corner. There is no distinction between night and day in the bewitched house. The lamps are always burning, but night droops its eyelids just the same. Martin notices this.
Ah yes, and so to bed, he thinks. The routine. He goes across to the wall and opens yet another hidden door. There is a comfortable bed in there. He goes in and undresses, takes off his clammy shirt and showers in the narrow passage, then gets into the bed in the wall, leaving the door to his room open to give himself air. Otherwise he might die.
He says: It must be night now. I'll get to sleep and see if I feel better in the morning.
He has switched off the lamp and it is quite dark. But somewhere far, far away stars are striding across the wide plains of the sky. One knows about them. No one has been allowed to see them since the darkness seethed up and engulfed this house – but one knows they are there. One lies imagining that this soundless, powerful storm creates a mist, and in this mist the Pleiades are hanging with a slight tail following them, but perhaps they are really burning. And all the other stars are shining softly, as hazy as milk. They have done so since the storm set in above the unhappy, beautiful house. Martin lies here, and knows about it, even though not a single ray will reach him.
Let me sleep. It's been such a long time.
Something says, What have you to sleep on?
I don't know, he replies. But I need sleep so badly. It's all the same to me, whatever's happening in the other rooms.
Sleep does not come. He listens to everything he hears and for everything he dreads hearing. He gets up again and switches on the light. Perhaps the outer door is not locked after all and someone might come in? He goes over and tests it.
It is locked as much as it can be locked. As far as human ability can stretch, he says to himself, using those very words. He can feel quite safe. All his wants are supplied in the walls around him; he need never go out through the door.
He listens, standing in his nightshirt in the middle of the floor, listens to the rooms he cannot see, where they are suffering. He knows about them, but what can he do about it? He is here and must work.
Excerpted from The House in the Dark by Tarjei Vesaas, Elizabeth Rokkan. Copyright © 1945 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. 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
1 In a Bewitched House,
2 High and Dry,
3 They Are Tunnelling Underground,
4 The Arrow Polisher,
5 The Brain,
6 A Glimpse inside the Stockade,
7 Frank and Freda,
8 The Sentry,
9 High and Dry,
10 The Austere Face,
11 The Dark,
12 A Crossroads,
13 On the Run,
15 The Heart through the Stone,
17 Drawing Lots,
18 The Finger,
20 Henry and the Chorus,
21 This Is Where They Are,