Eyes of the Rigel

Roy Jacobsen, Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

April 21, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Roy Jacobsen's newly-translated novel, Eyes of the Rigel. Born in Oslo to a family that came from northern Norway, Roy Jacobsen is the author of more than 15 novels and a member of the Norwegian Academy for Language and Literature. The Unseen, the first of a series of novels about Ingrid and her family, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award.

From the sky, Barrøy resembles a footprint in the sea, with some mutilated toes pointing west. Except that no-one has ever seen Barrøy from the sky, except for the bomber crews, who did not know what they were seeing, and the Lord God, who does not appear to have had any purpose with this imprint He has left in the sea.

Snow is now falling heavily on the island, making it white and round—this lasts for one day and a night. Then its inhabitants will begin to form a black grid of tracks criss-crossing the whiteness, the widest of them will connect the two farmhouses, the old, run-down building on the island’s highest point, surrounded by a cluster of trees, and the new one in Karvika, which is resplendent and showy, and in the summer is reminiscent of a stranded ark.

Then paths will appear between the farmhouses and the barn and the wharf buildings and boathouse and peat-stacks and potato cellars and haylofts and moorings, between the islanders’ workplaces and storerooms, paths that will be entwined into a tangle of wild, random squiggles, the marks of children and play and ephemerae; there are many youngsters on the island in this, the first year of peace, there have never been more.

And then a dirty-brown rivulet winds its way south-west through the landscape, it is the sheep going to graze on the seaweed in the south of the island. Barbro hobbles along behind them, wielding a pitchfork and singing at the top of her voice, her face turned to meet the dancing snowflakes, which she snaps at between the strains of her song.

One might speculate why she doesn’t drive the animals down between the new wharf building and the Swedes’ boat shed, the shortest distance between the barn and the sea. But Barbro knows what she is doing, it is late winter and the seaweed is in the south, knotted together by storms and driving rain into brownish-black ropes, and left in coils at the highest point of the tide, where they lie, rank and covered in ice.

Barbro shuffles back and forth, pulling the strands apart so that the animals can get to the semi-frozen sustenance they contain, she is soon hot and sweaty and sits on the tree trunk they found drifting here a lifetime ago and secured with pegs and lines hoping that one day it would be worth something. And she begins to ask herself whether they have too many sheep this year, whether these undernourished creatures will manage to carry their lambs through to April and May, at this time of year she always frets about these things—every season has its worries, even the summer, as it can rain for months on end.

But then she feels a stinging sensation behind her left ear, it extends down the back of her neck, into her shoulder, along the arm that is resting on the tree trunk and into her hand. A hot, inner stream flows from Barbro’s head and starts to drip from her longest finger, which immediately stiffens and creaks, as if made of glass.

She opens her eyes and realizes that she is lying on her back, the snowflakes are falling on her eyes, she blinks and sees that Lea, the sheep, is standing at her side, staring out to sea, now whiter than ever, it is as calm as milk, there are no birds, except for the three cormorants sitting on the skerry to which they have given their name, and not even they are making any sound.

Barbro digs her fingers into Lea’s wet fleece and drags herself to her feet. The other sheep stand watching. She picks up the pitchfork, feels a protracted stab of pain pass through her waist, and herds the flock in front of her up the same track, to the marsh pond where they cut peat in the summer. She knocks a hole in the ice crust so that the animals can drink, and one by one they waddle up the slope unprompted and disappear into the barn.

Finally Barbro sets off, her right hand still buried in Lea’s wool, and she doesn’t let go until this sheep, too, is swallowed up by the darkness. She bolts the door behind her and stands with her gaze fixed on the farmhouse, but doesn’t see the hand waving in the kitchen window. Barbro turns and follows the path leading to the new wharf house, goes into the baiting shed and stares down at the three holes in the bottom of an empty line-tub as the wind rattles a loose board in the south-facing wall. She sits down, grabs a bodkin and twine, and her hands set about making netting. The door opens and a voice asks what she is sitting here for.

“Aren’t tha freezen?”

It is Ingrid, who had seen her aunt from the kitchen window and wondered why she had gone down to the quay, which Barbro often does, but today she didn’t come back up to the house, and a long time had passed, evening was drawing in.

Barbro turns and fixes her with an intent gaze, and asks:

“Who ar tha?”

Ingrid moves closer and peers at her, tucks a few strands of hair under her headscarf and realizes that she will have to answer this absurd question truthfully, and at great length.


Excerpted from Eyes of the Rigel by Roy Jacobsen. Copyright © Cappelen AS. English translation copyright © Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, 2020. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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