The following is excerpted from Rune Christiansen's novel, translated by Kari Dickson. The publication of his first poetry collection Where the Train Leaves the Sea made Rune Christiansen a notable Norwegian literary figure who has since turned to prose. Among his acclaimed novels is bestselling, Brage prize-winning novel The Loneliness in Lydia Erneman's Life. Kari Dickson was born in Edinburgh and grew up bilingual. She has a BA in Scandinavian studies and a MA in translation.
A couple of months after her mother and father had died, on the day it was agreed with social services that Fanny could live on her own, as she wanted, she went up to her parents’ room. She looked at the objects: the alarm clock on her father’s bedside table, the hair bands on her mother’s. It’s so spartan, almost impersonal, Fanny thought, or was it in fact deeply personal, in the way a reality can be uncomplicated, or a truth requires frankness. There was a photograph of the small family on the wall, taken on the day she came home from the hospital: a little baby in a white bonnet, with a slightly vacant expression on her face.
Fanny stripped the bed, carried the bed linen out into the bathroom, and put it in the washing machine. She wanted to make her parents’ bedroom her own. She wanted to sleep where they had slept, to breathe where they have breathed, and dream where they had dreamed, as though it were possible to blend these different perspectives: her mother’s, her father’s, and her own. There wasn’t much there to change. The bed could stay where it was, as could the two small bedside tables, which were actually two stools that had been painted white, and the yellow chair was practical, somewhere to put your clothes at night. Fanny opened the window wide, she washed and vacuumed, and then finally hung on the wall an album cover she’d found in her father’s vinyl collection. There was a shark on the cover, with its mouth open wide, and in the mouth it said inner space in red letters. And with this alarming image above the headboard, and fresh linen on the bed, Fanny took possession of the room. She got undressed and crept in under the duvet. She thought that at some point in her life she would be so moved she would burst into tears. Only not now, not for a long time, because she was so happy. She closed her eyes and fell asleep instantly.
In the first year after the accident, her friend Margit, from the neighbouring farm, found every opportunity to go home with Fanny, and often stayed overnight. They snuggled down under the duvet on the large double bed and lay there chatting far into the night. In the morning they made coffee and breakfast, before going to school together. Fanny enjoyed these visits, she loved the uninhibited talk in the evenings. They were happy times, these evenings full of insinuations, admissions, and fun. But then Margit and her family moved to Canada. It was like a fire dying down to glowing embers. For a while they exchanged messages—affectionate messages, messages full of longing and loss—but then the messages petered out and there was no contact.
She was hell-bent on not remembering, on not being filled with memories of things that had been lost.
Fanny realized how tired she was when she came home from school in the evenings. How exhausted she was when she unlocked the front door. And as for the journey, she felt it was only for the sake of sleep that she went back to the house in the country. She stumbled through her increasingly difficult existence like someone who had lost track of time. But it never crossed her mind to sell the house and get an apartment in town. Not because she felt bound to the house in any way, or that by moving she would cut a more of less abstract, sentimental link to her childhood and parents. She was, on the contrary, hell-bent on not remembering, on not being filled with memories of things that had been lost.
One autumn morning, when she was in her final year at school, Fanny woke up abruptly as though someone had shaken her roughly. The wind had made the birch trees outside sway so wildly that the branches were knocking against the wall. She kicked off the duvet and sat on the edge of the bed, barely awake. Her mother had always had the radio on to listen to the news. But it was quiet in the house now, and even though Fanny had got used to it a long time ago, she sat there for a moment, listening. Then she got up from the bed and went over and stood by the window. She yawned loudly and leaned her forehead to the glass. There was a crack in the irregular pane, a defect in the top right-hand corner. She pressed the glass gently with her finger, stood there waiting for something to happen, something normal or something shocking, anything; it was as though the defect were symbolic of something intangible, beyond possible. But she quickly realized it was nothing more than the kind of nonsense one sometimes imagines when one isn’t fully rested. There was a small ball lying on the window sill, a miniature mirrored ball like those that spin above dance floors in discos. She held it in her hand, a gentle prism vibrated against her skin. With a straight finger, she started to count the small mirrors, but soon gave up. What a waste of time! She opened the window to get some fresh air. Puh, she had to have a shower and get a move on.
Later, as she stood over the kitchen counter, stirring some sugar into her tea, it struck her how little the world was affected by whether or not she existed, nothing, really, other than the sweetener dissolving in the golden brown liquid, the woolen socks that had been abandoned on the bathroom floor when she went to bed the night before, and the window latch that she secured carefully every morning—trivialities, all of them. She drank her tea in greedy gulps, put her school books in her bag, slipped into her sneakers, and pulled on her coat. As she did this, she thought about how little she remembered, that perhaps she didn’t want to remember, that she had instinctively held the memories at arm’s length. Something popped up, and she interrupted it by thinking about something else. But “thinking about something else,” what did that mean? No matter what you thought about, you thought about something else. That was the way of the world. Wasn’t it? When you stacked newly chopped wood, you thought of your father, you pictured a forest path leading up a hill. One morning, when Fanny was a lot younger, just a little girl, she had opened the kitchen door and called for the dog, who usually lay under the eaves at night. It was standing on stiff legs and whimpering. But why? What had caught its attention? What had frightened the dog? She’d forgotten. Forgotten or suppressed, pushed back down. And the dog’s name? Ah, she really had to get a move on now.
She had a long journey to school. First she had to cycle two kilometers to the bus stop, which fortunately had an old shelter where you could get out of the rain and snow, then it was a ten-kilometer drive to the nearest village and station, and then half an hour on the train into town. But in town, she was just like everyone else, it was as if the senses remembered less than reality here. She had no idea what the others thought about the fact that she lived so far out in the country, so far away from everything and everyone. Did they not care? Or were they just careful to avoid any conversations that might be painful? In which case, that suited her fine, because Fanny did not want to talk about her moods and emotions. Only on bad days did she imagine that the others at school, the teachers and pupils, her friends even, felt sorry for her, having to live such a miserable life out there in the sticks.
She checked that her cellphone was in her coat pocket, put an apple in her mouth, and unlocked the front door. She had left the bedroom window open. She couldn’t be bothered to go back upstairs to close it. She ate the hard apple and threw the core into the underbrush.
She was on time for the train again that day too. She had travelled this route so many times, it was familiar, the open fields, the well-maintained farms, the factories along the river, the clusters of houses and woods at regular intervals. Everything was familiar and safe, and the hilltops that ran along either side of the open valley lay lethargic like a procession of dozing animals. She found comfort in these journeys; in the morning, in particular, she like to sit with her head against the cool glass of the window, with her eyes shut and music playing in her ears. The clouds didn’t care, and sailed on, undisturbed by her existence, the wind blew in gusts in the treetops and the cars on the main road where indifferent to her gaze. She thought she was the only one who was dependent on her.
The school lay on the east side of town, opposite the train station. The brick building towered over one of the busy, narrow streets and was not in very good shape: the walls were full of cracks, and the section that faced the parking lot was covered in all kinds of cryptic signs and peeling graffiti tags; the eavestroughs were blocked with old leaves and birds’ nests, so the dirty water had trickled down and stained the facade. The building had of course retained some of its former glory, but decades of decay had staked out a sorry course for the once grand and reputable seat of learning. In summer, when the only way to get any circulation in the classrooms was to open the windows, the noise of the traffic was so loud that several of the pupils wore headphones when reading and writing. As teaching was out of the question, the teachers simply gave out tasks—pupils were asked to read from this page to that in the geography textbook, to solve these equations, or to write an essay on one of the given topics in ancient history or literature, or a comprehensive argument on a political theme.
The schoolyard was surrounded by a high wall, and above the gate was a wrought-iron decoration: an elongated, ornate landscape with figures, people and animals, reaching up toward the sun. And in the sun was written Scientia in flaking gold letters, as though this celestial body, in some mysterious way, which was only enhanced by the Latin, represented all wisdom, all mortal experience, and mundane routine. To an unobservant eye, the building behind the high wall might resemble a miserable prison or godforsaken factory from a bygone age.
In the row in front of Fanny, by the window, sat Janos, a clever and articulate student. They had barely exchanged a word since he appeared in the class halfway through term. Fanny had no idea where he came from, no accent gave away a mother tongue other than her own, but from the start she had noticed his reserved, almost cold, manner, and the way he sat quietly until any discussion was almost over, only then to add his solemn opinions. And sometimes, when he read out something he had written, an essay or an answer, Fanny noted down the odd formulation, quite literally behind his back, not so that she could use it herself, but so she could understand what he meant, really get to the bottom of what he was saying. One such essay, a very sombre one, captured Fanny’s interest in particular: Janos was reading in his even, sophisticated way about the snail, the coldest of all creatures, and how it seeks to mate, seeks contact, in order to turn away from death. Where did he find information like that? Fanny couldn’t help but be intrigued by the young man. It was as though he wanted to make sure that everything could be put into words, that it was possible to name every component in the world, all existing parts and organs. But Fanny wasn’t sure that was possible, because it wasn’t possible to remember everything, and what wasn’t remembered was lost, wasn’t it, and in any case, bits of some memories were paradoxical and abstract, sensations and glimpses rather than language, not like some revelation, not like complete events that could be recaptured in words. Despite these misgivings, Fanny wished she could find a way to get to know Janos. It was impossible in the schoolyard. At break time, he was always busy with other people, besieged, he was in another orbit. In class it was the same—he worked hard, made notes, read, listened, in his own unique languid and laid-back way. And as time was allowed to elapse without Fanny expressing in any way that she liked him, let alone that she was attracted to him, it became increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to hope that the non-existent relationship would develop any further. Fanny had looked for him on the train, without any luck, they clearly did not go the same way; she had even followed him twice, to find out where he lived, but both times he’d just walked the streets, without any apparent plan or destination. But then, one afternoon, Fanny was later than usual as she had to do some errands in town, and she ran into him. She was rushing to catch the train, and when she turned the corner onto the main square, she collided with an elderly gentleman. The man let go of his umbrella, which was then lifted over their heads by a gust of wind and blown some way down the pedestrian zone. Fanny apologized, then turned around to go and get the umbrella, which had already been picked up. By Janos. He handed it to the man, who hurried on his way. So there they stood, Fanny and Janos, unable to escape each other. Janos held out his hand, and Fanny took it. She heard him say something, but didn’t catch it, as, at just that moment, a van turned into the street and they had to move. A fleeting and vague thought made her recall something unpleasant: that in the old days, they tied up a corpse’s chin so the mouth wouldn’t be left open when rigor mortis set in. They stood there next to each other. Fanny told him her name, and Janos said he already knew what she was called. There was no irony in his voice. Fanny lived out in the country, didn’t she? And she took the train? Fanny nodded, yes. Janos held out his hand again, this time to say goodbye. She was disappointed, disappointed in herself, disappointed in the young man’s haste. He clearly did not share her infatuation.
Where the anger came from, Fanny had no idea, but every now and then it was there, and she cursed her parents.
While Fanny waited for the train, she stood poker-backed on the platform, shivering in the grim weather. She watched a boy desperately chase his little sister, who couldn’t have been much more than two, as the girl tottered with short steps perilously close to the platform edge. Her parents reined her in now and then, but the girl always managed to escape. She obviously thought the whole thing was a daring game. Her brother shouted at her and at the two adults. He grabbed the little girl, but every time she managed to slip loose with incredible agility. Only when the train rolled into the station did the father lift up the enterprising child and carry her into the passenger car.
Fanny found herself a seat by the window. She put on her headphones and closed her eyes. Sometime later, the train slowed down, and then, not long after, it came to a complete stop in the middle of scrubland. Fifteen minutes passed, then another ten, without anything happening. Fanny turned down her music in case there was an announcement, but nothing was said. She looked around the passenger car. A young boy was sleeping in the seat opposite her, a woman was leaning over a stroller farther down the aisle, and an old couple were sitting side by side dozing.
A mist hung low over the fields. Fanny moved to another seat to try and see what was preventing them from moving. The parallel tracks lay straight and shiny on rust colored sleepers. Then she noticed a marshland with trees and scrubby brush close by. She pressed her forehead to the window and studied this unexpected discovery in the dark, not that there was anything unusual about wooded areas like this along the tracks, it was just that she had never noticed this particular one before, this untidy, dense tangle of trees, not here among all the orderly fields and grazing grounds. She was tempted to get off the train, to open the door, jump down onto the tracks, and climb over the wire fence into the trees.
When she finally got home, she brushed her teeth and went to bed, troubled by an indefinable tumult. She lay there with her eyes open, waiting for sleep, almost desperate, filled with this sensation that alarmed her, and the normally imperceptible transition from a state of awakeness to dreaming was now slippery and tense, and with small judders she tossed between the two. She thought about Janos. They would of course meet again as usual; the next day, in fact, they would meet in the classroom, but now the bond was of no interest, just awkward. What would he think of her? She wished she could be like a coin that had gone out of circulation and was worthless but kept appearing nevertheless.
Where the anger came from, Fanny had no idea, but every now and then it was there, and she cursed her parents, cursed their absence as if they had abandoned her for selfish reasons, as if they had left her no more than crumbs she should happily gather up from the floor. All these more or less diffuse, rarely welcome memories that dangled in front of her nose, what good were they to her? Of what benefit were they, now that they no longer arose from happy and secure expectations? No, she would rather suppress it all: was childhood not just a sorry episode? And her youth, which would soon be over; was it not just unbearably tedious, like a dripping tap or a pipe in a wall that had sprung a leak?
A still, sleepless night, with only small intermittent puffs of moonlight through driving clouds. Fanny sat out on the front step. She had pulled on her father’s rain boots and a coat. She couldn’t stop shivering. Should she tell Alm that she was ever more frequently gripped by panic? If indeed it was panic that gripped her? Perhaps it was simply pining. Talk, tell, confess, no, it occurred to her that all these words meant the same thing, to get rid of, or perhaps they were all words that hungered for attention. Fanny didn’t want attention. Attention was the same as having a constant eye on you, a frenetic, scrutinizing, and distrustful eye that found no rest. She lit a cigarette. The first she had ever smoked. A forgotten packet from her mother. Forgotten? She wanted to feel what it was like to inhale the smoke of tobacco and paper. A ritual. Not one to inherit, she didn’t want to subject herself to her mother’s habits, but rather to bid farewell, again to get rid of, to settle something, move on. Fully aware, she sucked down the smoke, coughed a little, felt dizzy. Her hands stopped shaking. She studied them, observed how they held the cigarette, the glowing end that tipped into ash. She started to hum, listened to the pure notes that came from her mouth, as though it wasn’t her own but someone else’s bewitched voice that had taken up residence in her body and was now leaking out, unhindered. And this voice, it manifested itself in the smoke that twirled in front of her face, silent and palpable rotations in the night dark. She would never think of her parents again now. Nor what was in the past. And if she did happen to think about her parents, her childhood, all that was in the past, then she would let it pass as though it didn’t concern her, didn’t upset her, didn’t humiliate her. She would conquer her own memory. As though her memories were junk, worn-out toys, knick knacks. Because she really didn’t want to fall prey to a kind of desperation, or to the kind of grief that was like burrs on a woolly sweater, impossible to shake loose. She flicked the cigarette butt onto the ground, and went back to bed, and fell asleep almost immediately, calmed, with her face buried in the sheet.
Excerpted from Fanny and the Mystery in the Grieving Forest by Rune Christiansen translated by Kari Dickson. Featured with permission of the publisher, Book*hug Press. Copyright © 2019 by Rune Christiansen. Translation copyright © by Kari Dickson.