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Excerpt

The End of the Ocean

Maja Lunde (trans. Diane Oatley)

January 16, 2020 
The following is an excerpt from Maja Lunde's novel, translated by Diane Oatley. Maja Lunde is a Norwegian author and screenwriter. Lunde has written five books for children and young adults. The History of Bees was her first novel for adults. She lives with her husband and three children in Oslo.

Ringfjorden, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway, 2017

Nothing stopped the water. You could follow it from the mountain to the fjord, from the snow that fell from the clouds and settled on the peaks to the mist that rose above the ocean and again became clouds.

The glacier grew every single winter. And every summer it melted, releasing drops, drops that became streams, which found their way down, driven by gravity, and the streams accumulated, becoming waterfalls, rivers.

We were two villages that shared a mountain and a glacier. We had them for as long as we could remember. One side of the mountain was a vertical wall, where the Sister Falls descended. They crashed straight down for 711 meters toward Lake Eide, a deep green body of water after which the village was named, Eidesdalen, and which provided fertile growing conditions there for animals and human beings.

Eidesdalen, Magnus’s village.

They couldn’t see the fjord in Eidesdalen; they weren’t accustomed to having the taste of salt on their lips. The salt was not carried by the wind and they could not smell the ocean. But they had their water, the water without taste, the water that made everything grow—and later Magnus said that he had never missed the ocean.

On the other side of the mountain it was milder, less harsh. Here the water accumulated in the River Breio, the salmon’s river, the water ouzels’ river, the freshwater mussels’ river. It forced its way through a crevasse in the landscape, forming this chasm with millions of drops every second, in waterfalls, in streams, and in calm, smooth stretches. When the sun shone, it became a luminous ribbon.

The River Breio continued all the way to Ringfjorden, and there, in the village at sea level, the river met with salt water. There the water from the glacier became one with the ocean.

Ringfjorden, my village.

And then they were together, the water from the glacier and the water from the ocean, until the sun absorbed the drops once more, drew them up into the air as mist, to the clouds, where they escaped the force of gravity.

I’m back now. Blåfonna, the glacier that once was ours, has forced me to return. There is no wind when I reach Ringfjorden. I am obliged to use the engine to travel the final stretch, and the clattering sound drowns out everything else. Blue glides through the water and leaves only small ripples in its wake.

I can never forget this landscape. “It has created you, Signe,” Magnus once said. He meant it had imprinted itself in me, the way I walk with my legs slightly bent, as if I were always confronting a hill. Nonetheless I am surprised now when I see it again: the summits, the falls, the vertical meeting the horizontal.

People travel here from far away to see this landscape and find the sight to be “beautiful, fantastic, amazing.” They stand on ship decks as large as football fields while enormous diesel engines spew out exhaust fumes. They stand there and point and gaze at the clear blue water, the bluish-green hillsides where fragile houses cling tightly to 45-degree-angle slopes. More than 1,000 meters above them are the mountains, the earth’s stripped, sharp edges, breaking against the sky, with a sprinkling of white that the tourists love. “Wow, it’s snow,” they say, whether it’s winter or summer.

But the tourists don’t see the Sister Falls or Sønstebø’s summer farm on the mountain. They have long since disappeared. They can’t see the River Breio, which was the very first to go, before the ships arrived, long before the Americans and Japanese came with their telephones and cameras and telephoto lenses. The pipes are concealed underground, and the damage inflicted on the wildlife by the excavation work has slowly been concealed by vegetation.

I stand there with the tiller in my hand, moving slowly as I approach the village. I pass the power plant, a huge concrete building all by itself down by the water. It is heavy and dark—a monument to the dead river and waterfall. From there the cables stretch out in all directions, some of them cross over the fjord. They have even received permission for that.

The engine drowns out everything, but I remember the sound of the power lines, the soft humming, in wet weather, water against electricity, a crackling. It has always given me goose bumps, especially in darkness, when you can see how it sparks.

All four of the moorings for visitors at the wharf are vacant. It’s too early for tourists—the moorings are used only in the summertime, so I can take my pick. I choose the spot farthest out, mooring the craft astern and at the bow and put out a spring line to be on the safe side; the wind from the west could blow up without any warning. As I pull the throttle control completely astern, I can hear the reluctant gasps of the engine shutting down. I close the hatch to the saloon and place the bunch of keys in the breast pocket of my parka. The key ring is a big cork ball that ensures it will float—it produces a small bulge over my stomach.

The bus stop is where it has always been, outside the consumer co-op. I sit and wait—the bus comes only once an hour. That’s how it is here; everything happens seldom and must be planned. I have just forgotten about it after all these years.

Finally it appears. I am accompanied by a group of adolescents. They come from the high school that was built in the early 1980s, the new one, the nice one, one of the many things the village could afford. They talk and talk about tests and homework  assignments. I can’t help but notice their smooth foreheads, soft cheeks; they are astoundingly young, without any marks whatsoever, without the traces of a life lived.

It is strange—no, surreal, surreal is the word—that I’m one of them, the old people, when I am still so completely myself through and through, the same person I have always been.

They don’t even bother to glance at me. I understand them well. For them I am just an aging woman, a little shabby and unkempt in a worn-out parka, with gray locks of hair sticking out from beneath a knitted hat.

They have new, almost identical hats, with the same logo in the middle of the brow. I hasten to take off my own and put it in my lap. It is of course full of fuzz balls. I start picking them off one by one and my hand fills up with lint. But there’s no point, there are too many of them to remove and now I don’t know what to do with them, so I end up sitting there with a loose mound in my hand. Finally I release it down onto the floor. The wool floats weightlessly down the aisle, but the adolescents don’t pay it any mind, and why should they look at a clump of gray lint?

Sometimes I forget how I look. After a while you stop caring about your appearance when you live on board a boat, but once in a great while when I see myself in a mirror on land, when the lighting is good, I am startled. Who is she, the person in there? Who in the world is that skinny old biddy?

It is strange—no, surreal, surreal is the word—that I’m one of them, the old people, when I am still so completely myself through and through, the same person I have always been. Whether I am 15, 35, or 50, I am a constant, unchanged mass. Like the person I am in a dream, like a stone, like 1,000-year-old ice. My age is disconnected from me. Only when I move does its existence become perceptible—then it makes itself known through all its pains, the aching knees, the stiff neck, the grumbling hip.

But the young people don’t think about my being old, because they don’t even see me. That’s how it is, nobody sees old ladies. It has been many years since a young person looked at me. They just laugh youthfully and openly and talk about a history quiz they’ve just taken, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, what grades they got. And nobody mentions the ice, not a word about the ice, about the glacier, even though it should be what everyone is talking about here at home.

Here at home—do I really still call it home? I can’t fathom it, after having been away for almost 40 years—no, soon 50 years. I came home only to clean up after a death in the family, to grieve the compulsory five days after the funerals, first my mother’s, then my father’s. A total of ten days is all the time I have spent here during all these years. I have two brothers here, half brothers, but I hardly ever speak with them. They are my mother’s boys.

I lean my head against the bus window, look at the changes. The area is more built up, the buildings closer together; a new construction project consisting of white prefabricated houses with small windows clings tenaciously to the hillside. The bus passes the indoor swimming pool. It has a new roof and there is a big blue sign at the entrance: Ringfjord–Water Fun. Everything sounds better in English.

The bus climbs upward, inland, and a couple of the young people get off at the construction site at the top, but most of them remain seated. We ascend, the road changes, narrows, becomes full of potholes, at almost the exact same time we drive into the neighboring municipality. This is where most of the young people get off. Apparently they still don’t have a high school out here, still don’t have an indoor swimming pool, here in the town of Eidesdalen, the little brother, the loser.

I get off with the last of the young people, stroll slowly through the center of the village. It is even smaller than I remember. The general store has been shut down. While Ringfjorden has grown, Eidesdalen is a fraction of its original size. But it’s not for Eidesdalen’s sake that I have come today, I can’t cry for Eidesdalen anymore—that battle is over, it ended many, many years ago. It is now the ice that has brought me here, Blåfonna. I take the dirt road leading to the mountain.

Dear, dear Blåfonna. All glaciers melt, I know that, but it’s something else witnessing it.

Even the national newspapers write about it. I have read the articles again and again and can hardly believe the words. They are extracting ice from the glacier, pure, white ice from Norway, and marketing it as the most exclusive ingredient: to be put in a drink, a floating mini-iceberg, surrounded by golden liquor. But not for Norwegian customers, no—it is for those who have really deep pockets. The ice is to be shipped to desert nations, the homes of oil sheiks, and there it will be sold as if it were gold, white gold, to the wealthiest of the wealthy.

It starts snowing, winter’s final spasm, April’s way of thumbing its nose, as I climb toward the mountain. There are little pools of frozen water on the road, rimmed with crystals. I put my foot down against the thin surface ice covering a small puddle, shatter it, hear it break—but it’s no fun any longer, not the way it once was.

I grow short of breath. It’s steep and farther than I remember. But I finally reach it, finally I see the glacier. Dear, dear Blåfonna. All glaciers melt, I know that, but it’s something else witnessing it.

I stop, just breathe. The ice is still there, but not where it used to be. When I was a little girl, I walked from the edge of the glacier almost all the way to the mountain cliff where the waterfalls disappeared below, where the glacier and the waterfalls were connected. But now the glacier is located high up on the mountainside. It’s a long way, 100 meters perhaps, between the cliff and the blue tongue. The glacier has moved, as if trying to escape, get away from humans.

I continue climbing through the heather. I have to feel it, have to walk on it, touch it again.

Finally I have ice under my feet, every step makes noise, a slight crunching sound. I keep going and now I can see the extraction area, the gouges in the grayish-white glacier, and deep gashes in the blue interior, where the ice has been cut away. Beside it there are four large white bags that are full, ready for pickup. They use chain saws, I’ve read, chain saws that are not lubricated, so the pieces of ice won’t be sullied by oil.

Nothing should surprise me anymore, all the things human beings do. But this, this tears something open inside of me, because Magnus must have sat at a board meeting and smilingly approved this, maybe even applauded it.

I walk closer. I have to climb to come right up against it, as the gouges were made where the glacier is the steepest. I take off one mitten and place my hand against the ice—it is alive beneath my fingers, my glacier, a huge, calm animal that sleeps. But it is a wounded animal and it can’t roar—it is being drained minute by minute, second by second, it is already dying.

Too old to cry, too old for these tears, but nonetheless my cheeks are damp.

Our ice, Magnus, our ice.

Have you forgotten about it, or did you perhaps not even notice that the first time we met it was with melting ice from Blåfonna in our hands?

I was seven, you were eight, do you remember? It was my birthday and I was given a present of water, frozen water.

All life is water, all life was water, everywhere I turned, there was water. It gushed from the sky as rain or snow, it filled the small lakes in the mountains, lay in the form of ice in the glacier, it flowed down the steep mountainsides in thousands of small streams, accumulated into the River Breio, formed a flat surface in front of the village in the fjord, the fjord that became the ocean when you followed it west. My whole world was water. The ground, the mountains, the pastures were just tiny islands in that which actually was the world. I called my world Earth but thought that it should actually be named Water. The summer was so hot, as if we lived somewhere else entirely.

The heat didn’t belong here, and how the English tourists staying at our hotel sweated, sitting outside in the big garden under the fruit trees, fanning themselves with old newspapers. They said that they never imagined that it could be so hot here up north.

When I awoke, the bed was empty, Mommy and Daddy were already up. I used to sleep between them; during the night I tiptoed into their room and lay down in the middle of the double bed. They asked if I’d been dreaming, but that wasn’t why.

“I don’t want to be alone,” I said. “I want to be with somebody.” They must certainly understand that; they slept here with somebody every single night, but regardless of how many times I came in, they didn’t understand. Every evening when I went to bed, they reminded me that I had to sleep in my own bed all night, not just half the night. I said that I would, because I understood that was what they wanted me to say, but then I woke up anyway. Every night I sat up and felt how empty the bed was, how empty the room was, and then I tiptoed in—no, I didn’t tiptoe, young children are no good at tiptoeing, especially not me. I just walked, without thinking about how I was making noise, without thinking about how I woke them. I walked across the cold floorboards into their room, where I always climbed in from the foot of the bed, because then I could push my way down in between them without having to crawl across either of their big bodies. I never needed a duvet because their bodies, on either side of my own, were warm enough.

But on this particular morning I was lying in bed alone—they were up, but because it was my birthday I couldn’t get up with them. I knew I had to lie there quietly, I remembered it from last year, that on your birthday you’re supposed to lie still and wait for them to come. But the itchiness, I can still remember the itchiness, how it erupted in my arms and feet—the intolerableness of the waiting, that it was almost not to be borne, that perhaps it would have been better not to even have a birthday at all.

“Are you coming soon?” I asked cautiously.

But nobody answered. “Hello?!”

I was suddenly afraid they wouldn’t come, that they had gotten the day wrong.

“MOMMY AND DADDY?!”

Or that they’d forgotten all about my birthday. “HELLO, MOMMY AND DADDY!!!”

But then they appeared, carrying a cake and singing. They stood on opposite sides of the bed and sang in their high and low voices, in perfect unison—and then all of a sudden it was too much, all of it. I had to pull the duvet up over my head and stay in bed even longer, even though I really wanted to get up.

When the song was over, I received presents—from Mommy, a shiny ball and a doll with a mouth that smiled a terribly broad smile.

“It’s creepy,” I said.

“No, it’s not,” Daddy said. “Yes, it is.”

“I thought it was so cute when I saw it in the store, and it was the biggest doll they had,” Mommy said.

“They didn’t need to make it with a smile like that,” I said.

It had to be freezing cold, but he didn’t seem to care because now we were making a snowman together—out of the rotting, melting snow.

“You have to say thank you,” Daddy said. “You have to say thank you to Mommy.”

“Thank you. For the doll. That’s creepy.”

I always spoke my mind, said what I thought, and maybe they were irritated but never enough to try to make me change my behavior. Or maybe it wasn’t all that simple to change it.

I remember the doll and the rest of the presents I received. I am pretty sure that I got all these things on this day: two books about flowers from Daddy; a herbarium, also from him; and a globe that lit up from both of them. I thanked them for everything. So many presents. I was aware that nobody I knew received as many, but nobody I knew had a mother who owned an entire hotel with almost a hundred rooms, either. There were 84, but we always said “almost a hundred,” and we also had our own private wing—we just called it “the wing”—with three living rooms and four bedrooms and a kitchen and even a maid’s room.

She had inherited all of it from my grandfather, who died before I was born. There were pictures of him, of old Hauger, hanging everywhere. Everyone called him that, even I did. Mommy had also inherited his name, Hauger, a boring name, but nonetheless she kept it. She never took Daddy’s surname, Daddy’s Oslo name, because you can’t just rid yourself of a name like Hauger, Mommy said. Then you would also have to change the name of our hotel, Hauger Hotel, and she couldn’t do that. Because our history was in the walls, all the way back to the year it was built, which was written above the entrance in numbers carved out of wood: 1882.

I was given cake, both in the morning and during the rest of the day, so much cake that my stomach couldn’t contain all the sweetness. I also remember that feeling that I was seven years old and so full of cake that it felt like my chest would burst, but I kept eating all the same. Family members came by and they all sat together at a table in the garden—Mommy’s entire family: grandmother, the aunts, the two uncles by marriage, cousin Birgit, and my three boy cousins.

The guests talked and carried on noisily, but I made the most noise because I couldn’t sit still, not then, not later, and I had a loud voice that Daddy said could carry all the way to Galdhøpiggen. He always smiled when he said this, all the way to Galdhøpiggen, Norway’s highest mountain. He was happy that I shouted so much, he said, proud of it, but Mommy was of another opinion. She said that my voice cut right through to the bone.

I made so much noise that I didn’t hear the truck. It was only when Mommy asked me to come to the courtyard that I understood that something was up. She took my hand and led me around the corner, while she waved at the guests and said that they had to come too. She laughed in their direction, and at me, but there was something unusual about her laughter. She laughed the way I usually laughed, wildly and a little too loudly, and I laughed as well because I felt that I had to.

I turned around and looked for Daddy. I found him, way in the back of the crowd of guests, alone. I wanted to hold his hand instead, but Mommy was pulling too hard.

Then we turned the corner and I jumped. I didn’t understand what I saw: the entire courtyard was white, and the light reflecting off it sparkled, making me squint.

“Ice,” Mommy said. “Snow, winter. Look, Signe, it’s winter!”

“Snow?” I said.

She stood beside me and I could tell that something about this was important to Mommy, about the snow, which was actually ice. But I didn’t understand what it was, and now Daddy had also come over to stand beside her, and he wasn’t smiling.

“What’s this?” Daddy asked Mommy.

“Do you remember,” Mommy said to me, “that you said you wished your birthday was in the winter?”

“No.”

Mommy continued, “That you cried when Birgit had her birthday and it snowed? And you wanted a snowman, do you remember?”

Daddy said to Mommy in a hard voice, “Have you driven it all the way down from the mountain?”

“Sønstebø brought it for me. He was going to pick some up for the fish landing station anyway,” she answered.

I turned around and discovered Sønstebø, the farmer from Eidesdalen. He was standing beside the truck, looking at me, smiling. I understood that he was waiting for something from me. Behind him stood his son, Magnus.

There you were, Magnus. I knew who you were before, because you sometimes came with your father on his truck when he delivered ice. But nonetheless, I think of that moment as the first time I saw you. You stood there, barefoot, your feet brown from the sun and dirt, and you waited for something—like all the others, you were waiting for me. You reminded me of a squirrel, with round, brown eyes that noticed everything. You were just eight years old, but you noticed that something was at stake, I believe, something that wasn’t said—that somebody needed you, or would come to need you. That’s how you were. That’s how he was.

“So Sønstebø had to make an extra trip?” Daddy asked softly. “All the way from the mountain?”

I hoped that he would put his arm around Mommy, the way he did sometimes—put it around her and squeeze her against him. But he didn’t move.

“It’s Signe’s birthday, she wished for this,” Mommy said. “And what does Sønstebø get in return?”

“He thought it was fun. He loved that I wanted to do it, he loved the idea.”

“Everyone loves your ideas.”

Then Mommy turned to face me. “You can make a snowman, Signe. Wouldn’t you like to do that? We can make a snowman, all of us!”

I didn’t want to make a snowman, but still I said yes.

I slipped in my good shoes and almost fell, my balance was off on the white surface she called snow, but Mommy grabbed hold of me and kept me on my feet.

The moisture and the cold penetrated the soles of my shoes, hard granules of ice spilled across my feet and melted against my thin knee socks.

I bent down, took a fistful of snow in my hands, and tried to make a snowball, but it was like nib sugar, it just disintegrated.

I looked up. Everyone was watching me, all the party guests were watching. Magnus stood completely still, only his eyes moved, his gaze going from the snow to me and back again. He had never received snow for his birthday—it was probably only hotel daughters who received that—and I wished he wasn’t here to see this.

But Mommy smiled, smiled as broadly as the doll, the largest in the store. And again I tried to make a snowball—I had to manage it, there had to be a snowball. I had to make a huge snowman, because I didn’t remember that I’d wished for a winter birthday. I couldn’t remember that I had ever spoken with Mommy about this, or that I had cried on Birgit’s birthday. But I had, and now Daddy was angry with Mommy. Maybe I had said that I wanted a doll too, and forgotten about it. It was my fault, all of this—that I was standing here and that my feet were so exceedingly cold, with ice water dribbling through my fingers, that everyone was standing here and behaving oddly around me, that the dry courtyard was turning muddy and vile, that Daddy looked at Mommy with a gaze that I didn’t understand, and that he put his hands down into the pockets of his trousers in a way that made his shoulders narrow. And also that Magnus was here. I wished with my entire pounding seven-year-old heart that he hadn’t seen me like this.

That’s why I lied. For the first time in my life I lied. Some children can lie—they do it without thinking twice. It’s easy for them to say that they didn’t take the cookies from the jar or that they lost their workbook on the way home. But I wasn’t that kind of child, just like I was not a child who liked to imagine things; make-believe games and pretend worlds were not for me. And maybe for that reason, lying wasn’t either. I had so far in my life not been in situations where I needed to lie, and I had also never considered the idea that it was actually possible, that a lie could solve something.

But now I did it. The lie pushed its way forward because it was my fault, all of this, I thought, with cold toes and wet knee socks, with the cake pressing against my chest, rising toward my throat, my mouth and I had to stop the look in Daddy’s eyes, that’s why I lied. I had to get him to take his hands out of his pockets and reach for Mommy.

I thought through the lie in a f lash, made it up in my mind before I performed it. In a quiet voice I hoped sounded genuine, I said, “Yes, I remember it, Mommy. I wished for a birthday in the winter. I remember it.”

And to make it really respectable, to make the lie fully plausible, I filled my hands with rotten nib sugar snow and held them out to Mommy, to Daddy.

“Thank you. Thank you for the ice.”

Now, I thought, now everything will certainly be fine. But nothing happened. One of the guests cleared his throat softly. My cousin tugged at my aunt by her skirt, peered up at her, but all the adults just looked at me and waited, as if something more was supposed to happen.

That was when he came over to me from the truck, Magnus, his feet moving quickly against the ground.

“I’ll help you,” he said.

He bent down; the hair on his young boy’s neck was close-cropped and his skin tan. He took some ice between his hands and made a snowball that was much nicer than mine.

Those bare feet of his on the ice, it had to be freezing cold, but he didn’t seem to care because now we were making a snowman together—out of the rotting, melting snow. And I no longer noticed all the others around us, all those still standing there watching.

“We need a nose,” he said.

“You mean a carrot,” I said.

“Yes, a nose.”

“But it’s actually a carrot,” I said. And he laughed.

__________________________________

From The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde, translated by Diane Oatley. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, HarperCollins. Copyright © 2020 by Maja Lunde. All rights reserved.




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