THERE IS A SECRET island far beyond the Arctic Circle where people don’t lock their doors at night for there is no fear and there are no thieves. An island where small children play on homemade rafts in sparkling waters on summer days that last forever.
A secret island where sea-mist clouds roll lazily over mountain tops like gigantic waterfalls. Where ungrazed pastures of waist-high grasses studded with tall and spindly, yellow, pink and blue flowers reach down to white, sandy beaches where nobody goes. Where chill, turquoise waters lap the shoreline unseen, and seagulls screech and squall. Where jet black ravens wheel and caw by the sides of soaring granite cliffs.
There is a secret island far beyond the Arctic Circle where painted wooden houses of myriad hues stand between mountain and sea. A secret island, where a tiny ox-blood church with an onion-shaped, dome, like those in Russia, stands. Where a small boy whispers to gravestones in a cemetery by the sea. He asks their occupants to search for his mother, who went out in a rowing boat on a lake early one misty, autumn morning. Never to return.
There is a secret island far beyond the Arctic Circle, where silver granite mountains cloaked in summer green slowly fall, rock by rock, stone by stone, chip by chip and grain by grain, into the sea till there is no secret island anymore.
The night I decide to sleep outdoors, because of an acute attack of paranoia, I begin to work things out. I had been gripped by a terrible fear Wenche would mention my rent arrears. To get my mind off her, I tried picturing Kari. Perhaps it’s her dream I’m in. It makes sense if you think about it long enough. And I did. Hers is the first face I most remember seeing after the accident. Everything before is shrouded in mist.
You know, there’s no logic to accidents. Like birth, their victims are mostly chosen at random. By chance. I didn’t choose to be knocked down by a car any more than I chose to be born. It makes you think. Isn’t it crazy the people who believe in reincarnation never think they’ll come back as the child of a diseased beggar in Bangladesh? And how they always imagine they were Cleopatra in a previous life? Or one of her cats. Cats.
Winter darkness has fallen and I’m walking up Trondheimsveien talking to myself, as I often do when nobody else is around. It’s so much easier than talking to other people. Slowly, the city gives way to patches of countryside. I look for a bush I can sleep under, or an abandoned building I might find a way into. If I’m a part of Kari’s dream, things start to fit. For a start, it explains why she keeps turning up all the time.
I turn off the main road, and take one leading towards a small industrial estate. I spot a hole in a fence surrounding a derelict warehouse. After trying to open three side doors unsuccessfully, I go round the back. Pulling several large, flattened cardboard boxes out of a skip I find, I push them beneath a bush and crawl in after. It’s a lot colder than I thought. Even with my down-lined jacket I can feel the cold seep through. But what does Kari want from me? My brain is a whirl of activity. Despite all the thoughts buzzing through my head I eventually fall asleep.
Not more than a few hours pass before I wake from the cold, shivering uncontrollably in the dark. Though the moon has vanished, dead grass glistens with frost picked out by a street lamp nearby. It’s as though thousands of specks of stardust have fallen from the sky. That’s how my grandmother once described frost to me one Christmas Eve. We stood in the porch of the farmhouse looking at the frost sparkle in the light of the full moon. All was silent apart from the sound of Christmas hymns floating on the still night air from my grandfather’s transistor radio indoors. In the country, snow and frost are as silent as the grave.
I clamber awkwardly to my feet. My whole body is stiff from cold and I can’t stop shaking, I have to find somewhere to warm myself or I’ll shiver to death. My teeth are chattering so loud I can hear them. They make a sound like a child running a stick along a picket fence. My broken arm has never hurt as much. It is so stiff and painful I want to die. When I try to walk I can hardly feel my legs and feet they’re so numb. It’s as though they belong to somebody else. I worry I might stumble and fall. I wonder what time it might be, and whether there might be an open café where I can get a hot drink and sit in the warmth. I’ll worry about paying for it when I’ve finished drinking it. From some way off I hear the hum of a tram. If the trams have started running then I’m likely to find a café open. A warm tram, how wonderful that would be. Whatever, I’ll have to trek back into town because I don’t have the fare. I curse myself for being so stupid. I’ve hardly slept. It’s all Wenche’s fault. She’ll be lucky if I don’t die of pneumonia. And she’d be to blame. Thinking of her racked with guilt gives me a warm feeling. On the other hand, perhaps I’ll be lucky if I do die from pneumonia. At least I’d get a warm hospital bed to spend my last few days. Death could be the preferable option. Perhaps I’ll discover just how wrong I’ve been about reincarnation all this time. It might be a reality. Maybe I’ll come back as someone rich and famous. Or as the child of a diseased beggar in Bangladesh. Problem is, I wouldn’t know I’d come back. I’d spend all my life never realising I’d been a Norwegian nobody in my previous life. What would be the point of that?
A few people mill about when I get back onto Trondheimsveien. Some huddle at tram stops, waiting. They’ll have come out of their warm beds and flats. They’ll have drank hot cups of coffee before leaving, and heading for warm offices, shops and factories. Soon the schoolchildren will be coming out on their way to warm schoolrooms. Their mothers and fathers will have wrapped them in warm scarves and warm, padded trousers. They’ll have warm hoods and warm hats and gloves.
By the time I reach Tøyen a blizzard is blowing. Snow as hard as grit blasts my cheeks and stings my eyes. It tumbles and rolls along the streets and pavements like shotgun pellets spilling from a cartridge. Lit by the greenish-yellow glow of sodium street lamps the settled snow takes on an eerie luminescence. The early morning shiftworkers bend into the snowstorm, as they struggle against it on their way to work, while the night shifts battle homewards. Many are almost blown off their feet, as it carries them along like first time skaters. Whipped by a vicious wind, the angry snow grit lashes their faces and bare hands mercilessly. It rattles against shop windows, and drifts into doorways where waiting shadows hover. Sometimes it whirls back into the air as though desperate to become part of the skies from whence it came again. It did not ask for this new, earthbound existence and fights against it. But to the earth it is destined to fall and on the earth it is destined to stay till spring suns melt it into brown waters to flood gutters and drains before disappearing down into sewers and on into the fjord.
The passing cars makes virtually no sound apart from a slight crunching as rubber tyres compress fresh snow pellets onto the tarmac, to glide along a surface of white ice as though without engines. The trams still make plenty of noise. They clatter and bang along their rails, iron wheels screeching painfully round corners as they scrape against the steel rails, metal arms sparking electric blue fireworks, as always.
Pulling it from its sleeve I tuck my right arm inside my jacket, close to my chest against the cold. It has started to complain again. Somewhere there must be an open café where I can shelter from the snowstorm. It’s not until I near Grønland station I see its light spilling onto the pavement. It isn’t really open but a sympathetic waitress lets me in anyhow. She makes me a tall, scalding glass of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and I warm my hands against it. The glass burns my freezing fingers. She asks me about how my arm ended up in a sling. I begin telling her a story I’d once read on the internet, changing a few details here and there.
“I’m a high wire artist,” I tell her, “I walk the tightrope in a circus. Last week, when I was performing in Vilnius, I fell fifteen metres into the ring where the lions were performing, right into the jaws of a lion.”
“Oh my God!” she exclaims covering her mouth, “You’re lucky to be alive! What did the lion do?”
“I think it came as more of a shock to the lion than it did to me. As well as breaking my fall, it broke its jaw. All the other lions began to run amok. They weren’t used to seeing humans falling out of the sky straight into one of their troupe’s mouths, and liked it far less than they might’ve imagined. Instead of opening their own mouths wide and pointing them towards the heavens in eager expectation, they tried to escape through the iron bars of the cage that was imprisoning them, roaring and clambering on top of one other. It was only natural, the spectators would fear the lions were trying to get at them. In the panic that ensued, they jumped out of their seats and stampeded towards the exits. Apart from all those injured, a family of four-year-old quintuplets, out on a birthday treat, was trampled to death in the mayhem. The moment I heard that, I vowed I would never enter the ring again.”
“That’s unbelievable! I’m surprised I didn’t read anything about it in the papers.
“The authorities have taken great pains to hush it up. Lithuania is trying to establish a tourist industry at the moment. It turned out that this particular circus wasn’t licensed to exhibit dangerous animals. But, along with several other bigwigs, including the Minister for Performing Arts, the mayor of Vilnius involved in a corruption scandal. They had been issuing bogus licences for circuses every other week. Circuses from all over Europe were queuing up to enter the city. The chief of police had to resign, and the Minister for Performing Arts, who was the actual official responsible for overseeing the licensing of circuses, fled on a plane to Moscow with the ringmaster’s wife. As you can imagine, the last thing the lithuanian government wanted was for the international press to get hold of the story. As luck would have it, in common with most other countries, Norwegian papers hardly ever carry stories about the Baltic States, as there’s not much interest in them. ”
“But it’s fascinating, I can’t think that people wouldn’t want to read a story like that. Things like that never happen in Norway.”
“No, they don’t,” I say thoughtfully, “Could I have another hot chocolate?”
“Why, of course. Have this one on the house. Your story has made my day, you deserve it. What will you do now?”
“I suppose I’ll have to get some boring job at a checkout in Rimi’s supermarket in somewhere like Tveita. There’s not much a high wire walker can turn his skills to. Especially with a broken arm. I sometimes think it would’ve been better if the lion hadn’t been there to save me from certain death.”
“You mustn’t talk like that, I’m sure you’ll find something.”
“But what can match the life of the circus? I was born into it. The smell of the elephants, the lions and the tigers. The sawdust of the ring is in my blood, I’ve never known anything else.”
“Can’t you go back and do something less dangerous?” the waitress asks. “Be a clown, for instance?”
“Be a clown? Never! The unwritten laws of the circus are far stricter than any union’s. They are based on the ancient caste laws of India. The tightrope walker is the most feared and respected member of the circus, higher even than the trapeze artist. For a tightrope walker to become a clown would be like a Brahmin deciding to become an untouchable: unthinkable. Clowns are just one step above circus animals. Some would say they are even lower than them, that the animals are much higher than the clowns. They live in unimaginable filth and practise things of a perverse sexual nature I wouldn’t stoop to describe in front of a woman. If you had been a circus performer and suggested such a thing, I’d be obliged to kill you on the spot. It would be demanded to preserve the honour of tightrope walkers everywhere. But you are unaware of the laws of the circus, so I can forgive you.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was so strict.” She brings over another steaming glass of hot chocolate.
“It’s OK, we circus performers have learned to live with the ways of ordinary folk, we have to. Besides, I have vowed never to walk into a Big Top again. And once a circus performer has made a vow, that vow can never be broken. Unless he is a clown, of course. Clowns are a law unto themselves. If ever a clown made a vow he would consider it his duty to break it.”
“I never realised circus life was so complicated, and that clowns were so evil.”
“Clowns have been making fools of us for years. How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing, you can have them both on me, you deserve it.”
“That’s very kind of you, perhaps I’ll be able to do the same for you some day.”
“Don’t worry about it. And don’t you settle for that job at Rimi, with a talent like yours I’m sure you’ll be able to find something much better, once your arm heals.”
“I hope you’re right.” With that I walk back out into the snowstorm.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
The church pictured at the top of the page is the oldest still in use in the Lofotens. Known as Værøy gamle kirke (Old Værøy Church) it stands in the village of Nordland on the island of Værøy. Though apparently white in the photo, the church is now ox-blood red. The island’s new church in Sørland was built in 1939. Photo by Rolf Kristensen