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Thursday, 21 January 2016


We had been visiting at Bjerke. The district governor and his old wife rowed home on Sunday evening, but the maiden Marie and the boys had begged and pleaded to be allowed to stay over until Monday so that they might take the road over the hills and “take in the view,” as they put it, and I their teacher decided – for various reasons – to accompany them.1 That Monday morning came too quickly for us all. Guided by our hostess the good mother Bjerke and her son, we walked up through the leafy glades of Bjerke’s garden, where the redstart and chaffinch, in the tops of the alders, celebrated the day with quick melodious strokes. The flycatcher flitted among the boughs, adding its phrases to the chorus, whilst the garden warbler, modestly hidden among the leaves, let its cheerful song stream out from the dense, dark treetops. The morning was still and warm; the leaves on the birches barely moved, and as we rose on the path between meadows, we could, when a ray of sun fell upon the greenery, still see the pearls of dew on the folded clover leaves and the lady’s mantle. The swallows swept low, chasing the fine dragonflies; the winchat sat swaying on a thistle, twittering in the field. Here we had lark songs from the blue sky, which on every side was edged by light summer clouds.

When we reached the other side of the king’s road the character of the landscape changed completely.2 The road climbed the hill; the pine and spruce gave a ceiling of soft boughs above us. The lark’s trills could still be heard from aloft, but the sounds that dwelled here were only the cutting chirps of busy tits, the screams of the black woodpecker warning of rain, and the kestrel’s calls from beneath the clouds. Weary after our climb, we rested for a moment on the flat, moss-grown stones by Prestmyren, drank a farewell toast to our guides, and drew strength from the sight of the glossy surface of Øyeren, the lake which we caught a glimpse of through the pine tops.

The boys were already out on the marsh gathering cloud berries, and they exalted every time they saw a blushing fruit. The maiden and I followed after them. Surrounded by pines and spruce, the marsh stretched for half a league to the west. Only isolated groups of erect reeds or tufts of light-green sweet flag interrupted the monotony of the great expanse. Occasionally a promontory jutted out, and here and there on the point we saw a yellowed display ground that remained as a memorial to the spring’s blackcock leks.3 Towards the north, the way we were walking, the marsh was barely a thousand paces across. The heather was in bloom around the banks, but out on the marsh impressive yellow water-lily goblets, bogbean flowers, and bitter cuckoo-pints waved at us. Decorated with nodding cottongrass, cloud berry flowers, and fine sedges, the carpet of moss split into the most diverse variations as it undulated beneath our feet, as if resting upon a swelling sea. We too took a short detour to gather some cloud berries. When we returned to the point of one of these spruce-crowned promontories, the bullrushes swayed their roller-shaped stems back and forth above our heads. A biting wind whistled in our faces, and just above us sat dark masses of cloud with greyish, washed out edges. There was a rain shower brewing; we felt a few drops. I comforted my frightened companion with the assurance that we would find shelter in the old beacon cabin that remained after the war. It was barely a couple of gunshots away, beside the huge pine by the marsh.4

When we reached the bank the rain was pouring, but we did not suffer. We felt firm ground beneath our feet, the woods covered us, and a couple of minutes later we were well accommodated by the beacon cabin. Actually, we were anything but well accommodated. The roof had fallen in. Only a small part of one corner remained, so we could easily see the birds of the air flying above us. But under the remaining corner, a compassionate shooter or woodcutter had fashioned a bench from a couple of juniper branches held between tree stumps, long enough that in a pinch, two might sit. Here we had to sit, and I thought it a wonderful seat! The boys climbed, risking life and limb in the ruins of the old chimney in the opposite corner, standing there against the grey sky, squabbling about whether they could see nine or eleven churches, until they could not even see the closest trees through the rain.

You might think our situation in the corner had made us intimate and expansive, but this was not the case. I sat, staring in silence at the matt surface of Øyeren, which showed itself in the doorway through the veil of rain. I looked for the boys on the chimney ruins, and at my own legs. I stole a glance at my beautiful neighbour, only to look away again, double quick. The situation was erotic and comic in equal measure; it was love – of the house-tutor kind.

We sat there like a pair of hens on a perch. Seize the occasion! I whispered to myself. While I had been wading in the marsh, I had quietly practised the speech I had considered holding on ten such occasions. How it went, I no longer remember; but I do remember that it always got stuck in my throat when I wanted to hold it. Now the fateful moment was here again. The boys had come off the chimney and were tumbling about outside on the bilberry heath. I considered it necessary to begin my declaration with a certain impertinence, and I actually dared to place my arm around her waist. But the maiden soon proved much more impertinent than I; she sprang up, and stood menacingly, though amused before me.

“What do you want with me? My God! Do you know what you dare?” she said. “You know my kin; I suppose you know I am of hulder stock, that troll blood runs in my veins.”

“My sweetest maiden,” I said feebly, though I had mustered my faculties somewhat, “I do not understand you. I do not know,” I added just to say something, “about such dubious ancestry.”

“Well, it is strange that mother, who has told you so many tales and stories, has not told you this. My great-grandmother, or great-great-grandmother was certainly a real hulder. Now you will hear of it, but if you do not want me to be wet through, then you must allow me sit in peace at your side on this branch.

“Now then, my great-great-grandparents, or great-great-great-grandparents (I’m not too sure which) were staying up at the pasture one summer.5 They had a son, and he was with them. When the summer began to give way to the autumn and they were to travel home from the pasture, the boy said that he would remain behind, for he wanted to see if what they said was true – that the hulders came with their herds when the folk went home. His parents were none too pleased at this, and said that he should believe it, for it was certainly true and there were many people who knew of and could tell of it. Their son refused to give in. He would stay behind anyway, and at length he was allowed. They gave him a plate of cream porridge to eat, and then his parents left.

“Just as he lay in his own thoughts, it livened up out on the slope of the pasture. He heard jangling bells, bellowing cattle, and bleating sheep, and there was talk and noise and fuss and husbandry just as when the herds arrive at the pasture. After a little while it grew quiet, and a while after that two strangers came in. The younger of them was beautiful beyond all measure. They began to tidy up and arrange things inside, and to cook some milk porridge. In the meantime, the boy pretended to be asleep. The hulders had not noticed him to begin with, but suddenly the youngest began to weep.

“‘Well, what is the matter with you? What are you weeping about?’ said the other.

“‘Oh mother, I think that boy is so handsome that I cannot live unless I have him; but I don’t suppose that’s possible,’ said the youngest.

“‘Hush, hush. We’ll talk with him,’ said her mother, trying to comfort her. Then they sat down to eat, and now the boy pretended to awaken, and greeted them. They offered him of their food, but he thanked them and asked if they wouldn’t rather taste the cream porridge he had to eat. Well, they liked that, for cream porridge, may I tell you, is the best food a hulder can have. So they ate together and talked about both this and that and however things stood, and then the mother said to him:

“‘You are such a handsome boy, and my daughter likes you very much; if you like her, and you will promise me that you will go to the parson and have her Christened, you may have her. But you must be kind to her, for then you will want for nothing as a dowry. You shall have everything you need on the farm, and more besides.’

“Well, the boy thought that he would like her well enough, and such an offer was not to be refused. So he promised that he would go to the parson and have her Christened, and he would be kind, too. They travelled home, and she was Christened, and they held their wedding, and lived both well and good, as they say.

“One day when he was a little mean, goading her somewhat, he heard such a clamour and commotion during the night, and when he came out on to the gallery in the morning, the whole farm was full of what they needed, both for farming and in the household. There were both cattle and horses, and ploughs and hay sleds, and pails and buckets and every possible thing.

“When autumn came around again, and the cabbages had grown large, and his wife wanted to begin hacking and arranging for the slaughter, she found she had no chopping block, nor a chopping trough. So she asked her husband to take his axe into the mountains and cut down the great pine tree that stood by the marsh on the way to their pasture; she wanted it for a chopping trough.

“‘I think you must be crazy,’ said the man. ‘Shall I cut down the best tree in the timber forest to make a chopping trough? And how should I bring it down from the mountain at this season? It’s so big that no horse will be able to pull it.’

“She bade her husband to do so anyway; but when he would by no means go, she took the axe, went up into the forest, chopped down the pine tree, and came home with it on her back.

“When her husband saw this, he was so terrified that he never gainsaid her again; nor did he anything other than what she asked him. And from then on, there was never any disagreement between them. That was the story.

“I am sure you have heard what manner of strong, wicked man my grandfather was; my father is the district governor, as you know,” she said, half threatening, half joking. “You may conclude for yourself what to expect, should you seriously anger me.”

“You look as if you want to stay here, Marie,” said the boys, whose completely blue mouths appeared in the doorway, with a huge bundle of bilberry heather. “The rain stopped a long time ago,” they said. “Come, let us go.”

We rose; the rich foliage of moss and lichen that covered the damp timbers in the wall played in the glittering sunlight, refreshed by the rain. Outside, in the forest, there was a gladness over all the plants and birds. Grape hyacinths and twinflowers emitted streams of pleasing scents, and the spruce shed its fragrance over us. The woods were full of bird song and celebration; in every treetop sat a song thrush, mocking my love. Wrens and goldcrests sang a contest, rejoicing over their gladness. A solitary robin complained from among the densest branches.

As we walked down the slope through the forest, Upper Romerike lay before us in the sunshine. Across the western hills the rain still hung like a grey veil, while northwards, it was so clear and calm. The mountain of Mistberg rose there like a bluish dome, and we saw the hills and woods and churches and farms, and the boys clearly recognised the red stable block at home on the farm. We went quickly downwards. Marie ran a race with the boys; I traipsed behind, staring in melancholy out across the waterless landscape, quenching my thirst with juicy bilberries. The last leg did not take us long, but when we arrived in the garden at home, the afternoon sun was unbearably warm. Marie sat herself in the grass beneath the old oak, and we followed her example.

Then a wave of tones streamed down over us. In wonder, Marie listened and stared up into the expanse of the dark crown. I recognised the tones; an ictarine warbler, a rare guest in the meadow, gave us this concert. It was in its element: it screeched like a falcon and chattered like a siskin. It gave us lark trills, and starling song, and swallow chatter; it knew the song thrush’s and all the warblers’ tones. It was a true potpourri of bird song, with celebration and pain.

“Do you hear?” cried Marie, as she sprang up and danced around beneath the tree. “When I hear these tones, I feel my hulder nature; I feel that I belong here, as surely as you belong in the city, with books and comedies and street organs.”

  1. A district governor (Norwegian: proprietær) was a substantial landholder. He owned and ran a main farm, and let out tenant farms on his land. 

  2. King’s road is an older term denoting a main public thoroughfare. This particular king’s road ran from Kristiania to Trondheim. 

  3. Leks: the elaborate courtship-displays of certain birds. 

  4. The beacon system in Norway was established in Viking times. The last time the beacons were repaired with a view to their use was in 1807–1814, when Denmark–Norway was under British blockade during the Napoleonic War. 

  5. Summer pastures were areas of highland grazing to which herds and flocks were taken during the summer months. Cabins and dairy buildings in the pastures housed milkmaids who looked after the livestock and made cheese and other dairy products to last through the rest of the year. 

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