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tearing the rag off the bush again
Burnt Norway PDF E-mail
I’m going to show you something I’ve never shown anyone before.  Not even my agent. In fact, Lolly would freak if she knew I was doing this.  I can hear her: “You’re going to destroy it for them, Paul.  You’re going to turn their tongues sour.  You know, the tongue of their brains?  They don’t need to know what you cut.  What you cut stays in the trash.”  I appreciate her theatrical sense of maintaining appearances, sticking to character, not letting one see the blemish on your cheek or the cut in your heel or the gash in your soul.  Chin up.  Face front.  Pull curtain.  Act one.  But I can’t help it.  Now that it’s over.  All of it.  Besides, it’s only a page.  Less.  343 words.  But these are the 343 words that started everything.    

    Lars kicks at the pitiful black and red remains in his hearth.  If he doesn’t do something, the blaze--which they’ve bribed for months--will soon extinguish.  Lars has to open the bottom embers to the liquid resuscitation of air.  The charred, barely glowing fag ends that have been on top roll to the side and go out.   It doesn’t really matter.  They aren’t helping anyway.  They take more heat than they give out.  The newly freed ember underneath glows brighter orange. Lars bends over--slowly, so as to not topple from the sudden movement and rush of head blood--and cracks fourteen pieces of kindling in half at once.  He tosses the stick halves on to the would be flame.  The sticks catch: smoke first, then a kind of subtle orange brimming, then yellow tongues stand up and do a full shimmy as if in a congo line.  Lars waits a minute or two.  Then he puts one small log on the flames and takes a rolled tobacco cigarette--the last one he owns--from his oily coat pocket.  He brings the cigarette close enough to flame that it too ignites.  Lars takes a drag and lets the smoky, pine-flavored warmth travel through miles of his being.  Then he blows a mottled gray stream directly at the fire, commingling mouth mist with the ropes of hot black smoke now rotating from the burgeoning blaze.  He needs this fire.  He needs more cigarettes.  He needs hot coffee.  (How would he get that?) He needs his worn woolen jacket--rubbed through at the elbows, ripped at the right shoulder line, evidencing in every inch stains from smoke and blood and tallow and oil and dirt--even if it gives him imperfect protection.  He will take any protection at all against the February wind.
    It better happen tonight, Lars thinks.  He can’t let her suffer anymore.  It’s no life for her.  Or for me.  Breathing out, he feels how close his ribs are to his winter skin.  
    Besides, I could use the meat.

    Pretty atrocious, huh?  First of all, I didn’t know where or when in Norway this action was supposedly happening.  I figured roughly three hundred years: far enough back to be pre-industrial but not so far back that no one would really remember it.   Okay, three hundred years.  1703?  No later.  1753?  Hmm . . . 1793?   And why Norway anyway?  The truth is it was a spur of the moment choice.   I could have said Sweden.  I could have said Finland.  I could have said Iceland.  I could have said Germany.  All I know is that I wanted north.  I wanted white people.  I wanted some poor starving pre-industrial northern European farmer.  I didn’t know a darn thing about Norway.  I knew the Norwegian jokes Garrison Keillor tells every Saturday afternoon on the radio.  I knew IKEA.  I knew “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles.  I knew that in 1994 the Winter Olympics were held in Lillehammer.  And I knew--because during those games I watched one of NBC’s ubiquitous, sports suffocating, up-close-and-personal segments about him--that Norway had a king.  The King of Ice.  The King of the North.  (I think NBC actually showed him getting pulled around on some silly sled by reindeer.  Or maybe I’m making that up.)  A useless, ceremonial modern king.  A king who knows he’s lucky to have the job at all so he’s willing to let NBC pull him around by reindeer.   A king for a democracy; that blatant contradiction in terms.  Actually, to tell true, when I began my novel I wasn’t even sure Norway was a democracy.  Don’t you have to be a democracy to be in the EU?  Is Norway in the EU?  
    Well, if you don’t know, find out.
    But it doesn’t matter.  Lars doesn’t live in modern Norway.
    It matters because you ought to know.  What kind of philistine are you?
    None at all.  I’m just saying, for the sake of the book--
    And IKEA isn’t Norwegian; it’s Swedish.
    Swedish?
    They serve Swedish meatballs in their cafes.  At least they did.
    Did?
    Last time I checked.
    Which was?
    1991.
    Do IKEAs still have cafes?  And indoor playgrounds?  And babysitting ?   All that progressive, feel-good, heralded-at-its-U.S.-opening-in-the-1980s European stuff that Americans hate, not because they are bad ideas but just because they’re not American ideas.
    Stop!  I’m not going to let you get away with this.
    Get away with what?  
    Who knows.  I didn’t.  What I did know was this.  It would be Norway: preindustrial, predemocratic, prespringtime, primordial: a white-skinned farmer kicking at a near dead hearth fire and hoping that his dear old cow, his one cherished remaining mammalian livestock and veritable kin, gives birth to a calf that night so he won’t have to kill her for meat with that baby still in her stomach.  But he will have to kill her for meat.  The poor dear.  It seems almost an act of cannibalism.  
    Eating one’s cherished family cow may be gross, but it’s hardly cannibalism.
    But they’ve had it so long.  You know?  It’s like a friend; it’s like a baby.
    It’s a cow.  Unless an actual person is involved it can’t rank as cannibalism.  Look it up, why don’t you?
    Hey, there’s an idea.  
    What?
    Why not make Lars so desperately starving and so out of any other options that he commits a real act of cannibalism?
    Do you know if cannibalism even existed in Norway 300 years ago?  Or ever?
    But he’s starving!
    Yes, and he’s also Norwegian.

    It’s winter.  The hardest winter in fifty years.  Lars’s cow dies along with the baby inside her; it turns out the meat is diseased.  The gangrenous brackish slime is a dead giveaway.  Lars can’t help it; he tries a chunk anyway but turns critically ill.  While he is bed ridden vultures devour the rest.  Maybe they get ill; maybe they don’t.  Things get worse for Lars and his wife.  The three remaining chickens are mauled by a fox.  Lars discovers only feathers and a couple stray beaks in the chicken house.   They use up the last cup of flour, the last ounce of butter, the last of the stored potatoes, even the seed potatoes.  (It had been a bare, disappointing harvest.)  Melted snow provides water, but there is no food.  Lars becomes gaunt and his knees ache.  He begins to wheeze when he walks.  Spots demonstrate like fireflies in the front of his vision.  His stomach feels like its been carved out with a dull knife: bleeding hunger every minute of every day.  He begins to look at his wife in a new way.  Her skin is so velvety, the texture of a plucked, succulent chicken--that white and that smooth.  The flesh between her fingers looks like the thin meat on a wing, what you suck on to get every bit of flavor.  Her shoulders could be muscles of beef.  And her ribs!  They make his mouth water.

    Excellent!  Now I had a conflict.  A man determined to eat his wife.  That’s an attention grabber.
    Or a stomach turner.
    A risk I can accept.
    But this is a farming community, right?  What about the neighbors?  Wouldn’t Lars try to get help from them first, like before he committed murder?
    Hmmm . . . Good point.
    All right, so the whole village is struck: a series of miserable events and acts of God over a period of months.  First, the harvest is reduced to almost nothing by a mysterious crop disease; then in late fall lightning fires devastate a number of properties; finally, cattle begin dropping off as if poisoned, but poisoned by what no one could determine.  The village is so critically hurting that most decide to get out before winter even arrives.  They migrate south to wait out the worst weather; maybe try to learn to be fishermen.  Other families move north, because they had heard rumors that in some lone places above the Arctic Circle temperatures become magically warm.  Other families move where they know someone who can take them in.   Family by family, the village leaves, until it is a village in name only.  But, Lars--at least until the night when he attempts to kill his wife--scoffs at such reckless bedouinry.  Things are bad, yes.  But lighting out half-assed might only make matters worse.   He, for one, will stay put.  He will outlast the winter.  This is his house.  His farm.  His home.  He will stay.

A month later,  I’d written exactly one scene:
    One night after Olga dies to a bitter exhausted sleep, Lars pulls himself out of their frigid bed.  His aching joints crackle like thin tinder.  He walks to the far corner of the room where against the wall rests an assortment of small tools, all but unused these days, which he doesn’t feel like carrying back to the barn.  He knows the piece he is after: his axe: a yard long and topped with a head that, unlike every other instrument in the house, he has kept sharp over the years.  As if he knew he must use it some day for just this purpose.  He grunts as he lifts the axe.  He feels a wincing pain along his shoulder blades.  He realizes more than ever the reduced condition of his body.  Used to be he could swing this for an hour without feeling anything.  Now he can barely carry it across the room.  But he does.   He must.  She’ll die anyway.  If I don’t do this, Lars thinks, she’ll die anyway.  And so will I.  I can’t last another month.  I may be only a week from the grave.  I may be days.
    Lars trips over his feet, then the axe, and lands face first against the floor: hard as iron in this ungodly season.  He can’t see; there’s nothing but yellow everywhere and the pulsing sting in his forehead.  His lungs collapse, empty sacks in his chest.  He can’t breathe.  He wonders if he is dead.  Then he hears his wife turn on the bed, mumble.  His eyes clear.  He sees the gray brown floor.  He pushes himself up and checks on Olga.  She is on her back, her eyes closed, apparently still asleep.  Whew.  Lars takes hold once more of the axe.  No mess ups, he thinks.  I’ve got to do her the first time.  It’s only right. He takes the last step to the bed.  With a jerk and a new pain swording along his arms he pulls the axe all the way over his head.  He sees Olga--a collection of meat under the thin blanket, barely living.   The few muscles left in his arm shudder under the weight.  He tries to transfer energy from his arms to the long handle but all he feels is the weight of the axe head pulling him backward.  His arms quake.  He buckles.  Lars collapses to the floor, the axe tolling against the wood.  He begins to cry.
    “What are you doing?” Olga sits up, wide awake, all eyes.  She sees her husband on the floor, an axe behind him.  
    “Nothing,” Lars says.  With severe effort, he pushes himself to a sitting position.  He can feel the ribs of his butt against the iron-cold floor.   “I thought you were trying to sleep.”
    “I can’t.  I’m too hungry.”
    “Really,” he says.  “I’m okay.”
    “Rooster poop.  You’re as skinny as a buzzard.  Skinnier.  You’re so skinny if I had to eat you it would be more trouble than it’s worth.  I’d get nothing off your bones.”
    Lars tries hard to frown: his best hurt face.
    “I’d never think those things about you.”
    Olga raises an eyebrow.  “Thanks, I guess.”
    She settles against the pillow and lays still.  “Oooh,”  she groans.  She turns on her side, showing her husband her back.
    “I’m so hungry my joints hurt,” she says.
    Lars nods but, in truth, he doesn’t hear her.  He’s only thinking how delicious that stretch of flesh must be: from pointy shoulder blade to pointy shoulder blade.  It sticks to her skeleton just like a fitted sheet.  He imagines tearing it off with his teeth and gorging on that crisp salty wattle.  Then sucking on her bones to get every bit of grizzle and blood juice.   He is so hungry even the idea of eating bones makes him excited.
    “Yes,” he says, for no apparent reason.
    “Yes, what?”
    Olga turns over.  She sees his eyes.  She sees his face: lean and needing.
    “Yes, what?”
    Lars shakes his head.
    “What?” she says for a third time.  “What does that mean?  I never asked you anything.”
    Lars’s eyes tread from wall to wall to floor to ceiling.
    “I just meant--you know--yes, I’m listening to you.  I’m affirming my husbandly interest in your thoughts and emotions.”
    Olga snorts.  “You don’t give a hen’s hash brown about my thoughts and emotions.  Do you think I don’t know who I’m married to?”
    Lars turns red.  He has enough blood left for that.  He shrugs.
    “Yes,” Olga mutters mockingly.  She turns her back to him again.  “And if you’re thinking of killing me and eating me, you should know that I’m hiding a knife just beneath my left leg.”
    All the new air leaves Lars’s lungs.  His mouth opens.  It won’t shut.
    “I choose weapons I can handle, husband.”
    Lars gulps.  He falls back against the floor.
    
    In that scene, Lar’s wife used expletives.   But what expletives are authentic to Norway in 1793?  Certainly not “rooster poop.”  That one couldn’t stand.  Nor “hen’s hash brown.”  But where would I go to find out how preindustrial Norwegians cursed?  I could call the Norwegian embassy in Washington, DC?  (You know, I really could do that.)  Or I could just Google “Norwegian expletives” and see what comes up.  Google would surely work.  Google knows everything.  
    I tried Google.  It failed me.  I was so cocky I actually chose “I’m Feeling Lucky” and what I got was something called The Monochrome Set, with an accompanying message that the site is “always under construction.”  Didn’t like the sound of that.  So I tried a regular search.  The most intriguing possibility referred me to the YLC (Yamada Language Center) Quarterly of the University of Oregon.  It’s Fall 2001 issue focused on Scandinavian Studies.  Here is what the hit looked like on Google: “Professor Westerleg, a Norwegian, boasts that the most popular of the Scandinavian . . . become mere bikies) and peppering your speech with as many expletives as possible . . .”  I noticed of course the distance between my two search terms.  Not only did they not follow each other but they were separated by ominous ellipses.  Still, the site was worth exploring.  I found on page seven of the YLC Quarterly for Fall 2001 the reference to Professor Westerleg--Grethe Westerleg, that is.  The Quarterly reported that according to Professor Westerleg, “the most popular of the Scandinavian languages is her native tongue.”  It went on to quote her directly: “Of all the languages it has the simplest grammatical forms making it easier to learn, especially for someone speaking English.  Norway also has the highest standard of living in Scandinavia, making it the most popular destination for study abroad.”
    Okay, fine.  But what about the expletives?  
    I continued to page eight where I found an article titled  “How to speak Australian.”  The writer of this article cheekily explained that YLC sent a reporter “to the wilds of Australia to investigate the local lingo and compile a large list of slang for a special 50 page report for your edification and enjoyment.”  Just what I needed.  A tongue-in-cheek academic quarterly about foreign languages.  Since when were university quarterlies supposed to engage in masturbatory sarcasm?  The article continued:
Unfortunately, our intrepid reporter disappeared into the desert on a camel. He was last seen heading west from the town Alice Springs, and has yet to turn up. Among his personal possessions abandoned in a bar and later returned to us by the  authorities was  our investigator’s copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Australia, with the following passage underlined: If you want to pass for a native try speaking slightly nasally, shortening any word of more than two syllables and then adding a vowel to the end of it, making anything you can into a diminutive (even the Hell’s Angels become mere bikies) and peppering your speech with as many expletives as possible.     

    I was not amused.  Worse, I still hadn’t found my Norwegian expletives, only Australian ones.  
    Maybe I could move my scene to Australia.
    C’mon, dummy.  Crocodile Lars and his sheila Olga?
    What difference does it make?
    I think it would matter to Australians.  
    What am I supposed to do about the expletives?
    And three hundred years ago; wasn’t Australia like still a penal colony then?
    
    “Give me the straight poop, will you?  Lars?  Lars.”
    Olga, sitting across the tiny broken table, leans in to her husband.  “Lars.  How ya goin?”
    Lars, his hands glued to an empty coffee mug, can’t look at his wife.  Besides, his dazed mind is too filled with images of tucker, heaps and heaps of beautiful tucker.   Floaters and chips.  Bloody, juicy, chewy lambies, like the kind he used to get from the Kiwi up the road.  Croc meat.  A giant tortoise.  Shrimp on the barbie.  Lagers from the bottle-o stuffing his eski.  Lars thinks he sees a floater on the table: round and fat, heaps of meat pushing up from underneath, making bumps on the buttery crust.  But no, it isn’t a floater.  It’s an apple.  But then it isn’t.  A mozzie, maybe.
    (Note to reader: As you may have intuited, in this passage I made sure to use every single words listed as Australian slang in the fall 2001 issue of YLC Quarterly.)  
    Yes, a mozzie.  A mozzie would taste good, wouldn’t it?  Even a mozzie?  Now?  He slaps it.
    “Ow!” Olga waves her hand.  “Whatja go and hit me for?”
    “What?”
    “Whatja hit me for?”
    Lars closes his eyes.  He squeezes them as tight as he can.  He opens them slowly.  He squints, focusing on the table.  The mozzie is gone.  Instead, a bare white hand lays on the table, an attractive wrist with still some flesh around the bone.
    “Lars?  Lars?”
    Lars looks into his wife’s pale, skinny, once freckled but now decimated face.
    “What are you looking at?” she says.  “You just hit my hand, you know.  Are you loony now?”
    “What?” he says.  Then: “No.”
    “Oh, I see,” she says.   “I see, husband.  That’s how bad it’s gotten, is it? All I am is food to you.”
    Lars looks at her for a moment.
    “Yes,” he says.
    She stands.  “I reckon I married a blooming Yank, didn’t I?  Or a Pom.  Might as well have married a fucking 18th century, imperial Pom.  All that matters is what you want.  All that matters is your hunger.  My body is just one big eski to you, in’t it?  Or maybe I should say a bottle-o.  Or maybe I should say a serve-o.  After all, we’re all just 90% water, eh?”
    Lars half-nods, half shakes his head.  He can’t tell if maybe she is inviting him to drink her.  He closes his eyes and enjoys the image.
    “Lars!”
    “What?”  Stars and fireflies dot his vision; their dull shack seems too bright.
    Olga is leaning over the table.  “This can’t go on.  We got no tucker.  We need you to get us some tucker.”
    His mouth moves, noises come out of his throat like “Yes.”  
    “Get in the ute.  Drive to the serve-o.  Bring your rifle.   Take every bit a tucker they got.  Right? I don’t care if it’s junk.”
    Lars doesn’t answer.
    “Lars.”
    Lars doesn’t answer.  He is looking at her bright blue eyes and thinking he could pop them in his mouth like maraschino cherries.  A little bigger but just as juicy.  The sheet of skin over her tall forehead and long of her face he could peel with a paring knife and eat in strips.  Sweet hors d'oeuvre.  Then the main course: her once buxom chest, whittled by starvation, but still with meat to last him a week.  Dry but not too dry, chewy but not tough, not like a croc.  Lean, but so much more delicious.
    
    Oh, that was terrible.  Ridiculous.  I liked Norway better.  I preferred a hoary, brain-addled northern farmer starving and freezing to death.  Besides, how could I go back three hundred years with “utes” and “serve-os” in my novel?   So that was it.  No more indecision.  Lars stayed in Norway, in his bare cabin on a wintry plain.
 
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