by Rodney Nelson (Volume 26: Page 229)
* Abode of the
Norse god Balder. Mr. Nelson’s story is a "lyric prose
eclogue of the friendship . . . of two American boys [whose]
grandparents were Norwegian [and who] retained, subliminally,
a great deal of old-country culture."
Andrew Hogenson was the son of John Hogenson, who had built
Breidablik. Andrew had been seventeen in the summer.
Peter Malmlund had no father at home. He would be seventeen
in the winter.
Andrew was lean and studious. He had crow-black hair and
the gift of craftsmanship. When teachers looked at him, they
would wag their pencils approvingly: "Just like John."
Peter was round and red-cheeked. He had the fingers of a
surgeon and the nature of a violinist. His mother’s brothers
never looked at him: "Too much like his old man."
They had made friends over poetry.
* * *
They drove out from Red River early on the first morning
of October. Red River, their home, was a prairie town governed
by south wind in summer and north wind in winter; flowerless
autumn was a good time on the prairie.
"I see you brought some books," said Peter.
"That I did," said the driver. "I see you’ve
Long Lake was in the hills at the edge of the prairie. It
was here that John Hogenson had built his cottage and named
it Breidablik. The wood had been so cunningly fitted that
people who saw Breidablik held their breath in admiration,
but not many were invited. John Hogenson himself came down
rarely; the lake was for loafing and there wasn’t time to
They drove up the first hill and came into the first valley.
The groves would be turning soon; the leaves were splotched
and wrinkled. Autumn mist hung over the lakes. Bone-white
tree trunks stuck like spears out of the water. The morning
sun was copper and the hills a burnt green.
"We ought to split up until noon," said Andrew.
"Yes, we should."
They left the car at Breidablik and walked out in separate
Vacation had ended for most of the cottagers. Fall was the
best time on Long Lake.
* * *
Andrew sat on a stump cleaning his glasses.
Maybe it would be better without them.
He was high enough to see the far end of the lake. The woods
between had been cut back by farmers’ fields. There was the
pasture he had climbed up through: the sheep-dung was dry.
Two flecks of white.
Andrew put on his glasses. . . . Ploughgulls.
He uncorked the canteen and put it to his mouth. The cider
was warm; it didn’t do the trick.
The sun was too hot for October. He placed the clipboard
on his knee and turned his back to the light.
Well, how about a poem?
He could write something; he had to write something. It was
ten percent inspiration and ninety percent sweat. Think of
Ulysses and War and Peace; those books didn’t happen in your
Think of a girl’s legs.
Andrew socked himself on the forehead.
But he had to have something to show for this walk. What
about this walk? He thought of the slough with cattails; that
had been a beautiful place.
Should he mention it to Peter?
Well, he could do better than mention it.
He lowered his pen to the clipboard and began writing something
about the slough with cattails.
* * *
Peter sank down in the welcoming shade of a big elm. The
roots were exposed where the lake was touching them. The branches
threw a shadow on the water.
The lake was so quiet and friendly.
Peter wondered where the shore would lead him. It might go
in, it might jut out; there might be a flashing bay with an
island and a river.
He snapped a twig in half and bit his teeth into it. The
other half he tossed in the lake.
If only he could keep on walking.
But he still had a weight in his throat.
His mother had kicked him out of home; it was the third time.
He would go back and there would be silence, not forgiveness.
She said he was like his father, and he replied it was better
to be a lazy man than a stupid woman.
She was going to sell his violin.
If only he could forget.
Peter took a small notebook out of his shirt and blew the
pages. They were all empty.
How could he write poems with things as they were? The sneers
of his mother and uncles followed him everywhere. You’re no
good! Why can’t you be normal like the others!
He leaned against the bark and tried to imagine the others;
even the family didn’t know who they were. Maybe they were
around the next bend of shore. Andrew was one of them; he
had all the advantages. The others had a good home, a father,
Maybe they didn’t exist.
Peter bit the twig and wrote something about an island and
a river that he had never seen.
* * *
At noon the door of the cottage was no longer locked, but
Andrew’s car was gone.
A note wedged in the screen:
"Have gone for provisions, sore ass permitting. Return.
A." Back so soon? The writing must have been tough. Peter
walked listlessly in the yard.
This was Breidablik, home of the good; an overturned boat,
tired grass under it, a handful of dead leaves, not yellow,
on the brick path; the sampling of autumn.
The cottage was ringed with trees, itself the color of wood.
The air made him feel solid and comfortable. There was a catch
of smoke in it; old men were raking and burning somewhere.
Weather was their guide.
Peter thought about age, the solidity, the care.
He thought about the man who had built this place with foresight
and a hammer. John Hogenson had worked year by year and when
finished there was a nook for everything he had used; brackets,
hooks, pulleys, clips. Everything fitted.
Breidablik sat on prepared earth. It was meant to. The purple
lake ran and rippled in the branches. Old Hogenson had set
a bench over the shore, aiming it for the best view. He knew
what he wanted.
Was it the peace after toil?
They were right about one thing: there was goodness in work.
Peter smiled. What kind of work?
* * *
"You get a poem this morning?"
"Nothing remarkable. Have a cigar," said Andrew.
They were drinking coffee in the kitchen. The water for the
coffee had come from the well and it tasted of the bean rather
than the water. Next to Andrew’s mug was an ashtray in the
design of a coiled rattlesnake.
Peter drew once and took the cheroot out of his mouth. "You
can tell a real cigar smoker," said Andrew, "because
he never takes it out."
"The place to smoke one of these is in the woods,"
They drank coffee and smoked. Peter looked around for Andrew’s
Andrew read, mug in hand:
Below the mastering sky
In a gold fold of hills
I heard the delicate play
Of water and duck-bills.
I saw primordial time
Quickening in the slough,
The cattails and the water,
And a dark thing that flew.
He put the mug down; speculative silence.
"Now you see what the sore ass was about," he said.
"It’s a fragment. Not much for a whole morning."
"It’s good," said Peter.
Andrew thought, better stick to prose from now on. Peter
coughed. He was thinking, that’s excellent language. His lines
are neat and sober and he’s in firm control of the idea. It
would be nice to have discipline like that.
He thought of the miserable thing in his shirt pocket.
"How did you turn out?" said Andrew, smoking. Both
shifted in their chairs.
I hope that I will never hope
Beyond the river of the mind;
A narrow gleam, excelling all
Wet rivers I could find.
I want to follow, bank by bank,
The thin unceasing flow of life.
And find, when current leads to bay,
An island out of strife.
Peter closed the small notebook and hid it again. "So
it goes," he added.
Andrew nodded to the table. "It’s alright. Parts of
it are very good. Metaphysics there." He was thinking,
how can anybody write stuff like that? Never did get it. But
he seems to have some talent for abstract writing. An island
out of strife!
"Well, now we have four stanzas to show," said
Andrew laughed through his nose and got up.
"I have to chop some wood," he said.
* * *
The chopping had gone on for half an hour; from the long
dock to the top of the neighbors’ hill, all that could be
heard was the chopping.
Peter stood out and watched for a while and then went inside
and came out and watched; it was no use to talk as long as
the chopping went on.
Once Andrew stopped to dry his forehead.
"I’ve been thinking about the last line in your poem,"
said Peter. "Maybe you should say ‘Thing that knew’ instead
of ‘Thing that flew."
Andrew brushed some of the white chips off the block.
"Have to think about that," he said, and began
chopping. Once Peter was inside looking at John Hogenson’s
library. A large book sat flat on the shelf, an interesting
book bound in two pieces of white pine; he opened it.
Over the fireplace hung a mounted glazed muskellunge, its
eye controlling the room. Peter bent in the fish-glare and
turned the pages.
"October 28, 1947. Hammered the last nail. Trig was
here and old Roy as well. Supper in the yard.
"July 15, 1950. Temperature 98 degrees. Got the boat
painted anyhow. I hope it doesn’t leak.
"September 1, 1954. The kid and I fished until breakfast,
but no luck. Worked on the fence this afternoon.
"January 10, 1956. Skied in to take a look. The snow
is up to the eaves on the north side. Checked the shutters.
"August 4, 1958. Got only ten bucks for the old boat.
Since it was Thorfinn I couldn’t ask more. Hauling the new
one down Saturday."
"October 1, 1958. Visiting here with Andrew. Salutations
to the owners of Breidablik. P. Malmlund."
* * *
These two sore arms were puppets of the family; the nerves
ringing with autumn were his own, he hoped.
The ax was good; an owner didn’t change it as long as it
was kept sharp. But the toolhouse, the precise opening and
closing of the door and the click of the padlock; there was
He put the ax in its holder among abandoned cobwebs and came
out into the piercing sky.
Work put the ground under your feet; no nonsense left in
you after splitting a few birch logs. Peter ought to give
it a try. . . . The fence needed paint. Should he?
He ran his palm along the board until he came to one of the
nails he or Dad had hammered in four years ago. These autumns
were like a great single autumn held together by work. He
remembered too well the shared silent piety of the work; the
hopelessness of flesh, theirs, his.
No painting today, fella.
Over the fence was the neighbors’ closed cottage, and the
dock where she had been sunning.
Sixteen years old, yellow-haired, gold-legged; his breath
came short as he remembered the silk fuzz of her thighs.
Andrew shuddered. Meat for the future.
* * *
They shoved off at night with Peter rowing. In the boat there
were blankets, a lantern, canvas pillows and a box containing
cigars and a thermos jug. They were going to spend the night
on the lake.
The moon had not risen, but the stars were out.
Peter had his back to the lake. Andrew faced him in the stern.
The shore was at first a black cliff topped with leaf; it
became a receding patch of oblivion set in obscurity.
Peter rowed well, quieting the oars.
"You can’t see the dock any more," he said.
Andrew looked back where the shore had been.
"It doesn’t matter. I know where we are."
There was no wind.
They went on coasting through the night although the boat
seemed to make little headway. Andrew’s wristwatch indicated
they were thirty-five minutes afloat.
"This has to be the middle," he said.
Peter shipped oars and knelt in the prow to drop anchor.
He had a good hand for boats.
They placed the lantern on the mid-thwart and lit it. A dim
cave of light joined prow and stern where they sat in their
blankets. It was hard to see the other.
"Good Christ, what is that?" said Peter. The loons
had been hooting all along.
"We have nothing to fear from the loons," said
They waited and rocked and listened to the loons. The cave
did not flicker. Yes, some coffee would be good.
"Although," said Andrew, "what we need is
brandy." The night was cold, too cold for a thin blanket.
"What we need are a couple warm bodies," said Peter.
They laughed guardedly; then the cigars were fetched out.
An hour went up like smoke.
"Luna and loon; they will meet soon," Peter recited.
Andrew chuckled in the stern.
"Loon or luna; who’ll come sooner?" he said. "How’s
that for you?"
"I’m very glad English is my native tongue."
They rocked and waited under a continent of stars and on
a vast breathing of water. A few lights speckled the horizon,
marking the reaches of the lake, and when you looked again
their position had changed. The boat was turning. The universe
was turning. Time was walking toward them, and it was very
"Nobody knows it," said Peter in the prow, "but
this is the only life.". . . Andrew sat up.
"Yes, that it is," he said. He unhitched the blanket
from his throat. "But I’m afraid sleeping is out of the
question. Want to call it off?"
They fixed their course by the polestar and rowed into the
* * *
Uncle Jake’s face, pork-red, pig-bristled in the eyes, remained
there after the dream was over. It was Uncle Jake, drunk,
who had whipped Peter as a child, and mother had said nothing.
Peter turned on his shoulder and swore. The dream had been
bad enough; now it was Sunday. He would have to go back to
But outside a thousand birds were celebrating. It was dark
in the bedroom. The clock said ten; the next time he looked
it said ten-thirty.
Somebody was up.
* * *
Andrew had been in bed reading Zarathustra. It was too much.
He thumped into the kitchen, flung the windows open and let
his fist drop on the table.
There was the lake, bubbling and dancing like a picture in
a kids’ book. There was the immaculate dock, the neat little
bench, the fairy-tale rosebush, the pruned saplings .
Care, concern, prudence, safety, caution! Piety!
Breidablik was a cage of the familiar. Even alone, or with
someone from outside, you couldn’t get free of it. What did
these people know of honesty, true hard honesty?
He wanted to write!
Well, what had to be done? He knew. He had to get out no
matter what they did to prevent him. He had to spurn pity,
the enslaver, and strike forth hard.
There was no other way.
Andrew scratched his chest and his head: one more year, just
one more year.
He set the coffee pot on the stove and began rummaging for
* * *
Peter stood pensively in the kitchen door.
"You know," he said, "I thought of a way we
could establish our fame and financial independence. Did you
hear the birds?"
A clatter of pots and pans.
"If it were possible," he went on, "to learn
and record their language, we might create a grammar and maybe
even write bird-poetry."
A clash of knives and forks.
Twenty minutes later Andrew said:
"I think the pelicans have by far the richest language;
in size of vocabulary, for instance."
He had recovered; Peter was washing dishes.
"Of course, it is highly inflected," said Peter.
"That’s what makes Pelicanese the finest lyric vehicle
in the world."
Two hours later Andrew came in from the yard and said:
"What are you reading, then?"
Peter stayed on the couch and held up a copy of Tess of the
"Oh," said Andrew, "I just wanted to draw
your attention to the weather."
* * *
They rowed out again, following the shore, while the sun
was in nether zenith. It was Andrew’s turn at the oars; for
that reason and others he wasn’t saying much.
Peter had taken his book along; something to sit on. The
shore was a procession of sleeping trees and sleeping cottages.
Most of the docks had been taken in; the boats were locked
in the boathouses.
They rounded a point where the water ran shallow over egg-sized
rocks, and the land bent right. The row of cottages thinned
and the hanging branches continued by themselves.
Peter had been watching the course over Andrew’s shoulder.
Now he saw distant blue hills. Now the land bent right once
"There’s a current," said Andrew.
They entered a narrow bay and the current pulled them forward—a
living bay. On one side the water was glutted with reeds and
rush-grass; on the other it moved swiftly at a clear depth.
Andrew steered with the oars.
"Here’s your—island out of strife," he said.
The bay parted at a hump of earth; there were trees on it,
and grass, and a sand beach coming up. Yes, it was an island.
Behind it the water rejoined in weeds and narrow banks; that
was the river.
They landed and climbed the hump of earth and rested by a
tree. The light of day darted by with the water; time was
"Give me a year," said Peter.
No more was said until they were in the boat.
* * *
It was a fine brown afternoon. Peter was wasting time in
the front yard while Andrew packed the car and clicked the
padlocks. They had decided to get back early; Andrew had errands
to run and there were sad clouds in the west.
Peter lay in the warm grass. He studied the construction
of Breidablik. Wood fit into wood with perfect ease. It radiated
skill, and no matter how hard he studied he could not pick
out a flaw.
Only the side door. It was odd they never used it; rather,
that John Hogenson had put in something he didn’t use. There
was a bunch of green hanging over the door.
Mistletoe it was. That was even odder, unlike the family
Of course, you had to remember the women. Probably not Andrew’s
mother, but a silly aunt or niece would be capable of that.
But mistletoe meant Christmas. At Christmas the lake would
be under six feet of snow; not even a silly Norwegian aunt
would be caught down here in December.
Peter gave up and looked at a young elm, an adolescent, which
had split half through on the upper trunk and been patched
and then wired to a supporting tree. That elm was much larger;
maybe the parent of the injured.
If you take such care of a tree, you should give it a name
better than elm. He imagined that each individual elm had
a name as men do; and we don’t go around calling each other
It was a fine slumbering October afternoon. The car engine
started. Peter got up with regret and walked to the back yard.
Andrew was at the wheel igniting a cigar.
He’d have to ask Andrew about the mistletoe.