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Breidablik*
    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 got some."

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 waste.

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 directions.

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?

No?

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 spare time.

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, Breidablik.

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," said Peter.

"That’s it."

They drank coffee and smoked. Peter looked around for Andrew’s clipboard.

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 Peter.

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."

"‘That knew’?"

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.

Breidablik Log.

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. 10 below.

"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."

Peter wrote:

"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 familiarity here.

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 Andrew.

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.

"Marge? Cissy?"

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 close.

"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 surfacing moon.

* * *

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 them.

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 breakfast.

* * *

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 d’Urbervilles.

"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 more.

"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 running.

"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?

Mistletoe it was. That was even odder, unlike the family Hogenson.

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 Man.

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.


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