We were going out stealing horses. That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father. I was fifteen. It was 1948 and one of the first days of July. Three years earlier the Germans had left, but I can’t remember that we talked about them any longer. At least my father did not. He never said anything about the war. Jon came often to our door, at all hours, wanting me to go out with him: shooting hares, walking through the forest in the pale moonlight right up to the top of the ridge when it was perfectly quiet, fishing for trout in the river, balancing on the shining yellow logs that still sailed the current close to our cabin long after the clearing of the river was done. It was risky, but I never said no and never said anything to my father about what we were up to. We could see a stretch of the river from the kitchen window, but it was not there that we did our balancing acts. We always started further down, nearly a kilometer, and sometimes we went so far and so fast on the logs that it took us an hour to walk back through the forest when at last we had scrambled onto the bank, soaking wet and shivering. Jon wanted no company but mine. He had two younger brothers, the twins Lars and Odd, but he and I were the same age. I do not know who he was with for the rest of the year, when I was in Oslo. He never talked about that, and I never told him what I did in the city.
He never knocked, just came quietly up the path from the river where his little boat was tied up, and waited at the door until I became aware that he was there. It never took long. Even in the morning early when I was still asleep, I might feel a restlessness far into my dream, as if I needed to pee and struggled to wake up before it was too late, and then when I opened my eyes and knew it wasn’t that, I went directly to the door and opened it, and there he was. He smiled his little smile and squinted as he always did.
“Are you coming?” he said. “We’re going out stealing horses.”
It turned out that we meant only him and me as usual, and if I had not gone with him he would have gone alone, and that would have been no fun. Besides, it was hard to steal horses alone. Impossible, in fact.
“Have you been waiting long?” I said.
“I just got here.”
That’s what he always said, and I never knew if it was true. I stood on the doorstep in only my underpants and looked over his shoulder. It was already light. There were wisps of mist on the river, and it was a little cold. It would soon warm up, but now I felt goose pimples spread over my thighs and stomach. Yet I stood there looking down to the river, watching it coming from round the bend a little further up, shining and soft from under the mist, and flow past. I knew it by heart. I had dreamed about it all winter.
“Which horses?” I said.
“Barkald’s horses. He keeps them in the paddock in the forest, behind the farm.”
“I know. Come inside while I get dressed.”
“I’ll wait here,” he said.
He never would come inside, maybe because of my father. He never spoke to my father. Never said hello to him. Just looked down when they passed each other on the way to the shop. Then my father would stop and turn round to look at him and say:
“Wasn’t that Jon?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What’s wrong with him?” said my father every time, as if embarrassed, and each time I said: “I don’t know.”
And in fact I did not, and I never thought to ask.
Now Jon stood on the doorstep that was only a flagstone, gazing down at the river while I fetched my clothes from the back of one of the tree-trunk chairs, and pulled them on as quickly as I could. I did not like him having to stand there waiting, even though the door was open so he could see me the whole time.
Clearly I ought to have understood there was something special about that July morning, something to do with the fog on the river and the mist over the ridge perhaps, something about the white light in the sky, something in the way Jon said what he had to say or the way he moved or stood there stock-still at the door. But I was only fifteen, and the only thing I noticed was that he did not carry the gun he always had with him in case a hare should cross our path, and that was not so strange, it would only have been in the way rustling horses. We weren’t going to shoot the horses, after all. As far as I could see, he was the same as he always was: calm and intense at one and the same time with his eyes squinting, concentrating on what we were going to do, with no sign of impatience. That suited me well, for it was no secret that compared with him I was a slowcoach in most of our exploits. He had years of training behind him. The only thing I was good at was riding logs down the river, I had a built-in balance, a natural talent, Jon thought, though that was not how he would have put it. What he had taught me was to be reckless, taught me that if I let myself go, did not slow myself down by thinking so much beforehand I could achieve many things I would never have dreamed possible. But it was too late to turn round now. We walked stiff-legged a couple of hundred meters down the gravel road, until the house disappeared round a bend, then up another path across another field that was Barkald’s too, and into the forest. At first the wood was thick and dark among the spruce trunks with no underbrush at all, only deep green moss like a huge carpet that was soft to walk on, for the light never wholly found its way in here, and we walked along the path one in front of the other and felt it yield each time we put a foot down. Jon first with me at his heels on worn gym shoes. Then we turned off in a curve, still to the right, the space and the light above us gradually expanding until suddenly we saw the two strands of barbed wire glinting, and we were there. We looked in at a clearing where all the spruce had been felled and the sapling pine and birch trees were standing strangely tall and solitary with no shelter at their backs, and some of them had not survived the wind from the north and had fallen full length with their roots in the air. Between the spruce stumps the grass was growing lush and thick, and behind some bushes further on we saw the horses, only their rumps visible, tails swishing horse flies. We smelled the horse droppings and the wet boggy moss and the sweet, sharp, all-pervading odor of something greater than ourselves and beyond our comprehension; of the forest, which just went on and on to the north and into Sweden and over to Finland and further on the whole way to Siberia, and you could get lost in this forest and a hundred people go searching for weeks without a chance of finding you, and why should that be so bad, I wondered, to get lost here? But I did not know then how serious that thought was.
Jon bent down and crawled between the two rows of barbed wire with his hand pressing down on the lower one, and I lay on the ground and rolled underneath the lower one, and we came through without a tear in either trousers or sweaters. We got warily to our feet and walked through the grass toward the horses.
“That birch over there,” said Jon, pointing. “Climb into it.” A big birch tree stood apart, not far from the horses, with strong branches, the lowest of them three meters off the ground. Without hesitation I walked softly over to the tree. The horses raised their heads and turned them toward me as I approached, but they stayed where they were, still munching, without shifting. Jon walked around them in a semicircle from the other side. I kicked off my shoes, put both hands behind the birch and found a firm foothold in a crack in the bark, then placed my other foot flat against the trunk, and so climbed up monkey-wise until I could get my left hand around the branch, and I leaned over and took hold with my right hand and let my feet slide off the rough trunk, and then I hug by my hands for a moment before hoisting myself up, and sat there with feet dangling. I could do things like that in those days.
“OK,” I called quietly. “Ready.”
Jon squatted in front of the horses and talked to them in a low voice, and they stood quite still with their heads toward him and their ears pushed forward, listening to what was almost a whisper. Anyway, I could not hear what he said from where I sat on the branch, but when I had called “OK” he sprang up, shouting:
“Hoi!” and stretched out his arms, and the horses wheeled round and started to run. Not very fast, but not very slow either, and two stampeded to the left and two came straight for my tree.
“Be prepared,” Jon called and shot three fingers up in the air in a Boy Scout salute.
“Always prepared,” I called back, twisted around with my stomach against the branch, kept my balance with my hands and opened my legs in the air like a pair of scissors. I felt a faint drumming in my chest from the hooves on the ground and up through the tree and a trembling from a quite different place, from inside myself, and it started in the stomach and settled in my hips. But it couldn’t be helped so I did not think about it. I was ready.
And then the horses were there. I heard their hard breathing, and the vibration in the tree grew stronger, and the sound of the hooves filled my head, and when I could just about see the muzzle of the nearest one beneath me, I slid off the branch with my legs stiffly to the sides, and I let go and landed on the horse’s back a bit too close to its neck, and its shoulder bones hit me in the crotch and sent a jet of nausea up into my throat. It looked so simple when Zorro did it in the film, but now tears began to flow, and I had to be sick and at the same time keep a firm hold of the mane with both hands, and I bent forward and pressed my lips tight shut. The horse tossed its head wildly and its back beat against my crotch, and it accelerated into a full gallop, and the other horse followed suit, and together we thundered off among the tree trunks. I heard Jon yell “Yahoo!” behind me and I felt like yelling too, but I couldn’t do it, my mouth was so full of sick that I could not breathe, and then I let it pour onto the neck under me. Now there was a faint smell of sick and a lot of horse, and I could not hear Jon’s voice any more.
There was a rushing sound, and the hoof beats died down, and the horse’s back drummed through my body like the beating of my heart, and then there was a sudden silence around me that spread over everything, and through that silence I heard the birds. I distinctly heard the blackbird from the top of a spruce tree, and clear as glass I heard the lark high up and several other birds whose song I did not know, and it was so weird, it was like a film without sound with another sound added, I was in two places at once, and nothing hurt.
“Yahoo!” I screamed, and could hear my own voice, but it seemed to be coming from a different place, from the great space where the birds sang, a bird’s cry from inside that silence, and for a moment I was completely happy. My chest swelled up like an accordion’s bellows, and each time I breathed there were notes coming out. And then I saw something sparkle through the trees in front of me, it was the barbed wire, we had galloped right across the clearing and were approaching the fence on the other side at great speed, and the horse’s back beat hard against my crotch again, and I clung hard to the mane and thought: We’re going to jump. But we did not jump. Just before the fence both horses turned sharply and the laws of physics tore me from my horse’s back and sent me kicking and flailing on in a straight line through the air and right over the fence. I felt the wire tear at the sleeve of my sweater and a smarting pain, and then I was lying in the heather, and the impact knocked the air out of my body.
I think I was unconscious for a few seconds, because I remember I opened my eyes as if to a new beginning; nothing I saw was familiar to me, my head was empty, no thoughts, everything quite clean and the sky transparently blue, and I didn’t know what I was called or even recognize my own body. Unnamed, I floated around looking at the world for the first time and felt it strangely illuminated and glassily beautiful, and then I heard a whinny and the thundering of hooves, and it all came back like a whirring boomerang and hit me on the forehead with a crack, and I thought, shit, I’m paralyzed. I looked down at my bare feet sticking out of the heather, and they had no connection with me.
I was still lying there flat out when I saw Jon on horseback with a rope round the horse’s muzzle come up to the fence. With the rope he could control it. He stopped just on the other side by pulling the rope, and the horse halted almost sideways to the fence. He looked down at me.
“Lying there, are you?” he said.
“I am paralyzed,” I said.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“Maybe not,” I said. I looked down at my feet again. And then I stood up. It hurt, in my back and along one side, but nothing inside was damaged. Blood was running from a cut on my forearm and out through the sweater, which had a big tear in it just there, but that was all. I tore off what was left of the sleeve and tied it round the wounded arm. It smarted good and hard. Jon sat there calmly on his horse. Now I saw that he held my shoes in one hand.
“Are you going to get on again?” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “My arse hurts,” although that was not where it hurt the most, and I thought Jon smiled a bit, but I was not sure, because the sun was in my face. He slid off his horse and loosened the rope round its muzzle, then sent it off with a wave of his hand. It was happy to leave.
Jon came out through the fence the same way he had gone in; light on his feet, not a scratch anywhere. He came over to me and dropped my shoes in the heather.
“Can you walk?” he said.
“I think so,” I said. I pushed my feet into the shoes without tying the knots, so as to avoid bending down, and then we walked on into the forest, Jon first with me at his heels with a tender crotch, my back stiff, one leg dragging slightly and one arm held firmly against my body, still further in among the trees, and I thought perhaps I might not manage to walk all the way back when the time came. And then I thought of my father’s asking me to cut the grass behind the cabin a week ago. The grass had grown much too tall and would soon just bend down and stiffen to a withered mat nothing could grow up through. I could use the short scythe, he said, which was easier in the hand for an amateur. I fetched the scythe from the shed and set about it with all my strength, trying to move the way my father moved when I had seen him do what I was doing now, and I worked until I was suitably sweaty, and it really went pretty well even if the scythe was a tool completely new to me. But alongside the cabin wall there was a big patch of stinging nettles, growing tall and thick, and I worked my way around them in a wide arc, and then my father came round the house and stood looking at me. He held his head aslant and rubbed his chin, and I straightened up and waited to hear what he would say.
“Why not cut down the nettles?” he said.
I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.
“It will hurt,” I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head.
“You decide for yourself when it will hurt,” he said, suddenly getting serious. He walked over to the nettles and took hold of the smarting plants with his bare hands and began to pull them up with perfect calm, one after the other, throwing them into a heap, and he did not stop before he had pulled them all up. Nothing in his face indicated that it hurt, and I felt a bit ashamed as I walked along the path after Jon, and I straightened up and changed gait and walked as I normally would, and after only a few steps I could not think why I had not done so at once.
“Where are we going?” I said.
“There is something I want to show you,” he said. “It’s not far.”
The sun was high in the sky now, it was hot under the trees, it smelled hot, and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds; of beating wings, of branches bending and twigs breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare’s last sigh, and the tiny muffled boom each time a bee hit a flower. I heard the ants crawling in the heather, and the path we followed rose with the hillside; I took deep breaths through my nose and thought that no matter how life should turn out and however far I traveled I would always remember this place as it was just now, and miss it. When I turned round I could see across the valley through a lattice of fir and pine, I saw the river winding and glittering below, I saw the red-tiled roof of Barkald’s sawmill further south by the river bank and several small farmsteads on the green patches beside the narrow band of water. I knew the families who lived in them and knew how many people there were in each house, and if I did not see our cottage on the far bank I could point out exactly behind which trees it lay, and I wondered if my father was still asleep, or if he was walking around looking for me and without worrying wondering where I had gone, whether I would come home soon, whether perhaps he should start making breakfast, and I could suddenly feel how hungry I was.
“Here it is,” Jon said. “There.” He pointed out a big spruce a little way from the path. We stood still.
“It’s a big one,” I said.
“It’s not that,” Jon said. “Come.” He walked over to the tree and started to climb. It was not difficult, the lowest branches were strong and long, hung heavily down and were easy to get hold of, and in no time he was several meters up, and I followed. He climbed quickly, but after about ten meters he stopped and sat there waiting until we were at the same height, and there was plenty of room, we could sit side by side each on our thick branch. He pointed to a place further out on the branch he sat on, where it divided into two. A bird’s nest hung down from the fork, it was like a deep bowl or almost an ice-cream cone. I had seen many nests but never such a tiny one, so light, so perfectly formed of moss and feathers. And it did not hang. It hovered.
“It’s the goldcrest,” said Jon in a low voice. “Second brood.” He bent forward, stretched out his hand toward the nest and put three fingers down in the feather-covered opening, then brought up an egg that was so little I could only sit there staring. He balanced the egg in his fingertips and held it toward me so I could look at it closely, and it made me dizzy to see and to think that in just a few weeks this tiny oval would be transformed into a living bird with wings that could take off from the high branches and dive down and yet never hit the ground but with will and instinct shoot upwards and nullify the force of gravity. And I said it aloud:
“Christ,” I said. “It’s weird that something so little can come alive and just fly away,” and maybe it was not that well put and certainly far less than the rushing, airy feeling I felt inside me. But something happened at that moment that I had no way of understanding, for when I raised my eyes and looked up at Jon’s face it was strained and totally white. Whether it was the few words I had uttered, or the egg he was holding, I shall never know, but something made him change so suddenly, and he looked me straight in the eye as if he had never seen me before, and for once he did not squint, and his pupils were big and black. And then he opened his hand and dropped the egg. It fell along the trunk, and I followed it with my eyes and saw it hit one of the branches further down and break and dissolve into little pale fragments that swirled around on all sides, and they fell like snowflakes, almost weightless, and gently drifted away. Or that is the way I remember it, and I could not recall anything ever making me so desperate. I looked up at Jon again, and he had already bent forward, and with one hand he tore the nest free of the split in the branches, held it out at arm’s length and crushed it to powder between his fingers only a few centimeters from my eyes. I wanted to say something but could not utter a word.
Jon’s face was a chalk-white mask with an open mouth, and from that mouth came sounds that made my blood run cold, I had never heard anything like it; throaty noises like an animal I had never seen and had no wish to see. He opened his hand again and slammed his palm against the tree trunk and rubbed it on the bark, and small flakes fluttered down, and finally all that was left was a smear I couldn’t look at. I closed my eyes and kept them shut, and when I opened them again Jon was a good way down. He almost slid from branch to branch, I looked straight down at his unruly brown hair, and he did not once look up. For the last few meters he just let himself drop, and he landed on firm ground with a thud I heard right up where I was sitting, and then he fell on his knees like an empty sack and beat his forehead on the ground, and stayed there huddled up for what seemed an eternity, and for the whole of that eternity I held my breath without stirring. I didn’t understand what had happened, but I felt it was my fault. I just didn’t know why. At last he stood up stiffly and started to walk down the path. I let my breath out and drew it slowly in again, there was a whistle in my chest, I heard it clearly, it sounded like asthma. I knew a man who had asthma, he lived just up our street in Oslo. It sounded like that when he breathed. I’ve got asthma, I thought, shit, that’s how you get asthma. When something happens. And then I started to climb down, not as fast as Jon, more as if each branch was a landmark I had to hold on to a long time so as not to miss one single thing that was important, and the whole time I thought about breathing.
Was it then the weather changed? I think it was.
I stood on the path, Jon was nowhere to be seen, vanished down the way we had come, and suddenly I heard a rushing sound above me in the trees. I looked up and saw the tops of the spruces sway and whip against each other, I saw tall pines bend in the wind, and I felt the forest floor sway beneath my feet. It was like standing on water, it made me dizzy, and I looked around me for something to hold on to, but everything was moving. The sky, which just now had been so transparently blue, was steely gray with a sickly yellow light over the ridge on the other side of the valley. And then there was a violent flash over the ridge. It was followed by a crash I could feel all over my body, I sensed the temperature dropping, and my arm began to hurt where the barbed wire had cut it. I started walking as fast as I could, almost running, down the path we had come up, toward the horse paddock. When I was there I looked over the fence and in through the trees, but there were no horses that I could see there now, and for a moment I thought of taking the short cut across the clearing, but then instead I went along the fence on the outside, for the full circuit until I met the path to the road. I turned left there and started to run down, and the wind had stopped, the forest was breathlessly still, and the newly discovered asthma had my chest in a fierce grip.
Then I was standing on the road. The first drops hit my forehead. I caught sight of Jon further down. He had not been running, he was too close for that, and he was not walking fast, he was not walking slowly either. He just walked. I thought maybe I should call to him and ask him to wait, but I was not sure I had the breath in me. Besides, there was something about his figure that made me hold back, so I started to walk after him and kept the same distance between us the whole way, up past Barkald’s farm where now the windows were brightly lit against the dark sky above, and I wondered if he was standing inside watching us and knowing where we had been. I looked up in the air hoping that the few drops I had felt would be just that, but then there was another flash above the hills and a crash at the same moment. I had never been afraid of thunder, and I wasn’t afraid now, but I knew that when lightning and thunder came so close together it could strike anywhere close to me. It was a special feeling to walk along the road without any shelter at all. And then the rain came at me like a wall, and suddenly I was behind that wall and wet right through in a few seconds, and if I had been naked it would not have made any difference. The whole world was gray with water, and I could hardly glimpse Jon walking a hundred meters ahead of me. But I didn’t need him to show me the way, I knew where I had to go. I turned off onto the path through Barkald’s meadow, and if I hadn’t already been wet, the tall grass would have made my trousers sticky and heavy. But that didn’t matter now. I thought, now Barkald will have to wait for several days before mowing the grass, to let it dry. You can’t cut wet grass. And I wondered if he would ask my father and me to help with the haymaking as he had the year before, and I wondered whether Jon had taken the boat and rowed across the river alone or if he was waiting for me on the bank. I could walk back up the road toward the shop and down again on the other side through the forest, but that was a long, hard way. Or I could swim across. The water would be cold now, and the current strong. I was freezing in my wet clothes; it would be better without them. I stopped on the path and started to pull my sweater off and my shirt. It wasn’t easy, they stuck to my body, but eventually I managed to get them off and I rolled them into a bundle under my arm. Everything was so wet it was almost ridiculous, and the rain beat down on my bare torso and warmed me up in some strange way. I ran my hand over my skin, and felt hardly anything at all, both skin and fingers were numb, and I was tired and sleepy. How good it would be, I thought, to lie down just for a bit and close my eyes. I walked on a few steps. I wiped the water from my face with my hand. I felt dizzy. And then I was right beside the river, and I had not heard it. Jon sat in front of me in the boat. His hair, which usually stood on end in stiff tufts, was wet through and plastered to his skull. He looked at me through the rain as he backed the oars to keep the stern of the boat towards the bank, but he did not say anything.
“Hi,” I said, and walked clumsily down the last few meters over the smooth round stones. I tripped once, but didn’t fall, and I got into the boat and sat down on the rear thwart. He started to row as soon as I was aboard, and it was hard, I could see that, we had the current against us and we moved slowly. He was going to row me all the way home even though he must have been tired. He lived downstream himself, and I wanted to say it was not necessary, he could just row me straight across, I could walk the last bit myself. But I did not say a word. I couldn’t.
At last we were there. Jon turned the boat with a valiant effort and edged it close enough for me to step straight onto the bank. And I did, and stayed on shore looking at him.
“So long,” I said. “See you tomorrow.” But he didn’t reply. Just lifted the oars free of the water and let the boat drift as he stared back, his eyes with a narrow look I knew already then I would never forget.
From Out Stealing Horses (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2007). By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.