Asbjørn Hall was admitted to an Oslo hospital on December 4th, 2003, for an intestinal operation, a rather unpleasant business no one would look forward to. But Asbjørn Hall was seventy-eight and had never been ill before, barring minor complaints such as colds, toothache, and the occasional hangover. For that reason he realized now this was no more than to be expected; that’s not saying he saw this as some punishment for a long and godless life—no, Asbjørn Hall wasn’t metaphysically inclined, this was just nature at work. They could get on with the job of getting rid of the muck while he was out for the count, sew up his backside and send him home again as quickly as possible with a bag on his stomach, four boxes of painkillers and directions for their correct usage.
Asbjørn Hall didn’t argue.
He’d never argued.
For three days he lay alone in a ward for two and was looked after scrupulously by three nurses—Marte, Gunn and Trond. Each was younger than his only child. He liked Marte best. She was the youngest and called a spade a spade.
At night he listened to the carols outside.
But what meant most to him was the drawing on the wall. It was a child’s drawing, of a sprightly pig, with a frame and glass, and it hung right in front of him.
Asbjørn Hall could lie for hours looking at that drawing. It actually put him in a good mood (that wasn’t all that difficult, he had to admit, it wasn’t hard to keep him amused). But there was something about that pig, with the extra curl in its tail, which made him happy and amenable, and as a result able to forget that his chances of making it, considering his age, were just as slender—or just as great—as they were of not making it.
Perhaps it was something of his own childhood he suddenly noticed somewhere in those simple lines.
Don’t be sentimental now, Asbjørn Hall thought to himself.
And so the time came.
On the fourth morning, at seven-thirty, Asbjørn Hall was wheeled into surgery, where they wrestled with him for eight hours. Thereafter he lay for a full day under observation in a clinical, white and dreamless sleep, before finally being able to come to his senses back in the little ward for two.
Now he was alone no longer. A screen had been set up between the beds, and on the far side he could hear low voices, men’s voices, speaking in a foreign tongue he reckoned was from Pakistan—Urdu.
But that wasn’t what surprised Asbjørn Hall. He had no objection whatsoever to a bit of company.
Neither did he think much about the cramp in his body, as if he’d been sewn up too tightly.
It was something else entirely that puzzled him.
The picture on the wall was gone.
His pig was no longer hanging there.
The only thing that remained was the hook from which it had hung.
And Asbjørn Hall, who’d never been in the habit of complaining—quite the opposite, he’d swallowed most things and had never liked to ask for favors either—pulled hard on the white cord. The light above the door lit red and a moment later one of the nurses appeared, the one called Marte. She smiled when she saw Asbjørn Hall sitting up in bed so soon.
“Have you missed me that much,” Marte said.
She laughed and poured more juice into his glass.
“Where’s the picture?” Asbjørn Hall asked.
“The picture? Which picture d’you mean?”
She pushed him carefully down onto the bed again and neatened the duvet a little.
Asbjørn Hall pointed.
“The picture that was there. Of the pig. Where is it?”
But now Marte became evasive.
“We won’t worry about that now, Asbjørn. What matters most is that the operation was a success and that you’re in tip-top condition.”
“Where is the pig?” Asbjørn Hall repeated.
Marte wiped his face and straightened up.
“The doctor’s doing his rounds in an hour,” she told him.
And off Marte went.
Soon the Pakistani family left the room too—three men with open-necked white shirts; and three women (most likely the mother and two daughters) all decked in black shawls.
There was complete stillness.
Asbjørn Hall couldn’t hear a sound from the other side of the screen. He felt it wasn’t right now that there were two of them there.
Finally he said, loudly:
“My name is Asbjørn Hall.”
For a long time there was the same stillness.
Then Asbjørn Hall said:
“Welcome. I’ve just had a bowel operation. What’s the matter with you?”
Nor did anyone answer now. Perhaps the newcomer didn’t understand Norwegian, or purely and simply wanted to be left in peace. It might be that he was fast asleep, knocked out by a cocktail of pills.
Asbjørn Hall wasn’t for a moment going to force the issue, if this was how the land lay. Besides, he had other things entirely on his mind.
He closed his eyes and thought about the pig.
Two hours later the doctor was doing his rounds.
The young, offhand medic had a look at Asbjørn Hall, front and back, and when finally he was done he sat down on the edge of the bed and became chatty.
“Now you can jolly well eat plum pudding and drink all the liquor you like,” he said.
“And how d’you feel generally?”
“I’m very much dissatisfied.”
“In a way we’re in the same line of work, you know, Asbjørn.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Needle and thread. Aren’t you a tailor?”
“I only work on the customer’s outside.”
“True. What is it that’s troubling you?”
“A picture’s been removed from the room,” Asbjørn Hall said.
“Yes, one of the nursing staff did mention that.”
“And I’d like the picture returned. As soon as possible.”
This young and rather ebullient man, who for some hours had held the remainder of Asbjørn Hall’s life in his hands, looked at him a long time.
“Are you particularly interested in art?” he asked at last.
Asbjørn Hall sat for a moment deeply embarrassed, and that made him fume, because he could say no more than that this little picture had aroused something within him. A joy or a memory, perhaps even a sense of comfort, and he expressed it precisely the way it was:
“That pig gave me real joy,” Asbjørn Hall said.
The doctor leafed through his papers.
“You won’t be in here for more than another three days. You can manage without the pig for that time, can’t you?”
Asbjørn Hall didn’t laugh.
“I would prefer to leave the room the way I found it,” he said.
The doctor gave an extra-deep sigh and got up.
“We’ll see what we can do.”
The doctor went on with his rounds.
And Asbjørn Hall waited.
Nothing happened. He just stared at the vacant space immediately in front of him and at the squat, crooked hook. There was the same stillness on the other side of the screen, as though the newcomer lying there was dead already. Night fell. But Asbjørn Hall couldn’t sleep a wink and had to beg for yet another pill. When he came to his senses the following morning there was a new picture hanging on the wall.
It was of an elk in a sunset.
This elk, standing by a bit of water in the depths of a forest, lifting its head to the last of the light, was neither pleasing nor a comfort. It was instead an insulting reproduction which reminded Asbjørn Hall, the old tailor, of his own feebleness and of life’s bitter taste when the end is nigh.
He gave the emergency cord a pull and fortunately it was Marte who appeared.
At once she looked at him concerned.
“Have you slept badly, Asbjørn?”
“Look,” he said.
Marte turned to face the elk and shook her head a long while.
“That’s really awful,” she breathed.
“Why did they not hang up the pig instead?” Asbjørn Hall demanded.
Marte sat down on the edge of the bed and gave him some juice.
“I think you’re a bit of a creature of habit, you know.”
Asbjørn Hall took her hand and held it tight.
“Of course I’m a creature of habit!”
“But you mustn’t become a man of bad habits, Asbjørn.”
“Don’t you start! Can someone please tell me what’s happened to my pig?”
“Quiet! Aslam’s sleeping!”
Marte nodded in the direction of the screen.
“He is not my friend.”
“He is very elderly and unwell.”
“The same goes for me.”
“You are very elderly and in good health. He’s having an operation today.”
Marte was silent for a time as she wriggled her hand free.
“It was his family who requested that the pig be removed.”
Asbjørn Hall pulled Marte closer.
Now her voice was quieter still.
“They’re Muslims, you know.”
Both turned in the direction of the screen, where it was quiet as ever.
“But no one asked me,” Asbjørn Hall whispered.
“It’s in their book. Something about pigs.”
It was precisely this which was too much for Asbjørn Hall. It was this straw, as the saying goes, that broke the camel’s back. And as it broke he gripped Marte’s hand once more.
“May I make two requests?”
“That you remove the elk at once and that you get me a telephone.”
“Then at least you have to let me go first.”
Asbjørn Hall let go of her and Marte went off with the elk and returned with a phone. He hadn’t used one like it before and she had to show him how it worked. He knew who it was he had to call, but he hadn’t the foggiest what number to dial, and a great confusion flooded him; confusion and embarrassment and repugnance. He dropped the phone on the floor and felt he could depart this life then and there, and go to his rest in peace—that that would be for the best.
Marte picked up the phone.
“What is it, Asbjørn? Are you in pain?”
Yes, Asbjørn Hall was in pain, in more pain than he’d been in for a long time.
“Can you get the number of a Mona Hoff?”
“Mona Hoff? All right. Dare I ask who that might be?”
Marte gave him a sly smile as she called directory enquiries.
“My next of kin.”
“Next of kin? We didn’t know you had relatives?”
“I didn’t like to be a nuisance,” Asbjørn Hall said.
Marte spoke on the phone, dialed yet another number, and passed the phone to him.
And all at once she was there.
“This is Mona Hoff.”
Asbjørn Hall had to change hands; he wasn’t used to contraptions like this, nor was he used to hearing her voice. She immediately repeated her surname—impatient, almost aggressive; she had no time to wait for anything. Everything was, in other words, just as before.
“This is Mona Hoff. To whom am I speaking?”
There was silence—not for long, only for those seconds it takes to draw breath, close one’s eyes, and open them again.
“Where are you calling from? This isn’t your number.”
“It’s the hospital’s.”
Asbjørn Hall glanced in Marte’s direction. She was standing by the bare wall and nodded, while acting as though she wasn’t listening.
“Are you in the hospital?”
“Of course I am.”
“Why in heaven’s name didn’t you say anything?”
She was the one making the accusations.
“The opportunity didn’t present itself,” he said.
“I can’t cope with an argument right now, Dad.”
“I’m not arguing.”
“It’s not serious, is it?”
“Can you not just come?”
“I’ll be there are quickly as I can.”
She rang off and Asbjørn Hall handed the phone back to Marte.
“She’s coming as quickly as she can.”
“Yes, isn’t it? She could be your mother.”
“What does your daughter do then?”
“She’s a lawyer. She’ll be here soon.”
And Asbjørn Hall waited. And while he waited for his daughter he found a piece of paper and a pencil in the drawer of his bedside table and started drawing a pig. He drew carefully, with an old man’s hand, but with a hand that didn’t shake yet—it was as steady as ever. But for all that his strokes were uneven and crooked, they barely held together, and the whole of his life unfolded in the violence and near pain of that moment’s clarity. And Asbjørn Hall, that godless and unassuming cynic, lay down in the bed, turned his back on the screen and wept.
She came five hours later.
Mona Hoff was tall, quick as though there wasn’t a moment to be lost, yet he noticed too that she’d grown older. She was at that age where one suddenly gets older; her features were soft no longer, the lines drawn more sharply. She resembled her mother, he couldn’t deny it; his daughter grew more and more like her mother, just in the same way that she too had neared fifty and summoned all the strength and time within her—sadly, to no avail. His daughter even had flowers with her; she brushed the snow from her long gray coat and began talking as she set about arranging the furniture.
“Sorry for being late, but a swine of a client suddenly went and told me he was guilty, and that sort of thing takes time.”
“What was his crime?”
“Done in a friend on a trip to the cabin.”
“Was that not a good thing, though?”
“That he did in his friend?”
“That he admitted he’d done it?”
“I’m not a priest.”
Mona Hoff put the vase with the roses on the bedside table, bent over the bed and hugged her father. He was bewildered by this sudden closeness; her cheek was warm and wet, her shoulders sharp beneath her wet coat.
“I don’t need your sympathy,” Asbjørn Hall said.
She let go of him at once and was herself again.
“You’ve obviously not changed,” she said.
He tried to take her hand.
“I need your help.”
“What d’you mean?”
“I need a lawyer,” Asbjørn Hall said.
Then they were interrupted.
A whole crowd forced their way in—even more than before, there wasn’t room for them all, and they took up position behind the screen. Then three nurses arrived and had to beat a path to the bed, and Aslam, as Marte had called him, was wheeled out to aurgery, followed by family, friends, children, imams, neighbors, guests, and heaven only knew who else. One great, consoling, elegiac song that went off down the corridor and was swallowed at last by Norwegian anesthesia.
Mona Hoff stood with her back to him.
“You need a lawyer?”
“In other words, you don’t need me.”
“You’re a lawyer.”
She sighed and turned to face him once more.
“Have you done something? Or is it the doctors who’ve done something?”
Asbjørn Hall shook his head and raised one hand.
“There was a child’s drawing of a pig up there. The hospital removed it. I want you to make them hang it up again.”
Mona Hoff looked at him a long time.
“Yes, a pig. They removed it out of consideration for the other patient.”
“I want you to take the case.”
“Case? There is no case, Dad.”
“Oh, yes, there is. This means a lot to me. I want that pig back on the wall.”
She said again, in a sharper tone:
“There is no case.”
“And in the meantime, I want you to hang this up.”
Asbjørn Hall gave her the little drawing he’d made. She looked at it and sighed.
“What on earth is this, Dad?”
“You can see what it is. It’s a pig.”
“Is this really meant in earnest?”
“Oh, am I in my right mind, you mean?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Can’t you just do as I say for once in your life?” Asbjørn Hall begged her.
Mona Hoff hesitated; this wasn’t her style, but that suited her nonetheless. She drew the piece of paper over the hook.
“Not quite. You have to get the original back.”
Again they were disturbed. One of the men, most likely the son, came back to fetch something he’d obviously forgotten. On the way out again, a book in his hand, he stopped beside the drawing on the wall. He had a short black beard, a dark suit, a white shirt, and thick round glasses. He tore down the drawing and crumpled it up.
Mona Hoff turned to her father with a smile.
“Now we have a case.”
Just as suddenly she turned back to face the man.
“What are you doing?”
The man stood there silent for a moment, as though he’d only now noticed their presence.
“I removed this picture.”
He held out the paper, bowed politely, and made to go.
Mona Hoff wasn’t about to let that happen.
She stopped him.
“I saw that. That you removed the picture. May I ask why?”
The man shook his arm free and moved away.
“Out of consideration for my father.”
“Then I must ask you to hang the drawing again exactly as it was out of consideration for my father.”
Mona Hoff pointed at the bare hook.
The man was growing impatient. He was polite and impatient.
“I don’t think you quite understand what I mean.”
“I understand what you do. You remove a picture out of consideration for your father. And as far as I understand, this isn’t the first time it’s been done.”
“My father is seriously ill. He’s being operated on at this moment.”
“And what right do you have to remove pictures from walls? My father’s seriously ill too.”
The man held out the crumpled paper once more.
“My father would find this drawing extremely unpleasant. Everyone finds it unpleasant.”
“Who is everyone?”
“That is us.”
Mona Hoff exhaled.
“And everything you find unpleasant you remove?”
“We have to have consideration for each other, no?”
“What sort of consideration do you have?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s you who tears down something already hanging here.”
“Isn’t a bare wall better for everyone?”
“Why should your discomfort count for more than someone else’s pleasure in the same drawing?”
The man straightened his glasses and put his hands behind his back.
“Are we supposed to live with our discomfort then?”
“That is the price of a modern, enlightened society. Discomfort.”
“Then it is no longer an enlightened society.”
“Oh, yes. Our forbearance is a virtue. Without that forbearance everything would go to rot. Our forbearance is the very glue that holds enlightened society together.”
The man smiled at her.
“Why then are you not forbearing toward me?”
And Asbjørn Hall lay there in his bed and followed everything. He didn’t get each and every word, but he heard enough to know that she was speaking on his behalf, and this was something he’d never experienced before. His daughter became his lawyer and the lawyer became his daughter.
“Because you’ve broken the rules of engagement,” she said.
“You mean your rules of engagement?”
“I mean everyone’s.”
“The rules of engagement can be changed, can they not?”
Mona Hoff was silent a moment.
Then she took a step toward the man, who took a step backward.
“Your discomfort is perhaps understandable, but your demands are absolutely absurd. You are authoritarian and self-obsessed.”
“Are insults a virtue too?”
“Tell me instead what’s going to be next?”
“If you’re going to remove everything that makes you uncomfortable, you’re going to have a busy time of it. What about Christmas pigs? Are you going to erect high fences round Norwegian farms? And think about all those marzipan pigs you’re going to have to run round hiding.”
“I have forbearance for your sarcasm.”
“And, therefore, I’d quite simply request that you hang up the drawing again.”
Now it was the man’s turn to take a step toward Mona Hoff.
“You hung it there to be provocative.”
“Provocative? My father is on his deathbed. Do you really think he has time to provoke you? It’s you who’s provoking us.”
“Is nothing sacred to you?”
“Yes. The drawing you tore down.”
Then they too were interrupted.
It was the hospital director.
“What’s going on?”
Her voice was sharp and high-pitched; both turned immediately to face her.
She was dressed in a red uniform that looked far too tight, almost uncomfortable.
“What’s going on?” she repeated.
Behind her stood the young doctor, together with Marte and the other nurses.
“I’m charging this hospital with discrimination, against my father,” Mona Hoff said.
“And for what?” the director demanded.
“You remove pictures to please some people and to torment others.”
“Torment? Is an elk on the wall not sufficient?”
The man held out his hand.
“I am Aslam’s son. Thank you for everything you have done, and are doing, for my father.”
Asbjørn Hall’s daughter went between them and looked the hospital boss in the eye.
“My name is Mona Hoff. And I’m representing my father. Quite simply he wishes to have the pig back on his wall. Is that so difficult?”
The hospital boss held her gaze.
“There is only one thing that really counts here. It’s something you have to understand. And that is that everyone should get better.”
“At whatever price?”
“And who has to pay that price?”
The snow was falling against the window.
Then the hospital director said:
“We will deal with this tomorrow. Visiting hours are over.”
The day passed.
It went on snowing.
Asbjørn Hall lay awake in the darkness. Only the blue stripe along the door was visible, like that of an emergency exit. And in the midst of all this stillness all other sounds suddenly became more distinct: the rolling of wheels, the sound of crying far away, quick yet heavy steps, the hospital’s generators—everything that held everything together.
Then all at once he heard something else.
The voice came from the other side of the screen, was slow and precise.
Asbjørn Hall whispered:
“Did I wake you?”
“I wasn’t asleep.”
“You asked me what was wrong with me. I’m answering now. Glaucoma.”
“Isn’t that another department? I’ve had intestinal surgery.”
“There was only room for me here.”
Asbjørn Hall lay silent for a time.
Then he asked:
“Was the operation a success?”
“I’m still blind.”
Asbjørn Hall looked in the direction of the bare wall, not visible now.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“But would you do me a favor?”
“Tell me all the same what I can’t see.”
Translation of “Grisen.” From Oscar Wildes heis (Oslo: Cappelen, 2004). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2008 by Kenneth C. Steven. All rights reserved.