Oh, I won’t be doing anything after the war.
Norwegian Resistance Man and Saboteur
You have to understand that the Christmas of ’41 might have been the coldest Christmas in Oslo that century; the snow fell down in icy rags. Christmas trees were banned, food was rationed, and Reichskommissar Terboven had just declared the death penalty for any Norwegian who tried to cross the borders. Some people made trees out of pine branches, while others entertained their families with memories of Christmases past. We diluted our foods and drinks, made bread out of bark, cakes out of ground dryfish. I’m not trying to make excuses; I just want you to understand.
Perhaps the story begins with the occupation, but I think that everything really begins the day Rikard and I decided to take part in the resistance. You’ve heard the story: how Rikard and I joined company Stokke and helped blow up several cement factories in Slemmestad. Maybe you’ve even heard that we killed a man. That part is not completely accurate, but I will get to that later.
Rikard and I, we met each other at sea. After my mother passed away, my father begged me to live with him in Berlin, but that was never an option for me. He left my mother when I was very young, and only kept contact through letters and the rare visit. My mother took care of me the best she could, but by the time I was seventeen she was exhausted, and three weeks before my eighteenth birthday, she died. I went out to sea. To explore the world, to make money, to have a reason not to move to Germany. That’s where I met Rikard. We were the youngest and most inexperienced shipmates and so we stuck together for our year out at sea.
Aase was Rikard’s girl in Sandefjord. Dark and beautiful like a wood nymph, if I was to believe him. Aase was the reason why I disembarked in Sandefjord with Rikard instead of waiting until the ship docked in Oslo. Rikard and I took up board with a family Aase knew. Sophie was their daughter. She was the kind of girl who had no idea how cruel the world outside of Sandefjord could be, but who still wanted to make each day better for every person she met. She was the kind of girl that lived her life as if pain was a state of mind, that happiness was only a smile away. She was the kind of girl I could love.
On the day Quisling named himself Prime Minister, Rikard and I, along with my neighbor Nils, decided that we would do anything to end the misery we knew was coming. We were convinced that it was better to die standing than live on our knees. An opportunity presented itself only a few months later when Rikard’s cousin, Åsmund, told us about a plan to destroy the cement factories in Slemmestad. Nils refused to come along. We didn’t ask for a reason—I think we all knew he was more talk than action.
After an hour on the train we met Torleif Stokke—probably a code name—a red-headed and freckled commando soldier trained in England. He was our instructor. We stayed with a group of maybe twelve other men at an apartment in downtown Slemmestad. Most of the others were local and slept in their own homes, but four of us were from out of town and slept together in the crammed apartment. We didn’t go outside much. If someone noticed the large group of men crowding Bryggeveien every day and reported it, we would surely be arrested for treason. Such were the times. Terboven made sure that a cloud of public abuse, imprisonment, torture, execution, and disappearance hung over every Norwegian at all times. German partisans were everywhere, and the streets were drowning with paranoia, fear, and a commitment to survival unlike anything I had ever seen.
On the first day, Stokke handed us each a paperclip. “Wear these on your lapels,” he said. “They symbolize your devotion to your country and our cause, and that you’re a true Norwegian and accept no other ruler than the king himself.” Rikard and I placed the paperclips on our lapels right away, proud and honored to be a part of such a noble cause.
Within a week, ‘Operasjon Klara’ was planned and we were all divided into groups of three or four. Rikard and I were in a three-man group with Stokke. I think both of us were relieved to have Stokke on our team, although neither of us said anything. During this time, I wrote two letters to Sophie, referring the whole time to my sick Aunt Klara. Since we married, I hadn’t been away from her for more than a day at a time. Strangely enough, at that time, I felt no guilt for leaving, but I worried about her staying in the house by herself. I had to remind myself that she had Nils and his wife Maud to help her. And then there was Aase of course, in the same boat as Sophie.
‘Operasjon Klara’ depended on the Germans’ affinity for punctuality and precision. These were the opposition’s secret weapons, Stokke reminded us. He knew exactly how many seconds we had to dispose of the two German guards that patrolled the rectangular building. On each round they met twice on the short sides. We chose the south side as our spot of attack. There we could hide in the shadows of the main entrance without being detected unless someone looked directly at us. The guards, we knew, would look straight ahead at each other before scouting the surrounding area.
We attacked, jumped them from behind, and pulled their helmets back until their necks snapped. Stokke killed the first guard instantly. Rikard and I had to work harder on the other. This was the first time I’d ever killed anyone. The guard squirmed like a little child refusing to wear his Sunday clothes. Gurgles and pathetic moans. Rikard held him in place while I pressed all my weight on his head, forcing it backwards, waiting for a snap. When his neck finally broke, it wasn’t as much of a sound as it was a feeling. I felt the vibrations of his neck giving up as they rippled through my hands and up my arms. The guard toppled over Rikard, but I didn’t help. In some sort of Lady Macbethian way, I swear the shadows made my hands look as though they were dipped in blood, yet no blood had been spilled—not until Rikard and Stokke cut the guards’ throats. According to Stokke, sometimes death just wasn’t enough. I don’t remember planting the explosives or much of the explosion, but I do remember the birds that fled before us into the dark of the night.
I spent the rest of that night spitting bile into a bucket while listening to Rikard, Stokke, and the other men recount their stories from that night. A rush, Rikard called it. A powerful, satisfying rush. How easy it was for Rikard to talk about it. To brag about it. But he didn’t know what it felt like to bend over a man as if you were about to kiss him, feeling his last breath on your face. He couldn’t say how much pressure a man’s neck could take before it broke. He didn’t know that we weren’t soldiers. Rikard didn’t kill anyone. I did. I killed a man. Stokke was a real soldier. He could brush death off his hands with a simple sweep. This was the first moment I felt guilty for leaving Sophie and going to Slemmestad. Now, when I imagined her face, I saw only the face of the man I had killed.
I didn’t tell Sophie much about what happened in Slemmestad, and she never asked. I don’t think she wanted to know. “Happiness cannot exist when you’re consumed with sorrow,” she would say. This was her attitude towards most things in life. I know Rikard told Aase; I could see it in her face every time we met. Her dark eyes would hold me captive for long moments, as if she were investigating me, deciding what sort of man I was. But she never let this slip when we spoke. She was as polite and open to me as Sophie was to Rikard, and as far as I know, she never said a word to Sophie. I wondered if Aase was as hesitant towards her own husband as she was towards me. I assumed that Rikard had left out the part where I was the one who killed the guard, not him.
We never took part in any operations after ‘Operasjon Klara.’ I knew Rikard wanted to, and I never told him that I had declined several offers from Stokke on both our behalfs. Stokke said we had what it took, but I didn’t agree. I must admit that I blamed Sophie and Aase in my correspondence with Stokke. It was easier to blame someone else than to acknowledge that I was scared to fight, even if it was for my own country.
Rikard, Nils, and I started listening in on German radio broadcasts and ‘the voice from London’; I translated. As a wedding present, my father had sent Sophie and me a five-tube shortwave Junkers table radio made from heavy ivory plastic. This was before all communication between Norway and Germany was put under acute surveillance, before any communication with the rest of the world was terminated. Under the new NS government a radio in the hands of a private citizen was no less than a waffe, a weapon, and therefore punishable under law.
I hid my radio in the dresser that stood in our bedroom. I had built it myself, making sure that the bottom drawer could not be opened from the front, only from the back. The back plate was easy to remove. Beneath several layers of linen was my radio. I never showed Rikard and Nils where it was; I trusted them as much as anyone could trust anyone in those days, and I decided that it was safer for us all if only I knew. Sophie, of course, never asked.
Rikard loved that radio. He even made up a little rhyme that he would say: “I’ll turn those knobs till my prints are filed away, and hopefully we keep Gestapo at bay.” But still I worried that Rikard wasn’t satisfied. I worried that deep down he needed to kill that factory guard. As his best friend, I didn’t want him to go through what I went through after Slemmestad: the nightmares, the guilt, the faint trembling I couldn’t control in my hands. At the same time I feared that Rikard would need to experience that sort of guilt and pain to know once and for all that he was no soldier, so I kept my thoughts to myself. But I was wrong; I should have told him.
In the late fall of ’41, the German police, Abteilung IV, raided and arrested several oppositionists. Rikard was among them. Aase told us that he had been building a transmitter when a German-friendly neighbor tipped off the Abteilung IV who in turn had ruled his unfinished gadget a weapon.
“No one will tell me anything,” Aase said, her voice hollow and dismal. “I’ve been to Viktoria Terasse every day and they won’t even let me in the doors.”
Sophie had her arm around Aase. “I will come with you tomorrow,” she offered, but Aase just shook her head.
“It’s no use,” she said. “He’s at their mercy now.”
She was right. There was nothing we could do.
Show them the same mercy they’ve shown us, Stokke had told us right before we executed ‘Operasjon Klara.’ The image of the two dead men lying on the ground, the blood gathering beneath their slit throats, swam before my eyes, and the vigor in Stokke’s voice when he congratulated us on a job well done, echoed in my ears. They were going to execute Rikard.
Days went by with no more information on Rikard’s well-being or even the case against him. The representatives at Viktoria Terrasse were utterly uncommunicative and refused to give any of us the time of day. “I don’t know what more I can do,” Aase said.
Sophie was devastated. “I’ve never felt so helpless in my entire life,” she told me one night as we were lying in bed. “I know I should feel terrible, but I can’t help but feel thankful it wasn’t you. Does that make me a terrible human being?”
“No,” I said and pulled her towards me. “It makes you more human if anything.” I don’t know why I didn’t tell her that more times than not I felt the exact same way. It could easily have been me who was arrested. In fact, I was guiltier than Rikard, whose transmitter didn’t even work yet. I think I was afraid that if I said it out loud I would have to admit that I actually felt like a terrible human being. If there was any way I could breach the walls of the prison, ward off the guards, and break the locks of Rikard’s cell, I would save him. If there was any way, I would leave that very second. But there wasn’t, and I didn’t. Instead I held my wife as close as I could, and thanked God that I was not in Rikard’s place.
“Aren’t you worried?” Nils asked me the following morning. We were walking along the marina, having been turned away from Viktoria Terrasse again. The snow had completely covered the crescent-shaped bay.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, that Rikard might talk,” he said.
“About us, you mean?”
He nodded carefully as if ashamed he’d even brought it up. But I was glad he did. It was the first thing I’d thought about when I heard of Rikard’s arrest. I told Nils that I honestly didn’t know. “I’d like to think that he’d never give us up, but we don’t know what they’re putting him through,” I said. “Torture can make a man do unspeakable things.” We both fell silent for a while. We knew nothing of what they were doing to Rikard. We didn’t even know if he was dead or alive. As if he was reading my mind, Nils finally said: “I’m sure we’d know if he was dead. They’d have to let Aase know. Wouldn’t they?”
I shook my head. “It’s hard to say, Nils. They do what they want. Any hope of ethics is lost when we’re talking about torture and execution.”
He nodded solemnly.
Across the bay stood Akershus Festning. Its towers and spires were mere hints of the massive structure that lay behind the tall stone façade.
“Do you think that’s where they’ll do it?” asked Nils.
“Probably,” I said and cast one last glance at the fortress before turning to leave.
That evening I told Sophie we were getting rid of the radio and she must have told Aase, because the next morning Aase was at our door. “Please don’t throw it away,” she begged. Still tired, I waved her inside. “Your radio,” she said as soon as I closed the door. “You have to keep it.”
“Why?” I asked. “It’s too dangerous for me to keep it here.”
“He won’t give them your names,” she said quickly. “I promise.”
“That’s not your promise to give,” I said, and immediately regretted it when her eyes began to water.
“No, it’s not,” she said quietly. “But I know my husband, and he wouldn’t do that to us.”
“I know he wouldn’t,” I said. “The radio is dangerous by itself. I just can’t risk it anymore.”
“Could you just keep it until the next German broadcast?”
I hesitated, and before I could say ‘no’ her eyes locked onto mine. Her eyes were like rocks after rain—glistening black—and hard.
“You owe me that,” she said coolly.
So she did blame me for Rikard’s arrest. She had all this time. Perhaps she too had known that Rikard wasn’t satisfied with his contributions to the resistance. Perhaps she knew that my radio did not still his hunger. I nodded, agreed that I would keep it until the next German broadcast, but that was it. I would get rid of it after that. She thanked me and told me she would come back for the broadcast.
The broadcast took place less than a week later on one of the last evenings of the year. In addition to Aase, Sophie had invited Nils and Maud. “The more the merrier, isn’t that right?” she said, even though the monotony in her voice suggested she didn’t believe what she was saying. But we smiled at each other as if it were true, as if this would be another joyful holiday evening among friends. Her smile was feeble, and I knew she dreaded everything about the approaching hours—the parts we knew were coming, as well as the parts we didn’t.
Sophie did her best with the dinner preparations. “I just want something to be nice, you know?” she said.
“I know,” I said, and kissed her softly.
Despite Sophie’s efforts, dinner went by in silence. There was the occasional clinking of plates and glasses, scraping of cutlery, some quiet coughs, but no one said a word. By law, the blinding curtains were shut and the only light we had was the lazy flicker of two candles in the middle of the table. Aase sat right across from me. That had been Sophie’s idea. “She shouldn’t have to feel as though she’s the fifth wheel,” she had said while setting the table. “I’ll sit on the end.”
Aase barely ate. Dressed all in black and with her hair tied tightly at the nape of her neck, pulling her skin taut, she looked tired and old. In the dim lighting her cheek bones were more prominent than ever, and her lips looked pale even under her lipstick. Everyone knew we had gathered to listen to the last broadcast of the year. Our last German broadcast. I wondered what each of us expected. Even though I knew Aase was desperate for any piece of information, I also knew we all hoped not to hear anything at all. No news generally meant good news, and on the rare occasion, a prisoner was set free.
“They don’t have much evidence, do they?” I asked without thinking, and everyone looked up at me. Aase’s lips thinned, and I worried I had said something very wrong. But after a moment Aase said: “He had barely started building it. Frankly, the transmitter could be anything. The only reason they arrested him was because of that tip.” Her lips trembled slightly. She was getting angry. “I told him to keep quiet,” she said sharply. “I told him.”
“No one could have known,” Sophie said.
“No,” chimed in Maud. “No one could have known.” We all nodded, even though I’m sure we all thought the same thing; we knew. We knew it could happen.
“Is it time yet?” Aase asked. I turned to the grandfather clock behind me.
The radio felt heavier than ever before as I carried it into the dining room. I sat it on the table and removed the sheet.
“It’s pretty,” Maud said, before looking around apologetically. “I’m sorry, I just meant it’s a nice radio.”
She was trying to break through ice that wasn’t going to break.
“Thank you,” I said. “It does the trick.”
I turned the volume knob. A loud crackle. I adjusted the tuner. I never left the frequency marker on the same spot. Some sort of preventive measure perhaps, even though I knew perfectly well that if the wrong person found my radio the location of the frequency marker didn’t matter at all. It was difficult for me to see well in the dim lighting, but once I leaned closer to the radio I was able to hear my way to the right frequency. The others appeared to be holding their breath around me. Quiet and tense minutes passed until I finally heard a low murmur.
“Masterful,” Nils whispered.
I adjusted the tuner ever so slightly, and the faint murmur became a voice, fast and monotone and sharp.
“He just started,” I told them, nodding at Aase to signal that everything was fine; we hadn’t missed anything. I began listening.
Es gab einen Angriff auf deutsches Eigentum in Måløy. Unter den Verlusten sind acht deutsche Schiffe und einige lokale Fabriken. Der Vorfall wird weiterhin untersucht.
“There was an attack,” I translated. “Extensive German losses in Måløy, including ships and factories.” I didn’t look up as I spoke, I just stared at the radio. I knew they didn’t care about the attack, I knew they didn’t want any delays. But I wanted to translate all of it. That way, I hoped, I could pretend this was just another evening listening to broadcasts with Rikard and Nils.
It happened sooner than I had expected. Before I had the chance of hoping that maybe there would be no news, the voice turned to the case against the eight men arrested for treason and for conspiring against the state earlier that month: Des Weiteren wurden die acht Norweger, die schon früher in diesem Monat verhaftet wurden schuldig gesprochen. Sie werden des Hochverrats und der Verschwörung gegen des Staates angeklagt.
They had been found guilty.
A million thoughts raced through my mind as the voice continued..Sie werden des Hochverrats und der Verschwörung gegen des Staates angeklagt…I had to tell the others…Alle werden durch Kopfschuss hingerichtet…Death by shooting. What if they blamed me because I told them? What if Aase told them it was my fault? Perhaps if I didn’t say anything, nothing would happen. Ihre Namen sind…I was too late. The voice would list the names. They would know. Venjar Strøm, Roar Bergesen, Ole Midtun…Please don’t say his name, please don’t say his name…Anders Danielsen…please don’t…Rikard Borgen, und Jørgen Otta.
I hadn’t needed to translate after all. The list had been enough.
I didn’t want to look up. I didn’t want to see them. The sound of Sophie biting her nails sounded like bones snapping, and I had to sit on my hands to keep them from shaking. I looked over at Aase. Her face was pale and blank, like someone had wiped it clean of any expression and character, as if Aase had disappeared. “Aase?” I tried. She didn’t answer. I tried again, and again, but I got no response. “Let her be, Hans,” Sophie said softly. “Give her some time.”
The voice kept talking, but the language sounded suddenly foreign and unintelligible to me. I hated the man behind the voice for naming the men, as if their names had any real significance to him or to his intended listeners. As if listing their names would make any difference. I had an urge to reach through the radio and break his neck.
Ich danke Ihnen für Ihre Aufmerksamkeit und wünsche Ihnen eine gute Nacht.
“Thank you and goodnight,” Aase replied slowly and turned off the radio.
The silence that followed was heavier than the one during dinner, loaded with pain and devastation. I could hear the snow fall outside, thumping like giants stepping, like bombs dropping in the distance, like the hollow memory of explosions I barely recalled.
Sophie asked me to walk Aase home that night. “I would do it myself,” she said, “but you know how things are out there.” To confuse foreign aircrafts, the new government required streetlights to be turned off at night. The poles were painted white, and now and then a streetlight would use a blue bulb, but it was never enough to account for the missing lights. Seeing that there was no police protecting civilians at night, young men acting as escorts had become a common service.
Aase and Rikard’s apartment was downtown at St. Hanshaugen, while Sophie and I rented the second floor of a house at Røa in outer Oslo west. I would walk with Aase to the subway, which would take us to the Parliament. From there, it was a fifteen-minute walk to their apartment.
“I’ll take you the whole way, if you don’t mind,” I told Aase. She nodded in agreement and put on her long wool coat. I kissed Sophie goodbye, and waved to Nils and Maud who would stay with Sophie until I came back.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay here tonight?” Sophie asked Aase. “You can have our bed. We’ll stay in the guestroom. I promise we don’t mind.”
Aase shook her head. “Thank you, but I think I should sleep at home,” she said. “It feels like the right thing to do.”
I could tell Sophie was agitated. She wanted so badly to help, but she couldn’t. There was nothing she could do to bring Rikard home safely. Her only alternative was to let me bring Aase home safely. This time she couldn’t find happiness by ignoring sorrow. Sorrow was Aase’s bleak face. Sorrow had come to stay.
The steam in front of our faces was ghostly in the icy darkness as we walked towards the subway station. I waited for Aase to say something first. She didn’t, and we reached the station without having shared anything but warm breaths in the cold air.
“Five minutes,” I said and pointed to the subway schedule. “Are you cold?”
“Yes,” she said. I was just about to offer her my coat when she said: “I like it.” She took a deep breath, and cracked what could pass as a weak smile. “In times like these it’s nice to feel something.” She looked into the darkness as she spoke, and I listened. “Lately, when I haven’t been down at Viktoria Terrasse, I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting by my window. Just looking outside, you know. I watch the people who walk below me on the street: wives, husbands, children, grandparents, lovers, friends, neighbors, enemies.” As she spoke it was like she was seeing them in front of us, her hand touching an invisible window. “Yesterday, a man walked by,” she continued, “old and raggedy. Patched hat, hair sticking out from under it turned to icicles. His scarf was unraveling, and as he walked, threads flapped in the air behind him. In his hand, I could see he held up his ration cards as if they were the most precious things he owned, as if he needed to keep his eyes on them at all times so he wouldn’t lose them. And watching him, I realized that the only thing that precious to me had been taken away, and I had no idea where to.” The dimmed, blue lights from the train appeared down the tracks, and we could hear the low rumble, the ringing off the iron rails. “And after tonight, I know that I will never again have something so special to me as those ration cards were to that man—as Rikard is to me.”
The train stopped in front of us and the doors opened. “After you,” I told her, annoyed by my inability to say the right thing—to say anything. I followed Aase into the car and seated myself opposite her. She had her face turned to the window the entire ride, the darkness outside only mirroring our reflections back to us. A few times the eyes of our reflections met and it was as if we were looking into a different world. The window, dirty and scratched, washed the lines off our faces showing us what we might have looked like if we never worried, never cared, never loved, never hated. Aase’s reflection was light and dark simultaneously: her smooth, pale skin shone lustrously around her black eyes, framed by her even blacker hair. Dark and beautiful like a wood nymph, I thought to myself.
Aase and Rikard lived in a five-story apartment building built last century. Like so many of the apartment buildings in Oslo, its façade was decorated with mass-produced ornaments—perhaps to evoke some sense of luxury in the midst of the industrial expansion. I walked her all the way up to the main door. She opened it with just a nudge. “They broke the door when they came for him,” she said. “Now it won’t close properly. Sort of defeats the purpose of a door, doesn’t it?” She went inside. Snow had drifted into the hallway and lay like a veil over the white and green tiles.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I could try to fix it.” I placed my hands on the door, but she waved them away.
“It’s broken. You can’t fix it.”
“Well, if you let me try.”
“No.” Her voice was hard. “You’ll only make it worse.”
I took a quick step backwards, my hands up in front of me. “I didn’t mean any harm.”
“And yet harm happened,” she said. “If it wasn’t for you, Rikard would be the one walking me home tonight.”
For the first time I didn’t fear this conversation; I wanted to embrace it. I wanted to apologize to Aase for being a coward, for keeping secrets, for not breaking her husband out of prison. “But I can’t apologize for something I didn’t do,” I told her. “I didn’t force Rikard to construct that transmitter—God, I didn’t even know what he was doing.” I felt my voice growing harsher. “I could have told Rikard about the nightmares, the guilt, the trembles, but it wouldn’t have changed a thing.” As I spoke, everything seemed to make sense. It felt as though a plug I didn’t even know existed had been pulled out of my chest, and now, everything was oozing out of me. I couldn’t control this. I didn’t want to. “You see, Aase, nothing I could have said to Rikard would have changed his mind. He could never make peace with the fact that I killed the guard in Slemmestad, and he didn’t. He was so desperate to prove himself, but the only man he ended up killing was himself. A civilian. So if you want to blame anyone, blame him. Blame yourself—at least you knew about the transmitter. Just don’t blame me.”
I had to catch my breath. Aase was silent. No sighs, no breath. She just stood there.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But it’s the truth.”
She nodded silently and bit her lip, stopping herself from speaking, and then her thoughts seemed to drift away. Maybe they were drifting to Rikard in his cell; maybe back to Sophie where she wished she had never gone, maybe back to Sandefjord where she wished she had never left.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked suddenly.
I was so taken aback by this change in attitude, I could do nothing else but follow her upstairs.
The first thing I spotted when she opened the front door to their apartment was the dark brown overcoat hanging all alone on a tall wooden rack. It looked so more battered than I remembered.
“He left his coat,” I said.
“They didn’t let him pack a suitcase.”
“Of course, right, I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just so strange seeing it here like this.”
She didn’t respond, but walked past me into the kitchen.
“I don’t have much to offer,” she called to me. “I hope you don’t mind hot water with some honey.”
“That will be fine,” I said. When she had invited me up for tea, I’d somehow forgotten that tea was rationed—I hadn’t had a decent cup of tea in almost two years.
Her hot honey water didn’t change that, but we both drank like it was a peace treaty between enemies—we were careful and polite. Each look we exchanged was soft, kind, apologetic.
“I’ve never felt worse,” she told me as she sat her empty cup aside. “Knowing he’s about to die gives me immeasurable grief, but at the same time”—she paused—“at the same time, it’s a relief.” She was looking anywhere but at me, her eyes constantly moving, flinching, as if settling on an object would be dangerous. “I think waiting for information, knowing nothing, was worse. Sometimes it was easier just thinking he was dead already. What if I accepted it too soon? What if it really is my fault?”
I knew exactly what she meant. And so I told her about the guilt I had felt while trying to translate Rikard’s death sentence, as though translating it into Norwegian meant that I accepted it. As though accepting made it true.
“Thank you,” she said, and then she wrapped her arms around me, resting her head on my shoulder. Her hands were astonishingly cold on my neck, but her chest was soft and warm, and for a moment I forgot who was comforting whom. I put my arms lightly around her back, and as she pulled away from our embrace she looked at me in a way that was wholly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I was captured by her gaze, but she wasn’t investigating me or trying to decide what sort of man I was. Her eyes sparkled like embers flying off into the black night. She parted her lips slightly and I could feel her breath on my face. I moved my head and she moved hers—closer. My hands were still on the curve of her back, and I let my fingers move ever so slightly, feeling the fabric of her dress, grazing the zipper.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered.
I smiled at her; nothing was wrong.
“But your hands are shaking,” she said.
She was right. My hands were shaking. How could I not have noticed? And now that I had, they shook more violently than ever.
“I need to leave,” I said quickly and moved away from her.
Aase was confused, asked what she had done wrong, begged me to stay and explain, but I couldn’t, and as I ran down the stairs, she called after me: “Please don’t tell Sophie!”
I ran out into the street through the main door beating open shut open shut from the wind that sang in my ears. The last train would have left by now, so I began running. I ran down Akersgata, I ran past the public library, past the Parliament with its red and black flags, I ran until I had no more breath. And then I ran even faster.
What kind of person was I? That entire evening had been a parade of things I wasn’t. I wasn’t a good husband. I wasn’t a translator. I wasn’t a soldier. I wasn’t even a prisoner on death row. What was I but a pitiful radio operator? I was good at that; Nils had called my work masterful. But being an operator meant nothing to me.
I crossed the ice rink in front of the National Theatre, and when I slid and fell I was so exhausted that I could not get back up. I lay on my side, facing the theatre and its tall granite statues. A small flock of crows in the trees around me screeched, but lying there, it was as though the statues had come alive; the dead poets, symbols of Norwegian nationalism and pride, were laughing at me, mocking me. I was a disgrace.
I knew I needed to do something. Running back to Aase was not an option; I needed to move forward. I needed to go to Sophie, and I needed to find Rikard. I needed them to know I was sorry. I needed them to forgive me. I needed them.
I pulled myself up and off the ice and had just started running again when the snapping sound of fireworks broke in the sky around me. Cracks in rapid succession without a single silvery spark. Instinctively, I turned and sprinted towards the marina. It wasn’t far, but when I finally saw the dark outline of the fortress against the deep blue undisturbed sky, the shots had ended.
A serpentine curl of smoke rose from behind the fortress walls. Pale, almost invisible, the only thing moving. I watched it swirl upwards, dissolving into the darkness. Rikard was dead. Until a few minutes before, he had been alive: breathing, talking, crying, hoping, but not anymore. I knew. I looked down at my hands. They weren’t trembling, they were absolutely still. A last single shot cleaved the air. Crisp silence followed. Whoever had survived the first shower was dead.