The brothers were handy men who took on all kinds of odd jobs. Ragnar, the older one, was a balding, scrawny man in his fifties who suffered from rheumatism, and it showed in the way he carried himself. Jonas, the younger one, had been subjected to his brother’s tyranny ever since he could remember, and although he had recently celebrated his fortieth birthday he was nevertheless still the younger brother and would always remain so.
The Second World War had recently ended and the brothers had stopped working for the Americans. They were now building a summerhouse by a lake for a rich importer of all kinds of goods—such importers had prospered in the war’s aftermath. Ragnar was the self-appointed foreman and was doing the carpeting, while he had given his brother the job of digging a ditch intended as drainage for the sink and the toilet. The water was taken from a spring on the grassy slope at the foot of the mountain, which resembled an old tooth fallen from the mouth of a horse. Jonas was at it with a shovel and a pick and suddenly Ragnar heard his brother’s eager shouts, and when he looked towards him he saw him standing there holding a human skull. Ragnar’s automatic response was: “What the hell have you gotten us into now?”
“Gotten us into!” repeated Jonas, dismayed. “I was just digging here when suddenly this skull was sitting on top of my shovel. I haven’t gotten us into anything!”
Ragnar dropped his hammer—he had been nailing a sheet of corrugated iron onto a wall—and walked to his brother, who handed him the skull. “It’s obviously old,” he said, examining it. “Probably the skull of some damn settler. These old Vikings were buried with a lot of fanfare, often in full armor with their shield and sword and a dead horse to ride into eternity, and even a slave girl who was killed and laid in the grave alongside them to give them some comfort in the hereafter, the horny bastards,” he said, and he looked into the eyes of the skull and there was a hint of lust and envy in his expression. He reminded Jonas of something he had once seen in a movie, but he couldn’t remember which one.
“Well, what should we do now?” Jonas asked.
“Try to think for once in your life,” his brother replied. “What would you have us do?”
“Call the proper authorities,” Jonas said.
Ragnar looked around as if he was hoping to find someone to share this foolishness with.
“No,” he said with an intolerant smile, “that’s the last thing we’re going to do. You know why?”
Jonas shook his head.
“Because then we’re out of a job, you fool. Calling the authorities would mean that all further work on this site would stop while a group of archaeologists take over the digging. At the rate those guys dig at least two years would go by before we’d be allowed to do any more work here. Do I always have to do all the thinking for the both of us?”
“Well, what would you have us do then? Take the skull home?”
“No, I certainly don’t want to take that skull home and have to spend my nights fighting the ghost of some damn Viking. You take the skull farther up the mountainside and give it its second burial, and bury any more bones you might come across in the same place. However, if you find a sword or some coins or things like that, notify me at once because that’s quite another story.” Ragnar appeared to think for a while, then he laid the skull in the grass and ordered Jonas to get out of the ditch, and he jumped down and started digging like a madman, throwing dirt out of the ditch this way and that, with his mind on the imagined valuables, but after a few hectic moments he gave up.
Jonas took the skull and walked farther up the mountainside. He found a good spot to dig and when he had buried the skull he sat down in the grass and surveyed the lake that lay below glittering in the sun. Seabirds were scurrying to and fro on the cliffs above him. On the left shore of the lake there were still some barracks standing, left by the U.S. Army, but most of what had belonged to the occupation forces—radios, tableware, tools, and so on—had been buried in “mass graves” dug for the purpose. It was a real shame, he thought. He looked down at the summerhouse. He couldn’t see his brother. Then he turned his attention to the lake, and suddenly a story his father had told when Jonas was young came to his mind.
Each autumn the farmers gathered at the lake to sort out the sheep driven down from the mountains, and once, in 1912—his father remembered the exact year, the same year the Titanic sank—one of them drowned while trying to ride his horse straight across the lake. It had been a bet of some kind. The other farmers warned the arguing pair that it was a mountain lake and that the water was too cold. But the rider, drunk, angry or insane with pride or whatever it was, mounted his horse—the eyes of the terrified animal seeking help in vain from the bystanders—and went straight into the water. The rider and the horse rode to the middle of the lake and then dropped out of sight. Jonas now found himself wondering if there were any remains still to be found at the bottom of the lake. Suddenly a gust of wind from the north sailed across the mountain behind him and swept through the grass all the way down to the summerhouse they were building, disappeared for a while as it passed over the house and then became visible as a small tornado of dust when it went over the road, then reappeared on the lake as a dark path of whirling water. Jonas was aroused from his thoughts by the shouts of his brother.
He rose from where he’d been sitting and walked down the mountainside. It was Saturday and his steps were light—he had bought himself a bottle the day before and was planning to go to a dance in the evening.
Since they had finished for the day, they took their tools inside the house and locked up. While driving around the lake in the direction of town, Ragnar too suddenly remembered their father’s story and began to relate it to his brother.
Jonas groaned inside with boredom since he had just been going over the whole thing in his mind a few minutes earlier. He tried to stop his brother by hinting that he knew the story inside out, but it was no use. He wondered why this was a common thing with humanity: you indicated you had heard a joke forty times yet you had to go through the pain of hearing it yet again.
However, Ragnar added a new element to the story that Jonas did not remember having heard before. The whole thing had been because of some woman. Two drunken louts had been trying to impress the same girl and one of them had gone to extremes and wanted to prove his manhood by doing that which everyone else feared—riding all the way across the lake. “Well, he drowned himself, the damn fool, and the girl was a whore anyway,” said Ragnar.
“Yeah,” Jonas muttered. “Some men go to extreme lengths to hold on to their lady friends.” He had stopped listening to his brother telling the old story in boring detail. He focused his mind on the bottle of genever he had bought the day before. It was strong liquor distilled in Holland and it made his mouth water just to think of it—he grew red in the face from the desire to be intoxicated and his eyes grew misty. But then he found his mind going back to the tale, and why he had never been able to hold on to a woman himself. He wasn’t a virgin, far from it, but he just seemed to not have any luck with the ladies. His brother had always maintained that this was due to his personality. “You have good looks but that’s not enough. When you open your trap and start to talk, your personality—you, Jonas—comes out, and that’s when they pack their things and say good-bye.” He felt a sudden pang of desperation and helplessness. If Ragnar was right, he was doomed to live alone for all eternity.
The brothers lived alone in a house they had inherited from their parents. The house was small, made of timber and clad with corrugated iron, and painted red with a black roof. By now Jonas was almost panting with longing for the liquor. His brother parked the pickup trunk in front of the old garage that stood next to the house, its two wing doors sagging and leaning against each other. The garage was filled with all kinds of junk. The brothers went inside.
The house had never smelled the same since their mother died—somehow it was never clean enough no matter how much effort they put into it. “Mama would never have left the dishes undone,” said Ragnar when they came into the kitchen. If it had been any other day, Jonas would have felt a sudden resentment at this—why was it always his task to do the dishes?—but since he had the bottle waiting for him, safely stored away in a brown bag on a shelf in the closet in his bedroom, he declined to get into an argument. He just put the tap in the sink and let hot water run into it and went into the room and got his bottle of genever. When he came back into the kitchen, he found his brother sitting by the table reading the evening paper. Ragnar turned his back to him and moved his shoulders in a jerky fashion—he had been an alcoholic, though sober for ten years now, and these strange movements of his scrawny frame were the price he had to pay. Jonas got a clean glass from the cupboard, poured himself a stiff drink, and drank it in one go; it went down tearing at his insides, but the warm explosion went at once from his stomach to his head. He turned off the hot water and moved the tab to the other side of the sink, which was split into two halves, and turned the cold water on. He began doing the dishes and he let the water run while he began to prepare himself another drink. His brother ruffled the pages of his paper in the meantime and grudgingly mumbled something about the evils of drink, but Jonas did not hear him—he was much too happy. He made the second drink with half cold water; it was different from the first, the aftertaste somehow a bit stronger despite the water.
When he had done the dishes he put some sausages and potatoes on the burner and had his third drink while the food got ready. The third one was a strong one and it gave him a bit of a sick feeling, but he knew that would pass. While they were eating his brother said, “A woman would do this house a lot of good.”
“I’m going into town tonight to try to tackle that problem,” said Jonas with the gaiety the alcohol had given him.
“Won’t do you much good,” his brother said.
“Yeah, I know,” Jonas replied, and having gained courage from the drink he said, “as soon as I open my mouth my boring self comes out.”
When he had cleaned up after dinner and had his fourth drink, which was now tasting milder, he was happily intoxicated. He took a shower and then got dressed in his best suit and headed for the center of town. It was early but the dance halls would open soon. He had mixed genever and water into a bottle that had once held a pint of Johnny Walker. At the end of the street stood the grassy hill that held the statue of the first settler on top of it and he sat on the bench beneath the dignified Viking and drank in small mouthfuls from the mixture, which had now turned lukewarm. His mood had changed from one of joy to mourning. He was familiar with this from previous experience; a few more drinks and he would be okay again. This thing of gulping down as much as he could before going into the dance hall and buying booze at the bar was just something he did to save himself some hard-earned money.
The evening was a still one with the sounds of the city, cars driving, people calling, children playing, everywhere around him in the distance. The sea lay perfectly calm around the entire coastline and its surface was turning black in the evening sun. And as luck would have it, an old prostitute, a toothless whore, had to sit down on the bench beside him with her sad wino friend. The wino was swearing that he would fuck her before the evening was over and the whore was cursing him and telling him to watch his language. The wino asked Jonas for a drink and Jonas gave him what was left in his bottle and headed for town. He could hear the couple haggling over the drink behind him as he walked down the slope.
The clock in the old cathedral said half past nine as he entered the Hotel Borg. A jazz band was playing and the place had a strange air of adventure about it when compared to the drabness of the town. He sat down at a table and ordered himself a double of what he had been drinking before, and while he waited he took a look around. Not all that many people had arrived yet. A fat, drunken man with black hair smeared with some kind of lotion was teetering desperately from table to table staring at those present with eyes grown enormous behind thick horn-rimmed glasses. A few young men within Jonas’s earshot had a chat with the guy and pointed him in the direction of a lonely-looking older woman dressed in black who was sitting in a corner. The jazz band was blasting the same old program they’d played while the war was still on and the army was in town.
When Jonas turned his attention away from the young men, he discovered that a woman with an amazingly pale face rimmed by red hair had sat herself opposite him. “Do you mind?” she asked. “I usually sit at this table.”
“No, not at all,” Jonas said, remembering his brother’s advice not to talk too much in the presence of ladies.
“You’re not really the talkative type,” the woman said after some silence. “What’s your line of work?”
It suddenly occurred to Jonas that the skull would make an interesting and unusual topic of conversation.
He told the story of the skull more or less as it had happened. He expected that the woman—who had the unusual combination of red hair and blue eyes—would suggest that the authorities be alerted but to his surprise she suggested brusquely that the skull should be used for an ashtray.
“You can’t be serious?” he said, laughing.
“I am, indeed. The eye sockets would be great cigarette holders.”
“You’re quite a lady,” he replied.
“You don’t know the half of it,” she said, and she picked up a black handbag and took out a cigarette.
Jonas waved over a waiter and offered her a drink. He ordered more of the same and she had a double rum. He was full to bursting with what he felt was crazy talk and was having a hard time keeping control of himself.
“So what do you do?” he asked. “You married? You have any children?”
“Do I look like a married woman,” she said, her face showing boredom. “I’m a shop assistant,” she added.
The place was now full of people and all of the tables more or less occupied. The band was going full throttle and sometimes the couples on the dance floor hit the table or an empty chair, causing Jonas and the woman to grab hold of their drinks. “I have a child, a boy. He’s six years old,” she said.
“Oh, that’s nice,” he said sincerely. “I like children.” He wasn’t putting on an act to impress her; he really did like children.
Suddenly a carpenter whose name escaped Jonas—they had worked together building barracks for the U.S. Army—plopped himself down on the chair beside Jonas and hung his head in a sullen manner. He suddenly came to with a start, threw an arm over Jonas’s shoulder and shook him hard in a brotherly way, but was unable to utter a word. Then he looked across the table at the red-haired woman and his eyes seemed to lighten and his mind to focus enough to be able to form a coherent sentence: “It’s nice to see you sitting here with one of the loose woman of the town. I’m sorry that the war is over, honey, and that the soldiers have gone? Now you have just us ill-mannered, average Icelandic blokes to spread your legs for.”
“Stop talking like that. The lady’s with me,” Jonas said, and then he grabbed his fellow carpenter by the shoulder and insisted he apologize, but the guy simply fell into a drunken stupor again and hung his head.
Jonas looked at the woman. She had lit a new cigarette and her expression hadn’t changed, but she was getting ready to leave the table.
“Now, don’t go anywhere,” Jonas said to her, and then he rose and lifted the intruder up by the armpits. The intruder got to his feet reluctantly and Jonas pushed him into the crowd on the dance floor. Then he returned to his seat. The woman looked angry.
“What’s the name of your boy?” he asked. Her expression warmed a bit. He seemed to have a way with this woman in spite of his dumb self.
“Harald,” she said. “Why do you want to know?”
“Children interest me,” he said. “When I have money I sometimes buy sweets for the children in the neighborhood.”
She nodded disinterestedly. He felt he was losing her.
He thought once again of his brother’s words, that when he opened his mouth his true self came out, so he decided to keep quiet. He could, however, feel a nagging desperation growing.
“What that man said wasn’t true,” she finally commented, holding a cigarette in a dignified manner. He was having trouble making out what she was saying because of the noise of the drunken people and the blasting of the band so he went and sat down next to her and she repeated what she’d said.
He began to tell her another story about a man he knew who’d married a woman who’d had two children, one by each of the occupying forces, a boy by a British soldier and another boy by an American after the U.S. forces relieved the British. And he made both of those children his and now they have two of their own, both girls. To Jonas’s surprise, the sentimental tale brought tears to the woman’s eyes. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Hilda,” she said.
“Hilda and Harald,” he said. “That’s nice.”
“Want to dance?” she asked.
“I’m not much good at it,” he said. “I’d rather not.”
“Oh, nonsense,” she said. “I’ll show you how,” and there was no denying her. Before he knew it he was on the dance floor stepping on her feet and making a fool of himself. He could feel how thin she was around the waist and he sensed rather than felt what a magnificent figure she had.
They returned to the table but it had been taken by two men and their girls.
“This is our table,” Hilda said.
“Not anymore,” one of the men said, and the two girls and the other man all looked in the Jonas’s direction.
“Screw it,” said Jonas, and then he leaned in for their drinks and asked the girl sitting close to the wall to find Hilda’s handbag on the floor.
“No, I don’t think we should be treated this way,” Hilda said. “We’re sitting here. This is our table!”
“It’s not important,” said Jonas, reaching out his hand for her bag. “We’re having such a wonderful time. Don’t let these people ruin it. Let’s dance some more or just go to another bar or café. Come on, please. Don’t leave me. I like you.”
She nodded reluctantly and he fought his way through the crowd with his lady friend in front of him. She met some girl she knew and stopped to talk a bit and he got their coats while they were talking and then waited patiently like a gentleman until she was ready to follow him outside.
It was a relief to get some fresh air and they walked a bit and he felt comfortably drunk and yet in full control of himself. “What bar do you want to go to?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. He was thinking of his brother and whether or not it was a good idea to bring her home.
“Why don’t we go to my apartment,” she said, “and I’ll make you a cup of coffee?”
“That’s a good idea,” he replied. His heart picked up a beat.
“There’s a taxi,” she said, waving to a passing car. The car stopped and waited for them.
Jonas walked over to the taxi and opened the door. Hilda got in and gave the driver the address. She lived in the basement of a small house on the eastern edge of town. There was a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom, and she put a finger over her mouth to hush him once they had entered and went into the bedroom and brought the child into the living room. Jonas sat down on a chair in the kitchen to take of his shoes and she came and sat down astride him and they made love like that and then a second time in the bedroom a short while later and then a third time in the morning. “You have to leave before the child wakes up,” she said, and then she nudged him and got angry when he was about to fall asleep again.
He kissed her on the forehead when he was about to leave and said, “I’ll come visit you at your shop next week.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say,” she replied, pushing him out the door.
He felt a bit hungover on his way home and the cool air from the sea had a heavy smell to it and did nothing to retrieve him. He took out his key and tried to enter the house as quietly as possible so as not to wake his brother, but Ragnar was already up and was reading the morning paper. “Hungover?” he asked.
“Hungover and happy,” was the other’s reply. Jonas took a drink before he went to bed and slept through the day until the smell from his brother’s cooking woke him in the evening. They always had something tasty on Sunday. This time it was lamb chops. He evaded his brother’s questions as to where he had been, only saying that he had met a woman.
During the following week and well into the next, the work at the summerhouse continued. Jonas dug and laid out the sewage system without find any further human remains. When that was over he helped his brother with the corrugated iron. The owner came twice that week, the first time to inspect the house after the sheets of iron had been hung on the house. The owner was very unhappy about the work. They had put the nails here and there instead of in a straight line and the owner said that it showed sloppy workmanship; he thought he had hired professionals. But he hadn’t, and in fact he knew he hadn’t; the brothers were just handymen who worked for half the pay. But Ragnar could not very well point that out so he turned to Jonas and scolded him in front of the man and said it was all really Jonas’s fault. Then he turned to Jonas and said, “How many times have I told you the correct way to handle work of this kind, boy?”
Jonas said nothing. He couldn’t imagine what would happen if he tried to defend himself. When the owner had left, however, Jonas said in a rare fit of rage, “Now, why did you have to go and do that for? It was your fault as well as mine.”
“Because otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten paid,” Ragnar said. “Someone had to take the blame.”
The owner arrived the following day with cans of paint. He had calmed down. Jonas had not gone to see Hilda all that week.
He worked up his nerve and took the pickup and drove over there on Thursday. She was genuinely surprised to see him and invited him in. The boy was standing by her side the whole time, tugging at his mother’s dress in a jealous manner and complaining about one thing or another.
“You know what,” Jonas said to the boy. “I’m a carpenter. I’ll make you a real gun out of wood? How would you like that?”
“Real guns aren’t made of wood,” the boy said.
But Jonas had gotten his attention. “I’ll make you one of iron then,” he said. “I’m a handy man. I can build things out of iron as well as wood.”
The boy had stopped complaining to his mother and was studying Jonas. “Really?” he said.
“Yes, really,” Jonas replied.
“Now run out to play,” Hilda said to her son.
Jonas invited her to go to the cinema the following evening.
The movie was an American one about a war veteran’s homecoming. Life had been pretty wild back home when the boys were abroad fighting the Krauts and the Japs, and the veteran’s girlfriend had seen her share of the action. They went to a dance and someone said just as much and the whole scene reminded Jonas of the evening at Hotel Borg. The film had a happy ending—the veteran invited the girl to meet his mother and then they got married at the local church.
Jonas and Hilda had a coffee when the film was over, and Jonas said, “I would like you to meet my brother. Would you come over to our house for dinner on Sunday?”
Jonas was more than a little nervous when he told his brother that he was having a guest over for Sunday dinner.
“Which guest?” Ragnar asked.
“A lady friend,” replied Jonas.
“A lady friend,” Ragnar repeated, almost outraged, and a dark shade of envy passed over his eyes.
She arrived with the boy a little before noon. She was dressed in her finest, with a big black hat, and the boy was dressed like a little sailor. When he saw the woman, Ragnar behaved like he had some kind of a shock, and Jonas assumed this was due to envy. The boy reminded Jonas about the gun he was supposed to make for him but his mother told her son firmly to be silent.
“It’s okay,” Jonas said. “We’ll build you a gun any day now.”
They were having breaded lamb chops with rhubarb jam and potatoes from the brothers’ own garden—there was a garden in front of the house where it was sunny, and a single rowan tree appeared to stand guard over it. None of the children in the neighborhood dared steel potatoes from the brothers or take a rhubarb stalk to munch on. If you did so you were as good as dead, or so it was said.
Jonas noted with pleasure that Hilda was discreetly checking out the house. He couldn’t understand his brother’s displeasure though—Ragnar ate in silence and jerked his shoulders back and forth more noticeably than usual. Jonas attributed this to his brother’s jealousy.
When Jonas drove mother and son home late in the afternoon, the boy brought up the subject of the gun again. “Don’t worry, brother,” Jonas said. “I’ll get to work on it soon.”
And he did so that afternoon. He had a workbench in the garage and welding tools he had acquired when the U.S. Army left, and he made a machine gun from various odds and ends and was most pleased with the results, so he was confident the gun would please the boy. His brother only scoffed when Jonas showed him the gun. “I’ve seen this woman someplace before,” Ragnar said.
“If you’re referring to the fact that she had her son by an American soldier, I’m very well aware of that,” replied Jonas.
“And what do you want with this woman?”
“To get her to live with me, hopefully,” Jonas replied. His brother scoffed again. Jonas was surprised that Ragnar didn’t ask him where he intended to live with her. He knew his brother so well that this made him uneasy.
They were putting finishing touches on the interior of the summerhouse all of the following week. The owner’s wife had planted a few trees to shield the house from the wind that constantly blew from the east, but it would be years until the trees were big enough to give the hoped-for result.
One evening in the middle of the week, Jonas took the gift to the boy, who was delighted. While the boy ran out to show off the gift to his playmates in the neighborhood, Jonas nervously brought up the subject of whether Hilda would be willing to consider helping him and his brother out with household work. The house, he said, had somehow not smelled right since his mother died.
“You want me to come live with you, is that it?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied. To his own surprise he grew hot in the face.
She moved in the following week with her son and her few things. She didn’t have any good furniture to speak of except for a giant cupboard they put by the wall in the living room. It had belonged to her grandmother and had great sentimental value. What was left of the furniture they stored in the garage for the time being. Her income added to that of the home and she was an excellent cook. The boy slept in the living room—unfortunately Ragnar was at home most evenings. Jonas felt uncomfortable making love to Hilda when his brother was within earshot. His close relationship with the boy grew closer with each passing day. On the weekends they’d take walks down to the harbor and Jonas would buy the boy a hot dog. Sunday, for the two of them, became “hot dog day”.
One Sunday when they came home he found Hilda extremely upset at the kitchen table—she was shaking and crying, her hair wet with sweat—and when Jonas asked her what had happened, the boy following all of this grown-up stuff with great fear and concern for his mother, Hilda told him that Ragnar had been coming on to her. “I want to leave,” she said.
“Your old apartment is rented out,” he said, “and anyway we were going to get married before Christmas.”
“You’ll have to tell your brother to never ever do this again,” she said.
“I will,” he said.
But she felt his equivocation. “If you don’t, I’m leaving with my son,” she replied. “I’ll not have him be a witness to this.”
“I will,” he said again.
He did it the next morning while he and his brother were driving to work. The atmosphere had been tense while they were getting dressed and Hilda had stayed in bed until they were gone.
“But she’s a whore,” Ragnar said, shocked. “It’s not only that she had a child by an American. She was one of their girls. She’s a whore and she’s making a fool of you! What would it matter if I did it with her or not?”
Jonas was in such emotional turmoil that he was unable to speak. When they drove down the gravel road to the lake he was glad that it was the last week of work at the summerhouse. “You leave her alone or else,” he was able to say at last to his brother.
“Or else what?” Ragnar replied.
Jonas didn’t answer, but when their lunch break came he took the keys of the car, drove around the lake and asked the foreman of the group, who was working on cleaning up after the army, for work. Jonas was hired on the spot. He said he would be able to start work the following Monday.
Ragnar had found them some work in town, and they were to begin that same Monday. He was quite upset when he heard that Jonas wouldn’t be joining him. “Have you gone mad,” he said. “Has the whore taken control of you? Robbed you of all your senses?”
“Don’t you call her that,” Jonas said in a quiet voice.
There was a strained atmosphere during the evening meal, with the boy eating with downcast eyes and Hilda shooting fierce looks now and then at the brothers. She refused to sit, and ate standing. Later in the evening, however, when they were about to go to sleep, she sat on the bed in a way that reminded Jonas of a little girl. She was taking some pills and drinking a glass of water, so sadly deserted in the world. She had a hard time swallowing.
“What is it, darling?” He touched her shoulder.
She moved her shoulder to avoid his touch.
He went to the window and looked out at the naked tree, stripped of leaves. Autumn had now set in with unusually hard frosts. But that was nothing compared to the atmosphere in the house. On top of it all, Ragnar was having a hard time finding a new partner and that made his mood even worse. He was grumbling at the food Hilda cooked. “I’ll be moving as soon as I can find an apartment,” she said one evening after she and Jonas had gotten in bed.
Jonas rolled on his side and looked into the darkness in desperation. The cold outside persisted—even the sea was frozen solid.
Since the shop where Hilda worked was in the opposite direction of the boy’s school, it fell to Jonas to take him to school in the morning. The boy had taken to calling him Papa. “I’m afraid, Papa,” the boy said when Jonas was about to drop him off one morning.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Jonas replied. “You’re as strong as the other boys. Just go show them.”
“It’s not that,” the boy said. “I’m afraid for you and mother.”
Jonas went to work. He had won the argument with his brother over the pickup and had gained some confidence in his own courage. They were doing their final cleaning up by the lake. Only the foundations of the barracks were still standing. On this particular day they were given an absurd job. The waste left by the army was truly extraordinary—deep ditches were dug to bury truckloads of usable things, both tools and household stuff, radios and things that could have been easily sold or given away—but the job for the day was one of the stupidest Jonas had ever witnessed: they were told to drive about thirty trucks and jeeps onto the frozen lake, where the vehicles were meant to sit until a thaw came and the ice melted. The cars were started, driven onto the middle of the ice and then the keys handed over to the foreman. It was an astonishing sight to see all the trucks and jeeps in the middle of the lake with the soft, powdery snow blowing around them.
In the evening, as Jonas told the tale, Ragnar shook his head and spoke of the immense waste, and Hilda agreed. The boy was so excited about the whole thing that he had a hard time going to sleep and would speak of nothing else until Jonas promised he would take him the following Sunday to show him the sight.
“Why don’t we just take one of them home,” the boy asked. “We could hide it in the garage.”
“We could take some parts from some of them,” Jonas replied. “A lot has already been removed. But it wouldn’t do any good to take a whole car. We could never register it. Everyone would know where it came from. It’s such a small town we live in,” he added.
“It’s too small,” the boy replied. Jonas didn’t know what the boy meant and a voice inside him told him not to ask.
That evening’s meal was fresh haddock. Jonas and the boy were late and Hilda and Ragnar had been arguing. “He wants me out of the house,” she said as soon as the two of them came through the door.
“It’s my house as well as his, and you’re welcome to stay,” Jonas replied, and then he watched his brother’s face become contorted.
“Our mother used to run this household!” Ragnar spat out. “Have you completely forgotten that?”
When the meal was on the table, Ragnar took a piece of fish and put it on his plate, but when he touched it it wouldn’t separate from the bone, since Hilda in her overwrought state had removed it uncooked from the boiling water. It was half raw. It was as if all the aggression that had been mounting within the older brother for months exploded at this moment. His scrawny figure shot up from the table and he grabbed hold of the woman and starting beating her unmercifully across the shoulders, his arm stretched out like a sledgehammer, while he shouted, “I’m not used to this! I’m not used to this!”
The boy screamed in terror and tugged at Jonas, who, unable to move, merely watched what was happening in a disbelieving stupor. When at last he moved to intervene, his brother rushed to the door, grabbed his coat and slammed the door on his heels.
“You let him do this to me while you just sit and watch?” she screamed at him.
“I was on my way to help,” he said. He felt sick inside because of the boy.
The boy ran to his mother. “We’re leaving now,” she said to her son. “I’ll spend the night with a friend of mine. You’re the weakest person I’ve ever met in my life.”
“I’m going to kill him,” he replied.
She gave a forced, hollow laugh.
He was no more able to stop her leaving with her son than he had been in preventing his brother from giving her a beating.
The brothers were not on speaking terms in the days that followed; the mood in the house didn’t match that of the weather, as a thaw had set in. Each day, Jonas went to the shop to speak to Hilda but she would have nothing to do with him. “What if we get our own apartment?” he asked.
“Neither I nor my son respect you anymore,” she replied. She invited him to the back of the shop and he thought she wanted to tell him a secret, but what she wanted to show him were her bare shoulders, black and bruised.
It had been a week since the brothers had spoken to each other, and Saturday and Sunday went by in stony silence, which felt unbearable to Jonas, so he added to his own disgrace and said, “It’ll be a sight to see when the ice melts and the cars sink.”
“Yes, why don’t we go out there tomorrow morning,” Ragnar said, relieved to hear a human voice. “They just said on the radio that it would rain tonight.”
The next day they went to look at the cars. The lake came into view. The cars sat in the middle of the lake as if a deserting platoon had left them there after a fierce battle. “Let’s stand protected by the summerhouse,” Ragnar said. “We can watch from there. The wind, as always, is blowing hard from the east.”
Ragnar parked by the summerhouse and the brothers got out and looked at the lake. They stood in silence. Suddenly Jonas picked up a beam of wood from a pile of leftover timber and hit his brother hard on the neck. Ragnar fell to the ground. He was still conscious but the next blow took care of that. Jonas lifted his brother up with all the strength his hatred gave him and carried him onto the lake. Water was floating there in pools even though no cracks had yet appeared. He sat him behind the wheel of one of the trucks. Then he took the box of pills the woman had left on her night table; there were three pills left, which he forced down his brother’s throat, and then he made him swallow the pills by pouring some vodka from a flask in his coat pocket into his mouth. Ragnar was not in the habit of taking sleeping pills and would sleep until darkness set in.
Then Jonas drove back to town.
Ragnar slept, lying face forward on the steering wheel of the truck. He didn’t see the first drops of rain as they hit the hood or the black skies that rolled in over the mountains from the east and the heavy rain that came with them. The thaw had set in with a heat like that at the height of summer. He didn’t see the cracks that shot away from the group of cars in all directions when the ice began to break up.
By then he had begun to sober up a bit from effects of the sleeping pills, enough to dream. He dreamed about the lake. He was riding a horse in the middle of it. The shore was not very far away. To his surprise, his long-dead father was standing there. He felt very happy to see him and was certain that this time the horse would make it all the way to the other side.