6 The House Remains by Berit Ellingsen

The path to the front door is squeezed between the house and a concrete wall that keeps the sloping garden out. The concrete is grainy and its cracks bulge with soft, green moss. The front door opens to the basement. Beneath the stairs is a small toilet, “the men’s room”, which smells of cleaning products and urine. You and your sister never go there. You use the main bathroom down the hall, a square room with no windows, embedded in the earth. The old bathtub has a crinkly brown curtain and a large, round shower head. The toilet always hisses and the sink is incontinent. The trip from the dark hallway to the bright bathroom is scary and cold. At night and in the morning you use chamber pots, hidden under the beds.

 

Behind a silent door in the basement hallway, old mirrors and a spare window lean against the walls. A small sofa from the 1970’s, teak armrests sunk into the speckled, light-brown fabric, is also there. You once stay with your parents and sister in that room, but water leakage from the cracked foundation closes it for good.

 

The gray linoleum-covered stairs always creak, especially the step in the corner. At the top of the stairs the air smells of past dinners and caramelized whey. From the lace-curtained window you see the garden below, the white flagpole with the grey rope that thrums against the rust, the faded red picket fence, the hedge-lined street, the disused sports track, the dark fjord and the mountains on the other side, with sharply slanting strata. In the summer, apple blossoms illuminate the garden, shine even when clouds streak the windows with rain, as they often do in this part of the country.

 

The entrance to the bedroom, kitchen and living room sits behind a wooden door with six glass panes. The glass is clouded with bubbles. The handle is a vertical cylinder of black-painted wood above the steel moon of the lock. In the entrance, a milky-white glass lamp hangs from the ceiling and there’s a rack for jackets and coats on the wall.

 

The master bedroom smells of hidden talcum and ancient Lily-of-the-Valley perfume. The twin beds and dresser are carved teak with mahogany details, bought in the 1940s. When your grandmother dies, your parents move the beds to the cabin, but the dresser and its diamond-shaped mirror is lost forever.

 

In the warm living room, a set of cinnamon-colored sofas and chairs surround a dark masonry heater and a narrow coffee table. Cross-stitch and Hardanger embroidery, made by your grandmother and her nine sisters, hang framed on the walls. The windows look out onto the street and the fjord.

 

The dining room connects the living room with the kitchen. The table sits eight, but can be expanded to twelve. A cabinet heavy with glassware leans against the back wall, a small sofa stands on the opposite side. Your grandmother spends her final years here, after the room is converted to a bedroom.

 

The tall Bird Cherry hedge that separates the garden from the empty house next door sweeps its leaves against the window. The abandoned building is the color of old bone and all its windows are broken. Only feral cats live there and the grass stands tall and rich. An inheritance conflict leaves the house unoccupied for more than fifteen years, but in the end the building is repaired, refurbished and repopulated, while your grandmother’s house falls into decay.

 

In the kitchen there is first the kitchen top and its deep, old-fashioned sink. The cupboard above it has angled sliding doors from the 1950s. The back door leads to a gravel-covered space in the garden. After dinner, your grandmother collects the leftovers and puts them in bowls outside. Feral cats come out of the hedges and grass, they are large and small, black, white, grey, orange, thin-bodied, ragged ears, clouded eyes and crooked tails. Your grandmother loves animals, cats in particular, and feeds them every day. The cats feast and fight and yowl, then vanish as quickly and as soundlessly as they arrive.

 

The kitchen table is large and low and square. It has a drawer with sheets of grainy paper and broken crayons, which your sister and you use for drawing. The kitchen window has a thick roller shade with a yellowed plastic ring hanging from the end.

 

Outside are five gardens, terraced on top of each other and supported by low stone fences in the steep hill above the house. In the top garden, the grass is thick and wet, and the lush summer hedges block out everything but the sky and the clouds. From there the sky looks circular and close, like you can fly up into it. It feels like you are days away from the rest of the world. This moment is yours alone.

 

Tilting concrete steps lead down into the lower gardens. Those terraces are crowded with gooseberry, redcurrant and blackcurrant bushes, and an old swing which your sister and you use a lot. The last time you are there, the walls have fallen and the terraces are overgrown. Your mother looks sad and wonders why the walls haven’t been repaired.

 

Next to the kitchen window is the old fridge and the door to the pantry. The pantry is long and narrow, the window covered with yellowed parchment paper. The dim paper-light and the smell of dried and old food makes the room scary and interesting. Hams and sausages hang from the ceiling, the shelves are filled with glass jars, dark with jam and concentrate from the redcurrants, blackcurrants, gooseberries, apples and plums in the garden. The freezer opens vertically. It hides traditional cakes; lefse, lapper, brown whey made by your grandmother, and fish and meat caught by relatives.

 

Dinners are always crowded, family, friends and neighbors fill the table, hungry for the lapskaus – stew, fårikål – mutton and cabbage casserole, or steamed cod your grandmother serves in pots the size of vats. When she isn’t making dinner, she’s preparing dessert; krumkaker, using an iron of curling traditional pattern to decorate the brittle cakes, or she’s making soft lefse on a giant hotplate. The flat, crepe-like pastry is covered with butter and sugar and cinnamon, folded, and served with caramelized whey spooned on top of it. Your grandmother keeps a large batch of lefse and whey in the fridge, since she is rarely alone in the afternoon.

 

But her specialty is potato dumplings, made from wheat flour and shredded potato. Her strong hands peel and drop raw potatoes into a bowl of cold water. Then she grates them on vicious steel teeth, ten or twelve large vegetables, mixes them with flour and water and adds diced, smoked pork to the center of each dumpling, closes them with her palm and boils them for twenty minutes. Serves with salty boiled pork, thick slices of steamed yellow turnip and golden syrup, salty and sweet. Her dumplings are large, but never dry or tough. Your mother makes the same dumplings, they even taste the same, even though your mother denies that. The last years she has made fewer and fewer dumplings because she doesn’t use a food processor and her hands are becoming arthritic. Your sister and you grate the potatoes, but you don’t have dumplings often.

 

When your grandmother was young, they lived on a small farm by the fjord and she and her sisters washed their waist-long, dark hair in the stream, summer and winter. When ice covered the stream, the water was so cold it gave them headaches. You can’t imagine living like that, but maybe in the future there will be no choice.

 

Plumes of smoke rise from the ferrosilicium plant in the inner fjord, powered by the water that falls from the steep mountain sides. Every surface outside is covered with soot. Even the window sills in the living room are gray. No one complains about the soot, it’s a sign of prosperity. The plant brought a hospital, school, sports track, hotel and town hall to the village after the second world war. Years later, the soot disappears, but the smoke continues.

 

The fjord has another fjord suspended in the mountain above it, a hanging fjord. The upper fjord is a narrow and deep lake. Spruce forest darkens its sides almost all the way down to the still and black water. At the lake entrance a boulder balances precariously by the stream that drains the lake to the sea. The water is almost translucent and you can swim there. Further in the water is too cold from the surrounding glaciers and brownish-black from their murk.

 

The far end of the lake you have never visited and barely seen, even though your cousin and sister and you walk as far along the lake as you can one warm summer day. You eat red, unripe bilberries you pick on the way. The old road along the lake is supported by trunks of spruce and old concrete bridges. You wade in the brown ice water and your cousin cuts branches of Goat Willow into green-tasting whistles for your sister and you. You don’t know that your cousin, his brothers and his mother, live with an alcoholic and violent father. That is only revealed a few years later when your uncle dies in a vehicle accident in the mountains. A few years following that, your cousin dies at sixteen, from another car crash on the same narrow roads. He and his father, as well as your grandmother and grandfather, are buried by the white wooden church on the other side of the mountains. It’s a quiet place where the forest reaches down to the graves and the road and the ocean passes slowly below.

 

In the years between your cousin’s funeral and the present, your mother falls out with her sister, your cousin’s mother, in a Greek island paradise, over who should take out the laundry of sun-bleached t-shirts and Bermuda shorts. It’s just the tip of the family iceberg that sinks the old friendship, but they don’t talk again.

 

When you travel to visit your grandmother’s house for the last time, your mother looks more and more hunched the closer you come to the fjord. You stop at the final mountain pass for a quick lunch and a look at the rotten snow that still grays the dips and the north faces of the landscape. Your mother stops smiling for the rest of the trip.

 

When you arrive, the house is unfit for habitation because of water damage from the leaking roof. All the rooms have been refurbished and none are like you remember them. The house is going on sale. You only stay for long enough to stop by some relatives and put fresh flowers on the graves. Then you drive quickly away from the mountains and the rain and the veined apple blossoms in the garden, back to bright and flat city where your mother has lived for longer than she stayed in the village by the fjord. The house remains as it was only in your memory.

 

 

 

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