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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the June 2018 issue

The Light Never Reaches Here

In this narrative by Norwegian author Tina Åmodt, two women travel to a remote house in the mountains where past and present create an air of desolation. 

If you move to the wilderness, you need to be prepared for how memory can betray you. In the wilderness, you live in a simple house, you wake to your beloved’s face, you almost exclusively hear her voice. No racket disturbs the nights. No one rings the doorbell with a menacing desire. The recollection of clothes you don’t wear anymore fades. People with whom you daily interact assume indistinct features. Your own face changes. You talk about your surroundings and fishing and stinging mouth sores. You trust what you see. There is no sun. After a while, you stop thinking much about the house, how you behave in it, how well water tastes, with what strength your fingers tackle your lover’s body. In dreams you’ve watched your ordinary life recede. You don’t miss it. You’ve willingly moved out here.

*

The daylight disappears long before we cross the plateau. It’s night. The landscape is blue-white and vast, with gentle rises and declivities. We drive fast, as if all hazards have disappeared because the goal is approaching. The goal is an unwooded spot. The road a dead end. You can glimpse us through the half-open car windows. We’re two women, one dark-haired and one ash-blonde. It’s the dark-haired one who’s driving. She sits slumped with a hand on the wheel. That’s Eli. I’m the one sitting at her side with light bleached hair that blows into my eyes as I wipe the windshield with a variegated green scarf. That’s my job. I scrub a clear view of the star-glinting sky and the snowbanks and the icy, dark road.           

“Thanks,” Eli says. I ask if she’s absolutely sure she doesn’t want me to take over, but she shakes her head. “Relax,” she replies, “I’m not that desperate.” Eli seldom complains. She carries the heavy bags, lets me pee first when we stop, wasn’t impatient that we had to drive in column formation yesterday. Although now she’s driving far above the speed limit. Three cars are approaching, I can’t avoid staring at the headlights. We dim the brights way too early. As the first car passes, Eli sits up. “Sara,” she says, “do you see that peak there?”

When Eli wants to show excitement, she raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth, holds the gape just a little too long. It’s normal to imitate each other’s body language, but I don’t think we’ll ever become too alike. She points toward a rise. “Over there is where Uncle Aslak and I used to ski,” she continues, “you can make it from there all the way back down to the house.” She tells me it was Aslak who taught her to shoot grouse. That she finds it almost moving to recollect her youthful perseverance. “I went on hike after hike with a shotgun,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see something again that hasn’t changed.” “I didn’t know you could hunt,” I say. “We have to go on that path,” Eli says, “surely you can find someone to loan you a pair of skis.”

The cars’ red taillights disappear from the rearview mirror. We’re alone again. Right then is when I notice the pressure in my ears. We’re headed into a valley, the snowdrifts are lower. When we round a curve, we can see straight toward the fjord, spreading black between the mountains. “How beautiful it is,” I say. It’s important to say this spontaneously.

At the valley floor, the road divides. The destinations that appear on the signs are unknown. Rufjord. That’s where we’re headed. The road stretches along frozen coasts, cliffs, and winter-white fields. Random houses appear behind snowplowed borders. At some of the houses, she turns her body around almost completely. I can no longer distinguish her face, the exaggerated expressions that at times make me ill. Then we turn off.

The house is darker than the sky. It’s located on a small rise. The fjord lies directly behind it. The headlights strike the walls. The house isn’t large. As a child, I might’ve called it a cabin. She parks directly in front of the entrance and shuts off the ignition. For a moment she sits staring at the wall, she doesn’t let go of the steering wheel. “Are you awake?”

The air is still and sharp. Around the house is a field, beyond the field another house. Gentle mountain slopes stand motionless behind us. Eli is in front of me, she doesn’t glance around. She heads straight for the steps. I stretch my arms above my head. Eli finds the key under the doormat. As she turns the key, I put my arms around her. She doesn’t resist long. The back of her head presses into my chin. Her hair is shorter and thinner than mine. She smells of hair wax and french fries. “I think I’m the one who made the sign,” she says. I look at what's engraved on the piece of wood nailed to the doorway: Aslak Jensen and some flowers created with a woodburning pen. I say she must’ve been his favorite niece. I kiss her right eye, then her temple, then the top of her forehead. Her arms hang by her sides. I wonder if she can feel my heart beating against her back. “Eli,” I say, “I’m sorry I’ve been behaving so terribly.” Her cheek is smooth and hard against my lips when she says I haven’t been terrible and I shouldn’t think any more about it. “Do you mean it?” I say. “Trust me,” Eli says. She opens the door. We go inside.

*

What I should really do is fill our arrival with phrases she can note and retrieve when she later suspects that I’m no good. But I can’t think of anything. I’ve never liked coming to uninhabited houses. Locked-up cabins with drawn curtains and nooks full of canned goods and emergency rations. I always got just as antsy when we were in the summer house and my brother hid in the space beneath the loft. He’d grab my legs as I climbed up. Since I was the one who hit back, I had to hang from the ladder by my arms. If I let go before the time was up, Papa would record the penalty seconds in the almanac.

Eli kicks her shoes off, one hits the wall. She turns on light after light. First above the overalls hanging in the hall by the attic stairs. Then the kitchen. It opens toward the living room. I glance around. The wallpaper is yellow, the ceiling dirty with soot. The space is cramped, but more furnished than I expected. Someone has crocheted the curtains, picked out porcelain angels, and embroidered the Bible quotes decorating the kitchen wall. Around the dining table beside the window are three spindle-back chairs. Over the 1960s turquoise couch hangs a shotgun.

The shelves above the steep, narrow stairs are full of knickknacks. Ivory figurines and wood antelopes and plastic flower wreathes. I ask if Aslak missed his seafaring life. Eli replies that the winter she lived here, she was too absorbed in her own problems to notice what Aslak dreamed about. I wish I could’ve met her seventeen-year-old self and held her close to me. I could’ve said that.

The attic has three small rooms. We head for the one she says is best. Lace curtains obscure the sea view she’s bragged so much about. The slanting roof hangs low. Up beneath the paneling I spy a black fly cluster in a crack. Eli grins as I pull her back outside and slam the door.

I don’t spy any overwintering insects in the second room, but two beds with teak frames and yellow foam mattresses, each occupying one side of the room with a nightstand in between. She leads me inside and then says she can’t wait any longer. She needs to piss. I push the beds together next to the window. Flip the light on and lie down on the outside bed. In the beginning, we used to share one blanket. Wake up at the same time. The mattress is thin. Inevitably, this kind of bed frame reminds me of a rib cage. My legs are cold. Arms behind my head, I consider the nearest mountain, the dark boulders like boils pushing through the snow.

Live here. In the wilderness. Just Eli and me. The thought is overwhelming. How long have we known each other, nearly a year? A terrible year. We’re used to being alone. We’re used to making our own way.       

The week after we moved out of the apartment, we lived separately. When she came to pick me up, I was almost surprised by how easy it was to leave. Eli sat in the car while Kjersti helped with the luggage. There wasn’t much to carry out. The furniture stays for the next renter, the summer clothes are lying in boxes in Kjersti’s overstuffed storage area. Kjersti hugged me for a long time, as if she were trying to make me cry. You know you can crash here anytime, right? Our friendship required that phrase. When I settled into the passenger side, Eli said that she’d missed me, even though it had only been a few days. She leaned over the handbrake. Are you ready? she asked. She was wearing a shirt I hadn’t seen before. Her kiss was dark and betrayed no accusations.

The house is loud. I hear Eli flush, but I don’t hear her wash her hands. “Sara,” she yells, “I think the water’s frozen.” I grip the banister, I go down to her. In the bathroom, she’s seated on the tub’s edge. Dusty pink-marble laminate covers every surface. She eyes the faucet. “Maybe the water’s turned off,” I say. “If the pipes are shot, it can be so freaking expensive,” Eli says. When your loved ones are out of sorts, it’s an opportunity to prove yourself good and reliable. “Mom didn’t actually manage to clean it out,” she says. “The toilet’s completely overgrown with crap.”     

I observe that she’s worked at institutions, she can tackle a little manshit. I suggest we leave the faucet open, turn up the heat in the house, and see if the water will come. “What an idiotic idea, coming out here,” Eli says. “Hey, you,” I say, “what is it?” I take her hand, even if it’s not washed.

For both our sakes, I leave. I go to get our things from the car. The overhead light doesn’t come on without the key in the ignition. First, I grab the bags with clothes and books, then the sacks with food and paint cans from the trunk. I paid for it all. It’s been a while since Eli has had a salary. We bought five big cans, all white, and they cost more than I expected. The bags twine around my fingers. The snow reaches my ankles.

The radiators in the hall and kitchen are turned to the lowest setting. I adjust them while Eli lights a fire. As she kneels before the furnace, shredding an old Vi Menn magazine and staring at the flame growing in the paper, she presses the knuckles of her pointer and middle finger against her mouth. She does that often when she’s anxious. I feel a rush of tenderness. A rare emotion. It’s almost like Eli notices. Carefully, she tears out some pages and turns toward me. “Here,” she says, “we might as well save the erotic story.” She chuckles a bit as she hands me the double pages. THE DIRECTRESS, I read. I can’t remember the last time I was voluntarily aroused.

There’s a pile of the magazines beneath the table. I say that I’ll read all the stories aloud to her at the bedside. Or memorize them so she’ll have entertainment on the nights she can’t sleep.

She laughs again but not at me. “Uncle subscribed to that magazine as long as I can remember,” she says. “Often, he’d leave them out so that I couldn’t avoid seeing the pages.” “But that’s sick,” I say. “Not really,” she responds, “I think he was just trying to enrich my life.” I ask her what year that was again. She tells me. “And back then you were?” “Twelve,” I say, and she smiles but not scornfully. I know she likes it that I’m a little younger and firmer. That I still vote blood red and smoke extra thin menthol cigarettes because it was so forbidden when I was growing up, not to mention it makes me feel desirable. “Twelve years and horse crazy and overly made-up and way too loud,” I say. “That I have difficulty believing,” Eli replies. She gapes with a wide open mouth. She’s clear on what I think about it.
 

From Det blir aldri lyst her. © Tina Åmodt. Published by Kolon, 2018. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.

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