from WHIRLWIND OF WHORES and other recollections on the verity of hope
THE HAPPIEST DAY…
The most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen was across the room waiting for me to join her, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her aunt’s bicep.
It was a cold but clear night in 1900, in Drammen, Norway’s town hall, where I was barely eighteen and getting married the next day. Everybody told me that it would be the happiest day of my life, and that’s how I was supposed to be feeling: happy. Thing is, I wasn’t.
I was feeling uneasy. This lady’s bicep really got to me because the blue-gray veins that were bursting through her skin made the pattern of a vulture—which fit my situation because I felt as if vultures were circling my carcass. “You must be the happiest young man in Scandinavia,” the aunt said. Those same words had already accosted me several times that evening. Seems like everybody was convinced that everything the world had to offer was about to be given to me— wrapped in satin cloth and tied in silk ribbons.
Finally, I broke the bicep’s spell and joined my bride-to-be’s circle of admirers. Helen was truly easy on the eye: bone-china complexion, almond shaped hazel eyes, skin smooth and inviting as a field of new snow, a body that was next to perfect, and lavish golden hair. Sometimes I would look at her flowing locks and see flowing molten gold—lovely, rich, tempting gold—but I’m sure others just saw the hair of a beautiful woman. Helen was damned good-looking, and it was obvious that everybody in the hall thought so about her, including the very reverent Reverend Johanssen, who had laid many a rod onto my wayfaring young paws. Helen’s beauty had hypnotized the Reverend, and the good man was getting pretty drunk too, never once denying the flow of wine that the servers kept dumping into his bottomless glass. It was plain to me that our town’s spiritual leader was publicly gawking before Helen. He was standing frozen and fixed to her side while she tried to politely spend equal time with the circle of her enchanted admirers. It would have been more than natural to have been jealous as hell over the attention that those men were paying my fiancée on the eve of my wedding, but for some reason I didn’t care much. I was more interested in watching the reactions of the Reverend’s wife who was growing more and more aware of her husband’s noticeable obsession. Sensing a storm brewing, she left her circle of yakking women and tried to find a way to break him away from the party and back to their safe abode.
I drank a little more and watched the Reverend and his Mrs. while the words of the night’s well-wishers continued ringing disingenuously in my ears: “Helen is truly the most wonderful prize in Norway.” Hard to argue with that. “You will make the best looking couple in the land.” I guess I couldn’t argue with that either since many told me that my blue eyes, broad shoulders, and wide smile made a handsome sight. “Erik Jensen, you are the luckiest of men.” Perhaps I was. Now I won’t lie and say that any man, including me, would mind the idea of having Helen to wake up to every day. Nor would I say that the idea of living on my inheritance, one of Norway’s most productive and lucrative farms, would be a bad way to spend my days. I would say that something just didn’t add up for me. And that uneasiness was plaguing me. Now I could have blamed this anxiety on my parents, who had cultivated the union between Helen and me for over fifteen years, seeing the promise in Helen as a budding girl and being fully aware that Helen’s family would provide a strategic social arrangement. But I had not resisted the idea of marrying Helen.
I was probably feeling the same nerves that every groom feels, and I decided to quit being so aloof. Consequently, I moved toward Helen, planning on giving her a loving kiss. At that moment, Helen’s corsage escaped its pinning and fell to the floor. She immediately stooped to pick up her prize flower, the symbol of the night’s happiness. As she knelt, gently gathering the corsage, Helen revealed, to both the Reverend and to me, breasts fit for a goddess. Helen’s soft and full body unfolded from her gown—all I could think of was her aunt’s bicep!
Helen stood back up, and it became very apparent to everybody in the intimate circle around her that the Reverend Johanssen was standing at full attention. It was unquestionable that if anyone in the room had a hat that needed hanging, they could use the sixty-degree antenna that had sprung forth below the dear Reverend’s belt buckle. The Reverend was so tipsy, he didn’t notice what had happened.
Several of my teenage cousins started snickering and left us to spread the word on the Reverend. Luckily for his esteemed and mannered career, Mrs. Johanssen took charge in a way that only the women of stout Nordic build and Viking heritage can command—she grabbed him by the shirt and escorted the Reverend immediately to the door before any further tragedies debased their good names.
But the real tragedy was in my reaction. You see the minute I thought of that damned vulturous bicep, I knew I was in trouble. Many times before I wondered what Helen looked like naked—a thought that occurred frequently during the Reverend’s overly long dissertations on the Book of Leviticus or the ways of Oslo’s infamous house of ill repute—but I then realized that maybe I didn’t really care as much as I should. I felt the wine I had been drinking rush up to my throat along with a belt of worry and nausea. I knew that I liked Helen very much, admired her, but was not really in love with her. I mean for God’s sake, I should have had the Reverend’s reaction!
I felt the blood rush out of my face—I must have looked ashen white, realizing that I was about to make a big mistake. On cue, she grabbed my hand and looked lovingly into my eyes. “Erik, thank God you’ve come to my rescue. I only want to be with you. I only want to talk with you.” I looked back, feeling nothing but shame, yet spit back some words in order not to hurt her feelings: “And I feel the same, Helen.” She hugged me with all her might, making me feel real low and uneasy.
That night, I lay wide-awake in my bed. It was 2 a.m. and plenty cold, but I was sweating with the heat of worry. My one great hope had always been to live an exciting, adventurous life. I knew well and straight that a life with Helen, lovely, loving Helen, would not bring me what I really wanted. It was far too late to turn back now, and the last thing I wanted was to humiliate or hurt the people I loved.
I carried my six-foot frame over to the window and looked outside to the blue moonlight falling on the pristine Nordic snow. I looked past the snow into the dark forest and up to the full radiating orb. My insides were astir. I thought about how my town, and all of Norway, for that matter, was stuck between what had been and what might be. You see, the old Viking Marauders and Kings of passion and big things had long passed. Once their mighty ships stirred big waves, and those waves had become mere ripplings with the movement of time. My town seemed to be standing still, waiting for a call to new greatness. Problem was, that I, impatient from birth, wasn’t big on sitting around waiting for anything.
I started thinking about how the best things that had happened to me, happened when I didn’t think about anything but just did something wild and free—like the way I felt during cross-country ski trips when I’d just run off and leave my pack of friends and the well-worn trail and suddenly embark on a “devil may care” trip into the unknown trees, looking for God knows what.
One such spree gave me a pretty good story to tell and plenty to think about. One day, about a year before, in the woods, my legs and heart had felt especially strong. I felt like I could ski around the world. The wooden Bona skis that my father had given me slid gracefully beneath my feet, and I was floating on automatic pilot. I would apply just the perfect amount of pressure on the readied ski, feeling just how much weight and angle would be required to get the maximum drive and then kick off that planted ski so as to glide onto the opposite one. That day I danced effortlessly through the soft powdered snow blanketing the wooded forest. I moved in and out of trees, filling my lungs with the pure, thin mountain air.
I got to a ridge that day and, instead of turning back, decided to mount it, to see what lay on the other side. The ridge was steep, and only the largest of rocks broke through the heavily packed snowfield. That snow could have buried me, but I didn’t stop to care. I just felt like climbing it. And I did, traversing upwards with a brisk and powerful switchback pattern. But brother was I sucking air when I got near the top! I had pushed my legs harder than ever, and they were tight and pumped with raw blood. I kept pushing even though my limbs were shaking.
As my eyes rose above the line of the ridge, I caught a glimpse of a sight worth the trip: a fiery red-silver fox was bouncing along a fallen tree some hundred yards away. I froze, and the fox turned and noticed me. I guess I could’ve taken or left most people I’d met, but I’d pretty much take every animal. People bug me when they talk about animals as if they belong to categories and charts. Like there’s some rulebook for animals saying that a fox will do this and that just because he’s a fox. There was no reason for him to be out of his warm den playing in the snow, but he sure was. He was because he felt like doing it. He looked me in the eye, and I swear he laughed at me, calling me a fool for being out there with him. Then he scampered on off to his pleasure.
My eyes followed him into the horizon where I noticed that the sun was near setting. This hit me hard. I had lost track of time, and I knew that I better get the hell out of there quick before the subterranean temperatures took control. I began the journey back, following my tracks, but I hadn’t started in time. The sun subsided, and, worse, a wind picked up. Soon I found myself in a pitch-black forest without a trail to follow, but I had to keep moving in order to fight the temperature that was rapidly dropping. I did so for a long while until I just had to rest.
A large tree stump nestled in a thick grove of trees was the best shelter around. Therefore, I dropped onto it, in relief. Even though I was getting nervous, I couldn’t help but love being in that dark winter beauty. Crazy, but I felt better there than back in my bed. I began to feel very happy. My mind started wandering and thinking about all kinds of memories. I was getting warm as toast. A rosy sensation began to replace the bone-chilling cold. Damned if I didn’t feel happier than in all my life.
And then I knew. I was freezing to death. This realization lit a bonfire under my behind so, with all of my will, I staggered up and got the hell moving, assaulting the snow with my skis and running on the adrenaline of a man who just figured out that things were now life or death. Without a trail, I had to trust my instincts and pray, feeling my way through the forest. A few hours before sunrise, the sweetest sight in the world emerged before me. I saw, near a clearing of trees, what appeared to be the remains of my friends’ trail. I dragged my aching body over to the spot, and, sure enough, it was the faint pathway to home.
So the night before the happiest day of my life, I remembered that venture and remembered how fulfilled I had felt. Fulfilled that I had climbed that ridge, regardless of whether it was stupid. Fulfilled that I had a rare glimpse of a satisfied animal of the forest. Fulfilled that I had discovered death early and knew that it was warm.
And as I stood looking out that window, I knew what I had to do.
THE HAPPIEST DAY CONTINUED…
I sat at the edge of my bed, quietly stuffing items into my favorite backpack that my father had given me on my twelfth birthday. I looked at the things in my room, family photos, clothes, gifts, furnishings, trying to decide what to take and what to leave. Every simple item I picked up suddenly felt profoundly important, whereas before I had taken each for granted. Ultimately, I decided it would be easier to leave everything except my bare essentials and one luxury: my favorite book, a history of the California Gold Rush.
Finished packing, began the most difficult good-bye of my life. After scratching out a note from my choked up mind and emotions, I sneaked down the hall, feeling knots all over my body. I neared my parents’ room, feeling my insides pounding. I figured they would be sleeping soundly, the deep sleep that comes after a long party. They slept pretty much that way normally as a bomb could go off and they’d never notice. I entered their room, something I hadn’t done in years. I moved to my parents’ bed and bent down, gently kissing my mother’s forehead. She looked very peaceful and happy, like a child. I felt a big old knot in my gut, knowing that her demeanor would change come sunrise.
I turned from the bed and put the note on their dresser. There I noticed the wedding ring that was to become Helen’s that day. It was my grandmother’s ring on my father’s side. God knows, I had loved my grandmother very much. I was happy that she was not alive to receive the disappointment that the day would bring. I picked up the gold band, held it tightly in my palm as if it would bring me some guidance and power. I started to put it back down, but something got hold of me, and I put it into my pocket.
As I exited the door, leaving their room for the last time, my legs started shaking, worse than they had done that day I got lost in the woods. Now they shook from the pain of the emotions, the soul, rather than the body. I knew that I had to keep moving, and I did, sliding back to my room to pick up my pack. That was the hardest thing I ever did.
Outside the early morning air was bitter cold. I went to the barn and prepared my favorite horse, a powerful gray stallion. In a spirit of renewed vigor, I packed my gear onto the horse and hoisted myself into the saddle. I liked the first moments, and the first strides on top of a good horse were the best parts of riding.
I quietly guided that graceful friend up the driveway and onto the road and looked back upon the family house. It seemed much smaller that morning. The house had towered above me when I was a child, and it bespoke of my father’s power and authority. I had never dared stray from that authority before, and now everything seemed smaller. Stark white snow rose on every side of the main farmhouse, creeping up and above the bottom of the windows. This gave me a confidence: maybe the world was smaller than people thought, and I would find my way and my fortune in no time.
Feeling the tears of parting welling up inside, I knew again that the only solution was to move and move fast. And I did, kicking and driving the horse with the fury of the devil himself.
My father was very consistent: he rose every morning, before the sun, and went downstairs to make himself a pot of tea. He had done that ritual every day for the last thirty years. Later in my life, I got hold of my parents’ journals, and I learned that he did the same that morning after I had left. He went into the kitchen not expecting that anything special had happened. Nothing seemed different to him, with the exception that he felt a bit queasy inside, an anxiety he blamed on the previous night’s festivities. Since the wedding would occur that evening, he saw no reason to wake his family, figuring they could use the rest. Thus, he simply threw some wood into the iron stove that dominated the kitchen. Then he disregarded a fancy new teapot and picked up an ancient brass one that had been in his family for generations. He rubbed his callused hands over the rough and tarnished surface of the vessel that had brought warmth and enjoyment to countless members of his family. The course of time had worn and shaped ridges and hills into the once smooth pot. On the day of my wedding, it was fitting that his morning tea would come from this pot. For that reason, he put some water in it and tossed it upon the thick iron stove. Sitting back in a wooden kitchen chair, he reflected with great pride that his only son would start a respectful life with Helen. He drifted asleep while I galloped along my way.
I had decided that my best bet to escape the impending search of my parents was to avoid the obvious. I figured that they would incite a large search of Oslo so I would lay low for a week or two until the high emotions of the search subsided. I would then find a way to live incognito in Oslo until spring. My odds of finding a way onto a ship and out of the country would then increase dramatically. The sun was now rising above the horizon, and I came to a tiny hamlet on the edge of the forest. I went into a general store, already open at that early hour, using most of the small amount of money, my life’s savings, that I had to buy supplies—beans, cheese, bread, a little dried meat, and salt for taste.
The shop owner’s worn clothing matched the weathered beams and pillars of the old store. A wiry soul, he chewed a full cud of tobacco, spitting it down and to the left of himself as he talked. The man looked me up and down as I stood at the counter with my supplies piled high.
“ Looks like you’re readying for a winter homestead,” that old cuss said.
The owner’s interest and observation made me very uncomfortable. I hesitated, shifted on my feet, and realized that my father could find me via this man’s help.
I paused and delivered a spontaneous solution: “Look. I’m in a hurry, and I’m going to need some help.”
“ What kind of hurry? You in trouble?” He started counting up the prices of the items on the counter.
“ No. But I need some help.”
“ You’re running, ain’t you?”
I said nothing as the man reached down to the floor and held up a porcelain slop jar, covered with splotches of brown and yellow tobacco juice. In amazement, I looked at the presentation of that modern work of art.
“ Attractive pot there, sir.”
“ There’s a point behind my actions, son. A man’s got to cleanse his system, cleanse it constantly. Now you can do that with runnin’. I should know. I was runnin’ all my goddamn life, son, until I found this here store and that old dog that’s sitting by the back stove. Stopped runnin’ and started livin’ a little. Found that I could cleanse my system just as well by chewing tobacco, and there’s nothing like sitting in your own place with a bottle of whiskey and a warm stove at night, son. Take it from me, runnin’ away’s not what it’s crocked up to be.” He put the jar back onto the floor.
“ I’m not running away from anything, but running to something. I have a place I must get to, sir. I feel it inside of me.”
“ Let me guess. You’re lookin’ to find your way to Paris and meet one of those girls down at the Rouge Moulin.”
“ It’s a place in America,” I countered.
That opened a floodgate: the old boy went on and on about Paris and his various failed attempts to make it to America. “That’ll be thirteen Kroner and three crowns. What’s in America for you, boy?”
“ Gold, sir. Gold.” I took all of the money out of my pocket, counted it, and handed all but two bills to the man.
The old man smiled a long and ironic smile. “Gold is it?”
“ Yes, Gold. You know the Gold Rush of ’49 in California?”
“ Oh yes, I heard a tale or two of that and those mean and wild ‘49-ers.” The man gave me change and started boxing up the supplies.
“ I’ve heard there’s even more to be found in the Rockies, sir.”
The man nodded: “And I’ve heard there’s more fish in the great State of Minnesota than could feed the entire country of Norway and that underhanded Sweden, too. And let me think—you’re going to find that gold?”
“ Yes, I’m going to find that gold.”
“ What in the hell do you want with traipsing around America looking for a pot of coins at the end of some rainbow?”
“ Because that’s what I want to do. And I can darned well do it too.” I hesitated and laughed at myself. “But I do need to get there first.”
“ I thought you were going to start swimming over there today. Figured your skis wouldn’t do the trick.”
“ How much does it cost to get a ship there?”
“ Too damn much. Four hundred and thirty Kroner!”
I looked at the remaining bills in my wallet. “Looks like you’ve got enough to get you to my front door,” the man said. I looked him strongly in the eye.
“ That’s why I need your help. I’ve got a beautiful gray horse out there. He’s yours if you do me a favor.”
“ And the price, son?”
“ Follow me up to the trailhead. Leave me there and take the horse. Tell nobody that you’ve seen me.”
“ And you’d trust me?”
“ If you let me down, I’ll be back for my horse and more.”
“ If the horse’s any good, it’s a deal.” The man stuck out his weathered hand and shook my right. I was concerned that I might hurt his hand; therefore, I backed off on my grip which was a damn sight powerful, I must admit.
In a while, we had reached a secluded opening in the forest. I took my pack and skis off the horse and got ready to move. After I put on my skis, I worked at throwing on my pack, a chore that was always tricky as I had very wide shoulders. I finished, moved to the horse, and petted its mane. Suddenly the adrenaline and determination that had been carrying me fell aside as a powerful feeling of longing and emotion filled my body. For some reason it was harder to part with that horse than it had been my mother or father. I was now at a crossroads; I could still turn back and go through with my marriage.
I pressed my head under the horse’s neck and looked down at the white ground beneath us. Bending over in that way brought too much blood to my head—it began to drip out of my nose and onto the snow. I felt as if the blood were pulling me into the ground with it. The world stopped moving. I clearly envisioned the blood fold into the snow and create a brilliant pattern. I felt as if I was moving into the pattern, into the cold, red snow. I was immersed in red, could see nothing else. And the red opened and revealed the sun, burning brilliantly before me, and the sun froze into a crystal ball and the ball radiated energy and finally turned into a solid gold rock.
The shop owner had pulled his horse over to me. He grabbed me by the jacket. I came out of the trance. “What’s wrong Erik, you dropping out on me?” The man tossed me a canteen. “Man’s gotta get some water into his system now and then Erik. Whiskey ain’t enough.” I chugged the water and felt better.
“ You better get going before I change my mind and take you back myself.” The man reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a bag of chewing tobacco. He slapped it into my chest.
“ That’ll help numb the damned cold, son.” Then the man grabbed my horse by the reins and headed back the way he’d come.
I began gliding into the forest, looking at the trees before me which seemed to grow before my eyes, engulfing not only me but the whole world. Kick and glide, kick and glide, kick and glide…. The forest was dense with very tall trees. I moved farther and farther into the trees. The forest gulped up the fading sun, leaving me in a cold and mysterious realm.
I learned that later that morning, my father awoke from his catnap. The wood he had put in the stove was merely embers, hence he thought it time to wake mother. He took a cup of hot tea upstairs and did just that. She, more observant than he, immediately noticed the peculiar note that I had placed on the bed-stand. She grabbed it and read aloud. I had written:
“ Dearest Mother and Father. What I am about to say has no reflection upon you or any of the wonderful things you have done for me. I discovered last night that I have been leading everyone down the wrong path, a path that is not right for any involved. Although this path is a fine one, paved with warmth and beauty, if I were to continue down it, I would ultimately do everyone a disservice, including me. I have decided not to marry Helen. I have decided to go on an adventure to America. I have left for this adventure. Please do not try to stop me as I will simply try again until I succeed. I will not be gone forever as I will return to visit once my fortune is made. I predict that I will be back in your warm house by Christmas after next. Please tell Helen that she is the most beautiful creature God has made and deserves to be with a man more ready to do her justice. Your loving son, Erik.”
Before the last lines were finished, I guess father was hot with anger and storming out of the room, ready to begin pursuit. My mother simply lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling.
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