The Great Hunger

Contents:
Author: Johan Bojer

Chapter II

A little road winds in among the woods, two wheel-tracks only, with a carpet of brown pine-needles between; but there are trees and the sky, quiet and peace, so that it’s a real blessing to walk there. It rises and falls so gently, that no one need get out of breath; indeed, it seems to go along with one all the time, in mere friendliness, whispering: "Take it easy. Take your time. Have a good rest here." And so on it goes, winding in among the treetrunks, slender and supple as a young girl.

Peer walked here every day. He would stop and look up into the tops of the fir trees, and walk on again; then sit down for a moment on a mossy stone; but only for a moment—always he was up again soon and moving on, though he had nowhere to go. But at least there was peace here. He would linger watching an insect as it crept along a fir branch, or listening to the murmur of the river in the valley far below, or breathing in the health-giving scent of the resin, thick in the warm air.

This present life of his was one way of living. As he lay, after a sleepless night, watching the window grow lighter with the dawn, he would think: Yet another new day—and nothing that I can do in it.

And yet he had to get up, and dress, and go down and eat. His bread had a slightly bitter taste to him—it tasted of charity and dependence, of the rich widow at Bruseth and the agent for English tweeds. And he must remember to eat slowly, to masticate each mouthful carefully, to rest after meals, and above all not to think—not to think of anything in the wide world. Afterwards, he could go out and in like other people, only that all his movements and actions were useless and meaningless in themselves; they were done only for the sake of health, or to keep thoughts away, or to make the time go by.

How had this come to pass? He found it still impossible to grasp how such senseless things can happen and no Providence interfere to set them right. Why should he have been so suddenly doomed to destruction? Days, weeks and months of his best manhood oozing away into empty nothingness—why? Sleeplessness and tortured nerves drove him to do things that his will disowned; he would storm at his wife and children if a heel so much as scraped on the floor, and the remorse that followed, sometimes ending in childish tears, did no good, for the next time the same thing, or worse, would happen again. This was the burden of his days. This was the life he was doomed to live.

But up here on the little forest track he harms no one; and no racking noises come thrusting sharp knives into his spine. Here is a great peace; a peace that does a man good. Down on the grassy slope below stands a tumble-down grey barn; it reminds him of an old worn-out horse, lifting its head from grazing to gaze at you— a lonely forsaken creature it seems—to-morrow it will sink to the ground and rise no more—yet IT takes its lot calmly and patiently.

Ugh! how far he has got from Raastad. A cold sweat breaks out over his body for fear he may not have strength to walk back again uphill. Well, pull yourself together. Rest a little. And he lies down on his back in a field of clover, and stares up at the sky.

A stream of clean air, fresh from the snow, flows all day long down the valley; as if Jotunheim itself, where it lies in there beneath the sky, were breathing in easy well-being. Peer fills his lungs again and again with long deep draughts, drinking in the air like a saving potion. "Help me then, oh air, light, solitude! help me that I may be whole once more and fit to work, for this is the one and only religion left me to cling to."

High above, over the two mountain ranges, a blue flood stands immovable, and in its depths eternal rest is brooding. But is there a will there too, that is concerned with men on earth? You do not believe in it, and yet a little prayer mounts up to it as well! Help me—thou too. Who? Thou that hearest. If Thou care at all for the miserable things called men that crawl upon the earth—help me! If I once prayed for a great work that could stay my hunger for things eternal, I repent me now and confess that it was pride and vanity. Make me a slave, toiling at servile tasks for food, so that Merle and the children be not taken from me. Hearest Thou?

Does anyone in heaven find comfort in seeing men tortured by blind fortune? Are my wife and my children slaves of an unmeaning chance—and yet can smile and laugh? Answer me, if Thou hearest— Thou of the many names.

A grasshopper is shrilling in the grass about him. Suddenly he starts up sitting. A railway-train goes screaming past below.

And so the days go on.

Each morning Merle would steal a glance at her husband’s face, to see if he had slept; if his eyes were dull, or inflamed, or calm. Surely he must be better soon! Surely their stay here must do him good. She too had lost faith in medicines, but this air, the country life, the solitude—rest, rest—surely there must soon be some sign that these were helping him.

Many a time she rose in the morning without having closed her eyes all night. But there were the children to look after, the house to see to, and she had made up her mind to get on without a maid if she possibly could.

"What has taken you over to the farm so much lately?" she asked one day. "You have been sitting over there with old Raastad for hours together."

"I—I go over to amuse myself and pass the time," he said.

"Do you talk politics?"

"No—we play cards. Why do you look at me like that?"

"You never cared for cards before."

"No; but what the devil am I to do? I can’t read, because of these cursed eyes of mine—and the hammering in my head. . . . And I’ve counted all the farms up and down the valley now. There are fifty in all. And on the farm here there are just twenty-one houses, big and little. What the devil am I to take to next?"

Merle sighed. "It is hard," she said. "But couldn’t you wait till the evening to play cards—till the children are in bed—then I could play with you. That would be better."

"Thank you very much. But what about the rest of the day? Do you know what it’s like to go about from dawn to dark feeling that every minute is wasted, and wasted for nothing? No, you can’t know it. What am I to do with myself all through one of these endless, deadly days? Drink myself drunk?"

"Couldn’t you try cutting firewood for a little?"

"Firewood?" He whistled softly. "Well, that’s an idea. Ye—yes. Let’s try chopping firewood for a change."

Thud, thud, thud!

But as he straightened his back for a breathing-space, the whirr, whirr of Raastad’s mowing machine came to him from the hill-slope near by where it was working, and he clenched his teeth as if they ached. He was driving a mowing machine of his own invention, and it was raining continually, and the grass kept sticking, sticking— and how to put it right—put it right? It was as if blows were falling on festering wounds in his head, making him dance with pain. Thud, thud, thud!—anything to drown the whirr of that machine.

But a man may use an axe with his hands, and yet have idiotic fancies all the time bubbling and seething in his head. The power to hold in check the vagaries of imagination may be gone. From all sides they come creeping out in swarms, they swoop down on him like birds of prey—as if in revenge for having been driven away so often before—they cry: here we are! He stood once more as an apprentice in the mechanical works, riveting the plates of a gigantic boiler with a compressed-air tube—cling, clang! The wailing clang of the boiler went out over the whole town. And now that same boiler is set up inside his head—cling-clang—ugh! A cold sweat breaks out upon his body; he throws down the axe; he must go—must fly, escape somewhere—where, he cannot tell. Faces that he hates to think of peer out at him from every corner, yapping out: "Heh!—what did we say? To-day a beggar—to-morrow a madman in a cell."

But it may happen, too, that help comes in the night. Things come back to a man that it is good to remember. That time—and that other. . . . A woman there—and the one you met in such a place. There is a picture in the Louvre, by Veronese: a young Venetian woman steps out upon the marble stairway of a palace holding a golden-haired boy by the hand; she is dressed in black velvet, she glows with youth and happiness. A lovers’ meeting in her garden? The first kiss! Moonlight and mandolins!

A shudder of pleasure passes through his weary body. Bright recollections and impressions flock towards him like spirits of light—he can hear the rushing sound of their wings—he calls to them for aid, and they encircle him round; they struggle with the spirits of darkness for his soul. He has known much brightness, much beauty in his life—surely the bright angels are the stronger and must conquer. Ah! why had he not lived royally, amidst women and flowers and wine?

One morning as he was getting up, he said: "Merle, I must and will hit upon something that’ll send me to bed thoroughly tired out."

"Yes dear," she answered. "Do try."

"I’ll try wheeling stones to begin with," he said. "The devil’s in it if a day at that doesn’t make a man sleep."

So that day and for many days he wheeled stones from some newly broken land on the hillside down to a dyke that ran along the road.

Calm, golden autumn days; one farm above another rising up towards the crest of the range, all set in ripe yellow fields. One little cottage stands right on the crest against the sky itself, and it, too, has its tiny patch of yellow corn. And an eagle sails slowly across the deep valley from peak to peak.

People passing by stared at Peer as he went about bare-headed, in his shirt-sleeves, wheeling stones. "Aye, gentlefolks have queer notions," they would say, shaking their heads.

"That’s it—keep at it," a dry, hacking voice kept going in Peer’s head. "It is idiocy, but you are doomed to it. Shove hard with those skinny legs of yours; many a jade before you has had to do the same. You’ve got to get some sleep tonight. Only ten months left now; and then we shall have Lucifer turning up at the crossroads once more. Poor Merle—she’s beginning to grow grey. And the poor little children—dreaming of father beating them, maybe, they cry out so often in their sleep. Off now, trundle away. Now over with that load; and back for another.

"You, that once looked down on the soulless toil for bread, you have sunk now to something far more miserable. You are dragging at a load of sheer stupidity. You are a galley-slave, with calamity for your task-master. As you move the chains rattle. And that is your day."

He straightens himself up, wipes the sweat from his forehead, and begins heaving up stones into his barrow again.

How long must it last, this life in manacles? Do you remember Job? Job? Aye, doubtless Jehovah was sitting at some jovial feast when he conceived that fantasy of a drunken brain, to let Satan loose upon a happy man. Job? His seven sons and daughters, and his cattle, and his calves were restored unto him, but we read nothing of any compensation made him for the jest itself. He was made to play court fool, with his boils and his tortures and his misery, and the gods had their bit of sport gratis. Job had his actual outlay in cattle and offspring refunded, and that was all. Ha-ha!

Prometheus! Is it you after all that are the friend of man among the gods? Have you indeed the power to free us all some day? When will you come, then, to raise the great revolt?

Come, come—up with the barrow again—you see it is full.

"Father, it’s dinner-time. Come along home," cries little Louise, racing down the hill with her yellow plaits flying about her ears. But she stops cautiously a little distance off—there is no knowing what sort of temper father may be in.

"Thanks, little monkey. Got anything good for dinner to-day?"

"Aha! that’s a secret," said the girl in a teasing voice; she was beaming now, with delight at finding him approachable. "Catch me, father! I can run quicker than you can!"

"I’m afraid I’m too tired just now, my little girl."

"Oh, poor papa! are you tired?" And she came up and took him by the hand. Then she slipped her arm into his—it was just as good fun to walk up the hill on her father’s arm like a grown-up young lady.

Then came the frosts. And one morning the hilltops were turned into leaden grey clouds from which the snow came sweeping down. Merle stood at the window, her face grey in the clammy light. She looked down the valley to where the mountains closed it in; it seemed still narrower than before; one’s breath came heavily, and one’s mind seemed stifled under cold damp wrappings.

Ugh! Better go out into the kitchen and set to work again—work— work and forget.

Then one day there came a letter telling her that her mother was dead.

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Chicago: Johan Bojer, "Chapter II," The Great Hunger, trans. Worster, William John Alexander, 1882-1929 and Archer, Charles, 1861-1941 in The Great Hunger Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LIJCA4559KI7PMN.

MLA: Bojer, Johan. "Chapter II." The Great Hunger, translted by Worster, William John Alexander, 1882-1929 and Archer, Charles, 1861-1941, in The Great Hunger, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LIJCA4559KI7PMN.

Harvard: Bojer, J, 'Chapter II' in The Great Hunger, trans. . cited in , The Great Hunger. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LIJCA4559KI7PMN.