The Calf in the Sea
Translated by Frances Diem Vardamis
The year Anders began school, it was his job to take care of the boat. In the morning he took the oars from the shed and went down to the wharf. He pulled the newly painted fishing boat in towards land, tied it to the pole with a clove hitch, and carefully laid the oars under the seats. The boat rubbed against the sand, small fish darted through the kelp, and he waded out with the lunch. He was careful not to step on broken mussel shells, but the sea was as clear as glass, and he did not see a single shell on the sandy bottom. He placed the lunch basket in an empty crate; there was not a drop of water in the bottom of the boat, and he left the bailing scoop in place and waded back.
It was dead calm in the inlet, not a ripple, and he could barely make out the small waves near the buoy. When it was not windy, he was allowed to row out the Mystic Reefs alone, and while he waited for the woman to come, he sat watching the small fish that swam among the tangled kelp.
It always took a while, but he waited happily. Because when they rowed out to the Mystic Reefs, she was so content and on such familiar terms with the sea that she always trailed her hand in the water. He rowed slowly across the narrow inlet, and in the reflected light he saw fish among the steep underwater reefs. She called his attention to the fish, and talked about the fishing beds out between the islands. That was far out, almost all the way to the lighthouse, and he was not allowed to row there alone.
It took a half hour to row out the Mystic Reefs, and the woman always sat in the back of the boat. When they reached the small island with the salt sheds, between the sheds and the deserted house, she winked at him and lit a cigarette. Otherwise, she only smoked late in the evening when she sat by the fire reading. The open sea lay beyond the small islands, the oars creaked as he rowed, it was still in the sheltered coves, the gulls cried, and he saw how she followed the flight of the terns. Grass clung stubbornly to the steep slopes and raspberries and currants grew in the richer soil within the coves.
They bathed in the bay with a sandy bottom. She taught Anders to swim in a cove where the sea was as clear as glass, and he saw thick tangles of kelp and the shadow of small crabs along the small islands. In the first years he floated in blue water wings, paddling among the reefs in the bay. He could stand on the bottom everywhere, and he knew each and every rock in the pale, golden sand. Kelp swayed when he paddled past, and now and then he caught a glimpse of large crabs. During the past two summers she had taught him to swim. In the cold water, early in the summer, he felt as if he were gliding.
The first week in June the family moved out to the white summer house, and they returned to the city by August. The furthest islands of the Mystic Reefs were so low that they had a view in all directions. They bathed out there every single day, even when it rained, and had been out there every summer of his life. The woman always bathed for a long time. She swam between the islets where the drop-off was sudden, and she watched him when he waded in the shallows. He played in the kelp and the sea grass until the water reached his chest. When, sometimes, she heard the sound of a boat, she reluctantly pulled on her dress. She predicted the weather from the colors of the sea and followed the sun’s progress in the sky.
She had made a fireplace out of three rocks. There he learned to make coffee. He drank red currant juice and ate cheese sandwiches.
Anders was rowing into their cove when he saw the calf in the sea. He saw two of the hooves and a little of the head. The calf was no longer brown, but almost gray and hairless. The water was salty out by the open sea, and the calf had been floating there for four days. Anders suddenly stood up in the boat, clutched the oars and said: The calf is there. It is Salvesen’s calf. The one that is missing.
The woman set Anders on land, handed him the picnic basket, rowed out in the current until she reached the calf, tied two hitches around the foot with a rope, fastened it to the ring in the stern of the boat, and rowed out the farthest Mystic Reef and fastened it to the pole. She backed up with the oars, washed her hands in the sea water, rubbed them, turned the boat and rowed back to Anders. We have to warn them, she said.
Whom? Anders said.
He sat on the small island with the picnic basked between his legs.
Salvesen is out with the “Sea Star,” the woman said. He will come in with the shrimp before tomorrow morning. The calf cannot stay in the channel. We have to report it at the fishing station.
The woman rowed in. Anders sat aft. He thought about throwing out the line, but he did not do it. Beyond the fishing station, by the buoy, she asked if he would like to fish, but Anders refused. He refused to go into the fishing station with here, and he refused to shop in the store. He refused to bring the oars up to the shed, and he refused to have anything to do with the boat. He refused to leave the boat, and he refused to put the fishing lines away. The woman looked at him and tied up at the pole.
She said nothing.
All afternoon he sat on the stop outside the house. The cat rubbed against him, but Anders kicked it away. The fishing boats lay by the wharf, but he sat on the step, did not move, refused to hear their arrival, refused to hear when the boats were tied up and when the crates were dragged across the wharf and into the fishing station. Anxiously, he grazed far out towards the Mystic Reefs.
The woman did not say anything.
In the evening he refused to eat. He drank some water, straightened his room, showered for a long time and went early to bed. He fell asleep immediately, dreamed and began to scream. The woman did not go up to him, but she walked up and down the stairs so that he would hear her. He slept and dreamed again, screamed again, and he went down to her. He stood in the door and was sweaty and uneasy.
He was alone in the house with the woman. The woman sat by the fireplace and read. She put the book in her lap when he came into the room. A glass of brandy stood on the table. That almost never happened: Is it Salvesen’s calf? She said.
No, he said.
He looked as her, surprised. She almost always understood what was wrong, and Anders was embarrassed.
No, Anders said.
Would you like to sit by me?
Not tonight, he said.
She got up and went out to the kitchen, opened the cabinet door and found a glass in the sink. She washed it, looked at him through the door and mixed juice concentrate and water. She was in the kitchen for along time, ran some water, and put the cups away in the cabinet. She shook out the rag rug, washed the blue step, scrubbed the sink, and fetched more firewood from the shad. It smelled of soap powder, and she did all the things that she, otherwise, did not do in the evening.
When she returned to him, he was sitting in her chair by the fireplace. In his lap was an unopened magazine. The cat lay under the table. She did not say that he should drink the currant juice, but she placed the glass in front of him. In the evening he drank juice while she drank coffee.
Anders looked at the juice. Then he looked at the flames in the fireplace. When they were alone, she lit a fire. The summer was warm, but when evening approached, she got wood from the shed. She added a piece of wood, looked at him, went out to the kitchen again, returned with the coffee pot and poured a cup. Anders did not touch his juice. The evening was light, almost pale blue, cool, no wind, the small islands rose out of the sea in the night light, and flies hummed around the windowpanes. She stood by the window. Anders looked at her back and shoulders: Is it me? The woman said.
Anders did not move.
Did you realize that I will die? She said. Did you understand that I will die before you do? Because you were not thinking about the calf. Were you?
No, said Anders.
He took the glass of currant juice.
And so you were afraid.
Yes, Anders said.
Had you never thought about that before?
No, said Anders.
And it was upsetting? the woman said.
Anders drank the juice. Will it be along time before it happens? he said.
I don’t know that. No one knows that. And it is good that we do not know.
Anders looked at her. From the chair near the fireplace he clearly saw both the woman and the blinking light from the lighthouse beyond the Mystic Reefs.
Would you like to eat? said the woman.
I don’t think so, but I would like to lie down.
The next morning he slept until ten o’clock. And when he finally came into the kitchen, she had packed the picnic basket. The woman brought the oars from the shed, pulled the boat in towards land, loosened the clove hitch from the pole and sat down at the oars.
Anders sat in the back.
She did not speak as they rowed across the channel, and she did not point out the fishing spots. But she smiled at Anders, and slowly rowed out to the salt sheds. As usual she watched the terns, rested on the oars before she attempted the current between the Mystic Reefs and backed into their cove.
Anders watched her.
We will swim out, said the woman.
Where? Anders said.
To the reef, she said. To the reef where I tied up Salvesen’s calf. You know that, she said. And Anders knew and she spoke quickly so that he could not interrupt her: That reef is actually the Mystic Reef. The small islands around the reef have no name. And they mean nothing. But we call all of them the Mystic Reefs.
Why is that, Anders said.
Because there is a pole set into the farthest reef. But the pole is not usable. Boats can only be tied up out there when it is dead calm. I have never seen anyone tie up there. Not even city folk who are out fishing. The current is far too strong, and it is in the middle of the channel. Those who live on the mainland say that a crazy man hammered it into the reef. They say that they see light out there when it is dead calm. That is nothing but talk, she said.
When was that? He said.
A long time ago, she smiled. Most crazy things were, unfortunately, done a long time ago. Many crazy men are supposed to have hammed poles into the mountains. I’m sure that they’re the nicest of all. When all is said and done, she added and looked at Anders.
He heard from her voice that she was talking in order to be talking. She almost never did that. But he did not become anxious.
Shall we swim in the current? He said.
Yes, said the woman.
How far do you think it is?
I am not sure, but I think it is fifty meters. At least fifty meters. To begin with we have to swim a little to the right of the reef, so that the current carries us in towards the pole. I have never noticed any undercurrent here. But you must certainly have noticed that I backed into the current before I rowed in. there is not so much current today.
Is it deep? Anders said.
Yes, she said. Thirty fathoms.
I cannot swim so far, Anders said. I can only swim inside the cove.
You can ride on my back, the woman said.
She undressed. Anders smiled at her. And he saw her brown arms and her strong shoulders. She was perfectly calm. She gathered her hair in a knot and fastened it with a hairpin. The woman was brown over her entire body. Sometimes she swam behind the boat when he rowed to land. He knew that she could swim an hour without being particularly tired, and he knew that she was very fond of the sea. When she did not see the sea, she became anxious, and he understood that she was most content when they lived in the white house. He glanced towards the pole on the reef. And, for the first time, he noticed that the sea was gray between the small islands and the reef: All right by me, he said and waded out.
The water was warm and salty. The waves were small around the golden red boulders. The sea was quiet. In the west lines of high white clouds floated in the sky. The boats were out in the fishing fields. Their young scurried along the shore. The kelp swayed. The waves splashed. The woman swam. Anders put his arms around her neck and his head against her ear. In the sun, her hair was almost red. Anders saw the vaccination mark on her shoulder. And out on the reef he could make out the pole: Sometimes you should look closely at what frightens you most, the woman said.
Anders did not answer.
Here is where it is deepest, she said.
He let himself glide through the water. She swam a little to the right and let the current take them. He felt the cold ocean current on his back and the way it tingled against his skin. The sea was salty in the current. A little too salty, and he lifted his head. He felt the breeze against his forehead and saw the terns diving into the waves. Not for one moment did he doubt that she had estimated the distance correctly. They floated in towards the reef and she let him grab the pole: Are you afraid now? She smiled.
Not a bit, he said.
Øystein Lønn (born April 12, 1936) is a Norwegian writer. He made his literary debut in 1966 with the short stories Prosesjonen, and followed up with the novel Kontinentene in 1967. Lønn was awarded the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature in 1993 for Thranes metode og andre noveller. He received the Dobloug Prize in 1992, and the Brage Prize in 1993. He was awarded the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 1996 for Hva skal vi gjøre i dag og andre noveller ("What shall we do today and other short stories").