A Plain in Eastern Germany –
5 March 1944
SOMEWHERE IN EASTERN Germany, my grandfather Askild is running across an open plain. The Germans are after him, and he has lost one of his shoes; it’s freezing. The half moon casts a pale glow over the landscape, transforming it into a ploughed field with frozen soldiers partly buried in mud. Less than three hours ago my grandfather said goodbye to his friend Herman Hemning. By running in opposite directions, they were trying to trick their pursuers into focusing on only one of the two tracks. My father has not yet been born. My grandmother Bjørk, who had arrived too late at the prison in Oslo and therefore never got to say goodbye, is not yet married to Grandpa Askild. Officially they’re not even engaged. So my whole existence is hanging by a thread.
Askild pulls out pieces of bone that have been rubbed with rat poison and scatters them on the ground. A minute passes, two minutes. He stops to catch his breath before running again. Right now it’s essential to get going, Askild Eriksson, because those could be bloodhounds howling in the distance. Or maybe that sound is the Katarina blowing its horn in the morning fog outside Bergen: a memory that pops up of its own accord, threatening to knock his legs out from under him. Or it could also be his deaf ear, which has given him a sixth sense, now that the entire Eriksson lineage is at risk. Run, damn it, run! But Askild doesn’t budge. With the rat poison and the bone fragments and the ship Katarina all around him, he is struck by this lightning flash of memory.
It doesn’t look good. Grandpa Askild is standing paralysed on a German plain. Grandma Bjørk is in Norway, malnourished, with bleeding gums and a guilty conscience. The shipyard, which has been in her family’s possession ever since her grandfather arrived in Bergen as a young man from Nordland, has gone bellyup. His seven freighters have been sunk by the Germans, the patrician family home has been sold, and Great-grandfather Thorsten is lying in bed, paralysed after a stroke, while his daughter Bjørk has to work at the Holst clothing shop, her bleeding gums dripping on to the fabric. ‘The German torpedoes have sunk us all,’ says Grandma Bjørk.
Now Askild wakes up. Those are bloodhounds howling.
A thought races through his mind: Herman will get away. The dogs have determined the fates of both men by focusing on Askild’s tracks. He looks down and catches sight of a hole in hissock, where his big toe is sticking out. It’s blue and filthy and looks like a little trapped fish. Askild has been in Sachsenhausen concentration camp for almost a year, and he refuses to go back there under any circumstances. It’s Sunday, 5 March 1944. The time is eight minutes to two in the morning, and a gigantic NO grows in Grandpa’s stomach and explodes out into his body, which finally – at long last – starts running down a slope. He stumbles, gets up, stumbles and gets up again.
The bloodhounds are howling. In the distance shots can be heard.
The NO echoes inside Grandpa. NO to the Germans and the bloodhounds. NO to Sachsenhausen’s nightmarish winters. And that’s how Askild runs, in a trance, in desperation, with a resounding NO inside his body.
Askild was insulted, and Bjørk had to use all her powers of persuasion to get him to come to my christening. Her daughter, on the other hand, needed no persuading. By six in the morning on that Sunday, Anne Katrine was already at the door, dressed in her very best. She was supposed to carry the child to the baptismal font, and she hadn’t slept all night because she was going to be God’s mother, as she insisted on saying.
Excerpted from Doghead by Morten Ramsland. Copyright © 2009 by Morten Ramsland. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St Martins Press, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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