Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll
It was dark in the living room, but the windows, strangely shiny and black, gleamed as though from a dim light outside in the garden. She walked to the window and peered out. The moon had risen above the treetops to the south, she saw the cherry tree, which was still in blossom, and had it not been for the mist she would have been able to see right down to Lake Livannet in the west.
A car with no lights on drove past the house and continued at a slow pace along the road towards the collection of homesteads known as Mæsel. The car was black, or perhaps red; she couldn't tell. Not moving at any great speed, it finally rounded the bend and was gone. She stood by the window waiting for one, two, perhaps three minutes. Then she went into the bedroom.
'Olav,' she whispered. 'Olav.'
No answer. He was in his usual deep sleep. She hurried back into the living room, knocked into the chair arm, hurting her thigh, and reached the window in time to see the dark car returning. It was coming out of the bend, and continued slowly past the living room wall. It must have turned around by the Knutsens' house, but no one was living there, they had travelled back to town the night before, she had seen them leaving herself. Outside, she heard the crunch of tyres. The low purr of the engine. The sound of a radio. Then the car ground to a halt. She heard a door open, then silence. Her heart was in her mouth. She went back into the bedroom, put on the light and shook her husband. This time he woke, but he didn't get up until they both heard a loud bang and a tinkle of breaking glass from the kitchen.
As soon as she entered the hall she smelt the pervasive stench of petrol. She yanked open the kitchen door and was met by a wall of flames. The whole room was ablaze. It must have taken a matter of seconds. The floor, the walls, the ceiling; the flames were licking upwards and wailing like a large, wounded animal. She stood in the doorway paralysed with shock. Deep within the wails she recognised even though she had never heard it before the sound of glass cracking. She lingered there until the heat became too intense. It was as though her face was being detached, dragged down from her forehead and over her eyes; her cheeks, her nose and mouth. That was when she saw him. She caught no more than a glimpse lasting two or three seconds. He was a black shadow outside the window, on the other side of the sea of flames. He was rooted to the spot. As she was. Then he tore himself away and was gone. The hall was already filled with smoke; it seeped through the wall from the kitchen and lay under the ceiling like thick fog. She groped her way to the telephone, lifted the receiver and dialed Ingemann's number at Skinnsnes, the number, after the events of recent days, she had written in black felt pen on a notelet. As her finger turned the dial she considered what to say. This is Johanna Vatneli. Our house is on fire.
The telephone was dead.
At that moment the electricity short-circuited, there was an explosion in the fuse box, sparks flew from the socket by the mirror, the light went out and everything went black. She grabbed Olav's hand, and they had to fumble their way across the floor until they reached the front door. The cool night air was sucked in at once, and in no time at all the fire had a better grip; they heard several dull thuds and then a roar as the flames broke through the ceiling into the upper storey and were soon licking at the inside of the windows.
In my mind's eye, I have seen this fire so many times. It was as if the flames had been waiting for this moment, for this night, for these minutes. They wanted to burst into the darkness, stretch skywards, illuminate, be free. And then they really were free. Several panes cracked at once, glass tinkled and the flames were unleashed, they reached outwards and upwards, into the air, and immediately bedecked the garden in an unreal, yellow light. No one has been in a position to describe the fire to me because no one was there apart from Olav and Johanna, but I have seen everything in my head. I have seen the nearest trees edging even nearer in this light, seeming to collect and glide silently and imperceptibly to the centre of the garden. I have seen Johanna dragging Olav down the five steps, into the long grass, beneath the old cherry tree that seemed cast in stone, with thick grey moss up the trunk, through the garden and out onto the road where she considered them safe. There they stood staring at the house they had occupied since 1950. They didn't say a word, there was nothing to say. After perhaps a minute she tore herself away while Olav remained where he was, dressed only in a nightshirt. In the flickering light he resembled a small child. His jaw hung open and his lips moved as though struggling to form a word that did not exist. Johanna dashed back through the garden, past the fruit bushes and apple trees that had only come into bloom a few days ago. Dew had fallen on the grass, and the hem of her nightie was wet around her ankles. Standing on the steps, she could feel the intense, billowing heat from the kitchen and the whole of the east-facing floor.
Excerpt from Before I Burn. English translation copyright © 2013 by Don Bartlett. Copyright © 2010 by Gaute Heivoll. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.
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