“Nordlys” is one of the outstanding stories of the first biannual International Short Story Contest 2018 written by Vega Ament, USA.
I grabbed the rusting handle of my great-grandfather’s suppe potten (soup pot). It was one of the original personal belongings Father brought when he traveled from his hometown in the north of Norway to the south where I currently reside. Everyone wondered why I still held onto that, what the village calls ‘wasted memory’. I had my reasons, but it would make me just as insane or sinnsyk as Father was. But I know it’s useless to fight for someone's respect if they’re already gone.
With my tattered sleeves rolled up to my elbows, I dunked the suppe potten into a basin filled with soapy water. As I raised a hand to wipe my forehead, a sudden gust of cold air seeped through the open window. The winds had been blowing even more frequently as the cold winter came. I peeked my head out the small, cracked window just in time to see the village seamstress and her ‘apprentices’ passing by. They held large, woven baskets filled with scraps of fabric.
“Oh, good morning child, I mean Nordlys.” I watched the women exchange glances as one of them corrects my name. “We are very sorry to hear of your father's passing and your brother’s departing to the mountains.” The three of them tried to look sorry, but I knew instead they felt disgust.
In my language, Norwegian, my name, Nordlys (pronounced nord-LEYS) means northern lights. These fictional lights, that nobody around here has ever seen, are often used to enchant classical fairy-tales, and my Father was famous for doing this in his well-known fables. However, he was considered deranged for telling these tales so often. I had once overheard a school teacher say that “it is bad to influence children with imaginary stories that occupy their minds more than academics.” I knew, that just three weeks ago, I wouldn’t have agreed with this insulting comment, but now, watching the seamstresses trying to feel pity for the misfortune given to me by my family, I’m starting to agree with the school teacher.
“Well, thank you, Aileen.” I nodded my head politely towards the one who spoke to me. “It’s very unlikely that people confront or even talk about my family, the Forsbergs.” The three seamstresses all shared a momentary glance that spoke of discomfort, and then quickly skidded off. I took a deep sigh and returned to submerging the suppe potten in the soapy water before moving my gaze back to the now crowded street. In all the havoc, I could spot the three seamstresses chattering away in a huddle. They nervously scanned the busy streets and shifted their woven baskets from arm to arm, as if their conversation held secrets. I pushed the small window, opening it further, and glared at the three women.
“What an odd father, to name his child like that; Nordlys…” The seamstress speaking shook her head in confusion.
“Well, you’ve got to admit, her father, Christof, was considered the village lunatic! At first, his stories and jokes were entertainment, but after awhile, it became as if he thought his tales were real! The Nordlys...real…” With that, the three marched off and became a glimpse in the populous road.
My hand unintentionally let the rusted pot handle slip into the shallow basin. A wave of water splashed over me, but my mind was occupied by the harsh conversation between the seamstresses. Was that who he really was? A lunatic to name his daughter a fictional thing? Does that instantly put me in the position of being deranged? I felt my face getting hot as a tear ran down my cheek and landed in the basin. Several more began to fall, but I wiped them away and focused my attention back to the pot.
Part of the soup pot stuck out from the water. It was an extremely big pot; being able to hold almost a gallon of soup. At first, when my family was complete, it would leave my father, mother, older brother, two younger twins, and I with a full stomach. But when a cholera epidemic swept the village, taking my mother, we always had a leftover bowl. And those bowls kept adding; my brother’s bowl after he left to ‘help’ the family, and my father's, after a farming accident that caused an infection. Father. Why does everything I do lead up to Father, a man who blocked out the world of reality! I grabbed the suppe potten and placed it down on a ledge, with more anger than intended.
“Knock, knock, knock!” I wiped my hands on Mothers stained apron and rushed to the door. After a brief struggle to open the firm door, I was perplexed to meet the visitor.
“Doktor Olsen? What brings you here?” Doktor Olsen, a tall, expressionless man, was the only village physician. I led Doktor Olsen over to the living room and offered him some stale biscuits.
“As you know, Nordlys Fordsberg, a terrible influenza epidemic is going on right now, and your dear sister, Cecilia, just recently caught it.” I dreaded to hear the news that came next. “Of course, treatments for patients cost money, and you still have some to owe.” Doktor Olsen had a way of putting simple things in a sequence that would have you on your edge to know what comes next.
“But, Doktor Olsen, you know I can’t afford to pay the treatment, you must understand!”
“Why, isn’t it funny your father used the same method to excuse the payment? I’m thinking you are the closest to your father, out of all your siblings.” The Doctor took a small nibble from the biscuit, his face looking like he ate lemons. I had had enough. I stood up in a flash and faced the Doctor. I felt my face steaming up, and tried to hide my tears of anger.
“How dare you throw my father's name around with such disrespect? It is as if you think of my family as lower status!” I threw my finger in the direction of the door, “Out! Out with you! And do not ever enter here again!” Doktor Olsen immediately stood up, with an unamused and slightly surprised expression on his face. I ushered him to the door, opening it, and was just about to close it when the Doctor peeped, “Oh, you do know you still have to pay me for your father’s treatment after the ‘accident’.”
“Out!” I yelled one last time before shutting the door. I leaned my back against the splintered door, as I tried to reel in my anger, when a thought about what Doktor Olsen had said about having to pay the bills for my father’s treatment. And then my thoughts were taking me to that day.
It had been late October, the beginning of the barley harvesting season, and I was at home, tending to the chores. Father was at work, harvesting the barley like he had been doing for the past week, and my brother, Isaac, was out in the market. I hadn't expected him to come walking in the door with his face full of fear, and I least expected Father to follow him.
“There’s…been...an accident…” Isaac said between gasps of air. He parted to a side so I could see Father, who clutched his hand in pain. As I focused on his hand, I could see a bloodied wound running across it.
“I...cut myself...with the hoe...while cutting a...stalk of...barley.” Father rasped while collapsing onto the armchair.
“I stopped by the Doktor Olsen’s, and he gave me this.” My brother placed a white bandage and a small bottle filled with a clear liquid, which I guessed was disinfectant, in my hand. I quickly poured the bottle over Father’s hand and bandaged it up. For the following days, his injury seemed to heal, but a week after the accident, I removed the bandage and noticed how swollen his hand was. I went to consult Doktor Olsen, but he didn’t believe me, saying that his ‘curing remedy’ never failed. But Father’s infection just worsened, even when I tried to make a healing remedy. For the following days, Father began to have side effect symptoms such as massive swelling, reddened areas, and one night, he caught a fever. And that was his last night.
I shook away the memory; it brought to much pain to remember. But part of me longed to remember Father. When I thought of Father, I would think of how he could have saved his family from humiliation, instead of leaving that burden on me. But there were many things that made Father a happy and nice person to be around. Some of Father’s stories had uplifting themes, and were the best entertainment our small village could get. His most well-known tale was one called ‘Guiding Lights’. Like all his stories, Father included the Northern Lights, but in this one, he added a twist, saying it was based on a true event. But of course, no one believed him. Again, a rush of anger swept through me. Suddenly, an old phrase from Mother passed my mind. When in doubt, the place where your dilemmas started will answer your questions. The only place I could think of that was close to Father was the barley fields. And in the next minutes, I found myself there.
The dark sky stretched above me, as small white dots accompanied it. I pushed my way through the tall stalks of barley, and as they passed, their stiff bristles on the stem itched me. Father told me he had worked harvesting the stalks in the eastern part of the field. But since there were no signs indicating the sections, I felt lost in a sea of yellow barley. I tried walking faster, but it only made me feel even more lost in the seemingly endless darkness.
“What would Father do in this situation?” I asked myself, trying to keep up the confidence. However, I felt flustered thinking I could make my troubles go away by being closer to Father. I connected what I was experiencing now to Father’s story, ‘Guiding Lights’, which was about my father as a boy getting lost in his village’s crop an being lead back by the northern lights. But there’s no such thing as those lights! I was about to plop down on the damp dirt floor, when a glint of light shooting across the sky caught my attention. At first, the light was only a small sliver of green, but then it began to grow, and more colors joined. A marvelous purple, a deep red, and a light blue! Together, the light made swift circular patterns in the sky, and it would recoil, then spring back out, illuminating the tips of the barley plant.
“The Nordlys!” A voice shouted. Then several others joined too. I followed the shouts, my steps being lead by the light show overhead. Finally, I left the fields, and ended up back at the main road which was packed with watchers pointing at the sky.
“Nordlys!” I turned my head in direction of the voice, and walked over to Aileen, the seamstress. “Nordlys, remind me never to underestimate your Father ever again. And never to underestimate you either, child.” I smiled at Aileen and looked back up at the sky, as it still hosted the ‘fictional lights’.
So all your stories, they were true, Father? And I could almost hear my Father’s voice answer with one of his sayings: If you never believe, you’ll never see.