A Necessary Fire
“Why must you go?” Ingeborg Andreasson wailed. “You are the last of my sons! I can’t bear it!”
“Mother, please,” Hans said, struggling to control his frustration. “We have been over this so many times. I can stay here no longer. There is nothing for me. No future. My father and brothers are gone. As are their boats. The storm saw to that!”
He turned from his mother, feeling the sense of loss overwhelming him. He pounded his fist into a birch post, raised by his grandfather years ago when the house was first built. Pain shot through his fist and up his arm. He welcomed the distraction. Shaking his arm as if the pain would fall away, he bent to retrieve his satchel and turned toward the door.
“Hans!” Helga shouted as she tripped down the stairs from the upper floor. “You can’t leave without saying goodbye to us!” Her brown eyes fastened on his, halting his step with her reprimand.
Hans’ chin dropped. He shook his head from side to side as he waited for his sisters, Helga and Merete, to approach. Setting the satchel on the floor again, he opened his arms and embraced both of them.
“You’ll take care of Mother,” he stated, “and do as she tells you. I’ll send money as soon as I can, but don’t hold your breath. I’ll have to find work first.”
“Your brother is the man of the house now,” Ingeborg said, her face grim as she placed a hand on the shoulder of each girl. “He has decided that it is best to leave Myre, to leave this island, to find employment elsewhere.”
Han’s vision blurred momentarily. He blinked rapidly to clear tears before they fell, and he embarrassed himself.
“Now,” she insisted, “kiss your brother and kiss him well. We know not when we might see him again.” Pushing the young shoulders forward, she nodded slightly toward Hans, as if acknowledging her acceptance of his decision to leave.
While he bid his sisters farewell, Ingeborg opened the yellow slab door to the yard. A warm spring breeze fingered fresh air into the smoky room, bringing with it the odour of drying fish.
“Keep safe,” Ingeborg said, embracing her son as if she expected never to see him again. “Write often.” She raised her hand and brushed thick black hair from his eyes. A tear slid past her nose and she swiped at it. “I fear I may never see you again. I have borne seven sons, and now I will have none.”
“Mother, please,” Hans begged again. “I am still alive, and I intend to stay that way for a long time. I will write soon with good news.” He stooped to retrieve his satchel again and ducked through the doorway.
“You’d best hurry,” Merete urged. “Arvid will be waiting to ferry you across to the mainland.”
Hans strode toward the roadway and stopped midstride. He turned slightly, drinking in the sight of his mother and sisters and hoping it would not be the last time he saw them, then he hastened toward the port. He had arranged to meet his best friend Arvid Gratland at the entrance but had no intention of leaving Myre. Not yet.
Arvid leaned against one of the drying racks laden with fillets of cod, his hands stuffed in the pockets of the red woollen sweater his mother had woven as a gift for his last birthday. The white and blue trim captured the colour of his hair and eyes. For as dark as Hans’ appeared, Arvid was fair.
Seeing Hans approach, Arvid straightened, making a hawking sound, as if to clear his throat, and spat a wad of stale tobacco near the foot of a rack. Once the fillets were cured, they would be bundled into crates and sent to the mainland for distribution to southern ports.
“Ready to begin your great adventure?” the young man asked brightly.
“Not yet,” Hans replied, walking past his friend to the skiff that would take him to the mainland. He dropped his satchel onto a bench and returned to Arvid. “There’s something I need to do first.” He grinned sheepishly. “Care to take one last hike with me?”
“A hike?” Arvid asked, falling in step with Hans. “Up to the ridge? Why? I thought you were in a hurry to get to the mainland.”
“I am, but it’s early. We have time,” Hans assured his companion. “There’s something I need to do before I go.”
“What?” Arvid’s question broke the silence that had cocooned the two young men as they walked away from the village and began the slow ascent to the ridge that overlooked Myre and the harbour.
“Remember the day of the storm?” Hans responded. His reply was delayed. Emotions battled within him – rage, anger, fear, loneliness and loss. His words clung together making speech difficult.
“How could I forget?” Arvid declared, taken aback by the question. “How could any of us forget!” Quiet hung between them for several heart beats. “What does a hike up the ridge have to do with the storm?”
“That’s just it,” Hans said, flicking his arms for emphasis. “None of us will forget, but we have nothing to show for it. All of the Myre fishermen are gone. All but the two who were too sick to work that day, and the sons who were forced to stay behind to work with the women! All of them wiped out by a monster storm! The old ones say that by the time the storm was sighted, it would have been too late to out-run it. They didn’t have a chance.” Anger filled his voice.
“But what has hiking up the ridge to do with it?” Arvid pressed.
“I want them to be remembered,” Hans said scrambling along a path of loose stones that led up and over the rocky foot of the mountain towering above the village.
Thirty minutes later, they stood at the top of the rock base and gazed at the port below.
“I will carry this vista with me,” Hans said, his hand on his heart, “and will remember my home wherever I go.”
“You sound as though you’re never coming back,” Arvid said, seemingly surprised at the determination in Hans’ voice.
“I don’t know that I will,” Hans replied. “Who knows what the future will hold. My father thought he would die in the village, an old and weathered fisherman. Clearly, that didn’t happen. My brothers expected to marry and raise families here, but they won’t. Your father and brother, and all of the other men . . . they expected a long life too, a full life. The emptiness created by their deaths is unbearable. I need to do something -“
“What?” Arvid demanded. “What will you do?”
“You’ll see,” Hans said. He turned his back on the view and gazed at the fir trees towering above them. “Come on, let’s go!”
Hans led Arvid into the forest feeling the spongy floor beneath his boots. When water from the melting snow above began to fill his footprints, he stopped.
“This will do,” Hans said, surveying the brush surrounding them. “Help me collect some dry wood. I need enough to start a good fire.”
“ A fire!” Arvid said, an expression of surprise on his face. “You want to start a fire in the middle of the forest? Are you mad?”
“No, I’m not mad, and yes, I plan to start a fire.”
“You’ll burn the village!”
“No, I won’t,” Hans said with patience. “The rock is below us, and snow is still covering the top of the mountain. Look at your feet. The longer you stand in one place, the deeper you’re sinking into the wet of the forest floor.”
Arvid lifted one foot, then the other, and watched water puddle into his footprints.
“I do plan to burn the forest, but it will not spread up or down, and will likely burn for only a short while. It is not dry enough yet to cause serious damage,” Hans lectured. “I want my father and brothers . . . I want all of the men who perished in that storm . . . to see that they are remembered. I want my father to see that I am a man . . .” Tears escaped Hans’ eyes and fell freely over his cheeks. “I want my father to see that I am a man, and that I am capable of caring for our family.” He struck the tears away with his sleeve. “That morning, we argued. I wanted to go with them, but he insisted that I stay behind to help mother with the fish we’d brought in the previous day. She needed someone strong at her side, he said, and he and my brothers needed to bring in another big catch. The girls and I were to help mother so everything would be ready for their return.”
Hans leaned against a birch tree cloaked in the bright green of new growth. Bending forward, he heaved his breakfast into rust coloured pine needles, and tugged his handkerchief from his pocket.
Arvid sat on a decaying stump and waited. While Hans collected himself, Arvid withdrew a tin of snuff from his jacket pocket. He twisted the lid open, pinched some of the moist tobacco between his finger and thumb, and inserted it deftly behind his lower lip. Seeing Hans stuff his handkerchief into a pocket, he held out the tin to share.
“Thanks,” Hans said quietly, taking it. “Sorry for the tears. I wasn’t expecting that . . . any of it.” His small grin was overshadowed with embarrassment.
“No need to apologize,” Arvid said. “I had a similar argument with my father. You caught me off-guard, is all. I didn’t wake up this morning with the thought of setting fire to the mountain.” Arvid’s voice caught on his words and his own tear ran free of its duct. “But your words ring true. They need to be remembered. But why burn the forest?”
“It reminds me of the funerals held for old Norse heroes,” Hans explained. “Instead of cremating each man with all of the earthly treasures needed for the after-life, we’ll burn the forest like a beacon that calls the Valkyries to lead their spirits to Odin in Valhalla. They already have everything they’ll need. Their boats are their treasures!” Hans’ grin was sheepish. “Sounds a little fanciful when I say it out loud.”
Arvid grinned broadly. “I like it! Let’s do it!”
Without another word, the young men scrambled to collect forest debris for their fire. When they were satisfied that they had enough, they lit several matches and dropped them around the base of the pyre. Flames quickly spread. Kindling began to snap and pop as sap heated from within and exploded.
“We’d better get moving,” Hans said, seeing tendrils of smoke wafting toward the treetops. “The fire will spread once the pine needles catch hold.”
Together, they sprinted toward the rocks and began a hasty descent to the village. At the bottom of the mountain, they skirted the village and headed for the pier. Neither looked back at the mountain, until they were in the skiff and pushing away from the dock.
“There it is,” Hans said, as Arvid unfurled the sail. “The smoke is clearly visible above the trees now.”
Arvid looked over his shoulder and smiled. “We did it!” he said. “I just hope it burns long enough to have meaning.
“It will,” Hans said.
Arvid steered the skiff into the harbour, catching the late morning breeze in the sail. By the time the skiff reached the outer harbour and Arvid turned the sail to round the point, Hans could see the flames licking up ancient trees, turning them into candles. For the first time since the storm, he felt joy burbling within him. He smiled at Arvid and saw satisfaction mirrored in his companion’s face.
Raising his eyes to the smoky sky above the mountain, he prayed that his father and brothers would see the fire and know that they were remembered.
“Thank you!” Arvid shouted over the sounds of the sea. “The villagers will remember what you’ve done today, and our fishermen will never be forgotten.
Hans wrote to his mother and sisters many times after he left. He told them how he had found a position on a fishing boat that sailed between Trondheim and Bergen, and he sent half of his wages each time he was paid. In time, he learned from his mother’s letters that his sisters had married – Helga to a fellow from a neighbouring island, and Merete to Arvid, and that each of them had started a family.
One day, a letter arrived from his mother telling him that he no longer needed to send his wages home. “Your sisters are married,” she wrote, “and I am well cared for. It is time you followed your own dreams.”
Tucked inside the envelope, he found another handwritten note:
Hans! The fishermen will never be forgotten now. Although the village struggled for a while after the men were lost, the past few years have brought good catches and most folks are back on their feet again. Last fall, we started a fund and raised enough money to mount a plaque on the mountain, at the break between the rocks and the forest. On it are inscribed the names of all of the men lost in the storm and an acknowledgement that you burned the forest in their memory. I told the village council that the fire was your idea, that I just helped gather wood. You should have the credit for the memorial. Your father and your brothers would be proud. Your mother certainly is, and the village is grateful for what you did. Now it’s time for you to follow your dreams. We all send our love and pray you a safe journey. Arvid Gratland (your brother-in-law, in case you’ve forgotten)
Several months later, Hans wrote to his mother saying that he had saved enough money to pay his passage to Canada. He sent another letter to say that his ship had traversed the Panama Canal and that he would soon arrive in Seattle, in the northern United States of America. Almost a year after he left Norway, Ingeborg received a letter from her son informing her that he had finally arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and that he had found room and board with a Norwegian family. He also hinted that their niece, who lived next door, was a nice girl. In the meantime, he found another position on a commercial vessel that fished from Vancouver to the Queen Charlottes. Not as far north as Myre, he wrote, but far enough to see beautiful fjords that reminded him of home. “I am happy, mother,” he wrote, “and I hope you are too.”
The years turned into decades. Hans married Valdis, the girl next door, and helped her raise a family of their own. The fishing industry in British Columbia thrived, and Hans prospered. He bought his own boat, The Aleutian, and joined the BC Fishermen’s Union, eventually becoming a director.
One afternoon in February of 1963, the telephone rang. The timing was curious. Hans was rarely home, usually away at sea. He had been home since Christmas, however, and did not expect to head north for another month. The phone jangled again. Recalling that Valdis had gone shopping an hour prior, he rose from his armchair, hawked a wad of tobacco into the kitchen sink, and picked up the receiver of the black desk phone that sat on the pink-tiled kitchen counter.
“Ya,” he answered, his voice a little gruff from years of chewing snuff.
“Hans?” the woman’s voice asked. “Hans, it’s Helga, your sister.”
Hans straightened and pressed the receiver into his ear.
“Helga!” he said, surprised to hear her voice. While he spoke with his mother on special occasions, he had not spoken with his sisters since he had left Myre in 1926. Overseas calls were expensive and awkward in their two-way manner. They wrote letters. His thoughts spun through his recollections, halting at a realization. “Mother,” he stammered in Norwegian. “Is mother alright?”
“No, Hans, she’s not,” Helga said.
Hans heard sadness in her voice.
“Hans, she’s asking for you. Can you come home?” Again, Hans’ thoughts twisted.
“Yes,” he said. “How long do I have?”
“The doctor says a few months,” Helga said, “but she’s failing. Don’t leave it too long.”
Hans leaned against the kitchen counter, squeezing the receiver tightly, afraid to break the fragile thread that stitched beyond his sister to his mother. “I’ll call back in a few days, after I’ve made arrangements.” As quick as the call had come, it ended.
While Hans awaited the return of Valdis, he sat at the dining room table and made a list of things to be done before he could leave for Norway. First, he thought, I need to know that Valdis will come with me. I can’t go alone. Everything else will fall into place after that. And it did.
In early March, Hans and Valdis flew to Oslo, via London. From Oslo, they took trains north to Trondheim and arranged for a boat to take them to Myre. Merete and Arvid met them at the pier and took them home. There, they were invited to rest for a while to recover from the long journey. The next morning, Merete walked with them to Helga’s home. Since Helga was the first to marry, Ingeborg lived with her.
Hans was prepared to see that his mother had aged. How could she not? He had left Myre almost forty years prior. Helga had also warned him of the ravages of her illness. He thought he was prepared for the consequences, but he was not.
“You go,” Valdis encouraged him. “If she has time for me, I will greet her. You are the one she needs now. You go in –”
Hans nodded at his wife’s wisdom and moved dreamlike into the bedroom, not knowing what to expect. He paused at the doorway of a cell-like room that was overwhelmed by a single bed layered with pillows and down-filled comforters. A knot of white hair rested on the pillows, perched atop a frail face, weather-worn and pale. He would not have known her, had her long slender arm not snaked out of the covers, pressing them down to expose a broad smile and dark twinkling eyes.
“My son!” she cried, “my darling son! You’ve come home to me.”
Hans stepped quickly to grasp his mother’s hand and sank into a worn birch chair, the chair his father had made for her while she laboured to deliver her first child.
“Mother,” he said, choking on the word. He kissed her cheek and lay his head on her shoulder.
“Your hair is white,” she said, stroking his crown. “Just as thick, but no longer black. I have missed the feel of it.”
Hans dashed tears from his cheeks before he raised his head. He sat with his mother for a long while, listening to her describe how life had changed in Myre after he left and asking him about his life in Canada. She seems to have forgotten everything we wrote in our letters, he thought. Soon she dozed.
“She’s sleeping,” Hans said, rejoining Valdis and his sisters.
“I’m glad you arrived when you did,” Merete said. “The doctor told us yesterday, that she doesn’t have long. Her illness has advanced quickly and there’s nothing more to be done.”
“How long?” Hans asked, his voice grief-stricken.
“Hours, days, weeks,” Helga replied with a shrug.
“Then I’m glad too,” Valdis replied, “we came as quickly as we did.”
They shared coffee and cake and talked quietly about the past and the present. When Hans’ brothers-in-law arrived, they talked of fishing.
“Mother,” Helga said, jumping to her feet in response to a gurgling cough from the other room.
As one, the others rose and followed her. Merete and Hans entered the room and crowded near the bed. Their spouses lingered near the door.
“Hans,” Ingeborg said, her voice faint. Helga stepped away, inviting Hans to sit near his mother.
“It’s time for me to go.” she whispered, “Your father is waiting for me. But before I do, you must promise me one thing.”
Hans took his mother’s hand in his own and, with his free hand, caressed the face he had memorized that long-ago day when he had said farewell to her. Her eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Mother,” Hans leaned in closer, holding her hand firmly. “What is it?”
“Don’t set fire to the mountain again,” she said, her voice breathy, her lips trembling with the effort to form a grin. “You left such a mess the last time!”