If you forgive the fox for stealing your chickens, he will take your sheep. It was an old Georgian proverb that Grandfather would often recite, but I never fully understood it until The Day. I could still vividly recollect the intensity of all that transpired - the whispered chill of the cool November air, my pores raising with hairs at the back of my neck; the muffled sounds becoming clearer as I approached; the sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach; the taste of the bile swimming in my mouth; the thudding of my heartbeat within my chest; the putrid smell of something rancid...and the horror that fell upon me when I saw them.
I celebrated my 21st birthday exactly one month before The Day. It was a small, nondescript shindig, with a few friends from the Writers’ Club, my cousin Harriet and her boyfriend Niels.
My family of origin was Sámi – purportedly the most marginalized indigenous group in Norway - so my idea of birthday celebrations was limited to a small gathering offering a seafood palette meal of salmon, herring and trout Smørbrød, rakfisk, an assortment of fruit juices and some non-alcoholic wine. Niels was a member of Dovre, a local folk band gaining increased popularity, and he’d brought along his Hardingfele to supply the only musical element of the occasion. Everyone arrived on time, except for her.
I’d always been a reserved, quiet introvert, wary of crowded spaces and public attention, until I met Adelén Rask. Raised as an only-child with four cats, in a small house far north in Arendal, I’d say she was the sibling I never had. Adelén was everything I wasn’t. She was a confident, outspoken extrovert, popular mainly due to her Americanized styles, her apparent relation to Roald Dahl (he was her great-grandmother's second cousin) and the fact that she was from Hell. In the municipality of Stjørdal in Trøndelag county, Hell is an actual village in the Lånke area of Norway. It gained growing tourist attraction in the late 1970’s, particularly after a popular British punk band called The Boys had recorded their third album there. While her home address was of little importance to me, I initially fancied Adelén for her excellent writing, without attributing it to her family ties.
We met on the first day of Creative Writing class at college. She wore a colourful lusekofte, its selburose patterns resembling the shape of diamonds. The tiny clasps down the sweater-front were red in colour, shaped like little bull horns. She’d left a few unfastened and the colours and design of it stood in stark contrast to the crisp white shirt she wore underneath. Everyone who came to ACN had hopes of transferring their credits to a University in the US as they had equal hopes and intentions to either migrate there or explore educational opportunities in the Land of the Free. It wasn’t uncommon for students to wear traditional Norwegian clothing in the American University but Adelén stood out like a Miss Universe contestant with a high probability of placing her country on the global front. We were asked to write a paragraph describing an interesting fact about ourselves and our lecturer Mr. Bergstrom made us swap works in pairs to give each other constructive critiques. I was annoyed from the moment she introduced herself. Her voice was high-pitched with a false air of superiority that was common for pretty girls like her. The decibels of her “hello” were too high for my comfort level and I looked down in embarrassment as Mr. Bergstrom chided us to work quietly for the twenty-minutes that were allotted.
Like the majority of Europeans that I considered prejudiced and guilty of “racial-myopia”, I found myself applying preconceived notions of the young blonde sitting in front of me, who ended up smashing my five-minute stereotypical mind rant into a thousand pieces in under a minute. I listened to her droning on about who she was, her interest in studying at ACN, paying scant attention to the details while mentally rehearsing my own response to introduce myself as Cicely Johansen. I hadn’t meant to be rude or obvious in my snubbing, but as my eyes scanned her written paragraph, I was immediately pulled into the writing. It was a tale of a cat who’d lost her kittens. She foraged the village leaving tufts of her fur in specific places where they’d previously ventured, eventually leaving her face bereft of hair. This caused city officials from the Animal Protection Unit to diagnose her as a homeless sickly feline, picking her up and taking her to a nearby shelter. As luck would have it, she found her precious lost ones huddled in a kitty litter in the same enclosure they deposited her into at the shelter. It was a simple story, superbly written, and I was highly impressed. Besides being a lover of cats myself, I was struck by the descriptive language she’d used that made me ache to stroke my three little Balinese and one obese Siberian that I had left behind in Arendal. Housing was costly at the school so I stayed with my grandfather in a comfy garden house in Stovner, a forty-minute drive away. Grandfather Edvard had atopic dermatitis which, as he aged, had gradually been accompanied by asthmatic episodes whenever he had flare ups. Animal fur added to his plight so I was relegated to seeing my ‘kitty gang’ on the occasional video calls to my parents and visits back at home.
Adelén won me over that day and we became friends at once. She had hopes of becoming a writer and dreamt of meeting a rich, cute American man, getting married and migrating to “The Big Apple”. I had a love for American fiction and obsessed over collecting books that were made into major blockbusters. She was fascinated by my simple life and family stories that she considered unnatural for “a beauty like me”. I didn’t see what she saw, but she frequently lauded my “perfectly square” cheekbones, light green eyes and natural red hair. She’d also taken to calling me Scarlett, after the famous actress Scarlett Johansson, and even ventured to tell our schoolmates that I was related to the beautiful belle (despite the different spelling of our titles). We became a pair in our very first semester at ACN – always together, mostly inseparable. I was never popular in my previous life and was new to the onslaught of attention.
As we spent more time together, there was a steady, silent exchange of our identities. I took cues from Adelén on how to be assertive, how to wear my clothes to accentuate my naturally tiny and apparently flattering waistline. I started wearing makeup, joined a writers’ club with her where I’d often recite Spoken Word in front of large audiences whenever we had Open Air events. Conversely, Adelén began adopting some of the things that one could consider unique to me. My parents loved her from the first time they spoke and after her first visit to my house where she’d instantly connected with our smallest cat Gershom, she started spending lots of time on the phone with my mother, outside of my involvement or inclusion. She left a trail of personal items at my Grandfather’s house every time she came over to visit. She took much of my original wardrobe (which she’d said was “rather bland”) turning the articles of clothing into fashionable designs which she wore non-apologetically. A few of my old friends back home became friends of hers as well as she linked up with them through Facebook and Twitter. She was always one step behind me in my academic and personal pursuits.
Everyone seemed to love Adelén except Grandfather Edvard. He called her a copycat, said she was a girl who was unsatisfied with her life and he complained of her frequent visits which left him wheezing and itchy from the smell of cats. Somehow she’d managed to get a cat (which, by the way, looked eerily like Gershom) into her dorm, against both her roommate’s wishes and the school’s No Pets policy). So eventually I was allowed to spend nights at the campus dorm more often than was permissible. It occurred to me that Adelén was in fact stealing some of ‘me’ but I forgave her because of the huge deposits she made into my life. My overnight growth in confidence and self-esteem was all due to her influence. I had guys trying to sidle up to me in the lunch line at the cafeteria, girls asking to take selfies with me for their social media posts and the president of the student council frequently asking me to submit articles which they’d post in the school’s quarterly newsletter.
But everything began to change on my 21st birthday, the moment Adelén walked in with him.
He was Adonis Nyman and I was secretly in love with him. Unlike the Greek God he was named after, he was the most ordinary, non-good-looking boy I had ever seen. I was seven years old when we first met. He hailed from a wealthy family of Reindeer Husbandmen but considered himself a mere farm boy. Our fathers met during a civil protest over a logging company’s government-approved plans to drill on reindeer calving grounds. They’d kept in contact and became good friends over the years. Adonis’ father would visit our family whenever he ventured into Oslo for business, often bringing his son in tow. The first time I saw Adonis, I was taken aback by his features – long tufts of hair that snaked out from under his hat lapels, covering the tops of his ears, crooked teeth seemingly stained by hot chocolate, a flat-bridged nose with extremely round nostrils, and an Adam’s apple the size of a rock. He was ten years old then but quite tall for his age. Despite the physical quirks, I found him intriguing. He spoke five languages: Nynorsk, Sami, German, French and English; was active in three sports - skiing, ice hockey and football. He could spay and neuter cats. But most important -- he listened to me. It was his ability to get me to open up and talk that really caused me to like him. I felt like myself whenever he was around and as we grew into teenagers, I became enthralled by his very being.
When I was fifteen, he went abroad for an apprenticeship as part of his grooming to take over the family business and we lost contact. Our parents still communicated often and got together for holidays and special occasions. Adonis would write me letters in various languages, but after some time the letters stopped coming. I’d kept them all locked away in a box with my collection of diaries.
When Adelén arrived at the get-together with the six-foot tall, heavily bearded gentleman, I was floored. Those crooked teeth and the rounded nose I would recognize anywhere. I was seeing Adonis for the first time in six years and he looked amazing! Adulthood had done him well as his chiseled features matched his height, his stature and the seemingly fist-sized ball in his throat. When he spoke my name in a deep, throaty sing-song voice, it brought a sting of tears to my eyes and we immediately embraced. Later, I learnt that Adelén had read my diaries and letters and through my parents and his father, she contacted Adonis, arranging for him to come as a birthday surprise. Though her foraging in my private stuff was worth the price of the infraction, for the first time I was upset at her. I felt like I’d been violated and some boundaries had been crossed.
Adonis remained in Oslo for a few days after my birthday and we spent hours catching up. He loved my writing and encouraged me with new ideas for my Spoken Word. He visited the Writers Club and met everyone. His presence was a welcoming balm. Though we never spoke on romantic terms and acted simply as childhood friends reunited, I could feel the shift in his energy toward me and I was filled with a sense of promise. That was until The Day.
Grandfather Edvard had a severe wheezing fit that saw me rushing him to the emergency ward that evening. I’d successfully graduated from ACN and opted to remain in Oslo with him as I worked part-time to gain funds to complete my masters in Journalism. “That girl” he kept saying between mouthfuls of air as he tried to breathe, his frail arms flailing while clutching his chest. Hours later, as he lay in a hospital bed, he said Adelén had been in and out of our house several times that week. He’d neither seen nor spoken to her so I felt his medication was causing him to hallucinate. Adelén and I had remained close as we were members of the writers club and had the same circle of friends, but visits to my house had become infrequent as she’d found her “rich American guy” and was in a steady relationship for the past year. While Adonis and I maintained contact since our reunion, he’d come often to visit, but we never discussed a relationship or ventured into any romantic territory. Adelén often smirked about the oddity of that: two people “obviously in love” but doing nothing about it.
My Grandfather’s words troubled my spirit. Why was she at the house and why would she not have told me? I left the hospital in a mental rut, promising to return the next morning with fresh clothes and a bowl of soup. It was mid-November, the air was extra chilly but I felt hot and bothered.
Grandfather loved farming and had wanted to return to the soil after his wife’s death and his subsequent retirement but the weather did not always permit. There was an old stabburd that stood standing atop the incline at the back of his house that was one of the rare traditional buildings that still existed in the town of Stovner. Occasionally I would venture there when I needed space to clear my head. It was already dark when I got back from the hospital but felt led up the incline to the familiar place of comfort. A sense of foreboding and trepidation descended as I approached the old farm house. The door was slightly ajar and the flickering light of a lantern cast shadows beyond its opening. A putrid scent wafted out as I climbed the fragile staircase, heart racing as the muffled sounds of obvious movement from inside registered in my mind. His back was to me but I’d recognize that man from any angle. Adonis was on his knees, hovering over something and facing him squarely was Adelén. At the sound of the doorpost’s creek as I pushed it open, she looked up at me like a deer caught in headlights.
Something dark came over me then, and I grabbed the nearby lantern, rushed up to her and smashed the glass object in her face. Hot blood splattered my clothing and his startled roar filled my ears as Adelén dropped to the floor with a sickening thud and I turned on my heels and ran off into the night.
Nine Years Later
The office was abuzz as interns and administrative staff prepared meeting rooms and material for on-boarding of the new trainees. For the first time since I migrated to the US and started working for The New Yorker magazine, I felt accomplished and resourceful. I’d worked hard to build a new life, leaving my Norwegian memories behind. As a lead editor, now going by the name Cecelia Jones, I’d established a program for exchange students and immigrants who were aspiring writers, one which had gained momentum and high praise from my employers. It was an article I wrote for the magazine three months before (which was in fact my own story, fictionalized) that won me the trust of my bosses. The story was one of a girl who happened upon her best friend and a man she loved aiding a sick cat in delivering a litter of kittens, mistakenly thinking they were romantically involved, before bashing her friend in the head. They’d been working secretly to surprise her with new pets, harvesting cats in an old abandoned farmhouse, but her fit of jealous rage led to an assault. The result was a gash to the face that required surgical sutures and a fractured relationship that would never mend. Sales of the magazine publication spiked after they started a running cartoon featuring the characters of my story. For me, it was like an unspoken burden was finally released.
There was a soft rap on my office door just then. I hollered to okay entry as my assistant Marie sauntered in, two persons in tow. Head still bent, I was perusing an article on my desk as they approached.
“Cecelia, these are the new resident-trainees: Jonathon Garrett and Adelle Sween.” I looked up then to greet the newcomers and my breath hitched in my throat as I recognized her. How did she find me? My mind and heart began to race simultaneously. I stood to my feet holding the edge of my desk as my legs threatened to give way beneath me.
“Welcome on board Jonathon” I said, shaking the young man’s hand politely.
“Welcome on board Ms. Sween” I said with equal emphasis as she scanned my face with her good eye. She wore a patch over the other but the concentrated look from that single pupil was telltale of her knowledge of who I was.
“How very nice to meet you Ms. Jones” she said in the most neutral tone. Her hand squeezed mine sharply before she pertly added “I really look forward to working with you”.