I like this memory because Mom’s and Dad’s voices take on a soft tone when they tell the story. Waking is now worse than falling asleep, I didn’t think that was possible. But that’s not what I think now, now I’m unable to think, or to breathe, I can only feel a dread of death that isn’t about death, or maybe it is, I’m not sure, and I must get out of bed, I walk barelegged across the creaky floor, dirt and dead ants between the floorboards, out onto the stones that are warm from the morning sun, into the cabin, where Mom and Dad and Espen and Åsmund are sitting around the table, a vacation spread of eggs and fresh bread and coffee and shrimp salad. I can decide that if I haven’t become a human when I turn ninety, like Mathea, I am allowed to give up.
Photograph © Rachel.Adams
This is an excerpt from Monsterhuman by Kjersti Skomsvold, published by Dalkey Archive Press. I’ve also started keeping a diary, I had to, because I am so afraid. I have the Post-it notes about Mathea, all together, they’re piled helter-skelter, like a yellow patchwork, in my diary, they’re no longer on the wall above my electric bed. ‘Will you remember that we got to the part where Kjersti ran sobbing home from school?’ Mom says. She wanders back and forth across the bluff in front of the cabin, the entire summer she is two years old, it’s been raining and raining for weeks, and she pulls her dog on a leash, a red plastic boat named Halliball. I got one of Dad’s notebooks, he was actually using it himself, so it’s full of undecipherable calculations and economic key words. ‘I’ll keep the door open,’ says Mom, ‘it’s so nice out today.’
The bedrooms are in a separate building, my door faces the mountains and the view down toward what a newspaper once elected Sandefjord’s ugliest beach. As if I wasn’t a human, I can’t stop thinking that. I don’t think the room is large enough to be called The Hall, like a gym hall, like you could do cartwheels and play leapfrog inside, there’s only room enough for my large bed, but they weren’t really used to large rooms when my great-grandpa built the cabin, that was a long time ago, he’s dead now. But my knees feel so heavy, I just shake my head, shuffle back to The Hall, crawl under the comforter. She’s Mom’s aunt, but I feel much closer to her than that, although we speak much too seldom. I no longer have any choice. The first is that since there’s a book with my name on it, I must be a human after all. I’ve come to the cabin every year since my birth, it’s my most cherished place of all the places I’ve ever been, which isn’t that many, really. Now I’m holding Cita’s paw, she’s lounging next to me, and I am like a child again as Mom reads aloud from the book. ‘Do you want to sit here with us for a while?’ says Mom. But before that, I’m surrounded on all sides by a deafening darkness, it’s inside of me too, it fills every last nook. ‘Am I ninety yet?’ I will ask myself, and if the answer is ‘no,’ then I’ll have to hold out a bit longer. The pine needles stick to my feet. But every morning I must face things I don’t think are true, I’m baffled by everything, and then suddenly, from the ends of the earth, anxiety turns up, it envelops me, takes me with it, I don’t recognize anything, no longer exist apart from the anxiety. ‘You are so kind.’
‘Yes, I certainly am,’ says Mom. ‘You’re not going to give up on me?’ I say, crying. ‘Now, Kjersti,’ says Dad. I leave the sun outside, go into the bedroom, it’s always twilight in here. ‘I can’t,’ I say. In four years, an editor will inform me that it’s been sent off to the printer. ‘Just a little,’ says Mom. I saw a girl on TV who said that – that she was disappointed by life, she was the same age as me and was going to die, it’s impossible to forget her, she lived in Africa. ‘Of course we won’t give up on you,’ says Dad. ‘I can’t,’ I say, so she screws off the light again, sets the tray down on the red nightstand, which stores all of the sewing materials, the room smells like sewing materials, or maybe it just smells old. Maybe all we want in life is a sorrow so big that it forces us to become ourselves before we die. I mix up my great-grandparents, the person who built the cabin wasn’t the same as the one who downed the lye, and who knows which of them was amiable. I don’t know what, what it is that I’m afraid of, of always being sick, I think, when I’m able to think, of never getting to be who I should be, the fear of being disappointed by life. He came home thirsty from the field, I don’t know if it was a field, and he picked up the glass bottle that was on the porch and downed its contents, which he believed was water, but in fact it was lye. ‘I thought I could read to you a bit,’ says Mom. It’s about little Kjersti who is almost killed in a traffic accident, and when she returns to school she is bullied and has to wear a bandage on her face. I don’t know why Mom chose this book, but maybe it’s true that mothers know what helps. She doesn’t want to stop, she must take her dog for a walk. The mattress is summer, it is blue with sunscreen and small flowers on it, Aunt Ellen sewed the cover, our tastes are quite similar. ‘You have to promise not to give up on me,’ I say. Translated from Norwegian by Becky L. ‘But then I’ll need some light.’ There’s no getting out of it. What I don’t want to admit to myself is that I sometimes think about the engagement ring that Erik will give to me. I am not a human. In life he was an amiable person, well-liked by everyone. I’ve begun to stir, to roll over in my sleep, I wake on my left side. ‘Thank you, Mom,’ I say. But then it turns out it’s just Mom. ‘I am, aren’t I?’ says Mom. ‘I have to go in and lie down again,’ I say, getting up from the mattress. Me, who supposedly doesn’t care about such things. ‘I have to close my eyes, it’s warm under my eyelids, maybe it’s better to bury yourself,’ I write about Mathea in the diary, which will later become the heart-book. When I think about myself, what I like best is a picture, or an image, which I don’t remember, but it’s been described to me. ‘What is it, Kjersti?’ says Dad. I think of something nice, not just then, although now I wish it had been then, now I can see that it was just then that I needed to think it, I can set a time limit. The following thought is almost as good, that I at some point will have written my own book with my name on it. I’ve fixed up a mattress outside, would you like to lie down on it?’
‘Mom.. I tend to lie on the rocky bluff outside the cabin, on the cliff edge, but now I’m lying down just outside the door, on the new deck, which is covered with pine needles, the tree above me is nice to climb, I am going to climb the tree soon, all the way to the top. Crook
The Hall is the name of the room where I sleep, where I awake, this is the only place I am. I am so afraid that I will give up, but this gives me some insurance when I feel like giving up. ‘Maybe I can go outside for a while,’ I say. Maybe I had to lose everything I thought I couldn’t live without, in order to be able to be me. ‘I can’t do anything but cry,’ I write about myself in the diary. ‘Five minutes. But there are a lot of people on the beach, I can hear children-screams and seagull-cries and the sea, I miss the sea, which is just outside. Push myself up against the bed rim, Mom opens the door, says, ‘good morning, are you hungry?’ and screws on the old-fashioned light switch. I think she feels close to me too. I wait for Erik, think I see him all the time, outside beyond the windowsills scattered with fly corpses, through the gaps in the sun-bleached curtains, and then I wake up because he’s coming, around the corner, he’s standing there in the doorway. ‘Or should I read here?’ she continues. Because I have two thoughts while Mom reads. .’ I say.