“A Dry Spell” by Einar Hjörleifsson Kvaran
It had rained for a fortnight—not all the time heavily, but a fog had sullenly hung about the mountain tops, clinging to the atmosphere and rendering the whole of existence a dull gray colour. Every little while it would discharge a fine drizzle of rain or a heavy shower down upon the hay and everything else on earth, so that only the stones would occasionally be dry—but the grass never.
We were tired of the store—indeed, I should like to know who would have enjoyed it. It dated back to the beginning of the last century, a tarred, coal-black, ramshackle hut. The windows were low and small, the windowpanes diminutive. The ceiling was low. Everything was arranged in such a way as to exclude the possibility of lofty flights of thought or vision.
Just now, not a living soul looked in—not even those thriftless fellows who lived by chance jobs in the village and met in daily conclave at the store. We had often cursed their lengthy visits, but now that they had hired themselves out during the haymaking, we suddenly realized that they had often been entertaining. They had made many amusing remarks and brought us news of the neighbourhood. And now we cursed them for their absence.
We sat there and smoked, staring vacantly at the half-empty shelves, and all but shivering in the damp room. There was no heater in the store at any season, and the one in the office, if used, emitted spurts of smoke through every aperture except the chimney. It had not been cleaned since sometime during winter, and we were not ambitious enough for such an undertaking in the middle of the summer.
We tried to transfer our thoughts from the store to the world outside. We made clever comments to the effect that the farmers were now getting plenty of moisture for the hay-fields, and that it would be a pity if rain should set in now, right at the beginning of the haying season. We had nothing further to say on the subject, but this we repeated from day to day. In short, we were depressed and at odds with things in general. Until the dry spell.
One morning, about nine o’clock, the bank of fog began to move. First, there appeared an opening about the size of your hand, and through it the eastern sky showed a bright blue. Then another opening, and through it shone the sun.
We knew what this was called, and we said to each other: Merely a ‘morning promise’—implying, nothing reliable. But it was more. The fog began to show thinner and move faster along the mountain ridge opposite. Then it gathered in a deep pass and lay there heaped up like newly carded, snowy wool. On either side, the mountains loomed a lovely blue, and in their triumph ignored the fog almost completely. When we ventured a look through the doorway of the store, there was nothing to be seen overhead save the clear, blue sky and the sunshine.
On the opposite shore of the fjord, the people looked to us like the cairns out on the moorlands, only these tiny cairns moved in single file about the hay-fields. I seemed to smell the sweet hay in the homefields, but of course this was only my imagination. I also fancied I could hear the maids laughing, especially one of them. I would willingly have sacrificed a good deal to be over there helping her dry the hay. But of this subject no more; I did not intend to write a love story—at least, not in the ordinary sense of the word.
The dry spell lasted. We, the clerks, took turns at staying out of doors as much as possible, and ‘drinking deeply of the golden fount of sunshine’.
In the afternoon of the third day, I dropped in at the doctor’s. I felt somewhat weary with walking—and idleness—and looked forward to the doctor’s couch and conversation.
A cigar? asked the doctor.
Yes, a cigar, I answered. I have smoked only six today.
Beer or whisky and water? queried the doctor.
A small whisky, I replied.
I lit my cigar, inhaling deeply of its fragrance—then exhaling through mouth and nostrils. I sighed with contentment; the cigar was excellent.
Then we began to drink the whisky and water at our leisure. I reclined against the head of the couch, stretched out my feet, was conscious of a luxurious sensation—and sent my thoughts for a moment across the fjord, where they preferred to remain.
The doctor was in high spirits. He talked about the Japanese and Russians, the most recently discovered rays, and the latest disclosures on how is felt to die.
My favourite pastime is to listen to others speaking. I never seem able to think of any topics worthy of conversation myself, but I am almost inclined to say that my ability to listen amounts to an art. I can remain silent with an air of absorbing interest, and once in a while offer brief comment, not to set forth an opinion or display any knowledge—for I have none to spare—but merely to suggest new channels to the speaker and introduce variety, that he may not tire of hearing himself speak.
I felt extremely comfortable on the couch. I thought it particularly entertaining to hear the doctor tell how it felt to die. There is always something pleasantly exciting about death—when it is reasonably far away from you. It seemed so beautifully far away from the perfume of the tobacco-smoke, the flavour of whisky, and the restfulness of the couch, and when my mind wandered to her across the fjord—as wander it would in spite of my studied attention—then death seemed so far off shore that I could scarcely follow the description of how it felt to others to die.
In the midst of this dreamy contentment and deluge of information from the doctor, the door was somewhat hastily thrown open. I was looking the other way and thought it must be one of the doctor’s children.
But it was old man Thordur from the Bend.
I knew him well. He was over fifty, tall and large-limbed, with a hoary shock of hair and a snub nose. I knew he had a host of children—I had been at his door once, and they had run, pattered, waddled, crept, and rolled through the doorway to gape at me. It had seemed as hopeless to try to count them as a large flock of sheep. I knew there was no income except what the old man and woman—and possibly the elder children—managed to earn from day to day. My employer in Copenhagen had strictly forbidden us to give credit to such—and of course he now owed us more than he would ever be able to pay.
He does not even knock—the old ruffian, I said to myself.
From his appearance, something was wrong. His face was unnaturally purplish, his eyes strangely shiny—yet dull withal. It even seemed to me that his legs shook under him.
Can it be that the old devil is tipsy—at the height of the haying season—and dry weather at that? I mentally queried.
The doctor evidently could not recall who he was.
Good-day to you, my man, he said, and what matter have you in hand?
I merely came to get those four crowns.
Which four crowns? asked the doctor.
Thordur raised his voice: The four crowns you owe me.
It was now evident that it was difficult for him to remain standing.
I felt assured that the old rascal had been drinking like a fish. I was surprised. I had never heard he was inclined that way. He lived out there on the hillside a short distance above the village. I began to wonder where he had been able to obtain so much liquor— certainly not from us at the store.
What is your name? asked the doctor.
My name? Don’t you know my name? Don’t you know me?—Thordur— Thordur of the Bend. I should best of all like to get the money at once.
Yes, that’s so—you are Thordur of the Bend, said the doctor. And you are up? But listen, my good man, I owe you nothing. You owe me a small sum—but that does not matter in the least.
I care nothing about that, but I should best of all like to get the money at once, repeated Thordur.
May I feel your hand for a minute? said the doctor.
Thordur extended his hand, but it seemed to me that he did not know it. He looked off into space, as if thinking of other things—or rather as if he had no thoughts whatever. I saw the doctor’s fingers on his wrist.
You are a sick man, he said.
Sick?—Yes—of course I am sick. Am I then to pay you four crowns? I haven’t got them now.
It makes no difference about those four crowns, but why did you get up like this? Have you forgotten that I ordered you to remain in bed when I saw you the other day?
In bed?—How the devil am I to remain in bed? Tell me that!
You must not get up in this condition. Why, you are delirious!
What a fool you are—don’t you know that there is a dry spell.
Yes, I AM aware of the dry spell.—It was evidently not quite clear to him what that had to do with the case.—Have a chair, and we will talk it over.
A chair? No!—Who, then, should dry the hay in the homefield? I had some of it cut when I was taken down—why do you contradict me? And the youngsters have made some attempts at it—but who is to see about drying it?—Not Gudrun—she can’t do everything. The youngsters?—what do they know about drying hay?—Who, then, is to do it?—Are YOU going to do it?
Something will turn up for you, said the doctor, somewhat at a loss.
Something will turn up? Nothing has ever turned up for ME.
Cold shivers passed through me. His remark rang true: I knew that nothing had ever turned up for him. I felt faint at looking into such an abyss of hopelessness. Instantly I saw that the truth of this delirious statement concerned me more than all the wisdom of the ages.
Do I get those four crowns you owe me?—Thordur asked. He was now trembling so that his teeth chattered.
The doctor produced four crowns from his purse and handed them to him. Thordur laid them on the table and staggered towards the door.- -You are leaving your crowns behind, man, said the doctor.
I haven’t got them now, said Thordur, without looking back and still making his way towards the door.—But I’ll pay them as soon as I can.
Isn’t there a vacant bed upstairs at the store? inquired the doctor.
Yes, I answered. We will walk with you down to the store, Thordur.
Walk with me?—Be damned!—I am off for the hay-field.
We followed him outside and watched him start out. After a short distance he tumbled down. We got him upstairs in the store.
A few days later he could have told us, if anyone had been able to communicate with him, whether they are right or wrong, those latest theories on how it feels to die.
—But who dries the hay in his homefield now?