SI Vault
William Johnson
November 16, 1970
The silence is supernatural. The days are dark and bitter cold, with an eerie twilight at noon. A relentless wind screams off the Norwegian Sea, inducing the melancholies of March. It is too frosty to fish, the drinks are overpowering and the food is weird. Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.
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November 16, 1970

Icy Adventures Of A Viking Grandson

The silence is supernatural. The days are dark and bitter cold, with an eerie twilight at noon. A relentless wind screams off the Norwegian Sea, inducing the melancholies of March. It is too frosty to fish, the drinks are overpowering and the food is weird. Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.

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Snow was drifting through the night when I departed the steamer in Stamsund. I boarded a bus, which lurched almost immediately away from the dock and began bucking over a narrow, ice-covered road, past snow banked as high as a house and along unfenced chasms that fell many feet to booming sea or snowy rocks below. A fellow passenger, a thin young man carrying a bulky briefcase, leaned across the aisle and said, "The roads here used to be much narrower. But people still agree that bus drivers in Lofoten are the craziest on earth. They all drive as if they have just seen a troll chasing behind." In a rather desperate conversation constantly threatened by the swaying and snarling of the bus (and what might have been the cackling of a troll behind but was in reality only the rattle of a loosened tire chain) I learned that the young man was bound for the tiny fishing hamlet of Nusfjord. He planned to visit one Bernhard Dahl in an attempt to sell him a $35,000 earth-moving machine. Coincidentally, I was also bound for Nusfjord, also to the establishment of Bernhard Dahl, for I had contracted to rent briefly from Dahl a rorbu—a bare and homely little hovel of the kind perched along the stony inlets of the islands since the dark ages of the 11th century for the use of the small navies of cod fishermen who labor in the Norwegian Sea off Lofoten. Rorbuer are rented to tourists in the summer and to fishermen in the late winter and early spring season when the torsk (cod) are running. Now and then a triple individualist slips in for a winter night or so.

The bus flew for several miles past endless wooden racks where rows of torsk hung to dry in the sharp, pure air. At last the bus careened onto a ferryboat that churned slowly across the tiny channel between the islands of Vestvagoy and Flakstadoy. The Viking Grandson and the earth-moving-machinery salesman watched the roiling water at the ferry's stern. The salesman said that Bernhard Dahl's family had held economic reign over this section of Flakstadoy Island for several generations, that they owned the fishery, the single general store, the docks, the rorbuer, many fishing boats, as well as a number of the homes inhabited by the 70-odd citizens of Nusfjord. It did not seem very removed from plain old medieval feudalism, he said.

We stood in the snow by the side of the ferry slip to await the arrival of someone from Bernhard Dahl's establishment. A Volkswagen bus rolled out of the night and a plump, jolly little matron, Bernhard Dahl's wife Judith, climbed out. "Call me Yoody," she caroled. "What you do in Nusfjord?" she asked. I said I wasn't sure. I said I thought I would try to fish for cod and perhaps do some skiing. Yoody said, "Yah, sure, but is busy time for Bernhard Dahl. We let the boy Hans lead you, yah. He is not 11 yet, but is good hunter, good fisker don't worry."

No lights shone anywhere along the road to Nusfjord but the notorious Lofoten mountains loomed all about like unfathomably big beasts. Their jagged snowy stone precipices were probably no more than 1/50th the size of the Alps, yet they seemed exactly as overwhelming as they were described by Poe—"outstretched like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff." Even in miniature they were no less breathtaking than the Alps or the Canadian Rockies.

Soon a few lights twinkled ahead between two grand crags. "Nusfjord," said Yoody. The Volkswagen cruised between several pale, plain houses and stopped near a pier. It was perfectly silent. Not a soul was to be seen. The air, biting and cold, was fragrant with the smell of salt and of fresh fish. Snow had stopped falling but there was a powdery accumulation perhaps four inches deep upon the properties of Bernhard Dahl. In the dim light of bare electric bulbs shining here and there along the docks, I saw that fresh snow lay upon the fishing boats tied up for the night and upon the narrow plank-walks built on stiltlike pilings above the water. The plank-walks led to a quaint and random jumble of tiny wooden red-painted huts along the pier—the rorbuer of Bern hard Dahl's fisker (fishermen).

"Come," chirped Yoody. Her feet stamped large prints in the untouched snow as she led me to the lodging. Waving her arm toward the darkness beyond the boats, Yoody said, "Torsk far out there in sea." She gestured at the silent row of shacks. "Fisker all sleep." She strode along the snow carpet of the plank-walk, and at a wooden structure, approximately the size of a refrigerator carton and built overhanging the water, she waved and giggled. "Toilet. Fresh-air toilet." A few yards farther, she held up a small black hose from which clear water spurted and said, "Running spring water for guest." She flung open the door of a rorbu, ushered me through a rough-lumber space that was filled with drying nets and floats and fishing lines, then opened another door and a warm light beamed out. "This your home wit' us," she said. It was a single wooden room, about 12' by 12', immaculately painted white and pale apple-green, furnished with a wood stove (which was ablaze), an electric burner, two benches, a table, a washbasin, a bucket and a metal pitcher. About seven feet above, nailed to two facing walls as if they were large shelves in a closet, were four wooden ledges—the bunks. A crude ladder led to the ledges and each was covered with a thin mattress and blankets. I put down my suitcase and looked out a window. A rack of drying cod stood just beyond the rorbu. I asked Yoody about the process and she smiled broadly. "That is Lofoten magic. There is no bacteria in air here. And for two, t'ree months long these stock fish work with the wind and the sun on the rack and the sun and the wind work with the fish and they become full of rich strength. We take them down in Juni [June] and they good for many years. Come to Bernhard Dahl's store now. You want to eat, yah?"

It was an establishment suspended in description somewhere between Grandma's attic and Flem Snopes' general store in Yoknapatawpha County. The good citizens of Nusfjord and the seasonal fisker alike had nowhere else to trade, so Bernhard Dahl had stocked up for most contingencies. On shelves that rose to the 14-foot ceiling along every wall he had hairbrushes and wool shirts, felt hats and nylon yarns, fishermen's boots and fishermen's clogs and heavy rubber gloves and rain slickers, floats for nets, nails, Thermos jugs, wristwatch bands, tiny china cups and hammers and shovels and skis. He had plastic yo-yos and razor blades and water tumblers and jars of deodorant, and block-and-tackle rigs. He had cans of herring and slabs of brown goat cheese and Ritz crackers and heavy black bread and rings of bologna and cans of Del Monte fruit cocktail and bottles of Coca-Cola.

I bought some goat cheese and herring and black bread and asked Yoody if they had any wine in the store. She raised her eyes to the ceiling, then opened a door at the rear of the store and spoke in Norwegian. Then she beckoned and said, "Here is Bernhard Dahl."

I shook hands with a tall man, thick-featured and floury-skinned and rather dour-looking, wearing a green woolen cardigan fully buttoned. Bernhard Dahl said in a deep, portentous voice, "I sell you wine, yah. We do business in what we can." He left the office. I looked about. There was an ancient typewriter, its ring of type exposed like grinning teeth, and there were many deep stacks of black ledgers on the shelves. There was a calendar with large, unmistakable black numbers, and a rather old oil portrait of a shrewd-eyed fellow who strikingly resembled Bernhard Dahl himself. The centerpiece of the office was a bulky black box of steel, not quite as tall as Bernhard Dahl—a fireproof safe with a dial the size of a dinner plate and a hefty brass handle that seemed well polished from being used often. The earth-moving machinery salesman sat in the office, too; he looked as if he were being held prisoner. But the next day he said that he had made the $35,000 sale.

Bernhard Dahl returned with a bottle of wine and said, "I would talk with you tonight but there is much work. Much work. Good night." The office door closed the instant I stepped out and Yoody Dahl said, quite suddenly, "Have you had codfish tongues? You cannot see Nusfjord without codfish tongues." The Viking Grandson had not bargained for this, assuming that goat cheese and black bread would be about as exotic as he needed to be in Lofoten. Yoody would have it no other way; with matronly dispatch she filled a plastic bag with thick white torsk tongues and walked to the rorbu. There, while the Viking Grandson nibbled goat cheese and drank wine, she breaded the tongues, sautéed them in butter, salted them and served them. She sipped wine poured into a tumbler packed with fresh snow from the rorbu roof. The Viking Grandson ate and found the codfish tongues superb (they were richer and juicier than butterfly shrimp, but vaguely similar in flavor), and Yoody left.

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