The following is from Victoria Kielland’s My Men. Kielland’s first book, the 2013 short prose collection I lyngen (In the Heather) was shortlisted for the Tarjei Vesaas debutant prize. In 2016, Kielland’s first novel Dammyr (Marsh Pond) was shortlisted for the Youth Critics’ Prize and the literary committee of the Norwegian Authors’ Union awarded her the Norwegian Booksellers’ primary writer’s scholarship. My Men is her breakthrough novel, published to rave reviews in Norway in 2021.
City of Angels, California, 1915
Tongues of flame flickered in the fireplace, hot and silent. Belle needed a window to rest her cheek on, to cool her skin, glowing red, fresh as dew, calm and hot. These little mustache hairs, she ran her fingers over her lips and heard her murmuring lungs. She lit a cigarette and looked out at the city. The enormous oak tree in the evening sun reached its long, gnarled roots along the wall and into the ground; the roots coiled around the fence, crept out under the grass. Clotheslines ran between the branches, sheets and panties flapping gently in the wind.
There are things I can’t ever admit, she whispered, things that are too big, too much, she could hardly breathe, that could destroy me. The words grabbed her by the throat, Belle didn’t know when it was all going to snap, but she knew it would. A bullet, an inverted lung, a postscript to a thousand wars, tears ran down her face, there’re too many of you. She felt her stomach turn, in the darkness, one muscle after the other.
The evening sun was low in the sky, her upper lip had chapped and split right down the middle, she took a deep drag of the cigarette; little words, almost a little scream, filled her mouth between the smoke and the teeth, tickling her gums, forcing their way out between her slack lips, no one who loves with their whole self can survive it. The waves of the Pacific rolled restlessly up onto the shore, the dark shimmer shone up toward her, and her voice filled the whole room, a truth so huge that it stood in everything else’s way. The words reached toward the window, there was something about the little wrinkles around her eyes, her skin’s little traces of everything that had happened, of time’s furrowed face, of all the problems lurking in her lungs, Belle felt it with perfect clarity, the shimmer, the salt water almost blinding her, there’re too many of you.
Rødde Farm, 1876
Brynhild’s head was wrapped in darkness. It was being pushed down into the pillow, face-first. All the colors piled up, her heart beat hard, a pulsing knot of muscle in the middle of the sunset, throbbing red, glowing hot. Everything she was going to see and feel, face-first. Everything she was going to experience. Brynhild slipped back and forth between sweat and dream, floated in darkness as spit dribbled down from her open mouth. The bed creaked, she tensed every muscle in her body and raised her head to the window, the tiniest little movement, it took all she had. Brynhild saw the starry sky prickling, she filled her lungs with air before sinking back down onto the mattress. The dim light of the paraffin candles reached into the room, covered the walls with flickering shadows. Brynhild saw the outlines of her own body against the wall, intermittent, layered, she felt him on top of her, breath on the back of her neck, tongue drawing new lines there.
Brynhild’s head was wrapped in darkness. It was being pushed down into the pillow, face-first.
Brynhild had taken her clothes off so fast, seventeen years old, so gentle and good, so ready for the world, she’d been ready since the second she saw him, when she straddled his lap, I know you want me. Desires erupted from nowhere, glowing, sudden, the candlelight fluttered in the window frame and there, then, they hovered in the flame, afire and flowing. This was love. No one could tell her otherwise. God was here, so close, and an oily black light filled the bedroom. A thick sauce of something manmade tossed and turned on the mattress. He was so taut and bright, his worthless beautiful body, there was no doubt about it, she loved this man. She felt it in her bones, the craving in her belly, the colors diluting themselves on their own, one sensation slipping unresistant into the other no beginning no end all there in one big pool of sweaty muscles and blurry passings back and forth. Brynhild had undone her braid and her hair streamed down over her shoulders and he’d looked at her sitting on top of him with her starry blue eyes in that milkwhite face, those pinkish cheeks, pale freckles, brown hair everywhere, she had bloomed and opened like a dark flower. The anticipation in two strange eyes, that color palette, all that softness and innocence laid so bare. And the sky really had fallen down to earth that night, pressing down on the house, it had pricked against Brynhild’s skin and she’d felt the stars on her eyes, they’d stung and burned, there was so much hope, endless hope, in a dark blue sky.
A new canvas had been stretched onto the frame, the black dirty love-sweat had scattered its seed, the rich farmer’s son from Selbu had walked straight into the attic room, straight between her two half-open lips, straight into her open mouth. He’d taken her into his arms and she’d leaned into him and he’d seduced her with both hands. A touch that made her melt, rocking hips, she took, he gave, convulsing, bit by bit, she lay there for days, shoved into the darkness. That’s how it happened, she’d been raised up high in the name of love and now she was vibrating, she couldn’t stop trembling. A gentle breeze drifted through the curtains, I can die now, but she didn’t die, she was breathing, she panted like a wet little dog, glowing with the morning sun right in her face.
Young Brynhild quivered against the sheets, all alone, she was so far from home, from mom and dad and the sheep up on the hill, she could feel it down in her bones, the fumbling, all the uncertainty, everything her eyes had seen the night before. It was a fairy tale, red like the dawn, sheets soaked and stained in a hundred different shapes. Brynhild traced the outlines of the stains with her finger, the spots clearly drawn in the sharp morning light, and she wiped her hand on her thigh. Everything she’d seen the night before, everything that had no words for it, the intense eyes resting on her. Broiling sunbeams pierced the window, thoughts sat in the middle of her head, her ears were listening for the least little movement, the thread of life was stretched tight.
Firstborn came back, a huge mass of skin and a wide white smile, so loving and strict, so strong, so addicted to his own desire. This man with pale hair and the smell of dirt and soft leather, boots that squeaked and scratched against the bedframe. Brynhild’s body felt the benediction, the weight in the darkness, the golden shimmer in the heart, it went from soft to hard so fast she didn’t realize what had happened. The dark passion when there was no more daylight, hands that could so suddenly ball into fists. Everything that changed as soon as she wasn’t looking. Little negotiations every single time. All the colors up against her eyes. The forever-warm body. Her head pushed down into the pillow every night. Mouth open till it poured and she had to swallow. The jolting ran through her like night-black shivers through the room.
Brynhild lay sunk into the mattress. She lay there with the farmholder class on top of her, a defenseless condition, totally naked, totally unprotected with her whole melting little tip sticking out into the room, a glowing little fuse pointing straight out into the world. The sky blurred above them, thinner and thinner the closer morning came, with spit and drooping eyelids as butterflies thronged between ears of corn and horses ran in circles out in the paddock as if the hooves striking the ground, the gentle light, were weaving them into the landscape of dreams. Brynhild just sank deeper into the mattress while the light melted between the treetops and spanned the window frame. The thin hours disappeared without her noticing, the blink of an eye, the seconds, no way to keep up with them, the traitorous soft skin, everywhere unresisting. The creek burbled far away, flies bounced off the windowpane. She heard reins snapping somewhere in front of the house as harnesses were tightened under horses’ warm bellies. The days always started like this, all by themselves, sweaty and warm and alone with a sound from the farthest corner of the world. The sound got louder and louder and before she knew it she had to get up and make breakfast and coffee for the masters. Brynhild did it all, so quiet, seventeen, glowing, no one would know what she’d done in the late hours of the night. She wiped down the kitchen counter as fast as she could, gave the floor a quick sweep, put the coffee on, took out cups and plates, set out sausage and eggs, cheese and bread. Her stomach lurched. She was filled with this melting hot world. The dishwater burning hot between her fingers, everything so smooth and scalding on her skin. Seventeen years old with a hot mouth open wide in the middle of the nothingness, seventeen and in a total panic, Brynhild blinked but the colors only pushed deeper into her eyes. Every cell in her body wanted him. There was no doubt about it, happiness and heat filled every crack in her body, Brynhild felt almost drunk as she stood there at the kitchen counter, pulse pounding and rebounding off the walls. She looked out at the pasture. Butterflies flickered just above the ground. She watched them, tracked the wings, tried to count the wing beats but they were fluttering too fast. Time was a heavy pulse behind her eyes. Everything piled up, layer on layer behind her eyes, skinny little legs stabbing right through her irises. It was a mess. Brynhild was seventeen, face-first, open all the way down.
From My Men by Victoria Kielland (trans. Damion Searls). Used with permission of the publisher, Astra House Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Victoria Kielland/Damion Searls.