From The Green Island
(Den grønne øya)
by Gert Nygårdshaug
Published by Cappelen Damm, 2021
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
Could it be that an intense and vivid dream can become reality? Or is a dream, a hope, pulverised by the reality you seek, step into, and are spontaneously forced to encounter? I’ve wondered about this many times. Both before I set out on, and during, this long journey.
It remains to be seen.
Today, I’ve wandered down a hillside, forced my way through a bone-dry forest landscape. My pulse is high. Because I know that I have almost reached my destination.
Towards evening I emerge into open terrain, a scorched plain with a gentle downward slope. I stop and direct my gaze straight ahead, seeking a horizon I’ve never seen before.
My pulse quickens, climbs even higher.
But a rise in the terrain a few hundred metres away blocks the view. It’s probably just as well as, I think – darkness is about to fall, and the view that will soon greet me deserves full daylight.
I coax the heavy rucksack from my sore shoulders, drop the bag at my feet. The sudden loss of weight makes me feel that I could almost float up off the ground, that gravity has ceased to exist. That’s just how it is, after carrying sixty kilos of baggage for days and weeks, every single gram of it indispensable in the task I have set for myself. What I’ve decided to investigate.
I set up camp, as I have done so many times on this expedition. My pulse has calmed. But will I manage to sleep tonight? Or will I simply lie there waiting for the sunrise and the sight that I soon will see?
I prepare myself a simple meal, strips of smoked and dried mutton. Gather grass and twigs to make a small fire, boil tea. Spread out my blanket and lie there staring up at the starry sky. Towards a still unknown eternity that I will never understand. That lies beyond my investigative possibilities.
I check off 21 June in my notebook.
Temperature: +43.3 degrees Celsius.
My name is Hans Zolon. And I’m probably one of the world’s last remaining optimists.
The sea. The ocean.
Now I’m sitting here. Looking at the sea for the first time in my thirty-three years. This is the place I wanted to get to. To the end of the earth, to the world’s beginning. Where everything started, and where everything ever created may make its exit, meet its end. Before something else entirely can start over. And over again, after that.
Maybe that’s how it is. I know little about these kinds of things.
I am, in a way, both happy and more than a little nervous. Happy to finally have reached my destination. Uncertain because I don’t know whether the sea will give me the answers I crave. But now I’m here, at pretty much the exact point to which the GPS has led me. Because right below me, just a few metres up ahead, lies the beach I have chosen from among thousands of other possible beaches. Those that were unsuitable due to the unique and special requirements I was forced to demand of the beach that would be mine.
I’m sitting on a limestone cliff, a knoll. Unable to see the beach itself, the shoreline, just yet. But I know that it starts here, then stretches eastwards for just less than a kilometre. West of me is nothing but steep cliffs.
The maps I’ve studied indicate that there should be a small village, a seaside resort, at the far end of the beach to the east. But that’s not where I want to go.
I sit here for an hour, two hours. All I want is to look. What I see makes me so unspeakably happy.
A horizon where the transition between sea and sky is not a straight line, as I had imagined, but a diffuse layer of shifting blues and greys. There is nothing in this horizon. Absolutely nothing. Which is exactly as I had expected it to be. And perhaps this is why I feel happy but simultaneously note a sense of uncertainty regarding the purpose of this trip: to coax forth some of the sea’s secrets. To find a future without pain, but with hope.
I’m calling this Day 1. Because there are no longer any dates, days, weeks, months or years written into my cosmic calendar. No seconds, minutes or hours exist up there in the eternally blue sky, nor in the night’s star-sown darkness. They exist only in my Certina Chrono24 wristwatch.
This is just how it has to be, here by the sea.
I jot down some of my thoughts on paper, in a thick, leather-bound lined notebook. But most of my thoughts and words I write out against an invisible screen. Here, the word ‘write’ is wrong, I realise now, and correct it to ‘project’.
Somewhere out there, perhaps halfway between the horizon and land, the sea’s surface – which I have long gazed out across as I sit here – is broken by something white that rises and falls before disappearing for a while, repeating at regular intervals. Since my knowledge of the sea’s movements has become considerable, I understand that this must be what is known as ‘breakers’. There must be something out there that abruptly stops the sea’s calm swell, a striking against something invisible beneath the surface to create a foamy spray. This is the white I see, which repeats and repeats. A wide belt of whiteness, from east to west.
And for the first time since I reached the sea this morning – it’s now afternoon, and I’m still sitting in the same place – my head begins to fill with something that might be an acute awareness of both the sea’s raw power and where I actually am. The white belt of foam out there must have originally been small islands, rocks and reefs that now, since the sea level has risen significantly, lie underwater. Of course, I read most of what has been written about the slowly and relentlessly rising sea level long before I set out on this journey. But the sea was the sea regardless, and had to be interpreted based on factors relating to the earth’s condition, the landmasses, human activity.
That’s just how it is.
It’s part of what I hope to find an answer to.
I stop staring out across the water, get up from the rocky knoll. Haul my bag and myself down a cleft, and suddenly see a gaping hole in the limestone cliff. A cave? I step into the cavernous space beneath the overhang, thinking that this must be the height of luck! The perfect place to settle down. It’s been here waiting for me the whole time. From here, I have a view of both the sea and the beach below.
I set down my bag for the very last time and walk back over to the mouth of the cave. For the first time my gaze seeks the shoreline, the water’s edge below the cliff on which I stand, just a few metres beneath me.
I abruptly step back.
The sight that greets me is not what I expected to find on this beach. Even in the intense heat, I feel a shiver run up my spine. It triggers an unease in me, and I step back even further into the cave. I rummage around in my bag until I find one of the bottles – not one containing water, but one that contains the home-brewed brandy, strong as dynamite, from my father’s cellar up in the north. Brought along in a good father’s honour.
I take several large swigs.
The first in several days.
The torpor and inner warmth provided by the moonshine ensure that I venture to understand, dare to direct my gaze anywhere but out to sea. I therefore glance down towards the beach below me again. It ends at the cliffs on which I’m sitting, but extends for a couple of hundred metres to the east, towards a bend.
There’s wreckage everywhere down there.
Washed up on the bone-dry clay, where just a few years ago, perhaps ten or twenty metres further out into the water, there was a chalk-white sandy beach where sun-loving tourists might have swum, played, and dozed on sun loungers or blankets.
The strong brandy has driven away the worst of the uneasy feeling and gives me the courage to observe, to take in the gruesome sight, the tragedies that must have unfolded here. The jubilation I just felt at the beauty of the sea, with its endless surface, is replaced by sadness and something painful.
Something that truly hurts.
Along the beach lie the splintered yellow, red, blue and black carcasses of punctured, shattered plastic boats in various sizes, of smashed wooden wrecks; rags and clothes are strewn across the clay, and in the branches of the impoverished trees further inland shreds of plastic and cloth hang fluttering in the breeze. I see what might have been lifebuoys, cans, bags, sacks and other objects, scattered across the shore.
This is not how my beach was supposed to be, the beach I had chosen as my observatory, my field of research. After meticulous studies of ocean currents, tides, salinity and other maritime data from thousands of other beaches, this was the beach I had chosen as the perfect one.
Now I’m here, but I’m unable to think clearly. I don’t want to see any more. Don’t want to know why the flocks of seagulls down there are circling around and around before they land and peck at something, take flight, fly away, return.
I withdraw even further beneath the cliff’s overhang, into the cave. To where I can no longer see the sea. The white belt of spray, far out in the water. Way too far from land, I realise.
The thermometer shows +46.7 degrees Celsius as, my mind dulled by alcohol, I doze away from day one.
It’s just how it is.
And as my eyes slowly open I attempt to grasp, comprehend, where I am. I’m lying against a cliff face, on the threadbare blanket I’ve brought with me. The sand beneath me is comfortably soft, and in all my long and strenuous journey I can’t remember having had a more comfortable bed.
I lie completely still, looking up at the rough ceiling. It’s formed of limestone, as is the wall of rock I’m lying alongside. But there are also flat slabs here, some wide, others narrow. I wonder whether at some point – perhaps many thousands of years ago – people might have lived here. The overhang, or cave as I probably ought to call it, is extremely spacious, with a couple of recesses.
Awakening. Murky. Diffuse.
I twist around and stare out towards the light. Look with disgust at the half-empty brandy bottle lying in the sand beside me. In other words, I’ve been drinking. Quite a lot, it seems. For some reason – which my significantly alcoholic father couldn’t grasp – I’ve never been bothered by headaches, nausea, quivering nerves and other unpleasant sensations, those collectively known as a hangover. Nor am I now.
I sit up, glowering at the brandy bottle. Nobody forced me to empty it down my throat, as my father undoubtedly would have done.
But then I remember why I drank.
The recent past is clear, transparent, like glycerine.
I wish things hadn’t turned out this way. The brandy bottle that I reach out to grab and hold up in front of me is more than half empty – that is, I guzzled down rather a lot. When I get up, I do so with a sense of fear, and since I never commit acts of vandalism – not on people, animals or my surroundings – in this state known as intoxication, I know that the fear is due to what I have seen. And what I still remember all too well. A crystal-clear recollection.
I don’t want to see, so instead of turning my gaze to the entrance to the cave I begin to rummage around in my pack for the few provisions I have left.
I eat dried strips of meat, drink from the water bottle. Sit on one of the flat slabs of rock, which could easily be called a bench. I stare out at the light, which streams in from the mouth of the cave as a vibrant white.
Morning – the thermometer shows +37.7 degrees Celsius.
Outside lies the sea. I’ve finally seen the sea – have reached my destination. But what I saw before I took out the bottle of brandy was not the shoreline of the beach I had wished to find.
I take a few stiff steps towards the cave’s opening. Stand there, squinting at the almost unmoving silver-grey surface of the water. Notice, once again, a little of that former joy quivering through my body. I see nothing but the sea now. See, again, the white line breaking far out in the water. Know that beyond the horizon, and beyond the horizon again, the sea will finally end against another continent. Not even a sea is infinite.
Stillness. Fear. And an overwhelming sadness.
Nevertheless, I know that this is where I need to be.
Because I have a goal, a job to do. One that I now, at the age of thirty-three, am about to begin. One that I have spent a long time planning, far up in the Alpine valleys. Still young, in both body and mind.
It’s just the way it is.
I push the fear and sadness aside and step back, beneath the overhang, into the cave. Study the roof and walls in detail. The floor is flat, covered in white, almost powdery sand. But what makes it possible for this to be my new home is all the flat rocks, the stone beds and benches formed by slate slabs of varying sizes and heights. There are also loose slabs of rock strewn about. Someone must have lived here, I think again, in the distant past. But also recently, because in the nooks and crannies, and hidden in the sand, lies debris and rubbish from modern times – plastic cups, bottles, rags and rusty cans. And somebody must have made a fireplace just out by the opening; there is ash along with pieces of coal there. A long time ago – at least five or six years, I realise, once I have investigated each object closely.
I clear the cave of all human traces, creating a small pile of these remnants beside the exit. Then I take out my laser lighter, adjust it, and a few seconds later the pile of rubbish has turned to nothing, all of it transformed into a cloud of odourless vapour that quickly dissipates, disappears. Only a small circle of scorched sand remains. It’s an effective device.
A hectic hour subsequently follows, in which I empty my pack of all its equipment, setting the various items on appropriate stone slabs and ledges. Advanced instruments for taking hydrographic measurements. Fishing gear. In another spot a saucepan and other items for preparing food. The rest of my provisions and the few bottles of water I have left. The half-empty bottle of brandy, along with two full ones. I promise myself that I won’t touch them. Maybe just a nip in the evening as I admire the sunset and the sea. But only one.
I stand there for a while with a weapon in my hand. An automatic pistol, a Glock. I brought it solely for the purpose of acquiring food on my journey. A few emaciated stray goats and sheep that grazed around the copses between the countless barbed wire fences I crawled through on my way south ended up paying with their lives. Became my food.
My father’s Glock. We had long since said farewell to weapons and war back home in the little vineyard beside Lake Constance, on the Austrian side. But it was no use. Soon all that remained of the shrivelled vines and barren plum and apple trees was burned down by either the Nationalists or the hordes of invaders from the south. Then the main house was set alight, along with the barn. It doesn’t matter by whom. Shortly afterwards my father set the Glock to his temple, after drinking himself into a stupor in the cellar where the bottles of brandy were kept. I don’t blame him for this. My father was a communist, altruist and pacifist.
That’s just how it is.
I’m dreading climbing down the cliff, down to the flat, hard-packed clay that now constitutes the new shoreline, the water’s edge. Going down to the wreckage, the remains of the vessels people used in their attempts to cross the sea from another continent, but which struck the white belt of breakers far out there and were crushed and torn apart, so never made it to shore. Perhaps just a few of the very strongest made it. I had seen some emaciated and starving dark-skinned young men on the dry, grassy plains leading down to the sea, but that was several weeks ago. I gave them directions. Not northwards, towards the barbed wire blockades, but east to where forests can be found, along with streams where water still runs.
I hope no further boats encounter the breakers. I do not wish to see more human suffering and death. I’ve seen enough.
To lift my spirits, my voice – I often speak aloud to myself – says that what I’m seeing, and which I now have to clear up, constitutes the final remnants, that there will be no more. When this work is done the beach will lie there clean and unsullied, so I can begin the work I have so long researched and looked forward to.
I feel nauseous, and am forced to bend over as bile and tears run down my naked chest as I pull the four corpses further ashore. They’re half-eaten by fish and birds, and I can’t help but register that these must be the remains of three children and an older man. The decomposed and stinking cadavers must have been here for a long time. I set the ill-treated bodies in a pile, and adjust the setting on my laser lighter. Everything turns to white steam. I watch the little cloud of vapour as it travels up towards the sky, until it dissipates. In some strange way, the sight lightens my mood a little.
Along the shoreline, almost all the way down to the bend – a couple of hundred metres, I’d guess – lies wreckage. To my relief, I see that most of it lies fairly far ashore, and from this draw the conclusion that it must have been here for a long time, that the sea washed it ashore with the wind and the waves. It might be months or even years since all this – once seagoing vessels with people aboard – struck the breakers out there. Pulled in by strong currents they were unable to escape.
I don’t know. I prefer not to know.
But what I do know is that I have to clear all this up. This beach will be mine, and it will be clean and spotless, just as virginal as it might have been decades ago. Because I’m going to be here for a long while. I might not even leave here for several years. Maybe never. It depends.
That’s just how it has to be.
I make a start on clearing the beach. The sun is already high in the sky, the temperature must be nearing +50 degrees. It’s extreme. But it’s been this way for a long time and my body tolerates the heat, I’m no longer bothered by the sweltering sun. I wear only a cut-off pair of trousers, but could just have easily worked naked – only a baseless sense of shame stops me from doing so. On my head I wear a tattered, yellowed Panama hat. My beard and shoulder-length hair are yellowish, almost golden, both curling towards the tips.
First, I walk around, simply studying every object closely. The split and punctured rubber and plastic vessels, along with the wrecks of at least two wooden boats, I eventually begin to haul together into a heap. It’s hard work. I then do the same with the ragged clothing, the remnants of foam rubber and polystyrene, some pillows and a few dozen lifebuoys. There are letters – writing – on many of these reminiscences, but none with Latin characters. They’re impossible to decipher. It makes no difference to me.
I climb up into the trees, pulling free sheets of plastic, rags and the remains of sails. One of these is large and without tears or holes – this I set to one side, in a separate pile where I have also placed a few pillows and some larger and smaller plastic containers; some of these probably contain undrinkable freshwater. By the afternoon I’ve cleared the entire beach, all the way down to the bend. Whatever might exist behind that I have no plans to find out at present.
All that remains is what I consider to be the personal effects of those who have drowned, become stranded, been smashed to pieces by the reefs out there. Rucksacks, handbags, suitcases. For a long while, I stand beside a large yellow bag with a zipper. If I open it, what will I find? Traces of lived lives, objects brought along in the hope of finding a better place to live, a place free of unbearable heat, war, famine and suffering?
An emotion I’ve never felt before comes over me. One that forces my body far down into the clay. That makes my mind so dark that for a moment I wish I could turn my laser lighter on myself and become a white cloud of vapour. I know, however, that the lighter would never obey such an order.
I bend down and open the bag.
For the next few hours, I’m a grave robber. I open bags, suitcases and sacks, lining up the objects on the sand. All while my tears run, dampening many of the things that lie spread about me. Perhaps these tears can justify my actions, can somehow raise these lost souls to a level of dignity they were never granted.
I pick out – shamefully enough – things I may have use for. I take these over to the pile containing the sail and containers of water. In a handbag I find a make-up pouch and a small bottle of perfume. In another a set of baby clothes and children’s toys, and a beautiful little dress with handstitched embroidery. Things I have absolutely no need for, but which I – possibly in a state of sentimental respect – also set beside the sail.
I have no children of my own. I could have had them, but didn’t want to.
The rest of the items end up on the now fairly huge mound of wreckage. I don’t hesitate as I adjust the laser lighter and set fire to it all. A rather large white cloud is formed, but then everything is gone.
I walk over to the sail and wrap all the objects together, folding the sail around them. Then I drag everything over to the slope of the cliff and up to the overhang, the cave.
Evening has fallen.
Day 2. 23 June.
Temperature at 8 pm, +45.3 degrees Celsius. Noted in one of the columns in a notebook. In the next column, the temperature at this place has been entered for the same date and time, twenty years ago: +33.7 degrees Celsius.
I stand and watch the sunset, taking small sips from the half-empty bottle of brandy. The beach below me is beautiful. The sea is beautiful.
I am here.
[End of chapter]