Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XII

When I get tired of Associate Master Höy and the ladies. . . . Sometimes I think of Mrs. Molie. She sits sewing while the Associate Master gravely keeps her company; they talk about the servants at home whose only desire is to stay out all night. Mrs. Molie is a thin, flat-chested lady, but probably she has at one time been less plain; her bluish teeth look as though they were cold, as though they were made of ice, but perhaps a few years ago, her full lips and the dark down at the corners of her mouth seemed to her husband the most beautiful thing he knew. Her husband — well, he was a seafaring man, a ship’s captain; he only came home on rare occasions, just often enough to increase the family; usually he was in Australia, China, or Mexico. It was hail and farewell with him. And here is his wife now for the sake of her health. I wonder — is it only for her health, or are she and the Associate Master possibly children of the same provincial town?

When I get tired of Associate Master Höy and the ladies, I leave them and go out. And then I stay out all day long and nobody knows where I keep myself. It is fitting that a settled man should be different from the Associate Master, who is very far from being so settled. So I go out. It is a bright day with just the right amount of warmth, and my summer woods are filled with the fragrance of plants. I rest frequently, not because I need to, but because the ground is full of caresses. I go so far that no one can find me; only then am I released. No sound reaches me from farms or men, no one is in sight; only this overgrown little goat track, which is green at the edges and lovely. Only a bit of a goat track which looks as though it had fallen asleep in the woods, lying there so thin and lonely.

You who read this feel nothing, but I who sit here writing feel a kind of sweetness at the memory of a mere track in the woods. It was like meeting a child.

With my hands under my neck and my nose in the air, my eyes flit across the sky. High up above the peaks of Tore, a clustering mist sways in slow rhythm, breaks apart and presses close again, fluctuates and strains to give birth to something. But when I rise to walk on, the end is not yet in sight.

I meet a line of ants, a procession of ants, busy travelers. They neither toil nor carry anything; they simply move. I retrace my steps to see if I can find their leader, but it is useless: farther and farther I retreat, I begin to run, but the procession is endless before and behind me. Perhaps they started a week ago. So I go on my way, and the other insects go on theirs.

Surely this is not a mountainside I walk on; this is a bosom, an embrace, in its softness. I tread gently, for I do not wish to stamp or weigh it down, and I marvel: a mountain so tender and defenseless, indulgent like a mother. To think of an ant walking on this! Here and there lie stones, half-covered with moss, not because they have fallen there, but because this is their home, and they have lived here long. This is peerless.

When I reach the top and look back, it is high noon. Far away on another peak walks one of the cows of the cotters, a strange little cow with red and white flanks. A crow sits on a high cliff above me and caws down at me in a voice like an iron rasp scraping against the stone. A warm thrill runs through me, and I feel, as I have done in the woods so many times before, that someone has just been here, and has stepped to one side. Someone is with me here, and a moment later I see his back disappearing into the woods. “It is God,” I think. There I stand, neither speaking nor singing. I only see. I feel all my face being filled with the sight. “It was God,” I think.

“A vision,” you say. “No, a little insight into things,” I reply. “Am I making a god of nature? Do not you? Have not the Mohammedans their god, the Jews theirs, the Hindus theirs? No one knows God, my friend; man knows only gods. And sometimes I meet mine.”

I go home by a different route, which forms a vast arc with the one I came by. The sun is warmer now and the ground less smooth. I reach a great ruin, the remnant of a landslide, and here, to amuse myself, I pretend to be tired, flinging myself on the ground exactly as though someone were watching me and saw how exhausted I am. It is only for my amusement, because my brain has been idle so long. The sky is clear everywhere; the clusters of mist over the Tore peaks are gone, heaven knows where, but they have stolen away. In their place, an eagle swings in great circles over the valley. Huge, black, and inaccessible, he traces ring after ring as though held on a rail in the air, moving with voluptuous languor, a thick-necked male, a winged stallion exulting. It is like music to watch him. At length he disappears behind the peaks.

And here are only myself and the ruin and the little juniper trees. What miracles all things are! These stones in the ruin perhaps hold some meaning; they have lain here for thousands of years, but perhaps they, too, roam, and make an inexpressible journey. The glaciers move, the land rises, and the land falls; there is no hurry here. But since my consciousness cannot associate fact with such a conception, it grows blind with fury and revolts: The ruin cannot move; these are mere words, a game!

This ruin is a town; here and there lie scattered buildings of stone. It’s a peaceable gathering, without sensations or suicides, and perhaps a well-shaped soul sits in each of these stones. But heaven protect me just the same from the inhabitants of these towns! Rolling stones cannot bark, neither do they attract thieves; they are mere ballast. Quiet behavior: that is what I hold against them, that they make no fiery gestures; it would become them to roll a little, but there they lie, with even their sex unknown. But you saw the eagle instead! Be still. . . .

A gentle wind begins to blow, swaying the bracken a little, the flowers and the straw; but the straw cannot sway, it only trembles.

I walk on along my great arc and come down by the first cotter’s house.

“Well, I expect you’ll end up by building a summer resort too,” I tell him in the course of our conversation.

“Oh, no; we couldn’t venture on anything like that,” he replies cunningly. In his heart I daresay he has no desire to, for he has seen what it leads to.

I didn’t like him; his eyes were fawning and rested on the ground. He thought of nothing but land; he was land-greedy, like an animal that sought to escape its padlock. The other cotter had bought a slightly larger piece of land than he, a marsh that would feed one cow more; but he himself had only got this bit of a field. Still, this would amount to something, too, as long as he kept his health to work it.

He gripped his spade again.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38