It’s cold in Norway this time of year and the nights are short. The sun goes down just before 11PM and comes up again at four in the morning. I thought it would be lighter, but these aren’t real polar days—you’d have to go further north to Svalbard to see the midnight sun. Still, it’s harder to acclimatize to a five-hour night than I expected.
I go out for a walk one evening just before the sun sets. I walk until past midnight, through the bluest time of nightfall and into the dark. To stay on course for the harbor, I walk alongside the stubby, twisted elm trees that line major Stavanger streets.
These trees are not tall or stately like ordinary elms, a rare moss shortening their branches to knobs pincushioned with masses of foot-long twigs. I hate how they stand against the dark, knotted and twisted around each other. They make me think of horrible things. Lavinia, left for dead with her hands cut off into stumps. I can hear the trees overhead, creaking in the wind, rasping and pulling against one another.
To comfort myself, I review what I know of the elm as I walk quickly beside them. Despite their association with death, elms have powerful healing properties. A tea made with bark of the Slippery elm, for example, will soothe the throat and bladder in cases of infection. At home in Santa Fe, Siberian elms are considered an invasive species, universally despised for the mass of golden seed pods infesting the streets during spring, collecting in storm grates and sidewalk corners by the thousands, puncturing through drainage pipes when they manage to take root. Elm wood is durable underground and thus often used in coffin making, perhaps where it gets its sinister reputation. Elm haiteth man and waiteth, goes the saying. The Survivor Tree in Oklahoma City is an American elm.
The streets begin to narrow around me and the ground changes from concrete to cobblestone. Now white-washed houses stand against the dark and maroon hollyhocks, no doubt planted in late winter to have grown this high, brush my sleeves as I walk past and out of the trees. I’ve reached Old Town Stavanger, which means I should be able to see the harbor over the next hill.
I felt normal the moment I stepped off the plane in Norway. I’ve been told I’m tall for a woman my entire life, but it’s because I’m broad in the shoulders and hips; this makes people believe I’m bigger than I am. I used to accidentally startle my housemate every time I came into our kitchen in the morning. Once she said, For such a large, formidable woman, Sarah, you’re as light-footed as a cat. But all the women in Norway look like me.
I’ve come to Stavanger with my mother, with whom I’ve also just driven across the United States from New York to New Mexico in a rented Chevy Tahoe packed with my life’s belongings and my cat, who howled the entire journey home. It’s the end of one story and the beginning of another: after seven years together my husband and I were married, and less than a year later he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After months of chaos, misdiagnosis, personal danger, and terror I left him. One month later, I flew to Norway with my mother and her friend, who paid for all of us to take this trip. The absurdity is too much for me at times, so when friendly Norwegian locals ask what brings me to their country, I try not to be specific. I tell them I am here for the fjords.
My mother doesn’t look like me. She’s much smaller, by at least a foot. Where my hair is blond, hers is brown. Where my facial features are coarse and angular, hers are chubby and round. Where my eyes are black, hers are blue and green. Like the sea, she used to say.
In Scotland, the Wych is the most common form of elm. A mountain species, the Wych elm forms pure forests all the way up the European continent and further north through Scandinavia and Norway, well into the Arctic Circle. It is hardy and deciduous, which means it drops parts of itself when they are no longer needed, sometimes with no warning. Despite common belief, Wych elms are not named after witches. “Wych” comes from the Old English word “wice” and means flexible. Elm wood is pliable, soft even, prized by woodworkers because of its strength and its ability to resist splitting under stress. Before his illness, my husband, a furniture maker, preferred elm when he crafted chairs or tables because of its coloring, but also because of its burl.
Burls are the large roundish growths that occur naturally on many species of trees. Though technically a deformation or malignancy caused by injury or disease, the burls of certain trees are coveted by woodworkers and artists because of the highly figured wood within; depending on how you slice into a burl, you will discover unique grain characteristics such tightly swirling patterns or eyes. My husband used the burls as inlays for slab tables, and to decorate box lids. We spent whole days searching for fallen elm trees.
You want to be careful not to choose trees that have been dead a long time when searching for a burl because the wood will have grown tough and discolored. It is also best to avoid killing a tree when unnecessary, and removing a burl while a tree is still alive could weaken the tree and leave it vulnerable; trees take so long to form burls that, if removed, they are unlikely to ever close the wounds. Sometimes burls serve as secondary infection avenues for disease, but it seems, overwhelmingly, they are not harmful to most trees. In fact, some arborists believe they maintain a protective bark. However, sometimes burls become so great and heavy that they create additional stress on a tree. Sometimes they cause trees to break apart.
They say those fleeing the scene of a crime will head west toward open plains and room to breathe, leaving their crimes unpunished. I fled North, to Norway, guilty for leaving my husband when he most needed me. It is strange, but not so strange to have fled there alongside my mother. When my brother and I were children, my mother told us we were Scottish and Norwegian. She said it with a Scottish accent, which my brother and I perceived as proof of our lineage. My mother said we were descended from Vikings. The accent was faked, but the facts were all true.
My brother and I became experts in all things Scottish and Norwegian. In the summers, we fought each other with wooden swords and handmade battle axes. We wrapped plaid blankets around our hips and searched for creatures, imagining the woods around our home were alive with ogres and elves. We called the lake nearby the “loch.” Norwegian blurred into Scottish and then back again. Sometimes I pretended I was Hel, the Norse giantess and goddess of the Underworld, and sometimes I floated with only my eyes above water in the lake, my long hair pulled into tangles around my face, pretending I was a selkie, a seal person with webbed fingers and toes.
Selkies are seals when in the ocean, but they shed their skin and become human on land. They say a female selkie can be controlled by a man if he should steal her skin, but if she ever finds her skin again there is nothing that can stop her from returning to the sea.
My mother and I board the Sandnes bus right in front of our hotel—the old Atlantic Hotel, now the Radisson, located right in the middle of Stavanger along the waterfront. My mother and her friend have a strong attachment to this hotel. They both have memories of staying there with their respective families for months, waiting for their belongings to be shipped across the ocean from Texas and Louisiana. With fathers in the oil business, they’d each spent their teenage years traveling through oil rich countries. They’d met in Stavanger when they’d attended a school for the British and American engineers’ children. The trip back to Norway is a pilgrimage, each of them determined to retrace their past and rediscover who they once were. Most of our time together is spent searching for familiar landmarks.
My mother and I got lost one day on a walk to find her old school. Each winding turn confused her more as she stuck by her description of a place she felt should not have changed. She remembered the school as a German bunker on a hill, painted grey. She remembered the two hundred stairs she’d had to climb every day to meet the boys she used to kiss in dark, cold corners of the staircases. When we found the school, it was painted yellow and not at all where she remembered it, tucked into a neighborhood and surrounded by trees. In one classroom window we saw children gathered together reading, and a little boy looked up to see us staring in from the outside, my mother crying. “It’s not how it used to be,” she said. I’d pulled her hand then and led her away. I knew what she meant. Nothing was the same for me, either. But we had to keep walking.
I sit next to my mother on the bus and watch Stavanger fade into the distance, the harbor and its red and orange-roofed houses disappearing behind a hill. We’re headed further south to Tananger, a small village located between the North Sea and the Hafrsfjorden fjord, where we’ll have dinner with my mother’s old boyfriend, Henning. He’s invited all “the old gang.” She’s nervous, twisting her hands in her lap, reapplying her lipstick. She hasn’t said so, but I know my mother wants Henning to fall in love with her again and marry her so she can stay in Norway forever. She feels like she belongs here and maybe she does. I know she doesn’t want to go home. I don’t blame her. I don’t want to go home either.
When my husband started showing signs of schizophrenia, we were on a weekend trip in Salem, which was only a ferry ride away from where we lived on Long Island. It could be that what happened next happened simply because we took that trip, but there’s no way to be sure. Just like there’s no way to know how and when his disease first took root. It was my idea to visit Salem, and I couldn’t understand why my husband kept asking why I wanted to go. The whole drive there he asked. I gave him every answer I could think of: Because it’s like Roswell—you like Roswell. Because it’s next to the ocean. Because it’s on the way back from Cape Ann. Because I want to buy a new deck of tarot cards and some incense. Because there’s a really good restaurant there. Because I like trees and cemeteries. Because it’s almost Halloween. I didn’t recognize something was growing in him.
Hyper-religiosity is a common symptom among schizophrenics. For my husband, all the normal things about me—my love of nature and plants, my history as an herbalist, my agnosticism—became threats, food for the delusions plaguing his mind and spirit. It started small, with side glances as we walked through the cemeteries of Salem. He told me witches were evil. Then he asked me if I was a witch, if I was evil. Soon after he stopped sleeping, and soon after that he began waking me up every hour. The psychosis set in over a period of two weeks, but it lasted four months. Before long there was no separation in his mind between the two of us, and the only thing I could do to keep myself safe was to leave. But I tried everything I could think of first to understand the disease. I tried to find a way to help him.
Though the American elm is the Massachusetts state tree, there are only a handful of elms left in Salem due to the infamous Dutch elm disease, a fungal pathogen carried on the bodies of elm bark beetles. As the beetles and their larvae feed on leaves and branches, fungi spores are transmitted into healthy trees via tiny tunnels and burrowing holes. The fungus then spreads through the tree’s water-conducting cells, called xylem. Once the fungus has taken root, the host tree begins to produce defense chemicals that circulate through the xylem. These chemicals, along with the fungus itself, clog the tree’s arterial waterways, and the whole system begins to wilt. Eventually, the tree will wither and desiccate, the only indication as to the onset of the disease being a yellowing of leaves.
We’ve been at the party a few hours and my mother is sullen and stone-faced. I sit next to her outside on Henning’s back porch. The smell of wood smoke is in the air. Someone has lit a fire lower down on the hill. I’ve been invited to look out to sea using a telescope positioned nearby. I can see two men far out in the water, pulling nets of fish into their small red boat. Behind me, in the kitchen, I hear Margarethe, Henning’s wife of seventeen years, humming as she rinses dishes in the sink. When she shook Margarethe’s hand upon meeting her, my mother’s pinched face couldn’t hide her disappointment. Later, when Margarethe was talking to someone else, she whispered to Henning, You should have told me you were married, Henning. Here I was thinking you were still single all this time; I got my hopes up for nothing. I heard his reply, You silly woman, why would I need to tell you that?
I like Margarethe immediately. She’s a midwife with a practice here in Stavanger, but she commutes to Bergen and even Oslo when needed. She specializes in difficult pregnancies, with women who have been the victims of rape or abuse, or with those simply afraid to give birth. Over dinner, when she discovers I practice herbal medicine, she asks what plants would be good for her patients and I tell her for centuries women have worn crowns of bitter orange tree blossoms during both weddings and childbirth. Citrus aurantium, otherwise known as neroli essential oil, acts as an antidepressant, alleviates stress, and even functions as a cicatrizant, which means it will promote the healing of physical wounds by encouraging scar tissue formation—but it is good for wounds of all kinds.
I like all of my mother’s old friends. I sit at the dinner table and study their faces from behind my glass of wine. Julia, the girlfriend of Roar and a psychologist, tells me about her anarchist son studying literature in Paris. We talk about the power of words, how they can lead and inspire but also how they can be used against you. I am hypnotized by her Russian accent. We talk about bread and the fifteen pounds she’s gained since moving to Norway and I feel like it’s the most important thing I’ve ever heard.
Later we have cocktails in the living room and Henning shows us a video he’s put together using childhood pictures. I watch as all these older faces spread back into their youthful selves. Everyone is laughing including my mother, who is happy now. Look at me! she says, I was always the bad girl, don’t you remember, Henning? and Henning brushes this question aside with more laugher. No one on the screen is dead, only aged by divorces and job failures and children. They’re scattered across the globe doing important things, but once they were all here together. “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens makes the nostalgia sharper than it is.
After the movie we gather our things to go. My mother is generous with her smiles now. She clasps Margarethe’s hands and thanks her for the evening. She clutches a copy of the video Henning made, hugs everyone good-bye with tears in her eyes. Margarethe strokes a hand across my cheek and tells me what a lovely woman I am. Henning promises to call us next week about a convertible ride through the fjords and we step outside into the cold evening air. It’s raining again as it has most of our time in Stavanger. We walk up the hill back to the bus stop, but Julia and Roar pull up next to us and offer a ride back into town which we accept. Twenty minutes later we’re standing in the harbor with seagulls flying over our heads, dipping up and down to eat bits of baked potato wedged between cobblestones. The man who sells the potatoes also has a stand set up in the middle of the city centre where he sells fake Norwegian knitted sweaters and troll statues.
It’s just past midnight but it feels like early morning. My mother’s looking around for the next thing to do. I ask her if she wants to go back to the hotel with me even though I know she will say no, and she does. Come on, she says. We walk into the bar closest to us. ABBA is playing on the stereo. In the middle of the room, a group of young people dance together and sing. I find us seats in the corner by the bathrooms and look around the bar. My mother comes over with a drink and she’s dancing as she approaches the table. One of the boys from the group walks over to us. He props his elbows on the table and begins talking to my mother in Norwegian. All of a sudden, I am angry at the way she says, Takk takk, thank you, twice like the Norwegians do. She doesn’t speak the language, I say, and my mother shoots me a dirty look. I get up and go to the bathroom before I can hear his reply. Absurd, I think. This is absurd.
When I walk out I see my mother dancing in the middle of the floor, waving her arms above her head so that the pink shirt she’s wearing has slipped up to show her belly. As I leave the bar I give her a wave like a question mark and she shoots me a thumbs up. The night air hits me and my heart rate slows. I hadn’t even realized it had sped up.
Virgil writes that Orpheus, having braved the Underworld for Euridice, experiences one moment when he isn’t sure what’s behind him in the dark. One moment of doubt and she was lost to him forever. If only he had kept walking, leading her out and away from death. They say the trees that sprang up around him when he mourned for her were elms.
Outside the bar, I sit on a bench in the harbor and look out to sea. I try not to think of my husband in the hospital where I saw him last, pacing the hallways and waiting for me to come back for him. Instead, I think of the tables he used to make, and how our home always smelled of wood. His large, rough hands smoothing a planer along a round of Siberian elm. About the nesting boxes he made me for my birthday. How the lid of the box showed the tree’s rings folded into each other, dotted with eyes and swirled with flames.
I can’t see them, but I know there are waves crashing out there somewhere. In between the fjords, those great wounds. It occurs to me that if I keep traveling north through Norway into Svalbard, then past Iceland and Greenland and the Labrador Sea, maybe I will end up back in New York where I started. Or maybe I would have to go west for that to happen? I no longer know which direction will lead me home.
Sarah Haak is an essayist from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a doctoral candidate in creative nonfiction writing at the University of Cincinnati. She has an MA from Ohio University, and she serves as an Assistant Editor for Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Her work is published in Essay Daily, Conceptions Southwest, and is forthcoming in other journals.
Image by Sarah Haak