At the end of the world, there is still time to pause. Perhaps now – when actions are fruitless - this is when pausing makes the most sense. This is the time to look back. To look back and to confess.
I’m not interested in telling you about the events that brought us to this point. You’ll know them or you won’t. You’re likely to be frantically doing things to ward off what will happen when the sky falls in. You’ll be holding the people you love in a last grip. Possibly, you’re praying; I don’t know.
Or perhaps, like me, you’re telling your story to someone else – if you can find someone to listen that is. I’ll tell you what, let’s make it mutual. I’ll listen to you, if you listen to me. Even at the end of days, isn’t that how it works?
My house is full of ghosts, but that’s true of everyone’s if you know where to look; and along with my cat, I do know where to look. They line up in the hallway of the low, red farm I’ve lived in since birth. They tut and roll their eyes at the tractor tyres I’ve allowed to be propped up in lines against my mother’s rose wallpaper. They crowd round the kitchen table and snigger behind their fingers at the dirtiness of my stove top.
They’re crouching in the barn with the animals, hiding in the feed and making the cows and sheep restless. Goading them to shift their hooves from side to side on the sawdust floors. The ghosts have given up on the fields outside the farm though. Winter in north Norway is no place for anyone; not even ghosts.
Occasionally, when I’m shaving in the bathroom mirror, I see my mother dusting the wall behind me. The back of her head looks younger than it did when she died and the silver peeling off the edge of the mirror causes her image to fragment. But still, I’m glad for her. She looks like she’s doing what she wants to, in a place where she was mainly happy.
Sometimes, my father opens the outside door into the kitchen. He pulls his ghost boots off and bangs the ghost snow off them. The door bangs shut behind him and I flinch as he strides past. Me, eighty years old, twenty years past the age he died.
I’ve tried calling Lisbeth to see if I can entice her out of the shadows, but she never comes. “Lisbeth Albertsen, sister of mine, come and play. Let’s run like we used to. Let’s play hide and seek.” She never answers though. She moved from the family home before she died and I don’t think she can return here, even if she wants to. She was always such a small thing, a wispy thing anyway.
We both ended up living alone, apart from our animals. Me in our home from childhood, Lisbeth in the house she built for herself - the houses are so close that the fence boundaries touch. Lisbeth and I were of the same blood, the same earth, so who could we marry? Only each other and that’s not allowed.
When our parents died - one soon after the other - Lisbeth spent the money our mother left us on the building of her house. Me? I bought more cattle. I can’t pretend at the time that I understood why she felt the need to move away and yet still remain so close; but over the two years or so it took for her house to be built, I had plenty of time to at least get used to it.
Years later, when Lisbeth had died of the cancer she’d lived with for years, I became the caretaker of her house. While she’d lived there, I’d rarely visited it, but when she didn’t any more, I became…no, not the caretaker. More the curator. Her house is how she left it seven years ago, so shut your eyes, constant listener, and let me take you on a tour.
In the kitchen, you’ll notice the metal sink, with the marble surround. In the sink, there is a red bowl for washing pots, cracked slightly around its rim. The pantry contains tarnished, copper pans and tiny pots of unopened jam.
The living room has two, floral sofas with embroidered scatter cushions, depicting hunting scenes. On the walls, glass shelves hold vases, pottery gazelles, the horns of a stag.
The strawberry pattern of the curtains in the dining room still brings cheerful light in to the room’s stale greyness and the ironed pleats in the crocheted table cloth remain. Sometimes in early summer, I remember to bring wild flowers from the fields in to the room and I set the vase in the middle of the table, where I know Lisbeth would have placed it.
Even now, I tidy Lisbeth’s house, I curate the life she led. The end of the world is no reason for neatness and aesthetics to slip. I’m a creature of ritual, so I plump the cushions, I reposition the doll on Lisbeth’s rocking chair in the bedroom. I pick up the kaleidoscope from the nightstand and hold it to my eye. At the end of the tin tube, the beads shift and change, transforming the world.
I’ve never seen Lisbeth’s ghost in her house. I’ve never heard a sound from her, or caught her scent. I’ve only heard the drip drip of the tap in the kitchen, only smelt the bumptious odour of the bleach I use for cleaning the floors.
In the bedroom, though, no matter how much I smooth the pillows and counterpane, I can still see the impression of her body, the indent where she slept.
Back in my house, I sleep amongst the animals in the wooden building where the line between house and barn is becoming less and less distinct. A secret house, hidden by trees and mist and snow. The house walls are ochre, cracked and I sit on a hard chair by buckets of animal slop and grain. The air is ice, even indoors and the photographs on every surface are the pictures of ghosts.
The old cat sleeps in the basket and I know it won’t last much longer. It occurs to me that waiting for something to die is very close to waiting for something to be born. Process only. But until the end point, the cat looks at me with the largest of pupils. It’s not even that dark in the room, so its eyes seem to be compensating for the darkness inside it. It’s the price it’s paid for looking a ghost in the face.
Today, I can smell myself. I’m peppery and sour. Is this how fear smells? Out of the kitchen window, I can see the northern lights, burning violet, pink and green; but I’m tired of their show. Of their futile kaleidoscope.
The snuffles and bleats of the sleeping animals comfort me. Their scent is sweet and complex, the smell of the blood pumping round their bodies. And I’m a child again with Lisbeth, watching the snow fall on a long ago December night.
“Watch out for the icicle witches”, she’d said. “They’ll arrive next.” She wasn’t wrong, they arrived and they were hollow and glorious.
So constant listener, what is my confession? I must award your patience. My confession is loyalty.
I stayed in our family’s home. I adhered in a way Lisbeth did not. My father’s anger drove her out and even after he died, his violence haunted the hallway and ordered her to leave. She built a house and filled it with flowers, her tiny, fragile children. She lived behind the glamour of domesticity; she left so she could live.
But Lisbeth should have moved further away. Her house, only a stone’s throw from this one, ensured he could walk over to her house and suck the life out of her. He always came back though. He lives here after all. I can hear his footsteps in the hallway, the crack of his whip. But I stay here because I’m loyal. I always have been.
Now, at the end of the world, I’ve moved outside to my chair on the porch. Watching the sky change. Watching the stars raining down. I’m sky clad, like the warriors of old. But I’m a poor warrior, like I was a poor brother.
I look over at Lisbeth’s house and then I look over my shoulder at the door back in to my house and I have no idea which way is home.