Fighting with Father
I walked through the ground floor and through the hall and the living room, and the door was wide open and gave on to the patch of grass behind the house. He was sitting in a shabby chair with his back to the door, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands hanging limply down over the stone tiles below. He had a Rødmix cigarette poked between his lips, it had a slight curve and opened at the end like a trumpet and must have been rolled with his mind elsewhere, but he wasn't smoking. The cigarette was just hanging there.

He didn't turn when he heard me come, for surely he heard me come. I stopped behind him and said:

"What the hell. Have you been fired."

I shouldn't have said that, and a hammer struck a bolt, and the bolt was was jammed and could not move either way, there was no turning back. Slowly he got up. I stood firm. I was breathing though my mouth, quickly in and out, I had been running for two years, ever since my mother disappeared. I stood there. He turned, and a surprisingly blind expression crossed his white face, which in any other situation, with any other face would have moved me. It is true, there was a confusion there that I had never seen on my father before.

Gently, almost, he held my arm and led me into the living room. Then he closed the door carefully behind us, turned and suddenly he started to shove me around the room among the little furniture we had, and each time I was sent flying, he came after me and punched me hard in the shoulder and the throat and hurled me against the wall, where my head smacked against the panel, and it was shocking that he didn't use his boots. I wasn't prepared, and I thought, think, think, think, and then it came to me that I could get through this if I feigned it didn't hurt, that what was happening to me was happening to someone else. I had heard it might work, and he yelled at me.

"I'll shut that goddamn mouth of yours," and he turned on me with a fury I hadn't witnessed before. There was nothing that could hold him back, and he sent me smack against the wall again, and the air flew out of my mouth in a groan drawn from the farthest reaches of my body, but I didn't want to feel anything, and I didn't want to hear anything, and I filled my head with a dream that my father could not see, and it worked, it truly did. I rushed into the dream, and he thought we were in the same room, in the same house, but I was somewhere else entirely, and I feigned there was no pain, in my face, in my arms and chest, and I sailed away and dreamt I wasn't there, and in the dream a wind came through the room, it blew across the field, it blew through the woods and the sound of it was so loud there was nothing you could hear but the wind, and Jim came flying in the wind. And he was singing to me in the wind, and wind and song were the same, and I am not kidding, he sang:

    The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
    He makes me down to lie,
    In pastures green,

and other songs his mother had taught him, Christian hymns about angels singing, and the wind left my skin both numb and lukewarm, not cold, not hot, as you might have expected, and I couldn't have told one from the other. And he who always used his boots when he punished us, he was punching me now, but inside my strange intoxication I was not afraid of him any more. It was time for celebration. He could hit me and hit me, and what I feared would soon be over, and then there was nothing else he could do except to kill me.

And then I rushed out of the dream as quickly as I'd rushed into it and felt his fist hit me in the eye with a sickening sound, and it closed up, and through the other I saw [my sister] Siri entering the living room from the hall. She stood in the doorway staring at us, her mouth open, and with my left arm covering my face I pointed to the stairs with the right, and he hit me with such a blow to the chest that it sent me flying over the chair that was standing there, and my elbow hit the edge of the coffee table, and the table fell over, and the chair fell over, and Siri ran upstairs. I quickly rolled over on the floor in case it was the boot again, but then he put the chair back and sat down breathing heavily, his elbows on his knees. He stared straight at the wall. Slowly, I rose on to my knees. He kept staring at the wall. I felt such such a pain in my side that the air wouldn't go all the way down into my lungs, so maybe a rib had been broken. And I was a one-eyed boy, and it was hard to find my way, the hot blood flowing from my brow over the eye that was completely shut now and down over my cheek. From the other eye something salt and shiny was coming, and with my tongue I could taste I was crying.

On all fours I found my way to the stairs and then up, step by step, and I swear there were more of them now than there used to be.

Siri was standing in the doorway to our room. She said:

"Tommy, what are we going to do now."

I wasn't able to answer, I stood up to my full height, my neck hurt, and my throat, where his fingers had squeezed and held me against the wall while he beat me.

"Under my bed," I said.

She went into the room, across the floor and knelt down to look under my bed. There was only one thing there. She backed out with her behind in the air and got up with the bat in her hand. I had been the best in the school at rounders, I hit the ball hardest, I hit it in the meat every time on its way down and it flew out of the school grounds and all the goddamn way into eternity where no one could find it.

"Is that such a good idea, Tommy," Siri said. She was twelve years old, I was thirteen and a half, fourteen soon. We were older than that.

"I don't know,' I said.

I walked towards the door, and then she said:

"Can I stay here meanwhile."

"You just stay here,' I said.

He was still in the chair. I am sure he knew I was coming, but he didn't move at all, and then I was behind him, and I just lifted the bat over my shoulder so my knuckles touched my ear and with all the strength I had left, I struck out in a fierce blow and hit his leg, the kicking leg, and it broke with a sound I can still remember. And even though he was sitting well back in the chair, he fell forward, over his knees and down on to the floor, and he rolled around and lay straight out on his back. He didn't reach for his leg although his ankle was bent at an unheard-of angle, an angle never seen, and he did not make a sound, not a sigh, not a groan, and I fell to my knees and held his head and said:

"Does it hurt, Dad," and then I said: "Daddy, Daddy, does it hurt a lot," I said, and I didn't even know why he was at home that day, when he should have been at work. Perhaps he had been fired, what did I know, for something that was not his fault, or perhaps he finally had kicked one of the drivers out of his seat, one who had deserved it. One who had always looked down on him because he couldn't rise to the place behind the wheel, as the drivers had, and ride the shiny dustcart, but instead toiled his guts out on the roads with one bin on each shoulder and was the strongest man in the district. And he had been alone with us for almost two years, and now we were celebrating Whit as we always did, and although it wasn't much to brag about, still the lilacs were in bloom and their fragrance was drifting from house to house, and perhaps he had kept it a secret from us what had really happened that day while we were at school, or the day before. It could have been many things. I didn't know, and I hadn't asked.

I sat on his bulging chest with the broad shoulders between my legs and my numb, red and grazed hands against the ears either side of his square head. He lay quite still and looked quite small where he lay, quite short, shorter than me, even, I hadn't noticed until then, and his eyes were squeezed shut, and I had smashed his ankle with the bat, and he smelt faintly of garbage, and I thought, it's an honest job, someone has to do it, or else it will pile up and stink in the heat, but I couldn't take the smell any more. It made me feel sick and confused, it lay swathed mummy-like around his body, the filthy bandages from top to toe, around his boots in layer on layer, for ever and always.

§   §   §

I stood up, put the bat down on the floor beside his smashed leg for everyone to see. And then I called Siri.

She came down the stairs. She was crying and smiling and was in the same state that I was in behind my one eye. She hooked her arm under mine, around my back, and I said nothing about the pain her arm inflicted as she tried to lift me the way we had seen in films when they helped the wounded soldiers from the trenches, and the war was won, but the battle lost, and she was too light, of course, and I was too heavy, yet we walked through the hall in that fashion, through the door and into the light, and the sun slapped me gently on my face and was still shining from the same blinding white sky as it had early this morning and had stopped in its course on this very special day when something was going to happen that everyone had been waiting for, and now it had.

--- From I Refuse
Per Petterson
©2015 Graywolf Press
Go to a
of the book
from which this reading is taken

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH