This text has been printed from storiesandnovels.com and is copyrighted by the author, Franz Jørgen Neumann. It can only be printed for personal enjoyment. No other use without express permission is allowed. Inquiries can be sent to email@example.com.
The memory of the howling stayed with Harold through the endless winter and the spring floods. Now, with the planting completed in his brother’s fields, Harold left the shore of Lake Mjǫrs and entered the forest with two days’ provisions. By traveling light, he hoped to have enough time to discover what they’d heard howling in the woods last season, when they’d run horses up here to pull out trees. His brother said it was wolves, and if not wolves, why disturb an unknown beast?
Harold heard nothing unusual during the morning, nor at noon when the thick wood grew dark with rain. He had planned to spend the night here, but the forest fed his imagination. The cold, and the sight of a distant bear, turned his thoughts to the fact that he could make it back to the farm by midnight. It was nearly all downhill.
It was then that a beast ran past, then circled back and bared its teeth. A dog. Then another and another, each growling, one howling. So this is what he’d heard last season. Harold reached into his satchel and brought out dried grayling and held it out to them. The dogs were pale brown, black, one with a curly gray coat that might have been white if clean. Their ears were nicked, their tongues marbled. A dog nipped the fish from his hand. The growling of the other dogs turned to whines. Harold followed them uphill and into the summer dusk, losing them often and having to listen to their distant howls and barks to find them again. Then, in a valley, the forest suddenly opened up to patchy fields of new stalks, dog trails weaving around stands of birch and thistle growing amid the grain. The sky was pink with clouds, and silent.
Harold had never heard of there being farms here, but over the next hour he spotted a half-dozen storehouses, their sides brown-black with time. Each settlement was abandoned, an entire valley left to the farmers’ dogs. Harold knew it was because of the Great Death; half the families around Mjǫrs had been taken, too. But the last grip of sicknesses were at least fifty years ago. Harold could only marvel that the farm dogs had survived, generation after generation, through the many winters of want, and that they had remained here, waiting for someone like Harald to return to the valley. He shared more of his provisions with them. The dogs’ tails wagged as though they remembered a kindness and purpose they had never been directly shown.
Harold bedded in the center of an old field. He stared at the faint stars in the pale night sky and imagined returning to his brother’s farm the next day. He wondered which dog he’d take with him as proof of his discovery that men like him had settled this valley once, and that it was still a valley that called for man’s effort. When he returned here to answer that call, it would have to be with a strong and willing wife. He slept soundly, with the contentment of a man who knows his future.
Jan and his daughter sat on a bench beside the Esso station, waiting for a mechanic to diagnose the reason for the check engine light on the dashboard of his daughter’s Opel. It was morning, clear, and they still had plenty of time to get to the reunion, even if it meant taking the train instead. Jan had seen his first tank in this valley, but his daughter had heard the story a dozen times so he kept it to himself. Maybe he would tell it at the reunion.
He was fourteen then, on an all-day walk from the lake to the family farm, when he heard the clattering of machinery. He ran from the road and into the woods and from behind the trees witnessed a German tank crawling north through the valley. The invasion smelled of exhaust and grease and darkness. He hadn’t thought the Germans would arrive so soon, especially since he’d heard that the bridges had been sabotaged. Just that morning, Jan had been in the company of hungry Norwegian soldiers who’d commandeered a shop and given him a bar of chocolate. The Germans’ arrival had felt at least days away.
Behind the tank marched troops, and behind the troops came an automobile pulling a farmer’s cart. In the cart sat two bandaged German soldiers, one holding a cake tray in his lap with half a cake remaining. He looked indifferent to his injuries. The cart was filled with looted packages, tins, and bottles.
Believing the convoy to be the extent of the invasion, Jan returned to the road after they passed. He was unprepared for the small band of German soldiers just around the bend. One pointed a pistol in his direction and Jan stopped and walked toward them as ordered. The soldiers were rolling two giant cheese wheels down the road. They made him help them, then tired of his pace. They searched him, took away the chocolate he had saved, then shoved him away. Not long after, two Norwegian soldiers on bicycles came onto the road from a side lane. They swept past him, one with an old Krag-Jørgensen rifle on his back that was practically rubbing the back tire, the other with nothing more lethal than a shovel. Jan shouted a warning about the Germans but the men didn’t slow. He ran after them, then heard shots. When he came around the bend, the bicyclists were gone. The Germans, too. The large cheese wheels lay on the road like tires.
Jan kept walking, hoping to reach the family farm by sundown but knowing it would be more like midnight. The bridge ahead had been destroyed, making for a rough descent into the gorge and worse coming up the other side. He couldn’t imagine how the Germans had managed to bring a tank and a car and a hundred men across. There was still thick snow at the bottom, but no tracks. By now, Jan was cold and sore. The Norwegian soldiers had commandeered his coat and his bicycle the day before and though he hadn’t faulted them then, he faulted them a little now.
Toward evening, Jan was again stopped by German soldiers. There were three of them and they had lined a dozen Norwegians up against the side of an old wooden storehouse where a stand of thistle was growing in the heat-shadow of the wood. It felt like the soldiers were waiting for him to arrive.
He recognized a farmer and a couple of the younger children, but none of the others. All the men had their palms up and against the wall, as ordered. A soldier took the women and children around the side of the building, out of sight, but not Jan. He remained with the men. The rough old wood was warm under his palms. He was thinking how they’d find nothing in his pockets when a soldier shot one of the men, then a second, then shooed the rest off with a warning to obey the curfew and to stop burning farms. Jan hustled away with the others, his ears ringing, his shirt stained, splinters in his palms. This was at the beginning of the occupation, when the Germans felt imperious, years before some of these same German soldiers went for lonely walks in the wooded valley and shot themselves rather than obey orders to head to the Russian front.
Jan came out of the past when his daughter handed him a wrapped sandwich: real flour in the bread; thick, overlapping slices of cheese; a fresh sliver of paprika brighter than blood. All from a petrol station. What luxury. He savored each bite and watched as a few caravans drove by. Germans again, but on vacation and more or less civilized once more.
When the car was fixed and ready a half hour later, he almost didn’t want to leave the Valley of Dogs, but to stay there in the sun, sharing a bar of chocolate with his daughter.
Miri reseated the capacitors on the grape harvester, then sent it down the row to pick up where it had left off. She noted a leak to the drip line at J5, then checked to see whether trimming and uprooting the end vines on row L5 had halted the dead arm she’d spotted. So far, so good. The weather station had stopped reporting humidity, so she walked the upper slope to where it sat, its anemometer spinning satisfyingly there at the vineyard’s edge.
Here, bunches of unpicked clusters still hung on the vines, the grape skins chalky and untouched, hiding the black beneath. She power cycled the weather station and looked out over the rows of green. The seasonal French and Spanish workers were down by Dog Valley Road, with more up on the far slope, manually picking where the grape harvesters had trouble navigating the terrain. So far, a decent year. Everything on this side of the valley would make it into wines for the German market. She snipped off the end of a bunch and put it in her pack. The grapes on the other slope, an older planting, were destined for the Poles’ more forgiving palette.
Satisfied with her rounds—and that no one was watching—Miri slipped out of the vineyard and into the forest of oaks; this wasn’t her first theft of a work hour to subsidize her little undertaking.
The ridge gave way to easy walking. Fifty years ago, a fire had swept through this valley and dozens of others, ending not far away along the western edge of Lake Mjøsa. Miri’s grandmother said that ash had fallen as far east as St. Petersburg. There were still slivers of spared spruce and pine, especially along streams, but the pines were dying of a bark beetle infestation that left gray spires among the green. Still, when she wanted to be alone, Miri hiked to these stands and tried to imagine the shade extending in every direction. It spooked her just as much as the thought that there had once been snow on the ground for six or seven months. It sounded medieval.
Following a deer path, Miri continued through the oaks and shrubs, the air pungent and warm. Here and there a tuft of grain grew, a remnant from farms that had once cultivated the land before the fire. She reached into her pack and plucked off a few grapes. Their sweetness made the back of her jaw ache. She came to the tarp, removed the stones she’d placed at the edges, and unwrapped the detector, a trowel, and a bit of screen. She extended the detector’s arm and carried it off a few meters to where she’d left off the day before. So far she’d discovered iron nails, a few coins, and enough unidentified bits of scrap to hold her interest. There was plenty to uncover from the early-century farms, but she didn’t care about burned antiques and blobs of melted plastic. Here, she’d stumbled on a much older farmstead, most likely from the late middle ages.
A half hour into her scan, the detector indicated something shallow and ax-shaped. Miri pressed her trowel into the soil but uncovered only a sharp stone. She stood up and began again, sweeping the detector over the dirt, back and forth. She found the act calming, meditative. When she was sweeping, she didn’t think about seasonal quotas, the weather, duties, transport, rot, fungi, employees, deer, badgers, or any of the thousand headaches that made it easy to forget that her job was to allow a vine to turn water, air, and soil into grapes. Operating the detector took her back to when she’d wanted to be an archeologist. She’d taken one class, then quickly concluded that a future studying the past meant bad knees and the endless pursuit of minuscule funding.
The scanner’s handle vibrated in Miri’s hand. She stopped, scraped through a layer of gray topsoil with her trowel, then went down past the layer of ash to an off-white thing the color of nicked roots, but thin, long, and hard. She pulled it free, poured a little water over it, and was left holding a comb. It felt like plastic, but it wasn’t plastic. It was ivory. Most of the comb’s hand-carved teeth were intact. She rewrapped the detector and her trowel and screen and headed back through the oak forest, reemerging by the weather station. Everything was as before, row after row, workers across the valley, grape harvesters whinging as they worked as programmed. Not a thing had changed, but as she ran the clean comb through her hair, she felt a shiver on her neck, and knew it would.