David M. Smith translating Unni Lindell

Red as Blood

       Gro called me a little while ago. She said she wants to leave her husband. She must be in love with me. “Come on over,” I said. I am alone at my office on Skippergata. She hasn’t shown up yet, though.
       Allow me to begin by introducing myself. I am thirty-eight years old. A naturopathic physician by trade. My name is Henry Marstrand. I am tall and strong and dark. I would deny that I am a nerd. Even if it would seem I have certain of those characteristics. When I was on a radio show last year, I heard my own voice: it was metallic, as though I were rattling off the words and stopping a second after each one. But that’s just how I am.
       I was educated at a naturopathic academy in Germany. It’s been nine years since I opened a practice in Oslo. Though Skippergata is in a bad part of town, for the moment I’m having to stay here.
       Right now I’m sitting in my office. A few moments ago, I took the elevator down to go out. I had the present for Gro under my arm, a long, red silk scarf, neatly wrapped in grey tissue paper. It will look good on her. But then I had a touch of agoraphobia, it seemed, for I was unable to go out into the street. So I took the elevator back up, and now I am sitting at my computer, going through the list of my patients. Gro is one of them. On the opposite wall, there is a poster showing an enlarged eye, which is divided into homeopathic regions. The blood vessels on the eyeball are prominent. The pupil is surrounded by the iris, and each region in the iris corresponds to an organ of the body. I can therefore diagnose people by looking them in the eye. I use an instrument that enlarges the iris, making the regions stand out clearly on my computer screen. A discolored, cloudy field points to a specific organ of the body. I use somewhat old-fashioned work methods, try to see the whole of a person. Conversations with the patient are important for getting at the whole picture, though I am perhaps not the best at talking to people.
       I prescribe homeopathic medicines on special slips. Elements deficient in the body. Micro-amounts of substances in sugar pills that the pharmacies sell without a prescription. They might contain zinc or selenium, as the case may be. Even viper venom can, in small doses, heal the body in certain sorts of people.
       No homeopathic remedy is dangerous. Quite the opposite. A child in Sweden took his mother’s sugar pills by accident. Nothing happened. The kid didn’t notice a thing. But that doesn’t mean the remedy is ineffectual. The secret is that it is merely an individual remedy, tailored to one specific patient. You might almost compare it to computers. A special system is needed in order to give the correct signals. That’s how it is with the body. A substance that has been adapted for the patient will get a response from the body. Any substance the body lacks is absorbed immediately.
       It is ten past ten, and dark outside. The waiting room is empty. The fluorescent tubes in the ceiling give off a white light. The chairs are set out along the wall. The heap of magazines lies on the table. The grayish-green curtains are dirty. I don’t know why that occurs to me now, for it is only during the day one sees the dust. I am tired. I stack the magazines in a neat pile. These are not ordinary weeklies, just health magazines.
       My cell phone rings back in my office. I go inside and pick it up. “Yes, uh huh, I’m here. Fine. No, I’m not coming home. Of course I’m alone. Come and see for yourself? The door’s locked. But go ahead, come. Good night.”
       The silence rushes in on me. I hear a far-off streetcar. And the cable of the elevator starts to whistle inside the wall. The elevator does not stop at my floor, just keeps going up. No one coming here; they are probably on their way to the architects on the floor above. No one lives in this building. Someone is probably working overtime up there.
       That was my mother who called. She is seventy-five. Grey-haired, small and lean and enterprising. Inquisitrusive, as I call her inwardly. She calls me several times throughout the day—and the evening—to find out where I am. She wants me to move back home. I don’t want to. She calls me at night, too. If I put the phone on silent, the light wakes me up, flashing on the wall like an emergency vehicle. She is a Christian and stays busy with work in her congregation. A grey, old puss. But she was once a beautiful young woman. Beautiful, with a swarm of admirers. I’ve seen the photos from those days. I have no father. My mother says he is dead.
       She loves me. A very unique mother-son relationship. We used to go on road trips in the summer. She drove. I got my license when I was eighteen. After that, I was the one that drove. I was usually obedient. If I wasn’t, she became hysterical. She would step onto the veranda of the apartment complex where we lived on the outskirts of town, and scream her fury for all the neighbors to hear. Having no choice, naturally, I gave in fast. But she could also have her very good moods. And then we enjoyed one another.
       When I was twenty, I met Becca. I took her to the movies. My mother thought I was sitting in the reading room at the library. This was before I left for Germany. She found out. My mother then of course marched up to the venerable reading room one day. I wasn’t there. A fuss was raised. I promised to stop seeing Becca. I never got to kiss her.
       When I was twenty-two, I met Marianne. She was nineteen. We kissed in the dark inside her apartment. But that wouldn’t last long either. My mother followed me and caught us.
       I was punished. She took away my key. I had to be back in by ten every night. It didn’t really matter that much. What would I be doing out there anyway? Sometimes we went to the movies, my mother and I. I felt her eyes upon me in the dark.
       Eventually I left for Germany. My mother cried at my departure, but understood it was necessary. When I came back, she was proud. I graduated from the academy at the top of my class. In Germany, I met Gisella. She was thirty. I got to see her naked, and we slept with each other.
       My mother never found out about that. She had prayed for me while I was gone. I was interrogated the entire first evening when I came home, but managed to keep my mask on. “No,” I said, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
       “Look me in the eyes,” she said. I met her cold gaze, stared into the shiny, pitch-black pupils, and repeated that I was innocent.
       She is not all well, my mother. Too much acid in the body. She is too suspicious and enterprising. But God knows how much she loves me, and how nice she is at bottom. So I began giving her treatments, small doses of snake venom. It contained the same thing her body had had too much of before, and would make her calmer. In large doses the venom is of course harmful, but not in small doses.
       She got better for a while. Then she didn’t want to take the pills anymore. Now I can hear the elevator cable whistling behind the wall. The architects on the floor above are probably going home. I am alone in the building.
       My patients are mostly women. Of course, a man will stumble in every now and then, but men are more exacting patients. Most of the women I’ve treated are satisfied. Almost all of them have seen their situation improve, whether it be menstrual cramps, childlessness, bulimia, fibromyalgia, or stress. I feel like a benefactor. A good feeling.
       Gro is one of my patients. A lovely lady of twenty-six. Her eyes shone at me when she came for her first consultation. She was already married. We got to know each other better. I fell in love with her. And she fell in love with me. The medicine I gave her worked. She became calmer, she said, happier. I began working overtime. We made love on the green couch at the office. Gro has a firm, fine figure and lovely long hair. My heart beats faster when I think about her. One afternoon, however, my mother was sitting in the waiting room when Gro left the office. My mother was wearing her velvet hat, and her bag lay in her lap. Gro just smiled, walked out, and took the elevator down. I didn’t see any more patients that day.
       A week later, we were almost caught. My mother suddenly rattled at the locked door. “Henry!” she shouted, “I know you’re in there.”
       Gro gathered her clothes in her arms and crawled naked under my desk. I put my clothes on, opened up for my mother and sat at the desk. “What’s that smell in here?” said my mother. Gro was tickling my calves. My mother closed her eyes. “What’s that smell?” she repeated. “Nothing,” I said and glanced at the computer screen. Gro was laughing so hard, I noticed, she shook. “It smells like sweat in here,” said my mother. “I’m working,” I said. She got up, went to the cabinet, and opened it. “What are you looking for,” I asked. Books and papers were in it, as well as the present with the grey tissue-paper wrapping, but that was on the top shelf, so she didn’t see it. She closed the cabinet and turned towards me. “Have you been doing things with yourself?” she asked. “If you’ve sinned, you need to pray forgiveness.” Then she left.
       “My, she’s sick,” said Gro afterwards. She got dressed quickly. Two days later, my mother caught us red-handed. She followed Gro and found out where she lived. She rang the doorbell and told the husband everything. Gro called me in tears. I was furious. More than I’ve ever been in my whole life. I’m thirty-eight years old.
       But we have sinned. For we are not married, Gro and I. I agreed with my mother there, in spite of everything. She punished me. I was locked inside my room last weekend. That’s when I decided to move out. And now I’m staying here. At the office. I have been sleeping on the couch for nine days, and I am exhausted. I mean, Gro is in love with me, but I think my mother loves me even more. She came by this afternoon and implored me to move back home. I said no. I’m an adult.
       I have taken the light-grey package out of the cabinet. It contains the silk scarf, red as blood. The gift is on the desk, waiting. Just as I’ve decided to go outside again, to try to conquer the agoraphobia and get out a little, I hear the whistle of the elevator cable. It’s going down. Someone is coming up. I look at the clock: 11:05.
       I sit behind the desk and wait. Before long, the door opens, and there she is. I stand up and hand her the gift. She takes it and looks at me. “It’s for you,” I smile. “Everything will be alright from now on.”
       She opens the present and takes out the red silk scarf. I can see she likes it. The color looks good on her. She is happy. “Everything will be alright,” I repeat, and she nods as she puts her hand up to her chest. “I’m glad,” she says, and walks over to me. I put my arms around her and tell her I’m tired tonight. She understands. I wind the scarf around her neck and follow her to the elevator. The mirrored panel inside reflects the narrow shoulders under her beige coat as she turns to the opened doors. I smile at her. The doors are about to slide shut. My fingers are holding on to a corner of the long, red silk scarf. It gets caught between the doors when they close, and I let go. She presses the button, and the cable starts to drone. Then it all happens very fast. A violent jerk and a thud when her head strikes the ceiling and the elevator stops. The scarf will choke her quickly. She’s likely already dead. The alarm howls, triggered automatically. I yank at the door, but cannot open it. I go into my office and call the police. I say there’s been a terrible accident. They tell me they’re on their way.
       I try to work some sorrow into my face. I’ve got to look sad and in shock. That I can probably manage. For she did look ever so puny, standing there all alone inside the elevator, in the neon light with the red scarf around her neck and the bag dangling from one hand. Before the door slid shut. That is the last picture I have of my mother. An image that will be forever burned into my retina. Now to call Gro and tell her about the accident. And with that, my life begins. 

David M. Smith

David M. Smith is a translator from the Atlanta suburbs. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and a Humanities MA from the University of Chicago. His book reviews have appeared in Contrary Magazine, and in 2014, he received a National Translator Accreditation from the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. He has worked as a professional translator for several years, and this is his first published literary translation.

Unni Lindell

Unni Lindell is a Norwegian author from Oslo. Since 1986, she has published novels, short fiction, poems, and children’s literature, in addition to her bestselling crime fiction. Her 1996 novel, Serpentarius (Slangebæreren), marked the first appearance of her fictional detective, Cato Isaksen. The Isaksen series has so far comprised ten novels, in addition to several film adaptations. Among her many prizes and awards is the 1999 Riverton Prize, Norway’s highest honor for crime literature, for her novel The Dream Catcher (Drømmefangeren). “Red as Blood” (“Rødt som blod”) appeared in her 2015 story collection, My Mother Has a Pair of Scissors in Her Back (Min mor har en saks i ryggen).