The Ballad Of Sigurd Jorsalfare

Chapter 32



Ole came back the following Friday and the one following that and so on, schedule permitting.

Truth was, he’d never miss the visits if he could help it. He loved Rose and Harry passionately, perhaps even more than he loved Ruth.

Don’t say that!

OK, not more, but in a different way just as much.

Not as much, but very much, in a way only an orphan can love his adopting parents; in a way only one who never loved his own parents could love his adopted parents.

Keats, Yeats, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and pickled herring; Sibelius, Brahms, Rachmaninoff (Vespers only, please) and stuffed cabbage to die for, and roasted potatoes to kill for, and stewed quince and strawberry-rhubarb pie and lay me down, sweet Jesus, life has been good enough.

Harry would serve a Hassidic story with no resolution. Rose would return an anecdote involving a British Lord and the castle he’d given her as a token of his appreciation, or was it love?

Harry would offer a haunting wordless Hassidic melody he called a Niggun, a subversive instrument for pulling God down to earth. Rose would press her hands to her magnificent breasts and sing a horrid love song with a warbling soprano that would bring tears down Ruth’s face, laughing so hard she’d beg her mother to stop.

On their fourth visit Ole Magnus Gretten said: “I want to become a Jew.”

“Why?” asked Harry.

“Whatever for?” asked Rose.

“Really, you mustn’t,” said Harry.

“There is no need for that,” said Rose.

“I would strongly advise against it,” said Harry.

“Strongly,” said Rose.

“Does that make three times we’ve rejected him?” asked Harry.

“It does,” said Rose, “three times.”

“Excellent,” said Harry.

Ole stared at the two vaudevillians, then at Ruth, who remained silent and poker-faced throughout the exchange, looking out the window towards the sea, three stories down and across the street.

“I’m pregnant,” said Ruth.

Eleven Arnon Street was a corner building facing a quiet, modest park, lined by young trees whose trunks were whitewashed, providing the chastened saplings skirts of modesty. On the ground floor of the next building, unbeknownst to Ole, lived a revered spinster poet and her frail mother, comforting each other, meticulously naming their failing days as they tumbled away from them down the rocks behind the building to the water’s edge.

Mornings, the children playing on the sidewalk would squeal their guttural joy in their newfound language and negotiate the harsh sun light with reckless dexterity.

Evenings, the turtle doves would coo their song of songs in the branches, on the rooftops, from the balconies, as the wind stirred leaves and washed the city with a scent of salt and longing.

If you were to keep perfectly still those days, you would easily hear the sighing sea, the whispering souls of moored crusaders in the cooling air, the ticking of the Grandfather clock measuring the nearing steps of the never-coming Messiah.

“And?” said Rose.

Ruth shrugged.

“Does he make you laugh?” she asked Ruth, as though Ole were not right there beside them.

“He does,” said Ruth and smiled.

Rose nodded and straightened the silver and crystal Russian dish on the living room table. “There,” she said, “that’s better.”

Harry grabbed Ole and hugged him so hard Ole thought the better of his inexplicable hatred of tomatoes.

“How wonderful!” beamed Harry, “That means you’ll be getting married.”

“Yes, I do. I will. We will. We are,” said Ole so awkwardly, with such a magnificent lack of articulation, Harry wondered how the young squadron commander ever convinced an airplane to depart this earth.

“You have a lot of catching up to do,” said Rose to Ole. “You also have unfinished business. Take care of it.”

“He does?” said Ruth.

“Yes, he does,” said Rose.

Ruth looked at Ole, but he just lowered his gaze and stared at the carpet.

“I do. I will,” he said to everyone and no one in particular.

“Take care of him,” said Rose to Harry, “The bastards down at the Chief Rabbinic Authority won’t have much taste for this Viking, hero or not. Get him ready.”

Turning to Ole, Rose gave him a long, hard look: “We all owe you a debt of gratitude we’ll never be able to repay and my daughter is clearly head over heels for you.”

Ole shuffled like a little boy about to be expelled from school.

“This house will be the only plot of land upon which you will ever be accepted fully. Do you understand that?”

Ole stared right into Rose’s eyes, something he’d never done before.

“Out there you will always be the goy, the blond hero, the stranger. Make sure you really want that.”

Ole wondered why she seemed focused only on him, saying or thinking nothing about her daughter.

“I’m getting there,” said Rose. “You have a drinking problem. How bad is it?”

“It will probably kill me one day,” said Ole.

“Just make sure it doesn’t kill my baby,” said Rose.

“Yes, Mam,” said Ole.

Leaning over Ruth, Rose grabbed her face firmly in her hands and kissed her daughter on her forehead, desperately trying to ward off the impending plague.

“If you think love is the answer, you’ve been asking the wrong question.”

Rose turned and gave Harry the longest, saddest look he’d ever seen from his beloved. Then she turned back and said to her daughter, thrusting a spear, “you have always been my sweet, silly little angel. I can’t imagine life without you.”

She turned and walked towards the hallway and stopped.

“What will your parents think?” she asked Ole, turning her head over her shoulders, posing for a new oil painting, the idea just having just struck her.

Ole had never seen such a beautiful woman before. No one had.

Looking at her, Ole raised his hands, just a touch, in a quizzical gesture, as though he’d been walking through shtetle streets for generations, questioning his infuriating God, his perplexing teachers, his starving neighbors, his mute cow.

Rose smiled, recognizing a long lost friend, turned her head back and walked out of the room.

Audience over.