The Still

At the base of a mountain, a glacial stream sweeps past the edge of a small forest clearing. Two teen brothers squat in the twilight, near a tangle of copper tubes and tin barrels, their close-cropped hair burnt to summer straw.  

Their half-naked torsos are bronzed and wiry, electric with the energy of invention and entrepreneurship. Leaning in, they drop to their elbows to stoke a fire with foraged tree-fall, poking the embers to even the heat at one end of the contraption, and rolling on their bellies to check progress on the other end.

They’ve been brewing for two days, peering at the steady, purified drip, and filling the hours with idle, brash talk of dreams about the near future:  sailing around to the neighboring fjord on the weekend, a hike in the mountains the week after. They discuss provisions, noting that resources are becoming increasingly scarce the longer the enemy forces occupy their homes and government buildings, and dirty their cobbled streets with their shiny boots and their loaded rifles.

The boys are still experimenting with the right mix and timing for mash, brainstorming sources for potatoes that are far enough around the bend to be converted to bootleg, but not so far gone that even the goats won’t touch them. Results so far haven’t made them more ill than they’d expected to be, and the potential of earning a little extra cash as the occupation continues outweighs the risk of being detected and turned in.

They’re young yet, early teens, and they focus in on the sail trip, the mountain hike, and the two potential girlfriends evacuated to a farm up north. Just perfect this batch, they murmur to one another, and they can romance those two sisters by the flickering light of this Midsummer’s bonfire.

They’re quiet for a bit. They poke the fire, and check the collector’s growing level of distillate.

One turns to the other, a grin stretched as wide as the freckles splashed across the bridge of his nose and high cheekbones. He crows, delighted in the notion of getting drunk as trolls and as rich as kings, if the brew doesn’t blind or kill them in the meantime. The other agrees and they both roll onto their backs and gaze up through the tree canopy. The stars twinkle, luminescent as quicksilver.

Here in the woods, where water dances over and through the bright sedimentary streambed, and the fire hisses and explodes with an occasional anticipatory pop, the young brothers are at least an arm’s-length from any real danger. There is certainly no need to look over their shoulder, to keep to the off-streets, to avoid mention of the radio hidden in their classrooms, or of the people who pass through their parent’s apartment by night, seeking safe passage to the border.

They note that their much-loved king and his family have gone into exile, but moan–just a little–at how far they will have to travel to visit their girls. They revel in the freedom from parents too busy and frightened to notice they’ve been absent from home for several days and nights, but grieve the hole left for lack of their mother’s red-faced tirade and their father’s approving grin, hidden under his mustache.

Still, their rucksacks hold enough bread and cheese for another night, a slice or two of spekeskinke, and a couple of eggs snatched warm from under a farmer’s hen, on their way to the clearing. The stream is endless and refreshingly cold. Behind them, their thin wool blankets drape awkwardly over the low underbrush, airing out.

Their canvas shelter, untethered along its bottom, undulates in the growing breeze.

Clouds gather and roll over the mountain top, shifting and belling down with what will be the icy chill of a long, cold rain. The boys will snatch down their blankets, secure the edges of the canvas shelter into an inverted “V” and watch, teeth chattering, as the fire is extinguished, the still is silenced, and the entire contraption is blown over and broken apart in the downpour.

Never mind, they’ll say. The bread’s not so bad soggy, and although the spekeskinke is slippery with rain and salt and smoke, it’s still tasty. As far as we know, we’re not just washable, we’re also dryable–it saves us time from having to bathe in the icy stream.

As for the still? The pieces can be gathered and rebuilt into something stronger than ever, once the storm passes.

We are entrepreneurs, they’ll say, clever with our noggins and our hands. What bootleg we can’t sell for drinking can be put to other, explosively flammable uses. We know someone who can get us connected with the underground.

They’ll think of the shiny boots and the loaded rifles, their occupied homes and the many friends and family broken and in the wind, in fear for their lives.

They will grit their teeth.

Maybe we should start rebuilding now, they’ll say, before the storm reaches its crest.

Bending their backs and lowering their heads, they’ll begin their plans.


© Liz Husebye Hartmann (2018)

8 thoughts on “The Still

    • Thank you, Greg!
      And in my family’s tree, spekeskinke is like basic vocabulary…it tastes that good (drooling as she draws up a shopping list for a run to Ingebretson’s).



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