The house the woman who claimed to be her grandfather’s sister lived in was a large white-painted wooden mansion up the Holmenkollen hill. As they drove to the address Stig commented on how expensive properties in the neighbourhood were.
“This is where people with two cars, a boat, and a cabin on the mountain live,” he said, not even trying to conceal his obvious contempt. This was a trait in Norwegians she still had some trouble understanding. Most people seemed to look down upon the very wealthy, mostly it seemed because the very wealthy looked down upon everyone else. Something about the Law of Jante and an attitude of not believing you were more important than anyone else. She commented that her family had three cars but Stig brushed it off pointing out cars in Norway were three or four times more expensive than in North America, or so he’d been told. She’d seen the prices for cars here and knew his estimate was too low. Her father’s car cost six times more in Norway than back in Vancouver. It was a wonder anyone could afford to drive here at all.
They parked on a narrow street and entered a large garden buried under the snow through a white picket fence. There were elaborate crochet curtains in the windows and the warm glow of lights flooding out from every room. As they stepped up the stairs to the front door, it opened as if on its own accord. Behind it, a woman well into her senior years greeted them with a broad smile.
“Julia! Welcome to my humble home. I can’t tell you how happy I am to finally meet you.”
She gestured for them to come inside and closed the door to keep the cold out as soon as Stig was over the threshold. The three of them stood in the small mud room for a moment, an awkward silence pressing down making Julia feel smothered. She quickly removed her gloves and stuck her hand out in a formal greeting. Director Thoresen had told them the woman’s name was Maren, pronounced Maah-rehn, but Julia chose to address her by her last name:
“Ms. Orfoss. Glad to meet you.”
The woman looked at her hand in confusion, then smiled slyly and took it with a firm grip that hinted at years of formal meetings and power struggles.
“My apologies dear. We have only just met, and you don’t know anything about me. Pleased to meet you too. And your companion, what is his name?”
She looked up at Stig whose awkward face towered over them both.
“Stig,” he almost coughed the word, then cleared his throat and put out his hand to meet hers. “Stig Matiasen. Takk for invitasjonen.”
The woman shook her head minutely.
“Tsk tsk my boy. Let’s keep to English today so our friend Julia does not feel left out.”
She winked at Julia and opened the inside door of the mud room into the house proper. Julia and Stig made quick work of shedding their winter layers and boots and followed the old woman inside. She’d been in similar houses before, most of them used as student collectives, but this one was unlike any she had visited. Everywhere there were bookshelves and tables and wall hangings displaying carefully organized treasures and nicknacks. There was a Chinese vase, a wooden elephant the size of a large dog, oriental rugs on the floor, vibrant paintings on the walls, and in the formal dining room they were led into, several glass-fronted cabinets filled with fine crystal ware and china. The woman gestured for them to sit down at the table before seating herself along with them.
As if on cue, a young man entered with a tray carrying coffee, mugs, and small cookies. Julia felt like she had seen the man before, but it was only when Stig spoke she put the pieces together.
“Got into any more trouble selling teeth?” he said, causing the man’s cheeks to roll through several shades of darkening pink. The woman’s face lit up and she started laughing out loud, much to the man’s consternation.
“Oh, so you know about that whole affair? It provided endless entertainment during the Jul holiday. How do you know each other?”
Stig looked at the man who seemed intent on not saying a word. He cleared his throat and placed his arms on the table as if to steel himself.
“I was the arresting officer Madam.”
“Oh really?” the woman responded, laughing even more. Julia had to smile and the man, Thomas she remembered, was about to turn away. She stood up and reached out a hand toward him.
“Why don’t you join us?” she asked. The woman’s eyes widened and she gestured for Thomas to sit in the chair next to hers.
“Please Thomas, do join. You two are after all… cousins of some distant sort.”
Things were getting surreal for Julia and she did not like it. She squeezed Stig’s arm to anchor herself in reality and decided to face the obvious elephant in the room head on.
“Ms. Orfoss, director Thoresen says you claim to be my bestefar’s sister?”
The woman raised an eyebrow and glanced over at Thomas, then Stig, before answering.
“My my. She gets right to the point. Short answer my dear: Yes, I am Maren, your … bestefar’s sister. He was the youngest of four kids in our family, me being the second youngest. Our two older brothers Torkel and Einar passed away some time ago. Old age does that to people.”
Julia tried to take it all in, couldn’t quite make it fit.
“I’m sorry. You must understand this is all very new to me. Bestefar never talked about Norway at all other than to hint that bad things happened to him here. He never mentioned his family, even to bestemor or my father. This is the first time any of us have heard about siblings. If you don’t mind me asking, how do I know you are telling the truth?”
She knew it was a risky, if not rude, question to ask, but she felt as if she was walking into an elaborate scam, one she couldn’t see the outcome of. The woman pointed at a desk in the corner and said to Thomas “Would you mind grabbing the letter over there and bring it to me?” Thomas got up and retrieved an envelope handing it to his grandmother. She handed it to Julia and said:
“My dear. Up until a couple of years ago, I did not know about you either. Eirik was caught during the war and ended up in a concentration camp down south. At the beginning he sent letters, but toward the end we heard nothing. When the war ended, he was nowhere to be found and we heard rumors that he had been subject to secret medical experiments involving the madness. After years of searching he was declared dead, a casualty of war. There is an empty grave bearing his name in the cemetery if you want to see it.”
Julia looked at the letter. It had the name Maren Orfoss and the current address they were at written on the front in her grandfather’s elaborate handwriting. She opened the envelope and glanced over at the woman silently asking permission to take the letter out. The woman waved her hand dismissively and said “Go ahead dear. It’s for you. Well, it’s for me, but it’s also for you. It’s for everyone.”
Julia was about to take the letter out, but then she caught on to something the woman had said.
“He was subjected to medical experiments that had to do with the madness? What does that mean?”
The woman looked out the window, letting her eyes drift across the icy cold Oslo fjord toward the rest of Europe.
“My dear, there is so much you do not know, so much we need to tell you. Unfortunately there is not much time. That box over there,” she nodded her head toward a large wooden crate by the door they had arrived through, “contains the letters your bestefar wrote while in prison and the camp. It also contains all the research materials I accumulated throughout the years, on the medical experiments conducted at the camp, and about what they discovered. For the past fifty years I have worked tirelessly to make this information public, to tell the world what really happened and why the men and women who were subjected to these cruel experiments did not die in vain. Unfortunately I have not been successful. It is now up to you two,” she nodded first at Julia, then at Thomas, “to fulfil the work I started. That’s what Eirik wanted. The world needs to know. The world will be better for knowing.”
Julia sat in stunned silence. None of what the woman said made any sense to her. She looked over at Stig who was nodding hesitatingly.
“This is about sail, correct? This is about the princess and the sailmaker and Luna and …”
The woman waved him off.
“All in due time. Let our Julia have a chance to catch up.”
She grabbed Julia’s hands in hers, her skin smooth and cold to the touch. She looked her directly in the eyes and said, voice heavy with gravity,
“You must leave Julia. We have made a mistake that could put you in jeopardy. Your companion here holds the key to breaking the chains of sail in the painting you were working on, but our friend the director took it upon himself to steal the canvas before it could be unveiled. Until we decide what to do next, you will be safest back home in Canada.”
She hesitated and Julia saw liquid building in the corners of the old woman’s eyes.
“Julia, I wish my brother had not stayed silent for all these years so we could have known each other. As it stands, this will likely be our only meeting. I want you to take the crate. It is yours. I want you to take it with you and read what I have assembled. I want you to make up your own mind about what you will learn, and I want you to carry on the work started by your bestefar and me. I believe in you.”
She tapped her hands and let go, leaning back in her chair and looking suddenly ten years older. Thomas got up and poured his grandmother a cup of coffee. She drank it carefully and regained her composure.
“Now, before you go why don’t we make the best of our time together. Why don’t the two of you tell me how you met?”