Be Not Afraid
Fiction by Arvind Dilawar
I came to in a stupor, sprawled across the backseat of Nora’s Volvo as we descended into the valley. The seven-hour red-eye from New York followed by the two-hour wait in Oslo’s Central Station before the five-hour train ride up to Åndalsnes had hollowed me out. Not to mention drinking steadily from JFK to the plane, to a train station bar, to the café car. Not to mention the bickering.
You seemed fine though, in the passenger seat beside Nora as she conducted a drive-by tour of her hometown. She laughed, actually, when you called it a town. It’s not big enough to be a town, she said. Some people call it a village, but it’s really just a valley with a few farms.
Nora took us in a loop on the one road that rounded the valley. To the north was the fjord, and south the lake, both fed by waterfalls cascading from the mountains hemming us in on the east and west. The fecund land in between was all birch forest or green pasture with a river running its length. You and I agreed: it was the most beautiful place we had ever been.
I drifted in and out of sleep on the drive to the only hotel in town—in the valley, I mean. The sun hadn’t set since we arrived in Norway, so it was very much a catch-sleep-as-catch-can situation. I remember waking up twice more: once when you, trying to whisper to Nora, called me a disappointing piece of shit.
The other time was when we were passing a church. It flashed by—a small, white-clapboard outpost standing alone before looming black mountains. The juxtaposition was so extreme, and I was so delirious, that I honestly thought I dreamt it. I actually did dream of it later, right before the wedding, while I was taking a nap at the hotel, while you were crying in the bathroom.
Drinks and sleep and tears aside, we looked good at Nora’s wedding. It’s a miracle what overpriced clothes will do to resurrect a person. We didn’t just look like we belonged, we looked happy.
The wedding didn’t happen at the church, which I took as further proof that I had imagined it. I didn’t dawdle on that thought too long though, as the ceremony was beginning outside of the hotel. You and I stood in the wings as lifelong commitments were made. I tried hard not to look at you, but noticed you crying. Everyone was crying, I told myself.
Halfway through the hours-long dinner in the hotel hall, after Nora had introduced you as her American friend who had traveled all the way from New York to be there, her new father-in-law made a speech in English. He toasted to the betrothed couple’s smiles and the good times that awaited them that night, which got a lot of laughs, but he soon swept that aside to ask them to steel themselves for the difficulties to come. It seemed to me that he was telling them to prepare for suffering—suffering for one another and suffering for themselves, together.
You were crying again, or you had never really stopped. I thought of you, on the inbound flight, after two Baileys to settle your nerves, how the mood had gotten the best of you and you asked, like a toddler with eyes wide open, when our wedding day would come. I slurped down the rest of my bourbon, ordered another one I didn’t need, and told you, our lives together up to that point be damned, but I didn’t believe in marriage. The rest of our journey to the wedding played out the only way it could: full of accusations and excuses, recriminations and threats.
But we had made it this far, through dinner and to the dancefloor without a scene we needed to ’fess up to. The music was insistent, the drinks kept coming, and as New Yorkers, we felt that we had something to prove to the Norwegians. We danced all night, trying to shake ourselves from us, it seemed.
Outside of the hotel, Nora’s father-in-law and I traded cigarettes, and I asked him about the church. He told me it was real, although more of a relic than a functioning house of worship. Above the altar, he said, was a 200-year-old painting of Jesus walking on water, the words “Be Not Afraid” in an arch above his head. That doesn’t make any sense, I said, who the fuck is scared of Christ?
Hours later, the sun was rising—or setting, who could be sure anymore?—in what looked like ribbons of fire streaming over the mountains. We took the only road from the hotel and eventually found ourselves outside of the church once more. It stood in a clearing surrounded by farmland, in the middle of the village—the valley, I mean.
We didn’t even make it to the church, just sat down at the edge of the field. We stared at it in the distance, as a light rain set in and a bottle of wine pilfered from the wedding passed between us. It was stark in its beauty, the small church, with its white walls weathered by harsher winters than we’ll ever know. Behind it stood the black mountain range, like a slab of granite that had fallen from the sky, thrust down after the raising of the church, as if God meant to belittle the builders.
I don’t remember exactly what we said—the drink and sleep deprivation and jet lag had hollowed me out again—but we agreed that it was a profoundly religious sight. It was a testament to the way human beings tried to eke out an existence amid the indifference of nature and in praise of what must have often felt like a very distant God. The epiphany was wound between the futility and the persistence.
I thought about the wedding and then I thought about us—and I think you did too, because after you slipped me the bottle, you held my hand. It was warm despite the rain, like that church must be every winter, like the rays of the sun that were striving over the mountains.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.