by Karl Ove Knausgaard
For the eyes, sight is simple. When an image is in need of perceiving, it is swept through the lens of the eye onto a light-sensitive membrane. The patterns of light that form the image are then turned into neuronal signals and delivered to the central ganglia of the brain. What is being perceived though, is harder to say.
I did not and could not possibly understand this at the time, as the doctor was holding me upside down and I was looking at the enormous expanse of blue tiles with white lines that stretched out below me in a long web. The cold room sent waves of shivers around my pruned, naked body. When he first smacked me on my bare bottom I bit my lip silently. The noiselessness of the room was unbearable. When he hit my bottom again I could not help myself, I cried out. The tears came pouring out of me. No matter how hard I tried, I could not halt their advances.
My father sat in the corner of the room, wearing a cotton turtleneck and rubbing at the cleft in his chin. Out of the window behind him, geese flapped in a V formation towards the amber-hued setting sun. At the sight of my crying he turned dismissively towards the window and gazed at the snow flecked roofs of Stockholm.
Two stern looking nurses grabbed me from the doctor and tucked me away into a small plastic box, lined with a warm blue blanket. When they turned back towards me I felt a horror well up inside of me like an electrical shock.
“No, that’s a pink cap!” I tried to cry out at them as they spoke, but they did not understand the Norwegian word I used for cap, which was a slight variant on the Swedish word. I felt embarrassment growing deeply within me, like a well that had become cracked and muddied. They slid the bright pink cap onto my head and swaddled me in a cheap blanket. What is happening to me, I thought. The tears kept raining down my face. I tried calming myself by singing my favorite song, O Man Rivå, as the more robust nurse slowly pushed me out of the room.
At first I could only look at the bright florescent lights and drab white ceiling above me. I knew I had pooped in my diaper and I wanted to examine it, to see what my first poop looked like, but I was unable to move my arms, legs, or the rest of my body, and I also did not have the necessary brain capacity to understand the poop. Undeterred, I wiggled my butt into it a little.
The sound of the screaming around me was like the roar of thunder in the night sky. I could hear Gunnar, Knute, Inger, and Katja all making their own distinct, incessant wailings.
“Wailing does not help, of course,” I said to the nurse walking through the room, but she did not understand my Norwegian accent. I reached up to my pink cap and did my best to try and cover it with my tiny hands.
Geir was stationed next to me for those first few days before he left. He had on a normal, blue cap. There was something about Geir, even then. How he could fan his fingers and lift his feet. The way he didn’t struggle to use his eyelids. Once he turned to me and slapped his hand against the clear plastic of his box. Unable to move, I did the only thing I could, I rolled my eyes to the side and stuck out my tongue at him.
“Are you crazy?” he said.
No, no, no, no.
I could not do anything but wiggle, so I wiggled.
“Oh Karl Ove,” Geir said. He turned away and practiced blowing bubbles with his lips.
A nurse came and took him away some amount of time later. She swaddled him in a blanket and lifted him to her plump shoulder. Before she left she turned towards me and held up Geir’s wrinkled pink face, wrapped in his cocoon.
“hej då!” She said in that chipper, enlightened Swedish way.
“Bye,” I said, rolling my eyes towards the window.
Nailed to the wall in a crude frame was an enormous replica of Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid. In between the moments I spent struggling to gain control of my most basic facilities I studied the painting. I was able to discern after a few minutes that it was not a real baby, as he was not moving and he was without depth. Once the two dimensional nature of the piece full displayed itself, I was able to consider it more completely. There was light in it from an unknown source of course, cast across his fat, small body. It was something that struck me as too symbolic. I turned to the opposite wall and noticed on it hung, oddly enough, The Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I took the painting in for quite a while, appreciating its intricacy and beauty. There it was on the wall without the desperate need for meaning found in the artwork of the southern renaissance that eventually led to the more abstract works of the modern era, which sits as art for arts sake, divorced of any concrete reality. Glowing in the warm light of inspiration, I waggled my arms up and down searching for anything on which I might make a brief note. Realizing the feat I had accomplished, I kicked my legs up and down in pure ecstatic joy.
I am Karl Ove!
My father entered the room with his long, strident steps. I immediately put my hands and legs down at my sides, keeping them tucked tightly against the soft wool of the blanket.
Looking down I noticed that I had shaken loose the bottom of my swaddling in all the excitement. Surely he would notice this, I thought. I searched around the small plastic box to see if there was another blanket I could use to cover the bottom of my feet. There was nothing. I stared nervously at the small holes that dotted the ceiling tiles above me. It was possible that I could swaddle the blanket around myself again, so that he would not notice. I would just need to teach myself a few more things about mobility. I shook each of my shoulders one at a time, first the left shoulder, then the right. With enough momentum I would be able to roll over and possibly tighten the blankets grip on me. Time was in short supply though, and he was approaching hastily. In a panic, I jerked my foot underneath the blanket as quickly as I could make it move, hoping he would not be able to tell the difference.
He looked down at me with his cold, icy eyes.
“Good morning Karl Ove,” he said.
“Goo goo ga ga,” I said. Realizing I could not speak, I was suddenly hit with a wall of shame. The tears began to flow again like a waterfall.
“Oh come now,” my father said. “Surely you are not crying over that?!”
O maaaaan Rivåååååå, I quietly hummed.
Translated from the fake Norwegian by Chris Messer, a fiction writer living in Brooklyn whose work has been featured in Post Road, No Tokens, The Fiddleback, and Radiator, and who currently works at New York Foundation for the Arts.
Previously: “The Home”