A washed out image of an angel at the top of the church-like rooftop of Tomba Emanuel, arms outstretched against a cloudy sky.

Chapter Nine: The Tomb

Melding til våre kunder: vær oppmerksom på stor avstand mellom tog og plattform. Please mind the gap,” the canned voice announces. As the metro lulls to a stop, a woman at the front of our carriage rises, punches the button and disembarks. The doors slide shut behind her and shortly after, the train gives off a high pitched, electric wheeze as it lunges forward again.

There are relatively few passengers, this being Sunday afternoon. In the coming months, however, once the snow falls, these cars will be packed front to back with bodies eagerly clutching their bulky skis. They’ll be impossible to maneuver around, in stark contrast to today. It will be standing room only, the dizzying air of anticipation only growing as the train ascends into the Oslo hills. The excitement will diminish the inconvenience. Domestic landscapes give way to forest, until the last stop where the passengers slowly pour out into the frigid air, like slush through a sieve.

I used to ride up along with my father. He was determined to make up for lost time and teach me to ‘stand on skis’, as Norwegians call it. And let me tell you, about the only thing I could properly do on skis was literally to stand on them. My father had given up on indoctrinating my poor American mother straight away, but he never gave up on the klutzy, pigeon-toed kid who inherited her blundering ways.

A beloved Norwegian pastime to rival that of skiing itself is applauding foreigners’ attempts to assimilate, while simultaneously laughing at them as they flounder hopelessly at the slightest curve and incline. Norwegians ski from the moment they can walk. But me, I was a new beginner at thirteen and clearly at a serious disadvantage. Nevertheless, my father kept insisting we go year after year. And well, I begrudgingly obliged him.

Despite being a linguist, he was never one to express affection in words. Sending his depth perception-impaired teenager barrelling downhill at unsafe speeds was one way he expressed his fondness for me. I understood that.

It was also he who first introduced me to Emanuel Vigeland’s Museum, which is where Kåre and I are headed right now.

About twenty minutes ago, my father sent me a message:

A message from Axel's father that says, translated from Swedish: Remember the eight mountain weather rule: Turn back in time, there's no shame in turning around.

The eighth Norwegian mountain weather rule. Turn back in good time - there’s no shame in turning around.

My academically oriented parents probably don’t seem the type to support their only child’s rockstar ambitions, yet he was the one who gave me my first guitar and it was he who taught me to play piano. Later on, he would offer me the advice that would advance my skills as a lyricist. I think he sensed that his awkward son, the target of so much peer torment, was fading. I imagine he was scared. So, he offered me a method of winning people over, despite my appearance. But more importantly, he gave me a reason to live. If anyone knows that it’s making music that sustains me, it’s him, and he likely senses what the act of throwing it all away alludes to.

If I were a better son, I would have made a trip up to Lillehammer and had my last supper with my parents. But I’m not. I can’t even manage to respond to a simple text. And they were wonderful parents. In fact, previously they couldn’t have been prouder parents. But all I’ve done lately is push away and disappoint; all I am is the drunk, depressed and pitiful son who drops by on holidays to put a massive damper on the festivities. Visiting them on my way out would only leave them with yet another gruesome memory of the mess I’ve become; it would only be cruel. Perhaps I’ll write a letter on the journey home, post it at the station. But they deserve better than that, better than me, and I deserve the sharp pang of guilt I get just imagining the crushing agony they’re gonna feel come Monday when they get that dreaded phone call.

“The next stop is ours,” I tell Kåre, who sits silently across from me, gaze turned out the window as the wealthy west side of Oslo rolls by. I don’t know how he does it. I still can’t look for long without becoming ill. As I zip up the hoodie under my jacket, I note how Kåre shifts his focus and observes me, squinted eyes fixated on the shirt beneath it.

“The next station is - Slemdal station,” the sterile voice from the P.A. informs us.

“Hey, isn’t that Micke’s shirt you’re wearing?” Kåre asks.

“It was Micke’s shirt. Now it’s mine.” I tug on my fingerless gloves and stand. “Come on. We have to exit through the front doors. The platforms are too short.”

He nods and follows me to the first set of doors. The metro stops and deposits us in one of the more dull residential zones in this town. Slemdal doesn’t seem like much. If not for the tomb, there’d be no reason to come here at all.

Kåre clears his throat as we wait for the train to leave so we can cross the tracks. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course. What do I always say?”

One corner of his mouth lifts as he once again recalls how I asked him not to ask that. “Isn’t it counterproductive to wear Micke’s clothes?” He focuses on his hands as he slips them into his leather gloves. As the train departs, he pulls at the wrist to adjust them one by one. “Doesn’t it make you sad?”

“No.” I step onto the tracks and linger there. “I only do it now and then. You know, special occasions.” I reach back to pull my hood over my hair, adding, “It’s comforting. Besides, you don’t have any idea what day it is, do you?”

“Please keep moving.” Kåre’s voice is suddenly hurried, brusque, head snapping back and forth as he glances hurriedly both ways down the line. The anxiety seems to rise off of him like steam, charging the atmosphere with jittery energy.

I give him a flat look. “The train just left.” The chances another train would come barrelling in the same direction mere seconds after the last without stopping are slim.

He persists. “Don’t make me push you.” He takes a deep breath, staring me down. The exhale is a nervous stutter when I refuse to budge. “Move!” Then he tacks on a quiet, but forceful: “Please.

I glance away briefly before dropping my shoulders, cocking my head to the side and serving him what I hope appears a reassuring expression. “I would never do that. Not in front of you.” I turn, shove my fists deep into my pockets, and move out of harm’s way. “As long as you’re with me, it’s never gonna happen. I promise.” Once safely on the other side, he closes his eyes for a second, breathing out through rounded lips as I repeat, “The date, Kåre. What day is it?”

At first he frowns. He looks down and to his right, as if he’s trying to elicit its significance. “Yeah, it’s the…” Then I watch his expression wilt as the realization sinks in. “Oh god, it’s not… was it today? It’s today, wasn’t it?” I nod. He swallows and cringes. “I’m so sorry. How could I forget? Of all people…”

“People are bound to forget.” My voice reduced to a whisper, I shrug and add, “It’s only natural.” I start off, past the closed coffee kiosk, climbing the hill up to the winding way. “I don’t expect anyone to remember it religiously like I do.” The air is damp and heavy, as if it might rain, and we aren’t carrying umbrellas.

“Yeah, but I was there. It ought to be etched into the back of my eyelids for eternity.”

We continue on in silence, the only sound the distant, muted hum of a car motor. A subtle breeze snatches up a few of the remaining amber leaves in the nearby trees and scatters them.

Finally, in a soft voice, I ask Kåre: “Do you still think about it?”

“I try not to. To be honest.” He holds out one gloved hand, palm up, as if testing for droplets, and briefly squints at the overcast sky. “That probably sounds cold. But I did constantly at first. Which drove me back into therapy.”

“Really?”

“Tch. Yeah. Hello.” His brow crimps in disbelief at my blatant obliviousness. “It was traumatizing for me too, you know.” Thrusting his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, he turns his attention to the branches above that buckle as the wind whips up, briefly tossing his hair and obscuring his face.

He must think I’m so self-absorbed. I guess I am.

I release a sigh and watch an old, beat up Saab as it passes us at the bend in the road. It can’t possibly be from this side of town; it stands out like a sore thumb.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to minimize… it’s just — you’re like the most stable person I know.”

“It’s cute that you think that.” He sniggers. When I glance at him, he’s shaking his head. “Either way, it’s perfectly reasonable for anyone to seek help after that.” He slows his step momentarily and screws up his face once more. “You never went to grief counseling, did you?”

“Nope.” The mere idea of it mortified me. “Someone slipped me a business card at the funeral. But - I didn’t go. I didn’t even call.”

“So, I guess you never made to that support group I told you about either…”

Support group? Are you kidding? How am I gonna go to a support group? I’m famous.” For all the fans who regularly divulge their deepest secrets to me, there’s few people on the planet to whom I can safely reveal my own. “Besides, how the hell am I gonna go around telling random strangers when I don’t even talk about it with my friends?”

“Maybe you should talk about it with your friends. It might help,” Kåre insists. “You could start with me.”

I notice my shoulders tensing up, a sensation that spreads. “Nah, I don’t wanna — make you relive it.”

“I can handle it.”

“Well, I can’t.” I tuck my head down and hold my eyes on the pavement, but I can still sense his eyes on me, prodding me, however gently. “I don’t want to. Not with you, not with anyone.”

“Okay.” I must admit I’m mildly stunned by his immediate acceptance. I guess the prodding part was only my imagination. “I’m here if you ever change your mind.”

All I have is an array of pixilated impressions from that night. Scattered pixels in a corrupted save. If I speak of them, I sort them; they grow tangential. Details may emerge. It might all come into focus and form a complete picture: one I never want to see again. My fear is that the more I talk about it, the more real it may become; as if merely putting words to the experience brings it into being. I won’t even think about it, and simultaneously I think about it all the time.

“It probably seems like I’m not even trying,” I mumble after a moment.

“I believe you’re doing the best you can.”

“I don’t think I am.” I sniff, glancing at him quickly from the corner of my eye. “But it’s cute that you think that.”

It suddenly occurs to me that we’re approaching the school, and with it, the statue. Even with my gaze trained on the ground as it is, I see it at the periphery of my vision. The statue that Micke loved, the one that made him roar with laughter the first time I brought him here. A bronze statue of a reclining male boar, its puny genitals exposed for the entire world to see, utterly out of place in this benign suburban landscape. “Sexy Pig”, he called it. He convinced me to take a picture of him lounging on the grass beside it, striking the same suspiciously seductive pose, albeit fully clothed. And excuse my crudeness, but that boar had nothing on him.

An segment of a page from Axel's scrap book. Four photos are lined up: An image of the tomba Emanuel with the angel at its apex, an image of Micke smiling with sexy pig, picture of the griffons on the face of the tomb, an image of the creator holding two limp babies aloft from the art inside the tomb. Axel's handwring reads: Oslo, June 2009. As you scroll the images bleach and lose color.

I had forgotten all about it. Now I can’t help but pull a bittersweet smile, try as I may to suppress it.

The statue doesn’t actually seem as sultry now as I remembered it. I guess it took Micke to make it comical. He was the master of making a spectacle of the mundane.

Kåre’s eyes follow my gaze to where it falls. On the pig. He chuckles lightly. It is ludicrous, considering the gravity of our current conversation. He gives me a soft shove. “Please don’t tell me this is your ‘favorite spot in all of Oslo’.”

“This isn’t where we’re going,” I say, issuing a dry laugh. “This is only a bonus feature.” I give a nod toward the intersection just ahead. “The main attraction is around the corner.”

“I was gonna say you’re really laying it on thick.”

“It was a coincidence, Kåre,” I say, setting off anew. “Just a… lucky coincidence.” I turn to step off of the curb and cross the street. “You and I are going to a mausoleum.”

He follows me over the road. “That’s… a little more morbid than I’m comfortable with at the moment. All things considered.”

“You’re a goth. You like morbid.”

“I’m not a goth,” he protests. Which per definition makes him a goth.

Okay, maybe I am a goth.

I pick up my pace as a series of larger drops start falling from the sky, with more soon to follow in their wake. “Anyway, it’s not what you think. But — if you thought that old pig was vulgar, you best brace yourself for the fresco you’re about to see.”

“Whatever it is, we had better run!” Kåre cries, abruptly breaking into a jog as the sky opens up and truly showers down upon us. I follow suit, overtaking him with ease, trotting ahead and leading the way, thankful that this morning’s headache has at least subsided. When I cast a glance over my shoulder back at Kåre, he’s covering his head with both arms to shield his hair. He’s laughing at the discomfort, at the rain, at the absurdity, despite it all, and I feel that bittersweet smile return. Try as I may to suppress it.

Once upon a time, the artist Emanuel Vigeland built a museum to house his life’s work. Before he completed the task, however, in a truly strange turn of events, he switched gears, completely bricked up the windows, and forged onward with the creation of a macabre tomb instead. I like to believe that Vigeland prepared for death with the same zeal normal people reserve for Christmas. Within that tomb, he painted a massive fresco from floor to ceiling. He called it, ironically, ‘Vida’, or life, making his own demise his greatest work of art.

Of death, he wrote: “When thus my hour is nigh, my body weary and my mind dull, let me then face the sun and quietly pass away.” His words resonate in my skull the entire way from the train to the heavy wooden door. As Kåre and I stoop to slide protective plastic booties over our muddied combat boots, it is my mantra: When thus my hour is nigh… when thus my hour is nigh…

It’s pitch dark when we enter, bowing under the low door frame, Vigeland’s black stone urn mounted above it like a ghoulish egg. The interior door eases closed behind us and sends out an eerie, cavernous moan that echoes through the expansive arched hall. The acoustics here intensify and distort the slightest sound, to a disorienting degree. Distant and disjointed voices, laughter from the guests in the next room, grow warped and hang on the stagnant air like the utterances of ghosts. Each footstep forms a flurry of whispers. The air is stale and repressive, such that each breath drawn seems labored.

From the outside, this tomb could easily be mistaken for a church. But as you approach, you immediately sense something is off. You start by noticing the lack of windows, the warped angel perched at its apex and gazing down on its visitors with wide open arms, yet providing little solace. Dual griffons guard its brick facade, a symbol of divine dominion, but they glare angrily in opposite directions, away from each other, as if caught in an everlasting grudge. Most of the art Vigeland created was indeed designed to adorn churches. But from this vantage point, within his mausoleum, I have to think the man must have suffered some kind of deep provocation. One that revealed to him the true face of his merciless god.

After a short period, my vision adjusts to the dim lantern light and life slowly reveals itself, along with all its traumas. It begins innocently enough. Nude lovers writhing in ecstasy, caressing and copulating in every conceivable manner. Women heaped upon each other in a lusty tangle of limbs and long, amber ringlets of hair, their abundant breasts bared with nipples blatantly erect. Babies birthed and suckling those once objects of sexual pleasure. Or stillborn and gray. Towers of human bodies clambering for the heavens in all aspects of joy, greed, distress, and perversion.

At the far end of the room, its focal point, the fresco takes a gruesome turn. What I take to be the creator erupts from an overwhelming mass of bodies, collapsed in impossible positions of repose, in various states of decomposition, their souls having fled from forms that once encapsulated them. Some still writhe, the final shudder before death. Atop the heap, awash in a perverse, golden light, the triumphant creator holds aloft two limp infants, one clenched in each terrible fist.

It continues. We’ve only reached the halfway mark.

Skin withers and cracks. Lovers collapse and become corpses, become bones, languishing in hell for eternity. Two bodies in the throes of passionate lovemaking lie atop a mound of skulls, blissfully unaware of the skeletal specter that arises above them, holding up their shrieking offspring as if in offering. Finally, piles of human flesh, wretched shapes amass to make an obelisk ascending like the Tower of Babel or the accursed smokestacks of Dachau.

The longer we wander in darkness, the more misery and despair come to light.

I follow closely behind Kåre, whose visible awe betrays the solemn sense of sorrow that has settled over me. I knew he would share my appreciation for the tomb’s macabre beauty. He looks as I must have on my first visit. When I was equally naïve.

I’m troubled by an intense desire to hold his hand. It comes on like an instinct. I want it so badly that I can almost feel the softness of his palm against mine. But somehow initiating the act seems vulgar. Especially here. Besides, to take his hand would be to start something I’ll never finish. Now I’m sober and I can see how unfair it is to him. So I follow several measured steps behind.

My mind wanders back to the griffons on the exterior. They say griffons mate for life. Should one perish, the other lives out the rest of its solitary existence until it too passes on. When we got engaged, Micke got a tattoo of two griffons on his chest, just over his heart. Although I’m not the kind to get inked, I romanticized the sentiment. I committed myself to Micke for life, not only for his, but for the duration of my own. Now, as a widower, standing alongside the man whose limbs I slept entangled in last night, I experience a shame that swells and overwhelms me. It stirs up a deep remorse, and I bitterly admonish myself for merely fantasizing that our fingers were entwined.

Eventually we reach the two entwined skeletons that serve as one of the fresco’s final focal points. Still wrapped in the embrace of lovemaking, lost in passion, a spectral mist rising from their entangled form. Love is eternal, but the flesh is mortal. Death catches us off guard. Lovers are stolen, fragile bodies snatched skyward in a billow of smoke. Vida herself is both divine creator and destroyer. Loving is redemption and damnation.

When I die, I will not be reunited with Micke. We will only meet again in my memories. Once I’m gone, the memory of us will perish, too. Each synapse that recalls how we were will wither and decay without a spark to reignite a painful past. There will be no reunions, but there will be an end to this suffering. The constant ache in my chest, the stifling inability to even breathe without him, the suspicion that I am merely animated and no longer truly alive - it’ll all be gone. That is enough for me.

When I last walked this room, Micke’s hand was in mine. Perhaps it’s his hand I imagine, that I pine for now. No, he had the heavily calloused hands of a drummer. Micke’s hands were rough, strong, but still capable of such tenderness in their caress. What I wouldn’t give to be touched by those hands again.

This place was less sacred then. It carried none of the meaning it does today.

I could have saved him. The opportunity was there. But instead, I wrote him songs. That’s the irony of it all. For all the people compelled to tell me how I saved them with my music, I could not save the one person I intended them for. Micke needed a hell of a lot more than a song.

I watched him drown. And now that it’s me who’s drowning, I understand how futile, how absolutely offensive it all was. To be in dire need of a life preserver and some asshole on the shore whips out his guitar to sing you to safety.

Over and over, I failed to act. I looked away every time, and I failed him. Because I was so afraid of losing him. And I lost him anyway, in the most horrifying way imaginable.

The room is suddenly free of tourists. Kåre and I stand alone. Alone together, nearly shoulder to shoulder, with a person-shaped crater between us.

“Are you okay?” he asks in a hushed voice. I wonder if he notices the tremor overtaking me like an aftershock from the night before.

The whimper of a wounded animal escapes my lips without warning and in this ambiance is amplified, echoing wall to wall, oppressively loud. It takes on a spirit of its own and rages around the room. I perceive Kåre’s hand at my back, the slight stroke of his palm which is meant to comfort but feels curiously caustic.

“I could have stopped him.” My voice is but a yelp. I cave in as if my spinal column were slowly crumbling, curving, resisting his touch. My lungs seize, rendering my words unintelligible. “I should have done more.” If anything, I drove him to it.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Kåre whispers. The acoustics transform the sound into the fluttering of birds’ wings, tugging me up from the abyss. “You need to know that it wasn’t your fault.”

Then he takes my hand and leads me out of the darkness.

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