Extract > An extract from The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas.

Unn sets off alone to explore the ice palace


The trip to see the ice had been discussed at school during the past few days. Unn had not taken part in it but had heard enough to know what it was all about and that they would have to go very soon, for the snow might come any day now . . . 



Unn was there for the first time. No one had asked her to come here with them during the summer. Auntie had mentioned that there was a waterfall, no more. There had been no discussion of it until now, in the late autumn at school, after the ice palace had come and was worth seeing.

And what was this?

It must be the ice palace.

The sun had suddenly disappeared. There was a ravine with steep sides. The sun would perhaps reach into it later, but now it was in ice-cold shadow. Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold. The waterfall plunged into the middle of it as if diving into a black cellar. Up on the edge of the rock the water spread out in stripes, the colour changing from black to green, from green to yellow and white, as the fall became wilder. A booming came from the cellar-hole where the water dashed itself into white foam against the stones on the bottom. Huge puffs of mist rose into the air.

Unn began to shout for joy. It was drowned in the surge and din, just as her warm clouds of breath were swallowed up by the cold spume.

The spume and the spray at each side did not stop for an instant, but went on building minutely and surely, though frenziedly. The water was taken out of its course to build with the help of the frost: larger, taller, alcoves and passages and alleyways, and domes of ice above them; far more intricate and splendid than anything Unn had even seen before.

She was looking right down on it. She had to see it from below, and she began to climb down the steep, rimed slope at the side of the waterfall. She was completely absorbed by the palace, so stupendous did it appear to her.

Only when she was down at the foot of it did she see it as a little girl on the ground would see it, and every scrap of guilty conscience vanished. She could not help thinking that nothing had been more right than to go there. The enormous ice palace proved to be seven times bigger and more extravagant from this angle.

From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky; they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.

There were places that the water had abandoned, so that they were completed, shining and dry. Others were covered in spume and water drops, and trickling moisture that in a flash turned into blue-green ice.

It was an enchanted palace. She must try to find a way in! It was bound to be full of curious passages and doorways – and she must get in. It looked so extraordinary that Unn forgot everything else as she stood in front of it. She was aware of nothing but her desire to enter.

But finding the way was not so simple. Many places that looked like openings cheated her, but she did not give up, and so she found a fissure with water trickling through it, wide enough to squeeze herself through.

Unn’s heart was thudding as she entered the first room. Green, with shafts of subdued light penetrating here and there; empty but for the biting cold. There was something sinister about the room.

Without thinking she shouted ‘Hey!’ calling for someone. The emptiness had that effect; you had to shout in it. She did not know why. She knew there was nobody there.

The reply came at once. ‘Hey!’ answered the room weakly. How she started!

One might have expected the room to be as quiet as the tomb, but it was filled with an even roaring. The noise of the waterfall penetrated the mass of ice. The wild play of the water outside, dashing itself to foam against the stones on the bottom, was a low, dangerous churning in here.

Unn stood for a little to let her fright ebb away. She did not know what she had called to and did not know what had answered her. It could not have been an ordinary echo.

Perhaps the room was not so large after all? It felt large. She did not try to see whether she could get more answers, instead she looked for a way out, a means of getting further in. It did not occur to her for a moment to squeeze out into the daylight again.

And she found a way as soon as she looked for it: a large fissure between polished columns of ice.

She emerged into a room that was more like a passage but was a room all the same. She tested it with a half-whispered ‘Hey!’ and got a half-frightened ‘Hey!’ back again. She knew that rooms like this belonged in palaces – she was bewitched and ensnared, and let what had been lie behind her. At this moment she thought only of palaces.

She did not shout ‘Siss!’ in the dark passage, she shouted ‘Hey!’ She did not think about Siss in this unexpected enchantment; she thought about room upon room in a green ice palace and that she must enter each one of them.

The cold was piercing, and she tried to see whether she could make big clouds with her breath, but the light was too dim. Here the noise of the waterfall came from below – but that couldn’t be right? Nothing was right in such a palace, but you seemed to accept it.

She had to admit she was a little chilled and shivering, in spite of the warm coat Auntie had given her when the wintry weather had set in this autumn. But she would soon forget about it in the excitement of the next room, and the room was to be found, as surely as she was Unn.

As might be expected in a narrow room, there was a way out at the other end: green, dry ice, a fissure abandoned by the water.

When she arrived inside the next one she caught her breath at what she saw: she was in the middle of a petrified forest. An ice forest.

The water, which had spurted up here for a while, had fashioned stems and branches of ice, and small trees stuck up from the bottom among the large ones. There were things here, too, that could not be described as either the one or the other – but they belonged to such a place and one had to accept everything as it came. She stared wide-eyed into a strange fairy-tale. The water was roaring far away.

The room was light. No sunshine – it was probably still behind the hill – but the daylight sidled in, glimmering curiously through the ice walls. It was dreadfully cold.

But the cold was of no importance as long as she was there; that was how it should be, this was the home of the cold. Unn looked round-eyed at the forest, and here, too, she gave a faltering and tentative shout: ‘Hey!’

There was no reply.

She started in surprise. It didn’t answer!

Everything was stone-hard ice. Everything was unusual. But it did not answer, and that was not right. She shuddered and felt herself to be in danger.

The forest was hostile. The room was magnificent beyond belief, but it was hostile and it frightened her. She looked for a way out at once, before anything should happen. Forward or back meant nothing to her any longer; she had lost all sense of it.

And she found another fissure to squeeze through. They seemed to open up for her wherever she went. When she was through she was met by a new kind of light that she was to recognize from her past life: it was ordinary daylight.

She looked about her hastily, a little disappointed; it was the ordinary sky above her! No ceiling of ice but a cold blue winter sky reassuringly high up. She was in a round room with smooth walls of ice. The water had been here but had been channelled elsewhere afterwards.

Unn did not dare to shout ‘Hey!’ here. The ice forest had put a stop to that, but she stood and tested her clouds of breath in this ordinary light. She felt colder and colder when she remembered to think about it. The warmth from her walk had been used up long ago; the warmth inside her was now in these small clouds of breath. She let them rise up in quick succession.

She was about to go on but stopped abruptly. Someone had called ‘Hey!’ From that direction. She spun around and found no one. But she had not imagined it.

She supposed that if the visitor did not call, then the room did so. She was not sure she liked it but answered with a soft ‘Hey!’ really no more than a whisper.

But it made her feel better. She seemed to have done the right thing, so she took courage from it and looked around for a fissure so that she could go on at once. The roar of the falling water was loud and deep at this point; she was close to it without being able to see it. She must go on!

Unn was shivering with cold now, but she did not know it, she was much too excited. There was the opening! As soon as she wanted one it was there.

Through it quickly.

But this was unexpected, too: she was standing in what looked like a room of tears.

As soon as she stepped in she felt a trickling drop on the back of her neck. The opening she had come through was so low that she had had to bend double.

It was a room of tears. The light in the glass walls was very weak, and the whole room seemed to trickle and weep with these falling drops in the half dark. Nothing had been built up there yet, the drops fell from the roof with a soft splash, down into each little pool of tears. It was all very sad.

They fell into her coat and her woollen cap. It didn’t matter, but her heart was heavy as lead. It was weeping. What was it weeping for?

It must stop!

It did not stop. On the contrary, it seemed to increase. The water was coming in this direction in greater quantities, the trickling went faster, the tears fell copiously.

It began oozing down the walls. She felt as if her heart would break.

Unn knew well enough that it was water, but it was a room of tears just the same. It made her sadder and sadder: it was no use calling anyone or being called in a room like this. She did not even notice the roar of the water.

The drops turned to ice on her coat. In deep distress she tried to leave. She stumbled along the walls, and at once she found the way out – or the way in, for all she knew.

A way out which was narrower than any of the others through which she had squeezed but which looked as if it led into a brightly lit hall. Unn could just see it, and she was wild with the desire to enter it; it seemed to be a matter of life and death.

Too narrow. She could not get through. But she had to get in. It’s the thick coat, she thought, and tore off coat and satchel, leaving them to lie there until she came back. She did not think much about that, in any case, only about getting in.

And now she managed it, slender and supple as she was, when she pushed hard enough.

The new room was a miracle, it seemed to her. The light shone strong and green through the walls and the ceiling, raising her spirits after their drenching in the tears.

Of course! Suddenly she understood, now she could see it clearly: it had been herself crying so hard in there. She did not know why, but it had been herself, plunged in her own tears.

It was nothing to bother about. It had just been a pause in the doorway as she had stepped into this clean-swept room, luminous with green light. Not a drop on the ceiling here, and the roar of the waterfall was muffled. This room seemed to be made for shouting in, if you had something to shout about, a wild shout about companionship and comfort.

It gushed out. She called ‘Siss!’

When she had done so she started. ‘Siss!’ came in answer from at least three directions.

She stood still until the shout mingled with the roar. Then she crossed the room. As she did so she thought about her mother and about Siss and about the other – she managed it for a very brief moment. The call had made an opening; now it slammed shut again.

Why am I here? It occurred to her, as she walked up and down. Not so many steps; she was walking more and more stiffly and unrecognizably. Why am I here? She attempted to find the solution to this riddle. Meanwhile she walked, strangely exalted, half unconscious.

She was close to the edge now: the ice laid its hand upon her.

She sensed the paralysing frost. Her coat had been left somewhere else. That was the reason. Now the cold could bore into her body as it liked. She felt herself getting frightened and darted across to the wall to get out to her warm coat. Where had she come in?

The wall was a mountain of ice, compact and smooth. She darted across to another. How many walls were there? All was compact and smooth wherever she turned. She began shouting childishly, ‘I must get out!’ Immediately she found the opening.

But this palace was odd. She did not get back to her coat. She came out into something she did not like very much.

Yet another room. It was really tiny, and full of dripping icicles hanging down from the low ceiling, full of icicles growing up from the floor, and jagged walls with many angles, so thick that the green light was deadened. But the roar of the waterfall was not deadened; here it was suddenly very close or underneath or wherever it might be – it was like being right inside it.

The water trickled down the walls of this room, reminding her of the one in which she had cried. She did not cry now. The cold prevented that and blurred everything. Much was flashing through her mind but as if in a mist; if she tried to grasp it, something else was there instead. It must have occurred to her that surely this was dangerous, she would shout loudly and challengingly the shout that was part of the ice palace. ‘Hey! Hey!’

But it could scarcely be called a proper shout. Another thought laid itself across it, and she barely heard it herself. It did not carry at all; the only answer was the savage roar. The roar swept all other sounds away. Nor did it matter. Another thought, and another ray of cold had already chopped it off.

It occurred to her that the roar was like something to lie down in, just to lie down in and be carried away. As far as you wanted – no, that one was chopped off.

The floor was wet with the drops. In some places the surface of the water was freezing thinly. This was no place to be – Unn searched the complicated walls yet again for an opening.

This was the last room; she could go no further.

She thought this only vaguely. At any rate there was no way out. This time it was no use, whatever she did. There were plenty of fissures, but they did not lead out to anything, only further in to ice and strange flashes of light.

But she had come in, after all?

No use thinking like that. It was not in, it was out now – and that was another matter, she thought confusedly. The fissure through which she had entered was naturally not to be found when she wanted to leave again.

No use calling. The roar drowned it. A hollow of tears was ready waiting in front of her. She could plunge into it, but she could not drag herself so far. She had finished with that elsewhere.

Was someone knocking on the wall?

No, nobody would knock on the wall here! You don’t knock on walls of ice. What she was looking for was a dry patch to stand on.

At last she found a corner where there was no moisture but dry frost. There she sat down with her feet tucked under her, her feet which she could no longer feel.

Now the cold began to stiffen her whole body, and she no longer felt it so keenly. She felt tired and had to sit down for a while before she began looking seriously for the way out and an escape – away from here – out to her coat and out to Auntie and out to Siss.

Her thoughts became gradually more confused and vague. She distinguished Mother for a while, then she slid away, too. And all the rest was a mist, threaded with flashes, but not so as to hold her attention. There would be time enough to think about it later.

Everything was so long ago, it receded. She was tired of all this running about in the palace, in all this strangeness, so it was good to sit for a while, now that the cold was not troubling her so much. She sat squeezing her hands together hard. She had forgotten why. After all, she was wearing her double mitts.

The drops began to play to her. At first she had heard nothing besides the tremendous roar, but now she could distinguish the plim-plam of the falling drops. They oozed out of the low ceiling and fell on to icicles and into puddles – and there was a song in it, monotonous and incessant: plim-plam, plim-plam.

And what was that?

She straightened up. Something was flooding over her that she had never felt before, she began to shout – now she had a deep black well of shouts if she should need them – but she did not let out more than one.

There was something in the ice! At first it had no form, but the moment she shouted it took shape and shone out like an eye of ice up there, confronting her, putting a stop to her thoughts.

It was clearly an eye, a tremendous eye.

It grew wider and wider as it looked at her, right in the middle of the ice, and full of light. That was why she had shouted only once. And yet when she looked again it was not frightening.

Her thoughts were simple now. The cold had paralysed them little by little. The eye in the ice was big and looked at her unblinkingly, but there was no need to be afraid, all she thought was: What are you looking for? Here I am. More hazily a familiar thought in such situations came to her: I haven’t done anything.

No need to be afraid.

She settled down again as before, with her feet drawn up, and looked about her, for the eye was bringing more light, the room was more distinct.

It’s only a big eye. There are big eyes here.

But she felt it looking at her from up there, and she was obliged to raise her head and meet the eye without flinching.

Here I am. I’ve been here all the time. I haven’t done anything.

Gradually the room filled with the plim-plam of the water drops. Each drop was like a fraction of a song. Beneath played the harsh, incessant roar, and then came the high plim-plam, like more pleasant music in the middle of it. It reminded her of something she had forgotten a long time ago, and because of that it was familiar and reassuring.

The light increased.

The eye confronted her, giving out more light. But Unn looked at it boldly, letting it widen as much as it would, letting it inspect her as closely as it wished; she was not afraid of it.

She was not cold either. She was not comfortable, she was strangely paralysed, but she did not feel cold. Hazily she remembered a time when it had been dreadfully cold in the palace but not now. She felt quite heavy and limp. She really would have liked to sleep for a little, but the eye kept her awake.

Now she no longer stirred but sat against the wall with her head raised so that she could look straight at the light in the ice. The light became increasingly brighter and began to fill up with fire. Between herself and the eye were the quick glints of the falling drops as they made their monotonous music.

The fiery eye had been merely a warning, for now the room was suddenly drowned in flame. The winter sun was at last high enough to enter the ice palace.

The late, cold sun retained a surprising amount of its strength. Its rays penetrated thick ice walls and corners and fissures and broke the light into wonderful patterns and colours, making the sad room dance. The icicles hanging from the ceiling and the ones growing up from the floor, and the water drops themselves all danced together in the flood of light that broke in. And the drops shone and hardened and shone and hardened, making one drop the less each time in the little room. It would soon be filled.

A blinding flood of light. Unn had lost all ties with everything but light. The staring eye had burned up; everything was light. She thought dully that there was an awful lot of it.

She was ready for sleep; she was even warm as well. It was not cold in here at any rate. The pattern in the ice wall danced in the room, the light shone more strongly. Everything that should have been upright was upside-down – everything was piercingly bright. Not once did she think this was strange; it was just as it should be. She wanted to sleep; she was languid and limp and ready …

The Ice Palace
Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan


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