Introduction: Scandinavia and the World is funny, funny stuff…most of the time. Occasionally, Humon takes a more serious tack with it. The best example is probably the illustration entitled "White Slave." Look it up if you're not familiar with it—it's the grayscale one featuring Denmark, in uniform, arguing with a smug slaver who has Norway captive with his hands tied. The tension in the scene is palpable, and it still boggles my mind (in a good way) how she managed to condense an entire story into that one image. After many months of internal debate, I have finally decided to share with you how I imagine that story must have gone. Fair warning: This is a dramatic piece, not one of my usual comedies. It may be hard to read, especially if you're a Norway fan (like me). It was certainly no picnic to write.
As a final note, I cast Libya as the slaver because the comic is based on stereotypes and I think of all the North African countries, it has the most tyrannical reputation. It isn't meant to be a statement about the nation's reality, especially now that Ghaddafi is gone. In any event, this takes place in a bygone century.
"How does the saying go? Ah, yes. Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life."
The Mediterranean was every bit as splendid as he had heard—warm even at night, the coastlines dotted with opulent cities, and even peasant life in the villages was soft enough that they took an hour or two off each afternoon to nap…
"You are to work when you are told, as long as you are told, as hard as you are told. If you are insolent or disobedient, you will be whipped. If the quality of your work is unsatisfactory, you will be whipped."
The luxury was hard on travelers, of course. He couldn't always afford to get lodgings on land, and spent many a night on board the ship, dozing off to the lap of harbor waves against the hull and the smell of salt and fish and tar…
A hand grips his chin and tips his head sharply upward so that his captor can look him in the eye. "And sometimes, slave, you will be whipped just to remind you of your place."
It was on one of those nights that the attack came. All he remembered afterward was coming violently, bewilderingly awake and then being sent right back into blackness by a fierce blow to the head. When he woke again, hours later, he was shackled inside a wagon with barred windows. Kidnapped right from his own ship…
"Don't get any fancy ideas about escape, either," the bearded nation continues. "You will be locked up at night, and the desert stretches for a hundred leagues in every direction. The only way you're getting away from me is if someone offers the right price for you. And believe me, I am not relinquishing a great plow horse like you for less than a small fortune. My advice is to be resigned to your fate…you'll suffer less."
Norway has been through humiliations before, but he never imagined he would be reduced to this. Slavery…the word is like a blade of burning ice in his mind. Yet he does not succumb to the visceral horror of it. Not yet. Libya underestimates him.
More accurately, Libya underestimates Denmark, Norway's sovereign, who knows where he has gone and will miss him when he does not return, and who will move heaven and earth for the sake of a friend…
Libya wishes to build a canal to facilitate irrigation and trade. The concept is basically foreign to Norway, who has precipitation aplenty and other means of moving goods from place to place. He imagines a simple ditch on a larger scale, and the true complexity of the enterprise surprises and discomfits him. The canal bed must be lined with gravel and clay to prevent the water from simply vanishing into the sandy soil, and walls and dikes must be built, and locks to control water flow and allow Libya to extract tolls from the barge traffic…
It would be a noble endeavor, Norway thinks idly, if it weren't being built by chattel laborers.
His thoughts, of course, are the only part of him that is allowed any idleness. He has stringent quotas of work to perform every day—excavating a certain area of ground, for example, or building a certain length and height of wall—and if he is not finished by sunset, then he is denied his evening meal until he gets it done. Norway is no stranger to hard manual labor, but there is a world of difference between toiling for his own benefit and being forced to do it for another, with the threat of a beating hanging over his head should he fail. Still, for the first few days, it is manageable. Nothing he didn't expect. Maybe, he thinks over his small bowl of unseasoned rice and lentils, this will be endurable until Denmark arrives to put a stop to it.
He gets his first flogging on the sixth day. He is allowed a few short breaks during the workday, so that Libya can perform his scheduled prayers. One of them feels too short, and he mutters a curse as he heaves up. Libya decides to interpret it as "insolence," ties Norway's hands to a post, and deals five quick lashes to his bare back. Two of them break the skin, and all of them sting hard enough to make Norway cry out, though he manages to stifle it down to a whimpering grunt. All things considered, he counts himself lucky. He has discovered an important boundary. The pain fades within the hour as the cuts seal up and his sweat stops running into them.
Weeks turn into months, and Norway's life settles into its grueling rhythm. Wake at dawn to the clamor of a bell, with kicks to the ribs if he is slow to rouse himself. A sparse, flavorless breakfast. Work. A short rest. More work. Another rest. Work again, until sunset or later. Another scanty meal. One more stint of work if there is enough moonlight. Then sleep in the barred wagon, with one thin blanket between him and the startling nocturnal chill. Repeat the next day, and the next, and the next…
The locks and bars are technically unnecessary. The desert is proof enough against plans of escape. It is almost beyond Norway's mental grasp that there could be so much land without water. The heat is bad enough here, where there are snatches of shade alongside the half-finished retaining walls, and even canopies erected over parts of the worksite. Out there, among the dunes…Norway imagines himself shriveling up under the sun like a strip of bacon in the pan… The appearance of the place is like someone took his beloved ocean and baked it in an oven, hardening the waves in place and bleaching the azure to a pale gold. The blending of the familiar with the alien is much more unsettling than total strangeness would be.
He lives in cruel irony. Shovels and mallets and ropes are put into his hands, and he could use any of them to subdue his captor in an instant, but he dares not, because all the water he could carry would not see him safely out of the trackless burning waste.
There are other slaves, but Norway doesn't know them, doesn't share enough language with them to make their acquaintance. He is the only European among them. They are all in this together, but he feels heartbreakingly alone. Solitude has never much bothered him; in some ways he prefers it. Large groups make him uncomfortable. To be in a group, yet wholly alienated from it, is the worst of both worlds.
The tasks vary from day to day, even within a day. There is earth to dig, and mortar to mix, and bricks to lay, and plaster to spread, and nails to drive, and scaffolding to raise, and endless loads to carry or cart or haul or shove. Norway is strong, Libya's "plow horse," and between his natural ability and his diligence, he mostly manages to avoid the lash. Occasionally, when the heat makes him sluggish, a smarting blow across his shoulders spurs him on. More rarely, something he says or does offends the master and he receives a harsher punishment.
And every once in a while, as promised, he is beaten—not hard, but not so lightly that he can laugh it off—just so he never forgets what he is. A slave. Those beatings don't need to be fierce, just unpredictable. The point is that Libya can cause him pain, at any time, for any reason or no reason, and Norway has no right to resist or complain. He no longer owns himself. He is someone else's possession.
It is cruel, but oddly enough not sadistic. Libya seems to take no pleasure in "disciplining" Norway. If anything, he treats it as a chore—essential maintenance of a useful tool, like sharpening a hoe or oiling a mechanism. In a sense, that makes it worse—at least sadism would involve a twisted regard for Norway's feelings. This way, he really might as well be a thing.
He only ever receives just enough. Just enough food to maintain his valuable strength, just enough water to ward off dehydration and heatstroke, just enough rest to prevent collapse, just enough sleep to live on. Once a week, he is given an extra bowlful of water and a rag to bathe himself. He quickly learns to drink half of it first and make do with the rest for cleanliness, making a small luxury out of a necessity. He decides that of all his privations, the lack of adequate sanitation is the worst. That and the hunger. And the thirst. And the weariness. And the humiliation. It all weaves together into a tapestry of just-tolerable suffering, more numbing than anger-inducing.
Only in his dreams—when he is not too exhausted to dream—is there solace, and in some ways it is a torment, because he always wakes too soon. He dreams of the sea and wakes to the arid sand. He dreams of his verdant mountains and wakes to the barren lowlands. He dreams of freedom and wakes to his cage.
He dreams of Denmark, who must surely be investigating Norway's disappearance by now. That is the only dream that truly comforts him. It is the only one that might, some glorious dawn, turn out to be true.
It doesn't happen at dawn. It happens at noon.
It is a day like any other until plumes of dust appear in the distance. The arrival of a conveyance is nothing new; there are wagons and camel caravans every few days bringing needed materials to the site. But this vehicle is moving at speed, drawn by cantering horses rather than plodding oxen. The thunder of carriage wheels becomes audible, and Norway's heart leaps, because he knows that particular pattern of squeaks and rattles. When the carriage comes near enough for its livery to be visible, Norway's hope becomes so great that he thinks he might faint.
Libya knows what it means too. He swears under his breath, pulls Norway away from his task, and orders him to wait in the wagon. From that distance, the sounds of the meeting are muffled, but there is no mistaking the voice, raised in righteous anger. Norway nearly weeps with relief, holding back out of a nagging sense of caution. Soon enough, he realizes that indeed, his release is not going to be as simple as Denmark making the demand and Libya conceding. The slaver wants coin. But there is one brief moment of pure joy.
"Where is he? I demand to see him!"
Norway can practically hear Libya's calculating thoughts. Refusal is politically dangerous, but so is too-ready compliance. It seems like hours before he mutters, "This way," and two sets of footsteps approach.
The door is opened for Denmark to pass through, and held open to prevent any secrecy. Norway forces himself not to cry out at the sight of his friend, a show of emotion which might earn him a flogging. A strange instant passes before the other Scandinavian's eyes light with recognition and he drops into a crouch and sets a comforting hand on Norway's shoulder. The gesture is almost painfully formal, but Norway understands—visible affection between the two of them would give Libya even more bargaining power. This all has to be played delicately.
"You've lost weight…I almost didn't know you," Denmark says, switching from French to Danish for a measure of privacy. "He hasn't been feeding you enough."
"Forced labor is good exercise," Norway agrees in the same tongue, a little dark humor to let Denmark know his Nordic spirit hasn't truly been broken.
"The bastard. I swear I'll get you out of here." He swallows before continuing, his sentences clipped short with remorse. "But …not today. I can't. I don't have the money, and I can't just take you. Not nowadays. His claim on you is legitimate. The rules around here…you were in his territory, and he caught you fair and square. So I'll have to pay him. He's demanding a lot, but I'll raise it somehow."
"Enough," Libya barks from the entrance. "You've seen him. You have the conditions for his release. Leave us to our work."
"Go on," says Norway. "I'll be all right."
Denmark nods once and takes his leave.
After another few moments, the carriage departs, rattling off into the distance. Norway buries his face in his hands, joy and despair dancing together in his heart.
"Get out of there and back to work," says Libya curtly. Norway dutifully exits the wagon…and Libya backhands him in the mouth, taking him by surprise and sending him sprawling in the dust.
"Cur! What did he say to you?"
His ears ringing, Norway has trouble comprehending the question at first. "I-I don't know what you mean!" he moans around a split lip.
"Yes you do! What was the meaning of that ridiculous northern gibberish?"
"Nothing! He just told me he would have to raise money to buy me off you! That's all! I swear!"
Libya studies Norway with cold eyes for a few seconds. "Very well. I'll be watching you."
It is perhaps inevitable that trouble follows. The certain knowledge that this state of things is temporary drives Norway to distraction, and Libya, already cross after the confrontation with Denmark, is looking for an excuse to vent his fury…
The blows are savage, and many—Norway loses count under the onslaught of white-hot pain, and ultimately blacks out. He comes to when Libya unties him from the whipping post so that he drops clumsily to the ground, his back wet with blood, his face with tears. "Know this," says the slaver. "Every time this happens, your price goes up. Remember that whenever you find yourself growing complacent." He orders Norway to the wagon once more, but he can barely walk, and must be half-supported and half-dragged by another slave.
He remains there for the rest of the day, in too much pain to work. By nightfall, it has finally subsided enough to allow him sleep, but it is a poor sleep, hindered by an instinctive fear of rolling over and grinding grit and splinters into his wounds. Come morning, his unhappy respite is over and his labor resumes. Libya pretends nothing has happened. Norway decides to do the same, though his back throbs on and off for days afterward.
The tempo of the dance slows, and despair takes the lead. Somehow, he had thought it would all end as soon as Denmark arrived. The reality is all the more crushing for that. Norway wonders if he shouldn't have taken Libya's initial advice and simply accepted this as his new life.
Those who hope for nothing can never be disappointed…
He adapts. People can get used to almost anything.
In the main, he copes by withdrawing. He concentrates entirely on his tasks and speaks only when directly prompted, his awareness contracting to a single point consisting of whatever he is doing at the moment, and the moment he is doing it in. The past is past, and he dares not imagine the future. There is only now…now he is spading earth into a wheelbarrow, now he is accepting a ladleful of water, now he is sorting broken bricks from intact ones… The hours and days blur together until he barely remembers what it is like to observe the passage of time.
Then one evening during supper, he chances to glance up at the stars, and he realizes that he has been in captivity for nearly a year. His stomach clenches until he is unable to finish his food. He cries himself to sleep that night, silently weeping in his corner of the barred wagon. He wakes the next morning and, just for a moment, is disappointed to find that he is still breathing. Thankfully, the feeling wanes as he immerses himself in the day's work, and then it is back to the totality of focus that is the only way he can survive with his sanity intact. If this gradual deadening of feeling can be called sanity.
The dam being constructed at Libya's command is nothing compared to the one being erected in Norway's heart. Each day a new lock, stronger than the finest steel, keeping the water from flowing to its natural level.
And time continues to pass…
It must be several months before the next time Norway is shaken out of his deepening rut. This time, it is due to the weather. With the drastic suddenness that characterizes change in the desert, a clear day turns gusty, and before long the terrifying brown cloud comes rolling over the horizon.
With only minutes to spare before the sandstorm arrives, Libya distributes to the slaves the heavy clothing that will keep the flying shrapnel from skinning them alive. They know what is expected of them: They must remain at their posts for as long as the wind howls, digging out the worksite even as the storm attempts to bury it. For more than twenty-four hours they are in constant motion with spades and brushes. It is the most exhausting labor they have yet been called upon to perform, and they do it, less for fear of the lash than for survival. If they stop, the driving sands will engulf them too.
At long last, the storm passes. A few of the slaves make it back to the barred wagons to sleep, but most simply drop where they stand. Libya, to his credit, lets them take their fill of rest before reestablishing the usual routine. Only then does Norway discover that the ordeal has not left him unscathed.
Enough fine, lung-clogging dust made it past his hood and veil to leave him with a minor yet persistent cough. Only a small annoyance at first, over the next few weeks the periodic hacking fits gradually weaken him in almost imperceptible ways. He finds himself tiring more easily. The next time Libya stripes his back in response to some perceived lack of effort, the cuts are slow to heal, and crack back open several times in the succeeding days. No matter how careful he is, the rag for his weekly wash comes back spotted with pink.
One morning, he wakes with a heaviness in his limbs and a sensation of being all at once too hot and too cold. He has taken fever from his lingering injury. If he were at home, he would simply make up a bed by the fire and drink a meadowsweet infusion and sweat it out in a day or two. But he is not at home. He is a slave in a distant land, and he must work through his illness, keeping his performance at the expected level even as the ache spreads through his veins and his bones turn to lead.
For a time, the labor itself helps hold the worst at bay, distracting him from the discomfort and making him sweat almost as efficiently as a good fire. His symptoms typically retreat by midmorning, only to return at night as the day winds down. He takes to sleeping sitting up, leaning against one of the iron reinforcing bands in the wagon so that the cool metal will soothe his throbbing back and leach the furnace-heat from his body…even though this inevitably leaves him shuddering with chills before morning.
As the weeks drag by, however, Norway's condition gradually worsens. His productivity suffers, and he cringes daily in anticipation of a punitive beating. When the time comes, however, Libya merely looks him over with something crueler than pity and kinder than contempt, confirms his illness—and cuts his food rations in half.
"A little incentive for you to recover quickly," he says, as if wellness is not its own reward. In any case, Norway's appetite has been on the wane since the fever began getting worse and he barely feels the additional deprivation…at least, not as hunger. He certainly feels his strength deteriorate all the faster as the weight drops off him like melting snow.
This is the sickest he has been since the 14th Century, and he barely survived then…
The other slaves notice, of course. From time to time, one will express concern in the rough pidgin they have adopted for everyday communication (another case of just enough), but without any means to treat him, there is nothing to be done. It becomes difficult for him to rouse himself to action when the wake-up bell sounds. Some mornings he cannot get up at all, and spends the entire day in the wagon, dazed with the heat and scarcely aware of himself or the passage of the hours. Most days it isn't quite that bad, but in time he finds himself collapsing under loads scarcely half as heavy as what he could tote with ease beforehand. At that point, Libya gives up on him, stops feeding him altogether and no longer tries to wake him with the others. For their part, they begin to regard him with quiet horror—some of them have been there far longer than he, and he is not the first slave they have seen simply fade away with sickness.
As for Norway himself, the only thing preventing him from giving up as well is that he lacks the strength to make a decision one way or the other…
Part II coming soon. Reviews are greatly appreciated.