Bjorn’s Gift – Excerpt

YTRE ARNA, NORWAY
AUGUST, 1941
Chapter One: “Fishing the Fjord”

Mari felt the sudden tug of another fish, a large one, and grinned. She worked the line carefully. Per leaned forward, ready with the net, causing the small skiff to bob even more on the choppy waters of the fjord.

“Take it slow, Mari. Don’t let such a big one get away.”

Mari’s focus was on the taut line. It could be the best catch of the afternoon. Not since she was nine had she lost a fish after she set the hook. She was too focused on the challenge of landing this one to concern herself with Per’s bossy attitude, but she would need his help to haul it over the side of the boat.

When it came to fishing the deep, cold waters of Sørfjord, she knew its ins and outs. She had fished, often in weather rougher than today’s, for longer than she could remember. Certainly longer than her friend and schoolmate Per, despite his constant bragging. Today, he had even wagered that he would catch more fish, but he’d lose that bet. It wasn’t even close.

Mari had her brother Bjorn to thank for that. He taught her everything he knew, starting with how to read the waves and the weather. Long before she was old enough for school, he said her quiet nature made her an ideal fishing buddy. He shared his secret spots and tips about which bait to use in which season and for which fish. Now, she worked her line, letting the big one tire itself. The salty taste of the wind on her lips reminded her of those happier times before the German occupation.

She’d never best Bjorn; she wouldn’t expect to. And now he was gone, hiding in the mountains with the resistance troops. Still, she was better at fishing than Per in any weather.

The huge mackerel lost its battle inch by inch.

“Ready?” she asked.

Just as it broke the surface, Per piked it, slipped the net under it, and hauled it into the boat. He whooped, “This one’s huge! At least three kilos, maybe more. Good job, Mari!”

He fastened it securely to a nearly full stringer and slid it back into the water. “I’ll have to prove I can out-fish you some other day. We’ve got plenty for now. Time to head back.”

Mari nodded, grinning at his excuse. It would take a while to row to shore, divide the catch between their families, and sort out who would get an extra fish or two. This trip they could spare some small ones for a few neighbors.

They set the wooden oars in the oarlocks. The boat had a small engine, but motors were useless without gas, which had all but disappeared since Hitler’s invasion of Norway a little more than a year ago.

They quickly fell into a rhythm, their oars slapping a steady cadence to quiet conversation. They were far from shore but they kept their talk to murmurs, well aware that sound travels across the water’s surface in unexpected ways.

Mari leaned forward to speak over Per’s shoulder. “I hope Astrid was able to work all three snare lines on her own. We need to do as much trapping and fishing as possible before school starts next week. With only four hours of classes each day, they’ll load up the homework. Soon it will be too dark after school to be outdoors.”

Per replied through gritted teeth. “They should just give us homework and skip the classes. Who knows what they’ll try to teach, anyway.”

He pulled at the oars with a vengeance, then began again. “You’ll be fishing on your own more, Mari. You can handle the boat without me if you stay close to shore. I don’t know what your secret is, but fish fight to bite your hook. I’ll be spending my time on more important projects this fall.”

Mari knew he wasn’t talking about school. She was sure his spare time would be spent on local resistance activities. Her own father and brother Bjorn had rarely been home during the past year, working full time at jobs, then devoting hours and hours to . . . exactly what, she couldn’t say. Codes, secret messages, graffiti, smuggling?

Per’s father did the same. Mari had no doubt that Per was one of the boys who helped the cause, defying the Nazi curfew when necessary. They defaced propaganda posters, tearing them down when possible and whitewashing over them when it wasn’t. She couldn’t guess what other disruptions he might be involved with, all to interfere with German operations in their small town of Ytre Arna. What was once a quaint settlement on Sørfjord had been overrun by soldiers since the invasion. Ytre Arna’s scenic harbors were deep and only a few hours by boat to the open sea.

Per and the others in the underground movement knew they couldn’t defeat the enemy on their own. But they were determined at least to challenge the Nazi invader’s smug claims of a shared Viking heritage and brotherhood.

Per interrupted her thoughts. “Any news from Bjorn?”

Mari’s brother had mentored Per in resistance activities before joining the mountain fighters last June. Only her family knew where Bjorn had gone. Bjorn had told Per and everyone else that he was quitting his bank job in the village to go to University in Oslo. It was a credible story, and people often asked Mari how his classes were going. She chose her words carefully whenever she spoke about her brother.

“No,” she replied to Per, her head bent to her rowing. “But even if he sent a letter, he couldn’t say much that matters, could he? I know Bjorn’s where he wants to be, but I wish we had a safe way to communicate. I’d feel so much better if I could write to him for advice, tell him all that’s happening here. I miss him so much.”

Per nodded.

Mari knew that writing to her brother could never happen with Germans in control. They read everyone’s mail, listened to phone calls, followed people in the streets, and even locked up some when threats weren’t enough, always looking for information about anyone who might be involved in the resistance. Bjorn couldn’t be contacted, and he would never try to contact them. It wasn’t safe.

Per called to her over his shoulder. “The wind is picking up, and the tide has shifted. Lean into the oars, Mari.”

The two friends pulled hard in silence, and the skiff skimmed across Sørfjord, gradually approaching the homes that climbed from the shore up the steep mountainside on which they were built.

With the penetrating sun of a clear August day behind the two rowers, someone watching from shore would have seen only their silhouettes, two heads and four arms moving in unison.

The two friends rowed on, accompanied by the murmur of the waves slapping against the sides of the boat. The cry of gulls and the swoop of swallows made their setting as picturesque as a travel poster. But it was wartime. Nothing was the same as it had been little more than a year ago.

“Ease up a minute,” Per said, letting his oars rock in their locks. He rubbed at his left palm, then lowered his hand into the cold water. “I’ve broken open that old blister.” He pulled out his hand and winced as he rubbed salt water into his palm.

Mari asked, “What blister?”

He turned toward her and held out his hand, rubbing steadily at a palm that looked perfectly normal. “Don’t look toward shore,” he whispered. “Leif is on the pier, and he’s been watching us. I think he’s waiting for you.”

[Excerpted from the first chapter of Bjorn’s Gift, by Sandy Brehl, a middle-grade historical novel released 2016.)