Calder could not see the light. Two days beyond the winter solstice, the
low-lying, early 1980’s sun was somewhere above a blanket of low-lying
coastal clouds that hovered only a couple feet above the snow-covered,
downy birch trees, Betula pubescens. Also known as the white birch, the
trees combined with the abundant snow and ice to create an infinite
white field that conquered the horizon. The all-encompassing trees with
their spindly structures reached into the gray, lining the highway on
either side to create the illusion that no matter how fast their vehicle
traveled they were standing still. And standing still might have been
the optimal speed. The effect was hypnotic, and Pernille had to take
special precaution as not to doze off. The green Volvo looked like a
butterfly hopelessly out of place in the wrong climate.
The motionless effect mesmerized the six-year-old Calder as he clutched
a copy of The Snowy Day with both hands in the front passenger seat. He
stared at the blizzard-like final page, wishing he had a friend to join
him in the snow along the side of the road, and then closed the book and
tossed it onto the dashboard, which he could barely see over, and looked
ahead to the mesmerizing pavement. Alan, then 4, and Brice, 2, occupied
their car seats in the back of the sedan. Their father remained
hospitalized in the States, the victim of a broken right thumb that
required immediate surgery. He broke it one night earlier attempting to
dunk in a Lakers victory over the Atlanta Hawks. He would meet them in
Bergen in a few days—if the ferry resumed its normal schedule.
“I’m bored,” Calder said, his future love of snow had not been
solidified yet. He was more preoccupied with his existence
minute-to-minute and blissfully unaware of the final stricture imposed
by death. Pernille did her best to try and simultaneously keep her eyes
on the road and stimulate her young charge.
“Why don’t you practice your Norwegian? You can impress mormor.”
"Hvordan har du det?" Calder enunciated the words slowly. His Norwegian
was rusty, bordering on the nonexistent. This fact was not his mother's
fault. English was his first language but she had spoken Norwegian to
him ever since he was born. He always seemed to understand her when she
spoke in Norwegian but almost never spoke himself.
"It means how are you?"
"Good. What might you say in response?"
"Jeg har et bra."
“Where do you want to go? I want to do something nice.”
This was Calder’s third trip to Norway. The Jespersen family Volvo, a
Swedish import betraying the hypnotic landscape, traversed a black line
piercing the snow on either side. Mormor, his Norwegian grandmother,
awaited them in Bergen.
“How do you spell aquarium?” his mother inquired, trying to play
word games to keep her precocious son in good spirits. “In
Norwegian,” she quickly added.
“A-K-V-A-R-I-U-M,” Calder didn’t hesitate.
Pernille drove west from Oslo, where she had visited some old artist
friends, professors at the Norwegian National Academy of the Arts,
Kunstakademiet, for a night to avoid a nasty winter storm. They were a
lively group. Calder loved that his mother took him to all the art
parties; though, he had to beg to be included to this one, a tag along
who subconsciously found inspiration surrounded by much older, creative
types. In theory this is what Pernille hoped, but it was a tenuous idea
at best. The current class of students had hosted a party for the famous
graduate and while his mother was being toasted, Calder frolicked
amongst the work-in-progress sculptures as a-ha radiated from the
speakers of a boom box. His mother only went as a courtesy for an hour
while another college friend babysat Calder’s younger brothers.
Despite the festive atmosphere, this pilgrimage to Norway was not a
festive one. The students did not know her father, morfar, had died.
This was the first time Calder knew someone who had died. Accidentally
boiling his angelfish in its aquarium as a fourth grader did not count
because they were a presumed lower species. Pernille informed her son
that morfar would not be the last dead person he would know; it was just
the natural progression of life.
Calder hoped they would stop at the aquarium in Bergen. Located on the
Nordnes peninsula, the aquarium was once the standard in all of Northern
Europe. Calder didn't care if it had fallen into a bit of disrepair. One
of the penguin pools was undergoing renovations, and the carp pool was
being restocked, but that didn't deter his desire. He loved the tropical
fish tank. He could stare through the glass hours on end of his mother
let him. It was closed during the winter, and especially after the storm
had left five fresh inches of powder on top of the already formidable
Going from sunny Southern California to the damp air of a Norwegian
winter was enough of a shock. Two days ago, Calder rode his bicycle
along the Venice Beach boardwalk amongst happy scantily-clad beachgoers
worshiping in the sun. That morning, he watched bundled-up winter sports
enthusiasts in snowshoes shimmy past Vigeland Park’s eerie naked men,
women and children sculptures before departing to attend his morfar’s
Morfar was 78 years old. He had slipped and hit his head on the ice
while out marking the borders of his farm on the outskirts of Bergen two
days ago. His funeral was scheduled for Friday, and Calder and his
mother both hoped his father would make it on time. The flight from Los
Angeles, including a two-hour layover in London, took approximately 15
Calder’s last trip to Norway, at age 3, was likely his earliest
childhood memory. But the events of this trip would supersede it, not
for the better. Now that he was a father, he often looked back at this
event as a window into his own identity, a splintered recollection that
could not be removed. The snowiest winter in NYC’s history paled in
comparison to the Norwegian winter. He looked down to the jagged scar on
his forehead and returned to the memory.
It had all happened so fast. The book Calder had nonchalantly thrown
onto the dashboard slid across the front and stood upright, momentarily
blocking his mother’s view. A split second was all it took. As they
approached the Norwegian coast, the low-lying clouds had given way to a
floating layer of fog.
One moment the horizon was clear. The next...a fast-moving layer of
morning mist shrouded the road and white was all there was. It was akin
to driving through an aquarium filled with milky water.
Crash. Hundreds of molecules engaged in an underwater battle.
Then came silence, the harbinger of desperate evils in Calder's young
and future life.
Seconds after impact, Calder wished he were at the aquarium. His
imagination kept him safe. He was a deep-sea diver tethered into his
mini dirigible as he was bombarded by thousands of air bubbles. Nothing
could harm him or his family.
The Volvo—Calder's invincible submarine—stopped, the weight of the
water crushing it at 10,000 meters deep. The warping sound of bent steel
pinged like an active sonar, the molecules realigning themselves.
Every moment beyond the moment of impact became an underwater panorama,
seen through the milky paste of octopus ink—Calder had seen it at the
aquarium once before, the defense mechanism, and he appropriated it as
his own. The milk he had been drinking spewed up from his gut and from
his mouth in the same moment that Calder's audio and visual perception
intensified. He heard the crash and saw the aftereffects as if they took
eons to develop. His memory of this indelible day was etched on a
granite plinth that splintered his mind.
Calder's seatbelt sprung into action, a safety net guarding the boy from
an icy calamity. However, it could not prevent the tiny projectiles
aiming for him. The shattered glass catapulted into Calder's forehead,
miniature daggers inviting pain.
Later, they did not know if it was a single shard or multiple that
carved a line diagonally just between the boy's eyes above the eyebrows.
The cause of the accident had been invisible, a killer waiting to
strike. The green Volvo was a solemn casualty of a 25-car pileup
triggered by a 10-ton lorry that jackknifed on black ice. The veil of
fog moved in—up one of the fiord valleys—and blanketed the road on a
slight decline as the road began its descent toward the North Sea.
Pernille drove into this white sea.
When his ears returned to normal, Calder looked around as if in a dream.
His mother's wails, muffled by the searing metal, began to rise in both
urgency and tone. The sound of dripping fluid, moaning strangers and his
mother's cries, broke the still whiteness engulfing them.
"Calder....Calder! Your brothers! We have to get out of the car as fast
as we can. Someone else might hit us. Quickly!"
Pernille tried to open the driver's side door but it was pinned shut by
a metal barrier hidden behind the wall of fog.
"Calder, can you open your side?"
He struggled, pursing his small, undeveloped body into contortions of
"No, mommy. I'm scared."
Blood trickled down his forehead from the two-inch gash. A pane of glass
had sliced it clean. If he wiped the blood away and lifted the flap of
skin and flesh, the bone would be exposed. There were no mirrors intact
and a controlled fear beat hysteria. Pernille tried to distract him once
"Think of the snow,” Pernille said. “The way it falls quietly. After
the storm, it's beautiful and quiet, like today. And when it's quiet,
you can focus on anything and accomplish anything."
Calder kept trying to open his door. He did not want to let his mother
or brothers down. In spite of his mother's soothing voice, it was
"It's going to be OK. Can you climb into the back seat and protect your
brothers? Can you be my prince?"
"I can't unbuckle my seatbelt."
Neither could Pernille. She could not move if she wanted to. Her left
arm was pinned against the door, and furthermore, she didn't know which
direction the Volvo faced. North, South, East, West, sideways,
backwards, forward, these were all abstract ideas with no sight lines,
or better, the sun, to guide her. If she or Calder got out of the car,
they might be struck by oncoming traffic from the other direction—from
Bergen that is—or be crushed against whatever vehicle was in front of
them. They would have to wait until the fog lifted or an emergency crew
came to their aid, whichever came first. Chance was a ruthless dance
Thankfully, Alan and Brice remained asleep and unaware in the safety of
their rear-facing car seats, snug like a pair of itsy bitsy spiders
clinging to the wall in a deluge of water from an overflowing
waterspout. They were safe so long as no other cars joined the icy
With her free right hand, Pernille was able to unbuckle her eldest son's
seatbelt. But instead of immediately crawling into the back, he searched
the dashboard for his book, The Snowy Day. For the moment, he was
unaware of the blood. The red drops had not yet fallen to his lap.
"Where's my book?"
"Sweetie, please get into the back seat as quickly as you can," Pernille
insisted while reaching over to the glove compartment. She fumbled until
she found the first aid kit. She opened it and gauze bandages and
Band-Aids ejected onto the floor mats.
"Your book isn't important right now."
"But I want to read it to Alan and Brice. It will calm them down. They
are waking up now. I have to find it."
"It's down on the floor. Can you pick it up and hand me the red plastic
She didn't call it by its proper name, not wanting to tip Calder off to
his own blood. Her son scrambled under the dashboard blindly grasping.
"I found it."
In that moment another car found them. The force of the blow blew open
Calder's door and he went flying into a snow bank on the side of the
road. Alan and Brice screamed awake, their car seats bent sideways.
Calder clutched the book even as he began to feel numb. He couldn’t
move at first, but then felt a surge of energy, and his arms and legs
began to work again.
Pernille's screams echoed throughout the white birch trees. The blow
freed her left arm but she had no peripheral vision. The fog ruled.
Calder finally saw the blood, a deep red strata in stark contrast to the
icy white. He scrambled to his feet and called out for his mother. He
heard her voice imploring him to stay where he was.
"Can you see anything?"
“Yes, I can see trees and lots of snow. We're on the side of the road.
If you come to my voice, Alan and Brice will be safe.”
“Run into the woods. Get as far away from the road as you can.”
Calder moved toward the trees like a ghost on a scavenger hunt. He could
still hear his mother's voice, but he resumed his search. The book was
his safe haven. Lost in its pages and within his imagination, danger and
cold did not exist.
As Calder zigzagged toward a grove of ominous birch trees, the drops of
blood fell in an intricate path like a line of ants marching in the
snow. He felt slightly dizzy. His head throbbed as the wound faced the
brisk air. He heard his brothers’ muffled cries wending their way
through the din of rebounding metal and then he heard other moans, other
lives struggling to escape the wreckage.
He realized he was no longer clutching his beloved book. It must be
somewhere near the broken door, hidden in the creeping white shroud that
hovered nearby, begging him to enter if he dared. He looked back and
there was a patch of clear air where the fog had broken.
He looked down at the ground and began to track back toward the road,
back toward danger. The book filled his mind. The cut was a painful
inconvenience. His brothers now wide awake and their screams became
louder and louder. His mother's cries fell silent. What had happened?
"Are Brice and Alan okay? Follow my voice, mom. It's clear up by the
trees. It's only about 10 feet."
"Keep looking for your book. Look in the trees," Pernille said, her
voice reduced to a raspy whisper. "Don't come back this way. It's safe
where you are."
Calder was frozen. He thought something was wrong. Instinctively he
reached down and scooped a handful of snow and put it to his forehead.
The cold sting felt better than the roiling drips pages out on every
heartbeat. Then he spotted something between his chilled fingers.
The Snowy Day, open to the last page, with its mountain of snow piled
high, and nestled in a puddle of fresh blood. Two feet beyond it, a
woman thrown from her vehicle breathed irregularly, in great gasping
whoops that sounded like a punctured airbag. Her head was tilted
sideways pressed against the snow.
"Mom?" Calder uttered, just able to get the sound from his lips.
He looked around the other side, knelt down and placed his head even
with hers in the snow. His book was no longer important; his innocence
fluttered away with it.
Her eyes, a deep blue like his mother's, were hollow. But it was not his
mother. She was dead. This was not supposed to be the first dead person
“Mom? Mom, this way.”
Then, a gentle hand took his away, away from the destruction and toward
the birch grove. He heard two tiny voices giggling, unconcerned about
"Snow," Brice said.
"Snow," Alan echoed. They were kids, and the fog blocked their view of
the horror. Pernille led them away from the Volvo’s twisted green
metal. The foursome ran up the hill into the safety of the birch trees
until they could no longer hear the moans. The quiet forest, flush with
snow, was their sanctuary. Pernille told her eldest son years later that
they formed a cathedral, the sunlight filtering through and erasing the
pain and damage. She hugged her boys tight, the family forming a ring of
safety where neither blood, nor broken bones could shatter them. Yet,
Calder’s eyes wandered toward the distance, across a snowy field
beyond the birch trees. There, a grove of six Norwegian spruce trees,
stood watch alone on a slightly inclined snowfield. It was an image of
sheer beauty. The clouds broke above them and three splintered rays of
sunlight illuminated the grove, God’s rays. Calder’s numb hands and
arms felt warmth.
They waited until a man in uniform emerged from the fog, and placed them
in an ambulance and took them to a big building that was completely
white with lots of windows. Calder remembered the hospital more than
morfar's funeral. His father met them at the hospital; Pernille had
suffered a broken left arm and fractured two ribs. Brice and Alan
received nothing more than a few superficial cuts from the shattered
windshield. Calder held his father's hand while they swapped injury
stories. A somber mood that mormor didn’t want to allow crept into the
farmhouse barn despite her best efforts. The crunching sound of metal
and the red blood oozing into the snow at the side of the road curdled
Calder’s mind more than 30 years later.
Excerpted from "Milkman: A Novel" by Kelvin C. Bias. Copyright © 2016 by Kelvin C. Bias. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.