That morning Tóvó’s mother woke him. During the last two days she had been up to his room a few times, but she had not said a word. She was not her usual self, and now that the measles and its side effects no longer gripped her, she sometimes broke into such heartrending sobs that Tóvó had to cover his ears, and when that did not help, he simply left the house. He had no idea these crying spells heralded a budding insanity, and that in the coming years his mother would earn the nickname Crazy Betta.

In his Observations, Panum wrote: . . . there is hardly any other country, or indeed any metropolis, in which mental diseases are so frequent in proportion to the number of people as on the Faroes.


Tóvó’s brother, Lýðar, and his sister, Ebba, were still confined to their beds, and their grandfather had placed a vomit bucket on the bench in between them. An old home remedy suggested that tidal seawater had curative powers, and so their great-grandfather often made the trip to the little promontory of Bursatangi to rinse out the bucket. He covered it with a lid to keep the flies out, but nonetheless they buzzed around this interesting wooden container. Sometimes they sat on the rim, and as they cleaned their shiny legs, Tóvó struck. Most flies he killed as soon as he caught them, but others he tortured to death. He would place the prisoner on its back and feel the faint buzzing of the fly’s body as a tickle against his forefinger and thumb, and before the tiny heart would beat its last, he’d have the fly’s plucked wings and legs arranged on the bench. Other flies he drowned in a quart measure-pot. Like a ship with no oarsman, the fly would sail around and around the small, tin-lined sea. The fly tried reach the edge, but every time it had almost gotten two or three legs beneath it, it would be mercilessly shoved away again, until eventually it gave up fighting for its miserable life.

The tobacco tin, which Tóvó had stashed behind the Heergaard stove’s clawed lion feet, often contained nineteen dead flies. A piece of twine was wrapped around the container, and when Tóvó removed the lid, it smelled slightly of rot, but mostly of chewing tobacco. The flies that had not been tortured to death lay with wings pressed tight to their bodies and skinny legs curled up. Like they were begging forgiveness for their very existence.

Whether tortured, crushed, or drowned, the flies all had one thing in common: they were victims in the war Tóvó single-handedly waged against the measles. From what he understood, measles were a kind of fly. One single glance from those itty bitty measles-eyes and people immediately went feverish and began to cough and rave like mad. Some also sang like mad, a humming mixed with guttural sounds, until they were either exhausted, asleep, or blue in the face.

Still, Tóvó did not understand why the measles flies had not beamed their rays in Great-Grandfather’s direction, or why Mogul was unaffected. A few cows, on the other hand, definitely had measles, the way they were behaving.

[. . .]


Now everything was different. There was no one left to milk the cows, which had gone mad and bellowed through people’s doors.

The fact Mogul numbered among Tóvó’s worries was due to the reaction he had had against his father the day Martimann was going to kill the dog, but the boy dared not tell anyone that, not even his great-grandfather.

However, he did ask Great-Grandfather why he did not get sick.

Old Tóvó replied that, fact of the matter was, he had already had the measles when he was a child, back in 1781 when the measles had last swept through the island, and you could not get the disease twice. That was also why he was not afraid to visit people and help them. And perhaps the old man sensed that something else was bothering the boy, because he added that foul-breathed dogs could not get the disease either.

Tóvó asked if the disease really did come flying through the air. His great-grandfather explained that a ship had come from Denmark on Annunciation Day, and that that ship had brought the disease to Tórshavn.

Tóvó had heard of Denmark and he knew that a prince lived there. He had even seen the prince when he had come to Havn in a warship two years ago. Suddenly, he frowned and asked: why would the prince send a ship full of measles-flies to the Faroes?

Old Tóvó suppressed a smile when he looked into the boy’s serious and lovable face. He had not been as fond of his own children as he was of Tóvó. And the boy was so clever. The journey between thought and question happened in the blink of an eye. His great-grandfather knew about all the dead flies Tóvó kept in that tobacco tin, and one day he had watched the boy drown one poor creature in the quarter measure-pot. However, he said nothing, just waited outside until the deed was done.