Cora

*

For stretches of time everything dissolved, rocked doubtfully in place for a moment like a mushy mass to then be sucked away. I accepted my downfall and got ready to pack my suitcase with clothes, schoolbooks, and other necessary things: a few toys and my current favorite books. My mother also let me choose a few knickknacks from her typography box that I could have on my night table in my paternal grandparents’ guest room. The door to my father’s room remained closed, and my mother strode past it with a determined expression. Aside from the throbbing of the water in the pipes and certain sounds at night that could just as well have come from my own restless dreams, one heard nothing from him. In the course of the next days, my mother satisfied herself that I was doing well in school and that my friends were the same girls they usually were and finally took me on her lap and stroked my hair back behind my ears while quietly telling me that, as I no doubt had realized, it was time I went in to visit Grandmother and Grandfather and Aunt Cora. She reminded me to let Grandfather have peace and quiet when he needed it, which I perfectly well knew meant that preferably I should stay in our rooms–mine and Cora’s–the kitchen, and Grandmother’s sitting room; that I should be quiet in the living rooms if I went in there, and never enter Grandfather’s library without first having been invited in; that I should help Grandmother, who was doing her best; and that I otherwise should mostly spend my time together with Aunt Cora, who was different, to be sure, but was good company if one felt the need to be together with someone, and was in fact not as dumb as one would think. This last she said with a smile at our shared knowledge that also teased a smile out of me. Together, we then began to consider what I could do with Cora this time. One time my mother had even suggested writing it down on a list, but fear that this meant an even longer time spent away from her than what was normal caused me to begin sobbing, so that list was never written. She did not need to say she would miss me and come to visit me as soon as there was an opportunity, which was usually the case about once a week. Every time she came, aside from the day she came to finally take me home with her, she brought new toys for us: a kaleidoscope (I could hypnotize myself with that for hours); various board games; Chinese checkers with the lovely heavy glass balls; dress-up dolls that had to be cut out, preferably with all of the little tabs intact, so that one had to be careful; marble labyrinths in little wooden boxes behind glass; and all the usual items: the beads, the crayons, the coloring books. Once she had bought some sheets of paper at the National Museum that were to be cut out and glued together so that they became gaudy animals: monkeys, parrots, toads, dogs, cats. Grandfather remembered these from his childhood, and Cora liked them so much that Grandmother later asked my mother to buy more. Cora’s room was gradually transformed into a zoo full of empty paper animals with handles on their backs. In contrast, the chestnut animals, which were my own idea, were not a success at all. I myself was delighted by the idea and the journey along Frederiksborggade, over Dronning Louises Bro, and up Sortedam Dossering because it brought me closer to our apartment on Rosenvængets Sideallé, even though it did not bring me all the way home. It was not necessary to tell me that it would not have been a good idea to show up there unannounced, dragging Cora along with me. In contrast, Cora became so agitated by all of the new impressions the outing confronted her with that she sat down on a bench, rocked back and forth, and wrung her hands like an old woman, as she always did when all words escaped her. I had to sit and hold her hand for a long time before she could tell me what was wrong: She was afraid of falling in the water. I carefully told her that one could only fall in if one went very close, and finally, by taking steps, showed her how far we were from the edge of the lake. Then she even started to scream, and we had to turn around and walk back the same way. When we had arrived home, she entrenched herself behind a frightened look; I had to make the chestnut animals by myself.

Coloring books also found favor with Cora, and for this reason many were purchased. She carefully colored everything, including the areas around the figures that actually should have been white, but she was not interested in freehand drawing; she accepted watching while I drew, but when I showed her the results of my efforts and told her what was supposed to be represented, her only comment was that there was no resemblance. She loved the games, particularly the card games. Once I had taught her a few, it became standard practice for her to be waiting for me at the kitchen table with a deck of cards when I got home from school, and I had to play at least one game to satisfy her. She learned the rules of the games immediately, and each of her moves was logical. My mother was right in that way: Cora was not dumb in the least, but she was completely unable to think strategically, much less cheat. Playing games with Cora taught me to contemplate the course of the game rather than worry about losing or winning, because when it came to that aspect of the game she was completely hopeless. She shared my triumphant joy if I won and sulked a little with me if I lost. I quickly realized that in those circumstances nothing was won by beating her and nothing lost by losing.

The outing to Sortedam Dossering to collect chestnuts taught me once and for all not to take Cora where she had not been before; almost every day, on the other hand, I could convince her to take the walk with me that she otherwise took with Grandmother and Grandfather, and thus make everyone happy. Grandmother had arthritis and Grandfather was lazy, so they found it nice to get out of taking the walk once in a while, and I was happy to get out of their home on Fiolstræde, because as well as it received me with what it could offer—Grandmother made much of dressing me warmly and making sure that I ate, and Grandfather was as patient with me as it was possible for him to be when during the precise hour from six-thirty to seven-thirty in the evening he helped me with my homework—I understood that my mother was right when she said that they were really too old to take care of children, particularly since on top of everything they had Cora, who was not really a child, to be sure, but still, and after all we did not have any others ourselves. And although I loved them both, the apartment transformed itself at least once a day into a suffocating museum full of fragile objects: English porcelain and chinoiserie, lamps with silk shades and glass feet, ivory figures, carefully ticking clocks with slender hands, flower vases of crystal, bonbonnières of blue opaline glass, and silver candlesticks filled every free table surface. The paintings and embroideries in their dark or gilded frames hung perfectly straight; the family’s patriarchs, all priests or, like Grandfather, doctors, stared down from an unimaginably dark century with pale bloodshot cheeks and old men’s eyes, watery and light blue. Even the air sometimes seemed to me to be crisp and brittle from age. In the entire home it was only the television and record player in the living room and the radio in the kitchen that reminded one that the 1970s were in full swing in the world outside, and when I came and went up and down the staircase with its panes of cut glass, broad landings, worn-smooth banister, and carved door frames, I imagined myself going through a tunnel in time. I got a lot of inspiration for such ideas from the science fiction books I devoured with a greedy appetite, which encompassed everything from Jules Verne to comics about space stations and fantastic cities.

Cora and I thus tramped through Rosenborg Castle Gardens and the Botanical Garden almost daily, following a completely fixed route, and Cora traveled that route both physically and mentally. Not only did she point out the same things with satisfaction each time, she also drew attention to what we had just passed and what we would soon come to. When we entered Rosenborg Castle Gardens she said that we were now past the Round Tower and would soon come to the round fountain and then to the rose garden. When we were on our way up Gothersgade, she remembered Rosenborg Castle Gardens and predicted the entrance to the Botanical Garden, etc. In contrast, she never noticed any of what jarred me out of my daydreaming and made me stop: a cute dog; the first brittle, thin ice on the puddles, which cracked so that one shivered and salivated; a horrible drunk; or the people who stared at us without, I think, being entirely aware of why they were staring. They did so because Cora was a pretty woman, just barely old enough that she could be my young mother, but was dressed in a strangely old-fashioned way, namely as Grandmother’s idea of what a respectable old maid who for God’s sake should continue to be one–and should therefore avoid attracting any attention–ought to look like: black skirt; black, densely woven stockings; black shoes with low heels; coat, scarf, and gloves. I am afraid that it unfortunately had the opposite effect. At a first glance she just looked different; at the next glance the mixture of her pretty features, blue eyes, very light skin, the hair strictly parted in the middle and set in a knot, and the old-fashioned dark clothing were provocative if anything.

I used our walks to miss my mother and speculate about when I might be able to go home again, and Cora’s predictable monologue suited me well; I did not need to react to what was said, but her toneless recitation caused me to feel less lonely, and under those circumstances I could devote myself entirely to my need, wallow in it with all of the freed energy that had been held back in the rooms on Fiolstræde, while simultaneously I actually felt secure and entertained, so that the entire world at once took on a crystalline and at the same time cozy, soft sheen. In this way I came to know the seductive pleasure of missing someone, and in this way we came home: Cora satisfied that all of the things had appeared in their fixed positions, and I anesthetized by my inner, soothing bleeding. The evening passed with supper, homework, and the news. At nine o’clock, my mother called, talked for a moment to Grandmother, who sighed and said “ja-ja” to whatever it was my mother was saying (I never got to hear what it had been, nor did I want to). Then the warm receiver was handed to me, and I tried to listen my way all the way into my mother’s embrace. After this, at bedtime, missing my mother turned into something else, hard and compact and difficult to bear. Grandfather said goodnight in the living room, Grandmother with a little pat on my comforter, and Cora refused. She never took leave of people. When the light was turned off, the room always became much larger.

 

What puzzled me most about Cora were her many moods, and her sudden shifts from one to another. She was as mobile as water and began oscillating as soon as the slightest thing in her environment changed. The more violent the oscillations, the longer it took them to die down. From one moment to the next she could go from nearly apathetic to practically choleric, from exaggerated cheerfulness to what I later learned to interpret as a kind of confused sadness, or vice versa or anything in between. The latter was particularly the case when I was alone with her: First she would surprise me with an unmotivated laugh, only to fall suddenly silent and alternately look helplessly straight ahead or at whatever she had in her hand, and look beseechingly at me like someone who did not know what she was asking for, which she probably in fact did not. Grandmother and Grandfather each had their own methods of, as Grandfather put it, “stabilizing her.” Grandmother sewed or sang with her; Grandfather listened to selected piano concertos with her. In my case what was most effective was playing scales with her. Then we sat next to each other on the piano bench; I played first, then moved aside and let Cora have a turn, whereupon she repeated the scale. When we played, Grandmother went out to the kitchen because it reminded her of the piano lessons of her childhood, which she had hated with a passion. Grandfather settled for staying in the library and accepted it despite the fact that it interfered with his reading. On the whole Grandfather displayed a gentleness and endless patience when it came to Cora that were quite foreign to him in all other situations. Even in her most impossible moments, he did not lift an eyebrow even, and he spoke to her and patted her on the cheek as if she were a five-year-old.

Cora would sometimes also play small, simple pieces of music, but she did not care for more complicated ones, although she would without a doubt have been able to play them. She had a musical ear and a musical memory that apparently worked like a copy machine. I once heard her play back a long fragment of some piano concerto or other that Grandmother had just listened to on the kitchen radio; it was something I had certainly not heard before myself, and I do not think Cora had heard it either–I was familiar with all of the records they had in their home. While Cora played, I sat on the sofa and played solitaire, and I heard Grandfather get up from his armchair in the library and walk over to the closed door to listen. Cora must have heard it, too, for she suddenly stood up, slammed the piano shut, and began to cry angrily and protest with repeated nos. Then we had to go back to the scales, and in there Grandfather sneaked back to the armchair by the window; the sound of the pillow wheezing as he sat down was unmistakable.

Cora did not like to be observed. In general, it was always best not to devote too much worry to her unhappiness, as this only made it worse. “You should just act as if you had gone into yourself and closed the door,” he said, and he was right. If one did not do that, one could try anything without having any effect except exactly that which one wished to avoid. It was not until I became an adult that I understood this, not until Grandmother was dead and only a short time remained before Cora herself died.

 

On Sundays we went to worship service in Our Lady, Grandmother to receive grace, Grandfather to say hello to the priest, Duus Holsting, who was one of his old friends–and I, who had no choice in the matter, actually found it to be an interesting spectacle. My parents were not only nonbelievers but declared atheists, and every Sunday I was fascinated by the improbability of the stories and the psalm books’ archaic, bombastic, and frightening formulations, and not least by the mystical fervency with which Grandmother closed her eyes and said an articulated “amen,” while Grandfather, with all the signs of civilized politeness, bent his head and hummed. I tried imitating each of them in turn and in so doing partly understood something that lay far beyond my ability fully to comprehend. For this experiment, when Grandfather had discovered it, I one day received one of his seldom-expressed forms of recognition. He patted me on the head and smiled with pleasure. “You are a smart girl,” he said. “Let me know what that turns into.” After that I knew that he watched me out of the corner of his eye on Sundays, discreetly, because, as was the case when we did my homework together, he wanted me to try on my own first. For Cora, the only significant aspect was the ritual, which made reference to nothing but itself and simply confirmed the world as it was, yesterday and today and tomorrow. As far as she was concerned, Duus Holsting could just as well have declaimed “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or read Berlingske Tidende‘s editorial, as long as he repeated the same thing every Sunday, and she loved the music and the singing. When the organ began to play, one always saw how a breeze seemed to pass through her; to my childish eyes she resembled an ecstatic saint (when one is that age visual ecstasy always belongs to the category of the holy–otherwise ecstasy is invisible, dark, and thrillingly quiet).

When Grandmother and I walked the short distance home to treat ourselves and the still distant, beatified Cora to cocoa, Grandfather went over to the church office with Duus Holsting for a cup of coffee and a talk about universal disagreements. It looked as if they had only made a single respective concession to each other in their entire lives and as if the match had ended 1-1. My grandfather’s concession was this: As a young doctor in the city’s poor quarters, he had baptized many children when he had assisted at births, as many of the newborns did not survive their first hours. Now that he had one foot in the grave himself, it was not his own salvation that concerned him–he had definitively waved goodbye to that. He would leave his body to science as an intermediate station before the worms and his soul to death, that is to say, to nothingness as far as he was concerned. But he asked Duus Holsting to answer a question for him: What he would like to know was whether God (if it should turn out that the God described by the Christians–not the Hindus or the Vikings or the blacks—actually existed) would approve a baptism that had been executed by a heathen. It was Duus Holsting’s widow who told me this story. She did not remember precisely what her husband had answered, only that the answer had been affirmative: the children were in heaven. Grandfather had thereupon immediately recovered his usual fighting spirit and thanked him for an answer that was, given the context, reasonable. “One could almost have called them arch-friends,” she said.

 

Grandmother died just two weeks before Cora. Grandmother’s death was sudden; Cora’s was, despite everything, a relief. She did not understand what had happened to Grandmother, and I hope I will never again see unhappiness such as hers. Like a cat looking for the kittens that have been taken away from it, she walked around in the apartment on Fiolstræde and searched and waited, and when she saw Grandfather, she began to cry with greater desperation than I had ever before seen her display. Grandfather was horrified even though he had long since understood that it would be thus when either he or Grandmother died, and he did not know what he should do. For the first and last time, he asked my advice, but as the conversation progressed and I understood what I had never before understood, I also understood that the situation had no solution. With Grandfather’s help, I understood that while there might have been something in Cora somewhere that was herself, she was primarily just the rest of us: a mirror, the glossy surface of a body of water that was filled with what saw it, that was shaken by that which shook. I understood that it would be creating a hell on earth for Cora if one had her diagnosed and placed in an institution and that when Grandfather died I would be the only one left to take care of her, but how could that be? I was twenty-nine and alone with two small children who were one and four respectively. Of course I could use the inheritance to hire private carers, but that would still be handing Cora over to the changing hands of strangers and exposing her to their necessarily changing moods and perhaps poorly concealed sorrows and pains. And what if something happened to me, and Cora survived me? That was where our conversation ended–in depressing nothingness. Before I went home, I went into the kitchen, where Cora, though it was long past her bedtime, sat drinking cold tea. She looked at me, I at her, and what I saw was a deeply sorrowful and perplexed person for whom I, not at first recognizing this person, felt great sympathy and then suddenly realized was myself. So I closed the door to myself as Grandfather had once taught me, made hot cocoa, and got out the cards. For the next week I took vacation days, got a babysitter for my children, and spent the entire days from morning until evening with Grandfather and Cora, and strangely enough that was an almost happy week. I slept in the guest room in my old bed, which had gotten noticeably shorter but still sagged a little when I turned off the light. Grandfather stayed in the library for the most part and came out only for a few minutes at a time to speak gently to Cora and pat her on the cheek. As soon as her gaze began to wander, he went back into the library. Cora and I played cards, made paper animals, which they had once again begun to sell at the National Museum, and went on our walk through Rosenborg Castle Gardens and the Botanical Garden. I again permitted myself to miss my mother, who by then was deceased. It was May, and the chestnut trees were green, with shining flowers; Hans Christian Andersen sat on his high pedestal at the end of the avenue; Rosenborg Castle stood like a dry little mouthful behind its moat; the gravel crunched distinctly under our feet; Gothersgade led us from one park to the other; the big glass snail of the greenhouse shone in the sun; everything faithfully and loyally showed up in its fixed place; Cora became calmer for each day that passed. On Sunday we went to church, and Cora was beatified by the organ and the choir.

Sunday evening, before Cora went to bed, I put into her tea the drops that Grandfather had given me and that quickly made her yawn. When Cora lay in her bed, I talked for half an hour to Grandfather, who had made up his mind and finally asked me to leave, which I did without taking leave of Cora, who died of cardiac arrest during the night. I knew that it had happened when I was on my way up the staircase in Fiolstræde, which was still a tunnel in time, and met Duus Holsting, who was on his way down. He, who had known Cora his entire life, was deeply shaken but understanding.

Bios

Adda Djørup

Adda Djørup (b. 1972) was born and raised in Denmark. She has lived in Madrid and Florence for several years respectively, and some of her fiction is set in southern Europe. Her published works include poetry, a novel, and a collection of short stories, Hvis man begyndte at spørge sig selv (“If One Were to Begin to Ask Oneself”; Copenhagen: Samleren, 2007), which includes the original versions of “Cora,” “Sara tegner,” and “Fuglene.” Martin Aitken’s translation of “Fuglene,” entitled “The Birds,” appears in Dalkey Archive Press’ Best European Fiction 2015, while Peter Sean Woltemade’s translation of “Sara tegner,” entitled “Sara Drawing,” was published in The Missing Slate in January. This year, Djørup’s volume Poesi og andre former for trods (“Poetry and Other Forms of Rebellion”) was published by Samleren; the book includes short stories and a single poem. Among other distinctions, Djørup has received the EU’s Literature Prize and the Danish Arts Foundation’s three-year working grant.

Peter Sean Woltemade

Peter Sean Woltemade is an American-born literary translator. A former Fulbright Graduate Fellow (Berlin), he holds a Ph.D. in medieval German literature from the University of California at Berkeley. He has lived in Germany and Sweden for several years respectively and been based in Copenhagen since 2004. His translation of an excerpt from Karl-Heinz Ott's novel Endlich Stille ("Silence at Last") has appeared in InTranslation. Four of his translations of short stories by Danish authors have appeared in The Missing Slate. His translation of Julia Butschkow's short story "Det ser meget almindeligt ud" ("It Looks Very Ordinary") is forthcoming in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and his translation of Julia Butschkow's short story "Lauge" is forthcoming in The Cossack Review. His translation of Stefanie Ross's novel Nemesis - Verkaufte Unschuld (Nemesis: Innocence Sold), is in production at AmazonCrossing. He tweets at @PeterSWoltemade; his email address is peter.woltemade@fulbrightmail.org.

Hvis man begyndte at spørge sig selv. Copyright (c) Samleren, 2007. English translation copyright (c) Peter Sean Woltemade, 2015.