WINTER. THE SNOW rumbling in still, and without sound. Sometime after Christmas, I’m not sure.
The snow. That has laid itself upon it all, all that dares to remain exposed for more than a few seconds at a time, upon everything dead and everything living; the living and the dead; the violet stalks of the Brussels sprouts all askew, keeping their balance in the broken rows of the vegetable garden, packed in by snow, as old wine bottles are encapsulated by melting, stiffening candle wax, and with the drowsy resolve of that image the snow falls.
Obstinacy all around. We can’t go anywhere. We are inside a house, and the house is a giant corpse. We lie here and wait, beneath the skin. Movements are agitated and take place indoors. Outside only when something compels one of us: to fetch wood for the fire, feed the birds, clear a path. Outside there is only snow and the flies. True, the fattest of the flies are survivors.
The roasting trays are by turn hot and cold. We girls stand and stare, crane our necks beneath the ceilings. Fledgling birds. Our mother, nearly burning the bread. It can still be done, in the old oven. Her lips tighten and she winces with the voice of wet cloth, the only thing she has time to put between her fingers and the hot tray. She burns herself, the skin blisters: the things I do for you, she says, a wry smile. The water runs from the tap, I am horrified. The two sisters each understand more or less than me, who understands exactly what is required to see the fatality of it, in that sentence. Blisters.
Nothing to be worried about, she says, comforting me, in that way. She means it, and yet her words are a job to haul back into the boat, the clothes of the men are heavy with water, and we must sail on. Once more an about-turn; we always comforted each other in reverse; when I need comfort, when she does.
I think I looked utterly distraught.
The warm filling runs out of the sweet Shrovetide buns. The recipe book lies open on the table, Karolines Køkken. The filling of the buns, vanilla, and these rich yolks. I spell out the words on the title page, the Dairy Association’s recipe series, the oddness of the subtitle, Oh, Freedom–someone must have been thinking of heaven, or something quite like it.
Sunday mornings at the Thorup Dairy. My eyes watering at the muslin cloths of the cheeses, the dairymen slicing the blocks with wires. You can work in the dairy when you grow up, my father says to me. Perhaps that’s where it comes from, the idea of your parents, for all that, not knowing you better. The disappointment of them not seeing the gravity of it. He hands me a slice of cheese, draped over his fingers, and I remember thinking of dog ears, the same feeling of body about it.
I hated the smell of sour milk, the swarming cheese. An army of holes. And I wanted to go in and yet not for anything in the world, to go in. The wind from the sea across the road sweeps across the parking spaces and me, a mad dog thrashing in its chains, I shake my hair and drag a comb of fingers across its ribs before clambering onto the rear seat.
The bread has risen immensely, its back split open like a wound. The bread, the comb of its broken spine.
An old friend she has forgotten and suddenly recalls. My mother. She misses him, repeatedly. I’m not sure.
My lips are cracked. My thoughts.
My mother ties our hands behind our backs with her eyes, goes from the oven without closing it first; the oven issuing its heat into the kitchen. We try not to look each other in the eye. We glance about the room, our eyes are darts whizzing about the bread and the leaking filling of the Shrovetide buns as it sizzles on the tongue’s metal.
The mother returns to her young in the kitchen again, interrupting them with her example: look, my wounded hands, she says. Holding them out in front of her. So that her offspring may inspect. The fledglings gather on the finger branches. They nod.
The tips of her fingers are swathed in Band-Aids. Ten little brown boxes on skin-covered bones. Their mother’s hands, at least one joint in excess, as with each of her arms, each of her legs, shins, lower arms. And her bottom lip is twice as big, she has doubled in size.
Her hair is thick and glossy, wet slabs of moulded blue clay. Her beaded bracelets rattle as her young once more look away. She is melancholy for three days, then busy for three, but her love is the same every day, quite insane and far more durable than anything ever before seen in this world. Her remaining. Something rare in that, that choice: remaining until–
Until what, exactly. Until the end. Until it no longer makes sense, until she is abandoned by us or by our father or by the feeling that in spite of everything there is meaning in the madness, the victims.
She puts bread and sweet buns in the freezer for the birthdays in spring. Her children were born in March, April, and May. If she’s to be believed.
Sometimes I wonder, she can be so absorbed.
There is a fundamental lack of credibility about busy people, the way they insist on besieging dates and days and half-nights, annexing the world like that, colonially, with their own bodies. Come home for Christmas. Come home in good time.
Later, I’m like that myself, it’s what all of us grow up to be, all three of us, in part, at least. At best there’s something naively mendacious about that kind of vigor. At worst it’s calculation, thinly veiled. So many important dates. So many children and even more mouths to feed and navels from which to pick the fluff. Giddyup, giddyup, all my horses!
Always this wish to be just as busy. Just as decent as our mother; we are watermarked. Maybe one day just like her, without these grubby, rural fingernails.
But our cuticles resist. My nails collect dirt. Earth is what they want.
I fetch some wood in, a bustle of activity. A few seconds is all, and then a pillar of salt.
THE GOLD-THREADED BRISTLES OF a carcass poke up windswept, to be tumbled over the cloak of snow. So coarse, encapsulated each by frost, and the ice cap’s desolate.
A slothful movement in the snow. Most things have given up and lie still. A slightness of motion every ten seconds. The world is giving a ball, and at each round an animal is selected, or a tree, or a person, who must leave the stage and retire to the wings with ears blushing. The ones who didn’t move. Wrapped in hide of bison. The birds are in panic. No leaves remain to return the sound of their beating wings. No socks hung out to dry on the line, the metal hearts of the clothes pegs are glazed with pristine ice, frost blooms by turn on blue and red plastic. Posing arms of crystal. There is nothing like the echo of a world such as this.
I wake up with a start, a whiplash to vault a wall. Its beginnings a hesitation some hours after midnight. The wind switching to the east. The movement is an exact reflection of the slip of continental plates during an earthquake. Blankets of snow avalanching by turn. A shroud of matted marrow for the outer layer of the snow-cloak.
The sigh of the curly kale, its shelves of leafage.
Blankets that drop from plant cots.
An audible crashing down. The smell of something giving way. Something else sinking slightly.
Crystal arms colluding with panes of glass, and something contracts and gathers in a droplet. A droplet plunges from the eves to land upon the sunken head of a withered rose. The nod of the bush. My pillow has grown into my brain. She, who is used to stained and lumpy pillows, will fall asleep with her head in most any bony lap.
This infernal sound of droplets impacting and disintegrating. I wake up more fatigued than when I lay down to sleep.
ON THE LAST DAY OF the year, my mother clutches her chest, her eyes become tender mussels, orbs wedged tightly between lips of calcium. She sibilates about the grapes, Léon Millot, the ones she cuts in bunches from the vine in the greenhouse.
Being able to do such a thing. In December.
Winter all around. If this is not a miracle; if this is a miracle.
THAT WAS HOW I imagined it. That was what I wanted, to return here and to have a family of my own, in the village where we lived. The kind of face you see as you turn your head quickly inside an old house at evening, houses with such sounds.
There are images that will always occupy me. I have come to see them again, to be done with them again, or rather not, to not be done with them ever. To continue being occupied. Continue staying, and yet leave.
YOU ARE PEELING an onion, you strike it hard against the chopping board and remove the outer layers with a large knife. Out in the yard they are slaughtering chickens. They ask me to fetch more boiling water in which to scald them, or polystyrene boxes to divide things up. A cow, half a cow. I vomit over the fence, into the pasture of sheep, my slime dangling like entrails in the windowed rectangles of wire, where it remains for some time before descending into the couch grass. Take her inside, someone says, and my mother smiles and comforts me. The onions, tenderising in the pot. I find myself thinking you look like my father. You look like my father, I whisper. In the darkness you turn, sedated by fatigue.
You look like my father, I say again.
They roll back to sleep. The kitchen sparkles, stars illuminate the bedroom. Can a room be dark and then so abruptly light without anyone having altered anything. The same stars in the sky, the same night.
You sigh; later, a whimper. To what kind of exile have you delivered me, your sleeping, sleeping body wonders, a wheezing enquiry.
What do you think. What do you want. But at the same time, I regret everything, approached by creeping nausea, the kind that reminds a person they knew all along and even savored the disaster’s unfolding. I have a penchant for catastrophe. There is comfort in the sun always going down. The fact that in a way there is no hope, you know it is what will happen, and we can do nothing to prevent it. Death. I pick up a couple of blankets from the lawn, the dew has fallen, I tell myself, and again I am doing this too late (this is the kind of thing that makes me doubt I am no longer a child, and wonder if I will ever be anything else).
We drive through the plantation to Svinklovene. The roads are uneven concrete, massive slabs split like clay plowed up and frozen overnight, in the first frost. Lie down here. And the covering of morning: the world hushed, only the rhythmic snap of the flaglines, pealing bells in the distance; and then we are at the harbor, some buckets put down in a basement somewhere, where washing machines idle–outside, everything is silent, like an odd shoe someone lost on the road.
Your body is accusative, because I have taken you with me. That is your dream.
And yet you have no dream other than peace, so why blame me. Simple.
I SUPPOSE I HAD got used to you, your being here; the sound of my own heart, the sound of a bush beating at the window all night, all day.
ONLY THEN IT wasn’t you who had fallen asleep, and me lying sleepless; but the sound of me alone in a bed, and you turning in sleep, beside a body that cannot find rest, a single movement that connects us all; me, waking as you turn, another woman getting up. It’s not you, you will say; I just can’t handle intimacy right now. I need–
Space, I say.
It’s never one person leaving another; you leave each other, I think to myself. It takes place, a single movement; you have become one body, and this body falls apart. There is no blame to apportion, but accounts to be settled, and no one to send the bill to. All that I possess is yours. That kind of feeling.
The debts left by love. A single movement and you lose all, and must borrow everything. And thus it must all be carried about: everything that is yours, and all that you have lent out. A body like that.
SHE CAN’T REMEMBER beginning to love him, and she can’t remember stopping. The feeling doesn’t move like that, forwards or backwards. It exists, like a darkness that surrounds us, surrounding me. A desire for light, twenty-four hours a day.
Traversing the land to clamber up on Stabelhøj Hill.
The sky increasing in size, a sail unfolding above, the further one walks into the landscape. The cows are returning home, emerging from the pastures; it’s that time of day, and their swaying udders are heavy and sore, pressed between their legs, weeping milk; the swarming flies that crawl upon the air, that find a settling place in the corner of an eye, a groin. The cow calves say nothing, they are knees that bend, and stiff hind legs, stilts brushing the tautness of the udder. Jets of milk spatter the earth upon every glance, liquid lingering a moment, pearls of purest white in the couch grass, then absorbed by the clay-like soil, beneath clovers of only three leaves. The veins of the mottled udders: blue. A woodland in which to become lost, a landscape that is not dark, not only. All pathways are luminous, one could contend. A lattice of trellis-work visible, holding a miscellany of wishes in place. You nudge me, to make me turn onto my side.
That’s better, you say.
It’s as if our bodies have melted together in that position, all other bodies to come are perfect casts of: this. Too much or too little body. I can’t remember when we became more than two in this bed. But suddenly we were more, and I was someone else. Are you asleep, you ask.
IT’S RAINING, AS IF there were a fire to put out, a steady downpour throughout the day, a recalcitrant blaze that will not succumb. When was rain ever a solution to anything.
THE FLIES ARE BUSY. They scurry across the walls of the kitchen, hasten across my sister’s hand. She lets the hot water run in the sink, on the empty bottles with their stoppers.
Her hand, a surface of skin gripped by flies, is at rest on the counter.
Her other hand is reddened by hot steam. She holds them up to the light in front of her, the way you do with bottles of red wine, to see how much is left. She lets out a sigh, and stirs the pot on the cooker. The third sister has put her foot on the counter and is mending her laddered tights with hysterical nail varnish. From a tiny point of origin on the back of her footballer’s calf, the ladder plunges towards the heel. Heavy drops of rain draw green streaks down the grey of the panes. The dripping from the tips of all the ferns after the rain. She closes her eyes and continues stirring briskly, so that her sister will not notice her and realize her disgust at the entire scene, the tableau of footballer’s calf, nail varnish, kitchen. Beneath her brittle ribs lies a conscience. On the cooker, she has shapely legs in one pot, elderflowers in the other. She always feels guilty about something.
DISTANCE HAS SHORTENED everywhere, no longer as far from one place to another since they cleared the trees. I go left, down through the wood that is no more. I think of you, decide to call you, but then to wait until later. That feeling I have: of always holding you off. I wonder whether the sentence can be inverted: if you have always held me off. And I: whether I took something in advance that ended up being canceled. I follow the stream, through the snow. I can’t be on my own anymore, and I’ve only just started. It has nothing to do with strength or lack of it. It’s about what makes sense. A friend writes me a letter, on this day of all days, he writes that you can’t love a person who cannot love. I know he’s thinking: because it ruins you. I’m not sure who I’m thinking about. Dead man. New man.
One kind of gravity colliding with another, that’s what it is. Being home, and being nowhere at all. Being somewhere you know, without recognizing a thing. I walk the path into the woods. The hills are older, the woodland has advanced all the way up to the vertex; bald, sandy earth.
Does it mean anything, me walking here.
Maybe it means: you are walking here. No more than that. I want to call you, but I want never to call you again. A celebration canceled, is the feeling that wells in me. A number of people want to love me but are not allowed. A number of people cannot, or lack the courage. It doesn’t matter. All there is here is this acute lack of home. The trees are bare, oak, I think. Yes, oak. A low carpet of self-seeded evergreen advancing to the trunks. They look frightened, as though, being caught red-handed on the point of some shameless deed, they lost their crowns in panic. You use me for thinking. I don’t know what use I make of you, apart perhaps from survival. There is no one in the twilight here to notice that the trees and their crowns don’t match. Evergreen and deciduous are different. And still I am in no doubt that is what has happened: panic arisen among the trees, and sudden autumn. Leaf fall, a carpet of needles around the lower trunks, the feet of the oak.
BECAUSE LANGUAGE IS NOT innocent, but fire and weaponry. One wages war with words, risking all the time to fall into bed with the enemy. I’m not sure now, but that’s what I thought when I got up and saw a boat come though the canal, towing the morning behind it on a rope. I’m not sure either if there is any pleasure in not being compelled to do something. And more generally: pleasure surely has little to do with such a thing as freedom.
SHE WAKES UP AT his feet. Stares straight into them. She is lying on her side, and his feet are towers toppled in front of her collapsed eyes.
Her face is twisted askew and is made of dry clay.
Her face, fallen.
So big were his feet, then. So cold the room. He must have opened a window in the night. She remembers nothing of it. What she remembers is: them not being able to reach, neither of them could reach. And then this: that he once lifted her up so that she might line the frames with shards of glass. To keep someone away, keep someone out.
The balloons are tired and shrunken after the celebration.
How distant it seems now, the celebration. And how unreal in this honest light.
He blocks out the sun with his foot. His feet have always been big, it strikes her now. Probably he is of another opinion. They see things differently, though mostly they are one body, one thought.
Look, she says.
He turns his heavy head towards her, a mechanical action, and she sees him against the light, a mane of hair edged by a nimbus.
His throat is a well, a rope hangs from the pulley, clutching a dismal zinc bucket. Tomorrow once again, it will batter the lining of his infected gullet.
A wind howls in the well.
Her mouth fills up with feet and jealousy.
If this is courage; this is courage.
She points, as well as she is able. Pokes a finger out in front of them. And it is as if he will not believe her; the little tug on her hand.
Come on, he says. Let’s go home, let’s go home where it’s warm. The lake here will soon be dark. There are so many good reasons that only one needs mentioning. The dark, for instance. The others queue up in the mind, too many by far, like figures on the platform in Berlin, so many people soon to break up and be put into railway carriages. His woolly hat, always riding upwards and back, and he, always pulling it down over his ears again unaware.
He puts his hands in the well to defrost.
Come on, he insists, and does not see the carp. They hang suspended in the frozen lake beneath them.
Carp-mouthed carp, the silver of scales.
She is more beautiful than me, she thinks, and collects her saliva, spits on the ice, and finally they go. The thought of it will not leave her, her spit descending through the ice like a drill, twisting its way ever down, a drinking straw of fish, a leggy man diving for pearls, to save up for the sake of some later amusement.
I GET OUT OF BED and stand naked in the blue light. My feet seem unnaturally flat. It’s like the original and the acquired have changed places. The tall sandals are lacking underneath me, the soles of my feet are admitted to the floors.
THE APPLE TREE RUNS IN through the window and along the hall. Its branches are trailing flames. The apples bruise against the walls.
The storm has woken me up.
The different sounds of the apples. The frozen red ones. Those succumbing, those rotten.
Branches swipe at furniture, stab at the pictures. The blue lithographs sway like street lamps, they buffet the wall, in the way of unknowing birds whose wings have been clipped. Helpless and inept.
If I can’t identify the moments I live for, at least I can identify those I live in spite of.
Nature is disturbed by winter. I am, too.
MORNING HAS COME abruptly. Spring has arrived without them having noticed. Again, we are caught napping. She comes home and is quiet at the door as always. She knows to be silent. Her mouth is open, throat gaping, the air may come and go from her body as it pleases. Without sound. Her body is partition walling inside the apartment. She lifts and pulls the door towards her, turning the key gently, that certain way it must be opened so as not to creak. She is well inside the hall before she sees him. He is standing there, awake. Wanting to walk in the woods.
Good morning. Where does that smile come from. He walks beside her on the path, whose exultant green almost chokes on itself. They pass behind the amusement ground, Tivoli Friheden, where everything as yet stands dripping the cold of night. Equal parts expectation and fatigue. And the leaves in the wind: a sound like gravel being raked.
He smiles, and she sees him against the light. He stands in the kitchen, an infant sun swelling behind him. Someone has moved the clouds. The traffic sounds different, the tyre-noise belongs to brighter spring, brighter summer. In the summer you can hear the warm snap of asphalt.
She pulls off her running gear and showers. Reluctantly, she applies an extra layer of mascara. They walk in the woods, the anemones have pushed through the earth, are yet to unfold, though their buds are fat and glistening green. The light is unreal and renders everything else: unreal. He talks, fired with enthusiasm. His hands, his energy fill the entire clearing by the lake. She wonders if he even sees the woods. And if he does, whether they disappoint him, whether he will feel let down if he should look at them. It is an enthusiasm that renders everything unreal.
Someone told him about nature and now they are walking there.
The leaves have heard about the light, they unfold and present it to them. She waits for someone to extinguish him again. They will never be one with nature, but still they walk. It is as if the woods may be translated into portents and predictions.
Only they can’t.
He is at least three different men, and she at least three different women.
YOU’RE SMILING, HE says, concerned. As though arriving home unexpectedly to find a table set for a candlelit dinner.
Am I, she says.
She sits quietly, as if under a sky towering above fields at harvest, a cape of metallic blue to shroud the corn as it positions itself for the angry work of machinery.
AFTER EVERYTHING, HE visits.
It is afternoon, the weather is amazing. We ought to be out, she thinks. Nice chairs. Things you’re familiar with. There are some clothes on her bed, some cupboards gaping, and all these books splayed apart. Look at this place, he says, and laughs. He says it’s good to see she can allow herself to relax now. With things like that.
But it’s my face you’re talking about, she thinks.
It’s her face he’s talking about.
SHE IS STANDING IN the kitchen, looking out onto the courtyard. Or else she is in her parents’ kitchen, the budgerigars unsettled in their cage. The hedges are full of spring, the season resides now in the tiny feet and beaks of titmice and blackbirds. She descends into the cellar and retrieves the sun lounger. She finds blankets, and takes her duvet outside as well.
It’s still too cold for anything, really. But still a person can lie down here, wrapped up in woolen blankets and duvets, in a spot of sunlight. There is sky, and there are windows cleaned, and nothing, but nothing in the way. The clouds travel across their backdrop of blue, and yet in upward motion, ever more distant as one draws in the air. A shudder runs through your ribs, a feeling of–demasking, a promise in all things of: clarity. No more talk. Everyone stops talking, work is done, sounds of a city at work. Wooden posts hammered into the ground, duvets shaken in the air, the clatter of things dropped from balconies, the thunder of beaten rugs, a clicking of tongues, children reluctant to go back in and eat. And tomorrow the rain may come and draw its herringbone across the road in front of the house as drains gurgle. And he will perhaps be standing under the trees. As though waiting to be consumed. By nature. Because he is missing something and doesn’t quite know what.
Sit down here a minute, meaning:
Summer is over, and the thought is unbearable. The apples, bright as eyes in the tree, little heads dangling from a belt. Summer, leaving without paying.
HER GAZE SWEEPS OVER the lawn. It picks something up. A little case of some sort. A bag of ripe redcurrants. The greenhouse perspires in a corner of the garden. The stalks of the tomato plants wilt after a long winter. You say there is nothing like tomatoes picked when red and ripe. The ones you buy in the supermarket are a different thing altogether. She borrows a car and drives out to the allotment gardens. No one has been there for ages. Perennials lie upon the ground. A single sunflower left standing, stalk broken under the weight of the head’s heavy disc. Four wrinkled tomatoes hang bright as Japanese lanterns. Some things that need distributing between them. Everything that never turned out. Everything that never happened.