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Authors: Mette Jakobsen

Tags: #General Fiction

The Vanishing Act

BOOK: The Vanishing Act
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For Matilde


And the longer and more carefully
I examine all these things, the more
clearly and distinctly I know that
they are true.

René Descartes

It was snowing the morning I found

t was snowing the morning I found the dead boy. The island with its two houses and one church was covered in a layer of white.

Papa was pulling in the fishing nets when I saw a hand between two rocks. It looked like a magic trick; almost as if a bunch of roses was about to appear—boom!
There you are, for you
—and then applause. But everything was quiet and the hand didn’t move.

He was lying on his back, dusted with new snow in a cradle of rocks. His eyes were closed. A raven sat above him, watching from a weathered pine branch. The boy was a bit older than me, maybe fourteen or fifteen. His hair was dark, almost as dark as mine.

‘Papa,’ my voice came out as a whisper.

The dead boy’s mouth was slightly open, as though he was about to ask a question, something hard to ask, something that made him hesitate.

‘Papa,’ I shouted, ‘Papa.’

And then I started running towards him, stumbling, running, and Papa let the nets fall and caught me in his arms.

‘Don’t be scared, Papa,’ I said against his thick coat, ‘it’s not Mama.’

Papa went to see the dead boy, and I waited at the fishing spot, watching how the wind picked up the fine snow and whirled it across rocks and sand. Winter had come early.

It was November. It had been a year since the circus. And a year since Mama walked out into the cold morning rain with a large black umbrella. A year since she disappeared, and took Turtle with her.

You might not believe my story. You might read it as a fairytale, a fable straight out of my imagination. But all of it is true. The dead boy stayed with us for three days. Papa laid him, frozen and stiff, on a bed in the blue room and that’s where he remained until the delivery boat came. The island is still out there in the ocean; an island so tiny that it can’t be found
on any maps. Only a cross tells the weary sailor about the possibility of salvation in the middle of an endless sea.

Papa fished at dawn. His tin bucket sat in the cupboard under the sink and the nets hung on the back wall of the kitchen, where they looked dark and full of promise. Before Mama disappeared he would place her cup on the kitchen table and put water on the stove before he got the nets ready. Mama liked her coffee as soon as she got up. She liked it with cream and sugar in a delicate cup with small peacocks painted on the side. She would drink it slowly, with tousled hair and sleepy eyes.

I still got her cup out every morning and put it on the table. Papa would look sorrowfully at the fine porcelain. ‘She is not dead, Papa,’ I would tell him. ‘She is coming back.’

I was twelve, my body thin and long, and I looked nothing like Mama. She was beautiful in a way I can’t quite explain. But I can tell you that her eyes were grey, and even in the morning she wore dresses, blue, red or purple, and after her coffee she would put up her long red hair in a loose bun, in which she placed feathers or velvet roses.

The morning I found the dead boy, I gathered the nets while Papa finished his coffee, put on his boots and jacket and the yellow scarf I had knitted him the year before and that I could now see was less than perfect.

It was cold and dark outside, with only the lights from the church in the distance to guide us. Tiny, prickly snowflakes hit me hard on the cheeks and I shielded my eyes. We stood just outside the door, Papa and I. We couldn’t see the ocean but we could hear it. The beach was two hundred and seventy-six steps from our front door. All that stood between the door and the beach was a pair of gigantic wrought-iron gates, which prevailed tall and proud. They were wishing, I imagined, for the fence that had never followed. Theodora, who built the church and the two houses on the island more than two hundred years earlier, died an untimely death and never got around to making the fence.

‘Are you ready?’ Papa put the nets over his shoulder.

‘I can’t find my gloves.’

‘Have mine.’

He handed me his large gloves with sheep’s wool lining, and reached for his bucket, while the fading
night rushed towards us, as if it had just one last chance to make itself felt.

Papa always opened the gates instead of walking around them. ‘A gentleman never ignores a gate,’ he declared. The gates swung closed behind us with a rusty shriek, and Papa said, as he always did, ‘Name me three philosophers, Minou.’

And that morning, as on every other morning, I had three names ready for him. ‘Kant, Hegel and Descartes, of course.’

‘Of course,’ he said and took my hand. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he was pleased, and together we stepped down the path, and then along the beach, like two blind explorers, through seaweed and dark rocks, through ice and sea moss, towards the fishing spot.

Papa said that to live on an island was to live in a closed fist. ‘Nothing suits a philosopher better,’ he said. ‘How can you philosophise if you constantly have to choose?’ On an island as small as ours there were choices to be made, but not that many. Most of the time could be spent thinking, which for Papa was the noblest of all pursuits.

I could walk around the island in fifty-three minutes. It was the shape of the chocolate cat-tongues
we sometimes had for Christmas. They were creamy and milky with a shape more like a dog’s bone than a cat’s tongue. At the western point was Theodora’s Plateau. I was never allowed to go close to the edge. The wind alone, said Papa, could whisk you off and fling you into the waves far below.

Had the boy arrived on the island alive and well, we would have shown our visitor around. We would walk from the beach and up the path. And Papa would tell the boy everything about the old lighthouse that sat on top of our house and leaned slightly towards the sea. It was no longer in use. But Papa was proud of it, and, even though he wasn’t very practical, he had spent many hours repairing the outside wooden stairs to the lighthouse so it could be my special place.

As we got closer I would say to the boy, ‘Just wait until you get inside the house, just wait until you see the walls.’ Because Mama liked to paint and had filled the house with colourful murals.

And I would whisper to the boy that everyone thought that Mama was dead. Priest had found her shoe washed up on the beach after she disappeared. Papa never spoke of the day they put it, salt-stained
and minus its heel, in an old shoebox and buried it. I watched the funeral from the lighthouse. Papa had wanted me to go, but I said no. I said that it was of no use: I was sure that Mama was still alive.

We would show the boy the forest with its seventeen pines, its many rabbits and the old apple tree that one summer bore three hundred and two apples. We would lead him along the forest path and visit Boxman and his faithful companion, No Name, a short dog, with scruffy white fur and floppy ears.

Then we would go to visit Priest. And the church would look magnificent in the morning darkness, with light spilling from every window and scores of ravens flying in and out of the bell tower.

‘Priest is scared of the dark,’ I would explain. ‘He sleeps in the tower and keeps the light on all night. That’s why we don’t need a new lighthouse. Sometimes when he is upset he even rings the bell.’

Later I would show the boy the rusty machine that sat in a shed next to the church, wheezing and coughing, making light for the whole island.

‘Not all islands have light,’ I would explain.

And the boy would be impressed that we had both light, and a church complete with Priest and bell tower on an island so small.

In the centre of the lighthouse was an enormous bulb. Once I tried to switch it on, but Papa got angry.

‘There is mercury in it,’ he said and rubbed his nose where his reading glasses had left a red mark. ‘It’s poisonous. That’s why so many lighthouse keepers have gone mad living here. They saw things rising out of the sea: strange creatures, pirate ships, goats, pigs, all sorts of scary things.’

‘And horses, Papa?’

‘Anything that shouldn’t come out of the water in the first place.’

On the big bulb I stuck the four pictures of Descartes that Uncle had given to me. He came to visit when Mama disappeared. Uncle was Papa’s brother, and he was the one who had traced our family line right back to Descartes. He was an academic and worked in the Department of Paranormal Sciences at a renowned university. Uncle was the only one left in the department and worked from an office so small that he had to leave his briefcase outside the door.

I had spent every night in the lighthouse since Mama disappeared. I had an old mattress with lots of blankets, and a small heater in the corner. But Papa still tucked me into bed downstairs each evening
and made sure that I was wearing a scarf, jacket and a thick jumper before I got under the covers. Then he kissed me goodnight, checked that my boots were ready next to the bed and turned the lights out.

Sometimes I stayed in bed for a while, listening to Papa in the study, to his absent humming and the sound of pages being turned, but most nights I would get up, tiptoe down the hallway, quietly open the front door and climb the outside staircase to the lighthouse.

The ceiling in the lighthouse was low and I could only just stand up in the middle. I would sit, wrapped in blankets, looking out at the island: a dark shape of sand, snow and rocks, searching my mind for something surprising that I could tell Mama when she came back.

I once asked Papa what philosophers think about. We were in the kitchen. Mama was on her knees, paint on her cheek, putting the final touches on a picture of the old apple tree.

‘They think about life,’ he said.

‘About dogs?’ I asked.

‘No, they don’t worry too much about dogs.’

‘About trees then?’

‘No, not about trees either, they don’t think in specifics, they think broadly.’

‘About the island?’

‘No,’ said Papa, ‘they think about much bigger things.’

‘The stars?’

‘Not necessarily. Philosophers step back and look at the big picture.’

‘That is not what Mama does.’

‘No,’ Papa agreed.

‘She says the tiniest brush stroke matters.’

‘But sometimes, my girl, when you look in such detail, you lose the big picture.’

‘What is the big picture, Papa?’

‘Truth, the absolute truth, Minou. Telling us why things happen.’

‘What things?’

‘Things that are not easy to understand.’

‘Things about the war, Papa?’

‘Yes, Minou. Most definitely things about the war.’

‘But what if someone doesn’t want to see the big picture?’ I asked.

‘Well,’ Papa hesitated, ‘that would be a pity, Minou.’ He glanced at Mama. Her painting, he said,
would be a great addition to the kitchen. The tree’s wilted branches stretched around the front door and touched the umbrella stand. And beside the rack where her shoes were lined up in neat rows she had painted a rabbit with extra long ears and next to it a pile of delicious-looking apples.

Mama didn’t care much for philosophy. ‘Use your imagination Minou,’ she would say, ‘don’t think so much.’

Once she took the leaf I had carefully pressed in Papa’s copy of Kant’s
Critique of Pure Reason
and held it up to the window. The leaf was dry and brittle and little squares of light shone through it.

‘What does it look like?’ She held it higher for me to see.

I shook my head.

‘Make something up, Minou. Something curious.’

I hesitated, looking hard at the leaf.

‘Can’t you see the city and all the houses? And there—’ she pointed, ‘a square, where everyone gathers at night.’

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘All the people in the city, of course,’ she laughed, then looked at me. ‘Where is your imagination, Minou? Where has it gone?’

After Mama disappeared I asked Papa to order a notebook from the boatmen. It had two hundred and ten pages. And in it I wrote down everything that happened, such as:

There is one apple left on the tree, Mama.

It’s very cold. Papa says that winter has come early.
If you are on a boat I hope you can keep warm.

Last night I forgot to shut the front door properly.
Papa’s glass of water turned to ice overnight.

Yesterday Papa caught nineteen fish, a record!

There is snow on your shoe-grave.

And I drew the pinecones I kept in the lighthouse. I documented their shape and height and each day I would add more raven bones to my collection, trying to arrange them into different patterns, hoping to see something special that Mama might like. But I felt silly, remembering Papa’s words. ‘A philosopher sees with his rational mind, Minou, he does not engage with the imagination. It takes us
to unpredictable places, it follows our wishes and wants, not what really is.’ I thought it might help if I knew more about where Mama had come from and what she did before she arrived on the island. But she never talked about her past—not to me, not to Papa. She told Papa that she had been in the war, but would not tell him what had happened to her. All Papa really knew was that she had arrived on the island in a rowboat on a windy day, with a red suitcase and her pet peacock called Peacock.

Papa and Priest lived on the island when Mama came, Boxman came later still. Priest had been there the longest, and said that nothing was better for a man of God than to be in a quiet place. The only time he had tried to go back was when the war broke out. He wanted to help, but no delivery boat would take him.

Papa arrived after the war and liked the quiet life on the island straight away. He enjoyed the occasional meal with priest and was content without a wife.

Mama wasn’t looking to get married either, she said. She just needed a hot cup of coffee and a place to put down her suitcase. But when she saw Papa waving from the shore, she liked him straight away.
‘Imagine, little one. A kind and gentle man waving to me, almost as if he had been waiting for me to arrive.’

Papa remembered the day clearly, every little bit of it, he said. It was cold and the sky was grey. Ravens flew out to sea the way they always did when a boat approached, but were thrown back, one after the other, Mama said, like funny old hats, twirling, tumbling towards shore.

BOOK: The Vanishing Act
2.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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