Authors: Per Petterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
I remember how we stood on the quay watching the swells go down the gangway from the Copenhagen boat. They had traveled first class and now they were going to Frydenstrand health resort for the bathing or further on to Skagen by train to rent vacation houses or stay at hotels for the summer weeks. The men wore straw boaters and the ladies’ dresses were bright in the sunshine. The upper-class people of Copenhagen had just discovered Skagen and a special railway line ran from the harbor to take them to the station although it was only a few blocks away. I watched porters in uniform carrying their suitcases over to the train, and I thought it might be an aim in life, to have someone to carry your suitcases for you.
When the boats came in we could hear them hooting from a long way away, and then my father would take off his carpenter’s apron and hang it on a nail behind the workshop door and walk through the streets to the harbor to see them arrive. He always walked at the same pace and never hurried, he knew exactly how long it took. He would stop a few meters from the edge of the quay, and there he stayed in the long coat he always wore when it was windy, with his hands clasped behind his back and his brown beret on his head, but it was not possible to see what he was thinking, for his face was so calm and he only went there when the boats came in and never when they left, unless there was someone on board he knew, and that was seldom the case.
When I was not at school we both stood there. I too had my hands behind my back and the wind pulled at his coat and the wind pulled at my hair and whirled it around so it whipped both him and me. It was a mass of brown hair with ringlets that bounced against my back when I ran. Many people in town said it looked nice, even dashing, but I felt it just got in the way, and when I suggested cutting it short my mother said, “No, for it’s your best feature and without it you’d look like an Eskimo because of your round face.” According to her the Eskimos were a race who lived at the North Pole and worshipped gods of blubber and bone and unfortunately Denmark ruled over them. But everyone has their cross to bear, and I had not the strength in those days to defy her, so I used to pull my hair back tightly with a rubber band at the neck so I could take part in all Jesper’s projects. The latest one was Great Discoveries. He would get together with some friends and they would roam the roads and the forests of the neighborhood and in the evenings they would meet in a cellar on the other side of the Plantation park where one of them lived and make plans for The Great Journey. I was the only girl allowed to be with them now and then.
But I enjoyed the feeling of the wind in my hair, and I knew my father liked to see it blow straight out when we stood on the quay and watched the boats come in. And after all it was my only pride.
The train waited behind us, puffing and hissing through its valves, and even though it was only an hour’s journey to Skagen, I had never been there.
“Can’t we go to Skagen one day?” I asked. Being with Jesper and his friends had made me realize the world was far bigger than the town I lived in and the fields around it, and I wanted to go traveling and see it.
“There’s nothing but sand at Skagen,” my father said, “you don’t want to go there, my lass.” And because it was Sunday and he seldom said
he took a cigar from his waistcoat pocket with a pleased expression, lit it, and blew out smoke into the wind. The smoke flew back in our faces and scorched them, but I pretended not to notice and so did he. With smarting eyes we watched the passenger boat
approach the opening in the breakwater full steam ahead, tears streamed and I squeezed my eyelids into narrow cracks. All along one side of the deck the passengers hung over the rail waving their handkerchiefs, the
swung around and slackened speed, and there came the tugboat, fixed the hawser on board and moved off with engines roaring and the hawser snapped out of the water so the spray leapt up and the drops sparkled in the sun. The big boat turned gently in toward the quay where people stood waiting in groups, and someone on land called:
“Have you been seasick?”
“YEEES!” yelled the whole row in chorus.
When all the passengers had landed and the ones who were going by train were settled and the train had left, we turned away from the wind, dried our eyes, and went back into town. Then we crossed the street leading from the cobbled jetty towards the Cimbria Hotel and around the hotel to Lodsgate with Consul Broch’s house on the right and Færgekroen, the Ferry Inn, on the left and right along Danmarksgate to the corner where our street, Asylgate, joined it. We stopped there, and he said:
“That’s all for the two of us today. Go home to your mother now.” He was strict about not having me along too much although he knew I would rather be with him. But I had to go home and soon I would hear all about the priest’s sermon that day and about the whole service, while my father went on to Aftenstjernen, the Evening Star, to play billiards with his friends as it was Sunday.
The first time I do remember us going to Skagen was in autumn. Grandfather at Vrangbæk had just turned sixty-five, and everyone had been out to the farm, the whole family with uncles and aunts and people from the neighboring farms. The sun came in through the windows, the rooms were full of people, and some were out in the farmyard and among the shrubs in the Chinese garden, yet all the same the day was filled with clinking silence and stiff necks. Grandmother walked about in her white apron for the first time in forty years, she served drinks from a tray and smiled in a way that made Grandfather sit in his chair as if paralyzed and my father stand up all day long, and not once did their eyes meet. My mother’s voice was more fluting than usual and even though there were many guests, hers was the one I kept hearing.
But at Skagen we found the tourists had gone back to Copenhagen for the winter. Not a fine dress to be seen in the main street, not a straw hat or parasol, and even though I knew we were making this trip for my sake, I was disappointed. My father was right, there was not much there except sand. The wild wind swept right down among the low yellow houses whose owners stayed inside behind closed doors, my mother held on to her hat and Jesper walked sideways with his back to the wind, and it was blowing so hard out at Grenen, where the two seas meet at the tip of the sand spit, that we could not go out there with horses as we had planned, and sand and salt stuck in my hair, my clothes, my mouth when I wanted to speak and it was difficult to walk without feeling it smarting between my thighs.
What I liked was the train ride. It took an hour and that was enough for me to be able to lean backward against the seat with closed eyes, feel the joints in the rails come up and thump through my body and sometimes peer out of the windows and see windswept heathland and imagine I was on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I had read about it, seen pictures in a book, and decided that no matter when and how life would turn out, one day I would travel from Moscow to Vladivostok on that train, and I practised saying the names: Omsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, they were difficult to pronounce with all their hard consonants, but ever since the trip to Skagen, every journey I made by train was a potential departure on my own great journey.
Jesper was heading for Morocco. That would be too hot for me. I wanted open skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances, but his pictures were mysterious and alluring in black and white with barren mountains in the far distance and sun-scorched faces and sun-scorched towns behind battlemented walls and fluttering tunics and palm trees that suddenly rose out of no-man’s-land.
“I’ll get there if I want to,” said Jesper. “And I do want to.” He looked at the pictures and maps in his book and read aloud:
“Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Kasba.” He shaped his mouth to the vowels and held on to them and in his voice they turned into magic spells and we promised each other that this was something we would achieve. He fetched a knife and we made cuts in our hands and mixed the blood that had been mixed before, but now it would be like a circle, said Jesper.
We stood in the shed behind the house holding each other’s hands, it was almost too solemn, Jesper did not laugh as usual, my palm hurt, and I could hear the rain on the corrugated iron roof and in the trees outside and beyond the rain was a silence so huge it filled the whole of Denmark.
But at Skagen the wind was deafening and it thumped at everything out on the road where we walked huddled together like a family in a newspaper pictured fleeing from cannons. We had tried everywhere but there was nowhere to take shelter. The kiosks were closed because of bad weather, the cafés were never open on Sunday, and in the harbor the waves were breaking on shore. And
it began to rain. It came from all directions at full speed and not
us with the wind right in our faces; we tried to turn away, walk sideways so as not to drown and Jesper gave up and ran out into the middle of the road and began to dance with his arms in the air.
“Come and see! Come and see! The people from heaven have come to conquer the new world. Come and see! Come and see!” he shouted, laughing for joy. The rain streamed from his hair and in several windows the curtains were drawn aside and there stood the occupants gaping out while they moved their lips at someone beyond them in the shadows and shook their heads.
“Come and see your superiors!” shouted Jesper. “We have pearls of glass and swords of steel!”
“Keep your mouth shut, boy!” roared my father, “get back to your place!” He had water in his eyes and water in his voice, and Jesper replied:
“Woof, woof,” and panted like a dog and joined the flock again, and we went on down the road to the railway station. We tottered into the station building where the man in the ticket office told us that our train would not leave for about three hours. He looked at us sideways under his cap, he was used to finer folk. The whole trip collapsed like a house of cards. We huddled together under the the platform roof, my father bit the inside of his cheeks until they bulged and gazed into the air and had nothing to say. He had planned it all and it had not turned out as he had intended and now we were trapped here. My mother pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders and I thought it did not matter that I was disappointed. After all, the only thing wrong with this journey was that it was too short.
When we walk down Asylgate on our way from the station Lucifer is standing in front of the house. I can still feel the train in my body, and the wind and the yellow houses, my long hair is done up in a plait my mother made and it feels sticky, full of sand and salt rain and stiff as a rope. I fiddle with it and try to loosen it, but it’s impossible without help. Lucifer is not tied up, he walks across the road and nibbles the grass at the edge of the gravel of a house on the other side, with the trap in tow. No one but Grandfather drives Lucifer, but Uncle Nils is sitting on the steps with his head in his hands, he is wearing his black Sunday jacket and working trousers covered with big stains and clogs on his feet. We are all cold and walking quicker than usual, and when Uncle Nils catches sight of us he gets up with his arms straight down by his sides and his fists clenched. He opens them and clenches them again. I see my father looking at his hands and he looks at the horse.
“Something’s happened,” says Jesper.
“Shut up, boy,” says my father.
My mother turns. “But Magnus!”
“Shut up, I say.”
I take his hand, but he doesn’t notice and does not hold mine. Uncle Nils is white in the face even though he works out in the fields south of Vrangbæk most of the year. “Grandfather is dead,” he tells us. “He has hanged himself in the cowshed.” We stand quite still. We should not be hearing this, Jesper and I, and I do not look at him, I see the cowshed with the stalls in a row in the half darkness and all the beams in there and Dorit lying in her stall chewing with her big warm body against my coat, and I get warm thinking of it even though the wind cuts icily down Asylgate and I am so freezing my teeth chatter, but all the same I don’t feel cold.
“Come on,” says Jesper, “we’ll go in.” He pulls me by the arm towards the door where my mother is already on her way inside. She sings a song quietly to herself and goes into the kitchen, lowers the blanket of hymn between herself and us, and Jesper and I go into the living room and stand at the window looking out on to the road. Uncle Nils holds my father by his coat, looking down at the ground as he talks fast, we can hear his voice but not what he says. My father knocks his hand away and crosses the road to Lucifer and gets ahold of his bridle. Lucifer pulls back and rears on his hind legs, my father holds on and is pulled upward so he has to stand on tiptoe on only one foot and Uncle Nils goes running up to them on clattering clogs. Together they calm the horse down enough for them to climb into the trap, and my father takes the reins. Lucifer rears again and my father yells so his voice slams hard and cold against the house walls and Lucifer sets off at a trot down the road. The last thing we see is my father’s brown beret before they vanish around the corner and off down Danmarksgate on their way out of town towards Vrangbæk.
“How could I have known that?” says Jesper. “I couldn’t know it.”
“Of course you couldn’t.”
“Maybe I’ve got dark powers. Maybe I can look into the future and see disasters to come, like Sara in the forest.”
But Sara in the forest is an old lady who lives in an old house at the edge of the woods beside the road to Vrangbæk, and Jesper is not like her at all. She can read coffee grounds and read your palm, she knows the names of all the stars and plants and what they can be used for, and some say she killed her own child because it didn’t have a father. She had never been with a man so what she gave birth to was no human child. She is Jesper’s favorite spook and he always shouts “She’s coming! She’s coming!” and I step on my pedals as hard as I can when we cycle past there in the evening. She can see through the dark, Jesper thinks.