Authors: Per Petterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Far out to sea lay a blanket of fog and only the tops of the masts could be seen like pins in a pincushion where the fishing boats were making for home in convoy after days of hard weather on the banks north of Skagen. Jesper would have liked to stay and see them coming in too, they were quite a sight when they cut through the fog and out into the sudden sunshine. But my father was on board the boat from Læsø, and that was why we were up so early even though it was the middle of the summer holidays. We walked in along the arm of the breakwater to the wharfs at the fishing-boat harbor and the ferry harbor and it was warm inside our wellingtons and cold from the knees up, I felt the gooseflesh spreading and it was a feeling I liked.
We walked fast to get there before the gangway was lowered. We had expected to see him from the breakwater, but my father was not one for standing out on deck to wave to us and be seen by everyone, and he made no exception this time. But there weren’t many people in the harbor now. I only saw Hobo-Hans who had slept in a boathouse and two fishermen squatting on a wharf by their boat mending nets, chatting, and smoking cigars. The smoke spiraled up into the blue and their voices carried a long way in the early air. We heard them clearly over the water between the projecting piers and they spoke a Vendelbo dialect so old it sounded like English if I did not listen carefully, and I narrowed my eyes as I walked and imagined I was in a dream in a book in another country on the other side of the sea. That went on for a while and then it was over. I hurried over the concrete paving and Jesper jumped from boulder to boulder in the water on the inner side of the breakwater, and it was deep there, for big boats sailed in every day, and if Jesper fell in he might drown.
“Stop doing that,” I said, “you’d better come up here. We must hurry, or we won’t make it.”
“This is quick enough,” said Jesper, “I’m almost flying,” he shouted and took off on a long leap between two boulders that stuck up high, and he jumped, but one boot got stuck in a lump of tar and stayed there, and he did really fly, and landed head first in the murky water.
It looked odd, one foot in a boot, one foot in a sock, and they hung for a moment before they vanished and a wave rolled in and closed over them and a big bubble leaped out and burst in the mirrored water. And then there was silence.
Complete silence. The fishermen were not talking any longer, they just squatted there looking into the air and the gulls flew without a sound as if they were behind blue-colored glass and the boat from Læsø had stopped its engine. The silence grew and pressed against my chest and squeezed up the air I had in my lungs until it was in my throat and I had to open my mouth:
I climbed down from the concrete paving above the boulders as fast as I could, panting like a dog with no control over my breath or my body, a pump worked in my chest and I couldn’t possibly shut my mouth. When I got right down I tore the boot out of the lump of tar and waved it in the air hoping Jesper would come up and get it. But he was gone. I lay down on the outermost boulder and stared into the water and just by my face a hand stretched up with long waving fingers and tried to catch me. It was the Man from Danzig. I gave a start and began panting again, my throat felt sore. I turned round and turned back again and looked down into the water. The hand was still there. Now it was clenched.
“JESPER!” I hurled the boot aside and threw myself forward. The boulders struck my knees and chest, and it hurt, my chest had developed during the past year and I was soft where I used to be hard. I stretched right out and squeezed my thighs around the last boulder with a clutch that could crush it to powder, and it scraped me back where I was softest. Then I breathed in and plunged my head and upper body into the water. At first my eyes were closed and then they were open, and then I could see his face. It was green with staring eyes and lips pressed together in a thin line. I didn’t know if he could see me, but I thought he might and I could not understand why he didn’t open his hand. It was clenched hard and I had to use both of mine to get a good enough grip. I was stronger than any girl I knew, and I pulled. First my head came up and then Jesper’s head with his lips pressed together and eyes like marbles. I drew in air, still holding on to him with both hands and screaming as loud as I could:
“BREATHE!” and then his mouth slowly relaxed and he gave a whistling sound that would never stop, and from being stiff he turned completely floppy and finally he closed his eyes.
“I thought you were an angel,” he mumbled.
“Angels have fair hair. Besides, they don’t exist.”
“Mine do, and they have dark hair.”
“I thought you were the Man from Danzig,” I said. Then he started to laugh and cough, and I pulled him right in till he could get hold of something and crawl ashore by himself. He kneeled down and vomited salt water and breakfast, I held his forehead, and when he was done I hugged the whole of him and started to cry.
“I thought you were the Man from Danzig. I couldn’t recognize you.” I felt him smile against my shoulder, he was wet through and cold, and warm too, where the sun could reach.
“I looked for him, and I looked for his boat, but there was only seaweed down there, so I wanted to get up again. But I couldn’t, the boot was too heavy with all the water in it, and I couldn’t get it off. So I just stood there.” He embraced me with both arms, shaking so my body trembled, and then I felt shy and stood up.
“Thanks, Sistermine,” he said.
He emptied the water out of his boot, put both of them on and crawled up on the concrete. Then we started to walk along together. With every other step Jesper took, a ripping noise came from the boot with the lump of tar, and I heard the fishermen talking on the wharf and the gulls from all directions and banging sounds from the Læsø boat where the gangway was being lowered and pulled on to the quay.
“Maybe we’ll make it after all,” said Jesper, speeding up until he almost ran, and I thought how fast it all goes, we had been far away and now we were back and the world had moved on a millimeter.
When we came out of the shadows behind the corn silo the first passengers had already come ashore. They were farmers from Læsø coming to do business and have a beer and visit friends. They were dressed in their best and in their hands they carried cardboard boxes tied with string which might have had eggs in them or home-baked cakes for relatives, but no one had turned up to meet the boat except Jesper and me, and that had been a near thing.
We stopped beside the gangway and the people standing there turned to stare at us. Water ran from hair and clothes and formed puddles around our boots. I ran my hand over my hair, which was plastered to my head and had lost its curls, and the farmers exchanged looks and started to walk up into town.
My father came ashore last as he usually did. I didn’t know why, but thought it had something to do with his back, that he wanted people to see him face first and not walk behind him speculating over the reasons for his being as he was.
Not until he was in the middle of the gangway did he raise his eyes and look at us. He had been on Læsø for several days to see whether we should move over there, if there was any market for a joiner. He still had the money he had borrowed from the bank and could start up with that. I saw in his face that things had not gone well, and the sight of us didn’t improve matters. He stopped with his hands gripping the rope so hard that the knuckles turned white and his face grew white with anger. Jesper stood tensely beside me, he did not realize what our father saw, and I quickly took two steps forward and asked:
“How did it go, Father?” but he did not look at me and did not reply, just pushed me aside, grabbed Jesper by the collar and said, low and hard:
“Have you seen yourself! Is this the way to come and meet your father?” although I did not look any better, wet from the waist up, with grazes on my knees and my hair hanging in sticky tangles down my back. I loved my father and his crooked back, my father loved Jesper and all his quirky ideas, but his arms were hard and strong as twisted hawsers, and with those he started to shake Jesper, who was fifteen years old and newly confirmed, who was going to help him in the workshop before he began his printer’s apprenticeship. It wouldn’t do, and I knew it and Jesper knew it, only my father didn’t know it. Jesper stood with his legs apart and would not be budged. He was strong and brown too, and his dark mop flopped up and down each time my father pulled at his collar, but from his belt down he stood still. Slowly he let his body stiffen and with bowed head he said:
“Stop doing that,” and my father replied furiously:
“What was that?”
“I said damn well stop doing that!” Jesper raised his head. I could see he was on the verge of tears, and with one hard tug he was free.
“You will never do that again,” he said, and it was so embarrassing that he looked neither at my father nor me, but past us at the boat from Læsø where a crane was lifting live animals out of the hold and swinging them ashore, pigs and oxen for the slaughterhouse in our town. They made undignified running movements in thin air and I heard their cries and the ripping noise from Jesper’s boot as he turned and walked away.
“You’re not going anywhere!” my father called after him, but he did not even look back, just walked on at the same speed until he disappeared behind the corn silo on the way up to the church square and Danmarksgate. His thin jacket stuck to his back and I thought, there goes my brother, Jesper the socialist.
Later on I heard that one of the pigs had committed suicide on the quay. It escaped after they had hoisted it from the boat and ran straight for the edge and jumped into the water and there it was crushed between the boat and the wharf until it drowned. It did not even scream.
n one room of Lone’s house there are books from floor to ceiling. Another is the dining room. They have lunch and dinner there although the kitchen is big and airy and has wide wooden floorboards. Lone has to change for dinner. She has a room she doesn’t share with anyone, there are books on shelves in her room and pictures on the walls and blue curtains. From the window she can look out into the garden where there are big trees that throw shadows on warm days. Lone’s mother is at home all day. She goes from room to room with a duster in her hand, she changes tablecloths according to color and straightens pictures and rows of books. She walks in the garden and picks flowers she arranges in vases on the tables. All the vases are blue, the tablecloths are yellow and green. On Sundays she plays the piano in the library and croquet on the grass in the garden with Lone and her brother Hans. Hans is two years younger than Lone and has to wear a sailor suit on Sunday, he is hot and red in the face when he turns and sees me coming through the gate and up the gravel path to the house. He sneers at me. I stop and stand still until Lone has seen me and waves. I’ve been friends with that slob since May. When the long winter was behind us we started to talk to each other. Maybe it’s the books I can borrow from her, maybe I like her, no one else does. Whatever it is, the war between us is over. She never comes to my house, I have been to hers several times, I have waited in the hall between the rooms and heard her mother talk about flowers and colors and how important it is to have clear contrasts.
“Simplicity is the most beautiful style,” she says, smiling at me because she thinks I know something about simplicity, but Jesper says I have shocking taste for a girl. I couldn’t care less. Once she takes a book from the shelf and reads aloud from Jeppe Aakjær. She holds the book in her left hand and lifts her right arm in the air when she reads.
“Isn’t that good,” she says with protruding lips, putting the book back in its right place in the alphabet. I nod and say it is good. Lone’s mother believes in poetry. Her father, the headmaster, believes in natural science. He talks about the insects and their world. As often as he can spare the time he goes out in the fields with his rucksack and net to catch insects, put pins in them, and hang them up in a glass frame on the wall with Latin names underneath.
“You can learn a lot about human beings by studying the insects,” he says, “their world is like ours in miniature, they just have a far better distribution of work.” There may be clarity and contrasts in Lone’s family, but I don’t care for insects. Insects scratch and tickle, they creep up under your dress and sting you.
Every time I go through the gate to Lone’s house I remember the wheelchair and the girl in the red dress, the shadows and sunbeams among the trees and roses of Rosevej. I ask about her and tell Lone the dream I had. Lone says the girl was a cousin from Copenhagen on a visit and to get some fresh air. She is dead now, of tuberculosis. Lone went to Copenhagen by boat to attend the funeral. It was terribly sad, everyone wore suits and dresses and her mother had to sit on a chair because she couldn’t stand for grief, and there were people all over the churchyard, dark against the green grass; they were all looking the same way rather like you do at the theater. Lone once went to the Royal Theater and she often talks about it.