Main Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

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1782273131
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Mirrors

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2016
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Mirror of Stone

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PUSHKIN PRESS


PRAISE FOR DORTHE NORS


“Gripping … how often can we honestly say that a book is unlike anything else? Yet here it is, unique in form and effect … Nors has found a novel way of getting into the human heart”

Guardian

“To read a Dorthe Nors story is to enter a dream and become subject to its logic … Nors knows and understands so much about us; her perceptions frequently shock with their acuity, though within seconds you recognize them as, yes, true”

Daniel Woodrell, award-winning author of Winter’s Bone

“Unsettling and poetic … Some pieces … are oddly beautiful; others are brilliantly disturbing”

The New York Times

“Nors’s prose is direct … a series of uncluttered and voice-driven sentences that achieve their rhythm through careful juxtaposition and build”

Chicago Tribune

“The intricately crafted stories in Karate Chop, from popular Danish writer Dorthe Nors, focus on ordinary occurrences … and then twist them into brilliantly slanted cautionary tales about desire, romance, deception, and dread”

Elle

“Nors has found her own space away from Copenhagen’s literati … Her words whip along, each idea cascading into the next: it’s like having a window into someone’s thoughts”

Independent

“Darkly funny and incisive … In these literary body-blows, Nors takes merciless aim at families, relationships and egos”

Financial Times

“Dorthe Nors’s story collection, Karate Chop, also blew me away … these are some of the best five-page stories I’ve ever read”

Irish Times

“Nors has a great knack … for portraying the voids and fault lines in an unbalanced mind … crisp, quirky, jarringly funny”

Times Literary Supplement

“My favorite discovery was Minna Needs Rehearsal Space by the ferociously-talented Danish writer Dorthe Nors … a beautiful, moving, totally compelling account of one woman’s yearning. I simply can’t wait for Nors’s next English translation”

The Herald

“The short-short stories in Danish sensation Nors’s slim, potent collection … evoke the weirdness and wonder of relating in the di; gital age”

Vogue

“Spare and sublime. Dorthe Nors knows how to capture the smallest moments and sculpt them into the unforgettable”

Oprah Magazine

“Dorthe Nors is a writer of moments—quiet, raw portraits of existential meditation, at times dyspeptic, but never unsympathetic”

Paris Review

“In this slim collection of stories, the Danish Nors examines everyday issues with intensity and force”

Marie Claire

“Beautiful, faceted, haunting stories … a rising star of Danish letters”

Junot Diaz, author of This Is How You Lose Her





Translated from the Danish

by MISHA HOEKSTRA





PUSHKIN PRESS





Contents




Title Page

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.

16.

17.

18.

19.

20.

21.

About the Publisher

Copyright





1.




SONJA IS SITTING IN A CAR, and she’s brought her dictionary along. It’s heavy, and sits in the bag on the backseat. She’s halfway through her translation of Gösta Svensson’s latest crime novel, and the quality was already dipping with the previous one. Now’s the time I can afford it, she thought, and so she looked for driving schools online and signed up with Folke in Frederiksberg. The theory classroom was small and blue and reeked of stale smoke and locker rooms, but the theory itself went well. Besides Folke, there was only one other person Sonja’s age in the class, and he was there because of drunk driving, so he kept to himself. Sonja usually sat there and stuck out among all the kids, and for the first aid unit the instructor used her as a model. He pointed to the spot on her throat where they were supposed to imagine her breathing had gotten blocked. He did the Heimlich on her, his fingers up in her face, inside her collar, up and down her arms. At one point he put her into a stranglehold, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was when they had to do the exercises themselves. It was humiliating to be placed in the recovery position by a boy of eighteen. It also made her dizzy, and that was something no one was supposed to find out. “You’re such a fighter,” her mom always said, and Sonja is a fighter; she doesn’t give up. She ought to, but she doesn’t. “And then you compress the heart hard thirty times and pay attention to whether they’re breathing,” the first aid instructor said.

That’s all that counts in the end, Sonja had thought, breathing, and she passed theory. With her the problem’s always practice, which is why she’s now sitting in a car. It’s great that she’s made it this far, even if it’s not far enough; she just wishes she were skilled and experienced. Like Sonja’s sister Kate and Kate’s husband Frank, who got their licenses in the eighties. Back home in Balling, folks were driving souped-up pickups, burning rubber, off-roading. All those accidents the adult Kate fears now are things she’d gloried in as a teen. She’d been a stowaway in rolling wrecks, a barn-dance femme fatale, and the belle of clubs and gym meets. It wouldn’t surprise Sonja to learn that Kate used to sneak the car home the back way. In Balling, cars would slink along the road behind the church, and Sonja’s car tiptoes around too, but that’s because she’s a terrible driver. The car as mechanism is hard for her to fathom, and her driving lessons have been plagued with problems. The biggest of them is sitting in the car right now, next to Sonja. Her name is Jytte, and it’s her smoke that clings to the theory classroom. Surfaces at the driving school are galvanized with cigarette smoke, and most of it took a trip through Jytte’s lungs first. When Sonja arrives at the school, Jytte’s sitting in Folke’s office, on Facebook or going through other students’ medical records. “Melanie with the ponytail wasn’t certified by the doctor!” she shouts over to Sonja in the doorway. “Something wrong with her nerves, did you know that?”

Sonja didn’t know, and she hasn’t been certified by the medical officer either. She’s got an ear disorder. It’s an inherited condition from her mother’s side; none of them can maintain their balance when their heads are in certain positions. For a long time she thought she’d escaped it, but then it showed up, the positional dizziness. It’s called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, but that’s far too much Latin for the place Sonja comes from. And besides, she’s got it under control. It’s not going to keep her from doing squat, and so now she’s sitting in the car. She’s got Gösta in the backseat, and Jytte at her side.

Because Jytte’s got a lot on her mind, she hasn’t had time to teach Sonja to shift for herself. Sonja’s been driving with Jytte for six months, and still she fumbles with the gears. Jytte seizes the initiative and deals with it for her, since when Jytte deals with changing gears, there’s no need for her to change topics: her son’s getting married, her grandkid’s going to be called something ghastly, the fiancée’s got a cockamamie clothing sense, and the sister of her brother-in-law’s mother’s new husband just died.

“Thai people just can’t drive.”

Sonja and Jytte are in Frederiksberg, waiting for a traffic light. Smoke from the last cigarette out the window has been sucked into the passenger compartment, and it mixes with the sweat that Sonja excretes. She signals right, Jytte’s hand on the gearstick, and keeps an eye out for cyclists.

“This woman I’ve got now is called Pakpao. Pakpao!? GREEN LIGHT! SECOND GEAR, SECOND GEAR, BIKE!”

Jytte shifts to second while Sonja swerves to miss the bike.

“And then she’s married to this dirty old man who’s seventy-five. He’s been down in the office, completely bloated and all.” They’ve gone a fair piece toward the inner city and traffic is light, so Jytte can shift to fourth no problem. She uses the passenger-side clutch and then points at a deli.

“They make a good headcheese in there, and this warm liver pâté with bacon and cocktail wieners. I love Christmas, I simply can’t get enough of it. Don’t you just love Christmas?”

It’s early August, and Sonja does not like Christmas. It all revolves around Kate’s shopping lists and minimizing damage by winding back time, and yet she nods anyway. She wants to stay on Jytte’s good side since in truth, it’s Jytte who’s driving the car. Actually, Sonja has a soft spot for her, because Jytte’s told her that she comes from the Djursland peninsula. From a small village in the direction of Nimtofte. Jytte’s father ran the local feed store, right across from school, so Jytte could run home and eat during lunch hour. She moved to Copenhagen when she was twenty. The village constable had a younger brother with an extra room in the suburb of Hvidovre. He was a cop himself, the younger brother, and Jytte’s always had a weakness for a man in uniform. Now she lives inland, in Solrød, but back then the thing was to go out dancing till you no longer stank of Danish farmland.

Sonja’s told Jytte she has a hard time believing that Jytte’s also from Jutland. Sonja can’t hear it in her speech, and in general she has a hard time understanding what Jytte’s saying. Turn left is turleff, turn right trite, and it’s not really dialect to speak of. It’s just the fastest way for Jytte to bark commands without changing topics.

“There’s not much Jutland left in you,” Sonja says now.

“You should just hear—trite—when I talk on the phone to my sister. GREEN ARROW, GREEN ARROW, TURN GOD-DAMMIT, BIKE!”

Sonja turns right and thinks about how she herself might sound when she talks on the phone to Kate. But she hardly every talks to Kate anymore, and now they’re headed toward the Vesterbro quarter. Ahead of them lies Istedgade, with its traffic quagmire, and Jytte is saying that she likes Swedish stair-step candles to be in the windows. There should also be tinsel on the Christmas tree, but that’s not the way her son’s fiancée sees it. At her place, the tree always has to be trimmed in white, and Jytte just doesn’t get it, just like she doesn’t get why Folke lets so many foreigners into the driving school.

“They can go to their own driving schools,” Jytte says. “They can’t understand what I say. I—turleff—take my life in my hands every time I drive with them.”

Sonja thinks about the feed store in Djursland. Back home in Balling, they had one of them too. Across the road lay a grocery store, known as Super Aage’s on account of the manager’s first name. Now there’s no grocer, no butcher, no post office in Balling. The farms have swallowed each other up so only two are left, and they’ve taken out all the dairy cart tracks, the gossip paths, the old sunken roads. Balling lies like an isolated instance of civilization in an oversized cornfield, though out past that, the heath has escaped the drive for efficiency. There are whooper swans there, and while almost no one farms anymore, farmhouse kitchens are still huge—the size of small cafeterias. A long laminated table at one end for the vanished farmhands, and then the modern cabinets by the window. You always had to scoot over on the bench when they came in to eat, and then there’s Jytte, sitting in Djursland, dangling her legs. It’s the lunch hour, she’s run home to eat, and her feet don’t reach the floor. She’s wearing red bobby sox and a plaid skirt. Her mother’s placed a slice of white bread before her. Her mother bakes the bread herself; it’s dry, and Jytte spreads margarine on it. Then she grabs the package of brown sugar. It makes a crunching sound. It’s fun pressing the brown sugar into the margarine. She can spend a long time pressing it in. Afterward, she listens to how the brown sugar keeps crunching in her mouth. It dissolves in her spit, which becomes sweet, like syrup. The bell’s going to ring soon. When it rings, her mother yells that she’s going to be late. Jytte’s forced to run across the road, her legs going like drumsticks.

“BRAKE GODDAMMIT! CAN’T YOU FUCKING SEE THE CROSSWALK?”

Jytte’s stomped on the brake and clutch. They’re stopped at a pedestrian crossing, staring at a frightened man in a windbreaker.

“You have to stop for people!” Jytte says.

“I know that,” Sonja says.

“It doesn’t fucking look that way!” Jytte says, and she releases the clutch, first, second.

Jytte’s phone rings. They pass Vesterbrogade, third gear. Jytte’s husband has mornings off, and he can’t find the remote.

“IT’S IN THE BASKET. YEAH, THE BASKET BESIDE THE—trite, signal, signal goddammit, turleff, slowly, slowly!— … PORK RIB ROAST, I THINK.”

They drive up Istedgade amid glistening shoals of bikes. Sonja’s vision is a fog and she almost can’t breathe, yet at the intersection by Enghavevej she manages a left turn pretty much on her own. Jytte’s no longer talking to her husband, but she’s discovered a text with a photo from her son’s fiancée. It depicts her grandchild in a christening dress and Jytte’s voice grows elastic, for Sonja has to see the picture too, but Sonja would prefer to wait if she may, and then Jytte places the phone up on the dashboard.

It’s difficult to maintain boundaries in an automobile. When you’re a driving student, you have to relinquish free will, and once Jytte forced her to overtake a hot dog cart. They’d been driving around calmly enough, but then they’d come to a place where there was a traffic island on the street. A traffic island and a hot dog cart that was creeping forward. Sonja wasn’t supposed to pass, but people in back became impatient and started honking. “Pass, God damn you, pass!” yelled Jytte, whereupon Sonja crossed over into the lane of oncoming traffic, passed, and then turned back into her own lane so quickly that she nearly clipped the hot dog man. He was walking along in front, of course, hauling the cart. “You almost had his blood on your hands there,” Jytte said.

That still lingers in her body as shame. Shame, and fear of manslaughter, and now they’re approaching Vigerslev Boulevard. The road goes past Western Cemetery, and Jytte decides they’re going to turn and drive the entire way around it.

“You know, I really like Western Cemetery,” Sonja says, trying to make conversation. “Down in the bottom part is a chapel with plywood over the windows. I think they’ve stopped using it. There’s this avenue of gnarled old poplars there too. And a pond. I love to take a blanket and lie there and read.”

To Jytte, reading is for people on holiday, and cemeteries are for the dead. In Jytte’s family, the dead are numerous. Some have been killed in traffic accidents, others have died from cancer or workplace accidents. Her mother’s still alive, but her sister has lung disease, and then Sonja should turn. She should turn left. Mirror, shoulder, signal, and in with the clutch. Jytte downshifts to second, but Sonja gets to pick the lane herself. She picks the correct one, which isn’t so easy when there are so many. The light’s red and they’re sitting there in first gear, waiting. In the lane to their right is a delivery van, revving its engine.

“Aborigines,” Jytte says, pointing at the van.

Sonja looks up at the traffic signal. The light changes. She lets out the clutch and drives forward. So does the van, and then it starts turning in front of Sonja. It’s against the law to make a left turn from a right lane. Sonja knows that, and so does Jytte. Jytte’s already rolled down her window, and one hand is out the window with middle finger extended, the other hand over by the steering wheel to honk the horn. She gives them horn and finger, and the car stops in the intersection in the middle of a green light. The van has stopped too, and now its driver window rolls down.

“CHINKS!” shouts Jytte.

“FUCKING HO!” shouts the driver.

Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there. Then she can lie on it, looking at Hans Hedtoft while the ducks quack and the roof of the big chapel gleams in the sun. It’s like the New Jerusalem, or a little patch of far-off Denmark. The sound of cars in the distance, the scent of yew and boxwood; almost the middle of nowhere. In theory a stag might drift past, and she’s bought a cookie for her coffee, pilfered some ivy from the undergrowth. The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.





2.




“THERE’S SOME TROUBLE with my neck and arms,” Sonja says.

It’s Thursday, and the air hangs heavy and close. She’s lying on the massage table with her head down in the mini bathing ring. Her jaw tenses against the leather; it ached when she brushed her teeth. It’s as if the joint’s rusted, although right now her masseuse is working on her butt. A little while later, she works her way up and says that something’s wandered from Sonja’s abdomen, up through her body. Anger, most likely. And it’s on the cusp of wanting to come out her mouth. She should just let it out, says the masseuse, whose name is Ellen.

“Out with it,” she says.

In the room that serves as massage clinic, the floorboards are all planed. The places where branches once sat on the trunk are demarcated clearly. The bedroom belonging to Sonja’s parents had been paneled in wood, and there were knotholes everywhere. While her mother read a tabloid, and her father rustled his newspaper, Sonja would lay there and set the wood surfaces in motion. She could get a knot to look like many things: birds, automobiles, the characters in Donald Duck. The floor at Ellen’s is alive in the same way, and now she’s got a good grip on Sonja’s butt cheek. She says that Sonja keeps tensing up, and when Sonja got there twenty minutes ago, the door stood ajar to Ellen’s kitchen. Sonja tried to peer inside but didn’t manage to see anything other than some knitting on the counter. She doesn’t know much about Ellen, except that she’s good at massage and there’s something wistful in her eyes.

“Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen says. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight-fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?”

With the job Sonja has, that’s something she knows quite well. Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.

“I think you should ask for more calm when you’re in the car.”

Driving school problems are a recurring theme at the clinic, and Ellen’s advice is always confrontation. But Sonja gave up on asking for calm long ago. There’s no way it would pay off. If Sonja requested calm, Jytte might try, all right, but it wouldn’t last long. Just being dictated to by a student like that would play havoc with Jytte’s mind. With Jytte, all bad things stem from quiet. Just like Kate, Jytte senses danger in blank expanses, so the thing is to abrade them with tedious speech, cake recipes, dog hair.

Ellen’s hands have a good grip on Sonja, and it’s far too seldom that Sonja puts herself in someone else’s hands. She imagines that Ellen’s hands are stronger than most. Ellen carries a lot of stuff around, and it’s not likely that all her clients can get up on the table by themselves. “Everyone needs to be met in their body,” Ellen likes to say, and Kate has strong hands too. At the nursing home where she works, they have hoists for the elderly and infirm. Yet she still can’t avoid lifting people, and both she and Ellen are strong that way, and now Ellen’s moved from Sonja’s buttocks to the back of her heart.

The back of the heart is the spot between the shoulder blades. Ellen calls it the back of the heart because that’s where you get stabbed when you get stabbed in the back. The spot is tender in Sonja. So tender that she stares hard at a knot on the floor while Ellen rubs. The knot resembles Mickey Mouse with his ears a bit too large, and he’s standing with his hands at his side. He’s got gloves on his hands and yellow buttons on his pants, he’s calling for Pluto and the dog’s supposed to come, he’s supposed to come now. It’s painful, and her upper arms hurt too; they feel like big bruises.

“Oh jeez,” Sonja says, “there too.”

“Why do you think your arms are so sore?”

Sonja says it might be because she was in this brawl in an intersection by Western Cemetery. She thought she’d told Ellen already during her other lament about Jytte, but apparently she hadn’t. It feels good to say it now, and she also tells Ellen about how it had been on the drive back to Folke’s Driving School. How Jytte had gotten rather huffy. At one point, Sonja tried to shift gears herself, and she shouldn’t have done that, because then Jytte accused her of trying to destroy the car.

“I was ready to cry,” Sonja says.

Ellen places her warm hands on Sonja’s upper arms.

“That was pretty unfair.”

Sonja can feel the muscles in her right upper arm relax a little. It’s Ellen’s hands, they’re patting her, and the fingers are massaging a spot behind her ear, and Sonja’s a woman in the middle of her life, she’s an adult now. She no longer needs for people to always get along, and she can’t make them either. They’re not very accepting, they won’t open up. Kate, for instance, doesn’t answer the phone anymore.

“Ready for the other side?” Ellen asks, and Sonja tries to nod.

It isn’t easy with her head in the bathing ring, and flipping over can be tricky besides; certain angles trigger the positional vertigo. Having her head in the so-called dentist position is awful. According to Ellen, Sonja’s dizziness is an expression of a spiritual condition, and Sonja’s explained that in that case, it’s a spiritual condition that most of the women in her family are subject to, though she doesn’t like to discuss her family with strangers. There’s also something in Ellen’s way of parsing other people’s bodies that reminds her of her university classes in textual analysis. Everything’s supposed to mean something else, everything’s supposed to be rising, tearing itself free of its wrappings, climbing up to some higher meaning; it’s supposed to get away from where it’s been. Reality will not suffice. Ellen cannot hide this yearning, and to judge by the many angels she’s placed around the room, she doesn’t want to either. There are small angelic figures on the desk and in the window, even on a chain around her neck, and now she’s on the way over to the other side of the table. She wants to start in on Sonja’s feet, which have a defective arch. “They don’t want to grab the earth,” Ellen has said. It said “Massage Therapist” on Ellen’s website, and Sonja thought it would be a form of physiotherapy, but at Ellen’s, her shoulder is not a shoulder; it’s a feeling. Sonja’s hands aren’t hands, but expressions of spiritual states. As a massage therapist, Ellen sees it as her job to decode Sonja, and Sonja’s only countermove is to decode Ellen. It’s a circus of mutual interpretation. If Sonja’s wrists are hurting, Ellen says, “Perhaps you’re holding the reins too hard.” When Sonja says it might also be because the Gösta Svensson novel has her hands toiling at the keyboard, Ellen says, “Then it must be some resistance to Gösta Svensson that’s sitting in your hands.”

That’s not at all out of the question, but now it isn’t her hands that Ellen’s working on but Sonja’s feet, which stick out well past the end of the massage table. Kate’s husband Frank calls her “the Masai,” because he had once been to Africa. He was down there to tell the Africans about wind turbines, and Sonja imagines him standing in the middle of the savannah. He stands there gazing at a Masai’s kneecaps. He’s small and clad in a T-shirt next to a man who towers over his head, so now he thinks it’s funny to tease Sonja about being a Masai because she’s so tall. She’s so tall that Ellen’s had to scoot her little stool back a few inches in order to really get at her feet. Ellen’s good at massage, there’s no doubt about that. But with the body analysis, Sonja’s gotten more than she bargained for.

“That’s a nice pendant by the way,” Sonja says, glancing at the angel on the chain.

Ellen fumbles with the pendant and says she bought it at a seminar.

She doesn’t say any more, but Sonja’s known for a long time that there are some things that Ellen doesn’t like to talk about, some additional data. She’s partial to the supernatural, and Sonja’s friend Molly is partial to that sort of thing too. For as far back as Sonja can recall, Molly’s been governed by a geographic and cosmic restlessness. Throughout their years in high school, they laid plans about how they would get away. And it wasn’t that Sonja wasn’t game. It was more that Molly was the one expanding on the idea, putting it into words. It had been a time of fevered dreams of the future, and that’s how they found themselves in a moving van that day in 1992. Dad behind the wheel with his lower lip jutting out, Sonja and Molly with an insistent eastward orientation. First the shared flat, then life in Copenhagen, and then, years later, Sonja found herself at a party at Molly’s up in Hørsholm, north of the city. And there there was a fortune teller. Sonja stood and drank a beer up against the fridge while the fortune teller, wearing a curry-colored tunic and drinking just water, was able to see things in Sonja’s future. Even though Dad had always advised Sonja to steer clear of anything that reeked of belief, she stood there thinking mostly about how the woman must have some illness, and Dad had also taught her that it was a sin to turn away the sick. So she allowed the fortune teller to let rip. And in hindsight, the fortune teller had certainly been right that she’d be unhappy in love. First she met Paul. Then she fell in love. Then he chose a twenty-something girl who still wore French braids, and the rest of the fortune she repressed. How are you supposed to survive otherwise? she wonders, trying to remember the whole thing. But her memory won’t yield.

“Does this hurt?” asks Ellen.

Yes, it hurts, but she doesn’t say that to Ellen, because Sonja doesn’t want the soles of her feet interpreted, and once in Jutland she also met someone who could see ghosts. She’d applied for a translation residency, because sitting at home with Gösta Svensson had gotten too lonesome. The translation center lay in an old convent, and before long there was rustling under the eaves. There was creaking in the floorboards and doors opening when no one was there. At night, the owls took flight over the main building, and from signs such as these the translators—there were a number of them there—concocted a ghost. The evenings passed with wine and chatter, and in their conversation the ghost walked again. To join in, Sonja gave the ghost some of Gösta Svensson’s attributes—the hipster goatee, the tweed jacket, the squeaky shoes. It was easy enough, as she’d translated all his crime novels into Danish and met him several times. What happened then was that she ran into one of the staff members, a chambermaid. Sonja ran into her in the staircase tower; Sonja was going down and the maid was on her way up. “Oh,” Sonja said when the woman suddenly appeared, “I thought you were the ghost.”

She’d said it to be funny, but the maid didn’t laugh. She told Sonja that she could see ghosts. She put her hand up to her left eye; Sonja remembers that clearly, how she fluttered her fingers before her left eye. She said, “I can see the ghosts with this eye.” She stood that way, her oddness underscored by the gesture. She didn’t seem to want to let Sonja pass; there was so much she wanted to tell her. Among other things, she claimed that the convent was situated in an area endowed with extraordinary energies. Over the centuries, cosmic forces had been pelting down upon the landscape there. In the hills to the west of the convent, there was a place that served as a sacred telephone. She went into a lot of detail, the chambermaid, also mentioning that Copenhagen was the spiritual cesspool of Denmark. The nation’s dark energies all flowed to Copenhagen.

“You know, I live in Copenhagen,” Sonja said.

“Yes, well,” said the chambermaid.

“Have you ever driven through Balling?” Sonja asked.

“No,” the maid said.

“According to lots of folks, it too is a lovely Danish cesspool,” Sonja said, and then they didn’t speak to each other again for the rest of the residency.

Sonja looks at Ellen’s left eye, which is ash gray. There’s a melancholy line around her mouth, and she’s stopped tinting her hair. Her hands are powerful, but she’s got something dark in the corners of her eyes, and long ago she revealed that she could see Sonja’s aura. She also illustrated, with her hand stretched rigid over Sonja on the table, just how far the aura extended into space. “Your energy field is impaired,” Ellen said with a quick up-and-down dip of the hand. “You have to let energy in through the crown of your head,” she added, and showed Sonja how to use her hands to form a funnel over her head. The energy was supposed to drip down into Sonja like boiling water through a coffee filter.

“On Sunday, actually”—here Ellen squeezes Sonja’s feet extra hard, so they’ll understand that she’s finished with them—“there’s this group of women who are going for a little hike.”

Sonja nods.

“We’re meeting at Klampenborg Station, and then we’re hiking to a clearing in Jægersborg Deer Park, where we’ll meditate. On the walk in, the idea is to train our senses. Isn’t that something that would appeal to you? Wouldn’t you like to join us?”

It’s because I said her angel was nice, Sonja thinks, not wanting to join them, though she isn’t doing anything Sunday. Which is also what she finds herself saying.

“You can ride with me,” Ellen says.

“I could also take the train,” Sonja says.

“Oh nonsense, it’s just as easy for you to ride with me. I leave at ten.”

Sonja sits up on the massage table. She fastens her bra behind her back and looks at the cat, which is sitting in the open chink of the doorway. The cat’s flat in the face, old as the hills, and regarding Sonja’s feet reproachfully. It has no right to look at them that way: her feet may be twisted, but she has inserts to compensate. Then she pays Ellen, who gives her a receipt and assures her that she can deduct the massage from her taxes.

“You’re self-employed, after all. Independent.”

Independent?

Sonja’s standing upright now and can feel that something in her mouth wants to escape. She stands there and chews on it; it feels dry and sticky and adheres to her gums. Home-baked white bread with brown sugar, that’s what it feels like, but whatever it is, it blocks the flow of speech.





3.




SONJA’S COME TO A STANDSTILL in front of her mirror. A short while before, she was on her way through the bedroom, sandal in hand, when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror on the inside of her wardrobe. It looked as if Kate were standing in the wardrobe. That’s weird, she thought. Kate and I have never resembled each other. So she stepped over to the mirror to have a proper look.

Kate’s got two sons, and her husband Frank. When they’re in Copenhagen, they make a beeline for Tivoli, but otherwise they go around trying to disguise the fact that they’re from Jutland. Taking Kate out to eat is a trial. It doesn’t take anything for Kate to find the food pretentious, and if Sonja asks whether they shouldn’t all do the city together, Kate says she just wants to go to a Georg Jensen store, while Frank would rather head to the planetarium.

But it’s been a few years since they visited me, Sonja thinks. And we don’t look like each other anyway.

She moves a little closer, because there might be something in the eyes. There is something in the cheekbones and the mouth, though Kate’s not as tall of frame. And she looks nicer, more feminine. Back when they were kids, Kate made a big deal out of being the eldest. At the same time, she also was indulgent with Sonja, since Kate was one of those girls who bloomed early. She was so approachable. Mom always said so, before stroking Sonja on the cheek so she wouldn’t feel bad about being complicated. Her complications would amount to something, her mother wanted her to know, if she’d simply put her shoulder to the wheel.

Kate’s still simple and approachable, puttering around her front yard. She’s simple in the neurotic way, but at least she’s simple, and Sonja would also be simple that way if only, like Kate, she were able to chase the demons from her body. But because Sonja hides her feelings inside herself—instead of, like Kate, behind the garage, on the sun porch, and under the eaves—she goes to Ellen’s for massage. Ellen will lay her warm hands on Sonja, loosen the knots, and get her to notice that her body’s there, alive, touchable. It’s the sort of thing that others would have a boyfriend for, the sort of thing that men visit prostitutes for; Sonja’s just chosen a masseuse in Valby. One with warm hands and a certain predilection for surrogate worlds. That’s how she interprets Ellen, since Ellen interprets her, and she feels vulnerable being in a relationship where whatever she is is always supposed to mean something else. And yet she keeps going back. It’s wonderful being delved into, Sonja thinks, and Kate can’t even manage a proper hug anymore. It’s become such a boneless embrace, at most the brush of a damp cheek. It’s as if Kate can tell that there’s something wrong with Sonja; those evasive glances. Now and then they exchange texts, but there isn’t really any content in Kate’s. Smileys, mostly, and if Sonja calls the landline, it’s Frank who answers. If she decides to call Kate’s cell, her sister’s always standing in the middle of the supermarket, dramatically tapping her foot. She doesn’t have time. She’s headed somewhere. She’s squeezing the avocados, checking expiration dates, flagging down a clerk. It’s as if Kate’s afraid of something in Sonja, though Sonja doesn’t think of herself as a person to fear. And if there’s someone who scares me, it’s Gösta, Sonja thinks, regarding the manuscript on the desk. His rapes and his sales numbers scare me. Yet Kate’s not afraid of Gösta. That sex criminal who might lurk behind the front door when she comes back from a late shift at the nursing home? Kate tackles him lustily in the pages of Gösta’s books. If there’s one place the two sisters can meet, it’s in Gösta Svensson, because Sonja’s in fact the reason that Kate can now disappear, in Danish, into an ordered universe of evil. With Gösta, Kate can sniff death without it actually concerning her, and the hatred she must feel for herself can find an outlet in the killings that always form the prologue of Gösta’s stories. She’s also told their mother that she feels proud that Sonja knows Gösta. “Kate is fond of you,” Mom’s told her on the phone. “She thinks it’s great about that crime writer fellow.”

Yet Sonja seldom speaks on the phone with Kate herself.

She tears herself away from the mirror. It’s Sunday, and it’s time to leave. She wishes she could find some emergency excuse, but what else is she going to do when it’s so hot? There will be trees in the deer park, trees and ordinary folks having fun, and so Sonja walks out into the still heat with a water bottle in her backpack.

Ellen lives in a residential neighborhood in Valby. It’s not that far from where Sonja lives, and she can see that the people there have means. One day they’re building tree forts for their kids, the next, architect-designed sun porches for themselves. Without Paul the Ex—i.e. a man—or a lottery win, Sonja will never end up living in such a place. It may be sour grapes, she knows, but the area makes her queasy: the outsized carports, the extensions, the way otherwise decent single-family houses have sprouted extra rooms and grown into middle-class mansions. Sonja notes with a touch of relief that Ellen doesn’t have a carport. She’s parked out on the street, waiting.

Ellen’s car is silver, and she’s wearing hiking clothes and shoes.

“So great that you wanted to join us.”

Car interiors often smell a bit stale, but not Ellen’s. And it looks like it’s been vacuumed.

“Is this new?” asks Sonja.

“Depends how you define new.”

Sonja glances quickly in the back to size it up. There’s a blanket and pillow, and then Ellen pulls out from the curb without checking her blind spot. They’re underway, and it’s muggy out. Ellen says that the weather made it hard to pick what to wear. It’s mild in that way that might mean rain, and there’s a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror. It’s studded with imitation jewels and swings rather frenetically compared to the motion of the automobile.

“How long have you had a driver’s license?” Sonja asks.

“Oh, since I was about thirty,” Ellen replies.

“Did you find it easy to get?”

“Well, it wasn’t that hard.”

The car picks up speed and they head down a combination exit and entrance ramp, and in theory Folke had said that they’re the most dangerous, so Sonja keeps still. She observes Ellen’s feet down by the pedals, her diligent hands, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. Ellen has a practical bent, Sonja reminds herself; she’s the type that has a grasp of the tangible. She also thinks I should form my hands like a funnel over my head so the universe can dribble energy into me, which means she’s got a grasp of the intangible too.

“I think it’s hard learning to drive. But you know that,” says Sonja. “For instance, I can’t shift gears.”

Ellen’s obligated to maintain confidentiality, and Sonja feels naked and nervous. In actuality, Ellen’s not supposed to say anything outside the clinic about what she’s heard inside, and now they sit here and have to establish the bounds between professional intimacy and what people ordinarily talk about. Ellen’s sworn an oath of confidentiality, something that someone like Jytte could learn a thing or two from, but the borders are ill defined. Sonja doesn’t know what to say. She takes the water bottle from her bag while Ellen makes small talk and passes eighteen-wheelers. It’s not easy being a patient in your private relationships. Sonja’s never liked being someone who has to be taken in hand and assisted. In fact, she’s always shied away from others demanding she adapt. Kate was especially meddlesome when they were younger. “Quit your whining,” she’d say as she plucked Sonja’s eyebrows, for brows ought to sit high, near the hairline, and the hair in front ought to be permed, and shoes and trousers ought to match the rest of the class’s, and then here would come Sonja in her yellow clogs. Or worse yet: she and her yellow clogs would disappear into places they should not be. “She’s been sitting out in the rye again, Dad,” Kate would say, hauling her tall sister into the kitchen. Then Sonja would get an earful, because one shouldn’t in God’s good name be sitting out in the rye. The rye isn’t a playground, it’s there to be harvested, and it could be perilous as well if she fell asleep and the combine were to suddenly come upon her. “But I really don’t sleep out there,” she’d protest. “What do you do, then?” Kate would ask.

Sonja was never able to explain. Not to Dad, not to Kate, and she’s always had a feeling that that was what reduced her to an oddball.

Sonja sucks on her bottle, Ellen jabbers away, and the freeway rushes off behind them. Darkness is gathering in the south and it looks like thunder. “Thunder in the south, bring in the cow,” Dad would say, and he was right. Sonja doesn’t get the logic behind it, but of course it’s something meteorological. These days, what she knows most about is how to cast bodies in ditches. Bodies thrown in ditches, the deep woods, lime pits, landfills. Mutilated women and children lying and rotting everywhere on Scandinavian public land. Now and then Sonja takes the train over Øresund strait to traipse around in Sweden, but she’s never stumbled across a corpse over there. It’s curious, when you think about how many people die a violent death in Ystad alone.

“You read crime novels too?” asks Sonja during a nervous pause.

Ellen does, she must confess. She loves a good crime story. She’s read all the novels by Stieg Larsson, and she’s also read one by Gösta Svensson.

“Now, I do prefer Stieg Larsson,” she says, but that must only be because, during her last massage, Sonja blamed Gösta for wrecking her wrists. For naturally, Ellen must be wild about Gösta. A big reason for Gösta’s success is his tight grip on women. The tweed jacket and the way he’s always photographed in the rain.

Sonja’s jaw tenses. It’s especially the right side, which is having a hard time relaxing. Ellen’s also talking too much, and it’s mostly about what she had for dinner yesterday and which greengrocers in Valby to steer clear of. She also says that the wrong-way drivers you sometimes hear about on the freeway are in fact suicides. They’re just like the people who ram into viaducts and concrete pillars without wearing seatbelts. Wrong-way drivers belong to the tribe who don’t want to take responsibility, who don’t want anyone to think they did it on purpose. That’s the way they think, and Sonja massages the hinge of her jaw a bit. It usually helps with a little water and a menthol drop, but she doesn’t have any more of the latter, so she makes do with sloshing some water around her mouth. It eases the ache, and the trip’s been a quick one because before she knows it, Ellen’s turning into the parking lot by Klampenborg Station.

“Well, here we are, then,” Ellen says, and she gets out and stands on the pavement. “The others are waiting by the café.”

Ellen doesn’t need to point; Sonja knows Klampenborg Station well. She has a secret affection for Bakken, the old amusement park that lies adjacent to the deer park. There’s a bakery there where you can eat big wedges of cake at a very reasonable price. It reeks a bit of urine from the bathrooms in the back, but that’s all right, because Bakken has a homey air. It’s not something that Sonja would be able to explain to Ellen, who was born in Vesterbro before it got hip, and whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all born well within Copenhagen’s tangle of streets and buildings.

Ellen’s the one who came up with the idea of meditative hikes. She and a girlfriend figured out the choreography and agreed to activate their network. Now she looks like she’s heading into an oral exam, thinks Sonja, who has an urge to take Ellen’s hand and stroke it a couple of times. And to tell her to not be scared, of suicidal drivers or other women, but they settle for cutting across the parking lot together, backpacks swinging, and besides, who is Sonja to advise anyone? She’s got butterflies herself. And restless legs, poised for flight. She also feels a little like crying. Ellen’s insecurity is making everything wobble. A person who has her hand on the back of your heart shouldn’t be unsure.





4.




AFTER SONJA HAD LIVED in Copenhagen for a year, she discovered something. During a weekend trip back to Balling, she borrowed her mother’s bike. She wanted to go out to where the red deer were, the sky, the horizon. Out into the farthest part. But when she got there, the landscape felt empty. It was as if she were standing naked in a swim hall with the pool drained—an echo chamber, and not just any old echo chamber. It dawned on her that it must be her brain playing tricks on her, since back when she’d moved to Copenhagen, the city was overpowering. The sounds, the faces, the odors all seemed chaotic, and she remembered how she’d lain in bed with earplugs and a blindfold. Molly lay in the next room and blossomed, but Sonja had to switch off. She turned down that knob in her brain that let her take in the world at full blast, and once the knob had been turned almost all the way down, the heath, the tree plantation, and the sky overhead seemed empty of content. So she had biked home to her mother with her loss, and a hope: that a knob she could turn down was a knob she could also turn up again.

Could she?

Can she?

Now they stand here, Sonja and the other women. They stand and wait by the café at Klampenborg Station. Each one of them wears light summer clothing and sensible shoes. Somewhere behind them, the sky has started to close up. Sonja glances at the tall trees stretching across a large expanse of north Zealandic countryside. Lightning rods, as far as the eye can see. Dry grass, too many people, and no public taps. Sonja drains her water bottle. Someplace in the distance, she can hear the loud shrieks of someone being swept high in the air.

“And here we have Sonja, who’s new.”

Ellen’s decidedly nervous, and Sonja doesn’t like it.

“We’ll go up to the deer park first,” Ellen says, “and I’ll give you instructions once we’re up there. Anita will be helping me today.”

A small blond woman with round cheeks raises her hand. She’s placed herself behind the flock, ready to drive them forward.

“Let’s go!”

And so they do. They walk chattering and laughing from the station to where the deer park starts. Ellen waves them in and out among the horse droppings, and after a couple of hundred yards she guides them onto a small path. There they halt.

“What we’re going to do now is hike in silence,” Ellen begins. “Anita will walk behind you, so you don’t get lost in the back. While we’re walking, we’re going to open our senses to nature. Touch the moss. Pluck the grass, smell the bark, and so on. I think you should also try to make yourself heavy in the pelvis. Shift all your body weight down into your pelvis and let it bear you. It should be as if you’re seated within yourself and walking at the same time.”

The women seat themselves in their pelvises and move their arms in big circles that Ellen sketches in the air. The women’s arms swoop and caper and look like the necks of whooper swans when Sonja would sit out in the farthest part. They’d raise their beaks, the swans, and the organ pipes in their throats would sound so mournful. Not like the call of the bittern, which was more like when the wind sang in the green bottles Sonja had hung in the bird cherry. That sound was as if it came from an unknown place beneath the bird, beneath Sonja, while the whooper swans lifted the landscape up. Oh, those long necks, Sonja thinks, rotating her wrists, which is as much as she can manage. She’d weep a little if she were alone, but she isn’t, of course. She’s captive in the situation, and now Ellen shakes out her arms to indicate the exercise is over.

“Anita and I have been out to reconnoiter,” she says. “We’ve found a suitable clearing, deeper in the park. When we get there, I’ll guide you through a meditation. I hope you’ve brought something for your behinds?”

The women point at their backpacks.

“Questions?”

There are several things Sonja would like to know, but first she needs to get a grip on herself, and then they start walking. The women all walk into the deer park. Ellen foremost, Anita at the rear, and between them seven women plus Sonja. She tries to draw a bit to the side, but it’s hard to be part of a group without appearing to be part of a group. And the women are off to a strong start. The first ones have bent over to gather twigs. A short-haired woman has peeled some bark from a tree and is sniffing it. The women begin to inspire each other. The ways one can experience nature through the senses spread. They’ve walked two hundred yards and the earth has been scratched, fingers have been sniffed, bush and berry squeezed.

Even Sonja’s found a cushion of moss. She walks around with cushion in hand so that it looks as if she’s taking part. The moss feels wet underneath, she can feel the dampness on her palm, and she sniffs the cushion too; it smells of sex, she thinks. Yes, it smells of composting toilets, school camps, secret forts. It smells of the upholstery in scrapped automobiles, the sour tops of fruit juice bottles, and children in grungy undies. She recalls how the old gravel road led in among the firs. Moss grew in the middle, while in the wheel ruts, the stones floundered round in the sand. It wasn’t easy to walk in the ruts without losing your footing. But you could walk in the middle, among the dry stalks and tufts of heather—that she remembers. So that’s where you walked, and perhaps it was winter, say. First through the tree plantation, then out onto the large section where the sky took hold. Overhead, the universe opened up, and she was traipsing through the landscape in her yellow clogs. Dad had bought them for her at the clog maker in Balling. Actually, she would have rather had some red clogs, but everyone else had bought red ones, so the clog maker only had yellow ones left. At the clog maker in Balling, kids got toffees stuck between their fingers. “Put your hand on the counter,” the clog maker would say, and then you were supposed to spread your fingers. The clog maker would stuff toffees between your fingers, toffees that he’d bought cheap down in Germany. The webs of your fingers tensed taut and white. Toffees green, yellow, red, jammed there between your fingers; but there were different kinds of grown-ups. And different kinds of kids. Sonja, for instance, would often sit on a tussock out in the middle of nowhere. Or else she’d sit out in the rye. There was something out there. Something she can’t explain to a living soul in Copenhagen, and she can’t explain it to Kate either. For Kate, Balling isn’t a reason to disappear but a good argument to never leave, and out in the farthest part there were whooper swans. In the winter they’d gather to sing. They might fly out across the plantation but they always came back, and when they came back, the birds that had stayed there on the ground sang to them, and Sonja made her mouth into an O because she wanted to sing along too.

But now she’s a grown-up, and it is memory that opens for her. For the landscape won’t.

Sonja casts aside the cushion of moss; she has to pee. The bottle of water from the car has run right through her, and she lets herself sift back through the flock. Normally, she’d prefer to squat behind a trunk, a bush. But Anita doesn’t know, does she, if Sonja’s the type who can only pee in a toilet. Sonja signals that she needs to relieve herself and Anita points into the nearest thicket. Sonja shakes her head; she cannot pee outdoors.

“Just try,” Anita whispers.

“It’s no use,” Sonja whispers back, and she suggests running up to Bakken instead.

Anita says they really can’t wait for her. Sonja says that’s not a problem, she can just catch up with them.

“But we’ve found a secret clearing.”

“I know the deer park like the back of my hand.”

Anita’s at a loss, but Sonja can’t wait.

“I’ve really got to go!” she whispers, and feints around Anita.

Sonja runs then, runs in the direction of Bakken. She’s got long limbs; her legs are thin, her arms ditto. She’s just shy of five eleven. Her hair’s cut short, her breasts are small, her eyes big and blue. “You’re such a fighter,” her mother always said, as if it were some comfort. And it is, for Sonja can keep up the pace, and she keeps it up now. She keeps it up all the way into Bakken. There’s actually a toilet by the entrance, but Sonja continues right on into the amusement park. The smell of popcorn descends upon her. Soft ice cream hangs sticky in the air, and she sets her course for The Blue Coffeepot, running a gauntlet of happy Sunday visitors. Tattoos are being aired on shoulders, ankles, and patches of lower back. There are balloons, burgers and papier-mâché façades. The visitors catapult into the air, shrieking, the sky squeaks and squeals. It’s one big popular cliché. “A horrible hodgepodge,” Molly calls it. “The only reason to go to Bakken is to laugh at the riffraff,” she says, since now she’s raised herself so far above the losers that she lives in Hørsholm, but it isn’t true; Sonja doesn’t go to Bakken to distance herself from anyone. She goes there to feel at home, and now she enters the bakery with the giant blue coffeepot and leans over the counter.

“I’m going to order, but first I have to use the restroom—if that’s okay?”

It is, and Sonja walks over to the rear of the eating area. She ducks under festoons of plastic beech leaves and steps into the laminated restroom. Here she finds a cubicle with a working lock. They had similar ones at Central Grammar in Balling, where she often went to the girls’ bathroom with Marie. There they would sit, each in her own stall, and pee. Sometimes Sonja would try to be funny, and she would sing, “There burbles a spring, there babbles a brook,” until Marie giggled over on her side of the divider. Once, when they were all supposed to see the nurse, Marie had forgotten to bring her urine sample from home. She was given a used foil container that had held liver pâté and told to pee in it. Sonja went with her out to the restroom. She distinctly remembers how Marie grimaced with the foil container between her legs. Marie was mortified that her mother had forgotten she was supposed to bring pee from home.

There was usually no shortage of pee in Balling, Sonja recalls as she sits there in the stall. There was pee on the fields, in the kids’ beds, behind the clubhouse and in the shrubbery behind the picnic area. And whenever a dog peed on the floor, the owner went over and made sure to rub its nose in it. That’s what you did. It was a kind of pedagogy, thinks Sonja, and there was probably something to learn from it. She certainly learned something, she thinks as she wipes herself and remembers the women out in the deer park. Their bodies are rocking from side to side on the gravel paths, but Sonja’s escaped. Ellen’s finding a clearing away from the crowds—Sonja’s not there—and now they sit cross-legged, yes, Ellen’s sitting there perched on a piece of fleece; the gray hair at her temples damp with sweat, her eyes probing. She’s explained to the others that they’re to breathe with their abdomens. They’re all to close their eyes and focus on their breathing. Silence does them good. Conscious presence opens the now. Yet it’s difficult to be present in the now. There’s always something tugging you away. A spot itches, or you’re afraid of ticks. Or the red deer. The stags will soon come into rut. Then they’ll stalk around by the Hermitage Palace and bellow and stink. They’ll roll in wallows and prowl about for hinds to mount. They can be violent—no, not violent, brutal. No, aggressive. No, territorial.

Stags are territorial.

Sonja washes her hands and pushes the door open with her foot. She crosses the bakery. At the display with slices of layer cake, she picks the piece with the most whipped cream. She’ll have some coffee too, thanks, and then she seats herself in a corner. She digs out her phone and starts texting: Hi Ellen. Had to use the bathroom. Couldn’t find you guys again—I’m such a bumblehead. I’m taking the train back, it’s no problem. Sorry!

The cake tastes better once she’s sent the text. In front of the bakery, people gather with their water bottles, sweating. The sky’s taken on a sulfurous sheen, and on the other side of the small alley between the bakery and the carrousel, a kid’s lucked out. She’s been allowed to take a helicopter ride. The helicopter’s small and blue and it plunges, up and down, up and down, up and down.

Deus ex machina, Sonja thinks, and washes down the cake.





5.




A VAST EXCHANGE COMMENCES between the earth and sky. A barrel organ grinds and one-armed bandits prattle away in tongues electronic, but in the background Sonja hears a throb. The sulfur in the sky dissipates and turns purple. The trees behind the rollercoaster glow angrily in the last rays of sun, and then here comes the lightning. It begins with a single bolt farther to the north. Then a couple of strikes out toward Øresund strait. Now and then the lightning bolts lash out sidewise at each other and shoot across the sky. The people squeal and seek shelter under the terrace roofs. They have a hard time not getting in each other’s way with their fries, and the bakery quickly fills with people. They sit down at the tables with slices of layer cake and cream-filled medallion cookies. They say, “Sure is muggy,” and “Lot of water in that sky.”

Nothing’s as cozy as thunder joe, Sonja thinks. In Balling, they’d sip the black coffee while they watched from the dormer, and it was especially thrilling at their house since they lived at the highest point in the parish. Dad said they were exposed, yet as a rule it was down at the neighbors’ that lightning struck. Marie lived there, and her family was Indre Mission. Indre Mission was some sort of sect, and Dad said she should steer clear of anything that stank of religion. Religions were all about corpses that rose from the grave, he said, and not being able to dance or play cards, and he looked at Kate and Sonja with his lower lip jutting out, so they could see he was worried. One time, Sonja wanted to try going to Sunday school with Marie. At first she wasn’t allowed to, but for the sake of neighborhood comity her father yielded at last. Then she and Marie had sat there in the meetinghouse and looked at small shiny pictures of Jesus. Marie’s dad was there too, and he never said much when they’d sit in their kitchen and press brown sugar into bread. In the meetinghouse, however, he spoke in a loud voice. When the two girls played with Kate in the gravel pit, Marie would often hang upside down from a tree branch. “We can see your panties!” Kate would giggle, but when Marie hung like that she didn’t care if her dress didn’t stay where it was supposed to. When she sang in the meetinghouse, on the other hand, she smelled of the disinfected linoleum in Sonja’s kitchen. But then Sonja’s father got into a boundary dispute with Marie’s father. They argued property lines till foam flecked in the corners of their mouths. Suddenly Sonja wasn’t allowed to attend Sunday school anymore, and that was okay. In a way it was just fine that Dad put his foot down. Indre Mission wasn’t that much fun anyway.

People stream into the bakery. Soon there won’t be enough chairs, and people begin to steal glances at Sonja’s table. A somewhat tired couple approaches. The wife has short permed hair and gold earrings, while the husband’s a bit plump and wearing a T-shirt. The thingy from his cell phone is firmly installed in his ear. It thrusts down toward his mouth like a little limb. He keeps speaking out into the air, and Sonja can’t tell if it’s his wife or someone on the phone that he’s talking to.

“All right if we sit here?” the woman asks. Her voice is raspy, her skin gilded with self-tanner and nicotine.

It’s Jytte to a tee, Sonja thinks. She nods to the woman. “I’m actually finished, but this weather’s for the ducks.”

“You can damn well say that again,” says the man out into the air.

Sonja does not react, though the man’s now staring at her.

“Are you talking to me?” she asks, pointing to herself.

“Christ yes, I’m talking to you,” he says, and plops down. He sounds raspy too, and he reaches for the coffee on his wife’s tray.

“We saw it coming when we were driving from Ballerup,” the woman says. “I told Verner, I told him there’d be a thunderstorm, but Verner said that they almost always head east, over Sweden.”

“‘Thunder in the south, bring in the cow.’”

“Come again?” says Verner.

“Where I come from, that’s what we say: ‘Thunder in the south, bring in the cow.’ Meaning thunderstorms move north.”

The couple from Ballerup regard Sonja uneasily.

“Awful weather in any case,” Sonja says.

Ballerup nods. Then they tell her about the torrential rainstorm of 2011, and how much the insurance covered. It’s a convoluted account, and Sonja gazes out at the carrousel in the alleyway. It’s deserted but hasn’t stopped turning. The children have jumped off, and now the horses prance around riderless in the downpour. The carrousel’s a lazy Susan for anyone who seizes the chance. Sonja wouldn’t have anything against taking a ride herself. It’s nice to do things on your own, to become conscious of yourself and to thine own self be true.

Sonja looks at the carrousel. She hasn’t tried one since she was six, maybe seven. Back then, she spoke Jutlandic without irony. Now she no longer knows what language she speaks, noting only how the woman’s glance flits around the room. Her eyes won’t settle on anything, and Sonja’s eyes can’t help following hers. So their gazes wander restlessly among the faces in The Blue Coffeepot, while the Ballerup woman talks about how the insurance company tried to cheat them.

“We had Verner’s instruments standing in the basement,” she says. “They were a total loss, but you did get compensated.”

Verner’s mouth is full of cake, so he confirms this by nodding, and Sonja asks what sort of instruments were affected.

“The Hammond organ and the drum set,” the woman says, using a napkin to wipe around her mouth, and Sonja’s been at parties where someone like Verner was sitting in a corner and played a fanfare as the ice cream was brought in. And Sonja’s clapped at the ice cream and admired the sparklers stuck into it, and she’s sung with Verner’s refrains about the time the chicken coop was on fire and the rooster wouldn’t leave. Kate waited tables at the parish hall for a period, and she probably still does when they need an extra hand. But back then, when Verner played for the entrance of the ice cream, Kate stood there in her starched white shirt, smiling shyly while her face lit up from below. So lovely she was, Kate.

Bakken rumbles and booms, the bakery engulfed in water.

“I think I’ll make a dash for it after all,” Sonja says. “I’m actually here with a group. They’re deep in the woods, and it’s not really safe, so I’m just thinking—”

“Yep, you can sure say that again,” the man says, and then someone apparently calls him up.

“Yes? Hey there!”

It can’t be safe having a phone so close to your brain during a thunderstorm. The father of a boy in Kate’s class was once talking on the phone during a storm. That was before telephone lines had been buried in the ground, and lightning struck one of the lines. An inconceivably huge number of volts shot through the handset and into the boy’s father, who keeled over on the spot. They resuscitated him before the ambulance came, but still. Kate went out with the boy for a couple of weeks in ninth grade. Sonja thinks she can remember him sitting with Kate in the corner sofa at home, Kate in a pink blouse (so lovely she was), but now the lines have all been buried, if there are even any of them left.

All things pass, and every time Sonja reads something about where she grew up, it’s falling to pieces. That way of life is history. Copenhagen’s getting bigger and bigger, the papers say. A lowlife property speculator outlines the situation on TV. The kobold on a sinking ship, a shuttered slaughterhouse. Journalists paint a degrading portrait, and the parks of Copenhagen swarm with baby buggies. They’re dragged around by flocks of mothers with homesick eyes and dogs on leashes. Someone ought to start a resistance, thinks Sonja. Shaming the provinces is just a covert form of deportation, isn’t it.

Sonja’s made her way to the door, but it’s difficult to get out because of all the sodden people who want to come in. Outside, she joins a knot of visitors under the terrace roof. The alley down to Bakkens Hvile has turned into a creek. A woman in a pair of sopping-wet espadrilles wobbles on the cobblestones. Unattended children have shucked off their shoes and are wading in the water, and Sonja would join them if she weren’t a grown-up. Or Sonja would join them if her feet weren’t defective. “Your feet don’t want to grab the earth,” Ellen always says, but now Sonja’s bending over. She takes off her shoes and stuffs them in her backpack. She wriggles her toes on the wet cobblestones. They’re not unhappy feet. They’re not feet that durst not. They can so, Sonja knows, and her feet grab hold of the earth. They get a good grip, and then she walks out in Bakken in bare feet. The rain is sluicing down from above and the sewers have thrown in the towel. Yet Sonja walks. She finds it delightful, almost daring, to go barefoot. She walks past carnival wheels and stuffed-animal booths, past shooting gallery tents and vitrines of giant candy. Wasps stick fast to the candy, and the girl who’s supposed to be selling it has concealed herself in a poncho. Only her eyes are visible, and they look away. Behind the girl, directly behind her, are the bumper cars.

If I were Frank, Sonja thinks, I wouldn’t hold back. But I’m a woman past forty. Alone in Bakken. Barefoot, and besides, I can’t shift gears.

Sonja stares at the bumper cars. They’re driving chaotically around the covered track. All the cars are full, the fathers happy and the mothers where it’s dry, clasping prizes.

No, she thinks. I can’t shift for myself.





6.




SONJA’S SITTING IN FOLKE’S OFFICE. It took a long time to get here, as she kept taking detours. She’s been through Frederiksberg Gardens, and she walked down Gammel Kongevej and then back again before taking the side street where Folke’s Driving School is located. It’s five now; she wanted to catch Folke in the narrow window between when Jytte goes home and when students show up for theory. She’d been standing in line outside the office for a while. There’s almost always someone in there with Folke. The youngsters inevitably forget their money and signatures, and the suspended drivers prefer to bring their shame at odd hours, so she feels like a camel looking for a needle’s eye to slip through. But now Sonja’s seated on the chair across from him. She’s asked if they might speak in confidence, and Folke’s closed the door.

“I can’t change gears,” Sonja says, even though that wasn’t what she wanted to start by saying.

“I see,” says Folke. “What exactly’s giving you problems?”

“Everything. Or rather, it’s mostly just Jytte.”

“Jytte?”

“Yeah, I’m sure she’s a good teacher for the younger students. But for an old person like me, I don’t think she’s a very good fit.”

Folke’s leaning over his desk. He’s a tall man with a bald pate and a striking beard. His face is alive, open, and he’s made a concerted effort with the beard. From his chin it tapers to a point, but elsewhere it’s thick and bushy. It’s as if the hair he once had atop his head has slid down under his chin, where it now points toward his other male hair. He extends his legs under the desk. They’re long, and his driving-instructor gut bulges out beneath his hooded sweatshirt. Folke resembles a fat stork when erect and a happy pagan Viking when seated. Or else he looks just like himself, and Sonja likes that.

“What’s wrong with Jytte? Is it her big trap, or what?”

“It’s more that she loses her temper. She won’t let me shift gears, and how am I supposed to learn, then? I get so exhausted when I’m out driving with Jytte that I have to go home and lie down on the couch. And the lessons do cost money.”

“Jytte’s got a mouth like a longshoreman and a heart of gold,” Folke says, leaning back. “You shouldn’t take her so seriously.”

“But then there was the brawl.”

“Brawl?”

It’s now or never. So out comes the story of the cross-cultural encounter in the intersection by Western Cemetery. Sonja remembers to include the detail about how Jytte used the horn. The fear, the adrenaline, the hotheaded outburst; the complaints about wrecking Jytte’s car. Everything. Folke must be told, and he sits there with his face in worried furrows. He looks like someone who’s listening to Sonja, and though she hasn’t really thought that far …

“I want to drive with you instead.”

Folke runs his fingers over his impeccable beard. He explains that he doesn’t really drive with that many students anymore. He takes care of theory and administration. He’s also hardly at the school when it’s convenient for students to drive.

“But I translate Swedish crime novels,” says Sonja.

“I don’t get it.”

“What I mean is that I’m my own boss, in a sense. So I can drive whenever it suits you.”

Folke doesn’t hesitate an instant but smiles and opens a drawer. Inside is his calendar.

“Let’s do that, then, and don’t you worry about Jytte. I’ll call her. Don’t get your head in a twist. It’s my business, my responsibility. I’m going to teach you how to shift gears.”

Sonja’s on the verge of tears. It happens unexpectedly; the sob sits in her throat and wants to come out. Folke’s hands move efficiently from side to side across the desk, and she longs to grasp one of them. Squeeze it, say “Thank you,” from the heart. It doesn’t escape Sonja’s notice that she gets red in the face, because this sort of thing rarely happens. It almost never happens anymore—that someone wishes Sonja the best. She’s used to dealing with everything herself, and she’s reasonably good at it too, but that Folke would reach down in his drawer and face the heat—Sonja hadn’t expected that. It isn’t that she’s planning on the emotion to lead to anything. She isn’t. The idea behind getting a license isn’t at all to find someone to drive for her. On the contrary, and besides, she’s heard that Folke’s married to a doctor. She doesn’t understand how he pulled that off. But he’s married to a doctor, and that’s a good sign, Sonja thinks, and now he’s looking up at her and smiling.

“Crime novels, you say? Did you translate the Stieg Larsson books? They’re great. Or that guy Gösta Svensson? My wife’s nuts about Gösta Svensson.”

Sonja opens her mouth. Her skin stops glowing, but she can’t manage any more than that. Folke gives her a yellow note with a date and time for her next driving lesson.

“It’ll be Thursday, then.” He smiles. “And I’ll take care of Jytte. You just go home now and rest.”

Then he’s towering over her, there in the driving instructors’ office. He’s taller than Sonja, standing before her in his hoodie.

“Come here!” he says, opening his arms.

Sonja disappears into Folke’s arms, his arms like a father’s pressing her to his chest. She cannot speak, as she’s on the cusp of crying. She also feels bashful. And she hasn’t answered about Gösta, but now the moment’s passed, and Folke’s pushed her away again.

“Thursday,” he says.

“Thursday,” she echoes, and she decides to take a couple of Gösta’s books along when they see each other next.

Then he’ll be happy, and so will his wife. Then the lines will be clearly drawn. Then no one will get confused out in the car.

It’s the embrace; it was a smidge too intimate, yet pleasant at the same time. It caught her napping. Now she doesn’t know how to comport herself, and her cheeks are prickling. She feels like a confirmand, and there’s a line outside the door waiting to come in. A long line of youngsters with course papers and passports. Folke lets the door stand open and asks them to move closer, closer. Sonja floats through the theory classroom, painted royal blue. She can smell Jytte in the furnishings, and it won’t be long before Jytte knows that Sonja’s ditched her for the boss. It won’t sound pretty. Then she’ll let Sonja have it with both barrels. Then it’ll come out that Sonja was never approved by the medical officer, and she claims it’s something with her ears, but you can bet it’s something else.

Something else?

Sonja steps out onto the front steps and into a cloud of cigarette smoke. The rougher students stand around, grabbing a smoke before class. Jytte does the same when she’s there during the day, but right now one of the students is describing a driving lesson. The student demonstrates how she turned the wheel too fast. It’s an exaggerated movement, and Sonja has to duck quickly to avoid being struck by her cigarette. And in a flash it’s there: the positional vertigo.

It’s triggered by the dentist position and by bending over too fast, and Sonja has to grab hold of the banister while she restores her head to its proper position. When she gets her head back into place, the world rights itself. The world’s where it should be, but it’s been shaken. Sonja takes a couple of steps out onto the sidewalk. She doesn’t want any of the smokers to see that anything’s wrong, and after all, it’s not the dizziness itself that creates a problem for driving. She’s able to orient herself just fine, as soon as she gets her head out of the angle that triggers the episode. It’s more that, for the next couple of hours, she’s a tad out of focus. That’s not so great in an automobile, but then again it could be worse. And her grandmother could drive a car; her mother too. The first time that Mom got dizzy, she went to the ear doctor, and he had her lie on the examination table and rolled her head around. That triggered a violent attack. Mom’s eyes centrifuged and her hands clawed the air while the doctor held her down. He told her she had to lie there a few minutes and “just let the stones settle down.”

That helped for a time, but then of course the dizziness returned. It returned when Mom hammered her head against the car’s doorframe on the day Kate and Frank were getting married. This was in the parking lot up by the church, and thank God they’d arrived there good and early. Mom got Dad to drive her home with the excuse that they’d forgotten something. Sonja wasn’t aware that anything was up, but that might have been due to the dress Kate had stuffed her into, tubular and lemon yellow. Meanwhile, Mom thought she could take care of the positional vertigo herself. Surely the maneuver the doctor had used on her could be performed at home, she thought. She removed the cloth from the dining room table, then took a running start and leapt up on the table so she’d land on it prone, with her head tilted back slightly. The tricky part was catapulting her body up there just right. If she failed, she’d smash her head on the tabletop. Or worse, she’d continue over the table and onto the floor on the far side. But if she succeeded, she’d just have to let her head loll backward over the edge of the table. So she took a running start in her heather-colored dress and lifted herself onto the table, landing perfectly. Dizziness assailed her “but the stones had to settle,” she explained as she stood in the church later and watched Kate walk up the aisle toward Frank.

Sonja’s advanced a cautious distance down the street. Since she’s no longer visible from Folke’s Driving School, she sits down on some steps. There was a long period when she thought she’d escaped the vertigo. For a while she even imagined that moving to Copenhagen had made a difference. That the dizziness was something social, almost a tradition, she supposed, that you could break with. But then one day she was standing in the entry of her flat and went to tie her shoelaces. The moment she bent over it hit her—the positional vertigo. She crashed into the doorframe and on out to the kitchen and into the stove, before she finally got herself situated so that the fridge stopped moving.

The disorder, she’d thought, and went to see the ear doctor, who proceeded to sling her around. “It’s not dangerous, you know,” he said on cue. “It’s just some tiny stones inside of you that are breaking free.”

And the stones just had to settle into place.

Sonja would like to remain sitting there till the sensation of being knocked off course subsides. What she’s done for herself is a good thing, isn’t it, even though she’ll have to get past Jytte now. Sonja’s going to be gasoline on Jytte’s flames. The smallest hint of a problem with Sonja, and Jytte will set the medical officer on her. If it were up to Jytte, Sonja would never be allowed to learn to shift. She wouldn’t even be allowed to drive. She’d be deprived of her right to … yes, to what Sonja doesn’t really know, but in any case it involves some sort of right, flickering in the back of her eyes like a faulty fluorescent light, and she pictures Mom in a gym suit. The gym suit is shiny and blue, and Mom’s feet move swiftly; she’s the star of the team. She can do a kick split and spin like a top. She’s so stunning that Dad can’t take his eyes off her. No way he’d ever get enough of watching a girl like that. Dad takes a running start, he takes a running start and streaks through the gym, his big hands stretching out before him. He wants to get over to where Mom is, and he does. He comes within reach of the girl in the shining outfit. She looks like a kingfisher, he thinks, and kingfishers are rare. They screech as they fly through the air like arrow shafts, and Mom screeches too when Dad’s red hands grasp her about the waist. Then she sinks down; he is gravity itself. “You’ve got strong arms,” she tells him.

And he did, Sonja thinks, lifting herself up off the steps. Strong arms and good sperm quality, and here stands Sonja, in the middle of the great wide world.

She’s feeling better, so now she’d like to walk home slowly. She walks down Gammel Kongevej so quietly that she comes to a standstill before the window of a hair salon. Placed in the window are two decapitated heads, a woman’s and a man’s. They haven’t had a change of wigs since the mid-eighties, and the frames of their glasses look creepy. Somewhere behind them, a woman with a silver-tinted perm walks about cutting hair. She’s put coffee in front of her customer. The gown’s a florid orange, and Sonja can see that the stylist is chatting. Her scissors are busy and so is her tongue. There are two days till Thursday. Two days till Folke’s going to teach Sonja to change gears.

Is he going to hug me every time we go out driving? she wonders. Must I really get more than I bargain for in every single store?





7.




A TRAIL LEADS INTO THE GRAIN; it’s rye. The rye extends high overhead. A few stalks have fallen across the trail, a secret trail that started as a tractor’s wheel track. A foot could feel its way forward; and hers did. Afterward, it was a matter of following the rye. You were only supposed to go where it was already bent. If you kept only to those places, you could make a trail so concealed it almost couldn’t be seen. In time perhaps, you could bend a few more stalks, make the trail into a path, and then find your way in, deep into the field of rye. The ears of rye have long bristles. The joints sit so high on the stalks that the ears get in your face, and then at the bottom: the sandy soil. The soil’s hard, and almost stony, and easy to walk on. One yellow clog after the other. The canteen of juice drink, stuffed into her waistband. And Sonja circles around in the rye like a field mouse. She’s made the path herself, and it took her some time. Above her, the sky is endless. The clouds puff upward, the buzzard hangs and quivers. It can hover in the air like a helicopter, and it hangs there with its gaze on the ground. Only its outermost wingtips tremble, and at intervals it straightens its wings. The buzzard hangs like a sketch over Sonja, who’s on her way to the hidey-hole. The hidey-hole’s a trampled-down lair where the rain’s knocked down a patch of vegetation. Even the combine couldn’t lift the stalks there, and Sonja seats herself in the hidey-hole. The world beyond disappears, and Sonja sits there cross-legged, like a tailor. She’s pushed off the yellow clogs so that she sits in stocking feet. Then she digs out the canteen, and the smell of sweet grain settles around her. She feels like she could actually sing a song right now. A short one, if it weren’t that Dad would be able to hear, and she’s not supposed to be in the field. The rye’s there to harvest, each stalk a part of the crop. The only time kids are permitted in the fields is when they’re supposed to find wild oats. “The Devil made wild oats,” Dad says, even though he doesn’t believe in such things. And the wild oats must be rooted out, or else they’ll sow strife with the neighbors. Marie’s father in particular has a problem with weed seeds, and kids are the right height, especially when the fields are planted in barley. The bells of the oats dangle above the barley, and Sonja moves like a shark through the surface of grain. Dad walks hunched over behind Sonja, because her sight is good. She can spot wild oats from one end of the barley field to the other, and then she calls out: “Look, Dad, there!” Dad tiptoes like that ballet dancer Sonja’s seen on television, in through the grain. Every stalk is money, and it’s as if the wild oats might escape. Snap! and he’s got it, root and all, and he places it carefully in the sack. Then he smiles at Sonja. It’s a species of happiness, and once, when they’d come out of the barley, he said, “You’re so clever,” and Sonja said, “I’m like a little field mouse,” and then he placed his warm hand on her head.

That sort of benediction doesn’t hang on trees, and now Sonja’s sitting in Vesterbro, unable to recall the last time anyone laid a hand on her head. The head’s probably the only place on her body that Ellen doesn’t concern herself with. Other than now and then massaging points on Sonja’s face, but that’s not the same. No, it isn’t the same, and now Molly’s turned up in the chair across from her. The chair rocks a bit, and Molly’s busy fitting a piece of cardboard under one of the legs. She’s taking a break from her family tonight, she says. The population of Hørsholm will just have to manage things on its own for a couple of hours, for she and Sonja are going to sit in the late August sun and eat well.

Actually, Sonja’s not hungry. If she scrutinized herself, she’d find a spot of queasiness. It’s not late pregnancy, ha! Or the stomach flu. It’s the large quantities of coffee that she ingested during an especially violent chapter of Gösta. All that flesh decomposing; the angry ejaculations, the mutilated vaginas, the ritual adornment of evil. Every summer, journalists ask the members of parliament about the reading material they’re bringing to the cottage. And they’re bringing Gösta. They don’t read anything else, the politicos. In that sense they’re like Kate. Both Kate and the politicians brag about the number of crime novels they read. Even though Kate goes around Balling with no idea of improving herself, she imagines that these books are edifying. That’s why she tells Mom she’s proud that Sonja has a finger in the pie. “Gösta throws light on society from below,” people say. “It’s just like Sudoku,” the politicos say. A crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots, and they’re bringing it to the cottage. Sunk in their wicker chairs, they’ll read about body parts in black plastic bags. They’ll rub themselves in SPF 50 and wallow in evil like it’s a party.

I’m a parasite on the colossal cadaver of Western culture, thinks Sonja, feeling queasy. Nausea, sore wrists, and a jaw that tenses as if there’s something in there that really wants out, but isn’t allowed to exit. Perhaps it’s the wreckage of Sonja herself. Why don’t I ever hear from Kate? What’s wrong with me? Why the hell can’t she just call?

Then Molly pops up from her mission under the table. Her small heart-shaped face has logged another quarter century of its journey. It’s not as though Sonja can’t see the high school sophomore in her anymore, for she can. The warmth and the impulses that make up Molly’s particular nature still nestle there, glowing deep within like the coals of a slowly dying campfire. It’s more that her rules have changed, and Sonja no longer respects them.

They came to a crossroads in their relationship years ago, but no one else in Copenhagen remembers them as they were before that. There’s no one else to nourish their roots; only each other. Sonja’s one of the few people who knows that Molly’s father was a dairyman, while Molly’s fully aware that Sonja’s the product of agrarian party organizations from western Jutland. In the summer, the girls there played outdoor handball; in the winter they went to gymnastics. There weren’t other options unless you wanted to join the Scouts, and Sonja and Molly had more potential. Telling Mom and Dad she wanted to attend the university in Copenhagen was one of the hardest things Sonja’s ever done. The light in Mom’s eyes, the darkness in Dad’s, and after that, Sonja began her language studies and Molly her transformative journey into psychology. She’s always been obsessed with escape routes, Molly has. In others, in herself, in Tisvilde Hegn, because for a while she went to an old folk healer up there, a wise woman who was the one who brought the fortune teller to Molly’s party. Then Sonja stood up against the fridge and had her fortune told. The fortune teller with the curry-colored tunic and wide eyes, and of course Molly’s husband doesn’t know, but for a time Sonja was the cover story for an affair with a Belgian who claimed to be a shaman. Molly ran around at his heels up in Hareskoven. They scampered along the narrow paths, squeezing up against tree trunks, folding into and out of each other. He tossed sage around, the Belgian did, and Molly tossed everything else imaginable, for existential dramas create fertile cleavage planes in her mind. At the same time, the lawyer—Molly’s husband—has a frank and easy nature that she can hold spellbound, and their kids take care of themselves. It’s as if Molly’s face has acquired a barred grille, the sort you see in front of jewelry stores. She can yank down the grille in a trice, so that no one can barge in and help themselves to the wares. The technique frightens Sonja.

“I’ve brought you something,” Molly says.

Her chair is standing still now, but Molly on the other hand is rummaging round down in her purse. She finds a small potted plant in there. An aloe vera. It’s not quite mature yet, but Sonja ought to have it, and Molly also offers her a cigarette from her bag, though she knows perfectly well that Sonja doesn’t want to smoke. Actually, Molly doesn’t smoke either, but something needs to happen this evening. I’m past that age, Sonja thinks, and she’s reminded of the woman at Bakken with the wet espadrilles. Of course she was drunk. Drunk, and the soles of her shoes as big as bales of straw.

“A fine little plant,” Sonja says, rotating the pot.

“It’s an offshoot from one of mine,” says Molly, smiling, and she tells Sonja about her husband and the kids. They’ve got so much going on, the kids especially always flying in and out, and once Molly said that her own father had difficulty loving.

He could homogenize the milk in the dairy, pasteurize and prepare it for cheeses that would then ripen into something marvelous, but when he came home, he just stank of buttermilk. He couldn’t be bothered with his kids, couldn’t be bothered with his wife and hardly even with the dog, but at least he’d drag the dog out for a walk in the neighborhood so it could empty its bladder before bedtime. And the mere fact of that hurt, Molly said—that he was quite willing to take the dog for a walk, but not her. “Because he couldn’t love,” Molly said, and in Balling there were lots of adults who didn’t love their kids. People didn’t use the word love either. In Balling, you were “fond” of someone if your feelings ran high. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t any love there. And it didn’t mean love was there. Kalle’s father, for instance, was a socialist, the only socialist in the parish. Everyone else voted for the Liberals or the anti-tax Progress Party, or in a pinch for the Social Democrats, but Kalle’s father worked in a factory and was a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. He was also violent. He would beat Kalle, until Kalle stammered so much that he had to take special ed classes. It wasn’t as if the teachers at school couldn’t see the bruises. Now and then the gym teacher would turn Kalle this way and that in the locker room to examine him. It didn’t change a thing: the father was a socialist, a political tendency that invoked brotherly love. Just like Indre Mission and modern psychology. Yet he beat Kalle all the time, until Kalle’s speech went to pieces. It wasn’t something folks took special notice of; it was worse, they thought, that the father was a socialist. But people did love their kids. Or were fond of them, anyway. No one claimed otherwise, though Sonja knows this much about love: there’s not much of it in practice, but it’s always thrived on people’s tongues.

“It gets rubbed in your face,” says Molly.

“Come again?” Sonja’s been far away.

“The aloe vera,” Molly says, and then she says that someday she’d like to know: where exactly is it that Sonja disappears to?

Sonja places her napkin in her lap, so that it looks as if she intends to take part in the meal.

“I really don’t know,” she says.

Actually, she’d like to tell Molly that the fortune teller at her party had stripped Sonja of any say over tomorrow, but she’s afraid of sharing the story with her. Even though Molly has a master’s in psychology, she’s drawn to colorful takes on reality. Though Sonja longs for everything the fortune teller might have said to be dismantled, she risks Molly enlarging upon the story if she’s given access to it. Clairvoyance! How exciting! It smells of spirits and spooky bedtime stories, and that sort of thing will just stir up the whey that comprises Molly’s bedrock experience of life. But Sonja won’t have any of it, which is why she hasn’t informed Molly of the reading by the fridge. She doesn’t even know the fortune teller’s name, and for God’s sake she’d rather not know. Molly takes a big gulp of wine. The potted plant’s a succulent. Or at least it looks like one of those plants that steals moisture from itself, and then suddenly the waiter’s there with the food. Right under their noses, potato wedges and burgers. A little bowl of homemade mayo lies sweating on the edge of Sonja’s plate. Sonja makes an effort, but she’s got no appetite.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about back home,” she says then. “About Kate, for example.”

“Isn’t Kate well?”

“Yeah—at least I think she is,” says Sonja.

Molly raises her wineglass and lets it rest against her cheek. Now she’s regarding Sonja as if she were a case study, but Sonja would rather not be a patient in her private relationships; she refuses.

“Remember the day we drove here in the moving van?” Sonja asks.

Molly remembers well. She nods in any case.

“When we were driving across Funen, you said the Great Belt ferry would be ‘the point of no return.’”

“Did I say that?” Molly smiles. “I wasn’t very good at English back then.”

Then she sinks her teeth into a wedge while Sonja looks at the burger on her plate. It’s been squeezed between two unruly pieces of bread. The chef has run a wooden skewer through beef and bread to keep them under control, but wouldn’t it just be simpler to make the portions smaller? Then Molly leans back.

“Well in a way it was true enough,” she says. “And besides, who’d want to go back to Skjern anyhow?”

Molly’s face becomes a mask, and Sonja bends over for her bag. Her cell phone. She wants to see what time it is, but then she straightens up too quickly. Her eyes lose focus, and now two Mollies are sitting on the other side of the table—one with a heart-shaped face, the other looking as if she were assembled with caulk.

She closes her eyes, opens them again: still two. She takes a deep breath, because it might have something to do with oxygen. A gulp of cola, and Vesterbrogade buzzes with sunlight. It is what it is, thinks Sonja, and she tells Molly that Gösta’s going according to plan. She doesn’t want to talk to her about back home. That would be like talking to Marie about Indre Mission. That kind of thing’s a waste of time, and Gösta’s engaged in dissecting the Sweden nobody knows with a fine scalpel, diligently strewing the body parts in a decipherable pattern nearly the entire way from the Arctic Circle to Bornholm. Sonja’s a party to the process, she’s deep into its linguistic manifestations, and since Gösta’s publisher is busy launching Gösta every time he’s written something new, Sonja’s also busy editing Gösta, so that the blackbirds he’s conjured on page ten don’t turn into great tits by page fourteen.

“It’s also important for a novel that a character have the same name throughout the entire work,” Sonja says. “Unless the name change has something to do with the plot, that is.”

“Can’t you try and translate other authors?” asks Molly. “Some that mean something to you. After all, there ought to be a few Swedish authors who’d like to give readers something besides blood and guts.”

“Free market forces,” says Sonja and moves her legs; there’s really not room for them under the café table.

The aloe wobbles a bit, and Molly proceeds to talk about her clients. Sonja’s certain that that’s forbidden, but no one’s very concerned about oaths of confidentiality anymore. The private has become so trivial and pawed over anyway, and who cares, and so she sits there and watches Molly expound upon someone else’s catastrophe. Molly’s had a role in the client’s life, a life that has gradually turned into chaos. There’s hardly anything the client can figure out anymore, so she’s started to starve herself. And besides the diet, she’s also begun seeing another man, and now her nerves are in tatters—but that’s why it’s good she has Molly, because Molly has the perspective you’re supposed to have at the clinic. She’s got the perspective, and a barred grille she can yank down in front of the jewelry shop. The dairyman’s deficient ability to love? History. Skjern, and the long, death-bringing canal that was once the Skjern River? Also history. Now the river wriggles like a worm again, out toward Ringkøbing Fjord. One time Sonja biked as far toward the fjord as she could go, and out there lay a stag. Drowned, perhaps, but in any case it was lying on its side in the process of advanced putrefaction. Now the stag has drifted out to sea and the dairyman’s dead, but there are still farmers there hunting for one more square foot to raise corn in, and the place you come from is a place you can never return to. It’s transmogrified, and you yourself are a stranger.

“How’s it going with the driver’s license?” asks Molly.

“Bumpily,” Sonja replies.

She relates how Folke pulled her close in the driving school office.

“You think I’ll have trouble with him in the car?”

“I think you already have trouble with him in the car.”

Molly dips a wedge. Then she looks at Sonja and says she could also try her luck. See what Folke has to offer.

“Oh Lord,” says Sonja, but the images have already made themselves known:

Sonja and Folke on the backseat of the car. Or in front, her one leg over the headrest, the sole of her other foot on the instrument panel. Arms splayed and folded the best they can, Folke’s little ass sticking out the door. The slap of belly on belly, the penetrations, the damp spots on the blanket.

“And what’s that supposed to lead to?” Sonja asks, thinking of Paul the Ex, whose ass was relatively compact as well.

“A bit of street action,” says Molly.

“He’s married to a doctor.”

“So?”

Which men belong to which women isn’t a topic that interests Molly. Life ought to be kept at a boil, dramas a-simmer, and beneath the love you never had there should be the roar of tinder-dry twigs catching fire.

“It’s just not me,” Sonja says, and she peers up Vesterbrogade.

A helicopter approaches overhead and follows the street up toward Frederiksberg Boulevard, where it veers off. It’s yellow and orange and looks like the kind that flies doctors around sparsely populated areas. But that’s not what’s best about it. What’s best, Sonja thinks, is that it can rise straight up and down between asphalt and sky, and she starts to hum. Molly’s in the midst of her burger and a long explanation of love’s paths and detours, but Sonja’s sober, and she hums. She hums the one about the little lark. She hums the passage where the bird takes flight. You take the straight way from Earth to Heaven, she hums.





8.




Dear Kate,

So now we’re writing each other postcards? you must be asking. But it’s just that I found this card with heather on it and thought you should have it, since I suppose it must be blooming now, the heath. The other day, I also came to think of how you’d often find me out in the rye. Funny, because I haven’t thought of that in years. I’m sure I wasn’t easy to keep tabs on, ha-ha! Hope you’re doing well. As for me, I’m finding Copenhagen on the muggy side. The driver’s license is coming along (another ha-ha!) and so’s work. I’ll set aside a copy of the new Gösta Svensson for you. Then you can get it when we see each other. Or I could send it—it’s up to you. Hello to the family, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Hugs, Sonja



Sonja’s folded the postcard and stuck it in an envelope. All that’s left now is the addressing and stamping, but she’s not really sure about that. In truth, she wasn’t thinking of sending the card. If she were going to send something that sounded like her, it would sound different, but she’s not sure that Kate likes her when she sounds like herself. She decides not to send the postcard. I should have written it to Mom instead, she thinks. Mom loves heather.

Sonja takes the postcard back out of the envelope. She places the card with its pleasant image of heather in the wastepaper basket beneath the desk. Then she takes out a clean sheet of paper and her favorite black marker for writing with:

Dear Mom,

I was just sitting here thinking of you. I also thought of you the other day, because I was thinking of the rye. I used to just out there in the rye, enjoying myself. Sometimes Kate would drag me out. I don’t know if you can remember it, but I remember you standing behind the windbreak and calling me. It was nice that you knew where I was, even if it was a place I wasn’t supposed to be. But why wasn’t I actually supposed to be there? What was it that Kate and Dad had against it? A couple of stalks, good grief. But in any case: I miss places like that. My apartment doesn’t do the trick. Sometimes I lie down over in the cemetery to get a bit of the effect. The other day I nearly sent you a text saying, “Hey Mom, I’m lying in the graveyard.” (Ha-ha-ha!) I’m not, not in that way anyhow. And fortunately, you aren’t either. Not yet, that is. But what am I going to do when you are? I think about that often. That I’m going to miss having family members who understand me, and it’d be nice if I could get Kate in conversation. I know it makes you sad that we can’t seem to get along. I’d like to. I’m also trying to, but never mind that now, because I hope you and Dad are doing well. You guys should stick around for years, of course. Otherwise there’s nothing new to report, other than it’s not going so hot with the driver’s license. I can’t change gears. I’m so fond of you, Mom.

Hugs from your Sonja



Sonja regards the letter. Then she crumples it up and throws it in the wastepaper basket. It’s lying on top of the postcard now. It’s lying there crumpled up with its black letters, on top of the picture of heather. It’s hard to find clothes to fit the body you have, and it’s hard to find words to fit the people you love, Sonja thinks, looking at the aloe plant that Molly brought in her purse. “I take a leaf every morning and cut it into pieces,” she said. “Then I rub it around my face. It soothes and moisturizes.”

Sonja runs a finger along the aloe’s sharp, tongue-like leaves. With her other hand she probes her face where the skin is soft and working its way loose.

She tries to recollect the fortune. She rummages around in her mind for what the woman in the curry tunic said as Sonja had stood there, leaning up against the fridge. What lay in wait for Sonja as a woman? More of the same, or a break? The unhappy infatuation with Paul, naturally, but what else—a tragedy? A catapulting, a happy ending?

She can’t recall. She’s removed it from her consciousness and placed it in storage. She’s afraid that it’ll become true if she remembers it, or else she’s afraid that it’ll lose its power if it’s brought to light. She’s afraid of not believing and she’s afraid of believing, and she remembers how, several years ago, she went into the church back home. She just wanted to sit a bit and talk about the fortune with something bigger. It was nice to let go of things and then gamble that Something Bigger was listening and wouldn’t blab to Dad, who feared Something Bigger, because its existence would tear him from the reality he knew. Members of Dad’s family shouldn’t tear themselves from the reality he knew either and then leave him there alone, but here she was, sitting in Balling Church. First pew, the one up by the baptismal font. On the chancel arch there hung a pale Jesus, and then there was the altarpiece, where the risen savior was depicted with a defective left leg, for the hardest thing to draw is foreshortening. Anyone who’s tried to draw a person from below knows that; giants become dwarfs, but there Sonja sat, chatting with Something Bigger about the feeling of not being able to fill her life in the right way. It was pleasant, Sonja remembers. There was something reassuring about sitting there and trusting someone besides herself.

It also felt as if someone had answered inside her, telling her she mustn’t lose her grip, for there was someone to whom she would one day become a source of pleasure. Someday she would come to someone’s rescue, yes. She must believe that. In the end she had said the Lord’s Prayer, the way Marie had taught her when they were kids, with a singsong emphasis on the words, and then she went out into the vestry before anyone discovered her sitting inside and being holy. She also had to pee, but then the door was stuck. The door leading from the vestry was jammed. She heaved and hauled on it; it wouldn’t budge. It was as though her fear about roadside churches—that someone would lock her inside—had been realized. Her communion with Something Bigger turned to silent panic. It was nice talking to Jesus and those guys, but she didn’t want to be locked up with them. She also had to pee, she really had to pee, and over there was the collection box, there was the font, there her sacrilege, so she heaved and hauled on the handle till she barked the skin off her knuckles, and finally it hit her that she had her phone in her pocket. There was contact info for the church employees tacked to the bulletin board. The sexton’s name was Niels Jørgen, and she had a hard t