Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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translation from Danish by Marilyn Nelson

Clouds and Fire Engines
   from Vejen går gennem luften (The path leads through the air)
   Denmark: Gladiator, 2017

I’ll borrow one of the fire engines and drive down with the furniture, said my father and looked up from the newspaper.

What? My mother’s jaw dropped.

I’ll take the smallest one, he said, it’s just the right size.

My mother glared.

It was a Sunday. The end of August. Three days before I was going to move away from home. We sat and ate breakfast in the new glass veranda, which was just finished. But when they for the 170th time started talking about my furniture, my books, my rubber boots, and about how we should get organized about getting everything moved, I was beginning to bite my fingernails. Finally I left the table, and now I was lying on my stomach on the floor in the farthest corner and pretending to read the Vendsyssel Times, and we’ll drive at night, said my father and looked up at the blue sky through the glass roof.

You’ll borrow a fire engine, said my mother, what do you mean by that?

No one will know.

You’re crazy.

It’s old and won’t be used again, he said and lit a cigar.

Yes, but for heaven’s sake, you are a fireman, said my mother, what if there’s a fire while you’re gone?

Or what if my new classmates see me come moving in with a fire engine, I thought and stared down at the newspaper. As if everything wasn’t embarrassing and annoying and frightening enough already: That my mother was afraid I would get in trouble, as she put it, because she couldn’t get the word pregnant across her lips. That she would miss me and sometimes she cried when she thought I didn’t see. That my father had managed to convince one of my uncles to cosign a student loan for me. That Bjorn still lived in Copenhagen, and that I wasn’t sure if he’d want to leave the city and come back out here to Jutland, now that he was a college student and had a job at a warehouse. One summer evening when he was home recently, we had sat together in a clump of trees and looked up at a flock of lapwings, right up to their white underwings. We listened to their voices make an air shaft of crisp, wild fluting that pulled us upward. And right into ourselves, into who we were. That was what I was thinking. Until Bjorn suddenly brought me down to earth by saying the sound of lapwings always gave him the urge to travel and see the world, the urge to go as far away as he could. And to, and to . . .

My heart pattered in my throat, I couldn’t see anything. Understand anything. A buzzing swarm of thoughts pushed itself behind my eyes so I couldn’t read, either, only stare down at the same sentence in the newspaper.

What if the fire alarm rings in the night while you’re away, said my mother.

Yes, and what if my ass came to a sharp point, said my father.

Hold on, said my mother, what would I do? Do you want more coffee?

Just sleep through it, he said and held out his cup, but there won’t be a fire.

Through all that noise? She shook her head, the fire alarm rings every half hour!

Just stick a piece of cardboard in it, and you won’t hear a thing.

My mother looked out of the window and mumbled, You are impossible. Her eyes fluttered nervously here and there.

The fire alarm was on the wall over the door to my mother and father’s bedroom, and when there was a fire, its clamor sprang out of the wall like a sudden flashing knife. It ripped down the stairs and through the doors and walls of the whole house, it spread out like a deafening pain, to the innermost corners of your ears. If it happened by day my father tore up the stairs from the workshop like a whippet, and my mother pumped up his bicycle tires, as he sprang out of one pair of pants and into the other, For Pete’s sake hurry up, he shouted toward the garden to my mother, no come up here and help me with the suspenders, hand me my jacket, no get your fingers out of the way, I’ll button it myself, but who took my boots, they aren’t behind the steps, not in the cellar, and where the hell is my helmet? Until he finally jumped onto his bicycle and whizzed down to the street with his open uniform jacket flying after him and the neighbors’ dog barking at his knee. The golden crest on top of his helmet cleaved the air like a lightning bolt, and he had wings on his bootheels. Phew, sighed my mother from a chair, thank goodness he finally got out of here!

But now it was Sunday morning, there was no fire and there was really nothing to be afraid of, I should be happy, I should breathe easy, I should laugh, because finally, finally I had graduated and would never again have to work part-time in that dusty old office. It was Sunday morning, yesterday my mother had cleaned the new veranda from top to bottom, and even though it was made mostly out of recycled material, she had made it shine. My mother emptied her coffee cup, and a little later she bent to contemplate a plant she had set on the floor. Its green leaves were in her eyes, see, she said, and looked at my father, a Geranium sanguineum.

My father didn’t answer, he sat and smiled up at the roof’s construction, as if the veranda was a royal summer palace under the blue sky. The sun shone through the newly cleaned glass, the small white clouds that floated over us took on new shapes, and it would have been the nicest Sunday morning if I wasn’t lying here having heart palpitations because there were only three more days before I left. Three more days, then college would start. A blackbird had landed on the roof, its whistle rasped in my ears like a file.

God knows how far it will go per liter, said my father and turned a page of the newspaper.

The geranium leaves trembled and pulled back in my mother’s eyes. So she started to rattle the cups and saucers, Don’t we know someone who could drive the furniture down there, she said, somebody or other who has a truck?

Only the new neighbor, said my father, but his wife got all snippy and practically cussed me out the last time I made a bonfire. Just because the wind came up and blew a little smoke over her clothesline, so I won’t ask him.

Of course she did, snorted my mother, why do you always have to set things on fire?

He blew smoke out into the air and didn’t say anything.

People will think you’re a pyromaniac, she said.

When I was little, I thought my father and mother’s quarrels meant they would split up soon when they said that kind of thing. Since I’d gotten older, they were only irritating. I wanted to shout and put my hands over my ears. But now I lay there and was almost ready to cry, because I was going to miss this. And because I was afraid. Afraid of moving, what was going to become of my life? It wasn’t a big town we lived in, but at least it was sort of a town, and did I really want to move out into the boondocks? Four years without real streets, movie theaters, and boutiques? Did I really want to be a teacher? And suddenly I thought that I could still get out of it, that it wasn’t too late to change my mind.

I’m damn sure not a pyromaniac, said my father, but that sweet little canary didn’t get mad about a little bit of smoke, she’s always sour.

She’s pregnant, and as a matter of fact I think it is illegal, said my mother and started putting the porcelain on a tray.

She should have thought of that before.

Nonsense, lighting bonfires is illegal.

I’ve been burning trash in my garden for the last thirty years, whenever I damn well felt like it, since when has it been against the law?

That’s the community’s new law, she said, the town has grown, and people have the right to sit in their yards without being choked by smoke.

In their piddling little private properties, he said.

Don’t you yourself live in a piddling property?

In their piddling little gliders in their piddling little yards.

What’s wrong with gliders and yards?

Everything perfect. Not a single weed on the place, he said.

Are you talking about me?

No, who’s talking about you? The sound of his laugh mixed with the rattle of the cups.

My father always went off to the farthest back part of our garden. Or he went into the garden shed which was being swallowed up by crooked apple trees, flowering pigweed, and wild lilacs. His stacks of old boards hummed with bees, the sawhorse stood in a blackberry thicket, everything smelled of wood and heat and sun, and plants with long overgrowing vines crawled up to the roof of the garden shed and into its high window. Meanwhile my mother’s realm stretched around the house; all summer she worked her hands raw, she got dirt under her nails from weeding, while the beds were full of flowers from early spring to late October. Papaver, buddleia, hydrangea, she said, in the only Latin she knew, and the names sounded like dreams, a secret hum in the ears, that waited for me to pick up the pencil that always lay next to my bed and write them down. The flowers streamed down over the ground, they stretched to the sun, they vaulted out over the hedge to the roof. Sometimes someone stopped on the sidewalk and looked into the garden. When the wind blew, a long white shiver went through it. When it rained, it opened itself and drank the sky.

Nothing will grow if you don’t keep the weeds away, said my mother.

Those damn little petit bourgeoisie, said my father.

Stop it, she said, people want to live like they want to live, what’s wrong with that?

They hate my goutweed, he said.

They hate the tower on my garden shed, he said.

They hate my bonfires, and I say shit on all their laws, he said.

That’s called communism, said my mother.

Nonsense, you’re getting things all mixed up. He struck a match and lit the cigar, he tapped the ash off on the floor, And by the way, I have said I’m not a communist anymore.

Yes, it’s a good thing you’ve grown wiser, said my mother.

Ha ha, he said, during the war there were a hell of a lot of good reasons to be communist.

Were there, said my mother.

As far as we knew, he said.

What time is it, said my mother.

His face darkened. But the problem was that we were closed in, he mumbled, and we didn’t know that we didn’t know anything.

What, she said.

We didn’t know that the Soviet Union had betrayed socialism.

Nah . . . Well I want to move that jasmine, my mother looked out of the window, will you come and help me?

It was only eight years after the end of the war, when it happened. Suddenly his voice sounded pained, he sat and looked down at the table.

What, she said.

So the devil take the Russians, they drove their tanks into East Berlin and shot at the striking workers.

That’s already a long time ago, and where there are people, there’s discord and division, said my mother, we can’t do anything about that.


We’re not the ones who have to fix the world.

Who the hell should do it, then? Now my father woke up again, Fascism sticks its ugly mug out all over the world.

There are people who are wiser than we are, said my mother, they’re the ones who decide, so let them take care of it.

Never in this life, he said, and puffed on the cigar.

That there was nothing we in our family could have said, that we couldn’t do anything about it, there was just nothing to be done . . . my mother always said this. When she came to it, it glugged out of her mouth like out of an emptying bottle, but she pronounced the words as if they were the highest truth—and that irritated me too. Inalterable, unchangeable, a stubborn unbreakable humility, whether it had to do with world politics, or with complaining over a defective item in a shop, or which gender was born to do the wash.

Listen to what I’m saying, socialists there shot socialists, said my father again, that was only two years ago, and what will happen next?

Yes, I don’t understand it at all, said my mother, but will you come out and help me with the jasmine?

I just have to swallow the last few gulps and read the papers, said my father.

I have enough to do just throwing out the old newspapers, she said, and why we have to get three of them is completely beyond my ability to understand.

The Vendsyssel Times we trade for with the neighbors, so that one’s free.

What about the little thin one with the red print, that one’s certainly not free.

My father didn’t respond.

And no pictures, either. Just long, complicated sentences, full of foreign words, she said, it’s real gibberish.

Use the dictionary, he said.

Should that be necessary, just to read the newspaper? Never!

So read the Social Democrat, he said.

What, she said.

Read New Times, it won’t give you any trouble, he said.

In contrast to that one with the red print, said my mother.

What, he said.

Yes, isn’t that one communist?

Well, even if it is, it’s the most important one.

The most important? Right. Well, then, amen to it, anyway I’ve never understood politics, said my mother.

She sounded so cheerful, but from where I lay, I suddenly saw her impotence. It stood around her like a wall, built up out of her stubbornness and her weakness in relation to my father.

And in a glimpse I understood her. I really should shake myself by the scruff of the neck for not reading the news. For always jumping over politics and looking only at what was playing in the movie theaters. And at the comics, especially the one about the superhero Dragos.

I think the next thing will be Poland . . . said my father. Poland or Hungary. It’s clear that Russia can’t control itself . . .

Are you finished with your cup, said my mother, be careful where you drop your ash.

Russia will never be able to hold itself in check, now they have the atom bomb. So yes—you’re right, he said and nodded his head, I’m getting wiser.

Oh, yes . . . the atom bomb, I thought. Four small, neutral syllables. Four perfectly ordinary sounds, and nevertheless a wholly incomprehensible phrase. Dull, ink black, and heaviest at the end. Full of aggression, it beats against the eardrums, falls through the body. And it’s everywhere, in everyone’s mouth, in the clouds over our heads, in the ground under our feet. Between the newspapers and me stood the angst.

My mother reached for the cup. The sun had disappeared, a cold wind came through the open garden door. The geranium’s leaves fluttered bravely.

I’m getting a lot wiser, said my father.

I stared down at my hands, I stared down at the reassurance of the black-masked Dragos. In the first frame he flew as if sent from heaven down over New York. In the next he saved the divinely beautiful Narda with the wild, loose hair from a burning house. And after he had put out the fire she threw her arms around his neck. In the last frames they soared up over the skyscrapers and disappeared with his black cape flying behind them.

My mother took the empty cup out of my father’s hand and put it on the tray, But now you’ve spilled ashes again, she said, be a little more careful.

He folded the newspaper together, leaned back, and cleared his throat, It’s a good thing we fixed up the old divan, he said.

We? she stared at him.

I said it’s lucky we made that divan flat.

What? Oh . . . yes, such good luck, she said, suddenly irritated, you didn’t do it. And in fact, I thought, she was the one who fixed up the divan. After she had sewed curtains for my new room and after she had varnished three boards for my new brick bookcase, she had taken out the saw and hammer from my father’s workroom. And after she had hammered and sawed and cleared away the sprung springs and pulled nails out, until the upholstery on the divan was gone, she sewed a cover and cushions so it looked like a sofa and matched the color of the curtains.

And as she sat there and heard my father start going back to his fable about using the fire engine, her face became square. Four-cornered. Just as square as all the recycled glass windowpanes around her, all the used four-by-four posts and rafters. And behind her face was a square box full of worries laid flat that jumped up, This is going to end with you driving that truck into a ditch, she said, you don’t even have a driver’s license.

And the table’s legs, he said, they screw right off, that’s easy.

Did you hear what I said, man!

It’s not a truck, and I have said we’ll be driving at night.

What about the police, said my mother.

Here? When have you ever seen a policeman after six p.m.?

She paused.

No you haven’t, he said triumphantly, in Vendsyssel the police sleep at night, and we’ll take the back roads over the fields.

Yes, but Aalborg, said my mother.

Think about it, we’ll drive out over Voidmosen, he said, we won’t have to drive in Aalborg at all.

But that would make you have to drive way south because of the fjord, that will wind up taking half the night.

You’ll close your eyes for a minute, and when you open them, I’ll be back.

A fireman should always be at home, she said.

You’re wrong there, he said. Anyway I’ve been Johnny-on-the-spot for every single fire for a whole lot of years.

Yes, exactly, she said.

At the first little sign of smoke from the smallest stinking fallen-down henhouse, I’ve always been there, he said, and he reached down and patted the pockets of his overalls, where the tape measure was, as if to be sure it was there.

Yes exactly, that’s why they count on you.

But if I’m not at home, I’m not at home.

Like water off a duck, mumbled my mother.

And now, he said and jumped up, now I’m going to ride my bike over to the fire station and measure the fire engine. Before anyone could answer he was out the door.

My mother got up too. With the tray in her hands she stepped over me, and when she had disappeared into the kitchen, I rolled onto my back and looked up through the roof. Trees, sky, clouds. Mostly clouds, I thought, and that’s okay for you, Officer Firefighter, but if you’re as wise as my mother thinks you are, you’ll come up with something better than a fire engine.  

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