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

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

We sang.

We sang, so the floor echoed. We sang, so the walls vibrated. The teachers college was old, but the buildings smelled of sun and brown soap and newly varnished floors, and we ourselves were new, we were in the first class and hadn’t learned to cut classes yet. And every single morning in the last weeks of August the sun shone in through the auditorium’s windows, while we sang at Morning Song, from our newly purchased blue song books, together with the teachers and all the other students, so the roof unfastened from the old walls and flew. And I, as when I was an office apprentice, spoke as little as possible and almost never smiled . . . I, who when the workday was finally done, could have a face completely stiff from not moving . . . now sat there the whole time and completely unexpectedly sensed a smile in my cheeks, behind my mouth, ready to break out, and felt like lying on my back and sinking down into a grassy meadow and becoming no one.

When I thought back, I remembered singing classes in school as a delight. When I was little, my mother sang me to sleep with “I Knew a Lark’s Nest” and songs like that, and my father was crazy about old songs from revues. “I’ve Loved You as Long as I Can Remember” I learned, standing with my chin on the edge of the sink, while he sang and whistled it together with the water that gurgled out of the faucet as he shaved. But all of that happened long ago. Way too long, I haven’t thought of it before, but for various reasons singing was silenced both at home and in school, in the course of my childhood. And not least had it been silenced inside of me, since that day a mold-gray office was put in front of me, so I couldn’t set my eyes on my future.

But now?

Now it was inconceivable that I could sit in one of these old halls, in the midst of the smell of books and be sitting for many hours and only think of one thing: that I was a student. Everything else was trivial. And it was inconceivable that while I every morning, smiling and with my mouth full of Grundtvig, could let my eyes fly out of the window and alight on the waving linden tree on the lawn in front of the college’s auditorium, certain that in the same moment my former boss sat on his squeaky office stool with the hierarchy of grain and feed a long, dark, steep ascending tunnel in front of his eyes. And at the same time he would brush an invisible dust mote from the knife-sharp crease of one of his trouser legs, while he grumbled over the newspaper report of the falling prices of grain or over one or another new office apprentice, who had brought the morning mail too late to his desk again, and who couldn’t get the mimeograph machine to work or set decimal points correctly.

And now?

It was completely inconceivable that I had escaped.

When I woke up the first morning in my new room I lay and listened to whether the bathroom was occupied. But it was early, except for the sound of playing, chattering children’s voices downstairs, it was completely quiet. And the sunlight on the shining dark-worn floor in the hallway and on the dust in the air between the bookcases, when I looked out through the door crack.

And then.

Quick as a lightning bolt and on bare toes out over the creaking floorboards, I was in and pushed the lock on the door of the little bitty bathroom, where the sun shone into the sink through the open window. In the crack between the window frame and the roof the morning sky glittered in on me through a spiderweb, and when I looked out and down into the neighbor’s garden, I could see a man in swim trunks walking around on the lawn with a book in his hand. He was thin and wrinkled like an old man, maybe sixty, but suntanned. A coffeepot and a cup were on a garden table, the weather was late summer mild, still, and nevertheless I got a chilling feeling from the look of his face, his stiff movements, as he wandered around the yard and read. Perhaps I only had the kind of feeling you have when you see something painful, a kind of emptiness you can’t understand. Since there were only two metal towel racks beside the sink, both of them overfull, I laid my towel and soap on the floor, whose worn brown linoleum was cobbled together of many pieces. Down in the toilet rust stuck its yellow-brown fingers up through the water and stuck to the sides, and when you sat there, you had to bend your head down and fold yourself over because the toilet was wedged in under a sloping wall. The roller of stiff, dark yellow toilet paper hung from a green painted wooden plate behind the commode, so you had to twist and bend to reach it. It all smelled of damp towels and shaving soap, and it was so narrow that I almost couldn’t move my arms to wash myself. And as I brushed my teeth and the alarm clocks in the other rooms began to ring, one after another, I looked at myself in the battered mirror that hung so high that I had to stand on my toes. And because I looked like a scratched phantom with white teeth, I turned around and looked out the window again. All at once a bird landed on the edge of the roof. The man down there in the garden had disappeared. The bird flew up over the trees and took my eyes with it.

Hello in there, there’s somebody out here waiting! Suddenly pounding on the door, for God’s sake there’s somebody else who has to shit!

Yeah, yeah, I spat the toothpaste into the sink. I quickly collected my things, pushed the lock, and opened the door.

And was almost blown over by a long-limbed girl with dark curly hair, wearing only underpants, well, finally! But good morning! I’m Regitze, she said, as she rushed into the bathroom and slammed the door.

After breakfast, which was a cup of water and something left from last night’s food package, and after the noise in the hallway, when the other girl and at last Ole and Lars had gotten up and had been in the bathroom and then stormed down the stairs, I followed the two girls, but at a distance. Their round behinds under their light summer dresses, one striped, the other fluttering with small dots, switched out of the door in front of me. Then they turned around the corner of the house and continued down over the lawn. Out in the yard through an unpassable shrubbery to the left sounded voices, laughter and shouts, resonant calls, and the girls’ talk. Only when they had reached a tall hedge at the bottom of the yard did they turn around and lay eyes on me, hi again, smiled Regitze. She squinted her big, brown eyes against the sun, and out through her wide curved lips and in a Copenhagenish drawl she said, well, I hope to Go-o-o-d you managed to get washed up! The other girl stuck her arm into the hedge and held a branch to the side so there was a hole, she was chubby and pale as skimmed milk, she smiled. But only with her mouth, her blue, protruding eyes looked at me, I’m Irene, I live in the room right across from the stairs, she said, and I’m in the senior class. Yeah, yeah, I thought, that is understood. Watch out for your clothes, said Irene, and all three of us scrambled through the hole in the hedge.

The path up to the left was overgrown with bushes and trees and as dark as a tunnel. On the ground spread a dark red, slippery layer of fallen plums, and at the end of the tunnel I could see a lot of young guys and girls. In wide clumps they walked up a broad street, as they called and talked together, and as soon as we ourselves had gotten out into the light and could see the college, Regitze and Irene fell back into a group of other girls. As four guys in front of me tried to impress each other with how many beers they had drunk last night. Their echoing voices fell to pieces in the air, and suddenly I was alone. The only one no one knew. We passed an athletic field where two white field goals gaped at either end of the scoured green, newly mowed grass. While I thought of everything at home, while I thought of Bjorn, and the ground vibrated under me, as though I was about to disappear.

Later, after Morning Song in the auditorium, when I had found my way to my new class, where there already sat a flock of chatting faces crammed together around a table, a flock of mouths that told jokes and laughed, a flock of uncertain eyes that fluttered back and forth in the room. As I came in the door, the faces turned on their necks and stared at me, so that I dropped my purse, my things fell out and scattered on the floor. I got on my knees and gathered everything up, and I didn’t know what I expected to see, when I looked up into the funnel of faces that looked down at me.

Fear? Flat and identical as shirt buttons?

No, nothing like that, there I was luckily wrong. After some days, after some months, when I had seen them more closely, my classmates were completely different. Sweet and uncertain and committed and intelligent and irritating and foolish and imaginative and noisy but that first morning I saw them from a distance, as if through glass. There’s room here, said one of the girls and pointed at an empty chair next to her. Lotte, she said, and reached out her hand, I just moved into a room over the bookstore.

She had a turned-up nose and freckles and long, red hair, held together at her neck by a rubber band. Thanks, I said, and looked at her hand, which was also freckled, but long and graceful, and she spoke, gestured, smiled my angst away. Just then Kranow came in and closed the door behind him.

Good morning, I’m your Danish teacher, he said and tossed his briefcase on the desk. Then he narrowed his gray-blue, friendly eyes and looked out over the class. And as I thought of the apple scent and soup bone in the messy foyer and of the smile in the corner of his mouth, I was happy that it was he who would be our teacher, and so listen up, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to write on the blackboard which books you’re going to be using.

Afterward—when the morning, full of geography and math and natural history, had been released into the sky out there, and the lunch break, when I went home to my room for the last crumbs of last night’s food package, and when afternoon with composition and religion and English had also whirled into the clouds—it was still a warm summer day. Mrs. Hoeg’s exaggeratedly articulating and permanently smiling, bright red mouth had stood at the board for the last hour and gone through the English vowels. It hadn’t opened. It hadn’t closed. It had turned inside out, so you could see her tongue and the smear of lipstick on her teeth, and even though I didn’t know what I should use the English phonemes and variant pronunciations for, I had absorbed the whole thing into myself.

Five days later the weather was even warmer, and we had also had German, gym, handwork, composition, singing, physics, history, violin, forty-two hours a week. And we’ll have to spend a huge heap of money on books, said Lotte, as we walked to the book exchange where the older students’ used books were sold. But after we had sorted through all of the boxes of books and only found half of what we needed, we had to go to the bookstore.

When we opened the door a bell rang deep inside the shop. A moment later a pair of light gray gabardine slacks and a black sports coat danced out, hello good day, little misses, said the thin, smiling man who was wearing the clothes. And who laid a pair of small, gray hands and the tip of a narrow, metal-colored tie side by side on the counter and said, now you’ll get some help, because of course I have everything you’ll be using in the first-year class. And he started to pull out books and notebooks and portfolios and pencils from drawers and cupboards.

Yes, I said. And I picked up a spiral-bound book and a gray notebook.

Fine for taking notes, said the bookseller, and I have inexpensive ballpoint pens.

I opened the notebook. It was small and thick, with unlined pages, but we’d like to have time to look at things first, said Lotte.

The bookseller smiled, of course, he said.

Alone, said Lotte.

His smile went out, as if he had flipped a switch, well yes, he said and scowled at her. He went over and sat down at a table, from which he could still see us, and started to push some papers back and forth.

There’s his wife, whispered Lotte, just wait and see.

I looked up from a geography book, what?

She always stands there, glaring.


Out in the back of the shop.

What the hell, I whispered. Out loud I said, over there is the violin score we’ll be using. And so we stood up again and looked in the book with the wife’s stare on our backs and the husband’s on our faces.

I slowly began to sweat. My clothes stuck to my body, and at last I turned my head and got a glimpse at the wife’s face. It was pale. And swollen as French bread dough, as we finally chose some books and notebooks and pens. I also took the gray notebook and a pencil sharpener and three yellow 2B Viking pencils, while the bookseller’s long, hairy fingers crawled over the counter, so that’s all, he said with a sour grimace, no physics books? No German books? And only after he had gotten the money and put it in the cash register did he take his fingers off the books and wrap them up as if they were made of glass. Then he passed them across the counter.

Well, then, goodbye we mouthed at him, and we hurried toward the door.

He didn’t answer, but disappeared into the back of the shop. What an idiot! But come on, said Lotte, when we got outside. And we walked around the corner and into the back door of the same house and up a steep loft stairway, careful, it’s full of spiders, she said.

It is?

They have hairy legs, she said.

I shuddered under the hanging light bulb.

At the top of the stairs we fumbled out into the half-light of a large loft, full of dusty cabinets, cardboard boxes, a couple of moth-eaten recliners, where a weak light came sliding in through an algae overgrown skylight. As the spiders with the long, loathsome hairy legs stared down at us from their webs like eyes on stilts.

See for yourself, said Lotte and pointed.

Maybe they’ll die in the winter, I said, looking up.

They won’t die, said Lotte, and I’m going to move out soon!

Her room was cramped, full of corners and sloping walls. Our knees touched when we sat down on two moving-in boxes and drank tea and ate the vanilla cookies her mother had baked and packed in a tin for her when she moved. On the outside of the tin Flying Victory stood in place under full sail, and after Lotte had eaten a few cookies, she wiped her mouth and took one more, and as she looked up at the world map of brown shielded continents, seas, and islands of damp on the wall over my head, she laughed and said, you know what the bookseller said when I rented this room?

No . . .

That I can’t have visits from men.

What kind of visits from men?

That I can’t see any man here.

That’s crazy, I said.

I have to find another place to live, she said, you know what it says on the wall in the bathroom over the toilet paper?

No . . .

Please take only two squares, she said, I think they are evangelicals.

You think so?

If only from the way they stare at you!

Yes and then his tie!

What about his tie, she said.

It’s shiny, I said.

It’s horrible, I said.

It’s too narrow, I said.


It looks like a spear.

Hahaha! Exactly! And what’s it pointing at? She doubled up laughing, holding her stomach, and every time we mentioned his tie again, we almost fell off the boxes with laughter.

Later, in the evening, I shopped at the dairy store and the grocery and the bakery. When I got home and opened the front door, the sound of an accordion came to me down the stairs. It was played out and played in, as Ole practiced it every day from four to six, because he went out to play at an inn every Saturday. It was kept on a shelf he had put up over the gas cooktop. At the same time there was a child’s crying. That also came from upstairs, and the door to Kranow’s apartment was open. On the way up the stairs I caught a glimpse of a parlor with a stucco ceiling, white curtains, and tall, dark wood paneling.

Upstairs, in front of the door to my room a woman knelt next to a bucket and a pile of newspaper, while a small child stood and tugged at her and cried. The woman’s hands were suntanned, strong, and practical, and with angry movements she scooped at the floor with a coal shovel. In her other hand she held a dustpan and as she scooped a turd up into it and onto the newspaper, she looked up, oh, excuse me, she said, it’s the damned dog!

Yes, uh, . . . I didn’t know what to say.

He’s a puppy, she said, and stuck her hands into the bucket and pulled out a rag. She was broad in the bottom, but pretty. Sweat pearled down over her face, which was golden, with high cheekbones, her hair was black and straight, tied up in an untidy knot at her nape.

Uh . . . I said again . . . but what kind?

Saint Bernard, she said, and folded the newspaper together on the dustpan. Her mouth was well formed, large, and she was not only pretty, she was beautiful, though red-faced with exertion and irritation. Then she stood up, and when she had picked up the child, reached a damp hand to me, Birgitte Kranow, she said, would you mind helping me carry these things downstairs?

And then she balanced her way down the stairs with the child on her arm and I followed her with the bucket and dustpan and coal shovel. We went into the parlor with the wood paneling and untidy piles of books on a table and farther into a large dining room. A door out to the garden stood open, by one of the walls stood a carriage with a sleeping baby. The windowsills were full of piles of books, too, and on the dining table lay heaps of unsorted laundry. The floor was flooded with toys, but luckily the baby didn’t wake up and luckily the other child stopped crying. It stuck a thumb in its mouth and looked at me over Mrs. Kranow’s shoulder.

You stink, you little beast, she said, and kissed the child’s cheek. Then she looked at me, be a dear and set those things down in the kitchen, will you, thanks for helping.

On the way back upstairs I could hear Regitze and Irene out on the landing. They had agreed to cook and eat together every evening, and now they stood laughing and chatting and striking matches as they tried to light the gas burner. The accordion was still jammering, and in the room next to mine Lars was pounding on the wall. I sat on my knees with the foodstuff I had just bought and stuffed them into a drawer in my desk, and while the pounding of Lars’s hammer hailed over me and some machine or another started to roar in Kranow’s apartment under my feet, I stood up.

I scrambled over the boards which were still lying on the floor. I had agreed with Lisbeth from my class that one dark evening we would find a construction site and snitch some bricks for my bookcase. I opened the window and looked out. The sun was still shining, but the air was getting cool. Up against the wall right under me stood a lawn chair. Its white paint was peeling off. Yellow leaves fell from the trees onto the seat. It would soon be autumn, it would be winter, and I was alone. But strangely enough I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t homesick. I had come to live in a house with mice under the floor and no bathtub, the roof over the gas burner leaked, but I was happy, there was nothing I needed. I began to think that maybe home didn’t need to be a room in a house. Maybe it could be a place inside yourself.

Every evening there was a lot of preparation for the next day. To hop from five cipher math problems to Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, to leap from Goethe’s conversations with Eckermann to the geological composition of Sjaelland’s peninsula was neckbreaking and incomprehensible. . . . And yet the number of subjects gave me some kind of peace of mind. And every evening before I went to bed I sharpened a pencil and wrote, only a few lines, a couple of sprouting sentences, small green seedlings.

But even if the gray notebook was just what I needed. And even if the pencil’s point was Viking Pencil point perfect . . . I soon began to think if only, if only I had a typewriter.

That—and then my father and mother—was the last thing I had in my head every night before I fell asleep.

And then Bjorn.  

   Contributor’s notes: Inge Pedersen
   Contributor’s notes: Marilyn Nelson

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