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

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

The house with the rental room belonged to one of the teachers. In the dark under the tall trees it looked like a large, gray cardboard box and it lay on a small, unpaved street close to the teachers training school. On the lawn beside the front steps grew a huge wild vine. When we came closer it became even darker because the streetlight in front of the house was out, but between the white-painted windows I could make out the wild vines’ long, thin arms that ended in hundreds of big flame-colored hands. They stretched up and embraced the house’s two stories all the way up to the roof, so the walls’ uneven cement plastering was almost covered.

So my father and I stood at the front steps, and when we saw KRANOW on the door, my father rang the bell. A short ring, then it was silent. A little while later a light came on, and a tall, stooped, thin man in a bathrobe opened the door. The glass of his glasses glittered, he blinked and moved his mouth as if he had been sleeping, ah, you’re here at last, it’s about time, he said crossly and with a noticeable Copenhagen accent, it’s almost midnight! A dog growled from farther in the dark house, with a deep, intermittent throaty sound. It sounded big.

Yes, sorry, but we’re here now, said my father.

I stood and scraped my toes in a little circle and said good evening down at the threshold.

I’ve been waiting for several hours, said Kranow, his gray-blue eyes looked sharply at us over his glasses. Then he looked out at the street and tell me now, did you come here in that fire engine?

The fire department’s always on call, said my father cheerfully.

On, no, Father, how embarrassing, he’s a teacher, I said, but not out loud, only inside myself, and stared down at Kranow’s slippers.

What? He shook his head, but for God’s sake, man, you can see this is a dead-end street, and now it’s dark, how are you going to get it out of here?

A fire engine can fly, said my father, I turn on the siren and push the button that makes the wings unfurl.

Oh no, I stared more and more intensely at the black, worn-out slippers. The dog had finally stopped growling.

But suddenly Kranow laughed. One of his front teeth overlapped the other a little bit, the teeth were white, even though he was old. Or not old, but not young, either, thirty-five maybe, his hair was tousled and thin and cried out to be cut. Then he stretched out his hand, first to me and then to my father. His handshake was firm, but the hand was small and thin, and I noticed the knuckles under the skin, yes, well, finally something’s happening out here in this wasteland, come on in, he said.

He took a step back into the narrow, half-dark foyer, until he stood with his back to a steep staircase. The room was full of hats, canes, umbrellas, near a black coat-tree in the middle of the floor lay a gnawed soup bone and a light-blue pacifier. With one foot Kranow pushed the bone so it disappeared under the coats. Then he bent down and picked up the pacifier, the whole house smelled like apples. No, not smelled, fragranced, but come inside, he said again, we’ll go upstairs, and like a black bathrobe on clattering soles he fluttered ahead of us up the stairs.

Up into a chaos of bulging bookcases wedged in all the corners, leaning against all the walls between an evenly arranged number of scratched and battered white doors. Here and there, below the worn-out tattered books on the shelves, a pair of ripped-out pages lay on the floor. But here, said Kranow, and continued down the hall. He turned a corner and into a niche between two bookcases, where he opened a door. Come in, he said, and turned on the light.

The room was small, a cool breeze came in through the open window. Outside the dark was outlined by a big tree.

So this is it, said Kranow and gestured with his hand, here’s a desk you’re welcome to use. I looked at the desk. Big. And with three drawers under the empty writing surface, that was closed down, so you could see the many little hollows and secret shelves and compartments.

The tree sighed faintly.

There has to be room for the divan, said my father.

Kranow stood in the middle of the floor and rubbed his forehead with his fingers. He looked tired, his fingers were thin, their nails white, oval, carefully clipped, there was something weak, refined about him, yes, but . . . he said, then his gaze came back, so we’ll just move the desk out tomorrow.

Oh no, I thought.

Yes, said my father, doubtfully. And with a sidelong glance at Kranow’s thin figure.

Ole is big and strong, he lives in the room next to yours, said Kranow, as if he had heard what my father was thinking, and Lars came back last night.

No! No! I shouted. Silently.

Lars is a Greenlander, he has been in Upernavik all summer. But this evening I haven’t heard a sound from up here, said Kranow, they must be out somewhere celebrating seeing each other again.

How many do you have living here, said my father.

But I’d like to . . . , I squeaked. . . . So I cleared my throat, if I may, I’d be happy to borrow the desk, I said loudly.

So let’s do that, said Kranow, but how many live here? Two girls in the senior class, and then Ole and Lars who’ll be in the second-year class, but it changes a bit, once in a while someone goes to pasture, so another one moves in, but there are four rooms.

To pasture? My father asked.

Yes, out to do practice teaching, said Kranow, and went to the door, in the third year the students go out into schools for several months, but they move back in here when they want to, they don’t bother anyone. And out on the landing there’s a gas cooktop, he said and pointed out through the door, the gas tank is in there under the rafters. But I wasn’t listening. I was thinking, I was thinking. . . . As for the rest, the toilet, near the attic stairs, Kranow continued, it’s the smallest door. But I wasn’t listening, I was thinking about the desk. . . . And while Kranow spoke, I lifted my hand and gently touched the smooth mahogany.

Yes . . . , I whispered.

Fine, and so the rent, said my father and pulled a roll of bills out of his back pocket.

It’s thirty, said Kranow, but I can’t make change.

Whatever, said my father.

The hell with it, we’ll take care of it later, it’s a damned beautiful fire engine, Kranow patted my father on the shoulder, I would have liked to hear the siren. Then he turned on his heels and disappeared down the stairs.

A moment later the downstairs light went off, a door was closed, it was completely quiet.

And there we stood. My father put the money back in his pocket, well he’s a nice guy. Even though he’s a teacher, he said and went down the stairs, you stay here, and I’ll get the food. And he went, too, and it was even quieter.

And then?

Then I sat down on the floor and waited.

The last few days had been long. The house there at home had stood with closed eyes, as if I didn’t listen any more, as if I had already moved. Every morning when I woke, with a big mouthful of grating tears, a big mouthful of longing in my throat, I lay a long time and stared up at the ceiling, before I got up. It was too early to pack my clothes, but I did it in my thoughts, I had already begun to move. But when we sat in the kitchen and ate breakfast, I chatted lightly with my mother about flowers and currants, about strawberries and raspberries, about what should be preserved in the coming weeks when the berries were ripe, and what should be baked for my father’s birthday. But by that time I would have moved. So I wouldn’t be here. And when I had gotten up from the breakfast table the day stood long and white and empty in front of me, I didn’t know what I should do with myself.

And now this evening, when I would finally be moving and had finally seen the fire engine, I nearly fell on the floor over it. And my mother, who would have had something against any vehicle used in my move, had stood in the window looking out onto the garden and sniffled, when my father parked it in front of the house. And when he came in later and called that now he had hosed it down and scrubbed it so it looked as good as new, she began to sob.

Now while I sat here on the floor, she had hopefully stopped. I leaned against the window and looked at my watch, it was 1:00 a.m., now hopefully she was asleep. She always cried easily, became irritated easily. She cried, when she told me about her poor childhood and my exhausted grandmother, about her many siblings, all the toys they’d never had. She cried, when she was angry at my father, she cried when she read love stories. But all that crying was null and forgettable compared to this evening. When I had pulled my bicycle out of the bike rack, and we had lashed it up and stowed all of my things together into the rear, and when my mother had given us the lunch she’d packed and the soft drinks, and we stood at last about to say goodbye, her lips trembled like a nestful of baby birds, and at last her wet face burst into pieces that fell down between us.

And while I stood and looked down at the pavement, where I knew every single crack and crevice, every single clump of grass, every single wobbly cobblestone, and goodbye Vendsyssel, goodbye childhood. As my mother hugged me, I also cried a little bit outwardly, a lot inwardly. Because there were no words to be found. Until at last I pulled myself away and jumped up into the fire engine and sat in the passenger seat. I rolled down the window, and as my father rummaged in his pocket for the keys, I looked down at my mother, who stood on the pavement. And all the while saliva pooled in my mouth and tasted of annoyance and bad conscience blended together with tenderness. And concern about moving away from my mother, from my father and my whole extended family. Away from the green fields, the blue meadows, which lay around the village, as far as the imagination could reach. Toward the east to the wild forest, where my mother’s mother was born. Toward the west, where my father’s mother was born on the edge of the North Sea. Two kinds of Vendsyssel landscape, that had been inside me, for as long as I could remember. But now it’s time to end this blubbering, said my father finally and looked at my mother, Woman, I’m not going to Australia!

Then he started the engine, and before I had swallowed my tears, he had already stepped on the gas pedal. And on the way down past the roofs of the church and the bank and all the low facades that tried to look like a real town, past the library, where Bjorn and I had often borrowed books so we could read them together, past the elementary school and the high school where we went to gymnastics classes, past the candy store (ah, bonbons, licorice whips!) and past Miss Scharnweber’s lingerie boutique (my first fettle, flat brassiere!) I hoped only that the fire engine wouldn’t break down. And that nobody I knew laid eyes on us. I lowered my head, held a hand over my forehead, I blew my nose, and as the evening whirled in the clouds over us, we drove past posters in the movie theater’s coming-attractions kiosk, and damn, now I wouldn’t get to see Wild Blood with James Dean, and past the basement workshop, where every morning the tailor crawled up and sat cross-legged on a high table and spent all day sewing new suits, and past the corner with Miss Hassing’s beauty salon, where the apprentice stood and glanced out of the window to see what was going on in the street, while she rolled spools of cold permanent-wave solution into someone’s hair or wiped the mirror or swept up clipped-off hair from the floor, and past lines of singing rowanberry trees that stood along the flagstone footpath by the train station.

But in a damned beautiful fire engine?

That wasn’t it. Not by a long shot. And on the way out over the train tracks’ overpass I put on my sunglasses. I sank down in the seat and made myself invisible, until we were finally all the way out of the village, and the blue horizon opened up toward the south. And as the sun slowly began to cast a red gleam on the thistles and stinging nettle that ran beside us in the wild boggy ditch, as we approached the crossroads, as my father lit a cigar, our silence blended together with the sound of the motor. To our left glided the glowing flat land in front of Hammer Hills, as if this was the whole world. My father puffed vigorously on his cigar, I rolled down the window and looked out. The asphalt hummed, the lapwings cried, higher than the pounding motor, I saw their black shoulders, their white bellies whirl through the air. On the whole stretch to the crossroads we said nothing, we exhaled into each other’s stillness.

But the closer we came to the crossroads, the deeper grew the dark in the ditches, and the larger grew the hole inside me. The hole that had started while I was an apprentice. Three deadly long years, which I had spent filing my nails and duplicating advertisements for fodder blends and writing addresses on envelopes and gazing out of the window. A ferocious hungry hole, that was only waiting to be filled with all of the unexpected unforeseeable you can read about in books, and as I gazed toward the east to the road toward Aalborg, a sigh of desperation went through me at the thought of the high school. Because now . . . now the dream of the high school, and from there the university, was definitively ended.

As the full moon rolled up from the horizon like a gnarled blood orange, and the long clouds over the hills to the left began to slide up over the fire engine’s hood, the road ran out over a wetland. A treeless plain, that stretched itself out toward the fjord to the right, full of boggy places, full of rushes, and it grew so big that I closed my eyes, glided into the dark, glided in between the moon-drenched country villages, my head became a marsh with swimming birds, I slept, I wasn’t asleep, when my eyes suddenly landed on a high, dark building on top of a hill.

What? Are we here? I woke up with a start.

Almost, mumbled my father from inside of his cloud of smoke.

It shot through me, I started to sweat. So I rolled the window down, let the wind come in, and in the last stretch, before we turned in the direction of the high building, I sat in a cloud of angst, a wordless fog of longing and fear.

And then we were parked in front of Kranow’s house, and now I was sitting here, in my new room. And a little while later I heard my father on the stairs. And then he came into the room, pulling on something dark, checkered, Kranow came out to the car with this rug here, which you may borrow, he said, and after we had carried the rest of my things upstairs, we sat down on cardboard boxes to eat. But the bread turned my stomach, I took a big mouthful of soda water so I wouldn’t cry. I could hear my father chewing, otherwise it was quiet.

The tree outside stretched its branches out toward the open window. A little later my father stood up and went over and leaned out into the darkness.

No, Father! What are you doing?

Shhhh, be quiet, he whispered. He hung out of the window, only his backside was visible.

Then he turned around, here, he said, and he handed me a big red apple.

Later, when he was about to go home, I went downstairs with him. The wind was cool. It touched my face, and when my father turned the key, the fire engine opened its wings and flew up over the trees. I followed it with my eyes. And then I was alone.

Up in the room I stood a little while and looked at the bare walls. But then I pulled myself together and measured the rug, three steps on one side, four on the other. All at once a light beam from the tree streamed through the open window and fell on the apple that lay on the floor. The branches waved, the night air came in, my new room rocked in the wind.

I picked up the apple and looked at it.

Eat me, it whispered.  

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