Beneath Bjørk the sea is a dark carpet over which seagulls hover, small white trios glimpsed from the helicopter above; the surf describes a foaming white band along the coast; and now they’re flying over land.
Her stomach flutters, she’s so glad to be coming home.
The port ringed by high mountains resembles a small lake with houses built in a half circle around it. Now Bjørk can see the red church, which is located at the city’s highest point. And the school is right next to that.
In the large playing field alongside the school, five or six tiny children are darting around, perhaps Karline is among them, Bjørk can’t see the ball they’re chasing, and now the helicopter is descending, turning its nose toward the heliport. There, the road that runs adjacent to the opposite side of the playing field, and right there: their house and the lake no bigger than a puddle. “Look, look,” she says and points, “that’s where we live,” but her older brother, Knut, simply shakes his head. He’s sitting with a paper bag held in front of his face, awaiting the inevitable; for the last half hour or more he’s been shifting uncomfortably in his seat, and the knotted piece of cord he’s tied and untied to make time go faster is lying on the floor at his feet.
“I think he’s about to hurl,” Bjørk says, unbuckling her seatbelt.
“Well, he’ll just have to do it,” their mother says from the backseat, “there’s nothing I can do about it. Buckle your seatbelt again.”
Knut scowls over the bag’s edge. “That’s too bad,” Bjørk says and pats his thigh. The helicopter dives, Knut heavily lifts his knees and doubles over. “Here we go,” she shouts to her mother, “umm, yep.”
“Stop shouting about the whole thing,” Hilde says from her seat on the other side of the passenger aisle. “Not everyone needs to know it’s about to stink like hell.” She fishes a bag up from the seat pocket in front of her. “Here,” she says, handing it to Bjørk, “give him this.”
Home is always at a distance since the heliport is located outside of town at the end of a long, straight road. One of their father’s friends, Hardy, a Danish teacher who had Knut and their older sister, Hilde, in gym class, is picking them up. He cared for the dogs while they were summer vacationing in Denmark.
The children drag off their backpacks. One by one their father tosses the packs into the Jeep. “I’ll sit in the back,” Bjørk says.
“You can all sit there,” their father tells them.
“If they can fit around the motor,” Hardy says. While sailing, he managed to pass a piece of rope into the propeller on his outboard motor and now the motor is sitting in the back waiting to be repaired.
“If the weather holds,” their father says, glancing first out over the water and then back toward town, “we’ll look at it tomorrow.” He pushes out his chest and inhales deeply through his nose. “Fuck me, how wonderful, some real air at last, now let’s see about getting home.”
Knut sinks down between the bags. He’s still pale, his lips look almost purple. “Scoot over some,” Hilde says, nearly stepping on him while trying to clamber over the Jeep’s side.
“Sit on the floor,” their mother says, hopping in next to their father.
“She said you should sit here,” Bjørk tells Hilde, though the Jeep is starting with a roar now.
“It doesn’t concern you,” Hilde says. Her head is above the Jeep’s cabin; the wind lifts her bangs off her face, Bjørk can tell how tan she’s gotten, all except for the area right beneath her hairline where the sun couldn’t reach. Hilde’s eyes narrow, she’s smiling, and as they bounce off along the bumpy road it almost sounds like she’s humming.
Finally, they’re here. Bjørk gives the dogs a wide berth on her way down to the lake. The puppies she glimpsed from the steps. They must be the neighbor’s. Those were born before she went on vacation. The pups are playing between the tussocks; taking turns springing at each other, tumbling furballs, they whine and bark, retreat and return. Three puppies, two of them brown and one blonde.
Hilde is already down there with them. She’s claimed the chubbiest of the lot, the blonde one that’s the wildest.
A trickling behind Bjørk. She recognizes the sound and hops over the wastewater trench that runs from the house; her mother is busy in the kitchen. Hilde is sitting on a rock and bending over the dog, her back forms a dismissive arch.
Soap suds up the lake water. Water larvae swarm right at the edge between the hairy rocks; like small S’s the red worms throw themselves from side to side.
With a finger Bjørk stirs the water. If only Hilde would give her the pup. “Can I have him?” she asks.
“Take one of the others,” Hilde says. “As you can obviously see, there are two more.”
Meanwhile, their father is up at the shed; he’s been making the rounds to check that all is in order, and now he’s preparing to feed the dogs that cast themselves forward on their chains like they’d despaired of a meal and are deranged by the promise of one coming. Drab in their summer coats, scrawny and berserk.
The puppy chews Hilde’s fingers while she forces its mouth open and thrusts her fist between its jaws. Bjørk sees its head twist from side to side in an escape attempt. Abruptly, Hilde releases it, she throws it aside and disappears up toward the house where her friend, Olga, stands and waits.
The dogs yelp. Bjørk can hear their father dragging the bowl across the shed’s wooden floor, she can also hear him groan. Hardy obviously failed to follow the instructions regarding the fish the neighbor left out for the dogs. Even though she’s down by the water, which has its own particular smell, she thinks she catches the scent of rotten fish.
There he is. Her father, his forehead wrinkled, in rubber boots and stained pants. He heaves the fish up from the pail with a hook, a long slime trail as he casts them between the dogs who deliriously throw themselves on the fish and on each other. With gulping motions they tear the food inside themselves. Before they’re finished, the little bitch rejects it again; her stomach contents form a shimmering trail behind her, she whines and shits and finishes the meal.
Bjørk grabs the blonde puppy and lifts it onto her lap. Its short legs are greasy, the whole animal is greasy and reeks of road dust and sewer water. She doesn’t want to pet it after all; it may be the neighbor’s, but it’s also Hilde’s; she had it first, and so Bjørk catches another puppy that’s not nearly so excitable.
If the dogs hadn’t been fed yet, it would be dangerous for the puppies to tumble around so close to the grown dogs’ chains. They should know that, they should know it’s perilous to be small, that it’s good to have your canines clipped and to be fastened up.
Bjørk turns at the sound of a shoe on rock. It’s Karline sneaking up on her; now that Bjørk has seen her, she laughs out loud. “Finally, you’re home,” Karline says. “I hate it when you’re in Denmark. You want to play hopscotch?”
Without waiting for an answer she runs toward the house; Bjørk can see her. Karline is already scratching the hopscotch squares into the gravel in front of the steps; the stick scrapes and clatters on the pebbles, it rained not too long ago. No doubt she’s already found the best stone.
Bjørk lifts the puppy by the scruff so that it dangles there; the force narrows its eyes, and its paws stick helplessly out to the side. “You get so limp,” she says, rubbing her nose against the puppy’s snout. “Do you miss your mother?”
Knut stands in front of the bathroom mirror and inspects his body, touching it there, here, there. On the shelf beneath the mirror his mother’s pearl necklace rests in a small bowl. He slips it around his neck and pulls the strand taunt; he parts his head from his body.
A boy’s body with upper arms, lower arms, elbows and hands. Pale and soft, in no way muscular, but soft; his skin is like a mole-flecked thin film stretched over muscle fibers.
Loosening the grip on his neck, he returns the necklace to the bowl. Then he throws back his shoulders: Stick your bird’s chest out, man. “Chest out.” He can almost hear his gym teacher, Hardy, say it.
The white chest, the not especially broad chest, the skinny chest. At least the two pale nipples are nicely situated, not too far out toward his pits, the collarbones that vault above them. If he thrusts his shoulders forward, a small hollow emerges between his collarbones and neck.
No underarm hair. Yet. None of the boys in his class have hair there, not even René.
His crotch has a little hair, dark, darker than that on his head, somehow softer. Now he’s just waiting on his upper lip.
He places both palms against the mirror, presses his lips to the glass and leaves a large moist spot.
His lips are too big for his face; the same is true of his eyes, they’re too large and dark. He inspects his hands; they’re also too big, his feet are too large, too big for the soul that sits in his body, that lives in his body, somewhere there inside.
If he sees himself without clothes, like now, he most reminds himself of an insect he caught during the summer, a dragonfly. It fluttered around the jam jar, rustling with its double wings, its enormous eyes and legs far too long, until the ether so stunned it that it fell to the bottom of the jar and died. A gentle death, he’d thought. Now it gives him goosebumps.
Bjørk pierced the animal with a needle so that it would fit on the board; he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
The small crunch as the needle penetrated the shell. Bjørk, who carefully stroked her pointer finger over the wings and then ran singing out into the field to hunt for butterflies. Her reddish hair a bouncing, singing fleck between the thistles, nettles and grass. The insect net’s swish as it encompassed yet another miracle; the peacock butterfly’s intense winking, its curled proboscis, its sudden fugitive flutter through the heat haze.
You have to be born with a killer instinct. Or more precisely: the killer instinct is congenital. The capacity to target and dispatch. It can’t be learned. Something that just feels unnatural can’t be made natural. If you’re born to kill, the world in turn becomes a slaughterhouse. Hunter flocks that stare into the black eyes of animals, the rigid pupils, the membrane that dries and disintegrates.
He turns the water on and allows it to run longer than he should. It’s so rare they get to bathe. The water tank’s thousand liters have to last them a whole week, and with three grown people that makes one bath apiece.
The cool water strikes the metal of the tub and splashes onto his stomach. Water warts form around the raised hairs. A titillation all the way down in his groin; to submerge his body in the water tank standing in the tiny room next to their bedroom, to submerge his body in the water and listen to it overflow and splash onto the floor. To hold your nose until you’re forced to come up for air. To feel the blood pounding in your temples, the relief that you’re still alive.
Bjørk was given her very own knife a few days ago and was set to clean a fish for the very first time. Cheerfully, she stuck the blade right under the gills, just like their mother, and opened the fish in a single slice. Then she pried the heart free from the viscera and set it on the bottom of the boat.
The heart that simply lay there beating on the deck; long after the fish is dead it continues to pound, and now its image is pounding in his brain.
What makes a heart beat like that? For so long? Does it imagine it will continue to live on? At all costs, just go on living, even with no fish around?
He turns off the water and wraps a towel around himself. He tries to picture Bjørk’s small fingers instead, to picture them as they fiddle.
Bjørk always has black nails, which somehow fit her; if she were too clean, she’d be almost too nice with all those curls. The nails and a snotty nose; she’s an animal. A pup. Always busy with something, occupied, fully preoccupied as she tumbles in and out of his field of view.
No, he doesn’t like to hunt. Still, he does like to see the rabbit through the binoculars, the long, kangaroo-like back legs that set it in motion, the white bobbing tassel. If the animal vanishes behind a crag, he’s relieved, happy even. He pulls the cotton from his ears, rejoices to see their father empty his rifle of cartridges, and to hear their mother’s encouraging, “it’ll turn up again.”
How could he bring himself to kill insects like that? It wasn’t right, even if he’d only done it as practice. It was a pathetic attempt anyway. He’d justified it to himself with the idea that he wanted to compare different types of creatures. Two completely distinct kinds of animal can look so much alike you can hardly tell them apart. The hoverfly, that harmless little insect that can be confused with the wasp, but is itself completely innocuous. It uses the wasp’s aspect to obscure itself. Only someone like Bjørk can recognize the difference. “Don’t be silly, it’s only a hoverfly, see!” And she squashes the body’s striped casing. Flattened. “It doesn’t sting at all.”
In a way his father is a complete opposite. He has dog-skinned pants, sewn from their very own dogs, and a killer instinct. He also has cloth trousers and an office job. He’s the same man, just in disguise.
The dragonfly woke up again, it wasn’t dead after all, the ether had just stunned it. Suddenly, there was a rustle and a drone; it tried to lift itself off the board; it didn’t know it was impaled.
“Give it another round,” Bjørk shrieked. She wasn’t afraid. She was exhilarated. And he was spineless. He didn’t dare. He’d gone out of the room, leaving Bjørk to figure out what to do.
Had she told him what became of the dragonfly afterward?
In any case, he’s forgotten. His father had walked by and seen him sitting beneath the cherry plum tree. “Can you help me out here?” he’d asked, placing the ladder against the trunk. “I’ve been stung by those wasps for the last time.”
He handed Knut a bottle of insecticide. “I’ll climb up and then you’ll hand it to me,” he said, “and when I’ve sprayed the hive with the shit, you hightail it out of there.”
A red bottle with a nebulizer, full of liquid. “But,” Knut said, “what about that other way, where you grab a bag and use it to get them down so that nothing gets hurt?”
“Knut,” said his father, “for fuck’s sake, Knut.”
What happened to the insect board? He’d left it at the summer house so that the butterflies could be eaten by other insects, or perhaps mice, so that they could enter into the natural cycle, which he, the sole member of the family, has abandoned. He won’t eat any more meat. From now on he’ll only eat snow. Well, from now on he’ll only eat a little bit of meat.
Oh. Hilde presses her thighs together; a tickling warmth between her legs, a stabbing pain in her stomach.
She leans back in her seat. And now the helicopter begins its descent, and there’s the town; it’ll be a little while yet before she can find out what exactly is happening in her underwear. While she waits, Knut throws up, Bjørk sits there shouting, just stay still now.
As soon as they’re out of the machine, she runs to the wait house.
Indeed. It’s happened. Finally. In her panties she discovers a brownish stain, a thick, sticky substance that colors the paper, but doesn’t disappear when she tries to wipe it away.
Oh. How long she’s waited for this, she’s looked and looked for it, but to no avail. Yet now.
No one knows just by looking at her, and that’s the way is should be.
She grabs her backpack and throws it over her shoulder; it weighs next to nothing now. The sun stands right overhead; she’s the axis around which the world revolves, everything is bright and clear, and here comes little Knut, a pale weakling like always; will he never become a man?
Home. She tosses her backpack beside the bed. Three people in one room. How she ever thought she could tolerate the nursery she’ll never know.
Now the pain is stabbing her stomach again; something leaks out. She finds a sock and stuffs it in her underwear.
A sinking feeling inside. Suddenly, she wants to tell someone; she can’t very well go around with a sock, after all, and now her body feels so heavy she has to sit on the bed.
The room is tiny, and even though they’ve just arrived, Bjørk has already dumped a mass of things onto the floor. Her backpack sit in the middle of the pile still tightly lashed.
“Will you buy me some pads?” Hilde asks her mother in the brief moment she has her to herself.
Surprised, her mother looks at her. “Have you started menstruating?” she asks. Why does she have to say it so loud? “I don’t have any pads, but you can go down and buy what you need.”
Hilde has no idea what she needs; where should she know that from? And now her mother is gone, busy rummaging through one cabinet after another.
The three puppies scamper around in front of the house. They’ve gotten bigger. She catches the chubbiest of them; someone must’ve petted it, it’s not shy at all.
The sock in her underwear is filling up, maybe it’s visible on her pants; she didn’t think of that before, she can’t go into a store like that, she tosses the puppy away.
“Olga is here,” Hilde’s father calls down to her. Olga is standing up by the house. In a new jacket, a nylon sports jacket, a thin one; it makes her breasts look bigger than they really are. That is, if they haven’t grown insanely in the five weeks that Hilde has been away.
“Are you coming?” Olga asks.
Of course Hilde is coming; actually, she couldn’t wait to come home to Olga, who somehow or other is ground zero, the one to whom Hilde always returns.
“It was about time,” Olga says after Hilde has told her, “you can have some of mine.”
No more about pads, now the bubbling feeling in her breast is back, a big “ha” to it all, and together she and Olga stride past her mother who stands at the kitchen window, past her father, to whom she gives a quick kiss; his beard stubble has grown during the trip from Denmark, he hasn’t shaved since the day before. “Where are you off to?” he asks, but then he’s gone, some rope he’s busy unwinding.
“Nowhere,” Hilde says, and they walk to town arm in arm.
It’s a wonderful confidence that arises between them; a self-sown closeness sprung from nothing, founded on rocks, exceptionally hardy polar spores that simply decided to grow. “You’ve got no idea what’s happened,” Olga says and squeezes her arm. “I’ve met someone.”
Hilde giggles. “What kind of someone?”
“Well, what do you think?” Olga asks, giving Hilde’s arm a sharp tug. “A man, obviously.” She stops. “But you can’t tell anyone.”
Olga lives with her father and mother in a big house on the opposite side of the port. Her mother is a telegraphist. She met Olga’s father while she was at school. He’s a mechanic, a large ruddy man whose sparse blonde hair bristles out everywhere. “He’s installed a recliner in his car,” Hilde’s father laughs, “because he’s so fat. But he’s alright for all that, his head and hands don’t lack for anything.”
Multiple times Olga’s father has repaired their outboard motor, and each time Hilde’s father stays for a beer. That’s how Hilde met Olga, a small side bonus to their fathers’ trade.
While their fathers took apart the motor and blackened up their fingers, Olga and Hilde circled each other until Olga’s cat Nanoq appeared. Using some old leather scraps from Olga’s mother’s stores, they sewed a dog harness for Nanoq and decorated it with pearls. At that point, the cat became so irate that it scratched Hilde; she received a deep gouge across her temple, the blood was a gushing stream, and her father had to interrupt his work to rush her to the hospital.
When Hilde thinks back on it now, the memory is a bodily sensation; her throbbing temple, the feel of riding on her father’s back, the jolts, the slurp of his rubber shoes as he ran in direction of the hospital. She was too big to be carried like that, but he did it anyway. As if he were afraid she was going to die.
Out of a seven strong sibling flock, Olga is the one Hilde knows best. She’s blonde, has blue eyes––you’d almost think she came from Denmark, though her mother is from town, a tall woman, still attractive, even though she’s had so many children.
“Hopefully, there won’t be any more kids,” Olga says; she’s the one who cares for the little ones, prepares their meals, puts them to bed, sometimes even brings the youngest one with her to school if her mother can’t look after him.
“A man?” Hilde asks. “What do you mean, a man?”
At that Olga shrugs. “Just a guy, someone I really like, we’ll talk about it later.” Petrine is approaching them from down the street. With her is a boy from her class. “She’s together with Johannes,” Olga says. “I don’t want to talk to her.”
They run between the houses through high grass. Dry air, and now the smell of seaweed rotting on the rocks down by the water. “Otherwise, not a shit has happened since you left,” Olga grins. “Nothing ever happens in this town. I can’t wait to leave. Maybe next year.”
“Can we please hurry up,” Hilde says; it’s leaking again down there. “I need something now.”
Olga just smiles, maybe she doesn’t care, or maybe she’s just happy; she grabs Hilde’s cheek and gives it a hard pinch. “It’s so good to have you home,” she teases.
School is starting tomorrow and Hilde is both excited and not. Going on vacation was a relief; that way she wasn’t left in a void after Heidi.
Now that she’s thinking of Heidi, she’ll concentrate on remembering her face. Freckles are the first thing to appear. Then the red hair, huge curls that eventually became thick, tangled sausages because she didn’t bother to fix them. Eyes, rather small and with lashes so short they were almost nonexistent.
Unlike many other Danes, Heidi’s family remained in town for a while; they were already there when Hilde came, and even though Hilde and Heidi didn’t always like each other, still they liked each other well enough. At any rate, Hilde preferred having Heidi in class to not having her.
She’s gone. And a new family has moved into her house; a family with only one child, a boy.
Everyone leaves at some point, and every time it happens, it wrenches her on the inside; it never gets easier, but you forget them, you forget the ones who have left, and besides, “you can always cross paths again.”