Karensminde

Pages 9-16

Bjørk sits in the sun in the doorway. She feels comfortable, she is warm. When the wind is still in the courtyard between the three white buildings that are situated in a horseshoe, shadows appear beneath the chestnut’s large hands; the tree has grown up between the cobblestones, Bjørk can go sit beneath it if she gets too hot.
She has been on Møn almost a week and she could stay here forever. Bjørk came to the farm so she could avoid seeing Jeppe. Finally, she has managed to convince him that they should not live together, it is not good for their relationship, she cannot catch her breath and has nightmares about being swallowed. She has told him to pack the few personal belongings he brought to the apartment. He will be gone when she returns. At least if he does what she says.
But she is also at the farm to help her parents, Jens and Karen, with preparations for the new guest house. Already this summer the first vacationers were supposed to pull into the driveway and occupy the newly refurnished rooms in one wing of the farmhouse. But toilets still need to be installed and the advertisement that was supposed to appear in the local newspaper has been postponed.
“Perhaps in the fall,” her mother said when it became clear they could not meet the deadline. All spring she has been making the rounds of flea markets and thrift shops, buying old dressers and small tables and chairs and rugs with which to furnish the rooms. She let down the backseat in the old Ford Taunus to make space for it all.
Bjørk heard the concealed disappointment in her mother’s voice and hoped her father did not notice; he has worked nonstop since April, these last few days they have only seen the back of him. If she leans on her elbows and stretches her neck back, from where she sits on the steps she can see the corner of the new parking area where her father is busy. Yesterday a truck came and left a mountain of gravel. Her father went to work with the shovel and roller he had borrowed from their neighbor Hans Henrik, pushing, pulling. Now the area is rectangular and smooth. The next project is the starling boxes beneath the gable; the birds will poop on the cars and need to be relocated to the trees in the backyard.
From the guest house comes the whirling sound of the sewing machine, broken only by the whistle of curtain hooks gliding through the rail when a curtain is hung in place. The sight of her mother’s hand pulling the white cotton material back and forth in the window reminds Bjørk of a theater; she imagines that any moment the curtain will be drawn aside and behind it will be a space containing a miniature scene where last year’s events will be staged.
If she considers the year that has passed since her parents left Greenland and moved to Denmark, she can see how her father has gotten the farm into shape and shored it up, his arms and his legs pumping, they have operated since the very first day, tools swirl through the air, there is a perpetual growling and hammering about him as the new world takes form. It warms Bjørk’s heart to see her father like that, it sweeps all of them along, and the farm, which is called Karensminde, is the right place, perhaps her family’s final place, Bjørk thinks, as she sits satisfied in the sun and listens to curtains sliding on the rails in the guest rooms. She feels like she belongs to Karensminde, too. It is not in the plan, but she would not mind living here, there is room enough.
Bjørk glances into the chestnut’s crown at the wood pigeons bustling around and so does not hear that other sound: the dull thud of an object falling to earth, nestled just beneath the sound of wings. Not until her mother appears in the door, curtain rod in hand, to ask after Jens does Bjørk realize something is wrong. She jumps up and dashes at her mother’s heels around the corner to the parking area.
Their steps slow as they approach. Next to the gable, halfway under the ladder, is a bundle. They separate and approach the bundle from either side. Neither knows what they are about to find, and if it were up to Bjørk, she would never know.
Her father’s legs are twisted in an awkward position; with one cheek pressed to the ground and his eyes open, he gasps for air.
“Oh, my darling. My sweet, sweet darling,” Karen breathes, shifting the ladder so she can turn him onto his back.
A hot sensation grows in Bjørk’s middle, it spreads into her throat and explodes in her brain, she floats off into the sky.
“Well, help me!” her mother shouts as she crouches beside the motionless body.
How Bjørk reached the car, she has no idea, she is standing pressed against it, but now she hurries over to her mother. Like an organism with four arms they carry the limp body, they propel and manipulate him, now they are lifting him, they have no need to coordinate their movements, they have been programmed to bear him like this.
“This won’t work,” Bjørk groans, dropping her father’s legs as they reach the car. “Shouldn’t we just call an ambulance?”
Her mother opens the back. Something strange has come over her. “We’ll manage it ourselves.” She pronounces the words with certainty. “It’ll be faster this way. He’s breathing, don’t you hear? So it’s not a heart attack.”
Yes, he is breathing, and her mother knows something about first aid, Bjørk does too, for that matter, she has just completed the required course, only she cannot remember a thing.
She retrieves her father’s legs, her mother grabs him beneath the arms, together they bustled Jens into the back before jumping in and driving off.
The fifty kilometers to Nykøbing Falster is an endless distance, and how far is it to the ground when you are up on a ladder removing starling boxes? Three meters? Bjørk pictures her father hanging in the air, strangely suspended, rotating in a slow somersault, once, twice. You would think he would have called for someone. Why did he not call for someone? He fell soundlessly, not a scream, not a cry, there was just her father’s silent path to earth. Before the fall you could spool out a thread between him and Bjørk. It might be a long thread stretching over fields, lakes, seas, and continents. “Keep a fast hold here,” she could have told him he would have held fast. She could have followed the thread and found him at the end of it, she could have measured the distance. As she drives away with her mother, the thread jounces in a mesh net behind the car, now they are heading into Farø, up ahead is the bridge, the car shakes, dust and pebbles are ripped loose and settle in cracks and crevices, Bjørk rubs her eyes and cannot fathom how her mother can see out the windshield, she can hardly see out herself. Still, things do have a certain clarity about them, she knows something important is happening, and she can see that her mother knows it too. But neither of them knows exactly what it is. Until now they have been operating on a practical level, perhaps they imagine that the fall is no big deal, an overturned hedge, a busted pipe, a vase someone dropped on the floor sending water and glass fragments everywhere. They have acted like this is something they can fix; if they start at one end and work from there, anything can be put right.
Bjørk closes her eyes, opens them again, and catches sight of the old steering wheel her father repaired with putty, her mother’s hand, the knuckle with the small, glossy wound which resulted when the pair of scissors slipped from her hand, the arm with the rolled-up sleeve, her throat, and the dangling earring that Ida made from a yellow snail shell. Outside the dusty light; they are driving fast, fields draw green bands before Bjørk’s eyes, and still they cannot reach their destination. Behind the wheel her mother speeds up, road signs and woodlands fly past together with fields containing sheep and cows and farmhouses and barns, behind them her father lies and looks like he is sleeping, they drive on but cannot escape the onstorming point shooting forward directly behind them, Bjørk alternately peers out the windshield and the back, the only thing she can think is, now we are coming to it: the point, the point, the point.
“Wait out here while I find a porter,” Karen says.
They stop. The hospital’s red brick building rises to the left of the car, the sky is reflected in the uppermost windows. In the distance Bjørk can see a couple of people, but the area around the entrance is empty. There is no sound, nothing until someone is suddenly knocking on the window. Two porters and a nurse have come to fetch her father. In one quick movement they lift him, deposit him on a stretcher, and disappear through the glass doors.

That afternoon Knut arrives in Nykøbing. Bjørk recognizes the sound of his footsteps in the corridor and stands so she can run to meet him. In the next instant they tumble together in the doorway.
“Fuck, Bjørk,” he says, holding her fast. “Fuck, fuck.”
“You have to tell me what’s happening,” she says, her arms locked around him.
“Of course,” he says. “But I don’t understand why he’s here. Why wasn’t he taken to Roskilde or some other place with real facilities?”
“Mom said they came here for her blood pressure once. I don’t know. But just take a look at him,” she says, nodding toward the bed. “Do you think he’s going to die?”
“No, of course not,” Knut says, glancing at their father. “But we can’t just stand around waiting. The most important thing is to be sure he’s seen by the right doctors.” He looks around. “And that the right steps are taken. It’ll be okay, come here, you don’t have to be afraid.”
It is rather like having your arms pulled off when he pulls free of her grasp. He says he thinks their father has suffered a blood clot, apparently he talked to Hanne’s uncle before heading out. It could also be a brain hemorrhage, he says. It could be a lot of things.
Knut leaves the room and comes back shortly with a doctor. Loose words swirl about them, a couple of pictures are hung on a board.
Bjørk steps closer. Before her is a black and white folio, a map of a large, dark sea. In the middle of the sea waves have thrust the cliffs together into an almost symmetrical island. The light illuminates a bean-shaped area on one half of the island.
“This here,” the doctor, a woman with red glasses and a loose-fitting lab coat, says, indicating the glowing spot, “that is probably a hematoma.”

It takes time to understand what exactly a cerebral hematoma means and, meanwhile, their father lies there and can explain nothing. Finally, they understand from the doctor that a hematoma implies a stroke, parts of the brain tissue might be destroyed, there is no knowing how much, some of it can regenerate, the brain is extremely versatile, regions heretofore unused can start up like an old motor and take over for the incapacitated areas.
While the doctor talks, Knut takes notes. His pen scribbles across the paper, telephone numbers, addresses, question marks streams forth. It comforts Bjørk to see him like that; she knows this is how Knut organizes his thoughts, one by one he assembles the threads of what is now in the process of spreading like a contagious disease. She moves her hands over her body, she touches her arms, her breasts, and her throat as Knut writes; her body works, and soon her brother will lift his head and look at her and say it is over, they can turn and head the other way now, their father is not dead, he is just dormant, soon he will wake, they must wait a little longer, but then he will wake.
“Have you talked to Hilde?” Knut asks, glancing up.
“No, I forgot.” The thought has occurred to her several times over the last few hours. “Sorry,” she says.
“Has Karen called her?”
They both glance at their mother, who has been sitting by the bed ever since Knut brought her a chair.
Knut calls Hilde himself. As soon as she answers, he turns away and struggles to keep his voice low: “I don’t understand you, I just don’t understand you!” One hand passes back and forth through his hair. Luckily, the connection breaks and he leaves the room glowering.
Bjørk stands with her phone in hand a long time before looking up Hilde’s number. No matter what things were like before, there is a limit now.
“Don’t bother,” Hilde anticipates her. “My being there won’t improve matters. You have Knut and that’s good enough. You all can handle it.”
“How can you sound so calm?” Bjørk can hear the quiver in her own voice. “Don’t you know anything about what’s happening, about cases like this? His life is in danger, Hilde. You might not want to come to his birthday and you might think he’s too much. But what if he dies? Maybe it’ll help if he knows you’re here, that we’re all together.”
There is silence on the other end. Then Hilde says: “It won’t change anything if I’m there or not. I’m sure he’ll make it. He’s strong.”
“But you haven’t even seen him. He’s completely changed. He’s almost gone. And mom is out of it.”
“I’m not coming,” Hilde says.
“Okay, but come as soon as you can.”

Pages 44-50

When they were kids and still lived in Greenland, they arrived the same way every summer. When school let out and vacation began, they traveled to Denmark. Back then nobody picked them up at the airport. They took a taxi to Christianshavn where their Uncle Poul had an apartment. This is where they usually stayed there before traveling on to the summer house in Nordjylland.
In the backseat, Bjørk lay across her big sister’s lap and looked up into the blueblack sky, at the trees smoldering orange between the street lamps. Hilde shifted restlessly. “You’re too warm,” she complained and shouted to Jens up front to open the window, she was getting nauseous. Their father rolled the window down, the sound of lamp posts whizzing by and cars starting on green streamed into them. Next to Bjørk sat their mother, and on her lap was Knut with his arms across his chest, his head jerking in time to bumps on the road.
Bjørk, who was perpetually dizzy with happiness, could not resist poking him. “Don’t you like being here?” she asked.
The Christianshavn apartment, located beneath the roof, was ovenhot and packed with things Uncle Poul had brought home from his trips. In the living room, one wall was covered by a large case displaying dusty rocks and books and conch shells. One shelf held a basket with a handful of petrified lightning, brown and glossy apertures that the sparks had struck in the sand. When Bjørk lay on the big cot to sleep, she could look over at the case. They had traveled from the midnight sun in Greenland, whereas in Denmark nights were dark; this and that protruded in the electric lighting, the lit case resembled a large grid.
That first night Bjørk slept with her siblings on the cot, Hilde on the outside, herself in the middle, and Knut against the wall. They made a mountain of all the cushions they had had to remove so they would fit. Each year they grew until finally they had to lie so close together they could not avoid touching.
Knut slept as usual with his back toward them. As soon as she felt him beginning to jerk, Bjørk crept beneath his blanket and folded herself like a small parenthesis behind him. In the kitchen she heard the welcoming sound of chairs scraping across the floor as her parents settled, a cork was pulled from a bottle, and she knew that before too long they would also go to bed. They would sleep in the room overlooking the backyard, a dark and gray space between buildings equipped with laundry racks and trash bins, voices that sounded like glass when people spoke down there.
During the night, Bjørk woke to the sound of Hilde crawling off the cot. Like a silhouette her sister stood in the middle of the floor. ”I can’t take care of you all,” she mumbled in a strange voice. Bjørk never mustered an answer, she fell asleep again, and when she woke in the morning, swallows slid screeching past the windows like small sails though the air, the sound making her stomach seethe with happiness; she leaped onto the floor. “We’re in Denmark,” she whooped, accidentally stepping on Hilde who had fallen asleep among the cushions.

“I’ll just drop you off and then we’ll leave,” Knut said as they approached Christianshavn with their newly arrived parents. A few years ago Bjørk had moved into Uncle Poul’s apartment. Poul had left for Spain with no plans to return.
“We can at least see you up,” Karen said. “I haven’t said hello to your boyfriend, Bjørk, and it’s not all that late.”
“No, it really is late,” Knut said.
“I’ll call you and hear how it went,” Bjørk said, placing her hand over her father’s. His fingers were thick with warmth. He said nothing and she could not make out his face in the dark. But then he patted her hand like he usually did, rather soothingly, and she leaned between the front seats and stroked her mother’s cheek. “It’s still a long way to Knut’s. It’s a good idea to leave now.”
Knut was already backing out by the time she was free of the car.
Bjørk stood on the sidewalk in the warm evening and watched the darkness enclose them as the drove away.

*

It was midnight by the time Knut arrived at Silkeborg with his parents. He drove up to the villa that rose white and steep from the ground, illuminated by two lamps with powerful bulbs. Perhaps it was because Jens and Karen were here, but suddenly that was how he viewed his home. Like a castle. That was not entirely fair. He liked his house.
He yawned and went to retrieve the luggage from the trunk. He was careful not to slam the car doors. His father stood next to the car, stretching his back as he examined the new carport. It had just been painted, the woodguard gleamed black in the lamplight.
“A carport,” Jens observed, shifting his hand from his lower back to one of the posts.
They dragged the suitcases in and hung their things in the entryway. Knut retrieved the note Hanne had left on the hall stand. His mother stood next to him as he read it and suddenly he noticed Hanne’s handwriting, how regular it was, with soft arcs, as if she had used a ruler. The girls were fine, she said, they had played most of the afternoon, even though she had tried to convince Marie to remain lying on the sofa like they had agreed. The fall from the tree at the daycare could not have been too serious, children could handle more than adults, even hard knocks to the head. Hanne did not see any evidence of a concussion and so had put the kids to bed at the usual time, they went to sleep almost immediately. She had also gone to bed. In the girls’ room. That way she would be nearby if anything should happen. “I prepared everything for your parents upstairs,” she wrote.
Knut opened the door to the living room.
“There are a couple of fresh towels for you on the table,” he said and yawned again.
He could see how his mother looked around. Since her last trip here, they had ripped out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. When the sun was up tomorrow, the light would shine directly through the glass doors leading to the yard. Knut looked forward to show his mother how nice it had all become.
“You’ve really outdone yourself,” Karen said. “Oh, the freezer items, could you unpack them please?” She pulled the suitcase to the middle of the floor so Jens could open it.
With difficulty Knut’s father bent down and removed the top layer of clothing. “I’ve also got this here,” he said and handed Knut a package. Knut took the package and placed it on the table. He hoped it was not anything organic. He had long since gotten rid of all the various furred and feathered things his parents had given him and Hanne throughout the years. Even objects that should have been properly preserved attracted critters. The seal skull that his father had boiled and cleaned with hydrogen peroxide and sent Knut for his birthday a few years ago, even that had fallen prey. He found the small hollow where the brain had been wriggling with tiny pupae when he went to move it. Knut had placed the cranium in the freezer to kill the insects, but when Hanne had started freezing breastmilk, she took it out again. “That’s a strange place to keep it,” she said, relocating it to the windowsill.
“A compass?” Knut asked, unable to conceal his surprise when he had unwrapped the paper. The needle in the old bronze-rimmed instrument took a wobbly swing.
His father nodded. “It’s from one of the old cutters. I thought it was so beautiful. Happy birthday.”
“But that was already last month. I didn’t think we were exchanging gifts.”
“So many new things are happening,” his father said, handing one package of fish after the other to Knut’s mother, who laid them on the counter.
“Thank you, it’s truly lovely. We’ll need to find the right place to display it,” Knut said, setting the compass on one of the shelves in the case. “I’ll take care of the fish if you just want to relax. The freezer is in the basement.”
“When do the girls get up?” his mother asked.
Upstairs Knut could hear the bedroom door open and bare feet padding down the hall, perhaps on the way to the bathroom.
“They don’t get up too early. Can you make yourselves comfortable?” he asked and looked at the two people in his living room.
“Of course,” his mother said. “We are adults, you know.”
Knut went upstairs and brushed his teeth. As he was entering the bedroom, a sound distracted him. He tiptoed down the stairs again and back into the entryway.
Through the crack in the door he could see his parents, they had settled on the sofa. Karen had taken a bottle from a bag and was unscrewing the top. Darkness had descended on the house again, he could see their reflections in the large glass windows.
“Well, here we are,” Jens said, accepting the glass Karen handed him.
“Well, here we are,” she repeated and scooted closer to him, as if trying to secure them to the sofa that was sliding loose across the gleaming floor.
“Did you hear that?” Karen asked.
Knut held his breath.
“It must’ve been thunder,” Jens said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.
“It sounds more like a train.”
His mother stood and walked over and looked out at the yard. As she fought the lock on the sliding door, Knut crept back upstairs. It was no wonder that they would want to wait a bit before going to bed, there was the time difference to account for. They would sleep later in the morning, and he could have a thorough talk with Hanne before they got up. Four weeks at most, he would tell her, four weeks at most his parents would be here. Even if his wife herself had not expressed the desire for any limit,as far as she was concerned they could stay as long as they pleased. The idea bothered him. Sometimes he had to decide what was best for everyone.
The door opened in the entryway and Knut slipped into the bedroom like a shadow. He had left the hall light on so they would not trip on the narrow steps. A broken leg, a twisted ankle, those types of accidents he wanted to avoid. He was excited about tomorrow, perhaps a little too excited. The first day would probably be a little bumpy. His mother and Hanne? His father and Hanne? No, he would wait to think about problems until they actually presented themselves.
On the right side of the bed was his wife and next to her was Marie. Hanne must have changed her mind and taken their daughter to bed with her. That was undoubtedly a very good idea. But they could count on Ida following later in the night when she discovered she was alone. He was always astonished that it was so difficult to separate the children, they each had their own bed, yet still they preferred to sleep pressed up next to each other on the same small mattress. He and Hanne needed to do something about that soon, in any case before the girls started school. It would be best for everyone.
He dragged the extra mattress from under the double bed and settled there with his blanket. Hanne had given his pillow to Marie and he did not want to risk waking anyone by retrieving a pillow from the kids’ room.

Pages 230-234

Hilde opens one of the cabinets beneath the counter: plastic tubs; metal bowls; old newspapers. Even though Bjørk has occupied the house several months, she has yet to actually do anything with it. A thick layer of dust covers everything, it must be years since anyone has used these objects.
Hilde closes the cabinet and sighs. That was exactly how it was when Bjørk took over Poul’s apartment. When Hilde visited more than half a year later, Bjørk was still sleeping in Poul’s old bed, maybe even in Poul’s old sheets. The things Bjørk herself had brought to the apartment remained unpacked. They were still in boxes in the living room. A board placed across two of the boxes served Bjørk as a coffee table.
The dishwashing tub is located beneath the sink. Even the tub is dirty, but at least the brush is clean, and the soap sitting on a small shelf is new. From the living room Hilde can hear Bjørk’s ballpoint pen scratching over paper. The last couple of days all Bjørk has done is to sit on the couch and write. Every time Hilde passes by, Bjørk closes the notebook and stuffs it between her thighs. They circulate around each other in silence, like negatively charged particles. It seems ridiculous but it makes things easier; Hilde has long ago stopped regarding conversation as something necessary.
Bjørk was always the one to talk and ask questions about all possible things. With her open face and those seldom blinking eyes, she can sit there and just look at you. Like it is her right. She expects you to tell her everything you are doing and harboring.
Not too long ago, right after their father’s birthday, Hilde came to visit her. There was something Bjørk badly wanted to discuss, but she did not say what it was or why it was important.
Entering Bjørk’s apartment back then was a strange experience. Hilde could not stop scrutinizing her sister’s face, memorizing her minute expressions, the way one side of her lower lip drew down every time she spoke, the light fuzz on her upper lip, the long eyelashes that always seemed slightly damp.
Before Hilde could even sit, Bjørk started with the questions. On the table in front of her was a voice recorder and it was running.
“Do you remember the time,” she asked, “when you wrote Karen a poem?”
It was like an ambush, like someone had grabbed Hilde’s head and forced her to stare at something she had dropped somewhere and already forgotten.
“Am I here to talk about an old poem?” she asked.
“No, not just about that. But also about that, about everything,” Bjørk said and smiled, even though there was nothing right about this situation.
“There’s not too much to talk about,” Hilde had said, but it was already too late. A single question, and one thought began to give way to another. A wild thicket, the thoughts grew up around her. Of course she remembered the poem, but she did not dwell on such things, and it was also not the kind of thing she could imagine talking to someone else about.
In all honesty, Hilde had forgotten the poem’s exact contents. The poem was a mistake. She knew it the moment she wrote it, but back then she was writing so many things. She was fifteen years old and there was a raging forest inside her, emotions poured from her mouth and ears and hands as sentences, and she noticed a strange joy, an unexpected and true joy, the first time something became a poem. It seemed right, the text’s form had a solemnity that fit the newfound gravity she felt within her, the sense that everything was so great and profound it was hardly to bear.
The first thing Hilde wrote was something about pain and sorrow. The writing began already before she left home, but picked up momentum after she arrived at boarding school. The school was a grayness chock full of boys and girls who externally resembled herself. They wanted to know why Hilde had come home to Denmark, whereas Hilde clung to the idea that she had not come home, she had left home. No one understood what she said, not that she cared, she had no desire to be like them. Loneliness became notebooks filled with poetry. It was helpless. Later she distanced herself from everything she had written, even the letters. All she had done was leave a stream of trash behind her.
“I thought they’d tossed all that stuff,” Hilde said. “But obviously they brought the notebook down here with them?”
“Why should they toss something like that?” Bjørk asked. “It’s history. You can’t just throw history aside.”
“If you hang onto everything, you’ll be smothered. People make trash, tons of it, incessantly.”
“They didn’t take everything, of course, they threw masses of stuff out,” Bjørk said. “But not all things are equal and some things are worth preserving.”
Hilde could still picture her brother’s face; their mother had been busy in the attic, she radiated satisfaction over the many square meters she had cleared, and then Knut caught sight of his old teddy bear in one of the sacks.
“I’ve had him since I was born,” he shouted, grabbing the stuffed animal. He looked like someone slapped across the face by an invisible hand.
“Can you remember what was in the poem?” Bjørk asked.
Hilde could not, but something emotional. Sincere. Saying what she meant, that was what truth was back then.
It had been Karen’s birthday and they were all sitting around the kitchen table. Hilde had handwritten the poem and stuffed it into an envelope before sliding it into the gift stack. Sitting across from her sister in the apartment, Hilde could still feel the suspense as the pile of gifts gradually dwindled. It took an eternity to reach the envelope, she could hardly contain herself, but finally it happened, and Karen opened it, withdrew the poem, and read it. And then she began to cry. She sat among her gifts and sobbed with the paper in hand for several minutes before stuffing the poem back into the envelope and setting it aside.
What had Hilde felt back then? She should never have written that poem, and she should not have given it to Karen, it would change nothing.
“No, I’ve forgotten what it was about,” Hilde said.
“I found the poem when I was at Karensminde last,” Bjørk told her. “In a book, but I can’t remember the words.”
Hilde found it hard to look up.
“Surely it wasn’t worth remembering.”
“It was so beautiful. A love poem about you and her.”
The way her sister formulated it, it was like casting a large stone, heavy and hurtful. Hilde looked at Bjørk and felt the desire to throw up. Bjørk, so convinced she is skilled at bringing things together, that she is a golden bridge beneath which the raging waters mingle, but she knows nothing about narrow straits and streams.