Just a minute ago, I started on my way out again to find a washtub. Amazing, isn’t it? We’ve been living here now for more than half a year, and I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that we have our own washing machine. As if that should be so hard to get into my noggin—that we actually have a large, splendid laundry room with both a rotary iron and a fully automatic washing machine, and a freezer, all of it brand new. And closets, tons of closets. Many of them still empty though, but not for long. Everyone knows you can never have too many closets.
It’s the same with the rest of the house. Take the kitchen, for example: I don’t know how many times a day I catch myself reaching for the wrong drawers. Or take out the whisk even though the hand mixer is hanging right there on the wall, literally right in front of my eyes. Or bend down to take milk out of the refrigerator, though I should know by now that it’s sitting in the top of the door. Those trivial things, that’s all it really is. You’d think I had too much time on my hands to notice that kind of thing. It’s really not because I’m dissatisfied. Good Lord, no. I’ve always had a lousy sense of direction—that’s probably the reason.
Anyway, the grass is beginning to come up now. Gradually. It’s still mostly just ground you can see. And what will someday be fruit trees: some naked sticks here and there, with a little white strip around them flapping in the breeze. Apples, pears, plums. Peaches. An almond tree. God only knows if that kind of tree can really grow here. Johannes had no doubts. Of course it could, he said. I had no idea that he knew anything about plants and gardening and that kind of thing. He was all fired up about the garden, toiling away out there the first few weeks. His father was also down here some weekends to help. Now everything is ready, what will become a perennial bed and a vegetable garden. Waiting only for spring and summer. We’ve also planted a larch hedge. We were on our knees out there, Johannes and I, such a beautiful fall day with high, clear skies, each of us planting from our own end until we met in the middle. Of course, it doesn’t look like much now; only some small sprouts sticking up, shivering along the sidewalk. It will take two or three years probably, but that’s the way it is. Nothing happens all at once.
Not many people outside today. No one at all, actually. The road is totally deserted, as it always is at this time of day. Everyone is at work, naturally. Just like Johannes. Just like most people. Just like I used to be. That is if I didn’t have evening or night watch. I really miss it a little sometimes. The feel of my white smock, my nurse’s pin with the red four-leaf clover. The days on the ward, never the same, never boring. The hustle and bustle, the responsibility. To be part of that great buzzing organism, working together to save lives, to make people healthy. No one had expected me to get an education. Neither my mother nor my father had any education beyond grade school, so they really didn’t think it was necessary for me, a girl. Maybe they thought I lacked the will or determination. But I did it. Even moved to Copenhagen. Certainly no one at home had imagined that. To most people on Mors, Copenhagen might just as well be part of Finland.
No noise coming from Ida. Which probably means she’s still sleeping.
And that she is. Her nose in the air and her small soft arms resting alongside her head. Her dolly and toy dog within reach, a crumpled picture book in the corner by the headboard. Good. What has it been—ten, fifteen minutes since I tucked her in? So, she’ll probably sleep for another hour or two.
Of course it’s a privilege not to have to work. Especially while Ida is little. And maybe we’ll have another at some point. We’ll see. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, as they say. Still, you don’t want to say that about a child; a child is a blessing. Time will tell. I had a miscarriage the last time, so you have to be a realist. If you stop having unrealistic expectations in life, you won’t be disappointed.
No, I definitely should not be complaining. On the contrary, with a small child to take care of and a big new house. The kitchen alone—come on!—at first I could barely find my way around it. But slowly I’ve gotten to know it. I’ve never had such a wonderful kitchen before. It’s almost too elegant. On Godthåbsvej, we only had that old, blue-painted kitchen, which was fine anyway. Still, we always had something to eat, really excellent food, if I do say so myself. Even when we had guests. Didn’t I manage to make both three- and four-course dinners for six to eight people in that kitchen? But still, it’s wonderful to have more counter space. And everything is new. Not to have to wipe off that old, scratched-up linoleum, without ever really seeing any difference. Here, everything is spotless and our own, right from the start.
It all happened so unexpectedly. Suddenly Johannes got this chief physician position in Næstved, and there was nothing else to do but give our landlord notice and find something down here, where neither of us has any family or knows anyone. Well, we will in time. I had no idea he had even applied for the position. That he wanted to leave Copenhagen University Hospital. He had never said anything about it. We were living pretty well on Godthåbsvej. I actually liked Copenhagen. Living in a large city, the nation’s capital—for me it was still a fairy tale. But then I hadn’t lived there most of my life, like Johannes. And a house is naturally not the same thing as an apartment. We were lucky that the original buyers suddenly backed out. They separated abruptly, right in the middle of the whole transaction. And of course it was great that Johannes got that position as chief physician. He had often joked that he planned on making chief physician before he turned 40, but even he never actually believed it. Sometimes I almost have to pinch myself in the arm to prove that it isn’t all just a dream. That the house is real, and that it really is me who lives here.
But that’s typical Johannes. He’s never lacked any sense for the finer things in life. Beauty, romance, festivity. Everything a little extravagant. At least when he’s in that mood. Nothing gaudy—not at all—Johannes has more style than that. I guess that was one of the things I fell for. Dinners at all kinds of exciting restaurants, sometimes several times a week, even if it was both Monday and Tuesday and everything. “Come on, my lovely, let’s go out to eat,” he’d say as he came whirling into my room at the nursing college, like some fresh wind from some exotic location. “The night is young and life is short.” And we had a good time, we really did. Flowers sent by courier. Sometimes several times a week. Who could resist? He was both sweet and exciting, a brilliant doctor—which he still is, naturally. And good-looking, or more than that: a handsome man, his dark hair making that white lab coat look even more blindingly white. God help me, but it was almost like something out of a romance novel. The doctor and the nurse.
Well, that’s not really anything to be thinking about now. It was so long ago, five years actually. You get a lot of strange ideas when you have so much time on your hands. I can see that the windows need to be cleaned. And there’s dinner—maybe I should get started on that before Ida wakes up. I thought we’d have meatballs in curry sauce. Both she and Johannes really like that. Personally, I’m not so crazy about curry, but I can eat it naturally. Once you’re full, it doesn’t matter what you’ve eaten, right?
Was that the doorbell? The doorbell is ringing—who can this be at this hour?
A man and woman are standing outside. Not anyone I know, a middle-aged couple. In their forties, I’d guess, or around fifty. Maybe some people we haven’t met yet, who live farther down the street. We already know our closest neighbors a little. Some of them even came over on their own to say hello and welcome us to the neighborhood. We’ve also been at the neighbors next door for a beer—a couple about our age with two small children. We’re really lucky to be living on a street where people show an interest in each other. Always a good way to get to know someone in a new place.
And yet … isn’t there something strange about those two standing at the doorsteps? Something stiff and unpleasant. Wouldn’t people be smiling, seem a little more pleasant, if they were coming to visit someone for the first time?
They ask whether Johannes lives here. Or Doctor Krener, as the woman says. She’s the one doing the talking. It occurs to me that there is something almost hostile in her voice, but that can’t be right. It must just be me.
Yes, he does. I’m Johannes’s wife, I say.
The two outside the door say nothing; they just stand there staring strangely.
“Is there something I can help you with? Or has something happened—do you need medical attention?” Even I can hear how foolish the question sounds. If they needed medical attention, wouldn’t they have called for an ambulance? Or seen their own doctor.
A shadow crosses the woman’s face, like a cloud passing before the sun and suddenly transforming the landscape. The man says nothing, just stands there beside her staring, stone-faced. The woman looks as if she is about to start crying. Or as if she has been crying, actually, her eyes seem swollen and red.
“Would you like to come in? Johannes isn’t home right now. But he should be here soon. He gets off early today. I’m a nurse, if there’s … I can make us a cup of coffee…”
Stone-face moves for the first time: “Thank you … but we really have to …” His voice dies out; he glances at the woman next to him.
“We would, thank you.” Her expression has changed again. There is a determination in her face that wasn’t there before. Something almost hard. “We could both use a cup of coffee. And if Johannes will soon be home, as you say….”
I hold the door open. They step in, the woman in front with resolute steps, the man more cautiously behind her.
They still haven’t introduced themselves. It confirms my impression that something is wrong in some way or another. Otherwise, why would they be so rude? Well, I can also just start myself.
“I’m Agnethe,” I say, taking their coats. “Agnethe Krener.”
“Hanne Dahl Andersen,” the woman says. Her handshake is dry and abrupt. “And this is—”
“Erik,” mumbles the man, extending a hesitant hand.
We stand there in the hall. Neither of them makes any attempt at saying anything else.
“Yes, we’ve almost just moved in,” I say, mostly just to say something. I need to fill the awkward silence. “Well, ‘just’—it’s actually been about half a year now. From Copenhagen. So everything’s still a bit new. But come on in. The living room is in here. Please, sit down. I’ll just go and put some water on for coffee.”
The woman walks into the living room. She acts as if everything is normal, but I can see how she’s looking around, taking it all in. In my mind’s eye I run lightning-fast through the living room—no, there’s nothing to worry about. Everything is neat and clean. The décor and the furniture, nothing to object to there. Those pretty Kaare Klint chairs, and the teak table and chairs, things from Illums Design Store, practical, modern things. The large rug is a genuine Oriental, an advance heirloom from Johannes’s parents. The small chest of drawers is just something I took with me from home, something my father made, but in this context it looks fine. So, let her look. Some of Ida’s toys are lying over by the television, but gathered up and placed in a basket. I tidied up after I tucked her in for her afternoon nap. There isn’t anything lying around.
As I turn to walk out into the kitchen, the man—Erik—is still standing there, fossilized in the hallway. In the backlight coming from the kitchen, he looks like a silhouette. A lost and shrunken silhouette. You almost want to go over and put your arms around him, stroke his thin hair and tell him everything is going to be all right.
The kettle is crackling and roaring. I really should have it descaled soon. There isn’t a sound coming from the living room. I take it the man must have dislodged himself from his spot in the hallway and is in there also, but they obviously aren’t talking together right now. Not loudly, in any case. Maybe they’re whispering or busy inspecting the living room. I’m certain that something is wrong. That they have experienced something, something traumatic. I’ve seen that kind of thing before. Relatives in shock and grief, dissolved by crying, petrified, aggressive, in disbelief, paralyzed, hysterical. There are many different reactions to traumatic experiences. I feel bad for the couple out there, whatever it is they’ve been exposed to. It’s a good thing that I at least know how to handle that kind of thing, or ought to know—no, of course I know it. I’ve faced desperate relatives many times. It just feels a little unusual here in my own home. Especially when I don’t even know what’s wrong.
They’re sitting in the green chairs by the coffee table. Good—that’s where I imagined they would be sitting.
“So, you live here then,” says the woman, Hanne—I barely know her well enough to be thinking about her name at this point—as I pour coffee and sit down on the other side of the coffee table. I shove the bowl with some butter cookies over toward them; I couldn’t find anything else to offer them. How should I answer that? The man, Erik, says nothing.
I repeat that we have lived here for half a year now. It’s all still a bit new; as they can see the garden still needs a little work. But she doesn’t even seem to be listening. The man’s eyes are focused on the coffee cup, which he is moving back and forth between the saucer and his mouth. I ask them where they live. And how they know Johannes,
“Your husband is a doctor, no? Out at the hospital,” the woman says without answering my questions.
Actually, I thought they knew that. But evidently they don’t really know him that well. In other circumstances, I would have responded more conversationally: yes, Johannes is indeed a doctor, works at the medical department at Næstved Hospital, used to be at Copenhagen University Hospital. Might have even asked about their work. Whether they come from Næstved. That kind of thing. What you do when you meet new people. It’s really not the content of what you’re saying that’s important, even though that’s part of it, naturally; the most important thing is that something is being said. To show interest, kindness, act like a rational person others can have faith in. But there is something about this entire situation—even though I honestly don’t know what kind of situation this is—that makes me satisfied with just confirming what she has asked about.
“Then he has also taken the Hippocratic oath?”
“Oh yes, I assume so. I mean, of course he has. You have to, to become a doctor, to get your authorization…”
Why in the world did she ask that? Her tone has that sarcastic edge again. I’m almost certain now. The man, Erik, is sitting there staring down at his hands resting on his knees, his naked crown shining through his thin, sandy-colored hair.
“So, therefore he has pledged under oath to do everything he can to—”
Is that Ida crying? I jump up, sheer reflex. “Sorry, I have to go in and check on Ida, our daughter … One moment ….”
She has already stopped by the time I come in there. She’s lying with her head turned to the side, breathing quietly, in and out. She’s sleeping. Her bright curls damp with sweat at the roots. No stink from her diaper. Maybe she was just dreaming. I pull the comforter down around her a little better, kiss her lightly on the forehead and go back into the living room.
“Well, so you two also have children…” The voice cuts through the air before I even reach the sofa.
“Hanne,” the man says, laying his hand on her arm, “don’t you think we really should…” It sounds almost as if he’s pleading.
“We should nothing at all! Don’t you think she has the right to know what—” Her voice is shrill, on the verge of breaking. “—what kind of a—a murderer she’s married to.”
“That woman’s husband is … a murderer! A goddamned murderer!” She screams that last part.
I make my voice as calm and as urgent as I can.
“Now, listen. I know that my husband does everything humanly possible to save his patients’ lives, to make them better. Everything possible with the treatments we have.”
Yes, mistakes do happen, which I know only too well. After all, doctors are just people too. Still, despite everything, really serious mistakes happen rarely.
I try to catch her glance, make eye contact:
“But there are people that are so sick that they cannot be cured. No one can cure them. Unfortunately. There are illnesses we really can’t do much about. Some types of cancer, for example. I understand fully how terrible it is to lose someone who—”
“What do you understand? Our daughter is dead—do you understand that? Our sweet, beautiful Marie, do you understand that? Twenty-two years old, not even….” The woman’s face collapses, and she begins to sob. Her body doubles over; the long, convulsive sobs sound almost as if they are being dragged from the inside out.
“Hanne. It doesn’t do any good.” The voice is low, his hand still resting on her arm. “Don’t you think we should…”
“I don’t think anything … not anymore,” she sobs.
I go to get some paper towels; unfortunately, all our handkerchiefs need to be ironed. Dear God, poor people. I wish I could help them. To lose a child—the greatest sorrow that can befall a person. Impossible, unbearable, unacceptable. Everyone knows that. At least we learned it during training. Still, it hasn’t really been until now, since we got Ida, that I truly understand it. Just the thought of it, that something could happen to her, ever, can sometimes make me awaken at night with a start, sick to my stomach….
No noise coming from in there. The door with those colorful wooden letters: I D A. Too quiet … Just need to … Thank God, she’s still there, in her bed, breathing quietly and regularly. Of course she is, now I’m being foolish, she’s sleeping just fine, it hasn’t even been a whole hour since I put her down. Suddenly, it felt like it was much longer.
I rush out to the kitchen to get the paper towels and then back into the living room. On my way to the sofa, I gently hand a piece to this strange woman who’s sitting there crying in our green easy chair. I’ve torn a dozen pieces off and folded them nicely, so that it doesn’t look so much like paper towels. I place the rest on the table so she can reach them easily. In passing, I lay my hand on her back, on top of her shoulder, just for a moment to tell her that it’s okay, she can cry all she wants here.
Hanne and Erik. Not exactly the way I had expected to get to know people down here. But that’s all right, naturally, I just wish I could help them.
“I am really sorry to hear that. When did she die … your Marie?”
The sun falls through the window, across the table and the bowl with the cookies. I move it over a bit. The woman is rocking back and forth in the chair, still sobbing, clutching the paper towel in her hand. The man sits beside her, bent over, clearly uncomfortable. His fingers are resting on the edge of the table; his gaze moves around the room without really seeing anything.
“She just lay there…” He’s speaking now. His gaze is fixed on some point diagonally behind me. His lips barely moving, his voice so low that I have to strain to hear what he is saying.
“In the basement of the hospital. That’s where they found her. In the linen room. She had taken pills. She was a nursing student. It looked almost as if … she was just sleeping.”
Good God, what can you say? He drops his gaze and looks down at his hands, which are still lying on the edge of the table. The woman has become silent. For a moment the room is still. I can feel a lump in my throat.
“Oh no, it’s so—”
“She was also pregnant.” The woman’s voice slices through my weak attempts at saying something comforting.
For God’s sake, can it get any worse?
“By Johannes Krener … your husband.”
Johannes Krener. My husband? Johannes? The hospital, the basement—but …. His new position, chief physician, he’s only barely just started … A nursing student? The woman has started crying again, more softly and earnestly now. I need to say something, some small gesture for these poor parents. I can feel my mouth open but nothing comes out.
“I’m sorry…” The man speaks now, almost whispering. “Maybe you didn’t know … We shouldn’t have come, it was a mistake. I’m sorry. It’s not going to bring Marie back. We’ll go now.” He stands up. “Come on, Hanne, we need to go now.”
Hanne remains seated, still crying.
The cookies are sitting there untouched in the bowl; suddenly they seem horribly misplaced. It doesn’t look as if Hanne has drunk any of her coffee, either; the cup is still full.
“I’m truly sorry for your loss.” And I am. To lose a child. The worst thing. A young girl. Through the patio door I can see the grass, a thin coat of tiny green down, just a green glow across the ground. So much is still missing out there.
“Is there something I can do? How will you get home? Should I call for a taxi? Of course, you’re also welcome to stay here…”
Hanne is still sitting there crying.
“Hanne, come on, we need to go home.” Erik bends over her. “Hanne, do you hear me? We need to go now.” He grabs her arm to make her stand up, a timid, powerless grip that doesn’t seem to make any impression. “Hanne, come on now, you need to get up…”
Suddenly she begins to scream. She screams with her entire body and pushes herself down into the chair, as if she has become a part of it. If only Ida doesn’t wake up, I pray that she won’t wake up. I don’t want her to hear this—this despondent screaming.
“Hanne, come on now, we can’t…”
Her screaming subsides a bit.
“Pig!” she whispers, “…liar…” Her ankles wrap desperately around the legs of the chair. “She talked so much about him … was so happy that we were finally going to meet him.”
She lays her head on her knees and starts crying again.
Erik stands helplessly by her side, his hand still on her arm. I stand up, walk around the coffee table, and place myself on the other side of the crying woman. He sends me an unhappy glance across the crumpled figure in the chair.
He squats down and gently shakes her. “Hanne, come on,” he mumbles. “Hanne, come on.”
I can see the wave of tears trembling throughout her body, her slender shoulder blades rising from her back. I lay my hand between them, begin to softly stroke her back. I can do that. It’s one of the things I learned as a nurse—the therapeutic effect of touch. Not only psychologically, as a comforting soothing gesture, but also in a totally concrete physical way: as when a child, for example, can be cured of eczema just by contact with the skin, from a mother’s touch. Something primordial, I suppose.
Slowly, very slowly, she calms down some. Meanwhile, it’s as if everything else has stopped: past, future, reality. Only the heaviness of silence, Hanne’s spine, the blouse’s fabric against the flat of my hand. Erik’s subdued murmur: “Hanne, come on now … Come on, Hanne.”
A little later, or much later, I don’t know which, the three of us are standing in the hallway. I bring them their coats. Maybe I ask again if they want me to call for a taxi—I don’t really recall—everything feels so unreal, like a camera zooming farther and farther out from a picture, until you can no longer see what it depicts.
In their own car. They have their own car. “Thank you, anyway,” Erik says. So I must have definitely asked.
There’s a strange ringing in my ears. As if I can still hear the sound of the door when I closed it behind them. But in a totally distorted way; our door doesn’t make that kind of sound when it’s closed, doesn’t echo that way. I can’t think with this ringing in my head.
Now, what was it I was doing? Ida … dinner … yes, I was going to make dinner. And there was something about—coffee? The kettle, descaling. Meatballs in curry sauce. The ground meat. Yes, I can stir the ground meat, and then it’s done. Afterwards I can wake Ida up, if she hasn’t already woken on her own.
There is no reason to tell Johannes they’ve been here. What would be the point? And, really, what would I say? What would Mom and Dad have to say if they knew? My mother has always had reservations about Johannes. Not that she’s ever said anything directly, but I’ve always been able to tell. Surely, it’s just because he comes from a different environment than the one they know. And that he’s already been married before. Twice before, to top it all off. That alone was a sticking point for both her and my father. But that’s the way it is—so many people today have been married and divorced, it’s totally common, which I’ve tried to explain to her. That’s the world today, but my mother just doesn’t understand it.
It’s really annoying with that ringing in my ears. God knows if I can even hear Ida if she wakes up.
There was something else I was going to do … something in the house … the windows … yes, that was it. The windows need to be polished. But first I better wake up Ida. She’s been sleeping for two hours now; any longer would be bad. It would disturb her rhythms, and we’ll have a hell of a time with her tonight. Poor Ida, she certainly can’t do anything about any of it.
Yes, that’s what I’ll do. First, I’ll go in and wake up Ida. And then the ground meat. Or bread—maybe I should bake a loaf of bread? I can do that first. Bread … then the dough can sit and rise while I’m doing the windows. At least some of them, anyway. As many as Ida lets me get done today.
The rest I’ll have to do tomorrow.
Henriette Houth was born in 1967. A writer and architect, her publications include two collections of poems, two books architecture and design, two collections of short stories and a children’s book. The short story, ‘Greatest of These‘, is from her latest collection of short stories, ‘Mit navn er Legion (My Name is Legion)’, from 2015. Currently Ms. Houth is working on a novel.
Mark Mussari has his Ph.D. in Scandinavian Languages & Literature from the University of Washington in Seattle and has done translation work for numerous Danish publishers. He recently translated Dan Turèll’s ‘Murder in the Dark’ for Norvik Press, as well as Morten Brask’s “The Perfect Life of William Sidis”. A scholar of Danish literature, art, and design, Mussari is currently writing a book on Danish design for Bloomsbury Press.
© Translated by Mark Mussari