Tacit didn’t know why he had to live with his Granny. At first he didn’t even realize he did. Or that it was anything unusual. He had always lived there. It wasn’t until other people started asking him where his mother and father were, and why he didn’t live with them, that he started to wonder.
Did he even have a mother?
And a father?
And how could anyone else know, when he didn’t even know who they were? He marveled at this sudden expansion of his possibilities. It was like he could see farther, and like he couldn’t see anything at all. He would have to ask Granny.
Tacit hesitated, because how could Granny know anything about it? No one ever came to her house that he didn’t know.
He thought long and hard about all the ladies who came by and entered their house and drank coffee or just stood in the door and chatted. None of them ever said that he had a mother.
Or did they?
Could they have said something like that to Granny when he wasn’t listening? When he was out in the sandpile?
He went inside and stared long and questioning at the old woman, while she sat on the kitchen chair, knitting. The aroma of something boiling on the stove filled the room with a nice feeling, but Tacit was too occupied with his own thoughts to notice what it was. He walked over and leaned against Granny’s legs which were bent beneath her dark dress.
She turned her face towards him without pausing in her knitting.
“Granny, is it true that I have a mother?”
“Who says that?”
“Everyone has a mother.”
“And a father?”
“Everyone has a father, too.”
“Aren’t you a person?” Granny looked at him over the rim of her narrow glasses.
Tacit thought carefully.
“So do you know her?” he asked.
Granny nodded and her fat bottom lip stuck out, like it always did when he had done something that he wasn’t supposed to. Yes, Granny definitely knew his mother.
“And my father too?” he wanted to know.
“No,” said Granny and she stood up.
And there was something about the way she said no that made him not want to ask anymore. It wasn’t just the bottom lip, even though it was very big now. It was the tone of it.
But he didn’t stop thinking.
If Granny knew he had a mother all along, why had she never said anything? He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. She had gotten up and put something on the fire to interrupt him. And he sat down quietly on the floor and started building houses out of the kindling from the firewood box in the corner. Granny knew it the whole time. He was sure of it. The stiff white hairs on her chin twitched while she knitted.
Later he got up carefully and snuck into the cold bedroom, where the hand mirror with the yellowed celluloid rim lay on the dresser’s white lace runner. He stared at himself in the mirror for a long time before putting it back again.
Instead of asking more questions he started listening at the door crack when Granny had visitors. Lying motionless on the floor with his ear against the door he followed the conversation, waiting patiently for them to say something about his mother, while the coolness in the dark shiny varnish worked its way into his body. And very gradually he began to realize that something about his situation was different. That was why he lived with Granny.
Silently he got up, snuck out past the guests, and sat down like a well-behaved boy with his sticks and pinecones in the gravel pile where the ladies would pass by. And he observed their bright, righteous faces openly and curiously when they left. They couldn’t have known he had been listening. But still they wouldn’t look him in the eye, so Tacit was sure. They’d known all along that he had a mother.
But it wasn’t until the day they cut his hair and his soft longish locks lay on Granny’s kitchen floor that he made the connection. Two neighbor ladies had come to help, and it had taken lots of explaining and persuasion to get him to go along with it. He sat on the kitchen chair in the middle of the floor, and one of the ladies used the scissors while Granny and the other one chatted and chatted to distract him, so he wouldn’t run away before they were finished.
They told him that after all, he was a boy, and that boys don’t go around with long curls when they get big.
Tacit stared at them dubiously.
“Short hair looks much better,” they said.
Tacit had waited as long as he could to climb up on the chair. He knew Granny had long hair. In the evening when she got ready for bed she took the hairpins out of her bun, and a long braid rolled down the back of her nightgown.
“But Granny has long hair,” he said.
“Granny is a lady,” said the woman with the scissors. And Tacit had looked surprised at Granny. He wasn’t so sure. A lady?
“You are not a girl,” said the other one.
“Granny isn’t a lady,” he proclaimed.
“She isn’t?” said the lady quietly.
“No, because Granny is a Granny.”
“You can be both at the same time,” said the lady.
Tacit considered this while they tied a dishtowel around his neck. No one had ever cut his hair before.
“Then is my mother a lady too?” he asked.
There was a strange silence in the kitchen, as if no one really knew what to say to that.
“What does her hair look like?” he asked, when no one had answered.
“Yes. Is it long?”
“Is was long when she was little, anyway,” said the lady with the scissors.
“It was just like yours.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I saw it.”
“Right here where we are.”
“Did she sit on this same chair?”
“I’m sure she did.”
“And got her hair cut with these scissors?”
“No, because she was a girl.”
Tacit sat thinking for a while and felt the cold of the scissors against the skin on the back of his neck.
“Why did she sit here in this chair?” he asked.
“Because she was Granny’s little girl back then,” the woman quickly answered.
It got quiet again.
“Is she still?”
“Sure, but now she’s grown up.”
One long lock after another fell on the floor and the lady with the scissors slowly made her way around the chair.
“Why doesn’t she ever come over?” asked Tacit.
“I guess because she lives so far away.”
The sound of the scissors filled the room. Granny had had them sharpened for the occasion. And when he was all done she brought the mirror for him to look in. And he sat a long while gazing at his new appearance, trying to recognize himself.
“See how nice you look,” said the ladies. “You look much nicer now.”
Tacit stayed sitting out in the kitchen, while the others went into the living room with coffee and clinking coffee cups. It was strange. They said that his mother had hair like him when she was little. Granny had swept his hair into a little pile in the corner so no one would step in it and track it into the living room. And Tacit let himself slide down onto the floor with the mirror in his hand. The scissors were still on the table. He traded them for the mirror. Then he collected some of the hair from the pile and tried cutting it.
It didn’t hurt at all. Not even if he took a big clump. He couldn’t feel anything, even though it was his own hair. It just floated down to the kitchen floor again in tiny pieces.
When there were no curls left, he tried cutting the dishrag, but that was hard. Too fat and lumpy. And it was wet. You couldn’t cut wet things. The tea towel was much easier. That made nice long strips. But it wasn’t like hair. Hair was more fun. He tried cutting more of the pile on the floor, but the tiny pieces slipped from his fingers. It wasn’t much of a pile anymore.
Over in front of the heater, Granny’s fat tomcat was lying with its paws under its belly and its nose down on the warm tiles.
He paused and looked at it before he tried.
But that didn’t work either. It scratched him and ran off with a little blood on its ear. Tacit was disappointed. If everyone says that you look better with your hair cut, and that you should sit still while it’s being done, why did it leave? Why didn’t the kitty have to look nice when he had to?
He pushed open the living room door slightly, with the scissors behind his back. They grinned at him from their coffee cups to convince him that he still looked nice with short hair. And he walked past their voices and smiles into the bedroom, where Granny’s white bedspread lay across the big bed with the fringes hanging down to the floor on both sides.
The fringes were long and delicate. Tacit fingered them gently before he went to work. This time he knew he got it right. The fringes fell just as his hair had done, collecting in little curls on the floor. He worked diligently, but it took longer than he’d figured and the big scissors hurt his fingers more than he’d expected. But the ladies had said that you couldn’t just cut one side. It had to be even. So he persevered until he had made it all the way around and there was not a single fringe remaining.
Then he stepped back from the bed and cocked his head to the side just like the ladies had done. And his delight over the bedspread’s new appearance was no less than the ladies’ delight when they saw his haircut.
They had said that he looked a lot older.
The bedspread did too, thought Tacit. There were some places where they had old bedspreads on their beds, and the fringes were almost completely worn off. He was as good at cutting as the ladies. Full of pride he opened the door to the living room and asked them to come in and see how nice it looked.
Three pairs of eyes anxiously noticed the scissors at his side. It grew quiet. Then his world tumbled down around him. Both visiting ladies clasped their hands together and spouted off about lots of things that he had never heard before. There was something about his mother and something about his father, and a lot about what ever would become of him.
But why wasn’t it just as good to cut the fringe off the bedspread as it was to cut his hair? They had all said that it wasn’t proper to have it hanging there.
Granny took the scissors out of his hand, but to the ladies’ disappointment, she didn’t hit him. She didn’t even yell at him. Instead, she led the boy in front of her, back into the bedroom and laid him down across the big bed with his head hanging over the edge.
And she told him that he could just keep lying there.
Inside the boy’s eyes she was standing on her head. It looked funny. The ladies in the doorway were standing on their heads too. “You should spank him,” they said. “If he was one of our …”
Tacit shivered at the thought. It was a good thing he was Granny’s.
“Now just keep lying there until I come back,” she said. And Tacit could see by her lower lip that she meant it. She nudged the ladies back into the living room and shut the door.
But he could still hear what they said. And he could also hear that they drank more coffee.
“Why didn’t you box his ears?” asked the one that had cut his hair. It sounded like she was angry with Granny.
“It wouldn’t work,” said Granny. “He had to be taken.”
That made Tacit jump. Be taken? Who was going to take him? Was he supposed to lie here so someone could come and take him?
“Hitting doesn’t work,” said Granny.
“You should spank him,” they said. “If he was one of our …”
Tacit shivered at the thought. It was a good thing he was Granny’s.
“No, it must be that blood,” said the other one pointedly.
Tacit stiffened. Did they find out about that too? That he had cut the cat’s ear?
“But that’s what we’ve said all along,” said the lady. “It will never work out. But it’s your own fault.”
“If you think your Ephraim is any prettier, then you’re wrong,” said Granny in the tone she used when she didn’t want to hear about something anymore. Then they started to talk about houseplants.
Prettier how? thought Tacit. He didn’t think Ephraim was pretty at all. His ears stuck out. But he had already had short hair for a long time. He forgot about the cat, and how he had cut it, and he just lay there looking up at the ceiling, waiting for Granny to come back like she had said. When he bent his head back all the way he could see the cut-off fringes down on the floor. They lay there and hadn’t been swept together in a pile yet like the hair in the kitchen.
His neck was getting tired. Why didn’t she come back like she said, since they were only sitting there, talking. He could hear that they weren’t drinking coffee now. They were talking about someone named Joanna.
Tacit didn’t know anyone named Joanna. He wasn’t really interested. He just wished that Granny would come and say that he could go out and play now.
He twisted himself around so he could see the branches outside the window. In the living room the ladies were finally getting ready to leave and go home. And he could hear how Granny followed them out through the utility room as usual. Now she had to come.
But Granny just started to clean up the coffee dishes.
After Tacit had lain there for a very long time, he went out and asked what happened to her.
“Why aren’t you coming?”
“I’m not going to bed yet,” said Granny, surprised. “It’s the middle of the day. I’ll come when I go to sleep.”
“But why do I have to keep lying in there?” His voice was a little agitated.
“Because you are a bedspread,” said Granny.
Tacit wrinkled his brow. Her bottom lip wasn’t sticking out so much.
“But a boy can’t be a bedspread,” he answered.
“Of course he can,” Granny assured him in all seriousness. “If a bedspread can be a boy then a boy can be a bedspread too.”
Tacit stood there thinking.
“But I don’t think a bedspread can be a boy either,” he said.
“Are you sure about that?”
Tacit nodded enthusiastically.
“Then why did you cut its hair?”
Granny didn’t stop carrying in cups and dishes and washing them. She walked back and forth between the living room and the kitchen and spoke as if didn’t matter to her one bit who was the bedspread on her bed.
“Do I have to lie there until all the fringes are grown out again,” asked Tacit anxiously.
That would take a long time, he thought. Fringes probably didn’t grow very fast. At any rate, he didn’t think they had grown any longer as far back as he could remember.
“Well that depends on whether or not we can agree on who’s going to be a boy and who’s going to be a bedspread here in this house,” said Granny.
“You could also be a dish towel and hang up on the nail,” she added, holding some shreds of a towel up in the air. “I think I could use something to dry the cups with.”
Tacit glanced at the nail by the heater, and Granny swept the pile of hair together on the tiles one more time. She picked up some of it and looked at it. For a long time, thought Tacit.
Cecil Bødker (born 1927) is one of contemporary Denmark’s most highly awarded and prolific female authors. She has written 59 books including poetry, novels for children and adults, short stories and plays. Best known for her young-adult fiction books, in 1976 she received the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Writing, for her lasting contribution to children’s literature. In 1998 she was awarded the Grand Prize of the Danish Academy, the highest honor awarded to an author in Denmark, for her body of work.
Michael Goldman taught himself Danish on a pig farm in Denmark over 30 years ago to help him win the heart of a lovely Danish girl. He has received eight translation grants for his work with 6 distinguished Danish writers. Over 80 of Goldman’s translations of poetry and prose have appeared in over 30 literary journals such as Rattle, World Literature Today, and International Poetry Review. His original poetry appeared in Poet Lore and The Fourth River. He lives in Florence, Mass. You can find more on his website and on Facebook.
*Published by agreement with Gyldendal Group Agency. This story is the first chapter of the collection of connected stories, ‘Stories about Tacit’ forthcoming by Spuyten Duyvil Press in fall of 2016.