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