By Dorthe Nors, from Karate Chop, a short-story collection to be published in February by Graywolf in collaboration with A Public Space. Nors is the author of several works of fiction. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.
It’s a year now since Allan moved out, and we had no children, though both of us were able. He once told me I was like the castles he used to build out of straw bales when he was a boy. Inside the castle was a den in which to eat cookies and drink fruit juice while listening to the rumble of the combine in the next field. That’s what being with me was like, Allan said. Another time he said I reminded him of a doghouse his father had. As a boy, he used to sit inside the doghouse with the German wirehaired pointer. It was cozy, and sometimes he would think of what it would be like if a girl suddenly crawled in to be with him. That was me, and he meant it nicely.
Allan worked for Vestas and traveled to wind farms abroad as a consultant and service technician. When he came home he found it hard to explain to me what he had seen and done. He would speak of great landscapes, bigger than anything a person could imagine, and I would nod, which annoyed him. For Christmas one year I bought him a digital camera so he could email me photos when he was traveling. That way we could better share his experiences, I thought. I still have pictures on my computer of Allan in front of various foreign attractions. One of the pictures I don’t know what to do with shows Allan next to a wind turbine that’s still laid out on the ground. Behind him is a vista of pine trees and rocks fading away into what looks like infinity. The picture is from Dolly Sods, West Virginia, and when he got back he was quiet.
I don’t know how long he brooded, but one evening after we had eaten he said it was okay if I kept the house, but he needed to move out. There was nothing wrong with me, he said, he just felt like he was in a vacuum. He took two suitcases and filled them with clothes. He took the dog too, and said he would drive over to his parents’. I realized he didn’t mean for it to be a break but something final, and yet I still went outside with him and waved as he backed out of the driveway. I particularly remember the front door when I turned to go back inside. The light from the lamp shining on the wall cladding and door handle. That sort of thing.
In the days after he moved out I didn’t know what to do with myself. When my mother called, I didn’t mention he was gone and answered her questions about the things we were doing. In order not to go into what had happened, I let her do most of the talking while I looked out the window at the hedge. It won’t grow, and I’ve planted bulbs along its length to make up for it, but there’s no joy from bulbs in November.
I spent time waiting for the reaction, only it didn’t come, and time passed best when I sat at the computer. Finding information about places like Dolly Sods is easy on the Internet, and I could see how vast and beautiful and desolate it was. In Dolly Sods, there are places where no one has even been yet. Distances and depths of that magnitude are amazing, and I imagined how Allan had stood there with his hand on the wind turbine. I didn’t cry. Not even when I finally told my mother and father. I explained to them it was for the best, and I made it sound like I’d been involved in the decision.
My mother was disappointed, though she found it commendable that I’d taken it so well. It was true. My colleagues said so, too, they praised me for dealing with it so well. Allan was also impressed, and we soon found a friendly tone, especially when he phoned. We could even laugh, and I could hear his voice relax at the other end. About three months after he moved out, he called one evening and said he was being sent to Turkey. He was going to install new turbines on a plateau there. How exciting, I said. And he said: Yes, I’m looking forward to it. There was a silence, and then he said he was very happy and grateful to me for taking it all so well.
Afterward, I sat in the kitchen. I looked at the bulletin board and the magnets on the refrigerator. I brewed coffee and watched the water as it ran through. I sat down at the counter again. When I drank the coffee, I felt something go wrong inside me. It was as if it tasted too big, and the same with the soda, the licorice, the maple syrup, and the Greek yogurt I ate later on. I was agitated, restless, and the only thing that helped was to chew on something. But it was never sufficient. Every time I ate something I would have to put something else in my mouth. I couldn’t stop, and the night didn’t help. I walked through the house thinking of grapes, and I’ve never been the kind of person who could eat whatever I wanted. At two in the morning I thought fresh air might do the trick. I stood out back and looked out over the landscape. I could see the stream winding through the meadow. There was frost in the grass, and then I began to cry.
It came from way down, from a place I didn’t think I had, and it hurt, too. To make it keep on hurting, I imagined I ate up all the grass, all the cows, all the birds. I pictured myself stuffing the meadow, the stream, its banks and soil into my mouth. I forced all kinds of things into my stomach: church steeples, castles made of straw bales, silos. The grove on the other side of the stream, and the military training area behind the barracks. Eventually all that was left was me and the tuft of grass on which I balanced. That, and a great NM72C wind turbine I refused to devour. And since you can’t eat yourself, I went home.
The next morning was Sunday and I drove over to my parents’. I had bread rolls and pastries with me, and the carrier bag full of magazines I’d borrowed from my mother. She could tell by looking at me that I hadn’t slept well, but she didn’t delve. We talked about my sister’s husband and their kids instead. We talked about my brother’s wife, because no one gets on with her. And we talked about Allan too, because he wasn’t like that at all. They liked Allan, and it all would have turned out differently if we’d ever had kids. I said he was going to Turkey to work for a while. My mother said she didn’t understand why he always had to be on the move. I nodded, and my father found an ad in the paper he wanted me to see.
When I was sixteen, I told my mother I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children when I was old enough. There were other things in life than kids, I said. My mother ought to know, because my aunt once said Mom cried when she found out she was going to have me. But she has a habit of forgetting things that don’t suit her, and she’d been pleased when I came home and said I’d met Allan.
It’s always been hard to find gifts for my mother, but when someone gives her something she never has the heart to throw it away. The attic is full of old newspapers, worn-out clothes in trash bags, furniture, cheap novels, souvenirs, knitting, and potted plants taken in for the winter. When I was a child, I was certain that if there was ever any danger I would hide in the attic. Nothing could get to me there. I would take the rugs down from the beams to make a den. I would have freezer bags of soft cookies. Fruit juice in water bottles with screw caps that smelled of mold. From below would be the sound of the transistor radio that kept losing its frequency and had to be retuned all the time, and I would see myself running bare-legged through the paddock, not caring about stepping in the cowpats, not caring about touching the wire at the end and getting an electric shock, but running all the way down to the stream and leaping across, and I could feel it still as we sat there and drank our coffee: the feeling of taking flight.
“There are other men,” Mom said all of a sudden, and smiled at me over her pastry.
“I suppose,” I said, and then Dad handed me the coffeepot.
My head was empty as I drove home and I felt like crying again. I tried to set myself off by thinking of various things, but couldn’t. I even thought of Dolly Sods in West Virginia, and the wind turbine that was yet to be erected. It didn’t help, and Dolly Sods simply made me put my foot down even harder on the gas pedal. Dolly Sods is mostly a wilderness from which vast amounts of water run into the Mississippi River, which flows through the middle of the United States and divides it in two. That’s what I thought to myself as I drove through the hills. Dolly Sods is huge, and not many years ago no one lived there at all. The people who lived on its edge were scared. For them, it was an ominous place, full of wild animals and deep abysses. There were stories of hunters venturing too far into Dolly Sods and never being seen again. When I got home I sat in the car. I thought about going away. I could still do what I wanted. I didn’t need to ask permission of anyone. I could go to the United States and rent a car as simple as that. I could drive straight to Dolly Sods and park the car on its perimeter. I could put my camera on the hood and photograph myself there, in walking boots, a white T-shirt, and sunglasses, looking just like other people in photos.