The Fairground, by Dorthe NorsTranslated by Misha Hoekstra

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From Wild Swims, a collection of short stories, which will be published next month by Graywolf Press. Translated from the Danish.

There’s a stubble field in front of the rental house. Over by the side of the small wood is the country fairground, trampled and singed. A fox might make its rounds there, but otherwise it’s deserted. Her bare feet are stuffed into the clogs she found in the closet. Both fairground and field have been baking all day in the late-summer sun. It’s September now, and when she walks around the field, the stubble scratches her ankles. But now she’s standing still, in her trench coat and clogs. The moon’s on the rise, too.

She thinks a lot about what she did to deserve his silence, which tempted her to assume things that weren’t true. And then came the rejection. She’d grown panicky and he’d become cynical, she thinks, gazing across the field to the fairground. They must have had a tombola there, maybe a merry-go-round and a roller coaster.

For a time he’d been everything; she supposes it was a kind of obsession. Whatever he did, and even what he thought, haunted her. She read signs in offhand remarks, she researched his past, his possible sorrows. One evening she hid behind the beer taps at a party because his best friend had come through the door and looked at her. That face, as horribly unpleasant as foil between one’s teeth, was impossible to ignore, and she’d hidden behind the kegs. There was a sweet smell of warm grass and public opinion, and it felt as if she were spinning slightly. Like a suckling pig, she thought. Well spitted, and with an apple jammed in her jaws.

It’s September, and she’s driven down from the city to the rental. She knows something strange has taken up residence in her. It’s something she’s known a long time, but the silence gives her no peace. She takes walks along the slopes that drop to the sea, trying to enjoy the sight of cormorants on gillnetting stakes, then heads home to drink tea. The idyllic surroundings provide no relief. On the far side of the stubble field and the wood, the fairground draws her eye. There’s a special light over there. The wind raises dust from the field; everyone left the site back in June. The grounds lie there awaiting next year’s fair, and such emptiness calls for something.

I must have been sick, she thinks. The thought occurs to her now and then, even though it was a case of love, just not the love she’d been promised as a child. Back then, she’d imagined that love was just like running through a sprinkler. It tickled, you laughed and felt silly and beautiful at the same time. You were charming and adorable and wove flowers in the wire mesh of the rabbit hutch and won praise for it. No matter what you did, the chosen one would think you were amazing. The happiness was as sweet as peppermint, and it endured. You were extraordinarily dear, and it was the other person’s job to make sure everything ended well by not being able to resist the sweetness.

But what she’d been through as an adult belonged to another world. If it wasn’t reluctant, then it was dramatic, and in the end the drama became encysted in her. Kept hidden from the world’s light, it wreaked havoc, and at some point she convinced herself that it was because he needed love that she had such a great store of it. Yet for him it was merely a flirtation, a matter of discharge, nothing more, she understood that now, and it was actually risky of him. A spark and a merciless drought can set a continent ablaze. He ought to know that. Just take Australia, where civil-defense crews wait on tenterhooks in choppers with fat water tanks slung beneath their bellies, anxious and virile, always ready to fly out and stop the craziness from spreading, and now here she stands.

Over at the fairground, the fox prowls at night. It must, for there are always mice in the grass. In the patch where the beer tent stood in June, the ground is pounded down, and when she walks over, she can still catch a whiff of stale beer, and then she sees the rental on the far side of the stubble field. There it squats, reduced to its essence of walls and whitewash. That’s the place I’m renting, she thinks. From there I can see everything plainly, yet the house says nothing to her. She walks back to it and gazes out toward the fairground. There the mood feels familiar. Maybe it’s the empty lot’s defenselessness, she doesn’t know, but late one night at a party she’d pressed him into a corner. She’d said that they could always be friends. “Friends?” he’d said. “So you want us to be friends?” He didn’t say anything else before going out into the hallway and putting on his winter coat, it was snowing, she could see that when he opened the door. Afterward, she thought that he could just as well have said, “Burn in hell,” and then she was slowly revolving, trussed up with hooks, while down at her feet a little motor kindly saw to her rotation. Beneath her, the lawn and the beer tent atmosphere. The kids frolicking through the fairground, coltish and clueless, and behind them the wood with its dark chill.

We put flowers in the wire mesh around the rabbits we exhibited behind the fairground, she recalls. We decorated our doll carriages with sweet william, roses, whatever else we could swipe from our mothers’ flower beds. Then we paraded through the village and out to the fairground. What were we, six, seven, eight, in our prettiest dresses, and the grown-ups applauded, some of them on the point of tears. A woman and love, she thinks, and it feels honeyed on the tongue, and she stands at the edge of the stubble and spits. She looks across to the fairground, spitting. The fairground interests her more than the walks above the shore, the cormorants, the beech forest, and it dawns on her that while it lasted, she was really two people at the same time. One who was as if possessed by love, and one who walked alongside, silent and observing, and sometimes the two would have arguments that the observer always lost, because love bears all things, endures all things, but if I have not love, the lover screamed, I am clanging brass, a sounding cymbal, and the observer made a mental note that horror vacui might be what gets the country’s church bells to ring.

A stray ice cream wrapper, over there on the lot, and now a ringdove worming its way through the grass. Empty, she thinks, and I who am so full of things. My doll carriage was pigeon-blue, and I decorated it with daisies. We started at the school, and then we marched in procession to the fairground. It smelled of barbecue and dry grass. The parents and teachers ran after us with their cameras, while the boys from school stayed away. I wonder where they were, the boys, as we walked there, a model of compliance. Were they playing soccer, or throwing abandoned bikes into the creek?

She cocks an ear to the evening sky, listening. No boys in the bushes. No boys at the fairground, they’re gone, and she tries to make herself taller in order to see it more clearly. The fox is not there, and it’s good that the ringdove flies off, for now she is standing on the brink. It’s September. In the yard hang apples and black elderberries. Someone’s placed a good chair under the chestnut, she could just sit down, but she’d rather stand here with the gas can. It’s so quiet, now that everyone’s gone home.

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