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[Story]

The Souvenir Museum

Illustration by Icinori

[Story]

The Souvenir Museum

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Perhaps she should have known that she would find her lost love—her Viking husband, gone these many years—in Sydesgaard, on the island of Funen, in the village of his people. Asleep in the hut of the medicine woman, comforted by the medicine woman, loved by the medicine woman, who was (it turned out) a podiatrist from Aarhus named Flora. The village itself was an educational site and a vacation spot where, if you wanted, you could wear a costume and spin wool for fun. As for Aksel—was he Joanna’s common-law ex-husband, or ex-common-law husband? Eleven years ago they had broken up after living together for ten. “Broken up”—one summer Aksel left for Denmark, and she never heard from him again.

Not never. He sent an apologetic postcard from London. But never after that, nothing for eleven years. She’d married, been made a mother, lost a mother, been legally divorced, finally was fully orphaned by her father’s death. Her father, who had been heartbroken when Aksel disappeared, for his own sake. Who else would breakfast with him on white wine and oysters? Who would discuss the complexities of savory pies: pork, kidney, the empanada versus the Cornish pasty? They had adored each other. Enormous and bearded, condescending and fond, ravenous, sad-eyed, the pair of them. Mortifying, when Joanna thought about it, how alike they were—her friends had commented on it. It was her father who referred to Aksel as a common-law husband, when he was in every way a boyfriend, including the way she thought about him years later: with a lechery untouched by having to legally untangle.

After the funeral, her father’s cluttered bedroom was like the tank of an animal who perhaps had died or perhaps had fallen asleep behind the greenery. She looked and looked for him. Nothing felt definitive. The watch was in the nightstand drawer beneath an expired passport, heavy and silver, a steam locomotive on its case, a yellowing sticker on the back: Please bring to Aksel. She read and reread the sticker. Leo, her son, was like his grandfather, drawn to long-ago things, though nine-year-old Leo particularly loved weapons and had nearly every morning for two years drawn in pencil an armory. He liked blades best: swords, bayonets, the occasional flail. He was not allowed toy weapons, though they came into the house the back way. That is, in Lego boxes: bows and arrows the size of safety pins, pistols that snapped into the tense and insatiable hands of Legomen.

She turned the watch over in her palm. Perhaps Leo could get interested in horology. She pictured him hunched over a watchmaker’s bench and thought about tossing the note and keeping the watch. Instead, she transferred it from her father’s nightstand into her own. Bring, he’d written. Not mail, not get. The sticker was as close to a will as he’d left, goddamn him. She should probably—she thought, aware of the daft expression already on her face—attempt to honor it.

It took a year to settle the estate, sell the condo, come into the little bit of money that would allow them for the first time to travel abroad. Joanna bought Leo the bunk bed that she had wanted as a child. When she went to wake him up for school in the morning, she never knew at what altitude she would find him. That morning he’d hidden himself in the top bunk among the stuffed animals and the alligator-patterned comforter cover, which had disgorged its comforter. Then she saw one bare heel. Even his heel was fast asleep and dear.

“Leo,” she said.

The heel disappeared. He balled himself up under the covers as though winding himself awake. Then he sat up and blinked, bare-chested and skinny.

“What do you think about Vikings?” she asked him.

“They’re not my favorite,” he said, and put out his hand. “Glasses?”

He was newly bespectacled, having failed a vision test at school. Because he hadn’t cared, she’d picked him out a pair of square black frames, so that he looked not like the bookish skinny wan pubescent boy he was, but like a skinny wan Eighties rocker. Wow, he’d said, stepping out of the optician’s, scanning the parking lot, the parking lot trees, the Starbucks and the Staples. Wow. Just like that, both he and the world looked different.

She found his glasses on a bookshelf and handed them up. “Vikings aren’t your favorite?”

He scooted to the end of the bunk and climbed down the ladder. “I like Romans.” The underpants he’d slept in were patterned with lobsters, too small. “Vikings didn’t really have horns on their helmets. Did you know that?”

“I did not,” she said.

For a year and a half, before Leo could read but after he’d begun to talk, Joanna had known everything in his head, thoughts and terrors, facts and passions. He’d belonged to fairyland then; afterward, to books and facts. Now he had thoughts all the time that she hadn’t put in his head, which she knew was the point of having children but destroyed her.

“So,” she said. “I have a friend in Denmark. I was thinking we might go there this summer.”

Leo sat at his desk and picked up a pencil. In the voice he used for lying, or when he cared too much about something, he said, “If we go, could we go to Legoland?”

“I thought that was in California.”

“Real Legoland,” Leo explained. “Danish Legoland. Denmark’s where Lego was invented.”

“You’re not too old for all that?”

The glasses magnified his incredulous look. He was like a midcentury TV journalist who knew he was being lied to. “Mommy, you know I like Lego.”

“Yes,” she said. “Of course.” Lego: its salient angles, its minute ambitions. On her own childhood trips, Joanna had been at the mercy of her father’s interests. He drove the car; he decided where to stop it. Not amusement parks, not tourist traps. Instead: war museums, broken-toothed cemeteries, the former houses of minor historical figures, with tables set for dinner—soup tureens and fluted spoons—and swords crossed over the fireplace. Joanna, aged nine, ten, forever, had wanted to go to Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland. To the Mystery Spot, where ball bearings rolled uphill. To Six Flags Over Anywhere. A sign for Legoland would have driven her mad with longing, would have made her whine, even though whining—her mother would point out—had never gotten her anywhere. Her father would have driven on to some lesser Civil War battlefield to inspect an obelisk.

Leo was a child of divorce, and all his own vacations were airplane volleys from Rhode Island to California and back. The two of them had never really traveled together.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll go to Legoland.”

She had already renewed their passports, bought the tickets, reserved a Volvo with a GPS. But you had to give a child the illusion of choice.

Legoland was overwhelmingly yellow, and Leo, abashed, hated it. The rides had electric signs that estimated how long you’d have to stand in line to ride them. The log flume was a forty-five-minute wait. The polar roller coaster, an hour and five. It was an ordinary overcrowded amusement park. They had flown through the air, Boston to Paris, Paris to Billund, to end up at this place, the first day of their vacation. He wondered how long they would have to stay for his mother to get her money’s worth. She could be grim about expensive fun. The crowds of children upset him, blonder than the blondest American blond. Flaxen hair, he thought. Like from a book. Flaxen hair and cornflower-blue eyes, though he’d never seen flax or cornflowers in real life. If he had, he might have thought, Blue as a Danish child’s eyes, pale as a Danish child’s mullet. The blondness itself seemed evil to Leo. A blond child who screeches and steps on your foot is compelled by its blondness; a blond mother who hits you with her stroller—here comes another one, rushing after her child, attempting to climb into the lap of the life-size Lego statue of Hans Christian Andersen—does it out of pure towheadedness.

In America he would have cried out, but in Legoland he felt he had to bear it.

Even the gift shop was disappointing. He’d been imagining something he couldn’t imagine, some immense box that would allow him to build—what. A suit of Lego. A turreted city big enough to live in. Denmark itself. He did not dream in Lego, not anymore, but sometimes he still raked his hand through the bins of it beneath his bed as a kind of rosary, to remind himself that the world, like Lego, was solid and mutable both.

Joanna, too, found Legoland terrible; Joanna, too, could not confess. It was a kind of comfort, because Aksel had always been exhausting on the subject of Denmark versus America. Denmark was beautiful, and so were Danes; America was crass, and every moment of American life was a commercial for a slightly different form of American life; you could not so much as enjoy a hamburger without having your next hamburger advertised to you, though the hamburgers would be exactly the same: spongy and flavorless. “Americans have garbage taste,” he would say, tucking into an American banana split. “Not you, Johanna.” He always added a spurious h to her name. “But someday you will go to Denmark, and taste the ice cream, and you will understand.” Clearly the man had never been to Legoland, where even ice cream required a half-hour wait in line, and then was a tragedy of dullness.

They stopped at a self-serve slush stand that allowed you to mix any flavors you wanted in a tall plastic vessel that looked like a bong. Leo’s personal cocktail came out Army green. This always happened to his Play-Doh too when it got mixed together. He drank it with his eyes closed and winced. He most resembled his late grandfather when unhappy.

“Poor bunny, you’re jet-lagged. Here. Let’s sit.” They sat on the bench next to the Lego Hans Christian Andersen, and Joanna had a sense that they shouldn’t, they should leave the space clear for people who wanted pictures of themselves with a Lego Hans Christian Andersen. But why should those people get their way?

“I’m not jet-lagged,” he said.

“Do you want to just go to the hotel room?”

“Is the hotel room in Legoland?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Oh.” Then, “I hate it here.”

“Denmark?”

He looked at her aghast. “This isn’t Denmark,” he said. “Can we go? It’s not what I thought it would be like.”

“Yes,” said Joanna, grateful and motherly, a good mother, indulgent. “What did you think it would be like?”

But she knew. In our private Legolands we are the only human people.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said, and she handed Leo her phone. “You choose. Wherever you want to go, we’ll go. I know Vikings aren’t your favorite, but I have a friend at that Viking village—”

“What Viking village?”

A Viking village,” she said. “We’ll go at the end of the week. In the meantime, do some research. Plan the next three days. If you want, we can come back to Legoland—”

“I’m never going to come back to Legoland,” he said passionately.

When our children love what we love, it is a blessing, but O, when they hate what we hate!

Denmark was studded with little museums dedicated to misery and wealth and the unpleasant habits of men, and Leo wanted to go to every one. He was warming to the Vikings. There was a kind of gentle boredom to Denmark, which was in itself interesting: archaeological museums whose captions were entirely in Danish, with displays of pottery shards and nails and swords and bits of armor. To become interested in a boring subject was a feat of strength. A splinter of Viking armor was more interesting than the whole suit, to Leo, because even though it was in a plexiglass box it might fit in your pocket. Perhaps he liked bits because of his nearsightedness—now that he had glasses, it was alarming what loomed on the horizon—but entire objects told the entire story, and therefore belonged to everyone. Looking at a piece of a thing, he might think, deduce, discover something nobody ever had, which was all he wanted in the world.

They took a ferry to the island of Ærø. In the old shipyard, Leo made rope using a crank-operated machine and, with the help of a blacksmith, forged a plain iron hook. The blacksmith was a lean man with a sad, rectilinear face and hair the color of clapboard. The black iron glowed orange when you put it in the forge, and when you hammered it orange sparks flew off, and then you were left with something so black and solid you couldn’t imagine it had ever been otherwise.

They went to the Welfare Museum, three maritime museums, the Danish Railway Museum. Of course, Joanna missed her father, seeing his dullest passions alive in his grandson. Who else could love trains so much that they were still interesting in a museum, where they were robbed of their one power, movement? Not Joanna, but she could love somebody who did. She felt a useless pride in Leo’s peculiar enthusiasms; Leo’s pleasant father liked action movies and video games, like any American boy.

Joanna had arrived with three pieces of Danish: Taler du engelsk? (the answer was always, Yes, I do); tak!; and the phrase for “excuse me,” which she remembered because it sounded—she thought it sounded; she had a terrible ear—like “unskilled.” Unskilled! Taler du engelsk? Tak! Soon she picked up the vocabulary of ice cream—Aksel was right, vanilla ice cream in Denmark was hallucinogenically delicious—kugler, vafler, softice, flødeboller. Though a month after they got home Joanna would wake up in the middle of the night wondering, Is the Danish word for thanks pronounced tock or tack? And which pronunciation had she used? The wrong one, she was sure.

Aksel’s watch was in her pocket. She’d put it in a Ziploc bag to keep it clean and hadn’t so much as wound it. It wasn’t hers to wind. She liked the weight of it about her person.

Did she still love Aksel? No, but the memory of him came in handy sometimes.

They found the Souvenir Museum the old-fashioned way, first one roadside sign, then another. The museum was on the grounds of a modest castle. Like Legoland, the name was full of promise. Souvenir: a memory you could buy. A memory you could plan to keep instead of being left with the rubble of what happened.

A teenage girl with a drowsy, dowsing head slid a pamphlet across the ticket desk, and then pointed to the door to the museum. Leo opened the pamphlet. The museum was made of six rooms. He was startled to see that the last room was called Forbidden Souvenirs.

A year ago Leo might have asked his mother what Forbidden Souvenirs meant. Now he was seized with a terrible, private fear that he didn’t want her to disturb or dispel. He read books about war; his mother didn’t. Soldiers took souvenirs: ears, teeth, shrunken heads, scalps.

His mother, innocent, admired the first glass case, which was filled with salt and pepper shakers. Two Scottish terriers, black and white. One Scottish terrier (salt) lifting its leg in front of a red fire hydrant (pepper). The next glass case was also filled with salt and pepper shakers. There was a density to the collection that felt like a headache, or the physical manifestation of dementia, where the simplest items had to be labeled for meaning: china Eiffel Towers marked Paris, pot-metal London Bridges marked London. It had clearly been somebody’s private collection, a problematic Dane’s hoard. Surely all the salt and pepper shakers had been made in one vast factory in Japan or China, then stamped with geographic locations and shipped off.

“After this,” she said, “we’ll go to the Viking village. Your grandfather would have hated this place. What’s the matter?”

I don’t want to see, he thought, but also he did.

He was stepping into Forbidden Souvenirs. It took him a moment to figure out what he was looking at: coral, ivory, alligator shoes, exotic game of all sorts, pillaged antiquities.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes,” he said.

A faceless mannequin wore a leopard jacket over nothing, its skinny white featureless body obscene. “Grandma had a mink stole,” Joanna said. “I can’t remember what we did with it.”

Some of the objects flaunted the original animal: the head of an alligator biting closed a pocketbook, the paws of a white fox dangling from a stole. Was that better or worse than the elephant carved out of an elephant tusk, the tortoise incised into the tortoise shell?

“I thought there would be ears,” said Leo. “From the enemy.”

“What enemy?”

“I don’t know,” said Leo helplessly. “The enemy dead.”

“No ears,” said Joanna in an improbably cheery voice. She gestured at the glass case. “Nothing to worry about.”

“I wasn’t,” he said. But he had been, the worry was in him, the fear of seeing something he shouldn’t have, human, severed. The feeling was traumatic and precious.

“Anyhow,” she said.

“Do they pretend there?” he asked.

“Do they what where?”

“Pretend at the Viking village. Dress up and say they’re Vikings.”

“Oh. Not sure. Why?”

“The Renaissance fair,” he said darkly.

They’d gone to a Ren fair when Leo was four. He’d gotten lost in an iron maze of child-size cages and began to sob—she had a picture of him that she’d taken before noticing the tears—and a man dressed as an executioner had to talk him out, gesturing with his plastic axe. Leo liked to bring it up from time to time, evidence of Joanna’s bad judgment. He liked history. He did not like grown-ups in fancy dress.

She said, “It’ll be great.”

“That’s what you said about Legoland.”

Had she? “Leo—”

“I said I didn’t want to go.”

“No, you—”

“Yes I did,” he said. The words were underlined, she heard it, and later she would understand it as the first sign of adolescence, and she would forgive him, but she didn’t forgive him now.

“Well,” she said, “we’re going.”

The eyes of a half-dozen taxidermic animals were upon them, as though betting on who’d win the argument and who’d end up in the museum. Then the humans turned and wordlessly went from the room.

In the morning they drove to Odin’s Odense, their bags packed in the trunk of the rented car. That night they would go on to Copenhagen, then fly back to the States. Joanna looked in the rearview mirror at sulking Leo. Next year he would be tall enough to ride up front, but for now he was in the back seat. You get to choose, she’d said, and she’d hoped to finagle him into believing that a trip to the Viking village had been his choice. What she’d endured for him! Three days of stultifying museums. They had traveled together beautifully, sleeping in the same room for the first time since his infancy. Ruined now. She knew the ruination she felt was her own treacherous heart.

The car’s GPS brought them deeper into the suburbs, red tiled roofs, no businesses. “This doesn’t look right,” said Leo from the back, hopefully. But the GPS knew what it was doing, and there they were. Odin’s Odense.

They had to pass through a little un-Viking modern building that housed admissions, a gift shop, and flush toilets. Joanna wondered whether she should ask after Aksel, but what if he had a Viking name? The old woman behind the counter thrust a map at her and frowned encouragingly. The museums of the world are filled with old women, angry that nobody listens to them, their knowledge, their advice. She hadn’t told Leo why they were here, in case it came to nothing.

Joanna gave him the map. “Here. It’s in English.”

He consulted it and said, casually, “There’s a sacrificial bog.”

“That might come in handy.”

They walked into the Viking village on one of those days of bright sunshine, the sky so blue, the clouds so snowy white, everything looked fake. Though why was that? Why, when nature is its loveliest, do human beings think it looks most like the work of human beings?

Was her detection system still tuned to Aksel’s frequency? At one time, she could walk into any room and know whether he was there. Now she detected nothing.

The Viking huts were 89 percent thatched, like gnomes in oversize caps. A teenager in a tunic and laced boots ducked out of one, his arms laden with logs. He gave Joanna a dirty look, and she understood that he was mad at his mother, wherever she was, in whatever century, and therefore mad at all mothers.

Leo, too. He pointed to a small structure with no roof and said, gloomily, “I think this is the old smithy.”

There was nothing smithish about the old smithy. Joanna put her hands on her hips as though she were interested in smithery, though all she could feel was her heart beating warrantless through her body. She knew she and Leo would forgive each other. She knew that it was her duty to solicit forgiveness from everyone, but just then she was tired of men whose feelings were bigger than hers. She felt as though she’d grown up in a cauldron of those feelings and had never gotten out.

“Okay. What’s next?”

“The medicine woman’s hut.”

Inside the medicine woman’s hut, a squinty, hardy-looking woman of about sixty sat on a low bench, stirring an open fire with a stick.

Hej,” said the woman. This was the jaunty way some Danish people said hello, and Joanna always felt exhilarated and frightened saying it back, as though she might pass for Danish a few seconds longer. Which was worse, being found out as an American or as a fraud? It was a big space, illuminated by the fire and the sunlight coming through the front and back doors. The fire was directly underneath the highest part of the thatched ceiling: Viking fire safety. “Say hello,” said Joanna to Leo.

A preposterous command. He didn’t.

The medicine woman gestured to a low, long bench across from her. In English, in the voice of the Iron Age, the woman said, “Welcome. Where do you stay?”

Were they supposed to be ancient, too?

Leo tried to feel it. Before Denmark, he hadn’t realized how much he wished to be ancient. To be Danish. To be, he thought now, otherwise for a reason.

His mother said, “Last night, near Svendborg.”

The medicine woman nodded, as though approving of this wisdom. “It is beautiful there.” She withdrew her stick, inspected the end, stuck it back in. “You have been to Langeland? The ‘big island,’ you would call it?”

“No.”

She nodded again. “You must.”

She was the medicine woman: everything she said had the feel of a cure and a curse. Yes: they would go to the big island. It was inevitable.

On the big island, thought Joanna, she might forget her big mistakes; on the big island, they would scatter their memories, if not her father’s ashes. They had not brought his ashes. There were too many of them.

“There is an excellent Cold War museum,” the medicine woman said.

What was a cold war, in the land of the Vikings?

“It has a submarine,” the medicine woman said to Leo. “It is the largest in Europe, I believe. I took my son. Also mini-golf close by. A good place to holiday, if you do not come here. Wouldn’t you like to come to holiday here some day? That is what we do. We put on the clothes and puh! we are Vikings.”

“Yes!” Leo said. “You mean, you stay here? You sleep here?”

“Of course!” She turned to the corner of the hut and said a sentence or two to a pile of blankets. Perhaps it was an ancient incantation. Nothing happened. She said it again. They could not find a single cognate among the syllables.

The pile of blankets shifted. An animal? No. The blankets assembled themselves into a shadow of a man.

The shadow became an actual man, sitting up.

The actual man was Aksel.

He was eleven years older and much thinner, and he had shaved his beard, even though he was now a Viking. He’d always had long squintish eyes; they had acquired luggage. He yawned like a bear, working all the muscles of his jaw; that is, he yawned like Joanna’s long-ago love, the foreigner she’d fallen for when they had worked together on a college production of True West. Joanna had been prop mistress, and had collected twenty-seven working toasters from yard sales and Goodwills. Aksel directed, and had broken every one of those toasters during a single impassioned speech to the actors, sweeping them off a table while declaring, “I don’t want you to act, I want you to react, I want you to get mad.

The medicine woman said, “Aksel’s mother told us you were coming here with the boy.”

Joanna nodded. She still didn’t know what millennium they were supposed to be in. “You get mail here?”

“She texted.” The medicine woman mimed with her thumbs.

“Johanna,” said Aksel. That needless, endearing h.

How many time frames was she in? College, mid-twenties, the Iron Age, the turn of the last century. He was recognizable to her—she’d worried he wouldn’t be—and beloved to her too.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, in a serious voice.

It was a good question. He didn’t look like her father. That might have been what brought her here. The watch could be mailed; Legolands were legion; but where in the world was a man like the man she’d just lost?

Her actual heart found the door behind which her metaphorical heart hid; heart dragged heart from its bed and pummeled it. Years ago she’d wondered what, exactly, constituted love—the state of emergency she felt all ten years of their life together? Not that the building was on fire; not that the ship was about to sink; not that the hurricane was just offshore, pulling at the palm trees: the knowledge that, should the worst happen, she had no plan of escape, not a single safety measure; she was flammable, sinkable, rickety, liable to be scrubbed from the map. That feeling was love, she’d thought then, and she thought it now too.

“My father died,” she said.

“Ah, Walter,” said Aksel, and he rubbed his jaw dolefully. “I am sorry. Recently?”

“A year ago. I have something for you. We decided—this is Leo—we decided it was a good time to come to Denmark, to deliver it.”

“Hello, Leo,” said Aksel, who looked half in dreamland, populated as it was by ancient Danes, long-ago girlfriends, and preteen American boys. “I am very glad to meet you.”

“You know my mom?” said Leo.

“That friend I mentioned.” Then to Aksel: “I Facebooked your mom, but I guess you’re off the grid.”

“I am very much upon,” he said. “You just don’t know my coordinates.” He looked again at Leo and nudged the medicine woman’s back with his knee. “This is Johanna,” he said of Joanna. “This is Flora,” he said of the medicine woman. “Shall we go for a walk, Johanna? Just for a moment.”

The medicine woman turned to Leo. “Do you want to play a game? My son is doing so. Come, he will teach you.” She got up and ushered Leo through the front door, and Joanna and Aksel went out the back, the fire smoking, a fire hazard, but the Vikings must have known what they were doing.

“I’ve thought of you often, Johanna,” said Aksel. In the sunlight he was shaggy, his color was not so good, but he was beautiful, a beauty. His clothes smelled of smoke. He seemed a victim of more than recreational Vikinghood.

“You’re on vacation,” she said. “I thought perhaps you’d become a professional Viking.”

“Ah no. I am a software developer. Flora, she is a foot doctor. And you?”

“Bookkeeper.”

He nodded. “You were always a keeper of books. Let us discuss what you have brought me.”

The minute she pulled the watch from her purse she missed its weight. She opened the Ziploc bag, suddenly worried that watches were supposed to breathe.

“Ah!” said Aksel mildly. He took the watch and immediately put it in a pouch he wore tied to his belt, as though any sign of modernity were shameful. “Walter knew I admired this watch. That is what you came to give me?”

“It’s what my father wanted you to have.”

“And only this.”

He started walking and she followed, her long-ago husband, her lost love, to the banks of the sacrificial bog, if bogs had banks. Aksel said, “But not the boy.”

“Not the boy what?”

“He isn’t my son.”

“What? No! He’s ten.

“Ah!” said Aksel. “My mother said you were coming with a boy, and Flora thought maybe. She has a keen sense for these things.”

She saw on his face an old emotion, disappointment shading into woe. “What did you think?”

He turned to the bog. “I might have liked it. Flora has a son. It might have saved me.”

“Saved you? Viking you, or you you?”

The bog said nothing. Aksel said, “I can love anyone,” and took her hand. It was the first time he had touched her. A moment ago she’d thought that would be the last step of the spell, the magic word, the wave of the wand. But it wasn’t.

I could lie, she thought. She’d never really lied, not like that, a lie you would have to see through, a first step on the road to a hoax, an entirely different life, where facts and dates and numbers would have to be fudged. Leo did exist because of Aksel. He would not otherwise.

But then Aksel dropped her hand, as though he’d been joking. “Women are lucky. God puts an end to their foolishness. But men, we are bedeviled till the end of our days.”

She said, with as much love as she could muster, quite a lot, “Fuck off.”

“All right, Johanna.”

“Why did you leave?”

“I didn’t want—” But there he stopped. The Viking village was all around them, smoke in the air, the bleating of sheep that didn’t know what millennium they were in, either. Or perhaps they were goats. She couldn’t always tell the difference.

“What didn’t you want?” she asked him.

He shook his head. “A fuss.”

“Jesus. I want the watch back.”

“We might have married,” he said. “But then it seemed as though we should have done it at the start.”

“Give me the watch. I’ll sacrifice it to the bog.”

“It’s worth rather a lot.”

“Then Leo should have it. My son. I mean, we spent four hours at the railway museum. I don’t know what I was thinking, giving it to you.”

He retrieved the watch from his pouch, his Viking pocketbook, and weighed it in his hand as though he himself would throw it bogward. Instead he wound it up—later, when Leo did become interested in old watches, she would discover this was the worst thing you could do, wind a dormant watch—and displayed it. First he popped open the front to exhibit the handsome porcelain face, the elegant black numbers. “Works,” he remarked. Then he turned it over and opened the back.

There, in his palm, a tiny animated scene: a man in a powdered wig, a woman in a milkmaid’s costume, her legs open, his pants down, his tiny pink enamel penis with its red tip tick-tock-ticking at her crotch, also pink and white and red. It was ridiculous what passed for arousing in the old days. She was aroused.

“Old Walter,” said Aksel. “He lasted a while, then. He started taking care of himself?”

“No. He got worse and worse. He was eighty.”

“He never wanted to be,” said Aksel, in a sympathetic voice.

“I know it.”

He offered the watch. “In four years perhaps your boy will be interested.”

Ah, no: it was ruined. Not because of the ticking genitalia, but because it was somebody else’s private joke, and she the cartoon wife wanting in, in a robe and curlers, brandishing a rolling pin. Even a cartoon wife might love her rascal husband. She did.

“He wanted you to have it for a reason,” she said.

Flora’s son and Leo played a Viking game that involved rolling iron hoops down a hill. Flora’s son was sullen and handsome, with green eyes and licorice breath, terrible at mime, and so he put his hands on Leo’s to demonstrate how to hold the hoop and send it off, then looked Leo in the eyes to see if he’d gotten it, all with a kind of stymied intimacy that Leo understood as a precursor to grown-up love.

I will learn Danish, thought Leo. I will never learn Danish.

He turned to let the hoop go, and there was his mother, striding up the hill. Bowl her over for ten more minutes with this boy, ten more minutes in the Iron Age—where they had no concept of minutes—ten more minutes of this boy scratching his nose with the back of his wrist then touching the back of Leo’s wrist with his Viking fingers. Bowl her down and stay.

No, of course not. The stride told him that they were leaving.

Would he have wished her away? Only if he could wish her back later.

And would she, Joanna, have wished her beloved Leo away? Only if she could also wish away his memory. To long for him forever would be terrible.

“See you later,” said the Viking boy, who spoke English all along, running to gather the hoops.

 is the author of six books, including The Giant’s House and Thunderstruck and Other Stories. Her seventh, the story collection The Souvenir Museum, will be published in April.


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January 2021