Knut stalks along the mountain. René should be here by now. Since his father had to work, his family stayed in Godhavn instead of going on vacation. Didn’t he see that Knut was back? He would’ve heard the helicopter, at any rate, as it flew over town.
They’d written to each other throughout the summer; a vacation is interminable without one’s friend around. Every day Knut ran to check the mailbox his father had installed next to the road when they reached the summer house in Denmark. Three letters, that was it. Thick envelopes, three or four pages each. Both boys used unruled paper, competing to see who could write the straightest lines. They’d never acknowledged it. Nonetheless, they both knew what was happening. René always won.
In the last letter, they’d agreed that the first thing they’d do, once Knut was back, was head out to the old dump – to their place. Could René already be there?
“I’m leaving,” Knut calls to his mother.
“What about your backpack?” she asks.
No one there, but a white sun above him. He tugs at the padlock; the container, their private place, is secure. The sun hits the side of the container that’s listing leeward. Knut sits down and leans against it.
Over the summer, his shoes have grown too small, his big toe is all squished up, and, as a result, he’s worn a hole through the leather on top. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think quite a bit of time had passed. Actually, it’s only been four weeks and one day. Exactly that. They left on a Wednesday and returned on a Wednesday.
“Come on, René, come on,” he whispers.
The sun paints his eyelashes bright orange and blood red. The world is gleaming, it presses against his eyeballs and, at the same time, spreads out endlessly about him. René comes walking along, a small pinprick off to the far left, like a dust of grain gliding along the film inside his field of view until, suddenly, he’s standing right before Knut: René, with his round face and crewcut, appearing from behind a hillock.
“Ha,” he says, “I knew I could count on you.”
Knut holds his hand out to René, so that René can help him up. “So, has it been boring?” he asks, “or did you find some new friends while I was gone?”
“Ha,” René repeats, “what do you think? Didn’t I write to you that it’s been dull as shit.”
“Sure,” Knut says, “but something or other must’ve happened.”
“Well,” René says, “only if you count my uncle coming with his wife to visit. They brought me two zebra finches. Come on, let’s go down to the lake.”
Knut stops. “You didn’t write anything about that. Zebra finches?”
“Well, maybe I didn’t, but I had to have something to tell you when you came home, you know,” René says. “And besides, the birds died. I’d only had them two days before one was lying at the bottom of the cage. The other one died the next day.”
Knut shudders. “As long as it wasn’t a virus. When you’re hauling animals around the globe, you never know with those diseases.”
“Oh, nothing happened. Want to see if the raft can still float?” René asks.
The wooden raft is composed of two pallets lashed together around some styrofoam slabs they found at the warehouse by the dock. Here it is, wedged into a crevice and covered with heather that’s become red and dry.
René has grown too; as they carry it down to the lake now, the raft is almost level. His hair has also lightened. And gotten redder. The lashes that frame his squinting eyes are almost white.
Into the water with it. Of course, it floats; styrofoam never sinks. Instead, it just crumbles into billions of tiny white pellets that wash ashore and collect between the rocks. Their styrofoam slabs are good and solid.
“You first,” René says. “Tell me where we are now.”
The lake with its rocks and hollows no longer has anything to do with Godhavn. No sooner have Knut and René heaved the raft into the water than they are on a strange continent, where animals they’ve never read about frolic in the waves, flit about the rocks, completely indifferent to the boys’ presence. They’ve never seen humans before. “We’re way back in time,” Knut says, “endlessly far.”
“Look!” René shouts and points to something that is undoubtedly the catfish’s distant ancestor, a torpedo-shaped being with six legs and leopard spots and a great grinning mouth. “Look!” he shouts and points to another creature, an udderless, walrus-toothed cow. “Look!” he shouts – and he shouts it again and again.
From the shore, Knut tries as best he can to write it all down, to capture all their observations in the logbook; everything here, what a world, so big and ancient, there’s no one who understands it, who knows it, other than the two of them, the two boys in on the game.
“When we get home,” Knut calls back to him, “we’ll look at the water samples under the microscope. I think we’ve got the origin of the world here. I have it in the cup.”
René paddles back as quickly as his broken oars allow. “I think we should’ve sewn a sail for the raft,” he says when he finally nears the shore. “Let’s see here.”
He grabs the cup and adjusts his lorgnette. “Just like I thought,” he says. “The origin of species.”
“Let’s not tell anyone,” Knut says. “This place needs to stay untouched.”
“But we’re already here,” René replies. “What about us?”
“You’re right,” Knut agrees. “So, we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to erase all traces.”
“No matter how careful we are,” René says, “we’ll be forgotten pretty quick. One winter should do it.”
The boys look at each other. “I don’t think so,” Knut says. “Just think of that midden where we found all those pipe leavings. You know nothing disappears in our climate. Time stands still here.”
René strides eagerly across the wet raft and ends with a leg in the lake. “Ah,” he resounds, “phosphorescence, corrosive phosphorescence.”
“Fantastic!” shouts Knut. “Phosphorescence – here, a beaker.”
“Unnecessary,” says René. “My boots are already full of it.”
Time to be off now. They haul the wood raft as far up onto the rocks as they can. No need to hide it again, no one ever comes here but themselves. Then they run down to the old midden, which is located farther out, down on the slope by the water, where people once lived. Bones and mussel shells protrude from the thick brown mold.
René’s trained eyes have already caught sight of something distinctive, and he starts carefully digging – scraping, stroking, and fiddling – until, finally, he holds a small, grayish white pipe between two fingers. “Ha,” he says, “another clay pipe. You think I can find the head, too?”
Together they dig and end up extricating a pile of seal bones. The pipe head is missing; perhaps it disintegrated. “Hey, look here,” Knut says, showing René the pointed stone tip that’s stuck between a pair of bones. The groove marks along it are clearly visible.
“Oh,” René says, his fingers now eager, “a precious find. We need to be very careful now.”
After thoroughly cleansing the area around the small tip, they can extract it with their fingers.
It’s a fine harpoon point – the handsomest, perhaps, they’ve ever found. They drop the harpoon point and a seal’s shoulder blade, which was also protruding from the slope, into their bag and dash up between the household ruins in the old settlement, where the grass stands tall and lush. Sitting in the ruins’ shadow, in what was once the living room, they use the harpoon point to carve their initials onto the bone’s surface: RK.
“We’ll put proof of our existence among the dead,” René says, and Knut knows exactly what he means.
“Of course,” Knut says, and they begin the short hike up the mountain’s north side, passing among the large rock fragments that lie helter-skelter across the burial site.
Knut’s arm is skinnier than René’s, so he can work the bone between the stones in the large grave, which is where most of the dead are buried. “Put it next to the skull,” René says, and Knut obeys.
The sun shines over the old settlement and over the graveyard – indeed, it more than shines, it breaks over the landscape, lifting the image, a Fata Morgana, high above the land. It’s an image of the mountains, of the small river that divides the settlement, of the lake and of the two boys who are now on their way back to town.
When they reach their container, Knut feels dizzy – perhaps it’s the air sickness again. “I have to go home and unpack,” he says, taking a deep breath. He remembers that he hasn’t eaten anything since he arrived.
“We’ll see each other at my house later,” René calls, running away in the opposite direction. “Eight o’clock.”
“Isn’t René with you?” his mother asks when Knut comes home. “I thought you were excited to see him.” She glances at the clock. “It’s only five.”
“I think I’m going to throw up again,” Knut tells her.
“Why don’t you lie down on the divan and relax?” his mother asks. “We’re four hours behind here. Actually, it’s nearly nine in the evening.”
Outside Knut can hear Bjørk and Karline. Hilde is on the stairs; he recognizes her footsteps. And out in the kitchen his mother is busy taking out everything she needs to make bread. “Here, have a Hardtack,” she says, tossing him a biscuit. “It’ll help.”
When Knut observes the two people, his mother and his father, he’s not always sure that they belong to him. His parents. Mentally saying the words, my parents, makes him realize that there is much more to those words than the fact that he’s their son. It’s not like he’s surprised – or rather, yes, in some way, yes, he is surprised. By the fact, that is, that they’re his parents.
Right now his mother is standing at the sink with her back to him. Her red apron is bound with a tight bow. The rhythm of her movements – she’s prepared a bird so many times, it’s effortless. Her plucking hands send down whirling up into lamp’s cone of light. It’s unbelievable, really, that what takes up so little space on a bird becomes such a quantity when it’s torn off. She sneezes.
His father is in the scullery adjacent to the kitchen. From the table where Knut sits, he can just see him. Right now his father is breaking apart his gun and peering down the barrel, now he’s blowing into it, and after that he shuts the rifle again. His father takes good care of his rifles, cleaning them and packing them away into their holsters when they aren’t being used. The dog whip gets lubricated with grease during the summer; that way nothing will happen to it in the dry air.
When his father isn’t working as a catcher – and so walking around in kamiks and blood-stained pants – he looks different; you’d almost think he were like René’s father, an ordinary man in ordinary clothes. At that point, he works for the municipality in the department that’s responsible for the buildings in town, the school and the hospital, the roads, the trash. At that point, he’s almost another person. And yet, he’s still the same.
“Where’s Bjørk?” his mother asks. “Weren’t you going to help her with her homework?”
That’s right. Knut was going to help Bjørk; they’d agreed to it that morning when she started suddenly crying because she couldn’t count to a thousand. But Bjørk isn’t here. And as Knut waits, he watches his parents.
A web of lines can be drawn between them. Right now his mother is watching his father out in the scullery; his father has just hung his rifle on a wall hook; his mother’s gaze falls on his father’s face, causing his lips to twitch, then curl up. Now he’s approaching her in the kitchen; he places his hands on the small of her back, on the arch where back meets buttocks; she tilts her face up to receive his kiss.
What was Knut getting at? Suddenly, the thought is gone; he doesn’t know where he was. Anyway, something inside tells him it’s wrong to ask so many questions. Things are what they are, why can’t he simply understand that?
Knut’s train of thought is interrupted by Bjørk, who rushes in from the outside. “You could’ve said that you were here,” she says, sounding hurt. “I thought you didn’t want to help me anymore.”
“Stop it, Bjørk,” their mother says. “Get your books out.”
Bjørk seats herself on the opposite side of the table and violently flips through her math book. She wants him to help her with a subtraction problem. He asks if she’s tried it herself; he knows how important that is. And although she claims to have done the problem, he knows that’s a lie. Bjørk isn’t one to waste her energy on something like subtraction, particularly not when she has him.
As he shifts to sit beside his little sister, he notices how thoughts about his father and mother remain on the opposite side of the table; they were like a fog that drifted in from the kitchen to engulf him.
Bjørk’s body is restless; as usual, she claws at the paper. She settles down, though, when he leans over the book, and their shoulders meet in the math. There’s nothing uncanny about Bjørk; when he looks at her, it’s abruptly still inside him. He knows her soul.
Knut smiles to himself. What nonsense. The soul is something you have inside you. It’s something somehow dignified. When it comes to Bjørk, though, not much is hidden. On the contrary, she will always and forever be Bjørk – and that’s exactly the way he perceives her. As if what’s inside is also on the surface as well.
While they sit there, punting numbers back and forth, Hilde comes home; you can tell it by her tramping footsteps.
The door slams, and Knut loses his concentration.
Hilde’s entrance is a natural disturbance; they all respond to it in the same way: Their father stops what he’s doing and asks where she’s been, though everyone already knows the answer. She was either with Heidi from class, or she was down at Olga’s.
The brief pause their mother makes while plucking, the movements in the air Hilde occasions, cause a pair of down flecks to float up. Bjørk forgets everything she knows about minus and plus, and just watches her sister, who stomps through the kitchen and up the stairs to the attic.
Perhaps that’s just how it is, Knut thinks. Perhaps that’s how it should be when someone comes home. When someone ultimately breaks the mood that’s settled among the people present in a room, when someone disturbs it, creates some movement. Again.
“Where were we?” asks Bjørk, who has managed to chew the eraser on the end of her pencil to shreds.
“With you,” Knut says, taking her pencil from her and dotting her nose with it. She giggles and pushes him; for a time they become a small unit within the greater unit, an inlet into which the waves merely lap.
Iben Mondrup is the author of four novels—one of which, Justine, is forthcoming in English translation from Open Letter. Godhavn, published in 2014, is her latest novel. She is a trained visual artist from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where she graduated with a master’s degree in 2003. Her background as a visual artist pervades her writing and she consciously works with the sensual aspects of language. One might say that, in the past, the human body, the floor, and the camera were her materials and that words are her material now. Geographically, she is likely to be located somewhere between Greenland and Denmark.
Kerri Pierce is a writer and literary translator who lives in Rochester, NY. She has published translations from seven different languages in a variety of genres—fiction and non-fiction, novel and short story—and her translations have appeared in a variety of literary journals, as well as The New Yorker. She is the mother of two small boys and holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Penn State.