Ah, yes. Finally. Lying down, surrendering to gravity, sinking, floating, falling through layer after layer and out the other side. No more pain. No discomfort. No thirst, no desire. Something cold and wet, my forehead, I couldn’t tell … Was I sweating? Ah yes, maybe I was. Everything is fine now. If only I had known it was so nice to die! Someone ought to tell people. Don’t be afraid, someone should say to them, so they won’t spend their whole lives fearing death. Look at me — it sure as hell isn’t because I was one of God’s chosen children. I’m floating. Everything is ocean. A massive green silence. I drift, flow, sway among shaggy seaweed, billowing like a woman’s hair. Like Lisa’s hair when it would fall down over my breast in flowing cascades. Dancing, cascading through the days. Oceanic music fills the undulating silence. A thousand-voiced sea organ — jubilant symphonies rising up, up, up. A slight breeze strokes my cheek. Or maybe it’s an angel. An angel’s breath. It is the angels who blow on people’s wounds. So maybe I’m not in the sea but in heaven? Then it’s the music of the spheres I’m hearing, the song of souls streaming toward me, calling me … Yes, yes, I’m coming now, I’m already here; born away on heavenly tones, over soft hills and valleys, green grass as far as the eye can see …
You could see all of it there from the top. Rolling fields and flowering borders, trees in rows and clusters, a flicker of leaves. Brown cows, red cows, green cows—green in front and behind and all the way around. Farther out the ocean lay there, shining in the morning light, pale blue, calm. Disappearing and surfacing and disappearing again. I sat in a bus. On the way to … can’t remember. What was I doing in a bus? Maybe not on the way to something but away from something?
Morning. Very early in the morning … the streets quiet and empty, and everything was already much too late. I was on my way home. Or maybe I wasn’t. The cranes stood there swaying in the harbor. Maybe I didn’t even know where home was. Maybe I just wanted to be gone. Yes, that’s what it was, I think. And then that bus standing there, some fucking bus in the middle of everything. The sun was sailing around in the blue enamel. The door stood open. The empty seats looked soft. My body felt suddenly heavy and miserable, just wanted to sink down into one of those seats, disappear among the cool shadows of the backrests and wake up someplace else. A place where the last days had never happened — not there or anywhere else. The sky, I wanted to have sky over my head. Cornfields, dandelions, wind. Some cud-chewing cows who didn’t know shit about anything. Maybe a very small tavern if necessary, or even just a grocer, a couple of dewy beers that would appear like a mirage between the clover and the cow dung, if it should get too dry with all that fresh air.
“Next stop: Lower Uglebølle.” That I remember. The bus driver’s voice was clear and distinct. Had never heard of a place with a name like that, but okay, when you looked out the window the meaning was clear enough: In front of us the landscape swooped, with fields, trees and cows and everything, as if down into a huge hole. And from there up again. A collection of houses crept up over the hill on the other side of the bottom. With fire in their windows. At least that’s how it looked. Lower Uglebølle? That sounded pretty damn reasonable, I was certainly there already, at rock bottom, so why not Lower Uglebølle? At least it was one hole in the ground I hadn’t dug myself.
Everything is fine now. If only I had known it was so nice to die! Someone ought to tell people.
Now they’ve started singing again, the souls. Or angels, maybe it’s the angels. A whole choir of them. They must be somewhere nearby, I can feel their breath, the soft breeze from the beating of their wings. They’re everywhere, behind me, above me, around me. Their song rises and falls, lifting my head and setting it gently back down again. Softer now. Was it hard before? It’s good now — it was good before, it’s all good. Something farther down comes loose, as if it has snapped. I’m drifting, floating, swaying quietly among the stars. The night is black as gold, but this is better. Better than Barolo, better than Arnbitter and Wiibroe’s vintage beer. Johnny Cash’s burning voice. Better than pussy, even the best bang: only a fleeting twitch between rows and rows of pitfalls, tears and difficulties…
Damn …. was I able to perform? A window, the first gray light of day. Karina? Katja? Shabby wallpaper, a white-wicker chest of drawers. Kerstin? Incredible tits, the kind you want to bury your head between and never come up for air. And she damn well knew it, too — the way she sat there at the bar with them sticking out. When was that? Yesterday, the day before, another lifetime? Or was her name Kamilla? Something with K, anyway. I think. Or maybe another letter. Sorry, Ludmilla, if I didn’t hit my mark. My form could certainly have been better. And the money, Pernilla, shit, did you ever get the money?
There’s something on my shoulder. A light and gentle weight. Maybe it’s been lying there the whole time. Someone is saying something from far away. The voice slowly draws nearer, a woman’s voice … Lisa? Lisa is walking toward me — Lisa is on her way back to me; she floats, dances, smiles. That smile reaches across all the dry years that separated us, wipes them away as if they had never existed. Okay, wet then. Periodically wet. But that was only because it was so dry, otherwise.
“Now, I think he….” The rest fades away.
White ceiling. White arches. Not a hospital but … something I already know somehow. Aren’t I dead, though? The light is coming from one side. A soft breeze across my skin. Is it still the angels? Angels — help, what is it, a pair of gigantic glasses are coming down toward my face. My forehead slamming directly up into his.
“Hello there … !”
The man adjusts his glasses, which have fallen halfway down his cheeks. I’m sitting up now, his face is right in front of mine. He smiles: “Are you okay?”
Who is he? He’s on his knees in front of me. He looks like one of those tv-hosts in those glasses. A real pair of picture windows. He moves to my side, lays an arm around my back. Is he gay, or what? I try and pull away, but nothing is happening with my muscles. Or tendons, nerves, or whatever it is that usually lets you move when you want to move. It’s certainly not because I smell like perfume. But his arm stays there.
There’s another man, too, and a woman. Who are these people? The two others are sitting on a bench or on something by the wall, also wearing plain clothes. All three of them are wearing plain clothes, no white coats to be seen. The walls are as white as the ceiling. Or rather, whitewashed walls. A church. That’s what this is; it’s a church. Things aren’t moving too quickly up there. But what am I doing in a church? Now the organ has begun to play in there. The notes’ thunderous roar penetrates the thick walls. A door stands open on the other side. The door out. Both wings have been flung wide open, the light falling in. I have to be careful not to look that way, I can tell. But the air feels nice. I could use a bit more if it, I’m sweating — come on, more air. A sinking feeling in my body, cold sweat dripping from my pores. A beer, a beer is the only thing that would help now. Just the thought sends a shooting pain through my diaphragm, my intestines, my stomach is turning inside out. I just manage to turn my head away before I vomit — or not quite: before I, after some pathetic gag reflexes, regurgitate a bit of sour bile up onto the floor.
The man’s arm is still resting behind my back, the walls are waving. I have no strength, cannot ….
“It’s okay.” The man grabs more tightly around my back. “Just lie down, like that, yes. Nothing has happened … Maybe you just sat up too fast. An ambulance will be here shortly…”
Ambulance?! I don’t want any goddamned ambulance. Which is also what I say to him — at least what I try to say to him. But it’s as if there’s no connection to my mouth. I can’t get it to move, have no strength…
“There’s some water right here. Do you think you can drink a little … whenever you can … no hurry, we’ll be right here … ”
Here — where? In the church? A hand rests on my shoulder again, his apparently, firm and calm. I don’t have the energy to do anything but let it sit there. Its light weight feels comforting, calming. The woman who was sitting on the bench before comes over with a little bucket and begins to wipe up next to me.
He is risen, He is risen! He has opened heaven’s gate …
The song weaves in and out between the notes of the organ, or maybe it’s the other way around. Arching above me, like arches under the arches. I’m not dead. I’m in a church…
I just really needed to fucking sit down. Just a little longer, I said to myself, while people were professing and renouncing all around me.
It was just sitting there, completely white in the middle of all that green. Bells were ringing and ringing — although I wasn’t sure if it was coming from the church or inside my head. Probably the latter. The church was sitting in the middle of nowhere. Who would they be ringing for? The cows? Then I saw some people moving around over there. A lot of them, actually, swarming from all sides and disappearing into the church, as if they’d been sucked into a hole in the white wall. I was still more or less sober at that point. But in pretty bad shape, on the other hand. Had been traipsing around for quite some time, didn’t really know where I was. Maybe still at the bottom of Uglebølle. Or maybe I had come up, it was hard to say, the landscape still felt like it was bobbing up and down. In any case, the church was on some kind of hill, and it looked so … I don’t know what the fuck, so white and innocent, almost like a toy, sitting there between the fields and the sky. As if it couldn’t help it. A place to sit down, I thought. A refuge. A clean, white space where you could sit and rest your legs a little, find peace from everything for a while. Maybe even achieve some kind of forgiveness, as it were. Yes, I thought, maybe not the worst place to start if you wanted to begin a new and better life. And you could also get a little sip of communion wine. On the other hand: I sure as hell wasn’t going to go up and get down on my knees along with a bunch of holy assholes. And it would sort of necessitate that, I guess.
… We are free from sin’s dark prison, Risen to a holier state …
“Do you faint sometimes?” Glasses is still sitting by my side, his face frowning seriously. He’s probably in his mid-forties. “Do you suffer from any illnesses?”
“Fain … ?” The word — or something like it — comes out of my mouth. My voice sounds strange, almost non-existent.
“Yes, you suddenly fell inside the church …”
Inside the church? That’s a lie! But obviously it isn’t, unfortunately. Some unclear images are stirring. Slowly it begins to dawn on me: that interminable section when you have to stand up, the Creed, or whatever the hell it was. All the others were standing right up, so I really had no choice but to just get up off my ass. I even tried to mumble along with the words a little. I guess it couldn’t do any harm. Maybe it would even be good for something. I really wanted … well, God knows what I wanted. That some higher power would show up, would come down and make everything all right. Lift me out of this goddamn hole I had fallen back into. I just really needed to fucking sit down. Just a little longer, I said to myself, while people were professing and renouncing all around me. Just hold on a little longer, it will all be over soon, and then you can sit back down. But my body wasn’t listening; instead, it started shaking from within. The words dragged on, every syllable, every single vowel stretched out until eternity, as if it was necessary to make it all last as long as possible. I had to grasp the backrest on the bench in front of me. If I just hold onto it, it will pass … Or maybe just slouch down a little … I can’t remember any more.
“Ugh.” I try to make my voice to work. My tongue is just too big. “Not that I know of …. I mean, no illnesses that I know about.”
“Good. Come on, try to drink a little. Don’t worry — I’ll hold up your head.” The man lifts my head and holds a glass up to my lips, carefully pouring water into my mouth. The water is cold, but not too cold; it flows smoothly over my tongue, trickles down my scorched throat. Feels wonderful.
“What about blackouts — have you experienced them before?” It is the woman on the bench behind me who’s asking. “When alcohol is involved, for example … or at other times?”
Alcohol, for example!? What the hell does she mean by that, the bitch? Suddenly I can smell … something pungent, a spicy-sour aroma. Oranges. I turn my head a bit. The woman is sitting there peeling an orange. She’s probably in her thirties. The man by her side looks about the same age, maybe her husband. He’s wearing dark trousers and a smooth, light-blue shirt. A nice, decent person.
“Uh, no, nothing like that. It’s probably just … something with my blood sugar.” What else can I say? Can’t tell her I’ve been on a drunk for the past three days. Or was it four?
The woman comes over and kneels by my side, hands me a piece of orange. It feels hopelessly awkward having something in my mouth that doesn’t just go down all by itself. Still, my jaws start moving, my tongue and teeth working as well as they can, the sweet-and-sour pulp exploding in my mouth, clinging to my tongue, sliding down. The organ begins to play again from inside. The woman gives me another piece. I eat, one piece after the other, everything she gives me. And indeed, little by little, my energy starts to return.
“Thanks,” I say. “Many thanks. It’s already much better now. It must have been something with my blood sugar, clearly—when it drops too low, no? Really shouldn’t have skipped breakfast, ha, ha. Wasn’t really hungry, so I just wasn’t thinking about it …”
The stuff about breakfast wasn’t a lie, in any case.
… And a brighter Easter beam, On our longing eyes shall stream …
It smells faintly like chalk and old walls. And still a bit of orange. I drink some more water. Both it and the orange are staying down. I lie on my side, half-upright. The woman has sat back down on the bench again. A dark wooden bench that runs all the way around along the walls. Rows of hooks overhead… I spot my jacket. It’s lying on the bench, folded neatly. I almost didn’t recognize it, it’s lying there so nicely. They must have taken it from me. The light from outside falls in through the open door, creating a crooked rectangle on the stone tiles. I wonder if they’ve opened the door for me.
The man with the large glasses helps me up off the bench. My body still feels wobbly, as if everything inside has been shaken apart and hasn’t totally fallen back into place yet. Maybe I just need a beer. Still, I manage to sit upright. The walls remain standing, the floor and the seat beneath me stay in place. The woman is sitting a couple of meters to the left, talking softly to the man, who surely is her husband. She’s dark-haired, not bad, really. Someone I’d enjoy meeting under other circumstances. As another and better me. A more clean-cut me, in any case. As she sits there, her hands beneath her thighs and her upper body bent forward, I can just make out the pattern of her bra beneath her thin, bright-yellow blouse. A lacy number.
“The ambulance should be here shortly,” says glasses.
Alcohol, for example!? What the hell does she mean by that, the bitch?
Damn, the ambulance!
“Can’t you, um, cancel it? Just call and say it isn’t necessary. I’m doing fine now. Really. No problems, I’ll be moving on in just a little bit … The wife is waiting at home, you know—I really need to get my ass home. Just sit here and relax for five more minutes, and I’ll be quietly on my way.”
But they won’t hear of it. Best to get myself looked at for safety’s sake, check my blood pressure, take some blood tests and such. After all, they aren’t doctors — just ordinary people without any medical knowledge; the paramedics will have equipment and can better assess the situation.
I sort of suspected that, but still…. They really didn’t need to do this. They aren’t employed here — it’s not like they’re at work. They’re just everyday people, in church during their free time — for Easter service, most likely, and now they’ve spent most of Christ’s resurrection helping me stand up. A lovely exchange, ha.
The paramedics enter through the door, dragging a stretcher, for Christ’s sake. I assure them that everything is under control. I’m doing fine now, don’t suffer from any illnesses — just a little excessive thirst, but of course I don’t say that — just got a little nauseated, nothing to speak of, it’s over now. They don’t look particularly convinced. One of them is taking my blood pressure, checking my reflexes, measuring my blood sugar, blood-percent, or whatever the hell he says he’s measuring. Shines a light in my eyes with a little flashlight. Not a pretty sight, I’m sure; I’m glad I can’t look into my own eyes. The other one is squatting with a pad resting on his thigh, where he’s writing down numbers. Everything is about normal. That’s just what I said. By the time they measure my blood sugar again, it has already risen a bit. They seem noticeably satisfied with that. As if their measurements had made it rise.
Before they leave, they’d still like to know whether I’m certain that they shouldn’t drive me to the emergency room. Or home? Am I sure that I can make it home on my own? Do I live nearby? Is there someone at home waiting for me? Without hesitating, I say yes to everything. I can easily get home on my own, in fact I can use a little fresh air, and my wife Lisa is at home, I’ll be going in a moment, but thanks for the offer. My voice is totally normal now, as far as I can hear.
They finally pack up their things, hoist up the stretcher, and disappear out the door, with a wish for a good Sunday and an exhortation that I take it easy for the next few days.
Take it easy? Yeah, thanks, what do you think, buddy?
In a little while I can hear a car starting outside and wheels crunching on the gravel.
…Death’s long shadows have departed; All our woes are over now …
Unbelievable. Hasn’t that service ended yet? How long has it been? Feels like an eternity since I first set eyes on the church and saw people swarming into that hole in the white wall. But maybe it hasn’t been that long. I take my jacket and manage to mumble an awkward thank you to the woman and two men for the inconvenience. Maybe my voice has come back but now it’s as if the words have disappeared. Or maybe I just don’t know what it is I really want to say. They say there’s nothing to thank them for, shake my hand and follow me over to the door.
The light outside is overwhelming. I have to stop for a moment and squint. I guess I better try and find the bottom of Uglebølle and catch a bus home. I put one foot tentatively in front of the other. And then the other in front of that one. The gravel crunches beneath my feet. I’m walking. My legs feel as if they are just learning how to do it.
Damn, I think. I can’t explain what it is that’s so damned. Yet it’s the only word that comes to mind.
Henriette Houth was born in Denmark in 1967. Her publications include two collections of poems, two books on architecture and design, two collections of short stories, and a children’s book. Translations of some of her poems and short stories have appeared in German and American literary journals. The short story “Resurrection” is from her latest collection of short stories, ‘Mit navn er Legion’ (‘My Name is Legion’), published in Denmark in 2015. In addition to her part time job as a reporter at the Danish Parliament, Ms. Houth is currently working on a novel. She lives and works in Copenhagen.
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 Eric Valeur’s ‘The Man in the Lighthouse’ (March, 2017). He has also translated such novels as 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, Mr. Mussari is the author of ‘Danish Modern: Between Art and Design’ (Bloomsbury Press, 2016). He lives and works in Tuscon, Arizona.
© Translated by Mark Mussari