We suddenly found ourselves in an astonishing landscape: luminous, white-sand hills on all sides, wind-swept trees twisting beneath the blue, open sky. We gasped for breath, joyfully, as if coming up for air after being too long under water. We stopped and looked around us, blinking our eyes that had been focused for so long on the gravel road in the darkness of the plantation. Even the smell was different here, salty and fresh, the sea had to be very close now. But we had lost our bearings long ago. We were going in a circle. It was hot. We had a six-year old boy and a dog with us. The bikes were old and rusty, the danger of a puncture was imminent. We stood completely still and listened. The wind blew through the leaves with a faint rustle, birds were singing, one was screeching, hoarse and desperate, as if for dear life. Sebastian looked at me anxiously. “It’s just a common buzzard. Nothing to worry about.”
“Come over here, Seba. Would you like a biscuit?”
You called the boy over, a show of kindness, and I looked back, turning my head too suddenly, and too apprehensively. There was the forest we’d just come from, as black and still as a deep lake. The trail in front of us went through what appeared to be a birch grove and, after that, there was more of the dense coniferous forest, moss, heather, and fallen tree trunks, grayish-black, with broken branches sticking out like spikes.
“My legs are tired,” Sebastian complained. Then he broke down; his dirty hands covered his face, his shoulders were shaking.
You put him on your lap.
Sitting in the grass, you rocked him gently back and forth while he cried. You looked at me with large, worried eyes. I stared back. “What?” I asked. “Nothing,” you answered and stroked the boy’s head, “it’ll get dark in four or five hours.”
“So what? What can I do about it?”
I lay down, arms behind my head.
Sebastian will be seven in two weeks. In August, he’ll be in first grade. In a way, he’s just the same as ever, the same as when he was a baby. The same worried look, the same little wrinkle on his forehead. It looks like his front teeth will stick out when he gets older. Then we’ll have to go through all that stuff with braces and who knows what. I open my eyes and you’re standing over me, looking at me with disgust. Perhaps you’ve been standing there for several minutes. “Should we get going?” you ask. I get up and notice how tired I am. My arms are limp, and a sense of weakness begins to overwhelm my entire body. The water bottle is empty. The dog pants with its tongue hanging out of its mouth. You put it in the cardboard box on your bike rack. Sebastian, keeping his chin up, gets his bike and rides ahead of us. His bell rings with every bump in the road, and the streamer attached to his rear mudguard—which he took such pride in when I put it on—suddenly looks cheap and shabby. We go on in silence. Every time we come to a crossroads, you look at me inquiringly, but, after all, I’m not the local here, and each time you end up saying something like: “So, I think we should go to the right here. I seem to remember that woodpile.” Then, without another word, we turn right, until Sebastian throws himself on the ground, yelling and screaming. He’s gone into complete hysterics now. He flails at us when we approach him. You try the gentle way; I do it rough. In the end, I shake him hard and yell that he’d better relax now, and if not we’ll just have to leave him there where he can bawl his eyes out until the buzzard comes and gets him. I regret it immediately and put him down. He cries and holds on to my legs. You’re leaning against a stump of a tree.
Some ants are crawling up Sebastian’s chin, dangerously close to his mouth. “What the hell are you doing?” I shout at the boy. He hurls himself to the ground with a strident squeal. He spits and sobs and hits himself in the face. I have to take off all his clothes to brush off the ants. He kicks and flings his arms and legs. He’s been bitten in several places. Snot’s running from his nose. I lift up the naked boy and we stand like that for a while. Now he’s just sobbing, nuzzling his face into my chest.
“If we’re not riding in a circle here, we should reach Bulbjerg at some fucking point. And it’s impossible to ride around in a circle here, for Christ’s sake,” I say, “it’s impossible to get lost in a shitty little forest like this,” I hiss, “Anne!” I shout. Finally, you’ve gotten to your feet, your face gray and streaked. You rub your eyes like a child. “I know the guy who owns the take-out place over there,” you say.
“What take-out place?” I ask, annoyed. “The take-out place outside Bulbjerg,” you whisper.
Sebastian is breathing so close to my ear that it tickles me unbearably; I let him slide down to the ground. He wraps his arms around my hips.
“Seba will ride with me, now,” I say, loud and furious.
I free myself from the child’s grip and fling his yellow bike into the shrubbery. I think of how it’s still lying there like evidence in the investigation of some appalling crime. Someone will stumble over it one day. They’ll find my fingerprints on the crossbar and Sebastian’s on the handlebars. Perhaps they’ll find yours, too. Perhaps they’ll think that we killed the boy. “We’ll come back and get your bike another day,” I assure Sebastian. He’s sitting behind me, arms around my back, still naked, his legs are dangling, and my fear of getting his foot caught in the wheel annoys me— like a mosquito waiting somewhere in the darkness when you’re about to go to sleep.
We ride like this for almost an hour, it’s muggy, it’s about six o’clock, I
guess, but none of us actually has a watch. We left home at nine in the morning. It was supposed to be about fifteen kilometres between the summerhouse and Bulbjerg. We’d wanted to look at the beautiful Ice Age landscape up there. I also wanted to show Sebastian the German bunker. We were supposed to have had a nice little talk about the Occupation.
When I woke up this morning, you were watching me. We were both lying on our sides, facing each other, and you were watching me. You smiled. The light fell oblique but bright on the white covers through the roof window. I felt like I was being spied on. Then Sebastian stood in the doorway. He said the dog had peed on the rug in the living room. A little later I heard you laughing and chatting in the kitchen. We used to do it on that rug. We were here in the autumn, it was cold, and we lit a fire in the evenings. I slowly stripped off her clothes, and she looked fabulous on the red Persian rug in the warm light from the fire. She spread her legs. She looked at me with dark, almost sorrowful eyes. Your sister’s cunt is tighter than yours. I wonder whether girls are born that way, or if it’s just because she’s so young. Tine’s only your half-sister. Sebastian is adopted.
“No one in this family is properly related!” your stepfather usually cries out at Christmas and Easter, when he’s getting up to make a toast. “Assholes!” he yells a little later and collapses in a drunken heap, so your cousins have to carry him out.
Now it’s usually on the rug at home that I love her. And she loves me. When you’re out, when Tine is looking after Sebastian. When he’s sleeping. I like to watch her, when she’s lying there, exposed and vulnerable on the cold floor, but also protected by the soft weave of the rug. She’s a little cold. She gives good head. The roof of her mouth is warm and hard, and she really concentrates, making it into a real performance. I miss her. I miss her thick, brown hair, her warm neck, her profile when she’s lost in her thoughts, one hand under the chin, unaware that I’m watching her there in the darkness. I feel lust and hopelessness. That’s the point I’ve gotten to. I thought that I could easily handle a couple of weeks on holiday up here. We do have a child together, after all.
We’re riding down the hill at a high speed, and I have no clear recollection of how it actually happens, but a stick gets caught in your wheel, and I drive straight into your rear, our bikes tumble over, and both boy and dog are thrown clear; they land in a ditch, Sebastian knocks his head on a large stone, and the sound of him hitting the bloody stone makes my skin burn, my throat is dry; I’m afraid he’s dead. You’re already all over him, you call and cry, I push you away with great force, you gasp for breath and fall back and away. Sebastian is unconscious. He’s white as a sheet, and his new, jagged front teeth have split his bottom lip open. He’s bleeding.
“Seba,” I whisper. My voice sounds far away, is resonating strangely. “Can you hear me, Sebastian? It’s Dad.”
You have crawled into a thicket. You look at me with bright, green eyes while you hold the dog by its collar. It bares its teeth and snarls, and for some reason it barks violently. “Quiet! He’s not dead! Anne!” And it’s as though my calling your name out makes you act. You tie the dog to a tree. You pick Sebastian up and stagger down the path with our big, limp child over your shoulder. I don’t know why, but I don’t relieve you of him, even though you seem about to sink under his weight. I just walk behind you and keep about five meters’ distance, while the dog’s bark turns into a pitifulwhimper over our shoulders as it realizes that it’s being abandoned.
I remember vividly the first time I heard Anne say her name. Almost like a whisper, and with downcast eyes. She blushed and smiled a little. And then she did something completely unexpected: she suddenly leaned over with great conviction and kissed me long and hard. She really impressed me. I was touched. I thought she was so cool. I let my hand run through her hair and pulled it gently, bringing her head back a little. She closed her eyes and grinned, almost vulgarly. “Anne?” I whispered. The smell of her
skin was unbelievably strong, almost acidulous.
Five years later we were called to our first adoption interview.
“My name is Anne,” she announced, loud and clear, and placed both hands on the back of her chair before she finally sitting down in the small, stuffy office. No one had asked for her name. Her announcement seemed odd and pompous. As if her name was of vital importance as far as her suitability for motherhood. “There are no guarantees that you’ll get a sweet little baby. You have to envisage getting a three-year-old with a harelip and severe brain damage. If you’re ready for that, then you’re ready to adopt,” the caseworker said. At once, Anne replied that she was ready for it.
Much later, when we picked Sebastian up and were sitting on each side of the king-size bed in a hotel in Hanoi, him between us, throwing up, she suddenly said: “His name is Sebastian, and I won’t budge.”
Their names sit like two awls in my main artery: If you pull them out, I’ll bleed to death immediately.
You push forward with Sebastian, at least five hundred more meters, and I can hear how breathless you are. You don’t say anything. The foliage above us is dense, it’s overcast now, dark and damp where we’re walking, I smell resin and mold and wet grass. Then you suddenly turn away from the path and into the woods. You stagger a few meters in, almost tripping over a thick, gnarled branch, you squat and put the boy down gently. Sebastian’s a deathly pale color against the dark-green moss. You swat away a fly from his face. I bend down to the child and feel his faint breath as small gusts of warm air on my face. I get up and place my hands on your shoulders, “Look at him,” I say, “he’ll recover. Really. We’re leaving now. We’re leaving, Anne, and before you know it we’ll be in Bulbjerg, and then somebody will have a fucking car, and we’ll be able to get him to the emergency room.”
I pick Sebastian up and carry him like a bundle on my back. “Come on,” I say. You follow me obediently. You stoop as you walk, exhausted, I guess, but you don’t cry. I tell you we’re already through the woods, and I’m sure we just need to cross one more hedgerow and one more rise before we’ll see Bulbjerg and the whole fascinating landscape surrounding the cliff. Kittiwake breed out here. Fulmars, too, I believe. Strange name for a seabird.
“I’m having an affair,” I say. You turn your head.
“I have a mistress,” I say. You knit your brow and look blank.
“I’m fucking your sister. You understand?” You pick up your pace. “I’m fucking Tine, I can’t get enough of her, she gives me head like she’s paid for it, I can’t get enough, I fuck her on the rug at home, I fuck her on the kitchen table, in the bathroom, I take her from behind, up the ass, in our bed . . .” I’m breathing hard and hissing, I notice. You stop.
“In our bed?” Anne says. “Up the ass?” she says.
I turn around and look at her. She grasps at her throat, she sways back and forth a bit. She looks at me for a long time, and I see her nostrils vibrate. She shakes her head. Fear and an almost celestial innocence shine from her wide-open eyes.
“You’re sick,” she whispers then.
But quickly her voice becomes loud and shrill. “You’re crazy!” she cries and points at me, she’s running backward away from me, she points with a stiff finger, “you sick bastard!” she shouts, with more rage than I’d imagined, she’s ugly and distorted, her motions are mechanical, clumsy, “You disgusting, sick bastard!” she shouts, that’s the only thing she can get through her lips, sick bastard, disgusting, sick, filthy bastard. And she turns around and just runs, she sprints, as if the devil were on her heels, and I finally see Bulbjerg towering up ahead. My eyes follow the first, soft stretch of coast, then I look over the sea, down below, the great, fierce North Sea, which is a grayish-green today and almost completely calm. I close my eyes and open them again. It’s windy out there. I want to lie down and give in to the white light, close my eyes to it, only feel the wind in the grass, hear the particular whispering sounds that the summer wind calls out of the grass, and the hum of bees, and the grasshoppers close by, very close.
But Sebastian groans at that moment, makes little whimpering noises. I take him down into my arms and hug him. The bump on his forehead is big and blue and red, and a deep gash cuts right through it. Fluid flows
from the pink, naked flesh. His hand reaches up and cautiously touches some dried blood on his lip. His tongue runs over this wound, he furrows his brow, winces, and calls out for his mother.
“Mom ran ahead of us. We need to get a car, so we can take you to the hospital. The doctor just needs to take a look at your head. Are you nauseous?” He nods. I carry him like you’d carry an infant. His eyes slide shut while I walk with him. I try to keep him awake. I remember that you’re not supposed to sleep when you’ve hit your head. I retell stories from his life, I ask if he remembers the time we played football with the big boys on the field in the park, when one of them gave him a cap? “And when we were at Tivoli Gardens with Mom and Granny and Auntie Tine, and you had three helpings of cotton candy, and we could see the tower of town hall from the rollercoaster, and you had an accident?” I speak loudly and make sure to laugh now and then, to startle him, I want to keep him awake at all costs. I run a little. Now I see Anne far ahead, on her way down the big hill. She’s stooping and reeling in the middle of the road. The many different kinds of grass wave with the wind in every direction, it’s very beautiful here. The ocean glints down below, the sky is wide and open. It feels good to be out of the woods, I feel light and at ease, I can breathe here. I begin to sing for Sebastian. I sing, and I walk down the hill, down the steep asphalt road, which is sticky and soft from the sun. I feel like running down; it’s not only tempting but logical, you’re supposed to run down a hill like that, hooting, exhilarated, but I don’t. I walk and walk, toward land again, toward the main road with both Bulbjerg and the ocean behind me.
Little by little, Sebastian seems better and clearer-headed. I put him on my shoulders, so he can look at the landscape. When I look for Anne again, she’s gone. A little later I see the sign clearly. Imagine opening a take-out place in such a desolate area. Imagine actually breaking even.
Sebastian spots a butterfly and flaps his arms like wings. He asks how long butterflies live. For a brief moment the sun penetrates the cloud cover and sends a jolt of warmth through me. My son is healthy and happy. I have a feeling that things will get increasingly simple, clear. But when we turn into the yard at the restaurant, the first thing I see is Anne. She’s with a man, and they’re sitting on a bench. The man has an arm around her, and she’s burying her face in his chest; it looks like she’s crying. I stop. Sebastian says, “Mom.” She raises her head with trepidation and looks at us for a moment. Then she collapses again into the man’s arms. He has dark, curly hair and is very tan. “Anne’s not feeling well,” he says. He speaks in the local dialect, slow and dull, the dialect that Anne and Tine dropped a long time ago.
“My son hit his head. I need an ambulance right now.” The man shakes his head despondently. “A phone,” I say. He gets up from the bench. “What kind of man are you?” he asks. Slowly, slowly he moves toward me. “I’ll tell you what kind of man I am, I’m Anne’s husband, and I need to use your phone.” I go to the counter. A strong smell of burnt oil hits my face.
“A hell of a husband,” he mutters. I reach over the counter and get hold of a cordless phone. But he must have crept up on me, because as I’m about to dial the number, he tears the phone out of my hand. He’s so close, his eyes are slits, his upper lip curling back a little.
“You deserve a good beating, you,” he hisses. Sebastian pulls my hair. “Just call,” I say wearily. Out of nowhere, Anne cries out. I reach out for the phone again and try to wrench it out of the man’s hand. He lets go of it, it tumbles down to the ground, he puts a big hand on my shoulder. “Give me the boy and get the hell out of here.” I lose my balance and nearly drop Sebastian. He must have pushed me hard. “Dad?” Sebastian says. His voice is weak, polite, he’s scared. I turn around and look at Anne.
“Who is this man?” I ask. She gives me a grim look.
“This is Sebastian,” she says, and the boy, who’s still on my shoulders, jumps. “Do as he says. Get out of here.”
Sebastian, our son, takes hold of my head with both hands, I feel his warm breath all the way into my auditory canal. “I want to go home,” he whispers.
“Come, Seba,” Anne says, standing up. “Come.” She draws closer with her arms stretched out. “Come and have an ice cream from Sebastian, he’s the one you’re named after.” Her face twists and turns into a crazy grimace.
He looked like a monkey, standing there with his broad chest and hairy arms. He stepped forward and pointed at me, threateningly, with his short, fat finger. I moved backward and started to run. He didn’t follow us. When I looked back a little later, I thought I saw him standing in the middle of the road, kissing Anne deeply and pulling her ponytail. I also thought I could hear her mooing, like a cow, but perhaps it was him, I don’t know. We reached the main road. Sebastian was silent and stiff. I didn’t say anything. Tine’s white breasts and the small, dark nipples. The fat finger pointing to the soft spot between my eyes. I was sweating heavily and jumped at the sound of my own breath.
It was almost dark before a car finally picked us up. Sebastian was basically fine. The doctor examined him, the nurse tried to make him laugh. He didn’t say a word. They bandaged his wound and sent us home. You were sitting in the dark by the window late that night when we returned to the summerhouse. You hadn’t even picked up the dog.