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from the September 2019 issue

I Condemn My Pathetic Heart and Soul

In an excerpt from Mona Høvring's novel, two sisters gingerly renegotiate their relationship after one's breakdown.

Martha had managed to convince Father to drive her all the way up to the hotel. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps Father was the one who suggested it. He loved going wherever the wind blew or visiting places where he’d heard there was a grand old bureau, a rustic writing desk or some antique decorations.    

When we were children, there were times when Martha and I were allowed to join him on these trips. We learned early on that we mustn’t disturb him while he was haggling. It was one of the few things that could irritate him. One summer afternoon, we were with him in a crammed secondhand shop out in the country. He was interested in a painting and a rocking cradle which was decorated with traditional patterns. He had spoken warmly about these objects when we were in the car, but in the shop, he wrinkled his nose and just wandered around, scrutinizing all manner of clutter and junk. When, after a great deal of toing and froing, he took the cradle and the painting to the counter to pay, he noted nonchalantly:

“So it was 500 kroner for the painting and 800 for the cradle?”

“That’s right,” the shopkeeper said.

Father pulled a wad of notes from his inside pocket.

“That’ll be 1,200,” he said.

“No, it’s 1,300,” the shopkeeper said.

“Sorry, I’m so bad at mental arithmetic,” Father said.

“So you could just as well have said 1,400?”

“No,” Father said, winking at me and Martha. “I’m not that bad.”

I was reading on the sofa when Father and Martha came. I heard the key in the door and shot up, looking quickly around to see if any of Dani’s things were still lying around. But of course, there was nothing there that could betray her visit.

“Lovely, you’ve bought tulips,” was the first thing Martha said when she came into the room. She hugged me sincerely, holding me while Father set down her bags and waited. When she finally released me from this overwhelming embrace, Father grabbed around my waist and lifted me up.

“You look good,” he said. “You’re as light as a feather.”

“It’s because my hair is all gone,” I said.

Father put me down and ran his hand carefully over my head. He started to wander about, as he tended to do, with his hands behind his back. He went from room to room and from one piece of furniture to the next, turned a chair round, examined the base of a lamp, lifted a bowl.

“You guys have it good here,” he said, pointing at the stucco on the ceiling and the headboard with the neat carvings.              .

“Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all. Is the food good as well?”

I hastened to state that I thought we should find a place to eat down in the village.

Martha looked curiously at me.

“Why?” she asked. “They have a wonderful menu here in the hotel.”

I hadn’t prepared a good explanation. It was just a desperate attempt to avoid bumping into Dani or Ruth. I needed time. I was afraid I would make everything known with just one wrong breath. It was only now I realized that what Dani had set in motion was a betrayal of Ruth and that I had recklessly allowed myself to be pulled into it. Not for one moment had it crossed my mind to ask Dani if Ruth was aware of our nightly meetings, if the two of them had an open relationship, or if there was an agreement between them, a trust that Dani had broken.

No, of course Ruth didn’t know about it, I thought. Of course it was a betrayal.

I came out with something about how the staff were almost certainly busy preparing for the event that evening, and fortunately Martha agreed. In any case, we could both get some air before the party. We’d be able to grab a bite as long as we didn’t linger.

For the second time that day, I was on my way down the winding slopes. Martha sat in front, beside Father. She got carsick so quickly. I leaned in between the seats and asked Father how it was going with Mother. She had got it into her head that she wanted to go to Japan, he told us. She wanted to visit the Ama women. She wanted to learn to dive for pearls.

Father kept a straight face as he came out with this peculiar information. I poked him on the back of the neck and said he was lying.

They had a strange relationship, Mother and Father. They hardly spoke at home, especially not to each other. Even as a child I had understood that a shadow rested between them, a vague, ever-present shadow, which separated them from each other. Once, I heard Father say that he would have given his life to get Mother. It was a mysterious declaration.

“Oh, life is way too much,” Mother replied. “Give me some peace of mind instead.”

The only place to eat that was open in the village was a fast food café. Martha and Father each ordered a cheeseburger. I settled for a milkshake and a salad.

I didn’t say much, but it was good to be in their company. Father seemed so young sitting there.

“I’ve noticed something strange while I’ve been traveling around,” he said. “When it comes to women, it seems as though men in one country always think that men in another country are luckier than them. For example, Italian men like Swiss women. German men rate Spanish women the highest. And men from Greece, they love Nordic women. Yes, that’s how it is across the board, no exceptions.”

Martha laughed at Father’s comment. She was shining, her radiance almost stretching out toward me, and she repeated that short hair really suited me.

Martha. Martha, with her divine, seductive features. Martha, with her voice like a trickling stream. For weeks she had behaved as though she were the only person to have ever had a nervous breakdown. She had disturbed me. She had devastated me. I thought I couldn’t stand her. I wanted to distance myself from her, to protect myself. Why couldn’t I do it? Because I was afraid of her? Because I loved her? The thought scared me. But now, she was both devoted and trusting. Nothing threatened us. I was tempted to suggest that Father stay at the hotel for a couple of nights. It would do him good, I was sure of it. But then the spell was broken. Father checked his watch and scoffed the rest of the burger. He really had to get going.

Even though he was clearly busy, he insisted on driving us back up to the hotel. I didn’t say one word during the journey. Father gave us a brief lecture on mining, while Martha sat and whistled.

When we swung in front of the main entrance, the newly shoveled parking area was packed with cars.

“Where there is dancing, there are people,” Father said. “That’s how it is, out here in the provinces.”

Before getting out of the car, we hugged him. Martha first, then me, a little awkwardly over the seatback. Then we got out. Before driving off, he rolled down the window and shouted to us:

“I’m all for shenanigans, but with the right people. Remember that, girls. Remember that.”

We stood there and waved until the car disappeared behind the large mounds of snow which had been pushed to the side of the road’s sharp turn. To my astonishment, Martha grabbed my hand and led me. It took me so much by surprise that I didn’t even consider tearing myself away. Even when we walked past the reception, I let her keep hold of me. I caught a glimpse of Ruth behind the desk. She was busy welcoming some newly arrived guests. Her eyes darted up. I tried to smile at her but only managed to grimace, thinking my face must have looked like some sort of Asiatic demon mask.

I stopped in the middle of the stairs and pulled my hand away. I had lost control. And I hated it. But it didn’t seem like Martha noticed my irritation. She pointed at a portrait, commenting on the jaunty bonnet the young woman had on her head.

“I’m looking forward to the party,” she said. “I’ve brought three new outfits with me. You have to help me choose one.”

I didn’t reply.

Outside the door to our room, Martha stopped and grabbed my hand again.

“Thank you for being so lenient,” she said.

Lenient? I thought. Where did that word come from? And where had her sudden mildness come from? I had acknowledged, with relief, that I didn’t have responsibility for Martha. There were no longer any oppressive obligations between us. But I was responsible for myself, and now I just wanted to sleep, lie down, close my eyes and disappear. All of my audacious decisions were gone. I touched my head. Had my hair turned gray? It felt so lifeless. And my eyes? Were they yellow? Of course, I knew they weren’t yellow. They were about as yellow as the sky. As yellow as the glasslike surface of the mountainside. But still. Those yellow eyes. That yellow sky. That yellow snow.

I was more predisposed to drama than I wanted to admit. The thin air up in this altitude had made me childish and unpredictable. I realized that I was going to have to fight hard battles in this place. It was a fundamental truth. Or was it Martha’s sudden generosity that had unnerved me?

I let us in.

“It’s wonderful to be back,” Martha said.

She opened the sliding doors to the bedroom and, in one movement, leaped onto the bed.

I stood looking at her.

“What’s up?”

I hesitated.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“You have a nosebleed,” Martha said.

I wiped my nose with the back of my hand. I really did have a nosebleed, which was unusual for me. I found a tissue in my handbag, sat on the couch, tipped my head back, and stuffed a rolled-up strip up my nostril. Everything was flickering peculiarly toward me as I sat there with my throat tensed. I realized that I had been chasing life all these years, or more precisely, that life had been running away from me. I was full of emotions I couldn’t stand. And, as if it were the moment of my death—yes, I was predisposed to drama at the time—I pictured Mother, raking leaves in the garden. I was seven years old. I thought that we worked well together, Mother and me. I stood on my toes, lifted one arm, and let my index finger glide along the hem of her jacket. She leaned forward so that I could sniff her hair. Mother smelled like apples and rain and mint. A cloud moved over the sun, narrowing the light.

“Surely it’s stopped bleeding now?” Martha said.

I removed the paper carefully. The blood had dried. It looked black.

“We have to get ready for the party,” she said.

She took garment after garment from the suitcase: a shimmering gold dress, a pink silk blouse and a red skirt, several pairs of high heels.

I went to the bathroom and tried to flush the bloody paper down the toilet, but it bobbed up again like a fishing bobber. The water turned red.

Martha came in after me. It wasn’t possible to hold her back.                                   .

“Remember that time we won five hundred kroner on that scratch-card you had?” she asked. “Remember we spent it all on sweets?”

I flushed the toilet again and the water rushed out from the cistern. I looked down into the toilet bowl. The bloody mess had finally disappeared.

While she continued trying on clothes, Martha reminisced about our childhood and our mutual love of treats. Did I remember how we used to eat loads of banana chocolate? How we would take huge handfuls and chomp until we drooled? And yes, I remembered. I remembered the luminescent jelly babies we stuffed into our mouths. It was as if we were both crazy. But when the nauseating sugar rush reached the muscles of our hearts, it was as if everything inside us was vibrating, and the trembling was almost unbearable.

“What do you think of this?” Martha said, twirling in the tight gold dress.

“You look lovely,” I said.

“Aren’t you going to change?” Martha asked. “Time is marching on.”

“Is it OK if I shower first?” I asked.

“Just leave some hot water for me,” Martha said.

I was quick. It felt wonderful to lather shampoo into my short hair. There was something calming about being able to feel the shape of my head so distinctly. I rinsed myself with cold water. And after I had toweled myself dry and warm, I pulled on a pair of grey woolen bell-bottoms and a petroleum-green polo neck.

Martha studied me, placing herself in front of me and frowning, like a model scout. And I knew what was coming. Now came the criticisms. Now came the small, subtle remarks which I hated protesting against. But no—she just told me I looked smart. I was so perplexed. I took a peach from the fruit bowl. I had always believed it was important to keep a certain distance from compliments like that, flattery which aligned with one’s nature, but now I was happy, even though I wasn’t sure if Martha meant I actually looked intelligent or if I just looked fashionable in this outfit. One could be more or less as good as the other. Surely it wasn’t the case between me and my sister that we suspected each other of betrayal all the time?

“What are you eating?” Martha asked.

“A peach,” I replied.

“But aren’t you allergic to peaches?”

“Perhaps my body has changed,” I said.

 

From Fordi Venus passerte en alpefiol den dagen jeg blei født. Copyright Mona Høvring. Published 2018 by Forlaget. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Rachel Rankin. All rights reserved.

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