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Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.” 
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation
from the March 2019 issue

Interlude

Swedish poet Mara Lee encounters a menacing pack of men on a deserted beach. 
 

Skåne August 6, 1986

I left my bike in the usual spot, by the farthest electrical box, before the dead-end street turned into the woods. Yellowing needles fringed the bending planks leading through the pine grove and down to the sea. You could hardly breathe for the heat rising from the ground. Down on the beach someone had pitched a tent. A Swedish flag was swaying outside it. Four pairs of black boots were lined up in a tidy row at the front of the tent. Beer cans were scattered in the sand. 

I lay down at a distance. My pastel green dress gave off an unnatural glow. It was steaming in the heat. I kept it on. It took seven minutes for them to notice me and another minute before one of them started heading in my direction. The sun was in my eyes, but I could see the air around him vibrating. He was older than I was, sixteen, seventeen maybe. 

Pale calves, black military shorts. His eyes were swimming, veiled, but there was a spark deep inside. Diamond shards. I clung to that dim sparkle. 

His loose grip on the beer can. White undershirt, angular shoulders, and an armband. He squinted at me, swaying in the wind. 

Blood or soil, he asked. 

Neither nor, I replied. 

A bird dove from the treetops, skimming his head, causing him to falter.

Lukewarm beer ran out on the sand. Harsh laughter was carried by the wind. He swore under his breath, mouth ajar. 

He repeated the question. His knuckles were white as chalk. I clenched my jaw and repeated myself. 

I hadn’t moved the entire time he was standing there blocking my sun. The soles of my feet were turned to the sky. My back bent, a tense bow. My elbows sank deep into the sand. 

Do you live here? he asked. 

I nodded and pointed behind me, past the pines. He was crushing the can. 

Were you born here? Is your mother Swedish? Your dad?

I shook my head.

But what in the . . . you have to be something.

He was clearing his throat, as if getting ready to spit, when his legs gave out under him. 

Shit, he said and dropped to his knees.

He propped himself up on one hand, in the other was still the beer can. His face was close now. I could smell the stale beer. Right across his left eyebrow, a scar white as chalk. He noticed my identical one and pointed at our split eyebrows, smiling. 

Suddenly he whispered: Nothing is your fault, you can’t help this.

He gestured oddly with his hand, as though he were trying to bat away and take hold of what he was seeing: me, I. The tense, unmoving bow I’d become. I barely dared nod or shake my head. 

Wait, he said, getting back to his feet. He stumbled across the sand and called out to his friends: She’s like us

 

The sun was almost directly above the beach and its glare on the sea was unbearable. My eyes tracked his slender back as he slunk toward the tent. He had a hard time staying upright. When he arrived, he leaned against one of the tent poles and pointed in my direction. Voices carried by the wind. Teenage voices, roars.

With each blade of light that shot up from the sand, my jaw tensed. I knew they’d come over here soon. There were four of them. On the secluded part of the beach, it was only me and them. Now the sun was murderous. It splintered against the sand and sea. They would be here soon, it was only a matter of time. 

Seconds passed. My head booming with sun. A half hour passed, and I saw them take off their undershirts and walk to the shoreline. They were up to their knees in the water. Then they waded out, one after the other, their arms held high. The very next second they were floating in the waves. Their clean-shaven heads glinted in the sun. Hot winds singed my cheeks. I couldn’t wait a second more. I felt the sweat gathering in my eyebrows. The unendurable burning spurred me on. I knew it was dumb.

Slowly I walked to the water. The ocean drew a great, burning breath. This was when everything wobbled. But a whole beach quivering with sun was behind me, driving me forward. From a distance I saw his small pale mass surrounded by a blinding halo of light and ocean spray. I didn’t hesitate, I threw myself in. Embraced by cool undercurrents. With determined strokes I swam toward him. 

Surprising him from behind. I let my fists rain down on his shoulders. I would never have dared had I not seen that he was helpless in the water. It’s just a game, I panted, when our heads were both back above the surface. 

His mouth kept filling with cold water, and he fought for air. Maybe it was just the shadows on his face, but it looked like he was laughing. 

Wait, he said between breaths. He tried to do the same to me, pushing my shoulders underwater, but he was too busy keeping afloat and I glided from his grip. I allowed myself to sink to the bottom while running my hands along his hips underwater. His legs were flailing. The skin stretched taut across his belly was bluish in the water. I let him believe he’d caught me, weaving my fingers into his for a moment, then tearing myself away. But I didn’t swim off. Instead I swam around him, inspecting the weakening body flailing. I touched him: his arms, his wrists. The inside of his underarms weren’t smooth, but ridged. As though etched by white lightning and stripes. Tiny fizzing bubbles rose up around him. I pulled him downward. Sank with him. My heart was about to burst. The oxygen almost all used up. I had to tear myself free, but I couldn’t. I wanted to sink a little deeper still, hold on, a tight grip on his wrists. 

 

I swam as long as I could underwater until I was a fair distance from him and his friends. With my head back over water, I heard a chorus of voices. They were calling a name. Cracked, jittery teenage voices. I kept swimming until their shouts were swallowed by the wind, until I heard new sounds. Children playing, cries of joy. Adults admonishing. The peopled part of the beach. The one without currents.

My legs were shaking as I emerged from the water. The hot sand burned the soles of my feet, but I kept walking. Away from the beach, the sun, the blinding shower from the sky.

 

On the bike ride home my head was pounding and my hands shook. But I wasn’t afraid. I’d glided out of his grip. All I could think of was the under-sea sound. The hum of its water again. 

***

Just because it paled doesn’t mean it disappeared.

Just because it hurts doesn’t mean it isn’t nice.

It sings, rises, a fiery call.

 

He did something to my insides

Each night a return, I bend deeper.
 

Us, he said, deeper and deeper.

 

Raging I begin again, a new take, a new end.

His grip on my shoulders, I tear myself away,

move in circles around him, unfold, slip free

 

Then my desire to touch what is blinding, joints

This is where it goes wrong. 

As soon as I take hold of his wrists he starts to sink

 

can’t help it, I want

to touch what cuts and carves, blinding white streaks in

straight lines. Us. Linger. Brush up against each resistance.

 

I hold on

I promise, I press and sense only this, us

let us go down

together deep down
 

And I will show you: under the sand

is but stone 

 

 

Recurring are the reflections from the surface of the sea as viewed 

from beneath, his head not resisting the currents

a youth sinking. He’s wearing black

swimming trunks black-red armband, moving his hips

not actually swimming.

He’s already as undressed as anyone can be.

Balancing his undressedness between his wrists’ tender

almost imperceptible movements. There. Bind it. Hold fast. 

Preserve the charge, the bend.

Saltwater and foaming waves. 

The youth is pale, slim

down there a white light pulses

I don’t hold back, I could throw something back

sever something and stop breathing

I bind what can be bound, want to hear him 

say wait 

again and again. Nape of his neck, wrist, hip 
 

extreme

He moves barely, in earnest now

a concentrated jerk of the neck

the arrogant bow of his lips

 

I realize that they have to be pale         it’s 1986

I realize that in 1986 they have to hate

I want it and want it more

my gleaming gray fixation

 

give it up, bend him backward, give it up and

 

 

I spell it out: it’s a dark word

a dark word sinking

d o n ’ t  s a v e  u s

This is what we are. 

***

She crawls across the bathroom floor. It is full of sand. She

is not a child but she looks like a child. Sand in her hair 

and mouth, knees on cold ceramic tiles. She spreads her legs,

a wide angle. The shadows falling across her back 

aren’t from who’s standing above her, who’s standing 

stiff and observant, but are from something long ago. 

History. The word. When his gaze falls on her back 

the words start mumbling again. When he presses 

her cheek to the floor—gripping the back of her neck—her throat 

it pounds. Everything left unsaid, the silences the keeping quiet.

All that has been muted becomes moans. 

Half-sunk against the bathroom floor blocking 

her airways, and her voice sounds like it’s breaking

when she tries to ask him to either keep going

or stop. 

She wants him to cover her mouth.

She wants her screams to slip between his fingers,

while looking at his white lines, etched in narrow rows

across his arms.

Her back bends into a bow. He’s going to do things 

with her.

Instead of words, hands. 

Instead of hands, the back of the hands.

The darkness is ours, and the word. The word that runs along

her throat. 
 

“Interludium,” from Kärleken och hatet, © Mara Lee. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.

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