One Fjord Away from a Second Date

"Compaction Birds," a story from "Wild Swims" by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra

sandy coast

One Fjord Away from a Second Date

Compaction Birds

Early Saturday morning I drove up the coast from the border, toward Thy. I drove past meadows with flocks of game birds. The geese don’t want to migrate anymore. They think it’s just as easy to stay in the farmers’ fields, so now they hunker there through the winter by the thousand, feeding on winter wheat and old corncobs. They trample, they compact the soil and make it hard.

As I stood on the ferry, crossing the Thyborøn Channel, I was thinking that it was a long way to drive for a woman I’d only spent a single night with. But Anja had been nice when she was waiting on us during the seminar in the national park. She’d wanted to join the dancing after dinner and seemed eager as we walked through the crowberry. She didn’t want to do it in the hotel, but there’d been primitive shelters in the area. My performance hadn’t been that impressive, yet now her ex-husband had the kids for the weekend. And she had the family summer cottage.

“Come,” she’d whispered on the phone.

There’s a powerful riptide in the Limfjord. I had to grip the railing tightly on the trip across. The fjord looked as though it were a river flowing toward the North Sea, and up on the Agger Isthmus I saw how everything that no longer had to fly away lay pooling in the lakes, and if she hadn’t been standing in the lyme grass by the driveway to a cottage a little farther north, I might well have stayed.

“But here I am,” I said as I stepped into the dunes to greet her.

She wore a light-colored dress with small sun-yellow flowers. It was a pretty dress, and she said I looked just like she remembered, and that she was awfully sorry. There’d been some sort of double booking. She’d forgotten that her mother was coming, among others. “I’m awfully sorry,” she said, and said it was too bad I’d had my cell phone switched off.

Within the cottage stood a woman in blue, with brushed bangs. She was standing with one of those cast-off mugs you find in summer cottages. It was the mother. In front of her, Anja’s sister was gesturing, and behind her sister, a niece sat in a creaking wicker chair. Out on the dunes, her brother-in-law and nephew were kicking a ball.

“The party slipped my mind. My aunt’s turning eighty,” Anja said, rubbing her forehead. There was a luncheon at a nearby inn. She had to go, she explained. For a couple of hours at least. I could stay and enjoy the cottage. “You’re very welcome to join us,” Anja’s mother said, and stepped closer. “In our family, there’s always room for one more at the table.”

I shook her mother’s hand, then I shook her sister’s. I said hi to the niece, and to the brother-in-law when he came in the door with the boy. “Anja says you work at the Society for Nature Conservation,” he said. “What are you doing about the barnacle geese?”

I never managed to answer, because Anja pulled me out onto the porch. She said she understood if I’d rather go home now. She was sorry she’d mixed things up so badly, but she was tied down. I said that she looked pretty with those freckles on her nose. She said her aunt had been recently widowed. Then she poked a forefinger into my palm, and I clutched at it.

There was some lighthearted confusion a little while later when Anja kissed me back by the outdoor shower. It wasn’t a good kiss. The yellow flowers on the sleeves of her dress seemed to be elsewhere beneath my hands. “I’m so embarrassed,” she whispered, and behind the clapboard wall the others were talking about driving to the inn together. There wasn’t enough room in her brother-in-law’s Audi, so I ended up in the passenger seat of Anja’s car, her mother behind me with her hands on my headrest.

We took the main coast road north, trailing her brother-in-law. We drove like this for a while through the national park. From the backseat, Anja’s mother spoke of the view and the place names, and she wanted to know exactly where I lived. “Tøndermarsken,” I said. “By yourself, right?” she asked, and I confirmed that I was a widower. I also mentioned that my wife had been a pastor, but that seemed to land awkwardly. Then Anja’s mother gave a recapitulation of some article she’d read in the weekly paper. It had to do with wolves and how they communicate across long distances by howling. “They’re social creatures,” she said.

In this way we drove along behind the brother-in-law until he turned into a rest stop. Anja conferred with him, while her mother worried about not getting there in time for the first course. As for me, I was looking at the flowers on Anja’s dress and the clusters of game birds lifting off from the vegetation. In the winter they would stick around: compaction birds.

What had happened was that the brother-in-law had gone north by mistake, and after a half-hour excursion in the wrong direction, we arrived at the inn well into the first course. There was a burst of applause and general merriment when we crossed the floor. If I’d known who the other guests were, I would have attempted a bit of clowning, but Anja’s was the only face present that was somewhat familiar, and she wasn’t looking up.

Seats had been set aside for the family. I sat down in the only available chair at a table that wasn’t the head table. To my left was a little man who introduced himself as a cousin from the other side of the family. He explained that it was his wife’s place I’d taken. “She never goes anywhere anymore,” he said, and then I turned to my right, where a bearded man was seated. After that, a fish landed on my plate. “Cheers!” exclaimed a wrinkled face across from me. It belonged to a woman. “It’s a good thing you made it.”

I patted Anja’s hand every time it rested on my shoulder in passing. “I’m terribly sorry about this,” she whispered, and at such moments there were eyes upon us, so Anja stopped doing it, and I didn’t feel I could go over to her.

In this fashion, the luncheon proceeded. Now and then I went to the restroom to make the time pass, and it was when I was trying to urinate again that a man stepped into the stall next to mine and unzipped. A profuse pissing commenced. I finished up discreetly, flushed, and opened the stall door, but not fast enough to escape the brother-in-law.

“Oh, it’s you!” he said, coming over to the sink. “Now we’ve pissed together.” I said it was almost as good as being blood brothers, after which we returned to the party, where the coffee had been served.

“What are you people planning to do about those barnacle geese?” he asked, pulling me down at the deserted end of a table. “And the whooper swans and the pinkfeet? I’ve had to resow my fields. My neighbor too.” I glanced around for Anja, who was being detained at the head table. “What do the ag associations suggest?” I asked. “Can you spray for them?” he said, and laughed.

I have this conversation every day, and I pointed out that it was really due to climate change. Then he wanted to know if it was also the climate’s fault that the wolves had come north to harass his cows. I explained, as I usually do, that wolves have adapted to a Europe at peace, and he maintained, as no doubt he usually does, that he didn’t want to let his kids play in the tree plantation anymore. Finally he said, “I hope you have a great view from your ivory tower, but you should know that we’re rather fond of Anja. Why don’t you try a widows’ ball down in Southern Jutland instead?”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Anja. The yellow flowers spread across the dress fabric and resembled creeping potentilla. That was something she had loved, and I always see it when I go out into the marsh. It blossoms abundantly in the groundcover, and there was something about her face, especially her mouth. Yet restless, that she was. Couldn’t be in the place she found herself. Once when we were at a dinner, she whispered to me that she felt naked without her vestments and wanted to go home. She had a way of leaving me, also in bed. When her legs began to get twitchy under the comforter, I’d place a hand on one of them and say, “A little while yet,” but it was no use, and now here was this woman Anja, sitting in the bosom of her family, tearing a napkin to pieces.

I suggested that we take a little walk, down to the water. She cast a sidelong glance at her aunt and mother and ended up standing on the beach, backlit at the water’s edge. As she stood there in silhouette, we agreed that it would be best if she drove me back to the cottage. My car was there, after all. “I feel terribly embarrassed,” she said a couple of times on the way, and I said she shouldn’t. “I did get a nice drive out of it.”

It was still warm when I drove south, and somewhere on the Agger Isthmus I pulled over at a scenic rest stop. A light breeze was flowing across the terrain. Into the landscape went a path, and I followed it until it vanished in the dunes. Then I took off my shoes. Down by the breakers, flocks of gulls. When they weren’t climbing the wind they stood frozen on the beach, gazing outward. Oddly abandoned and always on the lookout for a fish. After a while I pissed and went back to the car. There I sat, next to Route 181 southbound. The key in the ignition, the sunset, the night.

About the translator:

Misha Hoekstra is an award-winning translator. He lives in Aarhus, where he writes and performs songs under the name Minka Hoist.

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