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03/10/2012

After Raisin

Louise Øhrstrøm

 

 

After Raisin

 

EC Edition, Denmark 2010

 

Translated by Louise Øhrstrøm and Philip Langeskov

 

 

1.

 

                                                            * CAT *

 

That summer, when I decided to write about the fox, Klaus had already left Maribo. His excuse was that, because we lived on Lolland, he was missing out on professional challenges, but I was convinced that he left for other reasons. For one thing, I recognised the expression on his face when he came to pick up his last things. His lips were tightly pressed together, and a rhythmical expansion of his nostrils revealed how he was working to control his breathing. It was just like when he arrived at the hospital, after I had given birth to Raisin.

After he had gone, I wanted to let him know that I had seen through him. I wanted to write him a letter, saying that Maribo wasn’t the same without him. That it was as if one of the bright stars from Van Gogh’s Starry Night was missing from the painting. Most of the time, however, I was less poetic and just wished that I could cling to him, or attack him with questions, like how he could have the nerve to leave our Raisin, or where he thought he was going, without me. I was convinced that he had been beside himself when he decided to leave, and that he would return sooner or later. It was so obvious that we were still in a state of emergency.

I spent days trying to write letters to Klaus. “Dear Klaus. I know why you left Maribo. I feel…” Most letters ended here. Then I started to see spots before my eyes. They seemed to dance in front of the computer screen, before joining in clots and then scattering again. I felt sick and had to lie down on my couch. The nights were just as unforgiving. Some nights, I would fall asleep, only to wake with a start because of a nightmare, or a sudden clear thought that ran through my whole body and made me gasp. Other nights, I would find myself awake and alert, pursued by painful images, such as Klaus’s grave face or Raisin’s small fingers. I had visions of women surrounding my bed, holding pale babies in their arms. Their faces were without expression, their shoulders fallen and their arms hung either loosely at their sides, or, worse, pointed accusingly at me. Sometimes, I would hear someone scream somewhere and look around me, bewildered, my heart racing. Thoughts replaced one another at such a high speed that I couldn’t discern one from the other. When I tried to make sense of what had happened, I could only express myself in fragmented sentences. “In a moment, the light…”, “then I’ll go”, “with his arms, yes”.

I kept the blinds down day and night. When I didn’t lie on my bed or on the sofa under a blanket, I ate noodles or drank tea in my armchair. My mum and Sofia called me constantly. How was I doing? What did I eat? Did I get any sleep? Maybe they should drop by? I replied that I had to postpone everything. That I needed peace to deal with my writer’s block. That I needed to write again. “Articles”, I lied. I knew that this was what they wanted to hear. My head felt heavy whenever my mum started to talk about her work at the old peoples’ home, Birkely, or when Sofia told me about her friends, about nights out, about her colleague, Bente, or about her boyfriend, Laust. Their pretense disgusted me. It tormented my conscience so much that the very sight of them made me feel sick. I just wanted them to leave me alone and stop coming up with questions and advice all the time.

So, my first reaction was obviously to be irritated when Sofia, in a flow of talk, announced that she had found the solution to my writer’s block: I should write a fable. She said this having seen a man with an incipient tail at a swimming pool, It had reminded her how bestial we all are. How much easier it would be if we all just followed our instincts (it was not hard to tell that she was in love).

It was quite typical of Sofia to come up with something like this. “Spontaneous,” my mum called her. “Bubbly”. I often felt grey and overly serious next to her. After Raisin that feeling had increased. She probably looked at me as one of her projects. Something that could be fixed. I would not be surprised if she had discussed her brilliant fable idea with her one and only Laust. Like my mum, he loved Sofia’s ‘naturalness’.

I looked around me. It was almost impossible to distinguish the floor from the piles of clothes, books and empty noodle pots. I picked my way through the mess and took all the empty pots to the kitchen. Tears came to my eyes. I clenched my teeth. How could Sofia think that something so trivial as a fable could save anyone? How could she even suggest it? She had stayed with me for several days after Klaus left. She knew how I had felt. Maybe she just wanted to get rid of her weird sister. Maybe I had become one of those people you prefer not to talk about. I picked up the noodle pot. There was a picture of a dragon on it with the slogan “Blue Dragon – for whatever you desire, release the dragon”. For a second, it was as if the fire-breathing dragon moved, as if a flame blinded me. I tried to crush the pot, but it dropped out of my hands. What a ridiculous slogan! My fingers were smeared with noodle sauce. When I scratched my head, I could feel that my hair was sticky. It was more than a week since I had washed. I didn’t like to take showers anymore. My skin prickled painfully each time the jets of water hit my naked skin. It was tiresome to find a clean towel; exhausting to dry myself and get in my clothes again. And I hated the sight of my stomach.

In fact, I hated my whole body. When I looked in the mirror, I could hardly recognize myself. All I could see was a poor skinny creature in an oversized T-shirt and bare legs. It was as if something had ceased to work in my brain. I had no filters anymore. Everything I saw went right into my bones. It was impossible for me to see the news or read a newspaper. Each and every story gave me a feeling of guilt I couldn’t bear. Images of tortured bodies and war torn houses haunted me. Eyes of foxes followed me everywhere in my apartment.

As a child, I had seen a fox savage our neighbour’s hens. There was a moment I would never forget. In the instant right before the fox attacked the hens, it turned its head towards the fence that I was hiding behind. There was a hole in the fence through which I could see the fox. The fox looked directly at me. My throat felt dry, my body was trembling. I wanted to shout. I should have shouted.

 

My cheeks were cold and wet when I woke up the next day. I was on the sofa. It was the light that had woken me, glaring in my eyes.The blinds had been lifted, and there was a fox at my desk. I squinted and sat up, expecting the vision to disappear, but the fox was still there. It was sitting on my office chair, solemnly observing its own reflection in the oval-shaped mirror above my desk. All of my unfinished letters for Klaus were pushed to the side. The fox had placed its paws on the table next to a packet of sausages it must have brought with it. A tail peeped out of the hole at the back of the chair, slowly swaying from one side to the other. The fur along its spine was smeared with sticky brownish stuff, and the hairs on the tip of its tail were black and short, as if they had been burned. Each time the fox swayed its tail, a foul stench of dunghill, cheroots and cognac wafted across the room.

I could see its face in the mirror. Its yellow eyes were close together. Had its gaze not been so blunt and militant, I would have thought it was cross-eyed. When I looked to the side, I saw that the left hind leg of the fox was resting on a pile of books Sister Helen had given me. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. Opening my eyes again, I found that the fox had started to write on my computer. Its paws hit the keyboard at breakneck speed, only interrupted by moments of self-satisfied chomping and appreciative nods towards the computer screen. I watched carefully. It was difficult to discern what was fox and what was dirt. The sun reflected on a part of the fur that had a greenish gleam. Only right above the tail did the fur have that golden, reddish colour you would expect of a fox. Behind one of its ears of the fox was a sticky lump, with a pencil and a couple of feathers attached to it.

The fox swayed its tail rhythmically from tone side to the other while it wrote. The stench was sickening. I was about to open a window when the fox started to shake. Its whole body trembled, the shoulders jumping up and down. The pencil fell to the floor, and the feathers dangled unsteadily. I assumed this would be the first phase of the disappearance of the fox. In a moment it would shake more and then dissolve in the room, just like the women who surrounded my bed at night. I moved closer to the desk, watching the fox intently.

But the fox did not disappear. Instead, it insisted on its presence by coughing loudly. Apparently, it had choked on something. In order to get rid of it, it swayed its tail so high up into the air that it touched my face. A hair got stuck in my nose. I felt sick. The fox started to roar as if it was a lion. A piece of sausage skin flew from its mouth and hit the computer screen. The fox cleared its throat and sat back in the chair again with an expression of triumph. It bent down and licked the computer screen to get the sausage skin back in its jaws.

– What are you writing?  I heard myself ask.

The fox pricked up its ears and moved its whole body closer to the back of the chair with a start, glancing at the computer screen.

– My memoirs, it said promptly, followed by more chomping

The fox reached out for a sausage, pulled its head back, tossed the sausage into its mouth and chomped even louder than before. The sound annoyed me.

– And where are you from? I said.

Everything went silent. I was convinced that the fox would disappear now. It would have to let me know that it came from my imagination and nowhere else. Then it would explode like a balloon or silently dissolve like the embers of a fire. I had experienced this before. A door slammed, Klaus was gone. Raisin dissolved into cold air in my arms.

I felt heavy and weak. I saw spots before my eyes. All I wanted was for the fox to disappear so that I could pull down the blinds and go to sleep again. But the fox was still sitting, alive and kicking, on my office chair. It slowly turned its head towards me, exposed its teeth and hissed angrily.

– I need peace to work for Christ’s sake. You can read my book when it’s published!

I looked at the back of the fox again and carefully touched its tail. It continued to pound the keyboard, unaffected by my touch. The hair and the stench on my hand was incontrovertible. The fox was real. In the end it seemed useless to sit on the sofa and wait for the fox to disappear.

I looked out of the window. The sun was low in the sky. It had to be afternoon. For some reason I thought it was morning. After Raisin I had completely lost any sense of time. I spent most of my time lying in bed or on the sofa, feeling constantly exhausted. When I got up and walked from one place to another in my apartment, I felt as if I was being forced to wade across a river. I preferred people not to touch me. Any smell or ray of light felt painful. It seemed impossible that I had ever spent long afternoons playing football in the sunlight, or that I had once enjoyed having Klaus inside me. Now, any touch was connected with pain. If I went out in the daylight at all, it was to buy more noodles, to visit Raisin’s grave or to sit in silence at the chapel of the Sct. Bridget Sisters by Søndersø. I preferred to go out at dusk, or just before dusk, when the light was not too bright.

The fox sneezed and rubbed its nose with its left paw. A drop of slime fell down on the keyboard, which the fox licked immediately. The stench was unbearable, and the sight of the shiny keyboard made me feel more and more sick. I had to get some air.

 

 

– They have cut down the chestnut tree. It was more than 200 years old, said Sister Helen.

She looked towards the group of workmen as if she blamed them. I stared at the red pieces of felt that were attached to her wimple. They formed the Sct. Bridget crown. She had once explained it to me. The red pieces of felt represented each of Christ’s wounds, the passion united with endless love.

The workmen were about to leave. It was closing time. Blocks of grey concrete formed a square next to the white monastery. There was an excavator with the logo “CAT” in front of a pile of soil. Behind the excavator a workman was locking a portable cabin. Next to the portable cabin, I could see a big pile of branches and roots.

– Is that the chestnut tree?

– Yes, Sister Helen sighed.

Then she smiled and laid the garden spade on the wheelbarrow in front of her. She had been digging up weeds by the entrance to the monastery when I arrived. She still had her gloves on.

– But I look forward to living in the new monastery. It will be exciting.

She looked into my eyes.

– You are not well today?

Her Indian accent made her say ‘today’ with a very hard ‘d’. I looked down at the gravel and then up to Sister Helen’s hands. She took her gloves off. Her hands were brown and coarse. Whenever Sister Helen wasn’t praying in the chapel, she worked in the kitchen or in the garden. She placed one of her hands on my shoulder. My throat felt dry. I stepped away from Sister Helen, but she didn’t let me go.

– Come. Let’s go to Vespers.

 

 

The chapel of the Sct. Bridget Sisters was a sanctuary for me. No one analyzed my movements or my facial expressions there. No one touched me. When the sisters prayed, there was a certain sense of peace that made me feel at home. I never felt lonely when I was in the chapel, and, although I wasn’t a nun, I never felt like I stood out. While saying Sct. Bridget’s prayer with the nuns, “Lord, come and light up the darkness…”, I looked at the statue of Bridget on the window sill. Bridget had a pen in her hand. The expression on her face was grave. She was looking down on the book of her visions. I always let my eyes rest on her while the sisters prayed or sang.

The first time I had been to Vespers, I had watched the sisters pray. It had seemed intimidating. It was only after Raisin’s death that sporadic prayers of thanks to a God somewhere had developed into a more conscious faith, but there were still many things I found alienating in Christianity. Even so, I couldn’t help clinging to the hope that Raisin was somewhere up there, in heaven. “I come to you, like the wounded comes to the doctor. Give, Lord, my heart peace. Amen.” The sisters kneeled in pairs in front of the cross, put out the candles and left the chapel. For a moment I thought Raisin’s little body rested on my breast.

The window shook. It was a warm but windy summer. I pulled my hood up, went down the stairs and left the monastery.

 

 

Deep sleep. That was all I hoped for when I opened my apartment. I wanted nothing more than to throw myself on my bed and forget about everything. The sight that met me was for that reason even more unbearable. Creased pieces of paper and half-eaten sausages were strewn over the floor. The walls in my bedroom had been scrawled on in a mysterious script that I couldn’t make out, my bedside table had been overturned, and the waste bag torn to shreds. . My duvet was piled up like a mountain in the middle of my bed, and there were two red pointed ears to one side and a long bushy tail to the other. The tail was swishing up and down in time with the fox’s grotesque snores. In my bathroom, the walls were also covered in scrawls and a foul-smelling yellow fluid ran down the washbasin and the toilet. I couldn’t believe it: Fox piss!

It’s a mystery how, once in a while, when you feel the most exhausted, you somehow find the energy for the most explosive bursts of anger. I grabbed the nearest weapon (an umbrella from the hallway), jumped up on the bed and attacked the sleeping fox, hitting it as hard as I could and pouring all the invectives I could think of down upon the creature. When I lived with Klaus, it had often been a problem for me to find suitable words to express my anger. Like a child, I ended up calling him “stupid” and kicking his bag or throwing his real estate catalogues to the floor. Now, I found myself making up all kinds of curses. “You filthy fucking snake! You sly, selfish dog. That’s what you are. A damn jerk! Get off my bed immediately and stay away forever! No, die! Die! Yes, I want you to die in your smug spit and be eaten up by reeking mites!”

Much to my annoyance, none of this seemed to bother the fox. No matter how hard I beat it, or whatever I screamed in its ears, it kept on snoring. Its eyelids didn’t even flicker. The only one exhausted by my burst of anger was myself, and after a while I gave up and fell down into the armchair. Here I sat for a long time, defeated, looking at the mess in front of me. Then I noticed a sound that was different from the snoring of the fox, a mechanical, monotonous sound. It came from the printer under my desk.

 

 

The Travels of a Pilgrim Fox

 

Preface

 

This is the remarkable story of the life of one of God’s most supreme creatures. It depicts with grace how a noble animal has lived out his dreams in the most elegant way one can imagine. Let us call it a truthful pilgrim’s account of his life on the highway. It will stand forever, steady as a rock, as a tremendous miracle, an oasis in a barren literary landscape. I am aware that certain so-called poets – one thinks, for instance, of Nivardus’ writings about the repulsive wolf Isegrim, or the clerk Willem’s poem Van den vos Regnaerde in 1250 – have participated in a smear campaign against my species. These people have used us as bugaboos in an absurd moral crusade, which has reduced our wonderful capacity for slyness to the status of an indulgence, a frippery. For this reason, it is my dream that this story will be recognized not only for its marvellous literary qualities, but that it will also rescue the reputation of our much – and unfairly- criticized species. Turgenev will regret that he said Gogol looked like a fox. His statement will never again provoke laughter. It will be considered a compliment.

INEVITABLE NOTE: It should emphatically be pointed out that a snout should always be preferred to one of those gigantic mountains that are raised in the landscape of the human face. The best writers let their noses wander – just like Gogol did. Only pathetic poets keep their noses in the sky. See also my pamphlet, Criticism of the detestable Nose’s Popularity.

I hope that the Church of Rome will acknowledge my masterpiece and not place it on Index Librorim Prohibitorum (the list of illegal literary works which holds most other fox literature). I am standing on firm ground, on the promise of a king to a relative of mine: “Whatever you write, will be the truth”. As a humble pilgrim, I have always tried to give my blessings to the places I have visited, and I have given freely of my wisdom, to anyone in need.

 

Subsequently, the fox gave an account of all of the places he had been and the people he had met. According to the fox, in Kansas City he had been a part of a famous family of prairie foxes, who mastered the art of robbing stagecoaches and naive colonists. In the Himalayas, he had rescued a Russian czar and his family, when their luxurious caravan was about to fall off a cliff. In Lapland, he claimed to have bitten both ears off the famous lynx, Arthur, in an unforgettable local tournament. It seemed there would be no end to the stories the fox intended to unfold in his memoirs, which for now consisted of a 10 page preface and an appendix in three parts. The first part held solely literary references, mainly to Lord Byron, whose Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage the fox claimed as the main inspiration for his work. The fox wrote that he felt spiritually related to Lord Byron, being both a revolutionary and a well-travelled pilgrim himself, and he advanced the following quote from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as his slogan:

 

He who ascends to mountain-tops shall find

the loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow;

He who surpasses or subdues mankind

must look down on the hate of those below.”

 

Not only did the fox think himself related to Byron, but he also felt a connection to the hero of Byron’s poetry: a restless, melancholic and solitary figure who defied the standards of his time. At the same time, the fox could not relate to the sense of guilt Byron’s hero had. He found the guilt felt by most pilgrims to be completely useless and considered himself a gift to the highway, not the other way around.

My head felt heavy while I looked through the manuscript. I decided to skip the second part of the appendix which looked like sketches of possible chapters of the final memoirs. The third part of the appendix consisted of small poems that the fox had written throughout his life as a pilgrim. They were not structured around the dates they were written but around what the fox had eaten immediately before writing the poems. The fox was of the opinion that this would provide a better understanding of his works of art. Under FISH it said:

 

PERCH

 

Spare me

from flies and cats

begging for bits

I give in

I give up

Give me warm-blooded creatures

I snarl of

poor chips

 

 

FILET OF PLAICE

Fat falls

in lumps

turns around a non-existing corner

small jumpy feelings

in my belly

tom-bom-tom-boom

boom-boom

 

 

DEEP FRIED SCRIMPS

Spinning crispy rascals

crackling

crunching

lively playing

in my

hurling

intestinal

system

 

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