Summer after the war
I place my hand on the palm in the mirror, your fingers were long and slender, muscular and warm, one could see they would always be warm, never damp, made for rolling cigarettes, snapping fingers, hanging from trees, tapping a beat on the table- warm and tanned even in winter, smooth and boyish and careless, with little pale scars, confident hands, the hands of a boy who has cycled home without holding on to the handle bar and who now stands leaning against the front door in the sun, a jam sandwich in his hand.
Your hair looks alien with my face below, it seems to absorb all the light and float, my skin seems pale, the eyes darker.
For an instant I can’t bear it, I collapse, insides tumbling, so quickly, sweeping everything away, I don’t even have time to clench my fists.
I have closed the curtains and only little light is seeping through the thick fabric, tingeing the room in a green glow like mildew. I pull my hand back and lean against the wall, eyes closed. The air is humming, the wall is cold and close to my face is the smell of a room that never gets heated. I feel the cold like water on skin hot from fever and my stomach tightens. Against my bare back and underneath my palms I feel the thin wallpaper and the rough plaster underneath it.
When I half open my eyes I will see a blonde girl in the semidarkness of the mirror, strands of hair drawn before the face, a light coloured vest, you.
I am lying on the floor, a pile of dirty laundry as cushion underneath my chest, on the coarse carpet tiles, so thin and worn that I could as well be lying on concrete.
The smell of tobacco and sweat clings to my fingertips, my whole body seems dirty, when I scratch my scalp black rims remain underneath the nails.
The room has a smell as well, I haven’t opened the windows for days, the curtains are closed and the light is dim, clothes in dirty clammy piles, overflowing ashtrays, the odour of cellars and moisture, soil. My feet are icy, my legs and the back of my knees sticky.
I have to get up, I have to go and fetch wood from the stack in front of the house and fire the furnace in the bathroom, I have to get up and take a skirt and a blouse from one of the piles and put them on.
The path is overgrown, branches with brown spotted leaves hang down from either side, grass and nettles are growing knee high, wild flowers and dog rose. Towards the river the higher trees disappear and make way to giant leaves of wild rhubarb still wet from rain, mist is rising, dampness everywhere, the sound of water in the near distance, leaves touching the naked arms and legs and then there is the boat behind the bend where the path ends in a wide plot of firm soil, and the girl on the boat’s roof.
Dusty soles, scratched ankles, underneath them mud has dried and left a crumbly rim, terry cloth knickers, a muscle twitching at the groin where the veins are showing bluish through the skin, fine and lucid hair on the arms straight on either side of the body, the hair spread out to dry on the tar board.
The girl is you.
In the corridor I linger in front of the door, through the small window at the side a puddle of light falls on the floorboard, I place one foot inside it. Behind the door, only centimetres from where I stand, is my father. He talks with one of the other men from the factory, in the moments when no one is talking I can hear him pushing the sand on the wooden steps around with his feet and the small stones being knocked against the door.
I try to concentrate, to gather the energy for the impulse to turn around and go away, and eventually I succeed and I walk out through the back door.
Behind the house is the shed, grown over with leaves and bushes, it is cooler here, all dark green and wet shadows, the wood of the shed is dark, too, and damp when I lean my forehead against it.
I stay like this until the men’s noises finishing off for the day cease, then I walk around to the front of the house and take some of the wood that is stacked there against the wall in the sun. The square in front of the house and the factory beside it is empty and dusty in the heat, no shadows. Only in few of the puddles water is left, all that remains of others are cavities with edges of grit.
The space seems vast, a deserted plain, the road ahead and to the right the other factory buildings are very far away.
I dig my toes into the warm dust and turn my face to the sun, to the silence that is like a tone vibrating against my body. I put one foot in front of the other as if balancing on a banister, slowly, sand spilling over and between my toes with every step, I’m counting, I’m already passed fifty and the road doesn’t seem to have come any closer, my father calls, what is it with the hot water, coming, I call back, although I don’t think I will be able to turn around.
You will be there, in a reflection in the window of a passing bus, only noticed in the corner of an eye, you will be there when I lie in the sun on my stomach, hair across eyes and arms, there between the flares of light on the surface of the river, in the fleeting bewilderment in the eyes of the men.
I open my eyes wide, they are sticky and tear like a scabby wound, once, twice, and put my feet on the ground. There is a layer of oily sweat on my face and a spot of saliva on the mattress; my legs are hot and cramped.
In the kitchen I wash my face and armpits without taking of the bra. It is still hot when I step out the door; my mother sits on the bench in front of the house. I walk across the dusty square and climb up the talus to the road.
I’m standing in the dark on the street looking up to the dance hall, there are benches and tables on the patio in front with candles in little glass bowls and paper lanterns hanging from a clothesline, orange light is falling through the windows behind.
The boys are sitting beside the girls on the benches and holding their hands and some of them are thinking of you. A few of the men are there, they are sitting at the bar inside, smoking and drinking and talking, behind them people are dancing.
He is leaning against the wall beside the open door, he is talking to one of the boys from the factory and laughs, his hair falling over his eyes. He draws at his cigarette and lets his gaze wander across the patio and to the street, then he sees me and calls for me and I go to him.
They have rolled up the sleeves of their shirts up over the elbows, sweaty from dancing, they are a bit drunk and I can feel the warmth radiating from their bodies, they talk and laugh and I have a sense as if everything happens high above my head, as if I was a child looking up to their faces, like a child, invisible.
When he is dancing with me I see the new boy at the door to the toilets, a few of the girls are standing there and watching the dancers, flushed in their hand sewn party dresses.
He smiles at a point over their heads and wants to pass them by and further, outside. One of them slides across the clearance, it is crowded there and it is only a quick motion, and she puts her arms around his neck and kisses him on the mouth. Then she takes a step back, looks up at him through her eyelashes, smiles vaguely with lips shiny and moist with saliva, her hands still on his shoulders.
He says something and she smiles again a hazy smile towards the bathrooms behind him. Two of the men push past them and so they are separated and the new boy walks across the dance floor to the bar.
Afterwards he walks me home, it is a long way and he doesn’t talk much, he is exhausted and at the same time exhilarated by the night. In front of the door he kisses my face and my neck, his hands are heavy on my breasts and my back, I hold my breath.
I watch how he walks across the square and looks back one more time and waves
his hand, and when I turn around the new boy stands by the trees at the path to the river. He looks at me and then walks into the woods, swallowed by the shadows.
Before I go into my room I stand in front of the mirror beside the kitchen sink, I bow down, I expect to see my face, shimmering like a pale moon and with that mystifying drunken spell, with wide and darkly shadowed eyes, but between the strands of damp and ruffled hair is a hole. As if someone was holding a wig across a fist.
I think of you, the way you lie with eyes open, not conscious about being awake, and the way your body is ripped backwards when you realise. The way your mouth fills up with saliva and you choke on it when you’re trying to catch your breath, your convulsive swallowing in order not to cough , tears well in your eyes and looking through them you recognise his face.
The way his mouth hangs open and the saliva gathering in the corners of his mouth and his hot and stale breath.
That you won’t be able to move your arms without pain for days and the way it is even worse with your head tilted backwards and so you press your face against his throat and clammy cheek, the way you try to breathe flatly, your angry howl.
I feel your hot and poisonous tears inside me, furious, shameless, and feel a bitter pride.
I saw you, it was night and the stream a black ribbon, sparkling in the moonlight, he was standing by the bushes at the shore and looked at you standing on the boat, unmoving against a wild sky without stars, while incessantly the wind was sweeping through the leaves and grass. I felt the blood pulsing in his throat. It was as if his insides sank, were pulled down, easily and fluently and a pressure rose and the empty space was still filled with the memory of what had just been there.
He felt hollow and if fingers were examining the walls of this hollow space inside him, running through the vacuum, in search of something, slowly and confident at first, then becoming ever quicker and alarmed.
She is standing still; her hair and body are like dull silver in this light. Sweat trickles down his ribs down to the belt, he stands there for a long time before he walks up to the boat, up to her and puts his hands on her cold shoulders. He touches her arms with his fingertips, her shoulders with his tongue, her throat, he trembles like in spasm his mouth against her ear, his voice is like a breeze, like something echoing in a long and dark corridor, and the words have no meaning.
After his escape he stands in the shadows in front of the house, the sky is darker now, I watch him from my window, looking down.
When I step beside him he throws his body against me and lets himself crash down my body, his crying too is like a spasm, spreading into my body, without words, without sound.
Through a hole in the clouds I can see into the sky, somewhere behind them the moon tinges their frayed edges with light. The clouds are gathered around that piece of sky, pushing closer together, but it seems as if the picture doesn’t change but is pulled into the darkness behind it, as a whole, faster and faster. I feel light-headed and ethereal as if I was being pulled away as well, from the centre of my body, into the night.
I can see everything before me, the talus leading up to the road, the sand on the square, the house, the trees behind it, the storehouses and factory buildings, the wall of the shed and its shadow, the lattice windows with chipped paint coming away in flakes and the pale wood underneath it, the sooty glass, the view through the grime when you are standing in the shadow, pressed against the wall, the semidarkness behind it, the wooden floor with a layer of sand. Again the road and to the side the long and flat barracks, pale concrete and dark little windows, the yard, the grass growing through the cracks in the ground, the benches in front of the barracks and the women sitting on them, in the sun, waiting.
I can see everything and there is also the smell of sawdust and grime and damp wood, and the silence like the silence before a thunderstorm, especially the silence.
I can see everything before me because it is really there. I wouldn’t be able to say what is not really there. I can see you lying on the roof of the boat, the wet sand still in your hair and your skin, and the girl that is me is kneeling beside you and touches the blood coming out of your mouth. But of course that isn’t true.
The silence is lingering above everything, I say, the stream is rushing, the music is wafting from the dancehall, I listen to the voices of the men preparing to go home after their shift, but I don’t hear it.
The people are undefined, vague, their faces those of strangers, I can see his dark hair, but also the hair of the new boy is dark, and their faces are like facsimiles of a face, generic, as if to show what a face is to someone who has never seen one.
They have boy faces and your face is the face of a girl.
The women are waiting, like me.
Blue columbine, yellow is clover, primroses, foxglove, one day there was a man coming from her boat, and the other time two soldiers, I saw it with my own two eyes, cowslip, dandelion, I’m running through the meadows, anemones, marguerites, bleeding heart.
The men are sitting on the stacks of wood in front of the saw mill, they are on their lunch break, a few of the men from the factory have come over, my father as well, I’m bringing his food. Some of the girls are there for the same reason, dressed in their button-through dresses for every day, with small round collars and fitted pockets on the skirts. They bring soup in thermos flasks, they smile, some of the men smile back. Their faded work jackets are full of sawdust, their boots as well, some are wearing caps, their hands are black from grease and soil, they are smoking roll-ups and throw the butts into a rain barrel.
Afterwards I walk back to the village with the girls, it is hot and sweat trickles down my legs, my blouse is sticking to my back. Dust clings to my face and arms like a weight, the straps of my bag are sticky and rigid.
When we pass the shacks, so glaring and shadeless in the sun that I pinch my eyes close against the sight, the girls stop talking. The women sit in the heat on the benches, their heads leaning against the wall, some have taken off their shoes and pulled up their legs, some are curling their naked toes in the dried out yellow grass, they are smoking the filter tipped cigarettes from the soldiers.
Dust is covering their faces as well and their lips and skin will taste of salt, later, when the men stop on their way from work and go with them into the barracks that I imagine cool and dusky with bare walls and striped mattresses on narrow iron beds.
In the yard clothes lines are spanned between rusty metal poles, further down are the stone buildings that had been the munitions factory, with high windows, panes of frosted glass, and still further the barracks with the foreign soldiers, some of them smoking in the yard, they look the same as the men, they wave and the girls wave back.
I will go back through the woods, I will take off my shoes and walk across the cool and dry spruce needles, brown and crackling underneath the naked soles, through the patterns of light that are falling through the leaves onto the ground.
The bark is peeling off some of the trees and underneath beetle traces are visible like a runic scripture, a story to be captured with ones fingertips, they are repeated on the inside of the bark like a casting mould. I kneel down and run my hand over the clusters of long forest grass, which is soft and smooth, without sharp edges; round blades, shiny like straight, clean hair.
Behind the hill is a clearing, the dead wood. Faded tree trunks without bark or branches, like crosses on soldiers’ graves. Two of the trees are connected with a metal bar, high up where it can’t be reached, maybe it was put there to support them before they were dead, but I think of this as the place where the traitors where shot.
I am behind you, you are running down the hill, rocks and dead wood slicing my feet, the thorny bushes tear the skin on my arms and cheeks, my braid has come undone and strands of hair are sticking to my face, your hair seems darker and heavy from sweat, your skin is damp and red. You walk into the stream, at the top, where it is not deep and running luminously across shallow rocks, glowing in a yellow brown like fresh resin.
The seam of your dress is damp from spraying water, so cold that my feet go numb. You stumble and fall, again and again, stumble and the gravel tears the palms of your hands, at the wrist, and the shins, when you slide forward without stopping, on hands and knees. When you’re getting on your feet again there is blood on your dress that is now all wet at the front, it runs down your arms as if you had slashed your wrists, from behind I see the back of your knees.
Your face is contorted and wild, your mouth open as you catch your breath, gasping.
I try to wrench my face the same way, but it remains fixed, I can’t move it, it’s numb like my legs and I don’t feel my fingers pulling at my mouth.
The boy has fallen asleep with his head in your lap, your fingers are parting his hair, drawing lines across his scalp, the hair is like the fur of a small animal or the smooth filaments of withered dandelion when you close your hand carefully around it, not like human hair.
You’re staring at the ceiling of the boat cabin, sweat has dried on your skin and when his breath hits your naked legs the fine hair on your arms and your neck stand up. A fly makes its way across your foot and your calf but you’re not moving, you keep still until it is entirely dark in the cabin.
After he has left you take out the letter from the little box you keep underneath a loose floorboard, one of the soldiers has left it behind. There’s a photo in the envelope, a young woman standing in pasture up to her knees in front of high growing brushwood, she’s wearing a dark coloured skirt and a patterned blouse, it seems a sunless day.
The letter is written in a language you don’t understand.
You’re reading it out loud, the strange words ring mysterious and comforting, and you speak them like a prayer or a magic formula and let yourself be captivated by the unfamiliar sound of your own voice.
Whispering you repeat the last words, the last sentence, the evocation of bones and flesh, all bones, all flesh, their skin and teeth, their hair, the weight of their bodies against your body, their teeth against your teeth.
The traces of light and scars on his face, while he breaks, while he smiles.
I know it’s the women, I recognise their scent through the sound of sticks being pulled across the high grass and rhubarb leaves, with abrupt and cutting movements like a scythe, a whizzing noise, flat blows in between, they are like a swarm of insects.
All of a sudden the hands are in your face, in your hair, they are rubbing sand into your hair, into your eyes, stuffing sand into your mouth and grinding the skin inside your cheeks against your teeth until blood is drawn. Your dress hangs in rags around the bitten nipples, the sore, broken skin, blood from countless tiny wounds, and blood and mucus running from your nose.
He can’t turn away, his body keeps him tied to the spot and a sensation like vertigo builds up in his stomach, it rises and runs like a cool fluid into his arms and he reaches for the bushes beside him, his legs like glass.
He keeps his eyes half shut, but on his face the fear is visible as if fluttering beneath the skin, uncertainty of what might await him, the wish to somehow make it through no matter how and what it will be and the wish feels alien inside me. A struggle for control and concentration as if he was flooded by sounds and light shadow and light again, as if falling and everything happens so fast, he knows it won’t last, he can make it, he just has to stay calm. He breathes quickly and stares into space, for a moment he doesn’t know how to work the muscles in his face and which expression to put on, he is like a child, overwrought, it is so exhausting and then it is over and he is relieved.
Then he notices me standing behind him and he turns around. I’m grateful when he doesn’t touch me.
I’m in my parents’ bedroom, about to change the sheets, the used covers are already in a pile beside the door, I hold the fresh ones pressed against my chest. The mattresses have an odour of mustiness and acrid cream, above the bed on the wall hangs the crucified Jesus.
Downstairs in front of the office the men are waiting in line for their pay packets, I can hear them through the open window. My mouth feels strangely numb and I press it with my fingers, the still folded sheets fall apart and onto the floor, I can’t hold on to them, I make a few steps backwards, towards the open wardrobe behind me, I turn around and press my face into my mothers clothes.
The place is motionless, it’s dinner time or shortly after, I have put on a cardigan, the wool scratching my sunburnt shoulders. The road isn’t yet paved and I hear the sand underneath my feet, the soft crunching, the houses are narrow and with wooden fronts, with low doorways and windows, the winter doors are unhinged, tin coated flower buckets in front of some of the houses, around them painted stones. Then somewhere the screeching of a saw, hammer blows as if thrown back by the walls of an empty room. I have left the house behind me when he steps out the door and calls my name. Maybe I won’t stop, but probably I will.