Holiday in Ødland: two people, one dog. The people are Vera and the narrator – whether the narrator is male or female remains, like so much in this short story, unclear. But unclear in the best possible way. The story is written with extreme precision, and yet at the same time everything is out of focus: goats, geese, chickens, a shepherd and his family, the landlord of a guesthouse – and overlying everything, a barren landscape. The prose is rugged nature writing, but not the kind that is charged with meaning. This is a story of losing touch with life and feeling your way back towards things and people, quietly, slowly, gropingly. It is an attempt to create order amid chaos through writing, told with the knowledge that such an undertaking is impossible – that every path leads only to new chaos. Everything is minutely recorded, sometimes scored out and rewritten, only to be scored out again. Over and over, new ways of writing are tried out and discarded. What happens at any given moment could in fact be quite different. A sharpening of perception. A permanent questioning of one’s own position. Writing as a form of self-affirmation, a kind of existential trick.
Translated by: Ruth Martin
I write: Vera’s coat has a button missing – the dog got it. She looks over my shoulder. One day he’ll get me, too, says Vera, you’ll see. I say: Don’t be silly.
The dog runs a long way ahead. We follow his trail in the damp gravel. It has rained overnight. The track is pitted from the goats’ hooves. There are no proper roads in Ødland. We go for walks between the houses as if there were something to see there. I write: There are never any lights on. I cross that out and write: When we walk past, there are no lights on in the houses. My lung feels scratchy. The air here is good for me, they said. I just have to leave the house once a day, and I’ll soon feel better – that’s how they put it. I noted it down.
I write: It is taking some time for us to get used to the stink. No one told us about the animals. Vera didn’t even want to bring the dog, but what else were we supposed to do with him? I brush him every day, holding my breath, so he will shed less. As well as the goats there are geese here, hens, and a few other dogs, which we never see – we just hear them barking in the distance sometimes. I hate the geese most of all: They aren’t fenced in and they run around making a terrible racket. Vera goes right up to them. And while Vera is talking to the geese, I check on the dog. He’s at the bend, waiting. For the first time he looks like an animal, large and gleaming, with very different eyes.
Back in the room I write everything down. The landscape, the air. It reminds me of how my father said that, as he got older, he stood for less and less nonsense. That’s exactly how he put it. It’s written here.
While I sort out my pills, Vera sorts out her clothes for the next few days.
I hike up the slope of the mountain. It’s hard going. The familiar flutter in my lungs. I write down: Here and there, poppies bloom at the wayside. Vera has noticed the poppies, too; she says: It’s like they’re pointing the way. But that’s not true. The poppies have nothing to do with us, everything grows indifferently to everything else here; things just coexist.
On the way back we find ourselves in the midst of a flock, the stream splits around us, and all we can do is wait until it has gone past. We stand very close together, Vera’s cool hand on my left. She strokes the bony bodies; their coats are very hard and smooth, she says. I make myself very thin. I greet the goatherd, he doesn’t return my greeting, just bleats that we should get out of the way. He lives just next door, we meet him on all our walks, but that’s how it is here. The children don’t say hello either, and they look so similar that we can never work out how many there are. The same white-blonde hair. Vera watches the children in the yard from the window in our room.
I write: The shutters tap against the windowsill. Outside our front door, the landlord is sorting out the wood. It’s not much, but it’s true. I call down from the window, can I give him a hand with anything – he doesn’t look up, he shakes his head. In the yard opposite, the goatherd’s son is standing at the fence. It’s one of the older boys. He’s leaning on a spade and looking over. I nod to him, the boy goes back into the house. We’re not from around here.
The nights are like falling into water. At night, the only sound in the whole of Ødland comes from my lung. I write that down. I cross it out. I write: Once we heard howling outside. It might have been human, but could just as easily have been an animal, or the wind in a pipe – or, or! I cross it all out. The dog slowly raises his head. His outline blurs in the darkness of the hallway, and only his eyes shine, bluish and dull. It makes me think of the inside of a shell. Vera says shouldn’t we see what’s going on out there. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to know. I just want to lie here, not speaking to anyone. Not thinking of anything.
This is the way things work here, Vera says the next morning: The men hit their wives, the wives hit the children, the children hit the dogs, and the dogs snap at the goats when the goatherd’s not looking. And no one looks, no one asks any questions. And the goats? I ask, but Vera has already disappeared into the bathroom and can’t hear me. I write: Well, the goats rip up the grass, roots and all, grazing the hillsides bare and trampling the flowers.
Where Ødland ends, the ‘wilderness’ begins. That’s what the sign says, and an arrow underneath it points towards the summit. On the plateau there is one last inn. We tie the dog’s lead to the sign, he wants to come with us, but I push his flanks to the ground and say: Stay. Inside, I sit so that he is in my eye-line. The landlord doesn’t get up when we come in. There’s nobody else to be seen. He’s leafing through a newspaper. I say hello, he doesn’t reply. I ask if there’s anything he recommends, he says he doesn’t recommend anything. I ask if that means there’s no soup of the day, he says there’s no soup of the day or any other soup.
Outside, the dog is standing with his back to the inn. He seems to be looking into the distance, as if he’s recognised someone there, his body tense all the way to his ears, his tail frozen mid-wag. When we go out to him, he barks hello, as if nothing happened, and probably nothing did happen.
I sit at the desk and try to write, but nothing makes sense and perhaps that’s just how it is. I push the wobbly table from one corner into the other. Either the table legs are different lengths or the floor is uneven. The tea tastes chalky and a little salty. I write down: Only write what is there. If nothing is there – don’t write. And then a great tiredness comes over me, as if I had done God knows what. Vera is standing behind me – I didn’t hear her coming. Her hands stroke my neck. The dog’s eyes under the bed. I lean forwards, but she says: Stay there, and pulls me back against the backrest of the chair. And I stay silent. Her fingers are warm. Vera is strict with me today. I don’t fight back, she tugs at my jumper, she orders me: Take that off. And I obey.
On the way home we meet the goatherd’s wife, carrying a plastic bucket of grain on each arm. She is alone. I write: Don’t allow a sense of impotence to incapacitate you. I ask if I can help. She barks at me not to be an idiot. She has a lovely voice. I write down: I am an idiot. Later, back in the room, Vera disappears into the bathroom for a long time. I wait, and then I go to the window, where you can sometimes get reception, and try to reach my father, twice, but he doesn’t pick up. Maybe he’s gone for a walk or into town or vanished off the face of the earth. I switch the phone off and hide it deep down in the holdall. I sit down at the desk, all the chair legs are in the way. I write it down, I cross everything out. Vera comes out of the bathroom and asks if everything is all right, but what is right about all this?
The dog’s nose butts wetly against my hand. I push him away, but he doesn’t give up. Vera is sleeping almost soundlessly, one foot touching the wall, the other buried under the bedclothes. My ribcage feels like a hollow shell, one lung like rotten wood. I don’t even know what I’m afraid of. I write: Already, the heart is no longer a heart. It must be tethered, like a boat, or it will float away. I cross it out, I write: Like a dog. Among other things: the fear of the telephone. The fear that it might ring at any moment. That I wouldn’t be able to do anything. That Vera would ask why I wasn’t answering it; that I wouldn’t know why I wasn’t answering it.
I get out of bed and the dog is there at once. I push his flanks back down onto the floor, he resists, I am rough with him. Lie down. He grumbles, he lies down. I write: Do not permit self-pity. And: More patience. The stairs creak at every step. The landlord occupies the lower floor all by himself, but he doesn’t wake up, at least I can’t hear anything.
Barefoot on the cool stone floor. In the house opposite someone is sitting on the veranda, I can’t tell who. For a moment I think of my father. Now and then the glow of a cigarette smoulders in the darkness. I cough, I say: Hello. But no one replies.
I open the door as noiselessly as I can, and a muted growl comes from the room. My dog doesn’t recognise me. I force myself through the narrow gap: It’s me, hey, it’s just me.
I lie in bed, on my front, my face turned to one side. When I write it down later, I write: Completely stupefied. I lie there and hear Vera creeping around. Vera thinks I’m asleep but I am listening to her. Listening as she goes into the bathroom and dresses quietly. The sound of the brush in her hair. She lounges on the window seat for a while, reading – the sound of pages turning. I stay lying there. I hear her stop creeping about, begin to make coffee, wash up. How much washing up must there be, to take so long? I burrow my forehead deep into the sheets.
Vera is sloppily dressed: her shirt is wrongly buttoned, her hair is scrunched back into a knot. She is sitting on the window seat, dangling her bare legs. I can’t stand it when she acts like a five-year-old. I deliberately don’t look. The dog is resting his heavy head on his front paws, his ears are alert. Vera lifts her legs onto the window seat, she says: He’s lying in wait. I say: He’s a dog, he’s just lying around, what do you think he should be doing?
I write: We hike up the mountain. Past the inn. The landlord watches us go by. Or alternatively: We walk up the mountain, past the inn. The landlord is standing at the window. Or: There is the mountain, the landlord, and us. Or maybe: There is the mountain, the landlord and the dog. And Vera. And me. In the room I cross everything out. I write down everything I see, but there’s still more there. And everything written there is written there forever. What is not written, vanishes. I write: There is the landscape, and the lies. The way things coexist, and the attempt to create order. In a world that I, at least, don’t understand.
It’s almost midday. I lie in bed and write: This feeling already present as I wake up. An undefined desire. A desire to tear myself away. Something that untethers the heart. I try to reach my father, but he doesn’t pick up. I think about how he once said only one thing was really important to him: He didn’t want his death to put anyone out. As far as he was concerned, the chickens could eat him without anyone finding out. That was exactly what he said. It’s written here.
Vera has gone to the shop, to get milk. She set off without a second thought. If the milk has run out, you buy more. As if it were nothing. I write: Everything is always in doubt for me, the simplest things. Breathing is a problem.
I hike up the slope of the mountain, the inn is already out of sight. The dog pulls and pulls, as if he knows where we’re going. My eyes follow the crooked lines of possible tracks, bald patches in the grass that might become a path. Everything must be written down quickly, before it vanishes. After a while, walking feels as though I’m not moving at all. As if the earth beneath my feet is slipping away and I cannot stop it. I write: Not knowing where you will end up, when you set off. Untethering the boat. I let the dog run and he runs. The air is very clear.
I write: Perhaps the neighbours’ children are not avoiding us unanimously, perhaps each of them is avoiding us independently, each for a different reason. Perhaps the goatherd snaps at the goats when the dogs aren’t looking. And the goats? They eat the grass. And the grass? It grows and grows, as if nothing had happened. Today and tomorrow and every other day, whether we’re looking or not.
*Copyright © Margarita Iov, 2015.
*The translation of this short story was partly funded by the Goethe Institut.
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