It starts with Sui saying: – I’m leaving home.
A sentence that hangs in the air like every other sentence, but for me it changes everything.
– I’m moving in with Anton.
Sui looks happy, but a thin line takes shape between her eyebrows.
– Can you afford it? You know you can stay here for free. I say.
– I work at the café and I practically live with Anton already, you won’t notice any difference, she says.
– Isn’t it far too soon?
– Dad, you were eighteen too when you moved.
– But now people mostly live at home until they’re twenty or so, age groups blend more effortlessly today. I mean, we do lots of the same things, read the same books, watch the same films. We’re more like a little houseshare, right?
– I need to take responsibility for my life, she says.
Extracts from the beginning
Up until now, my reality has been illuminated by one big globe lamp hanging in its usual spot on the right-hand side of the world, casting light on everything from a fixed angle so the furniture and cactus, my only plant, have thrown their shadow exclusively to the left, but the instant the sentence leaves Sui’s lips another lamp switches on in the left-hand side, click, two sources of light hanging like two suns. Fully illuminated, things lose their depth. What is hiding in the shadows emerges. I feel sweat starting to trickle from my armpits, small drops of water seeping onto my upper lip, out of the pores, the sudden upheaval of the sea, and Sui slips through my fingers like a fish. I smile calmly, even though water fills my mouth like an ocean. I swallow, but my throat tightens, more water flows in. A human being consists of fifty to sixty percent water, if I open my mouth it will gush out in an uncontrollable cascade. If I don’t open my mouth, I’ll drown.
Now the ocean pulls back. – Come, I say.
I embrace her. Her body is crisp and vibrant. The skin still soft as a child’s. Now she wants to move in with Anton. I picture him: tall, lanky, fair dreadlocks. He wears dangly earrings, even though he grew up in a perfectly ordinary house in the provinces and is studying economics at university – I’m attacking the capitalist system from within, he says. Sui wants to be a writer, she jots down everything in notebooks and
knocks around from the one job to the other. In her hand-sewn tunics and odd-looking pantsuits, she resembles a nymph in bag-lady outfit, and the disguise would be credible were it not for her oval face, long dark-brown hair, and almond-shaped eyes that regard people with a mixture of surprise and compassion. Those eyes now turn away from me. I’m left with a horror of being abandoned, stripped, in an empty white room; I’d rather lose my way in my inner abyss of memories. A first- time experience can never be repeated.
The first time a child leaves you, and a hazy sunset warns of bad weather tomorrow.
When Sui lost her first tooth, it was almost too tiny to see.
The first time I fell in love, was with Lone in the same grade as me at school, her soft mouth, hair so buoyant and fine, she smelt of pine needles, and her laughter made me tingle all over.
The first time I tasted mustard, raw fish, rabbit, dog, horse, cow tongue, passionfruit, I spotted the seeds, they looked like fish eyes in mucus, and I felt queasy. You’re a fool, I said to myself – and swallowed.
The first time I walked on water, thin crystal-clear floes of ice covering the lake. My father stood waving to me from the shore while I slid over the ice in my clog boots, into an area of big glossy pools. I stumbled, and water soaked in everywhere. My mother rushed forwards, howling like a wounded animal, but then I got to
my feet, slid on and she yelled: You can walk on water! The wind ripped her words apart as it flew by.
The first flight, the clouds like wisps of cotton wool drifting along the belly of the plane, and I landed in a new world.
The first time I masturbated, by accident if anything. I rubbed against my willy, which rose up, and my breathing surged along with my pulse rate.
The first time I saw Sui, she was lying in a plastic crib looking like an alien who had crept out of the membrane in which she was created.
When Sui smiled to me the first time, a shiver of joy through my spine.
When she took her first step, more joy.
When I left her in the daycare center for the first time, and her scream thrust a spear into my chest. I tumbled through the doorway, both hands clutching steel as the blood drew a red trail along the sidewalk behind me.
When Miriam left us, not an action to be forgiven, rewritten and understood, it must stand like a precisely-hewn sculpture in a landscape. I want to remember everything exactly as it was.
When Sui kept crying and calling for Miriam, and I for the first time wished I was a woman, so I could hug her like a mother.
The first time Sui found her balance on a bike, a wheel of thrills. When Sui started school, and I blubbered with pride.
When she got her first menstruation, and for the second time I wished I had been born a woman.
And now: my daughter is leaving home, nothing will be as it was. If I could stop the clock and prevent her from leaving me, I would, but I would instantly regret doing so. I’d bite my fist or pummel a kitchen unit and sprain two fingers, and after a quick soul-search I’d have to start the clock again and let her go. Now I throw a pebble high into the sky, close my eyes and hope it doesn’t fall back down and hit her. The pebble speeds through the air, grazes a hand-painted sign announcing: ‘Let the show begin.’ A new life, perhaps bigger than the one she is leaving, awaits.
– Come back to bed. Do you really have to leave? Anton says. – I’m going to dinner at my father’s, I reply.
– But I need you, your father can wait. Just give me five minutes.
– Anton, no, I’m always late.
– We’re young, we’re meant to be late.
– And dump on other people’s feelings?
– Yes, that’s what we do. Not on purpose, of course.
– No, of course not.
– Seriously, what would happen if you’re half an hour late, does your father ever get cross?
– That’s not the point.
– He never does anything unpredictable. – He does too.
– Give me one example.
– He can walk on water.
– And I have magic hands.
– Stop, it tickles! Cut it out.
– Your breath smells.
– I’ve just brushed my teeth.
– You smell anyway.
– Come with me, the food’s free.
– I’ve got an essay to finish. Are you going to wear that thing? – Yes.
– It looks like a sack.
– It’s hard to revolutionize the world when you spend your time focused on other people’s clothing. Maybe that’s why you write essays about it, instead of actually doing anything.
– I take it back, Sui, you look cute in a sack. – Pantsuit.
– Okay, pantsuit.
Ten minutes later, when I’m down on the street looking up at the apartment window, Anton raises the roller shade and hastily presses one palm on the pane, then he’s gone, the steam from his hand leaves a print on the glass. I unlock my bike and notice it’s got a flat tire. I consider taking the bus, but decide to walk. I picture the street as a river, and I’m a fish glinting under the surface like a knife blade. As I cross the river, the current presses against my side and pushes me diagonally across the road. My father’s friend Jensen once told me about Cope’s rule: “When life of Earth began 3.6 billion years ago, all organisms were miniscule, it took 2.5 billion years to evolve an organism larger than one single cell.” The evolutionary trend towards developing larger body size is called ‘Cope’s rule’ after the
American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. – Marine animals are slowly getting bigger and bigger, says Jensen. She just knows things, always sharing the most important information with me.
I walk towards my father’s house, the door is open. The kitchen is empty.
– I’m in the shower. Will you get going with the meat sauce?
We usually take turns to cook when we’re both home. Or rather, we took it in turns to cook. I pick the leaves from the basil plant, take cans from the cupboard, meat and vegetables from the fridge, chop the onions, put them in the pan, then cut up the tomatoes with the Japanese knife and pour them in with the onions. The oil sizzles. My father walks into the living room, he stands at the center of our home looking like someone who belongs.
– Just got to leave it to simmer now, I say.
– Smells mouthwatering, he says, and hangs the wet towel on the radiator.
It’s always been important for my father that we appear as ordinary as possible. He hates to stand out. That’s why we’ve kept quiet about his ability to heal various minor illnesses with his hands, even though it’s saved us many trips to the hospital. – I can correct imbalances, remove tensions, but not illnesses that have taken up residence in the body, he explains. My father is an architect, so illnesses ‘take up residence’ in the body, as if the body is a house. He designed and helped with the building of our house, but even though we’ve lived here for most of my childhood, something makes it feel uninhabited. A Poul Henningsen pendant lamp hangs above the table, all our furniture is architect-designed. There are no family pictures, no unnecessary colors and patterns unless part of a calculated design. It’s the exact opposite of Anton’s mother’s home, where dried flowers drop bits all over the windowsills, and the rooms are decorated with knick-knacks, sculptures and souvenirs from all her trips. Her home resembles a thrift store, but every little thingamajig has its emotional association and story.
– What are you thinking about? my father says.
– Nothing, I reply.
Madonna growls in her sleep, curled up on the coir mat by the door in her shaggy, speckled coat. She opens one eye and peers up at me.
In all my years as a single father, I’ve maintained my self-image as a traveler. Even though I am no longer a backpacker, I still picture myself as a nomad. After high school, I went around the Middle East, South America and Africa by myself. I would have set out again after I graduated from the School of Architecture, but I became a father. Since Sui arrived, I’ve lived a steady life. I opened a studio with my friend Finn, which turned out to be a good move. Now we have a smallish architect firm designing and planning everything from extensions to large residential buildings. To assuage my urge to travel, I latched onto something Jensen once said, that the notion of a place is often far more interesting than the actual place. During the last eighteen years, I have created a home and nurtured my daughter’s growth. I am now a forty-four-year-old man with greying temples, living alone with my dog. I’m only at the halfway point, so what should I do with the rest of my life? Am I still nomadic by nature, or am I stuck in a stagnated notion of who I am? The thought that I’m now free to explore the surrounding world gives me a sinking feeling. Would I even dare travel out into the world on my own again?
– Can I help?
– I beg your pardon?
– You’re staring at me.
– Your silver dress … it has a magnetic effect. Do you always wear silver?
– Only when I’ve been at my own private view. I’m allergic to art collectors, luckily my gallery owner isn’t, so she stayed and I left.
– Are you Miriam Bang? – Yes.
– I read an interview with you in The Guardian last weekend. I’m Kai, by the way.
– You don’t look like an artist.
– No, but I’ve just qualified as an architect.
– Congratulations and a toast to you standing here looking so young and adorable.
– I’m twenty-five. I don’t see myself as ‘adorable’.
– Let’s go.
– Shouldn’t we have a beer first?
– I don’t drink beer. Is there anything I should know about you?
– I have a third eye.
– It really looks like an eye. Strange, an Asian man with the Hand of Fatima. Is it of any use?
– I see people’s thoughts, they materialize in images. – So what am I thinking about now?
– About me. I’m lying in a bed, naked.
– You’re a mind-reader!
– That’s what I’m saying.
– Your gaze is uncommonly intense, it goes straight into my bloodstream.
– Yes? – Yes.
The night is cold, the full moon dripping. The bed is a vessel, filled by the moon. Miriam’s breasts are taut under the purple lace, the chasm between them leaves a painful desire. Dark hair effervesces down across my face. Small beads of perspiration spring forth all over. Her green eyes, highlighted with thick black lines, enter straight into mine, she’s unreal and untamed, I’ve never met anyone like her. Intoxicated, I enter her, cause her body to ripen, with a single gentle thrust I make the energy inside her burst. The room is so humid that the windowpanes mist up. I open the window, snuggle up to her and entwine my fingers in her hair. I fall asleep with my cheek against her bare back.
When I wake up, she’s gone. She has left a dried-up salt lake on the white sheet, small flakes of silver torn from the dress twinkling on the surface of the lake. I feel torn apart, discarded and yet complete.
What if the person who can release me from loneliness exists? (…)
– You’re expecting, says the doctor.
– I can’t get pregnant, I reply.
– But you are nevertheless going to be parents.
– I haven’t got a partner.
– So the father is unknown?
– I know who he is, of course, but I hardly know him, and I have absolutely no desire to be a mother.
– You’re approaching the three-month time limit. After that you can only have an abortion in exceptional circumstances.
– I have no misgivings, I opt to get rid of it.
– I must give you time for reflection before we proceed. So think it over for a couple of days, and then get back to me.
– Sounds sensible, but it won’t change anything.
– At your last check-up, we did an ovarian reserve test and you hardly had any eggs left. So this embryo might well result from the fertilization of your very last egg.
I let myself into the studio, something unwanted is growing inside me, a living being with an independent drive. It makes me uneasy. My common sense tells me that I should have it terminated. But now that it has taken up residence in me, I feel an odd duty to bring it into the world.
About Miriam, a few extra pages from Origins
Dalarna Province, Sweden, 2000
Sui is only seven, yet a conversation with her is like talking to a mini adult. I’ve told her that I’m moving to the Swedish forest, to make a home there. I took her into the Danish woods, so she could feel the natural environment and get a sense of where my decision was taking me. Even though we sniff at one another like unacquainted creatures, it’s obvious we share genes. She has my furrow between her eyebrows. And my figure, tall and slim, but she has inherited her father’s smooth Asian hair and his penetrating gaze. She is strong-willed. Her unwillingness to spend time here in the forest with me bears out my belief that I am unsuited for motherhood, that I made the right decision.
I am utterly overwhelmed by the lake and the depths of the forest. I have finally arrived at a place big enough to embrace solitude, the place I have always sought. I picture the buildings as a physical imprint of the man who designed them, an
extension of the human body, his body. Alongside the house, there is an unusual barn with tall Gothic windows taken from a local church that had been demolished. There are also three smallish sheds for storing supplies and junk. Yesterday, a hedgehog and its little hoglet wandered across the glade in front of the house. I haven’t seen a hedgehog since I was a child. Perhaps it had wandered right through time, from the belly of childhood straight into my glade. The only blot on my happiness is the sitting tenant, an ancient and completely useless hermit, Mathilde. She is self-sufficient and lives on the edge of my forest. Her cabin is five kilometers from mine. She’s always lived here, has never paid rent, and is seemingly in possession of a contract stating she can stay until she dies. Fortunately, going by appearances, that day is drawing closer. I’ve only met her the once, she seemed friendly, but I won’t be seeing her unless I choose to.
Yesterday, I wrote to the gallery telling them they have a fortnight to sell the forty-two paintings in their keeping, and any that aren’t sold must immediately be returned to me for incineration. I’ve decided never to paint another picture. Exactly twenty-four hours have now passed, all the paintings
have been sold, and tens of millions of dollars will appear in my bank account sometime within the next week.
In the middle of the glade in front of the house, I have built a pyre from my brushes, palettes, canvasses, unfinished paintings, prints, photographs, and burnable sculptures. I douse it all in petrol and strike a match. The flames quickly take hold, the bonfire has a mouth blowing the fire upwards into the sky like a blazing arrowhead. I go indoors, sit down with a cup of tea and flick through an old newspaper. I look out of the window, the fire flares up unexpectedly, spits sparks, and calms down. The hedgehog trundles past, it looks funny, tiny little steps, and suddenly it rolls into a ball. A wasp, stuck in a spider’s web across the windowpane, tries to sting a butterfly, caught in the same web, to death, and at any moment the spider will dart out. Nature abounds with silent killings. I feel a profound sense of peace for the first time in years.
Once the fire has burned out, I gather the ash into a lidded urn. It becomes my first work created in the forest. I give it a title: ‘Savings’.
DALARNA, 2000 Miriam
For many weeks now, I’ve been circling the oldest tree in the world. Juvenile birds flit in and out between its branches, yellowhammers, chaffinches, bluetits. I’ve sensed a special force within this 10,000-year-old giant, and have tried to capture its energy by sketching it from various angles in different lights. Today, while sketching the tree as if seen from an airplane, I suddenly draw a circle round it, and at that moment I realize what I have to do: the circle is a wall enclosing the tree and its surrounding area. There’s no getting away from it: the wall has taken root in my mind. Now I must build it in reality.
I’ve paced out the area, measured up, and hammered small red posts into the ground where the wall will be erected. Paradise comes from the ancient Persian pairidaeza, with pairi meaning ‘around’ and daeza meaning ‘wall’. In ancient Greek, paradeisos is a garden, heaven, the upper regions of the heavens, an enclosure, a park in which to keep animals of conquered regions. Paradise is a place or a state of ultimate beauty, happiness or peace. It will be my final piece, my greatest work.
The wall will be built, it will outlive me. Plants will meander up the wall, small blue flowers opening like eyes, gleaming like pearls. Within the wall, the flourishing untouched natural paradise will only become accessible when the wall organically erodes, crumbles, disintegrates, and eventually falls. Which might take several hundred years. Until such time, no human being can set foot in my Eden. Perhaps another habitat will evolve over the years. A new country. A supercontinent, Rodinia. One day, I’ll die peacefully in my own paradise, degenerate as coherent body and enter into new syntheses with other people, animals, trees, soil, and insects. Skin is composed of cells, which are made of molecules and atoms, which were recently part of something else, and in some way an ant can be a reliving of a woman. If, after my death, my body is distributed among creeping things and the rest of the beasts, I shall be dispersed as small ingredients of the surrounding territory. Is that, in fact, what we call migration of the soul?
Korea, Marado, 2021
The days pass, they virtually fly along. When I’m not diving, I lie entangled with Nero on the rocks. We take turns reading aloud for one another, and we talk about everything from life in space to microscopic single-celled organisms. I draw lines between his freckles, curious geometries running across his body, in blue ink.
– I’m going to get us a cola, he says.
He has to climb all the way up the steep flight of steps to the little store.
I watch him go. His form changes from an outline to a dot. I turn towards the sea, and suddenly I sense just one single inner instinct: that of the sea.
Clouds cluster above the island. The wind rises. It rips at my hair. I undress, weight down my clothes with a stone. Climb onto the diving rock jutting out over the sea. The rock is hot and smooth under my feet. I stretch my arms above my head, bend my knees, and take off. The fingertips strike the water first. The skin contracts, every single pore is a living barnacle.
Extracts from the end of Origins
Entering the chilly water sends a mute shudder through my being. Eyes open, the water blurs my vision. My hair splays around my face like the snakes around Medusa’s head. The little gold seahorse Miriam once gave me is shimmering below my earlobe as it swims through the water. The oxygen is slowly running out, but I dive deeper, entering forests of seaweed when I spot it approaching. It’s unnaturally large. It swims straight at me. I fight against rising to the surface to draw breath, and make myself heavy instead. The water darkens, I turn, veer away, and just before it hits me I catch hold of the armor. It turns its face towards me, and smiles before diving deeper into the dense darkness that opens like a gullet below us. And now my neck distends its hidden gills. I absorb oxygen from the water. Gleaming green seaweed has settled in my hair. My breasts glide like soft jellyfish in salty water. I look down at my body, merely to confirm something I already know: what a moment ago was skin, is now silvery scale.