Red Letter Days
If every guest felt uniquely welcome – and all those who revealed any feeling could appear so- then it wasn’t because Søren Godiksen received them so exuberantly. He hardly looked at anyone; just let them take hold of his loose paw, which he held rather distantly in front of himself. And their heartfelt hugs and grateful laughter didn’t set even the smallest of his facial muscles in motion.
He looked as he always did. Yes, even as he did when he went to take care of the pigs, with that same distant hint of a smile on his half-open mouth. But that was enough for everyone. Nor could any find occasion to dampen their well-wishing when, with the usual pursing of his lips, he brought forth a few whistling sounds. They were still more than satisfied, many were soulfully happy and that applied equally to the town’s folk and to those from the family – in that moment, when he simply let them grab a few of his thumb thick fingers; none of them had any desire to disturb that blue, skyward gaze with their arrival.
For Søren Godiksen had something special about him, something good, some would say. For many years, they would continue to repeat that goodness radiated from him. Others maybe wouldn’t care for such a lofty word, and it was hard to say where it lay exactly, this light, or where it actually came from. It spread only very palely, you see, from his large, cold-blooded mug; from under his high, thin-haired crown; truly from all directions of his heavy body. It could be felt, in any case, whether or not the farm’s old patriarch stood unmoved; it was nice to approach him, and it was also a comfort to come here as his guest. It was already a rare occasion to stand here and reflect on the coming hours of the evening, to think that they could soon take a seat at his table; for with him nothing serious would go wrong.
He had gone outside. It had been yet another warm and dry spring day, and he stood at the foot of the stairs to the lodge while Stinne remained in the hall. She would do the greeting and welcoming, and in a way so boisterous and so cheerful at that, that he knew it would be sufficient for both of them.
Out here he heard a still careful murmuring around him. People would rather join their voices to the ordinary chitchat about the lovely weather and the mild evening. Gradually, as more and more guests drew near, single voices began to stand out with a queer breaking sound, since none had lungs large enough to be heard above the crowd, and Søren heard again and again the same question: What was it he said, the boy, yes, what was it actually that Peter had answered the priest earlier that afternoon in the church? And he heard the guffaws here and there, in front and in back, and many turned or edged out to the side to ask again, and again to laugh together with the others. Before long the answer hardly needed to fall before a cackle could shake another grain of embarrassment from their chests.
It was as though they needed to get to know each other again. Because they had come here in city clothes. That had force enough to make them all strangers, however comical it sounds, and even strangers to themselves. So it had become unbelievably hard just to say what they usually said; it was an exertion. And even if they looked toward their best friend, and maybe even if they stood here with a neighbor, someone with whom they’d discussed anything and everything just a few hours earlier, a birdhouse or the cost of saltpeter, it was no longer possible to strike up a conversation.
It was entirely impossible, but they felt they had to try anyhow: to say nothing at all felt dumber still. To stand here like a beast and gape out in the empty air was to be cowed too much by too little. They had to come up with something: it could be something from the paper, something about politics, about the prime minister’s speech in Rigsdagen maybe, or a discovery made somewhere else in the world. Anything at all would be in order, and a discussion could be made of anything, if only they weren’t standing here waiting in their collared shirts and leather shoes. There wasn’t a man or his neighbor who could think of a reasonable response to prolong a conversation: they were empty. They were nothing more than a clump of luke-warm meat underneath their stiff clothing, and those clothes smelled like someone else, someone they had never met.
No summoning of energy could change a thing. Not until later, when it happened of its own accord, when everything was in full swing. When the party had taken proper hold of one and all, then they could be so lucky as to experience something of what they felt was usual, whether or not it was the same. But that wasn’t the point. They would be something a little more than their usual, all of them would. The atmosphere would make them bigger, and it would truly be interesting to hear each other say what they usually said. And should a joke come to someone’s mind, the others would immediately laugh, as though they’d never heard it before.
But out here – while there are still apparently a few who have not arrived, and while they just continue to stand like terrified calves in a cattle show – here it isn’t long before they really curse all special occasions in the world and promise to give them up for good for the rest of their days.
Deep down, however glad they are to feast on such devilishly good food, there is a sudden, unfathomable allure to just scarfing down some potatoes and white sauce at home in their old clothing.
Because it was Søren Godiksen holding the party, that option didn’t readily present itself. Particularly when it was he and Stinne, the town’s folk didn’t get away with being stand-offish. There were also many who had come from elsewhere, whose identities remained unclear, or who had descended only once or twice upon Bisgaard.
Some of them had come the evening before, these were his mother’s people from Thy and Han Herred, a select few from Mors; however distant, Ane had always wanted to keep up ties with them. And Søren had fetched his own Stinne way up in Vendsyssel, and she should surely also make arrangements for several years to come that there were plenty of invitations for out-of-towners. Most of those from Vendsyssel were able to leave home early that same morning and be sure to arrive by late afternoon. In time to have their horses set out on the field where those from up west had had theirs grazing all day. Twelve or thirteen teams were led out there now, for some had of course come together in governess carts, and those with landaus or wagonettes had collected guests in several places along the way.
Now just before evening, there was rumored to be a single team arrived by car here in Staun. It should sit out in the courtyard, and it was an American, or so it was said, for no one could get close enough to Bisgaard to have a look at it. But the motorists would surely stay overnight; there would be a chance to study their vehicle before they started it again tomorrow morning.
Ane had better get herself inside now, they whispered between themselves. It had grown too cold anyways for such an old dame to stand out here. She should be inside where it’s warm, everybody could tell that that would be best, but many were also smart enough to see that she didn’t want to go.
She did not want to be away from her family. And as long as they remained out here, so would she. She had glued herself to them since morning and followed them everywhere; her legs had not held out half so long in recent memory. Nor was there the slightest trace of fatigue, and here it was, almost evening. Ane had continued in full force, and she greeted all those who had come from Thy, took them by the arm, patted their cheeks and laughed. As if there was finally something to life again, now that they were here, even if she had lived in Staun for more than 60 years and had been satisfied as far as anyone could tell. And of course she’d always been glad when she saw them, one time a year as a rule, all her siblings from up there, and her brothers and sisters-in-law, cousins, and gradually, almost only now, her immediate siblings’ children. But it had been a touch worse since old Peter Godiksen’s passing.
As if she had only those from her youth left in the world now. As if her own and nearest weren’t always around her, and cold or no, she would clear enough die tomorrow before she’d go a second of the day without her people. She had already resorted to her own dialect during the course of the morning. Or the folk from Thy had called to it, deep inside of her, and it had quickly dragged itself up and spoiled all that she had learned in her life of the Himmerland dialect. And she delighted in it. It was easy to see. She gave way to errors and said things like “build uh house” and “up in that there tree.” And here she stood now and heard of yet another death, and she said “no, but whend’it happen” and there lay such a weight of grief and longing in the question, that it lifted right up into a singing jubilation of the word “whend’it.” The right, the lovely word, and they could only tease her for it, them with their drawling “when did it.”
No, the town’s own were cast aside today. They could stand there and scowl and wring their clammy fingers all they liked. Couldn’t they just have done with this endless obligation to creep forward and try to make conversation with one of those strangers? It could easily feel as though there was some possibility there that one ought on principle try out. But there wasn’t an opening at just any moment with these strangers. They looked as though they were content with themselves, and should you finally catch one of them, it was one whose name ought to be remembered after all. And what if you managed to mistake him in greeting as another person entirely, one who was long since deceased, and didn’t even belong to the same branch of the family?
They risked being simultaneously ill-mannered or condescending. And besides, was there really anything to ask about? If they’d had good weather during the trip up – there was certainly no place where even a drop of rain had fallen in fourteen days.
A last escape for the people of Staun – so they could simply breathe freely in their own town – was to draw back even further from the circle – to allow oneself to be pushed back and expelled to the outer regions, one might say – and so at least be able to talk about these people if not with them.
Yes, you could stand out on the road or over in the corner by the west gable, and a few of the wives were the first, at length so removed, to find their speech again. More followed after them, as though accidentally, and it was all at once as if some secret agreement had been made. There arose a compact between the townsfolk, which in itself could put every one of them in an entirely silly mood, and soon there was gossip and speculation to their hearts’ content.
It was on the subject of the family resemblances, for the most part. A few things could be said about most of them, first from Ane’s family, and then from Stinne’s. For their features were now easier to observe there inside the circle, in varying editions and varieties, and Søren Godiksen himself, it could suddenly be seen, had inherited not a little of the Thy folk’s strange, long ears. Not to mention their somewhat odd way of standing and looking as though they amused themselves inwardly and without stopping over something or other. Of course none of it was meant to be mean, but Søren and Stinne’s children had received a little bit of the mark of what they came from. And Emma had decidedly gotten her dimples and her unruly hair from none other than that woman, the somewhat stout one in the blue floral print. And Mary, if she had been lucky enough to get two solid feet on the ground, could in any case certainly thank that one over there with the little twinkle in the one eye. Also surely for her curious gaze. That was all you could hear now, and the confirmation boy himself would hardly be able to fool anyone into thinking that his unruliness, as they said, didn’t lie deep in that boy’s blood. For wasn’t there something almost wild in the eyes of many of those from Vendsyssel?
Although they were of course good-natured enough. The lot of ‘em. And little Dagmar, while we’re at it, she was just a kid, but one could only hope that she would start to take after some of the more dignified members of the family. And it wasn’t just that they all looked really fine, truly on both sides of the family. They were nothing but decent-looking people. Fine and proper in every way.
But now it looked as though they were making for the door. And hadn’t they better come a little closer? For Søren Godiksen was no longer to be seen. He’d made it clear that they should all follow him inside.
He would have liked to have had Stinne’s opinion whether they shouldn’t start thinking about making their way to the table. She was still too busy greeting people. He edged through the door to the hall. Had to be satisfied with standing a few paces behind her.
She offered a hearty welcome. And she thanked everyone so many times for coming, and for the gifts, again and again, and for the well-wishing, and above all and also on Peter’s behalf, and here and there she was able to ask about their health or the children and the older ones. No one could pass her in a new dress or with a different broach without having it praised in the highest of tones; they all received praise, to be sure, they were all so terribly nice, and now and then she’d also let one of the men know that he wasn’t so bad looking himself.
She was so different from him was in every way. She let out a healthy giggle as though she were still 18. She’d fix her brilliant bird eyes right into anyone who came along and smile. She exuberantly prodded at every unforeseen event with her foolery and her sincerity. All that liveliness, also in her movements, that strange quickness over her entire being, it wasn’t just the years he had on her. They had always been as worlds apart as two people can be. And yet they still saw each as an extension of the other. Many others had also noticed it, their way of talking to each other, almost as though they were addressing something inanimate. They were both so perfectly sure of what the answer might be. But it must be about time by now.
He reached forward to grab her elbow. She had already done a quarter turn in the wrong direction. He had to try again and managed to lay his paw on her shoulder.
Stinne, he said, shouldn’t we be getting to it?
Of course, of course, but where’s Peter? Just as she had turned again and was about to call for him, she broke out in a smile. We certainly can’t start eating without Peter!
Søren Godiksen looked across the hall. Maybe Dagmar can help find the boy, he muttered down to Stinne. But she was already gone again. He looked about, as there’d been no response. Instead he heard her merry-making over on the other side of the stove. She was already on her way out of the little hall and would certainly make sure someone looked for him. He needn’t give it another thought.
Stinne had gotten hold of Axel, out there in the side parlor. He stood there in a flock of servers and hostesses. She gave him instructions, and they couldn’t be clear enough. Peter should get himself to the main table, people were about to go hungry, and her cook was almost certainly ready. Stinne turned toward the kitchen, was greeted with a smile as she nudged Axel to get on with it.
The kitchen-wife came to the door to say that they were only waiting to ladle the soup into the terrines. She was young, Else Andersen, it was the first time they’d used her. But she’d come from a place as kitchen girl at an agricultural school, and it was thanks to her that they would have soup for the first course. That was modern, certainly, and Stinne wanted it to be, but not just because of that. It was much better to begin with soup than with the usual cold platters and all that brandy, which meant people were daft right from the start. No, they’d get a warm starter, with a beer or soda.
It smells absolutely wonderful, she said to Else Andersen. And she’d return to the large hall and have the guests seated as soon as she had praised all the youngsters who had helped, especially the girls of course. She made it known to each of them that they were unfathomably nice or fine in appearance, even her own Mary. Even if they both sought to immediately wash away the self-flattery that could be implied by it with a laugh. But Mary was embraced and lovingly fondled by the others when her mother left them. As though they should make it clear outright that the laugh hadn’t at all been necessary and that Mary truly had earned all of the thoughtful praise, far more than the rest of them had.
In her 15th year, she was the youngest, and she’d begged for permission to participate in the service and be excused from sitting at the table. For she was still all too girlish in her behavior, her mother was the first to let her know. And unfortunately, she still tended to drop what she stood holding in her hands out of thoughtlessness. And her eternal giggles over anything and everything could quickly make the guests uncomfortable, thinking they were the object of her mockery.
But when it was finally decided that Emma would not come home from her housekeeping school in South Jutland after all – here on the occasion of her own brother Peter’s confirmation – her mother gave in, so that she should still have one of her own to help serve, and so they could make do with two girls from Bisgaard.
Apart from Mary, there is Frida. Their servant girl. She was meant to be a sort of lead for the troops, and as most could see, she was well fit for it. Though she was at the same time the one they had eyed as the most suited sacrifice to their needs to feel superior to someone. A large portion of them were fairly certain Frida deserved to be constantly ridiculed. And it might be because of her bony figure, or it might be the awkward arm movements she had taken on, possibly to draw attention away from her body.
She’d sure enough still be able to keep them in order, that Frida. Unremittingly see to it that they got the job done, and that everything was carried out in the most dignified fashion. She was herself quite capable; she got the message, had already been under Stinne’s discipline for many years. She could have long since been in charge of her own household, even the largest, if anyone would have her. Now she had to content herself with being the confidante, and as soon as her mistress was out of sight, she had removed herself a few steps from the flock, so as to inspect them again. Her broad, sweaty face trembled with an awareness that left no doubt that any kind of sloppy work or slovenliness would certainly be noticed and condemned with all her heart.
There was also Helena, the servant girl from Kristiansminde, who so often wondered over so much. One could scarce get two words in, about squished toes, a sick cow, a nice little reminder of one’s own confirmation, or about one’s nightly sleep, toothache, a cousin’s boyfriend, anything at all really, without hearing her chime in: That’s awfully strange, or, Why do you think that is?
And she would stare dead serious up at the ceiling and stroke her jaw with her fingertips. And you would have said she belonged in a teaching college if not for the fact that most of what came from her mouth sounded too pathetic.
And there were Emma’s friends, Else-Marie and Inge-Merete, sisters, who were considered the town beauties by everyone except themselves. A pearl-white skin only just covered their glowing red flesh. Some might think that their dresses had grown to tight for them, but that made them none the poorer in the eyes of many others. Even back then, their already quite healthy buttocks held the utmost admirable shape.
When Else-Marie and Inge-Merete were little, the talk had gone ‘round how uncommonly skilled they were in school. And they had naturally kept the excess of intelligence in their mild gaze, but gradually emphasized more of the physical. That the grown girls were put together with explosive gas balloons. And the thought was not far from the minds of many a young gent that they might need some help, and that casual touching, even by the greediest of hands might cool them down. But one could easily imagine the opposite; that just a simple kiss could set them off, so that in the space of two seconds they were lost in blue and yellow flames.
Finally, from the eastern end of town, a few very reasonable girls who had shown their giddy sides only during the earlier part of the day. And among the servers there was, apart from Axel, their second-boy from Kristiansminde. His name was Ivar and was at the moment Mary’s preferred playmate. As soon as he was within arm’s reach, she’d have jabbed her shoulder into him, given him a stiff blow to the gut, or pulled his shirt-tails out of his pants. And it never got old, because every time a happy little smile cracked his massive face and, nearly a miracle, disturbed his otherwise oxen expression.
Their own head servant at Bisgaard should have a certain amount of overreaching authority, as did Frida. Yes, if anyone was responsible for making sure a sufficient supply of drink was on the tables at any give moment, it was surely Hans Peder Selvbinder, and it had already made him much more nervous, before things were even under way, than he would ever admit afterwards. But his hair got in his eyes more than was usual for him, and every other second he muttered meaningless curses under his breath.
What the hell, or, Oh for Christ’s sake. As if he might give the impression by doing so that he wasn’t in the least bit exalted. And there was also their second-in-charge, Orla, and he paid no mind to Hans Peder’s head-shaking or to what others chose to be amused by.
Orla kept his thoughts in his right pocket. For there a letter from Emma sat, addressed to Ivar at Kristiansminde, since she certainly didn’t think her parents need know that she corresponded with Orla now and then. He had received her letter from Ivar just this evening, and he’d only managed to read it a couple of times. For that reason, he had to keep putting his hand in his pocket to feel it. And he could tell that the envelope was about to become wrinkled, and, in the middle of his unobserved joy, he also knew that it was becoming greasy. And he was ashamed of his eternal fumbling, but he couldn’t help it.
It’s only a question of minutes now. They should get to it. It’s getting to be serious. There would be some hours they’d just have to pant along, between the kitchen and the tables, and they’d already finished with their greetings. More and more of them are gathering by the door of the main hall.
From there they can observe how the chairs and benches will be occupied. There’s a table perpendicular to the others, that’s the main table, and some of the guests are making their way up to it, and in toward the middle. Others, to the contrary, toward the most outlying of the four tables, and out into the corners. Some are apparently scouting out fitting company, others just throw themselves down where no one else happens to be sitting. And there are still others who have grown quiet in contemplation – dare they sit here, do they care to sit there – and there are still others with wide smiles who brag about the seats they’ve taken.
They want to have a good time, or they want to be left in peace. They want to hide, or they want to be seen. Maybe they want to have it out with so-and-so about something or other: take advantage of the celebratory atmosphere to add another insult to old injuries; rekindle a flame; solidify support or call in a debt of gratitude; in an offhand way, get something off their chest.
And the young ones stand just so, somewhat silent by the entrance to the side parlor, and they can see it all clearly. How all of these guests take on airs and brood, how they lean from side to side and suddenly burst forth, and it’s all so overwhelming in all the hoi polloi. All of the heads and hearts and other organs drawn together here, and everyone hemming and hawing, so wound up from being a part of it all yet still maintaining an unmistakable identity. Even if they spent the whole afternoon setting the table for all one hundred and sixty eight guests, there isn’t really a place to budge now. It isn’t the fatal number of place settings that fills the hall, but all these people with their flesh and their noise and their stench, and with a thousand things on their minds.
What a party, Else-Marie mumbles now.
You’d think it was someone’s 25th anniversary, Inge-Merete answers. What with all the pomp.
It certainly didn’t look like this at my confirmation, Mary laughs. Not at Emma’s either, for that matter! And little Mary lets her strange, deep, yet still somehow girlish laughter roll forth. And longer than necessary, since she knows full well that none of them suspect the least bit of jealousy. Surely she knows what they all know, that it is obviously something entirely different when it’s Peder at the center – and where is the rascal, for that matter?
Of course many wouldn’t be surprised in the least if he should prove completely impossible to find! And manage to miss his own confirmation party entirely.
But after all, it was something of an entirely different nature when it came to him. A different type of party all together. And none of the guests would doubt it. They would all understand perfectly that this confirmation meant so much more than that. For they have gathered for the future proprietor of Bisgaard. That’s why they’re here, the whole family and half the town. So that everyone can rest assured that ultimately it would be one way and not any other.
It only follows that it should be tremendous, Peder’s confirmation. That it might contain the thought of such a meaningful future. But also maybe so the boy himself can start to perceive little by little that he will soon have more on his mind than just his own small person.
Yes, the young servants sense it now, deep within. All that more than usual nervousness, just before it all erupts with bottles and terrines. And yes, they also sense the greatness in it all, and most of them end up letting themselves go in the moment. There are a few of them who must gently rub the corners of their eyes.
For a single moment, all reason succumbs to sweet, self-sacrificing confusion. Otherwise they’d naturally want all sides of the issue. The confirmation boy’s future is also their own surely. They might end up living with him for the rest of their days, and there’d be no way around him in town. He would always have a say in everything, and it could prove difficult and embarrassing to oppose him. Each would have to work out how he should approach Peder before long. How they should evaluate his abilities, his mindset. How they might best, or maybe just somewhat peaceably, gain leverage.
Just as their parents long since learned to get the best from Søren Godiksen, and from Ejnar Lundbaek for that matter. From both of those two, who have just sat down next to each other, over by the chin-up bars. An otherwise fine sight. Any other day it would elicit a contemptible laugh and a thrusting of hands into pockets, the sight of those two, who never had any doubt that they would be so much more than everyone else. Never could’ve imagined themselves as anything but leaders, not in the congregation, not in the dairy, not anywhere.
The two heartily self-content tyrants. Many would’ve turned away from them cursing and swearing, the way they stood there, with their blank, pious mugs. But certain moments can pass over them too. At least for the youth, over there in the doorway to the waiting room. Even the sight of Søren and Ejnar in all their glory can momentarily be perceived through their softened lens toward the given order.
As though it truly were decided by some higher power. That’s almost how they feel, in these seconds. As if it is precisely as it should be, the way they’ve set themselves up over there, those two. And it really does make the party rather grand all at once. One might even feel a little important – with all of one’s own simple-minded cadaver – just to be part of it all.
But that’s enough now. There were already too many of them with all the vagueness and gurgling in their gut. It is refreshing to be able to turn toward Axel as he finally arrives with an unusually sullen and crestfallen Peder in tow. You could laugh away every ounce of humility on the spot.
Where the hell ya been boy? Both Hans Peder and Ivar called out.
And what in God’s name ya done to yourself? You look like ya’d eaten rat poison!
He’s only smoked a bit of tobacco!
Axel begged them not to laugh too much with a kind of sympathetic grimace.
Well now you’ve learned your lesson, haven’t ya Peder?
And Peder nodded obediently. After all, they had just come from Vendsyssel with this pipe for him. And fifty grams of tobacco. Just a few hours ago.
I’m sure he’s smoked the lot already, Axel continued. Haven’t you Peder? You’ve smoked the whole fifty grams! In any case he hasn’t got any skin left on his cheeks!
Peder turned and wanted to get away from them. Though maybe couldn’t spot some place he’d rather be. And Mary came forward and grabbed his hand in pity. And he stared at her as though she were trying to kill him with her two hands.
He can’t speak, Axel told her. I’m sure he would prefer it if we just left him alone, wouldn’t you Peder? Cause he can’t talk anyway, that’s for sure, it must hurt like hell!
Good thing you answered the priest while you could still use that mouth of yours! That was Hans Peder, and poor form or not, they had to have another laugh.
Now what was it you said to the priest, Helene asked, and she was the only one who had remained serious, as she cast a long eye up at the ceiling of the lodge. And it was typical of her to ask like that, and not even know the answer maybe, and no one would’ve been able to bear it if it weren’t so much fun to tell the story one more time. She was immediately surrounded by eager volunteers. She wasn’t at all used to the attention, and for that reason might’ve been able to listen for once.
Peder collapsed into Mary’s arms as they retold it. He closed his eyes and buried his face in her breast. As they told and retold it, right behind him.
They recounted most of the priest’s examination to get a good story out of it. And besides, he was such a nice man, the priest was, nearly everyone agreed, but you know, most of the others up for confirmation had come though it all right. But when Peder proved a little less than certain about the Ten Commandments, the priest had asked Peder – you know, because he was so nice – he asked Peder if there weren’t just a few of them that stuck out in his mind. And Peder couldn’t really remember any one in particular just then, so the priest said that it wasn’t really necessary to know everything. Not everything that isn’t allowed anyhow. Yeah, the priest had said something along those lines. And if you just knew what you should do, that would certainly do just fine.
And what does God want us to do? he’d asked Peder finally. When you get right down to it, what is the only thing God demands of us?
And after a while Peder knew what he should say! And the answer finally came:
We should take care of the cattle!
We should take care of the cattle! Not even the reasonable girls from the east end of town could resist taking those laughable words in their own mouths and spitting them out again.
We should take care of the cattle! And Peder understood then that even he could feel the need to kill.
To shoot them or swing an axe, but mow them all down. Or at least slip away from them and run – run and run all he could, sail far out into the ocean. Or maybe get a car.
But get away. Travel as far as possible out into the world. Find a distant and deserted spot all to himself.
His mother helped him through the worst of it. Stinne had come back, and the big sissies held in their snorts and mooing. Peder willingly let himself be taken under mother’s arm.
Come with me, Stinne said. People will soon be at it again if they don’t get food on the table. Now get to your seat.
He can’t get anything down as it is, Mary said. He’s gone and smoked himself sick!
Well then he’s also suffered enough for it, Stinne replied, though maybe she hadn’t entirely heard what was said as she pulled him away.
In any case, he should be at the main table. Come on Peder!
They passed Rigmor Lundbaek. They were about to sit down, those from Kristiansminde. And Ellen was already seated of course. Ejnar was on his way over from the other side of the hall, and Stinne quickly told him what had happened with Peder. That he’s sure enough already had fire in his pipe, yeah maybe even smoked the whole pipe’s worth of tobacco. But let that be a lesson to him the next time.
You little idiot, Rigmor said. And she reached over to him and tussled his hair. And she smiled, but she wasn’t far from shaking him.
Peder looked at Ellen. The only one worth looking at here. The only one who could look at him now just as she always had. Not the tiniest glimmer in her eye that he was suddenly a stupid pup or anything. Nor that he’d done anything strange with his pipe.
Just as though he were the regular Peder. The one who never needed to think about himself. Never when she was the one looking at him.
She’d sat there for a while now. Was seated right away, before anyone else, what with her lame leg, and so she had sat, amusing herself in her perhaps not particularly visible way. Yes, with the slightly bowed corners of her mouth and with her clear, happy eyes. Had sat there and amused herself with whomever or whatever unfolded before her.
And it might’ve been Thomas Poulsen, who never for a second, let alone a day, could forget how good looking he was. And he stood there, just as stiff as could be, right in the middle of it all, and he puffed his breast out and laid his gallant arm on Hortense, and he smiled ever so charmingly in all directions as though he’d just walked onto a stage.
Or it could’ve been Peder’s aunt Dagny, Stinne’s sister, who always became so involved in what others were telling her that her own large mouth moved in time with theirs, and her face twisted from moment to moment in agony or delight over everything she heard. But as a rule, way more than the speaker could feel was justified. And there was something touching about it too, it wasn’t just laughable to watch.
Or Ellen’s gaze could’ve fallen on Theodora Mathiesen, who just couldn’t seem to believe that she was good enough to be here. She who lived a miserable life, a childless widow; she who had never seen anything through, a faded ghost that no one ever had any reason to talk to. Yes, she was so clearly occupied with her own inadequacy, and her dark eyes were in uninterrupted flight over the floorboards, and she hunched her shoulders so as not to take up space, and she hobbled from one side to the other. All according to her running account of everyone else’s trajectory, and where she’d least likely be in the way.
But maybe Ellen would’ve sooner found something more entertaining to watch, and it could’ve been Frederik Halkjaer who was still too cheap to change his burnt-down pipe. The pipe in question was now not much more than a stick with a sooty hole in the end, and there couldn’t be more than two pinches of tobacco in it at a time. Frederik stuffed it and lit it continuously, and he knocked it out against the heel of his shoe, and stuffed it and lit it again. However smart and capable he could otherwise be, that Frederik, he had become a clown-act with his measly nose-warmer, which constantly threatened to set fire to anyone who came near.
And she could’ve doubtless continued much longer, directing her discreetly bemused attention toward each and every person in the hall. And maybe it would be a righteous crime to mention even more of those present, as they might fall under the mildly comical light that already radiated so dazzling and grand from Ellen Lundbaek’s face.
But she was interrupted.
Ellen was interrupted, or her line of sight was suddenly controlled by someone else’s head. A few of those closest to the middle, and soon a good deal more, had begun to stare at a couple who sat there. And in a wild haste the movement caught on, all the way down along one table and up along the next, and the circle of guests who had their eyes glued to those people, and who were mute as fish, encompassed all four walls within seconds.
She could only stare with the rest. She could only lose herself in the common mob.
It concerned Tove and Volmer Viderup. From up at the Mill, as their lone homestead was called, though there had never been any mill up there, so far back as anyone could remember, maybe not even before then, it lay so out of the way. But now they were seated in just about the middle of it all, Volmer and Tove that is, and that was one of the reasons that it couldn’t be missed the same moment they’d really gotten started – and it was hardly appropriate – to bite at each other so viciously.
Another thing that made it practically impossible to pretend as though nothing had happened, or just to turn the other shoulder and let them be, was that Tove and Volmer – up until now – had passed as the nicest two people you ever did meet. They both looked just fine. They embraced everyone that passed their way with open arms, cordially invited them in to their muggy cottage, succeeded respectably with their children. Anything else would’ve been impossible to imagine – until just now that is – and there were maybe those who, on top of everything, once or twice cursed their own existence at the thought of Volmer and Tove, cause damn it, that was they were supposed to have had it too.
For that reason it just wasn’t possible to look away from the cruel mugs they were able to show each other in a split second. The guests really wanted to hear what it was coming from their mouths too. And the stillness spread like dead air around them; they didn’t notice it themselves before their whispering voices had disappeared into the farthest corners.
You big ass. No matter how much you invent or parade yourself you never think for a moment that before too damn long people will realize what a prick you are, and how full of shit, and you’ve never been dependable and how you cheat and deceive whoever’ll listen to you.
That was Tove.
And now Volmer: I don’t even want to know what they think of you. And you act so high and mighty, god save us, you pig, we aren’t all idiots. Ha, they should see you in your shit stained apron. See how piggish you are with everything. You’d have to try hard to find such a filthy little pig.
And now Tove again: You’d better hope they don’t start talking too much, it’d be the last time you’d be seated in such fine company playing all nice and dandy, you oversexed beast, cause somebody’d sure as hell have it out for you, even a few of the men here I bet, who’d love to get their hands on you and give you the thrashing of your life.
And from Volmer: I’m pretty damn sure they’d feel sorry for me if they knew how it is, how I break my neck for such a lazy bitch and always come home to your yammering and Oh, of course you deserved somebody better, but you’d never find one big enough for such a damned cunt who doesn’t even give a damn if she cooks me a proper meal.
And that was just about all most of the guests were able to make out before Tove and Volmer finally realized that they were on display in front of the entire congregation.
They closed off their poisonous spouts. It didn’t take them long to change masks. In the span of zero point five seconds they were able to nod and smile graciously to their neighbors. As if nothing at all had happened. As if it didn’t mean a thing.
Now they sat just so and ventured to look others in the eye and signal conspiratorially to them, as though they should also have a part in the shame. And of course no one could bear it, to feel dragged down in such a way, down in their rotten stench, down in their muck.
There wasn’t anyone present who could stand looking at them, once they’d finally wrenched their eyes away. Only a few were able to look at anyone else. To say anything to anyone was out of the question, and as a last resort, they hastened to take a seat, wherever it might be. Thus the whole company sat, unable to cross the abyss that Volmer and Tove had carved with their wickedness and their stupidity.
Between everything as it should be and as it now was. Between themselves even, all those gathered here, and ordinary life, what was right, and above all what up until now they’d felt somewhat in accordance with. And if they’d just been able to have a proper laugh. As most of them were almost unable to suppress at first. All that shit came so suddenly from these fine people, and it wasn’t such a big deal either. Some people exist who go around treating each other like that, but that they sat there and wanted to drag everyone else into it – as if it should suddenly be allowed to pull down your pants in the middle of the street, squat in front of the co-op and take a crap!
No, no one could just laugh, nor did they have a clue how they should get over it. No one could think of anything that would even resemble useful words, not even Schoolmaster Enoksen for that matter. He too sat and gaped helplessly out into thin air and hardly dared move a finger, for fear that the earth would open up beneath them and they’d all fall straight-down into the blackest hell.
No one could. No one dared. And anyhow, most of them were already clinging to something else: the party. What none of them had the strength to do, the party must still be able to rescue, as a second miracle. If only it would get started.
The faces turned towards Søren Godiksen. It was in his power to give the sign. There was nothing to stall it now – apart from everything. But the time to do so had long passed. And he sat over at the main table with Stinne, and they’d placed Peder in between them, and little Dagmar.
So couldn’t he please just tap his glass? Not yet, it would seem. Søren didn’t budge. He continued to stare down at his plate, without even blinking. He was, in spite of his corporeal weight, many a time – when it counted most – able to think and react so much more quickly than others; now he needed more time than anyone.
He couldn’t bring himself to it, stand up and give a welcome speech, before he felt he understood some of what he’d witnessed. And one unbearable minute of silence followed the next, and he still didn’t understand any of it.
It stood just beyond his reach, as when a healthy, agile cow suddenly falls over dead. Or when a crack appears in the cellar wall, from floor to ceiling. That giant stone wall you’d thought would last forever.
But it wasn’t just the immediate damage that did it. The loss of such a cow, however good she’d been, that you can get over. And the cellar wall, you just brought in the mason, and with a few iron chains and some mortar he’d have it fixed up.
But that it should happen at all. That was the thing. As now with Volmer and Tove. That was it. That something like this, without any meaning, still somehow – and when you’d least expected it – should happen in the world.
Stinne had to tap his glass. And she reached behind Peder and stuck her finger in her husband’s side, right under the rib. Because he had to do something now if they were to avoid being the ones who’d proven themselves unworthy.
He had to get up and speak. Finally, he realized it himself. He could understand that much at least, and he rose, and he was able to look across the entire hall calmly. As if he stood, pleased as punch, looking at his pigs.
Welcome everyone. Søren Godiksen spoke. We are so grateful that you have come to celebrate our boy’s confirmation with us. And if you’ve remembered to bring your hymn books, then we can begin with a song – “I al sin glans,” I al sin glans nu stråler solen. And when it’s over – the song I mean – Stinne and I hope you will accept our offering.