Julia Butschkow


short fiction, translated from the Danish by Peter Sean Woltemade

Lauge is wearing his father's orange- and blue-striped shirt; it's wrinkled and comes down almost to his knees. On his feet are the black shoes his father was wearing when he married Lauge's mother. On his nose Lauge has a round red plastic nose from Fetter BR.

Before they left this morning, his father painted two black crosses around Lauge's eyes so he looked like one of the clowns from Cirkus Benneweis.

"When will the lines be gone?" asked Lauge.

"In a few days," his father answered.

In the gym, next to Lauge's father, stands a fat boy's mother. She has curly yellow hair and barrettes with artificial flowers in her hair. Her breasts are so big they look as if they are about to fall out of her dress. Her eyelids are painted light blue, and her green eyes constantly rest on Lauge's father, who has slicked his hair back with Brylcreem today and is wearing his old biker jacket. The lady's teeth are too big; she laughs loudly, with her mouth open, every single time Lauge's father says something. Even if it isn't funny.

For a brief instant the lady takes her eyes off Lauge's father and looks down at Lauge.

Down at the oversized shoes and the overlong shirt. She laughs. Loudly and for far too long. And she lays her hand on Lauge's father's arm. She points down at the shoes and laughs.

"He looks like a real clown," she says.

"He's a born clown," says Lauge's father.

The lady laughs. Lauge's father bends down and pulls the red nose out a little so the elastic is stretched. He lets it snap back against Lauge's cheeks. And laughs.

"You're a little too serious, mister," he says.

"One's supposed to laugh when one's a clown," says the lady.

The lady's fat boy laughs too now. He's wearing a Spider-Man costume.

Lauge feels that all the people in the gym turn toward him and stare at him. At the big shoes and shirt. The round nose shining much too red in the middle of his pale face. He wants to go home. But says nothing to his father. He grinds his molars and forces the corners of his mouth upward.

Suddenly it's Lauge's turn to strike the big barrel hanging in the middle of the gym; he's barely noticed that he's been standing in line. Now a heavyset red-haired man dressed as a soccer referee hands him a baseball bat.

"Now it's the clown's turn!"

Lauge feels that all the people around him have stopped breathing; they're looking at him without saying anything like people at Benneweis when the arena is lit only by a single spotlight. Low drumming is heard from the balcony, the darkness smells of sawdust, and in the middle of the arena stands the artist, ready to execute his special art.

Lauge stands with the heavy baseball bat in his hand. He sweats. He feels how the audience is waiting for him. Waiting for him to do something funny or something idiotic. Something they can laugh at. Shout, whistle, point their fingers at.

Lauge wants to run away. Out of the gym. Out of the big yellow building. Out onto the road, through the city. Out onto the freeway. Run, sprint. All the way through Denmark, over the border, through Russia, all the way to Japan. Run to the end of the world. And stop only there at the abyss: throw himself into space.

Fall or float-out into nothingness.

The baseball hat becomes heavier and heavier for every instant that passes. Lauge is now sweating so much that the long shirt sticks to his skin. He breathes silently. If he doesn't connect, if the bat slips from his hands before he hits the barrel, he's done for.

When he starts school, he'll sit on a chair at a table at the very back of the classroom. The other pupils will turn around and look back at him and laugh. Even the teachers will laugh. All of them will notice it: the red nose that has merged with his cranium, like Pinocchio's nose. He'll always have to wear it, even at night. Even when he grows up. If he doesn't hit the barrel now, he'll never be anything but a clown.

At times Lauge's father breaks the silence in the gym by whistling and clapping.

"Come on, Mr. Punch," he shouts.

Lauge can also hear the lady's loud laughter somewhere in the gym.

For some reason he can't move; it's as if his feet have been nailed to the floor. The looks aimed at him from all sides bore into him and make him dizzy. He stands in the middle of the gym with the baseball bat in his hand. The world stands still around him. His father has stopped whistling and clapping. The lady has stopped laughing. No one says anything. Not even the big trees outside the windows, above the bars, are moving. They are looking and they are listening. It's Lauge who is to set the world in motion. It's he who must break the silence in the gym. Everything is bewitched. Like in a fairy tale. And it's Lauge's task to lift the curse.

Bring everything back to life.

Lauge stands with the baseball bat in his hand and thinks of his mother. Imagines her watching him from heaven together with God and all the others up there. She's smiling. Her skin is just as white as when he and his father saw her for the last time, in the chapel, before she was buried. Now she lives up in heaven; Lauge knows this. She lay in her fine coffin and slept, and while she slept wings grew from her shoulder blades.

When she woke, she flew.

And now she's up there, somewhere behind the mountainous clouds, and sees him.

Before she died, she studied Japanese at the university. She showed Lauge the beautiful letters and told him stories about rice farmers and geishas and dragons. She taught him to say hello and goodbye in Japanese. She taught him to count to ten. And she taught him words like dojo and satori. A dojo was a place like a gym in which karate was practiced. Satori was the instant at which all thoughts stopped. Like the heart stopped the instant one died. But Lauge's mother had explained that in satori one was not dead but intensely alive.

The word suddenly washes through Lauge like a tidal wave that carries away all thoughts in an instant. He lifts the baseball bat. Grits his teeth. Sweat runs down his forehead. He grips the bat with both hands. It's all or nothing. The wave washes through him. He gets a running start. Runs. The barrel approaches. He throws the whole weight of his body into the blow. Screams. Hurls the bat against the barrel so it splits. The bottom falls out. Candy and oranges, stuffed animals, balloons of many colors fall out.

"There you go, man!" his father shouts somewhere.

Everyone in the gym claps.

Lauge lowers the bat, and he smiles, drenched with sweat. He stands in the midst of everything; everything is in motion again. Children run up from all sides, stumble, reach out and shout, yank at each other's clothes and hair, while Lauge lets the bat slip out of his hand.

Then everything turns black.

Lauge wakes up on a mattress in a corner of the gym. The mattress is green. And it's cold. His father is sitting next to it and looking at him. When Lauge opens his eyes, his father pats him on the cheek.

"The king's awake now," Lauge's father says.

The lady is standing nearby and smiling much too much. She takes a bottle of beer from a table, opens it, and hands it to Lauge's father.

Lauge sits up on the mattress. His head is pounding; his father smiles and points at it; Lauge feels it. On top of his head is a crown of paper attached by means of a silk band beneath his chin.

The lady laughs. Her big teeth. Her breasts bounce.

Her fat boy still has his Spider-Man costume on. He's sitting on a folding chair stuffing cake into his mouth.

"Would the king like a piece of cake?" the lady asks.

"Sonja baked it herself," Lauge's father says.

"Then I don't want any," Lauge mumbles.

"What's he saying?" the lady asks.

Lauge's father finishes his beer and sets the bottle down.

"Why don't you want Sonja's cake?" he asks.

"She's a witch with sagging tits," says Lauge.

Lauge's father laughs loudly and for a long time. The lady doesn't. Lauge's father slaps his thighs.

"Damn, you're in high spirits!" he exclaims, smiling broadly at Lauge. ❦


in the original Danish

Lauge har sin fars orange og blåstribede skjorte på, den er krøllet, går næsten ned til hans knæ. På hans fødder sidder de sorte sko faren havde på da han blev gift med Lauges mor. På næsen har Lauge en rød, rund plasticnæse som er købt i Fætter BR.

Før de tog af sted i morges, malede faren to sorte kryds om Lauges øjne, så han kom til at ligne en af klovnene fra Cirkus Benneweis.

Faren brugte en sort tusch, de havde ikke andet.

– Hvornår går stregerne væk? spurgte Lauge.

– I løbet af et par dage, svarede faren.

I gymnastiksalen, ved siden af Lauges far, står en tyk drengs mor. Hun har gult, krøllet hår og spænder med kunstige blomster i håret. Hendes bryster er så store, at de ser ud som om de er lige ved at falde ud af hendes kjole. Hendes øjenlåg er malet lyseblå, og hendes grønne øjne hviler hele tiden på Lauges far der i dag har sat sit hår med brylcreme og har sin gamle bikerjakke på. Damens tænder er for store, hun griner højt, med åben mund, hver eneste gang Lauges far siger noget. Også selvom det ikke er sjovt.

I et kort øjeblik tager damen øjnene fra faren og ser ned på Lauge.

Ned på de for store sko og den for lange skjorte. Hun griner. Højt og alt for længe. Og hun lægger sin hånd på farens arm. Hun peger ned på skoene og ler.

– Han ligner en rigtig klovn, siger hun.

– Han er den fødte klovn, siger faren.

Damen ler. Faren bøjer sig ned og trækker lidt ud i den røde næse så elastikken spændes. Han slipper den igen med et lille smæld mod Lauges kinder. Og ler.

– Du er lidt for alvorlig, Mester, siger han.

– Når man er en klovn, skal man grine, siger damen.

Damens tykke dreng griner også nu. Han er klædt ud som Spiderman.

Lauge føler at alle i gymnastiksalen vender sig om mod ham og stirrer på ham. På de store sko og skjorten. Den runde, alt for røde næse midt i hans blege ansigt. Han vil hjem. Men siger ikke noget til sin far. Han bider kindtænderne sammen og tvinger sine mundvige opad.

Pludselig er det blevet Lauges tur til at slå på den store tønde der er hængt op midt i salen, han har knap lagt mærke til at han har stået i kø. Nu rækker en kraftig, rødhåret mand, der er klædt ud som fodbolddommer, ham en baseballbat og råber:

Så er det klovnens tur!

Lauge føler at alle omkring ham er holdt op med at trække vejret, de ser på ham, uden at sige noget, ligesom i Benneweis, når arenaen kun er oplyst af en enkelt spot. Der bliver trommet lavmælt fra balkonen, mørket lugter af savsmuld, og midt på scenen står artisten, klar til at udføre sin særlige kunst.

Lauge står med det tunge baseballbat i hånden. Han sveder. Mærker, hvordan publikum venter på ham. Venter på at han skal gøre noget sjovt, eller noget idiotisk. Noget de kan grine ad. Råbe, pifte, pege fingre ad.

Lauge har lyst til at løbe sin vej. Ud af salen. Ud af den store gule bygning. Ud på vejen, gennem byen. Ud på motorvejen. Løbe, spurte. Hele vejen gennem Danmark, over grænsen, gennem Rusland, helt til Japan. Løbe indtil verdens ende. Og først stoppe dér ved afgrunden: kaste sig ud i himmelrummet.

Falde eller svæve – ud i ingenting.

Baseballbattet bliver tungere og tungere for hvert øjeblik der går. Lauge sveder nu så meget at den lange skjorte klæber til hans hud. Han trækker vejret lydløst. Hvis han ikke rammer, hvis battet glider ud af hans hænder før han slår på tønden, er det ude med ham.

Når han skal starte i skole, vil han komme til at sidde på en stol ved et bord, bagerst i klassen. De andre elever vil vende sig om og se ned på ham og grine. Selv lærerne vil komme til at le. Alle vil lægge mærke til det: den røde næse der er groet fast til kraniet, ligesom Pinocchios næse. Han vil altid skulle have den på, selv om natten. Selv når han bliver stor. Hvis han ikke rammer tønden nu, vil han aldrig være andet end klovn.

Indimellem bryder faren tavsheden i salen ved at pifte og klappe.

Kom så, Mester Jakel, råber han.

Lauge kan også høre damens høje latter et sted i salen.

Af en eller anden grund kan han ikke bevæge sig, det er som om hans fødder er naglet fast til gulvet. Blikkene, der er rettet mod ham fra alle sider, borer sig ind i ham og gør ham svimmel. Han står midt i gymnastiksalen med baseballbattet i hånden. Rundt omkring ham står verden stille. Faren er holdt op med at pifte og klappe. Damen er holdt op med at grine. Ingen siger noget. Selv de store træer uden for vinduerne, over ribberne, rører sig ikke. De ser, og de lytter. Det er Lauge, der skal sætte verden i gang. Det er ham, der skal bryde stilheden i salen. Alt er forhekset. Ligesom i et eventyr. Og det er Lauges opgave at hæve forbandelsen.

Gøre alting levende igen.

Lauge står med baseballbattet i hånden og tænker på sin mor. Forestiller sig at hun sidder og ser ned på ham, oppe fra himlen, sammen med Gud og alle de andre deroppe. Hun smiler. Hendes hud er lige så hvid som dengang han og faren så hende for sidste gang, i kapellet, før hun kom i jorden. Nu bor hun oppe i himlen, det ved Lauge. Hun lå i sin fine kiste og sov, og mens hun sov, groede der vinger ud ved hendes skulderblade.

Da hun vågnede, fløj hun.

Og nu sidder hun deroppe, et sted bag de bjergagtige skyer, og ser ham.

Før hun døde, læste hun japansk på universitetet. Hun viste Lauge de smukke skrifttegn og fortalte ham historier om risbønder og geishaer og drager. Hun lærte ham at tælle til ti. Og hun lærte ham ord som: Dojo og Satori. Dojo var et sted, ligesom et gymnastiksal, hvor man trænede karate. Satori var det øjeblik hvor alle tankerne stoppede. Ligesom hjertet stoppede, i det øjeblik man døde. Men Lauges mor havde forklaret at i Satori var man ikke død, men intenst levende.

Ordet skyller pludselig igennem Lauge som en flodbølge der river alle tanker med sig på et øjeblik. Han løfter baseballbattet. Bider tænderne sammen. Sveden løber ned over hans pande. Han knuger battet med begge hænder. Det er alt eller intet. Bølgen skyller igennem ham. Han tager tilløb. Løber. Tønden nærmer sig. Han lægger hele kroppens vægt i slaget. Skriger. Slynger battet imod tønden, så den flækker. Bunden falder ud. Det vælter ud med slik og appelsiner, tøjdyr, farvede balloner.

Sådan, mand! råber faren et sted.

Hele salen klapper.

Lauge sænker battet, og han smiler, gennemblødt af sved. Han står midt i det hele, alt er i bevægelse igen. Børn vælter frem fra alle sider, snubler, rækker ud og råber, flår i hinandens tøj og hår, mens Lauge lader battet glide ud af hånden.

Så bliver alting sort.

Lauge vågner på en madras i et hjørne af salen. Madrassen er grøn. Og den er kold. Hans far sidder ved siden af den og ser på ham. Da Lauge slår øjnene op, klapper faren ham på kinden.

– Så er kongen vågnet, siger faren.

Damen står et sted i nærheden og smiler alt for meget. Hun tager en flaske øl fra et bord, åbner den og rækker den til Lauges far.

Lauge sætter sig op på madrassen, hans hoved dunker, faren ler og peger på det, Lauge mærker efter. Oven på hans hoved er en krone af papir, som er gjort fast under hans hage med et silkebånd.

Damen griner. Hendes store tænder. Brysterne gynger.

Hendes tykke dreng har stadig sit Spidermankostume på. Han sidder på en klapstol og æder kage.

– Vil kongen have et stykke kage? spørger damen.

– Sonja har selv bagt den, siger faren.

– Så skal jeg ikke have noget, mumler Lauge.

– Hvad siger han? spørger damen.

Faren drikker ud og sætter flasken fra sig.

– Hvorfor vil du ikke have Sonjas kage? spørger han.

– Hun er en heks med hængepatter, siger Lauge.

Faren griner højt og længe. Det gør damen ikke. Faren klasker sig på lårene.

– Du har sgu fået humor! udbryder han og smiler stort til Lauge. ❦

Photo credit: Robin Skjoldborg

Julia Butschkow is a graduate of the Danish school of authors, Forfatterskolen, and the author of a number of published works of fiction, including three novels, Lunatia (2004), Apropos Opa (2009), and Aber dabei (2013); a volume of poems, Lykkekomplex (1997); a play, Sidespor (2001) that has been staged in Copenhagen and Malmö; and a volume of short stories, Der er ingen bjerge i Danmark ("There Are No Mountains in Denmark"), in which "Lauge" appears. She has also written a commissioned work for the National Gallery of Denmark, Requiem (2011). Among other distinctions, Butschkow has received the Danish Arts Foundation’s three-year working grant (2005) and the Rosinante & Co honor grant (2007). Peter Sean Woltemade's translation of another story from Der er ingen bjerge i Danmark, "Jomfru Ane Gade," was published in The Missing Slate in May, and his translation of a third story from that volume, "Det ser meget almindeligt ud" ("It Looks Very Ordinary") is forthcoming in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.

Peter Sean Woltemade is an American-born literary translator who earned a Ph.D. in medieval German literature at UC Berkeley and is currently based in Copenhagen. His work has appeared in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Missing Slate, and his translation of Stefanie Ross's 2015 novel Nemesis - Verkaufte Unschuld is in production at AmazonCrossing. He has worked with translators Shaun Whiteside, Maureen Freely, Sasha Dugdale, and Katy Derbyshire and with author Kristof Magnusson.

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