East of the Sun, West of the Moon: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Walpurgis 

blackbird-silhouette-john-tidball-Spring had come at last. High overhead, seagulls screeched and dove and floated on the wind, for the wind…the wind is always blowing in Denmark.

Sometimes the lusty wind would billow her long coat behind her so fiercely that she felt it could carry her upward like a kite, up above the red tile roofs of Copenhagen, to touch the tip of the Bourse’s entwined dragon tails, drift over Zealand’s neat houses, rippled lakes, and yellow and green checkerboard fields, glide out over the placid waters of the Little Belt and Big Belt. She was a skinny wild-haired girl in a purple thrift-store coat and bellbottom jeans; she was naïve, proud, eager, impetuous, hungry for adventure, amazement, beauty, love. She thought she knew everything there was to know. She had not yet learned the lessons that life and loss would teach.

This April night, Sara Sonnenschein, nineteen years old, American college junior on a semester abroad in Denmark, stood on a twilit threshold, inhaling the sweet scent of lilacs borne by a breeze from the sleeping gardens of this Copenhagen suburb. The waxing moon glowed in the mauve sky with a strange energy.  Sara yearned, but for what? Why, for everything – to be free, to explore all the world had to offer, to live passionately, and then, of course (for wasn’t that the point of it all?) to write a novel about it. For she wanted to be a writer, though she had as yet experienced nothing whatsoever to write about.

She feared too, for fear and yearning often combine in strange ways. She feared that if she boarded her flight back to New York in a week’s time, she would get a useless graduate degree in English literature, marry a dentist, and settle in meaningless comfort a stroll away from her parents’ faux Tudor in the banal leafy glades of Bellevue, New Jersey. That was the narrative her parents planned for her.

But on this luminous night, in this twilit enchanted place, it seemed that quite another story was about to begin.

A bird trilled, clear, melodious, thrilling, from a high tree.

“What bird is that?” she asked, turning.

“Who cares? Close the door,” growled Uffe from the kitchen, prying off the beer bottle cap with a dagger he kept for that very purpose in a leather sheathe hooked on his belt. The cap flew off under the fridge. He swigged his beer. He had a pug nose and a brown beard that smelled of marinated herring and raw onions. Uffe, son of a toothless Lolland farmer, sorted artifacts, filed excavation reports, and grumbled about his boss at the National Museum. Sara had fallen for the stale pipe smoke smell harbored by his navy fisherman’s sweater but the charm had quickly dissipated. He was the only thing in Denmark she would be happy to leave behind.

The high whine of a feeble motor broke the silence. A Citroen 2-CV rattled into the driveway and coughed to a halt. Out leapt a tall thin man.

“Satan,” muttered Uffe.

“Christian,” cried the man, reaching for Sara’s hand. He had unkempt golden hair, copper goatee, a narrow intelligent face. “So you’re the American girl Uffe’s been hiding from us.” His rainbow crocheted vest and apricot pants hung on his gaunt body; her mother would have called him undernourished. He held a bottle under her nose. “Sniff, Sara.”

She sniffed. The mysterious bittersweet smell aroused her nape hair.

“Homemade schnapps, infused in sweet gale I picked in a bog the very moment it came into bloom.”

“Smells like piss,” said Uffe, “but what the hell, let’s drink. Allow me to present Christian Erlingsen, golden boy of Danish archaeology, winner of the University Gold Medal, illustrious assistant professor of archaeology, future Royal Head Antiquarian. Magnanimous of you, Christian, to visit a lowly peasant like me.”

On such small remarks do our lives depend.

Christian and Sara exchanged a knowing glance. But what, exactly, did they know? That pigheaded Uffe, eternal loser, had lost again. They raised tiny brimful glasses and gazed, as is the custom, over the aqua vita’s shimmering meniscus, deep into each other’s eyes. Uffe’s fish-gray, bloodshot, suspicious. Christian’s sky-blue, kind, tender. Sara’s wide, shining and hazel.

Skaal. Skaal. Skaal.

“But why ever did you choose Denmark?” asked Christian.

“The polite answer? Because I’ve always wanted to come here.”

“And the truthful one?”

“Luck.”

“Good or bad?”

 

That winter had been the coldest in years. Shivering, stumbling through icy hail along Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, she had only one thought: escape. America in 1970 was torn apart by rage and it wasn’t easy to be young. Some of her friends, shipped off to slaughter Vietnamese innocents, returned raving mad and were locked up in institutions; others protested peacefully in DC and were teargassed by police; others turned on to their drug of choice, tuned in and dropped out or died; or grew long beards and raised goats in California hills; or shaved their heads, wrapped their bodies in orange robes, and chanted barefoot in the streets. Violence, hatred, and insanity. Sara decided to flee.

That, at least, was how she usually explained why she’d come to this cold little country.

More honest, no doubt, to mention a certain unhappy love affair; or, as she called it, a happy love affair that had ended unhappily, for she never was one to prefer the unvarnished truth when a prettier painted version beckoned. In any event, her doting parents Harry and Muriel Sonnenschein agreed that a semester abroad would be just the thing to broaden her horizons and they were happy to foot the bill for this as they had for so many other culturally enriching experiences including, but not limited to piano, violin, ballroom dancing, ballet, painting, drama, tennis, ice-skating, and canoeing, and dancing the hora at Jewish girls’ camp.

“I need to leave right away.”

“Impossible,” sniffed the red-nosed lady in the Study Abroad office. She reached for a tissue. “These programs are booked months in advance.” “Any cancellations?”

She rifled through her papers. “London…no. Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, Rome, Madrid, all no….wait!” She sneezed hard. “Here’s one last place in…”

Copenhagen.

North of Europe, right? Capital of Sweden. Or Norway? These little Scandinavian countries, who knows the difference? Ah, Denmark, of course. Danny Kaye singing wonderful wonderful Copenhagen. Danish blue cheese. Danish Modern furniture. Danish, plain, cheese or blueberry.

“I’ll go.”

She arrived on a bitter January day with a planeful of jittery young American students. They’d’d flown over Greenland, a white mass of ice and glaciers sparkling in a sapphire sea and now the plane swung wide over the southernmost tip of Sweden, cruised just above the slate-grey waters of the Øresund and at last touched down among on bare winter fields. On the horizon beckoned the tiny towers of Copenhagen.

Herr and Frue Fenstermacher, her host family, stood at the exit, waving a little Danish flag. Plump Frue Fenstermacher examined her through dew-fogged glasses and cried, “Ja ja, very cute! Now then, you must call me Auntie!”

In the car, she fanned her flushed cheeks and explained that although they lived in Valby, it was “almost Frederiksberg,” just over the border from that highly respectable township. Their modest row house, surrounded by a neat garden, was nothing if not cosy. Hyggelig – cosy, now, that’s the first word you must learn in Danish, said Auntie. We Danes love nothing better than to be cosy.

Auntie poured her husband’s homemade wine brimful. Nothing like a une petite verre now, was there? Auntie had been going to French classes for years, it would be lovely if we spoke only in French. Why bother to learn Danish? She bustled Sara down to the basement to show her the tidy little room where she was to live for the next 3 months.

“Your own entrance, cherie, come and go as you please.”

Upstairs, the table was set for tea, with starched embroidered napkins, polished silver, and Auntie’s famous homemade plum tart, its crisp macaroon crust drowning in port wine. Sara presented her gifts.

Ja ja,” said Auntie, tying her new silk scarf round her beefy neck, “Very cute!” Sighing, she helped herself to a third piece of tart. Not so easy to lose weight! Though she would never ever stop trying. And how hard it was to speak French!

“Though you’ll never stop trying,” said Uncle.

“Ejner!” she said, flushing with pleasure. “Always teasing me. Ja ja. Very cute, isn’t he?”

Uncle was a quiet, good-natured man with a long humorous face. He puttered about the garden, wrapping straw quilts round the fruit trees, repairing invisible cracks in the windowpanes, dusting the giant glass balloons of fermenting apple juice next to my basement room. He worked at the Nilfisk vacuum factory down the road. In the evenings, he would light up his pipe and listen to Debussy’s La Mer on a scratchy old 78.

On weekends they would squeeze into the old green Opel and chug through the mist along Strandvejen, the coastal road north of Copenhagen. Swans paddled sluggish circles in the icy water. Polar explorer Knud Rasmussen in his Eskimo parka peered with granite patience toward the invisible horizon where milky water merged with milky sky.

“Never saw Sweden so clearly,” Uncle would say while Auntie giggled. It was, they said, an old expression meaning something like: at last I see the light.

But all those first foggy months Sara never so much as glimpsed the Swedish coast.

In Copenhagen, between classes, she clattered along cobblestone streets, trying to pass as Danish in her wooden clogs, a floppy purple hat, a long grimy white sheepskin coat. Nursing a black coffee in The Cannibal, the University cafeteria, she scribbled in her slanting script her rigorously-edited impressions on blue aerograms for her Harry and Muriel to read aloud at dinner under the crystal chandelier in their stately dining room.

…How handsome the Danes are, striding down the Walking Street: Tall strong women with tie-dyed cloth diapers tied round their flaxen hair; men with liverpaste-colored hair and — in the middle of winter! — red ski socks stuck into sandals; old ladies, swaddled in black Persian lamb coats, puffing on ceruts; dashing old Resistance fighters in berets and peacoats, ever ready to sabotage the Germans.

Bicycles! They speed along the bike paths and woe to the pedestrian who carelessly steps into their path, for he will be mowed down without mercy. 

Beer! Brewery workers can down twenty-five bottles a day without getting drunk; even the daintiest women can knock back a few without blinking. I still get sleepy after one beer but I’m training.

“Should we worry, Harry?”

“Not yet, dear.”

In the Bo-Bi Bar, a tall ecologist who taught me to distinguish blindfolded between Carlsberg and Tuborg seemed more interested in me than in ecology. 

In the Drop-Inn, an American Army deserter who taught me to inhale an unfiltered Cecil without choking didn’t desert me! 

In Laurents Betjent, a man tried to teach me Danish. Much did he seek, little was he sought! 

“Are you sure?”

“Whatever you like, dear.”

Twisting her mouth round a Danish phrase was like trying to swallow a cheese sandwich whole. Thanks. Thanks thanks. A thousand thanks. What the devil! Herring. Four flat open sandwiches. Red soup with cream. That’ll cost the whites out of your eyes. Better hoe your potatoes. I love you. The hell with it. I’m thirsty. Skaal!

Day after winter day, thick clouds shrouded the city, sometimes engulfing it entirely, and in the muffled whiteness all that could be heard was a mournful seagull crying or the hoot of a fog horn. Alone she wandered out to Langelinie, to the Little Mermaid shivering on her rock; in Vesterbro, she scurried past the porn shops and bordels; crossing the bridge to Christianshavn, she gazed out over the harbor, inhaling the sickly sweet smell from the Islandsbrygge soy cake factory. Cranes, warehouses, and shipbuilding yards floated in the mist. Across the bridge, in Christiana’s old military barracks squatted hash-clouded hippies, their wild-haired children splashing in the mud.

And then there was the Silver Lady. Like Sara, she prowled the foggy streets of the inner city at dusk. She saw her on gloomy Saturday afternoons, long after the Gammelstrand fishwife in her white headscarf and phony peasant garb had packed up her unsold cod and hake, long after shoppers had fled home to the suburbs for a boozy nap. No one wandered the bleak streets but outcasts, exiles, lone wolves, and the lovelorn, all searching for what could not be found in that darkness. Dressed all in silver — long spangled dress, tarnished broken shoes, gauzy hat, the Silver Lady glided forth from the mist like a ghost, a vision. She never begged, never spoke a word. But from under her grey hair, tangled as a magpie nest, her rheumy dark-rimmed eyes would meet Sara’s as if to ask, Where?  Her look was a question, a challenge, a secret they shared. She wandered in her tarnished finery with rheumy kohl-lined eyes, her bony hands clutching a worn grey velvet cloak. For a brief moment, as their eyes met, Sara thought the madwoman had something to tell her. But what? And then the moment passed.

Dear parents, how grey it is! Grey sky, grey sea, grey air. What a long bleak winter. I haven’t seen the sun for months. I am learning something here and I’m not sure what it is. I have nothing in common with the other students but I suppose it builds character to be alone. I am reluctant to return to the U.S. before I am certain that what I have learned  won’t wash off in one hot blast of American air.

Dear Father, dear Mother, I miss you! And I long for spring! 

Your loving daughter,

Sara

“She keeps to herself too much.”

“Relax, dear. Another Scotch?”

Classes in Danish this and Danish that: literature, history, and sociology. One day, for Danish Architecture, she battled a raging hailstorm to sketch at The Open Air Museum. She limned the crossbeams of an old farmhouse until she’d had enough of stiff fingers, shivery limbs, and Ye Olde Denmark. Stuffing her pad into her bag, she set off through a stubble field until she came to the straw fence that bordered the museum and peered through. There she saw a small brick house, calm and orderly, with blue hyacinths blooming in the windows, and oranges glowing on a wooden table under a modern white hanging lamp. If I lived in that house, she thought, I would be content.

Back in Valby, Auntie cried, “Poor you!” She was starching the tablecloth, polishing the doorknobs, and watering the African violets all at he same time. “Such red cheeks! Have a little shot of cognac, cherie! Skaal!”

Her course in Danish Music was taught by an old opera star, Erland Erlandsen, who held court in his 18th-century house near Nikolajplads. Only a handful of students had signed up to nibble fruitcake and sip tea amid the antique engravings, gilded angel’s heads, and framed theatre programs while the burly white-haired bass sang Puccini arias, Schubert lieder, and Carl Nielsen songs.

One day he took his young acolytes to the Royal Theatre for a rehearsal of Don Giovanni. Backstage it smelled of sawdust, paint and glue. Sara shivered with excitement as stagehands rumbled thunder from metal sheets as the villainous seducer tumbled into the jaws of hell. and fear. Tiptoing down into the empty auditorium, she read the stern gilt motto above the stage: Ej blot for lyst. Not just for pleasure.

That evening, just before the curtain rose, the audience suddenly rose to its collective feet. In the royal box King Frederik IX, sandy-haired and erect, nodded serenely. But it was his daughter who drew Sara’s attention. A princess, a real princess! She was tall, with clear blue eyes and sandy hair pulled back in a demure bun. Not much older than Sara, but so different. She would inherit the throne after her father. Sara felt a stab of envy. The princess would have power, fame, respect, and need never yearn for long for a better life.

But as the theatre darkened, the conductor lifted his arms, and the music began, Sara realized that, unlike her, the princess would never be able to choose her life.

At night, as Uncle’s apple wine bubbled gently in the airlocks, she lay in the dark listening to a shortwave radio, to music drifting in and out from the vast unknown, to voices in German or Polish or Czech fading in mid-sentence to French, Italian or Portuguese. Waves of sound breaking on the shore of her ear carried incomprehensible messages from afar.

Sometimes a Voice of America speaker emerged from the hum and static, droning some terse New Yorker story about adultery in the Connecticut suburbs to millions of freedom-thirsting prisoners of communism behind the Iron Curtain.

She lay on her back, rapturously feeling her protruding hip bones, her concave stomach. Faintly anorexic, wholly vegetarian, irregularly macrobiotic, she ate little, for dinner perhaps just a can of string beans gulped standing in the kitchen long after Auntie’s carbohydrate-laden meals (white bread, boiled potatoes with parsley butter, apple cake with creme fraiche) had been cleared away. When she was young, her parents had hovered over her heaped plate, reminding her of children starving in India; and though she couldn’t see how her eating would help those faraway children, she had obediently wiped her plate clean: of creamy raisin-studded noodle kugel, of matzoh balls in fat-laden chicken soup, of babkes, hamentaschen, and rugelach bursting with melted sugar. Now, free of her parents’ anxious surveillance, she watched her body diminishing with the rebellious ecstasy of self-denial. For the first time in her life she was thin. And the hunger pangs brought powerful new urges, a sexual current coursing through her newly slender body.

Towards the end of March, the sleet turned to rain. In the Royal Gardens damp buds appeared on the black pollarded lindens bordering the allées. Ducks waddled through the purple and white crocus beds. The earth smelled of mud. At the old candy factory on Nørregade Sara watched the white-smocked candymakers wind ribbons of candy round wooden poles. The clerk scooped red King of Denmarks into a paper bag on an old-fashioned scale. She popped one of the anis-flavored candies into her mouth and strolled down the street, sucking, worrying.

For it was soon time to return to America. The other students had stopped attending classes, spoke eagerly of television, big cars, hamburgers, and home.

Home, what was home? Where her parents lived, that was all. She couldn’t go back, not for good. One night she dreamed that she returned to America for a single day to pick up some books.

The last music class took place on a warm day. The other students had found better things to do than to perch on a wobbly gilded chair in Erland Erlandsen’s stately parlor. Nervously, Sara clasped her hands in her lap.

“Art,” said the old man, looking round at the empty chairs, “is lonely work. Most people seek only to be entertained, flitting from one pleasure to another. But the artist is steadfast. The artist remains true to himself. Like Odysseus tied to the mast, closing his ears to the sirens’ song, the artist will not be led astray. My dear, do you intend to be an artist?”

“I think…I want to write.”

“And do you write?”

imagesWell, of course, there was that old dream, her most cherished secret dream. Ever since she had first watched her mother’s finger gliding under the words as she read a children’s book aloud, she had wanted to write. Growing up, she had often detached herself from real conversations with her parents by adding to herself, “he said with a smile” or “she said, putting on her gloves.”  She always had her head in a book, and she dreamed about being a female Shakespeare or Dickens.

But to become a writer? You would have to write. And that was impossible. She hadn’t experienced enough, what could she write about? Besides, immersed as she was in learning Danish, her original language was already slipping away. And anyway, you couldn’t earn a living just writing.

But deep down, so deep that she barely acknowledged it except in her dreams, she knew that she couldn’t write. Whenever she tried to jot down a poem about, say, cherry blossoms drifting onto their mattress or sunset over the harbor or the blue hyacinth spear about to open, her mind would go dark. A voice would say, stop. You can’t, you’re not good enough. They’ll laugh. They’ll find out you’re not Shakespeare, not Dickens. You’re just a fake, a phony, a charlatan. Vaguely she sensed that something which had once flowed freely had turned to ice

“A little…I mean…well, I have nothing to write about. You see, I’ve just begun to live.”

“If you are called to be an artist, you must work. And to work, you must sacrifice much.” His thick white eyebrow shadowed his massive face.  “You listen. You ask questions. You come here to learn when it would be nicer to stroll on the walking street licking an ice cream cone. Perhaps one day, you will have the strength to become a writer. Beware, my dear. Your beauty will lead you astray. You will be led into temptation. But never stop seeking the answer to the most important question in the world.”

Clever old ham! Forty years on stage had taught him perfect timing, to arouse, through suspense, his audience’s expectations to the highest pitch.

Timidly she asked, “What is the question?”

“Why…what is the meaning of life?”

Blue light fell softly through the mullioned windows wavy panes of the Kunstmusikhus. The bell of Nikolaj Church rang a half-hour. Delicately, Erad Erlandsen placed the needle on a record revolving on the turntable. A Palestrina chorus soared upward into the evening. When it was done, the old man remained standing, motionless. Confused, she rose to go.

“Dear child, wouldn’t you like the answer now? It would save you a great deal of trouble.”

Gently, the ancient scoundrel took her head between his hands and kissed her on the forehead.

“The answer, my dear, is Beauty.”

Cheeks burning, she fled down the narrow stairs and into the cobblestone street.

 

Uffe, spilling his seventh glass of schnapps, mumbled “Gotta lie down,” and staggered out of the kitchen.

Christian refilled Sara’s glass.

“A sweet gale drink like this was buried with the Egtved Girl. She died over 3000 years ago, in the Bronze Age. She was a tall slim girl with long blond hair. She was buried…oh, that’s too sad to talk about now!”

In the twilit kitchen, Christian told her about barrows, bogs, brooches, amber beads, the Bronze Age. So easily he spoke, so patiently he answered her eager questions. He would show her bog corpses in the National Museum, burial mounds in the countryside. In the dark, she blushed. To think that this distinguished scholar, this respected archaeologist, this promising professor, cared what a silly young girl had to say! In his warm melodic tenor, he asked, “So, Sara, what do you want to do in life?”

The moon rose, the scent of lilacs drifted in through the open door.

“Everything!”

“I wanted that too, when I was your age. But now…” He smiled sadly.  “I often think of that line in Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” You know the poem?

She shook her head.

“For here,” he said, “there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”

“Yes, exactly!”

“But I’m too old to change.”

“No, Christian, it’s never too late! Even this very night. She lay her hand on his. “Why does tonight feel so…different?”

“It’s Walpurgis. On this night, they say, Odin hung himself on the World Tree so he could learn the wisdom of the runes. He sacrificed himself to learn the most powerful spell of all, which you can learn only when you’re dead. Tonight, while he is dead, spirits are said to walk the earth. At midnight he returns to life and light returns to the world.” He glanced at his watch. “At this very moment. Come.”

Outside the air shimmered blue with desire. Beyond the white crescent moon stretched the vast Milky Way like a diamond path leading — well, who cared where the Milky Way led? For just then it sounded again, that clear sweet call.

“What’s that bird?”  asked Sara for the second time that night.

“The blackbird,” he said. “Turdus merula, our most beautiful songbird, the only one that sings at night. When you hear the blackbird, you know it’s spring.” He put his hands gently on her shoulders and kissed her. “It’s spring.”

Now, Sara could dither about whether to buy tulips or roses; hem and haw about what book to read; change her shirt three times before stepping out; but when it came to following a complete stranger into the wide world, she hesitated not a moment. As Uffe’s snores sounded from within, she took Christian’s hand. Really, the big decisions are always easy to make. If it feels right, why then there’s no choice at all.

The old Citroen rattled toward Copenhagen. Through a hole in the car’s floor, the road sparkled as if paved with stars, bright as the Milky Way itself. Now she would know where it led. On the corner of Gernersgade and Store Kongensgade, across from the naval houses of Nyboder, they stopped. Two drunks on the street bawled out a song. She followed Christian down a stairway smelling of mold, cat pee and sour cabbage. Somewhere a dog howled and from a nearby rooftop a blackbird sang its heart out.

They lay down in the dark and reached toward one another. Oh, enchanted spring night!

 

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