She had five caterpillars in one hand and three plum stones in the other. She wanted to keep them, the caterpillars and the plum stones. They could see the stable from there. At eight o’clock in the morning when the large rock in the dyke was still cold from the night, the horses were pulled out of the stable and across the road, hoofs rattling double, the ghost horses came thundering from the other side of the courtyard, and the horses rushed forward, and the girls, in the last minute, managed to get the nylon bridles over their ears, then they beat their heads one last time as if to shake any remaining bands off them and thundered on ahead. She still did not have her first horse. She sat in her room and drew horses from hunting magazines given to her by her uncle. Placed a white sheet of paper over the photographs and positioned the task lamp directly above it. In the window she had a collection. There were crystals and fossils and some large pieces of amber with petrified insects. When the light fell in a particular way the crystals reflected it onto the paper. The field bordered their garden. It stretched up over the hill by the quarry, and sloped down towards the bay. At five in the afternoon the horses were brought back home again, pulled back, chattering hoofs limp ropes in the bridles across the road back to the stable. It was that summer that one of the older girls fell off and was dragged through the woods. The riding boot was tall and shiny. The leather so stiff the instep wouldn’t bend. The foot jammed in the stirrup. The boot still looked freshly polished when finally the horse halted back in the courtyard. Started nibbling at the grass that had grown up between the cobbled stones. Before entering through the gate to the yard the horse lowered its head. It dragged the girl after it like a memory or a childhood. She had collected the caterpillars from the lawn one by one. They were soft like bunnies. Later the hand flared up. She moved the caterpillars to the one hand in order to scratch the other. Then she put them away to be able to use her nails. The whole underarm was speckled, and it itched throughout the evening and the night. The mother filled cold water into a mixing bowl, wrung ice cubes out of an orange tray. She sat the bowl down in front of her daughter. There was a towel under the bowl so that it wouldn’t stain the table. The ice cubes bounced in the water like boats in a harbour. She moved her hands through the water, the ice cubes were light, they fell through the water like amber rolling on a wave over the seabed and onto the beach. It was Ellen who owned the horses. The lease of the field was hers. She divided duties and privileges between the girls, mucking out riding polishing the harness collecting the horses when the farrier came. She appointed girls to sweep and girls to give worm treatments, the special pride there was in that. The light yellow paste which was injected into the back of the horse's tongue before the older girls took a firm grip on their strong jaws and pushed their heads up, kept them there until they had chewed and swallowed. Ellen's voice was sharp, and there was no doubt she was aware of her power. Access to water gives power, access to sleep oh let me sleep, let me just lie here with you tonight the gatekeeper holds the power, she had the horses. In droplets she allowed the youngest of the girls to lead them across the road. Morning or evening. She made a chart and hung it in the stable on a bulletin board, had them feed or lug water in large 25-litre jugs. Love for the horses grew with the degree of degradation in the work as they were ordered around. When the shaft of the manure fork split and they mucked out with the pieces or with a wide-mouthed shovel. The pride there was in that. The more you sacrifice, the more visible is the love for the others and the more shiny a piece of jewellery it is to wear, get up early and work before school when it’s hardly light out, when the others eat when the others are in Aarhus strolling along the highstreet you are in the stable or in the field because you have understood everything, how it works. If they had not swept the aisles properly they were reprimanded, and one of the older girls would have to take over. How shameful that was. The eternal older girls as they exist throughout childhood, and before even being one of them yourself childhood is over and you are not in that stable anymore or in that classroom or in that town simply, the place where it would have been worth something. It is like midsummer and the feeling you can have then, that the summer is over before you even made it under its cover. To again be on the outside. That you were not ready and therefore never arrived before the autumn was suddenly there with its cool mornings and the mist over the bay at Knebel and yellow leaves that fall like faces bearing that enduring question of autumn: What have you brought for me. On which grounds have you come to me for refuge. A plum stone you have hidden inside your cheek to sometimes flash between the teeth slowly biting the long sour fibres off, that is perhaps the only thing you have kept and only now have understood is the summer that you have eaten from thoughtlessly, and no new summer will grow as in dreams when you eat, it has been devoured while you obliviously watched tv or walked through town and the day that you thought you were walking through was a whole season and the week a childhood and then there you are hanging from the living fences with soil under your soles and not even that is yours. A friend who many years later comments on her nails, you should really look after those nails. And she is just a child crushed by his words, and at the same time so old that she laughs at this image of herself as the child, crushed, in front of the excavators at the building site at Islands Brygge where the wide white plastic strips clamour in the wind and she tries to hide her fingers in her sleeves or behind the phone. Something she has only borrowed for a time and has made the mistake of bringing with her to the city, to a place where people’s movements have no more to do with nature than words have with the things they name. The one who loves the least holds the power.
The salt from the sea had sedimented as a lace collar circumventing her ankles and her neck. He asked her to lie down on the bed. She lay down. Her skin was warm from spending the day in the sun. Take your clothes off, he said. She did it. He sat down on the bed next to her. She took his hand and pressed it onto her cheek. She felt the roughness of his hand under her fingers. Her own hand was shaking or it was his. Just a little, almost imperceptibly, but there was a tremor as before an earthquake or the eruption of a volcano. The uneasy chanting or rasping of a landscape. She pulled him towards her onto the bed. He lay on his side, she turned over. They looked at each other. Were so close they could feel the hot air that only a moment ago had been in the other’s lungs. She looked at his eyes. the two irises in different colours with distinct dark rings around them. She thought: I can’t be without him. He pervaded into her in a way that made her think: I am inside him. I love you, he whispered. She smiled and blinked some tears out of her eyes. Are you crying, he whispered. She shook her head. He lay across her and she clamped her legs around him hard. Looked him in the eye. He looked at her puzzled. Was he scared. It is too hard, he said and she held on, the muscles in her thighs trembling. Stop, he said and she let go and he rolled off onto his back next to her. She cried as if she was missing someone or as if she had lost something she really cared about. Give me your hand, he said. She gave him her hand, and turned the palm upwards. She kissed him, said that she had missed him. I have been here the whole time, he said in a deep voice that she felt she could wear like a blanket. Wrapped in his voice she got out of the bed and went to the bathroom where she pulled a towel down from a large iron ring on the wall. It made a noise as it fell back. She turned on the faucet and held one end of the towel under the running water, wrung it carefully and put one foot on the table. then he was behind her, she could see him in the mirror. She sat her foot down on the floor again and turned around. She could see her genitals in the mirror in front of her, the outer lips and between them the darker inner ones, still a bit swollen. She wrenched the towel and hung it in its place next to the sink. Walked back in the direction of the bedroom. From the bed she could see him bend over and drink water from the tap. He straightened himself up and wiped his chin with his underarm. He looked at her through the mirror. She thought about what she had read, that before you kill someone else you look them in the eye. That you don’t know anything about what it means to take another life before you’ve seen such a pair of eyes. She sits on the bed and brushes the sand off her feet. He is already beside her. He puts a hand on her shoulder and she lies down. Come she says as she turns off the light. It is completely dark in the room. Only the small orange eye of the dehumidifier in the corner lights up. It is late, she whispers. He steps over her and lies down. He caresses her back until she falls asleep.
The two girls are hanging out in the stable, looking at the swallow’s nest under the roof. At the crossbeams and all the hooks and crevices. They look at the lamps that swing from the ceiling like ships in a church when the weightless birds land on them. The pigeons come to eat grain. Heavy and blue they fly clumsily through the stable like books thrown across the stalls and the ropes into the fodder room where they sit on the floor picking at the spillage. The girls must sweep properly. Fetch the hay and sweep. Get the rolled oats from the fodder room and sweep up the dry seed heads afterwards. She thinks it’s awful when Anna has to go home. It is a world coming to an end every time. Anna always has to go home at a particular hour. In a way she wants to go with her and never come back. Then it would just be the two of them, then they could be like a pair of savage sisters. She does not envy her and she never hates her. It is easier that way. They decide to give the horses a bit extra. It is their secret. They go to the fodder room and mix the compound feed with the oats in a bucket. Then they go into the stall where the two mares are. Anna holds on to Bess’s bridle so that the horses won’t fight over the food. Still they squeal and beat their heads, everything has to be super swift, but it is, and then both cribs are full. Their hearts are always in their throats when they feed. Even the distribution of it. Horses are caring and terrible. The girls each pet their horse, lift their manes and drill their faces into their warm fur. There is a special kind of quiet in the stable. The other horses are in the fold. There is just the sound of the two mares, the teeth grinding the grains and the pellets the flapping sound of the muzzle as they take in more food. Try putting your ear right next to its cheek, Anna says. She does. The girls look at one another, smile, still with their their ears to the horses’ cheeks, it’s a crazy sound. You can really hear how the teeth crush the grains and grinds the fodder into a thick porridge. I have to go home, says Anna and claps Bess on the neck. A cloud of dust erupts in her face. They laugh. They pat the horses’ backs, dust rising like butterflies then descending slowly in the stall between the girls and the horses, making a layer on the tip of the tongue and coating the teeth and around the eyelids that become grey-brown and heavy. You look like an albino, Anna says. They laugh but become serious. The little hairs on the face have also become visible now that the dust has settled on them, just above the lip. Do I also have a moustache, she asks. Yes. I wish I could come home with you and spend the night, she says. Anna’s face tenses. She looks down. So do I, she lies.
When they turn off the light in the evening a black-blue darkness opens up in the room at the back. That room is always in the dark. Even during the day when the sun gushes onto the island, the light doesn’t penetrate far enough to reach the room. She hears him fall asleep. How he breathes heavier and looser. The breath is a piece of gauze, which, throughout the day, has been wrapped tightly around the body and during sleep is relaxed, leaving the body soft and open. She lies down in the bed next to him. Breathes through her wide-open mouth as she pushes herself back over she sheet towards him so that they cannot get any closer. In his sleep he breathes in through her hair and out with a soft lamenting sound. She reaches backwards, catches his hand, and carefully holds his wrist. She pulls his arm around her like a wing or a blanket. She thinks about standing under the cherry trees at home in Copenhagen and looking into the crown as a bird lands, grips onto a branch, flaps its wings a little before sitting down.
That was when she had dreamt of him – the one she had been with for a short period of time a few years back, the one that she now somehow too late and out of place would think about again and miss. It was in this condition that she bent over him, started kissing his neck and his chest. She pushed further down in the bed and took his cock in her mouth and he sort of woke and grabbed her hair half sleeping, pulled her up, kissed her, pushed her back down where she continued. Do you want me, he whispered she whispered yes and meant it and he was already someone else. She put her hand on his mouth to stop him speaking. She blurred her vision and in that way saw his body only dimly lit in the orange of the oil lamp, the warm light of a Rembrandt to help her deceit on its way. Look at me, he said and lifted her chin towards his face. And she became cold, her body stiff under his. The guilt she would now have to carry, which he, with his hand and his eyes, had placed upon her. That he had let this happen, that he had not taken better care of her. Not held her closer. He didn’t notice anything. Just before he came they looked each other in the eye. Although he was remote and sort of isolated in his own pleasure he registered that she was looking at him from a place that seemed to him even further from the bed and the room than where he was at. And without thinking about it herself she instinctively led her hand to his chest, caressed it so as to show him a kind of attention, show him her participation. As he came he pulled out of her. The semen lay in a white fan across her stomach. He sunk onto the mattress next to her it ran down her side, became a clear trace and afterwards a dry white lace over her skin.
Josefine Klougart is the author of several novels of which One of Us Is Sleeping and On Darkness have been published in English.
New Forest, of which this is an excerpt, was originally published in Danish by Gladiator, Copenhagen, 2017. It is republished with permission from the author.
English translation by Kristian Vistrup Madsen for the Lulu Journal.
Swedish translation by Johanne Lykke Holm forthcoming from Albert Bonniers Förlag in winter 2019.