In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles. My father had left for work and my brother was in school. So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.
The sun broke over the gypsy wagon, as if it came from inside it, and Scabie Hans came out with bare chest and a wash basin in his hands. When he had poured the water over himself, he put out his hand for a towel and Pretty Lili gave it to him. They didn’t say a word to each other; they were like pictures in a book when you quickly turn the pages. Like my mother, they would change in a few hours. Scabie Hans was a Salvation Army soldier and Pretty Lili was his sweetheart. In the summer, they packed a bunch of little children into the green wagon and drove into the country with them. Parents paid one krone a day for this. I had gone myself when I was three years old and my brother was seven. Now I was five and the only thing I could remember from the trip was that Pretty Lili once set me out of the wagon, down in the warm sand in what I thought was a desert. Then the green wagon drove away from me and got smaller and smaller and inside of it sat my brother and I was never going to see him or my mother again. When the children came back home, they all had scabies. That’s how Scabie Hans got his name. But Pretty Lili was not pretty. My mother was, though, on those strange and happy mornings when I would leave her completely in peace. Beautiful, untouchable, lonely, and full of secret thoughts I would never know. Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window. On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child. Below the picture it said, ‘Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea’. Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad. But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once. My heart pounded with anguish and sorrow because the silence in the world was now broken, but I laughed with her because my mother expected me to, and because I was seized by the same cruel mirth as she was. She shoved the chair aside, got up and stood in front of the picture in her wrinkled nightgown, her hands on her hips. Then, with a clear and defiant little-girl voice that didn’t belong to her in the same way as her voice did later in the day when she’d start haggling about prices with the shopkeepers, she sang:
Can’t I sing
Whatever I wish for my Tulle?
Visselulle, visselulle, visselulle.
Go away from the window, my friend,
Come back another time.
Frost and cold have brought
The old beggar home again.
I didn’t like the song, but I had to laugh loudly because my mother sang it to amuse me. It was my own fault, though, because if I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me. Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us. And my heart could have still whispered ‘Mother’ for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it. I would have left her alone for a long time so that without words she would have said my name and known we were connected to each other. Then something like love would have filled the whole world, and Scabie Hans and Pretty Lili would have felt it and continued to be colored pictures in a book. As it was, right after the end of the song, they began to fight and yell and pull each other by the hair. And right away, angry voices from the stairwell began to push into the living room, and I promised myself that tomorrow I would pretend the wretched picture on the wall wasn’t even there.
When hope had been crushed like that, my mother would get dressed with violent and irritated movements, as if every piece of clothing were an insult to her. I had to get dressed too, and the world was cold and dangerous and ominous because my mother’s dark anger always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove. She was foreign and strange, and I thought that I had been exchanged at birth and she wasn’t my mother at all. When she was dressed, she stood in front of the mirror in the bedroom, spit on a piece of pink tissue paper, and rubbed it hard across her cheeks. I carried the cups out to the kitchen, and inside of me long, mysterious words began to crawl across my soul like a protective membrane. A song, a poem, something soothing and rhythmic and immensely pensive, but never distressing or sad, as I knew the rest of my day would be distressing and sad. When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me. My mother knew it, too, and her eyes would fill with cold hostility. She never hit me when my soul was moved in this way, but she didn’t talk to me, either. From then on, until the following morning, it was only our bodies that were close to each other. And, in spite of the cramped space, they avoided even the slightest contact with each other. The sailor’s wife on the wall still watched longingly for her husband, but my mother and I didn’t need men or boys in our world. Our peculiar and infinitely fragile happiness thrived only when we were alone together; and when I stopped being a little child, it never really came back except in rare, occasional glimpses that have become even more dear to me now that my mother is dead and there is no one to tell her story as it really was.
Down in the bottom of my childhood my father stands laughing. He’s big and black and old like the stove, but there is nothing about him that I’m afraid of. Everything that I know about him I’m allowed to know, and if I want to know anything else, I just have to ask. He doesn’t talk to me on his own because he doesn’t know what he should say to little girls. Once in a while he pats me on the head and says, ‘Heh, heh.’ Then my mother pinches her lips together and he quickly takes his hand away. My father has certain privileges because he’s a man and provides for all of us. My mother has to accept that but she doesn’t do it without protest. ‘You could sit up like the rest of us, you know,’ she says when he lies down on the sofa. And when he reads a book, she says, ‘People turn strange from reading. Everything written in books is a lie.’ On Sundays, my father drinks a beer and my mother says, ‘That costs twenty-six øre. If you keep at it like this, we’ll end up in Sundholm.’ Even though I know Sundholm is a place where you sleep on straw and get salt herring three times a day, the name goes into the verse I make up when I’m scared or alone, because it’s beautiful like the picture in one of my father’s books that I’m so fond of. It’s called ‘Worker family on a picnic’, and it shows a father and mother and their two children. They’re sitting on some green grass and all of them are laughing while they eat from the picnic basket lying between them. All four of them are looking up at a flag stuck into the grass near the father’s head. The flag is solid red. I always look at the picture upside down since I only get a chance to see it when my father is reading the book. Then my mother turns on the light and draws the yellow curtains even though it’s not dark yet. ‘My father was a scoundrel and a drunkard,’ she says, ‘but at least he wasn’t a socialist.’ My father keeps on reading calmly because he’s slightly deaf, and that’s no secret, either. My brother Edvin sits and pounds nails into a board and afterwards pulls them out with pliers. He’s going to be a skilled worker. That’s something very special. Skilled workers have real tablecloths on the table instead of newspaper and they eat with a knife and fork. They’re never unemployed and they’re not socialists. Edvin is handsome and I’m ugly. Edvin is smart and I’m stupid. Those are eternal truths like the printed white letters on the baker’s roof down the street. It says, ‘Politiken is the best newspaper’. Once I asked my father why he read Social-Demokraten instead, but he just wrinkled his brow and cleared his throat while my mother and Edvin burst into their paper-laughter because I was so incredibly stupid.
The living room is an island of light and warmth for many thousands of evenings – the four of us are always there, like the paper dolls up on the wall behind the pillars in the puppet theater my father made from a model in Familie Journalen. It’s always winter, and out in the world it’s ice cold like in the bedroom and the kitchen. The living room sails through time and space, and the fire roars in the stove. Even though Edvin makes lots of noise with his hammer, it seems like an even louder sound when my father turns a page in the forbidden book. After he has turned many pages, Edvin looks at my mother with his big brown eyes and puts the hammer down. ‘Won’t Mother sing something?’ he says. ‘All right,’ says my mother, smiling at him, and at once my father puts the book down on his stomach and looks at me as if he’d like to say something to me. But what my father and I want to say to each other will never be said. Edvin jumps up and hands my mother the only book she owns and cares about. It’s a book of war songs. He stands bending over her while she leafs through it, and though of course they don’t touch each other, they’re together in a way that excludes my father and me. As soon as my mother starts to sing, my father falls asleep with his hands folded over the forbidden book. My mother sings loudly and shrilly, as if dissociating herself from the words she sings:
Mother – is it Mother?
I see that you have wept.
You have walked far, you have not slept.
I am happy now. Don’t cry, Mother.
Thank you for coming, despite all this horror.
There are many verses to all of my mother’s songs, and before she reaches the end of the first one, Edvin starts hammering again and my father is snoring loudly. Edvin has asked her to sing in order to avert her rage over my father’s reading. He is a boy and boys don’t care for songs that make you cry if you listen to them. My mother doesn’t like me to cry, either, so I just sit there with a lump in my throat and look sideways down at the book, at the picture of the battlefield where the dying soldier stretches his hand up toward the luminous spirit of his mother, who I know isn’t there in reality. All of the songs in the book have a similar theme, and while my mother is singing them I can do whatever I want because she’s so completely absorbed in her own world that nothing from outside can disturb her. She doesn’t even hear it when they start to fight and argue downstairs. That’s where Rapunzel with the long golden braid lives with her parents who haven’t yet sold her to the witch for a bunch of bluebells. My brother is the prince and he doesn’t know that soon he’ll be blind after his fall from the tower. He pounds nails into his board and is the family’s pride and joy. That’s what boys are, while girls just get married and have children. They have to be supported and they can’t hope for or expect anything else. Rapunzel’s father and mother work at Carlsberg, and they each drink fifty beers a day. They keep on drinking in the evening after they’ve come home, and a little before my bedtime they start yelling and beating Rapunzel with a thick stick. She always goes to school with bruises on her face or legs. When they get tired of beating her, they attack each other with bottles and broken chair legs and the police often come to get one of them – and then quiet finally falls over the building. Neither my mother nor my father likes the police. They think Rapunzel’s parents should be allowed to kill each other in peace if they want to. ‘They’re doing the big shots’ work,’ my father says about the police, and my mother has often talked about the time the police came and got her father and put him in jail. She’ll never forget it. My father doesn’t drink and he’s never been in jail, either. My parents don’t fight and things are much better for me than for them when they were children. But a dark edge of fear still invades all my thoughts when things have gotten quiet downstairs and I have to go to bed. ‘Good night,’ says my mother and closes the door, and goes into the warm living room again. Then I take off my dress, my woolen petticoat and bodice, and the long black stockings I get as a Christmas present every year. I pull my nightgown over my head and sit down on the windowsill for a minute. I look into the dark courtyard way down below and at the front building’s wall that’s always crying as if it has just rained. There are hardly ever lights in any of the windows because those are the bedrooms, and decent people don’t sleep with the light on. Between the walls I can see a little square scrap of sky, where a single star sometimes shines. I call it the evening star and think about it with all my might when my mother has been in to turn off the light, and I lie in my bed watching the pile of clothes behind the door change into long crooked arms trying to twist around my throat. I try to scream, but manage only a feeble whisper, and when the scream finally comes, the whole bed and I are both sopping wet with sweat. My father stands in the doorway and the light is on. ‘You just had a nightmare,’ he says. ‘I suffered from them a lot when I was a child, too. But those were different times.’ He looks at me speculatively, and seems to be thinking that a child who has such a good life shouldn’t be having nightmares. I smile at him shyly and apologetically, as if the scream were just a foolish whim. I pull the comforter all the way up to my chin because a man shouldn’t see a girl in her nightgown. ‘Well, well,’ he says, turning off the light and leaving again, and in some way or other he takes my fear with him, for now I calmly fall asleep, and the clothes behind the door are only a pile of old rags. I sleep to escape the night that trails past the window with its train of terror and evil and danger. Over on Istedgade, which is so light and festive during the day, police cars and ambulances wail while I lie securely hidden under the comforter. Drunken men lie in the gutter with broken, bloody heads, and if you go into Café Charles, you’ll be killed. That’s what my brother says, and everything he says is true.
I am barely six years old and soon I’ll be enrolled in school, because I can read and write. My mother proudly tells this to everyone who bothers listening to her. She says, ‘Poor people’s children can have brains too.’ So maybe she loves me after all? My relationship with her is close, painful, and shaky, and I always have to keep searching for a sign of love. Everything I do, I do to please her, to make her smile, to ward off her fury. This work is extremely exhausting because at the same time I have to hide so many things from her. Some of the things I get from eavesdropping, others I read about in my father’s books, and still others my brother tells me. When my mother was in the hospital recently, we were both sent to Aunt Agnete and Uncle Peter’s. That’s my mother’s sister and her rich husband. They told me that my mother had a bad stomach, but Edvin just laughed and later explained to me that Mother had ‘ambortated’. A baby had been in her stomach, but it had died in there. So they had cut her open from her navel down and removed the baby. It was mysterious and terrible. When she came home from the hospital, the bucket under the sink was full of blood every day. Every time I think about it, I see a picture in front of me. It’s in Zacharias Nielsen’s short stories and depicts a very beautiful woman in a long red dress. She’s holding a slim white hand under her breast and saying to an elegantly dressed gentleman, ‘I’m carrying a child under my heart.’ In books, such things are beautiful and unbloody, and it reassures and comforts me. Edvin says that I’ll get lots of spankings in school because I’m so odd. I’m odd because I read books, like my father, and because I don’t understand how to play. Even so, I’m not afraid when, holding my mother’s hand, I go in through the red doorway of Enghavevej School, because lately my mother has given me the completely new feeling of being something unique. She has on her new coat, with the fur collar up around her ears and belt around her hips. Her cheeks are red from the tissue paper, her lips too, and her eyebrows are painted so that they look like two little fish flicking their tails out toward her temples. I’m convinced that none of the other children has such a beautiful mother. I myself am dressed in Edvin’s made-over clothes, but no one can tell because Aunt Rosalia did it. She’s a seamstress, and she loves my brother and me as if we were her own children. She doesn’t have any herself.
When we enter the building, which seems completely empty, a sharp smell strikes my nose. I recognize it and my heart stiffens because it’s the already well-known smell of fear. My mother notices it, too, because she releases my hand as we go up the stairs. In the principal’s office, we’re received by a woman who looks like a witch. Her greenish hair perches like a bird’s nest on top of her head. She only has glasses for one eye, so I guess the other lens was broken. It seems to me that she has no lips – they’re pressed so tightly together – and over them a big porous nose juts out, its tip glowing red. ‘Hmm,’ she says without introduction, ‘so your name is Tove?’ ‘Yes,’ says my mother, to whom she has hardly cast a glance, let alone offered a chair, ‘and she can read and write without mistakes.’ The woman gives me a look as if I were something she had found under a rock. ‘That’s too bad,’ she says coldly. ‘We have our own method for teaching that to children, you know.’ The blush of shame floods my cheeks, as always when I’ve been the cause of my mother suffering insult. Gone is my pride, destroyed is my short-lived joy at being unique. My mother moves a little bit away from me and says faintly, ‘She learned it by herself, it’s not our fault.’ I look up at her and understand many things at once. She is smaller than other adult women, younger than other mothers, and there’s a world outside my street that she fears. And whenever we both fear it together, she will stab me in the back. As we stand there in front of the witch, I also notice that my mother’s hands smell of dish soap. I despise that smell, and as we leave the school again in utter silence, my heart fills with the chaos of anger, sorrow, and compassion that my mother will always awaken in me from that moment on, throughout my life.
Copyright © 1969 by Tove Ditlevsen & Gyldendal, Copenhagen
Translations copyright © 1985 by Tiina Nunnally
Copyright © 1971 by Tove Ditlevsen & Gyldendal, Copenhagen
Translation copyright © 2019 by Michael Favala Goldman