THE BLACK SWAN
— Translated from the Danish by Michael Goldman
Red at the bottom, a green stripe, and black otherwise, it stands in front of my house and I work on it. The Black Swan. I own a dinghy. I’m a boat owner — ship operator, almost.
A boat like this needs a lot of maintenance. Sal-ammoniac, sandpaper, putty, paint, varnish, but it is enjoyable work and it looks decorative standing there on the field with the fjord in the background. I have hung an eel trap on the side for extra maritime effect and I am speculating about eventually acquiring a discreet tattoo. I am not sure I have the heart to set the boat in the water.
To begin with I was not so excited about it. I got it through my cousin. My desire to have a boat had been purely abstract, of the type that it was natural of course to have a boat when one lives by a fjord and has the convenience of being able to set it in the water anytime and go for a trip. It was effortless in thought. When you think about setting a boat in the water, you do it with one hand, with two fingers on one hand. The process takes no length of time, is over and done with in the time it takes to smile a toothpaste grin.
Of course it would be nice to have a boat at some point. I said as much, in a non-committal tone, and it was already like sailing a bit. I had said it to my cousin, an old sailor who had sailed with sailboats: It would be nice to have a boat someday. To say it to him was like going further out to sea, sailing the seven seas, and it excited me. And he took me at my word and came back with a deal — a dinghy with sail and outboard motor, guaranteed as a tradesman the whole thing, including the price’s incomparable reasonableness. He stood there, enthusiastic on my behalf, for here was just the thing I had wanted. He’d been looking at boats for me for months, and here, finally, was the perfect one. It just had to be sent by train from one side of the country to the other, but he would take care of that, and all the practical details — something about train stations, dispatchers, homeward sailing, mooring place etc. He would help with all of it, of course.
The puzzlement of a wish’s fulfillment. The discomfort of a wish’s fulfillment.
I felt like when I was a little boy and I finally got bunnies. The reality takes you by surprise. Suddenly there it is, standing there with it’s scythe of responsibility, it’s cage of duties. You have been taken at your word.
I lived up to the excitement to the best of my ability, to a happy expectancy anyway. When the time finally arrived I followed along with him to my house from across the country, and thought inwardly that that was plenty for one day. Pouring rain, the windshield wipers whistling and hissing in my face for hours, spray and splashing from other cars. And we arrived at the place and I thought that anything to do with a boat could definitely wait for another day, but no, for some reason it couldn’t be postponed. There were many things lined up, and the harbormaster was waiting.
I surrendered, took my feet out of the stirrups, released myself from responsibility for myself and my life, let him do with me whatever he wanted, followed along with a resigned inward head-shaking. To town to get a rope of a particular kind. Of course we’ll go to town to get a rope. Evidently we don’t need food, I didn’t think so, just a hot dog from a hot dog cart– that’s so quaint anyway. And then a search for a couple of fishing weirs to make it fast with. Did I hear him right? Fishing weirs! Sure, why not, why don’t we in God’s name search the country high and low for fishing weirs. And while we’re at it how about a few other small items since I probably don’t have anything else to fill my time with, or so think some certain individuals. And these fishing weirs have to be hammered in at the ocean’s edge, and it has to happen today. By all means! He must be out of his mind, that now just the two of us will carry these 9 foot long heavy fishing weirs down to the beach, and stand in the wind with waves up to our waists and pound them in. Or maybe one of us will have to stand under the water with the other one on his shoulders and the one on the bottom will be me, of course. Just by happening, in an innocent non-committal way, to breathe the word boat, people come and pursue you with tonnage, turn your existence inside out with their cursed vessels. Can’t you be left in peace? Can’t you open your mouth? I wish that boat and everything that belongs with it were sent to Bloksbjerg.
And then you have to be careful not to form too obvious a contrast to his zeal and stamina, fight back your taciturnity and impatience, act satisfied when he does, excited when he sees occasion for it. Fate controlled me, came rolling in from far away. I had released it myself and I knew it.
The day’s celebratory finale consisted of driving to the town where the boat sat waiting at a railroad station. This summerly town, that I otherwise enjoy, was transformed into a depressing railroad site, damp shipping papers, gloomy sheds and desolate wharfs, hour after hour; and my self reduced to tramping idiotically on the heels of station workers, harbormasters and dispatchers, tuned out like a four-year-old child, when grown men have serious business to attend to. I tried at least to help with the lifting, but there wasn’t even room for me there– watch out, stand to the side–, now they’re going to lift the boat down from the flatbed, six men in the rain who know what they’re doing, and — watch out, move over–, now they are setting it in the sluice and into the water with it. You stand still, arms hanging, and stare.
And so there it floated, rocking in the rain and the coming twilight. It actually did that, too. It was something of a shock for me since I had figured, in my sluggish, steamrolled state, that we were about done with that boat, and now we could finally put it away, escape the sight of it. Just a few bubbles and ripples left behind and down to the ocean bottom forever, so I could be myself again, turn around and go into town, which also could become itself again, just like everything else, finally. But there it floated, rocking, ready for anything, high in the water, bobbing coquettishly with my inadequacy, my powerlessness and my flight response intact on board.
The next day we would, of course, sail it homeward.
It floated there still, this time in full daylight, but had changed its appearance somewhat. It rocked gently at the end of the slack line, had calmed down, with an atmosphere of having resigned itself to its fate. Just the fact that it still floated there created the impression of something loyal and deeply touching. But I wasn’t so touched that I couldn’t immediately, relieved, enter into a division of labor, where I had to do the shopping while he rigged the mast and set the motor.
Break-time. In my summer town. In a delicatessen I bought a tray of sandwiches and in a market a couple of beers, and that didn’t take long. And since it was Saturday, when there could have been a lot of people in the shops, I had time to spare. So I went into a pub and let the pause descend blessedly over me. I relaxed after all the maritime trouble, extended the time as long as possible, sent a prayer to the sailors and understood, that after a turbulent existence they sought relief in the nearest public house, seeking oblivion in the bottle. On the way back to the harbor there was another pub, but I resisted it.
He took it very well, just smiled and asked why I hadn’t invited him. I regretted it, too. I suggested that we go do it now, but he wouldn’t think of it. Of course.
We stowed the baggage, and then the great moment arrived, when we would start the outboard motor. He was nervous, on my behalf, that it wouldn’t start, and I was nervous on his behalf, because he was nervous on my behalf. The whole thing was magnified because people were standing watching, hands in their pockets, and he thought because of this, that I would feel embarrassed. Teeth clenched, he pulled the rope a couple of times, and the motor started and I felt a great relief on his behalf. The first few minutes that we sailed out of the harbor, he sat completely still from the passing excitement, had to slowly recover. Silently we saw the wharfs get smaller and smaller and the Lime Fjord’s banks broadened before us, first over the broad bay at Thisted, and past there through the narrow Vil Sound and out past more wide bays. It was several hour’s sailing we had before us, but on the other side was the final leg, and a certain sense of well-being blossomed inside me — a final leg before the boat could be fixed at its mooring, responsibly tied, and I could escape from concerning myself with it any further. To pass the time, I started assembling a fishing rig, so I could let a trout lure drift behind the boat, but he counteracted me. Willingly enough, he slowed the motor to a suitable speed, but when he thought I wasn’t paying attention, he slowly, carefully increased the speed again, did it several times, wasn’t interested in our fishing, didn’t believe in it. Of course I could have shouted, said: For God’s sake, slow it down and keep it there! Could have used the opportunity to let off steam, it would have been perfectly fine. But I couldn’t be bothered, didn’t have enough interest in the enterprise myself.
“Don’t you want to fish anymore?” he asked in shameless wonder, when I packed away the fishing gear. I shook my head. Instead I unpacked our lunch. This he didn’t have anything against. No sabotage there.
Vil Sound Bridge was something of a shock to me. I was sure that, of course, we would just sail right under it with the mast and everything, while he expressed doubt.
“So what do you think?” he asked when we were a hundred yards away, and I had to admit to myself, that the bridge was lower than I had thought.
“It’s fine,” I said stubbornly.
“Well, now what do you think?” he asked, when we were 50 yards away. I nodded and sat ready to jump. It looks scary under a bridge like that: dark and sinister above and black water below.
“You’re the skipper,” he said and kept sailing. Then I gave a cry of panic and jumped up in the boat. He reversed the motor, while I got the mast lowered.
“Thank the good Lord,” I said, when we sailed through the darkness under colossal steel beams. I lowered my head.
“Told you so,” he said and laughed.
We had to relax after the excitement. We tied up the boat by a little swaying bridge in Vil Sound and went ashore there. It was a strange feeling to walk along, knowing that the dinghy lay tied with fine half-hitches to certain bollards and waited, to walk down the bridge and not turn around, still knowing it the whole time. We walked up to a shop, and I said it was no use, it would be closed at this hour, but he said of course they’ll be open, and he bought us a couple of beers that we drank, sitting on the shop’s back patio. Then I went in with the bottles, and the shopkeeper asked if we wanted a couple more for the other leg, and I agreed to his offer, brought them out as if I had done a good deed. We sat in the plastic chairs and smoked cigarettes and enjoyed ourselves. Then he went in with the bottles and said that there was a problem, because the second beer had gone down the same leg. I didn’t want any more, felt a sense of responsibility for the boat and the trip and besides that, I owed him money.
“You can go down and get the boat ready in the meantime,” he said. So I did. I knew the real reason he said it, but I did it anyway, let him stay behind in his plastic chair and went down across the fishing village and over the swaying bridge and down into the boat and felt like I had come home again. He had said it so I could be alone with the boat, become intimate with it, like you say to a little child: Go ahead and pet it, go over to the dog and pet it — it won’t hurt you. But I didn’t care, I wanted to go ahead down to the boat. I sat puttering around, lifted some floorboards and bailed out the bit of water that had collected, checked that the mast was properly lashed and got the motor ready.
When he arrived I was ready. We shoved off and I took over the steering, pulled the motor, and it started immediately. Then we continued sailing gently through the narrow Vil Sound, where there was shelter and completely smooth water, and the sun was shining. It was beautiful in this narrow passage with soft banks on both sides. One place we stopped the motor and drifted, watching a couple of boys, who were also out in a boat, tend to an eel trap. We leaned over the railing and watched, when the last of the eel traps finally came up. There were several good eels in it. We had been just as excited as the boys and had a nice talk with them. But when we asked if we could buy a couple of the eels, they became suspicious and reticent — they weren’t selling any eel.
They rowed to shore with their catch, and we used the opportunity now, while the motor was stopped anyway, to row close in to land, hop overboard, and have a swim. When we were sailing again, my cousin laid himself in the bottom of the boat with a cushion under his head and closed his eyes and just enjoyed himself. I was certain that he did this mostly to demonstrate for me what a great time I could have in my boat.
After Vil Sound, when we emerged where the fjord again became over two miles wide on all sides, we decided to take a detour. We sailed east. We made landfall on Mors. You can do things like this, when you have a boat, are a boat owner. You can sail around and go in to land whenever you want. It’s really irresistible — you just sail along as far as you want, cast anchor, hop overboard in the warm shallow water, wade in, and tread the new ground of the island.
We walked up through the streets of the town. The whole time we walked I had in the back of my mind a picture of the boat as it lay rocking out in the shallow fjord. A bakery was open, and we walked in and bought two popsicles. Without any real reason I bought a loaf of fresh bread, though he protested and said that we had lots of bread at home, and I knew he was right. But I just felt that, since we were in a bakery, it was only natural to buy a bread, and afterwards natural and fitting to walk around with it under my arm. So we walked around a bit, like you do when you have just made landfall from a boat, are guests on land, on solid ground — footloose guests. Outside the church walls we sat on a bench, ate our popsicles and studied the Mors-ites and laughed at them a bit without however, being able to draw any final conclusions — the examples were too few.
But we had to see about pushing on, see about getting on board, quite easily, out through the shallow water, up into the boat, in with the anchor, pull the motor, out into the wide world, out over the wide fjord where we could barely spy land on the other side. I sat in a particularly excited triumphant mood, and suddenly I realized why I had bought bread. Completely unconsciously I had had an intention. It was so it could be just like this. Now something was happening! I had freight on board. I was sailing a loaf of fresh bread from Mors to Thy!
I hope that he didn’t see through it. I don’t think so. And yet. Is there anything at all that people don’t perceive about one another, or at least sense?
“Well, what do you think?” he asked once, when we were midway out in the fjord, far to land on all sides, everything just water while we sat up on our little dinghy. “Isn’t this nice?”
I nodded. Didn’t have to say anything.
“Can’t you see it was good we got everything ready yesterday, even though you were in a bit of a bad mood?” he continued.
I denied that I had been in a bad mood. I wasn’t in a bad mood at all. I was thunderstruck that he could have thought that.
“That we don’t have to start the day today by getting the boat from the railroad and that we don’t have to pound in the weirs when we get back, but that everything is already done?” he continued.
Of course, I knew that all along. And I wasn’t in a bad mood. A bit inconvenienced, perhaps. I had other things to think about, of course. I was sorry he got that impression.
He nodded. Didn’t have to say anything. I had acknowledged the accuracy of his arrangements. There was a clean slate, no bitterness.
As if we could just as well be starting over, he asked me to stop the motor. Silently but determined, he prepared the anchor, threw it overboard, and when he felt it grab the bottom, tied off the line to the bow.
“Now you have to get to know your motor,” he said.
“Oh crap, just when things were going so well,” I groaned aloud. “Can’t that wait until tomorrow? Let’s wait until we get in to shore!”
“Nope, you have to learn how to deal with it while you’re out in the boat. Situations can arise, when you’re all alone, dangerous situations, and there’s no one but you. So you have to be able to deal with it.”
He looked at me somberly with a screwdriver in his hand.
“Fine,” I said resignedly. Let him, I thought. He is so damn sweet. He has been so great. I really like him. A few seconds later he was kneeling on the stern thwart with his rear in the air and hex keys in his hands. He took apart the whole works and gave a lecture, hiding his excitement behind a serious expression. Every time he turned his head and lectured I craned my neck and looked interested. The only bright spot was a spark plug. I understood some of it, but wasn’t sure where he put it in the end. But he enjoyed it. And he was right. Eternally right. It was just that if something really did happen, a situation, etc., I would, without running the smallest risk of shifting course, immediately curse the motor, pray to God, and start rowing. You won’t find me in a windstorm on my knees on the stern thwart, with my rear in the air and my head on the water’s surface in the trough of a wave, playing the little engineer.
When it was over, and the motor didn’t sound like it had been harmed at all, he relaxed again. He sat there splicing various lines, securing the ends very nicely. “Then they won’t unravel on you,” he said. “And it looks pretty, doesn’t it?”
In this I could follow him. It did look pretty, nice to hold in your hand. There is nothing like rope, or any kind of ship parts. A splice like that, that kind of mending can tell you more than a whole historical or maritime museum. I thought for a second that it was that kind of thing that architects would call exquisite, a good thing; and that why should they now come running in and destroy my sense of it. But I forgot them again because it was so pretty and clever and so genuine to touch, honest, good — no funny business there, from before the time of funny business.
We had been sitting preoccupied with our heads together like two boy scouts.
While I walk around now and look at the boat and sometimes paint it, I can’t help but think about the trip we had back then. It is as if that is what I am staring at, while I searchingly observe the painted boards, that which I am looking back on, while I cast my vision out over the fjord.
“Hey, you’ve got a good boat here,” he said once. “And this is a terrific place to sail…I think you are going to be happy with it. I’m happy for you. And it is a beautiful place to sail.”
“I thought so too,” I said. I sure was happy with it already. I had been the whole time. Really happy.
That conversation we could have had ten years ago, twenty, thirty, forty years ago.
There we sat in my little dinghy and seconds were like they always had been when we were together. We just sat there and he was just my cousin like he always has been.
Cape Horn. A couple of sentences I remember he once had said at another occasion:
“Cape Horn. Sometimes it’s strange to think about. I have been there several times. Around Cape Horn. Now that sailing route is desolate and abandoned. No ships sail there any more.”
Another time, as a sailor during World War I. He sat out on the yard and saw the torpedo coming:
“A second later I stood clutching the mast without knowing how I had gotten there. I god- damned ran over the yard. Like a tightrope walker. I have no idea how.”
There he sat, had sailed the seven seas. And none of us gave it a second thought. That sailing trip we were on could just as well have been ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago.
When he laid down in the bottom of the dinghy, laid there rocking with a cushion under his head, so I could see how great it could be, he was a fat old man. But even though I saw it, even though I was there in the boat, I had to consciously call forth the impression, imprint it like a stamp: fat, old. Because he was not old and I was not old, we were like we always had been, — and still we were as old as our grandfather was. And he was very old.
When we suddenly climbed overboard and into the water in the narrow Vil Sound. When we sat on the bench in front of the church on Mors. Old, fat men.
We were men in our mid-fifties and mid-sixties and neither of us gave it a second thought. The pattern between us was unchanged. We were like we always had been. Nothing had changed. We were the age we always had been, that indistinct age between 15 and 30, that age you stay stuck in, while the body goes its own way.
KNUD SØNDERBY (1909-1966) was an eminent Danish novelist, journalist , translator and essayist. Sønderby’s first novel, Midt i en Jazztid (In a Jazz Age), which characterizes the disillusioned Copenhagen youth of the 1920’s was not critically well-received at first, but the initial printing sold out in fourteen days due to its immediate popularity among the youth of Denmark. Today it is his most well-known work and an integral piece of the Danish literary canon. Over the following two decades Sønderby wrote as a journalist for three major Danish newspapers while publishing three additional novels, two plays, and translating numerous works into Danish for the Royal Theater, including Death of a Salesman, Joan of Arc and The Cherry Orchard. He was also a founding member of the Danish Academy. But it is in Sønderby’s essays where his highest achievements as a wordsmith and philosophical observer are found. Published in five collections, his essays’ charm and humor bring to mind the style of John McPhee who, like Sønderby, is able to make any topic relevant and entertaining. Some of Sønderby’s favorite subjects include reminiscences from his extensive travel, penetrating observations about the Danish landscape and its people, and the effects of modernization on the human experience. This particular essay, originally titled, “Den sorte Svane,” was published in Denmark by Gyldendal in 1964 in the collection De Blå Glimt.
About the Translator:
MICHAEL GOLDMAN is the founder of Hammer and Horn Productions and the audiobook series, Poetry for the Rest of Us. He translates, promotes and publishes Danish literature in translation. In the past two years he has received seven translation grants for his work with 5 distinguished Danish writers, among them Denmark’s most popular, all-time best-selling poet Benny Andersen. Mr. Goldman’s translations have appeared in 18 literary journals including The International Poetry Review, The Massachusetts Review and World Literature Today. His original poetry appears in Poet Lore and The Fourth River. He lives in Florence, Massachusetts.