Translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee
She collects them, records them in neat red ink in her lined journal.
She follows a system. Every day she reads the newspapers, both dailies and weeklies. She reads them from start to finish, on the lookout for even the briefest mention. Everything must be accounted for. Of course, it’s really frustrating when there’s only a short article without any details. It is very important that she learn as much as possible about the circumstances. This includes the event, the family, the child’s age, the reactions, as well as what happened afterwards.
In addition to her thorough reading of newspapers, she goes once a week to the library and gets on the computer. Then she searches the home pages of international papers, followed by local foreign papers. Often that’s where she finds the most. In local papers the stories haven’t been squeezed into tiny notices. Here the reporting is in depth, drawing on interviews with the neighbors and the child’s grandparents. You get the reaction from the neighborhood and see pictures of the accident site, the child’s bedroom, the last diary entry. All is laid bare before the eyes of curious readers. Occasionally, she visits the home pages of crisis organizations, but not that often. There are so many of them that she doesn’t quite know what to make of all those crying children and desperate mothers. She can’t get any sense of time and place, or muster any feeling for the poor things; their stories fall into a big hole inside her. It makes her sad not to feel the force behind their stories or to sympathize intimately with the family. Sometimes when she’s been at the library, they have to follow her out again.
If an article is accompanied by photos or drawings, she clips them out and pastes them into her journal. The best is when there are pictures of the crime scene. With a little “x” she marks the exact spot where it happened. Pictures from the internet are often quite blurry; on the other hand, there are lots of them, so she ends up using the library’s color printer quite often.
Among all these sad stories she has her personal favorites, but she collects even the completely common, dime a dozen ones. The ones that, though they forever change the lives of those involved, merely bear out the statistics and could almost be termed normal. Crib deaths, traffic accidents, incest, abuse, heart disease, chromosome anomalies, post-partum depression.
Her journals are, naturally, arranged by category. At first, she only wrote the stories down in chronological order, but she quickly realized that in the long run it would be impossible to keep track of them all. She’d have to remember all the dates from all the tragedies, or else flip through her journals every time she wanted to find a particular story.
By now she’s arrived at a system that uses different colored journals for different kinds of stories, but what she’d really like is a file cabinet with hanging files. When she closes her eyes, she can just see how the stories would be arranged not only by subject matter, but also by date and name.
Some of the stories she knows by heart; even so, she can’t help reading them over and over, at least once a day, with a kind of guilty pleasure. She sits on the edge of her bed with the journal opened on her lap and her teddy bear beside her so she can hug it to her chest or hold it in front of her eyes when she comes to the worst parts. She knows all the details: where, when, and how. As she reads, her heart pounds, anticipating the shock and hoping that it won’t be as awful this time. And when she’s read the one particular story, the one she’s chosen for today, she sets the journal off to the side of the bed and gives herself up to crying, which swells up from someplace inside her but never reaches her tear ducts.
One of these extra-special stories was told to her by a friend just a day or so after she began to gain weight. Every time she rereads the story, she remembers how she’d sat on the little stool in the kitchen while her friend stood with her back to her, making tea and reciting the story of the not-stillborn child. She remembers the heavy feeling of angst in her stomach and the cry that lodged in her throat.
Her friend told about an aunt of hers who, thirty years earlier, had gotten pregnant for the first time.
“It happened before people got ultrasounds and all that stuff,” her friend said, turning around with a meaningful look.
When her aunt was seven months pregnant, the doctors told her aunt that the fetus had died. But the aunt knew that couldn’t be right. She could tell the baby was full of life. It kicked energetically at night and tossed and turned when she lay down to sleep. But every time she visited the doctor, the baby kept completely still no matter what they did. It was as if it didn’t want to be discovered. They’d push on her abdomen and listen with their stethoscopes, but find neither heartbeat nor movement.
“You’ll give birth a stillborn child,” said the obstetrician, but the aunt cried and said no.
“There is nothing wrong with my baby.”
Once more, she and her husband left the hospital and went back home; it was the fourth time in a week that they’d been told their baby was dead. Her husband was beginning to wonder if maybe the doctors were right. His wife seemed rather tense and hysterical, and maybe she just didn’t want to acknowledge the truth.
That evening as they were getting into bed he said, “Honey, maybe we need to listen to the doctors.”
She cried and hit him in the face and chest with her hands clenched.
“The doctors know what they’re doing,” he said.
“Back then people trusted authority,” her friend said significantly. “Back then there wasn’t anything called patients’ rights.”
The aunt and uncle went to the hospital. After a full night of debating, weeping and gnashing of teeth, he had convinced her that if the doctors said their baby was dead, then it must be so. When she felt it moving at night, that was only because she couldn’t face the truth. She was admitted, required to fast from midnight on, and the next day she was wheeled into delivery, where she would be the only one giving birth to a baby that didn’t cry when it came out. A baby that wouldn’t be laid on its mother’s breast. A baby that wouldn’t breathe.
When the baby was born, it turned out the aunt was right. It was a beautiful, living baby born eighty-seven days early. Unfortunately, the obstetrician had been so certain of his assessment that he hadn’t warned the NICU staff. So, no one had prepared an incubator, and the poor thing expired after having been in the world for forty-eight minutes.
Once a week she has to go down and talk to a psychiatrist. She has to. Judge’s order. So, she sits across from him at his big desk and look deep into his eyes when he asks her questions. He always suggests that she put her journal aside and lie down on the couch, so she can relax. “Then we could try some visualizing,” he says. But she doesn’t want to. She clasps her journal to her chest or sometimes flips through the pages in search of a good story she can read later.
Every time she’s in there, he asks about a certain day, time after time, even though she’s told him repeatedly that she doesn’t recall that day. But she wants to make him happy, so she offers to tell him one of the most captivating stories from her collection. Every time he nods and says he’d like to hear it; he wants her to know that he’s interested in her own story, too. He understands it.
The story she tells him takes place in the spring. It’s recorded on one of the first pages of the red journal, along with other stories that defy statistics. It has no clippings, no pictures, either, but she knows exactly where it takes place, and the way the sunlight shines down on the black car. The black, black car that pulls out of the parking lot; and she can see the woman—both from outside and inside—who stands a ways off and frantically waves at the driver, who doesn’t see her, too busy looking in his rear-view mirror. And even though he’s looking behind him, he doesn’t see the little boy who’s crouched over with his butt in the air, inspecting pieces of gravel. She can almost hear the desperate cry that escapes from the woman’s throat, just as she lunges forward to grab the little boy, the moment he sees the big tires rolling towards him. Then she hears the sound of metal striking the boy’s head, knocking him over, the sound of tires running over his slender limbs, crushing bones and bursting blood vessels on its way, and then the awful silence when the car stops, just before the door opens and the man leaps out with a horrified gasp.
She can see the tiny crushed skull, the leg pinned under the tire, and the boy’s vacant look miming the word “Mom” and ending in a final, confused question mark. But after that she ceases to see anything more, and it’s always at this point that the psychiatrist comes over to her, takes her by the arm, and slowly leads her down to the nurse, who hands her two small pink pills and a glass of water, which make her sleep without dreaming after she’s been taken back down to her room.
Two days a week she has group therapy. They sit in stiff chairs, six people in a circle, while a therapist encourages them to speak openly.
Not all of them want to share their stories, but all of them should, says the therapist. Then he looks around the circle, his eyes steady until they reach her. It takes a second before he can look directly at her. Just like the other psychiatrist, he asks her about a certain day, every time. She’d like to give him something, but he’s not interested in hearing a story from her journal, and when she tells him she can’t remember a thing from that day, he gives her an resigned look and moves on to one of the others.
She always sits in the chair farthest away, with her legs tucked under her, and waits for the others to finish. If she hasn’t gotten hold of the newspapers by morning, then the others will already have read them, so they’ll be wrinkled up, covered with coffee stains, some of the sections missing. All the stories about children will have been chewed over in the nurses’ station, while they drank coffee and ate pastries and liverwurst sandwiches.
Before she was admitted she used to walk around cemeteries in Copenhagen. Her favorite was the Bispebjerg Cemetery because it’s so vast and stately, sitting there atop of Bispebjerg hill across from the church and all the long intersecting avenues. A couple of times she saw funeral processions go by, hearses followed by black cars carrying the family.
Sometimes she spent whole days walking among the graves looking for stones whose birthdates and death-dates fell within the same decade. When she found one, she’d stand and stare at it a long time wondering what must have happened to that child.
Once she snuck into a funeral. The chapel was packed and no one paid her any attention. She wanted to get up front so she would have a better view of the coffin, and when she sat down in the front row none of the mourners stopped her. One of them handed her a hankie and put an arm around her shoulder.
In the middle of the chapel sat a teeny tiny black coffin, piled high with cheery red flowers, and a man stood beside it. With one hand he balanced himself against the coffin, and with the other hand he dried away his tears.
Afterwards she joined the group in Fælled Park, where they spread blankets and spoke in hushed tones about the deceased child. She’d asked a young couple if she could ride with them, and they’d taken her by the arms and said, “Of course.” In the park they passed around photos from birthdays and the baptism, and her eyes watered when she thought of what a large and loving family the child had had.
It was a little boy, she remembered that much, but she couldn’t remember his name. Not even after she’d gone around the cemetery looking for his gravestone.
A short while later she killed a man.
That’s what they want to hear about. She knows it. And occasionally she remembers the man and his family. The house with the small backyard, where she stood a long time waiting for him to come home, staring at the empty sandbox with leaves covering the sand and cat shit in the corners. She remembers looking in through the kitchen window at a withered basil plant on the sill and thinking that she ought to water it.
But she only remembers in brief flashes, late at night, before the sleeping pills have kicked in and she’s fallen fast asleep. She remembers the man and the sun and the boy. Later she begins to glimpse the man’s head. The sound of his skull shattering when the hammer struck. His hands reaching behind and grasping the bloody mass in the back of his head, just before he fell to his knees. The ache in her wrists as she dragged him off by his feet, and the sound of his head bumping down the steps to the garden.
But why, that she can never recall.
Henriette Rostrup is an author from Copenhagen, Denmark. Her first book, the short story collection Afkom (Brood), was published in 2007. Since then she has published several novels, among others the critically acclaimed A Year of Funerals (2015), as well as several children’s books like the dystopian children’s books series, The Dead City. Find out more about Henriette and her work on her website.