Fiction by Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Excerpt from Time Machine

Mother used to say there are two types of stories in the world: The Fall of the King and The Great Journey.

 

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You tell me to take Mother’s hands and pull her up, help her sit in the bed. Her palms are soft and clammy, proving she is not yet a corpse. Trapped in a body that is no longer hers, that refuses to obey, she expels three sounds, syllables directed at me, and I feel my cheeks turn red. I’m sorry, what? She repeats herself in the exact same way, thrusting unintelligible words into the air, neck veins taut with effort. I ask for your assistance with a look, and you seem to be suppressing a smile. As if a twisted justice has been served. You say it makes sense that I don’t understand her, having been gone for this long; that I have to exert myself to get what she’s saying. She repeats the noises again, this time more insistently, with angry impatience. I process her syllables, map out the sounds in my head, until I finally understand our mother’s words: velkommen hjem, welcome home. I wish I could reclaim my hands.

 

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You have no idea what I’ve left behind. This is what I’m thinking as you show me how to wash Mother’s crotch. How to pull her up from the bath stool, direct her to a grab bar. How to spread her legs and run a disposable washcloth from: beginning to end. That is how you say it. From beginning to end. Now it’s your turn to blush. I know you’ve only been with one girl, one single time. That was ten years ago, when we were still in high school. Now you say that you’re unhappily married to our mother; that you’re no longer her son. You get pissed when she calls you Little Squirrel. I’m not your little squirrel, you say. I’m your husband.

 

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The way she eats now; how she disregards the company she is in. Laughs hysterically with food in her mouth and spits out the scraps, unmotivated, without logic. Her drawling and her frantic cough, chewed-out meat and vegetables everywhere. It is almost as if she is more human now than before. As if she is back in that guttural baby stage, all actions intuitive. Or is it all on purpose, out of spite?

Later, a roar and a scream combined. A primal sound of panic. Mother shifts impatiently on the bath stool by the sink.
    What’s wrong, what did I do?
    It’s okay, you say. She just needs help with her toothbrush.

 

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Outside, hoar frost has covered the playground. Then: eternal fields, a surface of white. The Danish winter is a fucking abyss. When did it end, the calling to save our mother? We now take turns saving each other. I have come to replace you at the world’s end.  It is finally your time to leave.

 

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I was supposed to be in New York for three months. A deal was made between us. If I could just get away for three months, I would take care of her afterwards. There was begging involved. I begged you, and you shook hands on it, reluctantly, red-eyed. As if you already knew it would be three years before I came back.

 

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How we choose to spend our youth. The importance of it.

 

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Our mother as the ruins of a once great building. A fallen monument. How civilized she was before the illness compared to now. Our hairdresser used to say: You’ll never catch that woman with sweatpants or greasy hair. With her carefully chosen outfits, and mascara on her lashes, and the fancy books she reads.

She now listens to audiobooks: crime fiction, where somebody dies on the first page. The great Western literary canon is archived in cardboard boxes in the spare room. It is not until now—after my time in New York—that I fully comprehend the magnitude of her book collection. I recognize most names now. Carson, Carter, Carver, Chandler, for instance. All stored in alphabetical order.

When she sleeps, I go through her personal planner from six years ago. I like to think of it as a contemporary version of the Voynich manuscript, a codex written in an unknown system, an enigma of lists and sticky notes. Her level of organization used to annoy me immensely; now her planner feels like an old friend. A reminder that Mother did, in fact, exist—if only until the blank October pages.

 

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She says she hears someone knocking at night. That someone is knocking from the other side of the wall by her bed. She wants me to turn down the volume of her audiobook reader, to the lowest level. The neighbors think she’s being too loud, she insists, that’s why they’re knocking on the wall. But Mom, you can’t hear the audiobook if I turn it down any further. She says she can hear it just fine.

 

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I hear Mother sobbing inconsolably in her bed. She says someone keeps knocking on the other side of the wall. You’re probably just tired, I say, but she interrupts me, shrieking no! demanding I go investigate. I object, but she is wailing, so I put on my coat and shoes and head towards the building next to ours. I feel terribly aware of how this must look: calling a third-floor apartment at 10:00 p.m., introducing myself as the daughter of the woman next door. Still, they buzz me in, and I think to myself that this is when the most embarrassing part begins. The part where I have to explain to strangers why I’m disturbing them at this hour. A middle-aged woman in a tracksuit with short chestnut hair opens the door. Her husband is roaming in the kitchen behind her. In a clumsy manner, I tell this woman that my mother believes someone frequently knocks on the wall facing her bedroom. Well, says the woman, it’s certainly not us. So you don’t think my mother is noisy, I ask, blushing. Nope, we never hear a peep from that apartment.

Katrine Øgaard Jensen is a journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. She previously served as editor in chief of the Columbia Journal and as blog editor at the international literary journals Asymptote and Words without Borders. Katrine is currently a poetry judge for the Best Translated Book Award while working on her own translation of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s poetry collection Third-Millennium Heart, which is forthcoming from Broken Dimanche Press. She teaches fiction at Columbia University.

 

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