A Dress for Astrid’s Confirmation by Knud Sørensen; translated from Danish by Michael Goldman


By Knud Sørensen,  “En kjole til Astrids konfirmation” ©1986
Originally published by Gyldendal, Copenhagen.
Translated from Danish by Michael Goldman


He could have said that it didn’t matter.  More than 3000 crowns go through this property on a daily basis.  God knows, what’s the difference if we use a couple hundred more or a couple hundred less once in a while?  But he didn’t say that.  He didn’t get that far.

They had sat over their evening coffee and had started talking about Astrid’s confirmation.  Ingrid said, “Of course we’re going to the confirmation.  I can spruce up the black outfit from when Ellen and Einar celebrated their twenty-fifth.  And you have decent clothes.”

At first he had said, “I think you should buy a new dress.”  And she had looked at him with the hint of a bitter smile, but chose to interpret the statement as a joke. “Sure I could.”

“Really, I mean it,” he assured her.  “Why shouldn’t you get a new dress, since we have this confirmation.  You have just as much right to look good as anyone else.”

“You know what people will think.”  She cut off any further discussion by leaving for the bedroom to get out the black dress.  When he went in to go to bed, she was standing in front of the mirror, trying the dress on with a white tatted collar and with pins marking how much to take it in around the waist.

“See how slim I’ve gotten?” she said.  “A lot of women would be happy to look like this.”

“Oh, cut it out.” he said.  Then he added, “You know I like it when you look a little sharp and snazzy.  That’s why I said that.”

 

And come to think of it, she thought, the next morning while she was collecting the cups after breakfast – anyway, I earn my own money.  Her mouth took on a resolute expression, and she had a sense of how it would feel to hold her head high.  I do earn my own money.

She drank down the little bit left in the coffee pot, then walked out to the hall and put on her windbreaker.  Then she walked back to the kitchen, ripped a page out of the notepad, and wrote:  Dear Hans –  I’ll be back a bit later today.  I’m shopping on the way home.  Can you turn on the potatoes?

Quite a while before, Hans had locked himself in, behind the barn door with the sign “NO ENTRY without owner’s permission” signed by the National Pork Producers Council. So he would be removed from verbal contact for the next few hours.

I do earn my own money, she thought again, as she started up the little red Fiat 127, that they had to pick up for her when she became a home health aide.  They figured it would be adequate.  I’ve done my share.  She accelerated and changed gears a little too quickly.  The gravel sprayed out from the front wheels as she drove out of the farmyard.

From inside the barn Hans heard the faint sound of the motor.  Muffler, he thought.  I’ll have to remember to tell herStrange that women can’t hear those kinds of things.  Standing in the sanitary entry room, in his barnclothes and his disinfected barnboots, he perused the medical refrigerator’s contents.  Yet another pig had gotten weaning diarrhea, and a different one had produced a single sneeze, but otherwise everything was looking okay.  No deaths and no real signs of illness.  His schedules showed that it was time to inseminate a couple of sows.

This was one of the easier days.  No moving, no deliveries, just daily routine, almost.

 

Of course he could just call his daughter, but that would have to wait.  He didn’t have a telephone in the barn, even though the consultant had recommended it, back when it was renovated to meet SPF standards.  “You’ll be completely isolated for hours at a time,” he had said.  “It would be good to have a telephone in here, or at least a bell, so your wife can call you.”

He had chuckled and said that actually he would enjoy being out of reach.  And that’s what happened, for a while anyway, and in a way that he hadn’t predicted.  That was back when all their letters were either collection notices or threats, and back when every visit could have been one of those that could presage an “arrangement,” however theoretical that could turn out to be.  He knew then, as did everyone, how badly they were doing.  Back then it was nice to be able to legally hide behind closed doors all day, and his workdays got longer and longer.  He had had a table and a chair in the entry, and he brought his lunch and his coffee and his radio with him, so he only had to show himself outdoors during the day when absolutely necessary, only if there were outside work that he couldn’t postpone.  Back then he behaved much like a sick cat.

 

Towards noon the first part of the day’s work is about done.  The one sow is still too early into heat and has to wait, while the other one is ready for her “test ride” – as they call it in the instructions.  He straddles her and injects her with the allotted portion of semen.  That was that.  He cleans his barnboots, removes his barnclothes and walks in his stocking feet over the grate to the unsanitary area where his workclothes are hanging.  Out of habit he sits down on the chair.  Eleven-thirty, well, okay.  Too early to go in for a bite.  He’d be done before the radio news if he started eating now.   Better to sit awhile and plan.

That crazy woman, he thinks, feeling at the same time a warmth up around his throat.  It’s been hard for her too, maybe even worse for herShe was always the one out in the public eye.

But that’s over, Goddammit.  He emphasizes this thought by slapping his right hand down on his knee.  A cloud of dust envelops him, and even though he’s sitting in the unsanitary area, it’s still not too good.  But now that’s behind us, he thinks again, and he’d better get a hold of his daughter before she goes to lunch, even though she doesn’t like being called at work.

Okay.  He gets up, lets himself out, and walks across the yard to the farmhouse.

He gets through to his daughter.  She works in a law office, where taking private calls during work hours is frowned upon.  But this is important.  And the daughter listens at least, even though she doesn’t say very much.  But that’s okay.

“It’s your mother,” says Hans.  “We’re going to Astrid’s confirmation on Sunday, and she doesn’t want a new dress.”

“What doesn’t she want?”

“She doesn’t want a new dress.  She wants to take in the old black one.”  And he continues with an involved explanation about which black dress and when she got it.

“I know which dress,” says the daughter.  “It’s very nice.”

Hans nearly moans, lamenting his daughter’s obliviousness while trying to explain to her that it’s all that from back then that’s still bothering her mother.  She won’t allow herself to spend the money.  She thinks that other people think that she can’t spend the money.  She’s never gotten over it.

The daughter sighs.  “Shame,” she says.  “Huh?” asks Hans.  And the daughter says that Henrik calls that kind of thing shame.  “”You both have it,” she says, sighing, and he can almost hear how she is sitting there shaking her head.  But finally she promises her father that she will go out and get a very nice dress for her mother – she knows her size – and put it in the mail later that afternoon.  She’ll do it, though she ends with a parting shot, that her mother probably won’t like that someone else is buying her a dress.

So that was that.  A little irritated with his daughter but satisfied with himself, he pulls lunch out of the refrigerator. A beer for the occasion?  What’s got into him?  He pours a glass of milk.  It’s good to support his neighbor, who still has cows to tend.

The dress comes in the mail the next day.  For once he’s outside of the barn at that point of the morning.  It’s that day of the week when the butcher’s truck has been there to pick up pigs for slaughtering, and Hans is in the middle of cleaning and disinfecting the expediting room which lies the regulated distance from the barn.  He notices the mailman’s yellow Kadett turn from the road.  He waves and observes with satisfaction that the mailman is carrying, along with the newspaper, a package into the utility room.  “How did it go?” shouts Hans.  “Two-two,” answers the mailman.  He still plays, even though now it’s only on a level five team.  “Almost had ‘em,” he shouts.  He pulls up a bit on his right pants leg, edges back into the car, gives a honk and disappears.

Hans takes the chloramine spray and gives the room an adequate once over.  Good.  And now he has to go through all the rigamarole and go back into the stable to the sow that he didn’t inseminate the day before.  Today she’s got to be ready, by GodOr else nature has gone awry.

 

He had been looking forward to the evening.  As usual they eat late, and of course they have to watch the TV news, before he says, “By the way, I have something for you.”  And he comes back with the package that he had hidden out in the front entry and hands it to her.  “For you,” he says.

Ingrid looks at him, surprised, trying to say three or four things at once.  “For me?  What for?  I mean it’s not” – and whatever else springs from her bewilderment.  Then she looks at him and asks, “What is this?”  He nods encouragingly, and she starts to open it.

It’s reddish, he can see.  Maybe almost purple.  With large but discreet flowers.  He thinks it looks really nice.  “It’s for you,” he says, “for the confirmation.”

She stands there looking at the dress.  She holds it up and looks at it.  Then she lets her arms fall, standing there with a strange expression on her face.  Is she about to cry?  That never happened before.  Then she turns to him, and it’s not a particularly friendly expression on her face.  He can almost feel how his own face must look stupid.  “You big idiot,” she says.  “You great big idiot.”

“But,” he begins, but there’s no reason to say any more.  She slams the door behind her.

“But,” he says out into the air.

He picks the dress up off the floor and stands there feeling it.  It’s cool and smooth, and it is really pretty.  She has taste, that daughter.  He hangs the dress over a chair back.  She doesn’t get it at all.  She can’t keep getting stuck in all that.  One day things have to go back to the way they were before.

 

A little later she comes in quietly.  “I’m sorry,” she says.  “It’s just crazy.”

“Why don’t you want me to…” he starts to say, but she interrupts him.  “I bought one myself,” she says.  “I bought one yesterday.  That’s why I was late getting home.”  He stands there looking foolish while she continues, “I earn money too, you know.”

He quickly agrees with her, adding that he doesn’t know how they would have gotten along without her.  But that’s probably not really what needs saying right now.

“The one I bought isn’t nearly as nice as that one there,” she says obstinately, “but it looks just like the old black one would have looked if I did a nice job altering it.  They all would have thought it was the old dress.”

“Ingrid,” he says, “can you …” but she keeps talking in a voice that is halfway between contempt and depair.  “They’re all going to be there, the whole fanily, and they all say how great it is that we made it through, and they don’t say one word about all the money that Dad and Mom had to co-sign for on our behalf.  But what do you think they’re going to say and think if I show up in that thing?”

Hans sits there quietly, shaking his head.  “They’re not like that,” he says.  “You’re being unfair.”

She looks at him, now almost lovingly.  “You are so dumb,” she says.  “You have no idea.  But on the other hand they are my siblings and parents.”  She sits there for a little while, then adds, almost frightening herself, “Sometimes I think it all would have gone more smoothly if we didn’t make it, if we had to move.  Away from everything.”

Suddenly she starts crying.  And he sits there not knowing what to do.  Anything rational would be no use.  Not to her.  Or to him either.

“That was nice of you,” she whispers.

And Hans feels again that warmth in his throat, and he’s just about to say that they should take a trip together.  To Mallorca, for example.  They can hire a temp and screw them all and take a trip to Mallorca, and she can bring her new dress and they can do what other people do.  But of course he doesn’t get the words out and lucky for that.  It would just have made everything even worse.

Then, he thinks, we could send our regrets about the confirmationOne of us could get sick.  And he imagines how they have their own party instead, just the two of them, with new clothes and wine and everything, and no one else would ever need to know.

He clears his throat, but doesn’t say anything.

She does.  She answers.  She says, “This is really nice of you, Hans, but I can’t help it.  I’ll take it back myself tomorrow.”

 


By Knud Sørensen,  “En kjole til Astrids konfirmation” ©1986
Originally published by Gyldendal, Copenhagen.
Translated from Danish by Michael Goldman


Danish author, Knud Sørensen, born in 1928, was a certified land surveyor for 28 years, during which he became intimate with the Danish agricultural landscape. His work is best known for its portrayal of life in rural Denmark and the dissolution of small farming communities. A book reviewer for 14 years, he has also written 48 books and won over 20 literary awards. including a lifelong grant from the Danish Arts Council. In November 2014 he received the highest honor for a Danish author – the Grand Prize of the Danish Academy.

By translating a Danish copy of Catcher in the Rye word for word, Michael Goldman taught himself Danish over 30 years ago to help him win the heart of a lovely Danish girl. He has received numerous grants for his work with 6 distinguished Danish writers. Over 100 of  Goldman’s translations have appeared in more than 35 literary journals including The Harvard Review, Rattle, International Poetry Review, and World Literature Today. Four books of his translations of poetry and prose are published by Spuyten Duyvil Press. He lives in Florence, Mass. http://hammerandhorn.net/

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