by Oscar K.
Illustrated by Dorte Karrebæk
For the colophon:
Thanks to Sigvard Bennetzen, The Danish Ministry of Culture
and the Danish Writers Association's Authors Fund
Childhood happens to everyone.
It's for your own good, they said.
And now the sun is shining.
It's summer vacation, late in the afternoon.
The children arrive by bus and railroad car.
They stand and wait on the grounds in front of the empty garages.
They hold onto small suitcases and bags,
their names are written on signs that hang around their necks.
It has been a long journey.
They are tired and hungry and dirty.
John is constipated.
He has held it for four days.
The spindly girl with the black hair
would like to wash her hands.
She plays the violin, she says.
Anton counts how many of them there are,
more are arriving all the time.
Harry gives his handkerchief to Elvira.
She has a nosebleed.
Hamid plays around with a deflated rubber ball.
He didn't bring along a suitcase, or a bag, either.
Rakel wants to know where they are.
“Everywhere,” someone answers. “Nowhere.”
And where are they going?
To the camp.
They walk the last stretch.
Straight, past what used to be the post office,
then a right turn on the road bordering the fields and birches.
There might be egrets here,
John thinks to himself.
Outside the camp they fall in at the rear
of the long lines of children
who have arrived before them.
The grown-ups stand in front, assigning them numbers.
“Three-ten! Biiiiig-big number!”
The children must hand over their suitcases and bags.
The spindly girl wants to keep her violin.
”Nit mö-ö-ö-glich,” the grown-ups say.
But she'll get it back later.
They divide the children up
into those who are to go inside the wash house
and the others, who are swallowed up by the twilight.
John wipes his mouth off with spit
and shakes his hair into place.
He already has figured out which ones will advance.
Just like in school.
Elvira won't, he thinks.
And she doesn't, either.
But Harry and Hamid and Anton and Rakel do,
also the girl with the violin.
Or without it – now.
Anton opens his suitcase.
He has a mechanical bird
that tells time and keeps track of the days.
He doesn't want to give it up.
But he will get it back,
She wouldn't mind eating, and soon.
Around his neck Hamid wears a chain with the hand of Fatima.
He doesn't like grown-ups.
They have faces like monkeys
and steal things from others.
Good thing he didn't bring anything else along!
Harry thinks briefly about running away
like that time in the orphanage,
but he stands there.
You stay right here, Harry!
It's too late.
Then they walk through the gateway and into the camp
into the wash house.
Above the gateway is a sign: ”Love conquers everyone.”
They must stack their clothes in the wash house,
shoes separate and coats, socks, shirts, pants and dresses in piles
– and underpants.
The grown-ups take everything from them, including their names.
It's up to them to remember them.
Then someone comes and cuts their hair.
With an electric shaver to prevent lice and fleas.
Epidemics can easily break out because they are so many,
thinks John. Like back in the fourth grade.
Afterward they can barely recognize each other.
They stand around, shy now, looking.
Rakel is horrified at the sight of the spindly girl.
One of the grown-ups approaches Harry
and reaches out to him.
We do care about you, Harry!
Harry is afraid he is going to pat him on the cheek.
But now they're going to take a bath! Hurray!
They're not allowed to drink the water. They'll get sick.
And don't waste it.
The soap, either.
There aren't any towels,
but they are given sneakers and underwear and a smock that almost fits,
a cup and a spoon.
It's dark now. The weather is mild.
The children walk in rows past the barracks,
which have names:
Bellflower. Daisy. Coltsfoot.
Several grown-ups stand in front of Buttercup,
ladling soup from a large pot.
Around them stands a group of children
with small numbers, jug-ears, pointed noses
and crafty eyes.
They push, they steal each other's bread.
Idiots, thinks Harry
and lets Rakel go in front of him.
The bread is dry. The soup thin and murky.
The spindly girl doesn't want any of it.
And neither do Rakel, Anton and John.
They pour the soup out on the ground and toss the bread away.
The others scramble for it like rats
and stuff it in their mouths.
Harry and Hamid eat the soup
and save the dry bread.
That's where they are going to stay.
With those who have the small numbers, who have been in camp a long time.
The leader gives each of them a blanket
and shows them where they will sleep.
“Six in one bunk?”
“And one toilet for forty-two of us,” he says
and points to the lavatory by the door.
Then the lights are turned off.
There is very little room in the top bunk.
They can't even sit up.
Anton lies closest to the wall with Hamid,
then the spindly girl and Rakel and Harry,
with John farthest out.
They keep quiet,
moving as little as possible.
Ma'ariv, You who roll back light before darkness.
The smallest ones mumble a prayer,
the others have long since given up on praying.
Hamid only needs to think of his father
who sits around moaning about his native land,
Allah Akbar …
“I'm hungry,” Rakel whispers.
Harry gives her his bread.
Hamid shares with the others,
but John doesn't want any.
Anton rests his head against the wooden post.
He wants his mechanical bird back.
How else will he be able to count the hours and days?
He slips his spoon out of his pocket
and makes a mark on the wall with it.
The spindly girl stares up at the darkness.
She barely breathes
so as to not touch the others.
Everyone had their own bed in the dormitory at boarding school.
And there were music classes.
She hated the other classes.
The looks from the teachers. And the shame when she was called on.
The others giggling.
They kept quiet during music class.
Hamid has curled up like a puppy,
not the way of those who have evoked Your anger or of those who are astray,
and is already asleep.
At the asylum center he could sleep standing up,
if he had to.
Rakel snuggles up to Harry's back
and she falls asleep too.
John thinks about herons.
He can't sleep.
He plays possum, he lies there listening to the others tiptoeing over to pee,
holding it until everyone is asleep.
Rakel tosses and turns.
She dreams of the summer morning
when she opened her aunt and uncle's bedroom door
and quickly closed it again.
She had seen a terrifying sight:
In front of the mirror sat a bald woman in a red dressing gown.
It was only much later that she realized
the woman was her aunt,
who usually went around with her hair messed up.
The barracks is quiet.
John hears the others breathing,
somewhere one of them is whispering in their sleep.
But why not? Because. Because, I say.
Sleeping is light, like a veil.
John hoists himself out of the bunk and tiptoes to the toilet.
A sharp red beam blasts onto the floor like a trumpet.
The sun rises.
John desperately presses his hands into his stomach.
Then the lights are turned on.
“Wstawac!” It's the hoarse voice of the leader. “Time to get up!”
Outside the sun is shining.
The orchestra plays.
They all rush outside to the grounds in front of the barracks
and form rows.
Drum rolls. Faster and faster.
The grown-ups cry out:
That's Harry. ”Present!”
Three-sixteen!? John. Three-eleven. The spindly girl. Three-fourteen. Rakel. Three-twelve, Three-thirteen, Hamid, Anton …
In the crew with Krzystof, the leader. Zero-eighteen.
The grounds are alive with groups of children on their way to work and grown-ups
carrying off the sick.
Krzystof starts to run. “Come on.”
Down beside the fence.
“Stay away from it,” he whispers hoarsely. “It's electric.”
“At the asylum center the new ones had to pee on the electric fence,”
laughs Three-twelve, Hamid,
and nearly knocks over a wretched soul in a band of ghosts
who stagger on.
”Shadow-skeletons,” whispers Krzystof,
”Forget about them.”
They are to make horses,
stick brushes in the holes for tails
and paint them.
Everything lies ready on the table underneath the shed's roof:
horses that smell of sawdust, over a hundred,
bottles of glue,
cans of paint,
”Almost like in art class,”
says Three-sixteen, John.
”Yes,” Krzystof whispers. ”Get started!
We have to do all of them.
Or else we'll end up in The Hole.”
”Up yours!” laughs Three-twelve, Hamid,
and sticks tails on with a drop of glue.
”What about break?”
asks Three-thirteen, Anton.
”And food?” says Three-fourteen, Rakel,
”don't we get something to eat?”
Zero-eighteen doesn't answer. He works.
Like Three-fifteen, Harry,
who worked for his father,
who got Harry after the divorce.
You do know I love you, Harry.
And how could he stand up against love?
The spindly girl's hand hurts from painting.
They're all thirsty.
But they say nothing.
The grown-ups keep an eye on them.
In the evening Three-fourteen, Rakel, and the others eat their soup and bread.
They look forward to it as the days go by,
while waiting for nothing to happen.
One morning they have to stay in the barracks.
The grown-ups come for Three-eleven,
the spindly girl whose name no one knows.
She remembers it.
The head and the commission arrive.
First she is washed and given clean clothes and a wig to wear.
Then they put make-up on her and hand her the violin
and a cigarette.
She is to give a concert.
”She is so beautiful,” Three-fourteen whispers.
”She's playing for us!”
Yes, the others are thinking, we will never forget this.
After the concert one of the grown-ups puts a coat around Teresa's shoulders.
Later, when she once again is Three-eleven,
the spindly girl without the violin and wig,
they smile shyly at her,
but she doesn't notice.
One morning the grown-ups find Three-eleven.
She ran out in the night and threw herself against the fence.
Every evening Three-thirteen carves a mark in the wall.
They have been in the camp one hundred forty-seven days now.
His chest burns inside.
Outside it has begun snowing.
Everything is still.
White, the color of frost.
The birch trees.
Strange, so quiet.
At night they stick their fingers in their mouths,
their hands under their armpits and between their thighs
and trade places to keep warm
like bees in a winter hive.
Three-thirteen comes down with a high fever
and has to stay in the barracks.
”Pneumonia,” says Zero-eighteen.
He recognizes it from past winters.
Three-sixteen fetches soup and bread for Three-thirteen,
he drinks some of the soup on the way and saves the bread.
Three-thirteen can't get anything down other than soup anyway.
”The spoon,” he whispers
and scratches a mark on the post
before falling asleep.
At night he babbles deliriously:
Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!
Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it's getting!
His lungs wheeze.
(skiltet: too late)
Three-twelve borrows Three-thirteen's hat,
and the next few days they share his bread
and sell the soup to a few from the other barracks for an undershirt for Three-fourteen,
a lighter and some rags to help against the frost.
Zero-eighteen gathers moss,
which he stuffs inside an empty paint can with holes in it
and sets it on fire.
Zero-twenty swipes a horse.
Three-thirteen regains his senses.
”How long have I been sick?”
but no one remembers.
”So we don't have any idea how long we've been here,”
I can read for you, Three-twenty says.
He has traded the horse for a book
so tattered and worn that the letters are illegible,
and it's up to him to make up a wonderful story.
But Three-thirteen doesn't listen.
And Zero-eighteen brings soup
he stole from the shadow-skeletons,
they don't care anyway.
Three-thirteen wastes away.
One morning on the way to the horses he falls out of line
and totters along with the phantoms.
In the evening Three-fifteen notices a squirrel
Not very big. A young one.
It sits in the snow outside
and watches him.
He tosses it a bit of his bread.
It eats the bread.
Three-fifteen doesn't tell anyone,
but he thinks about the squirrel
before he falls asleep.
It's there again the next evening.
Three-fifteen feeds it.
Maybe it can be tamed.
Long ago he wanted a dog …
No pets, Harry!
The squirrel eats from his hand,
crawls up his arm
and snuggles up to him.
Three-fifteen hides him under his clothes
and brings him inside.
”It's so cute!” Three-fourteen whispers
when the lights are turned out.
”What is its name?”
Lilja, it's called. Lilja.
”We'll keep it a secret, right? And take care of it.”
They smile and give it bread and play with it.
And keep it warm.
They keep it with them during the day.
It runs around the table and up a tree.
Sometimes it's so funny to watch
that they can't keep from laughing.
”What are you laughing at?” asks the grown-up
who is keeping an eye on them.
They look away.
”Nothing,” Three-sixteen says, ”there's not much to laugh about.”
The squirrel hides behind his sneakers.
The grown-up hesitates a second.
Then he smacks Three-sixteen to the ground.
The squirrel sits in the snow, watching.
Three-fifteen tries to catch it but the grown-up is quicker.
He tosses the squirrel in the can with the moss and glowings
and swings it round.
Round and round and round.
Afterward Three-sixteen is thrown in The Hole.
Three-fifteen is free to choose,
it's all about you, Harry, it's your life,
it's hard to take it totally seriously,
that all that matters is what he wants,
but he accepts the coat.
Three-fourteen is freezing.
Three-fifteen doesn't care.
He's dressed warmly now.
It's not the first time
Three-sixteen is in The Hole.
He's used to being locked in.
And in school.
It doesn't bother him.
As long as he can be himself.
He likes solitude.
And snow egrets.
He enjoys being alone
and doesn't care when they will let him out.
He will put on a sad face
so they can plainly see
he has learned his lesson.
The key rustles in the lock,
and a grown-up lets him out.
More and more of them disappear,
and one day Zero-eighteen is gone too.
At night they hear music from outside.
“We have to be quiet,” they tell each other,
“not a single peep, bite your arm if you have to.”
“Human bites are dangerous,” Three-fourteen whispers,
and they bite their arms to keep quiet, quiet as mice.
Now the band plays in earnest.
Three-sixteen has to hoist himself out.
The music thunders. Chim-da-da-da!
Then the door bursts open,
and they are herded outside in the dark.
Drum rolls and piccolo trills. Faster and faster. Louder and louder.
Suddenly the music stops.
Three-sixteen sits absolutely still,
he wants to recall something good,
a red beam piercing the air down to the floor,
a hoarse voice that cries:
Wstawac! Time to get up!
But nothing happens.
Then there is shouting outside.
” … Congratulations!”
”Three-thirteen … Three-thirteen? … Three-fourteen!”
”Three-sixteen? Three-sixteen ...”
Out on the grounds
the other children stand
in slightly oversized coats and black caps.
The head congratulates them on their graduation.
Three-sixteen is freezing.
Late in the day the bulldozers clean up outside,
as if everything is to be leveled to the ground.
He doesn't know how long he sits there,
hours or days,
and he cannot recall his name.
“Three-sixteen,” he repeats, “Three-sixteen …”
At noon he opens the door.
It's spring. Milky. Foggy.
The fence is gone.
The earth is covered with sawdust.
“Three-sixteen,” he mumbles. “Three-sixteen ...”
He sees the outline of a group of transparent ghosts
in ragged smocks
One of them is holding a mechanical bird with a broken wing.
The shadow-skeleton lays a hand on his arm
like a cautious old bat
and whispers something to him.
But Three-sixteen doesn't know him.
A bewildered grown-up runs around, crying: ”Lilja, little Lilja!”
Three-sixteen can go now,
but where to, he doesn't know.
A snow egret stands in the field.
What was it the ghost had whispered? Juh … Jah? John!
Then he leaves, John leaves.
And now the sun is shining.
It's summer vacation, late in the afternoon.
The children arrive by bus and railroad car …