I wrote this short story during a stay in Denmark
A WINTER MORNING ON THE ISLAND
(Helnæs Island, Fyn. Denmark)
An elderly woman was the only other passenger on the bus and both of us were sitting quietly engrossed in our own thoughts, now and then looking through the grimy windows to catch a glimpse of the countryside. The narrow country road we travelled on, twisted its way through the landscape in lazy curving motions, ostensibly quite indifferent as to which direction it took. It was early in the morning and the sky was still stretching its greying arms and shaking darkness off its shoulders, while slowly painting the rolling hills with the colours of a midwinter dawn. The driver kindly stopped when I asked him and I left the warm comfort of the of the bus, leaving the old lady behind. The cold air hit my face like a slap on the chin. I was tempted to board the bus again, but oh well, never mind, I thought. Cold or not, I must go on, for I wanted to experience a winter morning on this ancient Island, where once some of my ancestors had lived and toiled.
I left the road and began walking toward the sea shore along a little trail leading across a field. Small tufts of withered, frozen grass poked through the pasture’s thin blanket of snow. They looked like little straw brooms and crunched noisily when I stepped on them with my heavy boots. Small windows of transparent ice covered a myriad of frozen puddles and, like small mirrors pointed toward the sky, reflected the pale rays of the early winter morning sun.
I stopped for a while to savour a momentary silence, which spread across the frigid landscape. The hands of winter had gripped the land with its icy fingers clawing deeply into the soil and I sensed the tranquil serenity which lay before me. It was a timeless instant. My mind and spirit was nourished with images and emotions, imprinting them somewhere in my grey cells. Perhaps it was the stillness playing with my senses for during a few seconds, images of other landscapes, more friendly and belonging to other seasons, seemed to flash before my eyes. My love for summer and a green earth made mockery of the bleakness displayed before me, as I contemplated the sleeping, frozen landscape.
A sea gulll broke the spell with loud squawks as it plunged toward me through the chilly air, perhaps protesting my presence. Close by, a farm house lay nestled snugly amongst a group of pines, arrogantly displaying their prickly, dark-green fur coats to their anaemic surroundings. It was as if they knew they were amongst the chosen few who could show the colours of summer’s splendour, when winter’s ruthless reign had reduced all else to naked skeletons of brownish humdrum colours.
I began walking again, stomping my feet to keep them warm and soon reached the shore, where I was greeted with a sharp, stinging breeze. The wind bounced in gusty playfulness off the frozen banks of clay and sand, which announced the end of the land with brazen abruptness. The beach was littered with stranded chunks of ice, mingled in abstract confusion with dark brown seaweeds and wave-polished stones and boulders. A small boat lay overturned at the water’s edge, yawning through a gaping hole in its bow, the victim of some bygone angry storm.A thick blanket of bits and flakes of crushed ice subdued the waves that rolled back and forth in languid motions along the shore. Grinding sounds could be heard as they scoured away, with torturous monotony, at the myriad of seashells and stones scattered on the beach. Some ducks sat huddled together on a floating chunk of ice, puffing their feathers to keep warm. Further in the distance, gulls were surfing on the bitterly cold wind, eagerly scanning the waves among drifting rafts of ice for some small morsel, with which to satisfy their hunger. I followed the beach for a distance, hugging the clay banks for protection against the cold wind, which slashed, at my face with knifelike edges. My entire body protested against the relentless onslaught of its stinging, ice-cold breath.
I found a narrow trail which leding up over the banks onto a large, open meadow inhabited only by a rapidly turning windmill, which sent it’s whooshing sound into the empty space around it and arrogantly thrusted its tower into the air. Further on, the meadow yielded its flat, wind-blown expanse to gently sloping fenced-in fields and little copses of shrubs and trees, tucked away in sheltered hollows. I heard a dog barking as I passed close to a farmhouse and an old man came out from the barn, looking puzzled at me and, perhaps justifiably, wondering what I was doing. I waved to him and shouted that I was just out for a walk and kept on going. Soon I came back up on the road again and began walking toward a small forest about a kilometre away. The sun momentarily looked down upon the landscape through grey and angry clouds, rushing across the sky in wild pursuit of each other.
The woods welcomed me with a calming protection against the frolicking wind. Aging trees stood rocking gently in their winter sleep, their naked arms outstretched toward the feeble warmth of the sun. The Beechwood trees showed off their tiny little brown spears of dormant, verdant splendour, all of them waiting for the day when nature once again would bring forth the season in which they would reign in brilliant glory. Ivies, so scarcely noticed when the trees are clad in swanky summer frocks, now boastfully display their glossy little green flags, riding on bearded stems with lofty, unrestricted ambitions and defiantly waving at winter’s futile attempt to tame them. I tried in vain to visualize these trees decorated with clouds of fluttering leaves and their feet submerged in an unending sea of anemones and violets, as they would be in springtime.
Here and there, small drifts of snow lays scattered like fluffy white pillows on the forest floor, resting on yesteryear’s blanket of brown leaves. A few sprigs of pale greenery poked their heads through this cosy cover of leaves as if searching for encouraging signs to spur on their pent-up energy to grow and mature. Did they not, in some curious way, mirror an image of my own impatient youth when the promise of tomorrow could never arrive soon enough? The calmness and shelter among the trees deceived my senses, for it was still bitterly cold, and an eerie, creaky sound resonated through the woods as the wind played spiteful games among the half-frozen limbs in the crown of the trees.
Shortly the little grove of trees, pretending to be a forest, gave way to a ploughed field with long, brown furrows protruding through the snow filled troughs between them. Stone fences lined the perimeter, like a frame around an abstract painting of brown and white stripes. I chose to go around the field rather than having to stumble across this frozen sea of waves, and walked along the stone fence, which led me to a farm. The upper half of the Dutch door to the stable was open. Heat from the interior escaped as plumes of shimmering air, wafting an odour of stabled animals through the wintry crispness. Strangely, there was no snow on the thatched roof of the main house. Patches of moss clung to the grey-brown stubble as if someone had spattered green paint on it. Smoke came spiralling out the chimney from some cosy warm wood stove in the house, only to be blown into hastily retreating, bewildered looking smudges in the air by the still fairly brisk wind. The thought of a nice warm kitchen only served to heighten my perception of the cold ambience. How tempting it was to go and knock on the door and ask to be invited in for a moment to warm up, but alas! The time when such an action would have been quite normal and acceptable belonged to a bygone era, when the spirit of human kindness was more common.
The narrow paved road near the farm drew a black, curved line in the landscape with neat little houses, perched on both sides like small toy building blocks, rendering splashes of colour to the landscape. Somewhere up ahead I expected to find a side road leading down to a country Inn and given my present state of bodily well being, I couldn’t think of a better destination. The prospect of hot coffee, a meal and some warm comfort produced a feeling of urgency and spirited me down the road at an increased pace and soon I was brought face to face with the Inn. I opened the door and a wave of warm air rushed toward me. My glasses instantly fogged up, producing momentary blindness. I took them off and a hazy picture of the interior unfolded before my now slightly improved vision. The dining room stared at me with naked tables and chairs. A comely woman appeared and bid me a friendly “Hello” and “How are you”? I returned the greeting and replied in a self-pitying voice that I was miserably cold.
After seating myself at a small table by a window, I cleaned my eyeglasses and began looking around the room. A faint smell of stale beer and tobacco smoke lingered in the air. Some faded, smoke stained paintings of nondescript landscapes tried desperately to adorn the walls. Dishevelled houseplants hungering for some loving care, were placed here and there on the windowsills. The tables and chairs bore marks of many years of use, deeply ingrained in their rich, dark brown patina. The floor showed similar signs of heavy use by generations of patrons. This was no doubt a place frequented primarily by local residents.
The woman brought coffee to my table and asked smilingly if I wanted something to eat. I ordered a hot, breaded fillet of Plaice, with curried mayonnaise and a beer. She made a note of my order, but lingered around the table for a moment longer. I could sense her growing curiosity and desire to ask me something, but she turned around and walked back to the kitchen. Well, I thought, who could blame her if she wanted to know who I was and where I came from. After all, I was not a local person and had arrived on foot, rather than by car, the more customary mode of transportation for a strange visitor to this somewhat out of the way Inn. Shortly, the waitress returned with the meal and beer I had ordered and I consumed it with a ravenous appetite. After a cigarette and the rest of the coffee, I was left quite satisfied and ready to leave again, – this time on the homebound leg of my journey. After paying my bill and bidding farewell and thank you, I left.
Once again, I encountered a gusty blast of frigid winter misery. I began walking toward the highway, passing hills and groves, dormant, frozen fields and meadows and wondered which of them my ancestors had spent their lives tilling and harvesting. How many generations had lived and died here? In the not too distant past, had some of them perhaps not been bound to this ancient land as mere serfs for the Lord of some Manor? They lived and died, generation after generation, each passing their wisdom, life experience and genes to the next, – each in turn taking a few more steps up the ladder of knowledge and what we so self-assuredly call “progress”. It struck me that I owed my existence to their perseverance and ability to survive, during a time when this in itself was more of a challenge than I readily could visualize.
After a few kilometres walk, I reached the causeway leading onto the mainland. The wind had subsided somewhat but it didn’t seem to make any difference to my state of comfort. It was well past midday and the sun was hanging quite a bit lower on the horizon, playing hide and seek between sombre, dark grey clouds. I heard a car coming from behind and it stopped a short distance ahead of me. As I reached it, a man opened the window and asked if I was going to town, to which I replied in the affirmative. “Hop-in”, he said, I’m going there to get a few things. I needed no second invitation, for my bus was not due to arrive for another hour. We reached town in a matter of 20 minutes or so, and he was kind enough to drop me right where I lived. I walked up the familiar stairs to my apartment, happy to be home again after hiking some 14 km on a day, when common sense should have prevailed and kept me snugly indoors. It was nice to sit in a comfortable chair, a cup of hot coffee and something a little stronger within arms reach. After a while, I realized how tired I was, but the journey had been worthwhile. It had given me moments of contemplative pleasure and would remain fresh in my memory for a long time.
This work by K. Larsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.