Issue 216, Spring 2016
The Germans were arguing about directions. Lennart understood some German—he’d studied it at school—but he was having a hard time following what they were saying. Beside him on the seat, a dozen bird decoys in a clear plastic bag stared up at him. He sipped his coffee, listened for words he knew. They hadn’t left the hotel parking lot yet. He’d met the Germans in the bar the night before, Saturday. The bar was crowded, and Lennart had found himself sharing a booth with the Germans. They were biologists and were already very drunk by the time Lennart sat down. He couldn’t remember the name of the university where they worked, but he remembered that it was near a lake and that they’d come to Denmark to research birds. They were married. He remembered this, too. Anneke was a little taller than her husband, Matthias, and she talked more than he did. Near the end of the night, over shots of Danish bitters, Anneke had insisted Lennart join them in the morning. “The Mile,” she’d said, sweeping her arm out in front of her, nearly toppling a row of empty glasses, “is unlike anything else.” He’d tried to decline the invitation but Anneke insisted. “Tomorrow is your last chance,” she said. “We leave Sunday.” Lennart planned to go home Sunday, too. He agreed to join them, assuming that even if he remembered the commitment in the morning he’d be tired or else sleep late and miss them.
At six or so he woke up, still wearing his shirt and his socks, the television whispering to the room. He dug his head under the lumpy pillow. The pillow smelled strongly of detergent and, beneath that, some musky, human smell. By seven, he was sitting up in bed with a cup of terrible hotel coffee muted by a splash of whiskey. The television, which had been playing an endless loop of short advertisements for local attractions, flashed to a sweeping aerial shot of a wide dune, gripped in places by patches of tall grass. Immediately, he understood this must be Råbjerg Mile, where the Germans were going to take him. He felt a swab of drinker’s shame pass over him as he remembered the invitation.
It was Marie’s idea that he come to Denmark. She had suggested the trip so that he might get away, as she put it, from a rotten year. It was true his year had been challenging. His father died the previous June. Then the following April, about a week before Easter, his grandfather died. Lennart discovered the body, had been the one to let the police and the coroner
into the apartment. All of it was sad and exhausting. Lennart had been a difficult person to live with in the last year. For one, he drank too much and was moody. He was prone to get angry or, worse, turn inward and shut down, ignore Marie and Tove for long stretches. They’d all moved into Lennart’s grandfather’s apartment that spring, and for the most part the arrangement was working fine. He was happy with Marie. They rarely fought. He enjoyed being around her, talking with her. They made love often enough, and he loved Tove as if she were his own daughter. But beneath all that there was a sense of finality, of permanence, pressing on him. It was immature, he knew, to feel so much anxiety about the ways his life had changed, and continued to change, now that they were a family. It bothered him more than the deaths of his father and grandfather. Marie had convinced him to come to Skagen. She told him about the art galleries and restaurants and the waves that crashed into each other where the North Sea and the Baltic meet. She made the place sound restorative, but to Lennart it was cold and dreary and he’d barely managed to make it out of his room at all.
The trip so far had been a failure. He’d been concocting lies all week about where he’d been and what he’d done. She would be disappointed if she knew the truth. He’d gone so far as to stop outside an art gallery on one of his daily walks to take note of the exhibiting artist’s name so that he might tell Marie about the paintings. In truth, he’d mostly spent the week drinking in his room and, in the evenings, at the hotel bar. By Wednesday, he’d achieved a kind of mania that scratched and buzzed at him deeply, so much so that he was incapable of controlling his own decisions and action. He simply experienced them. So when he got up and packed a small bag to take with him to the dune, he found that each of his movements was deliberate, inevitable, and he did not stop to question himself. His body acted before his mind. It was out of character for him to agree to such a trip, or anyway out of character to actually follow through with it, but in the context of his behavior in Skagen so far that week, it made perfect sense.