Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 15, Number 2
Copyright © 2020
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Fiction by Tove Ditlevsen
(translated from the Danish by Michael Goldman)
He lay there, seriously and intensely observing his sleeping wife, as
if she represented a mathematical problem that needed solving, before
he could move on to other things. He always felt a certain tenderness
towards her, right before he woke her in the morning. This passed
quickly, and she rarely noticed it. He heard their son’s soft footfalls in
the nursery, his quiet coughs, and his talking to himself. Their son knew
it was strictly forbidden to wake his parents.
He turned towards the wall and shouted, “Okay, Esther, it’s eight
That was his usual morning greeting. One of the obligations he
took on, for some obscure reason, was to show his family a cool and
slightly accusatory tone, which was supposed to express his general
attitude towards life, and reinforce his own estimation of himself as a
rational person who disdained anything touchy-feely. He didn’t have
his wife’s picture on his desk at his office, and, unlike his colleagues, he
didn’t walk around with little photographs of his offspring to flaunt at
any time. Still the two were almost constantly in his thoughts, though
the actual nature of the relationship was difficult for him to determine,
just as he found it hard to differentiate one from the other. They existed
like shadows inside him, thought-fetuses he couldn’t get rid of, products
of a weakness in him which he tried with all his might to overcome.
They were in the way of his plans, and they made him distracted and
irritable, precisely at times he needed to gather his energies. He often
thought: my life would have evolved quite differently if they weren’t
around. He was still studying when he met Esther. He wasn’t really
sure if he would have married her if it hadn’t become necessary all of a
sudden. This was a question he asked himself many times a day,
without ever reaching an answer, or delving into what value such an
answer would have for him, considering how things stood. But he didn’t
like the idea that his life could be determined coincidentally. Things and
people were something a person reached out for, when they could be
useful to a certain end. A person used them for something, or else one
risked being used.
He sat up in bed and looked silently at his wife, who was sitting in
her slip, combing her hair in front of her dressing table, unconcerned
about her half-nakedness, as if they had been married for twenty-five
years. She smiled at him in the mirror, hesitantly, guiltily, a bearing that
was a natural reaction to his, but didn’t annoy him any less.
“Why in the world don’t you get dressed before doing your hair?”
he asked crossly.
Without responding, she stood up and went into the nursery.
“Good morning honey,” she said, in a tone as if he were still a baby.
She was spoiling that boy. She was sucking all the independence
right out of his body with her motherly fuss, but he would show them
both—though he wasn’t really sure yet, what he would “show” them.
He looked at his watch, hopped out on the floor, and sneezed five or
six times before putting on his clothes. He always had morning
congestion; it wasn’t a cold. It was due to nerves, the doctor had said.
Before he was married he didn’t have any ailments.
He walked out to the bathroom; he could hear her moving around
in the kitchen. She was filling the kettle. Carefully he let the razor blade
glide over his protruding Adam’s apple. The boy was noticeably quiet.
Did he go back to bed? Usually he was at his mother’s heels in the
morning, babbling on and on about all kinds of things. It was kind of
interesting to listen to what children say when they don’t know anyone’s
listening. He realized with surprise that he almost missed that babbling.
Half our lives are habit, he thought.
She was about to spoon out oatmeal for their son when he entered
the dining room. She glanced at him. “I’ll get the coffee,” she said.
He gave a quick nod and sat down across from his son and took
a look at him. The child avoided his gaze and rocked nervously in his
He must have done something, thought the father.
Then he got a certain suspicion. He grimaced as if he had just
tasted something bitter.
“Can you show Daddy your knife?” he said gently.
The boy had gotten the knife for Christmas. Since then, the father
had asked about it every now and then. The boy didn’t keep track of
his things well enough, and when one of his toys got lost, his mother
replaced it with the same thing, as well as she could, to avoid any
conflict. A short-sighted, egotistical maneuver, which on top of that was
rather pointless, because the switch was generally discovered. Apart
from a few instances which involved a cowboy pistol, a headband with
an Indian feather, and a plastic puzzle, the boy wasn’t fooled by her. It
really didn’t take much brainpower to tell the difference between new
and used things. The three other times he didn’t mention anything. He
had a strong sense of justice, and he would rather risk believing in a lie
than blaming people for things they hadn’t done.
But the knife was another matter entirely. He had gotten it from
his father when he was six years old, and when he handed it over to his
son on Christmas Eve, he had explicitly impressed on the boy that
ownership of the knife came with certain responsibilities. Contrary to
the boy’s other possessions, this one was utterly irreplaceable.
Whenever he asked the boy to get it, all three of them gazed at the
intricately engraved blade and the worn sheath, with devotion resulting
from the awareness that, for the husband, the sight of the knife brought
back lots of treasured memories. He explained how he always wore it
in his Boy Scout belt, and it made him feel superior to the other boys
who didn’t have a knife like that. Both the boy and his mother knew it
was the gift—and back then children weren’t so pampered, and he
didn’t get many gifts—he valued most in his whole life. Now he had
passed it on to his son, who just turned five, and to be able to do that,
he had taken good care of it his entire life. At least that’s how it
seemed to him now.
The boy looked at him horrified and turned red. His big eyes filled
with anxious tears.
“It—it’s lost,” he whispered.
He clutched the spoon and his little knuckles turned white.
The mother poured coffee in her husband’s cup. Her hand shook.
“I’m sure we’ll find it,” she said quickly.
He took some sugar and cream and stirred his coffee, while she
stood beside him wringing her fingers nervously. He looked up at her
with pursed lips.
“So you knew about this,” he said coldly. “How long did you think
it would take for me to find out?”
His heart was beating loud and hard with anger. Well isn’t that
great, he thought.
He sat down next to the boy, who was still sitting with his hand
clenched around the spoon, without eating.
“It got lost yesterday,” she said, looking down at the tablecloth.
“I figured we would find it again, since it’s happened before. Go ahead
and eat your oatmeal, honey.”
She patted the boy on the head.
He went out to the foyer and got his coat.
“I suggest you find it by tonight,” he said.
He left without saying good-bye.
All day long he thought about the lost knife. Back when he was a
little boy, he walked the overgrown path in the woods behind his
parents’ house. His knife gleamed in the air before him, sunshine
glancing off the blade. He cut willow sticks with it. Drunk with power,
he decided which branches he would spare, and which would fall
before his knife. Some of them he cut were weak and inadequate,
which he couldn’t use. Sometimes he decided that a strong, vigorous
branch would be allowed to survive. The willow branches were
enemies in a defeated army. Decisively and capriciously he cut them
down. Proudly, he showed his treasure to another little boy and let him
feel its weight in his hand. The boy gave it back to him as if it were
nothing special. Big clouds passed overhead. Others didn’t understand
that he was meant for something victorious and radiant. When he felt
the knife against his hip, he was strong and alone in the wilderness. It
was bought in Finland. His father had brought it home from a business
trip. There wasn’t another knife like it in all of Denmark. He played
“Country” with some friends and stabbed the knife angrily into the
ground like it was the heart of his worst enemy. The blade stayed
vertical, vibrating a bit with a barely audible tone. He drew a circle
around himself on the ground. “I’ll kill anyone who steps over this line,”
he shouted. No one tried to step over the line. They chatted peacefully
on the outside and let him stand inside the circle, swinging his knife. He
didn’t care about the games they played, and they didn’t understand his.
Even before he started school he had developed a taste for being alone.
He felt it was a sign that he was different than the others, selected by
fate as a person who would do great things. He talked to himself out
loud on the way to school when no one was around. He was an army
general conferring with enemy heads of state. He formed his words
craftily and deviously, taken from Carit Etlar’s and Ingemann’s novels.
He was good at world history. For a long time Napoleon was his hero.
He thought Napoleon must have been like his father, a quiet, strict man,
with an unpredictable and puzzling nature. His mother talked a lot,
often confusingly. Suddenly she would go quiet and look at his father.
They never fought. Still there was something secretive between them.
He had felt, in some obscure way, that they were enemies, and he sided
with his father. He sat between them in the evening, looking at his knife.
It wasn’t a toy, but a weapon made to be used at the proper time.
Finnish sailors always carried knives just like it.
He carried out his work as usual and gave orders to the women in
the office. A strange, dark excitement came over him. Now was the
time to act, conclusively, radically. He wasn’t going to spoil his son.
Suddenly he saw the little, scared face in his mind’s eye, and was
touched by something like compassion, something he wanted nothing to
do with. The knife sliced an invisible path through his thoughts and cut
away everything that was superfluous and dangerously weak. He was
going to be the pillar in the boy’s upbringing—the seriousness, the sense
of responsibility. But the boy always ran and hid behind his mother. If
this kept up, he would have a rough life. He had the same weakness in
his face that she did.
He pursed his lips and wrinkled his brow. I did warn them, he
thought. I have tolerated plenty. As the day passed, it felt like
something slowly was coming loose inside him, something that for a
long time had been accumulating and had been weighing unbearably on
his mind. They had created a world outside him, even though it was
only because of him that they existed at all. They were afraid of him
and shrank from him. Tonight he would show who was in charge. The
only one in the world who could properly protect his son. Losing the
knife was the last straw. He had the vague notion he had already seen
this coming when he gave it to the boy. That boy lost everything. He
didn’t value things that cost money. And who supplied the money? In
his mind he had a foggy vision of himself as an aging man with a
spineless failure of a son, whose excesses and debts he would have to
pay. And his wife was always swarming around the boy, defending
him, trying to hide his mistakes, acting guilty and distant, adrift in
motherhood, lost, unreachable by anyone but her son. This couldn’t
continue. He was a strong, rational person who was not going to be
controlled by coincidence. He was the one who was going to control it.
He would utilize every chance that appeared, make the connections,
and without scruples leap past people who had seniority. But people
who wanted to succeed had to have a private life that was problem-
Big plans, which had long been hidden away, reappeared in his
thoughts. Plans whose execution he could believe in again.
Close to quitting time he sat whistling in his office. Through the
glass door he saw the surprised ladies turn in their chairs. They weren’t
used to seeing their boss in such a good mood.
He sat on the bus on the way home, nearing it like an unavoidable
fate. He and Esther had never before had a real argument, since just a
hard tone was enough to set her lips to quivering.
This was a woman’s usual defense. Certain men let themselves
be bullied by women’s tears. But not him. That was over. Now he
was going to cut words mercilessly out of his angry heart and throw an
invisible knife between her and the boy. Searing, truthful words. In an
instant the boy would see that he couldn’t be protected by his mother
anymore. With one blow the ballast in the boy’s life would move over
to the stronger side. In his thoughts he prepared the tactics he would
utilize: start very calmly, amiably, decidedly; and then suddenly change
his tone of voice and rise up into the elevated, clean, liberating air of
anger and power. When they were both at his mercy he would stop the
onslaught and put the boy on his lap: Do you promise Daddy you will
never lose anything anymore? Good, then we won’t mention that knife
He looked up at the sky when he got out of the bus: a blue spring
sky. A cool breeze met him when he turned the corner and wandered
down the street towards home. Without rushing, erect and confident.
He stopped short. The boy, with flushed cheeks, was running
towards him. His eyes were radiant with joy:
“Daddy,” he yelled, panting, “we found the knife. I left it at
Caught off guard, he stared down at his son. His shoulders sank
almost imperceptibly. Something inside him collapsed like a house of
cards. He mechanically took the boy’s hand.
“Well that was good,” he said flatly. His heart was pounding
erratically, like after a long run. His legs felt heavy. His clear, incisive
thoughts coalesced into a dense, impenetrable thicket. Something
toppled inside him with dizzying velocity, a hope, perhaps. Nothing
was changed. Maybe change wasn’t possible. Upstairs his wife was
waiting. She would show him the knife with relief. As always, the two
of them would stand in the kitchen talking quietly, while he sat there
waiting for the food, grumbling, lonely, irritated.
The boy looked up at him, concerned. He had to skip along to
keep up with his father’s long strides.
“Why don’t you look happy, Daddy?” he asked anxiously.
He didn’t get an answer.
Tove Ditlevsen was born in Denmark in 1917. She was one of the
most notable Danish literary personalities of the twentieth century and
enjoyed great popularity as a writer of both poetry and prose.
Ditlevsen used her poor upbringing, fragile psyche, and long-standing
problems with relationships and narcotics as sources of inspiration for
her writing, and she became known for her unique, honest, and
uncompromising works. She wrote more than thirty books, including
Barndommens Gade (The Street of Childhood), which is in the
Danish literary canon. Her short story “Dolken” (“The Knife”) was
first published in Danish by Steen Hasselbalch Press in the collection
Den Onde Lykke in 1963. Ditlevsen died in 1976.
Michael Favala Goldman is a widely-published translator of Danish
literature. His translations have appeared in dozens of literary journals
such as The Harvard Review, World Literature Today, and The
Columbia Journal. He teaches workshops and gives readings at
universities and literary events. Goldman’s recent books include New
and Selected Poems by Knud Sørensen, Liberated by Suzanne
Brøgger, and Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen. Dependency is the
third installment in an autobiographical trilogy by Ditlevsen. In 2019,
the books in The Copenhagen Trilogy were published in English in the
United Kingdom as Penguin Classics, and they are scheduled for
release by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States in 2021.
“Before Rehab,” Goldman’s translation of an excerpt from
Dependency, was first published in the Fall 2018 issue of the Apple
◄ Previous page Apple Valley Review, Fall 2020 Next page ►