Herewith is a story by Simon Fruelund translated by K. E. Semmel.
K. E. Semmel is an old friend and former colleague from my days at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He is not only a dedicated and talented fiction writer in his own right, but a hard working and skilled translator as well, having translated and published four books of Scandinavian fiction in the last five years, including two books by Simon Fruelund, Karin Fossum’s The Caller, and Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One. (He’s wrapping up a fifth book this summer.) K. E. Semmel also serves as the Development and Communications Manager at Collegiate Directions, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to helping low-income children attend four-year college. I have spent many Sunday afternoons with him and his family, watching our sons play, drinking Belgian ales, talking books, and trying to love baseball as much as he does, so it is with pleasure that I bring to Numéro Cinq one of his translations.
Simon Fruelund is the author five books of which two are available in English: his novel Civil Twilight (published by Spout Hill Press) and a soon-to-be released collection of short fiction titled Milk and Other Stories (Santa Fe Writer’s Project). Alan Cheuse, book critic for National Public Radio, recently wrote about Fruelund’s work: “[he] is a master of the short form, importing some designs from our own Raymond Carver, applying them to the interstices of the European everyday, and making them his own.”
“Albatross” is typical of Simon Fruelund’s style. A sparse, subdued story about two brothers, one of whom sets fire to his father’s rye field. With unassuming details and carefully fine-tuned images, “Albatross” is the type of story that sneaks up on you, and I found myself thinking for days after first reading it about the boy/arsonist perched atop the silo watching the adults scramble to put out his fire and harvest their grain. As K. E. Semmel has written: in Fruelund’s work “truths and experiences are intimated” in “quiet, inconspicuous way[s].” “Albatross” will appear in Milk and Other Stories.
My brother sat on the couch reading a magazine. I aimed at him with my lighter pistol and pulled the trigger. The flame rose straight up, almost five inches high, but he didn’t react.
I tossed the lighter at him over the coffee table. He dropped the magazine and threw himself toward the lighter in order to save the couch and curtains and wall-to-wall carpet. He couldn’t find it and started pulling the pillows down on the floor.
—Jeppe, you dick. Where’d it go? You’ll burn the house down.
The lighter lay on the floor right at his feet. I stood and walked over. The flame had gone out as soon as I’d let go.
—Here, I said and handed it to him.
—You’re an idiot, he said, refusing the lighter.
I stuffed the lighter in my pocket and left the room. I put on my boots and jacket and walked through the empty stalls and out the other side. We’d not been outdoors for two days. The afternoon sky was clear and blue, and I tromped toward our neighbor’s place. Svend the Hen was scorching his field; he’d lit rows of straw on the opposite side, and the fire now ran in parallel tracks over the crest of a hill. He was busy plowing a security barrier so the fire wouldn’t leap over onto our field, which hadn’t been harvested yet. He brought the tractor to a halt and opened the cab door.
I grabbed the handrail inside the door and hoisted myself up. Svend the Hen had his shotgun across his thigh, the barrel snapped open and draped over his leg. I sat on the wheel guard, and the tractor started with a jerk. Svend the Hen’s short silver hair poked out of the corner of a green cap. He didn’t say anything. He plowed another row along the barrier to our field.
—So, he said.
I could see how the effort of talking stretched his cheeks, how his lips twitched in the attempt, and how he sat chewing on what he would say. As if he had to put his tongue and lips in order first. As we reached the end of the row, he turned the tractor and began a third row.
—So…They’re on vacation or what?
—Yeah, I said.
—What about the other hen?
—He’s at home.
—Well, well, then.
He always called us hens—maybe because he didn’t have any kids of his own. Some said he fucked his cows, but I had never believed it.
—Well then, he said again after a minute.
He smiled for an instant. Not because he liked to, but more because he couldn’t help himself, I think. Or maybe because he was proud that he’d managed to get his tongue in the right position in his mouth, moved his lips and all that. His teeth didn’t look too good, and you couldn’t mistake the smell. Maybe everything’s going rotten in there, I thought. He turned the tractor up near the shrubbery and drove with the plow raised in the direction of the fire. He took two bullets from a box on the front window and stuck them in the shotgun, still with one hand on the steering wheel. As we reached the first burning column, he turned the tractor so we were driving along the front. He opened the door and asked me to steer. The air was heavy with black dust, and it was hot as hell. We’d almost reached the end of the field before anything happened. He aimed and fired in almost the same instant. I barely registered what had happened.
—God damn, he mumbled.
I saw a hare leaping away.
—God damn, I said.
At that moment I saw another hare. Svend the Hen fired and this time he got it. The hare rolled a somersault, then lay completely still. He stopped the tractor and opened the door on my side, and with a nod of the head let me know what he wanted me to do. I hopped down and ran over to pick up the hare. I grabbed its legs and swung it around high over my head. The flames came closer; it was a wall of heat moving in my direction. I ran back to the tractor and tossed the hare to him.
—Get in, he said.
I shook my head.
—I gotta go, I said.
He closed the door, touched his fingers to his cap, and a moment later he was off in a cloud of black smoke.
I looked around for a place where I could get through the fire. I found an opening then made a running start and leaped through. When I came out on the other side, my face felt stiff and my hair smelled charred.
The ground was black and scorched.
At the end of the field, I found a smoldering chunk of a tree. It was a branch from an oak that stood near the border of our land. I picked up the cold end and went toward our side. Near the track separating the two fields, I stopped and looked around. The rye should’ve been harvested a long time ago; in many places the stalks lay horizontal to the ground. Ours was the only field, as far as I could see, that didn’t have stubble, or wasn’t already plowed up. I stood there a moment considering the pros and cons. They can kiss my ass, I thought. Then I threw the branch as far as I could into the field.
I hiked across Svend the Hen’s field. I headed down through the bog, followed the railroad tracks a short distance, and then walked through a small stand of spruce.
I’d reached the main road when I heard the first fire truck. It drove toward me at high speed, and a moment later the second one followed. I could see the firemen putting on their gear. I tramped along the road meeting one car after another—curiosity-seekers following the fire trucks, I think. I also saw someone on a bicycle. I could hear the sirens approaching from every direction.
Along the way I passed a large white farm, and I saw a man and a woman hastily getting their children inside a car. After a few hundred feet, I passed a Dutch barn stuffed with hay, and half a mile later came to a wide field of barley that hadn’t been harvested.
Before long, I could see the first houses in what passed for the area’s biggest town. Towering up over all the houses was a grain silo. And I could see the brownstone school building with its white windows.
Just as I got to town, the local cop drove toward me in his blue Volvo. I waved at him and he waved back, and then he was already long past me.
I crossed the road, and soon stood in front of a broad chain-link gate. Three trucks were parked in the lot, but there was nobody around. I clambered over the gate and walked toward the silo. Small piles of grain lay here and there, and the smell was sweet and good. I put my hand on the outer wall; it felt warm. I went around the silo and found a door behind the building. With a hard jerk, I got the door open and went inside. I stood in a pretty narrow shaft; on the wall were a number of shiny steel stairs, and far above, I noticed a small circle of blue light, which I guessed was the sky.
I started crawling. It was really hot inside the shaft, and when I reached the halfway point, I had to stop and take my jacket off. I tied it around my waist, but that only made crawling more difficult, so I let it fall. I continued up; the higher I got, the warmer it was.
When I finally crawled onto the roof, I was soaked through with sweat. I pulled my shirt over my head and looked toward the south. I could see a huge black cloud of smoke; under it, an orange glow. I couldn’t see the flames. In the foreground, I could see a combine that’d now begun to harvest the field I’d just passed.
I looked at the parking lot below; the three trucks were slightly staggered and resembled toys on display. The houses in the town were unusually close, but they still seemed small. Patio furniture filled the square yards, but there were no people. Furthest away was the train station, and I could see the red train waiting for the regional train.
I turned toward the north and saw a blue glare, which I knew was the sea. Then I turned toward the south and looked at the red glow.
Soon after, I sat down. I flicked my lighter and watched the flame. I fell into a trance and sat that way for a long time. At some point I realized I was freezing. I stood and put on my shirt, but it was cold and damp. I stared toward the south: As far as I could see the flames were burning out.
I moved to the hatch and started crawling back down.
I headed back the same way I’d come. Outside the town limits, I passed the cop. I waved, and he waved back politely. I passed the barley field and greeted the farmhand, who leaned up against the grain wagon smoking. I passed the Dutch barn where two boys shot at a target with a bow. There were lights in the stalls at the big farm, and I could hear the sound of a transistor radio through the open door.
I followed the main road and walked through the little stand of spruce, followed the railroad tracks, and walked through the bog.
It had grown dark by the time I finally made it home. At a distance I could see the light in the living room. I shuffled forward through a thick layer of gray ash. The fire had burned up most of the field; it hadn’t been brought under control until about 150 feet from the house.
When I walked inside, my brother sat on the couch watching television. He looked up.
—Where have you been? he said. There was a fire in the fields.
—I know that, I said.
I looked at the screen. I could see a big white bird lying on a nest: an albatross.
—There were a lot of people here. The cop was here, too. He was over talking to Svend the Hen. He seemed to think it was his fault.
I walked into the kitchen and poured a bowl of cornflakes. When I got back, my brother had changed the channel to some kind of quiz show; from a few notes you were supposed to guess the name of a song or a piece of music. I sat down in the seat opposite him.
They played a few bars of a song.
—“Strangers in the Night”! my brother called out.
We waited for the answer.
—You see, he said.
I pulled the lighter from my pocket, and this time I didn’t flick it—I just tossed it over to him.
—Catch! I said.
He flicked it and saw that the flame was only an inch high. He looked at me and then set it down on the coffee table.
—They say he fucks his cows.
—Yeah, I said and watched the screen.
They played a few bars of a new tune.
—Can’t we watch the show with the albatrosses? I said.
For a long time, without saying a word, we watched the program about the enormous birds. The narrator said they could fly up to a 600 miles a day. They sailed on the wind almost without moving their wings. We saw how they dived after fish, and we saw an albatross egg that was the size of a honey melon.
At some point, my brother turned his head and looked at me. I didn’t look at him, but I could feel his gaze; he watched me for a pretty long time. Then he turned his attention back to the screen.
—Promise you’ll never do that again, he said under his breath.
Simon Fruelund is the author of five books, among them Milk and Other Stories, Civil Twilight, and Panamericana. His work has been translated into Italian, Swedish, and English, and his short stories have appeared in a number of magazines across the U.S, including World Literature Today, Redivider, and Absinthe. For nine years Fruelund worked as an editor at Denmark’s largest publishing house, Gyldendal, but is now writing full time.
K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. His translations include Karin Fossum’s The Caller and Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One. He has received multiple translation grants from the Danish Arts Council to support his translation of Simon Fruelund’s fiction.
Also available Civil Twilight