Safari on Mors Island by Knud Sønderby

Safari on Mors Island

Knud Sønderby

Translated from Danish by Michael Goldman

During the period immediately following the war, when it was still difficult to get car tires, I was on a road trip in Jutland with a friend. The car was from 1933 and, apparently, so were the tires. On the 30 mile drive from Ringkøbing to Skive, we had seven flats. We made a tour out of it. If we drove over ten miles an hour, the tires would go flat—except the spare—all at once, due to the enormous heat generated in the rubber by the friction on the road surface. The spare tire went flat independently of this. It hung on the back of the car and went flat either because of too much sun, or too much rain, or possibly because sharp pebbles were being kicked up at it. Once, we had it vulcanized at an auto shop in a small town. The vulcanizer pumped it up and rolled it out from the shop to the front yard and through the gate to our car. As it passed through the gate, it went flat.

But we had a good time nevertheless. We saw the landscape in a relaxed tempo and with plenty of stops. In the evening, we sought out hilltops, preferably in rather unpopulated areas, where we could spend the night. We would leave the car there and walk, each with suitcase in hand, to an inn or hotel. The advantage was that, the next morning, we would not have to be towed by a Falck tow truck or a local mechanic, like we had done several times. The difficulties starting, which the motor invariably experienced in the cool morning hours, were more easily overcome when the start was downhill.

We eventually arrived in Skive, and a few days later made it all the way up to Mors. It is gorgeous there: Legind Mountain, Salge Hill, Man-Rock. We photographed ourselves up on Legind Mountain’s forest-covered slopes with the Limfjord in the background. First, my friend posed out on the edge of a cliff while I climbed up in a tree in order to take the picture of him, so that both some young birch trees behind him and the fjord below would be in it. I wanted him to move over, to get him placed better in the picture, but that would have resulted in his falling seventy feet down the cliff, so instead I laid down halfway out on a dangerously spindly branch. Then it was my turn out on the cliff, and he climbed up into the tree.

“Are you ready?” he yelled to warn me.

“Yes,” I replied, keeping the caramel candy still in my mouth while turning my best profile towards him. Then I heard the branch cracking and his falling through the tree. But he got the picture. I still have both of them. We are each standing with our jackets flapping in the wind, looking solitarily outward, gripped by the spectacular vista. Ships are sailing on the Limfjord down below and in the distance.

We had decided to travel cheaply. The numerous repair bills for the tires made this difficult, but we did our best. Dry inns. Daily specials. And we furnished our own lunches. Stuffed into biscuit tins, we had delicacies packed in waxed paper. In good weather, we threw ourselves down by the roadside and feasted while we listened to the bees and the birds. When it rained, we ate in the car, drops thrumming on the windows, but this was more difficult. Once we spilled a jar of pickled herring on the backseat, and after that, we always had to drive with a couple of the windows down.

One day, when it had rained all morning, but then suddenly cleared up with blue sky and sunshine over the dripping wet fields, we set our lunch spread right in the middle of the road. That was my idea. We had turned off the main road onto a narrow asphalt side road that looked as if no one ever drove on it. We parked the car to one side and began unpacking and opening jars and arranging the lunch across the roadway by the running board, where we sat. It took a while, but also came to look festive and inviting. Much more hygienic and with better access than when you sit on a field or a road edge, where different items are constantly hiding themselves between clumps of grass and getting spilled and have creatures crawling on them when you finally find them. If, for example, you wanted some garfish in oil, it was just four steps to the other side of the road. There you go, garfish in oil! Then you could put it on your bread and either stand up eating it or set it back down on the running board, whatever your pleasure. And there we sat with sunshine in our faces and with swallows crossing low between our beer bottles and over the waxed paper with the liver pâté. We had small jars with numerous little delicacies, triangles of cream cheese, bags with tomatoes, slices of bread, packets of butter, and whatever else the heart desired. Lovely. Life was great.

A cow was standing in the field.

“Hey, you know this was my idea,” I said.

Out on the main road, a bus approached, and the driver shouted and waved enthusiastically to us. “Thanks!” we yelled and waved back. What else could anyone say to us but Bon appétit! or God bless! We raised our bottles, drank, and toasted the driver and his passengers. Then we took our knives and reached for the bread. Now, we were really going to dig in.

A couple of seconds later, the bus turned onto our side road, and with brakes squealing, stopped with a tremendous steaming radiator just in front of our culinary roadblock. This was its route. This was its asphalt we had set our table on. The driver and a half score interested passengers hung out the windows, while we, bent over, raced around on the road, packing our things together to make way. With the last items in our arms, we watched the bus pass and disappear. When it was gone, we caught sight of a horse and buggy slowly advancing from the opposite direction, and we realized that it wasn’t worth laying it all out again. Hunger gnawed at us. We fantasized about a bench somewhere. Some place along the road there had to be a bench to sit on. And we were going to find that bench. My friend sat behind the wheel and I stayed outside to keep an eye on our lunch on the running board. A procession across Mors. Beer in hand, I trod the wet sun-reflecting country road beside this solemn, onward-rolling buffet.

Late in the afternoon, we reached Mors Island’s northernmost point, the long table-topped isthmus, Feggeklit, with its ferry transport across Fegge Sound to Thy on the other side. I was irritated. Earlier my friend had asked me to tour a mo-clay factory in the company of its chief engineer. I hate that kind of thing more than anything, but since we were nearby the country’s only mo-clay plant, he thought that we ought to see it. So we were ushered around a factory area in a confusion of rocks and ovens and conveyor belts, while he asked questions and acted as if he understood what the engineer explained to us. I also had to be polite and act interested. As the tour progressed, I came to understand less and less about mo-clay. It still makes me depressed just thinking about it. There were no living creatures in the factory but the three of us, but all around us was chopping and whirring, rattling, and throwing up of dust. Our feet got wet, our hats got white, and we got silt in our mouths. A conveyor belt rolled out piles of clay that kneaded themselves, cut themselves into pieces, rode into ovens and came out of ovens, and cooled down and packed themselves, and stacked themselves up. If I had sat down on one of those conveyor belts, in two hours I would have been sailed away to the ends of the earth as uniform parcels of sound-insulating material that displayed both the Danish flag and Danish ingenuity.

At the foot of Feggeklit, I made him stop the car.

“Hamlet’s father,” I said, and pointed up the cliff.

“Why in the world should we care about Hamlet’s father?” he said, confused.

“Since we’re here, we have to see it,” I said, and began shuffling my way up the steep hillside, while he sat in the car scowling.

“How can we stop one mile from the ferry dock?” he shouted to me suddenly. “There might be a ferry sitting there we could get on. We should have been in Skagen four days ago!”

At the top of the cliff, there was a stone with something on it about Hamlet’s father or grandfather, but the view was impressive and made the ascent worthwhile. I could see across the Limfjord to Thisted and almost to the city of Ålborg.

When we reached the ferry dock, it turned out he was right. The ferry had just left. We could see it out in the current, disappearing towards Thy on the opposite shore.

The next ferry wouldn’t be for another three hours. So we sat inside the cozy ferry restaurant and had some eel. Afterwards, we dallied along the beach before returning to the restaurant where other cars had arrived and guests were seated at the tables in the dining room.

My friend, who had gone off on his own before the restaurant opened, came in at another door, so it appeared as if he had entered from one of the inner rooms. Suddenly, he stood in the doorway, then greeted people at every single table with small bows and smiles, rubbed his hands, and said hello and bon appétit, which, of course, there is no law against. And they loved it and insisted on greeting him and sharing a glass with him. And when they said it was a really nice place, he said that he liked it, too. And when they said that the food was excellent, he said that he knew they were doing their best out in the kitchen. His motto had always been: Anything for the customers. Whether the profit was a bit more or a bit less, truth be told, had never interested him. With that, he was offered both beers and bitters.

Now, I really don’t like that kind of thing. I hate when someone takes a joke so far that it becomes dishonest. Those people were being charitable and were deceived. Instead, he could have, with a little wave, motioned to me and said that I was his brother or brother-in-law, who was like his right hand, and that none of this would have come to fruition if it hadn’t been for me. Then I might have been able to go along with it, but he didn’t think of that.

Fegge Sound is, by the way, a picturesque place. The narrow isthmus with its high cliffs pokes its way from south to north into the Limfjord. Standing on the tip, it’s as if you are standing on an island with water all around you. I discovered later, too, that regardless of which Limfjord coast you happen to be on, you can always see Feggeklit appearing like a distant mountain range out of the water. The restaurant, as I said, was cozy, with nationally-famous pan-roasted eel. The ferry is infrequent, very likely privately owned by the restauranteur. In any case, it’s he who captains it, a formidable steel ship with smokestack and bridge. From a distance, it resembles an Atlantic Ocean steamship. It just has the peculiarity that as it approaches, it doesn’t get any larger. Completely opposite of most ships, it gets smaller and smaller, while you yourself stand at the dock growing to supernatural size.

Two Jutland horses, which were going the same way as us, made the ferry sway considerably when they were pulled on board. After them came a small flatbed truck loaded with two pigs and cages with hens, besides three men, two women, and a couple of children of the same breed as the horses, and finally, our car. When it was all in place, the headlights and bumper stuck out over the hatchway on the one side of the ferry, while the trunk and half of the rear wheels floated over the waves on the other side. During the trip, any passage to or from the stern had to occur through the car. The captain and ticket boy, men and women, everyone had to squeeze themselves across the car seats, in one door and out the other. We felt like amusement park attendants, when the flood of people is about to get out of control at the turnstiles. But we were glad that the horses didn’t seem to need to move.

During the crossing, it got darker and darker, and more and more whitecaps appeared on the waves. Low clouds and a high sea came driving in from the west. When we neared the long, low cement pier on the Thy side, night was falling and waves washed over the pier’s farthest point. The farmers grabbed the horses’ bridles and we got into our car. Everyone was in a hurry to get onto land and away. We had places to go. When the ferry was moored, we started the car and the captain went to open up for us.

That is when the obvious happened. The car had gotten a flat while parked on the ferry. The one front wheel was flat and the bumper had come to rest on the solid iron bar that, during the passage, had kept the vehicle from rolling into the Limfjord. Now, neither the car nor the iron bar would move. We had six men trying to lift it at once, but it was a heavy car, and it didn’t budge. We tried to use a hitch bar as a lever, but to no avail. The landing ramp was right there, and access to it was blocked by our car. For half an hour, we maneuvered and gave orders, but it was no use. No one reproached us for it, but the mood was tense, and they avoided looking at us.

Then it was all too much for one of the farmers. It was now or never. Grimly, he climbed onto land, with the rope to one of the horse’s bridles in his hand. He called to it, yelled and pulled, while another smacked the horse sharply on the rear with a cane. The horse danced and rose up, making the ferry sway. Then it jumped over the low gunwale and landed on the cement pier. The farmer swung around to the halter, until the horse was calm again.

After that, it all went more smoothly. A primitive pulley was rigged up, so the horse could lift up the car’s front end. We rolled across onto the pier, making room so the ark could be emptied. Silently, they all departed, while the ferry shoved off and turned around for the return trip. A woman took the two young children under her arms, and one of the horses took the flatbed hitch bar under its arms, and away they all trotted towards the center of Thy, leaving us on the storm-beaten pier, with the water rising steadily.

For the God-knows-how-many-eth time, we took out the jack. It was worn out, and no one could blame it. The rounded teeth slid by one another, and for twenty minutes we took turns spinning the handle around, banging our knuckles against the cement. When we finally got the tire changed, waves washed around our feet, and it was so dark we could no longer see the ground.

Then it became apparent that the car wouldn’t start. We didn’t waste too much time on this fruitless endeavor. Educated by experience, and without unnecessary conversation, we began pushing it inland off the pier. Fifteen minutes later, we succeeded in depositing it beyond the sea’s reach, and we climbed inside to spend the night. If we hadn’t been so slow all day, we could have been lying in proper beds.

“Mo-clay,” I said from the backseat. “A mo-clay factory!!”

“Hamlet!” he answered, repositioning himself on the front seat. “Hamlet’s father!”

“Relax,” I said, since it was his car. “And stop yelling. Or we’ll get a flat.”

About the Author

Knud Sønderby (1909-1966) was an eminent Danish novelist, journalist, translator, and essayist. The initial printing of his first novel, Midt i en Jazztid (In a Jazz Age), sold out in fourteen days due to its immediate popularity among the youth of Denmark. Today, it is his most well-known work and an integral piece of the Danish literary canon. For two decades, Sønderby wrote as a journalist for three major Danish newspapers while publishing four additional novels, six plays, and translating numerous works into Danish for the Royal Theater, including Death of a Salesman, Joan of Arc, and The Cherry Orchard. This essay is drawn from one of his six essay collections. He was also a founding member of the Danish Academy.

About the Translator

Michael Goldman taught himself Danish on a pig farm in Denmark over 30 years ago to help him win the heart of a lovely Danish girl. He has received nine translation grants for his work with six distinguished Danish writers. Over 80 of Goldman’s translations of poetry and prose have appeared in more than 30 literary journals such as Rattle, World Literature Today, and International Poetry Review. His translations of essays by Knud Sønderby have appeared in many journals, including The Literary Review, Badlands, and BODY. He lives in Florence, Massachusetts.