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Adrift by Martin Andersen Nexo

Translated by W. Glyn Jones

Peter and Karl were two small creatures whose sphere of existence lay in those depths to which the sun does not always penetrate. Down there everything glows with a peculiar light of its own; thus it was created. Consequently the two could reckon themselves among Nature's favourites, and yet continually have the feeling that everything was in store for them. Together with their mother, they lived in a gloomy hole in the buildings of the Medical Association, and according to the normal method of reckoning they were nine and eight years old respectively. That is to say that this amount of time had elapsed since they made their entry into this empty life and had their responsibilities assigned to them. There were no tin soldiers lying in a box waiting for these two; their treats were to be found in the form of crusts of bread—when they were lucky. And it did not take them long to realize their position. They quickly understood how idle it was to start bawling and demanding what they wanted, and began to fend for themselves from the very first.

To find their bearings was not difficult, merely a matter of realizing they lacked everything, a realization which was to a great extent born in them. The more eagerly they could set about the task of finding a way of providing for themselves.

As for the cause of their existence, he had left them completely in the lurch—just like a god who has paid the earth a short visit. His existence was established beyond all doubt: he had established it, like the rogue he was, by the mere fact that he had brought the two lads into the world, only then to disappear into the blue. There was no other trace of him—not even a name. Whoever he was, he had deigned to enjoy the sweetness of creation, and then shirked the responsibility of providing for those he had helped to create; now he sat aloof, enthroned in unseen majesty, and amused himself by rendering life insecure for them. Not even their mother's professed widowhood gave any security; the other women in the neighbourhood smiled, and it seemed as though even she had doubts at the bottom of her heart. She needed both joy and horror of a far more radical significance than daily life could possibly afford, so she allowed herself to see that power which had parted the waters of her tiny world hovering like a portentous shadow over the trivialities of everyday life. Sometimes it hung like a force which at any time might come and land her poor belongings at the pawnbroker's, and at other times like good fortune itself coming from afar to their relief.

She, for her part, was the concrete basis of the lads' existence, the only thing they could rely on in all circumstances; she was as good and reassuring as the earth which bore them. Everything else was vague and without foundation, and it was left to them to give it shape and substance as far as their capabilities would allow. Right from their birth they had possessed an inexhaustible supply of patience, and while their mother was at work they both sat propped up in their own corners of the old sofa and stared at each other with that expression of boundless experience which poverty gives as a christening-gift. They said goo-goo as though they understood the seriousness of life, picked the stuffing out of the back of the sofa, and thumped their foreheads with the old wooden spoon which they had been given to gnaw at with their newly-formed teeth—thus they began their task; and when they could manage no more they cried themselves to sleep. Now and then their mother would slip home from work and have a look at them, and each time they had done something to make them a little more wonderful than they were before.

One day the elder of the two decided he had had enough of sitting and watching; he rolled head-first off the sofa and stood up with the help of the table-leg. When his mother came home the top of his little head was as thick as a cushion—but he could walk! So before very long he was able to deliver newspapers.

As previously said, one of them was eight and the other nine, and they had already been playing their part in supporting the family for many a long day.

It was apparently a perfectly ordinary day. The sun was shining with a peculiar, wild joy which had its inevitable effect on the disorderly flocks of sparrows flying over the blocks of flats; otherwise things were much the same as ever. Their mother had gone to work at five o'clock in the morning as usual; at six o'clock Mrs. Hygum, their next-door neighbour, knocked on the wall, and the boys got up and started the day in good spirits. Peter tidied up the room and then went to fetch the greengrocer his provisions for the day, while Karl was out in Ryesgade helping the paper-woman by running up the steepest flights of stairs for her.

Now the morning's duties were finished, and they sat in the cramped kitchen and ate their bread and dripping. They were no longer fresh as when they had started; there was no light-hearted chatter to be heard; they did not kick their legs about in a pointless effort to give themselves something to do, but hung indifferently over their bread and dripping—as though they had suddenly discovered how pointless it was to go on. Their enthusiasm had left them! Nor was that anything out of the ordinary either—the same thing was repeated every day at the same time; it came over them like a sudden reaction after their activity.

It was not that they were tired; they were already well hardened, and these exertions so early in the morning only acted as a cheerful prelude to the day's business. They could think of a hundred and one glorious ways of employing every single hour of the day, and each one of them would be of some benefit to themselves and their poor, little home. It was a tiny world apart that they and their mother had created for themselves in the face of unfriendliness and opposition on all sides; it was achieved at the cost of great effort and was built of the refuse from the great solar system called Society. Their world did not form part of this system but journeyed through space along paths of its own and propelled by the poor means at its disposal; a never- failing effort was necessary to maintain it—and a collision was something they could not afford. In their small, outstretched hands the lads already bore the lion's share of the burden, and they were happy to do so.

But recently a great hand had reached out to take hold of them; they were no longer to be permitted to rove about as they chose, but should be brought under the influence of the System. It was the first time they had realised that anyone took any notice of them and theirs, and for the meantime this new interest was shown by the fact that they were forced to sit every morning and endure the torment of breathing in the dust of what others had achieved in the course of time, while all that they themselves had achieved was allowed to fall into disuse. This intervention demanded moreover to be considered as beneficial to them. In the afternoons when they managed to escape, their work had accumulated to an alarming extent—and they plunged headlong into it and rinsed themselves of the dust they had gathered during the morning.

The two lads knew from their own experience that there was something called Society; it was something concerning all those people who could plan their mid-day meals for a whole week at a time. From the very first they were aware that they themselves were excluded from it—and had accordingly adapted themselves to the situation; a vague conception of justice had told them also that they could not possibly owe Society anything when they had come to terms with want and hunger solely by dint of their own efforts right from the time they first saw daylight.

Behind this realisation lay, however, another which was not acquired by experience, but the roots of which lay much deeper—a realisation which was really too big and unwieldy for two small boys. It was impalpable like fear of the dark and gave warning of invisible dangers on all sides; it was that realisation which made both mother and children avoid all charitable institutions, preferring instead to take the law into their own hands when need threatened their existence. Countless occasions had helped to create this realisation, which did not merely develop in individuals with special gifts, but hovered as it were over everything they did, helping even a child to see through the philanthropic outer covering right into its very depths, right into the centre of the web where the spider sits and waits. From the moment they began to creep about they had continually been on their guard and had met both kindness and harshness on the part of strangers with the same mistrust which was born and bred in them; and they had managed perfectly well—they had both been dangerously ill and slept on the Common without the great monster's having been able to scent them. And now, suddenly, without warning, it was gaping over them with the poor excuse that they were more than seven years old.

Now Karl and Peter did not exactly allow themselves to be swallowed. They knew intuitively that it was not from consideration of what was good for THEM that people suddenly went to the trouble of letting them sample the blessings of Society. The first time this Society beckoned to them they bolted like two foals born out of the fold, and their mother had to be dragged in before them in order to induce them to go inside. Life became one long game of truant, but the only result was that they were regularly beaten for it, while their mother worried as she had never worried before; for a long time she had to neglect her work and take them to school, until they finally gave in—mostly out of consideration for her.

But it only SEEMED as though they gave in; they were able to defend themselves in the manner of the weak and immediately began to feign dead. Everything was lost on their thick-skinned impenetrable stupidity. It was, however, a moral obligation of Society to educate the two children of the proletariat, and no efforts were spared; all the most up-to-date methods in education were employed to enable these two miserable youngsters to appreciate the wonderful process of enlightenment which is to be traced throughout countless ages in the history of the world. Nor was that all. They, who could not legally lay claim to a single grain of rye from all that grew on this earth, could, if they wished, be transported in spirit beyond all temporal boundaries and see themselves safe in the all-pervading love of God Himself, and here was an excellent opportunity for them to acquire a conception of the true value of Man.

But they did not specially appreciate that. There was less to fill their frames with during all this—and they were not able to go out to play until much later in the evening, unless all the work were to be heaped on to their mother; it was that thought which occupied them while they sat in complete boredom and listened to accounts of the great achievements of Mankind and travelled round the globe with the aid of a pointer and a map of the world. These two had gone on expeditions which offered adventure of an entirely different kind; on dark evenings when the watch-dogs were loose and the frosty wind howled miserably in the empty grates at home, they had clambered over high railings in search of coal; and when their mother was ill they had gone on even more difficult expeditions in quest of food—right into the darkest interior. That was THEIR secret, and not even their mother was allowed to share it.

It threw them on their own resources, however, once and for all, and determined their attitude to this new force which, with every utterance, condemned what was merely the two indomitable lads' means of self-preservation, setting up death by starvation as the supreme form of honesty for the poor.

After many trials they had arrived at their own conception of life and happiness; they had based their mode of life on it, and so far had all they wished for and a little more besides! By some wonderful process or other they had managed to extract honey from the barrenness which surrounded them, and through their bitter experiences they had evolved a rather rough philosophy of life, one which was somewhat different from the one they were taught, but which on the other hand had the advantage of being their own—and according to which they could live.

This they concealed deep within themselves and behaved in front of other people as though they were a pair of very thick-skulled little boys. When they heard how the Lord gave the Laws to Man, or how the Angel announced the birth of the Saviour, they sat and stared foolishly through the window as though it were something which had happened for the benefit of the others, but which did not concern them. It seemed that the flickers of intelligence in the two brothers had been extinguished, but fresh plans were smouldering within them: where they could find new sources of revenue and how they could improve the old. They had to acquaint themselves perfectly with all building projects in the town, so as at any given time to know at which timber-yard there was the best prospect of filling their sacks; and considerable experience was necessary in order to decide where they could dispose of their booty with the greatest profit and without running about more than necessary. There was plenty to occupy them.

The cogs of that great and impressive machine turned above them, but to no avail; they preferred their own dry bread to this vision of the good things in life, and this they showed by an unbending seriousness which was taken to be apathy. There was nothing to be done about it; they were two mentally defective children, a couple of miserable wretches from the back streets who were in vain being crammed with the reflection of life's splendours, which process is intended to remove the persistent feeling of loneliness from the minds of the poor.

Realising this their tormentors quieted down at last; and this was the state of affairs now. There was no reason to believe that any attempt would be made to alter it, and for this at least the boys were grateful. They had no objection to their being considered less gifted than they really were, since this was their only means of ensuring that they would be allowed to take care of themselves and what belonged to them, and so they continued to look at life cheerfully. It was only just before school-time that a certain amount of dislike made itself apparent—it only lasted until they managed to lull themselves to sleep for the morning.

Nor was it any different today; breakfast was the dividing-line between two existences, and as they chewed away at their food they prepared themselves for the yoke which they knew was awaiting them, and then they quietly slipped away from the kitchen-table. Without wasting words grumbling about the inevitable they locked the door and slipped the key under the mat; then they adopted their sheepish expressions and made their way reluctantly towards the encounter which they knew they had to face.

When they emerged from the gloomy blocks of flats on to the coast road, the younger of them, by some strange chance, turned off in the wrong direction and started to run. At this Peter took fright and set off in energetic pursuit in order to bring him back on to the right road; but by the time he caught up with the little chap he too thought this direction perfectly all right and had forgotten why he was chasing him. From a cloudless sky the sun darted its rays in abandon over the world, utterly destroying all permanent conceptions; the vision of a beating to follow tried to bar their path but gave way without resistance—tomorrow was so far off that it could have no claim on reality. And leading away from all that, white with dust and burning beneath the ardent rays of the sun, lay the coast road, pointing straight to adventure.

Out there was another, more luxurious sort of life, a life in Sunday best. People lived in fairy houses completely surrounded by green gardens, and in those gardens there were always folk eating off shining white table-cloths—and drinking wine with their food in full view of everyone passing. Perhaps they would call a barelegged boy in to them and stuff him so full of fine food that he had to vomit it all up again—a strange miracle which had been known to happen. There WERE, however, sometimes railings loose enough for a nimble lad to squeeze through and make sure he had a share in the proceedings. And far beyond that, when one had left civilisation behind, lay the REAL world with a great forest full of deer. When people came home from those parts they had always red whistling-balloons with them, and they were always gay.

The two lads painted it all in glowing colours to each other as they trudged off. The policeman at "Vibenshus" instinctively noted their appearance, and a large watch-dog approached them impudently and stopped them while it noted their scent. With a rather unwilling grimace it pushed its muzzle first against their bare legs and then against their clothing as though it wanted to assert that rags are always suspicious objects, even when worn by two blue-eyed little boys who can look right into God's bright Heaven without blinking. With that they were permitted to pass for that time.

Their bare legs did cause them some trouble; there were holes in their toes from broken stones on the roads, and here and there a scratch was to be seen on their calves; the two small pirates stepped along the ground with a peculiar mistrust—as though the earth had not yet cooled down properly. However, it was only because there were sometimes pieces of glass lying where they put their feet.

Moreover, they wore their tattered dress in blissful ignorance of the effect it was producing, and indeed it almost seemed they were proud of it. It was unique for its kind, too, pieced together of whatever their mother, by keeping a sharp look-out, had prevented from being committed to the rubbish-bin in her employer's wash-house, as well as what they themselves had come across in the fairy-tale garden of the very poor—the refuse dump by the clay-pit.

Their heads being the most important part of their bodies, Our Lord had Himself attended to them and covered them with a thick crop of hair which was now turned to gold by the sun, and which even in the gloomiest back-yards reminded one of fields of golden corn. As we have already heard, a number of quite serious experiences had found their way into those heads, but they merely lay hidden there and gave fuel to a little roguish flame which continually flickered from the lads' eyes. Their faces were still earth and dirt, but dirt which could smile quite delightfully; and from the middle of that muddy complexion shone two patches of blue sky, like a superfluous promise.

As they tramped off in the sunshine and light-heartedly made the dust spurt out from under their small feet, they might have been mistaken for two young immortals who had created themselves out of thin air— only, of course, until they were seen against a background of the established order. And now that they WERE in existence and found all the necessities of life denied them they were prepared to ransack even poverty itself, and they clothed themselves in all their booty. It was not to be wondered at that they felt themselves rich. That was their first feat, and now they proceeded in their filthy trophies to win the day; their naked limbs peeped through their rags here and there like a young sun and seemed to give a promise that they too would go far in their lifetime. There they were, two radiant children of the proletariat who did not owe the slightest thing to anyone else, but who had everything to their credit, two of those creatures whom no one really knows because they belong to unexplored depths! They had emerged from their obscurity and come to the surface for a while to join in the game in the sun, and they themselves shone with all the strange colours which develop in the darkness.

All in all they were well equipped, and they knew it; the consciousness of this was reflected in their small bodies. Life had provided for them with some extravagance, and in a last fit of prodigality had landed them at the bottom of everything, perhaps so that they might be able to take the lead on the day the present order is reversed.

They tramped on indefatigably, keeping as far as possible to the dust, which acted as a soft covering for their sore feet, and they went into ecstasy at every new thing they saw. There was such ample room in their minds for new impressions that even the smallest happenings registered there as powerful experiences.

When they reached Hellerup they discovered they were hungry. "It's the country air," said Peter with an air of superiority; and it was for once a first-class explanation of a phenomenon which was very commonplace. Of course they had eaten their two pieces of bread and dripping in the morning as usual—and they were not in the habit of having anything else before they came home from school. With the help of a piece of steel wire they wangled two bars of chocolate from a dilapidated slot-machine, and they munched away at it as they plodded on; the dust rose from between their toes like tiny puffs of smoke. They smeared their faces all over with the last bit of chocolate—it was just as good as a scalp if they should meet their chums—and besides, it acted like war-paint, a general challenge to the world at large. Whooping softly, and with their painted faces thrust forward in defiance, they continued their march, keeping a sharp look-out for new experiences.

A vast brewer's cart came rolling along and enveloped the two warriors in its dusty wake; when they reappeared they were right underneath the wagon, riding astride the beer-barrels which hung from iron chains between the massive wheels. There they hung, swaying in breakneck fashion like two giddy satyrs, and they let out wild cries which were, however, deadened by the rumbling of the wooden vehicle. Or else they let their feet drag along in the dust in an excess of bravery to see if they could bring the spirited horses to a standstill. In this manner they reached Skovshoved; there the wagoner discovered them and chased them off with his whip.

Somehow or other they escaped and rolled down between the wheels into the ditch without being crushed; and what a stroke of luck that was! For there they found a packet of sandwiches which someone or other— probably a school-child—had thrown away. There were both cheese and sausage sandwiches—this was certainly the entrance to Fairyland! They sat down at once and enjoyed life; the food they divided into two equal parts, but Peter, as the first-born, reserved for himself the right to lick the paper.

It would be ridiculous to say they were full, for that they had never been in all their lives so far. But they were nearer to it than usual as they plodded off again at a rather leisurely pace.

They looked like two real tramps in miniature as they strolled off with their shoulders raised, Peter with his hands in his pockets, and Karl, who still had no pockets, with his little paws in the corresponding tears in his trousers seam. Two strange tears they were too; mother sewed them up each evening, and the next morning there they were again—as though the trousers knew there ought to be pockets just there. The only thing which could be objected to in the two vagabonds was their size; no lady would be scared over to the opposite side of the road merely by the sight of them—but there was still time for that! Now they just allowed themselves to drift at random before the light summer breeze.

In this manner, by some inexplicable coincidence, they had slipped down behind the villa gardens to the beach. There was a notice down there saying "Private!" Peter made a valiant attempt to spell his way through it but gave up in favour of more amusing things. The only notices which had any real interest for these two were those announcing that dogs were loose; and this was not one of those.

In a trice they had their clothes off and amidst loud shouting they took possession of the blue Sound; up on the veranda the ladies who lived in the villa had the pleasure of seeing the two bold adventurers frisk hilariously on a bed of sand, giddy and unkempt like two house- sparrows in a puddle of water. Then the owner of the house joined the ladies. He regularly attended nude shows and immediately saw that morality was in danger, and the two boys were accordingly chased off, while the ladies of the house withdrew from sight as quickly as possible.

Well, the earth had gradually revealed itself as being far bigger than they had expected, and they had no objection to inspecting another part of it. They scrambled into their clothes as they fled, and once more took the road leading away from home. In the distance loomed the woods, and there it was they wanted to go; only far enough to see the deer and catch a glimpse of the end of the world.

But as they were trudging along at a fine rate Karl stopped still.

"Ooh, just look at that, Pete!"

There was a huge cherry-tree standing in the middle of the lawn of one of the villas. It was laden down with cherries, and sparrows in their hundreds making a dreadful din had taken possession of it. Showers of them were swooping down on to the tree and flying off again, fighting among themselves and snatching all they could, so that large bunches of cherries and leaves were continually falling to the ground. It was sheer gluttony; it was perfectly obvious that THEY were not earning their own food.

"They're stuffing themselves properly," said Peter and licked his lips as he remembered an occasion in the past. He had eaten cherries himself that year: the thatcher in one of the flats near theirs bought a lot of the half rotten ones in the vegetable market—a whole barrow- load for a couple of shillings—and sold them again in the street. In return for an errand he had gone Peter had earned himself a cap-full of those which could not even be sold in the street—and how good they had tasted, oh yes! There was something extra-special about them; you had to click your tongue to express it.

Karl had not been present on that occasion and so he found it difficult merely to shrug his shoulders with the air of one who knows what the sparrows are enjoying—he was simply envious of them.

"They're a lot of pigs," he said in a hurt voice. "They're not eating it; they're just spoiling the whole thing; they've already taken everything off the branches at the top!—I wonder if anyone lives here?"

"Can't you see no one does, silly, the shutters are fastened?"

They found a little hole in the hedge and crawled through. First they carefully gathered up from the grass the cherries which the birds had knocked down; they were not used to wasting anything at all. Then they scrambled up into the tree and made themselves comfortable. Their merry chatter was soon stilled, and they started on their treat in silence and almost with solemnity; one hand gathered in while the other put the cherries into their mouths, out of sight—a whole handful at a time. They waited to spit the stones out when there was more time.

Karl suddenly stopped and drew a deep breath; he was still at that age when things had to be put into words before they really meant anything.

"They're cherries!" he exclaimed with an enchanting look in his blue eyes.—"Ooh, my!——Hey, suppose our stomachs were cut open! They'd be just like the wolf's—full of stones."

And he started grabbing after more; Peter merely grunted.

A key was turned, and the garden-gate creaked; but they neither heard nor saw, they were too deeply engrossed in their feast.

The merchant, whose family were staying at some sea-side resort or other, only wanted to have a look at his house in the country and his beloved morello tree. A suppressed oath could be heard when he saw the ravages caused by the sparrows; but he quickly remembered he was a member of the League for the Protection of Animals and checked himself. It was an unpremeditated outburst, and his face was soon smoothed over again. The carefree birds in the heavens, oh dear, they had to live as well! He hummed good-naturedly as he went round the tree to determine the extent of the damage.

Suddenly he caught sight of the two lads who were sitting and pressing themselves flat against the trunk in the forlorn hope that he would not see them. He raised his eyebrows and recoiled in amazement.

"Hey there, a couple of young thieves, eh!" he shouted, drowning all other noises.—"I've just come home at the right moment!—Come on down, you, and be quick about it, you pair of rascals!" His voice sounded like an outsize ventilator in action.

The boys slid down the tree and made an unsuccessful attempt at running off. In a trice the exasperated man had them by the collar; he was not keen on touching more of their clothing than was absolutely necessary, so he took hold of both their wrists in his own left hand and held them as if in an iron claw, shaking his stick above them and storming with rage.

It was not his intention to take the law into his own hands, he was a law-abiding citizen and wanted to leave the punishment to the authorities. Precisely because he hated these small, would-be thieves who belonged to God-knows-where and who would never be of as much use in the world as they ought to be, he did not wish to carry out the punishment himself, but just give them a friendly word of warning before handing them over to the police; and thus he would avoid incurring any responsibility, so he thought. There would be no harm done if sometime in the future they remembered this moment as a ray of warmth which had made an impression on them before they became fully hardened, and felt that justice only existed with a view to THEIR well-being—that justice was done in order to save them, as it was so beautifully put.

But the two boys fervently desired that he would shut his big mouth and hit them—if only he would give them a hiding and not call the police! They knew more or less how bad that could be, but they nourished an invincible fear of the law; that it was which made them crouch trembling in his grasp.

And that was what he actually did. Good fortune had fallen in love with the two grimy lads and had made the merchant talk himself into such a frenzy that he forgot all his fine theories and had to give vent to his feelings on the spot. And only when they had winced sufficiently under his stick did he think it unreasonable to make more of the matter, and he let them go. Of course they could have been handed over to the authorities all the same, but fundamentally he was good nature itself.

That he repented later of his untimely tolerance and thought that it would undoubtedly result in their being sent to prison some time, was a matter of the greatest indifference to them. Now they were free, and it would be a long time before they allowed themselves to be nabbed again. They did not reach the mysterious woods with the deer that time—nor the edge of the world either; all that would have to wait for a better opportunity—time was on their side. For the moment they had had plenty of overpowering and fateful events to add a little spice to reality; they had stared out into the bottomless pit of justice and had very nearly been dragged down; the law had opened its monstrous jaws to swallow them.

And they HAD been in Fairyland!

But now they wanted to go home. Fear had lent strength to their legs, and they pranced off side by side like a pair of horses pulling well together. The cherry-stones felt like an extra little burden in their stomachs—a token that the whole episode had been real. And somewhere or other inside them slumbered satisfaction and pervaded all their bodies. There was one thing which could not be doubted—it HAD been a wonderful day.


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