One evening that first summer of freedom when the rapeseed fields were dark gold and a smell of burnt corn had settled in the air, a farmhand appeared and called everyone to the street, saying they were coming, they were coming. The maid bore the Lindegaard boy in her arms, his face all sticky with rhubarb jam, slogged the fifty yards of gravel, lifted him up onto the fence, and they watched together the solemn little procession of three women marching single file, pushed along by members of the military police.
“Here they are,” the farmhand snarled, “Feltmadrasser! Feltmadrasser! Feltmadrasser!”
The jibe passed from mouth to mouth in steady trochees until it turned fugal and finally thickened to unanimous plainsong. The women’s heads were shaved carelessly, tufts growing amid that sickly white of scalp, their faces bruised, their eyes dead and limbs so thin and angular in coarse gray rags that they looked insane and not long for the world. The village women who were watching joined the chorus as heartily as the men. Those three had lain with the Germans. Everybody wondered where they had been hiding all these weeks. One of the three harlots wasn’t even ashamed, hurled back insults of her own. “Hypocrites,” she kept saying, firm syllable by firm syllable, grinning wildly.
“They won’t cut Mummy’s hair, will they?” said the Lindegaard boy when the spectacle was over.
“Why would they do that?”
“But they won’t?” he said, then answered it himself, “No, they won’t. I won’t let them.”
Before the war, Marlinde had an old limewashed church with a stepped gable, a sawmill, a florist’s, a bakery across from the station hotel where salesmen would put up for a night or two in the rooms above that unheatable hall in which local girls took waltz lessons from a withered little fugitive from Cologne and sought their mates at an annual dance. Along the outskirts of the scattered village stood three or four estates, most of which had been bought by angry fathers for younger sons in the hope of getting them thirty miles from the city and whatever it was they had done there.
The Lindegaards moved into one of these houses. They came from Copenhagen, the pretty bride suspiciously stout when she was handed out of the evening train car and the groom a dour man fortified by tweeds and a dark sad eye, his hair already brittling into gray. Mrs. Lindegaard grew slender soon enough and turned herself up in clothes of a cut no one else in Marlinde could afford or dare to inhabit. She smiled politely at everyone, but that smile did seem a bit tentative, too narrow, as if she’d reserved a spot of contempt for her private pleasure. Her husband, poor man, seemed to suffer in silence. The birth of their boy changed nothing.
By the time the boy appeared, in the very first month and year of the occupation, Mrs. Lindegaard was in her late twenties. It had been feared that she would remain childless forever and nobody took seriously the fact that she’d never expressed a desire not to remain so until her belly swelled. The boy turned into a bright child, a flesh and blood angel, the villagers kept saying. They pinched his cheeks, nestled him in their arms if their hands were clean. An old woman who was able to see the future by dint of a handful of tossed oats blessed the child and said if this world shall ever be redeemed it will be by golden-haired children exactly like this little boy.
The plump cherub lost his bulk and flew about catching butterflies in his straw hat. His mother said never be unkind to the common people, the maids, the farmhands. Be good to their children, even the worst of them, as long as you know that you are not one of them. Kindness is the debt of privilege. The boy shared his sweets, helped with the animals. Baker Hansen told him tales of forest creatures and he listened with terrorized attention that he knew was his token payment for the telling. He knew the capitals of the world before he was five, could recite the multiplication table into the hundreds. At three he spoke in complete sentences. One thing they tried to get rid of, but couldn’t, was his mortal fear of dogs. Once he saw a soldier with a dog on a leash and he was so frightened that the face he pulled made three men laying cobbles in the pavement laugh and laugh and the story of the encounter magnified till in some versions of it the boy wetted his trousers or jumped onto a haycart bound for Wilke’s farm. His mother did not like it when he’d hide under women’s skirts. Listen to your mother, was his father’s refrain, one he said so he wouldn’t have to think up other things to say that would have to be the law.
In church, Mrs. Lindegaard’s piety seemed borrowed. She could not help but make herself into a sore thumb in this place, this place where they’d in fact welcome anyone who was willing to do things the way they’d always been done here. They don’t put on airs in Marlinde, they don’t, and when they do, you know that those who do cannot have been born here, and since they weren’t born here you might as well let them make fools of themselves for in time they are sure to learn. Mrs. Lindegaard’s hats were made to pain the eyes of those who were obliged to defer to her. Always the cornflower in its band, sometimes a lace veil would drop and hide her face. She would sit in the pews with a volume of Kierkegaard in her lap as if it were the psalter, always bookmarked by her finger, as if she might turn to the book any moment if her interest were lost in the proceedings, and yes, the very Kierkegaard who, somebody said, was a notorious unbeliever, a scoffer against God’s good men back in the time of wigs and witches. The boy kept swinging his feet and kicking the pew in front and she never intervened in good time. She would advise the vicar on the choice of music so that sometimes strange harmonies chimed from the pipes, and she’d offer topics for his sermons too, and every time she somehow made it look as if she were merely rendering a favor that she had been asked. When the dance master was arrested on the suspicion of being a Jew she had the terrified pastor give a sermon on the inviolability of human dignity, quoting Galatians 5:1, then Kant on duty, in German, too, and finally stuttering through Spinoza on individual conscience. The congregation squirmed, feared reprisals, but none came. The dance master was released although no one knew how they had decided that the man was not what he had been accused of being and at any rate he was no longer in his demeanor what he once had been and before long he was seen waiting for the train with his valise in his hand and then was seen no more.
About once a month, the Lindegaards drove over to the estate of sawmill proprietor Wilke to play cards with four or five of the better people in the area. Mrs. Lindegaard spent hours at the mirror picking out the colors and the shapes, the symbolic arcana of her gems, and the boy watched through the doorway awed by these mysterious rituals. He would creep inside and beg to be allowed to be taken along. He never was.
“Then take me to see the puppets,” he said to his mother.
“Why don’t we go to the theater? You like the theater.”
“We can’t go to the city whenever we’d like. Much as we’d like to we can’t. We are country people now.”
“We can stay at Grandpa’s house,” he said.
“Grandpa is just dying to see Mummy.”
“Why can’t I play cards with you?”
“Why can’t I come?”
“If you don’t stop I’ll tell Father about the lipstick.”
“I swear I will.”
“What’s this?” came Father’s voice from the dark corridor. He remained in the shadows, then said, “Why don’t you listen to your mother?”
The lights in Wilke’s windows then glowed and flickered as if sending secret messages. The boy would climb a hump in the meadow and stare across the pastures and the tilted lawn at the rows of marble windows in Wilke’s house where his parents hid their joy from him. The maid would call him to eat, or read his book, or go for a walk, and sometimes had to call him twice, three times, or more, before he heard.
People in the village wondered what it was these people did in there. Mrs. Lindegaard surely paints her face for Wilke. They said they once saw her blush when she passed him in the street. Wilke had no children, no wife, no care in the world. He was never seen out of his boots, was a brash sportsman with those starched moustaches of an earlier age, the rude speech of a fishmonger, and from his grounds in autumn gunfire would unnerve the old folk in the village. He shot at squat port bottles which, the rumor went, he tagged with good old German names. From time to time he went into the city where it was said he kept some vaudeville girl or other in high style. He’s as lustful as a dog, he heard the maid say to someone.
The Germans had a base three miles east of his estate and one would see them in the street munching bread, chatting up the girls, revving a motorcycle engine, squabbling for the sidecar seat. They are gentlemen, said the wise old folk. They are like us, said the young when they had bummed cigarettes. Most waited for the Germans to leave, wondered if they ever would, until they did.
Sawmill superintendent Brinchmann once came from an errand in the city and said to baker Hansen that he’d heard that Mrs. Lindegaard had been a maid in a hotel in Borgergade in the city—scruffy Borgergade!—and that it was there she’d caught the eye of Lindegaard, and more than the eye, to be sure, no, she did not come from the Griffenfelds or the Schacks or the Bargums, no, her father was a Hansen too, a master mason from western Jutland who, when he broke his back, sent the girl to the city to seek work, and favors, or so Brinchmann had heard. There really was something of the milkmaid about her. Oh, she has the mark I’d always said it and if I didn’t say it I did think it! No matter, no matter, no one’s better than his neighbor. But still his eyes from then on told that he knew something about her that she did not want known.
One evening about a year after the Germans left, his parents over at Wilke’s house, the boy refused to go to bed when the maid beckoned, said he wanted to go to the pond to hear the toads. They wandered into Wilke’s fields and his orchard where they came upon one of Wilke’s hounds loitering with the gamekeeper. The boy first held onto the maid’s pinafore and when the dog came too close he bolted in terror. The hound leapt after him into an untended patch of wild barley. The boy fell and as he thrashed his legs the dog either bit him or caught his shin with his fang in the flailing confusion.
The gamekeeper gathered him up and brought the wailing child into the house. He was laid onto a sofa where he pulled himself up in a ball of rage. The card game disintegrated. His mother approached, cooing with her arms apart, but he hissed her off with his deformed little face, “You will not touch me!”
A maid made haste to dress his bleeding little leg and all the women stood in soothing lamentation. Wilke stood smoking his cigar with hands in his pockets, seemed to enjoy himself. The boy’s father said nothing. The gamekeeper explained what had happened.
“He’s just a little dog,” Mrs. Lindegaard kept saying as she knelt. “He was excited. He thought you were playing. He doesn’t know any better. He’s just a little dog.”
The boy wouldn’t listen. “He is wicked,” he said. “He will be punished, he will.”
There was iron in his voice.
“He’s just a little dog,” she said again.
“I want the dog dead,” he said. “I want it dead! Dead I want it. And I want Mr. Wilke to shoot him, and I will see him do it.”
The boy would not be consoled until the entire party went out into the courtyard and watched Wilke do what there was nothing else to do but do.