AUDIO FILE #83: Nightingale
"Go on," says a man's voice.
"I'm tired," an older woman answers, clearly uncomfortable and dismissive.
"But it's so exciting."
"Exciting?" There's a lash of bitterness in her reaction. "A bit of Saturday entertainment? Is that what this is for you?"
"No, I didn't mean it like that."
They are both speaking Ukrainian, he quickly and informally, she more hesitantly. In the background, occasional beeps from an electronic game can be heard.
"It's important for posterity."
The old woman laughs now, a hard and unhappy laughter. "Posterity," she says. "Do you mean the child? Isn't she better off not knowing?"
"If that's how you see it. We should be getting home anyway."
"No." The word is abrupt. "Not yet. Surely you can stay a little longer."
"You said you were tired," says the man.
"No. Not ... that tired."
"I don't mean to press you."
"No, I know that. You just thought it was exciting."
"Forget I said that. It was stupid."
"No, no. Children like exciting stories. Fairy tales."
"I was thinking more along the lines of something real. Something you experienced yourself."
Another short pause. Then, "No, let me tell you a story," the old woman says suddenly. "A fairy tale. A little fairy tale from Stalin Land. A suitable bedtime story for the little one. Are you listening, my sweet?"
Beep, beep, beep-beep. Unclear mumbling from the child. Obviously, her attention is mostly on the game, but that doesn't stop the old woman.
"Once upon a time, there were two sisters," she begins clearly, as if reciting. "Two sisters who both sang so beautifully that the nightingale had to stop singing when it heard them. First one sister sang for the emperor himself, and thus was the undoing of a great many people. Then the other sister, in her resentment, began to sing too."
"Who are you talking about?" the man asks. "Is it you? Is it someone we know?"
The old woman ignores him. There's a harshness to her voice, as if she's using the story to punish him.
"When the emperor heard the other sister, his heart grew inflamed, and he had to own her," she continued. "'Come to me,' he begged. Oh, you can be sure he begged. 'Come to me, and be my nightingale. I'll give you gold and beautiful clothes and servants at your beck and call.'"
Here the old woman stops. It's as if she doesn't really feel like going on, and the man no longer pressures her. But the story has its own relentless logic, and she has to finish it.
"At first she refused. She rejected the emperor. But he persisted. 'What should I give you, then?' he asked, because he had learned that everything has a price. 'I will not come to you,' said the other sister, 'before you give me my evil sister's head on a platter.'"
In the background, the beeping sounds from the child's game have ceased. Now there is only an attentive silence.
"When the emperor saw that a heart as black as sin hid behind the beautiful song," the old woman continues, still using her fairy-tale voice, "he not only killed the first sister, but also the nightingale's father and mother and grandfather and grandmother and whole family. 'That's what you get for your jealousy,' he said and threw the other sister out."
The child utters a sound, a frightened squeak. The old woman doesn't seem to notice.
"Tell me," she whispers. "Which of them is me?"
"You're both alive," says the man. "So something in the story must be a lie."
"In Stalin Land, Stalin decides what is true and what is a lie," says the old woman. "And I said that it was a Stalin fairy tale."
"Daddy," says the child, "I want to go home now."
Natasha started; she had been sitting silently, looking out the window of the patrol car as Copenhagen glided by in frozen shades of winter grey. Dirty house fronts, dirty snow and a low and dirty sky in which the sun had barely managed to rise above the rooftops in the course of the day. The car's tires hissed in the soap-like mixture of snow, ice and salt that covered the asphalt. None of it had anything to do with her, and she noted it all without really seeing it.
"You do speak Danish, don't you?"
The policeman in the passenger seat had turned toward her and offered her a little blue-white pack. She nodded and took a piece. Said thank you. He smiled at her and turned back into his seat.
This wasn't the "bus," as they called it—the usual transport from Vestre Prison to the court—that Natasha had been on before. It was an ordinary black-and-white; the police were ordinary Danish policemen. The youngest one, the one who had given her the gum, was thirty at the most. The other was old and fat and seemed nice enough too. Danish policemen had kind eyes. Even that time with Michael and the knife, they had spoken calmly and kindly to her as if she hadn't been a criminal they were arresting but rather a patient going to the hospital.
One day, before too long, two of these kind men would put Katerina and her on a flight back to Ukraine, but that was not what was happening today. Not yet. It couldn't be. Her asylum case had not yet been decided, and Katerina was not with her. Besides, you didn't need to go through Copenhagen to get to the airport, that much she knew. This was the way to Central Police Headquarters.
Natasha placed her hands on her light blue jeans, rubbed them hard back and forth across the rough fabric, opened and closed them quickly. Finally, she made an effort to let her fists rest on her knees while she looked out at Copenhagen and tried to figure out if the trip into the city brought her closer to or farther from Katerina. During the last months, the walls and the physical distance that separated them had become an obsession. She was closer to her daughter when she ate in the cafeteria than when she was in her cell. The trip to the yard was also several meters in the wrong direction, but it still felt soothing because it was as if she were breathing the same air as Katerina. On the library computer Natasha had found Google Street View and dragged the flat little man to the parking lot in front of the prison, farther along Copenhagen's streets and up the entrance ramp to the highway leading through the woods that sprawled north of the city's outer reaches. It was as if she could walk next to him the whole way and see houses and storefronts and trees and cars, but when he reached the Coal-House Camp, he couldn't go any farther. Here she had to make do with the grubby satellite image of the camp's flat barrack roofs. She had stared at the pictures until she went nearly insane. She had imagined that one of the tiny dots was Katerina. Had dreamed of getting closer. From the prison, it was twenty-three kilometers to the Coal-House Camp. From the center of Copenhagen it was probably a few kilometers more, but on the other hand, there were neither walls nor barbed wire between the camp and her right now. There was only the thin steel shell of the police car, air and wind, kilometers of asphalt. And later, the fields and the wet forest floor.
She knew it wouldn't do any good, but she reached out to touch the young policeman's shoulder all the same. "You still don't know anything?" she asked in English.
His eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. His gaze was apologetic but basically indifferent. He shook his head. "We're just the chauffeurs," he said. "We aren't usually told stuff like that."
She leaned back in her seat and again began to rub her palms against her jeans. Opened and closed her hands. Neither of the two policemen knew why she was going to police headquarters. They had nothing for her except chewing gum.
The court case over the thing with Michael was long finished, so that probably wasn't what it was about, and her plea for asylum had never required interviews or interrogations anywhere but the Coal-House Camp.
Fear made her stomach contract, and she felt the urge to shit and pee at the same time. If only she could have had Katerina with her. If only they could have been together. At night in the prison, she had the most terrible nightmares about Katerina alone in the children's barrack, surrounded by flames.
Or Katerina making her way alone into the swamp behind the camp.
It was unnatural for a mother not to be able to reach out and touch her child. Natasha knew she was behaving exactly like cows after their calves were taken from them in the fall, when they stood, their shrill bellowing lasting for hours, without knowing which way to direct their sorrow. She had tried to relieve her restlessness with cold logic. They were not separated forever, she told herself. Katerina came to visit once in a while with Nina, the lady from the Coal-House Camp, who reassured Natasha every time that she would personally take care of Katerina. Rina, the Danes called her. They thought that was her name because that was what the papers said. But Rina wasn't even a name. It was what was left when an overpaid little forger in Lublin had done what he could to disguise the original text.
Maybe that was why she was here? Had they discovered what the man in Lublin had done?
Her dread of the future rose like the tide. Her jaw muscles tightened painfully, and when she crushed the compact piece of gum between her teeth, everything in her mouth felt sticky and metallic.
The policeman at the wheel slowed down, gave a low, triumphant whistle and slid the car in between two other cars in a perfect parking maneuver. Through the front window, Natasha could see the grey, fortress-like headquarters of the Danish police. Why were there thick bars in front of some of the windows? As far as she knew, it wasn't here by the entrance that they locked up thieves and murderers. It seemed as if the bars were just there as a signal—a warning about what awaited when the interrogations with the nice Danish policemen were over.
The fat cop opened the door for her. "This is as far as we go, young lady."
She climbed out of the car and buried her hands in the pockets of her down jacket. The cold hit her, biting at her nose and cheeks, and she realized that she had brought neither hat nor gloves. When you were in prison, the weather wasn't something that really mattered. She had barely registered the snow the day before.
The older policeman pulled a smoke out of his uniform jacket and lit it, gave an expectant cough. The young cop, who already had a hand on Natasha's arm, sighed impatiently.
"Just two minutes," said the heavyset one and leaned against the car. "We've got plenty of time."
The young one shrugged. "You really should stop that, pal. It's going to kill both you and me. I'm freezing my ass off here."
The old one laughed good-naturedly and drew smoke deep into his lungs. Natasha wasn't freezing, but her legs felt weak, and she noticed again that she needed to pee. Soon. But she didn't want to say anything, didn't want the policemen to rush. She looked up at the massive, squat building as if it could tell her why she was here. Relaxed uniformed and non-uniformed employees wandered in and out among the pillars in the wide entrance area. If they were planning to seal the fate of a young Ukrainian woman today, you couldn't tell, and for a moment, Natasha felt calmer.
This was Copenhagen, not Kiev.
Both she and Katerina were safe. She was still in Copenhagen. Still Copenhagen. Across the rooftops a bit farther away, she could see the frozen and silent amusement rides in Tivoli, closed for the season. The tower ride from which she and Michael and Katerina had let themselves fall, secure in their little seats, on a warm summer night almost two years ago.
The big guy stubbed out his cigarette against a stone island in the parking lot and nodded at Natasha. "Well, shall we?"
She began to move but then remained standing as if frozen in place. The sounds of the city reached her with a sudden violence. The rising and falling song of car motors and tires on the road, the weak vibration in the asphalt under her when a truck rumbled by, the voices and slamming car doors. She was searching for something definite in the babble. She focused her consciousness to its utmost and found it. Again.
"Ni. Sohodni. Rozumiyete?"
Natasha locked her gaze on two men who had parked their car some distance away—one of them wearing an impeccable black suit and overcoat, the other more casual in dark jeans and a light brown suede jacket.
"Did someone nail your feet to the pavement?" the young cop said, in a friendly enough fashion. "Let's keep moving." His hand pressed harder around her elbow, pushing her forward a little.
"I'm sorry," she said. She took one more step and another. Looked down at the slushy black asphalt and felt the fear rise in her in its purest and darkest form.
They worked their way sideways around a small row of dug-up parking spaces cordoned off with red-and-white construction tape. Long orange plastic tubes snaked their way up from the bottom of the deserted pit. Next to it was a small, neat pile of cobbles half covered by snow.
Natasha slowed down. Gently. Avoided any sudden movements.
The old guy looked back just as she bent down to pick up the top cobble. She smiled at him. Or tried to, at least.
"I'm just ..."
He was two steps away, but the younger one was closer, and she hit him, hard and fast and without thinking. She felt the impact shoot up through the stone and into her hand and closed her eyes for an instant. She knew that the young cop fell in front of the old one, blocking his way, because she could hear them both curse and scrabble in the soap-like slush. But she didn't see it.
She just ran.
Nina woke slowly, with some kind of murky nightmare rumbling at the bottom of her consciousness. There had been a refugee camp that looked like Dadaab, the flies and the heat and that smell you never completely escape from, the stench of atomized human misery. But the children lying before her on the ground with starved faces and protruding bellies were Anton and Ida.
She rolled over onto her side and tried to escape the dream. 9:02, announced the large digital wall clock that had been the first thing she hung on the wall when she moved in. An anemic February sun was streaming unimpeded through the window; the shades she had bought at IKEA on a rushed afternoon in August were still lying in their packaging on the radiator almost six months later. Luckily, there were no neighbors. Outside lay Grøndals Parkvej, and on the other side of it the park and the railroad embankment, the reason she had bought the apartment. Centrally located yet still a quiet neighborhood, the realtor had said, a really good parental buy—did she have a son or daughter starting college, perhaps? When he had realized that she was going to be living there herself, he had adjusted expectations noticeably. Divorced mothers were difficult clients, it seemed, confused and unrealistic and with no perspective on their own budget.
The cell phone rang. It must be what had woken her, even though she hadn't really registered it, since it wasn't her ringtone. She poked Magnus in the ribs.
"It's yours," she said.
A groggy sound emanated from the fallen Swedish giant. He lay on his stomach, his head buried so deep in the pillow, it was amazing that he could breathe. His broad, naked shoulders were covered with short golden hair, and he smelled of semidigested beer. She nudged him again.
Finally, he lifted his head.
"Oh, my God," he said in his distinct Swedish accent. "What time is it?"
"It's Saturday," she said, since that was more to the point.
He reached for the cell phone, which was lying on the floor next to the bed along with his wallet and keys. Neat little bedside tables, his and hers, were not part of the apartment's inventory. The only place where she had made an effort was in Anton's and Ida's rooms, and they still hadn't turned out right. Everything was too tidy. It lacked the clutter of toys and discarded clothing, the scratches on the wall from hockey sticks and lightsabers, the remnants of stickers that wouldn't quite come off, odd splotches from overturned soda cans and soap bubble experiments. Quite simply, it lacked children. She hadn't managed to make it more than a temporary refuge. Home was still the apartment in Fejøgade, and that was where they had their life.
Excerpted from DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE by LENE KAABERBØL, AGNETE FRIIS, Elisabeth Dyssegaard. Copyright © 2013 Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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