Iben Mondrup

November 16, 2016 
The following is from Iben Mondrup’s novel, Justine. Mondrup is a trained visual artist from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts who is also the author of four novels, including Godhavn and Store Malene.

The Factory is still deserted. I’m a small body in a large building. My hands are unwrapped now. I thought it was worse. These are just beer-filled blisters.

I light a candle and lie down. Now I’m lying and falling, touching upon dream, reality, dream, reality. What’s the difference? It’s dark. Am I asleep?

There’s Grandpa’s house in flames again anyway. And here I come dancing along the rooftop, devouring red wood, licking the paint off with a bubbling tongue, window panes shatter. And now I hear it. Yes. It’s really there. An itty bitty voice. I press my ear to the wall. It’s just the flames’ crackling, rather like suppressed laughter. Justi-hi-hi-hi-hi. Ouch. It’s growing hot. It bites my flesh, I turn and run and run and of course don’t get anywhere. So, it’s a dream then.

Now I wake with my eyes. Light. Am I really awake? Oh; one of the candles has tipped over next to my head. Is it burning? The flame plays with paper sucks in wax, Torben’s sleeping bag crackles. Holding the pillow before my face, I slap at the flames with a cushion. Black becomes gray, and now it’s turning blue outside.

* * * *

Behind a wooden board in the hall are several large photographs. A girl I don’t know well, her name is Helene, has taken some self-portraits. She’s a painter. In these pictures, though, she’s obviously the photographer. Anyway, she’s the one in front of the mirror. She’s in her underwear. One hand holds out the camera that’s taking the pictures. The flash is a white sun burning a hole through her body. She’s unconcerned, her face beams. There are quite a few photos, a whole series of them, and in each one Helene is thinner. The bright eyes disappear in picture No. 7. She’s standing in front of the mirror and looking at herself in obvious disbelief. In No. 12 and No. 13 she’s holding a piece of paper with a date on it. No. 14 was taken on May 4, 1998. Here a sallow-skinned Helene leans against the wall inspecting a rump that’s no longer a rump. Then comes the last picture, which was taken nearly six months later. Here Helene is different. She’s in the same pose on skinny legs beneath an enormous body that hangs over the waistband of her panties like over-risen dough. She’s smiling. A terrible smile. That smile gives me a bad feeling inside.

I let go; the pictures smack against the wall. That smile’s a state on the brink.

And horribly, it reminds me of something else, Eske from the academy of arts, the guy with the depressed dad. His dad isn’t all there, he calls Eske at home and leaves messages on his answering machine. Every single day. When the answering machine picks up, he describes how he’ll take his own life. He’s come up with any number of ways to do it. He’ll hang himself from a tree. He’ll eat caustic soda. He’ll go straight out into the water and drown himself. Farewell.

Eske had an exhibit for a time with a white box you could crawl into. When you were all the way inside, you could press play on the answering machine and listen to his father’s messages. “I’m going to do it. I’m really going to do it . . .”

I’ve been in that white space.

“I’ll do it soon. I’ll take my belt. The narrow leather one. I’ll fix it right up for you all.”

* * * *

Ane and her paintings fill the space. My person is broken down to small fragments, flitting around, colliding with everything that isn’t me, but rather her, and coalescing into a body. Finger. Print. That’s always the gist of us, right?

One of Ane’s paintings is a paisley landscape without up and down, near and far, or horizon. She’s made a rip in which the colors blend in spirals inside the brain’s winding coils, and amid a flock reminiscent of thought, an underwater life of seaweed. Fish with bird heads, birds sporting arms, little girls with bare breasts and rough hands, boys without legs, some laughing, some bleeding. Three girls in French braids display their buttocks, spreading their cheeks to show their deep assholes. A boy combs a longhaired cat, and in the midst of it all a dog-ape hybrid is shaving its legs.

I say it now: I think I’m some other. Or how should I put it? I’ve become some other. That other hasn’t become me, though. She didn’t exist before the fire. Or did she? She’s a new condition. At once definitive and boundless. I have no clue where we’re off to now.

To the bathroom, where all is gray, and I inspect her in the mirror. She looks like me. She holds the large scissors in her hand lifts a hunk of hair. It’s my fingers that are chopping, my hair’s a hunk that falls. I’ve kept my hair this long always it’s lived a slow life together with me headed down toward the ground, ready to take root below. I cut again, graying the water, I keep cutting until I’ve come full-circle. The exact same woman in the mirror has an uneven pageboy. We’re different. And now what we want is to fuck, not cut. The place is deserted.

* * * *

He approaches from the front, a young man, well, a big boy really, with a smile on his open face. He approaches me and angles his head back so he won’t get cigarette smoke in his eyes. Then he places the hot water kettle and cups on the table and extends his hand through the barrier of air. With a squeeze he says:


Now he removes the cigarette from his mouth. His hair springs in large curls away from his head. He’s sunburnt with eyes that are white in the white.

“You’re the one who made that video of the woman doing the drum dance, right?” he asks.

He rummages about, not just with his hand, but with his whole arm, no, with his whole body in my space.

“I don’t think so. I’m some other.”

“Some other? How can you be some other? Other than who?”

“Than myself.”

“I’m pretty sure it was you, and . . .”

“I don’t think so.”

At this point, I’ve turned around and left, because he can’t help it, after all, he’s just that open, pure and simple. But he’s unconcerned and on my heels, I can hear him, now he’s reached the door, he collides with it, uses a hip to push it open and enters the workshop balancing two cups, “coffee,” he says. His voice is so wry and he’s asked for it now.

“Do you live out here?” he asks.

The coffee makes a thin stripe down his hand and there’s a nimbus around him. Youth, I think, and inhale, a distinctive odor, sharp and dry.

“I do, too.”

He takes a chair, places his arms on the rests, brown and hairy, and asks if he can smoke. Apparently, it doesn’t faze him when I say no; the hair surges from his armpits like crimped fur.

“Wasn’t it you in that video? But you don’t want to talk about it, right?”

Now he stands up. Is he leaving already? No. He begins to flip the paintings.

“Stop that,” I say.

Now he’s leaving. No. He’s giving me a wry look. Like he thinks he’s got me figured out. Let him think that. I can tell he assumes things with me are off-kilter.

Now he’s leaving. He draws a current of air behind, sharp and dry.

* * * *

You’d almost think nothing had happened. Kluden is right where it’s always been and Kelly is behind the bar. She’s working the night shift, just like the night before.

She opens a beer as soon as I walk in, sets it down in front of me, and pronounces a name that could be mine, I recognize it in any case.

“Well now,” Per Olsvig says, “you again?”

He’s sitting at the end of the bar.

“He hasn’t gone home,” Kelly says.

“Sure I have,” Olsvig says. “I went to my fucking job.”

It’s the same conversation about paid work, which is a necessity, even if you’re an artist. In a moment he’ll tell us everything he can’t recall saying before. That’s memory-slinging for you. They land on Kluden’s linoleum floor, back in the corners and beneath the bar stools, where they stick.

“I was doing my thing at the grocery store,” Olsvig says. “See, that’s honest work with honest people. None of that pretentious piss you all go around and do.”

Olsvig drains a shot and orders another on tab. He’s so gray. No. Now he shifts slightly and the light from the lamp over the bar falls red onto his face. In a moment I’ll buy him a beer. I feel like I’ve missed him, even though he’s so crass. There’s an open place right beside him.

“Do I know you?” he asks. “Nah, I’m just ribbing you, Justine, come here and sit next to me.”

We know each other as well as the song pumping through the room: “Stairway to Heaven.” The sound is like the smoke was massive. Searing. His hooded jersey is thick with grime and old paint, but I can’t detect an odor, and my head rests comfortably on his shoulder. He sucks heavily on his cigarette, then stubs the rest into the ashtray, taps the rhythm with his finger on the counter. The door opens, we don’t see who comes in, if they know us, it’ll happen. Olsvig lights a new cigarette.

“Ahh,” he says, “what a day.”

The beer is cold and curative. Right now I need Kelly, Olsvig, and “a Tuborg Gold,” I say, “no, two!”

He kisses my forehead. Now I want his short arms around me.

“Forty-two,” Kelly says.

“Put in on my tab,” Olsvig says.

His cheeks are lightly swollen with scattered stubble. I couldn’t care less, I want to be inside his body, behind the bluster and gestures, back behind it all, away.

* * * *

Somehow Per Olsvig just couldn’t help it. He graduated from the academy of arts about a year ago, and before that he was already selling his paintings. I was actually there the night it began. Olsvig owed a gallery owner some money, and instead of taking his money, the gallery owner told him he could display a couple of paintings and see whether or not they sold. Before half a day was gone, the gallery sold the first one and the second one shortly thereafter. The owner was beside himself. A mass of drinks were had at Kluden. He wanted everything in Olsvig’s studio, all that came from Olsvig’s fingers was pure gold, at least for a while. Until it stopped.

* * * *

Bo left a coffee cup and a stain. Vita notices of course. She notices everything, but acts like it’s nothing. Right there, that’s where she entered. Wait, didn’t she just wander in through the wall?

“Why didn’t you use the door?” I ask.

Obviously, she’s not going to answer. She’d rather talk about something else. That’s unusual. She wants to talk about “sex . . . you know exactly what I mean,” she says. “You head to the sack as soon as you meet someone. Do you even think about anything else?”

“What do you mean by sex? He was just sweet,” I say. “I didn’t do anything. Where’s all this coming from?”

“Who isn’t sweet?” she asks. “Who isn’t sweet and lovely in your eyes? Who isn’t so unbelievably wonderful that you just can’t help ripping their clothes off? And you know exactly what I mean.”

“That’s the way people meet,” I say. “To claim otherwise is wrong. First there’s sex, the naked and the raw. And everything else comes after that. Besides, he knows he’s sexy.”

“Oh right, you’re so smart. So in touch with yourself,” she says.

“Could be. But do you really have to spit like that?”

“Hey, I thought you liked secretions.”

“I don’t get you.”

“Obviously, he knows he’s sexy,” she says. “He has you right where he wants you. As usual, you think you’re in complete control. But you don’t control anything. You’re so transparent. So is he, of course. I give it two days before you’re swapping spit.”

“Nothing happens. Sometimes it just up and happens,” I say.

“Don’t go thinking that you’re the only person capable of being attracted to someone else. Actually, we’re all capable. But that doesn’t mean that we just run around and do it with anyone. We stop ourselves before it comes to sex.”

She walks through the wall.

“That’s pretty smart,” she says, looking down at herself.





From JUSTINE. Used with permission of Open Letter. Copyright © 2016 by Iben Mondrup.

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