The jeans were already stained, had been long ago; there was nothing to be done for the greasy black smudge below Joey’s knee. Most of the pants in her closet were marked this way. It wasn’t the stain that made her slow her bike on the short drawbridge to Christianshavn. More than one biker careened around her, flicking their bells in annoyance when she stopped without signaling. Joey leaned her red centurion 10-speed on the metal railing along the pedestrian space and looked down at the right leg of her jeans. The cuff had come out of her sock, a tight woolen argyle, and was snagging on the chain. Mindless of the cold, Joey rolled the cuff up to just below her knee.
And it was cold. The Danish wind bit at all of her exposed skin, her cheeks, chin, lips — and now the inches of calf she had bared. Nonetheless, the short hair at her neck was matted with sweat from the ride back to town. Joey pulled her knit cap down around her ears and buttoned the collar high on her black winter coat. She’d left her scarf today; it was already April, after all.
Joey leaned on her bike, suddenly rather tired, and steadied the small pot of daffodils, bright as sunshine, in basket behind her. She looked out over the harbor, at the unusually crisp blue sky mirrored in rainbow slicks on the black water below. It wasn’t the most pleasant place to stop in Copenhagen; car exhaust mingled with the fumes from the shallow tour boats, but the flattened bubble of the opera house sparkled in the afternoon sun. Its spear-like roof jutted menacingly over the harbor, a silhouette meant to mimic the giant grey boat cranes that were still there. Joey watched a boatload of bundled tourists pause before the hulking building; faintly she picked up the guide’s monotone over the wind: “…who also designed the Sydney opera house….” Joey shivered and smiled. She’d taken that tour half a dozen times over the last five years. It was much better, she wanted to tell them, in the summer.
Joey stamped the cold from her boots and angled her bike toward the road. She eased it into traffic with barely a glance, shrugging off another irritated bell. Somebody complained in Danish, but no one really looked at the boyish girl weaving herself through the rush-hour peloton. The Centurion cut through the city center, sneaking under red lights and looking for the side streets Joey knew would avoid traffic.
Across Norrebrogade, Joey slipped through gates of Assistens Kirkegaard, slowing her pace as she always did in the cemetery. Her smile quirked as she passed HC Andersen’s grave, and again when she passed the physicist Niels Bohr, though she could never quite remember why he was famous. Cold as it was, a yellow light streaked through the tall trees and here and there snowdrop buds peeked from the evergreen grasses. People strolled with dogs and prams at all times of the day, here, but Joey relished the hush of the place, the intense reserve she had seen mirrored in the Danish people. Even the babies were quiet.
Back on the street, Joey zigged right then left, up the noisy main drag with its falafel joints, the second-hand stores and endless jewelry shops fading under her heels. Save for the train alleys, this part of town bore the brunt of graffitists’ abuses. Natives considered it the “ghetto.” There was hardly any such thing in Copenhagen. But in a country this homogenous, immigrants were distrusted. At least the ones who looked different. Joey stopped her bike to pop into a kiosk for a pack of Camels. The Indian behind the counter addressed her in Danish, as did everyone. Her grey eyes and fair face were a convenient disguise, sometimes, in a country where diversity was not really a virtue. Even her cheekbones screamed Scandinavian, though that hardly mattered in Norrebro. It was something she liked about the neighborhood.
Cosmopolitan. That wasn’t a word used to describe Copenhagen. “Quaint” and “cozy” usually fit better, but to Joey, the hub of Denmark was a thriving metropolis. It was exciting to live in a European capital; the architecture, the history, the burgeoning international culture — even in little Copenhagen — thrilled Joey today as much as they had the love-struck backpacker she’d been years ago. Though she rarely afforded it, she loved the ease of travel, the long holidays, the strange light of the winter, the summer nights where the sun barely set. She had endless photographs of these things, though she rarely showed them. Who wants a picture of something they see every day? In the small galleries where Joey had managed to get a few photos on the wall, the Danes seemed to prefer edgier stuff: passed-out junkies, defaced statuary. One tiny shop in Vesterbro had even taken her portrait of a dead pigeon. Joey worked hard to find quirky subjects; she loved weird street art in particular. But at her heart, she was always pulled by sunsets and turning leaves, duck ponds and old people. Funny, she thought. You could find those things anywhere.
Joey pulled her bike through the basement-level courtyard door. It was a bright courtyard, for all that it was inside of an awkward pentagon of fused buildings. It was green already with Birch leaves. And it was safe. Joey stashed her bike in the covered bike space, locking both the back tire and the chain. Truth was, this was Joey’s third bike since moving to Copenhagen. You could never be too safe.
The back stairwell was a dizzying coil of wooden planks. It was clearly original, surviving from the courtyard’s early, 19th-century days as a home for the less fortunate. It made Joey a little nauseated to climb the eight creaking turns to her apartment; they were so narrow that, if you came upon another person, one of you had to scale the wall. Still, there were a few greasy windows. They gave off a greenish glow from the ivy climbing outside, in the summertime. And it was more convenient than walking around the block to the front of the building.
Joey jiggled her keys at the back door, struggling with them as she always did, though there were only four, and two of those were bike keys. Silver and black for the back, she chanted to herself, flipping over her worn Edelweiss keychain. The mnemonic wasn’t much help when she was one-handed. Joey had just crouched to set the daffodils on the narrow landing when the door popped open.
“Hey,” said Anna.
“Hey,” Joey replied. Anna looked down at the daffodils.
“Did you go to the store?”
They both looked at the daffodils now.
Joey hesitated. The flowers had been a gift from her student. Her young female student, the one Anna didn’t like very much. It was Wednesday. Anna knew what that meant, that Joey had seen this girl, and if she hadn’t stopped at the store — presumably to buy a pot of daffodils — she had accepted them as a gift. And yet, where were the eggs? The bread she was supposed to pick up? Joey knew Anna very well. Though, she thought with slight disgust, none of this had occurred to her when she was on her bike, flying past one Netto after another on the way home. Anna’s eyes were a very serious deep blue. Purple, almost, and Joey thought of constricted flesh, of blood blisters. She sighed. Which truth was better?
“I didn’t go to the store,” Joey admitted, pushing through the narrow doorway into the galley kitchen. The space was tight for two people. She set the daffodils on the sill next to the window. It looked very dirty next to the striking yellow and green. “I forgot.”
“But you bought flowers.”
She could have bought them at a flower stall, true. The weather was cold but sunny, for once, and thousands of people all over the city were doing stupid things like forgetting to buy eggs and brining home daffodils. Anna had tucked her chin, like a bull. Joey used to think she was very beautiful when she was jealous.
“Yes,” she said, not looking away. Lying was easy. “I bought flowers. For you.”
And it was that last bit that made Anna pause, made the lie work. Not because Joey never bought flowers — for the apartment, for friends, for whatever — but because it was too horrible to think Joey would accept flowers from her student and then casually pass them to Anna as something thoughtful. Something tender. Joey knew that Anna wanted to believe it.
Joey pulled off her coat and blew onto the cold pads of her fingertips. She looked away from Anna, who was repositioning the flowers to catch the dying sun in the kitchen. It made her chest hurt, just a little to look at Anna, her dusky red lips quirking into a smile through the golden strands of her hair. Perhaps she knew Joey was lying. Perhaps, she thought, it made her happy that Joey would bother.
Caring less about that than what was for dinner, Joey left her shoes in the front hallway and went back to the kitchen. She opened the dormitory-sized refrigerator and stared at the cold cuts and the cheese. There were leeks on the counter, and they would go bad soon.
“I’ll go to the store now,” Joey said. Beer bottles clinked when she closed the refrigerator door. “I’ll get some chicken,” she said. “I’ll make some soup.”
Anna was leaning against the sink, watching her with her arms crossed. She leaned, rigid, to kiss Joey’s cold cheek. “No,” she said. “I’ll go.”
When the front door closed, Joey stretched her tall frame. She liked to get home before Anna, as she had done when Anna worked outside the city, in Lyngby. It was nice to have a few minutes in the little apartment, alone. Nowhere was quite big enough for the two of them; even the bed seemed a half-size too small. They had both been working less, though Joey still had plenty of students. More than she wanted, usually. Anna, who had been a translator, now worked as a tour-boat guide, but only part-time. Speaking Danish, English and German was not an unusual credential in Copenhagen, and there were fewer tourists clamoring aboard this time of year.
Joey began with the leeks, carefully rinsing dirt from the slick layers. They were almost limp; she was glad she’d noticed. There was something very sad to her about throwing out vegetables. She wondered if squirrels would eat leeks.
All of the vegetables Joey could find in the fridge — red pepper, small potatoes and an old zucchini — were simmering in the pan when Anna returned. It was dark; the sun had slipped away in moments and Anna left a trail of lights in her wake.
“Here,” she said, dropping the packaged chicken breasts on the counter. She tossed a few small coins in the jar over the sink and pulled a bottle of wine from her coat. White. The cheap chardonnay Anna liked was not Joey’s favorite, but it would go all right with the soup. Anna twisted it open and poured.
“Skål,” said Joey, automatically. They lifted the glasses and their eyes flickered for an instant over them. “I’m sorry,” Joey said turning back to the chicken, “that I forgot.”
Anna squeezed in behind her and reached around her waist. She slipped her hand underneath Joey’s shirt, and Joey clenched at the cold of it. “It’s all right,” said Anna. She stood on her toes to kiss Joey’s neck. “But next time, there will be punishments.”
They grinned at each other. Joey felt the warmth return, sipping the wine. “This is good,” she said. “Thank you for thinking of it.”
While they ate, there was always a story from the boat. There was always someone who’d asked stupid questions about buying pot in Christiania, or who’d bonked their head on one of the low canal bridges. Maybe even a camera overboard or a child nearly so. Anna told these stories with great amusement, as if they weren’t simply variations on a theme. Today — and this was Anna’s favorite kind of story — two German tourists had hit on her quite noticeably.
“I gave them my phone number,” she giggled. And when Joey didn’t bite, Anna looked sullen. “Fine. Not my real one.”
“I suppose they tipped you well, then?”
“Why else would I give them my number?”
Joey laughed. “You’re running quite a scam, Miss Madsen.”
She smiled in that coy way that sometimes aroused Joey, and sometimes bothered her. “The cute one pinched my ass.”
“Then I guess he got what he paid for.”
Anna laughed loudly at that. She often missed it when Joey was joking; even more often she missed it when Joey was not.
After dinner, they went back out into the cold which neither of them noticed. There was no real fine place to walk — the cemetery was closed at night. But Joey was playing with night photography, and they both liked to wander the neighborhood; the small area around their apartment was known as the Mythological quarter, the streets named after Nordic gods. Joey and Anna lived on Baldersgade, after the pure and beloved son of Odin. Anna had explained that Balder was felled by a jealous and unrepentant Loki, with an arrow of mistletoe. At the end of the world, Balder will rise again and rule over whatever comes next.
“Kind of like Jesus,” Joey had said.
“No,” said Anna. “Nothing like Jesus. Balder’s death is a catalyst. Not a cure.”
This is when Joey liked Anna best, on these walks. She liked the stories, liked Anna for telling them again and again.
“Tell me about Mimir,” Joey said as they walked past Mimirs Bodega where swells of laughter and cigarette smoke poured from the open door.
“Mimir was Odin’s counselor,” she began. “Well, at least his head was…”
It was hard for Joey not to think back to Sunday school, hard for her not to frame these stories in the context of the Christianity. They had been her first stories, after all. Mother Goose and the Bible. Anna, who was fascinated by mythology of all kinds, who had studied it seriously, did not relate tales of morality. She relished the characters for their own sake — particularly the mischievous Loki (“Without him,” she had said, “nothing ever happens.”) — and recounted the tales as she might bits of history. And like history, they were complicated, these stories. Twisted in myriad versions. Ugly and messy, a series of cause and effect spun seemingly without any purpose. They did not control or even guide, they simply entertained.
Anna told her stories and was a very willing subject for Joey. Her cornsilk hair worked well in the street light, though the streetlights in Copenhagen were high up, wired between buildings and rather unromantic. Joey found a stairwell with wrought iron railings she liked the look of, and Anna posed in the shadows for her until she complained about the urine smell. They turned back toward the apartment; Joey looked in through bare windows, watching other lives in their golden light, and felt calm.
Joey let them into the front stairwell, a much wider, more welcoming space than the old courtyard stairs. She hit the timed light switch and headed up the first of the four flights. She heard the slip of metal on metal behind her, a sound that prefaced the awkward creak of their mailbox. Sometimes Joey went days without checking the mail. During her first years in Copenhagen, the mail had come through the brass slot in their front door, spilled right into their hallway. Joey thought of mail carriers all over the city, hauling packages on their bikes and climbing endless stairwells to deliver them. It had seemed practically Sisyphean. Now, the buildings had mailboxes just inside the front door, though she still couldn’t imagine how they kept track of all the keys.
“Something here for you,” Anna mumbled as they disengaged their scarves, shoes and coats. She laughed. “Squirrel something?”
“What?” Joey was only half listening, contemplating the boxes of tea on the little red shelf in the kitchen.
“Squirrel… Key?” Anna said. She poked her head around the wall and waved a creased manilla envelope. Joey turned the chamomile tea bag in her fingers. She felt suddenly cold.
“Is the heat on?”
“What? I don’t know. Here,” Anna chucked the envelope onto the counter. “It’s in Florida.”
“I know where it is,” Joey mumbled. She checked the radiator in the hallway and turned the knob. She did the same with the two smaller ones beneath the windows in the living room.
“Yeah?” Anna leaned over the envelope again, distracted, and then looked up. “Hey, it’s not that cold in here, you know.”
Joey was in the bedroom, now, reaching into the wardrobe. She found a black hooded sweatshirt and zipped it up over her thermal shirt. She stared into the shower closet that loomed over a whole corner of their small room. “You said you were going to clean this, Anna. This shower needs to be cleaned.”
Anna didn’t respond. She was at the table with her laptop. Joey could hear her clicking the keys. “Anna?”
“Yeah, OK,” she mumbled.
Joey hugged her arms around her chest and stood in the middle of the room. She swayed a little, back and forth on her toes, not thinking of anything, especially. A trance-like bit of procrastination that she sometimes fell into, as if she had put the world on pause.
“Jo?” It must have been longer than moments: Anna was at the door with the envelope. “Want me to open it?” Anna liked opening Joey’s mail.
“OK. Is something wrong?”
“No.” Joey took the envelope from her. The hard paper felt even harder ripping against her cold fingers. “Yes.” She sighed. “Probably.”
Inside was a packet of folded papers. She opened each methodically and spread them over the odds and ends on the dresser. The typed letter was signed with blue ink; there was a newspaper clipping and a travel voucher. She did not have to look at any of it very closely.
“What is it?” said Anna, puzzling over the mess.
Joey stepped aside and let her examine the papers. “It’s…” Nothing, Joey wanted to say, wanted to brush Anna away, as if from a bruise. “I think,” she began again. “I think my dad is dead.”
She woke with a strange stillness. The room was dark and hushed and for a moment Joey could not breathe. Her fists were numb, their grasp weak against the sheets, and she lay like that, her chest paralyzed as if concussed. It was like being underwater, like running in the mountains. Her gasps were loud in the quiet room, but Anna did not stir. Joey put her hands around her own throat, willing herself calm. Slowly — or it could have been quickly, really; there was no sense of time — her gasps became breaths, and her breaths became lighter and then involuntary. The searing in her chest melted into a queasy stomach, a slight throbbing at the temples. She rolled on her side, to the open window, listening to her body and the constant echo of nightingales on the rooftops. It was later than she thought.
Had that been panic? She hadn’t had a panic attack in years. In fact, she couldn’t even remember. She put her hand to her chest and felt for the heartbeat. It sounded regular, even sluggish in her ears, but under her fingers, the pulse seemed to flicker. Had her father felt his heart this way before it stopped?
It was hot in the room, despite the open window. Joey sat up, needing to move. She pulled off her t-shirt and walked to the living room, resenting the small space. She walked into the kitchen and back, feeling the movement of the air on her bare chest. Inside, she was crawling. In the darkness, she drank a glass of water, feeling it drain with each gulp. Joey went back to the kitchen, to the apartment’s only sink, and washed her face, brushed her teeth.
She felt cleaner, at least, and her mind was slipping back into its normal speed, normal thoughts. Fearful to wake Anna, she took time to dress quietly. In the dark hallway, she found her bag, her coat and her shoes and took them all out onto the landing. It was very cold there, and she assembled herself quickly.
Every day, the city gained four or five minutes of light. Every day from winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, the light returned to them and it was a hopeful thing. Even in the dead of January, a promise for which to be grateful. By the color of the sky, Joey knew it to be perhaps five-thirty. The sun would be up in an hour, a cloudy morning.
She thought of hooking around to the courtyard to get her bike. That was an automatic gesture. But there was nowhere she wanted to get so quickly. There were no open stores, and few people on the streets. Joey crossed the road and headed south, where two men sat on the corner, singing drunkenly.
She paused only when she reached the busier Jagtvej, and waited at the crosswalk dutifully, though there were almost no bicycles in the lanes, a few sleepy cabs trolling in the gloom. Their exhaust licked the damp pavement; it had rained while Joey was sleeping. She pulled a cigarette from her camera bag and lit it with a wooden match.
The sky seemed brighter as she wandered south, through the smaller streets, watching apartment lights flick on and off like fireflies. It was sometimes nice, on mornings like these, when Joey couldn’t sleep and she slipped through the city with no particular direction. This morning the movement was not enough; this morning a finger of the anxiety still shivered through her. Her camera hung limply and she needed purpose. It was too bad, she thought, that the cemetery was still closed.
But then at once it didn’t matter. Joey tossed the Camel, half-smoked, into a gutter and picked up her pace. She could see the golden wall ahead and, turning its corner, Joey could already make out her twisting goal arcing up into the grey dawn sky.
She had passed it only yesterday, had wondered that she’d never noticed this before: the gnarled arm of an beech tree did not cut through the wall; the wall was built around the limb. This entire section, between the brick, was crafted of custom wrought iron. There was no reason not to have trimmed to the tree to fit, and yet they didn’t. They measured it out, they built the rails, and they left it. Maybe half a century ago. Maybe they left it for Joey.
She was wired now, in that sleepless, nicotined way of these early mornings — and something else, too. Something expectant and anxious was brimming, like in the hour before she might meet a friend.
The sidewalk was deserted, and the branch swung out over it making a kind of saddle. Joey grasped the iron bars and heaved herself up to where the beech limb cradled her foot; a few straggling winter leaves fluttered to the sidewalk. There was just a moment’s hesitation while she shifted her bag and flashed on one giddy thought — I’m breaking into the cemetery — before she judged the balance of her weight over the spikes. And then she was up, and then she dropped, a crouching animal on the cold grassy floor.
This was the oldest part of the cemetery. Søren Kierkegaard was buried here somewhere, beneath a huge beech tree. What had he said about the “dizziness of freedom”? She couldn’t remember; she had tried to read him and failed.
Joey was careful now; the light was almost proper. Would anyone care about an early-morning trespasser? In warmer months, this park could have hidden an elephant, the lush canopy would blanket the sky with leaves. Save for a few evergreens — the holly and some pines — Joey was exposed. It was a dark world here, inside these walls, but still she could see the accusing glow of apartment windows hovering above. She kept in the shadow, skulking past the crumbling markers that hugged the inner wall as she made her way.
She hadn’t been to this part of the cemetery in several years. For one nauseated moment, she was sure she wouldn’t find it. The cherry tree had been a riot of pink blooms when Joey planted the stone; cherry trees were rather featureless in the Danish winter. But there was another marker, one she knew she wouldn’t forget: a rune stone, perhaps even real, towering several feet above her in the clearing. The carved script had been painted over in red; she had no idea what it meant, but she imagined all sorts of epitaphs: here lies Lars, the bookkeeper; here lies Hans, the boatbuilder; here lies Jens, the sandwichmaker. It probably said one of those things; most rune stones were unremarkable once deciphered. Joey fingered the rough-cut granite, and her eye caught the tree at last.
It was no more than the size of an egg, the thing Joey had carried. Over an ocean, through forests and cities old and new, on trains that criss-crossed the continent, she had carried it in her bag, never far away from her body. And then she’d kept it in her pocket, this precious thing, to slip her hand inside and turn the smooth solidness of it. It was here, under the dark cherry tree where she planted it, where she left it to get it away from her. It had become bigger than the thing for which it stood, this little stone. She knelt down to look at it now, cradled in the years’ layers of root and dirt, and she imagined another epitaph: her lies Theresa, mother to Josephine.
It was an ordinary river rock, greyish with streaks of silver-flecked white. Joey had no idea where it had come from; certainly not Florida. And yet, there it was one day, perched on her mother’s grave. It wasn’t just one day; it was a particular day. It was the day Joey left Florida, the day she left home for good, and she’d ended up under the Spanish moses and the oaks in the old Key cemetery — an aimless morning walk that suddenly had a purpose. There was the stone, smooth and round and begging to be palmed. When, in Germany, she’d read that this was an old Jewish tradition, to leave stones at a grave, she was no closer to knowing who it was from. It didn’t bother her that she had taken it, someone’s offering, someone else’s prayer for her mother. She had taken it exactly because of that.
Her mother had liked parks. Liked grasses and ponds and mosses and trees of all kinds. She would have loved this space with its aimless paths and wildflowers, and clover-scented clearings so fetching the haphazard graves seemed an afterthought. Hers was not a love limited to living things; Theresa Stevens had liked rocks, too. She would have liked this rock. Joey wondered if whomever had left the stone would know that. Her mother didn’t like to collect them so much as point them out: they were uncommon at home. They were special; Squirrel Key has as many stones as it has squirrels. Which is to say none at all.
Joey sat, cross-legged in the grass, breathing into her hands as she rubbed them together. She thought of smoking a cigarette then decided not to; her mother wouldn’t have liked that habit.
“She’s not here, you know,” Joey said aloud. “She’s not anywhere.”
That had been affirmation enough to make her leave the stone here once. Her mother had become the stone, the thing in her pocket. Now it was here, in the ground where rocks and dead things belonged, but that did not keep Joey from occasionally talking to her, from nodding this way when she passed through the park; it made her feel better to think her mother was here, rather than nowhere. Or worse, to feel as she once had: that her mother was everywhere.
It was the memory of that feeling — of shivering over a new grave, delirious without sleep and believing her mother, far from dead, was somehow more alive, was somehow like God — that made her dig her fingers into the earth. She plucked the cold river rock from its roots and brushed it on her jeans. She lit a cigarette, held it in her left hand and weighed the stone in her right.
“Hey,” she said through a sheared cloud of smoke. “Don’t let the plane crash, OK?”