Fiction | ‘The Woman’ by Henriette Rostrup | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

(Translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee)

She was sitting on the stoop when I got home. It must have rained while she sat there because her hair and shoulders were soaked. She sat all crumpled up with her head between her knees and her arms slack at her sides.

I stood for a second wondering if I should ignore her. Maybe just try to walk around her, let myself in quietly, and leave her sitting there. If she woke up early the next morning to find she hadn’t been let in, then she’d probably just go home.

But maybe she needed help. It was hard to tell.

I walked onto the stoop still not sure what to do. I had my key in my pocket and slowly drew it out, to keep the keychain from making any sound. But as I placed my left foot on the stoop, I very nearly stepped on her, and the change in the air around her made her body list to one side. Her head hit the wall, not hard, but her body just didn’t stop falling until something stopped it. Her head was tilted back and I could see the white in her eyes underneath her eyelids. She had a bit of drool in the corner of her mouth, and crooked, yellow teeth.

But she didn’t wake up. I squeezed in closer to the door, carefully, so I could reach the keyhole. The door opened with a little click, and for a moment I stood quiet as a mouse so as not to wake her. Then I slipped inside as quickly as I could and gently closed the door behind me.

I figured the family that lives below me would take care of her if she was still there in the morning.

Once I got into my apartment, I opened the bedroom window and carefully leaned out. She was still sitting there, propped up against the wall. I took off my clothes, brushed my teeth, shut off the light, and climbed into bed. 

At two in the morning I got up to pee. As I was coming out of the bathroom, I stopped to look at the sky, but then went back to bed. The next time I was up it was four o’clock. I crept over to the window and looked down. It was raining again. A heavy downpour that splashed against the asphalt driveway. She was no longer there, but you could tell that she’d only recently gotten up because there was still a dry spot where she’d been sitting. I scanned the garden to see if she was out there. But I couldn’t see anything besides tree shadows. I stepped away. I wasn’t sure if she was maybe standing there staring up at me.

I couldn’t sleep. Maybe they’d let her in downstairs. Maybe she was sitting on their couch, that very moment, with a towel around her head and wearing the dad’s bathrobe while the mom ran her clothes through the dryer. I perked my ears up. Wasn’t that that a rumbling noise in the basement? Maybe at that very moment she was getting up off the couch and heading for the bathroom, saying she had a stomach ache. Maybe she was locking the door and opening the medicine cabinet. Maybe she was talking about me.

The next morning I slipped down to my neighbors. I put my ear to their door but couldn’t hear anything. I didn’t feel like knocking, so I slipped out to the garden then around the house so I could peek in the kitchen window. All four of them sat at the breakfast table in their bathrobes. The children laughed, the dad monkeyed around, and the mom stood over by the stove fiddling with something or other. There was no trace of the woman. But maybe she was still lying on their couch, maybe they figured they’d let her go on sleeping before calling the authorities.

The family hadn’t seen or heard anything at night. Had there really been a woman sitting on the doorstep, an old tramp? They looked at one another with concern. What did she want, was she someone you knew? I shook my head. I’d just seen her out my bedroom window when I got up to pee, but just as I was about to call the police, she’d vanished.

I went out to get the newspaper from the mailbox, and on my way back I took a walk around the garden to see if she was lying somewhere, passed out in her own vomit. It’s a big garden with tall spruce trees that hog most of the sunlight in summer and attract mosquitoes. At the far end there’s a small, steep hill that slopes down to the lake. Each time I got close to one of the tall trees I had to stop for a second and catch my breath. I didn’t have anything with me, no pepper spray, no stick. I scanned the ground to see if there was anything I could use. A branch creaked. I spun around but didn’t see anything.

I stood at the top of the small hill and looked down at the boathouse. What if she was hiding in there? Maybe she had a boat hook raised over her head and was just waiting for me. I gathered my bathrobe around me, turned, and ran stumbling back to the house.

The first time I saw her she was sitting on a bench in front of the grocery store where I do my shopping.  I knew right away it was her because she was such an obvious drunkard: booze in a bag, greasy hair, oversized wooden clogs. I walked over to my car and drove away. I don’t know why, but when I’d left the parking lot and rounded the corner, I had to pull off to the side. My heart was racing, and I saw dark spots dancing in front of my eyes. It was as if she’d been sitting there waiting for me, not that we’d looked at each other or she’d said anything to me, but there was something in the way she sat and stared. She sat with a beer in her hand and constantly shifted her gaze between the clock over the watch shop and the windows of the grocery store.

That wasn’t the only time I saw her in front of the grocery store, so I quit shopping there. Instead I started shopping at store close to where I work. I could fit it in over my lunch break, then stay at work later. 

But one day she was sitting on a bench in the park that I pass through on my way to the station. I always take the same route, even though I don’t feel entirely safe there. Especially now that it gets dark earlier and earlier, and I’ve started to leave the office and go home later and later. There are rumors of all sorts of things happening in that park at night, and even though I’m not someone to go around worrying all the time about getting raped, I don’t exactly feel like witnessing anything ugly either.

And there she sat, just like before, with a bag at her feet and a beer in her hand, looking like she was waiting for someone. I saw her several times in that same place, not every day, but frequently. I tried walking down a different path, but then she showed up on a bench along that one.

One morning I headed off to work as usual, but even before I reached the station I noticed something was wrong. Several times I turned around because I was sure I saw her sitting behind a hedge or on some garden stairs. Down at the station, an elderly man came up to me and asked me something. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I only saw his mouth, full of bad teeth, opening and closing like a fish gasping for air. He grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and I suddenly realized it was her.

I don’t remember much else. All of a sudden there was a crowd off people standing over me. A lady bent down, touched my shoulder, and said, “Just relax now, we called an ambulance.” 

I was in the ER for only a short while. Nothing bad had happened to me, and once they’d run an EKG they released me with a handful of meds a referral to a psychologist. 

I called in sick to work and haven’t been back since.

Yesterday I saw her for the first time in weeks.

I am sitting in the front seat of a taxi holding a sack of black currant rum, whiskey, and four cans of strong beer between my legs. They clink together each time the driver goes over a bump, and it makes me feel jumpy. I stare out the window, not wanting to talk or explain things to him, but still feeling his eyes on me every time the sack makes its clinking noise. She is sitting in the back with her head slumped against the window. Her mouth is open and she’s snoring a little. She stinks. I can smell her sweaty, old-person body odor even though I’ve rolled down my window. I let her drink half of the whiskey before we got in the cab. And I’ve promised her that when we get to where we’re going she can have the rest. She just stuck the bottle to her lips and guzzled half of it. Then she stood for a moment holding the bottle before giving it back to me. “You’ll be wanting the rest of it now, won’t you?” she said. “Else you’ll get mad.” I nodded, took it out of her hand, and screwed the cap back on. Then I got her to sit on a stoop while I tried hailing a taxi.

The driver and I had a hell of a time getting her in the car. All of a sudden she didn’t want to go and resisted us by making her arms and legs go slack—like a sleepy child who refuses to get into her snowsuit. Like a ragdoll. She only got in when I let go of her and grabbed the bag of booze, tempting her with it. The driver said, “If she throws up in the car, I’m gonna be pissed.” I promised I’d pay for the cleaning.

We headed south on the freeway. I’d found a place down that way. We’ve been on the road now for an hour and she hasn’t woken up yet. I don’t know what I’ll do if she wakes up and starts acting funny again. I’ll probably have to give her the rest of the whiskey.

There’s a big wrought iron gate where we turn in, then a long avenue of linden trees. Leaves fall off and tumble to the ground like little helicopters in the autumn wind. It’s starting to pick up, and the sky behind the main building at the end of the lane is dark and threatening. I turn around in my seat, and she’s still sleeping. She woke up for a second when the driver stopped for gas, mumbled some nonsense, then sprawled herself across the seat. There’s a dark spot in the upholstery under her cheek where she drooled.

The tires crunch over gravel in front of the next iron gate. You can see the estate in the background.  A long, tall wall of boulders surrounds it. In the wall next to the gate there’s a speaker system, and above that a laminated sign screwed into the wall. It says that the gate won’t be opened unless you have an appointment and give your name. I don’t have any appointment, and I’m not giving my name. I don’t want to have anything to do with this place. No one even needs to know I’ve been here.

I ask the driver to wait for me while I have a look along the wall. I don’t know what I have in mind—that I’ll find a hole in the wall where I can stuff her in? I make it halfway around before it occurs to me that it’s asking too much. The driver is sitting in the car with his door open having a smoke. “What do you want to do?” he asks.

I tell him I’ll tip him an extra five hundred kroner if he helps me out. We maneuver her out of the backseat and over to the gate. I put the bag of booze beside her and tear a page out of my diary. I write, “I need help” and stick the note halfway under her coat, so it can still be seen. 

Even though the driver has aired out the taxi, I can still sense her presence when I get back in. Her smell lingers in the seats, my hair, my clothes. The palms of my hands feel strangely filthy, and when I pull out a moist toilette, the driver asks me if he can have one too. He says something else, but I’m not really listening. I sit and stare out the window at the trees we passed by a half hour ago. As we near the main gate, I’m suddenly aware that my breathing is freer and easier than it’s been in weeks. 

The driver turns to me and says, “You don’t have to give me the extra five hundred. It was nice of you to help her. Who was it anyway? Someone you know?” I shake my head.

I think it was my mother.

Henriette Rostrup is a Danish writer of both adult and children’s fiction. Her novel – A YEAR OF FUNERALS (2015) was longlisted for the European Union Prize for Literature in 2016 and chosen as Aller Favorite in 2016. The graphic novel The Lake was nominated for best debut at the Ping-prize in 2018. Henriette’s short stories have appeared in Coal Hill Review, Parhelion Literary and The Write Launch. Her short story The Final Chapter was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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