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Ants and Contrariness by Kjeld Abell

Translated by Eileen Macleod

[Footnote: This story was written during the German occupation of Denmark. As it could not be published in Denmark at that time it was printed in a Swedish literary magazine.]

One pitch black pouring evening—it had been streaming wet all day and now the time was just after twelve—there was a knock on the wet glass pane of the basement cafe.

Mrs. Hansen looked up from the counter. She was adding up the takings with a microscopic bit of indelible pencil which had continuously to be licked. It was quite still in the cafe, a haze of stale beer and half dead cigar stumps floated in the centre like a sluggish feather bed and sleepily obstructed the view to all sides; one could barely distinguish the cabinet-sized enlargement of the late Hansen, in wrestling kit with medals, on the end wall over the sofa.

Somebody knocked again, cautiously and miserably, it sounded as if it might be a child. Heavens above, a child at this time of night! Mrs. Hansen quickly lifted her bosom from the supporting counter, hurried over to the door and pulled aside the curtain that hung behind the glass panel.

Through the pelting rain she saw the dissolved outline of an old man, wispy grey hair and time-worn beard merged into the general wetness and clung dankly to his threadbare overcoat. With a quick pull she opened the door and got the old man in. She had to support him over to the counter, and whilst she held him up with a firm grip, she groped behind her for a bottle and glass. With one hand she eased the cork out and poured a little into the glass. She had almost to force it between his lips—Good Lord, how exhausted he was. At last he drank, but it did not seem to help much, he was still limp and on the verge of collapse. With little encouraging noises that sounded like the clucking of a sympathetic hen, she got him moved over to a chair near the stove. She knelt down and took hold of his legs to move them closer to the fire. What queer shoes he was wearing, more like a kind of sandals, and the spindly legs sticking out from the old coat were bare and blue with cold. He must be one of those queer evangelists who wander about the streets handing out religious tracts. But whatever he was, now at any rate he could sit there and get dry whilst she arranged the back premises for the night. She could keep an eye on him through the door, which she left ajar. Merciful heavens, the poor old chap! Mrs. Hansen shook her head in gentle concern as she folded up the crochet bedspread. She puffed up the eiderdown, shook the pillows, pushed a chair up against the bed to keep the bedclothes in place, and went about humming softly—there was so much to be done before she could get to bed, the plants to be watered, particularly the Araucaria, her favourite on the three-legged potstand. Like a mother testing her baby's bath water, she lovingly stuck her finger into the soil of the flower pot—but at that moment something happened, she had not time even to take her finger out, she was too busy listening. Somebody was singing—could it be him?—no, for there were many voices, it was a large choir—and there was also something like harps- -and children's voices—yes, it really was children singing, only the queer thing was that he was still sitting there all alone in front of the stove, she could see him through the crack of the door. But how had he come to look like that? He had begun to dry, his hair and his beard framed his face and flowed over his neck and shoulders with dignity and beauty, the old coat was becoming more and more blue, deep sky-blue, and it was no longer a coat, it was a cloak. And what was he holding in his hand? It looked like a ring, one of those used in olden days to play quoits in the grounds of noble manors—it shone as he sat polishing it—it was made of gold, and now he lifted it up over his head and then let go, but it hung floating in the air like a halo. But perhaps the strangest part of it all was that every time he moved there were sounds of music and singing voices, the folds of his cloak seemed to be full of joyous harps and tinkling guitars.

It was too much for her. She pushed the door open and exclaimed: "Good God!" This was not meant as a form of address, just an ordinary expression of surprise. He turned and looked at her. "No, I am not the good God, I'm only St. Peter". Heavens above! Mrs. Hansen fumbled hectically in her brain-box to find a scrap of a hymn tune or something else religious suitable for instant use. But it was not necessary, for the next heavenly remark which fell from his beard was quite earthly—he was plain hungry, he had had nothing to eat or drink since he left heaven that morning—and what a day—and what a storm, he had got soaked through and had not been able to rise from the earth and ascend to heaven.

Ah, thank goodness, food, that was in her line, she could cope with that—and on to the table came dripping, and salt beef, and liver paste, and cheese and of course a couple of bottles of beer—she chose Star Brand, as she thought that would be the most seemly.

"Thank you very much", said Peter when he was comfortably settled on the sofa, "what delicious liver-paste, did you make it yourself?" She just watched him whilst he was eating, she did not dare to utter a word. If he had some heavenly tidings to deliver, he must really broach the subject himself. And he did, but only after he had wiped his mouth and his beard carefully with the paper serviette.

"Not a word against the Lord", he said, "he is all right—perhaps a little bewildered, and no wonder with all he has to do—he has so many plans, he is so full of initiative, he keeps on experimenting day and night throughout eternity—unfortunately he is still a bit of an amateur, the world business did not quite merit a first prize and that annoyed him. You have no idea how it annoyed him, and in sheer irritation he blazed off right away over to the other side of the Milky Way and there he is working it all out, and he will not give up until he has created the ideal sphere, but it takes time. Down here, of course, you only reckon in light years, so I am not in a position to give you even a rough idea of how long he has been away; in the meantime he put me in charge of heaven, and what a job, I feel like a rag. Up with us the Saints fight for the haloes, and down here people are fighting—I don't really know what for. The other day I thought there was rather too much noise coming up from the earth for my liking so I asked a couple of archangels to fly down and see what was happening, but I didn't know that they should have had national identification signs painted on their wings, so they were shot down— still we have plenty more of them—all the same I thought perhaps it would be best for me to go myself—but never again, never, never—I'm absolutely flabbergasted, and when I get back soon, I shall put in a report to the Lord that will make him give up all his experiments with earthly spheres—Man was a good idea, but badly carried out."

But we are created in His image, Mrs. Hansen thought, though she dared not say it; instead she just pushed the plate of sandwiches nearer to him.

"Yes, in His image, you say"—Mrs. Hansen jumped, it was uncanny, he could read her thoughts—"but dear Mrs. Hansen, even the most complete master can overlook a flaw in construction—and he did—mankind has a construction fault—they should never have been allowed to suffer from CONTRARINESS. From the moment Adam and Eve slammed the gates of Paradise, you have been contrary—you were given an earth created for the common happiness, lovely with changing seasons, and fertility that gives enough for everybody—but what everybody has, nobody wants. You want to have something that you can call entirely and exclusively your own, and to be really satisfied you also each want a little more than the others. That which the Lord decided should be YOURS, you converted into MINE; MINE and MORE, those are the two words that float most frequently and most lightly in the ether—you have never been satisfied with what you had—always you had objections—you made hay of the Lord's intentions and ideas—when he says: Let there be light, you immediately say: Let there be darkness. You should be ashamed of yourselves—you were given both hearts and brains for your use—but you can't be bothered—you are created to be free beings—but that you don't care about, it's so much easier not to think, much easier to let others think for you, and easiest of all to let one think for everybody, and just to follow like ants, did you hear Mrs. Hansen, I said ANTS."

Yes, Mrs. Hansen had heard very well, but what ants had to do with it, she could not imagine.

"Mrs. Hansen, can't you see?" Peter was now quite worked up, his beard billowed and his eyes shot stars—"can't you see that it is an impertinence towards the Creator—a lack of tact that cries to the high heavens—if it had been the Lord's intention that this world should be an ant heap, a world of termites, then he would have stopped creation at the ants—and he would never have needed to improve and refine, and to invent Adam and his complicated mechanisms—God knows, he would have stopped at the ants and termites—and THEY would have been the lords of creation—the ants who keep their mouths shut, keep in step and in line, following a stultifying instinct. You were given more than instinct—you got freedom of thought—Mrs. Hansen, do you understand what that means—freedom of thought?"

He banged the table and Mrs. Hansen was beside herself with despair. Why had he come to her, she was just an ordinary little woman of absolutely no importance. Why didn't he go to the great ones—to those who run the business?

"I've tried that, Mrs. Hansen"—again he had read her thoughts—"in order to talk with the great, one has to wave one's arms about in such a strange way, and that is not my line—nor can one do the goose-step wearing a halo—I was about to give it all up and go home, when down came the rain and I was stuck to the earth like a wet dish-cloth, I couldn't drag myself free, and then I happened to come to your place— I thought it was just chance, but in reality it was the finger of heaven that pushed me here—it was guidance from above—the will of the all highest—it is to the little ordinary people, to the little apparently peaceful adaptations of ants and termites that I am going to speak—that is where it is to begin—they are to be mobilised into a sort of rolling pathway which knocks some people off their legs. You are a little part of that great pathway, Mrs. Hansen—that is why I began with you,—Mrs. Hansen, roll on."

"But I can't do anything like that—nothing at all—I'm at work all day." Mrs. Hansen fought for her life.

"Now, now, Mrs. Hansen, you can set a good story rolling round the whole neighbourhood, can't you? When you let a word drop, it is like a little stone gently thrown into a large pond—and at once the rings begin to spread further and further out."

Mrs. Hansen was on the verge of tears—"No, no, I can't and I WON'T." "That's a different matter,—I'm sorry—" said Peter, drumming sadly on the table.

Oh dear, thought Mrs. Hansen, one should never get oneself involved in the drying of saints; now she had better get rid of him—she was afraid of having trouble with the police blackout and curfew regulations.

"No, Sir Peter, you must really ask somebody else, I see to my work and that's that—and God knows, heaven cannot blame me for it."

Peter got up wearily—"That's what they all say—simply push things off-away with responsibility—let everything go its crooked way, just drift along with the tide too."

Mrs. Hansen had also got up, she fussed nervously round Peter— "Perhaps so. I'm sorry about it but now you must go, we have such strict police in this district"—she tried to lead him to the door— "and when you get back to heaven, if you should meet my husband give him my love, and tell him that the business is doing quite well in spite of the difficult times"—"The business is doing well!" Peter turned and looked at her kindly, but right through—Mrs. Hansen mumbled something about having to make a living.

"Living, do you call that living?" Then he opened the door and slowly went up the two steps into the street—she slipped quickly up behind him, she wanted to see how he went aloft. He stood on the pavement, like a monument, luminous and pale blue, with his white hair and beard. He looked at her long and she felt almost as if all the other people, all the millions on the earth stood in ranks behind her—then he said: "Now I am going home—and I will tell the Lord,—no, no, I won't, I'll leave him in peace, the dear one—for now I understand suddenly that human contrariness has its use, in spite of everything. When you have been ants and termites for a bit longer you will not put up with it any more and then you will let them see—." At that moment a policeman cleared his throat in the darkness—St. Peter kept quiet, then he raised his halo and began to walk slowly down the blacked-out street. Mrs. Hansen stood looking after him—his light coloured figure disappeared into the darkness, and the heavenly music, which softly sang in the folds of his cape, faded away.


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