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 As it could not be published in Denmark at that time it was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
"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.