The Tin Boxes by Harold Herdal
Translated by J. F. S. Pearce
The clear July day was so hot that the air above the road seemed to
dance, and the dark figure of a man could be clearly seen coming along
the road. Like a black silhouette, against the bright mid-day light.
He had adopted a strange gait all of his own—a sort of skipping step,
which carried him briskly on his way.
A small parcel, wrapped in newspaper, and tied up with over-much
string was tied to a cord round his waist, and swung just below his
hip. This same cord served to keep closed his enormous coat, which
blew out round his slight body like a wind-filled sail. He was like a
tent which had grown feet, and was walking along the road. His
trousers were short and ragged, and his bare legs could be seen, with
his feet slobbering along in a pair of worn-out boots that were many
sizes too big for them. His seedy, frail and puny figure was quite
swallowed up in that faded, tattered coat.
Yet, strange to say, there was a light-green soft hat perched
firmly on his sharp little head, and beneath it appeared two grey
pig-tails of hair, bound up with coarse string, finished off with a
pair of bows. His face was smothered in brownish beard, from which
there stood out a shiny red nose and alert little hedgehog eyes, which
glittered like the glass eyes of a stuffed animal.
He was a peculiar little man, with an air all his own. As he dashed
along with his queer gait and undiminished speed, he mumbled to
The broad high-way between the open fields and wide heathland was
empty but for him. There was no reason whatsoever for his haste, and
he knew it, too—indeed he often remarked to himself that there was no
hurry. But he had adopted that style of walking—almost of running—
once and for always, and stuck to it—probably he could do no other—
and he only changed it when passing through towns.
There he went about with great care, shy and nervous, with an
uneasy expression on what little of his face could be seen, and with
anxious eyes. There he would walk extremely slowly, and he always kept
close to the walls. Always cautiously, warily—and fearfully. You
never know! Dogs and so on!
Only on the open road did he skip along freely and merrily, his
eyes keen and happy, and full of tenderness for flowers, worms and the
song of birds.
He was frightened almost to tears by dogs, horses, cows and, most
of all, by sheep, and he hated them.
He had a feeling of humility, of self-effacement, almost, in the
presence of chickens; he always used to bow to cocks.
He would quickly and carefully doff his hat, which was held on by
elastic, as if he were excusing himself for being so busy that he
could not stop, and had to hurry on. His soul filled with a vision of
paradise, and was transfigured.
Oh, how wonderful! To see chickens!
To hear cocks crowing! Wonderful!
What a lovely world!
And the clouds, too!
His soul trembled with joy; he smiled, and his grey eyes were
bright and sparkling.
He was deeply touched by the flowers on the roadside, especially
those that were a bit battered and dusty. He mumbled something to
them, and went his way.
And there was the sun, shining down from the clear, blue sky of
This, too, made him happy beyond words.
So he repeated the law; he mumbled the words solemnly, as if it
were some religious chant:
Never by refuse tips, manure heaps, rubbish dumps;
Never near farms and houses, or in towns.
Only on roads, in fields, in woods.
But never in the outskirts of towns, or by fair-grounds.
That was the law.
His soul filled with solemnity as he recited it. Little tears
forced their way into his inflamed old eyes, and he nodded with
blissful sentimental emotion, as he dashed along the edge of the road,
near the ditch, mumbling all the while.
He trotted along to the rhythm of a little song.
He scratched his head vigorously, just above his left plait,
continued his pace, wrinkled up his little nose, which looked, indeed,
just like a small, solid, purple rose, smacked his cracked and
colourless lips under his beard, making little sucking noises, as if
he were tasting something, uttered a strange gurgling sound,—glanced
to either side, took a quick look behind, found himself alone, and
could see no one, and suddenly set off running like mad...
He stopped, out of breath and sweating, drew a deep breath, was
seized by a fit of coughing, panted for breath, and stood still, with
an almost wild look in his eyes, and quite breathless. Then his little
face took on an expression of satisfaction, he uttered happy sounds,
and looked round earnestly. There was neither man nor beast in sight—
only fields, open country, and the empty road.
The baking sun blazed down from above.
Then he seemed to become frightened, or else just uneasy, again.
Then he looked around again.
All right, then—he jumped into the air, came down again, up again,
floated for a moment in space, in the sunshine, flying with the
insects—down again, up, down, up, down, up, down...
He seemed to be intoxicated with joy.
Then he raised his arms, the wide coat-sleeves fell back, and
little dirty hands appeared, with delicate, slender fingers, hooked
like the thin claws of a bird, and they made gestures as if trying to
find something firm in the air, which they could seize. He waved his
arms like wings, and made faint squeals of delight.
His eyes shone out quietly from the tangle of hair, he became
breathless and tired, and had to stop...
He heard the larks singing high up in the shimmering blue heavens.
Now he seemed to see something special. He walked towards this with
small dancing steps—his eyes fixed themselves upon it, he approached,
withdrew, seemed to be playing some game—appeared bold, then timid,
brave, then fearful, made as if to flee, attacked, then fled...
And glanced suddenly round as if afraid of being taken unawares by
And this was all happening on the broad, dusty road, between fields
of oats and rye, beneath a blue sky, with the white furnace of the sun
He stood still, like a cat watching for its prey. This notion
entertained him vastly—he put on an air of great ferociousness,
showed his teeth, growled—and then in a moment, he was gentle again,
and peaceable—he had only been acting savagely for fun—only for fun,
and now he seemed almost to be apologizing. Then at last, with a
little howl, he threw himself down, with his hands grasping, on to a
small shiny tin box, which lay sparkling in the grass right on the
edge of the rye-field. He stood with an oblong sweet-tin in his hands,
quiet, silent, solemn; his hands caressed the tin, and he stroked it.
He was a happy man.
A torn newspaper lay by the roadside. He picked it up, turned the
pages as if he were looking for something—the pages were stuck
together—it had laid there some time, but then he found what he was
looking for—the date:
Wednesday, the 27th of June.
Further along was a clump of bushes. He sat down in the shade of
them, and gave himself up to intense and possessive absorbation in the
tin he had found. His life had a very real object, his existence was
not meaningless, he had achieved something, and was happy. He was
surrounded by the peaceful fields of the manor, the corn was perfectly
still, not a breath of wind swayed its ears, which were not yet
filled; the sun was high, and its midday heat streamed down; and there
were the larks, the insects and the ants...
He sat there in his huge coat, under which he was half-naked—he
sat happily looking at the tin box.
He had tin boxes over the whole of Zealand—scores of them—he had
collections of them hidden on the edges of moors, beside little lakes,
and in other peaceful spots. It filled him with joy when thought of
it. HIS existence was not meaningless; he had something to live for!
OTHERWISE HE WOULD BE BETTER DEAD!
He sat with his back to the corn, and gave himself up to thoughts.
He did, indeed, think. People might not think so. But he was, indeed,
a thinking man; no ordinary tramp—most certainly not!
His life had an object, a meaning, a point; he lived a life that
was BY NO MEANS—he nodded to himself—by no means empty and
meaningless. Indeed no.
Indeed no, he repeated, in his small, thin and dispirited voice,
which, nevertheless, now and then took on a more energetic note. He
beat the grass with his delicate little hand, but stopped, as if he
were committing some offence. The others—the others whom he met on
the road, they made fun of him, pulled his leg, called after him, and
laughed. Blimey, fancy collecting tin boxes—any fool can do that!
What for, anyway—what good does it do?
He gloated. They were right—they did not know how right they were.
Any fool can collect tin boxes. He nodded. Then his face was lit up by
the knowledge of something that he alone knew. To collect them
according to the law—according to the law!—That's different, quite
Indeed it was.
He nodded, and looked very firm. He was a man with an aim in life,
and he was prepared to fight for it.
Then he laughed.
What did they know of the law?
And here he was, sitting beside a rye-field, in the summer
sunshine, holding a beautiful, silvery sweet tin in his hand, and in
his heart was—the law.
His eyes sparkled with triumph.
He caressed his find both with hand and eye. He held the box up
high, and saw it shining in the sun's light. It still smelt of sweets.
That reminded him. He quickly pulled out his flask and swallowed
rapidly— once, twice, thrice—coughed a little, and took a deep
The whole thing was quite clear, as clear as crystal.
Take the flowers...or the animals...Don't they have to care for
their kind? Has their life no meaning? Can you not see that for
Let me then ask: must there not be a meaning to one's life? Why
else are we here? He raised his head in all humility, and looked
around provocatively, as if expecting an answer, or a refutation.
Then he made a concession:
It may well be that life as a whole has no meaning, and that people
just exist, live and must die. But that is no good. In that case, one
must ONESELF create a meaning for one's life and existence. One cannot
go around just aimlessly.
He was so happy that—carefully, most carefully, for it was
somewhat complicated!—he took off his hat. His hair was red, and
greying, neatly parted down the middle, and plaited at the back...
His eyes were shrewd and humorous, and were set in the same hairy
wilderness from which his red nose shone forth. He happened to catch
the parcel which he always carried with him, and which he was always
so careful about, although it was quite empty.
Time after time he was asked what was in it.
It gave him a feeling of pleasure when the others gaped at him.
What the devil do you go around with it for, then?
He just laughed kindly at them—not proudly, at all, but humbly
rather, as people laugh, who know something the others cannot
understand—for they cannot help their ignorance.
The sun was shining; he lay back, and gazed contentedly up at the
sky. He was at one with nature, and he lay there a long time, picking
his nose solemnly, and looking pensive.
Suddenly he sat up and nodded.
So he collected tin boxes, then.
That had become his object, and that gave meaning to his existence.
What do other people do?