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You Aren't Big Enough by Hans Povlsen

Translated By John Poole

Eric was always having adventures: he loved them. The only trouble was that he entered into them heart and soul, and wanted to go through with them to the bitter end. He never saw the troll until the very last moment and was invariably taken completely by surprise. The others always ran away in time, leaving behind a dark, pale-faced little boy who was too scared to turn round and look the troll in the face.

With the coming of the fine Autumn weather the villagers' cattle were let out to graze. Eric was allowed to be with them all day long; from the early morning when it was so cool and the dew ringed everything a faint blueish colour, until evening when the calls of "Git-oop- there..." echoed through the meadows and set the cows moving slowly up the valley, necks craning and ears pointing forward, slowly advancing columns homeward bound.

On one such delightful day Eric and his friend Chris were lying in a sand-pit; spread out beside them was a supply of newspaper and tobacco. It was not their first adventure of this kind, and they were enjoying every moment of it. In this particular field of activity Eric had been able to demonstrate quite convincingly that his thin and skinny type was better able to cope with tobacco than that to which the other sturdier fair-haired children belonged. He had skipped the green face and sickness stage, and this had won for him a great deal of prestige.

This particular adventure went as all adventures should, until the time came for the troll to put in his appearance. His coming was as unexpected as it always is to those who really live their adventures.

The local postman chanced to shamble past as Eric was lighting a newspaper cigar.

All that happened was that he said: "You aren't big enough," and went on his way with his cap pulled down over his bearded face.

In a flash Erik took in the full implication of what had occurred. The postman was just starting on his round; in a little while he would be in Harrup village where he could easily let fall some casual remark, as he often did, just as he was leaving one of the houses there. It would be just like him to talk in riddles and say: "He's not big enough, that young Eric," and there straight away would be half the answer.

He let the cigar fall to the ground and stole home. On the way he chewed juicy grasses and sucked clover flowers in the manner approved by those who were considered experts in removing traces of tobacco smoke. He stopped every other minute and breathed into his cupped hands, quickly inhaling his own breath again to test it for purity. When he got home he drank water from the well, quantities of it, before going indoors as if nothing had happened.

So far as his father was concerned, there was nothing to fear; he always seemed to be buried so deep in something children could never understand that no tobacco smell could ever penetrate to him. It was practically certain that he did not have a sense of smell like ordinary people.

The postman came once a day, his face rank with beard and the peak of his cap pulled well down over his eyes. Eric awaited his coming in terrified apprehension. He had, however, already discovered that he was being watched over by a benevolently forgetful Providence, and every day that followed helped to confirm this. The postman came and went. When he was on duty there were some things that he was not allowed to talk about and others that he did not choose to talk about. Eric was aware of this and was grateful to the old man for having, as it now seemed, treated the knowledge of his crime as confidential information which he was bound as a public servant not to divulge.

All this helped to prepare the ground for the birth of a new monster which then proceeded to grow up in Eric's mind. It was the idea of becoming the owner of a pipe. It loomed large and black and it made him afraid, but it grew none the less, became more substantial, and as the days went by, developed into the tiny, obstinate and irrepressible germ of a criminal desire.

He hardened himself in solitude, spending hours gazing at the gnarled branches and young shoots of an elderberry tree. He managed to make himself a pipe from this material, but the finished article was ugly and unsatisfactory. Besides which it tasted green. This caused the veil over his great desire to be lifted: the notion which had irresistably come to maturity in his mind of becoming the owner of a real pipe.

One day he noticed that there were three ore lying on the plate rack. They were there the next day, and the next. Fate must have had a hand in it, for it was the very sum that he deeded.

His father was as usual in the study writing something unreadable and uninteresting. His mother was on her hands and knees in the garden grubbing up potatoes, and Eric was supposed to be going into the village to buy bread.

In the kitchen the kettle was sitting over the warm stove like a broody hen. As he came in and looked at the money it seemed to him that he was very far from being alone and without witnesses. The kettle was making clucking noises which animated the whole kitchen. Whenever the coals shifted underneath it, the clucking turned into the shrill cackle a hen makes as it gets up in answer to the peeping of its chicks.

At any other time he would have been comforted by the kettle, and found romance and far distant music in the noises it made. But just then he wanted to be alone. There it sat on the hot plate, plump and self-confident, minding its own business, but keeping a watchful eye on him all the same.

And sure enough it became restive and screeched just as he was picking up the money.

But the deed was done, and tight-lipped he went out to fetch his cap. Before going down to the village he would have to go into the study.

His father scratched among his small change for a long time before he found the right money for a loaf. As he waited, Eric had an uncomfortable feeling that the three ore would break the silence and call out from their hiding place in his pocket. At length the necessary fifty ore lay on the table; two-ore and five-ore pieces which his father had obtained from the sale of pens and pencils in the school.

His father never made a fuss as men so often do when they have to part with money for food which they are going to eat themselves. He merely shrugged his shoulders involuntarily, as if something had caused him pain.

Eric recognised the gesture, pre-occupied as he was. He hurried away and went down the garden to tell his mother that he was off.

Down on her hands and knees, she was supporting herself with her left hand as she scraped away the earth from under a potato plant. Then covering the hole she had made with a shower of clayey soil she moved forward over it and straightened her back.

"You remembered without being told," she said with a trace of surprise in her voice which she could not hide. It occurred to Eric that a somewhat watchful look had come into his mother's face just lately; for a moment her eyes would sometimes get suddenly bigger, and he did not like it.

She knelt there looking straight in front of her with muddy hands twice their normal size hanging at her side, for all the world as if they did not belong to her at all.

"You can get the money from father—if he's got any, that is," she said with a sudden sadness in her eyes.

"Oh, I expect he has," Eric burst out, thereby plunging carelessly into the labyrinth of deceit.

Up by the house Eric stopped. He thought he heard someone call but he did not answer because he was not sure whether it could not have been the money in his pocket that had cried out. There it was again disturbing the peace of the garden like the humming of a noisy bumble bee. His mother was calling. His heart beat faster as he went back to her and heard her say, without even looking at him: "There are three ore on the plate rack, so you need only ask you father for forty- seven".

"All right."

He went indoors making the kitchen door creak so that it could be heard outside. What was he to do? There was nothing for it but to take the three ore back to his father. If his father then happened to say nothing to his mother the matter would rest there. But Eric had the feeling that he was on very thin ice and that he would have to move fast.

Without further deliberation he opened the study door and gave three ore to his father.

"Mother had three ore already," he said, which was perfectly true.

Without lifting his eyes from the paper in front of him his father fumbled blindly on the table for the coins. It was plain that he had idea of what he had been given. All was well then. Eric went into the yard full of a warm feeling of reassurance.

It was only when he had got out there that he realised how much the situation had changed. There was now no longer any point in his going into the village to fetch the bread!

The schoolroom door was standing open, and he went into the doorway to think things over a bit. It was an awful shame that he would have to go on living without that pipe, but also a surprising piece of good luck that his first set-back had turned out so well. He was back where he started but he was still free to act. What was more, he had not stolen any money and had hardly lied at all. Almost unconsciously he kicked off his clogs and went into the schoolroom and up to the teacher's desk, where he sat on the tall chair and started pulling the stuffing from under the torn leather cover.

He could not hide it from himself for very long that he was only sitting there because he was going to take three ore out of the drawer in the desk.

They were there all right—and many more; his father would have no idea how much money there was altogether.

When he stood outside again he had the feeling that everything had gone reasonably well. He started to run and did not stop until his clogs rang out on the village cobbles.

He soon bought the bread and went with the loaf under his arm to the shop where there were clay pipes lying on a glass shelf which hung in the window. Some had their bowls nearest to him, some their stems; they were on view both inside and outside the shop, and they were all for sale.

The shopkeeper was busy, but his wife caught sight of Eric and came to the counter. Eric pretended not to see her, because he did not like the idea of telling her what he wanted. She looked like a mother, he thought, the sort that knows everything.

But then she spoke to him: "And what would you like, my dear?"

People in the shop turned round waiting for his answer, and he wished he were outside again. Suddenly he hit upon a way out of his quandary.

"I was told to ask if you had any clay pipes."

To his dismay the woman smiled.

"Have we any pipes for this young man?"

The shopkeeper, who as usual had been listening with half an ear to what was going on in the rest of the shop, had also heard Eric's request, and he laughed, and so did the customer he was serving.

"Who is it wants to know, you little Caiaphas?"

Eric could not answer that one. He moved his lips, but his voice just would not come.

At last the shopkeeper took a pipe from a box under the counter and pushed it over to him.

"Three ore," he said, and went back to talk to the other customers.

As he was leaving, Eric heard someone say: "That must be one of the schoolmaster's kids from over Harrup way."

It was just about as bad as it could be.

He kept the pipe in his pocket until he got as far as a sheltered spot along the road where he had looked forward to a little rest. As he reached down for the pipe he stopped momentarily in his tracks and then went on again pretending that he unfortunately could not spare the time to rest in the ditch after all...

He had forgotten to bring any tobacco with him from home. He realised at the same time that he was being saved from returning home from the village smelling of tobacco.

Even so, his mother looked hard at him at he came in. He looked away and felt his confidence dwindling. He decided to do penance by not smoking the pipe the first evening. It took some of the weight off his mind, as if he had been relieved of some unpleasant duty.

He mooched around, hung about the house, leaned up against the barn wall and talked to his small sister. It did not enter his head to go off and join Chris and the other boys.

His mother saw all this, but kept her ideas to herself until Eric had fallen asleep, tired and confused after his drawn battle with the demons in his soul.

Then she went straight up and took the pipe out of his pocket and went and put it on her husband's writing table.

The interrogation began the very next morning before Eric had got up. It was cleverly conceived. He was like a prisoner who was being questioned without knowing whether his accomplice had confessed—where was the pipe and what did his mother know about it?

In his terror he denied everything. The denial was something that in his soul longer than the crime itself. When his mother fetched the pipe from the study and, sure that he would own up, held it up in front of him, it was too late. A knot had been tied inside him. All the powers of affirmation and confession that his soul possessed were already securely bound up. He said no, and he kept on saying no.

But the circumstantial evidence was too strong.

He took his preliminary punishment like a man; it warmed and stung him. The position that the nature of the execution demanded that he should take up, enabled him to stifle in his pillow any cry that might otherwise have escaped his lips.

Mrs. Meissel then went away taking the pipe with her and left him to cover up the stripes with his trousers.

It seemed to Eric that his father tried to avoid him all that day, although it was not possible to be sure of this, as Mr. Meissel was a very retiring sort of man at the best of times; buttoned up, probably against his will. Eric often wondered whether his father was just as much a stranger to his mother. He knew perfectly well, of course, that they laid their plans together when the children were asleep. They also discussed a great many things quite openly, and when it came to the point they always backed one another up. This could be both good and bad.

Early in the afternoon Eric was sent into the study and told to get on with his home-work. With the feeling that the painful episode was now over he went briskly ahead with learning his hymns and his multiplication tables. It was quite a relief to get back to the daily grind.

He hummed his way through the first verse of the hymn that he had to learn. It was full of mysterious things which very likely nobody knew anything about. The whole piece was silly anyway, as that sort of thing always was. Then came the six times table; not easy to grasp either. The best part was "six-sixes-are-thirty-six", which at least sounded funny. He alternated between the two kinds of "verse", reading each in the same tone and with equal lack of understanding.

As he sat muttering by the window he caught sight of a small grey object which lay on the writing table, half covered by a sheet of paper.

It was the clay pipe.

The unfortunate affair had all of a sudden reached its climax. As soon as his father came home he would sit down at the table, lift up the piece of paper and...

Eric knew straight away that this must not happen.

He shuddered helplessly, then grew calm and terribly determined; there was absolutely no doubt at all in his mind. He snatched up the pipe, jumped up on to the book-case ledge, looked round the room, and then reached up and put the pipe right on top of the case.

As he jumped down again the bookcase shook and he thought he heard a rattling noise behind it.

He almost hoped that it was the pipe, for it would mean that it had as good as disappeared for ever. He could not imagine that the case had ever been moved from where it now stood. The pipe had taken it upon itself to go a step further than he himself had dared.

He was determined to stand firm in his position, and with his defences prepared he was ready to meet his fate. Right or wrong he would have to take the consequences of his action. But whatever happened it would be far worse if the pipe were to lie on the table when his father came in.

Eric thought no more about multiplication tables or hymns. He did not think about anything except that he was now standing in a dark place where everything was malevolent and hostile. There was peace and sunshine everywhere, yet in the middle of it all there was this one dark spot which the light shunned and where he stood quite alone.

He went to the window and saw that the sun was also shining out in the garden, throwing long shadows over the grass. All the leaves were still. It was a frightening sight.

With no fixed purpose in his mind he opened the door that led to the little passage behind the baking oven. What did he want there anyway? The strangely spicy smell, which normally was what he loved best in the house, was now malevolent too.

Perhaps he should...He tried to open the door to the parlour, but it screeched a warning to him to shut it quickly for God's sake, and screeched again as he did so.

He was shut in with his crime. The chair, the desk, the hymn book and the multiplication table remained unfeelingly indifferent and left him to himself.

Then suddenly he was seized with the desire to see his pipe again. He drew the chair over to the bookcase and clambered up. He scraped the top of the case with his hand, but could not find it. Then he peered between the back of the case and the wall, into the pitch black space which for as long as he could remember he had thought of as the hiding place of eternity.

There was no pipe to be seen. It had completely vanished. If only he too could vanish in there like the pipe.

He heard his sister clattering over the cobbles in the yard. She was talking to herself and to her doll as she pushed the wretched little doll's pram on to one of the garden paths and with maternal efficiency tucked the doll up in a blanket.

Unbearably peaceful sight!

He turned round into the room as if looking for cover, for something to do.

He put the sheet of paper on the writing table back where he had found it, and pushed the paper-knife underneath. It was lucky that he had done so, for a minute or so later there was his mother in the doorway. Her eyes took in at a single glance the writing table and everything else in the room. But the boy was sitting where he should, his book in front of him. The sheet of paper lay on the table.

He was allowed to run out for a while to play with his sister. The garden and the sun brought him light; but the dark eternity from behind the bookcase was there too, like a sharp black thing, a pin in his clothes, which suddenly pricked him in the middle of a game and filled him with a sudden feeling of weariness.

Then came oblivion in the heat of the game.

A couple of children from a neighbouring cottage came and stood at the corner of the house—they were at a loose end. They came and played in the garden, and the noise they all made attracted other children from nearby farms. They rolled in the grass round the flagpole, they vanished into the bushes. Eric romped until he was bruised all over and entirely free of the shadow that had been hanging over him. With all the children chasing him he rushed about like a whirlwind which bends the trees and bushes in the hedgerows. It turned into one of those games which only happen once or twice in a life-time; when the participants enter so much into the joyous spirit of the romp that they never quite forget the experience. Eric's entangled soul opened up in response to the game as parched earth opens up to receive the rain from a thunder shower and never thinks it will get enough.

Pursued by brigands he jumped across paths and through shrubberies up the big garden towards the house. He saw nothing, heard nothing except his pursuers' tussle with the dense foliage and whipping branches which swung back dangerously in his wake. As he ran the exhilaration of the terror and excitement sent shivers down his spine as it welled up inside him. He did not know whether he would get away; whether he or the brigands were making the noises behind him. He leaped like a wild thing out of the last of the elderberry bushes, and stood with ecstatic, darting eyes looking for the safest way out of his present far too exposed position.

He was met by the piercing gaze of a pair of eyes. His mother was standing quietly on the stone steps to the kitchen, like a piece of stone herself.

It was not only to his pursuers that he had exposed himself. So far as he was concerned they no longer existed; he was not even conscious that they came rushing round him, caught hold of him and pulled him to the ground.

It was as if his now completely unfolded being had momentarily become drenched with some corrosive liquid, while he was still off his guard. In a brief death-struggle, when the darkness behind the bookcase, Eternity and Hellfire rushed over him with long strides, his soul crumpled up and was emptied of all life.

Then he got up and, lashing out wildly all round him, shook off his astounded playmates. As devilish as the devil he was about to encounter, he followed his mother through the house to the study.

His father was standing there, irresolute, in the midst of all the injustice and evil of this world. He too found the whole situation unbearably sinister.

Eric felt as if he had been blinded; as if all light had gone out of the room; he was aware of nothing but the imminence of the inevitable fate which was closing in on him, on his father and him. He was conscious of his mother's hand leading him to the writing table.

He heard her ask: Where is the pipe? and noticed that her voice was strange and full of sorrow.

He said nothing. His father said nothing. Eric noted that he turned away and sighed. It was an action that he knew well and it told him that a full grown man can also be in distress.

"Where have you put the pipe, Eric?" he heard his mother ask. She held him by the shoulders and shook him. He realised that she would not know what to do if he did not own up now. She lifted up the sheet of paper as if hoping that the paper knife had changed back into the pipe since she had last looked.

"Where have you put it?"

"Nowhere."

Eric was well aware that this was the most dangerous answer that he could make, and he saw from his mother's movements how near she was to laying hands on him.

If only she had done so, he thought, as he heard her give up the struggle and leave the room.

He was now completely defenceless. His mother's anger was at least of this world: forgiving and forgetting. Not like his father's, an earthquake-impending judgment day.

He stood there, not daring to move; not daring to lift his eyes from the spot on the table leg on which he had fixed his gaze as soon as he had come into the room.

Behind him his father moved restlessly about the room. If only his mother had stayed behind. It was unbearable to have to stand here with a man who was going to say the words that only his mother knew how to say. His father was not even angry: merely weary and depressed.

When at last he heard a voice, uncomfortably quiet in that tiny room, ask: "Eric, where have you put it, please?" it was as if they were both committing some terrible sin.

Eric could not move, could not speak. A sickening feeling came over him with a rush. He was no longer a criminal, but a much-maligned individual who was being forced into a dastardly action by a man who had also been wronged and who was extremely loath to do it.

He saw the man pick up the sheet of paper—or rather sensed that he was doing so—and realised that the question was being put to him again and again. It sounded as if the Saviour on the cross was accusing him and at the same time pitying him because he had committed the world's greatest sin.

Not for one moment did he think of admitting his guilt. He denied everything, blindly, as though he had every justification to do so. At length he became aware that he was being led out of the room, through the passage behind the oven through the empty schoolroom and out into the peat-shed.

My poor child, said the Man—Our Lord from the cross. The boy lifted up his perplexed eyes and saw that the Man was his father and that there were tears in his eyes. He saw him take a strap from his pocket and felt in one biting flash—this is Abraham sacrificing Isaac. The one and only blow felt like a murder survived, a mortal blow which scarcely hurt. It was an injustice crying aloud to the heavens, never to be forgotten, which would for ever make him an enemy of that house.

Another question. In vain. Once again a denial, a tight-lipped, irrevocable "No".

He had won after all. The door of the half-darkened shed flew open, the peat dust whirled up in the doorway, and the late afternoon sunlight streamed in.

Mr. Meissel went out quickly—it looked like flight—leaving the boy by himself.

Eric stood motionless in the dusty mist and listened to his father's footsteps over the yard. He waited for the back door to slam, but it did not.

Relaxed now that it was all over, he stood still and looked down the road. The postman was coming back from his round. The smoke from his pipe dissolved into the air behind him as he walked. He was going to the post-office with parcels and things, and there he would stick stamps on letters and sort out newspapers. A fortunate man who could openly and before the whole world light up his pipe. He did not have to go through hell first.

Eric sat down on the warm peat in the shaft of sunlight. He was tired, very tired.

 
 
 

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