by Knud Sønderby
It was one of those periods when the sun and oppressive heat suddenly emerged after a month of wind and cold. I went riding in eastern Jutland with a young lady who knew the area. From an open field we could see Skamlingsbanken1 to the south. She pointed it out as the tallest of three hills of nearly equal height, and when we squinted we could just see the obelisk like a nail on the peak. She rode with imagination, turning off at small farm roads where the horses could gallop in the soft wheel ruts. She pushed her way into the woods through holes in the bushes that she knew from previous rides. The horses forced the branches aside with their heads to make way, and we had to duck low against their hot sweaty necks not to get hit when the branches swung back. We trotted through young pine tree plantings, where the brown grass reached the horses’ chests, and where willowherbs stood with their red stems like lights at a harbor fest. We rode down hills and up hills, in tandem over small stony creeks down in the ravines, in laborious climbs up slopes, except when she preferred to gallop straight up, so the horses’ back legs tensed as if in spasm. At one place there was a wide gully with a bridge, but no, she knew the bridge was rotted and we would risk a hoof going through and the horse breaking its leg. So she turned in between the trees, then turned directly towards the gully. The black Holsteiner gathered itself and stretched beneath her, snorting with excitement. A snap of the whip as a farewell to this side, and it flew and landed with forelegs and rear legs and all its weight in the new world. It sped in between the young trees cracking the branches, kicked its back legs skyward in sheer excitement, was ready to gallop to the end of the world. But she got him turned around and calmed down, and there we were on either sides of the gully. And she was waiting for me.
Until then I was enthusiastic. The ride had been ten times better with her along, since we could talk and yell to one another, and because she knew all the good places to ride in this area. Otherwise I would have just ridden straight up the road and back again. But now a damper had been put on my excitement. If I had been alone I would never had made it to this gully. If I had been riding with a man, I could have said “No, thank you very much. You won’t find me risking life and limb hazarding a two- to three-yard chasm.” But I was not alone, and I was with a young girl.
“That was very nice,” I said with appreciation, as if I had only held my horse back so I could judge her performance. Then I backed up my horse, gave it an approach as if it were going to jump from the island of Langeland to Tåsinge2. Using both spurs and whip, my whole life breathlessly passing before my eyes, remembering particularly my childhood piousness, I stormed towards the gully, that gaped like an open mass grave.
Are we jumping or are we not jumping? Is the horse coming or am I going over alone? But the horse chose to come along, storming forward like a tank. It took flight as if by an explosion, and the twigs on the other side whipped me in my ears. Then we stopped and she, for whom I had risked my limbs, patted the horse and laughed.
She was ten years old. While trotting, the horse lifted her so high in the air that I could see blue sky between her and the saddle. But she was totally comfortable, landing securely on the horse’s back after each flight.
We emerged between green meadows and yellow fields of grain. Oh grain! Oh sugar beets! Oh potatoes! I though dutifully to myself. Oh bounty of the earth! But this local lady also in this context brought me far from the city dweller’s beaten trail. It was Petersen’s oats. They looked very nice. On the other hand, the barley farther away didn’t look so good. “Why not?” I asked.
“When the barley is ripe, you shouldn’t be able to see the tracks of the sowing machine,” she said, and looked at me puzzled.
No, of course not.
And all that straw this year. On one of her father’s fields the grain was this far over her head. She showed me how far. In the loft of their barn they had a stone marten. What did it look like? It looked like they always look. Hadn’t she seen it? No, she had never seen it. One of her teachers at school was so dumb. Once she had done something so and so, and then he had said so and so, but it wasn’t her fault, now was it? No, of course not. Boy, was he dumb; but then everyone thinks so. And he was so ugly too, and then he still acted so full of himself.
Then she started galloping again. Like the perfect hostess she had a surprise for me. Obstacles set up on a narrow forest path and a couple of them quite high. I folded my fingers around the reins, closed my eyes and followed after her. Once I was lying on the ground, while the horse, big as an elephant, walked around and over me with all its legs near my face. I got up on it again without her noticing the mishap.
“I’ll bet you couldn’t have found those obstacles on your own,” she said, when we were together again. I admitted she was right.
We resumed trotting, and now suddenly a gentle air of sorrow and tragedy took over her mood. Just look at the tail on her horse, how thin it was. Once, out in the fields, someone had cut it all off because horsehair had gotten so expensive. In the morning the horse stood there and didn’t have anything to swat away the flies with and looked so miserable, as if it knew how ugly it had become. Another time a horse in the barn stepped on her kitten and killed it, a white one, and the kitten’s mother had eaten some of her prettiest pigeons. And another horse stepped in some barbed wire by accident and got an infection in its leg. And the first time it was supposed to be shoed and the blacksmith touched that leg, it took off from the stall and jumped head first right into the brick wall so it died on the spot. But they could have been more careful -her father and the blacksmith and all of them. If it had been them that had a bad leg then they would have been careful….
We had arrived at the fjord and rode the horses right out into the water’s edge. They splashed with pleasure in the low water and the coolness rose up towards us.
“Let’s take the saddles off, then ride all the way out and let them swim,” she said excitedly.
“I’m not so sure about that,” I said.
“We have to. It’s so good for them.”
Still, I distanced myself from the idea. I felt that now my life depended on being steadfast. But it was no use. After we had our bathing suits on, we rode out. The water rose to the horses’ bellies, to their chests. Only with persuasion and struggle were we able to keep them moving forward. Suddenly the bottom disappeared under them. In a glimpse I saw her face turned towards mine with an expression that was supposed to show all our mutual enjoyment. The horses were thrashing around, fighting to keep their frightened heads above water and get back to land. In one moment’s panic they tried climbing up on one another to have something to walk on. She just laughed.
Afterwards we agreed to take it easy. For the horses’ sake. A great relief from heaven and the fjord came over me when we then turned homeward. Politely she began to discuss art and literature. She liked movies better than theater. More happens in movies.
“Like for example in Gøngehøvdingen3,” I said. Yes, she would agree. Like Gøngehøvdingen. Then again, maybe she liked the theater better after all. It was just that in movies you can see them coming and going. For example, if someone is attacked, or a girl gets lost on her way home, you can see it in the film. In the theater they just stand there yapping about it telling what happened. But when something finally does happen in the theater, she thinks that they do it better.
She had dropped her reins and leaned an elbow against the horse’s neck, while she spoke reasonably. It was like she lived on that horse.
“I really like slow hymns,” she said “They give you such good thoughts.” She laughed embarrassedly and sat up straight. I nodded solemnly and didn’t so much as blink. We were nearing sacred areas now. I had won her confidence. And she talked about the moral difficulties that adults caused her. They were often so strange. When visitors came, they could say, “Really! That was funny! How nice! That was so sweet of you!” And then when the visitors left they would say, “Boy are they boring. I could hardly stand it.”
She turned her snub nose towards me. There was anguish in her eyes.
“Isn’t that strange? Can’t they just not say things like that. And maybe the others thought that they were boring. What makes them think that they themselves are so funny and pleasant?”
She rode in front down the path, which I would never have found either, and when we came out, we stopped on a spot with the most gorgeous view over the fjord and the channel. She looked proud and expectant on my behalf. The highlight of the ride.
“Wouldn’t you rather have ridden with someone else?” she asked.
“With someone else?” I said.
“Yeah, with one of the grown-ups,” she said, without looking at me.
“Not at all. I like riding with you better than anybody.”
“Oh, that’s not true. And I know it,” she said satisfied.
By Knud Sønderby “Et ridt med en dame” ©1946
Translated by Michael Goldman
1 Highest point in southern Jutland
2 Two Danish islands located about 16 miles apart
3 The tale of Sven Poulsen Gønge, captain of the Danish freedom fighters against Sweden in the 1660’s