Simon Fruelund is the author of two story collections and two novels. In the US his work has appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Brooklyn Review, and Redivider

 

K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, the Washington Post, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. For his work with Simon Fruelund's fiction, he is a recipient of a translation grant from the Danish Arts Council.

Semmel says: "'Phosphorescence' is from Simon Fruelund's debut collection, Maelk (1997). In lean, spare prose--characteristic of the stories in Maelk--Fruelund dramatizes the simultaneous closeness and distance of human relationships."

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Phosphorescence

by Simon Fruelund

Translated from Danish by K.E. Semmel

 

They sat on the keel of a dinghy that was lying on the beach. Thomas was drunk and happy. He sat leaning back, supporting himself with his hands; he tilted his head back and gazed up. Jon looked straight off into the night. He could see the foam of the low surf and hear the pebbles murmuring as the water pulled back out to sea.

     —I can’t find it, Thomas said.

     —What? Jon said.

     —The Big Dipper.

     —Does it matter?

     —Yeah.

     Thomas leaned forward and took the wine bottle from Jon’s hand.

      —Have some wine, Jon said.

     Jon looked at the surf and Thomas leaned his head back. 

     They sat like that for a while.

     —All the big things, Thomas said suddenly. For some reason, we can only get close to them in images.

     —What?

     —Take the stars, for example. We can’t see them the way they are, we arrange them into constellations. It’s the same with death, or having a child. What can you say? But if you can find the right imagery.
     —Yeah.

     —Life is great, Thomas said.

     —Maybe I’m not drunk enough.

     —C’mon, stop whining.         

     Thomas handed him the bottle; Jon leaned his head back and looked for the Big Dipper as he drank.

     —I can see two, he said. He pointed with the bottle. A small one up here and a bigger one there.

     —No way, Thomas said.

     Jon pointed again.

     —God damn, you’re right.

     Thomas glanced from one to the other.

     —Maybe we should go inside and wake up the others. Tell them we’ve made an astronomical discovery.

     —I think Charlotte wants to sleep, Jon said.

     —Isn’t Vivian just fucking beautiful.

     —Yeah, Jon said. She’s pretty amazing. You’re really lucky.

     —Everything’s just a matter of luck. It’s all chance.

     —Yes, Jon said.

     —Charlotte is beautiful too. She’s a really nice girl.

     Thomas stood and pulled his T-shirt over his head.

     —C’mon, he said. Let’s go swimming. He unzipped his pants and pulled them down all the way to his shoes. Then he sat down on the boat and untied his laces. A moment later he stood naked before Jon.

     —Don’t you think it’s too cold?
     —Not at all. It’s never been warmer.

     —And don’t you think you’re too drunk?

     —Hell no.

     Thomas turned and ran toward the sea. Jon could see Thomas’ body standing out white against the dark water. Thomas ran until the darkness reached his knees. A ways out, the water was shallow. A splash. After that Jon saw Thomas in glimpses, a foot, a white arm, the upper part of his back. Then there was only the sound left, the rhythmic strokes and now and then a splash from his feet. Then even the sounds fell silent, drowned out by the beating of the waves and by Jon’s own breathing.

     A moment later Jon got up and walked down to the water. Rocks and shells bit into his feet. He stared into the darkness. The moon gave the sea a thin, flickering sheen of light. Below the surface the water was dark, and seemed darker than usual because the lights played tricks with his eyes.

     Some time passed.

     Then he called out,

     —Thomas.

     —Thomas! he called out even louder.

     —Thomas, he called out a third time.

     All the way out by the third sandbank, an arm appeared. 

     —C’mon! There’s… The wind carried the last part of the sentence away.

     —What? Jon shouted.

     —Come on out here. There’s phosphor.

     Jon pulled off his jeans. He shrugged off his white T-shirt, then his underwear; they landed on top of the pile on the beach a few feet from the water.

     The water was surprisingly warm, even a bit warmer than the air. Jon saw a swarm of small glowing particles at his feet; he bent down, and scooped up a handful of water, letting it fall. The phosphor flashed briefly, then fell into the darkness. He squatted down and drove his hand through the water; it took on a green sheen and looked bigger. He pulled it up and then put it back in again. Then he stood, took a couple steps, and began to run. He ran until he couldn’t anymore, and then let himself fall headfirst into the water, dived and crawled with long, calm strokes. For each stroke he turned his head, taking in air from the left and breathing out to the right.  

     On the second sandbank the water was too shallow for him to swim, and he got up and walked a few steps. He looked out towards the third sandbank but couldn’t see his brother. He hurled himself forward.

     When he reached the last sandbank he let his feet sink down, and looked around. Thomas was nowhere in sight; Jon spun around, ran an arm through the water, and swirled the phosphor. Just then, he felt something grab hold of his right foot. He fell backwards and felt the water gush up his nose and into his sinuses. A moment later he got back on his feet. He threw himself at Thomas and tried to dunk his head under the water. Thomas got away from him and shoved a handful of water in his face. Jon threw himself forward again and this time he managed to grab Thomas’s hair with both hands. He pressed Thomas’s head under water and held it there a few seconds.

     —Truce? he said, as he pulled Thomas back up.

     —Truce, Thomas said, smiling.

     Jon let him go and Thomas splashed him again with water.

     —Stop it.

     —What’s wrong with you? Thomas said, pressing his hands together and shoving saltwater against Jon.

     Jon leapt forward and swam away underwater. He had barely emerged when Thomas was on him again.

     Jon took two steps away from Thomas, then turned and smacked him across the cheek. Thomas grabbed his hand before he managed to pull it away. They stood motionless across from each other.

     —Look at me, Thomas said.

     —Sorry, Jon said.

     —Look at me, Thomas said.

     —It’s not enough that I say I’m sorry?

     —No.

     Jon looked at him.

     —Now tell me what’s wrong?

     Jon exhaled and stared up at the stars. He glanced toward Thomas, fastening his gaze at a point just above his eyes. 

     —I don’t know.

     —You don’t know?

     —Maybe I shouldn’t have come.

     —Why?
     —I don’t know. I just shouldn’t have come.

     Thomas still had a solid grip on Jon’s wrist. They stood opposite each other, the water reaching their chests. The water was dark and still, and the phosphorescence had subsided. They stood without speaking for almost a minute.

     —Don’t you ever miss him? Jon finally said.

     —Who?

     —Who do you think?

     Thomas let go of Jon’s hand.

     —Of course I miss him, he said.

     —I can’t help thinking of him now that we’re here.

     —Why?

     —I don’t know. Maybe because it was here he was happiest. That’s what everyone says.

     —Of course I think about him, Thomas said. But not all the time. It comes and goes.

     Jon drew a hand through the water and the phosphor sparkled.

     —I’m freezing, Thomas said. Let’s swim back.

     They swam slowly toward the beach, side by side with three or four feet between them.

     Jon took a few powerful strokes, then let himself sink under the water. He squeezed his eyes shut to keep the water out. He lay against the bottom, sand scraping against his chest. Soon after he surfaced for air.

     Thomas had stood and waded through the shallow water a few steps ahead. Jon followed.

     They hadn’t brought any towels. They grabbed their clothes and ran toward the house. The sand on the path was cool on their feet, and there was a smell of heather and resin in the air. They sprinted across the yard.

     The towels hung on a clothesline drawn between two birch trees. They dried quickly, and pulled on their underwear and T-Shirts.

     Before Jon opened the door to the house, he glanced at Thomas.

     —Look, I’m sorry…

     —It’s all right, Thomas said. No need to apologize.

     —We’re going home tomorrow, Charlotte and I.

     —Okay.

     Jon opened the door and walked into the low-ceilinged living room.

     —Sleep well, he said, before they parted.

     Jon crawled into bed beside Charlotte. She turned in her sleep and clutched his thumb. He arranged his duvet and blanket with his free hand, and gradually he warmed up. From the bed he could make out the photograph of his father, which was hanging on the wall. The picture, set in a thin silver frame, had been taken down by the beach. He was wearing an Icelandic sweater and was staring directly at the camera. Before long Jon heard the bed squeal in the room next to his; then he heard a low, rhythmic moan. He couldn’t decide if it was coming from Vivian or his brother. After a while he realized it was coming from Vivian.        

 

 

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