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3354 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

All Living Things Great and Small

by Per Šmidl

Since I moved into the wagon my dreams had changed. Somehow, they had become crazier, funnier and less scary—less unbearable. I used to feel relief waking from my nightmares drenched in sweat; now I hated to wake from them and often spent the first minutes groping to salvage the juicier parts. Along with the aftertaste of the crazed and funny, there was also the pinch of sadness and regret the dream left behind in me because I had been torn out of a brand new world where exciting things happened and people were freer and more true to themselves.

Floating on the last great swells of the vanishing dream, my waking mind being increasingly preoccupied with the sounds reaching my ears from The Village, I also became conscious of an itching in my crotch. Instantly, the remaining fragments of dream disappeared. Now, there was only itching. I lay as still as I could. There was no doubt. Not only was the itching real, it was also worse than any I could remember. And the itching was not restricted to the crotch area either. It itched throughout the entire hairy regions of my body, which pretty much is all over the place. Oddly enough, my scalp did not itch. But in my pubic hair, there was an intense creeping and crawling. Down there in the dark, was where it was! Getting up on my elbows, I pushed myself into a sitting position. I now had my back against the wall. With the tips of my fingers, I pushed the hairs aside in what seemed the epicenter of my itching crotch and looked down. And...lo and behold! What was that? What my eyes saw was like a flat little whitish flake that moved on legs. Without a moment’s hesitation, I gave the tips of my thumb and index finger orders to seize the bugger. And...what do you know! A split second later, there it was creeping merrily along the skin of my forefinger. I ogled it fiercely. Like a crab, it had legs on both sides of its body. After indulging my curiosity for some time, I grabbed the book I was reading from the desk and squished the bug against the cover with my thumbnail. There! I held the book up before my eyes and inspected the dead body of the insect vivid against the dark material of an umbrella.

And so it came to pass that by crushing an insect, I became aware of the cover of the book I was reading. It was a paperback edition from 1964 of Richard Brautigan’s novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur. Despite the fact that I had read this book at least three times before, I had never taken note of the picture on the front cover. Now, I did and so much so that, for a minute, I even forgot the itching. The picture showed a detail from Hokusai’s painting called The Hollow of the Deep-Sea Wave.”tle insignificant men in them (as in Hokusai’s painting) but on a man and a woman standing in water to their waists. The man (who I supposed was identical with the author of the book) is holding an umbrella over both their heads as protection. His hair reaches almost to his shoulders and not only is he wearing glasses but also a sizeable downturned mustache. The woman is the image of what every lonely man is dreaming of. Obviously, these people are in imminent danger of annihilation. In a moment, the wave will fall on them with all its destructive might and wipe them off the face of the earth. And yet there is no panic in their faces. Their faces are calm and radiate joy. They are, however, concerned about something. The woman’s soft expression is tinged with slight reproach, and the way the man frowns it seems he wants to bring a mad world to its senses and ask of it: “What do you think you’re doing? Don’t you see what is happening? Where do you think you’re headed? Don’t you understand that your life too is in danger?” It’s all there in his glare and the presence of the umbrella. Had it not been for the umbrella, the onlooker would not know the couple is aware of the wave about to engulf them.

“To see the world in a grain of sand,” I mumbled to myself and crushed another insect on the cover. This time the dead body stuck to the woman’s Barbie-doll coiffure. “For all I care, you can itch in her hair,” I thought gloomily and dove into my crotch in search of more of the little devils.

But as it soon turned out it was an unequal battle. Even if I took a million pale-faced scalps, it would not slow their advance in the slightest. The little white flakes existed in huge numbers, and they kept right on multiplying as they pushed along the entire frontier from the crotch in the South across the great expanse of belly and into the less overgrown regions to the North.

Yet, even if it was hopeless and doomed to fail, still I went right on putting up resistance. SQUISH, and Brautigan’s dark jacket was ornamented with yet another crab-like pale-face. The next three or four I crushed against the blue waters of the wave. From there, I moved up and decorated a neat little circle on the umbrella. I kept it up as I say, but reaching the number of thirty-eight, I decided it was time for unconditional surrender. What good did it do that I was the strongest, boldest and most courageous if the enemy existed in limitless numbers? With no hope of stemming the tide, it was a waste of my time. So I put on clean underwear, pulled on my jeans and taking the book strewn with dead insects with me, I went out to ask advice from Old Knud, the undisputed wise man of the Village.

In front of Knud’s shack, a small crowd had gathered. Hanne, John and Rune were there too. Rune, the snot-nosed kid, was pressing one of Knud’s rabbits to his chest. The animal hung almost to the ground. Its ears covered its eyes, and it probably wasn’t able to see a damn thing. It was just hanging there as limp and as secure as if it had never been more comfortable. The soft skin of its belly was exposed. Just like it couldn’t care less if somebody came by with a knife and slit it open. “What guts it must have,” I thought and went up to Knud.

“What’s going on here?” I said. “Where’s Jakob?”

“Up there.” Knud indicated the direction by tilting his head back a little.

And sure enough! High up in the crown of the tree behind Knud’s shack, Jakob was sitting astride a thick branch holding a net and a wicker basket. I felt a cold shiver run down my back.

“What’s he doing?”

Old Knud threw me a sideways glance: “It’s my bees. They’ve taken off. Jakob is trying to get them into the basket and bring them down. I’ll teach the suckers to desert!”

“Can he do that?”

“I sure hope so,” Knud said. And he was just about to look up again, when I held the cover of The Confederate General from Big Sur before his glowering little Eskimo eyes. Instead of a bunch of escaped bees, what he saw was a battlefield strewn with dead and dying insects.

“Can you tell me what these are?”

Old Knud got his reading glasses out of his shirt pocket and put them on. I was looking at the place where they had been taped on the left side of his head, when his face broke into a broad grin: “That there... I’ll tell you what that is!” He lowered his head a little and turned to look at me over the frame of his glasses: “Them there things are crabs, and no two ways about it. Plithirius pubis in the Latin lingo. Yours is a bad case and to get rid of them, we’ll have to dip you in strong acid.” Once more, Knud stopped. This time it was in order to shake his head slowly from side to side: “Look at yourself! You’ve got hair all over the place. Where’d you get them?”

I was about to answer, when Hanne broke in: “Would you cut that out Knud. What are you giving him that bullshit for? Just because they probably had to dip you in acid, when you were young and had crabs, doesn’t mean they have to dip him too. Nowadays, you just go to the drug store and buy a little bottle with some crab juice in it. Then you go home and douse yourself with it. You rub it in with your fingers. It’s a nuisance but it’s not as bad as all that. I know what I’m talking about because I’ve had to do it myself a couple times. But...” Hanne stopped and looked at my hairy chest: “You, Les, better get two bottles. And don’t forget to find out where you got the creeps. Think who you’ve been with this last week or so and make sure they get the treatment too. If you don’t, well, it’ll be all over the place!”

“Well,” I thought to myself and brushed the thirty-eight corpses off The Confederate General from Big Sur, “let’s see now!” This last week, it could be Lili and the skinny German girl Frauke with the big tits and the baby bird. I had run into her crossing the moat bridge and been with her in my shack less than an hour later. Since it seemed unlikely that Lili had given me the crabs, Frauke was the main suspect. At first, I had thought that it was because she was a dope-headed hippie that she acted so weird. Then I realized she had a screw lose. As I said, she was holding a baby bird when I ran into her. It was the tiniest ball of down you had ever seen. It must have just fallen out of the nest. And so had she it seemed. Thinking back on it, I could not make out which of them had looked more lost, the bird or the girl. I had never seen her before in my life. Even if there was that lost air about her, she also looked very sweet with her soft brown eyes and tousled dark hair. Somehow, it touched me too the way she was standing there looking rapturously at the young bird. You’d almost think she identified with it or something.

It wasn’t until the next day I found out a little more. I was told that Frauke loved “all living things both great and small.” And this, I was told, was to be understood quite literally. In that case, I now concluded, she probably loved crabs too. Nobody knew from where she came in Germany, if from the West or from the East. One day she appeared in Christiania where she lived from hand to mouth and day to day. Nights, she spent anywhere she could find “a bit of animal warmth.” I had been told that she never spoke much. But when she was with me, she sang. Apparently, the lieder of Schubert were a favorite. I figured she probably came from what is called a “good family.” And she was pretty too. There was only one little hitch: the extent to which it was necessary for me to ignore her filthy toenails. On the other hand, she made no secret of the fact that she adored my looks: “Du bist aber sehr sehr hübsch,” she said and studied my face. “Ein sehr hübscher hippie.” And as if she had just said something very funny, she began to giggle. And she went right on giggling when she put the tiny bird on a tree stump and threw her arms around me. Maybe, there’s something I have misunderstood, but it felt strange to have my looks praised one moment only to be laughed at the next. It was almost like I was now the fledgling. She pressed herself to my chest so that I could not help feeling her magnificent and firm breasts with no bra. And since she didn’t seem to want to let go, I finally removed her arms and told her I was going home. In German, mind you. She was beside herself with joy. She grabbed my hand, started tugging at it and cried: “Was gibst zu hause? Was gibst zu hause?”

I thought perhaps she would stay where she was if I started walking, but I was wrong. She tagged along at a little distance with the bird in her hand. And the moment I looked back, she started running. She caught up with me just before the trail turns in the direction of the Wagon Village. I looked at her, and she looked back at me. She kept shifting her feet like she was bashful or something. But then I don’t think she was, because all of a sudden she smiled disarmingly and took my arm. It was just as simple as that. There, we were walking along like we had known each other since the dawn of time. I looked at our feet. I was wearing the old tennis shoes, and she was in her dirty feet. I wondered what would happen when we reached my wagon. What if she wanted me to take her? Wouldn’t that be sort of like stealing money from the blind beggar? I don’t mean to make it sound like it worried me a whole lot, because it didn’t. Yet it did a little bit. She was not ugly, and she was not what you would call beautiful either. She was pretty, and there was something special about her. I think the thing she had is called mien. Her mien had that soft and vulnerable quality that I have always found irresistible in women, and if it had not been for the bare feet and the black toenails, I’m not sure I would have thought her nutty at all. Of course, there was the whole issue of the bird. Not to mention Schubert and his lieder. But hell, who was I to judge? Even if the general surroundings seemed sad, there was nothing wrong with being in a good mood. As we were walking along, she was singing that German lied She wasn’t singing it loudly or anything, but she sang it directly into my right ear like it was some endearment meant for me and me only. Frankly, I do not know if it was Schubert. It just sounded like something Schubert might have composed. I didn’t know much about those things. For all I knew the song could have been composed by Haydn or Brahms. When I suggest it was by Schubert, it’s only because of a certain “müllerin” that kept popping up. I know it sounds like a lot of horseshit, but in my mind “müllerins” were associated with Schubert. In any case, it was really quite pleasant to listen to. There was something comforting about it, something soothing as though if she would only go on singing, things would eventually turn out all right.

But what was going to happen when we reached my door? By now, I was pretty sure we were headed for my bed. The way she breathed and whispered the lines of the song into my ear told me that it was Mother Nature’s child I’d met. A tempting elf girl! Or maybe a Freetown fairy? What did one do in such a situation? “God has a very big heart.” Anthony Quinn’s voice was croaking into my other ear. “But there’s one sin he will not forgive, and that is if a woman asks a man to her bed, and he will not go!” Only in this case, the bed was mine. Sure, but using that as an excuse would be a despicable thing to do. And what is more: God would not buy it. The fact that the girl had no place to live and did not own a bed anywhere in the world made it even more unthinkable to disobey the commandment. Jesus, I thought, what kind of world is this where a man may be forgiven the worst atrocities if only he repents? But if he once refuses a woman, well, then that is a capital sin for which he must burn in the flames of hell forever.

It turned out more or less the way I had predicted. In the wagon Frauke set down the little downy ball of feathers on some scrap paper lying on my desk. She then looked sideways at me and started taking off her dress. Not a word had been spoken between us the whole way back from the bridge. And here, she was taking off her clothes... I went to the door and shut it. By the time I was back in the middle of the floor, Frauke was standing before me without a stitch on. “When a woman,” bleated the voice and then I, too, began to undress. I watched Frauke climb the bed and get under the covers. I liked the way she moved, the whiteness of her skin and the frail figure. By the time I was ready to join her, she was covered to her chin and was looking calmly and very seriously at me with her brown eyes. But when I wanted to lift the quilt and lie down alongside her, she pressed herself into the far corner. Now I was where she had been a moment earlier, and she was holding her legs and resting her chin on her knees while looking intently at me. “What’s this,” I thought, “is she playing cat and mouse with me?”

I was lying on my back when Frauke snatched the quilt off me: “Warum kann ich dich nicht sehen?” she said as she bent forward and caressed my cock. Immediately, it jumped into an erect position. “Mein Gott!” Frauke exclaimed and caressed it a bit more.

“What if the little bird gets jealous?” I thought and glanced at it.

Well, that is how I got crabs. While I got them, the bird was quiet, and for my own part, I did my best to ignore the black toenails down at the other end. It wasn’t too hard really. Frauke made it easy by loving me just like a woman with all her screws tight and in their place. When she came, she moaned and pulled herself up with both arms around my neck. I’m not kidding when I say that loving her was easier than anything I’d ever done before. It was so simple and straightforward. And when it was over, it was over. No talk of tomorrow or the next time. Not a word about crabs... That was by far the hard part: I would have to find a way of telling Lili. It was only the day before that she had gone to Sweden to visit her father, who was recently remarried to a Swedish opera diva. When Lili returned itching like hell the day after tomorrow, I better have a plausible explanation ready. And what would I say? I could not very well tell her that one day as my cock was on its way across the moat bridge, it was turned into a baby bird that contracted crabs the moment it was picked up by Franz Schubert’s müllerin. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of it. If I gave her a yarn like that, whew would she go on the rampage. You might say that Lili lacked the finer sense for magical realism of this sort. She would not be the least bit amused.


—From the novel, Wagon 537 Christiania (Serving House Books, 2013)



SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Per Šmidl

lived in a wagon in Copenhagen’s Christinia for two years. His autobiographical novel describes living there among people with an individual and original approach to life, curious tourists, anarchists and whatever category you can think of.

Details, including a video clip of the author reading from his novel and a link to the interview of Šmidl by Bo Bjørnvig in Psychology Today, are available at the publisher’s website:

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury