Celestine by Olga Ravn
Translated from the Danish by Sherilyn Hellberg
Chapter 1: She is Dressed in White
She was supposed to get married, or do something, one thing or another, but she refused. They held a party in her honor and at night they walled her in without anyone noticing. They said, sure thing, you can stay here forever and live forever, like the mist that rises up from the meadow when the days change from cold to warm. But your beautiful young body will wither and you will be only a little shadow cast up on the wall and unable to leave it. Who will love you then? Who will listen?
As time went by, so she became like a little bit of honey at the bottom of a hidden crevice, and then only her voice and her shadow remained. And then actually not really her voice any longer, but just a shadow. And this rhythm of the heart like a deranged girl’s cry when she crawls around a bog looking for a lost jewel. And then, after the cries, the silence that comes when the night ends.
In my room at the castle I stood in front of the round mirror at midnight and said her name three times. I had come to listen to her and also to offer my body. I wanted to be haunted by her. I wanted to be the new wall where she could lie and breath, quiet and rasping like an animal. But nothing happened. Nothing happened at all and I went to bed. I heard the cooking staff rattling a few floors below. In the window, there was still a little light over the fjord, a vivid stroke of green over the horizon like the dark’s eyeliner.
They had named her Celestine. People said that her parents, as punishment for having fallen in love with the wrong person, at a party in her honor, it was in the middle ages, had drugged her and put her in the wall, so that she suffocated behind it. She had to be made a part of the home. People said that she had traveled to Schleswig. Or that she had gone into the forest. But actually she had stayed a part of the home, and so she lay there and breathed her last breath, and so she died in the midst of a rage.
Celestine: she was dressed in white. I picture her according to my own purpose. That’s the only thing I can do.
I came to the castle with the hope of finding a home. I would like to learn from the ghost how one becomes a single story that repeats itself. I would like to learn how to stay standing still, to walk the same route, to insist. I would like to stand outside of forgiveness. I want to hate. That should keep me going. That should keep me entertained.
Chapter 2: Arrival at the Castle
When I arrived at the castle, summer was at its height. Big rhododendron bushes were in bloom.
I went into the forest behind the castle. The driver had told me about a shortcut. I was walking when I first went through the field. The grass was wet in my tracks. Summer was clearly here.
They said that Celestine walked the same route each night, that you could hear scratching noises from the wall. I would like to put myself inside her and find rest there in her restlessness.
I left the forest and went out through the back of the garden, out among the enormous bushes that were slumbering like big animals in the sun. There was an older married couple between them, but otherwise the whole area was empty. At the other end of the park there was a little castle, smaller than I had thought, and without towers.
Suddenly I had this thought that I always resisted everything I experienced.
I was unemployed and the heat was terrible. In the city, the summer had run a brush, dripping with white, over the houses. In the parks the heat hung like a curtain and glittered with insects, and my heart became salty with sweat.
Every day Kim came by for his lunch break to eat and spend time with me. We found ourselves in that coolness that only belongs to the summer, that only occurs at the edge of the summer’s hand. In my room, the glass in the picture frames reflected the trees swelling outside. Used glasses and plates stood around us, the bedspread had fallen onto the floor and it spread some velvety blue throughout the room. Inside me there was a bonfire on a beach on midsummer night—the sand is wet and the smoke rises in a purple stream and it has just rained. People stand clustered together in small groups, hazily, their bodies blurring into one another.
Kim lay on the bed, opening and closing his eyes. He rubbed his face and turned onto his side. He got up early every morning and went to work. It belonged to him alone, this early morning, this brief hour of the swallows before the day began in earnest. When he lay down to sleep after dinner his body seemed to ossify, almost blue, and with closed eyes, a milkiness seeped across his face in all directions.
The rain came suddenly; it sloshed happily in the streets and piled up in the basements. The flood should have been refreshing, but instead it covered the whole city in grease, slipping away as quickly as it came and leaving us even stickier than before.
I stood in my cousin’s garden and rummaged around through some boxes that had been covered in sewage. The day had ruffled itself up quicker than usual and it seemed that the light had cracked an egg out in a corner of the farm and that this egg ran slowly out over the yard. And at the same time this yolk had something ominous about it.
I stood there cloaked in the light of these egg whites and threw the whole mess out except for a green notebook that had been at the top of a box, but still reeked. It conjured memories of everything sodden and discarded, a kind of reminder of the flood, a souvenir from my earlier youth, of everything that I had accumulated over the years.
The water sank quickly into the earth, leaving a squelching ball in the grass—muddied hands, destroyed cars, databases and DNA-banks, which might otherwise still be humming safely underground, but were now lost forever.
I decided that it was time to get away. And I thought that my fate was Kim’s fate, that my fate was a sealed cavity, and that I should learn to eat it, and that I should learn to suck at it, and that I should learn to come to terms with everything that gathers on the skin, and that I should have a past like every other human does.
Rain came and went at the castle. It was between five and six o’clock in the evening. There were almost no guests: just me, and eight bankers at a conference. The sky opened again. The castle and park emptied of gardeners and other employees. Patches of yellow fields collapsed under the wind. Some tablecloths fluttered up around the tables on the terrace like big malicious flowers. A pair of waiters rolled some cigarettes under the awning and stood there staring at the rain and smoking.
Night came and went with the clouds and darkness fell over the castle and its surroundings. It was thunder-storming and the air was saturated with rain.
Celestine sits in her hole in the wall and listens to the drops with dilated eyes when they hit the cobblestones in the courtyard and the leaves in the park. She sits with her hands in her lap. Night falls within her. She has no age; she is sixteen forever. Century after century.
Just before the first downpour I walked around in the park—the smell of coming rain.
I stayed at the castle a single night and then Kim came and picked me up. In the morning, the sun shone through the hedges like needles, and I ate an egg. The day touched my eyes. In the room with the exhibition, there was a display case with a colorless bonnet inside it that was said to have belonged to Celestine. It was this bonnet that confused me, that was close to destroying me. In the afternoon, in the empty room, I saw Kim’s car in the window coming down the tree-lined driveway.
I left the room, going out on the wide terrace, and the heat, which the tiles had absorbed over the course of the afternoon, hit me in the face like an insult. I crept down towards the parking lot. Under a big oak tree in the middle of the open lawn, a woman fed a child in a wheelchair with a white spoon. The spoon looked yellow against her white dress. She wore a white straw-hat and had laid her parasol on the grass. Then she pushed the boy and herself out of sight behind a bush.
The face, the voice, the hands press against the wall. Celestine up in the south-facing attic, in front of the stained mirror—and there is also a dried wreath there. In the darkness inside the wall, a glimpse of Celestine’s eyes. In one eye a nettle grows. The forest around the castle sparkled like silver, carrying Celestine’s name within it. She is furious; she hunts down the guests at the hotel when they sleep. She slides down the corridors. She licks their faces. She licks the sleep out of their eyes. She cries no no when the wall closes in on her. Inside me, Celestine sleeps under a tree. I carefully touch her wall. She jumps up, taking her white dress with her. And there! The sun rises high over the hedges, a big and crackling slice. Under it, a very little red car, and on the way out of the car, a very little Kim.
Chapter 3: Heart-work
Kim’s eyes leaked with darkness when he opened and closed them in the light. In the middle of July, we began a series of trips. Every time that Kim had a few days off from his job at the newsstand at the Svanemøllen train station, we left.
The summer was beginning to become crumpled and blackened. It was as if we had found ourselves lost in a thirteenth month that had wedged itself in between July and August, a kind of alcove in which deep July merely continued, almost like an old habit, and kept casting off these directionless days, barren and sundried days, babbling and on the brink of collapse, and these days adorned themselves with withering flowers and insects.
During these days, when Kim was at work, I went to the beach or left a trail of dust around the city like a specter, a shadow of myself. The days without Kim, without anyone to talk to, carried with them something white and mystifying, which they cast over me like another skin over my face.
The streets in the city center swarmed with tourists. When the night fell and Tivoli went up in lights, some of them went out to bars in the garden, and they screeched and wore dresses made of popcorn and consolation prizes, and I watched them. The other more anxious types fled from the dusk across the city square, but they too were eventually overtaken by the night, as the warm wind caught them out over the square, and night spread like a rash over their cheeks. Their faces fell off like strange, formless scabs, but the people themselves went on toward the bus stops without any facial features, and also without their eyes.
Kim and I, we sat in the beginning of August and ate from the melons of a Spanish harbor city. We had packed our bags in a hurry. We were trying, with this trip, not only to flee from our country and from ourselves, but also from each other. There was this hope that we, when we reached our chosen destination, would become new and different people.
We stood at night at the asphalt harbor, and Kim negotiated the price for a little clump of hash with a man whose arm was in a cast. A woman came biking past and said that we should get out of there: “you must hurry.”
Under the citrine sheets, Kim slept the same hours he usually did every night, while I sat there awake. Sleep is like a little animal, so difficult to capture, and he pet and tamed it like a kindergarten teacher. An old woman yelled something incomprehensible in the morning, gurgling out over the farm behind the hostel, and then I knew that the night was over.
Early in the morning mist covered the coast like a blanket. Later on, the big body of the sea sent its light up through the streets and drowned us in it. We cooled our cheeks off against the wall. We did our grocery shopping pale and queasy. We were feverish tourists clinging, perhaps lovingly, to one another—white stones.
Each place that I went with Kim was the same. Our love had spread itself out too thin, and we, helpless as children without sufficiently developed motor skills, tried to gather it back together. So, we went to the sea. To the sea in Spain and to the sea in Denmark. I stood for a long time and looked out on it. I got up one rainy morning and made some coffee. The lilac bushes bloomed with latent intensity and stuck to the small windows.
Early one morning in my mother’s summerhouse, I saw this: first, the wooden-deck wet and dark from the rain from last night, and also the algae. Then, because of the sun, mist started rising from the planks. In a bowl, a single insect crawled over a single sticky berry. I woke up in the bright mouth of the summer. My eyes were covered in its mucous. It was late in the morning.
At first, I couldn’t sleep that summer just because I couldn’t sleep. Then, on top of that, I couldn’t sleep because I started getting a terrible toothache. My immune system had always been weak. Worn out and soaked in antibiotics, creams, and lotions. One day I wanted to have Kim’s children; the next, I could barely handle the way he constant played with his beard. Love was, in other words, totally impossible to trust. We chose to stay, to wait to see a doctor. It was Kim’s last day off from work, the last day before the vacation would be over.
I’d had an interview and been offered a job at a boarding school in Jutland. I got the call while we were outside grilling—the air was blue with dragonflies that devoured a swarm of flying ants in the process of escaping from a crack in the terrace—and I accepted the job and I looked at him.
Then it was nighttime and he cried a little that night. The red, red face. He started confessing. Suddenly, it was clear to him what had to be said.
It was during the summer, after he had been out partying through the night that, in the relentless, slender light of the rising sun, he had laid his mouth against another girl’s stubbly labia.
A blonde girl I didn’t know.
I felt stoic and forgiving as hell, Minerva-like, and my hair almost went gray overnight.
Then Kim collapsed from the exhaustion of his atonement, and while he slipped deeper into sleep, the lighthouse on the point flung out a gentle glowing rhythm, almost like a ruffle, inside the house. Mist spread across the field and the sleeping cows.
In my sleeplessness, I felt a dry and tight intoxication like how skin feels in the winter. I took a few aspirin and had a drink. It wasn’t like either of us was dying. I sat and leaned over the dressing table. I saw myself in the mirror and smeared some lotion over my face.
The same tiring responsibility to love. The summer dressed in white. Heart-work. In the mirror, my face was full of porn and cheap junk—blue flowers, which disappeared in milk.
In my drink, the glow of the lighthouse glistened and hurried on. My tongue was heavy like a piece of meat.
In bed Kim lay slack like a corpse.
I suddenly had the urge to eat. My hands were shaking; only pure fat would have calmed them. Never satiated, it was my nerves; I called them my guzzling nerves.
And then, in the room, a point rose majestically like a human-sized mosquito or one in a hidden room buzzing with insects, which, deep in their indifference, enjoyed hurting me.
My body began to spread itself out throughout the house at the same time as it folded in on itself until it was only a single, little needle. The strong smell of fresh meat made me think that my mother and stepfather had arrived under the cover of darkness and now stood over in the kitchen with half a calf, slicing and storing the meat in freezer bags.
Along the path behind the house, big trees howled with the night’s dreams. Darkness rose up from the lake a few miles away. My eye began to hum; it seemed to know to the hour when it was time for everything to be concluded with a secret song. My eye, the traitor. Altogether it didn’t look like much. I crept up in the big bed, where Kim lay nestled in his breathing. That was it. I sweated, I was completely unreadable. His ugly, resting body. His slack face. He said that I corrected him like his mother did.
Kim had no idea what was raging inside me that night. I awoke with a start after a few hours of sleep. The morning was still wet from the night’s eyes; it had rubbed them against the landscape in order to offer a bit of its moisture and also to dry them in the grass.
The watery blood that ran down his leg when he had cut himself while we were out swimming. I put my mouth on the wound to clean it. A shadow of the bland taste that his penis left in my mouth. I was filled with such a strong sense of tenderness for him, and also such strong hatred. I wanted to sink into him and also to leave him right at the same time. I wanted him to be a part of me, but also for him to be eaten alive.
A green stone in the ugly sand on the beach behind the house. That familiar beach.
His face, sealed shut in sleep, had no name.
When we first met, he bowled me over like a secret childhood dream. When he touched me, I thought of long forgotten places, the cooper beech behind the summer camp’s main building; the first tree that took its color from the night when it came progressively down over the field, the big animal. Or, the worn stone terrace at a classmate’s house, the sun shining through the poppies in a parents’ garden, my high school boyfriend’s young face with closed eyelids that looked like foreskins. The veins protruding from Kim’s forearm. Once, I stared at that arm the whole time we were having sex. My eyes were now full of that arm. A loss that suddenly grows.
On Kim’s last day of vacation, we closed and locked everything up after us, like one turns off the spotlight after a scene is over. We drove the car over a little bridge. The trees rustled and the stream gurgled. We were over. It was late in the morning. The inflammation around my tooth had spread to my jaw, to the left side of my tongue; I could hardly open my mouth. I had experienced this before; I had already experienced this. My tooth gave way to inflammation like the heart does to yet another round.
We were like two deep plates on a picnic table, which, after breakfast, are left with some milk at the bottom, very at peace in our silence.
We reached Copenhagen at dusk, as if we had been carrying that summer night with us the whole time, dragging it behind us wherever we went. When we locked ourselves inside my apartment; the dark was beginning to go completely off the rails. The apartment had been left like some dried flowers and smiled nervously at our hands. We lay close together in bed, and the night became material with the sound of traffic below. But we slept together uneasily, as if for the first time, like strangers to each other. When Kim slipped out of bed to go to work, I still hadn’t slept, but as soon as the door slammed shut behind him, I fell into a deep sleep.
The next day I took the bus to the dentist. The streets were framed by big, thin windows, and there was a greasy stain left on the glass from another passenger’s gelled hair or sweaty forehead. The pain in the left side of my jaw was gradually becoming intoxicating. I couldn’t open my mouth more than an inch. I saw myself as I was. I burst open like a chocolate-covered marshmallow.
Suddenly and completely unbearably, I missed my mother. I saw her as I was before she was that: my mother.
Then, outside the window, I saw Kim behind the glass door where he worked. I just sat there on the bus, driving coincidentally by. His gaze was turned inwards; he didn’t see me. His face was red, as the color gray can be. As if the night’s tears could be spat out as manual labor. He looked worn out; he lit a cigarette. I knew that cigarette.
Chapter 4: Celestine
Celestine wakes up in the wall. Darkness loosens its grip on the trees. It rains in the meadows. It is five o’clock in the morning.
It is so wet and brittle there behind the wall. Inside this thing that grows, many little things can live with a big will. The face that longs for some lotion to soothe it before it can fall asleep.
Celestine. She doesn’t know whether she is dead or alive. Just as she doesn’t know whether her eyes are open or closed in the dark. She knows that she walks around at night. She knows that there are men there. She knows that she cannot let them go, that she cannot let herself go. She knows that she always sleeps uneasily, that it is dry behind the wall.
Celestine haunts the house, looking for a home. Behind the wall her mucous membranes are drying out. Ghosts like children of divorce: the careless relationships, that they have with other people, that they see everyone as mere passersby, shadows, the aftertaste of a day.
It never gets completely dark in June. The elderflower glows. The girls go to bed, quiet as duvets, as if each were sinking into her own paralysis from shellfish poisoning. The garden blinks with its big black eye emptied out against the universe: a wet pin from Disney World. What is it they said? Lilacs bloom like a father who hits his daughter. Her body throbbed.
Celestine listens to the garden. That it opens now, as if on command. The fatty stickiness, and from one night to the next, buds and yellow flowers on the pale trees.
The bed sheets that the girls spend the whole day shaking over the grass. Like the big hands of a ghost, she thought as a child, as if a ghost consisted entirely of hands.
Not caring where she walks, she carries the wall with her. She walks through the corridors, into the rooms toward the open, rattling faces of the sleeping guests. She doesn’t see them anymore; she only sees the trimmed bushes in the park, like black discs in the dark. Someone screams. Celestine. She wants to force the sleeping guests into the wall. She wants to force herself into those sleeping there and further. She screams in the hole in the wall while the servants walk by through the corridor carrying soup bowls, folded bed sheets, weapons.
Darkness falls in Celestine. The frail glimmer that she is. The frail girl, she walked through the garden, through the manicured rose bushes and perennials. The park stretched itself out. She held a man in her hands and loved him; she held onto a horse in order to hold herself up.
Her father suddenly saw her, the frail girl, as she walked around the pond, as a lascivious thing, filled to the brim with blood. Her acrid smell, her new eyes.
She fingered the blue serviette at the table at dinner, the big windows, their bright light. Commandments, men with beards, women with shrouded heads. Then the guests came in, the others, their faces. Celestine felt heavy with the blue serviette and anxiety. The shadow of the blue serviette. Faces hidden in its blue. Altogether they became a single face. Celestine—she was in the shadows of the serviette’s fabric. To give herself over to it. To be servile. A serviette existence.
Celestine. She opens a window out into the night. She feels her eye in its socket. The heavy hands stroke and push her when she goes into the wall. A darkness that settles. The first night of sleep in the wall was like any other. And the next and the next. Long dreams about white days at the sea. About lifting up her sister so that she could see the horses. Now the darkness comes with madness; the night covers her up, the children’s very white faces. Her mother in the perpetual twilight of childbirth. Thigh-thick thighs. Permanent, permanent, like a hard-boiled egg peeled open at the breakfast table. Celestine and Celestine. A blank and watching page, staring out at the warm day. Fistfuls of lilac that glimmer. The morning meal was so white that it cut through her eyes. Her mother cracked her egg. She devoured it greedily, contentedly. She groped, fumbling, for her teacup while she read her book. Celestine’s secret is an empty space, encircled by little stories; Celestine tells her story again and again. Women in white.
Her mother fell and her hand went through the glass of a window in the door. The blood sprayed from her wrist, there was something dizzying there that burst the day open. A servant came running and pressed his thumb against the wound. Blood splattered all over the floor and up the walls and also splashed over one of Celestine’s cheeks and her white dress. Small stains that would become brown over time.
Now she sits there in the dark behind the wall and rubs the stains. She wants them to rub off on her; she wants to touch her mother. If only her mother could touch her. If only she could carry the mark of it. Her mother’s daughter.
The park at night. The nights were wet. They left their tears on the leaves. They didn’t ask. From my hotel room at the castle, I can see the green string along the horizon. There is still a little light over the fjord. The wall stirs like carbon dioxide that rises in dark water.
That the ivy is growing. The green leaves are fat, each like an overworked liver. Celestine and I, we make each leaf into a worn-out organ. Now we see the castle’s façade, covered by a web of diseased livers. They sway a bit in the breeze. Or we see the castle’s façade, covered by the heads of slumbering children.
I say this to you because Celestine is an enemy of any free-running child. The child, stooping to show its degenerate face, its tears, is an enemy. In Celestine’s eyes, in her hand. In her mouth, under her tongue. What her skin is made of. She lives inside it. It becomes a room. There are so many nights here. There is only one night.
Olga Ravn (1986) is a graduate of The Danish Writers’ School. She made her debut in 2012 with her poetry collection, Jeg æder mig selv som lyng (I Eat Myself Like Heather), for which she received an award from the Danish Arts Foundation. In 2014, she published the chap book, Mean Girl, which she printed herself in a exclusive edition of 250 copies. The next year, she published her debut novel, the ghost story, Celestine. In 2016, she published another poetry collection, Den hvide rose (The White Rose), and in 2017, both Jeg æder mig selv som lyng and Celestine will be reprinted together in a new collection.
Sherilyn Hellberg is a literary translator and PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. Her current research considers representations of despair in modern and contemporary Danish, French, and German literature, film, and critical theory. She has a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Society from Columbia University and an M.Phil. in European and Comparative Literatures and Cultures from the University of Cambridge.
This excerpt from Celestine is published by permission of Gyldendal. Copyright © 2015 Olga Ravn and Gyldendal. Translation copyright © 2017 Sherilyn Hellberg.
Photo: Olga Ravn, Private
Photo: Sherilyn Hellberg, Private