It was Tim’s eagerness and boundless spontaneity that got them to set out up the mountain in the midday heat. The Greek landscape, which Eva never cared for, appeared more hostile and parched than ever. The stone pines and wild olive trees dangled out over the steep slopes like helpless mourners, and the pervasive smell of thyme made her nauseated. But Tim wanted to see the women’s town, Olympus, which lay at the top of the mountain. And so they drove up in the old, beat up car he had rented from an American woman who reminded him of his mother with her flowing robes and wrinkled sun-ravaged skin. The muffler rattled over the gravel road. Eva kissed Tim on the neck. He looked at her. Their faces lit up in radiant, knowing smiles. He let his hand glide up under her yellow cotton dress. Her thighs were warm and damp from sweat. But a little while later, when Eva insisted they pull over, Tim took a picture of her bare bottom as she squatted to pee; she jumped up and ran after him, trying to pull the camera out of his hands, she was furious, but he just laughed and ran up the road, managing to take another picture: She’s standing, legs apart, shouting with her mouth wide open as she points menacingly at him. Behind her you can see a silvery-green wild tangle of vegetation and the dusty black car. The left side of her face is lit up by the sun. One of her straps has slid down her shoulder.
She got in the car, slammed the door, and swore that starting now she would not talk to him for at least half an hour. He shook his head and speeded up. He laughed and said she was a Fury. He said he loved her. But Eva would not give in. They were both thirsty, but they had finished their water long ago. Small stones from the road kept shooting up and hitting the car as they drove and after awhile she began to feel crazy from the racket.
Then suddenly a man stepped out of the bushes and stood in the middle of the road with his arms raised over his head like a priest calling for prayers and devotion. His voice rose and fell, almost as though he were singing. His full beard was impressive. Long matted hair stood out like a lion’s mane around his reddish-brown dirty face. His eyes shone wildly from their deep sockets. He was tall and dressed in rags. He had obviously been living out in the wild for a long time. A savage. Eva had read somewhere that you can find out everything about a person by how he or she reacts in a panic situation. Tim did something strange: He sped up and drove right at the man. The man just stood there. Eva thought she heard herself scream. Then Tim slammed on the brakes and the car swerved to the side. The man was hit, but apparently not seriously; he raised his voice and moved toward the two in the car.
“And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle.
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning.”
Eva rolled the window up and locked the door. Something fluttered in her field of vision. She thought she heard herself whimper. Tim tore his door open and got out agitated. He walked toward the man who continued to stretch his arms toward the sky. Tim screamed in his face. The man then started to move. And now the fluttering was right in front of her, his ragged sleeves, the hands gesticulating madly, and then that terrifying face, the burning insistent eyes that were almost ice blue. He pressed his nose against the windshield. She turned her head away. He scratched on the glass with his long curled nails.
“Stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun:
They are obedient, they resist not, they obey the scourge:
Their daughters worship terrors and obey the violent.”
Eva could see that Tim had got a hold of him and was trying to pull him back. The man shook him off with the same ease a cow swishes a fly away from its anus, and she freed herself from the seatbelt and crawled over to Tim’s seat, but in the next moment, the door opened from the outside, and she saw that the man was now shoving himself, torso first, into the car, shoving her in front of him, squeezing and pushing. An acrid, disgusting smell of an unclean human being, of excrement and urine, filled her nose. She fumbled desperately with the lock, but he got a hold of her cheeks, forcing her head right up against his. He rested his forehead against hers. She shook her head hysterically, and now she was completely certain that she heard herself howling.
“By gratified desire by strong devouring appetite she fills
Los with ambitious fury that his race shall all devour.”
He pumped and hissed the words out of his stinking mouth. She could hear Tim yelling something incomprehensible in the background, and she caught a glimpse of his eyes; now the rage was replaced by an empty anxiety. The man groped her all over her body.
He felt her with his hands, grabbed her thighs and squeezed them, shook her shoulders, pulled on her earlobes, scratched her scalp, stuck his thumbs up her nostrils; his stiff dry hands went all over, while she howled and lashed out and tried to break free of the colossally large person. And then suddenly he let go of her. He let her go and looked at her almost tenderly. “Follow me O my flocks we will now descend into the valley,” he whispered. He lifted his index finger up in front of her, in warning, or simply to mark the stillness. Then he gave a slight arrogant nod and pushed himself snorting out of the car. His gaze burned in her eyes. Tim stood glaring with a stick in his hand. The man straightened himself up, breathed in deeply and noisily, then exhaled lightly into a slouch. He walked away from the road and up the mountain until he vanished behind a yellowish-gray jutting cliff. They both noticed that he limped. Eva could not move. One thought stood still in her head: She was certain that the man recited William Blake, the English poet. As a teenager, she had learned some of his poems by heart. She recognized a couple of stanzas from “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” But, she thought, and her thoughts were clear and cool, he had quoted randomly and out of sequence. When she lifted her head and looked, Tim had thrown the stick away and was rushing over to pull her out of the car. When he got hold of her hands and called her name, she forgot about the thought she’d just had; hysteria crashed over her like a tall dark wave.
She hit him in the face when he tried to hold her. She uttered small sounds of despair that made him think of young birds, chicks, and mice. She headed back to the car, hunched over with her arms dangling from her body. He stood puzzled in the middle of the road, noticing how distorted her face looked. From where he stood he couldn’t tell if it was because she was crying. Her hair was a mess. He gasped. A stab of pain ran up through the back of his head. Then he got in and sat down next to her. He eased the car back onto the road, and drove on in silence. The man’s smell still hung in the air. She kept on brushing off her clothes and rubbing her skin. Tim put his hand on her knee. A powerful inner shaking made her start to tremble. Tim quickly figured out that it would be longer to go back to the coast and the hotel than to Olympus, and so he continued on upward. The car rumbled and grumbled, and small rocks hit the car with a noise that to her now sounded like a volley of gunfire. She stuck her fingers in her ears and doubled over. Tim glanced nervously at her. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound foolish. He was relieved when at last he caught sight of the town. A large parking lot functioned as a sort of city gate. Relaxed tourists sauntered between the souvenir stands eating ice cream. “We’re here,” said Tim, gently removing Eva’s hands from her ears. He had to lift her out of the car. She didn’t resist. He could not help noticing how compliant she was.
The town was clearly smaller than he thought it would be, and it had a strange atmosphere. He felt they were being laughed at from inside the dark restaurants, they were being whispered about and pointed at behind their backs. He asked Eva if she wanted anything to drink. She shook her head. They walked like sleepwalkers through the town, he with his arm around her back, she with a bent head and slack arms. They passed a small, whitewashed church and were suddenly at the town’s outskirts. A flat area of sun-dried grass opened out in a half circle toward the bright horizon. And suddenly he could see the sea deep below. Primitive houses and huts were scattered further down the mountain, and then it suddenly dropped off. A herd of goats grazed with tinkling bells around their necks. The light was sharp and white. And it was dizzyingly steep. She sat down in the grass. She lay down. She closed her eyes. He shook her lightly. She didn’t move. A little while later, she looked like she was sleeping, her mouth was open, she had turned her head to the side, and bent one knee. Small sweat beads broke out on her forehead, she was ash-gray. He shook her. When she didn’t respond, he let her rest and decided to go find something to drink. He found his way back to the small gravel road that was the main road of the town. The restaurants and taverns stood side by side. The town was slowly waking up after the siesta. Clearly the women had all the power here. He and Eva had read about it. The whole island functioned as a matriarch, and the order of succession went from mother to daughter. The women owned everything, whatever was worth owning. And here he saw it in practice; in any case, that’s what he thought. The women ran the businesses with an iron fist. They gathered outside the shops and bars, standing in small groups with their hands on their hips, and, with agitated hand movements and loud shouts, they bossed around the older boys and men who had snuck in to take a break from working. Old men with little children on their hips, boys in the middle of sweeping or carrying in goods, men dragging heavy bags home from the shops, men sweeping the stone steps, men washing dishes in the kitchens of the restaurants, whose eyes he met through the open windows. The women frightened him. There was a self-confidence in their eyes when they looked at him that he’d never seen in a woman before. A clear strong energy, a power, and the deep satisfaction that that power gives. Without undertones of either anger or vindictiveness. No disdain or cloying sweetness. No hint of a wish to be accepted, acknowledged, or liked. Now he was completely sure that they were laughing at him. He was starving and went into a tavern. He ordered wine, bread, and small sour dolmas. A few children played noisily at the back of the bar. The waiter was apparently their father. Five or six elderly women sat on the veranda facing the valley drinking coffee. They spread themselves over the chairs, one had her legs up, and they chatted away. Tim could not stop himself from scowling at them. They stared back unabashed. He felt strangely exposed. The oldest one yelled to the young waiter. He chased the children out and brought cake and ice water to the women. Tim ate his food quickly and left a good tip. It was a relief to get out in the warm air again. He bought a bottle of water, a postcard of the church, and a package of crackers. Three young women stood in the middle of the road with a screaming baby in a stroller. They looked him up and down shamelessly as he walked by. One of them gave a low whistle, and when he turned, all three smiled lewdly at him, pointing and laughing out loud. He suddenly had the feeling that it was a kind of play the whole town performed in honor of the visitors, putting on this performance about the matriarch, everyone playing their parts so that the gaping tourists got what they came for. The exotic. Women over men. It was simply a lie. The men thrashed their wives in the evening when the town was quiet and dark, the girls made dinner, cleaned, allowed themselves to be impregnated, allowed themselves to be worn. The men gambled their money away at the card table at night. The thought reassured him. And filled him with shame. He walked back to Eva.
But Eva was gone. There was still a faint outline of her body in the grass. He didn’t see her anywhere. He tossed his bag of water and crackers and climbed down to the plateau that stretched out and down toward the water. He went all the way to the edge and looked down the steep slope of the mountain. It was at least 500 yards down. Far below, a little strip of sandy beach and large waves hurtling themselves toward the land. The enormous sky. The strong, frightening urge to let oneself fall. Suddenly in his head flashed an image of the tall stinking man waving his arms and yelling. Tim stepped back with a sinking heart, and when he turned his head to the side, he glimpsed a little yellow spot moving slowly down the bare cliff.
She was awakened by a boy poking her with a stick. She had no idea where she was. The boy ran away giggling. And then she noticed it, the itchiness over her entire body, prickly and stinging, unbearable, as if she were covered in itching powder or attacked by vermin. She scratched herself in panic, but that didn’t help. She pulled her dress up and scratched her thighs and stomach. She began running. She tore through the waving grass, she could smell thyme, she slipped and got up again, she rushed forward. And when she saw the sea, sparkling and wild far below her, she tore off her clothes and began to crawl down the impassable cliff. There was almost nothing to grab onto. Here and there were small tufts of something that looked like heather or crowberry. Small rises on the cliff where she could place her feet. It was windy out there, and the wind slipped over her body, cooling her itchy skin. She had to get into the water. She had to dunk under the blue water, the blue water would wash her clean. She had to drink the salt water and rinse her mouth and throat. She had to disappear in the water, the water would free her. There was a sound like voices being carried away on the wind. Then she slipped and missed the foothold. Stones and dirt went rattling down over the mountain. She caught hold of a gnarled branch and searched desperately with her feet for something to stand on. Her arms shook. Then she swung her body up and placed her feet directly on the wall of the cliff. She tried to put the weight on her thighs. That’s how she stood, like a V sticking out from the cliff, clinging to the knotty branch, which, as it was being pulled, was becoming more of a root than a branch, when, from above, Tim reached his arm down and grabbed her wrist. This startled her; her feet slid off the cliff and kicked desperately in the air. A young Greek man grabbed her free hand, and the two men pulled her up with great difficulty onto the small ledge that they found themselves on. The man uncoiled a rope and tied it around her. They carefully lifted her up tilted sideways. The man walked like a mountain goat on the cliffs. Tim was pale and wet with sweat. He kept his eyes on the passing fleecy clouds that sailed over the mountaintop. The rope bit into Eva’s waist and she cried from the pain. With the man’s help they were able to get up to something that resembled a path, and for the last part of the way, the man bore her on his back. “She’s crazy, she’s crazy,” he kept saying, shaking his head. Eva laid her head against his hair. It was warm and smelled of salt.
Tim pulled the naked woman behind him through the town to the parking lot. People came out of their houses and lined up to watch them. They whispered and pointed, and a piercing look from an older woman’s black eyes made him lower his gaze. “Hurry up for Christ’s sake,” he hissed. The crowd followed them. They watched how he looked for his car keys, how he shoved Eva into the backseat and slammed the door. They watched how he was unable to get the car started, they heard him swear, and they saw him finally start up and back out, raising the dust. They saw him drive away from the town at a high speed. And he was about to throw up from exhaustion, when he heard Eva humming with an almost childlike, clear voice.
Much later, in the middle of the night, after he’d washed her with cold water from the faucet in the cheap hotel room, after he had gotten her to drink both wine and water, after he had fed her small pieces of goat cheese and bread, after he had wrapped her up in a blanket, a column of irritation and disgust rose up inside him, a disgust directed at her sun burned skin and her almost pleading, simple-minded eyes that kept on searching for his eyes, and the hand she reached out for him that he kept stuffing back under the blanket, until suddenly she got up, letting the blanket slip down onto the floor. Then she did something strange: She shoved him down on the bed and lay over his knees. She begged him to hit her. And he hit her. He hit so that you could hear the slap. She whimpered and groaned. He kept on hitting. And when he got tired, she fetched his belt. She got on all fours, and he let it flick over her back. He cried. He stuck his hand up between her legs to feel how wet she was. Still those pleading eyes. He grabbed her hair. Her back was bloody. A gurgling sound came from somewhere deep inside his throat. And before he could get his pants all the way off, he emptied himself over her feet. She let herself slide down onto her back, and looked up at the ceiling, smiling. A distant, sheepish smile. Outside, it sounded like the cicadas’ song was rising. Then he heard her whisper: “We will now descend into the valley.”
Naja Marie Aidt is one of Scandinavia’s leading authors: Baboon received the region’s highest literary honor, the Nordic Council Literary Prize, in 2008, as well as the Danish Critics’ Prize in 2006. In addition to Best European Fiction, her translated writing has appeared in prestigious journals like Words Without Borders and Two Lines. She has published nearly 20 books in various genres, and her work has been published all over Europe, including in Italy, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic.
Denise Newman is the translator of possibly Denmark’s greatest modern writer, Inger Christensen, as well as the author of three books of poetry and the editor of Zen Monster. A teacher at California College of Arts, she received a 2013 NEA Translation Fellowship to complete her translation of Baboon.