Sunday, 2 April 2017

Andersen's 'Auntie Toothache'



Auntie Toothache

Where we’ve got the story from? –
– Would you like to know that?
We’ve got it from the bin, the one with the old papers in it.
Many a good and rare book has entered the victualler’s and grocer’s, not as reading matter but for practical purposes. They must have paper to make cornets for starch and coffee beans, paper to put round salt herring, butter and cheese. Written material is usable too.
Often things not meant to be binned get binned.
I know a grocer’s boy, the son of a victualler; he has risen from cellar to ground-floor shop; a person of considerable reading, cornet-reading, both the printed and written varieties. He has an interesting collection, one that contains a number of important documents from the paper basket of a few too preoccupied, absent-minded officials; a few confidential letters from one woman friend to another: scandalous messages that were to go no further, not be mentioned by anyone else. He is a living rescue service for a not insignificant part of literature within which he has a large area, he has the shops of his parents and his employer and there he has saved many a book or pages of a book that could well deserve to be read twice over.
He has shown me his collection of printed and written material from the bin, the richer coming from the victualler’s. It contained a couple of pages from a fairly large exercise book; the particularly beautiful and distinct handwriting immediately attracted my attention.
‘The student wrote that!’ he said, ‘the student who used to live opposite and died a month ago. You can see he suffered badly from toothache. It’s quite amusing to read! There’s only a little of what was written down here, it was once a whole book plus a bit more, my parents gave the student’s landlady half a pound of soft soap for it. This is what I managed to keep of it.’
I borrowed it, I read it, and now I relate it.

The title was:

Auntie Toothache

I

‘Auntie used to give me sweets when I was little. My teeth could withstand this, they didn’t go bad; now I have grown up, become a student; she still spoils me with sweet things, says that I’m a poet.
I’ve something of a poet in me, but not enough. Often when I walk around the town streets it seems to me as if I am walking around a large library – the houses are bookcases, each floor a shelf with books. Here there’s a story of everyday life, here a good old-fashioned comedy, scholarly works on every subject, here both trashy literature and good reading. I can fantasise and philosophise about all these printed works.
There is something of the poet in me, but not enough. Many people have at least just as much of one in them as I have, and yet they don’t go around with a sign or neck chain with the word Poet on it.
They and I have been given a divine gift, a blessing, large enough for one person, but much too small to be portioned out to others. It comes like a sunbeam, fills one’s soul and mind; it comes like the scent of a flower, like a melody one knows though not from where it has come.
The other evening, I was sitting in my living room, felt like reading, had no book, no magazine, a leaf, fresh and green, fell at that moment from the lime tree. The breeze bore it in through the window to me.
I examined the many branching veins; a small insect was making its way across them, as if it wished to make a detailed study of the leaf. At this, I couldn’t help but think of human wisdom; we also crawl around on the leaf, know only this, and then immediately start to lecture about the entire large tree, the roots, trunk and crown; the great tree: God, the World and Immortality, and yet know no more than a small leaf of the whole!
As I was sitting there, I was paid a visit by Auntie Mille.
I showed her the leaf with the insect, told her of my musings, and her eyes gleamed.
“You are a poet!’ she said, ‘perhaps the greatest one we have! Should I experience that, I would happily go to my grave. Ever since Brewer Rasmussen’s funeral, you have amazed me with the powers of your imagination!”
So said Auntie Mille and kissed me.’
‘Who was Auntie Mille and who was Brewer Rasmussen?’

II

‘My mother’s aunt we children use to call Auntie, we had no other name for her.
She gave us jam and sugar, despite the fact that this was very bad for our teeth, but she was weak when it came to the sweet children, she said. It was cruel to deny them just a little of the sweet things they are so fond of.
And that was why we were so fond of Auntie.
She was an old maid as far back as I can remember, always old! When it came to age, she stood still.
In former years she had suffered a great deal from toothache and was always talking about it, and so it came about that her friend, Brewer Rasmussen, wittily referred to her as Auntie Toothache.
During the last years of his life he did no brewing, lived off his interest, often visited Auntie and was older than she was. He had no teeth at all, only a few black stumps.
As a young boy he had eaten too much sugar, he told us children, and that led to looking like he did.
Auntie can’t have eaten sugar in her childhood; she had the loveliest white teeth.
She also economised with them, didn’t sleep with them in at night! Brewer Rasmussen said.
That really was a bit malicious, we children knew that, but Auntie said he didn’t mean anything by it.
One morning at lunch, she told us a nasty dream she had had that night: that one of her teeth had fallen out.
“That means,” she said, “that I will lose a true male or female friend!”
‘”If it was a false tooth!’ the brewer said and chuckled, “that can only mean that you will lose a false friend!”
“You are an impolite old gentleman!’ auntie said, more angry that I have ever seen her before or since.
Later she said that it was only teasing on the part of her old friend; he was the noblest person on this earth, and when he came to die, he would become one of God’s little angels in heaven!
I thought a great deal about that transformation and whether I would be able to recognise him in his new guise.
When auntie was young and he was too, he proposed to her. She thought about it too long, stayed put, stayed put far too long, became the perpetual old maid, but always a faithful friend.
And then Brewer Rasmussen died.
He was borne to the grave in the most expensive hearse and there was a long cortege, people with orders and in uniform.
Dressed in mourning, Auntie was at the window with all of us children, except for little brother, brought by the stork a week earlier.
Now the hearse and the cortege had passed, the street was empty, auntie wanted to go, but I did not, I was waiting for the angel, Brewer Rasmussen; for he had now become a small winged child of God and had to show himself.
“Auntie!” I said. “Don’t you think that he will come now! or that when the stork brings us a younger brother again, he will also bring us Angel Rasmussen.”
Auntie was quite overwhelmed by my imagination, and said: “That child will become a great poet!” and she repeated this throughout my time at school, even after my confirmation and now during my years as a student.
She was and is my most sympathetic friend when it comes to both poet-ache and toothache. For I get attacks of both of them.
“Just write all your thoughts down,” she said, “and put them in the table drawer; that’s what Jean Paul used to do; he became a great poet, although I’m not all that fond of him, he doesn’t excite! You must excite! and you will excite!”
The night after that pronouncement I lay longing and agony, in craving and desire to become the great poet that auntie saw and sensed in me; I lay with poet-ache! but there is a worse ache: toothache; is squashed and quashed me, I became a squirming worm, with a bag of spices and Spanish fly.
“That I know well!” auntie said.
There was a sorrowful smile about her lips; her teeth gleamed so white.’

* * *
Now though I must begin a new instalment of my and my auntie’s story.

III

I had just moved into a new apartment and had lived there for a month. I talked to Auntie about this.
I live with a quiet family; it does not think of me, even if I ring three times. Apart from there it is a rowdy house with noise and the racket of wind and weather and people. I live immediately above the gateway; every carriage that drives out or in makes the paintings on the wall move. The gate itself bangs shut and shakes the house as if there was an earthquake. If I am lying in bed, the shudders pass through all my limbs; but that is said to strengthen one’s nerves. If the wind blows, and it always blows in this part of the country, the long window hasps swing back and fro and bang against the wall. The neighbour’s gate bell to the yard rings every time there is a gust of wind.
Our house residents come home in dribs and drabs, late evening, in the small hours; the lodger directly above me, who during the daytime gives trombone lessons, comes home last and does not go to bed before he has gone for a short midnight walk, with heavy steps and iron-studded boots.
There are no double windows, but there is a cracked pane that the landlady has pasted paper over. The wind blows in through the crack despite this and produces a sound like that of a buzzing botfly. It is music for sleeping. If I finally do fall asleep, I am soon woken up by cockcrowing.  – The cock and hen from the hen-run of the man in the basement announce that morning is nigh. The small Norwegian ponies have no stall, are tethered in the recess for floor sand under the stairs, kick against the door and the panelling to get some movement.
Daybreak comes; the doorman, who sleeps with his family in the attic, thunders down the stairs; his clogs clatter, the door bangs, the house shakes, and once that is over, the upstairs lodger starts doing his morning gymnastics, lifts a heavy iron ball in each hand that he is unable to hold on to; it falls to the floor time and again, while at the same time the young people in the house who have to go to school, come rushing and shouting. I go over to the window, open it to get some fresh air, and it is refreshing when I can get it, and not the maid in the back premises washing gloves in stain remover, that is how she makes a living. Apart from that, it is a nice house and I live with a quiet family.’
That was the summary I gave auntie concerning my apartment; I told it in livelier fashion, the spoken account has a fresher sound to it than the written version.
“You are a poet!” auntie cried. “Just write your account down, and you are just as good as Dickens! in fact, you happen to interest me even more! You paint when you speak! You describe your house so that one can see it! It gives one a thrill! – Go on writing! Put some live persons in it, people, nice people, preferably unhappy!”
I did indeed write the house down, as it stands with all its sounds, but only with myself, without any action. That came later!

IV

It was in winter, late evening, after the theatre, terrible weather, a snowstorm, so that it was almost impossible to force one’s way forwards.
Auntie had been to the theatre, and I was there to accompany her home, but even found walking difficult myself, let alone following others. All the cabs had been hired; auntie lived on the outskirts of the town, my place, however, was close to the theatre, if that had not been the case, we would have had to stand in the sentry box for the time being.
We staggered on through the deep snow, with the snowflakes whirling and swirling around us. I lifted her, I held her, I supported her on our way. We only fell twice, and then only softly.
We reached my gateway, where we shook ourselves; on the stairs we also shook ourselves, yet still had enough snow on us to fill the floor of the entrance hall.
We took off our coats and footwear, and all clothing that could be dispensed with. The landlady lent Auntie dry stockings and a morning coat; that was necessary, the landlady said and added, as was the case, that Auntie could not possible reach her own home that night, and invited her to make do with her own sitting room; she would make up a bed on the sofa in front of the door, always kept locked, into my apartment.
And this was done.
The fire was burning in my tiled stove, the tea urn was placed on the table, and it was soon cosy in the small room, even if not as cosy as at auntie’s, where in the winter there are thick curtains in front of the door, thick curtains in front of the windows, double carpets with three layers of thick paper underneath; one sits there as in a well-corked bottle of warm air; although, as mentioned, it was also cosy in my home; the wind blew outside.
Auntie talked away and recounted; her youthful days were recalled, the brewer was recalled, old memories.
She could remember me getting my first tooth and the delight of my family at this.
The first tooth! The tooth of innocence, gleaming like a small drop of white milk, the milk tooth.
One came, more came, a whole row, side by side, upper and lower, the loveliest children’s teeth, and yet only the vanguard, not the real ones that were to last for one’s whole life.
They came too and so did the wisdom teeth, the flankers in the ranks, born with great pain and tribulation.
They leave once more, each and every one! they leave before their time of service is over, even the last tooth leaves, and that is no day of rejoicing, it is a day of sadness.
Then one is old, even thought one’s spirits are young.
Such thoughts and words are not agreeable and yet we came to speak about all of this, we returned to our childhood years, talked and talked, it was twelve o’clock before auntie retired to the next-door room.
‘Good night, my dear child!’ she called out, ‘now I will sleep as snugly as in my own chest of drawers!’
And she was quiet; but there was no peace and quiet to be had either in the house or outside. The storm shook the windows, struck with the long, dangling hasps, rang the neighbour’s door-bell in the backyard. The upstairs lodger had come home. He still did his little night walk up and down; flung down his boots, then went to bed and to sleep, but he snores, so with a pair of good ears one can hear it through the ceiling.
I could find no quiet or repose; nor did the weather quieten down; it was exceedingly lively. The wind roared and sang in its own fashion, my teeth also started to get lively, they roared and sang in their own fashion. They gave warning signals of a sizeable toothache.
There was a draught from the window. The moon shone in over the floor. The dawn came and went, just as the clouds came and went in the stormy weather. There was an unrest in shadow and light, but finally the shadow on the floor looked like something, I looked at this moving form and felt an icy wind.
On the floor a figure was sitting, thin and tall, as when a child draws something with a pencil on a slate that is supposed to resemble a human being, a single thin stroke is the body; a stroke and one more are the arms; the legs are also only one stroke each, the head a polygon.
Soon the figure became clearer, it acquired some form of dress, very thin, very fine, but that showed that it was female in gender.
I heard a humming. Was it her or the wind that was buzzing like a botfly in the crack of the window pane.
No, it was her, Madam Toothache! her terribleness Satania infernalis, may God spare and preserve us from her visits.
‘This is a good place to be!’ she buzzed, ‘this is a good neighbourhood! swampy ground, boggy ground. Here the mosquitoes have buzzed with poison in their sting, now I have the sting. It has to be sharpened on human teeth. They gleam so white on him there in the bed. They have defied sweet and sour, hot and cold, nutshell and plumstone! but I shall shake them, quake them, make the root draughty, give them cold feet!’
It was a terrible utterance, a terrible guest.
‘Oh, so you’re a poet!” she said, ‘well, I’ll make you well-versed in all the metres of pain! I’ll put iron and steel in your body, put wire in all your nerve threads!’
It was as if a red-hot needle was shoved into my cheekbone; I twisted and turned.
‘An excellent toothache!’ she said, ‘an organ to play one. A concerto for jew’s harp, with kettledrums and trumpets, piccolo flute, trombone in the wisdom tooth. Great poet, great music!’
Oh, how she struck up the music and terrible did she look, even though one did not see any more of her than her hand, that shadow-grey, ice-cold hand, with the long, needle-thin fingers; each of them was an instrument of torture: thumb and first finger had pincers and wrench, the long finger ended in a pricking needle, the ring finger was a gimlet and the little finger a syringe with mosquito poison.
‘I’ll teach you your metres!’ she said. ‘A great poet’s to have a great toothache, a little poet a little toothache!’
‘Oh, please let me be little!’ I asked. ‘Let me be nothing at all! and I am not a poet, I only have attacks of writing poetry, attacks like those of toothache! be off with you! be off with you!’
‘Do you admit then that I am mightier than poetry, philosophy, mathematics and all of music!’ she said. ‘Mightier than all these sensations depicted on canvas and in marble! I am older that all of them. I was born close to the Garden of Eden, outside, where the wind blew and the wet toadstools grew. I got Eve to clothe herself in the cold weather, and Adam too. Believe me, there was power in the first toothache!’
‘I believe it all!’ I said. ‘Be off with you, be off with you!’
‘Well, if you will abandon being a poet, never put verse down on paper, slate or any type of writing material, I will release you, but I will be back if you start writing poetry again!
‘I swear!’ I said. ‘Just let me never see or feel you any more!’
‘See me again you shall, but in a more substantial form and one dearer to you than I am now! You shall see me as Auntie Mille; and I will say: Write poetry, my dear boy! You are a great poet, perhaps the greatest one we have! but believe you me, if you start to write poetry, I will put your verse to music, play it on your jew’s harp! You sweet child! – Remember me, when you see Auntie Mille!’
Then she vanished.
As a farewell I received a red-hot needle jab in my jawbone; but the pain soon died down, I almost glided on soft water, saw the white water-lilies with their broad, green leaves bend, sink down under me, wither, dissolve, and I sank with them, was released into peace and rest – –
‘Die, melt away like snow!’ it sighed and soughed in the water, ‘evaporate into the cloud, drift away like the cloud! – – ’
Down to me through the water shone large, gleaming names, inscriptions on waving banners of victory, the patent of immortality – written on the wing of a mayfly.
My sleep was deep, a sleep without dreams. I did not hear the roaring wind, the crashing outer door, the neighbour’s clanging door bell, or the lodger’s heavy gymnastics.
Bliss!
There came a great gust of wind, so that the unlocked door in to auntie shot open. Auntie leapt up, put on her shoes, put on her clothes, and came in to me.
I was sleeping like one of God’s angels, she said, and could not bring herself to wake me.
I woke up of my own accord, opened my eyes, had completely forgotten that Auntie was here in the house, but soon I remembered it, remembered my toothache vision. Dream and reality blended into each other.
‘You haven’t written something last night, after we said goodnight to each other, have you!’ she asked. ‘Oh, I only wish you had! You are my poet, and that you shall become!’
I felt that she smiled so slyly. I didn’t know if it was my good-natured Auntie Mille, who loved me, or the terrible creature I had sworn a promise to in the night. ‘Have you written anything, dear child!’ ‘No, no!’ I cried. ‘For you are Auntie Mille,’ ‘Who else!’ she said. And it was Auntie Mille. She kissed me, got a cab and was driven home. I wrote down what is written here. It is not in verse and it will never be printed – –.
--------------
And here the manuscript stopped.
My young friend, the future grocer’s assistant, could not come up with what was missing, it had set out into the world, as paper round salt herring, butter and soft soap; it had fulfilled its destiny.
The brewer is dead, auntie is dead, the student is dead, the one whose sparks of thought ended up in the bin.
Everything ends up getting binned.
That is the end of the story. The story of Auntie Toothache.



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