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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

An island memory by John von Daler

                Legend has it that on the day of his arrival on #Christians Island, Henning #Køie, the great painter, composer, writer, and musician, went down to the beach and painted a picture of the island and the sea. Every year for at least a half-century he repeated this labor of love. I know because he told me.
               What else do I know about this place? Enough to have heard that what I call Christians Island means not just one, but more than a half-dozen or so islands in the waters northeast of the Danish island called Bornholm.
                But in my world facts do not give a true picture of anything. Seen through this imagination coddled into existence by Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, the island is not a place, but a great leap in time. When I visit, violin in hand, I land three hundred years ago. As I walk along the cobblestones past the general store toward the inn, I listen for the ominous tapping of the cane of some blind man bearing in the palm of his hand the ill-omened black spot that will start our story.               
                And stories do indeed start. On my first visit, I had hardly begun a tour of the coastline before our little group heard screams of help from the direction of some jagged rocks at the edge of the water. We hopped as quickly as we could from rock to sand to puddle to rock until we found a woman clutching one of the stones, her face in agony, her leg broken and pierced by a jagged bone.
                Our guide called quickly for help and soon a huge helicopter hovered over a little hill in the middle of the island. Medics jumped out quickly carrying a stretcher. Suddenly we were bearing the woman, the island's school teacher, up the hill to the helicopter, her husband in tow ringing his hands. She disappeared quickly into the air and we were left panting on that empty hill.
                Needless to say, our concert that night was a passionate affair. The little group of islanders, almost all of whom came up to the little community hall to hear us, were sad and worried. We musicians were all heady and shot full of adrenalin; we needed to express feelings that words could not.
                After two and a half hours of playing and many encores, we packed our equipment and went over the bridge at the harbor and up the cobblestone pathway to the inn. We drank beer and had some herring pickled in the Christians Island way and drank aquavit (called "snaps") made with local herbs. Then, a little pickled ourselves, we started playing again, this time together with islanders who had their own special Swedish, Danish, island music.
                Beside me was an accordion player who I suppose was what some would call autodidact. Actually, he learned to play by lying with his accordion on the bed in his room in the long seventeenth century military barracks that were the prevalent housing. Through the wall, he could hear his neighbor, Henning Køie practicing the accordion. The then young boy played along softly and through the years his neighbor, the music, and the technique seeped through the walls, into his mind and down to his fingers.
                Tonight he was in the mood to play and so was I. He was a strong man, full of energy accumulated in the long, lonely island winter. He played dramatically, pumping the accordion so hard that while his left hand pointed at God, his right was touching the floor.
                Unfortunately for me, he expressed himself as vehemently as he played. Whenever I played a solo that he particularly enjoyed, he would give me a hearty slap on the back of my head with the ungodly hand. The next morning I woke up to the sound of seagulls yapping, masts in the harbor clicking together in the wind and a nasty headache caused more by his friendly slaps than by the "snaps".
                This visit was the start of a series of meetings with the island. The last time I was there, we visited Henning Køie who was getting old and weak and sick. We had been allowed to disregard the rules of no excitement, no visitors, no snaps. He even broke out his accordion and played a few of his songs for us.
                At one point in this little party that, as it turned out, would be one of his last on earth, the great artist suddenly got all wistful and stared out of the window. We were still as he withdrew into himself. Then he spoke.
                "It's tomorrow," he said.
                "Yeah. Once a year I paint the island down from the beach. Don't think I can make it down there this year."
                We had seen many of his island portraits. We were quiet in respect for his mood.               
                "Oh, well," he said at last. "I know it well enough to paint it from memory."
                And he picked up his instrument and started to play.

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