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Sunday, June 22, 2014

#Shrimp and Self. By John von Daler

                          The plump, old lady bends down and pulls out her shopping bag from beneath the sink.
                "We'll get 'em from Jens Fisherman," she says. As she straightens up, she feels a sudden jab of pain.

                     "Ow!" Inching backwards, she sidles into an armchair overlooking her mess of a kitchen.
                "You'll have to g'over to Jens' place by yourself," she grunts, "and go by the baker and get a fresh loaf of white bread."
                I am worried about the pain, but she shoos me away, saying, "Et happens all the time. Et ain't nuthin. Now you tell Jens that they's for Anna and say he's a give ya a fair price or I'll be on his back when I gets movin' again!" She puts some money in my hand with a look that stymies my possible protests. Then she closes her eyes and waves me away.
                "But where does he live?" I whine as quietly as I can, trying to draw out but not disturb the resting woman whose head is now thrown back on the chair. She speaks vertically into the air.
                "Jens Fisherman - lives - in the house - by - the - harbor," as if she were repeating a catechism every child should have learned by rote.
                I tiptoe out of her back door, down the stairs and around the corner of the long, six-family house. Some gulls alight from the lawn leaving a few hollow crab legs in the grass. The sky is blue, dotted with scudding clouds. As I round the opposite end of the house I can see the black-green water with a thousand frothy waves, their white tops rolling briskly but mercilessly onward to pound the stones lining the island coast. The wind brings a chill to your bones even on this summer day.
                I let the weight of my body carry me down the only sloping road toward the harbor, not really knowing where I am going, but trusting in the inevitability of island logic: Jens Fisherman lives in the house by the harbor.
                As it turns out, there are three houses at the end of the road just before you reach the big warehouse by the wooden docks where the light blue fishing boats are tethered, their carefully stenciled identification numbers bobbing in the waves. I choose the thatch-roofed house with a net draped across the front yard.
                I have learned a little during these few years in Denmark. I know at least not to knock at the front door. I go around the back and across the tiny courtyard full of buoys, buckets, and rusty machinery. The two-piece door is more open at the top than at the bottom. I knock on the top half and it swings back revealing an entranceway full of rubber boots, raincoats, and a broken umbrella. There is a sand-covered carpet on the floor that once had been colorful, but now looks soggy and brown.
                No one answers the knock so I push open the bottom part of the door and muttering hallo, hallo I step through the clutter and instinctively turn right into a dark little kitchen from which I now can hear a radio playing Danish pop music in one steady, anonymous stream. At a table in the middle of the tiny room, a bearded man sits smoking a pipe and nudging a cup of coffee. On his left is a bottle of aquavit, its lid askew.
                He looks up at me and points with his pipe at my face. "Hmm. Up from Anna'd be my guess. Sit."
                I hesitate.
                "Anna says you might have some live shrimp."
                "Live shrimp," he echoes my words. "Dead ones I throw out unless they only have'n been dead a minute or two from the boilin' and then I et em before you can say fried herring so you am't gonna find no dead ones here. Speak. Turn's yours."
                "Well," I think my words through, "Anna says you might have some shrimp."
                Like some earthquake far off and undetected his body starts moving before you can see the motion. His thick fingers stretch out of the unseasonal striped wool sweater and grip the edges of the table. He swings himself up from the chair. He hobbles on wooden shoes out the door opposite the one where I came in. I follow him into the dark of a cool shed. Once I get used to the murkiness I can see a tool shed with implements hung on the walls. On the floor are some wooden crates in a pile. The top box is lined with wet newspapers. He pulls off the upper sheet revealing dark squirming creatures, lively now from the disturbance and hopping for freedom.
                "Gimme thet bucket," he says as one finger points out the metal container on the floor in the corner. I fetch it quickly. He grabs it from me and taking a wooden shovel in the other hand he scoops up four big loads of shrimp and pours them into the bucket. He finds a newspaper on a worktable and covers the twitching shrimp.
                He hands me the bucket.
                "Drink?" he asks and strides past me back to his place at the table.
                 I nod.
                "In the coffee, in a lemon soda or just straight?" He eyes me closely. I know that this is one of life's tests that you must pass without knowing the right answer.
                "Straight?" I say, in doubt, but now there was no way back.
                He pours one each for us in the bottoms of two former jelly glasses.
                "Skoal in the ship!" he snorts, sending me reeling some 1200 years back in time, and downs his with a grimace, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand. I sink mine as the taste of alcohol and caraway explode in my palette.
                "Well-ll," he mutters. "You know how to bile 'em?" I shake my head in the negative.
                "One stalk of fresh dill - she's got some in 'er garden - one teaspoon salt, one teaspoon sugar. Bring 'er to a bile with the heat turned up all the way. Pour in the shrimp, wait until it biles up agin, and pour off the water. Eat fifteen minutes later on a piece of white bread. You ta butter or mayonnaise?" Again life was testing me.
                "Donno," I answered, trying to sound like a free spirit unanchored and unchained.
                He eyed me a while. "Both?" he asked staring at me incredulously. I wave him off.
                "I gits it," he says and pokes at his coffee cup just to swirl the brown liquid in the bottom. "Isn't yer territory. Ya just aren't an island person." Being from Oklahoma I find this almost too astute.
                "Know how ta peel 'em?" he asks. Finally, a question I feel I can answer.
                "Well, you pull off the head, then the tail and then you lift off the middle part of the shell from between the legs. When you got twenty or thirty you eat 'em." Danish shrimp are very small.
                He sticks his head closer to mine. "That's if ya wanta spend all day filling one piece of bread." He pats my arm.
                "You got the first two parts right. But I'll tell ya what we fishermen do. We leave the middle part of the shell on. That way ya get the roe and ya save at least half the time." He leans back in his chair eyeing me all the while. "And I know ya Copenhageners always tryin' ta save time."
                You see, this is why I am telling this story: not just to retrieve the feeling of that day and the old man in his cottage, but also to relive the glory of that one word, "Copenhagener", which I suppose to him was a kind of put down. But not to me. I was proud for weeks. Think, a man from Tulsa gets mistaken for someone from Copenhagen in a fisherman's cottage on an island in southern Denmark. One of the best moments of my life. And by the way, I still eat my shrimp with the legs on - to get the roe - and with mayonnaise and white bread and a sprig of dill. In Copenhagen, they find me absolutely exotic, what with my southern habits.

If you found this story to your liking, you might want to buy my book:
"Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude".
Click on the link below:

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