Aftenmalkning: Evening Milking

by Knud Sørensen
translated by Michael Goldman
August 19, 2016

"Evening Milking" takes place on a razor’s edge, on the fulcrum between the period of a prevalance of interdependent small farming communities and more recent times, when these communities have all but disappeared. It was a quiet revolution, an exodus from the land for millions of farming families in western nations in the decades following WWII. How many thousands of times was the scene in this story—a teacher coming to talk to a farming couple about their son’s future—repeated around the world? What was the impact of these many encounters taken collectively? And what have we gained or lost as a culture because of them?

-Michael Goldman

When they had sopped up the last of the gravy with a clump of bread, and when the mother was about to clear the table, Kristian said, “Mr. Ibsen said to say hello and that he was going to come over this afternoon to talk with you.”

The mother stopped in the middle of her movement over the table with the father’s plate in her hand. “Mr. Ibsen, the new teacher, what does he want?” She looked uneasily at Kristian. “Are you behaving?”

The father sat there looking a little withdrawn. “It’s probably not that,” he said.

The mother continued, “Didn’t he say what he wanted?”

“No,” said Kristian, “He just said that I should say he was going to try and stop by after he let out the little kids.”

His mother still was looking at him dubiously. “Did you do something?” she asked again.

“Not that I know of,” he said.

The father grumbled. “It’s probably not that,” he said again. And to Kristian he said, “You had better keep going in the sugar beets.”

Kristian excused himself and disappeared. His mother was still standing at the table with his father’s plate in her hand. “I wonder what it could be?” she repeated. The father said nothing. He got up and went in for his nap.

The mother cleared the table and wiped the tabletop. Now she was busy. She checked the pantry to see how much bread was left.

She washed the dishes. No nap for her. She had to dust the living room, and clean up all over.

***

It was almost three-thirty when Kristian saw his teacher come walking down the county road. He himself was working in the opposite end of the field, but his father was almost out by the road. Kristian could see how his father also saw the teacher coming and adjusted his speed so he would make it to the end of the row, out by the roadside ditch, when the teacher arrived. Kristian could feel how his own movements got clumsier. He figured it must be a kind of nervousness. The teacher had said: “I’m going to have to talk to your parents.” He didn’t look up when his father and teacher greeted one another, but he kept working, as if he didn’t even notice. He reached the end of the row by the hillock, and when he moved to the next row, he looked out at the road. His father and his teacher were standing there talking.

After a little while, he noticed they were gone. They were on their way over the pasture towards the house, which, from where Kristian stood, looked almost like it had blended together with the willow trees that were planted as a windbreak to the west. It was a rather long, low house. “We’ll build a new one one day,” the father had said now and again. “New barn, new farmhouse. Then it will have three wings,” he said. “And when we get a bit more land, it’ll be perfect.”

Now his father and his teacher disappeared around the eastern corner. Kristian stood watching them. He felt some restlessness in his body. So he kept hoeing. For what seemed like to him like forever.

It was his mother who came and called him in. “Kristian!” she yelled, “Come!” And Kristian came. He threw down the beet hoe and skipped home across the rows. “Come!” she yelled again. “We’re going to have our coffee!”

They had coffee in the living room, where a vague smell of winter’s cold and dampness still hung in the corners. The teacher sat on the sofa with the horsehair cover. The others sat on chairs. A tablecloth had been laid, and his mother had on one of her nice aprons.

There was the remainder of a coffee cake from Whitsunday, there was a whole new round two-layer cake with icing that his mother had managed to make, and there were cookies and sugar cubes, in case the teacher was one of those who liked to dip a sugar cube in his coffee and then eat it. They used the little cups with flowers on them.

“Please, have some,” said his mother, offering cake to everyone.

***

They didn’t talk very much over their coffee. At one point the father asked the teacher how he liked the area, and the teacher said that he liked it. He said a bit more about how he happened to end up here when otherwise he was used to living further east. And the father and mother said that it must be quite different.

The layer cake was good. It had none of the staleness of the coffee cake. And the mother had spread strawberry preserves in the middle.

They talked a bit about the war and about commodities that were running low, and the teacher talked about the poor southern Danes who were forced to put on German uniforms. “Thank goodness we’re neutral,” said the mother.

The teacher looked at Kristian. “Did you get some work done?” he asked. “And did you do your homework?”

Kristian cleared his throat and nodded. Yes, he had. And he felt the tension in his body. Now it was going to come out.

But nothing came out. Not other than that his mother indirectly attempted to approach the question of the teacher feeling lonely in the large teacher’s quarters. And she advanced far enough in her questioning that if the teacher had been engaged or was considering marriage, that he would have said so.

But he didn’t say anything. Kristian’s mother said, almost to herself, that he was still young.

The teacher hadn’t said anything yet about it, as far as Kristian could tell. His mother was grasping at straws, and it was evident that she was sitting there speculating what the reason for the teacher’s visit could be.

Finally the teacher said, “Well there was actually something I wanted to discuss with you. But maybe it would be best … ” and he glanced over at Kristian. “Maybe it would be best if … ”

“Kristian,” said his father, “you can go back out to the sugar beets.” Kristian left, relieved and nervous. They sat there, watching him go.

“That’s a smart boy you have there,” said the teacher. The mother said, “He’s a good boy.”

“It’s him I wanted to talk about,” continued the teacher. “Kristian is the smartest student I’ve ever had, both here and there where I’m from.”

The father cleared his throat. A bit proud and a bit unsure. There was a short pause.

“I can’t teach him anything else. He’s finished all the math books, even some that I had from college, that he shouldn’t even be able to do. I don’t know what else to set him to when the others have math.”

The father sat there. Then he said, “Good thing it’s his last year.” And the mother said, “He’s been confirmed of course, and he’s going to go work at Lars Peter’s farm.”

Then the father said, “We have to do some building so there will be more here for him to take over, when the time comes. That’s what we’re thinking.” He looked out the window. “There’s also a pond that I can probably buy.”

The mother got up and walked out to the kitchen and returned with more hot coffee. She poured for everyone and for a little while the only sounds were the tinkling of teaspoons in their cups.

“Please have another cookie,” said the mother.

***

“Kristian could also have a different kind of future,” said the teacher carefully.

The father and mother looked at him, but said nothing. The father cleared his throat.

“I mean,” said the teacher, “with the ability that boy has, there’s a lot of possibilities.”

“He’s a good boy,” said the mother. “And he’s no worse off than most of the others.”

“He’s a strong boy,” said the father. “And he likes to work. He’ll be all right. And he’s our only one.”

The teacher was far away in his own contemplations. He took a cookie without being asked and sat breaking it into small pieces before inserting them one by one into his mouth. Then he launched into it.

“I came to tell you that I think you should let him go to the preparatory school.”

“Preparatory school?” The mother looked shocked. “But no around here sends their kids to prep school.”

The teacher replied, “That’s because there’s no one around here who has a boy as smart as yours.”

The mother said, “But what will people think if we send our son to prep school.”

The father muttered. The teacher said, “This is about Kristian, not about what people say.” And he continued, to the father, “I have spoken with the headmaster about Kristian. There could be talk about a half-price tuition, and, most likely, he could skip a grade, too.”

“We have always paid our own way,” said the father. “And we could also pay for Kristian, if … I mean, if we needed to.” He looked annoyed. “What’s the point in going to that prep school, anyway?” he asked. “What good is it to Kristian to stay in school?”

A fly that had woken from its extended winter hibernation landed on the tablecloth and began clumsily wandering around the table. The mother waved it away.

The teacher said, “He could do lots of things. There would be so many possibilities for him with a diploma. He could even study further. He could become a teacher or a priest or a doctor or even a professor.” He smiled, but when he saw the father’s suddenly completely closed-off facial expression, he hurried to say, “Seriously. With a diploma, Kristian could join the railroad or the postal service or the customs office. What they call civil service.”

“You need a diploma to deliver mail?” asked the mother sharply.

The teacher explained that it wasn’t a postman he had meant. With a diploma Kristian could become a clerk or a manager, perhaps. Maybe eventually he could become a postmaster or a railroad superintendent. In any case he could be a public servant with a steady job and a pension. A diploma would open all this to him. "And Kristian has the talent,” he added.

“He also has a talent for farming,” said the father.

“Kristian has unusual talent for a lot of other things, too,” said the teacher.

“Hm.”

“Think about it.”

“Hm.”

No one had anything else to say, really. The mother looked at the father. The father looked at the clock. The teacher said, “I’m keeping you. I’m sorry I’ve taken so much of your time. I didn’t realize it had gotten to be so late.”

The father said apologetically, ”It’s the cows. We have to bring them in now.”

The teacher rose and thanked them for the coffee. He shook hands goodbye with the mother. Then he followed the father outside.

The teacher said, “Let me go out with you and get the cows,” and they walked north out to the pasture, where four cows stood in their tethers. The father lifted out the tether pole, coiled up the ropes and tied the cows into pairs. When the farmer led them home, the teacher walked beside them, and he noticed how the cows found their own stalls when they were released.

The teacher said, “I made you late today. So let me help with the milking, too.” And without waiting for an answer, he took off his jacket, hung it over the Dutch door, took a milking stool and a bucket, and walked over to the first stall. He sat down, reversed his cap so the brim faced behind, and set his forehead against the side of the cow. The first thin streams of milk resounded against the bottom of the bucket.

The father stood there looking a bit surprised. Was just about to say something, but caught himself. He sat down to milk in the second stall.

When they were done, they walked outside. “You had better come in and have your supper,” said the father.

The teacher excused himself, but the father said, “It’s better if you join us. We have to talk to Kristian.”

He yelled in through the utility room, “Ibsen is staying for dinner. I’ll get the boy.”