I am delighted that the first post in the Writer's Corner is a talented young woman, Carena Liptak, who was a student of mine at Bard College.
Langeland is a small, flat vacation island at the southern tip of Denmark, an hour and a half from the closest major city. The residential section of the island consists primarily of beach houses, small, thinly built, and very close to the ocean. This development represents a tiny portion of the land. Most of it is beach. The part of the island that isn't beach is forest. Some beach spills into forest, and vice versa. Tough stalks of grass sprout from sand dunes, licking your calves like stinging insects. As you come closer to the shore, there are fewer of these grasses and the sand grows grainier, a graveyard of sand dollars and the gelatinous flesh of the jellyfish that are torn apart when they float too close to where the waves break. The water is beautiful and hostile, gray on sunny days and a glassy purple under clouds. It is excruciatingly cold all year round, but the Danes swim in it anyway.
I did not come to Langeland to swim. I came because the wind made me sleepy. When I came to Denmark as an eight year old, to live with my dad and his girlfriend, Pia, I experienced a case of what they referred to as "Advanced Jetlag". I inverted my sleep cycle, reading and drinking tea at night and napping for most of the day. This lasted for three months, and coming to Langeland was the only trick I knew for making myself sleep through the night.
Being in Denmark was difficult and lonely. I now believe that the primary reason we stayed in the country for so long was not because of any attachment Pia felt to her homeland, but for the sake of her father, a solitary man with heart trouble, who was near-canine in his ecstasy when we were with him. It was an expensive and troublesome trip. I could not tell anyone how nightmarish it became, for me, for no explicable reason, the long muddy half-dawns and the soft, incomprehensible accents of the Danes. There were enormous black slugs that boldly crossed the street in enormous numbers at dusk. I desperately did not want to squish them. When I rode over one with my bicycle tires, the grief and guilt were incapacitating. I sobbed wildly over the dead slug instead of sleeping. I knew this reaction was too silly to qualify as a reason to leave the country.
For about three days in July, there was an island-wide ladybug infestation. A buzzing layer of them hovered about three inches off the ground, so thick you could hardly see the sand. Pia was thrilled; I was horrified. I imagined every step a small genocide, and after a day of fending them off, I was inevitably unnerved by finding one more--after repeated and thorough expulsions on the beach--in my hair or towel. There were hiking trails marked off in the sand, and I could climb to the tops of the dunes by myself while Pia napped by the water. The days were clear: at the highest points I could see the horizon on all sides. On all sides it was blue.
The southern edge of Langeland gives into the Baltic sea. This is a strip of coastal meadow called Klise Nor, several acres sectioned off by barbed wire. The land is untouched, inhabited solely by two herds of wild Exmoor ponies that were imported from Taerø, an island off South Zealand, to keep the area cropped. The introduction of the ponies to Klise Nor was an inventive and, it seems to me, highly Danish solution to a crisis in the local ecosystem: due to the island's tourism, very few farm animals are kept on Langeland. Without grazing animals, woodlands will spring up within a few years, preventing sunlight from reaching the ground and inhibiting the insect life that several species of birds in this area depend upon. Now that the herd is here to keep the meadow well grazed, the insects are abundant, and the birds flourish. The wild ponies are also a major tourist attraction in this area, though the animals are fairly elusive. Their enclosure is large, and they have no predictable haunts within it; they apparently spend the majority of their time running together up and down the stretch of beach allotted to them. You can stand by the fence all day, waiting for the ponies to make an appearance, and see nothing but the ocean and the grass. Maybe they eventually gallop by, and pass you within seconds. They are small, shaggy animals, more adorable than they are majestic. But the collective herd, against the somewhat stark backdrop of the Baltic sea, is an impressive sight.
Pia, encouraged by the enthusiasm I showed towards the ponies, engaged a woman named Melanie to teach me how to ride. Melanie owned a barn with a riding ring and a jump course and some twenty-odd horses and ponies, a couple of cows, and one cream-colored miniature stallion, who had astonishingly stubby legs and a sort of rabbit-ish cotton ball tail that bounced around when he ran. He had sired half the herd, though none of the others was quite so tiny. The stallion was, of course, not allowed to run with the rest of them, but was sequestered to a much smaller ( and comically proportionate) field, which he, to his apparent humiliation, shared with the cows. For this indignity he compensated by dashing back and forth along the fence at top speed, kicking wildly, in a somewhat unsuccessful attempt at majesty.
The first pony I rode was named Bamse, which means 'teddy bear'. Bamse was a son of the stallion, and the family resemblance was striking. He was a loyal pony, but he was overweight and disastrously lazy. When other horses balked in thunderstorms or when squirrels came tumbling out of nearby bushes, Bamse stayed his course. Unpredictably, and often several times a day, however, he would make a break for a patch of un-chomped grass, drooling over the bit in his mouth, never heeding the clicks, admonishments, tugs, or kicks that might come from the rider above him.
The farmer next door to the barn cut down his crops in August, so Melanie took me to the hallow field to learn to gallop. The area was flat and huge and covered with the stubble of the stalks that had been harvested. I could barely see the other end of the farm, a faraway border of trees and red rooftops. I liked to ride fast, in a straight line. The uneven parts of the ground below me blurred, and the horizon stood still, keeping its distance.
I wasn't allowed to be there. I can't remember exactly why, but the farmer didn't want horses in his field. We went at odd hours in the day--very early in the morning, or in the evening after the farmer had left. The field, already a little eerie in being cut and empty, took on a bit of a magical quality at these times. The sun wasn't in the sky, and the odd color of the non-darkness hung over everything. Aside from the pony's grunts and the rhythm of his gallop, there was very little noise. There was no grass for Bamse to careen towards. It felt wilder and more dangerous than cantering circles in the riding ring; my pony thought so too. As we galloped, it felt as if he was developing a stronger purpose in running. His muscles became more compact, and he lowered his head slightly, as if he was channeling an ancestor--a common relative of the ponies from the beach, perhaps. The cold stung my cheeks and chin, and his mane whipped against my hands. One day the farmer happened to be driving past and pulled over when he saw horses in the field. In the vowel-intensive and oddly polite inflection of the Danish language, he informed us that we, on no uncertain terms, had to leave. I decided to stop riding a few weeks later.
Denmark is a wonderful place to be an insomniac. Danish summers are particularly conducive to sleeplessness: they are cloudy, mild, seasonally ambiguous; in August it never really gets dark and it never really gets light. The sky looked, from the hours of about midnight to four in the morning, as if the sun was constantly on the verge of rising. Dusk began at three PM.
One night, I was repeatedly awoken by an inexplicably terrifying dream about trains. I knocked on the bedroom door next to mine, somewhat pitifully calling for my dad. After some convincing, he got in Pia's car with me and we began to drive. I rolled the window down, though it was chilly; I missed the sweltering thick air of summer in America. The smells of skunk on the highway, the Toblerone my dad bought me at a rest stop, seemed too strong so late at night, and made me nauseous.
We were the only car in the parking lot at Klise Nor, but day was already breaking, as much as day breaks in Langeland. The water was quiet and the tide was covertly coming in. The ponies were not asleep. In the quiet, every snort was audible as they ran along the beach. They galloped past me in a herd, no more than a hundred meters away; then, obeying some silent command, in one stride they slowed, turned, and began to run in the other direction.
Carena Liptak was born in Rochester, NY and attended Bard College. She lives in New York City and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University.