Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley
Hann tekr sverthtt Gram ok leggri methal their abert — Volsunga Saga, 27
My story will be faithful to reality, or at least to my personal recollection of reality, which is the same thing. The events took place only a short while ago, but I know that the habit of literature is also the habit of interpolating circumstantial details and accentuating certain emphases. I wish to tell the story of my encounter with Ulrikke (I never learned her last name, and perhaps never will) in the city of York. The tale will span one night and one morning.
It would be easy for me to say that I saw her for the first time beside the Five Sisters at York Minster, those stained glass panes devoid of figural representation that Cromwell’s iconoclasts left untouched, but the fact is that we met in the dayroom of the Northern Inn, which lies outside the walls. There were but a few of us in the room, and she had her back to me. Some-one offered her a glass of sherry and she refused it.
“I am a feminist,” she said. “I have no desire to imitate men. I find their tobacco and their alcohol repulsive.”
The pronouncement was an attempt at wit, and I sensed this wasn’t the first time she’d voiced it. I later learned that it was not like her—but what we say is not always like us.
She said she’d arrived at the museum late, but that they’d let her in when they learned she was Norwegian.
“Not the first time the Norwegians storm York,” someone remarked.
“Quite right,” she said. “England was ours and we lost her—if, that is, anyone can possess anything or anything can really be lost.”
It was at that point that I looked at her. A line somewhere in William Blake talks about girls of soft silver or furious gold, but in Ulrikke there was both gold and softness. She was light and tall, with sharp features and gray eyes. Less than by her face, I was impressed by her air of calm mystery. She smiled easily, and her smile seemed to take her somewhere far away. She was dressed in black—unusual in the lands of the north, which try to cheer the dullness of the surroundings with bright colors. She spoke a neat, precise English, slightly stressing the r’s. I am no great observer; I discovered these things gradually.
We were introduced. I told her I was a professor at the University of the Andes, in Bogotá. I clarified that I myself was Colombian.
“What is ‘being Colombian’?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “It’s an act of faith.”
“Like being Norwegian,” she said, nodding.
I can recall nothing further of what was said that night. The next day I came down to the dining room early. I saw through the windows that it had snowed; the moors ran on seamlessly into the morning. There was no one else in the dining room. Ulrikke invited me to share her table. She told me she liked to go out walking alone.
I remembered an old quip of Schopenhauer’s.
“I do too. We can go out alone together,” I said.
We walked off away from the house through the newly fallen snow. There was not a soul abroad in the fields. I suggested we go downriver a few miles, to Thorgate. I know I was in love with Ulrikke; there was no other person on earth I’d have wanted beside me.
Suddenly I heard the far-off howl of a wolf. I have never heard a wolf howl, but I know that it was a wolf. Ulrikke’s expression did not change.
After a while she said, as though thinking out loud: “The few shabby swords I saw yesterday in York Minster were more moving to me than the great ships in the museum at Oslo.”
Our two paths were briefly crossing: that evening Ulrikke was to continue her journey toward London; I, toward Edinburgh.
“On Oxford Street,” she said, “I will retrace the steps of DeQuincey, who went seeking his lost Anna among the crowds of London.”
“DeQuincey,” I replied, “stopped looking. My search for her, on the other hand, continues, through all time.”
“Perhaps,” Ulrikke said softly, “you have found her.”
I realized that an unforeseen event was not to be forbidden me, and I kissed her lips and her eyes.
She pushed me away with gentle firmness, but then said: “I shall be yours in the inn at Thorgate. I ask you, meanwhile, not to touch me. It’s best that way.”
For a celibate, middle-aged man, proffered love is a gift that one no longer hopes for; a miracle has the right to impose conditions. I recalled my salad days in Popayán and a girl from Texas, as bright and slender as Ulrikke, who had denied me her love.
I did not make the mistake of asking her whether she loved me. I realized that I was not the first, and would not be the last. That adventure, perhaps the last for me, would be one of many for that glowing, determined disciple of Ibsen.
We walked on, hand in hand.
“All this is like a dream,” I said, “and I never dream.”
“Like that king,” Ulrikke replied, “who never dreamed until a sorcerer put him to sleep in a pigsty.”
Then she added: “Ssh! A bird is about to sing.”
In a moment we heard the birdsong.
“In these lands,” I said, “people think that a person who’s soon to die can see the future.”
“And I’m about to die,” she said.
I looked at her, stunned.
“Lets cut through the woods,” I urged her.
“We’ll get to Thorgate sooner.”
“The woods are dangerous,” she replied. We continued across the moors.
“I wish this moment would last forever,” I murmured.
“Forever is a word mankind is forbidden to speak,” Ulrikke declared emphatically, and then, to soften her words, she asked me to tell her my name again, which she hadn’t heard very well.
“Javier Otárola,” I said.
She tried to repeat it, but couldn’t. I failed, likewise, with Ulrikke.
“I will call you Sigurd,” she said with a smile.
“And if I’m to be Sigurd,” I replied, “then you shall be Brunhild.”
Her steps had slowed. “Do you know the saga?” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “The tragic story that the Germans spoiled with their parvenu Nibelungen.”
I didn’t want to argue, so I answered: “Brunhild, you are walking as though you wanted a sword to lie between us in our bed.”
We were suddenly before the inn. I was not surprised to find that it, like the one we had departed from, was called the Northern Inn.
From the top of the staircase, Ulrikke called down to me: “Did you hear the wolf? There are no wolves in England anymore. Hurry up.”
As I climbed the stairs, I noticed that the walls were papered a deep crimson, in the style of William Morris, with intertwined birds and fruit. Ulrikke entered the room first. The dark chamber had a low, peaked ceiling. The expected bed was duplicated in a vague glass, and its burnished mahogany reminded me of the mirror of the Scriptures. Ulrikke had already undressed. She called me by my true name, Javier. I sensed that the snow was coming down harder. Now there was no more furniture, no more mirrors. There was no sword between us. Like sand, time sifted away. Ancient in the dimness flowed love, and for the first and last time, I possessed the image of Ulrikke.