The Danish Girl - By David Ebershoff
His wife knew first. “Do me a small favor?” Greta called from the bedroom that first afternoon. “Just help me with something for a little bit?”
“Of course,” Einar said, his eyes on the canvas. “Anything at all.”
The day was cool, the chill blowing in from the Baltic. They were in their apartment in the Widow House, Einar, small and not yet thirty-five, painting from memory a winter scene of the Kattegat Sea. The black water was white-capped and cruel, the grave of hundreds of fishermen returning to Copenhagen with their salted catch. The neighbor below was a sailor, a man with a bullet-shaped head who cursed his wife. When Einar painted the gray curl of each wave, he imagined the sailor drowning, a desperate hand raised, his potato-vodka voice still calling his wife a port whore. It was how Einar knew just how dark to mix his paints: gray enough to swallow a man like that, to fold over like batter his sinking growl.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” said Greta, younger than her husband and handsome with a wide flat face. “Then we can start.”
In this way as well Einar was different from his wife. He painted the land and the sea—small rectangles lit by June’s angled light, or dimmed by the dull January sun. Greta painted portraits, often to full scale, of mildly important people with pink lips and shine in the grain of their hair. Herr I. Glückstadt, the financier behind the Copenhagen Free Harbor. Christian Dahlgaard, furrier to the king. Ivar Knudsen, member of the shipbuilding firm Burmeister and Wain. Today was to have been Anna Fonsmark, mezzo-soprano from the Royal Danish Opera. Managing directors and industry titans commissioned Greta to paint portraits that hung in offices, above a filing cabinet, or along a corridor nicked by a worker’s cart.
Greta appeared in the door frame. “You sure you won’t mind stopping for a bit to help me out?” she said, her hair pulled back. “I wouldn’t have asked if it weren’t important. It’s just that Anna’s canceled again. So would you mind trying on her stockings?” Greta asked. “And her shoes?”
The April sun was behind Greta, filtering through the silk hanging limply in her hand. Through the window, Einar could see the tower of the Rundetårn, like an enormous brick chimney, and above it the Deutscher Aero-Lloyd puttering out on its daily return to Berlin.
“Greta?” Einar said. “What do you mean?” An oily bead of paint dropped from his brush to his boot. Edvard IV began to bark, his white head turning from Einar to Greta and back.
“Anna’s canceled again,” Greta said. “She has an extra rehearsal of Carmen. I need a pair of legs to finish her portrait, or I’ll never get it done. And then I thought to myself, yours might do.”
Greta moved toward him, the shoes in her other hand sennep-yellow with pewter buckles. She was wearing her button-front smock with the patch pockets where she tucked things she didn’t want Einar to see.
“But I can’t wear Anna’s shoes,” Einar said. Looking at them, Einar imagined that the shoes might in fact fit his feet, which were small and arched and padded softly on the heel. His toes were slender, with a few fine black hairs. He imagined the wrinkled roll of the stocking gliding over the white bone of his ankle. Over the small cushion of his calf. Clicking into the hook of a garter. Einar had to shut his eyes.
The shoes were like the ones they had seen the previous week in the window of Fonnesbech’s department store, displayed on a mannequin in a midnight-blue dress. Einar and Greta had stopped to admire the window, which was trimmed with a garland of jonquils. Greta said, “Pretty, yes?” When he didn’t respond, his reflection wide-eyed in the plate glass, Greta had to pull him away from Fonnesbech’s window. She tugged him down the street, past the pipe shop, saying, “Einar, are you all right?”
The front room of the apartment served as their studio. Its ceiling was ribbed with thin beams and vaulted like an upside-down dory. Sea mist had warped the dormer windows, and the floor tilted imperceptibly to the west. In the afternoon, when the sun beat against the Widow House, a faint smell of herring would seep from its walls. In winter the skylights would leak, a cold drizzle bubbling the paint on the wall. Einar and Greta stood their easels beneath the twin skylights, next to the boxes of