“The Heron”
by Dorthe Nors
translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
from the September 9, 2013 issue of The New Yorker


I found this week’s story to be incredibly refreshing. Another author in translation, another author completely new to me, an incredibly short piece: all elements in its favor. However, best of all, it was wonderful to see The New Yorker get away from what people think of when they think of a story in The New Yorker. Gone are the social ruminations. In their place comes an internal, existential meditation, brought on by the narrator’s frequent walks around Frederiksberg Gardens.

From the narrator, we learn that Frederiksberg Gardens is home to a large group of tame herons. In a sense, the narrator is talking down to a listener (to us — but not in a bad way). She says, “I won’t feed birds, but, if you must, then you should do so in Frederiksberg Gardens.” The narrator may recognize in her listener a kind of naïveté, a sense of wonder she’s long since lost. We may want to feed birds, but she’s seen that under the surface this is a disgusting thing.

Indeed, the listener may find the heron a noble, beautiful bird (I certainly do). But she contradicts this; I haven’t looked closely:

Of the heron itself, one can say only that from a distance it looks impressive, but this doesn’t apply when you get close up. It’s too thin, and the tame herons in particular look malnourished.

Surely they are, because they are fed things that are bad for them, but the narrator seems to go further: they’re sick because the world around them is sick.

Last winter I saw one slouching on the back of a bench with its long, thin neck. It’s feet were white and it barely even reacted when I walked past. The way the wind ruffled its neck feathers made me want to go back and sit down next to it.

The narrator moves away from the heron specifically to the more general implications of contamination and contagion, not just of physical illness but of world-weariness, of fear. The narrator sees the mothers pushing around their children; there’s a moment of anger, of hope, and then simple defeat.

I found the imagery disturbing and sad, and, like the narrator, you almost want to just go sit down next to the heron, filled with contemplation when you really long for it all to be empty.


In an interview with Grey Wolf Press (here), Danish writer Dorthe Nors said she would like her stories to be read as “Compassionate, hard-hitting, droll, puzzling, and accurate.”

In her very short story, “The Heron,” an old man tells how he sees the Fredericksburg Gardens in Copenhagen: alcoholics, dismembered dead bodies, and birds that appear to be dying from too much bread.

To start with being accurate, I would be curious as to whether anyone can attest to the accuracy of this view of the Fredericksburg Gardens: whether any of the old man’s vision is true, or, converse to his dyspeptic view, whether any of the Gardens are as surprisingly beautiful as they were originally intended to be. I suspect the dreary description of the park is accurate, but one-sided, although I suspect Nors is more interested in the accuracy of her portrait of a disgruntled old man.

He is so much annoyed by deviation from the perfect that the groups of mothers wielding strollers make him want them to disappear. They seem angry and wildly competitive, which is where droll comes in. Just the other day, at Menotomy Rocks Park, I and the nanny encountered a group of new mothers having a picnic. I have to say they seemed a little like this — wildly proud, clannish, determined, powerful, and slightly scary, as if to speak to even one of them while en group would need permission from their bouncer.

More power to them, though, I say. But I am not yet The Last Leaf that the speaker of this story seems to be. His fantasy that they will swell (as in their pregnancies) until they blow up is beyond droll; because he imagines himself not rescuing a baby but merely picking it up to look at it, it’s more nightmare than droll. Of course, he himself lives in a world where maternity’s nurture has been blown up. In picking up such a baby he would only be picking up himself.

What is hard-hitting about the story is the way the old man inspects death, as if it is his work. He feels justified by noting all the ways the world is going to seed — every day. His rage reminds me of the new mothers, except that he has no stroller to wield. But his rage to protect is the same as the mothers: he wants to promote his vision of how the world should really be.

Which brings me to compassionate. Compassion is the subject, really. Nors asks us to accept the old man as he is: annoyed, demanding, dying.  Her question is whether the old man can have any peace in this process.

In her last sentence, the old man describes seeing on the bench the dreadful, scary heron of the title:

Incapable of fright, tired and sallow in its gaze, smelling of the mites that live in its under-feathers, and I should have sat down next to it.

Nors took the whole angry impatient short story to build to that one sentence and its moment of perfect recognition. Somehow, the thought allows his own  decrepitude space as well.  Sitting beside the bird — well, that would allow his own loss and death its proper recognition.

As for being puzzling, I wondered about the old man’s family and what he used to do. We do hear about an old friend, gone now. Love and work. It’s puzzling when you don’t hear much about either of those things. Or, the puzzle is, what is love and what is work when shipwreck is at hand?

I have to say, once, in the hospice in New Haven, in the bed next to my mother’s, I saw woman reading. There was a little stack of books on the table beside the bed. She looked up, smiled, and went back to reading. The next time I visited, she was gone.

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