Martje, Chapter Eight
[Again, a mature situation that may not be suitable for younger readers. ...This also needs a second edit, which it will get, but it's readable and I need to start chapter nine, too. Blessings! Sarah]
The moon had not made her travels half-way across the sky before Martje woke again with a start.
She wondered if the strange noise she had heard was the wind moaning, or a child dreaming. She lay in bed as still as possible and listened. There was nothing.
But ten minutes later, there was the sound again.
She flung off her covers and ran down the stairs.
“Mama! Are you hurt?”
“…No,” her mother said spitefully, still in the rocking chair by the stove. Signe lay asleep on a coat on the floor. “Don’t wake her.”
Martje whispered, “I thought I heard - something.”
“Well, it must have been one of the children,” she said. “Go back to bed.”
Before Martje turned to climb the stairs again, she saw her mother freeze up, bend over slightly, and grip her chair.
“No, no,” said Martje, coming back to her. “You are hurt.”
“…Labor isn’t an injury, Martje,” said Mrs. Svenson, after a minute. Her hand released and she leaned back in the chair again. “Go back to bed.”
“Isn’t it too early for this?”
“Just two weeks - but I may have calculated wrong.”
“Do you want me to go get Addah?”
“Not yet. But we’d better go back to the house.”
“It must be two,” said Martje, looking at the moon.
“This baby could be here by sun-up. Both Signe and Gerte were fast…”
“But what about -”
“- By this time your father will have cooled down. I know his moods, Martje. He always regrets these episodes.”
“And he wouldn’t do anything with the midwife in the house,” admitted Martje. “And he’s probably dead-asleep right now. Can you walk?”
“I’m not dying.” Mrs. Svenson stood up with an ease that surprised her daughter. “Don’t be such a goose. You know, I was ploughing right up until the moment my first two were born. I can walk as long as we stop when - it - comes.”
Martje was loathe to wake the children up, but presently the bizarre crowd was cutting through cold fields by moonlight, their mother stopping every ten minutes or so to sit on a rock or log - to rest, as she said; her second daughter holding the stub of a stolen candle aloft. In those moments Mrs. Svenson was quiet, squeezing her eyes shut.
Then she’d open them.
“Jea, let’s keep going.”
Ingrid once put her hand on her mother’s shoulder, while she sat on an overturned bucket in the hay field, and rubbed it, but she said,
“No need, Ingrid - mind the wax,” and stood in a minute. Even Sagolandet looked eerie to Martje, with its tangles of cobwebby branches and shadows that were forever moving and dancing against the deep-blue sky.
The house was black and silent when they reached it, with no lights lit. They entered it, all hushed, and Ingrid ushered the children to their bedrooms while Martje laid Gerte, warm and heavy with sleep, in the cradle by the hearth. Mrs. Svenson, blowing out her breath, slowly sat on a chair.
“Get Addah, Martje,” she said.
“Should I run? Can I get you anything before I go?”
“You’re acting like the barn’s on fire. Don’t run. This isn’t an emergency. Take the lantern. Tell her she doesn’t have to hurry. Take the lantern that’s by the front door, and go by the main road. Don’t go cutting through the fishing village.”
“Jea. I’ll be back shortly.”
“Not by the fishing village - I’m in earnest, Martje.”
Martje lit two lamps in the kitchen, put a cup of water by her mother’s elbow, lit the lantern, and was out the door. The main road did not frighten her as much as she thought it would. The air was crisp and cool and comforting. Addah lived less than a mile away, by the lake. Martje was thrilling with the importance and the drama of it all, and fear did not seem to coincide with those emotions. They just didn’t fit in her body.
She did feel awkward knocking on the door, but Addah, the village midwife, was used to nocturnal visitations, and soon they were speeding on their way, the old woman not talking, except to ask a few questions, and soon they were in the lighted Svenson kitchen.
Now that she could see better, the old woman’s face looked, to Martje, like a carved pumpkin that had withered: the apples of her cheeks were more pronounced because the skin below them were caved-in like the rind of the gourd. In a raspy voice she chirruped, “Well, then, Olga - let’s get this show on the road!” and she forthrightly squeaked chairs across the floor and clanged the iron kettle and the rattle sounded ominously loud to Martje, and she wanted to tell her to be quiet.
Mr. Svenson came fumbling out of the bedroom into the hall, his nightshirt open, his reddish chest unashamedly showing, his hair awry. He stared at Addah with fright.
“Why are you here?” he said confusedly. “What’s happened?”
Addah did not respond - which Martje found dispossessing
“This is my family. Who is hurt?” white-eyed.
“No one is hurt,” said Addah sternly. “Your wife is in labor.”
The midwife’s hand on her back, Mrs. Svenson walked slowly passed her husband.
“Oh.” He looked at his wife with an expression in his eyes, which Martje - painfully - could not interpret. He turned and went into the kitchen, and Mrs. Svenson and Addah went by themselves into the bedroom and shut the door.
“Go to sleep,” instructed Mrs. Svenson to her daugther before the door was closed.
But the sleep fairy was not her friend that night. Martje carried Gerte’s cradle into her room, and then she continually went to peer around the corner at her parents’ bedroom. Her father had dragged a chair down the hall and sat in front of the door, seeming, to Martje, for all like a dog by a grave. He was there every time she looked, in the shadows - for five hours - until the sun was up, and then he was gone: the first orange light licking the empty chair.
She got up, too, and dressed with a groggy head, and clothed the children, and made porridge.
“What’s going on in there?” asked Hans.
“The stork is coming,” bubbled Ingrid.
“Can he not get in the window or something?”
“These things take a long time,” said Martje.
“Do you think it will be a boy or a girl?” said Ingrid.
“Good question. I want to know if I’m a brother or a sister yet.”
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, there began to boil in the house an air of discontent and uneasiness - at least in the air of the adults. The bedroom was silent. Martje saw Addah puffing on a pipe on the front porch. Mr. Svenson stayed out of the house the entire day, and Martje carried him his meals in the barn. He would not talk.
Evening came. The eldest daughter brought everyone supper, then put the children to bed. She lay with Gerte and then Signe and then Hans until they fell asleep.
Night spread over the land, and again Mr. Svenson pulled a chair forlornly by the door. But he did not stay there long. When darkness fully cloaked the farm - the moon was hidden by clouds - he got up and went walking around the kitchen - Martje could hear him: they were the footsteps of someone who does now know where he is going - and then he went out of the house.
Two hours later, she found him, asleep, slumped halfway down a chair by the hearth. His head was lolled to one side, like a rotted tree.
“Martje,” said Addah, coming out into the kitchen.
She started and turned around. She didn’t know why her heart-rate was up.
“Jea?” she said. - A dank smell of yeast emanated from her father.
Addah looked at them both. “Is all well?” she asked. She appeared like a witch to Martje - with her tight gray hair in a small knot, and her thin forearms, the skin pulling away only showing the ropy old muscles.
“Of course it is. Everyone is just tired with all of this.” She was small but she stood in front of her father. She felt like her mother with her bruises out, and felt strangely threatened. She looked at the midwife with eyes of steel and dared her to ask more.
“Yes, well,” said the midwife, “you’d better ask your pa to get the doctor in town.”
“Is it bad?”
“Just tell your pa.”
Martje walked with trepidation and looked at Mr. Svenson. She knew she couldn’t wake him up. Even if she could, that Irishman had the cart! And her father could not ride: not in this state. But she could not either. And she could walk in time: the doctor lived at least five miles away. She went back to the hall, and then back to the kitchen, and then back to the hall again.
She ran into Addah.
“Is he off?” asked the midwife.
“He can’t go,” said Martje, her brain working fast. “He’s…”
“Then you have to,” cut off Adah.
The resistance in her was smothering the reasoning part of her brain. She felt exactly as though she were standing on the edge of a one-hundred foot cliff, and someone were pushing her from behind, and her entire body was pushing back, even against her will.
“I have to stay with your ma.”
She was ashamed of her own words. “But that’s all the way in - I can’t - I’m -”
“You’re a farm girl,” said Addah. “That’s what you are. I’ve never heard of one who hain’t been astride a horse before.”
“I can’t,” whispered Martje. Then - “Alright,” she said, and went out.
She slid open the barn door and was greeted by the scent of musk and hay, but she was not comforted. She could steal keys and run through forests, but she knew she met her match in Invader. The chestnut thoroughbred, with his glossy, rippling muscles, was a beast to her. The top of her strawberry head barely reached his shoulder. His spirit was against her, too. Her mother, a horse-lover, had tried to teach her daughter to ride, and Invader, on her first try, spooked by a sparrow, had tossed her. Though that shook her, it was an accident: it did not undercut her confidence as much as his daily, more ordinary, proofs of her incompetence did.
“You look like a bird perched up there. Sit deeper. Sit deeper! …Why did you just make him stop?” challenged her mother, as Martje, clinging to the broad flanks, was perched atop the motionless horse, his nose square against a gate.
“I didn’t make him stop!” she protested. “He did it himself.”
“He absolutely did not. You have full power.”
“I don’t,” she protested. Her mother did not understand.
“You have to make him do what you want him to do.”
All her insides felt loose. “I can’t,” said Martje. “- I can’t.”
“Don’t be a fool! - you can.”
It was their only try at a mother-daughter venture, and they did not attempt it again.
Invader stomped his hoof when she entered his stall.
“Sh-h,” she whispered. “C’mere, fella.” She would not go for his nose like her mother would. It horrified her the way her hand slid into his mouth and felt around his heaving nostrils. Those yellowed, ribbed teeth - those flecks of green on his inhuman pink tongue! His ability to chop off one’s finger as easily as a carrot! And Invader’s roving eye… There was nothing lovable in him, Martje knew. But Mrs. Svenson did not seem to know.
“Who is a beauty?” her daughter heard her murmur. “Who is a handsome man… who is a velvet prince?”
“Hullo, fella,” said Martje, gingerly slipping a halter over Invader’s head. She led him out and tacked him up - because she did know how to, being a farmer’s daughter - saying, “Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear,” when sliding the bit in. “Please take it - please,” and he did, then chomping on it pensively, and she snapped her fingers back as fast as possible.
She turned a crate over, climbed up, and mounted. She gathered up the reins and leaned over and whispered,
“Please - please be good - if not for me, for the woman you love.”
She nudged him forward and they clopped out of the barn, the echoes of his hooves ricocheting against the walls. She barely even felt like her legs were around him - he was as wide as barrel stave. They left the barn and she swayed side to side, the saddle creaking ominously. Once they made it down to the front lane, she knew she’d have to go faster, so she swallowed and urged him into a timid trot. He had a rough gait: she jolted around and it rattled her teeth. But soon he slowed again, down into a dragging walk.
“Come on - no, no, you must,” she begged, giving him a squeeze and then a gentle kick. She could never be harsh, though she felt as if her boots were meeting a rock wall. “Please, Invader. You must.” She jingled her reins, and then flopped them. She began to fume, slapping her legs against him, bouncing up and down in her seat. “You must, you must, you must!” She felt like a windmill and was close to tears. She made so much fuss on his back that perhaps he got no more fun out of provoking her, and figured if he began moving she would still her irritating arms and legs. He reluctantly began to trot again.
She then sat as still as she could, kept pressure on his body with her legs, and he was persuaded to break into a canter - either that, or he just wanted to unnerve her, because his canter was long and fast, and the road stretched out wide and empty in front of them for miles. She could just imagine him going off into an open field on either side, or taking off into the woods, but by squeezing everything in her body - willpower, lungs, fingers twisted in his mane - somehow she kept him to the course, and by the time she got to the doctor’s house, she dismounted and her knees nearly buckled. She caught her breath and tried to quell her shaking. “My m-mama needs you,” she said, as the doctor answered the door.
“Is she hurt?” he asked in alarm.
“No, she’s having a b-b-baby.”
“You poor girl,” said the doctor, and he put Invader away in his barn and took Martje back in the hack.
They rapidly arrived at the Svenson household and the doctor went immediately into the bedroom; Martje followed.
The doctor examined Mrs. Svenson, then he said,
“I’m not sure why this is happening. You said you were out walking this past night, yes? …I think you should not have walked while in labor.”
Her mother’s voice was a disturbing shadow of its normal substance, but its tone was acerbic as ever, and Martje was actually proud of her:
“Don’t be ridiculous. When I had my first two children, I ploughed the earth right up until the day they were born.”
“You have less strength than you think, Mrs. Svenson. Your pulse is low.”
Martje looked at her mother with fear, but her mother’s bad-mannered tone again was comforting:
“You doctors are fools. Wouldn’t yours be low if you worked a farm and had seven children and cooked and washed and milked all day? You’d want a break, too, Doctor. You’d want to rest.”
“Rest is not going to be possible now, Mrs. Svenson. Time is of the essence here. If the baby does not come in an hour or two, we will have to perform an operation.”
Martje, for the first time in her life, saw fear sweep over her mother’s face.
“That’s not necessary,” she said.
“It will be soon.”
To Martje’s shock, it looked as if Mrs. Svenson’s face was going to crumple into tears, like a little girl’s, and she turned her head in the pillow. “Lemme alone,” she murmured. “You interfering doctors.”
“Listen, I know it’s difficult, but labor is not progressing, Mr. Svenson. You need to rally yourself together. You really need to make an effort here. I don’t know why it’s stopping. There is no medical reason. But your baby will be in distress soon. You must pull yourself together.”
Her brow contracted.
“Your child will soon be in danger, Mrs. Svenson.”
“Just take it out. Just take it away. Take it away from me.”
Martje, heartbroken, slipped backwards and went out the door. She went and looked at her father, slumped on his chair.
She wanted to say, “I hate you,” but the words were not form on her tongue. Her tongue only melted in pity - for, how pathetic. How small he was. How in shadow.
She then heard a footfall behind her, and Addah slinked in, looking like a black water snake to Marte. “What happened last night?” she asked.
Martje whirled fully around. Addah stood there, her thin arms folded up. “What happened to her?”
Martje felt a flame sweep over her chest. How dare she. “I don’t know what you’re talking about -”
“Look. Martje. I understand. Believe me, I understand.” She unfolded her arms and bent down a bit. “But I need to help your mother here, and I need to help her desperately. I don’t know if she can survive the blood loss of an operation. I want to help get this baby out, and you can help me. Tell me what happened.”
Martje looked at her squarely in the eye. “I said,” she said coolly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Addah stood up and sighed. “Classic.” She flung a withered hand out. “I don’t mean to be abrasive - I understand - I was raised in a similar family - but I do have to help your mother.”
“I think you have all the information you seem to want,” said Martje, buzzing with anger.
“Then I do,” said Addah, also coldly, and went back into the room.
A minute later, the doctor hurried out, looking over his shoulder, disgruntled and intimidated-looking, as if he had been thrown out. “Fiddle,” he muttered. Then he spied Martje, sitting huddled up against the hall wall.
“You’d better go get pots of water to boil and plenty of soap,” he said. “Your mother is going to need it.”
“Do you have anesthesia?”
“…Will she survive it?”
“With prayers,” he said. He stalked outside.
Martje could hear murmuring voices on the other side of the wood door.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I can’t do it. I’m so tired. Just get him out of me. Take him away.”
“You can rest soon. Just try, angel-girl. This baby wants to meet his ma. Here’s some water. Relax…you’re safe with me.”
“I can’t. I can’t. No, just cut him out. Just cut him out.”
“Yes, honey, yes.” Then a pause. “I’m going to get help. You just wait here.”
Martje backed up, as the door opened, but Addah did not go after the doctor. Instead Martje watched her go into the kitchen.
“Wake up. She needs you,” Martje heard.
“She can do without me. She’s better off without me.”
“That is not true. You should see her face. She’s failing. Your wife could die.”
“That’s not possible. And if it is, what can I do about it?”
“You can do something. Go in there, go after her - talk to her - fight for her. Do you love her?”
“Why are you getting so personal? You have no right -”
“She’s my world. I can’t live without her.” His voice sounded so weak.
A minute later he came stumbling into the hall. He did not see Martje, crumpled there against the wall. Addah did not come out of the kitchen. He hesitated before the bedroom door and then went in. Martje, after a pause, heard muffled voices.
“I’m sorry - I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry… You’ve got to live. I can’t live without you. Here, you need another pillow… you need a drink of water?”
Sleep, with its ironclad hand, overcame her: she nodded her head and slumped over. She wasn’t sure whether it was a few minutes or many hours later - but she woke suddenly by a wail. It was a fresh wail, the human form of the silent wail of the rosebud pushing open its first petal. It was not a cry of death. Partially in a haze, she stumbled to her feet and opened the door and saw a purple baby being pulled from the bed. He was a frightening color: gray and blue, like her finger once looked like when she cut off the blood supply by tying a string too tight in play. Mrs. Svenson weakly reached for her child, her white hands out, out like doves, and the doctor kept him away; he said, “The cord has been around his neck for too long -”
And Mrs. Svenson, more like an animal than Martje had ever seen, gripped the sheets with her hands, her hair wild and wet and plastered to her neck, and shrieked, “No - save him, Axel, save him!” Martje realized how silent the baby was. “Don’t let him take him!”
Mr. Svenson seemed to grow to double his height. He swelled his chest out and stood up straight. He got that look that always appalled Martje when directed at her. But he turned it towards the doctor. And he stood up, swaying and stumbling a bit, and clenched his fists and said, “Now, you, Doctor, now you here won’t touch him -”
But the doctor laid the baby flat and put his mouth upon the child’s and Mrs. Svenson without reason kept saying, “Save him, Axel, save him,” and then the pinkened baby began a cackling cry, and was placed in Mrs. Svenson’s arms and Mr. Svenson shoved his fingers into his eyes - and Martje saw: she saw the need and she knew it had nothing to do with her: she saw for the first time that her parents were in a world all to themselves and that neither Martje nor the doctor nor even the new baby were in it: that they existed before anyone else, and that there was something between them that was higher and larger than Martje and untouchable, and she backed off... blinking as if she had seen too much sunlight, or a ghost.