Martje, Chapter Eleven
IN NOVEMBER, Gerte’s lip split and she dabbed goose fat on it every day with the care of a Michelangelo.
Also in November they received a letter postmarked an English seaport. It was dated a month previous. It was cheery, but brief, informing them that Olaf and his friend were wintering in a village. They were working as chore-boys in a tavern and inn, and in the spring, they were subscripted to join the crew of a Caribbean merchant ship.
“Ask Signe if she’d like me to send her a monkey,” Olaf wrote.
Mrs. Svenson stared out the kitchen window at the leafless trees. “I don’t know where the Caribbean is,” she said, her hands washing butter in the sink.
“It’s off the coast of Central America,” said Martje, folding up the letter. “Lots of little islands…like Grenada and Barbados and Aruba and Trinidad. White sands and tropical flowers.”
“Hmph.” Mr. Svenson sat back, his arms folded across his chest. His eyes were dead: half-closed. “What an adventure.”
“We should send him a letter back!” said Martje, putting the envelope on the mantle.
“I doubt he’d want to hear from his father,” said Mr. Svenson, and got up and left.
Mrs. Svenson said, “It will take forever to get there.”
“But just in time for Christmas. - Oh, we should send him a Christmas package!”
“Jea, that’d be a nice idea,” said Mrs. Svenson, but Martje knew she would do nothing about it.
“Like a Christmas cake,” said Ingrid.
“Mold,” said Mrs. Svenson.
Martje took her purse and went to town. In the general shop, she bought some knick-knacks and all the hard candy she could find until the few coins she possessed had vanished.
“What’s all this?” laughed Mr. Spicer, a red-faced, fat man, as he wrapped up her purchases on the counter. “Does your mother know you’re buying so many sweets?”
“It’s for my brother,” said Martje, importantly, “who’s a sailor in England.”
She trotted back home and then spread her plunder out on her bed.
There was peanut brittle, horehound, lemon drops, striped sticks of various flavors, maple sugar candy, saltwater taffy, black taffy, and teaberry gum. She added to this a top, and some jacks, and playing cards, and his whittling knife left under his bed that he must have forgotten. She wrapped it all up in brown paper. And she wrote him a letter, plummy with news. She made no sentimental mention of his departure: she only told him the village gossip and the diverting stories around the house. She carried it around to be signed by everyone.
“Your holly leaves will brown,” said Mrs. Svenson, for Martje had garnished the package with greenery. “But put a bayberry candle in for luck.” She wrote, “Olaf, wear dry clothes always and eat as many lemons as you can. Remember I love you with all my heart.”
“We miss you so much,” inscribed Mr. Svenson. “Come back. The door is always open. Take care. Be careful.”
Before she left, Ingrid came running down. “Wait!” she yelled, waving something. “I was stitching this for Bit” - her friend - “but I want to send it to Olaf!”
It was a fleecy handkerchief, bedecked with spills of red and pink roses, unfinished in one corner. She unpricked the silver needle and handed it over.
“Thanks, Ingrid,” said Martje, untying the string and folding it inside, respectfully. “He’ll be overcome, I’m sure.”
“It’s missing some flowers there. Do you think he’ll care?”
“I don’t think he’ll notice,” she said.
“I want to thend a rock!” shouted Signe, inspired by Ingrid.
“Do you have a special one?” asked Martje, surprised.
“Yeth. Wait,” she said, sliding down from her chair, “right - there.” She banged herself out the door, and out the window Martje could see her rustling about, shoving her fat little hands into the earth, until she found a lumpy mound. She came in.
“Ith thith pretty enough?” she asked, holding a dirt-encrusted stone up.
Martje rinsed it off. “Jea. See the mica flecks.”
“Olaf will like that,” said Signe, satisfied with herself.
“Go quickly, Martje,” said Mrs. Svenson, “or the post office will be closed.”
“Give him this also,” said Hans quietly, handing over his pocketknife. “He always liked mine better. I’ll take the one you found, instead.”
So she untied it humbly and changed the knives, and at last tied it firmly back up. She carried the Christmas parcel off on her pony to be mailed as if it were the Magi’s gift of gold, and the Svensons did not hear from Olaf again for seven years.
“I think I’ll be done,” said Mr. Svenson.
“You’ve hardly touched your plate,” said Mrs. Svenson, as if he were one of her sons.
“I think it was the bag of licorice I ate earlier,” he said.
“You’re sneaking sweets?”
“Anyway.” He spoke that word as if he didn’t care to give more explanation. He crumpled up his napkin by his plate and got up.
He did the same the next night. He did not sit: he looked at his plate of smoldering sweet potatoes and put a bony hand to his gut. “I think I had a late tea with Art,” he said.
“So you aren’t going to sit down?” asked Mrs. Svenson.
“You can,” he said.
But Mrs. Svenson put her napkin down and followed him. She craned her head around the door corner and hissed out words that she obviously tried not to let the table hear:
And the following night, he scraped a few pieces of food onto his plate, under the distorting light of the oil lamp above: less than half of his normal mountainous portions, and he stood in front at the stove, not waiting for the meal to go to the table, moving like a bird pecking at seeds in the garden. When his plate was less than half full, he cringed off, taking his food with him.
Mrs. Svenson cracked a lid on a ceramic pot.
“Now you’re taking it away! Give that to me. - Trying to set a good example -” She tracked him into the hall: the black words flapped into the kitchen and folded their wings up in Martje’s ears. “- You’re being so unreliable. I’m trying to keep this family together -”
“- Like you’re the only one! And this family is already destroyed. It’s mainly your f-fault and - your anger…”
“My fault? My fault? Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing!”
“Everyone is destroyed…”
“My children are ruined…”
“Stop it right now.”
“We are ruined, Olga.”
“Your words make me crazy!”
“A train wreck; we’re a disaster…you’re a disaster -”
“I can’t hear this anymore. If you continue like this, I am taking them. I swear to God in heaven, I will leave.”
“And where will you go? Where can you go, Olga? Nowhere. Nowhere. We’re all in insanity together.”
“We’re not. You are.”
“No.” His voice was calm…sweet. “You are. We all are.”
She came to her father in the barn, wearing a dove-colored dress. It was simple, but she was afraid the bodice was too tight. She stood before him in the barn, as he was bent over, picking a rock out of Invader’s hoof.
She opened her sweater.
“Is this modest, Papa?” she asked.
His eyes glanced up, but briefly. They dropped down again. She had seen that the whites of his eyes were yellow.
“Jea. Sure,” he said.
He seemed to want to get rid of her.
“You look fine,” he added dismissively.
“Alright… Just…I wasn’t sure.” She felt foolish.
But in her motion to go away, he asked, “Are you excited for Christmas?”
She turned. “It’s far away.”
“Jea, but -” His boot was toeing something underneath a stool, trying to put it behind his leg. “- Children get excited weeks early. I know it. Are you excited for what Jultomte will bring?”
“I happen to know it’s special. The gnome’s been watching you.”
Did he think she could not see it? To save him, she said playfully, “Is that so? I can’t wait.”
“I know you’ll like it. I suggested it to him myself.” A brief sparkle burbled up in his eye.
“Oh… Well, then!” She smiled and turned again to leave, but he said quickly,
“Do you think Olaf got our package?”
“I don’t know. I hope so,” in a voice as if she were speaking to Signe.
“That was a nice idea of yours.”
“You know, Martje, I wanted to thank you for all you do for this family… I don’t know what we’d all do without you.”
“You’d get along just fine.”
“No,” he said, musingly. “No. I don’t think so.” It was as if he was polishing the sterling of his belief with the slowness of his words. “I feel better knowing you’re around. Knowing you’re not going to be in school in the coming years, especially. That was a smart choice. - It was a noble choice.”
“It’s what I wanted to do.”
“No, but I think you do a lot for this family. We might not have gotten through past…hard times…half so easily. Even maybe not at all. Who knows,” he shrugged.
“Anyway, I’m keeping - ah, I’m keeping you.”
She met him in the hall: she was coming, he was going. He was pulling on boots and a muffler; in her apron, she had an autumn bounty of cattails and skeletal bracken. She paused and look at him. He seemed to have shrunk a few inches recently. But this was impossible. So it must have been something not of physical substance leaking from him: and he seemed see-through. But his appearance itself was altered.
He had become more and more like a scarecrow, with a straw-colored face and the bone on his wrist protruding. His eyes were unfilled, and the shade of unshaven red swathed over his cheek was grotesque. She could not smell the earth on him, only the faint traces of ammonia and bitter Warburg’s tincture and the pervasive scent of yeast. Where was the skin the shade of burnt carrots and the bull-like strength?
Martje for the past weeks had felt his spirit ebbing: when she saw deformed pieces of paper in the grate; when she saw him smoking with a poetry book on his knee, opened but unread; when his bedroom light went out at six every night; when he stood in the field, his tool idly in his hand, looking out at nothing.
As tides do, they leave the bones of creatures and dried-up seaweed and empty shells: they leave what was being stored below. Martje saw these shells and bony sea-creatures in Mr. Svenson, and it unseated her.
He had on his battered coat and soft plaid shirt that late afternoon. He was fumbling with the laces on his boots.
“I was out for a walk,” she said.
He leaned over farther strangely as if to protect himself from her, she felt. He squeezed his shoulders in, reached. He was searching for his tobacco under the bench.
“I’m going up Checkerberry now,” he said.
“Ah,” she said.
To see the sunset. She did, herself, sometimes. She would go to Eagle Valley to see the blaze of red smudging the gray November above the skyline and the stretch of leafless trees and ever-pines, their gray illuminated briefly with carmine. Yet the walk home in the stars was eerie.
“Embrace him,” she thought. But she walked past without contact. She dropped the cattails summarily. “They’ll tuft,” said her mother.
“It takes a while to walk back, I guess,” Martje was saying to Mrs. Svenson.
Dinner had passed. When the moon came up over the horizon, Mrs. Svenson took a lantern, grimly put a brown shawl over her head, and went outside.
Martje for once was not sensitive to the forces that were at work. She felt empty-headed. She hummed as she washed the dishes. She quarreled with Hans.
Soon Mrs. Svenson thrust her body half-way through in the door. She spoke too quickly for Martje to study her face.
“Put them all to bed,” she said. “I’ll be back.”
In a minute, Martje saw her flying out from the barn on Invader. Martje had never seen her mother ride before. Not once. As Olga cleared the farmyard, she was beautiful: she did not look heavy, but one with the animal, leaning forwards in perfect, light form, mystical under the stars, and riding fast, so fast. Her shawl flapped and then ripped from her shoulders and went sailing in the moonlit air and then crumpled like a dead thing, like a felled pheasant, in the shadows on the ground as she disappeared.
“Where is she going?” asked Ingrid.
“I don’t know.”
When the sound of hooves faded down the lane, Martje, not able anymore to look out into the night, rustled all the children up the stairs and quenched them in bed. She then drew the baby onto her lap and sat on the kitchen hearth. And waited.
Logs snapped, and threw fireflies up the flue. An owl hooted from the distant Sagolandet.
She did not know how much time went past: whether it was long or short. But presently Martje heard, out in the night, voices outside the back door. The baby was now asleep in his cradle by the fire. Men were out in the dark.
“Just give me a minute with my daughter, won’t you?”
Martje heard the door snap open. She stood. Mrs. Svenson looked at her.
“Is Papa sick?” asked Martje tremulously, with what she thought was bravery and maturity. She squared her chin.
“No, raring,” said Mrs. Svenson. “He is -”
“Dead,” she said; in that moment her soul that passed bravery or maturity and she stood unlike a child - not like a woman; suddenly out of her body, white-faced and so intensely purple-eyed that Mrs. Svenson looked alarmed and like she almost couldn’t even get out the next word -
She made a noise, something that cannot be described, and she turned her little body, in its dove gown, immediately from her mother. Mrs. Svenson went to her. She put both arms around her, surprisingly emotionally, but more to Martje like she was playing the part of a mother, going through the motions, than out of real attachment, or perhaps just in the inspiration of the full moment. The girl didn’t move.
“Can you breathe? Sh. Not now, jea? Sh.”
“Mrs. Svenson -”
A rosy man pranced in self-consciously, his face shiny with soap: he was still young.
“My consolations for your loss,” he announced. Suddenly in the presence of two men, the two women were able to hold themselves up more firmly.
Martje was grateful: in the moment her world went blank, there was importunate ritual.
“I just need your permission to -”
“Of course; of course. Could you all just -”
“I’m sorry. Yes, I don’t want to be intrusive. I realize this is sudden. Let me take care of the remains. I will call tomorrow to discuss the burial details. God bless you both!” He bowed in the old way, and then minced out.
The doctor came over and put his hand briefly on Mrs. Svenson’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” he said. He looked at Martje and she felt naked; his eyes felt invasive and she flinched.
“This is all so very difficult.” His voice was measured, calm. “Know if there’s anything I can -”
“Thank you, no.”
“If you’d like any calming solution to ease -”
“No,” said Mrs. Svenson.
He looked at Martje also. She shook her head wordlessly.
“Very well. But, ma’am, may I just suggest…you recently gave birth…”
“Thank you. No.”
“Alright.” He chewed his lip. “I never get used to this,” candidly, but to whom they did not know; then he nodded and exited.
Mrs. Svenson stood there. The clock ticked loudly. There was such a silence.
Soon, as if she needed to break it, as if it would be more tolerable to move, Mrs. Svenson sat down on the hearth. She rubbed her hands in her hair. “What will I do?” it sounded like she muttered in Swedish.
Aloud - “You should go to bed, Martje,” she said shortly.
The girl again wordlessly shook her head. She sank down on a chair.
Presently Mrs. Svenson asked again - “Do you want to go to bed?”
“No,” said Martje.
The clock ticked on.
“Bed, now,” said Mrs. Svenson at midnight.
Martje murmured, “No.”
“Me, neither,” said Mrs. Svenson. “And no need to wake the barn.” So she stopped asking. They sat together in the unstable light of a fermenting fire.
One…two…three o’clock. Her head nodded onto the table once or twice. But she woke again. The fire hissed and popped and cracked all night long.
At five a.m., Martje spoke for the first time.
“Was he coming or going?”
“What?” asked Mrs. Svenson hoarsely.
“Was he lying facing the woods or the house?”
“What does it matter?”
“I want to know if he saw the sunset or not.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Svenson’s voice gentled. She cleared her throat. “It wasn’t clear. It wasn’t one direction or the other. He was facing into the field.”
“I bet he saw the sunset,” said Martje.
At last the sun started to rise. Its warm red on the horizon was an insult, bizarre, surreal.
Mrs. Svenson stood. “I’m going to sleep,” she said. “You should, too,” as if the light made the mattress bearable. She looked at her from the doorway. “Are you alright?” she said to her daughter.
“I feel nothing,” she said.
“I feel the same. Well,” said Mrs. Svenson, taking her hand from the doorway. “Get some rest,” and disappeared.
He was face-down in the field, half-way between the farmhouse and the woods. The golden grass was enveloping, embracing, and almost engulfing his body.
What was horrid to Martje was how much sense it made. He wanted to go. He left because he wanted to be engulfed, to be no more. It was a heartbreaking deduction.
The undertaker came again shortly. Marjte heard something about a liver; Mrs. Svenson told the young man firmly that her husband had had a penchant for sunstroke. When he left, Mrs. Svenson muttered, frying fiskbullar,
“He did it himself.”
“The sunstroke?” dared Martje impudently.
Mrs. Svenson looked at her. “Alright, Martje. But keep it that way for the barn, jea? There’s no need for you to get all moral. Let’s keep at least one thing about our lives decent. I’d thank you for that.”
“Ith he going to go in the meadow?” asked Signe.
“No, älskling,” said Mrs. Svenson, gently, “in the graveyard where all people are supposed to be buried.”
Martje did not even undress, that night after the funeral. She lay Gerte in his cradle next to her bed. She pulled Hans and Signe and Ingrid into her bed. The babies, exhausted, slumbered immediately, and Ingrid sobbed herself to sleep. Martje could not think of how she felt. She could not feel how she felt. The colors of ten thousand colors were not distinguishable; she was shrouded in a white blinding light. Exteriorly, she thought she was comforting her siblings as she put her arm over Signe’s body - that wet, limp, tired, trusting four-year old - but Martje wanted something warm and tangible to hold onto. Her father had faded, yes: had gone out like a flame swallowed by fat because he had kept his wick too short. But he was also gone like a giant tree that was felled, and he left a gap that was horrifying, and the field of her existence only looked strange, wild, weird, empty.
Not long after, Brita said, “My mama is amazed at you. She said she thinks you’re taking this really well. You’re so chipper and plucky. Thought it would’ve broken you or something.”
Martje was not unaware of the suspicion behind the words, but she thought with pride:
“Of course it didn’t break me. What could have broken me?”
And Ingrid asked, “Do you have no emotion?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not crying. You haven’t cried once. Or at least I haven’t seen you.”
Martje shrugged helplessly.
“Papa’s gone,” said Ingrid.
“Not really,” said Martje.
“Yes, he is,” said Ingrid.
“To me, he isn’t really,” said Martje.
Ingrid sat on the floor quietly.
“I can’t think that way,” she finally cried out. “I would, but I can’t.”
Martje put her arm again around her sister - it was instinctive: her arm was soft and natural - but she could not help feeling a trifle…what was it? - advanced.
Ingrid often talked about mutual memories and anecdotes - “Remember last Christmas when Papa -” “Remember when he played that joke on Olaf -” “Oh, he was so good at knowing the stars, weren’t he!” She put up a photograph of their father on the girls’ vanity table, and Martje hated it with an intensity, wanted to smash it every time she saw it: smash that blurry brownish picture to bits and crush the glass to powder. She put the frame face-down several times when she was in the room. She continued to think disparagingly of Ingrid’s altar until she saw the items her sister was slowly adding around the base of the frame: little things: a comb, a shiny rock, a locket. Paltry things, pathetic things. Even the locket was a broken throw-away that had originally been Martje’s. Her heart melted, and she gave her her shrine and her small memories.
Martje, herself, obliterated what she could find. Anything of her father’s she put in a box under her bed, but not for foresighted nostalgia. Mrs. Svenson did not do this: she was economical, yes, in folding away Mr. Svenson’s shirts for Hans later - but she left, for example, Papa’s pipe on the mantle, with its last ashes, or his sock with a hole carelessly still in her mending basket. Martje threw these articles out or put them in the box, and very little of Axel Svenson soon remained in the house. And his poem - it had become sharp as a whetted knife’s edge. She put it away. Rosalynde, also: Martje cruelly planted her in the frosty herb garden - as a memorial, she said to herself and anyone who asked, but she did not want to wake up to yellow.
“It won’t survive the winter,” said Mrs. Svenson sharply.
She felt irresponsible; she said, “Yes, maybe not,” lightly.
Early in frozen December, a rustle and a bump was heard on the front porch.
“Groundhogs,” said her mother, and opened the door to reveal a young man, half-bent over, his arms full of logs. There was a stack already by the door.
“I’m just -” he said, straightening.
“Good morning, Mr. McDowell.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Svenson -” He dropped a piece with a high, hollow “chink” on the step. Martje was watching from the window.
“Do you want to come inside?”
“Ah, no; I’m just -”
“Jea, what is this?”
“I’m clearing my wood plot.”
“There’s nothing in the contract that says you must…”
“’Tis too much, so I thought you’d be wanting…”
“Of course not. You’re starting off.”
“Winter month’s cold.”
“I know this more than you.”
“I just need it off my hands,” he said. “As I’m clearing the copse. Otherwise I’d…be burning it in the brush pile as scrap. You know?”
Lie, thought Martje.
She was tortured again and again by the memory of that last sunset scene. She could not as easily plant intangibility among the sage and thyme. If she could have given him a reason…
Or breathed warmth…
“Jea, what is it?”
She could not bear it, so she did what she rarely attempted, because she could see no other recourse: it just poured out of her, as she and her mother were putting away food that villagers had brought, late at night, by candlelight:
“I don’t think I loved him enough! I didn’t -” she rushed it out, as if ashamed by her own naked, perhaps infantile, emotion - “I didn’t even hug him that last day. Mama, I’d give a pound of blood to push through the gates of time backward and do it.”
“No, Martje. No.” Her mother was in a remarkably benevolent mood. “Your father knew you loved him. You defended him for years, even against me. You took his side when no one else would. It was a rare thing, your relationship.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. Don’t worry another second about it. You two had a special bond. Gud, look at all these jellies.”
And that was when Martje became aware of something.
“We have so many,” Mrs. Svenson was saying. “I don’t know what we’ll do with all of this.” Her mother was staring downwards at the oranges with cloves and the jelly molds. “No one even likes this mint truck,” said Mrs. Svenson. “Maybe we should give some to Mrs. Jansson?”
“Jea?” she murmured. Her hands were going, tying at a package.
“I have something else important to say, I think.”
“Jea, Martje. Tell me. What is it?”
Her demeanor had changed: but she was still looking at the string.
“Alright, then. Tell me later if you like.” She paused. “I think four jars is just far too much, jea.”
“Jea. And I’m going to sleep now,” said Martje abruptly.
“Alright. Thank you for all your help today.”
“G’night, Mama.” She came around the table and pecked a kiss on her soft cheek, feeling the whispers of unkempt hair against her own face. Mrs. Svenson patted and rubbed her arm awkwardly, using the other hand to hold down the package, and keeping her gaze on the knot.
Christmas Eve found the town of Moguncoy bare and cold as iron. The sky was a blanket of impenetrable gray. The ground was hard, frozen, sharp: no snow softened the contours. Martje, however, filled the house with pine boughs and the light of red candles. She set out a blue bowl on the hearth, which they would use for porridge for Jultomte. She placed the single angel figurine they owned on the mantel. She felt mirthless but she would make it festive, and planned on cutting gingerbread tree decorations with the children later on. That afternoon, she wrapped herself in a scarf, put on her boots, and went out to get a tree herself - being now the eldest in the house - and found a fat fir already lying against the porch. She yanked it inside, and dragged it into the parlor. She buried her nose in its springy, scented branches: thrilled, relieved.
While she was struggling to stand it upright, Ingrid came in to her, with china-plate eyes.
“You’ll never guess who’s in the kitchen!”
Martje ran into the room, and her tall, dark-haired brother rose solidly to meet her. He kissed her soberly.
“How have you been, Martje?” he asked in Swedish.
She retired, awkwardly. He kept his eyes bent on her - not in the way that indicated ease.
“- I’m well.”
“I hear you’re not in school anymore.”
“Still studying,” she answered defensively.
“Tell Martje what you’re doing,” said Mrs. Svenson from the corner rocking chair, her hands loosely laced together in her lap, so rarely without work - and also not in a way that indicated ease. But her voice was proud. “…What you’ve been doing.”
“Well,” he said, not able to keep the pleasure out of his voice, “Somehow or other - I don’t know how -”
“Fortune favors the bold,” said Mrs. Svenson.
“It was part-luck. See, I got a miniscule room above a chemist’s shop, and I’d been working in a factory: just drudge-work. But every single spare second I had, I spent down in the shop: sweeping, you know, dusting windows, washing bottles, doing things without being asked. I think I annoyed Mr. Henley at first, but then he got used to me, and after only two months I was doing errands. Now he finds me indispensable.”
Mrs. Svenson beamed.
“And he’s offered me a full-time position. As an errand boy, of course, but I hope to one day, if he keeps me around long enough and likes me enough, to study with him. You know a chemist is only a step below a doctor. So I’m going to watch him and learn with all I’ve got. It may not sound like a lot, but I’m closer to my dream than I’ve ever been before. This is an astounding opportunity and I’m going to wring it till it’s dry.”
Martje smiled. “You’re not back, then.”
“Martje, please,” said her mother.
“No,” he said slowly. “No. I’ve got work to do.”
“Yes!” said Mrs. Svenson. “A boy has to do what a boy has to do. A man must make his way. I was wrong. I think I had misconceptions about that.”
“You’ve changed your - you’ve thought -” said Martje.
“Things aren’t necessarily the same as they were when I was younger. Here, if you want to become a doctor, you - well, you find your way and you do it. Wil’s doing a fine job with that.”
Wilfred smiled smoothly. “Thank you, Mother.” His hair looked oiled. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, but I enjoy it. I like challenge, you know. And I hope to help people out one day,” grandiosely.
“Lovely,” said his sister. “Good for you.”
“Are you being saucy?” growled her mother.
Martje stood. “No, really. I’m not. Helping others is - beautiful and I’m glad for you, Wilfred.”
He looked down at her with surprise and fingered a cigarette case, nervously, addictively. “- Thanks, sis,” he said.
“I suppose you’re staying for Christmas Eve dinner?”
“- Of course,” said Wilfred and Mrs. Svenson simultaneously.
“Then I’ll see you after I call on Brita. She says she has a present for me and is expecting me. Good to see you home.”
Even on Christmas, goats have to be milked. Martje started to walk into the barn and stopped short. She had stumbled upon a scene she was sure she was not supposed to see. She sprang back. Mrs. Svenson and Wilfred stood on the hay, in an almost sanctimonious pose. Their breath was coming and going in suspended, holy, white clouds. She couldn’t help seeing through the crack of the door. She was drawn to its familiarity, mesmerized.
“Son. I love you so much.”
Mrs. Svenson took his dark head in her hands and pulled it downward to her height and kissed the top of his curls.
“I love you too much,” she whispered, and then laughed girlishly as if ashamed.
“Aw, Mother,” he took his hands and held her wrists, but it was a light, childish touch, boyish. “You know I didn’t mean to go as I did?”
“I know - I know it. You hadn’t a choice.”
“And you understand now what it means for me - why I must -”
“Jea. It’s hard, but - jea.” They paused. “Come here,” she said, and leaned up and kissed his brown, smooth cheek with her pink lips.
“It’s hard to live without you, Mother,” he said, smiling guiltily, still hanging from her wrists.
“It’s hard to live without - you.”
“…Will you be alright?”
“You know I’ll be.”
He had stepped back, but he briefly reached out to touch her cheek. “My brave, stalwart mama!” Mrs. Svenson seemed to scoop her cheek in a moment of unrestrained hunger into it - just a moment, but Martje saw it. She dipped her face with its soft drooping skin onto the smooth young heel of his hand.
Martje quickly pulled away. She went outside. She was furiously pumping water buckets when Wilfred shortly emerged. He frowned as if disgruntled to see her, but he lingered to light a cigarette. He walked a few steps away, but then he turned. “Don’t you have something else to do, than hanging around here? ...Dolls or - no, I think you write fairy-stories all day, jea?”
He hadn’t lost his “jea”, and his signature cock of the head - goading, intimidating.
“I don’t just do that. I’m staying at home so I can help.”
“Oh, yes?” He looked down at her with handsome, hateful, brown eyes: eyes of a man she was sure she didn’t know. “Good for you.” As if suddenly becoming self-conscious of his tone, he laughed. “- A little farmer girl.”
“I guess I am.”
He no longer seemed like the grown man he had been masquerading as before. He kicked the ground moodily, as an eighteen-and-a-half-year old boy. “I’m glad you like it. I hate farming.” She knew that he was barely speaking to her and that this was not an intimacy. “I hate it. Good thing you’re an enthusiast.”
“I despise it with all my heart,” she said shortly.
And then, enjoying the taste of the words in her mouth, she continued, the feeling growing larger as she spoke: “I’d rather run in the woods. Not get up at dawn. Not go to bed hurting. I want to paint, write. I want to finish a book and put paintings on the wall. So,” she finished, cruelly turning her voice to sweetness, “so you see, I know just how you feel.”
He looked at her, sucked in his breath, scuffed his toe, and then suddenly, as if he couldn’t take something, said “Sst!” and walked briskly away, in his long pants and city shoes. But he stopped and turned. He jabbed his lit cigarette in the air at her. “You’re trying to make me feel guilty with what you’re doing,” he said. “You and your - imaginary people. Your dream worlds. You can stand anything ‘cause you’re not in reality. You don’t really care. So stop trying to make me feel guilty for doing what I’m supposed to do. For helping myself up. I don’t want your judgment. Even Mama isn’t doing that. You’re an idiotic woman.”
She was so angry she could barely speak. “You’re talking like Papa,” she said.
Wilfred turned and was walking away, the creases in his slacks cracking with his steps. “That’s your father,” he said.
Martje ran inside. She had heard the infant Axel crying.
She took the stairs two at a time. He was in his cradle, his face heated with wailing. She picked him up, bounced him around, dipped her knees up and down. He soothed himself slightly, against her body, hiccupped once or twice, and she put him down gingerly - tensely - already knowing what was about to happen. Sure enough, he screwed up his face and let out an indignant roar. She knelt swiftly, fiercely, and gritted her teeth. Her hands gripped the cradle as she shook it slightly.
“Be quiet! Be quiet! Won’t you ever shut up?” she hissed. Her face was glinting close at him, twisted with blackness and monstrous anger - at only a slip of life that had seen two revolutions of the moon. “Shut up!”
And then the realization broke over her. Fear and shame rushed through her as her features softened.
“Oh, my baby…” Gentle hands scooped underneath his butter-rippled back. She held him to her. “Oh, Axel.”
The morning was pale and thin. The two women, one day-haired, one night-haired, stood at the doorway, their skirts straight and limp, their apron strings flapping, their hands in the same position: by their sides.
“Goodbye!” called Wilfred lightly, waving.
Mrs. Svenson rose her hand and then turned away inside. “I think I’ll make a pudding. What do you think?”
“I’ll get a half-quart of plums,” she said, turning to the barn.
“Martje,” called Mrs. Svenson.
“What?” said Martje. “- One?”
“Think of it: we’re women. We can do anything.”
“I know it.”
“I know,” she said, but her words were to end the conversation. She felt false. She went into the frosty stable. She took the jangling bridle down from its hook and hung the saddle over her arm.
She pulled the girth up through the buckle, hard, tight.
She had clipped her heart’s wings and shoved the organ into a back drawer and locked it. That organ rumbled in secret and in the dark: the cut wings spurted blood and pus at the roots and then hardened, and there was little evidence whether they were determined to grow again or not.
As she was walking with a pail of milk in her hand, she stopped by the herb garden, and saw her yellow rosebush. She almost knew it wouldn’t work, because of what she felt inside. But just out of curiosity, she put her pail down and knelt by her flower. She reached out a hand, calloused, pudgier, and touched gently one yellow petal.
“Hello, my love,” she whispered. “Mama’s here. I know I haven’t talked to you in a long time. How are you? Tell me how you’ve been.”
The rose sat there, not quivering, not moving, not speaking. It sat like all other roses do. It was like the silent daisies next to it and the clover below it.
Martje withdrew her hand and stood up. It was confirmed. That part of her had turned to -
“Sawdust,” she said aloud. She picked up her pail and went to the milking shed.
- END of PART ONE -