Martje, Chapter Five
[The new ending starts after her conversation with Rowan ends.]
“I shouldn’t be having to do this,” Mr. Svenson said, when Martje entered the kitchen, sprigs of sweet marjoram in her hand. He gave the broom to his daughter and went out the back kitchen door, and as she swept she heard the splashing on the outside slate step. He walked back in then, his arms washed to the elbows, and looked at the floor.
She had the sense that his eyes were severely trained like a hawk and that he wanted to see dirty pine boards. He took the broom, muttering, and poked it at a corner, flicking out a few dry corn seeds. He stooped down and picked them up, put them in his palm, walked over to the open door, and flung them out into the grass. He turned to her. He hadn’t seen his daughter in her pepper-colored dress and brown boots: that was Martje’s feeling.
“It’s better to not do something at all,” he said, “than to do it badly.”
She smiled because she did not know what else to say. She put her hands in the dishwater, and Mrs. Svenson swished in.
“Has anyone seen Wilfred today?”
“- Does anyone ever see Wilfred?”
But Mrs. Svenson did not laugh. She was holding up a small white piece of paper in a white hand.
“He’s left. I found this on the mantle.” Mr. Svenson took it out of her hand. “Go and find him” - as hard as the granite of the hills.
Mr. Svenson crumpled the paper, struck his hat down off the wall, and walked out. The teacups rattled when the door closed. A minute later, Martje saw the buggy carting down the road. Mrs. Svenson smoothed the ravished paper. But her eyes were out the window. “He’s doing it,” she said softly. “He’s doing it all.”
Olaf was standing in the stairway.
“Good on Will.”
“Don’t even say something like that,” said Mrs. Svenson.
Only an hour later, Mr. Svenson returned. He was looking exhausted, and his head, to Martje, seemed very clear for once. He sat down and coughed, streaming his fingers through his dusty hair. “Easily enough,” he said. “I asked down at the station. He’s gone off to Lowell.”
“Fan honom! To work at the mills?”
“Nej, I think not - he’s not the type. If anything, he’s probably going to find some kind clerical job there. He never wanted to farm, he said, and was always jundering on about becoming a doctor.”
“And what did you tell him then?” asked Martje. “That he had to work the family farm and never leave it?”
He turned to her. “I told him he could do what he wanted,” he said angrily. “For my daughter, you could give your father more respect.”
“Why didn’t you go after him?” asked Mrs. Svenson wildly.
Martje was surprised to hear Mr. Svenson’s voice turn tender.
“Now, wait a minute, Olga. I thought about this a lot. He’s eighteen.”
“- He’s not your blood, is what you mean.”
“I mean he’s a young man. We can’t stop him. Even the law is on his side.”
“Because you’re afraid! You’re afraid to talk to him, unlike a man - not like a father. You never loved my sons - never. You always… I will go after him.” She took her hat. She pinned it with shaking fingers. “I will.”
“You are needed here. You can’t make such a trip. You’re with child. And will you take Gerte?”
She paused with her hand on her drawstring purse - “I can take Gerte.”
“- Not easily. Will you really feed that barn on the train?”
“Then you go,” she said violently. “Bring my son back to me!”
“I can’t, Olga. None of us can.”
“Alvar would have. He would have been on the next train to Lowell - and he would not have returned unless it was with his son. You want him gone.”
“Not at all,” said Mr. Svenson. “Believe me. Jea, jea, this is what I do. Listen, Olga. I’ll go there in the morning. I’ll take the first train. I’ll ask around. If I find him, I’ll talk to him - but no more, you understand? I will tell him how his mother feels, but nothing more than that. Is that fine enough for you?”
She turned her face towards the wall. “He could have said goodbye. He was chased off,” quietly. “I regret the day…”
She trailed off, but Martje saw pain cut across her father’s eye - just like when a sprig slashes across an open eye in the forest.
“I’ll take that train today,” he said, and went out the door.
Two days later he returned without Wilfred, and Olga Svenson walked about with a spirit that felt to Martje like an iris encased in a glaze from a spring icestorm. And when she looked into her mother’s eyes she saw in the blackness and the glassy reflection the prancing figures of a young family in the dark fields of Sweden surrounded by fiercely orange flowers and wild clouds and a young man Martje never knew.
Not long after, Martje stood and scrubbed carrots. She scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed and thought about her brother. She watched a sparrow flutter down on the holly bush. It bobbed its head twice in her direction and flew off. Mr. Svenson then appeared in under the shadow of the doorway.
“Martje,” he said.
He was looking at her with a smile. But it was a grin on someone who was dead. It was the painted red half-moon on the clown she had once seen in a china shop.
“I don’t mean to shift blame…”
The atmosphere crackled and he approached her and her hands sought something solid of which to grasp: a slippery carrot.
“I don’t really want to blame you. You’re young.”
He floated over the floor and enthroned himself at the table. Wild and sweet was his scent, and Martje’s brain pulsed with panic. She could not gauge the atmosphere effectively, though her neurons fired to do so.
“…But I don’t believe this all would have gone in this direction if you hadn’t started that rebellion at the table.”
His eyes were like two black holes - jea, like two holes she made in the black soil with a broom handle when planting leeks. He was skin and bones: not because he had lost weight, but because it looked to her as though his spirit had exited the cavity of his skeleton.
She was both appalled and entranced by this emptiness in her father, and she continued staring at him, like one who balances on a cliff and moves closer and closer to the edge, propelled onwards by the cool pleasurable trickles of fear. She believed she would not throw herself over - but she knew some tuft of wind might pick her up and do it: she felt she might be called a princess one moment and have her head put hotly into the sink the next. Frozen, between these two extremes, her soul began to seep out of her skin, to seek higher, safer ground, leaving her physicality to experience the rush of adrenaline as her brain sent out spastic responses of confusion through her body, both in tingling pleasure and sickening fear…flailing to adapt itself to what her being was encountering as inadaptable reality.
He was rubbing the palm of one hand slowly with his fingers. “You see, life has gone downhill since that day you spoke out against me. I know you didn’t mean it… but some of your rebellious nature, which has gotten out of control at times - I know that’s not your fault, you’re young - it happens - but it has infected the other children. He left because he saw your heady willfulness. You’d never do it yourself. I know that, hjarta. But you put the idea into the barn's head. Even if you said nothing else aloud - he left because of you. My heart is broken, Martje,” he smiled. “See it?”
“No,” her mind shook itself. “Come back,” it whispered.
With what kernel of strength she had, she shut herself in from his words, like closing the door against a piercing wind of a gale. She bolted it. Some snow skidded under the crack.
“Martje, I didn’t mean to offend - it’s just the way things - come back; we can talk about this -”
She left the house, left the farmyard. She cut through the fields. She passed the willow. She ducked under Hackberry Hedge into the cool shadows of Sagolandet. The sun danced in flickering yellow on the sprite-hallowed ground.
“- You’ll not follow me," she said through her teeth, "I command.”
She walked the curling path…around the Fairy Pool…and over the bridge of the stream that dribbled down to the pasture and watered the cows.
“I shall go to the end of my kingdom,” she thought, “and I will not stop even there.”
The figure of a young man uncoiled himself from leaning against a tree. He was stringing a bow.
She kept walking, but he caught up with her.
“I cannot speak with thee now, Rowan. Forgive me.”
He looked at her face. “Thou art distressed.”
“Nay, I am bonny-well.”
He tried to take her hand but she withheld it.
“Thou art a poor liar, my friend. Speak with me! Or if thou will not speak - shed tears. ...If ’tis a need, keep them not at bay.”
"Keep them not at bay! By my troth, I wish that were what I was doing. What tears, Rowan? Direct me not in what I ought or ought not do: thou knowst naught about my life."
“I know naught, for the reason that thou doth not speak. Thou must believe me when I say that I shall do what I can -”
“Wilt thou save me? Wilt thou take me away? ...See. Thou canst. Thou art a vassel in my father’s realm. Go back to thy forests, thy merry hunting, and the games of thy lads.”
“I do not care that thy father is my lord. Thou art my lady, and my loyalty stands with justice alone. If ill has been done thee, my allegiance is thine, as ’tis any poor wretch’s who hast been wronged. Dost thou not believe me?”
“…Aye, I doubt it not.” Her face softened. “’Tis never I have. I mispoke in soreness, and not towards thee. I only doubt mine own ability to ever again truly…”
Her voice faded, for they had reached the end of Sagolandet. They stood at the brink of the meadow edged with darksome pines, whereat only a few months ago she had asked the heavens for all.
“I doubt mine own ability to ever -”
Gold and azure clouds sailed across the sky. She leant her hand on the tender skin of a birch. A breeze tugged at her copper hair, and Rowan stepped up behind her, and asked her,
“Is there a wrong which I must redress directly?”
“Thou knowst I would?”
“E’en against mine own father, Rowan. Thou art the most loyal friend I have.”
“Then tell me, I plead with thee… not for my sake, but that it might make thee feel better…what is in thine heart.”
She paused. Then she took a breath and dared it: "In sooth I wish I was restraining tears. But people weep not when they drown. They weep when they are in pain, not when they are past that and into nothingness and feel they are about to lose consciousness. I am already in the murky underworld of my senses, Rowan. I feel clouded, I see darkly. Forthrightly I shall not see or feel anything at all and perchance float in nothingness. …Aye, I wish to God I could weep."
He was silent, and Martje now wondered what was going on Rowan’s heart. Finally she had the bravery glance over at him. He was staring out across the meadow at the harsh pines; gray and blue shadows were passing over his face in emotion.
“If thou canst,” he said at last, in the most tender voice Martje had ever heard, with undercurrents of great strength, “forbear, and one day, Martje, I shall take thee away. I shall draw a line in the ground, and ’twill be impassable. ’Twill be no force of man great enough to take thee from where I shall bring thee.”
“…But under the same power, we are.”
“Under the same power, aye," he vowed strongly. "By God, we are: the power of hope, Martje. Walk on.”
A hiss of amaranthine glowed around the ring of her iris. “To where shall we walk?”
“To a castle in the hills, overlooking the sea, with blush roses creeping up the walls, where no arrowhead shall come near. ’Twill be a land of peace and love and dancing in the gardens and laughter in the kitchen.”
“I wish to be there.”
“Thou shall. But thou must traverse o’er fields and rivers and mountains. Thou hast miles first to go. Walk on, love.”
She waded through the Emerald Marsh by the left field and gathered armloads of golden rod and purple loosestrife. She went into the kitchen and arranged them into pots and vases.
“These will crumble everywhere,” protested her mother, who was already busy at dinner.
“When I have my own house,” said Martje airily, “I will have flowers in every single room. They are worth the crumble.” She danced on tip-toe over the stove. “Here’s a fairy wand for you,” aware of the daring in her words, dipping a yellow triangular sprig into her mother’s empty mug.
“What sort of house will that be?” asked Mrs. Svenson.
“A cottage,” replied Martje. “Nothing too large.” She took an onion and began chopping. “Something cozy, but with enough rooms for all my children.”
“Is that so?” said Mrs. Svenson, lifting the cover of a bubbling pot. “And how many children will you have?”
Martje felt overwhelmed with pleasure, and couldn’t stop herself. “Seven, at least. And I’d like a garden…and rose bushes…and apple trees…and beehives. And maybe we would be by the sea. But close enough to visit you, of course.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Svenson clanged the lid back on. “And isn’t life just all peaches?”
Martje froze and lost her voice for a moment. Then she stuck her chin out. “Why not?”
Her mother did not even seem to have time to finish her thought. Her brow was dark. She waved her hand. “If you don’t know what I’m talking about, why tell you?”
“No, tell me.”
“You live in a fantasy.”
“I’m sorry that you -”
“You think it’s ‘Sunshine and rainbows!’ all the time. You’ve never lived in reality. Not once. Your father may encourage it, but I won’t. You aren’t going to be prepared for the harsh realities of this world otherwise. People die in this world, Martje. Did you know that? And children leave.”
Martje was hit by a wave of compassion. “I know,” she said. “You must -”
“I’m thinking about you, not myself. I want you to be ready.”
“But,” her words escaped in a whisper, “people dream when they feel they don’t…have a lot.”
“I hope you’re joking, Martje. Seriously. I supposed you don’t know there are girls like you out there starving… turned away from their houses? Girls are abused. Children live without parents. And you dare to say that. Get your head out of the clouds, Martje, and get grateful. You’re spoiled beyond reason. You have an incredible, privileged life and can’t even see it.”
Martje looked down at her onion and wondered if the redness in her eyes was from the vapors. “…Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I am grateful. I’m sorry.”
Her mother seemed uncomfortable. “Fine enough,” she grunted.
That evening, Martje was sitting on the sofa, Little Women and torn shirtfront for mending lying in her lap. She looked out the open window listlessly, listening to the crickets chirping and wondering where Wilfred was.
Just then, the parlor door rustled open, and a red head peeked in and looked both ways. Then her father hurried in.
“You like poetry don’t you?” he asked quickly, as if the thought had been crowding his mind.
“I do,” said Martje.
“Take it - take it.” His handed her a little booklet. His hands shook almost invisibly. “I found it upstairs and it has all my notes in it. It’s Emily Dickinson. Do you know about her? You’ll like her, I promise.”
She took the slim volume with its frayed leather cover and yellowed pages and fingered the marbled edges. “Thank you,” she said, feigning enthusiasm.
He looked at her and his eyes seemed starry, longing. “You’re so different from your mother,” he said, quietly. She felt deeply gratified by these words. “I used to give her - but she didn’t really like - ah, but no, you’re young. …Enjoy the book. You need to read it slowly, and each poem several times through. Ask me if you can’t understand something. I enjoy talking about them. Jea, you know?” he said eagerly.
So much life was stirred in her soul. Her heart was warmed. She went to her father.
“I think I’ll like this very much,” she said. Then, softly, “Mama doesn’t understand poetry, does she?”
He looked at her. “That’s right,” he said. “It’s just what I meant. I’m so glad you’re my daughter,” he effused, in a warm gush. “It’s that I’m glad I have someone who understands me. When you were a little child, I could tell. You’d pick flowers and I’d ask you for some… I saw you running around picking them for me, and I asked you how much they cost…I said, ‘Only twenty-five cents? I’ll buy them with all I’m worth,’ and you said, ‘No, I give them to you for free, Papa.’ …You have - a special quality in you, Martje. A special something. Not all women have it. Your mother doesn’t. Or if she did - I think she once did - she lost it.”
“Thank you, Papa.”
He looked down at his hands. “I’ll write you something.”
“Do,” she said.
The next morning, when the orange sun breathed through the glass, she woke to find a piece of paper folded up, leaning against her yellow roses. That window sill by her bed was becoming a shrine.
With a beating heart, she snatched up the paper. Her fingers penetrated the page and she slipped it open - and a dozen galaxies of stars spilled out and five hundred flowers fell and broke on the floor with red love. It was a poem - to her.
She pressed her hand against her nightgowned chest as she stood, reading.
“In a host of angels she has no rival…”
Time stood still.
“Want to know what she’s like? Look to all the queens in the Bible…”