Martje, Chapter Four
[I wanted to put a note to say that this story deals both with 'mature thematic elements' and distressing emotions and may not be suitable for younger readers. Blessings! Sarah]
SHE woke to see a fiery bloom on the windowsill. A note against the glass was scrawled with familiar writing.
She went downstairs, and felt that she was parleying, but she kissed his scratchy cheek, with its russet bristles and the smell of pigs and cows and earth, to moderate his mood.
She sprang - “Tack for the present, Papa!” - back.
“It was nothing,” he said, but his face was aglow.
“Prethent! What did you get?” yelped Signe.
“What for rotheth?”
“Because I found them in the woods,” said he with satisfaction, “and made a cutting. I found them while walking. The yellow color is rare, maybe from England, brought over by an admiral’s wife or other. You know that they lived here, jea, during the Revolution? This is your country’s history, children.”
“How did the flowers end up in these woods?” asked Martje, feeling the pleasure of the hearth and the pignuts. “Would the woman have dropped seeds by accident? Or planted it randomly?” That a lady might have done this on a whim, outfitted in a powdered wig nonetheless, dazzled her imagination.
“I think not. The bush was growing on an old house site. I could tell because there was a sunken square in the leaves and rhododendrons had grown wild about it. Landscaping around the foundation, you know. That’s how you know, barn. That’s how you can tell an old house is there. And you have to be careful so you don’t fall into a nearby well. Tell me if you ever find a foundation, so that I can block up any wells in the woods. I don’t want anyone hurt. Especially any of you.”
He drained his hot coffee fast.
She went back up to the roses.
How little they were. She could press her lips upon them and envelop them with her mouth.
They needed her life-giving protection. Stroking a leaf with her fingertip, her eyes were opened and she saw that the cut bush had a spirit of its own. Those velvety buds were as tenuous as infants...the swollen heads bent the spidery stems, and a woodiness was creeping up the stalk.
“I will care for you,” she whispered, her breath stirring its defenselessness. It was a vulnerable orphan. “I will be here for you.”
She had water still in her basin. Filling up a mug, she soaked the arid soil until it was dark as a spice cake.
“I'll name you Rosalynde,” and angled the pot, a live coronet of buds - dipping the leaves into the white pool of light. “I have to go to school now, but you mama wants you to soak up the sun. You’re going to get strong, Rosie. You will live. I promise.”
Standing in the early spring sun, the girl felt the iridescent solemnity of her vow.
That afternoon, Martje took a cold jug to the barn, swinging it through her looped finger, the sparkles and dreams of idealism tingling through her veins.
“Ginger beer and sandwiches,” she announced, trying to sound casual, but her heart felt as though it would burst with love when she beheld her father, with stains of sweat under his arms that dyed his shirt a darker blue, dumping out the horse’s water bucket and smiling upon her appearance.
“My favorite,” he crowed. He took the cup and, to her gratification, drained it lustily. Then he handed it to Olaf, next to him, and smacked his lips and rubbed the foam away. “Ah! That is the stuff that makes a man feel alive. That’s the only stuff a man should drink, O. Remember that - sugar and ginger, nothing stronger. And are these sandwiches for us? What a doll.”
He ripped a chunk out and his face looked like he was chewing stardust. "Who made 'em?”
“Made with love,” he decided, swallowing. “You can always tell. You can feel it. There is an energy.”
Her father knew! He knew that she had cut the ham so precisely, had layered on the freshly-whipped mayonnaise, had sliced the thickest slices of beefy tomatoes, had used the cheese he liked best, had added an unnecessary garnish of parsley. She had even taken the time to toast the bread on the stovetop. He tasted this all.
Mrs. Svenson, in a paunchy mulberry dress, was bent over in a corner, eking out milk from the nutmeg nanny. "Don't forget to wash the bowl," she said.
“This is all you need in life,” Mr. Svenson declared. "A man couldn't be happier."
Martje walked out the barn door and Olaf followed her, craning his neck forward.
“Oh, Betty - oh, Betty!” he called, in a high-pitched voice.
She ignored him and kept walking. So he stood still and curved his hands around his mouth.
“Why don’t we go and drink tea in a covered garden? Why don’t we go play a game of ‘I Spy With My Little Eye’? …Aw, come on. Come on! That is what you want, isn’t it?”
She kept walking.
“Look at you! Do you even see how you walk? Look at you - it’s like this.” He held his head up stiffly and stepped about like a deranged goose. "You look ridiculous."
Martje kept walking.
Her little vision-children were more alive than ever: all day they tumbled about her sunburnt legs in the thick of the grass and ran, rainbowy spectres, shouting screams that no one else could hear -
"Lookit dis toad I caught, mama!" "See lavender clouds in the sky!" "I'm making a fairy bowl with this acorn, ma!"
She dangled Signe's thin body on her hip - precarious, carelessly secure -
"Oh, daring, oh, daring!" she said. "Here comes the wind - oh, watch! Oh!"
Her spirit felt as though it would lift out of her body:
The lady-wind took her fingers and ran them through the white cherry tree. She tore the blossoms down and flung them into the sky like falling stars.
"One more time! Catch them, catch them!" cried Martje, a child herself, as Signe screamed with delight, and they together went spinning together in white whirls, their hands reaching.
A masculine laugh broke the spring snow: not a teasing laugh, but one that made her think of warm crème brûlée and crusted caramel. The flower petals settled. Mr. Svenson was watching from the chopping stump. She stopped prancing, her cheeks pink under curling wisps of amber.
"Marty! You're going to be a good mama some day," he called, standing in his white shirtsleeves. His ax hung loosely in his hand, his knotted muscles spiraling down his brown forearm. "- And a good wife!"
"Thank you, Papa!"
"It's the truth. I don't lie."
Jea. Everything was possible. Life was possible! Her dreams - all of them -were always within reach. Just over the horizon. Just a few inches away, the blush under her reaching fingertips. The glow that steadfastly stayed at dusk after the sun was gone. Wavering ahead, but there. There, there.
"No doubt," she thought to herself, "that the crazy quilt I am stitching in my heart, will be the blanket with which I cover myself in life. I am going to have. I will have... I will."
Later that day she laid Johnny and Ruthie down for a nap in their trundle bed in her buttercream dream home, shuttered with cornflower blue. With every scratch of her pen, apple trees abloomed around the house...and a few more strokes sent a song bird onto the windowsill.
Her real window showcased her Rosalynde, who was already looking revived. She sat, perky-headed, in the sunshine on the sill. The window was open, and the peach curtains were rolling faintly.
Voices then wafted up to her: that of Olaf and Mr. Svenson by the front door.
“You weren’t in your bed at midnight last night. Where were you?”
“Why do you need to know?”
“Because I’m your father.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You’re not my father.”
“I have raised you since were you two, Olaf. I think I deserve some respect. Where are you going now?”
“That’s none of your business -”
“- You live in my house. It absolutely is my business.”
“Then why don’t you ask Wilfred?”
“Because I hardly ever see him anymore.”
“I don’t want to be seen, either.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the woods.”
"To do what?" - blackly hinting. "Come back here."
"Lemme alone -"
Martje ran to the window, and saw Olaf, overly casually, start walking, but then the dark figure of her father lurched forward. When Olaf saw this, he started to run, but Mr. Svenson grabbed him by the back of his shirt and threw him to the ground. Unexpectedly, like a young tiger, he darted up and shoved his father backwards - which shocked Martje, though he could not move Mr. Svenson much - and then his lanky body darted at a jerking run toward the fields.
Martje watched Mr. Svenson, stunned, hesitate - she willed him not to follow him - and he swiped his hand uselessly in the air, and turned, muttering curses, away to the barn. She let go of the breath she didn't realize she was holding, and drifted back to her bed. She looked down at her sketchpad limply.
How quickly the castle crumbled when the knight rode away.
The next day, as she was turning the earth in the herb garden, her older brother Wilfred came and knelt down next to her. He said something low in her ear, because they were not alone. She stood up and rubbed the dirt on her apron.
A pale fog around her, like the still shroud of a lake, she floated into the house and up the stairs. She went into the boys' room, as if in slow motion, as if approaching some holy altar, a marble statue of a boy lying on a bed, which contained the relics of a young martyr. He lay there, his arm out, tan, long, lank, lean, and at the end of it, a dirty cloth was tied around his wrist. Martje stared, and her eyes burning into him woke him up.
“What are you doing?” he asked angrily.
“Nothing, I was just -” She looked around for something.
“Get out of my room.”
“Sorry,” she whispered, and ran out.
What was she supposed to say? What was one supposed to say in this circumstance? Her mind was a white field of blankness.
She stood outside the closed door. Then she swallowed and pushed her way back in.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“What do you mean?” he moaned, with his eyes shut, as if she were an intruder.
She gestured helplessly. “I mean - to help... You’re -” She couldn’t finish her sentence.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“I’m - I’m sorry Papa treated you like that the other day,” she said. “He really doesn’t mean -” She tried to speak tenderly but he cut her off.
“Wait, what?” he scoffed. “You think I did this because of him? Psh. He’s nothing. I don’t care about him. He’ll be dead soon anyway. You live in your own head.”
“Tell me what’s going on,” she said. “I want to know” - but she was frightened.
“Why would I tell you?” he asked. “You and your fairy dolls…your future kids running around in yellow dresses.”
“I will understand if you talk to me.”
“No, you’ll just run and squeal to ma and pa.”
He sneezed. “Sorry, I’m allergic to bogus.”
She walked away, her heart constricting. She turned at the door.
"I love you so much, Olaf," she stuttered out. "I really do."
He did not answer.
Martje, observing this unfolding drama, took it upon herself to intervene.
“Where do you go at night?” she asked her brother that evening, as he was half-way out the window onto the oak tree.
“Why are you getting involved?” he shot back. "It'd be better if you didn't."
“Papa doesn’t like it,” she said. “And I’m worried about what’s going to happen.”
“As if I care,” he dropped down threateningly.
She ran forward to the window and decided to make a personal plea.
“Please: for me. I’m so overwhelmed. This is fraying at my mind so much. You could stop it.” She tried to fill her eyes with as much eloquence as she could. “You could help me. Please.”
To her surprise, her new approach slightly worked. She could see the struggle that went on in his mottled face.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said roughly, and swung himself down away from sight.
She threw herself back and put her hands on her head. She looked about the room, and ran to his bed. She shoved pillows underneath his blankets and set it up to look like a fifteen-year old body was stretched out under it. She knew it was daring because, if her artifice was uncovered, Olaf would have been flayed, but it was better than the gaping empty mattress that he so audaciously left there. And then she trumped slowly downstairs and stretched her nightgowned arms and yawned obviously.
“Why are you awake?” asked her mother, glancing up from her mending.
She ran a glass of water and said, as if very bored, “Oh, I was just working on some sums and Olaf was helping me.”
“That’s nice of him,” said her mother absent-mindedly, looking back down at her sewing, and Martje believed she would not check on him that night.
She was wrong.
Her mother, shoving against the door -
That is what Martje woke up to, early, before the sky was even the color of an inner conch shell.
“Open this door.”
Olaf was probably pushing back.
“I heard you come in this morning,” her mother was shouting. “I found that stuff in your room - open the door.”
He opened it, perhaps to parley, but his mother went at him like a viper. She darted forward with her hands towards his neck. Martje was up in a flash, but Wilfred got there first, springing out of his bedroom into the hall in only his long johns.
“What is going on? What is going on?”
Mrs. Svenson immediately dropped her arms and put on a sour expression of a dour, passive child. Olaf seemed to take his opportunity - his hand to his neck, he darted out his door past her and made for the stairs. Mrs. Svenson was animated into action again, but Martje was closer to the staircase. Olaf’s thin knees went flying, rampaging down and away, and Mrs. Svenson flew out after him, but Martje jerk her arm out across the stairs, and her mother crashed into her arm. Martje felt the soft sponginess of her breast at the resistance as she sprang back. The contact shocked them both.
Her mother recoiled, looked at her, and spat.
“Bad choice, Martje.”
But she did walk off.
The young girl stood there, long enough for Olaf to make it to Sagolandet, and then she went to bed, but she could not sleep.
A dark cloud hung over her heart. A week later, Hans swaggered around the corner.
“Olaf wants you,” said Hans.
“I was hunting for eggs and found him. He’s asking for you.”
Hans’ voice was unconcerned, but something told her.
“Where is he, lilla?”
“In the woods.”
“By the crow’s nest.”
“I don’t know where that is…”
“It’s in that tall tree, you know -”
“I don’t know -”
“- it’s a pine tree.”
“I still don’t know - show me. And let’s run, jea? We can pretend the Wights are chasing us. We stole their gold and silver. They’re going to reach you with their cold fingers - quick!”
She ran. She knew. She didn’t know how, but she did.
Hans brought her into Sagolandet, past the Fairy Pool, past Three-Headed Willy. They flew, not stopping until they found him. He was sitting under the crow's pine: a slim slip, a waif. He seemed to her to not exist. She never saw him here. He was part of the sun, the trees. His green shirt, the gold on his hair.
“I’ve come,” she said. “Is everything -”
“What’s he doing here?” said Olaf. “Make him go away.”
“You can run home now, Hans,” she called. “I have a special new journal up on my bed that I need someone to go through for the kitchen. Can you cut out the pictures for me?”
Hans darted off, and she stepped forward. “Olaf, what’s -”
“I drank this,” he said, holding out his hand. It was a little brown bottle . “There wasn’t enough in it.”
Horror shot through her body. She took it. A ghoulish shudder spread up her arm once the cool glass touched her fingers.
“I thought there was. I thought there would be enough.”
She held onto it, even though there was nothing left in it. It was filled with air. Her palm warmed the glass.
“It was a horrible night. I stayed in the woods. I tried not to wake up,” he said. “I went to sleep and I tried not to,” he said.
“Min gud,” she said. Or that’s what she tried to say, but her lips didn’t move.
“But I did wake up - I did.” He ran his hands through his hair.
“Olaf, I’m so sorry -” She reached out for him.
“Go’way,” he said, jerking his shoulder back. “I don’t want you here. Leave me. I wanna be alone.”
“But are you -”
“Wait,” she said. “I’ll be back. I’m going to get help,” she said.
“No,” he said. But she was surprised to see his shoulders limp, narrow and thin and sharp under their white shroud. His eyes were gray-red. “Don’t. You don’t have to.”
She could tell his resistance was nonexistent.
“I will, I will. I’ll be right back.” She felt full of ability. She knew here words were a hug to him, were sweet to him. She could feel it. “I’ll be right back!”
And she darted off. She had no idea where she was going, or what she was going to do but something was in control of her brain, something big and black washed over and pushed everything else out.
“What am I supposed to do?” she wondered. “What am I supposed to do?”
Martje ran inside breathlessly. This great, big thing inside of her needed to come out.
“Mama!” she croaked out in a whisper, as her mother was pricking her fingers in a hasty, angry repair of a pinafore which Signe tore on a blackberry thorn, in a corner of the entryway. “Do you know what happened to Olaf?” Her words came out in an excited rush.
“You mean what he did?”
“Jea, I know.”
“You - do?” Martje could not have been more surprised.
“Jea, Wilfred told us,” she said. “Your father and I.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Martje felt that she was gripping the ship’s helm with both her hands till the knucklebone shone white.
“Do?” Her mother snapped the thread.
“Nothing, I suppose,” she said.
“Don’t you even care?” cried out Martje. “How can you be like this?” She reeled backward.
“There is nothing to do,” said her mother calmly, keeping her eye on her sewing.
“I’m sure there is! Help him - help him.”
“He doesn’t want to be helped.”
“Yes, he does!”
“How do you know?”
“Because he told me - showed me.”
“Then you go do something,” said Mrs. Svenson. “Maybe he’d listen to you.”
“You’re his mother.”
“You’re supposed to help him.”
“How, Martje? …What am I supposed to do?”
“That’s not what I’m supposed to figure out. I’m the child. You’re the parent.”
“Well, guess what: I don’t know. I don’t know what to do,” her mother said, with what seemed to Martje to be ridiculous carelessness, like she had given up completely - like Olaf had done nothing more than taken a walk in the park.
Martje rolled away, putting her hands to her head. “Maybe - the police.”
“The police?” scoffed Mrs. Svenson, with sharp sarcasm. “Really, Martje?”
Mr. Svenson then walked into the room.
Martje whirled to him.
“Papa! Olaf needs help!”
He looked about between his two ladies, like he didn’t know what to do, either. His gaze was very much that of a boy’s.
“I’ve been trying to explain to Martje,” said his wife very solidly, staring down at her sewing again with her mouth drawn downward, “that there is nothing we can do.”
“I refuse to believe that.” Martje felt like she was fighting through weedy sludge of a dense bog. “What about a hospital?”
“He will recover just fine enough,” said Mrs. Svenson. “The boy doesn’t need a hospital. He isn’t sick.”
“But his…spirit is. His heart is sad about something. His mind can’t see. Isn’t there a place for that, to help?”
Mr. Svenson looked as if a bee had stung him. “Are you talking about insane asylums? Have you even heard stories about them?”
“And do you realize they would come and take him, whether he wanted to go or not? Do you really want to put him and us through that?”
“No. But there must be something. What do other families do when this happens?”
“How should we know that?” asked Mr. Svenson, very childishly, like an innocent little boy, putting his hands up. “I’ve never seen it before. No one I knew was crazy enough to do that. Everyone I knew feared God too much. ”
“Jea. I don’t think I drilled the fear of God into Olaf enough,” said Mrs. Svenson with regret.
“Min gud, min gud,” said Martje. “Have you no heart? Have you no heart?”
“You know, Martje,” said Mrs. Svenson, “You’re really starting to grate on my nerves. Why don’t you leave?”
Martje looked at her. “Leave?”
“Jea, go out of the house for a bit. Leave us in peace.”
She looked at her parents in stunned silence.
“You’re just being hysterical,” her mother said, as if she needed to explain more. “And that’s not helping. What this family needs is quiet.”
“Olaf - needs help,” said Martje.
“Of course he needs help,” said Mrs. Svenson, pricking her needle back into the cloth. “And we will do all we can to help him. But right now you can offer nothing, so bring your worry elsewhere.”
“You are not going to do anything - ever,” said Martje. “I just know it.”
“Martje, please. Leave us be.”
Martje marched into the kitchen, grabbed a plate, and swept the contents of a pot of mashed potatoes and meatballs, sizzling on the stove, onto it, and went out the backdoor.
She ran up to the woods.
“Olaf!” she called, hoping he was still there. He was.
“- Eat some food.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Olaf. “- And my stomach hurts.”
“Well, I’ll leave it here, then.” She put the plate down on a stone. She stood, feeling like a failure.
“Isn’t there anything I can do for you?”
Martje sat down next to him, but a respectful distance apart. She did not trust how close he wanted her to be. She sat in silence, grieved that the only aid she summoned was a plate of meatballs. She allowed the stillness of Sagolandet to surround them, two children, one older, one younger, protected in Sagolandet, but not outside it. The magic did not go that far. But here, the bells of the lily-of-the-valleys tinkled as a late afternoon spring breeze skirted and played and tumbled around them, dressed in billowing scarves. Martje ran her hand up and down a fern frond. Perhaps all he wanted was her silence. Her presence. Either way, she did not know what to say.
“I’m not going back to that house,” he finally said.
“Jea, I don’t want to, either .”
“No, I mean I’m going to leave it. Really soon.”
“Where will you go?” she said, indulging him.
“Far. There are people who will take me - who love me like I’m their brother. I’m serious,” he added forcefully, as if she didn’t believe him.
She didn’t: they were the fantasies of a teenage boy trying to cope with unfathomable violence, but said, “I’m glad you have good friends.” It hurt her to see his façade of toughness broken. The veneer had cracked and he was a limp gray phantom of what he usually was.
“Still, maybe home can be better. We can try to work things out. Maybe you can get a better relationship with our father. I wish you had one.”
He turned on her with viciousness. “Don’t you think I wish I did, too?”
She was shocked at his rawness, his nakedness. He never talked like this.
“My friend Paul Mills is out all day,” he said. “Allowed to go where he wants. And then do you know what happens when comes home? He hugs Mr. Mills and they play a game of checkers. Every night. I’ve seen it. Don’t you think I wish I had that, too?”
Her heart broke for him. Here was this boy, with hair already on his chin, who barely let his sister touch him, and who could throw hay bales without breaking a sweat - saying he wanted nothing more to be held by his father and play a game of checkers with him. She could say nothing in the face of that.
He picked at grass. “But I don’t care. That man doesn’t affect my life. I couldn’t care less about him. He’s nothing to me. But I do wish he would treat Hans better. You should hear how he talks to that boy."
“I do hear,” she said sadly.
“No, no,” he said. “You should have heard him yesterday. ‘Hans, you run like a girl!’ It breaks my heart. And I can’t do anything.”
“I know just how you feel.”
It surprised her to hear him talk this way. But then again, it was he who once said, “The moth left angel dust on Han’s heart.”
He repeated, "I can't do anything."
They sat together, an unusual pair. The sun beat down on their copper heads, shining. What more was there to say in their mute pain?
“We’ll all leave someday,” she comforted him. But the heart of her wanted to stay...wanted to believe that happiness was possible, that the barn and the dream and Johnny and Ruthie, all could be combined in her relationship with her father, that they really could have picnics together on the grass and sing together in the parlor after dinner. It could happen, couldn’t it? Couldn’t everything be better?
“But...if it's not just Mama and Papa, then…what’s wrong?” she asked softly.
She tried to be an open-minded woman of the world. “Tell me, Olaf. Is is drinking? Opium? A broken heart?”
He made a flinch with his face away. “I really don’t need this.”
“It is a broken heart, isn’t it?”
“I can’t see someone I’m - a friend with,” Olaf said.
She tried to be sophisticated. “Who is she?”
“A friend, I said. It's a 'he'.”
“Oh, then. Maybe,” she said comfortingly, “You will get to see him again soon.”
He rubbed his hands through his hair aggressively and then smiled. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
“Yes,” she insisted. “I’m sure of it.”
He looked away and sighed, but she felt the sigh was for her benefit. “Well, we’ll see.”
“Olaf,” she said. “Don’t ever do that again. Please.” She awkwardly skittered over and reached her arms around his neck and body.
He held her under the whishting of the pine.
“It’s alright,” he said. “It's alright. Really, Martje. It's alright.”