Martje, Chapter Nine
[Author’s Note: As usual, this chapter contains mature elements and may not be suitable for younger readers.]
A tin pail clanking against her leg, she walked over to her father, standing by the red barn wall.
“Pignuts?” Mr. Svenson asked, casually.
“I have something for you.”
“Oh? - What is it?”
“You have to follow me.”
“Can you bring it right here? I..have to take these inside.”
“I can’t. It’s in the barn. Come on now, Marty…”
He must have noticed her hesitation.
“It will only take a second.”
“I don’t want it!” she suddenly exclaimed.
“- What? You will once you see what it is.”
“Really,” urged Mr. Svenson. “You don’t want to miss this.”
“I mean…I mean I don’t need anything right now.”
“But it’s for you.” He had that look where he was light on his feet and not in his body. “…It’s a prize for you.”
He turned, and she, powerlessly, followed him into the barn. She felt trapped, and thought it would have been more dangerous to resist.
“Keep walking.” He pranced ahead, his body and elbows jerking uncoordinatedly. His mouth was red, his skin strangely yellowed.
No one else was in there. Hans was gone, Ingrid and Mrs. Svenson were out of sight.
“It’s just over this way… we’re getting closer. Are you excited?”
“Yes,” she lied.
He led her deep into the back of the barn. All the way down to the end where there were no exit or window. Every hair on her body pricked.
“Can’t you just tell me what it is?”
“It wouldn’t be a surprise then…would it?”
They got to the last stall and he turned to it. He unlatched the door and swung it open on its hinges. “Go inside,” pushing his hand on her back.
Everything in her body did not want to obey, but her leg moved forward, and then the other, and he followed her and closed the door.
“Look at it.”
There, on the hay, lay a sweet young thing.
His hand still on her back, he whispered, “It’s yours. He’s all yours.”
The horse, roused by the intrusion, rustled on the hay and nickered gently.
“What -?” breathed Martje, kneeling slowly down. It did not seem possible. She put her hand out to touch its fairy nose. It was nothing like Invader. This creature was small and delicate.
“Do you like it? It’s just over fifteen hands, so its almost pony sized.” He was looking at her eagerly, expectantly. “What do you think?”
“It…must be too expensive.”
“Bah.” He whooshed his hand. “That’s not - that’s for me, not for you, to worry about.”
She was staring deep into the liquid brown eyes of the gentle creature. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Do you want him?”
Uncomfortably - “Jea.”
“Alright then, he’s yours. You can name him… you can ride him. You can tell all the other children that he’s no one but yours.”
“I wish - Mama -”
“She can’t ride; she’s too big.”
“But, more than me -”
“No, you should learn to ride and to - feel more confident doing it. You deserve a small pony. Not that big lumbering thing. He’s too violent, I’m afraid. This one will…be just perfect for you.” He put his hand on the round belly of the animal. “I picked him out for you myself. I thought you would like him.”
“I do; I do so much.”
“I was afraid you’d be hurt that night.”
“I wasn’t. I can do it fine enough.”
“But here’s a nice one for you. This one won’t buck or anything. I want a gentle mount for my girl. You deserve it. You do so much for this family.”
“No. No. It’s fine.”
“Well, anyway,” he said. “It’s your reward.”
“Thank you, Papa,” she said. Her hands were cupping the velvety nose, pink as a rosebud.
“I think I failed you all again,” he said. “I’m going to stop.”
“You’re fine enough,” she said.
Martje could not make eye contact; the stall with its splintered pine walls felt a prison.
“No, no. Förbannelser på mig. Your mother…I don’t know how she puts up with me. I’m so glad you all…came back. She’s a good woman - any good you have in you comes from her. Always be like her, if you can. Don’t follow my example.”
“Well, either way…” she trailed off.
“Jea. Doesn’t matter. …You’re right.”
Perhaps both did not know what they were talking about.
“Thanks for this,” she forced out with difficulty.
“Well. Your papa’s always looking out for you, you see. You don’t think so, but he is. Always.” He walked away out of the stall. He closed the door and leaned his hand on the edge. “Enjoy that. He’s only yours.”
“I don’t know what to name him,” she said, quickly, before he went.
“Anything. It’s up to you.”
“Oh, I don’t know - maybe after the stars. Orion. Or a god - Magni. Or a flower. Though I suppose male horses…”
“Jea,” she laughed.
"Or a writer or a thinker."
"- How do you know those names?"
"Oh. Read them?"
“Huh. Well. You’ll figure it out,” and left.
The next day he saddled the pony: he had even bought a saddle for her, carved with flowers in the leather, and a new bridle, because Invader’s tack were the trappings of a giant. This was delicate. Her heart was overcome.
“You mustn’t be afraid,” he said, as he gave her a leg up.
But she wasn’t. She felt a different energy from this animal as she wrapped her legs around his body.
“I know those didn’t go well, your lessons with your mama. But she is too gruff sometimes. That is all. Now, trot to that stump and back. There we go! Look at you. You’re taking to each other well. Didn’t I pick a good one? See, Martje, what you need to do is think about what you do with confidence. This is your writing mount. Your painting steed. See? Or imagine a time when you felt sure of yourself. Like when you were wearing your party dress and your white boots, picking flowers for me at four. You’re in your party dress. Now you are! See? He knows you feel safe.”
Ingrid came and stood up on the fence.
“Ingrid!” called Mr. Svenson. “Do you like our new pony? You can ride it,” he said, “if Martje says so.”
“Of course,” said Martje, horrified.
“I don’t like horses anyway,” said Ingrid, and turned and hopped down and left.
“You can have anything you want to have,” Mr. Svenson told her as she rode around the edge of the corn field.
They had to raise their voices as they spoke to each other.
“Except you have to be realistic.”
“I want to write and paint!” she yelled in joy, her hair streaming as the pony rolled fluidly underneath her.
“Well, that might not be realistic,” he said. “It’s doable, but not all day long. You can do it, because you’re good at it, but you have to always let it be something on the side…you know, as a little hobby, Martje. See, you have a desire to be married.”
She blushed. “Ju.”
“Well, there, see. It’s not possible to do both. You’re going to have to put your husband and your children first, just like he will put you and your children first. You know?” He lifted his voice in the wind.
The sky was blue, and cloudless above them, and her pony was white and black and magical underneath her, and Martje saw an amber birch, spraying up in the woods. The air was alive.
“Jea,” she said.
Coming in from another lollop on Magni, Martje was singing. She walked into the house through the back door - but she stopped in the hall, for she felt at once the crackling electricity. She could hear her parents’ voices in the kitchen: hissing and strangulated.
“- And you don’t care about this at all! Do you, kvinna?”
“You’re a child. Go out to the fields. If you can, you shouldn’t be coddled.”
“…So I could be dying, and you wouldn’t mind. Would you?”
Martje could not hear her mother’s reply.
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t. Well, when I thought you were dying - my heart broke. Don’t you think I care about you?”
Then her mother erupted, her voice still low: “You don’t. You don’t. I hate you. I hate you. Don’t you understand what you put me through? - the children through? I would be relieved. I knew it the moment I married you. You’re -”
This and that and this and that. Martje could not make out the words, but they were poisonous adjectives. She crept up the stairs and tightened herself into a ball in the corner of her room. She tried to put the doll over her, but it did not work.
She was prancing along with an armful of rhubarb the next day, always as if nothing had happened.
Her hair hopped in two red braids down her back, and though her skirt was the color of a feed bag, her sweater, her deliciously warm sweater, was nutmeg-spice. It made her think of the scent of hickory smoke in the air, and pumpkin-colored leaves, and she loved it. She thought it looked well on her and she had dreamed many an autumn dream in it. She had worn it for years.
“Thanks for the rhubarb,” said Mrs. Svenson. “Would you get me that blue bowl up top?”
She reached and felt restrained.
“Oh! I think this is too small,” Martje said. “Maybe I’ve grown out of it.”
“Did you buy it or knit it?” asked Mr. Svenson.
“It was bought.”
“That’s why. They make sweaters tight nowadays. Do you know why?”
“Why?” She felt immediately uneasy at the aggressive twinkle in his eye.
"It is to draw attention to the bosom."
She said, “Oh.” She did not know where to look.
“- Axel,” said Mrs. Svenson.
She was too ashamed to even unbutton.
“Don’t bother the girl. Now she’s not going to wear it anymore.”
“Good. It was too tight and that’s plain to be seen.”
“Go and get a stalk or two more, Martje.”
“No, come back here for a moment.”
“Leave her be.”
“I just want to tell her a thing or two… would you, woman? She’s going to be going out into the world anyway. She ought to know. Martje, you know you’re growing up. You can’t run in the woods forever. I know you have your pony, you’re enjoying life…”
“She has time!”
“Not a lot. A few years.”
“You were the one who encouraged her…”
“I’m trying to have a conversation with my daughter. Now, you’re going to have to think about your future sooner or later. There will be a husband, marriage, children. It’s not so many years away. Jea, enjoy your time as a girl, but very shortly you will be a woman. It’s already starting.”
Martje felt imbibed with wrongness. It was her fault she was becoming a woman; it was her fault that men might stare at her chutney-colored chest.
“Are you ready to take up the responsibilities? Are you ready to be a woman, and learn to be responsible, and controlled, and upstanding, and modest -”
“För himlens skull, Axel! She still plays with dolls.”
He paused, fiddling.
“Alright, go on and get your mother her stalks.”
“I don’t need it, now I think of it. Go and do what you like.”
Martje ran off, but she heard -
“- putting fear in her -”
“- do you know what men think about nowadays?”
- and she ran as fast as she could, but there was no place to run. Even Sagolandet would not hold her. She knew this.
She heard her scream break out from her body.
It had been a few days since the baby was born - or perhaps it had been yesterday, or two weeks ago. She was wet and united, one, with the straw-stuffed mattress and could not distinguish her body from it. She was going up and down, as if on a salty sea of fire.
Or perhaps they were not yells. Jea, they were hoarse croaks, weak calls that would not bring help. She lay there, unable to call again.
But her door opened and light flooded her room.
A candle was set down on the bedstand.
She tried to sit up, but her hand felt like it was tied to the mattress.
Her head, lifted an inch, dropped like a detached rock back into the pillow.
“What’s happening to me?” she gasped.
“You have a fever - you’ve had it for several days. It’s alright. Shh.”
Mr. Svenson put a broad, cupped hand lightly above her forehead. Her hair was wet.
“Do you want water?”
She began to turn from side to side.
“Martje, what are you doing -”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Why are you breathing like that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Marty, what’s going on?”
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
“Marty, stop it. Breathe in deeply -”
“Breathe in. Follow me. En, två, tre, fyra -”
“I can’t feel my feet - My hands - they’re closed, see - I can’t open them - My face: my face is freezing up -”
“Ah, min gud.” Mr. Svenson broke down. “Marty!” He put his head in her breast, and Martje’s fingers went into his hair and curled around the red locks, tightly. She grabbed onto to it as if it was the only anchor left in the world for her.
“What is happening?” she said.
“What am I going to do?”
She arched her back, stretching the skin across her chest and bones even tighter, prickling, unbearably tight. She hadn’t noticed Signe get up and patter down the hall. But soon a hand brushed Mr. Svenson aside and was placed on Martje’s chest.
“What is going on?”
“My lungs are closing, Mama. I can’t get air!”
“Psh. You’re fine. It’s just hysterics. Look at me. You’re fine. The worst that is going to happen is that you will faint. Look at me. You understand? That is the worst, and nothing more. You’re not dying. Now light those candles. Look at me.” She sat on the bed and looked deep into her daughter’s eyes, one hand on her daughter’s chest
“Rub it - rub my hands -”
“If you insist. Papa, you do that. Jea, Martje. Count with me - en, två -”
“I need the doctor!”
“If you needed the doctor, would I be sitting here? Now breathe with me.”
“Get - the doctor,” she gasped.
“I’m going right now, Olga,” said Mr. Svenson.
“In and out.”
“Papa’s gone to get the doctor now.”
“- wrong -”
“If it’s so difficult, why don’t you pass out, Martje? Give in - you’re fighting it so much.”
“Nej. Nej. Nej.”
Her breathing slowed a trifle. By the time the doctor arrived, she was breathing evenly, but was otherwise lifeless.
“What caused it?” asked Mr. Svenson, as the doctor was putting away his smelling salts, unneeded.
“A weak constitution,” he said, folding up his stethoscope. “Normal.”
“For a female adolescent, yes.”
“But there was nothing -”
“Hysterical episodes are innocuous and mean nothing. Just keep her quiet and undisturbed. It is her fever I am concerned about. If it does not break in two days, send for me.”
He left and her parents stood there in the flickering candle.
Martje’s head ached.
“Do you both think I’m mad?” she croaked.
“No,” said Mrs. Svenson. “You just have a lot to learn in being calm.” The infant screamed in the next room. “Ring the bell if you need anything.”
Mr. Svenson was left alone. He looked down at her gently.
“But do you think I am?” she whispered.
He smiled. “If you’re mad, Martje, then what am I?”
She could not help smiling.
“You will be fine in the morning. I promise.”
She was, and returned to school in only a week, feeling chipper and renewed, as one does who thinks she has come back from the brink of death. Brita was glad to see her, and waved two papers in the air. “I’m jolly you’re back! You have to save me. We got our science debate results back, and we would have had a perfect score, but she took off ten marks for when we giggled.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Martje, snatching her paper. “I couldn’t help it, when that child asked me where the groin was -! Jea, right here: ‘Lack of sobriety’, she writes. Sorceress!”
At lunch outside, they had a horse race under the fall leaves, and the older children who were game volunteered to be the horses, while the younger ones rode on the backs.
“Pick it up, won’t you?” roared one chubby Dutch boy, hitting his mount with a hickory twig, and his horse bucked. “Where did you get that?” yelped the steed, unsaddling him fully. “How would you like it if your horse -” and threateningly swiped but the rider upended and ran. The others pairs charged ahead, though many beasts neighed as their knees became imprinted with nut shells. Martje was duly impressed, but she only laughed in gurgling delight, a light child on her back.
“Faster, faster!” her girl kicked.
“I lay a shilling on the black stallion!” cheered a bystander.
“I bet two on that chestnut mare!” shouted another, cupping his hands around his mouth.
“They think we’ll win!” shrieked her jockey.
Martje bent her head and ploughed forward heartily - but then something strange happened.
She was under the spreading oak tree, neck and neck with four of the best, when she suddenly felt like time was slowing down. She continued to laugh, and kept putting her hands and knees down in a forward motion, but her world began to gradually progress in a tick…tick…tick fashion, like a clock that needs to be wound, and is slowly dying.
“Move!” screamed her girl, inserting her bony knees into Martje’s stomach. "They're gaining on us!”
Others passed them easily. Her patron groaned: “What are you doing, Martje? Pluck up!”
Shame flooded her, and she gathered whatever strength she had in her to plough ahead - but she was pushed violently back, as if her hands and knees were suddenly deep in dank mire. She looked down and saw only nut-studded grass, clean and free. What was going on? She looked up in panic. She had to get to that finish line.
Like a fool, she put one hoof in front of the other, with great, deliberate effort. In what felt like an eternity, she reached the end, at last, and bowed down. Her child slid off. The girl pouted indignantly: “I’m riding Peter next time.”
Martje turned over and sat, arms dangling over her elbows. What had just happened? she wondered helplessly.
Brita ran over.
“Did you see that?” asked Martje.
“No - what?”
“I couldn’t move.”
“Aw, that’s alright. Your girl was too heavy.”
“No. She wasn’t at all.”
“- Are you sick again?”
“No, I feel perfectly fine.”
“Oh - well. Maybe the race was harder than you thought. Come on, let’s go sit with the others under the oak.”
As they walked over, and Martje’s jockey stamped past her once more. “What happened to you?” she asked grumpily, wiping dirt off her mouth. “You were so good and then you popped.”
“I really don’t know what happened. I’m sorry.”
Brita laughed. “Are you going to be humiliated by a six-year old?” But Martje felt it.
She went home, and that night she had a spiked fever. The doctor came and went, briefly, leaving a note with instructions. She had had undiagnosed mononucleosis.