Martje, Chapter One
HER DRESS was bayberry-wax-colored, but that wasn't her fault; and her eyes were purple, but that was her fault, for she had on her soul the caul of the other world. She stood on the threshold of her girlhood, with hands like doves. Throwing her fingers into flight, she cried out from the depths of her being,
“Oh, give it to me! I want it. I want this all.”
If people had known, they would have said,
"What is this that drops, hissing and blue to the ground, and lands among us, not extinguished, but vivid and hot? Let us kick it and hit it and hurt it and shut it up, for it sees too much and will say too much and it never must be allowed to open its mouth -”
This was in the farming village of Moguncoy, drab and vicious, with its spiked hills and the glorious spills of meadows.
So she stood on the edge of it and looked out upon a field as far as she could see, saying,
"Give it to me: all."
It was her tragedy and grace that she recalled how it felt, before she fell like a star among the plodders. She knew she was born awake, and she felt on her being the traces of that sac through which we pass when we break the ether: and she came still on fire. Only a few choose this way. Most assume amnesia, to remember gradually and less painfully. But others take another route, being born aware, and their way is sharp. They take their pain early and young, and their bliss is higher and their dreams broader and their ecstasy deeper, and they have the purple eyes.
Now, I do not mean that they were really that color: but I do not know what else to call a gaze that looks like it remembers better than you do. You would not call it something so kind, perhaps: I do not know what sort of heart you have.
Our language has no words for such things.
She made her way back through the velvet of Sagolandet. The sun drew out with its curled golden fingers the smell of damp earthworms and vernal pools. A wood thrush begged her to stay. Her supper would be cooked soon; she could see the yellow light between the hills. As she came into the untidy yard, the chickens scattered with a "thwock" and she smelled the pork hissing with protest on the stove.
In the kitchen, her mother stood by the iron range, her hand on her hip as always, pushing the flesh inward of her own back sharply.
Ingrid yelled down the stairs,
"The baby's crying!"
"Get him for me, Martje," said Mrs. Svenson, without turning around.
Martje threw a handful of periwinkle across the table; she took the steps two at a time, impatient for life, and scooped the infant up. His face was the color of mottled wine, and he was shaking.
"Don't cry, now, chickadee," she said, beginning to feel unsteady herself.
Her sister came in, plaiting her hair.
"How long has Gerte been here?"
"I don't know; I just heard him."
"He is hungry," Martje said, melting him against her breast.
Martje carried him like a jewel downstairs and Gerte burst into fresh tears when he saw his mother. Mrs. Svenson turned from her cooking and reached for him. Mr. Svenson was sitting at the table.
"You barny women coddle him too much. Lookit this, another liten one on the way, and you're all treating him like a baby."
"He is a baby," said Ingrid, who had followed Martje down, tying off her rope. "He's only fourteen months."
"Don't talk back," snapped her father. "I had you all trained by that time. You could walk and didn't need nappies and slept clean-through the night - but this one, your mother is spoiling. And her, with another one coming," he said, indicating the swell under her apron as if it were her fault. Mrs. Svenson took Gerte onto her hip and stared fiercely into the pork. The baby buried his face in her shirt, as if he understood Mr. Svenson’s words and was taking solace against her breast. Ingrid herself looked as if she was going to cry: she usually did in such scenes, and Mr. Svenson always became incensed by her tears. He could not bear emotionalism because his mother had been a “hysterical woman” when he was growing up.
So Mrs. Svenson saved her by saying, "Go and feed the chickens, Ingrid."
Her lip quivered, and she fled through the kitchen door, her braid streaming out like a heroine’s, in Martje’s eyes, but not without letting Mr. Svenson see one or two tears.
"Sensitive women. Pah! Making pansies out of my boys."
Mrs. Svenson did not deign to acknowledge his vicious and self-righteous tone, but Martje could see the anger trembling just beneath the bluish surface of her cheek. She had screwed her jawbone into solid rock, and Martje sensed that the situation was precarious. So she arranged the bouquet of periwinkles, poking it with her hands, watching surreptitiously every flick of her father’s eye - which was trailing her mother’s lumbering elephant-like movements - and gauged every pulse of the vein on his neck, with nervousness. She needed to preside over their tension, doing what she could to alleviate it, and to make sure that none of her siblings stumbled into the battle arena themselves… if this happened, she would whisk them away, with a magical speed, and deposit them safely in Sagolandet, or plunk them upstairs and adjure them not to move from their blocks, before she returned to the scene. But because Mrs. Svenson was shoving the peppercorns onto the slab and refused to talk, there was silence.
Finally, "- Can I help with anything, Mama?" Martje asked, wondering if her voice would bring normality to the kitchen atmosphere. "Peeling potatoes?" But it was an unfortunate choice of words, because,
"I have so much to do that it doesn't matter what you do," her mother said airily, and Martje understood, immediately and unhappily, that she was not speaking to her.
But Mr. Svenson was overjoyed. "Jea, go ahead and peel those potatoes, Martje. Your mother has ‘so much to do’ because she coddles that kid. If she didn't jump at his every whimper and let him interrupt her work all the time, and made him eat proper meals with the family, maybe she could have supper on the table at a decent hour like other women.” Martje felt her father’s pleasure at being provided an opportunity to erupt, because, for all her father was a bully, he did not like to be a senseless one: he preferred to be provoked. But what he accepted as provocation was anything.
“Here she is, harping on me for her hard life, but if she’d only listen to me about raising the barn, maybe she’d be able to relax a little. But no, Martje, she won't let me train him. And he's going to suffer in life because of it - just like we do right now! I am suffering. I’m hungry, Martje - I wanted my dinner an hour ago! And she’s just going to feed the baby. Do you know how many hours I work in our fields, Martje? Those fields that feed you and your brothers and sisters? And I bet you sympathize with your mother! - you and Ingrid both. You women always stick together, don’t you?” he sneered.
Even though he had not moved from the table, and his clenched hand was resting harmlessly on the wood, Martje leaned backwards against the sink. Was she expected to respond to her father? She only looked at her flowers, feeling miserable with guilt for escalating the situation instead of calming it, and Mrs. Svenson, at the stove near her - was she on the side of her mother? - muttered something under her breath that did not sound like English.
"Just listen to that woman’s beastly language!" laughed Mr. Svenson. "Using language like that in front of your daughter? You know what, give him to me," he said in inspiration, standing up, his chair squeaking backwards.
"No," said Mrs. Svenson, turning her body away, and Martje became almost senseless at this turn of events.
Mr. Svenson drew back at her refusal - but it was only the recoiling of a snake, to lash again.
"Spoiling!" he hissed. "Making my boys mollycoddles. Give him to me and I'll make him a man."
“I will walk out that door before I ever give him to you.”
"I'm not going to hurt him!"
“You still can’t have him.”
“Where is a father’s authority in this place?” He lurched forward.
"Stop it, Axel," said Mrs. Svenson.
“Just give him to me,” he said, his gurgling tone suddenly, in Martje’s ears, sounding like a moping boy whose mother will not give him a sweet.
“I said no.”
"A boy's place is with his father!"
"A baby’s is with his mother and you'd better leave or I'm leaving. I will leave the house this very instant."
"It's my right to hold him! Give him to me!"
"Leave!" she said, and she picked up the fork and pointed it at him.
He froze, stunned at her words and action.
His shock only lasted a moment and then rage filled his eyes.
"A woman thinks she can tell me where to go in my own house?" filling up his chest with air. Martje wondered what was about to happen and didn't know who was going to strike first, but she knew this was the inevitable conclusion. She couldn't think that violence would transpire with such a tender baby in her mother's arms, but she was unsure, so she readied herself to take the infant, or put herself in front of her mother, and her head went unsteady, and she also considered calling for Wilfred, like she had done once before…but that one time actually resulted a physical fight between father and son instead.
Mr. Svenson stuck his neck forward aggressively. "Think you can push your husband around like that?"
"I can if you're in this state, and I will. You don’t deserve to be here. Look at the way you’re acting in front of your daughter!"
"I don’t know what you’re talking about."
"You know what I’m talking about," she said.
"Tell me," he taunted.
In a quieter voice, she said, “- Drunk.”
There was a dreadful silence.
Mr. Svenson looked at his daughter, and she could not look back at him. Her mother had never said such a word aloud.
In a burst of movement, that almost hurt Martje, strangely enough, with the despair of it, Mr. Svenson lunged past her, out the door, and did not come home for supper.
Mrs. Svenson turned again to the stove, limply staring at the pork.
"Alright, finish this for me, Martje," she said at last. "I'll go and feed Gerte." And she walked away, unbuttoning her shirt.
That night it only got worse. He had to repay his wife for the shame in the kitchen. He came home while the children were in bed, stumbled up the stairs, and forced his way into her mother’s room. Martje, who was tucking the two-year old into her trundle in the room next door, could hear vaguely his taunting voice through the wall, but not make out what he was saying.
"Do you want to hear a song?" she whispered to Signe.
Just then, her mother burst into screams. This usually happened when she could not take the jeering anymore. Martje imagined Mr. Svenson had been leaning over her in bed, saying, "Mollycoddle, mollycoddle...oh, wittle baby," or something quite similar, because she had heard such taunting often, and as far as Martje knew, her mother was cursing in Swedish now.
“Alright. Which one, sugar?”
"Why mama yellth?" Signe asked instead.
It was dark but she guessed the babyish forehead was puckered with concern between her feathery eyebrows. So Martje made her tone easy.
"Oh, she's just...a little upset right now. She is tired because she is going to have another baby. But she will be better in the morning. Don't worry. She and Papa love each other very much." Signe was easily convinced by her older sister's farce.
Martje stroked her face. "Now, which lullaby do you want?" She heard a crash and startled, and she desperately wished she knew where her other siblings were, especially Hans, because he was quiet but a very sensitive seven-year old, no doubt listening to this, curled up in bed. Why couldn't Martje be in two places at once? Why couldn’t she protect everyone?
"Thov Gott!" the two-year old lisped with enthusiasm.
"Sov Gott, Vackra Delfin? (lullaby: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-Jyrdr7aF8) Ja! I love that one, too." Her voice sounded as if they were having a picnic of golden apples and honey on the Elysian plains. She stretched herself across the bed, leaning her arms on either side of her sister. She would make a fortress about her, and she began to sing, as the crashes increased and repeated, wondering if Hans would ever forgive her for choosing Signe:
"Sov gott, vackra delfin,
Sov gott; jag vita varg..."
"Sleep well, beautiful dolphin,
Sleep well; I, white wolf..."
She gradually gathered, by the sounds outside, that her father had run out of the room and was holding the door closed against her mother who had been slamming herself against it. Now Mrs. Svenson was sobbing and wringing the doorknob on the other side. In her mind’s eye, Martje could see her pregnant body leaning against and sinking down in defeat against the door.
With her voice, Martje wove a web of defense above her sister's head, and it was the hardest thing she had ever done - making her tone smooth and steady and sweet and warm, in spite of the sounds, in spite of the fact that her own insides were crumbling like wet sand.
"Let me out," Mrs. Svenson was saying - again and again. “Let me out -” until the babbling became sobbing: so defenseless, so frighteningly uncharacteristic: the warrior reduced to a pitiful void.
And Martje made those magical threads impenetrable.
"Vi har kärlek för varandra,
"We have love for each other,
For each other,
Soon Signe was asleep. If she would wake up in the night and cry, Martje would get out of bed, climb into Signe’s cot, and wrap her arms around her, like the sea engulfs the shore.
Martje stood in the middle of her dark room: the house was now silent, but it was an uneasy silence. She pulled Signe's big floppy doll out of her toy chest. It was almost half Martje’s height, and she lay down in her bed and put the doll behind her, wrapping the stuffed arms around her body.
"He loved his wife," she thought. “He came in from the barn and saw her cooking and he said, ‘Drop all that, and let’s go run in the fields. Let’s have a picnic on the hill - all we need is cheese and apples - where we can see the pink sunset. And after that, we will capture fireflies in a jar, and put it next to our bed. And I will sing to you. I will sing you to sleep…”
She pulled the doll’s arms tighter, squeezing them against her, and turned her face into her pillow.