Martje, Chapter Seven
[This story deals both with 'mature thematic elements' and distressing emotions and may not be suitable for younger readers. Blessings! Sarah]
“What? Are you not even studying anymore?” asked Mr. Svenson.
Olaf was kneeling down, fetching a tin can from under the kitchen sink.
“What do you, just go down river with that Italian all the time? Do you even know who the first president of this country was?”
Olaf stood up with his can for worms and looked sideways. Martje saw instantly that he did not know, and felt a pang for him. She thought her father was aware and was purposefully humiliating him.
Mr. Svenson scoffed. “See! Look. You don’t even make him study,” to his wife.
“How can I? He’s hardly ever around,” said Mrs. Svenson. “He doesn’t even come in for dinner anymore. What can I do to stop him?”
“Did you even cut the left field like I told you to?” Mr. Svenson asked.
Martje felt another pang. That was something Wilfred would have helped Olaf with.
“Jea, I’ll do more of it tonight,” he said, half-way out the door.
“You probably won’t even be around,” muttered his father. “And what do we do if the rain gets it? Do you think I can work this farm by myself -”
That evening, Martje found Olaf in the left field. The summer sun was dancing like the orange fairies who used to be his friends all over him as he tossed the hay into the wagon.
She quietly fell into step with him, raking.
By and by, she said,
“You’re really smart, did you know that?”
“Shut up, Martje,” he grunted. “What does it matter to you?” He pitched another load.
“I also think you’re really responsible,” she said. “And…living the life you want. You know what you want out of life.”
He was silent and reached down to pull a ladybug off his boot.
She leaned on her rake. “I think…your life is going to be really splendid. I can tell, just by looking at you. It’s obvious to me.”
He straightened and looked over her head, beyond the stone walls, and towards the sinking sun, blazing through the maples in the woods. She wondered what he was thinking about.
“It was Franklin, right?” he asked, in a cheerful tone of voice.
“It doesn’t matter,” said his sister.
Martje put Rosalynde under the Rowan tree, leaning the pot against the trunk so that she could associate with her peers.
“My pet,” she whispered. “How do you feel here?
She knelt down and brushed her finger down her stalk, which had blushed green and was no longer wooded.
“I know this was your original habitat. You must miss it. But we had to take you out, to make you stronger, precious.” She leaned over and touched the buds with her lips and Rosalynde’s few bright heads perked up to return the kiss.
“It was to make you grow, love.”
“Talking to plants again?” asked a rich voice.
She jumped up.
He was leaning against a birch and laughing. He was looking rather boyish, with scruffy hair, so Martje knew it was her husband at a younger age - closer to her age.
“I’m come to see if you’ll pick grapes with me today.”
Her grouse-hued skirt swished through the golden grass as they both walked in the meadow, looking for grapes that hung like Christmas garlands from the firs. Martje had known they were there,
“Because I smelled them in the air this morning,” she explained to the boy, “like a deep purple scent. I wager even the Solomon’s temple, with its all walls of cedar, ‘carved in the form of gourds and open flowers’, did not smell half as good as September grapes.”
Eventually she made her way home, her belly and soul full of what is wild and tangy and fresh in an autumn forest.
She tried to scream, but it wouldn’t come out. So she started running, pell-mell, toward the garden.
She was kneeling, pushing into the soft dirt.
“Mama, there’s a robber in the house!” shrieked Martje. “And Hans and Ingrid and Olaf and Signe are in there!”
“I’ll come along in a minute,” Mrs. Svenson said placidly.
“No, you need to go now!”
“Martje, calm down…”
“You’re not helping me!”
She was focusing on pushing the ground like dough. “It’s not so bad…”
So Martje threw herself towards the barn, where her father was pitching hay.
“Papa!” she screamed. “There’s a robber in the house!”
“You’ve got to believe me! - Help them!”
“Don’t be silly… there’s nothing wrong.”
“My siblings are going to get killed!”
He smiled at her blankly.
“- They’re going to!”
Just then, something clattered, and Martje woke with a start. She sat up in a cold sweat.
She stumbled out into the hall, rumple-headed.
Her father appeared, too, and her mother behind him, a candle casting ghastly shadows on her face.
“Do you think it’s an intruder, Axel?”
“What was that noise, Papa?”
“I don’t know, Martje. I’m going to go see. Don’t be frightened,” he added tenderly, before going down the stairs. “When you’re with your Papa, you’re safe.”
But Martje was trembling from head to foot, as the two females tiptoed down after him, and feared for her father’s safety. The flame at least sent out a comforting glow ahead.
“Give it to me,” he whispered, at the foot of the stairs. “The noise came from the kitchen.”
After one pause, he burst into the room, cast the light around, and illuminated the figure of Olaf, half-way inside through the open kitchen window, with a tin bucket of spilled apples on the floor.
All in one movement, Mrs. Svenson put the candle down and took his shirt and pulled him inside and down on the floor. Olaf jumped up at once but Mr. Svenson struck him on the side of the head. “Fä! What were you doing?” He struck him on the other side of his head with a cupped hand. “Huh? Sneaking back in because the door was locked? What is going to be next?” Then he started speaking burnt Swedish and Olaf ducked, gurgling, in an unfamiliarly thick voice, “What’s wrong with you? You’re drunk!”
“I’m drunk? I’m drunk? Oh, jea, tell me that I am, while I’ve been working my farm all day and sleeping in my own bed. And where have you been, and what did you do all night long? Fä! Beast! - sneaking out! - you’re going to be the death of your mother and me!”
“Good - then I won’t have any more parents,” he said.
“What did you just say?”
“Go after him, Axel,” said Mrs. Svenson, as her son wrenched himself away and broke past them and jumped clumsily back out the window.
“No - no - no - don’t follow!” - It was Martje. “It’s fine- he’s fine!”
“Martje, you’re a child - go back to bed where you belong!” Mrs. Svenson whirled on her. “You’ve interfere far too much in this family. I wish you were sometimes just - away. We’ve listened to you when we should be following our own judgment - as adults. A good beating is what he needs and you’ve prevented one too many. If harm comes to his head, we’ll know who’s responsible!”
By the light of the skinned moon, Martje could see the youth’s body jerking and stumbling across the barnyard, and, assured that he was safe at least for the rest of the night, she complied and crept back to her room.
Safe. What did that even mean to people?
The next day was incongruously glorious: the trees were blooming scarlet and tangerine. And Olaf was not to be found, which was a relief to his sister.
Martje sat writing in her room. The window was open and her curtains were blowing in the crisp wind. She was squeezing out moats and mares and miters from her paper at a rapid pace with a vengeance.
But before long, Mr. Svenson entered. He came in without knocking and wavered in her doorway, his spirit feeling ephemeral to her. She immediately called her guards to the front gate.
He leaned his hands backwards against the doorpost.
“What are you writing, hjarta?” he asked.
“About a girl,” vaguely.
“…Can I read it?”
“I don’t usually let people read my stories,” she hedged.
“Ah. I see. And am I in it?” He smiled, as if guilty for asking - “as a monster?”
There was a blankness in her brain. Then she fumbled: “Of course not.” She laughed.
He seemed to notice her diplomacy.
“Am I in your story at all?”
“No, not at all!”
“And your mother?”
“And your brothers?”
“No.” Then she said quickly, “See, it’s this a medieval tale -”
“Knights and fair maidens.”
“Jea!” She blushed - “I like that sort of thing.”
“Is there a fair maiden in it?”
“And is she a poor maid…with strawberry-blonde hair, and a dark and overbearing father?”
His lips twitched in some kind of tormented humor, while she tried to find her wits, mutely.
“- That unfortunate girl! Well, keep writing. That’s what people want: for the father to be the monster or the dragon. No one supports the fathers these days - no one stands behind them. But that’s what women want, and then for some strange knight to come riding along. Jea. That’s what fairytales are made of, jea?”
“I suppose,” confusedly. But before a safer answer could form on her lips, his mouth spread like a half moon in a darkened face, and he took his hands off the doorposts and disappeared.
Now, an oak shudders less on the second blow to its spine. When the ax hit and Olaf’s bed was empty at the end of that September month - and unoccupied the next day and the next day - Mrs. Svenson said nothing. Four days passed.
On the fifth day, Mr. Svenson came into the house and threw his hat on the table. It slid across the surface and bumped into Martje’s cup and she watched her water swirl.
“Mr. Ricci found a message, too, the day that Olaf left. I talked to him at the shop. He had a similar note, but his son Antonio actually took the time to tell his father where he was going. He said he joined The Montgomery as a cabin boy. That was the boy Olaf spent so much time with, jea?”
“Jea,” said Mrs. Svenson, husking corn.
“Then we can only guess that’s where he went.”
“Has it sailed?” asked Martje.
“Two days ago.”
“There’s nothing we can do, then?”
“I’m going to find out the places it’s docking and write ahead to all the ports and have them arrested as runaways. When he comes back, I’ll break every bone in his body.”
“To make him stay? Oh, jea, Father! Because that’s the way to get love!”
And she shied out the back kitchen door before he could do anything, and ran up to the woods.
Once in Sagolandet, she flung herself upon her Rowan tree - and kissed him and kissed him and kissed him while the bark became wet and dark.
Martje slowly walked the scarlet paths back home as her white sparkling gown gradually faded into gray, and found Hans looking rather forlorn in the kitchen.
“What is it, docka?”
“I just don’t know what to play,” he sighed, as if this were a heavy burden on his soul.
“Did you cut those kitchen pictures from that ladies’ journal?”
“Jea. I have the stack under my bed.”
“Then let’s get that box we painted and make a house!”
They spent a pleasant hour pasting pictures of tables and a stove and bowls of soup and bunches of carrots to the back of the wooden box, which Martje had painted for Hans to look like a kitchen.
Mr. Svenson floated in.
“…And now we must find dolls for this,” said Martje, not noticing her father hovering above them with an airy smile.
“What about those corn husk dolls you know how to make?” said Hans.
“What’s this?” Mr. Svenson smiled sweetly. He stumbled to his knees. “No, no - Hans,” he said, taking a picture of an ice cream crank out of his hand. He tried to pick up his son, slipping two hands under his arms, as if he were a baby. “You don’t want to play with girl’s toys.” Hans whimpered. Martje stiffened, but arrested the words on her tongue, as Mr. Svenson’s head lolled and Hans squirmed out easily from under his grasp. Then Hans lay low like a rabbit. He just sat, hunched over, and picked up the ice cream crank again, stupidly.
“No, no, my boy - no, no. See. You don’t want to play with people like Martje -” she felt the venom directed her way, though he didn’t look at her - “or your mama. You love your papa,” he clumsily stroked the boy’s straight yellow hair. Hans stayed frozen, like an animal.
Their father stumbled down to sit. “Now - now,” he said, again vacantly stroking the boy’s head and shoulders. “I’ll save you from them,” he said. “You won’t go through what I did. I promise. I’m sorry, my boy. I’m sorry you’ve had no one else to play with. I left you alone to their claws. But papa’s here, Hans. No one’s going to get you.”
Martje realized she needed to speak. So she cleared her throat. “What do you mean, ‘get’ him?”
“Your mother wants to continue sending him to that town school, though there are only girls in his class this year.”
“She doesn’t have a choice,” said Martje.
“He won’t be with girls anymore, do you hear? Look what happened to Olaf! It’s all part of your mother’s plan to corrupt her sons. But I will have you play with boys, Hans. Boys at school, boys at parties. Don’t fret, Hans. Hans, Hans,” he said desperately, and put his hands - shaking - on his son’s shoulders. “You don’t want to be with all girls, do you?”
“Don’t answer, Hans,” said Martje.
“Be quiet, Martje,” said Mr. Svenson. “- You and your mother!” He turned and started stroking Hans’ hair, who continued staring straight at his picture collection. “All’s well, son. I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Jea? Jea?”
Martje stood by tensely.
His voice was shaky, sweet, and tender, as if talking to a baby. “Look, Hans?” he said, taking out a knife. He swayed slightly. “This is a pocket knife. You don’t want to be playing with dolls, do you?”
Hans looked up nervously at Martje.
“Don’t worry about me,” her mind strained. “Protect yourself.”
“Nevermind, Papa,” Martje said brightly, as if her father were witless. “I know it’s more fun for Hans to play with brothers. But it was only me around, so -!”
“Actually, I like playing with Martje,” interjected Han stoutly, to Martje’s dismay.
“No, no, sweetheart,” Mr. Svenson crooned, crouching awkwardly. “You don’t; you don’t.”
“What is going on?” asked Mrs. Svenson, breezing in, wearing a fierce look. She was imposing, despite being fully pregnant and swollen-faced. “Axel! What are you doing? You disgusting man!”
“Me, disgusting? Me, disgusting?” he stood up, lurching forward, some spittle on his lips. His demeanor, Martje noted, was as if a ruffian had come at him with a spear. He was only too happy to defend himself, even against an engorged wife. “I tell you what’s disgusting - the way you and this world are feminizing my boys.”
“Get up, Hans, we’re going,” said their mother. “Your father’s lost his head.”
“No! I have to protect him from you!” He sounded like a child trying to be a hero. He pushed her. “You’ll take him away! You’ll hurt him!”
Hans jumped up and cried, “Mama!”
Papa looked at him, wildly, in pain.
“That wasn’t anything! That wasn’t anything!” he said. He turned on his wife. “You threw yourself back more on purpose - you tried to make it look worse, didn’t you? Always against me, aren’t you? Well, barn, you don’t know what she says to me, what she does to me, when you all aren’t around. You would be shocked. Hideous things.”
Where was Olaf? Where was Wilfred? - the only ones that could possibly take him on. Olaf had slight chance, being scrappy, but Wilfred was as big as his stepfather. Yet they were both gone. If there was a moment the were all going to be murdered by Mr. Svenson’s angst-ridden self, this was it.
But somehow Han’s cry had temporarily broken the madness in his eyes. Like mist clearing on a lake, Martje saw a sane blue come back into his gaze before he turned and went into the kitchen. She didn’t know what he was doing, and didn’t want to know.
The urge to run was in her - to get everyone away. There were six people to protect, but panic made anything seem possible. Her mother was thinking the same thing.
“Quick,” she whispered. “Take Hans. Find Signe and Ingrid. I’ll get the baby. Meet me in the garden behind the barn.”
Martje felt a rush of joy and relief: she had imagined this for a long time. She found Ingrid and Signe and told them to follow her. She did not know where her father was, but as she slipped outside - trying not to alarm the children, and to shut the door softly - she hoped he would not see them. She went to the garden and was surprised that her mother was not there yet. This made her anxious.
“What are we doing here?” asked Ingrid.
“I don’t know - Mama just told us to meet her by the garden” - by way of excuse. She did not feel like engaging her in the situation. Ingrid would take the crisis onto herself, sift the dramatic matter for its emotional value, and then perform a parody of the fear that Martje really felt. Martje would not lend her this pleasure.
The younger sister snapped a wrinkled pea off its vine. “Is it because of the hullabaloo downstairs?”
“Probably” - noncommittally.
Her mother was so long in coming that Martje’s anxiety wore off. Perhaps the circumstances were not so dire…
Then Mrs. Svenson came around the corner. She had on her sunhat and several articles of clothing were hanging off her arm, awry.
“Go, go, go,” she said.
Without hesitating, Martje took Signe’s hand and began to drag her down towards the lane, though she did not know to where they were headed.
Aside to her eldest daughter, Mrs. Svenson explained the dreadful thing that had happened inside. Wordlessly, Mrs. Svenson had gone to gather nappies, Gerte hanging off her arm. Her husband had followed her, his neck stuck out like a deranged bird’s. He hovered over her, a dark shadow. She bent her head between her shoulders, but kept searching with one hand for Gerte’s nightshirt in all of the clothing that was hanging off the backs of the chairs. An unclean one fell onto the floor. She bent down to pick it up, lumbering onto her knees, and when she laboriously stood at last, he took his fingers and flicked her on the back of the head. She just cringed and kept going, but Gerte started crying. Then somehow she had escaped and she was not followed. Martje was glad she had not witnessed this all.
“…Where are we going?” she asked, simultaneously with Ingrid.
Mrs. Svenson stalked ahead, carrying Gerte. “I don’t know.”
“Give me him,” said Martje. “Your condition…”
She took the baby and felt sick. Where did they have to go? They had no relatives in Moguncoy - or in all of America. She could not imagine her mother going to the policeman, either - or to a neighbor’s. They knew very few people, and the shame just seemed too acute, even in the face of their peril, to knock on the door of a neighbor’s, with flowers in the windows, to have it opened by a matron who was just about to serve tea in a polished parlor, and allow her to look up them, a crowd of six foreigners, silent and desperate. Could they expose themselves that much?
They walked as fast as they could down to the lane. Martje hoped against hope that her father would not come out of the house. She tensed up, held her breath, gritted her teeth - but they passed the white farmhouse without molestation. They reached the road, and were soon shaded by mercifully-veiling pines.
“Keep walking,” pressed Mrs. Svenson.
“Wait, Mama!” said Martje suddenly, an idea bursting into her mind. “Let’s go to the caretaker’s house.”
“It’s locked,” said Mrs. Svenson.
“No, it’s not!” said Martje. “I saw it open earlier today, and a fire in the grate. I think Papa is airing it out for the person who bought it. We can easily…” but she did not finish her sentence. Even as she and her mother were living through this together, there was a distance between themselves and the situation. And neither wanted to uncover the other’s nakedness.
“Well, we could,” said Mrs. Svenson, “but -”
She looked back, and the tundra between them seemed to have been swept away, because Martje read the thoughts typewritten above her head.
“We don’t have to walk past the house again,” Martje said, “if you’re willing to go through the woods. There is a path.”
“Jea, let’s,” said Mrs. Svenson. “I don’t think we have any other choice.”
“This way, then,” she said, confident and competent. This was the realm in which she was powerful: escaping. She used to lay in bed at night, fantasizing about violent circumstances - murderers breaking in, her parents going mad - and planning ways out. The fantasy was so thrilling and obsessive that she would never be able to fall asleep until she had constructed an adequate evasion. Once, in a particularly impossible narrative, which had her wits in a vice grip, she stayed up until twelve before she found a solution that really satisfied her and her brain could calmly release into slumber.
Martje also built routes in the woods for this reason. She was grateful that she had, only earlier that spring, cut a path from the front lane all the way up to Sagolandet, which was behind the very last field, acres away. It had been a gargantuan project, and many of her siblings had helped. They all felt so satisfied once the connection had been made: it snaked along the border of all the fields and she had christened it the Trans-Sylvan. The path had never felt the footprint of an adult, having been smoothed for disappearance and dreams, and she regretted laying bare this jewel before her mother - for Mrs. Svenson had herself in part prompted its construction. But Martje had taken Gerte into her arms, and that made all the difference. So they entered the Trans-Sylvan Road, its entryway hidden by a great red pine, and Ingrid by this time had comprehended the situation.
“Won’t he look in the cottage?” she asked.
“We can lock the door.”
“He has the key!” wailed Ingrid.
“You’re right,” said Martje. “I’ll get it.”
“Martje, no,” said Mrs. Svenson.
“We have to,” she said. “Otherwise it’s pointless to go to the cottage…”
“I don’t want you to go back in there.”
“It’s hanging from the wall, jea, near the matchbox?”
“Alright, then, I’ll be right back. Hans, you lead.”
“Anyway, he won’t hurt you,” said Mrs. Svenson.
Martje broke through the pines and waxy ferns and ran to the farmhouse. She slipped in the front door. The first floor was empty and quiet. She knew exactly where all the floorboards creaked, and made her way into the kitchen, barely letting the air out of her lungs. There was the key…hanging on the wall, by the matchbox. She took it, and froze.
Upstairs, she heard footsteps.
She bolted out the kitchen door and ran and did not stop until, red in the face, she found her family in the woods.
“I got it,” she said.
The caretaker’s cottage stood, small and gray and weathered, behind the orchard, but it looked like a shore of salvation to Martje.
The group walked up the porch, and then -
“Mama, Mama - stop!”
Mrs. Svenson rested her hand before the lock.
“I saw someone inside - a shadow crossed the window,” said Martje.
“What do you mean?” in horror. “An intruder?”
“Maybe the person moved in already?”
“I thought you said -”
“I just thought Papa was getting it ready!”
“Min gud, Martje! How could you - Skynda, barn, let’s go.”
But as they were skidding across the porch, their childish boots made too much rattle, and the front door - with an threatening retch - flung itself wide open.
Martje turned in horror. The person inside was shadowed from view - but what a sight the Svensons must have looked! Martje crimsoned: she didn’t want them seen by anyone in this state: frightened, uncombed, unsteady in the glaring sunlight. - Then her mother did something that impressed her.
She slid the key into her apron, cleared her throat, and straightened her back like a flagpole. “Oh! Preserve us! We must have gotten the date wrong. We were coming here to tidy the place for you more. It’s such a sight - and so are we.” She laughed apologetically. “We’ll leave you to your peace now. Forgive our intrusion.” She gave Hans a shove and Signe a yank.
“No, don’t -” The stranger stepped out onto the porch, looking confused and blinking - like anyone would to have a circus of people deposited on one’s step - but rallying to a courtesy that Martje found very old-world: “You needn’t go away, if you’d like - tea.”
Martje registered three things very quickly: that he was very shy, and trying to rise to the occasion; that his accent was neither Swedish nor Bostonian; and that he was unreachably old: perhaps close or even past Wilfred’s age.
“No, we couldn’t impose -” began Mrs. Svenson.
“But you wouldn’t be. I’d like company.”
“- Oh, but you’re settling in now.”
“It’d be homely to be put the kettle on. Sure, truth’s I’d like to meet my neighbors.”
At that, Mrs. Svenson seemed to remember herself. “Of course, we were going to call…but I’m really sure at the moment you don’t want a pack of us about -”
“No, truly. I want to see people.”
Mrs. Svenson glanced at her daughter questioningly, and Martje responded with a look of encouragement. They had no where else to go.
“We can call for a spell, Mama,” she said.
The stranger immediately withdrew into the shadows again. “Well, I don’t have much, but there are biscuits for the children,” he said.
“They’re not hungry, but thank you,” said Mrs. Svenson, following him. “They were fed.”
“I’m hungry,” piped up rash Hans.
“You had dinner,” she whispered curtly.
“Wal, I still am,” he said morosely.
The stranger piled biscuits on a tin plate in the middle of the table recklessly high and then took out mismatching saucers - of pink and gold! and scandalous scarlet and spring green sprayed with sunflowers and poppies! It looked to Martje as if multiple benevolent old ladies had donated him one each. He obviously didn’t have his own dishware set. But when he found he did not own enough teacups to go with the saucers, he looked abashed.
“The younger children don’t take tea,” said Mrs. Svenson. “Three is fine enough.”
“I wanted some,” dared her son again in an injured tone.
“Hans, I swear -” said Mrs. Svenson.
“You can share mine, Hans,” said Martje. “I can’t drink full cups: my nerves can’t handle it,” she added, delicately, to the stranger.
But he seemed further distressed: now he was looking about apologetically. “I wish I had some kind of a cake…”
“Never you mind,” said Mrs. Svenson. “We will bring you one,” with great dignity. Martje understood that tone. Mrs. Svenson wanted to intimate that she was not a vagabond, and not a charity case.
He actually seemed to blush, and smile. “Oh, thank you.” Then he surprised them all by deftly making and pouring tea. It seemed second-nature to him and he sat down with them all to drink, even keeping his elbows off the table. Martje was impressed. Somehow, though, Mrs. Svenson was at a loss for small-talk: and the stranger did not appear canny at it, either. But the two made a valiant pass at it:
“So - this used to be your land,” the stranger ventured at length.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Svenson. “And it’s all very good” - with pride.
“I think so.”
“You’ll have no trouble with it.”
“Have you farmed before?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s all I know.” He laughed a little boyishly, self-consciously, insecurely.
“Your accent is so thick and different,” said Mrs. Svenson, trying to be polite. “Where are you from?”
“Ireland,” he said.
“Do you miss it?” Martje was surprised. She knew that was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable question for her mother to ask. Mrs. Svenson often acted as if a black curtain were drawn across the Atlantic and as if any world outside America did not exist.
But, “No,” he said, bluntly.
The conversation died there, naturally. And perhaps Mrs. Svenson did not know what to ask about that far-away isle: it was as unknown to her as fairy world, and so they all slurped, even Martje too shy of this great big man to say anything herself. But she studied him. She read kindness in his short, ruddy brow under his crop of curly hair - and approved of the twinkle in his eyes.
He was looking down, smiling, at this red hands. Then he stirred himself. “More tea?” he asked, looking into their cups, which were not even a quarter empty.
“Thank you, no, we’d better be going,” said Mrs. Svenson, standing up, in quite a formidable and firm move. “We will visit again.”
“But I haven’t finished yet,” said Hans.
“Jea, you have,” said his mother.
The stranger stood, too. “I must be going myself.” He beat out the fire in the stove and poured the cups into the sink. “I have another load of things to bring over here. In fact, I’m staying over there one more night.”
“Do you need a cart?”
“No, thank you, ma’am,” he said, slinging a brow carrying bag over his shoulder. “Well, yes, actually. But your husband has already let me borrow your own donkey and cart. I hope that is it alright. This is my last load and I’ll be back with it tomorrow noon.”
“How kind of him,” she murmured.
“He’s been helping me a lot. ’Twould have been harder on my own.”
Together, they walked back out into the white, hot sunlight. They went down the steps and Signe chased a cabbage butterfly.
“I’ll be putting my key under this flowerpot here,” he said, slipping it there. “I think it would be safer if you knew where it was, you know. Just in case. If you don’t mind, of course.”
“Oh, no,” hurried Mrs. Svenson. “Good for neighbors to keep watch on each other’s houses, I think.”
“I agree.” He shifted his pack onto his back. “Mind yourselves, then.”
“Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help. And come over for your cake soon.”
“I will,” he said, and after a wave of his hand, he jaunted off towards the tree near the road where the donkey was tied.
“Come along, children,” said Mrs. Svenson painfully, and they hurried back into the woods.
“How did we not exchange names?” asked Ingrid.
“I think we were feeling flustered,” said Martje, “on all sides of us.”
“He’s a nice man,” said Hans, with vigorous good-will, eating an extra biscuit he had been slipped.
“Be quiet, Hans,” said Mrs. Svenson. “Now we don’t have anywhere to go.” But Martje knew her harshness was not meant for her son.
When Martje could see that the stranger had disappeared down the lane, behind the clopping old Barney, she turned and said, “Let’s go back, Mama!”
“We can’t do that. It’s not ours.”
“I know it’s what you’re thinking,” she persisted. “It’s what I am, too. There’s nothing else we can do.”
Mrs. Svenson paused, hesitated, wavered.
“We need to!” pressed Martje with little self-control. “We have to. And he won’t be home until noon tomorrow.”
Mrs. Svenson broke down easily: the prospect of the home through the forest was not appealing.
That night, Signe wept and panicked and thrashed about, saying, “I want to go home, I want to go home,” and Mrs. Svenson rocked her fretfully in the kitchen: “Tyst, tyst, tyst.”
Upstairs in the loft bed, Martje whispered, “Do you think he knew?”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Ingrid. “How could he have known?”
But Martje stared at the rafters, blurred in the darkness.
“Think he sleeps in this bed?” murmured Ingrid in time.
Martje felt startled by the question. “I don’t know,” she said. She felt unexplainably embarrassed. “Probably. Why does it matter?” Her tone was a trifle cold and reserved.
Ingrid turned over. “I don’t know. It’s just strange to think of.”
In a few minutes she fell asleep, as peacefully as an angel. Martje was achingly resentful: she lay there, her chest tight, listening to her sister’s even breathing, and at last relinquished into a fitful slumber, only after each scratch of a star had come out and the globe of the moon has risen woefully in the sky.