Martje, Chapter Six
[Note: Olaf has not left yet, if you’re wondering why he appears again like a ghost.]
MARTJE dropped with a clang apples, cheese, and bread into four tin pails - but her mind was somewhere else. She was a queen. A flawless queen, like her father said in the poem: never upset, always good, gentle, helpful to all, winning people over wherever she went, pure. She could have wept tears of joy and deep gratitude when she read that poem: and she told her father so. She was not nearly as special as he made her out to be, she believed - but, oh, she was crowned: she was crowned with love, and draped in cloth of pure gold.
“Martje, were there more blueberries left?”
“The fresh ones - we ate them all.”
“Get me a jar then.”
Mrs. Svenson dolloped blueberry jam into a pot.
“Good morning, barn!” said Mr. Svenson stomped in in dusty stable clothes.
“Good morning, Papa!” shrilled Signe, and Mr. Svenson swung her up into his arms.
“My little strawberry! God morgon, Olga.”
Mrs. Svenson seemed not to hear.
“- Good morning, Olga,” said Mr. Svenson, more insistently, putting Signe down.
“God morgon,” she said woodenly, looking at the oatmeal.
Then Mr. Svenson strode over determinedly, came up behind her, and put his arms around her, but he might as well have been draping his arms around a granite boulder: Mrs. Svenson did not flinch, move, or turn around to return his embrace. She continued to face the stove and even reached for the crock of butter. Martje felt her heart twist for her father: how painfully embarrassing. Yet how normal and routine, too, she knew. She had never seen her mother embrace her father. It was rather foolish of him, she thought, to try. He had put on a brave front, it seemed, and he gave his wife a final, defiant squeeze.
Then he came back to the table. “Packing for school?” he asked, though she could not have been doing anything else.
“Jea,” said Martje.
“Be good today.” He leaned over and kissed her tousled head, his hand lightly upon her waist. Then he drew back in surprised delight. He reached again and felt the dip in her torso with a deliberate pressure. “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt a waist that small!” he crowed with a boyish laugh. “My golly, you’re slender!”
Martje colored up, and looked over at her mother quickly, but it looked as if she hadn’t heard. There was a crash in the other room and Mrs. Svenson went out of the kitchen promptly.
Mr. Svenson leaned over and whispered to his daughter,
“She’s not a wife to me anymore. She doesn’t say good morning of her own accord: she hasn’t in a long time. She doesn’t kiss me. She hardly acknowledges my presence.”
“I’m so sorry, Papa,” she said.
“Nej, all’s well, daughter.” He patted his hand on her head. “Women take on a -harder quality when they get older. It’s just a fact of life. They lose the sweetness and grace they had as girls - like you have now. I don’t feel like I’m married - I’ve felt like that for a while, and I’ve come to accept it.”
“You have me, you have me,” her heart wanted to cry.
“Things might get better,” she said. “Maybe it’s just the baby.”
He looked away and smiled indulgently. “Maybe,” he said.
Mrs. Svenson bustled back in. “Skynda, all of you! It is time to run.”
Outside, Olaf broke into the pine woods where several other lanky boys his age were loafing, but the other three children walked the main road, clanking their tin lunch pails against their thighs, past the lake and down to the schoolhouse in town.
Every day, as the school day slogged on, Martje would sit by the window and watch the colors that flashed in the elm trees lining the lane.
Today, Miss Cotter, with skin the texture of bacon, scrawled rows of words on the blackboard.
“These are the capitals of the forty-five states of our glorious nation,” she said, turning to her eldest class, who were swatting flies. “We are going to try a new method of memorization: through song. We’re going to sing these to the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’. Listen, now,” and then she sang out half of it, in a self-conscious voice. “And so on.” The tune jarred with the lyrics, and Martje felt awkward just listening to her, so when Miss Cotter turned around again, she gave the teacher a heartening smile.
“Brita!” Miss Cotter said, selecting her victim. The girl looked up with a jump.
"Speak in English, please. You may go first."
Brita was new to the school: her family had moved back east recently. She seemed to shake her head slightly and purse her lips: the shape of them looked to Martje as if she were about to say, “No.” Instead she murmured, “Ma’am, I don’t know this song at all. May I go second?”
“No one knows it. It will be everyone’s first time: no excuses - go on.”
A white panic went over Brita’s face, and Martje felt for her. She raised her hand.
“What is it now?”
“Might I sing with her?” she asked. She hated singing in front of people, but the anguish on Brita’s face was worse.
“How can she learn if she doesn’t sing by herself?” asked the teacher. She did not like to have her ideas challenged. “Do it, Brita. Stand up. Go on. Now - hurry up.”
Brita looked side to side. She stood slowly, and nervously twiddled one of the many ruffles that seemed ever-present on her pinafores. She opened her mouth - “M-Montgomery -” and Martje, without knowing what she was thinking, burst into a strong alto next to her: “Alabama -” Almost simultaneously the teacher stepped down from her podium and clapped her hand over Martje’s mouth.
There was a stunned silence in the classroom. Mrs. Cotter held her hand there, hard.
The faint scratching of a mouse in the wall could be heard.
“Now, Brita,” she said icily. “…Go on.”
Brita was watching the teacher and Martje with pale, blue eyes. She opened her mouth and trembled out, “Montg-gomery, Alabama, Little Rock, Arkansas, Sacramento, California, Den-den-den -” and then broke down.
“I can’t,” she said and turned and flew down the aisle and straight out the door, much to the stunned silence of the classroom. The younger children stared with wide eyes: no one ever ran out like that, never in the Moguncoy schoolhouse. They turned to Miss Cotter with fearful anticipation, to see what would happen next. Miss Cotter herself looked down at Martje in vivid surprise and took her hand off her mouth. The teacher appeared for a moment like she didn’t herself know what to do. Then she said, “You’ll both stay after school,” and clipped rapidly back to her desk. “And,” seating herself imperiously, “since you are so keen on singing this song, Martje, you may go next. Begin.”
Heat flamed over Martje’s cheeks.
“Begin immediately!” Mrs. Cotter rapped. She no longer had a smile on her face. “We don’t have any more time to waste.”
Martje had the impulse to glance around the classroom like Brita had done, but she knew no one there would help her, though by this time, the entire school was watching. Even her little siblings stared at her with powerless eyes. She squeaked her chair back defiantly as she stood. She would sing.
Her jaw set tight, she threw back her head - and hurled her voice into the classroom, willing it not to quiver or break. She made it pristine and steady and went even farther than that: she took the edges of her skirts and swayed them side to side cheekily and sang as if she were entertaining her siblings and altogether appeared to be reveling in the sophomoric tune. Yet if one looked closely, one could see that Martje’s eyes cracked a bright blue flame and the joints of her jawbone were welded like steel - in exact imitation of Olga Svenson.
Miss Cotter was watching the performance with a deep frown. She was in a difficult position: she could not say that Martje was disobeying her, nor could she tell her to stop singing and lose her own credibility.
“Alright, then, that is enough,” she finally said. “Thank you for your - show,” she added, with mincing mockery. “You may sit down now.”
Martje sat in a heap.
“Now, in light of all that foolery, we don’t have time to do anymore of this song, so would everyone please copy out the states and capitals on the board…”
Martje wondered where Brita had gone. She didn’t have to wonder long, because only a few minutes later, the back door creaked anxiously open, and the new girl slipped in. Brita didn’t have to worry, though: Miss Cotter did not even acknowledge her presence. Martje was somewhat disappointed that, after Brita had flown out the door so dramatically, the girl had crept back in like this, like a wet dishrag. If it had been Martje, she believed she would have stayed out all day in the woods - in a glorious rage.
Brita slid into the seat next to Martje and gave her a sweet smile, which Martje returned in a flash. She then saw Miss Cotter look at them both sharply. Martje wondered what transpired in the teacher’s mind in that moment.
After school, Miss Cotter placed the two bright-haired girls before her.
“I did not know you had such an aversion to singing, Brita. Running out was rather a childish overreaction, though, wasn’t it?”
“No, ma’am, I could have sung,” said Brita evenly. “And I would have. I just didn’t like you having your hand over Martje’s mouth.”
Martje was as taken aback as Miss Cotter at this reply. And the teacher actually looked discomfited.
“Well,” she shifted, “If Martje could learn to control herself, that wouldn’t have had to happen. I cannot have any more disruptions like that in my classroom - you’ll both stay here for two hours while I work.”
So the shamed lasses sat, immobile and mute, their lily hands in their laps, only watching the teacher sitting at her desk, writing secretively on pieces of paper. Martje felt an emotion of hatred that she could not control, and this was relieved occasionally only by glancing at Brita, who companionably shot back dark looks, conveying corresponding sentiments.
One of the worst things in life, in Martje’s opinion, was the experience of restraint. Her soul rebelled against being made to sit on this chair, in this abandoned classroom, with a teacher awkwardly scratching across paper, while the rainbowy wind blew the outside poplars into a sea of blue and green.
Something inside her told her it was not right; that nothing tangible was holding her there. Her age was immaterial: she was a free being with a spirit that was meant to wander at liberty. Why therefore did she remain in this enclosure of four walls? Sagolandet with its tangled valleys was calling her: that was where she belonged. But somehow, in this world of childhood, Martje felt impossibly persuaded by outside powers.
Finally Miss Cotter looked up and told them to make themselves useful and clap the erasers outside.
The schoolyard was deserted and the swings were still and the sun was setting at an unaccustomed angle over the elm trees. The surreal aspect of this unseated Martje. But as soon as the door was closed, Brita grounded her by saying,
“I can’t believe she did that to you,” with a ferocity that surprised Martje, coming from such a china doll.
“I can’t believe she did that to you, making you sing when you didn’t want to!”
“You should wash your mouth when you get home. Those nasty red hands on your face!”
“I can’t believe you were so brave to leave!”
They patted the erasers together, and Martje felt the delicious, cleansing emotion of rebellion against injustice. She saw herself and Brita as two impoverished maids, locked up in a cobwebby tower by a cruel mistress. Sisters: they looked it, too, with their Saxon complexion. Clouds of chalk dust made them cough and giggle, though they tried to keep their voices low.
“Do you want to run away?” asked Martje. “We could do it - we could run. She wouldn’t see us. There’s a path by the brook that leads to my house!”
“We’d never be allowed back into school!”
“- Which would be the happiest day of my life.”
She split into a giggle. “Me, too.” They jumped when the schoolhouse door opened.
Miss Cotter looked around the corner of the door and said, “You can go home now, girls. It’s just been an hour and fifteen, but I’ve finished early. Make sure you come back better behaved tomorrow!” - sternly.
“Yes, ma’am; thank you, ma’am -”
As the twain threw their erasers on the chalkboard and got their book bags, Martje felt no shame in her punishment: she and Brita could not have been sealed to each other more permanently.
But as they walked together down the lane, Martje began to feel slightly uneasy.
“What are your mother and father going to say when you get back late?”
“I don’t think they will mind,” replied Brita, with a carelessness that Martje envied, “as long as I’m home safe. Mother probably thinks I’ve just gone out to buy a sweet. How about yours?”
“They’re not going to be happy. In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I am afraid for my life.”
“I know, then! Come to my house. We can say you came over to play right after school. It’s only down this lane here.”
Two little maidens, ladened with odd-shaped burdens, clambered over stone walls and fallen logs, until at last they found an adequate lot in the forest.
“This will do,” said one, dropping her bundle with a clang in a pillow of ferns.
“Should we live together?” asked Brita.
“Yes, our husbands can be brothers.”
“I’m going to be having a quarrel with my husband,” said Brita, taking out a battered-looking baby from a rucksack.
“Me, too,” said Martje, removing another dirty doll and cuddling it.
“I got into a quarrel with my husband this morning,” confided Brita.
“So did I,” said Martje, rubbing her baby’s back. “What was yours about?”
“Oh, not much. He just said the boys could go up to the county fair this morning and I said they could not. I wanted them to finish their chores first and have Jacob go with them, but he said they could go alone and he would do their work. I got mad and scolded him.”
“Well, here they come now!” said Martje, looking out the kitchen window. “- Coming in from the fields.”
“I guess I’ll go make up first,” resolved Brita.
“Me, too,” agreed Martje. “John and I also had some hot, quick words this morning. I wanted to go over my mother’s for Sunday dinner tomorrow, and he told his parents we’d be seeing them, without telling me.”
“Oh, that’s hard,” said Brita sympathetically.
“Yes,” sighed Martje, patting her baby’s back again. “And my mother has been missing me dreadfully and I wanted to see her to comfort her…but I love John and his parents and I want to take care of him, too.” Martje suddenly felt a swell of tenderness through her body in wanting to take care of John. She felt so maternal towards him and wanted to make him happy!
“I know you do,” consoled Brita.
“Here they are!” exclaimed Martje. Brita put her baby down and went out; Martje waited for John to come in. She watched Brita through a pine branch: she went out aways and stood in the sunshine and gestured with her arms up in the air. Her face was a masterpiece of pathos and sincerity.
“Jacob, I didn’t mean to quarrel.” Martje could hear bits of her words. “You were right and you’re a good father. I should trust your decisions with the children.” Her motions were then unquestionably those of kissing and embracing someone taller than herself.
Martje felt inspired. Her husband came in the door. She went right up to him, murmured her own words of reconciliation, and then kissed her husband. She was not self-conscious because Brita had her back turned…but Martje intuited that Brita would not have cared if she had known Martje had observed her.
Brita came back inside. She had been gathering moss for lunch.
“Now they’re gone,” said Martje. “Back down to the fields.”
- Nothing could equal the satisfaction of seeing two stalwart men, their broad backs outlined by the c
cambric shirts her own hands had sewed with a hawthorne needle and an invisible thread, trudging down the oaken vales to the fields of corn beyond.
Warmth flowed into her heart and she exclaimed, “I am so happy to have married a farmer!”
“Me, too,” said Brita, dropping the lichen into an old kitchen pot Mrs. Jansson had lent them.
“Even though your father is a factory floor manager?” asked Mrs. John, soothing the babies who were crying again. “- Retired now, of course.”
“Jea, even though,” said Brita, defensively. “We have a horse and a garden.”
“Oh, yes, you do,” remedied Martje. “Tea?”
“I’m sorry!” Martje said breathlessly, when she ran into the kitchen after dinner time, a chaplet of wilting wildflowers hanging down over one ear. “There was a new girl and I was at her house. She’s a Jansson - you know, the new people from Minnesota. Her father works at the boot factory. Her mother is so jolly and baked -”
“- Martje!” interrupted Mrs. Svenson. “Miss Cotter called today.”
Mr. Svenson swiftly raised his eyes from his paper as if this were news to him, and Martje’s fingers turned cold.
“She did?” Mr. Svenson asked, sounding suspicious and actually almost frightened himself.
But Martje tried to stay casual. “She did?” she also asked, picking at a piece of bread.
Mr. Svenson folded his journal down - an ominous sign to Martje - and asked steadily, “What’s wrong?” - prepared, it seemed, to believe in sins of the blackest spots of his sons.
“She came about Martje!” said Mrs. Svenson triumphantly. Or at least she sounded triumphant to her daughter.
“About Martje?” Mr. Svenson flicked his eyes over at the girl. She met and held his gaze. In that moment she saw something strange: there was shock in his eyes, but it was a disbelief that flickered vaguely with - amusement. Martje sensed that, deep down, he did not believe she could do anything really wrong. Her mother, on the other hand, Martje was sure, wished to dynamically promote the idea that her daughter was irremediably flawed.
But the brief glimmer from the true part of his soul died out as the role of old-fashioned father took over. “What was it about?” Mr. Svenson asked, turning towards his wife and settling into his stern, disciplinary face. Martje’s heart sank: she could see that his sense of humor and loyalty would not save her - especially not if Miss Cotter portrayed her unfavorably and Mr. Svenson decided Martje had insulted that the honor of his family.
“Something about her causing a kerfuffle in the classroom, being rebellious.”
“What?” he said, looking at her. “My daughter, being rebellious?”
Martje felt a curdle of fear in her stomach when he looked at her like that.
“That’s what Miss Cotter said,” said in her mother, in a way that made Martje feel like she enjoyed positioning her daughter under the wrathful foot of her husband.
“What has gotten into you lately?”
“She doesn’t like me!” cried Martje in panic.
“What do you mean, she doesn’t like you?”
“She - she -” Martje could feel tears burbling up her throat, and into her mind crashed all the things that Miss Cotter had ever done to her: “She laughs at my poetry and she doesn’t give fair marks on my recitations and I hate how she treats Hans.”
“I’m sure she judges you perfectly fairly,” said Mrs. Svenson.
Then heat exploded in her belly.
“I am good!” she almost shouted. Her voice sounded strained and funny, even to her. “I’m always good. You should have seen what she was going to do to Brita!”
“She told all about it, and singing is not the end of the world,” scoffed Mrs. Svenson. “I’m sure the teacher acted exactly as she should.”
Martje felt like she was about to lose her head. In her anger and self-defense she felt helpless; then she slipped back into what recourse she knew she had: she burst into tears. Partly, she couldn’t help it.
“Really, Martje! Calm down,” Mr. Svenson ordered.
She swallowed her sobs. “I - I can’t,” she gasped. She remembered, when she was tantruming as a child, her father used to hold her on his lap and wouldn’t let her down until she quiet. She could scream and writhe until she was red in the face. It was supposed to teach her self-control, but Martje had her doubts.
“Jea, well, we’ll talk when you’re quiet.” He went and sat on the other side of the table, folding his bulking arms against himself.
What was she supposed to do now? Sit there until she stopped crying? It had started as a ruse: but now she couldn’t stop. It just wasn’t happening. She didn’t feel like herself. So she kept going. She had not cried like this in ages. She felt like she had lost control of her body: it just was shuddering.
She wished her mother would slip her warm arms around her and steady her, like she did with the babies of the family. When did her mother last hold her? On impulse, she moved herself towards her mother, with her arms out. She needed help. Martje had lost her mind, to dare this. She was in her alternate reality, where her mother loved her…cuddled her like she had held her own doll, acted like the sketches in her notepad. Mrs. Svenson visibly stiffened: not only that, she stood up and stepped away.
“No,” she said sternly. “You are not yourself right now. I will hug you when you are.”
Martje felt like a monster. The gaping horror in her soul, the stunned surprise at the rejection, was incalculable. She turned to her father, who was silent and averting his eyes. She flung herself up and went and sobbed in the parlor on the sofa.
Five minutes later, Mr. Svenson came quietly in. He was holding a block of cheese and paring it with a knife. He kept his eyes on the cheese, but Martje felt his spirit’s presence and it was soft. He stood before her, quietly carving. Martje felt sick with crying, but sobs were still crawling and clawing their way up her throat. She could not stop them. He pared off a large piece.
“Is she still having hysterics?” asked her mother harshly, poking her head in the room, around the corner.
“She is going through a hard time, Olga,” said Mr. Svenson. “It’s her age. Leave her be.”
“I never acted like that at her age,” she said, and pulled her head back in.
Martje knew that her parents’ relationship was a balancing act: her father was now being mild in proportion to her mother’s ill-temper. She could always rely on one or the other to be a haven. He sat down next to her.
“Cheese?” he asked. He held out a yellow hunk.
She took it, and right when her teeth bit through the powdered surface, the tears broke in her throat, her lungs stilled like a sea at calm, and a blanket of peace draped thickly over her senses and entire body. “What sort of cheese is this?” she marveled, from within the soothing veil.
There was tenderness in his voice. “You’re not in any trouble,” he assured her. “Tell me what happened today.”
So Martje sniffed and told the story, and wrinkles came out on her father’s face, all in the smile-corners.
At the end of the tale, he declared, “This girl has spunk!” with pride. “Of course, I am an adult and am supposed to be on the side of teachers, but by golly, Martje - I used to do the same sort of things when I was your age!” He seemed exultant, as if the memories of being pushed in the grime and dirt and getting bloodied noses just to save the defenseless brought back a sense of grandeur. “I felt angry when I saw people hurt. I protected them, too. You have that same spirit - I see it in you. You stand up to people. You even,” his voice dropped low, “ - stand up to me. You won’t let me get away with anything. And underneath it all, Martje,” he said, “I like that about you.” His eyes twinkled mischievously at her, and she - suddenly, proudly, thrillingly, uncomfortably - felt his equal.