Martje, Chapter Ten
SOMETIMES what changes the course of one’s life are not the pools of stars but the waters which up-rush and break those stars into a froth beyond reflection.
Martje lay on a bed-rest of two weeks, and Brita visited her frequently, bringing her schoolwork and occasionally truffles and bananas from her mother. Mr. Svenson put treats by her pillow as well: a wooden doll, a handkerchief embroidered with forget-me-nots, a paperback of stories for girls, and bunches of red grapes. Martje would wake to these surprises.
There is never oblivion, but another shape.
When her two weeks of confinement were over, she rose up and helped her mother around the house, for the doctor had ordered her to be kept home from school for two months. This felt the most natural thing in the world to Martje. “Ah! We have you to ourselves, then,” said Mr. Svenson, smiling.
There is new form.
Peering into his cranberry face, she stared at the freckled month-old Svenson, wrapped like a sausage on the hearth rug. He had, without a doubt, Olga Svenson’s russet eyes and bulging brow. He did not look like he was related to Martje at all: whereas Gerte, contrarily, did not look like his mother had even a part to play in his creation.
When that sprite was born, he had had a complexion of smooth peaches spooned into a bowl of milk, and people had remarked on how much he resembled Martje. He possessed clear, elfish, gray-blue irises; he even sprouted her same soft, golden-red hair. But physical resemblance paled in comparison to what she felt when she first held him. Here was her own, she thought. A jade bud, tinged with silver, that had pushed from her own stalk: a crystal-twin come thirteen years late. The cells in her body reached out to him and tied with his when their skin first made contact, when he was placed in her arms in the Svensons’ bedroom, the spring sun blooming through the gauzy blue curtains. After that she held him whenever she could, even taking him away from her mama. And she would tuck herself into a corner of the woods, running her finger as lightly as she could across his feathered brow bone.
“I don’t feel very close to this baby,” she dare to say, with guilt. “Why?”
“Because you were sick the first week after he was born,” said her mother placidly. “You hadn’t had time to bond these past few weeks. It’ll come.”
Mr. Svenson was sitting on a stool by the open kitchen door when she said that. He took his pipe out.
“This is how it should be,” he mused. “Children shouldn’t be separated from their parents. Go to school six hours a day. It makes no sense. This feels right, doesn’t it, Martje?”
“Yes,” she said.
The bubbles that had shattered the bowl of stars, whose eruption could not be placed, now spilled over the rim, fell down the rocks which held the pool so snugly, to find its new shape.
Later that afternoon, she carried a jug of water and a plate of steaming ham and bread out to the field where her father was repairing a gap in the fence a small tree had crushed. When he saw her, he wedged the new fencepost in its hole. “Oh, look, it’s my angel,” he said. He wiped his brow with his handkerchief. He seemed to Martje to be sweating more than usual.
A meadow lark flew above their heads, its repeated call stinging the air, and he took the hot plate with an expression of gratitude.
“You know how much I love you, jea?” He shoved the chunk of the bread into his mouth. This close, she could hear his harsh breath.
“If Ingrid didn’t exist,” he said, swallowing and giving a ragged laugh, “I’d say you were my favorite daughter.” His laugh was almost self-conscious. “But I can’t say that.”
“And Signe,” said Martje.
“And Signe,” he said. “Of course. She’s just…young. - Where’s that bird now?”
“You mean the one that just called?”
He pinched at the ham with dirty fingers. “Jea.”
“It’s on that post there.” She forgot a wet cloth for him. She gestured to a yellow smudge bobbing some distance away.
“What’s it? You know it?”
“…Eastern meadow lark.”
“Oj! You do!”
Bashfully, “Well, you taught me.”
“My smart girl! - My nature-girl. I was the same way.” An obscure gray thing flew down and pecked at an empty acorn. “And this one?”
It continued until Martje was finally walking away under the tanager trees, empty plate and jug in her hand, hearing the clang of the bells and the sheep’s calls in the distant meadows, feeling warm and comforted and wrong.
The mess was indisputable: most the water immediately sank into the too-soft ground, layered with pine-fall, so unused to a torrent, and so porous, not like the riverbed formed over years: and any water that was quick enough to escape the absorption soon encountered an expansive carpet of deciduous leaves, curled and of oak, mangled by countless autumns, which also choked the progress of the water. The ability for it to take a new shape seemed dire: it seemed as though there would be back-up, build-up: a new pool would form, but this time, a stinking one, a stagnant one, separated from the source, which would smell of bog and algae, to be inhabited by one or two sagging frogs, and then abruptly dry up.
Said Mrs. Svenson, “Martje!”
Her shoulders crunched in. “Papa was eating,” she explained. She gone through the screen.
“No. I told you to sweep the parlor, didn’t I?”
“- This morning!”
“It’s only mid-afternoon now.”
“I wanted you to do it earlier. Those crumbs will stay and mice will come and nest. And you know you hate to see the babies killed.”
Her face twitched. “The day isn’t over. I’m sure mice don’t come that fast.”
“Just do what you’re told.”
Mrs. Svenson handed her a broom and Martje’s hand burned as she touched the wooden handle. Simultaneously, something cracked in the kitchen and Gerte set up a wail. Mrs. Svenson threw up her hands in aggravation.
“There we go,” she said. “Take him outside,” gustily. “He needs air.”
“Thought you said you wanted the parlor -”
“Just take him. I’ll sweep it if I have to,” and she snatched the broom.
Infuriated, Martje went into the kitchen. “And don’t flounce,” said her mother.
An elderberry jam jar was split on the bricks. So Mrs. Svenson would not be incensed at Gerte, she hastily wiped the precious substance up with a cloth and disposed of the broken shards of glass, and then took her baby away to Sagolandet. She bounced him on her hip, galloping as if she was a horse, along the meadow way, and he chortled.
Once on the Sagolandet path, she held his pudgy hand, as his feet, with toes like curled periwinkle shells, gripped the knotty pine earth…or padded, white on red, over the dotted leaves. She held his hand by the Fairy Pool, frilled with waxen ferns, as they launched glossy orange sailboats into the ripples. The Ipses zipped onto the branches above and laughed. There was nothing compared to his dimpled paw in hers: tacky, warm, soft as a kitten. Trusting, permeable.
A sudden gust of autumn wind! It shook whorls of maple seeds down. They glittered like gold as they twirled - turning, twisting -
“Look at the fairies whirl!” she cried out in ecstasy. They fell over the young faces. “Look at them dance!”
“Bird!” yelped Gerte.
The pushing water continued. The bubbles would not ebb.
She knelt swiftly by the child. She put her mouth close to his conch-ear and whispered,
“I will make your life beautiful for you. I can do it. I know how.”
They only gathered force.
She saw her mother. She saw her black brow and breaking-down.
Her shoulders behind her neck mounted up like a mountain, like a heaving thrust-up of land, evidence of what was roped around her neck. And one night, Martje walked into the kitchen. Signe was sitting, undressed, on the floor, Gerte was crying, and young Axel was bawling. The infant was in the cradle, and Mrs. Svenson was holding Gerte, trying to fill up a bottle of milk with the other hand.
“Tyst, tyst, tyst, tyst,” she clucked. Her dark hair fell into her eyes, which sagged in bulges below. “I know, I know. Bed soon. Milkums are coming. You, too, Axel.”
But she could not unscrew the top of the milk can.
“I can’t - this is too - jea, unge, jea, just wait -”
And then, slowly, with the determination of a forest animal, a mole with its snout to the ground…the water trickle began to instinctually smell its own way…out far, far, far from the riverbed it had disturbed.
Axel set up a louder scream from the cradle, and Gerte, upon hearing that, lifted up his voice as well, and Mrs. Svenson let her hand slide from the milk can. Gerte dangled from her hip almost precariously. She did not see Martje. Her chest heaved once. It heaved twice. Her hair had dropped out of her pins and framed her face in blackness. Gray - and as she stood there in silence, the babies wailing around her, like a statue in a cemetery -
Without waiting another minute, Martje walked in, took the glass bottle from her mother’s hand, filled it with milk, and capped it. She put it on the table. Then she turned to her mama. With the two strongest emotions she had in her heart at that age - love for Gerte and pity for Mrs. Svenson -
- she thrust out her hands, palms up, and said -
“Give him to me.”
She said it naturally. She said it - imperiously. She spoke as if she had a right. And somehow her mother did not even blink at the imperative. She merely looked up at Martje...and handed him over. Both of them knew that Martje did not mean, "Give him to me, so I may care for him for the night," but,
"Give him to me, that I may have him tonight, and the next day, and the next night, and from now on that I may be his mother, because you have too many. If you do this, he will be mine and no longer yours."
It was such an obvious thing. Martje knew that there had surely been an accident in fate, and that Gerte belonged to her. The stork misdelivered: times and dimensions were skipped. Mrs. Svenson perhaps felt so, too. Or perhaps not. Either way, she had put out her arms, limply, and without a word handed the child over.
Martje took him and felt surge of something deep, deep inside of her. It was not warm. It was not nurturing. It was not even maternal.
She had made her mother do something. She had demanded that the steely, brusque Olga Svenson do something - and had been obeyed.
Martje knew instinctively that there had passed a permanent dynamic shift between them. Olga could not command her daughter ever again, for when she had given Gerte over to Martje, they became equals. They were both women with children.
The forest was wide, and the new shape was begun.
“I’m not going back to school,” she said in October, “at the end of these two months.”
“Of course you have to go back to school,” said Mrs. Svenson.
“No. I should stay and help you,” said Martje, flicking out water from a clean bowl.
“Tst.” Mrs. Svenson whisked roughly. “I’m fine.”
“But it would be really good for the family if I stayed and helped.”
She would not dare say how much she longed to run through the meadows and eat strawberries and write in a pine tree. She believed her mother would never have granted her freedom on those terms. “Think about how close Gerte is to me. How much easier it is for everyone now that I’m home all day.”
The bubbles in the batter seemed very important to Mrs. Svenson. “Every child goes to school,” she said slowly.
“No, not always,” said Martje. Her brain rushed, but she could not think of a single example. “Some of the smartest people haven’t gone.”
“Like who? I’ve never heard of any.”
“But how would you learn?”
Martje saw and pulled on the rope with all her might: her mother’s slight uncertainty was all she needed, she calculated, to draw up the anchor and set sail.
“Easily,” she said. She put away the bowl. “You know how well I work by myself - how much I write on my own. I would just need to get the books the children study and read them.” She felt powerful, manipulative - like she was crafting her fate with her own hands, and like her mother was clay. “It would be simple to get them. And I’ll study - and memorize - and write my own presentations. It can be done. Easily. I know it can.”
“But…what if you can’t understand something?”
“Brita or one of my friends or Papa can help me.”
“I suppose. Well…I’ll talk to your father. I - guess it would be good for you to heal more anyway.”
Martje believed her father would be in sympathy: he would see her need to eat wild grapes and pignuts and draw sunflowers.
But Mr. Svenson was harder to convince, though he had been the one to coo over his eldest daughter being home. Yet he, too, at last cracked and said nervously,
“Well…as long as you can study well enough at home. It would help us a lot,” weakly.
At that, Martje went running up to the woods. She spun around wildly and climbed a tree and sat in its boughs as they wind took her, swayed her, sent shivers through her body through the peeling shine of the black birch.
She came back. Mr. Svenson, who was rather yellow-faced, was sitting again on his stool by the back kitchen door.
“You’re so happy! How is that? - Youth.”
“Why?” Martje, out of breath, sat happily down on the stone step below him. “It’s not jolly to be old?” she teased, smiling up at him.
“Well… Jea. I feel old. And I do feel tired. Tired of life sometimes. You know?”
The animal in her quickened. The farmyard was expansive - but emotionally -
“It’s just hard…with your brothers gone and all. And your mama’s got the new baby. It’s a lot on her. I’m glad you’re home now: that helps. But I think your mother blames me for a lot…Well… sorry to talk to you about this all, Martje - but there’s no one else. Jea, you know?” he said gently. She reacted against his softness. She was full of wild tang: she pushed hard against his tenderness, what it meant for her, and yet was drawn towards into magnetically, too: engulfed. He continued quickly, as if he had to fit in her all of his words before someone came:
“See, your mama doesn’t really love me, and…. Well, when one’s own wife doesn’t…you know that’s just important. You’re going to be a good wife someday, Martje. You’re not going to leave your husband out in the cold. You will be loving and - and warm. I can tell.”
She felt uncomfortable and flattered.
“You said once when you were young that you’d marry someone like me!” He leaned forward flirtatiously. She felt a guilty twang in her heart. He must have sensed her fear, for he drew back and laughed shortly. “But that’s not true of your old papa anymore, huh? Old papa. Old failure. Old monster.” Martje turned her face away and the points behind her neck stiffened.
“Aw, Martje, I was just teasing - really…”
She didn’t understand her feelings. She could make no sense of the combination of nausea and tenderness in her soul. “Papa,” she rushed out with, “I wish you wouldn’t say things like that. I love you too much.”
“Of course, Martje. Of course.” His eyes seemed to melt and flood with vulnerability, warmth, tenderness. He put his arms out toward her. “Come here - come here.”
Helplessly she went to him and was folded in his arms, but her body was wooden - she could not help it - she could not return the pressure, and - presumably feeling this, he quickly and awkwardly released her. “Well, go and play with your - whatever you call them. Your doll cut-outs. You know you’re your papa’s princess.”
That night, a vision wafted before her. The blurring hiss of amaranthine spread and she panicked and pushed it away with her hands. She got up and knelt and said, “Please, God, please, no, no, no, spare him longer. Please. It can’t be possible. It would be so wrong. Please, no.”
But the dread filled her soul, silent, heavy, a weight.
And soon after that, Mr. Svenson died.