Martje, Chapter Three
She came inside one evening, while her father was sitting by the fire in the parlor, and her mother was frying fish. Martje hesitated, and then went in to him.
“What are you working on?”
“Just some writing, mitt hjärta.”
She sat down next to him on the hearth.
He was eating his pignuts, stored over from the winter, cracking them with a stone on the bricks. They were his special treat - he hoarded a sack in the cellar - but he generously handed her a slip: snow-white and buttery.
“May I see your writing?” she asked, taking the meat.
“Jea. It’s a poem called ‘The Death of the Gardener’. Maybe,” he said, almost like a blushing boy before a schoolteacher, handing the paper over, “You could help me with it. I know you’re good at writing. I’ve seen what you bring home from the school.”
Flattered, she read his poem rapidly, feeling self-conscious at his expectation, and was both embarrassed and moved by her father’s romanticism. The poem was about his sentimental relationship as a young man with a gardener who worked on a farm with him.
She was puzzled by the title. “Why is it called ‘The Death’? - Is he dead?”
“I don’t know. He was very old when I left him,” said Mr. Svenson. “But death is a natural progression of life, Martje. You need to know this.”
- By which she assumed her father believed death was more artistic than life.
“He helped me to marry your mother,” he said dreamily. “He told me to do what was right. He was of the old gentleman sort, that rarely exists now. In those first couple of years, I really wished he was here with me in America. It was so hard for me, Martje…in so many ways. You children cannot know those kind of things, what adults go through. You do not know what it is like to be on your own yet.”
Martje was suspicious that her father’s eyes had become misty. They at least had a faraway look: blue skies and white clouds and unploughed earth were reflected in them…and a willow tree. Her insides clenched up. But she thought her father had no one else to talk to, so she matched his level of intimacy:
“I bet your friend would have liked to have seen this. It would have made him happy.”
He looked at her tenderly, and said, “Well, it needs to be edited,” and smashed a pignut.
So she slipped the pencil between her teeth. She looked at the paper, and for some reason felt her pulse quicken. Some primordial juice was flowing in the stalk of her veins.
“You could use the word ‘spark’ here,” she said. “You could say, ‘Will this town ever know / Who sparked the spring blossoms / And helped them to grow’?”
“I like it, Marty,” he said, and scrawled her words over his own.
Her heart swelled with importance and she felt superior, as their two copper heads bent over the paper together. Some of his stanzas were shamefully clumsy, like a lad fumbling to express his love. But when she read the poem again, after being smoothed by her own youthful hand, her mind beamed with accomplishment: she had successfully evened his rhyme, eased the expression of some thoughts, and added a few jewels of words.
“Thank you, Martje,” Mr. Svenson said when they finished, a bit patronizingly, to her curiosity.
Then the fire popped, and a hard hit of his sent the green hull squashing. The stone came down again, finely, neatly, on the ridge of the saddle-colored nut. It split to reveal its shining white inside, like a Fabergé.
He gave her the oily, largest piece. As she swallowed it, she was filled with a confidence that she always hungered to feel with a parent. She longed to talk about death and life and mystery and desire and depth and God and heaven and spirituality and misery and tragedy.
“I want to be - a writer, too,” she said, picking at the edge of her rusty dress, “I think.”
“Never,” he said, “Never as a life work, Martje. It is foolish and does not feed mouths. It is distraction in life. Even on the deeper levels, it does no good. It is no good for the soul.” He was quite emphatic on this point. “It is for one’s own amusement, but in the end,” he gestured towards his own masterpiece at his feet, “It is all dross.”
She did not know what that word meant, but she strangely felt a need to defend her father from it. She picked up the paper and cradled it.
“No,” she said. “This is very good! You are very talented!”
“Thank you, liten dotter. That is a lot, coming from you. But I have never finished anything. I have been scribbling since I was your age and I have never gone anywhere with it - and I never will. Truly, it’s only given me frustration. What a silly thing it is!”
“This you have finished,” she said.
“Jea, with your help.”
Martje could have exploded with the pride and tenderness, importance and pity she felt, and these emotions bonded her to him inextricably. She was necessary in her father’s life, for she had saved him in a little way: she had helped him, made him feel whole and like a man, completing something for once. She could say nothing, only to look worshipfully at the ruby stubble on his cheek, and at the stain of earth on his rigid shoulder.
“Want another pignut?” she asked.
Then he got a look in his eyes that made it seem like her father wasn’t the in the room anymore, and Martje suddenly wondered if at one point he was one of the clan but had lost the glow, because something funny came into them. - Or had he just been drinking? Either way he was speaking about her but did not seem to be speaking to her. He was distant, in another world.
“You, of all my children, will be or do something great,” he said. “But I wish I could save you the frustration. Do not be foolish and go into art. At least, not with your whole heart. It eats hearts and people just throw their lives away on it. Believe me, I have seen the depression. If you want to write or paint, let it be a hobby, my little girl. Please, just let it be something on the side, hjärta. A distraction. It is all dross.”
He pleaded, with pain in his eyes. And Martje was frightened to see a purple spark flicker underneath the dark deer-brown, the murky failure.
She sat gaping, but before either could say more, Mrs. Svenson stuck her head around the corner. “Dinner,” she said.
She set the steaming stekt strömming on the table. Martje loved the golden, crispy look of the fish.
“Elbows off the table,” Mr. Svenson said to Hans. The boy was leaning on his bony arm, half-slouched over the table.
“But, Pa, I’m tired.”
“So am I: sit up.”
Mrs. Svenson sighed. “I wish we had some lingonberry jam.”
“What is that?” asked Martje, taking the cue.
“Oh, jea, you wouldn’t know. The fish is not the same without it. It is sweet and sour and red.”
“Jea, I miss that, too,” said Mr. Svenson. “- Good fish, Mama.”
“It’s the dill,” said Mrs. Svenson, forking out a piece for him.
“And the fish. Are you going to thank the one who caught it?” asked Mr. Svenson.
“Be grateful to your father, children,” said Mrs. Svenson.
“You laugh,” said Mr. Svenson indestructibly, “but do you think you’d have this herring if it weren’t for me?”
“Sure and we could survive on our own,” muttered Olaf.
“What was that?”
“You’re a pojke, Olaf, and couldn’t stand a minute out there. Not in that world,” Mr. Svenson said, pointing his knife at him. “At least not with the way you defend yourself. - We’ve all seen it.”
To Martje, her brother’s humiliation was palpable.
“I think it’th delithiouth, Papa,” lisped Signe.
“You’re welcome, daring,” he smiled, and Martje could not believe how obvious his childish needs were. “I got up early just for you.” But then he turned to Hans again. “Elbows!”
“I’m not doing anything,” implored Hans. “I’m just resting my head. I’m sitting up.”
“Your elbow is on the table. Get it off. If you need to sleep, go upstairs and go to bed now.”
“Boys need to eat when they’re growing,” said Mrs. Svenson softly.
“They also need to listen to their fathers,” said Mr. Svenson. “If you aren’t up by the time I finish this sentence -”
Hans rapidly sat up and slid his arm in his lap. Martje did not like to see the boy’s slumped shoulders, or the dull look on his face. He was only seven. He was too young to own that expression: that of disconnection, of imagining that one was not where one was.
Mr. Svenson took a breath and smiled, looking around at his family, all orderly. “Now,” he said. “We’re missing someone. Where’s my oldest? Where’s Wilfred?”
“Out,” said Mrs. Svenson, “most likely.”
“Out?” said Mr. Svenson, his brow darkening. Martje felt a storm cloud gathering above the table. “Doesn’t he know we eat together as a family?”
“We always have.”
“He knows what time dinner is at, jea? - or at least, what time it should be at?”
Mrs. Svenson ignored his barb. “I assume so.”
“Then why isn’t he here?”
“Why are you asking me this?” Martje saw that her mother’s hand was tight on her fork, resting on the table.
“Because you are the mother of this family; you take care of the children; you are supposed to keep track of them.”
“He is seventeen and you are his father,” said Mrs. Svenson. “You talk to him when he comes home.”
“I disagree. You’re the mother. You’re in charge of things like this because you’re around the home more.”
The rest of the children stayed silent, most of them just staring at their plates, focusing on chewing, or some idly looking out the window at the flickerings of yellow and green: they had acquired temporary deafness. But Martje could barely swallow.
Mrs. Svenson then stayed quiet. She turned to Signe.
Everyone jumped when Mr. Svenson exploded: “Elbows off the table!”
Martje felt so jarred that a flash of heated anger went through her:
“No wonder Wilfred doesn’t want to come home for dinner,” she snapped, enflamed. She couldn’t stop what she was saying. “Those who do get told off.”
There was silence as the two of them stared at each other, father and daughter.
“What did you say?” asked her father as if he didn’t hear her correctly.
But before Martje could save herself, Olaf spoke up. “She’s right,” he said. “Here you are harping on Hans for the way he’s sitting at the table, when at least he is at the table. Wilfred has the right idea. I’d rather eat with the cows,” and he shocked the whole family by picking up his plate and getting down from the table.
Mrs. Svenson - “Olaf!”
Mr. Svenson - “Did we give you permission to get up?”
“No,” said Olaf, continuing to walk away.
“Then you come back here right now and put your plate down.”
So Olaf came back, coolly put his plate down with its unfinished food, and walked out.
The father looked at the mother as if to say, “Well?”
And she said, “This isn’t my fault - what do you want me to do?”
But for some reason Mr. Svenson let Olaf go. Martje was surprised to see her father send her a look across the table - an infuriated one, as if Martje was perpetrator.
“Isn’t there more butter?” asked Ingrid in a small voice.
“Yes, I’ll get some,” said Martje, standing up to go into the pantry. To her surprise, her father got up also. She was a frightened to see him follow her: he was conscientious in ensuring that the other children did not see how he acted sometimes, and she did not like the idea of being in that small room alone with him.
She was correct - behind the door, where no one could see, he grabbed her upper arm aggressively.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” he whispered. “Don’t you ever undermine my authority again. Do you see the affect you have on the barn? I can’t have that happen.” He dropped his hand, and awkwardly, shortly, stroked her hair. “You are mitt hjärta, but never again. Jea? You need to set an example for the others. - Jea?”
She didn’t answer. She shook herself as if he was still holding onto her - she felt so - and walked out with the butter. She sat on her chair at the table and set the crock down in front of Ingrid. The clank of the clay on the wood sounded cold and dead.
“What happened?” asked Mrs. Svenson casually.
“Nothing,” said Martje. “I found it.”
Then Mr. Svenson came out, holding a jar of raspberry jam. “Well!” he said. “Maybe this will work.” He sat down. He liberally smeared it on his stekt strömming.
“Is that good?” asked Ingrid.
“Ah, not as good - but it does fine enough!”
If something could go worse, it always did, in Martje’s opinion: for right then, Gerte started to wail upstairs from his cradle. Mrs. Svenson’s chair squeaked backwards to go get him, but all of a sudden Mr. Svenson said in an imperious tone and put his hand up to stop her,
“I have to get him,” said Mrs. Svenson, and Martje was anxious in hearing that her manner was explanatory.
“No, sit down. He’s fine.”
“You shouldn’t talk to her like that,” hazarded Hans.
“Be quiet,” said Mr. Svenson. He looked around at the table. “If anyone dares get up, there will be huge trouble. I’m just saying it right now. Don’t anyone move.”
Martje looked at him. Her nostrils flared like a dragon several times.
Her mother sat moodily, her shoulders haunched, her mouth an iris drawn downward. Martje knew she was not moving, not because she did not want to get her baby, or because she was afraid of her husband, but because she did not want the children to see a fight. She was choosing to protect the ones at the table at the moment, and her daughter knew what that was like.
Martje calculated fast. If anyone, Martje could dare it. Ingrid would have been too scared; Hans would have been clobbered. She was probably the safest bet at this moment. She had helped her father with his poem: he loved her, she knew it…he said so. She was his favorite. She rationed it out in her mind, weighed the consequences, and her love for Gerte toppled all scales.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting Gerte,” she said. She put down her napkin. Her whole body was shaking, on the inside and outside. She tried to make her voice sound as normal and calm as possible. Surely her father would see the rationale of it.
“Gerte is fine, Martje,” said her father. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“No, he’s not. He needs to be held.”
Mr. Svenson voice broke: “I can’t believe I’m having this fight with you, too!” She kept walking, and he cried out after her as if he had been betrayed: “Your mother, and now you!”
She ran upstairs, propelled onward by Gerte’s wails: the sinews of his heart were her own; she could do naught but respond.
She scooped him up and he melted like butter in her arms: so tender, he attached himself to her as if their pores and cells were one. He buried his face in her shoulder. She held him against herself like a warm sack of flour. “See,” she crooned, “Things are all right. Things are all well. Papa understands.”
She was tightening her breath and listening downstairs. The kitchen seemed tranquil, but it might have been the calm before the storm. And now that she had done this, she was unsure about what to do next. She had not thought this far ahead.
It seemed safest to walk downstairs with Gerte casually. Sometimes if she pretended everything was peaceful, her environment responded in kind. - Sometimes. So she took a breath and stepped forward.
Then she heard noises downstairs that terrified her - “She’s like you, and my mother before. Crazy, all of you! Emotional. Can’t handle life. Using men, not appreciative. Hating and belittling us, that’s what you do. You’re all uncontrollable!” - “Don’t bother with her,” her mother was saying, but a chair scraped backwards as if somehow jumped up in extreme anger. Mrs. Svenson said, “Please, Axel!” and Ingrid burst into tears, and then Martje heard thundering up the stairs, of a body jerkily moving and thrashing forward. The bedroom door burst open and her father lurched in, as if he had been transformed - no longer the pignut-crunching, rosy father who loved his little girl on the hearth, but a dark-faced monster, whose countenance had literally transfigured into darkness and twistedness. He hovered, hulkingly, in the doorway.
“Put him down,” he said. “I’m not going to ask again.”
“Papa, he’s fine. He’s just calmed down.”
“Martje,” he said, in a stronger tone. “I am telling you right now as your father: put - that - baby - down.”
Martje felt herself turn her body away by instinct. She did not want to fight. She tried to soothe the beast. “It’s fine,” she said. Maybe she could talk him down. “See, he’s calm now.” She begged him to see reason; her voice was calm. This was a bad dream. Maybe she could talk herself out of it, wake herself up. “See, if I put him down he’ll cry.” But she was starting to feel reality slip away from her; the look in his eyes was vacant; he was not registering anything he said; logic was not working.
He only repeated:
“Martje, I am telling you as your father: put - that - baby - down.”
He was blocking her escape, because he was standing in front of the door. She was trapped.
“Put him down.”
“No,” said Martje, holding Gerte tighter.
“Put him down!”
“Put him down!”
“No.” That seemed to be the only word she could get out now, as she held Gerte away from him: the guttural sound was loosed from her; her mind had seemed to lose hold of its own rational part, and her survival instinct had risen up like a blanket over all of her other senses. She could think of nothing, say nothing but refuse, and was aware of nothing but of the life in her arms.
“I swear, Martje, if you don’t put him down -”
She didn’t know what would have happened then, except that Mrs. Svenson burst into the room. “Stop it, stop it, stop it,” she said wildly. “This is enough, this is enough. I can’t stand any more of this. I am going crazy. I am going crazy.”
The haze in Mr. Svenson’s face broke like a cloud and cleared. He seemed to become aware of his surroundings again and he turned towards his wife.
“Yes, you are,” he said. His voice was cold. “Look at the instability you bring into this house, Olga. If you let me take care of things, there would never be this sort of unbalance. You need to learn to control yourself one day. Go back downstairs and let me handle this.”
Mrs. Svenson put her hands out. “Not until I see that everything is fine.”
Martje looked back and forth between her parents. She took stock of their emotions, gauged the level of danger, and decided that the next move in the game was hers. Her father seemed slightly more rational, Gerte was fortuitously calm, and she guessed that her mother offering further resistance would only provoke her father. So Martje said,
“Yes, go downstairs, Mama. Everything is fine.” Then she turned to Mr. Svenson and said steadily, almost sternly, “I am taking him to my room. I will take care of him for the night to give you both a break” - as if by way of excuse.
Shockingly, Mr. Svenson accepted the arrangement. “I can’t deal with this anymore, anyway,” he said, as if suddenly exhausted. “Both of you against me.” So Martje sailed past her parents unscathed with her pearl in her arms.
In the privacy of her room, she sank down on the wooden floor. She placed Gerte on the braided rug and swallowed salt. She became aware that her heart was racing.
“Oh, älva,” she said, running her hand down his silky blonde hair, smooth as a river stone. Her hand was still shaking. “I have something for you.” She pulled a corn husk doll out from her bottom drawer. “I made this yesterday. Here comes docka to give you a kiss!” And she tripped the doll up the baby’s chubby legs and dapped it on his nose.
Gerte’s giggled broke out like a thousand petals of tiger lilies and sunflowers but the garden would not take root in her mind.
That night Martje lay on her bed, by the smudgy light of the oil lamp, drawing picture after picture - mothers tenderly bathing their babies, husbands sitting with their arms around their wives by the fire, young lovers in the snow cutting down a Christmas tree - but the characters all came out ugly and half-formed, and her pencil became heavier and heavier until her hand felt like it could not move anymore, and she put her head down on her sketchpad. She had never felt this way before. Even her pictures could not chase away the new feeling: and this frightened her more than anything.
The door softly opened, spilling a warm orange light into the room, from her father’s spurting candle.
“Are you awake, dotter?” he whispered.
She put her tousled head up. “Jea, I am,” she said, shoving her book under her blanket.
He came softly through the room and set the wicket down on her bedstand and placed himself on the bed next to her.
Something about the dynamic shift from violent to mild movement made a dam swell up inside of her body, and she did all she could to slam a door against its exit point in her throat and eyes.
“I just wanted to talk to you about what happened tonight.”
“Jea?” said Martje, struggling for control.
“Jea, I’m sorry about today,” he said. “And I wanted to make sure everything was good between us.”
“I’m glad to hear that. You know,” he paused, “you really could be a very good woman, Martje. You know I think you are one.”
“Thank you, Papa,” she said.
“And you could be an amazing woman,” he continued warmly, “but you need to humble yourself more. You don’t want to end up a - hard woman, do you?” He rubbed her knee persuasively. “Always in rebellion? No, of course you don’t, mitt hjärta. If only you could let yourself be molded…like your mother won’t do.” He raised his hand and ran it down her soft hair once. “You have so much talent, but you just need to listen to your papa. Listen to your papa and everything will be good. You will find your way and your happiness. God blesses women like that. Otherwise you’re going to end up like her - and do you want that?”
His words could not have held more potency, because the last thing Martje wanted to do was end up hard like Olga Svenson.
“No, Papa,” she said. “I don’t want to be in that way. Help me.”
She could hold back the swelling no longer: the dam broke and she began to cry.
“Shh.” He held her tightly and rubbed her back. “It’s alright. It’s alright. You’re not going to drown. I’m going to help you. We’ll work on this together.” He leaned back and tipped up her chin. “Everything’s going to be alright, little daughter. Jea?”
“I needed to hear this,” she said.
(....Does anyone know how to italicize?)