Martje, Chapter Twelve
- Part Two -
She lay stiff as a board, with her hands by her sides, as the child squirmed and flopped and snuggled beside her, burrowing his warm head into her body.
“Go to sleep,” she crooned.
But he put his head up and dug his sharp chin into her shoulder.
“Does Brita has chairs in her house?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Does she has doorknobs?”
“Yes. Now put your head on the pillow.”
“Does they have ceilings?”
“- Pillow, Axel.”
He stuck his feet in the air.
“Answer,” he insisted.
“Yes, Axel, the Jansson’s house has ceilings.”
“Does they have cups?” the four-year old continued.
“Listen. Docka. I need to leave soon, jea? And you want me to stay until you fall asleep, jea? So you have to fall asleep.”
He lay still for a moment. And then he flopped over and stuck his hindquarters in the air, his hands flat under his belly.
“But does they?”
“Yes or no!”
“Yes! And they drink! Just like we do! And they have soap and thimbles and coal and toothbrushes and matchboxes and roses and rodents and horses. Like us! Can’t I sing you a song?”
She imagined the sparkling parlor, candles dancing on the mantlepiece and on the table, set with playing cards and bowls of nuts and oranges in a decadent pyramid. She imagined the splashes of dresses ducking beneath the threshold decked with pine boughs, the lassies and lads coming in from the cold. She rolled over and put her arm around Axel. When the song faded, he grabbed and pinched onto her ear and felt it with all his worth, but she submitted, till it was flaming red, and then he was still. By now the wraps would have been wet with snow, the stars dissolved in fur. Brita was probably hiding a trinket for “look-about”, or the air was already full of laughter from charades or forfeits. Gerte was asleep in another cot, his chest under his nightie rising and falling like a moon-washed sea. In the silence she peeled herself away from Axel’s body, slipping out from under his arm, which flopped lifelessly down. She rolled her torso off the bed. Her boots touched the floorboards. But when she stood, the weight sprang up and down on the mattress and his eyes flew open.
“I have to,” she whispered.
“Where you going?”
“I have to go to Brita’s party.”
“Can I come?”
“No, hjarta. It’s just for big people.”
“I know you are. Next time, maybe.”
“Don’t leave, don’t leave, don’t leave - no!”
He reached for her, his hands grasping at her apron pinafore, and forcefully pulled her down.
“Don’t,” he whimpered. “Stay here.”
“I have to,” she said softly. “I’m late already.”
She climbed back in next to him. She pictured the ladles dropping into pink, and guffaws as Brita was being blindfolded, and the heart-pounding vigilance against the mistletoe, and the crunch of the gramophone being wound, and the teacups of coffee, and platters of Mrs. Jansson’s truffles, and the plates and plates of pannkana with jam and thick cream. Here, she heard the hollow ticking of the clock, and the rustling of Axel’s body on the mattress.
A half an hour later, she freed herself. She pattered away to her mother’s room - Mrs. Svenson was downstairs, darning - and lit the lamp on the vanity. She rustled out of her rust-colored farm dress, which had been stained when she spilled cranberry sauce on the cuff, and there was a streak of mud on the hem where the goat had kicked her today. She left her farm grubs on the floor and slipped into a fresh shift. There was no time for a bath, but in her mother’s basin she scrubbed her hands, arms, wrists, and face with soap until her skin was nearly peeled off, raw and pink, and the water brown. She swiped cold cream over her face, and then turned, with a sense of great satisfaction, to the bed, upon which she had spread her Christmas masterpiece: a dress the color of pine which her mother had helped her finish, as a present. With a great thrill, she hoisted it over her head and let the dark forest fall over her face.
Her sleeves had been made tight except for a small ruffle at her wrists; the dress was slim up the bodice and closed at her throat, and upon her breast lay an openwork of lace, the filigree delicate and snowy. From her waistline the skirt spread wide, and flounced only once at the bottom, and she loved its heavy swish. It brushed right over the tops of her boots, which were brown because her coppers never went to things like party heels. She smoothed her hands in between the green folds and felt its thick softness. But her crowning glory, which gave her immense satisfaction, were the buttons - red as berries - that ran down the front. This made her feel like a yew. Now, she had a vague, foggy sense which wafted in the back of her mind that she may not have been the cusp of fashion, but her delight in her own vision overruled that. She was a woodland queen! A yuletide sprite!
She sat on the worn stool and let her hair out. It tumbled down from her tattered braid in soft chestnut waves. She brushed it until it shone, and then carefully, artistically, with little nimble fingers, braided the top only partway down. She tied it, and then swished down the hall to her sister, holding out holly leaves in her palm.
“They’re going to fall,” said Ingrid.
“Just try,” said Martje.
“No, they’re too big. Won’t stick. If you’d cut the stems longer…”
“Well, what about bittersweet? I have some in a kitchen bouquet…” Ingrid dashed down obligingly, and came up, and jabbed her sister’s head full of sticks of red berries, capped in gold.
“Finished! Trez jolly,” she said, standing back. “Your dress ain’t the style, but it suits you.”
Martje felt as if water had been dropped down her collar. “Jea, I love it. Mama did a dandy job.” She flounced out her skirts. “A pine dryad, right?” She looked at herself stoutly in the mirror.
“Like you stepped out of Lior's grandma's backwoods after nutting...except," she leaned over and jabbed her sister in the waist, "I knew it! You're not wearing a corset.”
“Or a bustle?”
“Could this dress hold a bustle?” she asked in contempt, skirting away from Ingrid's hand.
“Or petticoats!” - in horror. “Are you wearing drawers?”
“Of course!” She tightened the hem around her ankles. “Extra material make me feel like I'm walking in mud. How can I walk fast?”
“Jeepers. I hope no one notices, Martje. You'll be mocked out of the house.”
“I don't care.”
“Well, enjoy your corn shuck.”
"Wait! I have something..." She ran over to a dresser and shoved her hands into a jangling drawer. "A bangle! Bit gave it for Christmas. S'all the rage."
"No. Forest-festoons will be my only embellishment.”
“…Well, you look fine. I hope you have fun.”
“I’ll bring you home some chocolate,” said Martje penitently, and she ran out.
“Mama! I’m taking the sleigh!” she yelled.
“Why?” her mother called back. “It’s half a mile!”
Mrs. Svenson came into the hall, while Martje put on her galoshes, her old coat, a scruffy scarf. She eschewed her hat. “You’ll catch pneumonia,” said Mrs. Svenson.
“My hair, Mama.”
“Lands, what did you do?”
“Ingrid did it: I didn’t do it.”
“What are you doing? - Don’t take it out!”
“I’m just rearranging one or two. This won’t last.”
“Do all girls do this to themselves?”
“I don’t know!”
“Alright, don’t get ruffled. You look clean and that dress is good on you. Don’t wake the barn when you come back; you walk so loud. What about a scarf over -”
“Wait, before you go -”
“I want to tell you something. Don’t get into too much mischief with the boys. A little; not too much: just enough.”
Sparks flew out of her daughter. “I’m no coquette.”
“I know, but that’s exactly it. It’s alright to receive attention, you know. I think Ingrid is going to have a beau before you, if you don’t…”
“What? Throw myself at those - foolish knickers? Those stupid, sappy -”
“No, you don’t have to throw yourself. But you could make yourself more available. It’s alright, you know. I don’t think I ever stopped you. Did I?”
“I don’t know; I have to go - I’m late.”
“I don’t think I did. Brita has a sweetheart…”
“I’m late! I’m sorry!”
“Wait. Maybe you fancy someone. Do you fancy someone?”
“No,” called Martje, the wind taking up her voice and carrying it away.
She hurried the horse down the lane. As she passed the fishing village, seeing the dark tangles of trees in the woods around the lake, she remembered a day quite a few years ago. Gerte was a baby then and tied to her back. He, very peacefully, has his soft head upon her shoulder. She was sitting in those woods, on a rock - it was summertime - her ankle over her knee, writing in a journal. She was waiting for her friend, who was coming to walk with her in Checkerberry.
A crackle in the woods sent her head flying up. There was her schoolmate, walking between the trees in the distance to her. She stood up, closing her book. She strode forward with a “Hullo!” - and then stopped short.
This was not Lior.
There was a strange man, a dark man - in the woods, where her voice could not be heard for miles, and her only companion was an infant, like a lump of dough, on her back. The man stood completely still, staring at her, saying not a word.
She immediately turned - far away from the lane, from the houses. She pressed deep into the woods and when the pines shrouded her from sight, she ran, with Gerte clinging to her back, laughing for sheer delight, while terror pounded in her temples. “Sh, sh, sh, sh,” she said. She looped in the woods, made a wide arc through the pine forest, until she ended up on the road, quite a far distance from her farm. But now she was safe: there was other homesteads around. She began to walk home. When finally got there, Lior had not even arrived yet, and her mother and father asked her why she was so flushed and shaking and wet-faced.
“I’m fine. I just ran through the woods,” she said.
“With the baby?” said Mr. Svenson.
“…I’m sure all indigenous mothers do that.”
“Why were you running?” asked Mrs. Svenson.
“Because there was a man in the woods.”
“What?” said Mr. Svenson.
“Jea, by the fishing village. A negro. I just ran away.”
“How?” asked Mrs. Svenson.
“I circled back onto Meadow Road.”
She nibbled on a piece of fikabröd and shrugged.
“Look, Martje,” said Mr. Svenson, “I don’t want you ever giving anyone that look.”
“What look?” asked Martje.
“Jea, what look?” asked Mrs. Svenson simultaneously, bristling.
He dared into it, impudently, aggressively: “The look that says you want a little bird under your apron.”
“What -” said Martje.
“I ran away,” said Martje hotly.
“This isn’t even the right circumstance,” agreed Mrs. Svenson.
“I know, I am just telling her never to give anyone that look.”
“Then how’s the girl supposed to get married? She has got to give that look sometime, to get married.”
He laughed. “No. Martje, look.” He sat down, pulling his packet of tobacco out of his breast pocket.
“Jea. Jea. See here, Marty. This is what’s going to happen.” He pinched the wrinkled, anguished leaves with his fingers. There was dirt under his nails. “You’re going to dress in a shapeless bag. You’re going to meet a boy in church. Or at a taffy pull. Or a skating party. And you’re going to bring him home and I’m going to see if I like him. And your mother will see, too.” He nodded in deference to her. “And then you’ll sit on the porch, with Gerte out there with you, drinking…lemonade. And you won’t touch each other till you’re married. And then you’ll give him that look. And so you’ll be safe. You’ll be happy and get into no trouble. That’s the only way this is going to happen.”
January nights were deep and cold. She swept her sleigh into the long, circular Jansson drive. White-bearded Mr. Jansson obligingly came out and took her horse. “I’m sorry I’m so late!” she gasped. The white house was brightly lit. She tripped up the steps, stamped off her snowy galoshes, and took her overshoes off inside the door.
“Martje!” came a familiar voice. A vision of an angel came running up to her in a cloud of perfume, and Brita swept her into her arms, a haven of gardenias.
“I haven’t seen you in so long!” - they spoke simultaneously.
“It doesn’t seem that long, though,” answered Brita, softly rubbing her hands against her friend’s shoulders. “- Now you’re here.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Martje, swallowing her lie. Before her Brita stood, her hair brushed back in a pompadour: it was like a golden cloud around her face. “That’s a new style,” she said. “You could be Helen…of Troy.”
“Don’t tease me. Yours is beautiful, too,” she said, briefly stroking her friend’s loose wave away from her face. “And your dress! That color’s right for you, you know. Brings out the eyes. Jea, let me grab your coat. Now come in quickly. You’re in time for something important. I need you here.” She looped her arm through Martje’s. As she rustled her through the hall, Martje drank in the dress at her side, using sidelong glances, with a strange sense of fear.
It was taffeta: powder-blue and shimmering, and obviously corseted, showcasing a willow waist. And Brita had a bustle! A luxurious bustle. And a tight skirt, skimming again her thighs like a blue vase. It was tapered at her knees and then flowed out, with little red roses on the froth of lace at the hem. And lace at her breast - which was cut lower than Martje had ever worn a gown, revealing both shoulders and goose-down arms.
Her fingers touched her own collarbone. The little intricacy of lace that lay tightly against it had cost her mother a heavy penny. Then she entered the parlor, and was accosted by the sight of her old schoolmates all dressed in rainbow sweets and sorbet confections - and all with their hair up. Braids, coils, ropes, twists, knots, puffs, bangs. She hardly recognized some of the girls she had sat next to in class. Martje became very conscious of her own bittersweet-ladened hair.
“Everyone! Now that my oldest friend in town is here, my dear Martje, I have something to tell everyone,” said Brita. She did something with her hands in her lap and then flashed her fingers up in the air. “I am engaged! Zephaniah and I are going to be married!”
The girls screamed, the boys clapped.
“When will you be married?”
“Well, first mama and papa said I have to wait until I graduate. So we thought this June. But now Zeph has been called away by his father’s company. So it may be two years.”
“That is - forever,” said Martje.
“It seems like it, but Mama says twenty is a good age. And it gives me more time for my trousseau… I played too much as a girl and I’ve made almost nothing.”
“I need aprons, quilts, traveling outfits, braided rugs, doilies…even pot holders.”
“My mother has an easy pattern for those. - Is this my fault?”
“Yes.” Brita threw an embroidered pillow at her.
Martje stayed long after the other guests were gone. Her mouth and hands were full of hot sticky taffy. She and her friend were by the kitchen fire, alone.
“How is this even possible?” asked Martje, looking at the gold band on Brita’s pale hand. It seemed like a child’s toy. “We were young and playing dolls, and now this is real.”
“I know!” laughed Brita, pulling her hand away. She seemed uncomfortable for a moment, then she looked at Martje seriously. “- Does it bother you?” She plunged headlong back into the place of intimacy and secrets, a sacred spot they both had not visited in so long.
Martje flinched, jerked backwards. “No! No. Why would it? Of course not. Oh, I’m just so happy for you!”
“Okej. Oh, good.” Martje was not sure if Brita believed her or not. “I was a little afraid…”
“Because I have never had a beau? Brita, some of us are meant to be flowers, and you are one of them! Bees love you.”
“Fiddlesticks. You’re as much a flower as I. You just stamp on your bees.”
“Oh, do I? That I do. I suppose I do.”
“I guess I shouldn’t keep you…”
“Well, I have to go to the powder room first.”
“Alright. Don’t forget your coat.” Brita impulsively grabbed her friend and kissed her. “I love you.”
“And I, you.”
In the small room, Martje grasped the edge of the table and stared at herself in the mirror, which was framed in brass, from Sweden. There was a brass vase there as well, full of holly. She leaned forward and touched her face. She promptly turned away. Her hands crawled up to the top of her head. She felt for the twigs and pulled them out, snapping hair as they caught. She realized with shame that all the berries had all fallen off. Sticks, was all they were. She didn’t know, and she had had sticks in her hair.
She found her gloves on a sideboard. As she was walking on her way out, she saw a young man in the corner, playing checkers with one of Brita’s elder brothers.
“Lior. You’re still here.”
He jumped up and followed her out. He was the same as he ever was, even years ago.
His voice always made her think of gray kittens, and his face of purple pansies: the ones with yellow smiles. And his eyes looked like a bug’s to her, bulging and round. And glasses perched on his thin polished nose, next to cheeks whose roses should have belonged to a woman, swept by black curls.
“I wanted to tell you something, Martje,” he said, his globular eyes illuminated with sincerity.
“Oh?” She tugged on her gloves. “Tell me.”
“I like the way you dress.”
“Oh! Really. You like the way I dress. How do I dress, Lior?”
“I just think you need to know that it’s…splendid.” His coat was fur, which made him look like a bear: for having a girlish face, he was very big and gangly. “It is so simple. It’s like you don’t care what anyone else thinks.”
“I have no fashion sense.”
“You’re a rebel.”
“No; don’t twist it.” His voice sounded overly eager and he laid a paw on her arm. She glanced down at it. “You’re an activist. Pushing for women to break out of our confines of social standards for beauty, so they can follow more meaningful pursuits.”
“Lior. I wanted to be a yew tree.”
He laughed. His hands went deep in their pockets, safely. “But you are. You succeed in anything you do, Martje.”
Her gloves being indisputably on, she rubbed her rubber boot, pushing snow down a crack in the porch.
“Well, you’re a brick.”
He beamed as if she had just named him king of a castle. “Shall I walk you to your sleigh - my sun?”
“Do, my moon.”
Their boots crunched on the illuminated snow.
“Do you want to snowshoe tomorrow?”
“Oh…ah, jea, sure. That’d be so much fun.”
“I’ve missed our talks.”
“Same for me,” quickly.
“You know what would be fun - is a midnight jaunt! Like this, when it’s bright enough.” He bounced in front of her, his hands still captured, spraying snow. “What do you think?”
“Oh - I’m too tired. Don’t fall, now!”
“How can you say that? Come on.”
“No, no. A night like this is enough for me. Really.”
“Alright. But if you’re ever not tired…tell me.”
She remembered one of the last times she had talked with Brita. They were sixteen and harvesting apples. Brita was wearing the same pinafore and work dress as Martje then.
Martje had asked, “Would you want to be married to Art? He’s so handsome.”
“That he is.” Brita paused to catch her breath from beating down the fruit with a pole. “But he isn’t going anywhere.”
“Well, I mean - look at his farm.”
“Jea, but, look at him. He seems so determined to make something of it. Of himself.”
“Jea, true. But that means nothing if you haven’t got the land.”
“Do you really think so? - I mean, when a man has perseverance…”
“I suppose. Anyway, Zeph Bilberry has been coming ’round lately.”
“Zeph… He’s a handsome one. Does your mama like him?”
“Jea.” Brita looked at the rotting apples at her feet and Martje knew, for all her friend’s simplicity, what she would not say aloud. She suddenly felt keenly a difference and distance between - what?
She gave herself an excuse as quickly as she could to walk down another aisle, and she shaded herself in the cool golden-spray boughs of a tree. She snapped a piece of fruit off a twig and tried to reassure her heart, stroking it back to strength as if it were a bird in her cupped hand.
“…I don’t care. She can follow society if she wants. She’ll marry and be given a dowry big enough to live on for years,” she whispered to herself. “It will happen soon, too. How terrifying. But I don’t care for all that. I want more.” She dropped the fruit.
Martje went back and Brita was breathing on an apple’s cheek and polishing it. Brita paused and then asked tenderly, tremulously, almost with trepidation, “Do you love Art?”
“No,” said Martje.
She drove back under a starry night, as silent as a tomb.
A sleigh was rushing down the lane in the distance. Martje stopped her horse in the middle of the road. She dropped her reins. Any minute now it would come around the corner of the lane. The driver would not see her. She put her hands out. Finally - yes, yes - she was feeling something curdling. It tickled over her scalp. She put her hands out, palms up. Alive alive. Real life, real life - alive alive - then a blinding flash and blankness - underneath a blanket of snow, death -
She jumped and grabbed the reins. “Art?” She could not see him, but she was sure she had heard Arthur McDowell’s voice. She slapped the reins on Invader’s back and forced him to the side of the road. The other sleigh passed, swishing by in harmlessness. The night was silent again.
“Arthur?” she called out again.
“I’m here. In the woods.”
She got down and tied the reins to a branch.
“What are you doing?” she asked, when she found the young man.
“Cow,” he said.
“Yes,” said Arthur softly.
“Have you seen her?”
“How are you going to catch her?”
“I’m thinking of it. When I’m walking close, though, she runs.”
“The thing’s starving.” She ran to the sleigh and pulled out straw. Gingerly, she approached the cow, lay the hay on the snow, and backed off. She went and stood next to him. Their breath came out in slow, white expressions: the girl, the man, the beast. Even the shadows of the woods stood still.
Eventually the cow approached. It cautiously nuzzled its nose into the snow - and Art leapt forward and threw a rope around its neck before it could jerk back and roar in the surprise and agony of capture.
“There, there, boss,” caressing its nose. “- Thankye, Martje.”
“You’re welcome. It was just an idea,” she said. She jostled herself up the snow bank onto the road.
“Are ye coming in from Brita’s party, then?” he asked. His arm was over the cow’s neck, stroking her fur, which shone blue in the moonlight. She hoisted herself into her sleigh. Arthur’s voice was like butter and brown sugar to her, though his subject could have been beets and manure.
“Jea. She’s engaged,” said Martje impulsively.
“Jea. To Zephaniah Bilberry.”
“The bilberry is a little blue-colored berry, didye know?”
“Sure, in the hills.”
“It’s not just a blueberry?”
“Or maybe not.”
He shrugged. “Anyway.”
“Did you eat it a lot?”
“Oh.” She paused.
“Not really,” he amended. “Not much.”
“Ah. Well, in the woods there’s lots of blueberries. You can come with me and Ingrid to the Hill sometime to pick ’em. In the summertime.”
“That sounds lovely."
“If you’d like.”
She clucked her horse away.