Martje, Chapter Two
THE NEXT afternoon Martje sat in the forest, cooling her feet in the stream. Any moment, her Rowan was coming. The light was prancing with the feet of flower-fairies on her head. Her bare legs were flickered over, yellow and white and purple, with the shadows from the tossing leaves. These woods was the only place she felt safe: neither her father nor her mother ever entered them.
Sagolandet was a child’s kingdom, sacred and protected.
To reassure herself of the security of its boundaries, she remember a day, three years ago, when its borders threatened to be breached.
She had been prowling in the dusty attic that afternoon, looking for relics. In a frayed hatbox she had found a treasure: two wooden dala horses in the attic, about the size of her hand. They were butter-yellow and dancing with blue and green paint, and their noses and hooves were chipped with age. She thought her mother would be delighted at her discovery.
So she skipped downstairs and into the parlor and placed the decorations on the mantle for her mother to find. And then she went back up, inspired to find Mrs. Svenson’s trousseau.
But after a futile hour of searching, she went into the kitchen and said,
“Mama, I was looking for your wedding dress and couldn’t find it.”
“That’s because I had no wedding dress,” said her mother, scrubbing a pan. Her back moved fiercely into the pan. She was not pregnant, and her strength was imposing.
“Why didn’t you have a wedding dress?”
“I had no wedding.”
“And why did you have no wedding?”
“I’m in no mood for questions, Martje.”
“Is it because of Solvig?”
Mrs. Svenson unexpectedly turned around and struck her.
“When I say don’t ask, I mean don’t ask.”
There were soapy bubbles clinging to Martje's cheek as she stood, stunned.
Mrs. Svenson said, “When are you going to learn to obey?” but her voice suddenly sounded weak and unsure.
Martje felt a heat wave go over her and she turned on her heel and ran out the door. She didn’t stop until she reached the woods, and there she flung herself under her tree, and lay on the needles, too inflamed to cry, and thought thoughts that engorged her brain with hate.
Ten minutes later, she saw Mrs. Svenson stalking through the field, her apron still on and her sleeves rolled up: there were probably still suds on those hands. Martje figured she was coming to apologize. Martje sprang up like a wild thing and tore backwards through the woods, keeping an eye on the border. She believed her mother would not dare go near the willow tree that grew on the edge of the forest, but she was not certain.
Mrs. Svenson did not even approach the woods. She just stayed in the field, a hundred feet away.
"Martje!" she called. "Martje!" She cupped her hands around her mouth.
Martje crouched behind a thick pine, holding the scratchy bark with both her hands, and would not answer. She stayed there for at least fifteen minutes until she felt safe and was sure her mother was gone, and she blessed the willow tree. It stood like a sentinel over her kingdom, repelling both her mother and her father, and her mind endowed it with a mystical power: it gave her a refuge when nothing else would.
That evening, when she miserably came in for supper, Mrs. Svenson said nothing to her, but she treated Martje with consideration for at least a week afterwards.
She did not mention the dala horses. Overnight the horses disappeared, and Martje woke to find them gone.
A robin’s call trilled above her head, so close it cleaned out her ears, almost with pain. She dug her toes deeper into the silt of the stream, and waited in Sagolandet for her Rowan.
His tread presently broke through the stillness of the forest.
She rose to meet him hastily. Her gown was the color of jack-in-the-pulpit berries, and tucked into her belt was a cluster of starflowers. Her hands were full of sweet fern.
He himself was twirling a sprig of ash in his hands, and he was holding the bridle of Thangelfras in the other hand, but she was taken aback to see what swung by his side.
“Whyfore does thee carry thy sword, Rowan?”
“’Tis a time of unrest, my lady,” said Rowan, merrily. “Though I think not that there will be war.”
“Neither do I,” said Martje.
“I should not let thee wander out here, e’en with myself, if I thought so.”
“My father neither.”
They walked together along the sunny path.
“And what dost he think of the trouble with black Brenandon?”
“He thinks as thee do: that there will be no war. But, Rowan, I have strange news to convey, if thou hast not heard it yet.” She dropped her voice. “My father heard yestermorn of great burnings in the far north. Ha’ a village was burnt to the ground, bordering the black land. It troubles him deeply. The messenger spake neither of attack nor freakish accident; he knew not: he bore only the note. It said, ‘Ha’ Ipsen-Weich wast burnt.’ My father sent a great caravan of relief through the mountain, an’ a dispatch of Villen-Braghs immediately ahead of the caravan. He is a good, kind ruler, and prudent, too. The fastest rider was bade come back with news on the morrow. He rides Ervenstach.”
“Thy father hast left vassels at home, yea?”
“Yea, as a matter of course.”
“How many were deployed?”
Martje’s tone changed. “I do think the trees have ears: speak not.”
“Thou art not afraid in these woods?”
“Nay, but I am afraid. There seemeth even in this woodland sunshine to be a chill.”
“The wind is chill, though the sun doth shine. Thou art cold; it is merely mid-spring. There; my cloak.”
“Nay - nay - for what is that sound?”
“What sound? - Martje!” for her face was white.
“The horns - the horns - from Beugal-Blach!”
Rowan harkened, heard the calls, and then cried, “My home is under attack,” and immediately was animated into action.
“It cannot be - it cannot be - how are they here?” Martje cried wildly.
“Canst thou ride hard?” asked Rowan. He did not even wait for her, “Yea,” but said, “Thy hand,” and put her up on Thangelfras and mounted behind her. He kicked his horse toward Siodha.
“But, nay,” said Martje, her hair flying wildly, her red robe streaming, “Thou must get thee back to thy father’s house. Dinna wait for me.” He did not answer, but rode harder on.
The call of her name crashed through her dreams.
It called harshly, the voice so loud that - from a distance away - it carried through the overhead branches unsnagged, though the trees tried to crouch over her like she had crouched over Signe, and landed abusively on her ears.
“Martje! Where are you?”
She got up and flew home, trying to look unperturbed. When she got to the farmhouse she saw that her mother was no longer outside: Mrs. Svenson did not have an extra second to spare to wait for her daughter's reply.
She hurried into the kitchen and saw her, brow contracted, pouring boiling water from a pot of potatoes.
"Did you call me?" - with uncertainty.
"Off traipsing in the woods! Do you know how much work I have to do?" her mother said, not looking at her. She was jerking the pan to get the last potatoes out that were stuck at the bottom. "And here you go off, light as feather, feeling like you can float around wherever you want. You are so irresponsible and fancy-minded."
This was a reproach and not a request for help, and her youthful hot temper went to her head, and she turned around and went to leave.
"Don't turn away from me, miss," said her mother. "Get back in here and peel these. I have so much work to do today."
Martje went back in. She took a potato in her hand and dropped it, burning her finger, and tears pricked into her eyes. Her mother didn’t even warn her that the potatoes were hot.
As her heart began to swell with pride and hurt, and she planned on nursing these emotions at the table, she presently noticed something: Mrs. Svenson’s sleeves were rolled up - she never changed her habits for any reason - and she had four small bruises, purple-colored, on her upper arm.
"Mama,” she suddenly said softly, “Go rest."
"What, do you think I have time to rest? With all these children and you in the woods?" She sat down to shell peas at the table, and said nothing more, her hands going vigorously and her anger a palpable thing.
Martje picked apart the potatoes as fast as she could, popping them between her hands, not caring for her fingertips, and said,
"I'll go and check the eggs," not so much as to be helpful, but as to be relieved of her mother's fury.
She ran outside and to her dismay in the distance she saw her father walking jauntily along. He saw her, too, and she did not know whether to keep on walking. She did not want an interaction with him; at the same time, she craved it. She needed resolution and a soft word from him. It always came after eruptions.
“Marty!” - She loved his voice.
She stopped her motions to show she was attending.
“I love you!” he called.
Warmth flowed through her: the words her mother never said to her. She felt an urge in her towards her father, a surge in her heart that gravitated towards his body as he grinned, laughed, and hopped off. She was almost ashamed of her need for him.
“I love you, too!” she called after him.
She walked down the lane, trying to look lovable for his sake.
An hour later she came back from her walk, without eggs.
Coming down the sun-dappled lane, a bobbed-haired girl in a white-checkered dress ran to her, holding a bouquet of wilting violets in her hot little fist, shouting, “Mummy! Mummy! These are for you!” “- Oh, they’re so beautiful, darling! They have fairy-faces!” Her husband, so tall and strong and brown-haired, was chopping wood. Where was she coming from? - the shop? Yes, she had a wicker basket over her arm, and brown sugar in a bag, and cinnamon, and a packet of sewing needles. Her husband met her at the gate, so sweaty and handsome, to put his arm around her waist and kiss her cheek chastely. And a curly-haired boy bounded up to show her a worm in his dirty, cupped palm - “Oh, my, that’s a big one, Johnny!” And then she went inside to see her baby Ruth, rocking in her cradle in a square of sunshine, the window open, blowing kisses of lilac onto her peach-fuzzed cheek.
“Where the ---- have you been?” a voice broke through her dream. She looked up from under the linden tree, to see her father by the gate, catching her brother by the neck and pulling his collar down. She could hear their voices even from a distance away.
“What are you doing?” Olaf ducked out from under his father’s grasp.
“Where are you coming from?”
“Just from down the river!”
“Is that a bruise?”
“No!” he replied indignantly.
“Don’t you walk away from me! Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
“Lemme alone -” He scattered his body backwards, his narrow elbows jerking. His face was white.
“Don’t walk away from me! Answer my question!”
“The fellas and I were just horsing around.”
“So you’re telling me you were fighting and allowed another man to hurt you?" He seemed relieved, but he rallied his anger again. “Where is your pride? Are you that weak, to not defend yourself?”
“I don’t care what you think.”
“Oh, really? I’ll thrash you right now; see if you defend yourself or not.”
“Lemme alone,” said Olaf and ran away. (His father rarely carried out his threats anyway - he toed the line and avoided the bully label as much as possible.) The boy turned his run into a stalk by the time he reached Martje.
She tried to make it look like she hadn’t seen anything. Olaf shoved his shoulders up to move his collar against his neck. She looked down quickly at the sketchpad in her hand. A girl in a checkered dress danced across it; a man and a woman stood with their arms entwined about each other; a little yellow house was in the background. Olaf stopped when he saw her, somewhat surprised. He spoke sarcastically, but his voice was searching for consolation.
“The man’s an idiot.”
“Don’t say that.” - She instantly hated herself for her words.
“You’re unbelievable, Martje. Really, did you know that? You and the rest of this family.” He spat the word, and she didn’t like being lumped in with them.
“I’m hurting, too,” she wanted to say. But somehow no one could get out what they wanted to say.
He unfortunately then looked down at the drawing in her lap.
He laughed aloud. “Is that what you think life is?” he pointed to them. “That a girl is going to be all ‘Mummy dearest’ to you? …You’ll probably kill her in real life, or she’ll kill you first…which is exactly what I’m going to do to Dad if he doesn’t leave me alone.”
She knew who Olaf was, for when he was seven he had come to her and said, “Look, Martje! A sunset leaf!” with delight in his pupils, the broad fire shining brightly on his brown palm. And when he was nine he would crawl into bed with Martje and Hans, and once a moth flew in through the open window and settled on Han’s bare chest.
He brushed it off, and the moth scattered its gray soft feelings on his breast and left a mark.
And Olaf said, in a reverent tone, the one in which one only speaks of gods and fairies,
“The moth left angel dust on Han’s heart.”
She heard the glitter in his voice that few others did, but when it was gone, Olaf’s tone became acerbic like none other. And once he found out her dreams, her brother was relentless.
She was washing dishes and he came in for a jug of milk. He slushed it down and then rubbed his sleeve across his mouth and looked absently out the window.
“Oh, Rose, won’t you bring the daffodils in?”
Martje jumped and wondered who Rose was. And then she realized Olaf was speaking to her - though he kept his eyes trained on the window. His voice was higher pitched, like a woman’s.
“Just look at that rainbow! We can frolic in the meadows together, in our flowing white dresses, with flowers in our hair. We will have such a good time! And then, Rosie, we can bake a sugar cake and give it to your daddy. And at night we will all put on our frilly nightcaps and pray by our beds…and blow the candles out while the crickets chirp.”
She felt humiliated and ashamed, turning more and more red by the moment, as her dreams fell to shambles around her. She could not look at her desires seriously in the midst of his mocking tone.
“Do you really think,” he turned to her, “that you’re going to kneel by your bed and pray with your children? - all in their little white nightgowns?”
She felt defenseless, but she tried to grin sportingly as she dashed the rainbowy water from a bowl. “Why not? Sure and I can have whatever I want.”
He laughed - such an impish laugh he had - and walked off. It was his laugh that disarmed her false front of confidence entirely. She felt a fool.