Before Fylgia (2).
Before Fylgia, there was another story, compiled during my visits to Sweden. Many of my readers have asked about it, and so I decided to post it here. This is the second installment. Not yet fiction, it occupies a realm of its own.
They say when God created Sweden he began with the south, and so it became fertile and good in every way. The Devil, meanwhile, ran farther north, where he created the district of Mark. On the surface it was deceptively beautiful: rounded mountains in a bluish distance, dark forests with caves for the wild animals, deep valleys with shimmering rivers and lakes. But underneath the land was harsh and stony, designed to break the backs of those who tried to farm it. When God saw what the Devil had done, he frowned. “You have created the land,” he said. “Now I shall create the people.” And so he made the people strong and industrious — and almost invincible.
Throughout the centuries the people of Mark withstood hardship after hardship. Trade and contact with the outer world brought disease and war. In the mid-1300s the plague emptied most of the cottages. Later in the century, as the Danes, intent on conquest, began their northward push, Mark became a no-man’s-land, wedged between Denmark and Sweden. Life counted for little — men armed with swords left to plow their fields at dawn; by nightfall their widows reclaimed their mangled bodies. Omens were plentiful — a shining cross appeared in the sky; church bells chimed on their own; large flocks of doves arrived and left as quickly as they came. In 1645 a peace treaty was signed at last, stating that Mark was to remain Swedish. By then the people of Mark had long since learned that the land itself was the only constant. Holding it was all that mattered, as farm-bred women married farm-bred men, until the land itself was bred into their very bones.
Ever since the mid-1600s Torp had been one of the largest farms in Mark. Among its owners in those early days was a nobleman, Knut Gyllensvärd, the son of an illegitimate daughter of Erik XIV, the mad king who likely died from poison administered by his own men.
In the early 1700s the owner was Olof Pihl, the village vicar. As was the custom of the times, a clergyman received no cash for his services but was given land to farm for the upkeep of himself and his family. Pihl, it appears, married his predecessor’s widow, not an uncommon practice and one which secured him not only a wife but also his position as the next vicar of Kungsäter.
By 1769 Torp was owned by the Crown. The resident was a captain in the Älvsborg Regiment, with headquarters in Boras, some twenty-five miles northeast of Kungsäter. Similarly, though less grandly, his 150 men were put up in small crofts all over Mark. Once a year, along with soldiers from other districts, they all met for military exercises on a distant moor. Through this system Sweden maintained a rough-and-ready army, which fought its last full-scale war against Napoleon in 1814.
In 1830, at a time when crown lands came increasingly under the ownership of freehold farmers, my great-great-great-grandfather Bengt Börjesson purchased Torp. When Bengt died in 1848, his son Börje inherited the farm. In 1851 Börje built a new house for his bride, BrittaLena Jönsdotter. BrittaLena, an only child, brought five other farms into the marriage, though none of them as large as Torp.
Apparently the courtship had not been without friction. A letter which Börje wrote to BrittaLena shortly before the wedding implies that BrittaLena was about to change her mind. The wording is stilted and effusive, so inconsistent with what you might expect from a robust young farmer of limited schooling, and, one suspects, a strong desire to move matters along. He asks the wind to carry his sighs to her: he is “tortured by doubt,” his eyes “fill with tears,” her recent coldness hurls him “from heaven to hell.” Did he use a letter guide? Or did he truly compose those lines himself? At any rate, the letter brought BrittaLena back and the wedding was held as planned.
Weakened by five closely spaced childbirths, BrittaLena died of pneumonia in 1867. She was 36 years old. Shortly before she fell ill, she and Börje put on their best clothes and traveled by horse and carriage to a photographer’s studio in Varberg, a town on the coast, about fifteen miles west of Kungsäter. Börje and BrittaLena did not pose together, but took turns sitting on the same chair, leaning their elbows on the lace-covered tabletop. They scowled at the camera the way people do in old photographs. Both were dressed in black wool, adding to the impression of harshness which seemed so much part of who they were.
A photograph taken a few years later shows Börje and his motherless children, three girls – Mina, Inga, and Augusta — and two boys — August and Carl. Börje is seated in the middle; the children stand around him, forming a close semicircle. Börje holds the smallest girl’s hand, with a tenderness that seems almost out of place. The other children have placed their hands on Börje’s shoulders, probably on the instruction of the photographer. The symmetry is complete. They look as if they could not exist without each other. And the loss of BrittaLena shows in their faces.
Börje’s name appears often in village records. In 1850 he built Kungsäter Inn, on land belonging to Torp. In doing this he conformed to a law originating in the 13th century. It required that inns be maintained along every major road, and that the distance between them should be no more than twelve miles.
At first Börje ran the inn himself, but after a few years he leased it to Anders Svensson, a young local farmer of easy manners and an expansive mind. Under Svensson’s management, the inn won an excellent reputation. Traveling salesmen planned their routes so that they could stay there. Hunting parties arrived in elegant charabancs and often stayed for weeks. During the days they shot hare and fowl; in the evenings they entertained in the downstairs salon, where they dined and told stories of the hunt. They drank brännvin, a strong potato brandy, looking each other deeply in the eyes and draining their glasses in one simultaneous sweep.
In the courtyard outside, drinking customs were not as cordial. By law, the farmers were required to take turns providing travelers with transportation. Thus, at any given time, coachmen and horses would be on duty outside the inn. It was not just a problem for farmers who needed their men and horses at home, but it was also a problem for the inn. To ease the wait, the coachmen would take frequent drafts out of their pocket flasks. The horses, associating the smell of brännvin with abuse, flattened their ears, flung their necks upwards, and bit the air in thwarted aggression. As the evening wore on, the level of drunkenness rose. The air grew thick with taunts and curses, tempers flared, and fights broke out, fought with fists and sometimes knives. The travelers, no doubt, registered complaints. Svensson, in fact, was required to keep a book where travelers recorded who they were, where they were going, and any comments they might have regarding service. For Kungsäter, to my regret, those books appear to have been lost.
In 1857, Börje was also one of four farmers elected by the parish council to execute plans for a new church. Historically, villagers had given church matters a low priority. The old church, built of stone and dating back to the 12th century, had been in need of repair for a long time. On a stormy Christmas Day in 1638 the detached stone bell tower blew down and both bells cracked. The following year the bells were recast and housed in a new tower, built of wood, and inferior to the original in both strength and beauty. Records from 1798 show a need for substantial repair of both the church and the bell tower. However, funds were lacking: the church and the tower continued to deteriorate until they were both deemed impossible to salvage.
Despite repeated admonitions by visiting bishops, progress on the new church was slow, and Börje would not live to see its completion. Money for the enterprise was to be raised through taxes and private donations, but the parish was poor, and only small amounts could be extracted. Negotiations to buy a building site took years, mired in real or invented difficulties. The matter was apparently still unresolved in 1874 when the parish council requested that the persons responsible “at the very soonest reach an agreement with concerned parties so that construction of said new church may at long last commence.” When Börje died in 1875, he and another farmer had just finished breaking ground across the road from the old church.
In 1881, as Börje lay buried beside BrittaLena at the old cemetery, the new church was finally ready for use. The young Stockholm architect, suggested by the diocese, had submitted drawings for an octagonal church, inspired by Byzantine architecture, rather than the more conventional rectangular Roman basilica. At first the parishioners bristled. Later, when told that a round church would be less expensive, they reconsidered. Even today the church commands attention. You see it on your left, as you leave the village driving eastwards. It is covered with yellow brick; the joists under the floor are made of timber from the old bell tower.
For the first three years the church lacked an organ, for 15 years it was without paint, for 22 years it had no heat. But in the pulpit stood the parish vicar, Henrik Lindström, a forceful representative of the Lutheran state church. For lack of money, he had been forced to give up his medical studies and settle for priesthood. He still practiced medicine on the side. His only serious competition was Stina in Prekebo, whose book on black magic contained eleven hundred rules. In her practice, she used vipers’ tongues, moles’ hearts, soil from graves, and the fibers of a rope that a man had used to hang himself. Whatever she used, it was potent.
Lindström delivered his sermons without notes and was never at a loss for words. Women walked from one parish church to the next to hear him preach several times a day. His personal conduct was not always exemplary as he was given to card games and drink. In the eyes of the church, however, such private shortcomings carried no significance: once a man was ordained, his divine authority remained undisputed.
On one occasion Lindström came straight from the card table to the pulpit, unshaved and reeking of liquor. He used two cards for a makeshift collar. He held up a third to the congregation, flashing it back and forth, and to the sides, so that everyone could see. “You know about this,” he thundered, “but you don’t know about God’s word!” Among those present was young Carl Börjesson, son of Börje, and the new owner of Torp. Knees wide apart, he sat on the men’s side, over by the pillar. He was tall and blue-eyed, with a combative chin and a tobacco quid in his mouth. I suspect he barely hid his smile. Among the card players, he was already one of the best.
by Birgitta Hjalmarson
The End of Christmas.
The girl’s breath misted the glass as she pressed her nose against the windowpane and looked out at the street. An eerie stillness ruled out there, no movement seen, other than snowflakes falling slowly from a black evening sky. In front of the house, a solitary lamp post shed a small circle of light. The father and the boy had shoveled the garden path free of snow, all the way from the white wooden gate to the front door.
In this town, on the west coast of Sweden, winter had come early that year. The war had ended less than a decade earlier. Memories of the camps already seemed distant, the guilt assuaged, for all the claims of ignorance of something that should have been known. But the girl and the boy knew nothing of that, especially not on an evening like this, the house warm and snug, the oil furnace humming in the cellar, the Christmas creche on display in the fireplace, the wise men in their richly colored robes, the ceramic ox looking down on the infant in the manger. Out in the bicycle shed, the hedgehog had bedded down for the winter, underneath a pile of twigs and leaves, its breathing suspended, its torpor all but complete.
From the sofa in the living room, the sister-in-law watched the wife. The sister-in-law came rarely to the house. She was a stranger to the children. Even the husband, her younger brother, had long since tried to understand who she was, or perhaps he understood it all too well, her desire for his wife, her need to see her, if only from a distance, and only once a year, as this evening in the living room, her mind taking note of the wife’s every gesture, her quietness and content, and yet that hint of strain, the skin below her eyes tinged with blue, and now the news, as the wife had whispered in her ear, even as they greeted each other in the hall, that she was expecting a third child.
The boy joined the girl at the window. He wore his new pullover sweater, an early Christmas gift. Early that morning, he and the father had gone to the country, the boy in the back seat of the Volvo, as they traveled along winding forest roads, with glimpses of the frozen river against the gray winter light. At the farmhouse, the grandmother had been waiting, a devout woman in black, made even more devout by the death of her husband years before the war. A horse dealer, he had lived on too grand a scale in a place where most of the forest had already been felled, leaving the ground scorched and too stony for crops. No one, not even the grandmother, had been willing to admit that his death had been a suicide. Rather, it was blamed on a sudden dizziness, which must have struck as he crossed the old stone bridge, his body floating ashore a couple of miles to the south.
While the grandmother stayed behind, the boy and the father had walked out into the forest, following the tracks in the snow, the boy carrying his grandfather’s rifle. The fox had waited for them, or so it seemed to the boy, at the far end of a meadow, the boughs of the fir trees weighed down by snow. As the father guided him, the boy raised the rifle to his shoulder, his finger on the trigger. The fox looked straight at them, as if in anticipation of what the boy would do next. Blood hammering in his ears, gun oil stinging his nostrils, all the boy could think of was the stillness of the fox, the frozen landscape around them, and the father wanting him to shoot. Just then, the fox turned and loped back in among the trees, and the boy lowered the rifle.
On their return to town, the boy and the father had found the Christmas tree toppled by the cat, ornaments scattered all over, the cat on the windowsill licking its paws. Order had been restored, the Christmas star rewired to the top of the tree, the tree itself secured to the wall, and the shards of the broken glass balls, covered with fake frost, swept off the floor. At last, after hiding in his room, the boy had come out to light the candles in the tree, not electric, as in the houses of his friends, but real, the candleholders made of brass with drip pans for the melting wax. He bowed before the aunt and joined the girl at the window, who kept wiping the mist off the glass. He was not at all sure that Santa Claus would come, especially not since the father was still in the house. In the past, the father had always disappeared just before Santa Claus arrived. Now, looking at his father converse with the aunt, the boy felt sorry for his sister, who clung to the notion that Santa Claus was no less real than the grandmother’s God.
The wife was still in the kitchen, preparing the sauce for the lutfisk, rich enough to conceal the blandness of the cod. The afternoon had grated on her nerves, and she had reached for one of those pills she kept hidden in the corner of the cabinet, behind the crystal glasses. She could hear her husband’s voice from the living room. A month earlier, her sister-in-law had helped her with a dress that needed to be let out. It was only natural that the wife should have asked her, the sister-in-law being a seamstress with clients coming to see her as far as from Berlin. In the bright atelier, the sister-in-law had bent at her side, one knee against the floor, as she pinned the dress around her waist, the porcelain pin heads like pricks of blood. Even now, the wife could feel the hands of her sister-in-law resting on her hips, longer than necessary, long enough for the wife to respond, as if a small animal had stirred inside her womb. That night, unable to forget, she had turned away from her husband in shame. The following morning, a messenger delivered the dress with a note from the sister-in-law, embossed in blue and gold, with hopes that the dress would now be a better fit.
To this day, the wife could see the husband enter the shop where she used to work, his collar raised, his coat of the latest cut. He had asked to taste almost every cheese in sight, buying two or three, as the other customers waited in line, the matrons smiling behind his back. When she married him, she had already been pregnant with the boy. Crushing his dreams to become an architect, she expected him to provide for her in style, all those dinners and bridge parties, the maids in starched aprons and caps. Once he became a successful businessman, he took her to Milan and Paris, the two of them sitting in their own loge at the opera house or walking hand-in-hand along the Seine. Even now, after all these years of living in this small Swedish town, when he thought she was asleep, he would leave their bed for the room in the attic. Here, when cleaning, she would see his blueprints spread on the drawing board, his pencils sharpened and lined up, his compass and triangles laid out the way one might set the table for a long-lost friend, someone who might still return, all those dreams stashed away, like her pills.
Now, as the wife entered the living room, she found her sister-in-law talking to the husband, the cat purring in his lap. Both children were at the window, looking out. This year, aware of the boy’s suspicions, she and her husband had agreed to hire a Santa Claus. Other parents in the neighborhood had asked to join, and an advertisement had been answered. The man, named Linder, was given not just the addresses but also the names of the children, their grades at school and the subjects in need of improvement. He should already be making his way down the street, sacks of presents waiting for him in garages and cellars, a glass of snaps offered him in each house, strong enough to warm his insides. The wife did not know this man, nor did her husband. According to the agency, he lived east of the river. People there had little to do with the people who lived in the villas to the west, but the agency had presented him as a retired engineer, very respectable, his own son long since grown.
Approaching the house, Linder saw the children’s faces in the window, noses pressed against the glass. His mask had holes cut for his mouth and eyes. Rubber bands attached his cotton beard to his face and dug into the skin behind his ears. He did not need the money, but he was willing to suffer it all, as long as he did not have to be alone on this one night, when once, underneath the stars, the shepherds heard the angels sing, “Glory to God on high!” Before he knocked on the front door, he stomped the snow off his boots, loud enough to make sure the children heard him. The husband and the wife shook his hand, as did the girl and the boy, curtsying and bowing, neither one brave enough to look him in the eyes. The woman, who introduced herself as the sister-in-law, remained seated, while the cat hissed at him and hid under her chair. He had seen women like that in the other houses too, widows and maiden aunts, their relatives taking turns in having them over for the holidays, as inconvenient as it was, and in this particular case clearly putting added pressure on the wife, whose hand had been cold and wet in his, before she quickly took it back.
Linder sat on a chair in the middle of the room. He emptied his glass of snaps, uttered a few Ho-Ho-Ho’s, pulled the presents out of the sack, and read out the names on the tags. When still in his thirties, he had come down from the north, building railroads through the wilderness, living in barracks with the other men, carousing and fighting, until a young woman from one of the villages stood at the barrack door, wanting to save him, her face tapered and pale. She had a child by a man, whose name she never knew. The boy, she said, needed a father, and so a deal was struck. She had been pliable, adjusting to his ways to please him, quoting from the Scriptures, and calling him a decent man. In the end she had bent too much, and she broke right under him, something erupting inside her; the doctors were unable to save her, or even explain what had gone wrong.
After the funeral, he moved with the boy to this town, where the railroad company paid him handsomely and called him an engineer. When Germany occupied Norway, the Swedish government allowed German trains to travel through Sweden to transport wounded soldiers back to their own country. He stood on the platform, as did many of the other townspeople, watching the trains roll by, the soldiers leaning out the windows to wave. Several newspapers published articles in protest, claiming that the trains carried not just wounded soldiers but also Swedish iron to be forged into guns. The townspeople jeered and shook their fists, the air hot with hatred, but one man – he recognized the husband, who now stood behind his seated wife, cupping his pipe, making sure his children behaved — had raised his right arm in salute, palm down.
The distribution of presents over, the mood in the room was one of comfort and warmth, all meant to convince the children that they were somehow in good hands. For a moment Linder too felt drawn in, but only until he met the stare of the cat, still crouching under the older woman’s chair, its pupils opening and closing, yellow slits against black. At the husband’s insistence, he accepted a second glass of snaps. It was then that the girl climbed up on his knee, her stockings white and crumpled at her feet. Someone ought to have stopped her, but no one did. She was too close to him, her scent of vanilla and milk, her slight body trusting his. He heard himself burst into song, his voice like the cranking of a rusty shaft, raucous words about lonely men around a fire, miles and miles of forest to the nearest town, the curses and profanities shielding them from the dark, but the girl still leaned against his chest, until he wrenched her away and the wife rushed in to gather her up. The girl was crying now, not loud, more a drawn-out sob, as if she had glimpsed the hunger in his eyes and made it hers.
From the window, the boy and the girl watched their father walk Santa Claus down the shoveled garden path, through the gate and out into the street. Stopping under the lamp post, the father handed Santa Claus an envelope, slapped him on the back, and returned to the house. The snow had stopped falling now. Pressing her cheek to the misty glass, the girl looked up at the stars. She told the boy she could see the star of Bethlehem leading Santa Claus on his way, his red hood bobbing and disappearing in the night. The boy put his arm around her shoulders and told her about the fox, all that wood stacked in front of their grandmother’s house, enough to take her through the winter, the empty stalls in the stable, halters hanging from iron hooks, the wood nicked from kicking hooves. He told her he was all she had.
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