by Birgitta Hjalmarson
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
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