by Birgitta Hjalmarson
Before Fylgia (3).
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 third installment. Not yet fiction, it occupies a realm of its own.
Carl was not the first in line to inherit Torp. His brother August was two years older and thus the rightful heir. August, however, left for America. Thus Carl took over Torp. His sisters Mina and Augusta, as compensation, each received one of the smaller farms that had been part of BrittaLena’s dowry. Inga, the third sister, had died in 1874, a year before Börje.
When Carl married in 1880 he must have done so for love alone. Josefina Andersdotter — called Fina by those near to her — brought no additional land to the marriage. Her father died in 1878, leaving Västra Bua, a farm about the size of Torp, to one of Fina’s younger brothers. No one questioned such an arrangement. For as long as anyone could remember, sisters must relinquish land to their brothers, even if they were first-born. In that way the land stayed undivided, and within the same family. In Fina’s case there were no smaller holdings, so she had to content herself with nothing.
Even without land, Fina was a catch. A couple of years younger than Carl, she looked almost foreign with her dark skin, high cheekbones, and dangling jewelry. Carl had by no means been the only suitor, and the village engaged in a great deal of discussion as to whom she would choose. Accompanied by the baroness Falkenberg of Hultaberg, the largest farm in Kungsäter, she was often seen roaming the fields and meadows, gathering wildflowers. At Västra Bua, she filled the rooms with sometimes simple, sometimes fanciful bouquets, composed with a sure sense of color, texture, and line: lilies of the valley, pristine white on a dark polished table; grayish green foxtail with strong stems that branched at fine angles; quick strokes of buttercups and ox-eye daisies against masses of cornflowers, bluebells, and purple clover.
I found her weaving book in the attic at Torp. It is small, about three by six inches. The cover is a muted brick red, embossed with elaborate designs like those of rich Victorian velvets. Glued to the inside front cover is a black and white print entitled “Coimbra.” Peasants work by the river; Coimbra itself rises like a magic mountain in the haze behind them. Inside the back cover is another print, called “Dublin.” Here too, the city is viewed from a distance. To the right, picnickers rest on a grassy slope; below them, to the left, a man herds cattle. It seems fitting that neither Coimbra nor Dublin is depicted up close. Fina may have yearned to see the world, but her longest journey was probably to the city of Gothenburg, on the North Sea some thirty miles to the northwest.
The weaving book itself is in Fina’s own handwriting, forceful, yet ornate, with few mistakes and scratch-outs. It contains detailed instructions, with precise amounts of rye flour and linseed oil used to size the yarn. It stresses the importance of keeping the warp taut, which allows the weft to be placed with an even beat and ensures straight selvages. I can see the book on the chair next to Fina as she works at her loom. Now and then she picks it up, traces the lines with her index finger until she finds what she is looking for. She puts it down, counts the threads, checks her pattern, and resumes her weaving. Every towel, every pillow case, every single napkin become part of who she is, what she thinks and what she hopes for. I have some of her linen, carefully wrapped in silk. Washed and mangled a thousand times over, thin in places, with a slightly yellow sheen, it is more beautiful than ever. The delicate stitches used for the hems still hold and are all but invisible.
After their betrothal, in accordance with old village practices, Fina and Carl spent their nights together. At first, I suspect, Fina thought Carl a bit conceited. He was probably less sure of himself than he let on. Since his mother had died when he was only nine, he had no clear sense of how a husband and wife would interact. As he came of age, he was aware that women responded to him. The maids whispered and giggled when he was around, and he could have been “initiated.” But Börje, not about to risk unwelcome children, kept him on a tight rein. Hence Carl may have been almost as inexperienced as Fina, and after the first time, when he was too eager to prove himself, she came to enjoy their lovemaking as much as he did. Her inventiveness was endless: touching him in hidden places, teasing and holding back, making him follow. At first sign of pregnancy — evidence that Fina was fertile and able to provide heirs — the date of the wedding was set.
During the next two decades, Fina gave birth to ten children, Their names are listed in the family bible, with their dates of birth. Three died the same year they were born: Axel Hjalmar in 1886, Ebba Maria in 1892, and Ebba Hildegard in 1900. The records give no reasons. Child mortality was high; the death of a child seemed almost as natural as its birth. Among the common causes were influenza and whooping cough. To cure the latter, the villagers used warm mare’s milk, which became almost impossible to find during widespread epidemics. The remaining seven children, however, were fit and destined to live: Adolf Bernhard, b. 1880, Ida Emelia, b. 1882, Selma Karolina, b. 1884, Anna Linnea, b. 1889, Carl Hjalmar, b. 1891, Ebba Alida b. 1894, and Gustav Ejnar, b. 1896.
Each time Fina was due, Lotta, a trusted servant, would put her to bed in a small upstairs room reserved for the purpose. Lotta, with her square face and tightly pulled back hair, sat by the bed, always so that Fina could see her, knitting, talking, humming. Now and then she rose to smooth the sheets or shake out the pillow. As the contractions grew stronger, she rubbed Fina’s abdomen, softly and probingly. She put her ear to Fina’s womb to find out whether it was a girl or a boy; she said she could tell by the strength of the heartbeat.
Afterwards, for all the pain, came the happiest moments of Fina’s life. The new child would lie on her arm, nursing. Carl waited outside the door. She could hear him turn the pages of his newspaper. Each time he changed position, his chair rasped against the wooden floor. From downstairs came the clattering of stove lids and occasional smacks from the fly swatter. The royal family looked down on her from their portraits on the wall opposite her bed. Almost every farmhouse, even the small cottages, had these oleographs of Oskar II and his wife Sofia, the king in full-dress uniform, the queen in tiara and white lace.
When the child had finished nursing, Lotta would bring strong coffee with a dash of cognac. While Fina sipped it, slowly, so she could gauge the effect, Lotta moved about the room, keeping busy. She padded across the rag runners, added more wood to the tiled stove, heated up the water bottle. “Shall I let him in?” she asked, turning to Fina. Fina nodded. She actually looked forward to seeing him.
For the next few weeks Fina remained secluded at the farm. In this she abided by the Old Testament which pronounced her unclean. The belief was deeply rooted: in pagan times pregnant women were thought to be endowed with magic powers and therefore dangerous to themselves and others.
On the morning of her churching – now more an honoring than a purification — she was ready well ahead of time. Her handkerchief was neatly folded next to her book of hymns. The bottom of her long black woolen skirt was hemmed with a new strip of fur, the old one long since worn out. A green pheasant feather was attached, coquettishly, to her black straw hat, and her many underskirts were dark blue and purple.
At the church Carl’s sister Augusta, Fina’s “woman in attendance,” waited. Augusta opened the door; Fina herself was not allowed to touch it. The parishioners watched as Fina slowly walked up the aisle, Augusta behind her. Together with other women who had also given birth she knelt in front of the altar; those who had borne boys knelt to the right, those who had borne girls to the left. One by one, Lindström took their hands, blessed them, and pronounced them fit to reenter society. Afterwards Fina took her seat next to Augusta, in the first pew, on the women’s side. She could feel Carl watching her with pride from his seat over by the pillar.
by Birgitta Hjalmarson
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