Before Fylgia (4).
Before Fylgia, there was another story, told by the villagers themselves. Many of my readers have asked about it, and so I decided to post it here. This is the fourth installment. Not yet fiction, it occupies a realm of its own.
You could recognize him from afar as he came up the hill towards Torp — his wide-brimmed hat, his erect posture, his landau pulled by his gray mare, the rod of his whip swaying in its stand. As he approached, did he reflect on the fact that Torp was situated at a higher elevation than the church? If so, did it bother him? Surely it was unusual. In most villages, the churches overlooked the farms, not the other way around.
He was the new vicar of Kungsäter. In 1897, after Henrik Lindström died, three potential successors took turns preaching, after which the parishioners cast their votes. The first, in the words of a village diary, was “not a bad speaker.” The second was “not as gifted as the first.” The third, Ninus Brodin, was “a good speaker with a strong singing voice.” Most of the parishioners apparently agreed and Brodin became their new vicar.
Born in the province of Bohuslan, on the North Sea just west of Mark, Brodin was the son of a carpenter and a devout follower of Henric Schartau. Though Schartau died in 1825, his name still has an ominous ring to many Swedes. His teachings are associated more with fire and brimstone than with love. By the time I grew up, his followers were caricatured in novels and films: stern, unforgiving, and judgmental, much like the God they professed to represent. Yet, something about Schartau had touched the core of the Swedish people, and despite resistance, not least from the mother church, the Schartau movement has held the southwest of Sweden, especially the diocese of Gothenburg, in an iron grip.
Kungsäter, Brodin soon learned, was not an easy parish to control. As was often the case in rural regions, future farmers’ wives were pregnant before the wedding, their ability to provide heirs no longer in doubt. Indeed, as a visiting bishop had recorded at the time of Brodin’s induction, this custom was “an abominable stain which the parish must do its utmost to wash away.” His warning is recorded in the minutes of the parish council: “Imagine what harm might come to your children if your marriages begin in sin! God must be present when this union is forged. Then, and only then, will it be pure.”
Even more pervasive was a certain age-old pride, a refusal to defer to higher authority, particularly among the more well-to-do farmers. Their hats were firmly planted on their heads. The only time they took them off was at the sound of the church bells. Even when greeting Brodin, they merely touched the brims with the tips of their fingers. Most of them harbored a deep-rooted belief that God helps only those who help themselves. Man’s honor, not that of God, was what mattered. Emphasis was on the here and now, not what happened after death. Turning the other cheek was a heresy.
Brodin, however, was equal to the challenge. On this particular day, he was on his way to Torp to hold one of his house examinations. Some vicars had stopped these examinations, but Brodin believed in the old ways and in the parishioners’ need for close guidance. Typically the examinations were held by rote, at one of the larger farms. Each rote included one or more farms, depending on size. Aside from the farmers and their families, farmhands and maids were expected to attend. So were the crofters, husbands and wives who farmed their own small pockets of land in return for labor at the main house.
At Torp, Brodin hawked and took his seat. He cleaned his glasses, put them back on, and looked out over the assembled, his bushy eyebrows and sideburns bristling. The parlor must have been crowded. In the front row, wringing his large hands in his customary way, sat Carl Börjesson, now in his early forties and recently elected juror at the district court, a position which in the view of the village made him almost as important as the vicar. Beside him was Fina, with Gustav in her lap, a quiet child who rarely smiled. Adolf, by now, would have been in his late teens, an upright young man, with a still tentative mustache. Ida, Selma, and Anna — in braided hair, white dresses, and ribbed black stockings that itched — were no doubt well behaved and a credit to their parents. Hjalmar, I suspect, looked Brodin squarely in the eyes, resenting the enforced confinement. I see him sliding off and back on to his chair, testing the limits. Anders, an old soldier, tall and lean, with a full beard and narrow eyes, pulled him back each time he ventured too far. Ebba may have been assigned to Lotta, who pinched her apron with her bony fingers and wanted the day over with.
The crofters sat in the back, hats in their hands, and for once without snuff pushed thick against their gums. The women had brought as many children as there were clothes for, all told to wash their ears that day. To the side, leaning back in his chair, was young Filip Lindström. Artist, alcoholic, and son of the late vicar, he now lived with his mother in a small cabin on Carl Börjesson’s land. In 1891 he had painted the altarpiece for the new church, on a mammoth canvas stretched out in Torp’s barn. To entertain himself, he surrounded Jesus with the likenesses of some of the parishioners, who found themselves in full view above the altar, like it or not. Now, his sense of humor largely gone, he took commissions from farmers to paint their farms, often in exchange for brännvin, some said. Carl Börjesson was one of the few who insisted on paying in cash.
Throughout the afternoon, in a series of set questions and answers, Brodin expounded on the ten commandments, with particular emphasis on the sixth. He reminded all of them, including Carl Börjesson, that all power was ultimately of God. He told husbands to be the heads of their wives, wives to obey their husbands, children to honor their parents, servants to obey their masters. None of it would have come as a surprise. Servants, for example, were still subject to corporal punishment by their masters. Not just the church approved, but the worldly law as well, leaving it up to the masters to determine the nature and degree of such punishment, provided it did not maim or kill.
Brodin’s main message, however, was that no matter how hard they tried, they could never do enough to be worthy before God. By their very nature they were all doomed. They did not just commit sin, they were sin. The only way to salvation was The Word, as laid forth by God in the Bible. Only The Word, pure and unadulterated, could rid them of their spiritual sickness and lead them to heaven and eternal life. Life on this earth was not meant to be joyous. Its only purpose was to allow them to prepare for death. Anxiety was actually a good sign; it meant that they were aware of their own wretchedness and rightfully feared for their souls.
Thus, I suspect, Brodin went straight to the point.
“Why is life so important?” he asked, fixing Anders with his stare.
“Because it is an important and irretrievable time of grace.”
“Why is it called a time of grace?” continued Brodin, sensing Anders’ resistance.
“Because it is a time when the grace of God may grant us mercy.”
“And why is it called important?”
“All of eternity depends on it.”
“And why, Anders, is it irretrievable?” asked Brodin, motioning for Anders to speak louder.
Anders reddened. The whole procedure made him feel like a dumb animal being prodded into its pen. He did not care for the word eternity and resented being forced to use it. Lotta had shown him pictures of what it looked like: men and women roasted on spits or walking around with their heads in their hands. Yet, he saw no way out. “Once lost, it will never come again,” he murmured, lurching into position as the gate slammed shut behind him. Filip Lindström, his eyes on Brodin, smiled and slowly moved his hands in silent applause.
Later they gathered for refreshments. The large table was set with Fina’s best china and silver polished with pumice. They all helped themselves to seven kinds of biscuits, gingerbread cake, strong coffee, and raspberry juice for the children.
That was how Anna learned about God and sins not yet understood, much less committed.
Photograph Swedish National Heritage Board
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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