by Birgitta Hjalmarson
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
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