The Great Brännvin Row. Before Fylgia (5).
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 fifth installment. Not yet fiction, it occupies a realm of its own.
In the fall of 1894, Gottfried Bergenheim, who once grew grapes in California, signed a contract with Carl Börjesson to run the Kungsäter store and inn. The initial payment was 750 crowns; 300 crowns due at the end of each year, with an additional 100 crowns should Bergenheim, like the previous innkeeper, sell brännvin.
Under Bergenheim’s management, the inn flourished. Travelers, mostly salesmen, arrived dusty and tired after long hours next to the coachmen on unforgiving wooden seats. Bergenheim himself met them at the front steps. Short and dapper, in his early thirties, he pulled his handkerchief out of his breast pocket and gave their boots and clothes a few swipes, more well-intended than effective.
Commerce at the store next door was brisk. Aromas of cinnamon, cardamom, and roasted coffee blended with smells of rubber, leather, and tar. Loaves of bread, rings of sausages, wooden clogs, skates, and carbide lamps hung from the ceiling. Bergenheim’s voice could be heard everywhere, as he ordered his assistants up and down the stairs to the cellar to restock supplies. For children hiding behind their mothers’ skirts, he rolled up sugar-candy in paper cones. He told the men to help themselves to snuff out of a large box on the counter, next to the scales, rolls of string, and a shining cash register.
But all was not well. Bergenheim surprised almost everyone when he did not apply for a license to sell brännvin. Lowering the cost of the lease did not seem to be his motive. Selling brännvin had always been lucrative business and well worth the investment. Rather, he wanted to reduce parish drunkenness, which clearly began at the inn. Others shared his concern. On a few occasions, the men at the county council had voted on whether or not the previous innkeeper should be allowed to keep his license. The votes were taken according to fyrk, which gave well-to-do men more votes than others. It was no secret that the vote count could be nudged one way or the other to bring about the desired result.
Carl Börjesson, never one to shy away from a good fight, tried to persuade Bergenheim to change his mind. The county benefited from taxes levied on the local sale of brännvin — had in fact come to depend on them. Also, not selling brännvin at the inn was thought to encourage private distilling, prohibited by law since 1860. Already there was no lack of illicit brännvin makers in the area. The most famous was probably the woman who ran a small “establishment” out of her cottage by one of the lakes, fondly referred to as Hotel du Nord. Drinking was not the only sin committed there — supposedly there was hardly a man in the parish who had not gone to see her.
What followed was a complicated series of events, described in court papers now held by archives in Gothenburg. At first, Börjesson and his followers tried to nail Bergenheim the legal way. Although Bergenheim needed a license to serve brännvin, it was his duty as an innkeeper to provide travelers with beer. He was also expected to serve beer to locals, but only with meals, a luxury most of them could not afford.
Though common enough, these stipulations had always allowed for a great deal of interpretation. Now, all of a sudden, the county council, led by Börjesson, showed an unexpected regard for the law. In 1896, Bergenheim found himself summoned to the district court. Börjesson, for one, testified that Bergenheim had indeed been selling beer to locals, but not just with meals.
Others came forward with the same observation. Bergenheim had been selling beer to anyone who asked for it, indoors as well as outdoors, particularly at the fairs, held outside the inn on the last Thursday of each month. The church organist, walking past the inn on his way home after a funeral, had heard “clamor and curses, in connection with fights.” Another witness, inside the inn, had seen Bergenheim himself lying among a mass of empty beer bottles, after he was knocked down by his inebriated customers.
The case continued through the summer session of 1898. Bergenheim declared that he might indeed have sold beer to locals even without meals. If so, it was only because he was new to the area and mistook them for travelers. The county constable, who had reprimanded Bergenheim in the past, testified that Bergenheim was no longer serving beer outdoors at the fairs. On the whole, said the constable, it seemed like much ado about nothing. Matters were no worse in Kungsäter than anywhere else. Even the assistant vicar testified to this effect, though, ideally, he would like to see all alcohol, including beer, banned at the inn.
In the end Bergenheim was fined 90 crowns, distributed among the prosecutor, the plaintiffs, and the parish poor-relief. From then on he ran his business by the book. He also stood by his old principle: brännvin was not to be served at Kungsäter inn.
A few years later Börjesson apparently took matters into his own hands. Rumor has it that he hired a couple of ruffians, treated them to ample amounts of alcohol, and sent them off to persuade Bergenheim to reconsider his decision not to serve brännvin at the inn. Official records do indeed mention several episodes that support this scenario.
At one time a kerosene drum was stolen from the courtyard outside the inn. Later follows mention of kicked-in doors and other vandalism. Around Easter 1904 someone attacked Harry Jönsson, Bergenheim’s store manager. The assailant used a knife and “a so-called boxing glove,” which seems to refer to an ordinary boxing glove with iron knuckles concealed beneath the padding. Blood flowed; Jönsson had to see a doctor and stay in bed for several days. The enormous county constable arrived at the scene, pushing down the springs on his side of the carriage, the coachman, almost airborne, hanging on to his end of the seat. Interrogations never led beyond the two ruffians, neither one willing to confess.
To be sure, there was more at stake than a license to sell brännvin. Gottfried Bergenheim was an outsider, with ambitions to introduce new ideas and change the village way of life. Any concession on Carl Börjesson’s part might have been seen as a sign of weakness and thus endanger his position as the village leader. This he could not afford.
Bergenheim, however, stood his ground. For as long as he lived, brännvin would continue to be banned at Kungsäter Inn.
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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