Before Fylgia (6)

Aug, 2019

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 sixth installment. Not yet fiction, it occupies a realm of its own.

     Carl Fredrik Lundgren was a man with a firm handshake.  Villagers remember him as purposeful and trustworthy, fired by new ideas in farming and economics. “He was not like the rest of us,” says Bertil, who became Lundgren’s hired man in the early 1930s. “He had a tremendous brain. Had he gone to university, he would have been up there with the best of them. Wasn’t anyone who could have stopped him.”

     Carl Fredrik Lundgren was born in the province of Halland in 1875. His father, Carl Magnus Lundgren, was born out of wedlock in 1838.  In 1873 he married Ebba Bagge, who came from a line of clergymen, merchants, and sea captains, all prominent members of the upper middle class.

     When Carl Fredrik was nine years old, the family moved to Kungsäter, where his father leased Hultaberg, the large farm owned by the Crown and previously leased by Baron Falkenberg.  His mother died in 1887, after giving birth to eight children. His father came upon hard times but retained the lease of Hultaberg until his death in 1893. Financial difficulties may well have been the reason why Carl Fredrik did not continue his education beyond the obligatory nine years of grade school and possibly some time spent at an agricultural school. Carl Fredrik’s passion for farming had shown itself early on. As a boy he cried when rains ruined the harvest.

     After his father’s death, Carl Fredrik Lundgren first worked as a farm hand in a neighboring village. Around the turn of the century he attended large textile fairs all over Sweden as one of Gottfried Bergenheim’s traveling salesmen. His interest in farming prevailed, and in 1904 he became Ninus Brodin’s new tenant farmer. This put him in charge of Prastgarden, a farm covering 63 acres of cultivated land and 223 acres of forest and pasture. In articles he wrote for a Varberg newspaper, he praised life in the country as far superior to that in the city. While not denying the importance of industry, he felt it must always be secondary to agriculture. Industry, if unchecked, led to destruction. It lured the workers away from the farms, used and discarded them with no concern for human dignity.  Agriculture, on the other hand, was the very foundation of Swedish society. Progress, prosperity, even liberty, ultimately rested on the land. It kept its workers strong and focused, made them part of a greater whole, gave them a sense of meaning and belonging.

     It was as a newspaper man that Lundgren visited Torp in the late summer of 1908. He was working on a series of articles about the farms of the parish. Torp, in those days, was certainly one of the most prosperous, its land about as extensive as that of Prastgarden, with 68 acres of cultivated fields, and 200 acres of forest and pasture. The barn and the stables were sprawling red structures pressing against forest and steep granite rock. Facing them, set apart by a cobblestoned courtyard, was the two-storied main house, painted white. Large elm trees bordered the pathway leading up to the main entrance. Surrounding the house was the garden, with raked gravel paths and peonies as far as the eye could see. A white flagpole with a golden knob flew the blue and yellow Swedish flag — on days when the flag was not raised, the wind cracked the ropes against the pole in protest. Towards the outskirts of the garden, pear and apple trees dominated, mixed in with white and purple lilacs, weeping willows and grottoes of billowing linden trees. A shoot from Baroness Falkenberg’s Danish cherry tree had long since taken root and in the spring its blossoms were the talk of the village. Still farther out, red and black currants took over, with patches of rhubarb, gooseberries, and black and red currants. Around it all ran a hedge of hawthorn, kept at bay by Anders. 

     Lundgren was invited in. “I was glad to see that the Börjessons had preserved the kind of old country home which is almost extinct today, even in our parts,” he wrote in the ensuing article. In the living room, Fina’s woven curtains let the sunlight through, while her geraniums and ferns filled the window sills. The floor boards had never known linoleum, and the wallpaper was a soft rich blue. The light gray sofa and the chairs with their turned legs, lyre backs, and pale yellow upholstery were made by a local cabinet-maker. To a less sophisticated visitor, they might have seemed too elegant for a farm house, but the style, a restrained Louis XVI, had become common in well-to-do Swedish homes after Swedish King Gustav III introduced it in the late 1700s.

     The room also held one or two large wooden chests, with leaves and flowers painted on a brownish red background imitating marble. Anna’s sister Ida had seen similar chests when staying with a family in Stockholm. One of her letters home mentions a visit to Skansen, a large open air museum which had opened in 1891. “In the old cottages were several chests just like ours,” she wrote. “Madame thought they were so nice, and when I told her we have several, some of them in the attic, she thought I was joking. We also saw some copper kettles, not nearly as beautiful as our large ones. Had I told her we keep one of them in the barn I guess she would have swooned.”

     “Mrs. Börjesson is a highly competent woman, liked by all,” Lundgren wrote, “and the Börjesson children, some of whom are young adults, are well brought up and behave themselves accordingly.” One of the daughters, “a well built, handsome woman in her early twenties,” served coffee and cake. Presumably it was Selma, who was 24 years old at the time. Anna was only 19.

     Carl Börjesson, in Lundgren’s words, was “a man in his fifties, known for his many services within and without the parish.” That year Carl Börjesson was running for a seat in the Second Chamber of the Parliament, a body largely made up of freeholder farmers. For a number of years, Carl Börjesson had also served as a member of the Älvsborg Province Council, which represented an area covering some 8,000 square miles with a population of 317,000. The responsibility of the provincial council was twofold. It determined budgets for medical care, education, transportation, and law enforcement. It also elected members of the First Chamber of the Parliament, which was a forum for nobility, higher civil servants, military men, and industrialists.

     Over cognac, Lundgren and Carl Börjesson no doubt discussed politics. As members of the Conservative Party, both would have frowned on changes in suffrage about to be pushed through by a coalition of Liberals and Social Democrats. In the past, suffrage had been based on income and property, the general assumption being that those who did well by themselves also would do well by the country. Beginning in 1909, the polls would be open to a much larger segment of the population, and one unlikely to vote Conservative. Though still closed to women, elections for the Second Chamber would be open to all men, provided they did not owe taxes for the past three years. At local elections, open to both men and women, no voter would be entitled to more than 40 votes. Though hardly democratic, it was still a drastic change from the old system of the fyrk, which allowed an estimated seven percent to control the outcome.

     In the course of the visit Carl Börjesson also took Lundgren on a tour of the farm. By the early 1900s, under the protection of a stable tariff system, Swedish agriculture flourished. As proof of Carl Börjesson’s successes, Lundgren cited the year-old barn, “well built, of solid material.” It housed the new farm machinery: plows, graders, harrows, and seeders. The reaper, mostly used for grass, was of Swedish manufacture, perhaps a Viking or a Herkules.  Pulling it were Carl Börjesson’s large Ardenners, powerful horses of Belgian origin. Once used to transport Napoleon’s troops, the breed had been introduced to Sweden in the 1870s.  Boxes of stud books, published by the Swedish Ardenner Association, are still in the attic of Torp. The stallions weighed about 2,000 pounds and stood nearly 17 hands. Their collars fit snugly on their well defined withers, their endurance and intelligence were uncontested, and they bore wonderful names, like Jupiter,Ballancort, and Democrate de Bogaerden.

     As Carl Börjesson and Lundgren inspected the fields, the talk likely turned to artificial fertilizers, a controversial subject at the time. Lundgren’s writings reflected his belief that man must complete what God began. A successful farmer, aside from being a good businessman, must also keep abreast of the latest in agricultural research. His most important capital was the soil: if exhausted it would no longer yield a profit. Fertilizing with manure alone was wasteful. While it did supply nitrogen and potassium, it contained relatively small amounts of phosphoric acid. Therefore, Lundgren argued, it made sense to add the latter artificially.

     Carl Börjesson, I suspect, argued the other side.  He always welcomed a debate: he enjoyed the jostling. Like many of the other farmers, he did not feel that artificial fertilizers justified the cost. Rotating the crops was in itself a protection against tired soils. “Look at the forest,” he used to say. “If we cut down the evergreens, the deciduous will follow. It’s nature’s way, and she needs no help from us.” Barnyard manure would take care of the rest. It completed a cycle that linked the animals to the field, returned to the land what once grew on it, and added humus and bacteria without which any soil would be barren. Besides, there was plenty of manure to go around; Carl Börjesson certainly did not foresee a shortage.

     The farm, on the whole, bespoke Carl Börjesson’s point. Lundgren admired the crops, except for a field of “less than pretty” third-year grass and clover. In Kungsäter, the 1908 harvest would be one of the best ever recorded. Turnips, beets, and potatoes came out of the ground so large that the children took them to school to show them to their teacher. The rye was said to have grown taller than a man. It was so coarse that the scythes had to be sharpened every five minutes; the women who bound it covered their arms with thick wool stockings. Indeed, all over Sweden the harvests that year were abundant. The total value was estimated at 800 million crowns, about 200 million more than average. Farmers claimed that everyone stood to benefit. “If the farmer is rich,” they said, “the whole world is rich.”

     Before Lundgren left, it was time for the milking.  Anders kept the cow barn spotless: whitewashed walls, roomy stalls with plenty of straw for the cows to lie down on, and sanded floors so the milk maids would not slip. The cows — reddish brown with patches of white — entered the barn in a single line, the order fixed. Anxious to be milked, they mooed and tossed their heads. When they spotted Carl Börjesson and Lundgren, they bridled and held back. For a while the outcome seemed uncertain — cows are suspicious of strangers — but urged on by Anders and other cows behind them they plunged into their stanchions with milk spraying from their swinging udders. Lundgren counted about thirty “good-looking” animals, most of them with show ring honors. Like all good producers, they were lean rather than fat, with deep chests, sleek coats, and sturdy hooves. The veins stood out boldly on their sides and abdomens; their udders were heavy and thin-skinned, free of calluses, with long pointed teats extending forward and up.

     As the mooing subsided, the milkmaids sat down on their low, three-legged stools. Each woman knew her own cows, and the cows knew her. If a heifer was high-strung, the woman took her time, running her fingers over the udder, holding the teats without squeezing, pushing upward once or twice, in imitation of a thirsty calf. As the heifer relaxed and “let down,” the woman leaned her forehead against the animal’s flank and began to milk as usual, rhythmically and forcefully, repeating the same movement over and over, separating the milk from the udder with her thumb and her forefinger, then pressing it down the teat with her remaining fingers and the palm of her hand. Jets of milk struck the buckets, at first hard and hollow, later more muffled, as the contents of the buckets whipped into creamy foam.  The cows chewed their cuds, swished their tails, and plopped manure into the concrete gutters. Occasionally a woman’s voice praised or scolded. Soon the entire barn smelled of contentment and warm, large bodies. 

     One of the milk maids was Selma. “Many modern women are ‘afraid’ to milk,” Lundgren wrote. “I was therefore deeply gratified to see that the Börjesson daughter — the same young woman who helped serve the coffee — was not one of them. When I left, both she and her sister, in clean frocks, were in the barn milking. Honor to them both, and to all young women who stay home and work at the family farm!  What would Sweden’s future be without them?”

     The sister, most likely, was Anna.






by Birgitta Hjalmarson

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

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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