Birgitta Hjalmarson answers
questions about her novel, Fylgia.
What does Fylgia stand for?
The word comes from Norse mythology. A fylgia is a presence that follows you from birth to death, an emissary of fate. Most of the time it will be invisible, but once in a while, as in a crisis, it will appear as an animal or even as a person. It will only leave you shortly before your death, when it will hurry to make room for you in the life hereafter, or disappear forever if you’re to be damned.
And how does it apply to Anna?
Anna was born with a caul, the birth membrane still draped over her head. As a result, her fylgia is particularly strong. Even so, she thinks she can bargain with fate, or find a way to get around it. Throughout the book she’s torn between her own sense of guilt and wanting to blame her lover. Like so many of us, she hopes for some kind of order, some kind of justice that will carry her through, none of which turns out to be true.
How did you come to write this book?
It began with an image I couldn’t forget. I had moved to the US but was visiting my mother in Sweden. She mentioned the burial almost as if in passing. She said it was shortly after WWI. Must have been, she said, for she herself was still a child. The family had crossed a snowy field to a country churchyard, hidden in the forest of Sweden. As Anna’s brother lowered the small coffin into the frozen ground, Anna clenched her fists, her knuckles white from the cold. A man, dressed in black, watched from the pasture below, a wreath on his arm. Only after the family left, did he approach the grave. When I questioned my mother on the details, she was unsure. And so, to find more answers, I went back to the village where Anna had lived, and where I used to spend my childhood summers. The village had changed. The young people had left. A few farms had been abandoned, others converted into summer houses, boarded up or rented out to German tourists. The old people did not speak easily in front of tape recorders, nor did they allow themselves to be rushed. Year after year I returned. Perhaps it was my refusal to give up that eventually swayed them. Stubbornness, I believe, was something they respected and understood.
What did they tell you?
They told me stories, some based on hearsay, others on recollections that even the villagers themselves would question when pressed. Mostly I was struck by how matter-of-fact they were. The villagers had no use for sentimentality. If they ever did, it must have been chased out of them, since most of them had lived long, harsh lives, and what remained was a wry sense of humor, a form of wisdom as it were, a means to lighten what couldn’t be endured. “All my life I’ve been frugal with the truth,” one woman said. “Still can’t make it last.” Yet, whenever I mentioned Anna’s child, the stories grew darker, voices trailing off, calloused fingers tracing the rims of delicate coffee cups.
So Fylgia is based on real events and people?
That’s how it began. I was trying to write non-fiction. The harder I tried, the less progress I made. And so I began to look inward, playing the tapes over and over again, listening to the pauses, the deflections, even more than to the words themselves. In the first few drafts I had the manuscript divided into three parts: War, Famine, and Plague. It steadied me as I wrote, helped me see where I was heading. Eventually I had to discard them, certainly in the obvious sense, as printed words on the page. That was when I realized I was writing fiction, drawing on imagination and memory both. Most of it was still hard work, plain and simple, when I knew what I wanted to say but not yet how. But then there would be a glimpse of sky and the book started to hum. Clarity, for me, always comes in stages — no one grand revelation, everything has to be fought for, most of all the truth.
What is Anna’s truth?
She does come to terms with her fate, a sense that none of it could have been different, and that strongest of all was her will to live. At least that’s what I hope the reader will come away with. Of course, it’s really not for me to say, is it? Reading is much like writing, just as demanding in many respects. At first we need guidance, signposts as to who and when and where, but then it shifts and we become creators too, making connections, remembering, even running ahead. All good books pose questions that are as relevant today as they were in the past. Village gossip has become false news, no less dangerous, capable of starting wars and destroying lives. Stories are never innocent. They never were.
Tell us about your writing day.
Well, first I need to tell you about my nights. Insomnia has long been my companion, not the debilitating kind, but still disruptive. I lie awake for hours listening to the sounds of the night, the hoot of an owl, the bark of a fox, the snarl of raccoons below my window. My thoughts will come and go, and I used to rise in the middle of the night to write them down. I’ve since grown wiser. I now keep a tape recorder on my bedside table. Most of those thoughts, even the ones that seem brilliant at night, turn commonplace in the light of day.
Morning hours I spend in my office, before the rest of the world breaks down my door. My husband and my friends would probably smile at such a notion, since I lead a quiet, private life. In the afternoons I go walking, at times with friends but also alone. Thoughts about writing never really leave me, and as I set out for the forest or the ocean bluff, I keep the tape recorder in my pocket. I’m fortunate. These days I can focus almost exclusively on my writing, which wasn’t always the case. Even so, there’s the constant push and pull — wanting to be part of the world at large, and yet seeking the solitude that Rainer Maria Rilke claimed we must “love.”
What are you working on now?
Still between me and the owl.
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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