by Birgitta Hjalmarson
Before Fylgia (1).
Before Fylgia, there was another story, compiled during my visits to Sweden. Many of my readers have asked about it, and so I decided to post it here. This is the first installment. Not yet fiction, it occupies a realm of its own.
How It Began.
In the mid-fifties, in the evenings, I used to walk with Hjalmar to the lake. I was a child of ten or so, sent to the country for the summer. Hjalmar was my great-uncle; he and his brother Gustav owned Torp, a farm in Kungsäter, a small village in southwest Sweden. The path led through a forest of spruce and pine mixed with birch. Down its middle ran a string of grass, scarred by horses’ hooves, the ruts dug deep by cart wheels. In marshy areas, deer tracks crisscrossed as if the animals, momentarily, had lost their sense of direction. We did not say much. Hjalmar walked barefoot, with a lightness that seemed remarkable for so large a man. I tried to walk barefoot too, but it hurt too much. So I put my shoes back on, stuck my hand in his, and watched it disappear into his huge fist.
At the lake, Hjalmar shed his clothes in front of me. Now in his sixties, he still looked strong but his flesh was losing its firmness. His hands and feet, like his face and balding head, were tanned like a sailor’s, the rest of his body was a delicate pink. He walked out into the water until it reached his armpits. Next — and this was what I had been waiting for — he turned over on his back. Motionless, he floated in the water with only his toes, his stomach, and his nose visible above the surface. It seems he lay there for hours, surrendering himself to the elements, now and then wiggling his fingers. Each time I was sure I witnessed a miracle. I hardly dared blink. I do not remember ever going into the water myself, all I could do was stare at Hjalmar.
Back at Torp, my great-aunts Ida and Anna would feed me supper. Ida sliced my cheese, buttered my bread, and poured my glass full of milk still warm from the cow. Anna mostly watched, praising me when I had seconds. She kept wringing her hands, slowly, not as a sign of distress but a habit which I now know was also her father’s.
At eight o’clock, when the church bells rang, Ida stepped outside, scattering the cats that lodged on the kitchen steps. It was still light, but the day was cooling and the fog was gathering over by the forest’s edge. Ida turned her head in the direction of the bells, nodded and thanked God for one more day of peace and good health. Anna, too, would rise. As if they suddenly recalled being late, her hands escaped from her lap and flashed before my eyes as she pinned back her hair, untied her apron, and shook out the folds of her long cotton skirt. With a shawl thrown over her shoulders, she started off towards the village. I watched her disappear over the hill, her head high, her back straight, her stride steady. I never wondered where she was going: I just assumed she had her reasons.
In 1991, when I first heard about Anna’s child, my great-aunts and uncles were long since dead. Torp had been sold to Folke, once the hired man. I had moved to California, but at the time I was visiting my mother in a small town on the southwest coast of Sweden. My mother mentioned the child almost as if in passing. She said injustice had been done, that Anna had been made to suffer. When I questioned her on the details, she hesitated. What she told me had the sound of a twice-told tale, more familiar than believable. A wealthy farmer forbids his daughter to marry the man she loves. Surreptitious meetings lead to the birth of an illegitimate child, all swathed in shame imposed by an unforgiving church. But the Anna I remembered could not be bullied into obedience, not by her father, and not by God. The woman who smelled of sheets freshly dried in the sun, whose touch sent waves of pleasure through my body, whose soothing low voice I followed from room to room, was never swayed by fear.
Over the next few years I returned to Kungsäter, time after time, to try to find out what really happened. Most of the villagers who would have remembered Anna’s child were dead. Those still living were reluctant to talk. Suspicious of strangers and protective of their own, they did not allow themselves to be rushed, nor did they speak easily in front of tape recorders. Each time I came to their doors, their silence was as impressive as their manner. If they spoke at all, it was about the weather and the crops, who was ill, and who was not. Now and then the men pushed the curtains aside to see who was coming down the road. The women served strong coffee in small cups, inquired about my mother, and insisted that I help myself to more cake. Perhaps it was my refusal to give up that eventually loosened their tongues — stubbornness is something the villagers know and respect.
As I learned to listen, both to what was said and what was not, I finally began to understand. What emerged was a story of a village caught in change. It spans two world wars, and change is as relentless as a sow who turns and crushes her young. Once people worked in the fields and the barns, laughter and chatter were everywhere. Today some of the farms are abandoned. Others are gone altogether, with only a few lilacs and berry shrubs bespeaking a settlement that was. The inn, where men bragged and argued politics, is closed. The smith’s shop next door has become a two-pump gas station. At the church, which used to be filled to capacity, the young vicar preaches to an almost empty house. His sermon plays over the loudspeakers in the nearby old people’s home, where men hide liquor in their rooms and women long to die.
Anna may not have been as fearless as I had remembered her. Yet, she did what she felt was right. When trapped by circumstances, she became a law unto herself, a law no less binding, no less demanding, than the official one. The price exacted was more than she could pay alone. Others, and those she loved the most, must pay too. That was not her fault. She no longer had a choice.
by Birgitta Hjalmarson
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