Before Fylgia (3).

Mar, 2019

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

Carl was not the first in line to inherit Torp. His brother August was two years older and thus the rightful heir. August, however, left for America. Thus Carl took over Torp. His sisters Mina and Augusta, as compensation, each received one of the smaller farms that had been part of BrittaLena’s dowry. Inga, the third sister, had died in 1874, a year before Börje.

     When Carl married in 1880 he must have done so for love alone. Josefina Andersdotter — called Fina by those near to her — brought no additional land to the marriage. Her father died in 1878, leaving Västra Bua, a farm about the size of Torp, to one of Fina’s younger brothers. No one questioned such an arrangement. For as long as anyone could remember, sisters must relinquish land to their brothers, even if they were first-born. In that way the land stayed undivided, and within the same family. In Fina’s case there were no smaller holdings, so she had to content herself with nothing. 

     Even without land, Fina was a catch. A couple of years younger than Carl, she looked almost foreign with her dark skin, high cheekbones, and dangling jewelry. Carl had by no means been the only suitor, and the village engaged in a great deal of discussion as to whom she would choose. Accompanied by the baroness Falkenberg of Hultaberg, the largest farm in Kungsäter, she was often seen roaming the fields and meadows, gathering wildflowers. At Västra Bua, she filled the rooms with sometimes simple, sometimes fanciful bouquets, composed with a sure sense of color, texture, and line: lilies of the valley, pristine white on a dark polished table; grayish green foxtail with strong stems that branched at fine angles; quick strokes of buttercups and ox-eye daisies against masses of cornflowers, bluebells, and purple clover.

     I found her weaving book in the attic at Torp. It is small, about three by six inches. The cover is a muted brick red, embossed with elaborate designs like those of rich Victorian velvets. Glued to the inside front cover is a black and white print entitled “Coimbra.” Peasants work by the river; Coimbra itself rises like a magic mountain in the haze behind them. Inside the back cover is another print, called “Dublin.” Here too, the city is viewed from a distance. To the right, picnickers rest on a grassy slope; below them, to the left, a man herds cattle.  It seems fitting that neither Coimbra nor Dublin is depicted up close. Fina may have yearned to see the world, but her longest journey was probably to the city of Gothenburg, on the North Sea some thirty miles to the northwest.

     The weaving book itself is in Fina’s own handwriting, forceful, yet ornate, with few mistakes and scratch-outs. It contains detailed instructions, with precise amounts of rye flour and linseed oil used to size the yarn. It stresses the importance of keeping the warp taut, which allows the weft to be placed with an even beat and ensures straight selvages. I can see the book on the chair next to Fina as she works at her loom. Now and then she picks it up, traces the lines with her index finger until she finds what she is looking for. She puts it down, counts the threads, checks her pattern, and resumes her weaving. Every towel, every pillow case, every single napkin become part of who she is, what she thinks and what she hopes for. I have some of her linen, carefully wrapped in silk. Washed and mangled a thousand times over, thin in places, with a slightly yellow sheen, it is more beautiful than ever. The delicate stitches used for the hems still hold and are all but invisible.

     After their betrothal, in accordance with old village practices, Fina and Carl spent their nights together. At first, I suspect, Fina thought Carl a bit conceited. He was probably less sure of himself than he let on. Since his mother had died when he was only nine, he had no clear sense of how a husband and wife would interact. As he came of age, he was aware that women responded to him. The maids whispered and giggled when he was around, and he could have been “initiated.” But Börje, not about to risk unwelcome children, kept him on a tight rein. Hence Carl may have been almost as inexperienced as Fina, and after the first time, when he was too eager to prove himself, she came to enjoy their lovemaking as much as he did. Her inventiveness was endless: touching him in hidden places, teasing and holding back, making him follow. At first sign of pregnancy — evidence that Fina was fertile and able to provide heirs — the date of the wedding was set.

     During the next two decades, Fina gave birth to ten children, Their names are listed in the family bible, with their dates of birth. Three died the same year they were born: Axel Hjalmar in 1886, Ebba Maria in 1892, and Ebba Hildegard in 1900. The records give no reasons. Child mortality was high; the death of a child seemed almost as natural as its birth. Among the common causes were influenza and whooping cough. To cure the latter, the villagers used warm mare’s milk, which became almost impossible to find during widespread epidemics. The remaining seven children, however, were fit and destined to live: Adolf Bernhard, b. 1880, Ida Emelia, b. 1882, Selma Karolina, b. 1884, Anna Linnea, b. 1889, Carl Hjalmar, b. 1891, Ebba Alida b. 1894, and Gustav Ejnar, b. 1896. 

     Each time Fina was due, Lotta, a trusted servant, would put her to bed in a small upstairs room reserved for the purpose. Lotta, with her square face and tightly pulled back hair, sat by the bed, always so that Fina could see her, knitting, talking, humming. Now and then she rose to smooth the sheets or shake out the pillow. As the contractions grew stronger, she rubbed Fina’s abdomen, softly and probingly. She put her ear to Fina’s womb to find out whether it was a girl or a boy; she said she could tell by the strength of the heartbeat.

     Afterwards, for all the pain, came the happiest moments of Fina’s life. The new child would lie on her arm, nursing. Carl waited outside the door. She could hear him turn the pages of his newspaper. Each time he changed position, his chair rasped against the wooden floor. From downstairs came the clattering of stove lids and occasional smacks from the fly swatter. The royal family looked down on her from their portraits on the wall opposite her bed. Almost every farmhouse, even the small cottages, had these oleographs of Oskar II and his wife Sofia, the king in full-dress uniform, the queen in tiara and white lace.

     When the child had finished nursing, Lotta would bring strong coffee with a dash of cognac. While Fina sipped it, slowly, so she could gauge the effect, Lotta moved about the room, keeping busy. She padded across the rag runners, added more wood to the tiled stove, heated up the water bottle.  “Shall I let him in?” she asked, turning to Fina. Fina nodded. She actually looked forward to seeing him. 

     For the next few weeks Fina remained secluded at the farm. In this she abided by the Old Testament which pronounced her unclean. The belief was deeply rooted: in pagan times pregnant women were thought to be endowed with magic powers and therefore dangerous to themselves and others. 

     On the morning of her churching – now more an honoring than a purification — she was ready well ahead of time. Her handkerchief was neatly folded next to her book of hymns. The bottom of her long black woolen skirt was hemmed with a new strip of fur, the old one long since worn out. A green pheasant feather was attached, coquettishly, to her black straw hat, and her many underskirts were dark blue and purple.

     At the church Carl’s sister Augusta, Fina’s “woman in attendance,” waited. Augusta opened the door; Fina herself was not allowed to touch it. The parishioners watched as Fina slowly walked up the aisle, Augusta behind her. Together with other women who had also given birth she knelt in front of the altar; those who had borne boys knelt to the right, those who had borne girls to the left. One by one, Lindström took their hands, blessed them, and pronounced them fit to reenter society. Afterwards Fina took her seat next to Augusta, in the first pew, on the women’s side. She could feel Carl watching her with pride from his seat over by the pillar.




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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