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I STILL GO to the grave. My younger self runs ahead. I follow, cutting through the forest and staying away from the country road. An old woman in a beret and a tweed jacket.
Anemones cover the graveyard in the spring. Songbirds nest in the church ruin and the bird-cherry tree smells of bitter almonds. By midsummer the dog rose blooms. Dry branches crack in the meadow below, as the brown cows seek shade under the old apple trees. Buttercups and thistles still stand after the cows have grazed around them. Newborn calves, hidden by their mothers, lie motionless in the underbrush.
In the autumn, when the birches blaze orange and red, school children come through the gate with their notepads and crayons. Their voices ring in the air, high and eager. As I watch, they copy the writings on the granite slabs that mark the graves. They scream and run when they think they see ghosts. I recognize the fear in their eyes. And I remember.
In late October snow begins to fall. For a few months the graveyard is draped in white. A fir shakes, as a solitary moose pushes out of the forest, snow stippling his tufted winter coat. He stops and turns his head in the direction he came from, his nostrils quivering, as if something back there still holds his attention. His dark antlers catch the light, and he trots down into the meadow, whirling up a cloud of powdery snow.
The grave is marked by an iron cross, the letters raised and covered with gold. "Ingrid, 1918." She was not long on this earth and yet she suffered more than any human should. I failed to protect her once. I cannot leave her now.
Fredrik, the child's father, is buried next to her. They carried out his wishes, even though the soil was much too shallow and the rock underneath made the coffin tilt. This morning some animal, most likely a badger, had dug ruts around his stone. I have heard about badgers burrowing under graves and bringing up bones. As far as I am concerned, they may as well finish their task. I did not want him buried here.
THIS SUMMER AFTERNOON I sit outside Gustafa's cabin. I still call it that, even though Gustafa died in 1936, and I moved in two years later. Now, in 1974, I am a woman in my early eighties, by all appearances content. I live in Hult, a village hidden in the forests of southwest Sweden. I grow my own potatoes, carrots, radishes, and strawberries. Johan sends up his farmhand to mow. He says he will install an indoor toilet. I have not told him, but I shall miss the old outhouse and the thump of acorns landing on the tin roof.
Across from a field of tawny wheat, I can see Ramm, the farm that Johan bought from my brother. My mother's cherry tree is gone. There are still a few fruit trees, even some flowerbeds, but Johan's wife has only so much time, and other chores are more pressing. When Ulrika, my mother, was still alive, the garden was lush. White and purple lilacs glowed among the pear and apple trees. Raked gravel paths, lined with larkspur and peonies, stretched as far as you could see. Farther out, beyond the weeping willows, grew gooseberry bushes and black and red currants. Around it all ran a hedge of hawthorn, kept at bay by Elias, my father's farmhand. Whenever my father was home, a white flagpole flew a blue and yellow flag. On days when he was gone, the wind cracked the ropes against the pole in protest.
My father's real name was Grim Larsson, but everyone knew him as Rammen. He was a tall, imposing man, with a high forehead and thick, blond hair. His features were regular, with the exception of his finely drawn nose, which had shifted slightly in one of the fights of his youth — a minor imperfection, yet distinct enough to put you on your guard. Men and women used to come to Ramm to talk about matters great and small. He met with them in his office, the first door to the left, after you crossed the veranda and entered our house. Most, after being in his company, felt their egos boosted and their footsteps lighter. Others, those he did not approve of, said he could fill a whole room with his presence, pushing them out of the way by merely breathing.
He often traveled to Vänersborg, where he represented our region at the Provincial Council. The debates were known to be peaceable, although the villagers had often heard of Rammen's refusals to back down when it came to protecting the interests of his region. For this they praised him, particularly after they learned that members of the Provincial Council received no salary. Some complained that their taxes still paid for his train tickets and his hotel, but almost all agreed that he should travel first class and put up in style.
As a child, I used to tiptoe down the stairs at dawn and join my parents in their bed. The sheets would be twisted and sometimes damp. Ulrika's flowers were on the bedside table, lilies of the valley in the early spring, cornflowers and bluebells in the summer. Rammen would hoist me high into the air, but his gaze would follow Ulrika as she dressed and sat by her desk, checking the records for her henhouse. When Ulrika left for the kitchen, I would lie on the still unmade bed and watch Rammen shave.
After stropping his razor, he would walk over to the dresser, take down his gold watch from its nail, and wind it. As he paced and practiced his speeches, every sentence seemed to resonate with his concern for the village and the country. Yet, with the intuition of a child, I sensed that something was wrong. The years to come would prove me right. Rammen, who was supposed to provide for us all, had failed to provide for himself.CHAPTER 2
I WAS TWENTY-TWO years old when I first saw Fredrik. It was late 1913, the land frozen under the snow. A tramp came before him, as if to prepare the ground.
That morning, when I came down to the kitchen, the tramp sat on a chair just inside the door, his red hair knotted and parched. None of the tramps advanced any farther, which was as much in consideration of them as it was of us. We knew our place in those days, and that applied to high as well as low.
I joined Rammen at the round kitchen table. He was watching Ulrika, who stirred a pot on the cast-iron stove. I watched her too. Even on mornings like that, when all appeared to be well, we kept an eye on Ulrika.
Ulrika brought the tramp a bowl of steaming porridge, sprinkled with cinnamon and thick enough to stand a spoon. Rammen's wool coat, a gift to the tramp from Ulrika, lay folded on the floor. The tramp would leave his old one behind for Elias to burn.
Ulrika opened the grate and added more wood to the stove. When she made no sign of serving Rammen and me, I brought us some porridge myself. I did not want the tramp to notice that Ulrika paid less attention to her husband and her daughter than she did to a vagabond.
The tramp's bowl was already empty. "Best porridge in the parish," he said, his beard grizzled and his face blotchy from the cold.
Gustafa, our servant, walked in with a bucket of potatoes. She glared at the tramp, her thin hair pulled back so hard that the skin stretched at her temples. Poverty to her was a disease. You never knew when you might catch it.
"Seen any saw sharpeners?" she asked, her voice as haughty as that of a judge interrogating a common thief. We all knew why she asked. Again and again the newspaper wrote about Russian spies, who had been spotted all over Sweden, offering to sharpen saws and other tools, although secretly they spent their time peering through binoculars and drawing maps.
"Not hereabouts," the tramp said. "Saw one on the coast. Wasn't sharpening any saws when they caught him. Last I heard —"
"Hush, hush," Gustafa said, holding the bucket in front of her as a shield. "No need to go on and on. Bad luck it brings. Before we know it, the real Russians will come through, shooting people and animals both. They make no distinction, no distinction at all."
Gustafa was not the only one who expected to hear cannons any day. In sermon after sermon the vicar warned us of the coming war. Russian soldiers would slaughter our cattle and steal our horses. Should we demand payment, they would beat us with their rifle butts. When at long last they moved on, the land would be scorched and no cocks would crow. All that was left would be the stench of corpses and the flapping of wings as the ravens came to feed.
Ulrika ladled more porridge into the tramp's bowl, her olive skin flushed in the light from the stove.
Rammen conversed with the tramp, the way he would with any other guest. "Where are you heading?" The question seemed innocent enough but the tramp must have known its implications. Tramps might be well looked after but they were always expected to move on.
"Heading north," the tramp said. "Unless the road takes me south."
Rammen frowned and pulled out his gold pocket watch. Most tramps would do their utmost not to offend. They were remnants of their former selves, or so they would say, claiming that their lives had turned bad through no fault of their own. This man was different. Apparently he saw no reason to explain himself. Even as he appealed to our pity, he scarcely concealed his contempt.
"Have you ever been lost?" I asked, trying to strike as light a tone as I could.
The bucket banged as Gustafa stood it in the sink. "This man needs to leave. For all we know he may be Russian too."
"Lost?" the tramp repeated, eyes wary under bushy brows.
"Have you ever looked around and wondered where you were?"
"Ah," he said. "Can't say I have. One step leads to the next. It's an odd kind of freedom but it's the only kind I've got."
The tramp rose, fresh straw escaping from his boots. Gustafa wiped the seat of his chair and tried to shoo him out the door. Baring a row of strong, yellow teeth, he crouched and curled his upper lip. When he lunged, Gustafa screeched like a rabbit swooped up by a hawk.
The tramp turned to Ulrika and bowed. "Won't keep you good people from church."
"So much to talk about," Ulrika said, in her soft, melodious voice, "but now is not the time."
Rammen's old coat was too long, and the tramp had to tie a rope around his waist to hoist it up. Pressing a tattered hat on top of his straggling lichen hair, he studied me rather too closely, at least for his own good. Tramps had been run out of villages for less.
"Dance and laugh," he said. "We all reach our destination whether we aim for it or not."
"Godspeed," Rammen said and put away his watch.
We could see him through the window, the bulk of him descending the kitchen steps. Up toward Gustafa's cabin he carved a sign in one of the fence posts telling other tramps that the people of Ramm would treat them well, and all dogs were chained.
We saw them often in those days, a ragtag succession of lonely men. This was a new kind of poverty, not brought on by crop failures but by markets and trade. More and more people were on the move, mainly from the countryside to the cities, where the factories swallowed them up. Most tramps walked with a determined step, the goal well in sight. They stayed on the highway, only stealing into the forest when someone approached. This man would surely walk with no particular goal in mind, carrying his pots and his knife. Whether begging for shelter or for bread, he never apologized or cringed. Nor would he cross the road when he saw us come, much less hide among the trees. There was always the threat of the quarry, forced labor that would break a man's spirits as well as his back, and yet the pull of the road was stronger. People would taunt him and throw stones, but he was too proud to swat at flies, and so he would laugh in their faces and walk away. Even then, as I watched him disappear across the field, his feet moved as in a dance.
His words took root. I thought I could find my own way, but all the while error crept in, and before it was over, a child had to die ...
LONG AFTER THE door closed behind the tramp, Gustafa kept rocking and crying.
Ulrika put her arm around her shoulders. "Today, Gustafa, you sit with me."
A short while later my sister Disa joined us, all bundled up against the cold. My three brothers, who had been out doing chores, had already left for the morning service. It was only then that we missed Ulrika.
I found her at the upstairs window, where she often sat looking toward Brunnsdal, the large farm where she grew up. After I managed to coax her downstairs, I waited in the hallway while she changed. When she finally came out, she wore a purple jacket, as tight a bodice as the riding habits of her youth, when her figure, always sumptuous, was still firm. A green pheasant feather swayed from her hat, large gold rings dangled from the tips of her ears, and her long black skirt was hemmed with a new strip of fur. All the other women, except Mrs. Holmberg, the mill owner's wife, would wear shawls instead of hats, and not even Mrs. Holmberg would wear anything but black.
"They're much too thin for the snow," Disa said to Rammen as soon as she caught sight of Ulrika's calfskin boots.
Rammen shook his head. "Best leave well enough alone."
"At least they're black," Disa said, always wanting the last word.
Gustafa waited outside, clutching her book of hymns, her many underskirts layered wide over her hips.
Again Disa looked to Rammen to intervene.
Rammen grinned. "A promise is a promise. She'll sit with us."
Ulrika reached for Rammen's arm, and we started down the hill. Ulrika's foot slid forward on a patch of ice but Rammen grasped her with his other hand, and she held on.
As sharp as it was, the sun lacked warmth. Below us the frozen river curved and shone. Red farms hibernated under the snow, the animals penned up in dimly lit barns. Craggy mountains reared in the distance, and a blue sky vaulted boldly over everything, as it did in the domes of glass that Holmberg sold in his store. Shake them, and snow would fall over animals and people, and we all admired the spectacle, or at least pretended to, for that miniature world might well be our own, sealed off and at the mercy of a giant hand.
Horses stood tied along the road that led to the yellow-brick church. Most were of mixed and uncertain origin, their coats shaggy, their heads too large. A few were Ardenners, a Belgian breed of draft horses, which, as Rammen liked to point out, had once been used to move Napoleon's troops. They stood immobile as we passed, their fetlocks weighed down by ice, their lashes rimmed with frost, our reflections but shadows in their faraway eyes.
The church was octagonal with a tall central tower and turrets and spires to the sides. Lars, my grandfather, had been against it from the start, his resistance strong enough to delay its construction for years. The only church where he would ever worship was the old one across the road, the one with the wooden Christ.
As we approached, my brother Björn was playing the organ, the same hymn over and over. Later I learned that only Karolina, the schoolmistress, had kept singing. After three or four repetitions even she had given up.
"No need to apologize," Rammen said as we readied ourselves to enter the church. "Remember who we are."
Rammen, Ulrika still on his arm, led us up the aisle. Björn stopped playing. On the men's side someone spat and worked the saliva into the floor planks with his clog.
Gustafa strained as if bracing herself against a forceful wind. Her usual seat was with the other servants up in the gallery, and we all expected Klas, the church caretaker, to stop her. He stood down by the door, holding a long stick, which he used to wake up those who fell asleep during the service. Disa, next to Gustafa, walked with a stiff, measured gait. She appeared to be looking straight ahead, but with her bad eye you could never really tell.
Rammen took his time, his wolf-skin coat brushing the floor. There was always a kind of recklessness about Rammen, not that he would knowingly endanger others, or at least I did not think so, but he always seemed in favor of endangering himself, and as a consequence his entire household was sometimes at risk.
As we reached the pews of the farmers, Henrik Wikander, the parish vicar, watched us through the hole in the vestry wall. He was a follower of Schartau, an orthodox Lutheran, who said we could never do enough to be worthy before God. The delay would set him back. He had three more churches to preach in that day. To reach them he had to travel on bad country roads, his only company being his horse and his thoughts, none of which would offer relief, for he had received his message directly from God, and it was not in his power to change it.
Rammen opened the gate to his pew in front of the other farmers. He nodded to Holmberg, who returned his nod, the two of them friendly enough, although it was no secret that they clashed at the parish council. Shifting a wad of tobacco to his other cheek, Rammen sat down next to my brothers, Wilhelm and Johannes. Knees wide apart, he began to remove his gloves, one finger at a time. From the gallery came the scrunch of paper as maids and farmhands craned their necks and passed bags of sugar candy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fylgia"
Copyright © 2018 Birgitta Hjalmarson.
Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLC.
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