They whisper about her in Chicago. Men come to her with their hopes, their dreamstheir fortunes. But no one sees them leave. No one sees them at all after they come to call on the Widow of La Porte.
The good people of Indiana may have their suspicions, but if those fools knew what she'd given up, what was taken from her, how she'd suffered, surely they'd understand. Belle Gunness learned a long time ago that a woman has to make her own way in this world. That's all it is. A bloody means to an end. A glorious enterprise meant to raise her from the bleak, colorless drudgery of her childhood to the life she deserves. After all, vermin always survive.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||9.10(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.70(d)|
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Selbu, Norway, 1877
The smell of meat drove me out of the storehouse to rest against the timbered wall. My head was spinning and I felt sick. It had happened often lately.
"You should be careful, Little Brynhild." Gurine came outside as well, climbing slowly down the stone steps while wiping her hands on her apron. She was chewing on something: a piece of mutton. The old woman had become scrawny over the winter; age had sucked all the fat away, leaving her a bony frame and wisps of white-gray hair. She followed my gaze across the farmyard to the six men who stood by the barn. It was a cold but sunny morning in May; the birches in the yard were budding and the horses grazed in the pasture. One of the men, a farmhand called Ivar, told a story while gesturing wildly with his hands. All the others laughed. They were far enough away that we could not hear what he said, but we could certainly hear the laughter: hard peals of mirth hauled through the air. For a moment, I thought they were looking at me, but if they did, their gazes shifted away before I could be certain.
"They are not to be trusted, the young ones," said Gurine. "Like bucks in heat, the lot of them." She spat gray gristle down on the grass.
"He can't deny me forever," I said, although I was not so sure about that. I could not make myself stop looking at him, standing there laughing with his head thrown back. His dark, thick hair curled out from under his knitted cap, he looked healthy and strong, and his cheeks blushed red in the chill morning air. His hands were buried deep in his pockets. I knew those hands well, could feel the ghost of them on my skin even as I spoke. "I can make him do it, even if he says no." Even if things had changed between us, I still held out hope that I would know those hands once more. I found it hard to believe that all was lost.
"You put too much trust in the priest, Little Brynhild. He was never a friend to women like us," Gurine said.
"Women like us?" I glanced at her.
"Women with nothing to their names."
"Well, he doesn't much like sinners either. I will talk to the priest about Anders. If the priest says he must, he will." I lifted my chin just a little.
"Oh, Little Brynhild." The old woman shook her head. "I don't think it will be that easy . . . Anders has a farm to his name, and money too. Who do you think the priest will believe?"
My hand fluttered to my belly, caressing it through the worn fabric of my apron. "I have the child as proof."
Gurine clucked with her tongue. "You could have gotten that child anywhere."
I nodded. Anders had said that as well when I went to his room and told him what had happened. He laughed even, as if I should have known better than to come to him with my plight. "I haven't been with anyone else," I told Gurine, although she already knew that. We shared work and a bed at the farm six days a week, and it had become too hard to lie about the changes in me. We often toiled alone in the kitchen, stirring porridge and carving meat, so it was better that she knew in case I became faint. The fumes from the food did not agree with me since the child took hold. I was often tired and sick. The price I paid for my candidness was Gurine's constant warnings and a quiet offer to solve my problem with a knitting needle. She had seen this before, she said. It never ended well for the girl.
I did not believe that to be true, though. I would make him do what was right, even if I had to force him. It was the two of us together, after all, who had caused this to happen in the first place. I had not been alone in the barn after dark, deep in the musty hay. He had been there too, and I said as much to Gurine, who had sunk down on a stone slab that served as a step to the storehouse.
"Oh, but the world doesn't work like that," she said as another peal of laughter rose from the group of men by the barn. "You know it doesn't, Little Brynhild. If he were a lesser man he might do you right, but that one"-she nodded in the barn's direction-"he is heir to all of this and won't bother with a girl like you." She paused to spit gristle down in the grass. "If you are lucky, he will slip you some money or set you up with a tenant, but I don't think he'll do even that." Her face took on a thoughtful expression. "He is spoiled, that one . . . he won't care."
I could tell that she felt sorry for me, and that hurt more than any words. I never did well with pity.
"Hansteen will set it right," I insisted as a pounding at my temples warned me that a headache was coming on.
"The priest won't lift a finger." Gurine squinted up at me as I stood there beside her, wringing the gray, worn apron between my clammy hands. I hated how sure she sounded. I hated that she might be right. Cold sweat broke out all over my body and my heart raced when I thought that I might not get my way. This was a long way from the giddiness I had felt when I first caught his eyes after Christmas. I had thought it all so easy then. I had thought it was the beginning of something. I always believed I could do better than porridge and toil, that my hard work and diligence would earn me a reward. And for a while, I had thought that he might come to care for me, and that one day, I would cross the yard in front of me not as a maid in threadbare shoes but as the mistress of it all-and him.
I never told Gurine about those hopes of love, but I did tell her about my plan to force him. I confided in her the same night that I knocked on Anders's door and found him drunk in his room. I had prepared every word I was to say to him. I had meant for him to feel remorseful of how our time together had left me in such trouble.
"How do you know it's mine?" he asked instead, sitting on the lip of his red pullout bed. His eyes were glassy from drinking. "I'm not the first man you have tricked into the barn."
"But you are," I protested. "There hasn't been anyone else."
"No?" He emptied the tin cup in his hand. "That's not what they say."
I felt confused. Who were they and what did they say? "Well, they lie. There never was anyone else."
He shrugged. The light from the candle he kept on the table chased shadows across his handsome face, and on the timbered walls. "I don't see what you want from me." His gaze met mine across the small room; the air was stale in there, warm and musty. I could hear the crackling of fire coming from the small black oven in the corner. There was no warmth in his eyes, though; they were much like dark pebbles in the flickering light. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Why?" I could not believe my own ears. "Because you should do right by me. We ought to go to the priest."
The corner of his mouth lifted in a smirk. "What for, Brynhild? Why should you and I go to the priest?"
"To marry," I replied, and my voice did not quiver when I said it. It was the right thing to do, after all. He might not care for me as I hoped he would, but he had gotten me with child. Outside the window, between the plaid curtains, I could see the birch trees moving with the wind, black silhouettes against a dark blue sky. I felt like they laughed at me all of a sudden, as if they were chuckling so hard they could not stand still.
"Marry you?" Anders laughed as well. "Are you mad or slow, or as shrewd as your father? Do you really think you can trick me like that?" Anders's brow glistened when he lifted the bottle from the floor and filled his cup to the brim. "I should never have sullied my hands with the likes of you." He put down the bottle and lay back on the bed, still with the cup. I had changed that bed just the other day, beaten the pillows and smoothed down the sheets while saying a quick little prayer. Not that it seemed to do me much good.
"You are drunk," I decided, and straightened my pose. "You aren't thinking clearly. Tomorrow you will see things differently."
"Oh Brynhild." He flung his arm across his eyes and gave a little laugh; the liquor in his cup danced and escaped, landed on his shirt, and created dark stains. "Don't you see? I would never, ever marry you." He spat the last word as if it were repulsive.
"I will go if you're with me or not." I forced my voice not to quiver. "Hansteen will see to it that things are set right between us."
He removed his arm so I could see his face. Something hard had settled on his features. He did not look so handsome just then but reminded me of my father. "Are you threatening me, Brynhild?"
"I just want what's right-and I'm sure the priest will agree. He never liked a sinner." This was not how I had wanted things to go between us, but what else could I do but stand my ground? The child was there, in my belly, growing and thriving. "Surely it's God's will for us to marry now," I tried. "He wouldn't have sent me this child if it weren't."
He glanced at me. "I think it's your will that's at work here, and that has nothing to do with the Lord."
"The priest might see it differently."
He chuckled down in the bed. "Oh, you wouldn't dare."
"I would! And then the shame would be all on you."
"Oh, I think some shame would drip on you as well, and Hansteen can't make me do anything." His lips twisted up and made him look ugly. Outside the birches laughed and laughed.
"You wouldn't like it if he banned you from church-your father wouldn't be happy, that's for sure. Maybe he'd even take the farm." I tried my very best to come up with things to change his mind.
"Go!" he suddenly shouted from the bed, so loud that I was sure his parents would hear it. He had dropped the cup down in the bed, and the rest of the liquor soaked down in the hay.
It scared me, though, that outcry. Enough that I tiptoed back downstairs to the bed I shared with Gurine behind the kitchen. I crawled in under the woolen blankets, shivering from it all. Her arms came to hold me then, fragile as they were. "There, there, Little Brynhild." She made soothing sounds in the darkness. "Why is the young master shouting at you in the middle of the night?"
"It doesn't matter," I said. "I will see the priest about it."
She sighed when she realized what I meant. "So that's how it is, then?"
"It is." I stared up at the ceiling through the darkness.
"And now he won't-"
Her voice dropped to a whisper. "You know I can help you get rid of it-"
"No!" Even in my wretched state, I was not about to let this opportunity slip. "I can make him-I'm sure of it."
Gurine, however, was not so sure, and nothing I had said since could make her feel any different. She did not think I could make the marriage happen-but I could! I had to believe that I could. Hansteen liked me, and I had always been diligent at church. He would put the blame where it belonged for sure. Anders should have known better than to kiss a young maid in the barn. Hansteen would make him-and then he had to-and then I would never eat gruel again.
The men by the barn were moving now, carrying heavy tools. Anders carried an axe. They were to work on the western field today, mending fences.
"They are headed up," Gurine observed with a warning in her voice. It meant they had to pass us by and she wanted me to slip inside the storehouse. I did no such thing. I stayed put, righted my headscarf, and tilted my chin up as they drew closer: a gaggle of filthy men, hair greasy and shirts stained. I could see their muscles working as they walked toward us, how they bulged and strained under their clothes. Their lips were all drawn out in hard smiles.
"What is wrong with you, Little Brynhild?" Ivar said, mocking me. "You look like you just licked a lemon."
"What would you know about that?" I replied. "I'm sure you've never even tasted one yourself."
Ivar laughed. "They're fine enough with a little sugar, or so I've heard. You should try some of that."
Before I had time to reply, a man called Gunnar spoke. "I think she's gotten enough sugar for a while. Enough that she has started to swell." He kept his eyes on the ground in front of his feet; a smile played on his lips.
I drew my breath to reply to him when I noticed that Anders had fallen behind the others. His gaze met mine, as cold as before, but at least he approached me and that was something. "Leave us alone, Gurine," he said. The old woman got to her feet and gave me a worried glance before she shuffled across the yard with her head bent, leaving the two of us alone outside the storehouse. The men had continued up the hill, though a couple of them looked back over their shoulders. Gunnar was still smiling.
Anders let his hand with the axe drop down by his side. His brow looked slick despite the chill in the air. His eyes did not meet my gaze. "Have you come to your senses yet, Brynhild?" The axe swung slowly back and forth. "It's bad enough that everyone knows-"
"I didn't say a thing," I said quickly. I wanted to stay on his good side if I could. I wanted him to be my husband, after all.