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It was a day in the early 70s when Sara Sabina Lans, thesoldier's missus, made her way to Isaksson's generalstore and inn to sell cumin. It was a Sormland Septemberafternoon when she left. The sun was already so low that itreflected off the bits of broken mirror they kept in thecowshed window to ward off the evil eye. The lovage by thecottage door was past its prime and no longer smelt so foul.The trees had turned, except for the big birch under whichthe croft huddled. It seldom lost a leaf before All Hallow'sEve, because a white adder lived under its roots.
The soldier's wife was crossing the big marsh betweenAppleton and Goatwood, leaping from stone to stone witha pillow-slip of newly threshed cumin in her arms. Behindher was Frans, who died of a sore throat the winter afterthat uncommonly late, mild autumn. Edla came skippingalong behind.
It was a clear sunny day, but there was a cold breezeunder the alders in the marsh, and from the bright blackholes rose a sour smell of stagnant water. It gave Fransgoose-flesh to look about, but looking straight ahead waseven worse, since his mother had hiked up her skirts andtucked them into her apron hand. When she jumped, hecould see all the way up her skinny, gnarled legs to herthighs. They were pale as death and covered all over with atwisted net of blue veins. Edla brought up the rear, her shortlegs making it hard work getting from stone to stone.
This was the short way to the train station, next to whichIsaksson from Backe had moved with his wife, his shophand,and two housemaids just after the inauguration of therailway. He planned to move his entire business from theoldcourthouse square, and already had twelve coach horses inthe stable. The iron rails had been in place for several years,all the way from Stockholm to Gothenburg, without gettingstolen. The fifth anniversary of the inauguration was not faroff. The inauguration had been an occasion of banners andblaring horns, of smiling, stiff-legged royalty stepping downfrom railway coaches. And it had not, after all, provenimpossible to accustom slothful Swedish workers to theattentiveness required of those who serve the railway, or atleast not completely impossible. At this very train station,which had been graced by eleven minutes of the royalpresence for the inauguration, and which was 123 kilometresfrom Stockholm and 27 meters above sea level, stood OskarEdvin Johansson, the pumpman, sometimes as much as aquarter of an hour before the train was due to arrive, withhis cap pulled on and every button on his uniform jacketdone up, with the water cistern full and the oil cansreflecting in the pale early autumn sun.
The station was built on the soft ground between tworeedy lakes. The landscape was flat and the trees that didpull up out of the waterlogged soil strained for survival. Elksthrived here. There were three farms in the surroundingarea: Mothstead, on ninety-year lease from the estate,Goatwood and Tramphut.
Three wagons stood outside Isaksson's inn and generalstore, a gig and two open carts, one of which was loadedwith sacks of rye. Two farmers and one landowner's sonwere inside, conversing languidly. This young fellow had notleft his whip in the sheath by the coachman's seat, but hadbrought it in with him. He was flicking the thong idly overthe treacle barrel, where a couple of flies were buzzing. Hewas the first to notice Sara Sabina Lans come out of thebrushwood at the edge of the marsh. He said, 'Well if it isn'tthat stingy disgusting old bat of a soldier's woman!' Hewould have spit had he not been too far from the spittoonto chance it. He stood there, legs astride but uncomfortablein this company, toying with his whip.
'I wouldn't say stingy,' said the farmer from Mothstead,who was nearest the window, staring at the woman as sheemerged from the marsh and approached the store, a stripedpillow-slip held tightly to her chest and two youngsters ather heels. 'She doesn't exactly have much to be stingy with.'
'No, but once she gets hold of something,' said AbrahamKrona, 'she's like a vixen. Nothing can make her let go.'
They all laughed.
Outside, Edla was following her mother and Frans, sweatdripping down her back. Now their mother moved out ofsight of the store. She wasn't withdrawing discreetly tochange into clean shoes like ordinary folks did, since sheonly owned the one pair. She wiped her children's noses andchanged her shawl.
At that very moment, the train approached, and Edlathought the end was nigh, that death was approaching,rolling down a mountain top. She had never been along tothe station before. Now she screamed as loud as the whistle,and her mother had to hold onto her with one hand andslap her with the other. Frans, too, blanched slightly, but assoon as the first piercing din had passed, he started laughing.There were a lot more sounds before it all settled into short,regular puffing. The thought crossed Edla's mind that itsounded like a giant sitting straining in his privy, and shecaught her breath, hiccoughing.
The train was in. A gate creaked open and a young manin a dark blue uniform with a gold-braided cap bearing theinsignia of the winged wheel lifted two rucksacks downbefore he disembarked. He looked around at the flat,swampy landscape. The shiny rails vanished into a dull, lowforest of pine and birch. He saluted hesitantly, and hisgreeting was answered from the far end of the platform bythe stationmaster, who advanced towards him, realizing thatit must be the new booking clerk who had just arrived.
Gustav Adolf Cederfalk, railway booking clerk byprofession and Baron by birth, regarded the station. It wasyellow, and one gable was covered in honeysuckle that hadalready gone brown. He glimpsed a head of shiny black hair,parted in the middle, in a window. This was thestationmaster's wife. In a few moments, when her husbandhad let the train go, she would let out the cat. The sky wasSeptember blue when Cederfalk looked up. Twenty-sevenmeters above sea level. 'Not much,' he thought, giving thehand of his new supervisor a firm shake.
While waiting for the stationmaster to raise the signal flagfor the locomotive, he walked once around the station. Thatdark head of hair moved with him, from window towindow, all the way round. Behind the building, the odourof coke and lubricant vanished. On that side was the potholedyard and farmer Goatwood's cows, who came all theway up to the gate to inspect him. There was the innkeeper'shouse with the three traps outside, and the horses with thereins around their front legs standing by the boom. Thehorse from Old Mothstead had a feed-bag. For a fewminutes the cool September air was so silent that Cederfalkcould hear the oats crunching between the horse's teeth.Three big men came out on the stoop of the inn, to spit outtheir snuff and have a look. It was a tight squeeze, and theinnkeeper hovered behind them in the doorway. In a lilachedge near the inn, a drab old woman stood wiping a kid'snose with her sleeve. There was a second one holding herskirt-tails, staring at the departing train, snivelling loudly.Cederfalk turned around and walked back to the station. Themen on the stoop were done spitting, and Sara Sabina Lansfollowed them inside. She opened her pillow-slip, displayedthe cumin, and asked for salt, soda, coffee, and Brazil woodin exchange.
They say that contentment is a true treasure wherepoverty and want are constant guests, but soldier Lans' wifedid not possess that virtue. On the contrary, she wasinfamous for her importunity and her greed. Isakssongestured dismissively, explaining that she was beingunreasonable. Still, the old woman persisted, and the threemen began looking for seats amongst the barrels and kegs,sensing that they were in for a performance. Sara Sabinatended to spout off when someone annoyed her, and knewwhole litanies of crude words.
This time, however, she kept her temper, asking him toweigh the cumin so they could agree on how much coffee,salt and soda he would give her in exchange. He owed herthe Brazil wood, too, because he had cheated her last time.When she had opened it up to dye the warp for a rag rug,she thought it felt light, and had taken it to the steelyard toget it weighed. Quite right, too. It had been a pound and ahalf short.
Isaksson explained what happened to Brazil wood. Whenit had been removed from the keg, it dried out and weighedless. The only way to know how much it had weighed whensold was to soak it, mix it with fresh Brazil wood, squeezeout the water and weigh it again. He called in his shop boyto testify. The old woman appeared to concede, butdemanded a pound of the cheapest pillow stuffing in return,and when the boy returned, looking tarred and featheredafter having weighed out cotton gram in the storeroom, hewas sure she'd wanted revenge.
Isaksson ran the cumin through his fingers, inspecting itwith exaggerated care. He implied that there were both bugsand pebbles in it, but the old woman still didn't get riled.
'She won't give in,' said Old Mothstead with a smile, asIsaksson started weighing out the goods she requested.
'Won't give an inch,' added the landowner's son fromTramphut. Abraham Krona was standing further down by thedoor examining a tanned oxhide Isaksson had lifted downfrom the ceiling with his hook. He wanted it for shoeleather. Krona was a kind, dull fellow, Old Mothstead hisopposite.
'Is it true you won't let go of something once you've gothold of it?' he asked.
The woman kept still and looked the other way.
'Krona said so a minute ago. That you were like a vixen:"Once she's got her teeth into something, she'll never letgo," he claimed.'
Now soldier Lans' missus glared at Krona, who lookedembarrassed.
'Let's see, then,' Old Mothstead egged them on. 'Have atug of war with her over the shoe leather Krona. You can lether keep it if she can make you let go.'
'I guess I can,' said Krona, proffering the piece or leather.The old woman was so fast to get her claws into it that allfour men burst out laughing.
'Oh, no you don't,' said Old Mothstead. 'We said bite.'
She looked around the store at Isaksson and the grinningyoung man from Tramphut, at her children huddling by thetreacle barrel and at Isaksson's wife standing in the doorwayto the bar-room, watching. Then she turned towards Krona,who held the leather out in front of his huge belly, and shecrouched down and sank her teeth into the hide.
He was the stronger, of course, and started right off bypulling her around the floor, to the vast amusement of thespectators. Even Isaksson's stern wife, who rarely cracked asmile, chortled with glee, and Old Mothstead slapped histhighs and flapped his apron and danced around the couple,who moved in ever larger rings amongst the kegs. The oldwoman let out noises. She sounded as if she was growlingfrom fury and the exertion. Krona laughed and jerked thehide. More than once he pulled hard as they danced around,and the old woman rolled with the punches, but she didn'tlet go. She passed wind from running bent double, and withevery fart the young fellow from Tramphut shouted: 'Hiphip hurrah!' Edla and Frans cowered by the treacle barrel,weeping for shame.
Now Krona truly began to see what was so funny abouther not letting go. His huge hands held the oxhide firmlyand he pulled her around in such wide turns that her heelsclicked against the floor with each rapid step; all he had todo was stand there and tug.
'She'll never give in!' Old Mothstead shouted, and herteeth really did seem to be locked into the leather. Althoughshe wouldn't be able to tear it away from him, the questionwas whether Krona could make her let go. His neck wasgetting sweaty, and he was groaning from the strain ofyanking her, time and again. Now the battle entered a newphase and the spectators fell silent as Krona attempted to ripthe leather out of the woman's jaws. Each time he jerked,she just followed along, and not even when she slipped onher worn-down heels and slid right across the floor did shelet go. Krona's downfall was that Old Mothstead had beenso eager to follow the battle he happened to miss thespittoon. Krona lost his balance in the glob of wet snuff andtumbled backwards. He hit his head on a freshly-openedbarrel of cleaning soap, dropped the hide, and blacked out.
'Wouldn't you know this would end in someone's comingto grief!' cried the innkeeper's wife, making a dash for thewater scoop. Soldier Lans's old lady embraced the piece ofsoling leather and backed towards the door. But when shetried to open her mouth, her jaws had locked. Eventually shewas able to extract the leather, but her jaws remainedclamped. She vanished out the door without a trace,clutching the leather. Frans and Edla took the bags of salt,soda, and coffee and ran after her.
The 6:06 had departed, and the new booking clerk hadtaken his evening meal at stationmaster Hedberg's. TheHedbergs' daughter Malvina and the postmaster's Charlottewere walking, arms around each other's waists, westwardalong the tracks, towards the setting sun and the pine forest.However, they didn't go as far as usual, because BaronCederfalk was expected to drop in at the postmaster's, too.Charlotte's mother had told her to be home early so shewould have time to settle down and her cheeks wouldn't betoo flushed.
That evening, Sara Sabina Lans also followed the trackssince it would have been difficult to carry the big piece ofsoling leather through the marsh. She walked with Frans andEdla, who carried her bags, and they saw the golden-eyesrise and fly off in formation as the sun hung swollen, hazyand red over Lake Vallmaren. Then the rails began to rumblewith the 7:43 from Gothenburg, and they had to scurrydown off the embankment.
PerdidoMacMurray & Beck, Inc.
By Rick Collignon
Copyright © 1997 Rick Collignon.All rights reserved.