Childhood at Murtorpet

Evening milking at Murtorpet

By Ruth Håkansson

Translated by Elizabeth Nilsson

Slowly, slowly the wick on the paraffin lamp pulls upwards. The flame that was at first yellow becomes orange and taller and darker. Then Stig shouts
 - The lamp’s smoking!
I am seven years old and sitting at the kitchen table playing. With buttons. I am caught up in my game. The buttons are people in my little fantasy world. 
   I feel slightly vexed that Stig, who is two years younger than me, was the first of us to notice that the lamp has begun smoking. What did mother say before she went out to the barn?
 - Turn down the lamp if it starts smoking and don't forget to put wood on the stove!
   I get a chair to stand on and turn down the lamp wick to the right level. Now the flame is yellow but the glass round the lamp has a murky grey color. And now the stove. Please don’t let it have gone out! Almost. I find a couple of nice pieces of wood with bark on and can soon hear crackling behind the hatch.
   It is dark outside now and cold. Snow has come, but so far only about 8 inches.
   On the workbench in the kitchen is a plate of newly gutted herring. The herring man came in the early evening and my mother bought 5 lbs from him. He was on foot, pulling the herring on a sledge behind him. It was fresh Bråvik herring that had arrived on the railway at Hjortkvarn today. He didn’t have very much left when e came to us, but then he said he had already walked nine miles. I love fried herring. My mother has promised me four.
   We hear someone stamping the snow from their shoes on the veranda. Someone is coming in. Is Gösta back already?  He took the bicycle and went to Djursnäs to fetch the post. It isn’t so easy to cycle now there is snow, but Gösta is big, fifteen years old now, so he can do it. We don’t fetch the post very often. There will be a celebration this evening when there are newspapers to read. The local newspaper Nerikes-Tidningen and the weekly issue of the Mission newsletter.
   There is a knock on the kitchen door.
 - Come in!
 - Good evening! Are your mother and father at home?
 - They’re in the barn. We stare wide-eyed at the man in the doorway. From his clothes, his bundle and his bearded face we understand that he is a tramp. We are used to tramps, used to our mother giving them food. We aren't afraid.
   He goes out again. We press our noses to the windowpane to see where he goes. He goes to the barn.
   I lift the bowl covering the herring and think that we will probably have an extra person at the table tonight. Will there be enough for me to have my four herrings?
   Mother comes in first. She takes a ladle of water and pours it into the basin and washes her hands. I hear the sound of the ladle scraping against the bottom of the bucket when she takes the water. Please let there be enough water for cooking, I think. Oh, of course, there is water in the other bucket.
 - Move those out of the way! She says nodding at my buttons. She dries her hands carefully on the sackcloth towel. She uses the hook to lift the rings from the stove. The flames glow orange-red and lick hungrily at the bottom of the large potato pot when she puts it on the fire.
   I start putting plates on the table.
 - Put out an extra one! Says mother. I take the cutlery out of the drawer in the kitchen table. Forks and knives with broad blades and black handles. They are shiny now. Mother polished then with Röda Björn for the threshing last week.
   Birgit clatters when she comes in. She has a cylinder of milk in one hand and used milk churns in the other.
 - There is a tramp here. Did you know that children? She takes off her head cloth and the thick brown plaits fall down around her shoulders. Her hair has never been cut in her entire seventeen-year old life.
   The separator hums monotonously while she stands leaning slightly forwards, turning the handle. The skimmed milk comes out of one pipe in a wide, gushing stream and the cream comes out of the other in a narrow jet. Mother pours out some cream to go with the herring. The rest is saved to make butter that she will sell at the shop in Regna.
   Birgit goes out to give the calves the newly separated milk. There is a rush of cold air as she goes. The herring sizzles in the frying pan.
   Gösta arrives with the post. He carries it carefully as though he were carrying valuables. Mother asks, Is that the usual post? He takes a newspaper to his place at the table and begins to read.
   Birgit and my father come in, followed by the stranger. He takes off his cap and holds it in his hand.
 - Come in! My mother pulls out the chair next to Gösta. He thanks her quietly and lays his bundle and cap on the floor by the door. Takes off his tattered overcoat and goes to the table.
   It feels crowded when everyone sits down. Piles of potato peel grow up around the plates. Like wreaths on the worn wax cloth. Birgit peels Stig’s potatoes. I can do my own. There is plenty of herring and I can have my four if I want, but I only manage to eat three.
   The family chats but the stranger is silent. He sits and looks down at his plate as he eats.
 - Help yourself! Mother offers him more food. He has a good appetite. It looks as though he is worried about something. Has he understood my father’s thoughts about people who don’t want to work? Then he asks
 - Is it possible to spend the night here. In the barn?
My mother and father look at each other. In the only room upstairs, a small bedchamber, five people sleep. Gösta sleeps in the kitchen. The room next to the kitchen is saved for best and called the parlor. It is only used on feast days and when we have guests. It is always locked. My mother has charge of the key. It is large and leaves a wide opening after it, like an empty figure of eight. At the moment it is cold and unheated.
 - It’s not possible, says my father. We have no room in here and the barn will be too cold tonight, so it would be better to move on to the next place. My mother obviously thinks the same. She is thinking about the lice that these travelers usually spread in the homes they stay at. The stranger lowers his eyes and remains silent. Father looks like he is thinking.
 - There is the stable, of course. The empty stall there, he says. If I put in plenty of hay. The stranger brightens up, thanks him quietly.
 - But there is one condition, says my father. Matches must be left here! Father’s pale-blue eyes are strict. The man’s hand goes to his pocket. A box of matches is placed on the table.
   Birgit and my mother do the dishes. The three men read newspapers. The potato peel is put into the bucket for the pigs.
   The milk churns have to be washed up. The separator has to be washed up. Birgit has to fetch water.
 - Come with me and hold the light! She says to me. The Fenix lantern stands in the hall. It is turned down and gives off a faint light. We go to the spring at the edge of the field, follow the road down the hill. It is fun going out with Birgit. I skip along and swing the lamp around.
 - Walk properly so you don’t fall and destroy the lamp, she says. I look at it, at the glass with the interesting lattice round it. No, it mustn’t be destroyed.
   Two men from  Djursnäs have cleared the hedges along the road here today. The junipers stand to attention like soldiers as we pass.
   I climb up in the kitchen sofa when we come in. Sit so I can see the tramp’s pile of clothing by the door. I pretend that he is a very rich man. That he is a baron and lives in a castle. The bundle is made of silk and holds treasures that he will share out. We will become rich and father will buy that farm he has been talking about for years. It will have large rooms and Birgit and I will have a bed each.
   My father gets up from the table. He is going to do the final chores of the day in the barn. The stranger takes up his bundle, says goodnight and goes out after him.
   My mother reads the Mission newsletter.
   The baron with the silk bundle has gone.



Prayer meeting at Djursnäs
It is evening. The clock strikes seven when father locks the front door and we are ready to go. There is going to be a prayer meeting at Djursnäs, our closest neighboring farm in the direction of Bo. Around two miles. We have plenty of time. The meeting begins at eight. But when you have young ones with you it takes time. They can’t go so fast. Young ones means Stig and me. Stig is six years old and I am eight. Our brother Gösta is sixteen and our sister Birgit is eighteen.
   The crescent moon is shining. It looks like a large, bright yellow comma. The moonlight and the white snow give the evening a semi-twilight feeling.
   I can see the dried-up furrow where the stream rippled eagerly last spring and Gösta made a waterwheel that spun so quickly in the water flow that you couldn’t see the vanes. We walk past the raspberry bushes where my mother picked raspberries last summer.
   The forest becomes denser. Large pine trees. All of the forests in the parish belong to Bo entailed estate and all of the farms and crofter’s cottages are leased through the estate.
   We are filled with tremendous expectations of the evening’s major event, the prayer meeting, as we walk along. I can’t feel the thick, home-knitted socks prickling the backs of my knees. The wool for them comes from our sheep. My mother has sheared the wool and died it black with  Härvans Hemfärg and the drips from them looked like ink when they hung on the washing line. I also have new boots that my father bought in Vingåker. The old ones pinched my toes. Stig has them now.
   The whole family stops at Hallin’s road. Have the Hallins set off yet? Gösta peers after footprints in the half-dark and wishes he had something to light the way with. We listen. Yes, we can hear footsteps and voices. They are coming along the road, which is a narrow crack in the woods. We wait for them. We see Oskar and two of his sons, Holger and Sven.
   I know Oskar quite well. My father usually fetches him if there is anything wrong with the animals. When cows that are calving face a breach delivery. Then my mother heats up water, pours it into a basin and takes it along with soap and a towel to the barn. Oskar rolls up his shirtsleeves all the way to his shoulders and carefully washes the white, muscular arm that he is to use to turn the calf around. Then the calving goes well and Oskar is given coffee. Father pays him for his help; it costs fifty öre.
   My mother wonders why Hanna isn’t with them. Usually the whole family goes when there is a prayer meeting. Aha, she wasn’t feeling well.
   The Viking family joins us at the next forest path. The whole family. Then we are almost there.
   On the veranda at Djursnäs is a Fenix lantern that gives off a weak yellow gleam. The birch broom leans against the railing of the porch. We take turns brushing the snow off our shoes.
   In the hallway there hangs a paraffin lamp from the ceiling. The kitchen door is open. I don’t recognize anyone in the kitchen this evening. The table is gone. Trestles and planks of wood have been put there instead to make benches to sit on.
   The wood stove crackles. The preacher is busy picking up songbooks from a small table in the door opening into the room next door. Some people who have taken off their outdoor clothes are sitting in there. Someone is tuning a couple of guitars. All of the other people keep their outdoor clothes on.
   We sit down on one of the benches in middle, except for Birgit and Gösta who sit at the far end with the other young people. When we are in the mission-house with an aisle down the middle there is a men’s side and a women’s side. I sit with mother on the women’s side there. At the prayer meeting it is different, you can all sit together.
   There aren’t many seats left when the meeting begins. The preacher proposes a song number. It is the song: There is a gate that stands ajar. Mother takes out her songbook from her coat pocket. She has put a bookmark in it. She knew in advance which song would be sung first tonight. The meetings at Djursnäs always begin with: There is a gate that stands ajar. The singers in the room next door sing a song. There are five of them. Two are the daughters of the gardener at Bo. They have blonde, waved hair. Cut short at the back with waves at the sides. It is very pretty. Some people say it is sinful.  Anna-Lisa from Slätmo has dark hair. She wears it up like my big sister does. Two plaits that lie from ear to ear. Nisse and Gustav have powerful singing voices. Nisse looks happy when he sings. His mouth is open wide as though the happiness comes from inside and wants to spread out. It is the gardener’s daughters who play the guitar..
   The preacher is dressed in a dark jacket and dark trousers with narrow pale stripes. He has dark hair and a low, deep bass voice. He preaches on the text in the Book of Revelations which is about the beast. I listen at the beginning. It is exciting with the number of the beast, the figures 666.
   I sit and look around. At the dark-blue shades which are drawn down to the windowsills. The white curtain with a lace edge at the bottom. Gunhild usually puts the post up between the curtain rail and the ceiling. She puts it so high up so that the children won’t destroy it. It is the Hallins’, the Vikings’ and our post that her schoolchildren take with them from the post station at Bo.
   Andersson has stopped speaking. There is a song and the collection. My mother gives me a ten-öre coin to put in.
   The young people are the first to stand up when the meeting is over. They are in a hurry to get out. Want to stand in a group at the edge of the road.
   The families greet each other. Ask how they are. Take note of each other. New coat, galoshes with leather trim. Care about each other. You can borrow my horse tomorrow. So you can transport the timber to the road.
   Everyone goes home except the young people who remain standing in a group. Stig holds my mother’s hand. He is tired and whines. His socks are prickling his knees and he wants new boots like mine.
   My father and Oskar Hallin walk together talking. The preacher has aroused thoughts about the beast that will come at the end of the world.
 - There are so many new things on the go, so we could be there now. At the end of the world. Look at the newly-formed butchers’ association and the tin badge you put in the ears of the animals to be slaughtered. They have numbers on them and who knows. I hear that father says
 - Hm, hm, like he usually does when he is doubtful. He says to mother when we get home
 - One needs to be careful with new things.