Childhood at Murtorpet

The road to school

By Ruth Håkansson

Translated by Elizabeth Nilsson

It’s Thursday morning and two days after Gösta was kicked by the horse. My green schoolbag sits comfortably on my back with my geography book nearest me and the bottle of milk and sandwich packet on the outside. I walk a way along the road between Bo and Regna towards Regna, past the alder fens which act as watering place for our cows and I see the tracks of their hooves, where they have skidded on their way down to drink.
   I soon reach Korstalltäppan. Once I asked my father where the name came from. He said he didn’t know. I like to imagine that it was two pine trees that had grown into a cross, looking roughly like an X. Korstalltäppan is a small field that belongs to Murtorpet and my father usually grows and harvests crops there.
   Before I get there I can see that there is a bit of wood lying in the road. In one of the car tracks in the middle of the curve down from the Korstalltäppan slope. I wonder if someone has lost it. Should I move it? Throw it into the woods. I bend forwards to look at it. The milk bottle gurgles in my schoolbag. My mother has said that you shouldn’t touch anything. I keep on walking. Then I see the stone. A large stone in the other car track just on the hill where you pick up greatest speed when cycling. I wouldn’t be able to move that. Probably couldn’t even lift it. I take hold of it with my hands; let my palms stroke its surface.
  I turn off down the road to Averviken. It is a nice road to drive. I walk along thinking that I must tell Gösta it was lucky he was kicked by the horse, so he didn’t go to the juniors meeting last night. It could have been really dangerous if he or Birgit had hit the stone while cycling down the fastest part of the hill.
   Every Wednesday evening my older brother and sister cycle to Börstorp mission-house for a juniors meeting. They didn’t go yesterday because Gösta had been kicked by the horse. He was kicked in the forearm. It was swollen and a gruesome purple color. He has a bandage on it now.
   There are lots of snails in the Avervika meadow. Black ones with pretty patterns. They don’t like being touched, so I just look at them. I can see five of them. I saw more just now. I run back and count them.
   Sometimes I listen towards the woods to hear any noise of moose. I am used to moose. We often see them in the fields at home. They strip the ears from the oats. They leave the empty husks hanging there. My father has soaked rags in Lysol and hung them up on sticks in the oat field. It smells very strong but doesn’t keep the moose away.
   We the youngest children who have the most time on our hands have to keep an eye out for moose and scare them off. They become scared as soon as they see us and run away with long, liquid steps. They leap over the fence and disappear into the forest. For a while - long or short.
   This year there is a fierce female moose. That is why I have to be cautious. She can't be scared away. She attacks you instead. One day last summer my father had to hide behind a hay rake out in the field. They have applied for a permit to shoot it outside of the moose-hunting season.
   Boren, Roxen, Glan, Sommen, Åsunden, Tåkern. I say to myself the names of Östergötland’s largest lakes. There are many lakes in Regna. I know the names of some of them; Björklången, Viflotten, Regnaren, Fisklösen, Ålsjön and Mörtsjön.
   I can see Avern glittering between the trees. I have reached Averviken. Ebba is already standing there, waiting for me.

- Hurry up, she calls. I run. What have you been doing? We’re late, she says.

- Counting snails. I’ve seen twenty-eight.

- Snails aren’t worth counting.

Ebba’s mother is on her way in from the barn. She is carrying a cylinder of milk in one hand. Milk that she is going to separate. In the other hand she has milk jugs to be washed up.

- Now you’d better hurry, she says and gives me a strict look.

   We go along a drover’s road through the woods to Edsudden. The red cottage lies on a hill sloping down toward the Avern. Fridolf and Alma live there.

- What’s daddyfather doing today? Fridolf usually asks when he sees us. We walk over the courtyard. There are lots of windfall apples under a tree. When we see someone we usually ask if we can have one. Today we don’t see anyone, but we take an apple each anyway. At the bottom of the hill we stop by the river to eat them. Yellow leaves bob up and down in the water among large flocks of water striders.

   There is a narrow bridge over the river, about a yard wide. There is a rail on one side of the bridge. During the spring floods the water rises higher than the bridge. Those days we have to turn back home and don’t go to school.
   We cross the river and follow the fence for a while. There's the stile. We climb over it and go through Lindenäs field. Cobwebs fasten in our faces and I find a twig on the ground and hold it in front of me to ward them off.
   The juniper bushes in this field are beautiful. They look like columns. I want to play that they are columns in a palace and that I can hide behind them. Ebba says we don’t have time to play.
   From the brow of the hill we can see both of the Lindenäs farms. Emil’s and Paul’s. They own them themselves. They aren’t tenant farms or crofter’s holdings under the large estate like almost all of the others in this part of Regna and Bo. They have their own hunting grounds. Last year during the moose-hunting season I saw four freshly-killed moose corpses hanging in the barn at Emil’s. We usually drop in at Paul's farm on the way home from school and take with us the post Sjökullen, Edsudden and Averviken. Then Paul gives us coffee. Selma gets some biscuits out of the biscuit barrel and their maid with the cheerful face jokes with us and all four of us laugh.
   At Sjökullen we are given candy by the old lady. She has a mane of white hair. Last summer she celebrated her 90th birthday and was given lots of candy. In front of the veranda is a large southernwood bush that I love to smell. A well-worn path goes past the gable of the cottage down to the lake. This is the rout Julia takes to get water. Julia is the housekeeper at Sjökullen and also looks after the animals, as Viktor is away working as a carpenter every day. She doesn’t have far to go for water. Sjökullen lies on a spit of land in the Avern.
   After the juniper bush hill we come out onto the road that goes between Regna and Kattala. It’s a small dirt road. Now we have less than a mile to go. We look to see if we can see any other schoolchildren from Lindenäs and Kattala but we don’t see anyone. We realize that we are late. We run some of the way.
   The last bit is uphill. Perhaps the name of the school comes from the hill. The school is called Rullebacka. The schoolyard is quiet. A few pale green clusters of hazelnuts lie in the dirt.

- You go first, says Ebba when we enter the school hall. I curtsey when we come through the door and look at the schoolmaster, who is sitting at his desk. He smiles the smile that means; it doesn’t matter that you’re late.

   Late in the afternoon when I come home from school, the stone and the wood have been moved from the road. At home I hear that a permit has been granted to shoot the fierce moose. Partly because schoolchildren have to go through the forest where she lives. I feel important. I am a schoolchild.
   A butcher from Svennevad who came with his cart in the morning had stopped and moved the obstacles from the road. He had told my mother and father about it and they were very concerned about the danger they had offered while they lay there.
   Before I fall asleep I think that I was the first person to see the terrible dangers on Korstalltäpp hill in the morning.

Christmas morning

The paraffin lamp with the crêpe-paper stand and cloth over the shade is the first thing I see when my mother wakes me. Christmas! It’s Christmas, I think and feel a warm happiness inside me. The same feeling I had the other day when my mother took out the red paper and decorated the lamp for Christmas. The cloth has red points that throw uneven shadows on the ceiling.
   My mother stands at the other side of the room with her back to me, helping my little brother get dressed, at the same time as she tries to change clothes herself.
 - Don’t lie there and fall asleep again, when we are going to the early Christmas service, she says to me without turning around.
   I roll out of the dent in the straw mattress and get up. It feels cold in the room and I rub the tip of my nose while I gather up my clothes and run over to the stove wall. It was warm last night when the fire had burnt down. Now it is cold and the ashes are grey and lifeless.
   Mother has got dressed in a white petticoat with embroidered edging round the bottom. When she moves, it looks as though the shadow of the edging is dancing on the floor. Mother is kind. I remember the words from the first reading book in the school, while I think of the Zeppelins I got for Christmas. The bookmarks show different types of aircraft. The chubby Zeppelins are the best.
   My little brother moans about a loose tooth. He fingers it and wants my mother to pull it out.
 - After the service, she says.
    The kitchen smells of coffee and my father is shaving. Soon he will change into a serge suit and white shirt with buttons on the front and back of the collar. My mother usually helps him with the collar buttons. His hands are too rough, he says.
   The glasses of milk on the table are for my little brother and me. My mother, father and the older children drink coffee. The treacle bread my mother baked for Christmas tastes good. It tastes of Christmas. The red crêpe paper round the plant pots on the windowsill has begun to fade at the lower edge. The bottom is almost white.  
   My father drives the surrey up to the veranda. It is dark, no snow to brighten up, but the lamp on the carriage is lit so I can see that the horse has on the Sunday harness and the green Sunday reins. Under the backseat where I sit with the older children there is a well-stuffed hay sack. The horse father has harnessed is Bläsen and he turns his head towards us when we fasten the footbags.
   It is just over four miles from Murtorpet to Bo church. Luckily it is easy driving today, father says as the wheels rattle against the frozen dirt road. The horse’s iron-shod hooves give off sparks that look like tiny red stars. The woods are dense on either side of the road and the tall branches stretch up to the heavens.
 - Everyone’s awake in the eastern farms, says father as we drive past Djursnäs, Slätmo, Trollhult and Lindhult.
    As soon as we reach the winding hill we can see the torchlight procession begin to move at Bo castle. My father urges the horse on. At the stable where he is going to put the horse, we stop and have a good view of the procession in its entire splendor from the surrey.
   People have gathered between the church and the bell-tower to see. The torch-bearers put down their torches along the cemetery wall and the scent of wood and scorched resin washes over us as we approach.
   It feels ceremonious to walk up to the church steps between the lighted candles, which glitter in black tins. The white-painted wooden walls of the church are misty grey in the morning darkness.
   Mother is the first to enter, opening the church door carefully and slowly stepping over the high threshold. My father and my big brother take off their caps.
   The church is almost full of people. I and my little brother follow my mother and big sister to the women's side. My father and big brother sit on the men's side to the right of the aisle. Right at the front are the baron and baroness in their reserved seats. I recognize them both. The baron usually comes to our house with the forester and the gamekeeper. They have business with my father regarding work in the forest. The baron usually walks around and has a look at things. It is his farm we live on. He is always beautifully dressed in puttees and breeches and a smart sport coat with a belt. My father also wears puttees and breeches sometimes. Then he looks like the baron, though his coat isn’t as smart. My mother always gets excited when the baron comes. She changes into a clean apron and adjusts her head cloth. I have seen the baroness at the Midsummer Eve celebrations in the castle gardens, when all the children are given fruit cordial.
   The bell-ringing starts. People sit and look straight ahead or at the chandeliers in the ceiling. The flames flutter slightly.
   When the organ begins playing, everyone stands up and sings the psalm: All hail to thee, o blessed morn. There is a feeling of solemnity standing there among all these people singing. The voices and the people become a warm wall of safety.
   The priest goes up the steps to the pulpit. Behind him up there is a bronze-colored sun. I wonder whether it would glisten if the real sun shone on it. Then I try to count all the candles. Four in each chandelier and three in the candlesticks on the pews. I lose count as I cannot see the ones in the side-aisles. I can hear the crackling from the fire in the heaters.
   The creaking from the organ sounds again and there is another psalm. The churchwarden comes round with the collection. I recognize him. It’s Gunnar from Djursnäs who cuts hedges and drives a snow plough.
   When we come out of the church most of the lovely torches have burnt out. Bläsen is tramping his hooves impatiently so we climb into the surrey and when father takes up the reins he says,
 - Now we’ll be crossing Lindhulta fields at good speed.