Kirsty was still fuming as Bjⱷrn led her onto the deck. How dare he? How dare Mikael judge Bjⱷrn for trying to put her more at ease when all he had done was…
She did not have time to finish the thought as the small party that Svein was greeting came into full view. She did not know what she expected Petrine to look like. But this was not it.
This was no frail elderly woman, weathered and beaten by the rough life of farming, fishing, raising three boys, and loving four men. Yes, her hair was grey…more silver than anything. But it was long, hanging halfway down her back in a feathery, layered style. Though her face showed fine lines and wrinkles, it glowed with health and beauty that came from within.
As they came closer, she saw that the woman’s still svelte figure could have graced a Paris runway or the cover of a magazine. Kirsty was tall for a woman, but this one was eye to eye with her, perhaps even an inch or two taller. And her shoulders were definitely not stooped. Her high cheekbones framed her full mouth as she smiled.
If Kirsty had been a bit intimidated by the way that her sons spoke of this woman’s strength, wisdom, and courage to manage their lifestyle and love them and their fathers, she was even more so now that she realized what a beauty their mother was. She dropped her head and bit her lower lip as she considered her own full-figured, plus-sized body covered in freckles, and topped with a head of wild ginger hair.
Then there were arms wrapping about her once more. These were not thick and brawny, though. But they were strong nonetheless as the woman drew her into an embrace. She rocked her from side to side, “Your pictures do not do you justice. You are more beautiful than we thought.”
Kirsty blushed and struggled a bit in the woman’s arms. She was not used to such displays of emotions. The most she had ever gotten from her mother was a limp sideways embrace and a quick brush on her cheek that did not even leave stains from her bright red lipstick. This woman was full of surprises. But how could Petrine possibly think she was ‘beautiful?’
Then she was being handed off to another set of burly arms. She stared up at the man. His face, too, was lined and weathered, perhaps quite a bit older than the woman even. But he also was still active, full of life and from the lines about his eyes…laughter. Olav was anything, but an ‘old’ man sat out to pasture, waiting to die. She stared, tried to place those features, remember which of the brothers claimed this man.
Then she remembered Mikael’s words…my father and mother. Yes, yes, she could see the resemblance. But so too could she see pieces of this man in Bjⱷrn and even in Svein. Once more, she was left to wonder – how did they know?
Then she was at the end of the line. A small head with light brown curls greeted her. Monica, she remembered the little girl’s name. She reached out to her, but the child jerked back as if she had been scalded. Kirsty frowned as she watched Mikael try to draw his daughter into his protective embrace. But the child pulled away from him too. And Kirsty saw the pain of that rejection in his face.
She frowned even deeper as the little girl squealed and turned her back on them all, rocking slowly back and forth as she reached out to touch the edge of the boat. She shook her head. This was all new to the child. Meeting this woman that would be her new ‘mother.’ That was what she was to be, was it not? There were still so many unanswered questions.
And Monica was one of them. She watched as Mikael bent down, tried to talk to his child, but again she pulled away from him. It was impossible to hear anything he said. Her frown deepened.
How many single mothers had she worked with over the years? Had she not seen their struggles as they fought to give their child all that he needed? Was it any different for this man? Yes, he had a family to help, but the responsibility for his daughter’s happiness still rested entirely on his shoulders.
She sighed as she watched them, father and daughter. She thought of her father. He might not have been the tenderest of men, but he had done his best. She had always been closer to him than to her mother. But then too when she had needed him, to stand up for her when she wanted to try acting rather than go to uni, when she had wanted to play football instead of taking piano lessons… Well, he had never been any better at standing up to Nancy Dickens than she was.
“Just give her some time and space,” said the kindly voice. She turned to look up at the man, who would be the child’s grandfather.
She nodded and smiled shyly, “Yes, I work with…I worked with children back home.” She caught herself quickly; that life was gone.
How important could a simple tense of verbs be? Those words had been hard to say. Like hitting the send button on emails that would change your whole future. Like drawing a line under one chapter of her life before beginning a new.
He nodded and smiled, “Yes, we know. And we are hoping that you will help us too.”
She shook her head as she tried to understand what the man was saying, but then that bubbly woman was assailing her with more questions and a seemingly endless stream of conversation about the trip, her sons, the Holding. Her mind could not comprehend half of it.
She turned slightly and looked over her shoulder as he knelt there, still trying to speak with the child, who just watched her hand run along the smooth wood. Something shifted inside of her. For the first time, she saw this man. Really saw him. Understood the pain. In his own way, he was locked inside his world…every bit as much as she was coming to fear that the beautiful little girl was in hers.
Then she shook herself, reminding herself that she was not a doctor, not qualified to diagnose anyone. She had spent so many years working with additional needs children, with autism, that she probably imagined things. Reading into ‘normal’ behavior for a shy child. Still, that little voice whispered loudly… ‘They need you.’
Kirsty felt like screaming. Surrounded by this group, this family. She found herself just sort of absorbed into the whole madness as they all seemed to talk at once. Petrine had insisted on feeding her boys before they unloaded. So, they had walked into town.
If it could be called that. If Tilbury had been a sleepy and laidback little town, then Fjorthen barely qualified as a village. A couple of dozen wooden framed houses, some on stilts as the waters came right under them, a single high street and one shop that was a store, post office and café all rolled into one.
She observed the woman that she supposed was her ‘mother-in-law.’ She still was having trouble reconciling this vivacious and stunning woman with the image that she had built in her head. From the moment that Petrine had stepped on board Njörður’s Captive, she had taken control. Kirsty smiled at the way the woman directed them all like they were an orchestra, and she the maestro.
The shop keeper smiled as they entered. She greeted them in a language that Kirsty tried to place…vaguely a mix of the French which she knew well and German of which she knew only a few words. It made her uncomfortable that she could not understand anything that they said, but the woman seemed to be delighted at whatever Svein told her.
While Svein and Petrine chatted with the woman, Olav drifted off from the group to greet a handful of older men who were playing chess as they drank coffee. They laughed loudly at something he said.
Mikael had his hands full trying to keep Monica from touching every single thing in the shop. Kirsty frowned and considered approaching them. But she had no idea where she stood in this situation…with him in particular. Would he resent her intrusion?
“What do you think?” Bjⱷrn’s voice caressed her mind as he laced his fingers through hers. “I know that it is nothing like your London, but it is home…to us anyway.”
She wanted to laugh at how sheepishly he looked at her. She shook her head, “I guess some part of me is surprised that a place like this still exists. It is lovely. Really. Like something you would see in a painting.”
He chuckled, “Don’t be deceived. We all have satellite TV and the Internet. Not even Fjorthen can escape the twenty-first century.” He nodded towards his uncle and the older men, “Even if some of them still complain about it.”
Before she could ask anything else, Petrine and Svein joined them. “We should get a table. Thea will bring the food shortly.” She smiled once more at Kirsty. “I know it is a bit to take in all at once, but we will chat later,” she said before she glided across the room to the men.
She greeted them with a smile as she placed her arm lightly over Olav’s shoulders. Her laughter seemed to rise above all the others at something one of them said. “If you are finished, Old Man, the food will be here shortly,” she directed at Olav in English. Kirsty got the feeling it was primarily for her benefit.
The man had a twinkle in his eyes as he slapped her jean-clad behind. Kirsty was more than a bit envious; her butt would never look that good in jeans. And this woman was at least sixty. As friendly as Petrine had been, she could not help feeling even more inadequate.
Olav stood and wrapped his arms about her, drawing her tightly into his embrace as he said his farewells to his friends. Kirsty frowned as she saw the looks that the couple got once they had turned their backs on the group. Lust. Envy. Disgust. It was all there.
She shook her head and reminded herself that this was a different culture, perhaps as with Monica, she was reading things into the situation that were not there. But the stiffness in Svein’s body next to hers and the dark scowl upon his face said that perhaps she was not.
When the couple re-joined them, they were all smiles. Petrine took Kirsty’s hand and pulled away from Olav, “We have so much to talk about. I have waited so long for this day. I know I must seem incredibly pushy. Blame it on my Americanism; everyone else does,” she smiled as she led her to the biggest table at the back of the shop. Kirsty glanced over her shoulder to see all of the guys falling into step behind them.
But it was the looks from those men that froze her blood and set off all too familiar anxieties in her. It was not just Petrine and Olav, but now her as well. It made her feel dirty somehow. She fought back the tears.
Then Svein stepped forward, blocking her view of them. His hand went to the small of her back as he bent in, whispering in her ear, “Keep walking, Kirsten. Ignore them.”
She looked up into his face, ready to argue that it was not that easy. But the hard look in his eyes dared her to say anything. Then he smiled, though she could tell it was forced, it relieved some of the tension, gave her a bit of courage as he held out a chair for her. He brushed a brief kiss on the top of her head as he pushed the chair forwards. She frowned, had he purposefully seated her so that her back was to the men?
Olav and Petrine took seats across from her, leaving the two at the end open for Mikael and Monica when they joined them. Kirsty found herself squeezed in between Svein and Bjⱷrn. She could not stop Svein’s naughty words from last night flitting through her brain, but that only made things worse.
Maybe something was wrong with her. Perhaps she deserved those stares. She looked down at the white table cloth as she felt those tears burning in her eyes again. She tried to hold them back, tried to focus upon the conversation going on all around her. When she finally found the courage to look up, Petrine smiled at her knowingly. The older woman reached across the table and put her hands over hers.
She would never know what the woman would have said, as the food began to arrive. Mikael brought Monica over; the little girl sandwiched between him and his mother. The woman seemed to soothe the child though the girl would not eat and kept fidgeting in her seat.
The meal was peppered with more loud conversation some in English for her benefit and others in at least one other language…maybe two; she was not sure. As the meal progressed though it became harder and harder for the child to remain quiet. She was not particularly interested in food at the moment anyway, so she suggested, “How about I take Monica for a walk?”
She was confident that they would decline her offer from the dark scowl on Mikael’s face, but Petrine spoke first, “That would be lovely, dear. There is a small park behind the school. Mikael will show you where it is. We won’t be much longer then we will all join you.”
It was not the response she wanted. Remembering their time in the cabin that morning, she had hoped to avoid being alone with this man for a while. But she supposed it was best. After all, Monica did not know her yet, so perhaps it was best if her father joined them.
She nodded and held out her hand as she stood. “What do you say, Princess? Would you like to go to the park with me?”
The little girl did not answer. Well, no words, not even a nod of her head. She just kept looking to the side somewhere. But she was out of her seat in an instant and trying to push past her father, who impeded her progress. This seemed to frustrate her, though, and she squealed.
“Let her go, Mikael. She will be fine. She knows her way to the park,” said Petrine. With a smile to Kirsty, she added, “Just keep her in sight, so she does not get distracted and wander off.”
Kirsty nodded and followed the little girl, who was already heading out the door. She did not even look back to see if Mikael was following them. But the woman seemed to be right as the child took a muddy path at the side of the store. It was too small to be called a road, and the stones that paved it were loose. It was only fifty yards or so until they came upon another building, this one was stone and two stories with a wide cement walkway leading to wooden double doors.
The child went right past the doors and disappeared around a corner. Only then did she notice that Mikael had followed them as he overtook her and called out for his daughter. Kirsty raced after him, but there was no reason for alarm. Monica had found a swing and was happily rocking back and forth in it. She was not able to gain enough momentum actually to swing, but that did not seem to matter to the child.
Mikael slowed as he approached his daughter, speaking to her in that language. Kirsty was not sure if he would welcome her intrusion, so she hung back a bit, watching them interact from her perch near the small picket fence that surrounded the play area.
There was not much in the park: a double swing set, a climbing frame, and a slide. The little girl seemed to bounce happily from one activity to the other, barely noticing the father that hovered and spoke quietly to her on occasion.
Kirsty frowned; not once did the child look her father in the eyes, nor did she speak other than to grunt or squeal once in a while if she did not immediately get what she wanted. She felt pieces of an all too familiar puzzle falling into place.
She shook her head as she reminded herself that she was not a psychologist or a pediatrician. She was not qualified to make a diagnosis that required a full history and a battery of exercises to evaluate. But she had worked with hundreds of Monicas for almost five years. She could not help but see the truth that was staring right at her.
Other truths were too. It was apparent from the way this man followed after his child that he loved her very much. Although she had worked almost exclusively with Mums, many of whom were single, Kirsty knew a concerned father when she saw one. The way he pushed her on the swing, stood extra close as she climbed on the frame, just in case she fell. He even clapped when she came down the slide, headfirst. That made it hard to stay mad at the man, damn him. As much as she wanted to, she found herself smiling at them.
“He loves her very much,” that feminine voice said from behind her.
She turned to see Petrine and Olav walking up the path. She smiled and nodded in greeting as the older woman pushed open the gate that she was standing next to.
“But my granddaughter needs more than I can give her,” she frowned. “I guess you have noticed; she is not a ‘normal’ five-year-old?”
Kirsty nodded as the woman continued, “She won’t talk, or maybe she can’t. Oh, she says a few words. Mostly ‘no’ at the top of her lungs and our names, sort of anyway. But that is it.”
Petrine shook her head, and her long silver tresses moved against slightly bronzed skin, “Well, honestly, I am hoping that you might know more than we do,” she smiled as she held out her hand.
Kirsty did not want to seem rude, so she took it. This woman seemed so much more touchy, feely than she was used to. She looked down at the grass, what little of it survived the mud, “I am not a doctor. I can’t diagnose these sorts of things,” she stammered.
“That is not what I meant, dear. I…we…don’t want her tagged with any more labels. But I suppose what I am saying is maybe, once you are settled, once you know her better, well, maybe you would have some ideas we could use to reach her.”
Kirsty could hear the way the woman’s voice broke even before she looked up to see tears glistening in green eyes that reminded her so much of Bjⱷrn.
She could not help but nod, “Of course, if I can. If…” She caught herself, uncertain how much she should reveal to this woman, their mother.
“If what, Kirsty?” the woman said, reaching out and lifting her chin. Maybe that was where the boys got that from. But when this woman did it, she felt like a schoolgirl again, trying to hide something from her mother.
“If he doesn’t mind, if he won’t get upset for me interfering, I don’t know what he expects or wants, where I stand with her, or him?” She had not meant to say anything, yet one stare from this one, and all of it came bursting forth.
Petrine chuckled and drew Kirsty into another of those embraces, “Oh, dearie, you and I need to have a long talk,” the way that the woman emphasized ‘long’ made Kirsty want to laugh.
“But it can wait until we get back to the Holding. Svein and Bjⱷrn have gone with Thea’s sons to unload the ship. In addition to the fish, they bring back supplies to stock her store,” she explained.
“Then we will be heading home,” she motioned to Mikael, who collected the reluctant girl. “You may ride back with Olav, Monica, and I if you prefer.”
Mikael frowned as he heard this, “I’ll come with you too.”
His mother gave him what Kirsty could only describe as a withering look. Not that she was not used to such things, it was the norm for her relationships with her own mother. But it just seemed so out of odds with what little she had seen of this woman. “Suit yourself, Mikael,” was all she said as they turned and walked back through the town.
The little girl was fine, skipping along the narrow lane for pedestrians until her father tried to take her hand as they crossed the street to the small docks where Njörður’s Captive was berthed with a handful of other smaller boats. She squealed and pulled away from her father. She would have even run into the street, which admittedly was not as dangerous as it sounded since there was little traffic. There was only one car in the distance.
But Olav reacted quickly for a man his age, holding her back with a firm tug on her shirt collar. “Stop, look, and listen, Monica.”
The child stopped and nodded her head; she even managed to look in the man’s general direction for a moment. “Good girl,” said the older man, and an odd tingle shot up Kirsty’s spine.
“Thanks, Papa,” Kirsty could hear the begrudging tone in Mikael’s voice.
But the older man ignored it as he guided the child across the road with the back of her shirt, “She is learning, Mikael. It will just take you a couple of days to catch up, son,” he smiled.
Whatever Mikael might have said was lost in the loud whistle and catcall that came from the only other large fishing boat in the harbor. Instantly, Olav and Mikael shoved the three females behind them. The men almost bristled, their shoulders back, chests out. The oddest image of arctic wolves encircling and protecting their pack whispered through Kirsty’s mind.
Then everything happened so quickly. One of the men called out something in that language. Kirsty did not know what, but from the blush on Petrine’s face and the way that Mikael and Olav took two steps towards the boat, she knew it could not be good. Out of thin air, Svein and Bjⱷrn suddenly stood shoulder to shoulder with them. Svein called back something to the men.
For a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, the two groups of warriors stood facing one another. Then the man, who had spoken for the group, spat on the wooden planks at their feet, he shrugged and turned his back. The other men followed after a moment with backward glances at them. Then slowly, the tension drained from their protectors. Petrine said something to Svein, but he just shook his head and scowled at his mother.
It was over as Bjⱷrn stepped forward and brushed the hair back out of her face. “What happened? What did that man say?” Kirsty demanded.
He inhaled deeply and forced a smile, “Nothing. It does not matter. Don’t worry about it. You will go with Mama and Olav in the car. Svein and I will bring the boat home up the fjord.”
She wanted to stay, wanted to argue that she had every right to know what was going on, but Petrine stepped forward and took her hand, “Come on, dear.”