Mikael stared out the window as the familiar countryside passed by. It was swampy. The road was windy like the dot-to-dot puzzles that he tried to get Monica to do. It was as bumpy as his daughter’s attempts at drawing. The roads here were notoriously dangerous — this one in particular.
It connected small island to small island, broken by the occasional bridge between them. Some of the islands were so small that they could not support life; others were populated by only trees and birds. Some had a house or two sprinkled on them. None were as large as the Holding.
But right now, none of that mattered. He was in a foul mood. If their conversation this morning had not been bad enough, the way that she just hung back – saying nothing, do nothing – made him doubt this whole thing. Perhaps they would have been better off with the Russian woman, at least she was a mother herself. Maybe this one had no interest in his daughter because she was not one of her patients.
Then the other. He did not want to even think about it. He should be used to it by now. They all should be. But still…sometimes…it just got to you. He gripped the handle of the door. He wished his father had let him drive at least, but the old man knew him too well. He could not argue; he did not belong behind the wheel with the three females in the car.
If that was not bad enough, suddenly, Monica grew tired of being strapped into her booster seat. She began crying and rocking back and forth, pulling at the strap across her chest. He tried to calm her, but the moment he touched her, she let out an ear-piercing scream and drew back, arching and fighting to get out of the seat.
The woman, Kirsty, his wife, looked at the child. He gave her his sternest look; he did not need some smart ass comment from her about ‘controlling’ his child right now. Instead, she reached into her bag and pulled out something. It took him a moment to realize that it was her damned tablet. Fair enough, he supposed her sticking ear phones into her head and listening to music was better than that comment he had come to dread.
But instead of headphones, it was that famous song, the one from the movie that Monica could not get enough of. The woman did not offer the tablet to his child. At first, she seemed to ignore her completely, focusing all her attention upon the song and video that went with it. Nonetheless, it worked. Monica quieted. Not entirely, she still fidgeted in her seat. But her tiny body was no longer so tightly strung with tension that he feared she would break, and she was no longer screaming.
Then he noticed that she had tilted the screen so that Monica had a better view of it than she did. When the song came to an end, and his daughter began to fidget once more, she hit the replay button. “Is it much further?” she asked no one in particular.
“About another ten or fifteen minutes,” his father replied from the front.
She nodded her head, “The seat belt is probably bothering her. Is there someplace where we can pull over and let her get out for a bit? Run and play, to burn some of it off.”
His mother turned in her seat and smiled. Mikael shook his head at the ‘I told you so’ look on his mother’s face.
“Not really, dear. Here is Joey, though,” she replied, handing him back the stuffed kangaroo that was his daughter’s favorite. Monica snatched it before he could. And between the stuffed toy and the music, Monica seemed satisfied enough to make it the short distance remaining to the Holding.
He was not hopeful, but he relaxed just a bit as he watched the two heads, one deep red and the other smaller one light brown bent together over the tablet. Time would tell, only time. But time was the one thing he always felt was running out if he was to reach his child. Watching them, he wanted to believe that this woman held the key. But hope was not something that came easily to him anymore.
He turned back to stare out the window as a new song, another one from that movie blared from the machine. “This is my favorite, sweetie,” said that voice that did funny things to his gut. He could not help but listen to words about true love saving them all. But sometimes, love was not enough to hold onto what you wanted most.
By the time that the older model Land Rover pulled up in front of the red wooden frame house that was similar to those she had seen in town, only larger, Kirsty was not sure who was tenser – her, Monica, or him. But the tiny space was filled with silent, nervous tension that felt like they would all explode at any moment.
That was pretty much exactly what the little girl did the moment that the car stopped in front of the house. She fumbled with the seat belt until Kirsty assisted her, then she was pushing past her father and trying to open the door. He smiled at her efforts and opened it. And she was off, like the horses out of the gate at Ascot.
The rest of them piled out of the car. Petrine reached for her once more, taking her hand, “You, guys, go and help Svein and Bjⱷrn. Kirsty and I will go after Monica. It will give me a chance to show her around a bit.”
Mikael was scowling again. But his father did not give him a chance to say anything as he put his hand on his shoulders and guided him towards the dock that she could see behind the house.
Petrine turned to her and smiled once more, “Well, that was easier than I thought it would be. Walk with me, and we can have that talk. Monica will be in her play area near my greenhouse. It is just over there,” she said as she nodded towards a stand of trees. The undergrowth had been cleared out, so Kirsty would not consider it a forest, but the mix of hardwood and conifers stood like centurions guarding the gates of this place.
She found herself following along after the woman, looking around as she went. Quiet, peaceful, tranquil…none of them seemed to describe this place adequately. She inhaled deeply, smelling the mixture of loam, pine, and the sea. This place, nature, relieved some of the tension inside of her.
When they came out of the trees into a clearing, she could almost imagine it blooming with wildflowers in a few months. But now, it was preparing for the winter which lay ahead, the grass tall and tan as it blew in the brisk late autumn winds. As the woman had said, the little girl was happily swinging on a playset that was larger and much more elaborate than the one at the school. What was more, she noticed a pink wooden playhouse, a sandbox, and a tricycle strewn about the area.
“My sons spoil her as you can see,” smiled the woman. She reached out a hand and brushed back a strand of hair that the wind had blown into Kirsty’s eyes. Or that was the excuse she was using for the tears that burned her eyes at that moment.
Then she was wrapped in those arms. She had no choice as the woman held her tightly. “Let it go, sweetie. Let it all out,” those were the words that Kirsty felt she had waited a lifetime to hear. In that sweet maternal way that she had always imagined. She could not fight it. Any more than she could fight Bjⱷrn when he looked at her that way. It all came out then. A lifetime of tears that ‘good girl’ had held back.
She did not know how long they stood there like that. Her crying and blubbering over this woman, who was a stranger. But when she came to her senses, she tried to pull back. Looked down embarrassed at the muddy ground, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me,” she mumbled.
The woman laughed, “My sons, I imagine. They can be a bit – overwhelming.”
Kirsty reluctantly looked up at her with a smile. Somehow as hard as she fought it, she felt connected to this woman. It was different, of course, but the feeling was just as strong as she had felt that day when she looked up into Svein’s face as he pulled her through the turnstile. And the smile, on the woman’s face that still shone with the beauty of her youth even through the lines, wrinkles and silver hair, said that she felt it too.
They stood silently, watching the child play for a couple of minutes. It was odd. Most people would be uncomfortable with such things, but this was not like that at all. It was as if the silence spoke louder than any words could. It was that silence that finally gave her the courage to ask the question – one of them anyway – that had been on her mind for the past hour or so. “What did that man say?”
Petrine turned to her and sighed heavily, “My sons would not want me to answer that question.”
“But I never liked the way that they and their fathers always tried to shield me from such things. I don’t get the feeling that you do either. I will tell you this much – it was not pretty. If you honestly want to know more, I will tell you,” this time, her smile was tighter as if this weighed as heavily upon her as it did upon Kirsty.
Kirsty looked over to where the child played carelessly upon the swing. She wanted to be like that, in her own world, oblivious to it all, not caring what anyone said. But as much as she wanted that, she could not overcome the training of a lifetime where what other people thought mattered more than what you wanted.
“I am not sure I want to know, but I need to, don’t I?” she asked, turning back to the older woman.
“As wise as you are beautiful, my boys did well,” this smile reached those dancing green eyes that she had gifted to her youngest son.
Then they clouded over once more, “My understanding of the local dialect is not as good as I’d like, so I cannot say word for word. The gist of it was asking if my sons had found another whore to service the lot of them and breed another generation of mongrels. That if you wanted to enjoy real men, they would ‘entertain’ you for a bit.”
Kirsty had not known what she expected, but something so vitriolic was beyond even that. She felt her knees begin to buckle as her hand flew to her mouth, and tears stung her eyes once more, “Oh my god,” was all she could say.
The woman lifted her, just held her for a long moment. Kirsty trembled as those words played through her mind, but there did not seem to be any more tears inside of her. Finally, the woman pulled back just enough so that she could stare into her face.
“It has been over four decades, sweetie, since I visited your home land. But do you know what struck me the most when I traveled there?”
Kirsty shook her head as the woman continued though Kirsty was not sure what any of this had to do with what was paramount in her mind.
“No one smiled. You could walk down the streets of your London. Pass thousands of people, all the same, their heads down as they rushed about, and not a single smile from any of them.”
Petrine turned Kirsty about so that Monica filled her cloudy vision, “Worst of all, I remember the children. Tiny little things. All dressed exactly alike in their grey wool skirts and shorts. Starched white shirts buttoned up and matching sweaters. I remember them marching in their lines early in the morning to school.”
She paused and brushed back that hair which once more had blown into Kirsty’s face, “And none of them smiled either.”
“Life comes at a price. It always will, sweetheart. Those sons of mine are the direct descendants of the Jarls and Kings that once ruled these islands. Like those strong men, they make their own rules.”
“And like the villagers and warriors that once followed their ancestors, few people dare to call them on it. Oh, it happens, like today, but that is rare. I will not lie to you…making your own rules come at just as high a price as following everyone else’s.”
She sighed and studied Kirsty’s face. Kirsty wanted to look away, feared that this woman would find her lacking, inferior, not good enough for those kings that she had born and raised to be such men, each fine in his way. But as much as she wanted to look away, this woman deserved so much more than that. So she met that gaze just as boldly.
“Kirsty, if that life is what you truly want, then I will personally take you to the mainland. Place you on a plane and see you safely back there. I promise you not one of my sons will dare cross me on this one.”
Her hand gently squeezed Kirsty’s, “But like me, I don’t think that is what you want. I believe that you are willing to pay the price, and trust me; it is a relatively small one for making your own rules,” she finished.
Her words shook Kirsty’s world like an earthquake. Somehow this woman had looked into her soul and hit upon the very dilemma that haunted her. Not just for the past few days, but a lifetime.
The difference was – now she had an option besides merely pushing on with all the others, unsmiling and unhappy. The past three days, she had seen that. They had given her that. This woman’s sons. But did she have the courage to take it? That was the question.
“How do you do it?” she whispered.
The woman’s laughter was rich and as fragrant as this place, like coming home, and that was how she felt. For the first time in her life, Kirsty could almost believe this place, this woman, her sons; it could be home. If she dared to reach out and take it.
“Mostly, I ignore it. The other thing is that I make myself indispensable to them. There are not too many things that I learned from those few times my grandparents drug my wild ass to their strict Pentecostal church. But one was something about kindness heaping burning coals on the heads of your enemies. I always liked that image,” she winked.
“When I first got here like you, I did not speak Norwegian. English, Spanish, some French, and a few words of German were all I had to get me by. But it did not take me long to figure out that these people were talking behind my back. It bothered me. But then again I was only in town a couple of times a month to shop. So, I was happy to pretend I did not see their stares. I still do sometimes.”
Kirsty realized then that this woman had not been as ignorant of those men in the store as she had seemed.
“When Svein went to school, it all came to a head. He was already reading by then. With his fathers at sea, I had long periods alone with my son, and five almost six years before Mikael came along. I sent him to school reading and doing basic math, way ahead of the other children.”
She sighed heavily and stared off, “So, I was not worried too much. But when I picked him up that afternoon, he had a split lip and a black eye. The principal, the headmaster I think you would call him, met me at the door. There had been a fight. Svein was suspended for three days,” she frowned at the memory.
“Poor kid,” Kirsty frowned, trying even to imagine Svein as a child was beyond her.
Petrine laughed again, “Poor Svein, my ass. My son might have had a black eye, but the bully who was three years older had a broken arm. When I got my son home, lecturing him about not fighting mind you, he did not want to tell me what happened.”
“It was Stig, who finally got it out of him, including the words ‘whore’ and ‘slut.’ That was the only day that any of my boys spent in that school. And she won’t either,” the woman said, nodding towards the child.
“Again, I ask, how do you do it?” Kirsty felt weighed down by the isolation this woman must have felt, perhaps still did.
But the smile on her face said she was anything but to be pitied. “I had my boys and their fathers.”
Kirsty blushed as she could well imagine what that secretive smile truly meant.
“And Stig built me my greenhouse,” she said as she nodded towards the glass building that was the size of a small house.
Kirsty saw shadows across the woman’s face and wondered what she was thinking. Did she remember those days? Happiness that was gone? The man who had built it? She tried to imagine how she would feel in this woman’s shoes, but it was more than she could manage.
Tears glistened in the woman’s green eyes when she turned back to her, “And once Bjⱷrn was older and took to the sea, well, I found things to keep me busy. I teach in that school now. Not full time mind you, but I instruct the older ones in creative writing and ancient mythology every year.”
“I also work with the local nurse practitioner. We are too small to have a doctor here. But we can handle most things. A lot of my plants these days are medicinal, and I dry those and share them with those in need. I am even the first one there with a cake when someone dies or a new baby is born. I have not worked up the nerve to go to church yet, afraid I might go up in flames with my pagan self,” she laughed.
Petrine looked her in the eye as she continued, “But they take it all, the people in the village. Thea Johansen is the worst, biggest gossip of them all. Without my sons picking up stock for her on their journeys, that store of hers would be closed down as so many of the other shops have in other villages.”
Kirsty nodded once more, trying to imagine how that made this woman feel – her sons too.
But Petrine continued her story without pausing, “I feel their eyes on my back when I walk away, though. I hear their whispers. And I hold my head high, knowing that none of them have been as loved or as happy as I have been for a lifetime. It is not easy, but then again, nothing worth having ever is. So, I ask again, do you want me to fight Olav for the keys?”
“Fight my boys, knowing that I am hurting them more than they already have been? Because I will if this is not the life you want. I have had one ‘daughter-in-law’ that could not, or did not want this life. And she tore my boys to pieces, opened chasms in them that are still growing larger.”
“If you honestly want your old life back, if you cannot allow yourself to love them, then tell me now, and I will. You have my word on that,” her face reminded her of Svein when he got that ‘look,’ the one that withered her inside, that said he knew everything in her mind.
Kirsty felt as if this was the single most crucial moment of her life. As if she stood at a crossroads and everything rested upon which she took. She weighed what the woman said, …and all that she had not. And she shook her head slowly, “No, no, I don’t want to go back.”
Petrine beamed then. The woman glowed from within, like one of those cheesy movies where the angel reveals itself with backlighting. Then once more, Kirsty was absorbed into those arms. This embrace was tighter than all the others. As if the woman did not want to let her go, her words seemed to confirm that, “I have waited a lifetime for this moment. Wanted a daughter for so long. Welcome home, Kirsty. Welcome home.”
It was the woman who was crying uncontrollably then. And while she tried, Kirsty was not sure she did a very good job of comforting her; she did not have much experience with such things. Her meager efforts must have worked though because then Petrine was laughing.
“Alright then, you need some lessons on how to manage my boys. You need to learn; you are the one in control now. And you need to use that control wisely.”
“Oh, we have so much to talk about,” the years melted away from her face, and in addition to being what Kirsty had always imagined a mother should be, Petrine became the girlfriend that she had never really had. That best friend with whom you shared everything.
Maybe she was right…maybe this life would not be so bad after all.