1947, Västerbotten, Sweden
It’s Midsummer’s Eve and even this close to midnight there’s no darkness, only a long, translucent dusk that will eventually slip into dawn.
Britt and I are fifteen, and she has just come back from That Place, the one the adults won’t talk about even when they think I’m not listening. Something’s happened to her there, but I don’t understand what it is, and she can’t find the words to tell me.
We’re sitting on the wooden fence near my family’s potato patch, looking down the slope at the red-painted barn and stable, watching the hare. He sits upright on his haunches by the forest’s edge, ever watchful, bending now and then to nibble grass and clover, grey-brown fur all sleek and trim, long ears turning.
The hare reminds me of Britt: dark eyes watching to see if you’ve come to kill it; long legs always ready to run.
Shapes and shadows move in the gloom beneath the forest’s dark-fringed spruce and pine, and Britt says it’s the trolls that live there, restless in the long summer dusk, hiding themselves under rocks and roots and glossy lingonberry leaves. She says you can speak to them when the sun and moon have gone down. You can even speak to the hare, then: if you know how, if he trusts you enough to let you. Most nights, I might not have believed her, even though she goes farther into the woods than anyone else I know, but tonight is Midsummer’s Eve, when the skein between tale and truth is thin enough to pass through.
We’ve helped decorate the village maypole with birch-leaves and flowers, such as there are up here so far north in June. It’s cold. We wear woolen sweaters over summer dresses, bare legs swinging, and from far away I can hear music, or maybe it’s just the river’s distant voice: B minor, a song like whispers and sun on water. Britt taps her fingers to the melody, so I know she hears it too. In the silence between us, the notes seem to resonate within her, tugging at her, rippling through her, plucked on strings of guts and breath, pain and memory.
I’ve picked seven kinds of flowers to put under my pillow, picked them special, keeping silent all the while, climbing over seven fences to do it right. I would dream about the man I’ll marry if I slept on them. But I don’t want to sleep, and I don’t want to marry any man either, so instead I braid them into a crown for Britt. She sits so still, looking at my fingers braiding: purple wood cranesbill, white bishop’s lace and oxeye daisies, red campion, yellow buttercups, blue forget-me-nots and fragile harebells. Once it’s done, she bows her head and I place it on her curly brown hair, a coronation. I see her change, then, radiant like the pictures in Grandma’s illustrated Bible, where the golden rays emanate from Jesus’s head.
“You’re the prettiest thing I ever saw,” I say, straightening her crown and halo, and that makes her smile, even though sorrow peeks through the ragged edges of her joy.
My older siblings all moved out and away before I even started school, and Britt has always been as close as a sister. Sometimes she’s an older sister who tells me things not even the adults seem to know. Other times she can’t understand things my five-year-old cousin takes for granted. She is and always will be my ghost and shadow, my guilt and glory, my secret wish and hidden grief.
“Want to see?” she asks, smile already slipping. “Want to see what they did?”
I don’t answer, but she takes her clothes off anyway, wool and dress, no linens underneath, and stands there naked except for the flowers left askew in her hair. Bruises run the length of her back, down her buttocks, the back of her thighs, swirls and stripes of blue and red and black, inflicted where her clothes are sure to hide them. But that is not what she wants me to see.
The front of her body is pale and untouched, except for the scar.
“I couldn’t leave unless I let them cut me,” she says, tracing the red welt of healed skin on her lower belly, nipples and pink skin prickling in the chill. “There wasn’t nothing there to take, but they did it anyway.”
I see, I hear, but I don’t understand. I just want to touch her, hold her, comfort her, but I know she’d startle like the hare, I know she’s not one for touching.
Her smile has slipped off all the way now, nothing’s left of it, and without another word, she turns and walks down the slope towards the forest, leaving me, leaving her dress and her sweater on the fence, flower crown still askew, long strides cleaving the tall grass. The hare sits up as she approaches, flicking his ears, listening and waiting. For a moment, they remain completely still within each other’s gaze. Then, they start running, together, until the forest hides them both.
I’m eight years old the first time I understand that Britt’s father beats her, and that that’s why mother lets her come to stay with us. Those are the days when there are empty bottles smashed outside Britt’s house, when we can hear him bellowing her name through thin walls and rattling windows.
Britt shares my narrow bed those nights, and we sleep skavfötters—our heads at either end, legs meeting in the middle. She eats dinner with us, too; hands fluttering over the bread and butter, fingers clumsy when she wields a spoon or fork. Mother always lets her have seconds, even though she’ll never let me eat my fill at the table until everyone else has finished.
“He’s not my dad,” Britt tells me, when we sit together in the hayloft, listening to the horses chewing oats below. “My real dad lives in the river. Mamma said so before she went away.”
But Britt can’t even read, and everyone knows her mom was a whore, so I don’t believe it until she takes me to the river. We look and look from the bridge, in the reeds and beneath the lily-pads, and finally we find him. He looks dead, but Britt says he isn’t. She pokes him with an oar and he rolls over and floats up, wrapped in trailing lily stems, some of them wound around his head and long hair like a crown, and he’s naked. The only thing missing is his fiddle, which Grandma says he ought to have.
He looks so beautiful I might have gone into the water myself even if I cannot swim: pale skin pulled tight over bones and dreams, dark hair like Britt’s—all curls and waves and ripples.
When Britt wades into the water, he opens his eyes and pulls her down. I want to scream and run away, but she’s told me to wait, so I just stand there on the shore. Half a day goes by before she surfaces all soaked and dripping, mud blossoming beneath her in the water.
(Afterwards, I know it can’t have happened that way, that she can’t have stayed under that long, that I must have made it up or imagined it. And yet I remember it clearly, the smell of the water as he broke the surface: mulch and rot and roots, the sheen of his skin as he reached for her, the hiss of his breath as he went below again.)
“I didn’t want to stay. Don’t like it down there, anyway, and he was mad for me not bringing his fiddle,” Britt says. “I told him I might bring it if he’d give me something for it.”
“Like what?” I ask, but she won’t say what magic she would ask for.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she whispers when I help her pick the twigs and leaves out of her wet hair, and I promise.
We are five years old when Britt shows me the fiddle packed away in a black case lined with red velvet underneath her bed. The veined wood is smooth and lustrous, like honeycombs and sunshine and autumn leaves. She plucks the strings with soft fingers, and the sound is water dripping from trees, is shade beneath heavy branches, is the rills of meltwater beneath thin ice in spring.
“Mamma says it’s mine.”
I touch, almost fearful of the smoothness of that varnish, the brittleness of that wood, the trembling power trapped within those strings and tuning screws. The fiddle is a treasure beyond price in a place where there is mostly want. It is beauty in a place where there are only plain and practical things. It is magic tucked beneath a lumpy mattress.
I’m fourteen when they take Britt away.
Mother says it’s because Britt’s not right. That’s why the school wouldn’t have her. Because she couldn’t sit still, couldn’t listen, didn’t write the words down as they were supposed to be written, didn’t sing the psalms right, or read the sentences the way they were supposed to be read. She’d read other stories on the pages, full of snakes and claws and ripping beasts and naked men and their…genitalia, as I heard the teacher whisper behind her hand to my mother. No more school for her after that, just work. Be good. Be grateful. Bow and scrape.
A car comes and takes her away one day when I’m at school.
“An institution,” Grandma says and I can tell she’s almost crying. “That’s where they’re taking her.”
I march down to the river looking for Britt’s dad. It’s a stupid thing to do, but I do it because I have nowhere else to be angry. After a bit of searching, I think I find the spot where Britt and I saw him before, but no one’s there. I sit down in the grass on the sloping river bank and tell him that no matter what Britt’s mom did to him, no matter what she stole or what promises she broke, he can’t punish Britt for it.
“Help her,” I pray, hands clasped as if it’s Sunday. “Please.”
I know I should be praying to God or Jesus, but they are far away, in the church, above the clouds, pressed flat and dry between the pages of Grandma’s heavy Bible. Not as close as the river, not as close as the water lapping over mud and rocks and toes.
Something almost surfaces in the stream beyond; ripples radiating out. Most likely it’s a fish catching a fly or water strider, but I make myself believe that he heard me. Then I throw a rock, as big as I can heft, out there just for good measure, hoping it’ll crack his head open.
(I know what everyone says, that Britt’s father was a no-good vagrant, tattare, traveler, passing through the village when Britt’s mom was sixteen. That he ran off because he got into a fight and cut a man, that he was afraid of going to jail, that he left his fiddle behind and never came back. I know that no one else has seen the face beneath the water-lilies. I know, I know, I know what people say, but I know it’s not the truth: it is only the gossamer of reality pulled over the true story beneath, the story Britt told me, the story I am telling you.)
When Britt comes back, she tries to tell me of That Place. A house, she says, with beds and clean sheets and metal tables and sharp knives laid out on trays. The words she has brought with her skip and sink (feeble-minded), teeter and totter (mental deficiency due to inheritance), break and crack (delinquent), and when I don’t understand, she gets angry and runs away.
“A girl like her…she doesn’t need the trouble,” Mom says while her fingers are busy knitting socks. “She’ll have an easier time of it now.”
I don’t know what that means, but I know it’s a lie.
I’m fifty-eight years old—career, no kids, happy on the weekends, busy folding laundry—when a documentary on the radio tells me what happened to Britt.
A kitchen towel. Sweden’s State Institute of racial biology. T-shirt and sweatpants. Racial hygiene. Three pairs of socks. Forced sterilizations. A pair of jeans. 63,000-individuals. Two pairs of underwear. To raise the quality of the population stock and prevent degeneration of the race.
I sit beside my pink geraniums and I can’t stop crying. There is no hare’s gaze to hold me here, no music playing, no stolen fiddle’s magic to stir me; but I can feel the shiver of the hare’s breath against my skin, and I can hear the melody anyway. I’ve dreamed of it every night since 1947. I know that the world is hollow: an awful place of despair and cruelty and injustice. And I know that the world is holy: a beautiful place of joy and radiance and moments braided together like flowers, our love mostly hidden in the quiet spaces between everything we say and do to each other.
The last time I see Britt is after midnight that Midsummer’s Eve.
She comes to logen, the place where everyone is dancing and drinking beneath the maypole. The sky is fading into deeper blue, but the light remains, sheer like worn-out linen.
Britt is still naked, scar and bruises bared, feet and shins covered in dirt and blood, mosquito bites and scratches, as if she’s been running through the woods to get here. The only thing she’s carrying is the fiddle and the bow, and everything she is and was and ever will be from this moment on is revealed before us: dirty and transcendent, broken and divine.
Dance and music end. Britt takes out the bow, tightens the horsehair, and sweeps it over the strings, fiddle tucked up on her shoulder. No one tries to stop her. No one speaks or moves. I’ve never seen her play before, but the sound she makes is fog rising off the water, is the darkness beneath the bridge, is the shade and gloom below the surface, is the smooth gleam of rocks at the bottom of the river, is the slow glide and swirl of the water’s current in the heat of summer.
Her hands, those hands that won’t do anything right, that can’t wield pencils or knitting needles, those hands our teacher smacked with a metal ruler so many times Britt’s knuckles bled and puffed, those hands braid notes together that shiver through our souls and unspoken dreams, through the skies and heavens. It is a spell—rippling and quavering, reflecting ourselves and the darkness knit into the light within us all—and for a little while we might have followed her anywhere, might have listened to anything she said or played, might have understood her, but it’s not for keeps: when the music stops, she’s Britt, again, the whore’s daughter.
She walks by me, past me, through me, away, holding on to that fiddle, and she smiles, still crowned by flowers, haloed, radiant. Her hand caresses me, and my cheek burns at the touch, though I’m not sure whether the heat is hers or mine or ours.
“Don’t tell them where I went,” she says, and I nod.
I’ve kept that promise ever since. It is the only vow I’ve never broken.
Then she runs: long legs moving through the tall grass, taking her back into the woods.
The next day, I found Britt’s wilted crown hanging off the edge of the bridge, its braided stems still unbroken. No one ever found her body. Some said she was trapped below the river’s surface, snagged on roots or rocks. I knew it wasn’t so. I knew Britt would have never stayed beneath.
It wasn’t her fault, none of it. No one should have beaten her. No one should have bruised or scarred her. No one should have cut her to make her fit. Some people can’t ever make themselves fit into small rooms, into narrow and cramped words, can’t make what they need to say fit into sentences and books and lined paper. But still, people try, they try to cut others into pieces, bend and twist them as to fit into the space provided.
Why must everyone fit into church and school and work and polished shoes and small rooms and wooden coffins, in the end, to sink into the dirt?
I watched the men in boats dredging the river, searching for her, and I thought of the man beneath the mud and water-lilies, thought of his fiddle and what tune he might make it play. All the while, I kept my eyes on the dark-fringed pine and spruce on the other side of the bridge, waiting for the hare to see me.
I go back to the old place at Midsummer every year. The slope is overgrown with grass and nettles and slender birch trees. There is no potato patch anymore, the old house is warped and sagging, and no music comes from the river because the water is choked with weeds and silt, but a hare still visits. She knows me and I know her: grey-brown fur all sleek and trim, long ears turning, eyes ever watchful. I’ve seen her with her leverets: every Midsummer’s Eve she brings another two, running with her in the meadow down towards the river, through the long, translucent dusk slipping into dawn.
Footnote: “The so-called sterilization laws were instituted by the Swedish parliament in 1934 and 1941. Both allowed sterilization without consent under certain conditions. The reasons (indications) to perform sterilizations were threefold: eugenics (race/genetic hygiene), social and medical. Of the total number of sterilized individuals, 93 percent were women.”
From the report “Steriliseringsfrågan i Sverige 1935 – 1975” / “The issue of sterilization in Sweden 1935–1975,” issued by Socialdepartementet / Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, Sweden, March 2000.
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and poetry, and debuted as a writer in Sweden in the far-off, mythological era known as the 1980s. Since 1992 she lives in Canada, and is currently located just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her English-language fiction has appeared in, or will be appearing in, Flash Fiction Online, Gamut, Capricious, and elsewhere. Find out more on her website: https://mariahaskins.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter: @MariaHaskins.