—Jump in the front, he said in his deep throaty voice.
She loved that voice. She loved the stories it told at bedtime, about adventures in distant countries a long time ago. Sometimes its rhythm and hum left her nodding off before the end. She also loved how this voice could laugh. When he sat in his favourite arm chair with a book or the paper, he would come across an amusing passage or an absurd situation and his laugh came deep down from his throat as a kind of guttural hiccup. He absorbed the anecdotes in detail and incorporated them into his own stories. When he re-told these stories his laugh developed into a hearty infectious roar.
Her short five-year-old legs could barely reach the step into the veterinary vehicle. She pulled up her dress and climbed in putting her stockinged knee onto the platform. Nanna closed the door after her, sending butterfly kisses through the window. She watched the vehicle until it disappeared from sight.
Her father had pulled out a cushion for her to sit on so she could watch the road they would travel along. They were taking a clutch of chickens to her grandma so she could have fresh eggs in a few months. The war-time rationing of food products still had not been entirely lifted, even though it was five years ago the Germans capitulated and Danes celebrated their departure with bright candle lights in windows usually dressed with blackout curtains. It was a rather long trip, but she insisted on coming. Not only did she love driving with her father, she also looked forward to seeing her cousin who was staying at grandma’s. She had not seen him since Christmas when he stayed with them for a few weeks. He was a year older than her, but they became good friends and together they invented new, exciting games.
Nanna’s father had made her a sled for Christmas. With a stub of candle wax she rubbed the metal strips fastened to the rails of the sled.
—To make it run faster, Nanna’s father explained, winking at her in conspiracy.
The closest hill for tobogganing was the hill next to the church. It was a popular place for the children of the town, not least when snow covered its otherwise grassy surface.
Her father told her how nearly 1000 years ago, the vikings had buried King Gorm the Great in this mound and his Queen Thyra in the twin mound on the Northern side of the church. Their son, Harald Bluetooth, then became king. Not a modest kind of man, Harald boasted, on a rune stone that still stood between the mounds, about how he united the Danes and introduced Christianity to heathens. Her father laughed, the hiccupping type of laugh, and whispered to her that at that time most people kept a space down the bottom of the garden where they continued to worship the Norse gods. For what if the stories about Jesus were wrong?
She was proud that her hometown was once home to powerful vikings, but on this day she cared little for ancient history or the sacred nature of the mound. The sun shone brightly on the powdery snow as they dragged the sled up to the top of Gorm’s mound. She sat in the front and he right behind her, holding her tightly around the waist. One-two-three, they kicked off and slid down over the frozen snow. Down the hill, faster and faster, the wind watering their eyes and the frost biting their cheeks. And that delightful feeling in the belly as the sled hit a bump and they flew through the air, momentarily, as they raced down toward the road that snaked around the mound.
On the road traffic had turned the snow to slush, which immediately slowed them down and they overbalanced on the sled. They just missed the old milkman with his horse and cart. Laughing they picked themselves off the road and started pulling the sled back toward the hill. But they did not get far.
When they left the house Nanna was in the scullery pressing sheets and table cloths after the post-Christmas laundry day. The children were building a snow man in the garden, when they were distracted by the loud and delighted screams from Gorm’s mound down the road. Excited, the girl suggested they try out her new sled. Still in the scullery, Nanna soon discovered the children in her charge had disappeared. Seeing the tracks of the sled in the snow, she realised what they were up to.
—You two will be the death of me! yelled Nanna when she reached them, her shoes wet from the snow and her curly hair loosened from the run.
—Just you wait till I tell your father, young lady. Home at once, and no more playing outside for a week.
The children followed Nanna home, sulking at the prospect of the promised house arrest. Once they got over the discomfort and embarrassment of being told off in the middle of the street, they would remember and laugh, both at the thrill of the ride and the way Nanna had carried on. On her part, out of sheer relief, Nanna quickly forgot the threats and served them hot tea with milk and a sweet biscuit each. Even though it was a whole hour before afternoon tea time. Something good often came out of upsetting Nanna just a bit.
Nanna was only 17 when she started as a maid with the family. That was over five years ago, when Mama fell pregnant. This pregnancy was highly unexpected and inconvenient. Clearly, the little girl was an afterthought, born nine years later than her youngest sibling. When Mama was in a bad mood, she called the girl a mistake.
When Mama went into labour, it was Nanna who jumped on her bike and rode through the darkened streets, empty because of the curfew, to fetch Doctor Lange. He came quickly in his car and was in a good mood because the Germans’ luck was changing. The Germans had already left Finland, he heard. After the baby was born, the Vet and the Doctor sat in the kitchen talking about the likelihood of the imminent end to the war in Europe.
Nanna served them coffee while she muttered under her breath that they better be careful German Commander von Post did not hear them. The Germans killed people. Last year she read in the paper that a group of freedom fighters were killed, executed by the Germans for terrorism against Germany. She had been appalled and terrified when they found the priest, gunned down and left in a ditch. The brutes thought nothing of killing even a man of God, who spoke too loudly against the Nazi persecution of Jews.
She worried about the Vet’s anti-German stance. She hated the Germans like most people hated their occupiers, but she would never let on. The walls have ears, she always said when the conversation became too loud or too controversial.
The Doctor and the Vet laughed, unconcerned and exhilarated at the prospect of an end to German occupation, as the bell rushed her off to help Mama.
Mama was not really capable of looking after her baby. At 42, she was obese and had been bedridden for most of the pregnancy. So it was Nanna who put the baby to sleep, sang and told stories to the little baby, took her for walks, dressed her and changed her nappies. If Mama had her way, it would also be Nanna’s duty to breastfeed the little girl. Mama claimed to run dry when the baby was just two months old. Nanny bought evaporated milk, coaxing the baby to suck milk and softened bread much too young. But the little girl thrived, growing up to sing Nanna’s songs and retell Nanna’s stories.
During last summer, Nanna took the girl on the back of her bike, as she had done so often before, and cycled out to the small farm where she had grown up. The sun shone on the cobblestone yard as she lifted the girl down from the bike. As she expected, the girl was so excited about the week-old kittens.
—I told you they were cute. Now stay here and play with them, Nanna said. She left the girl with the kittens in front of the barn, while she went into the kitchen for a cup of coffee with her father and brother.
—Oh, your ears are so soft, cooed the little girl, holding a grey and white striped kitten. She put it down to catch instead a black kitten that miaowed loudly when she pulled it up by its front legs.
The mother cat kept a watchful eye on the girl and picked up the striped kitten by the scruff of its neck and marched into the barn.
—Where are you going? She got up holding the black kitten and followed the mother cat. The cat carried the striped kitten deftly up onto a hay bale behind the barn door and dropped it in a nest of hay. The little girl made a space for herself and looked after the kittens while the mother carried the others, one by one, into the hay. How warm and comfortable it was right here. She lay down with the kittens, stroking them gently, feeling her eyelids grow heavy in the sun-warmed corner of the barn.
Nanna called and called, ran up to the road and back, got her brother to help looking. He grumbled, he had work to do. He ran the farm, now that the father had slowed down to engage in more leisurely pursuits, such as making toys to delight children who came into his life, like this little girl.
For nearly half an hour they searched the property, Nanna’s level of worry rising steadily. Her father stood in the doorway, calmly watching the commotion, pipe in his mouth. He knew exactly where the cat kept the kittens, but he was in no hurry to solve the mystery. Eventually he woke the girl by scooping her into his arms and carrying her out into the sunshine. When Nanna saw them, the corrective words were stern and the hugs were hard and wet, for Nanna’s tears of panic mixed with tears of relief.
The girl often felt quite alone in her big family. Her siblings were so much older than her and often stuck together, two by two. She was too small to take part in their games and felt left out. Her brothers would pretend to be adults and tear out sheets from the psalm book into which they rolled tobacco to share a cigarette.
—You are too young, said one brother as he lit the sorry excuse for a cigarette.
—So are you! She ran away to hide her sadness about the accident of her age.
Her older sister was an entire childhood older than her. The sister enjoyed reading to her and tried to teach her to knit last summer. The sister was very patient, but the little girl was only four years old and accustomed to things going her way. She threw down the knitting and ran off to find Nanna.
If she found little companionship with her brothers and sisters, she could always trust animals to be her friends. She loved all kinds of animals, especially dogs and horses. She wanted nothing more than to be a vet like her father. At Christmas, her favourite present was from her sister’s fiance: a set of clay animals from his father’s toy shop in Flensburg.
When her sister first brought him home, Mama immediately got a migraine and stayed in bed a whole day. The brothers muttered ‘traitor’ and ‘war criminal’ under their breath. When the Vet queried their rudeness, her brother explained:
—He fought for the Germans in the war.
—He was just on the wrong side of the border at the wrong time, reasoned the Vet. He quite enjoyed the young man’s quiet company and quickly realised the trauma he must have suffered on the Eastern Front.
Flensburg had been a Danish city throughout history until the Danish-Preussian war in 1864. After World War I the Schleswig Plebiscite sealed Flensburg’s fate as a German town with a Danish minority. During World War II young Danish men from Schleswig could choose to fight for Germany or be interned by the Nazis.
Her sister insisted. They were engaged to be married.
The girl loved the beautifully crafted clay animals. Carefully, she set up the horses, cows and sheep in a stable she made with wooden blocks. She used knitting yarn and needles to create an enclosure where they could graze during the day. She barely had time to play with her cousin.
—You can have the hen, she said, feeling generous in spite of herself.
The afternoon before the new year, farmer Olsen came on his bike to fetch her father. The children were playing with the clay animals on the floor of the father’s laboratory, stopping to watch him carefully place slides with tissue under the microscope. Mr Olsen said that his prize cow was having difficulty giving birth. He stood there with his cap between his hands which were bright red from the cold bike ride. Her father immediately understood the urgency and readied to go.
—Can we come please? I think you’ll need our help. Please, please!
She jumped up and down in excitement when his hiccup laugh was the only answer.
With Mr Olsen’s bike in the back they drove through the snow out to the farm six kilometres away. The cow was calling with scared mournful cries and she was a bit frightened about what might be wrong. But she felt confident that her father would make everything all right. Mr Olsen had isolated the cow in a booth with fresh hay on the floor. It was cold and dark in the stable and Mr Olsen held a kerosene lamp so the Vet could see.
The Vet put on a long glove and started feeling the cow inside. The cow made loud, painful noises. He knew it would be touch and go. He should have been out here weeks ago to see if everything was okay. But Mr Olsen, no doubt, had needed to spare the expense. Things were still tough.
She held her cousin’s hand when some time later the calf plumped into the soft hay. They watched as the bloody mass came out shortly after, now that the placenta had done its job. Her father clipped the long cord that connected the calf to the placenta. The moist heat from the calf made it steam in the relative cold and it glittered in the dim light.
She knew that the cow would clean up the slime and blood, and tomorrow the calf would be dry and soft to touch. She hoped they could come out again. Next to her the boy let go of her hand, bent over and vomited into the trench. She did not laugh at him, even though she thought he was acting like a baby. She helped her cousin outside in the cool air and fetched some fresh water from Mrs Olsen’s kitchen. They were unaware that inside the stable, the Vet was unable to save the cow.
Mrs Olsen invited the children into the kitchen so they could sit down. The boy took a sip and set the cup on the waxed tablecloth. He still felt sick and wanted to be home. She stroked his hair and felt sorry for him.
Eventually, he went home in early January. She had not seen him since. She looked so much forward to seeing him again.
She looked at the passing landscape. It was still cold, but spring was here. She noticed purple crocuses and yellow daffodils, shining like lanterns in the grey landscape. Blue tits hopped in and out of the scrubs and blackbirds scratched the ground.
The rhythm of the car rocked her into sleepiness. She yawned and propped up her head against the door with the pillow. Her father pulled a rough blanket over her small body. It smelt comfortingly of dirt and horses and she dreamt of summer and fields, and the games she would play. She was a viking shield maiden riding through the forest on her black stallion. Her dog ran next to her and together they hunted down the big, ugly beast that had terrorised the village. She was the villagers’ heroine. Maybe they would make her the next viking queen? She wanted that dog for her birthday even though Mama would never agree. Mama said they were dirty and disgusting and would bring in fleas and vermin. Dogs belonged on a farm, not in a respectable home in town. Especially not Mama’s respectable home. If only her mother knew how good a friend a dog could be to someone feeling lonely. Perhaps if she convinced her father?
The cause of the accident was unclear. No other vehicle was involved. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, there had been no ice on the road where the skid marks commenced. The driver seemed to have simply lost control over the car. The car hit the tree head on. The little girl may have died on impact. The driver was in shock, unable to speak. It was a long time before he laughed again.
People passing the accident site wondered about the chickens clucking and scraping peacefully in the grass. A local farmer rounded them up and took them to his chicken coop. Better him than the fox. Grandma never did get her fresh eggs. But then, that was not what she missed the most.
© Lone Veirup Johansen, 2015.