The wind the last few days had been relentless, endless, spearing from all directions. It had ripped and whirled and twirled and screamed through the valley, bringing with it stinging rain and icy sleet.
But today…today it is still, and the sudden calm crushes her heart with fingers of stone.
High in the hills, standing behind the empty house, she gazes across the fjord and tugs her tattered wool shawl tighter around her shoulders. The lake below is shrouded in an ethereal milky mist. The brook murmurs its ancient song at her feet. The morning air is heavy. A chill crawls down her back.
“Ready?” Karl’s inescapably loving hand falls on her shoulder. She nods—a mute lie that does not matter. He gives her a squeeze, and turns back to finish loading their meagre belongings into the wagon.
Life is hard here. Life will be hard there too. She knows this.
But the letter, he says, the letter from his cousin. Komme! Come and get rich! She agreed to go, though not because of the letter.
She casts a brief glance back and sees Ingrid and Erik weaving eagerly in and around the cart, dressed in their warmest travel cloaks. Their little laughs are swallowed by the vast mountain and stagnant air. She should help with the trunks, or at least keep the children out from underfoot.
Instead, she sees her husband’s attention is elsewhere, and picks and slides her way down the rocky slope. Grasping her shawl tightly at her chest with her left hand, she braces herself against the steep hill with her right. At the bottom and around the bend, she hikes her skirt and hops the stream. Cattle no longer theirs with rickety ribs and sunken eyes watch intently, but don’t follow her into the dark embrace of the imposing pines.
Secrets. Karl swings the old trunk into the back of the cart. She’s always had secrets. He grunts, sliding and scraping it to make room for the children.
She’s disappeared again. He knows without looking she’s gone. He flings a pile of rough wool blankets on top.
Will they get rich? He’s not that naïve. Making a new life, starting from scratch, in a strange place where they do not speak the language—they will be far from rich. But he’ll finally have her. Whatever her secret—whoever her secret—she can’t carry across an entire ocean.
At the edge of a yellow grass meadow dotted with tiny white wildflowers, she kneels at the small wooden cross Karl doesn’t know about, built with the hope of taming her little love's temper. My love. She whispers. Min engel. She braids a tiny floral crown and drapes it over the leaning arms.
She bows her head and traces her fingers lightly across the splintering wood. With a shudder, she recalls blinding pain and torrents of blood, the uninvited infant sliding still and silent from womb to world. Shame and loss had clung to her soul while she attempted to re-join village life in the following weeks, avoiding the stares of men and the whispers of women.
To fill the hole in her heart, she volunteered at the local school for a while, helping with numbers and keeping an eye out during the lunch hours. But she quickly realized there was often one shadow too many chasing the children around the yard. Inexplicable accidents, injuries and illnesses plagued the schoolhouse. Parents pointed fingers at the young unmarried woman with the less-than spotless reputation. She excused herself from the position, and the unhappy presence followed.
When she confided her beliefs and fears to her mother, the strong-minded widow had crossed herself and offered up a garbled prayer. Best not to speak of it, she’d said. Best to put it in the past and hope it stays there.
But of course it hadn’t.
The little shadow that she grew to both love and fear tugged at her skirts and played with her hair, and in moments of wrath could wrap the valley in wild tempests of wind and ice and illness. For years, the very sight of her spurred averted eyes and muttered prayers. The church turned her away and shops closed their doors at her approach.
It had been winter when Karl passed through on his way home from visiting a cousin. Innocent, handsome, and unaware of her peculiar affliction, he was immediately enamored by the lovely lonely young woman sitting on her mother’s porch. Everyone sealed their lips and held their breath, and later heaved a sigh of relief when she was finally married (in the church, much to everyone’s chagrin) and whisked away into mountains.
She never told Karl about her firstborn, the little shadow that followed, who taunts their marriage, haunts their children, and stalks them from the edge of darkness.
Jeg elsker deg. But, please, stay here. She prays to gods old and new, whoever will listen.
Ingrid and Erik, nestled safely in the back of the wagon, are somber and quiet. She tucks them in with blankets and kisses their foreheads. They stare at her with wide blue eyes.
“Say goodbye,” she tells them.
The littlest one reaches out and tugs her braid to lean in closer. “Momma,” Ingrid whispers in her ear, “We shouldn’t go.”
“Why not my darling?”
Ingrid looks at her brother. Erik says, “Momma, he will not like it. He will find us.”
Startled, she pulls back with a frown. They know more, see more, than she ever thought they could.
“I have asked him to stay,” she says softly, but their solemn faces reflect her lack of conviction.
She gives them a forced, reassuring smile and climbs into the seat beside Karl. With a lurch, their borrowed mule tugs them into a steady gait down the dirt path on which they won’t ever return.
Twisting for one last look, she sees tendrils of a dense fog creeping down the mountain, weaving white wisps through the black forest. The cliffs on the other side of the fjord are invisible. The brown house with its white window frames and mossy roof sits dark and silent.
Ingrid sucks on her thumb and waves shyly, sadly. Erik grabs her hand and pulls it down, holding it tightly.
A tiny vague figure hovers on the hill in the gathering gloom, watching them roll away. She sends a final silent plea. Don’t follow. The worn road descends around the bend. Church bells toll across the water. A sudden cutting breeze slices through the veil of mist.