Alfreda Anderson had been away from home so long, she felt like a stranger. The wagon lurched down the muddy road, bumping over rocks and ruts and splashing through puddles of spring rain.
What if I'm too late?
She scanned the empty, fallow fields. Beyond stood a sea of stumps. Once upon a time she recalled rye rippling and whispering in the wind. She recalled a cool, dark forest where she burned her legs on stinging nettles while gathering mushrooms. Nothing looked familiar now. An uneasy feeling coiled in the bottom of her stomach like a snake hiding in the crannies of a stone fence.
The wagon creaked up a hill, past a clump of juniper that half-hid a broken, weathered gate. Not far away she glimpsed a pile of stones, a caved-in roof, and empty, staring windows that reminded her of vacant eyes. "Where are the Nilssons?" she called to the wagon driver, who fumbled with his box of snuff.
"Corporation bought their place, so they emigrated," he replied. "No one stays in Sweden anymore. They go to Amerika."
Amerika. Alfreda sighed. Even the word was beautiful and full of promise. A-mer-i-ka.
A cuckoo sang from an alder. Soon she'd see her grandparents' cottage, where everyone would be waiting for her. She sat up very straight, very tall, gathered her worn wool shawl around her sturdy shoulders, and hoped she looked grown up. She was sixteen years old. The last time she'd been home, she was thirteen and had just finished her confirmation with honors. Would anyone remember how well she read aloud that day? So many high hopes for her -- the finest scholar in the parish. Everyone said she'd go on to the seminaria to study, then perhaps she'd get a job as a teacher....
Alfreda's shoulders sagged. So much big talk!
There was no money for more schooling, Mama had told her. For the past three years Alfreda had worked for her keep with her uncle, the tailor in Alna. She rose at dawn to cook, milk the cows, and clean the house. Not once did her stingy aunt offer to pay her. Not once did anyone talk to her or treat her like anything more than an ignorant hired servant who slept in the kitchen corner. Only when Mama's letter arrived was she finally allowed to return to Värmland for a visit.
"Your brother is dying. Come home."
Alfreda craned her neck when she saw chimney smoke floating overhead. The road zigzagged through a stand of apple trees. Wind shook delicate white apple blossoms down on her. The sweet, damp petals clung to her hair like snow and made her feel strangely happy. Surely Mama had been wrong. Little Karl would get better. In this season of so much promise, so much sunlight, he would grow strong.
When Alfreda had left home, her thin, big-eyed brother with the wispy pale hair had just turned four. He had always coughed, ever since he was a baby. Sometimes he would turn nearly blue trying to breathe. And he cried too much. He was spoiled, that much was certain. Mama never scolded him when he dipped his curious, dirty fingers into the bread bowl.
No matter how hard Alfreda tried, she could not vividly recall Karl's face. She squeezed her eyes shut, struggling to imagine the shape of his nose, his forehead, his mouth. Anything. Of course, won't he look different now? He was born in 1905. Seven years earlier. The same year they moved in with her grandparents. The same year Papa left.
Suddenly the wagon stopped.
Alfreda flew forward, eyes open. Yes, this was her grandparents' cottage. She was certain. There were the squared pine log walls and the roof shingled with layers of birch bark. She spied the worn stone steps and the arched garden trellis -- exactly as she had left them. But what were these many strangers' wagons and carriages doing here? Whose horses were these that stood impatiently pawing the ground?
Something is wrong.
She jumped from the wagon and ran to the cottage door, not even stopping to answer when the wagon driver called, "What about your trunk?"
She pushed the door open. The small cottage was hot, stuffy, and crowded with neighbors. They turned like a herd of sheep and looked at her with pitying expressions.
"Poor, poor thing!" bleated ancient Olga. For good measure, she spit -- a sure means to keep the powers of darkness at a distance.
"Such a lovely burial at the churchyard, too," murmured Helda, the blacksmith's widow.
"That new shirt with the lace collar," Olga added. "So beautiful."
Alfreda stumbled past the women. Beside the fireplace sat Mama in a black kerchief pulled around her face so that it covered her sunken cheeks. Long ago people called her the village beauty. Now her skin was as tough as a winter apple and white streaked her yellow hair. Her back was bent from too many hours hunched over the sewing machine. She did not embrace Alfreda. She only looked up with sad, accusing eyes and said, "He's gone."
Alfreda did not know what to do, what to think. She watched the villagers dipping chunks of bread into mugs of coffee and making loud sucking noises. Someone had baked a sweet cake with a big black sugar cross in the middle. The table groaned with platters of meatballs and stewed peas and boiled potatoes and sweet cheese -- more food than Alfreda had seen in more than a year. But she did not feel hungry. She did not feel anything.
She stared at Grandfather's army comrades, who sipped brännvin, a strong mourning drink. They wiped their gray mustaches with the backs of their hands and nodded solemnly when they noticed her. She did not hear them when they uttered clumsy condolences.
Someone grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her. Tiny, deaf Grandmother thrust into Alfreda's hands two sweetmeats wrapped in black paper on which had been pasted paper angels with white wings. Grandmother held fast to Alfreda and steered her through the crowd to Grandfather. He sat on a low stool beside Old Klinta-Kitta, who had cured many people of bone fever, dropsy, and blood infection. Why couldn't she save Karl?
"Alfreda!" Grandfather said, struggling to his feet. He hugged her so hard she could not breathe. "Our poor little one's gone to Jesus. His cough...his cough -- " He bit his lip, unable to go on.
"God rest his soul," piped up Old Klinta-Kitta. She gulped her brännvin. "Your mother owes everyone in town trying to find a cure. When he was too far gone for any of my herbs to work, she bought every elixir, every quack medicine -- "
"Hush now, Klinta-Kitta," Grandfather murmured. "He was her only son."
Noisy Old Klinta-Kitta paid no attention to his warning. "An America-widow should be more careful with her money. A husband gone seven years. That's a very long time. He might never come back."
"Enough now, Klinta-Kitta!" Grandfather said, louder this time. He turned and smiled at Alfreda, but his mouth quickly collapsed at the corners. "Where is your little sister? I am sure she would like to see you. We shall find her. Soon our guests will be leaving. Erna must say goodbye."
Alfreda nodded. She felt dazed and numb, as if she were helplessly watching a bad dream unfolding. When will I wake up? She shuffled behind Grandfather, past Mama's gleaming sewing machine, which had been covered with a black cloth. In her hand she still clutched the little paper with the angels and the uneaten sweetmeats. Erna. She had completely forgotten about her seven-year-old sister. No. Now she was ten. Erna was ten years old. Perhaps she will not remember me, either.
As she made her way past the mourners, Alfreda put one foot in front of the other and prayed that she would not be stopped by a neighbor and have to talk and pretend to be sad. What is wrong with me?
"Erna has always been such a good and loving child." Mama's voice drifted past. "So obedient. Never a disappointment. Nothing like Alfreda..."
Nothing like Alfeda. Alfreda stumbled toward the door. Her wooden shoes seemed to be as heavy as iron. She couldn't breathe. Faster! Get out!
"But have you heard my America-letter? Why, of course not. You're just home from your aunt and uncle's," Olaf the shoemaker said. He held on to Alfreda's sleeve. Before Alfreda could wriggle away and follow Grandfather out the door, Olaf waved a piece of expensive America-paper in her face. "Listen to this. It's from my sister in Brooklyn, America."
Alfreda had to listen. She had no choice. The reading of an America-letter was as important as the reading of a sermon by the parish clergyman. Whenever a letter came, everyone in the village heard the words at least twice. Reading an America-letter was a chance to share one's relative's good fortune.
Olaf cleared his throat importantly and read aloud:
Whew! So hot it is, the sweat runs off me as I write. You may be sure it is warm enough so we don't have to blow into our hands any longer. Now we have to blow on them instead....I ate strawberries on Sunday, while out with an American family. They live in the same house as we do, so we are together a lot. He is a mate on a boat that goes on the river; I have supper almost every Sunday evening with them, for we play dominoes with them, and so they ask us to stay for supper. I believe no other nation is as hospitable as the Americans, but they will not stand any ceremony. They will invite you just once and if you stand on ceremony, then you have to take the consequences...."
> Alfreda pushed past bragging Olaf. She had to get air. She had to escape. While the rest of the guests argued about whether the strawberries in Brooklyn could be as sweet as the strawberries in Sweden, Alfreda rejoined her grandfather. He waited patiently outside the cottage beside an old sway-backed horse.
"Your sister's in the barn," Grandfather said slowly. He kept stroking the horse as if by doing so he would not have to look at her directly. "She's grieving pretty badly."
Alfreda's cheeks burned. She clenched her teeth. Nobody cares how I feel.
"Be especially kind to Erna, will you?" Grandfather said. He turned to go back inside the cottage. "Tell her she must return to Boppa and say goodbye to our guests."
"Yes, Grandfather," Alfreda said, refusing to call him the babyish nickname her sister always used. Erna. "So obedient. Such a good and loving child. Never a disappointment." Suddenly Alfreda had the irresistible urge to punch the sister she had not seen in three years. Then she'd scream at Mama and their guests, "Leave me alone!"
She did none of those things. Instead she trudged to the cool, dark barn that smelled of sweet dried grass and leather harness and the sweat of horses and cows. Flies buzzed. Mourning doves cooed. In the barn no one chattered about lace-collar burial clothes. No one boasted about strawberries. Life was peaceful.
Erna heard her sister's wooden shoes clunk-clunka-clunk across the wooden floor. Erna hid behind a bale of hay and watched her older sister carefully. She's not the way I remember. Alfreda's ash-blond hair, which hung in a spindly braid down her back, looked darker. Her face was narrower, more serious. Her blue eyes darted this way and that, trying to find Erna.
Erna smiled. She was good at hiding. She and her cousin Anna loved to wander in the forest and build fern-and-moss huts. They dressed in magic outfits made with flowers and leaves. They explored the woods and clambered among the ruins of an ancient castle surrounded by a moat. Sometimes they pretended to be invisible -- the way she was doing right now.
Carefully Erna shifted the small bowl of porridge and the sweet cake into her other hand. This was her offering for the tomte. She peered into the darkness of the barn's highest rafters. Up there in the shadowy corners, Boppa said, the tomte might be watching her at this very moment. Although a tomte stood no taller than her waist, he was in fact a very old man. The tomte was a wise and secretive fellow who came out only at night. She had only caught glimpses of him wearing his home -- woven gray wool jacket, knee breeches, wooden shoes, and red nightcap. "Nothing defiled, nothing wasted. That's what keeps the tomte coming back to our farm," Boppa had told her. As long as they took care of the tomte, the tomte would take care of them.
Erna placed the bowl on the wooden floor. The sudden thud made Alfreda call out fearfully, "Who's there?"
Erna held her breath. She didn't want to speak to this stranger, her sister. Not now. She crouched lower. But she was too late.
"Get up, you little scamp," Alfreda announced. Her hands were on her hips. She frowned. "What are you doing wasting good food?"
"It's for the tomte," Erna mumbled. She stood up slowly. Her sister was much taller than she remembered.
"What foolishness is this?" Alfreda sputtered. She stared hard at her younger sister. Still so small and skinny. Does no one feed her? "You are too old to believe in these foolish old fairy stories."
"The tomte is not a foolish story," Erna insisted. "He is a friendly helper. He is -- "
"Let me look at you. Just as I thought. Your ribs show. You should eat this porridge yourself."
Horrified, Erna shook her head. "I cannot eat what is for the tomte. He will box my ears."
Alfreda rolled her eyes. She had read books. She had read Swedish newspapers from America. Her sister, she decided, was as hopelessly ignorant as Olga and Helda and the other superstitious villagers. What fools! In America people behaved sensibly. They were educated and modern. They didn't spit on the floor to keep away evil spirits. They did not offer good food to an invisible man so that their cows would not go dry. "No one in America worries about having their ears boxed by imaginary creatures," Alfreda announced. "A tomte is nothing but ridiculous rot."
Erna clapped her hands over her ears. I won't listen. I did not hear one word.
"You'll be in big trouble if you hide out here all night. Grandfather wants you to come inside to say goodbye to our guests."
Erna took her hands from her ears. She wished her older sister would go away, back to the far-away place she'd come from.
Wind blew dust and chaff into the air and smarted Alfreda's eyes. "Better hurry, Erna."
Erna set her feet apart. She did not intend to leave until she had finished feeding the tomte.
She's a stubborn one. "Have you ever thought that your food offering might be for nothing?" Alfreda said, her eyes narrowing.
"What do you mean?"
"Perhaps your precious tomte isn't here anymore."
"Perhaps he's deserted you."
Erna took a deep, trembling breath. "What are you saying?"
"If the tomte were here, wouldn't he have kept death away?" said Alfreda, unaware that she had just crushed inside her fist the sticky sweetmeats and the paper with the angels. She turned on her wooden heels. Without looking back to see if her sister was following her, she clattered clunk-clunka-clunk out the barn door.
Copyright © 1998 by Laurie Lawlor
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.