THE ICE HOUSE
by Joelle Steele
This is an historical short story set in 18th century Finland in the Swedish-speaking western region of Ostrobothnia. Another historical short story written by Joelle is The Waiting Room
The wood popped and sputtered in the hearth, the only sound in the room save the occasional moan of the frigid wind as it whipped between the house wall and the tool shed. Anna Bondebacka rocked slowly in her chair as she drew the needle and thread through the cloth and reattached the button to her husband Jock's threadbare woolen jacket. Her rough fingers kept sticking to the dark thread and the coarse fabric, making it hard to complete what was already a difficult task under the dim light of the flickering candles.
From upstairs came soft snoring sounds from her fifteen-year-old son, Hans. His thirteen-year-old brother, Anders, and their younger half-siblings, Carin and Matts, seemed to sleep peacefully through Hans' nightly rumblings. And so did Anna. But she would never say so, nor would she ever admit to her children or even to herself that she felt a certain comfort in knowing they were alive and safely tucked beneath the covers on the two thick straw mattresses. There was no point in sentimentalism. Forming a close attachment to children, especially the very young ones, was folly. So few of them ever made it to adulthood, and even then, well, her first husband Erik had died at the age of twenty-seven.
Erik Hansson had been a strong man, gentle, and possessing a good sense of humor. These days, Anna couldn't even remember the last time she laughed. Perhaps she had not laughed since the day Erik died, October 3, 1733. It was the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary and they had laughed as they watched then three-year-old Hans attempt to milk a cow. Erik didn't come home from the fields that day, and his brother and father went looking for him. They found him on the shore of the Lippo River, where he had evidently fallen from his horse, badly broken his arm and leg, and either bled to death or died of exposure, possibly both. She married Johan Mattsson — Jock to his friends — less than two years later.
Jock was a barrel of a man and fourteen years her senior. He had been widowed twice when they met, both of his wives dying in childbirth. He had one son, Per, who lived in Jock's former home town of Maxmo with his first wife's family. Wife number two had given him twin daughters, one of whom survived and was living with her aunt in Nedervetil. Jock rarely saw either of them, and he did not spend much time with Matts or Carin either. Matts was eight and Carin four. Carin's twin, Carl, died when he was three months old, and there had been another daughter, Elisabet, who died at the age of two, just a few months after Carl. Hans and Anders were just old enough to help out on the farm, so they spent a considerable amount of time working with their stepfather and seemed to get along well enough with him.
Anna wished she got along better with Jock. She looked at the clock on the mantle shelf, a wedding gift from Jock's sister Helena. It was almost ten o'clock and he was still out drinking with his pals, the Lindström twins, Otto and Hjelmer, from neighboring Björkbacka farm. Anna sighed. She knew how fortunate she was to have a husband, a rather prosperous one at that. Jock had married her, a widow with two young sons, and he was a hard worker. But Jock was not Erik. Not only did he lack Erik's sensitivity, but his drinking was destroying what little feeling for him remained in her heart.
Jock's heavy boots landed with a thud on the front steps, breaking Anna's reverie. He turned the latch on the door and entered, shaking snow from his shoulders and stamping his feet on the wood plank floor. After removing his good coat and his scarf and hat, he plopped down onto the bench by the fire and began to take off his boots. He reeked of alcohol, and his movements were unsteady. Anna wondered that he was able to find his way home at all, especially since winter had arrived early and left a blanket of snow on the ground.
"Will you have some coffee?" she offered, rising to pull the coffee pot forward from the side of the hearth where it was kept warm.
Jock grunted his reply and she took a cup from the cupboard and filled it for him. She placed it on the table and went back to her mending. He took a few sips, returned the cup to the table, and then lumbered off to the bedroom where she heard him crash onto the bed with a thud. Within minutes he was snoring loudly. She put her sewing back into the hand-painted box that Erik had made for her as a gift on their first anniversary. Sighing, she retired for the night.
* * *
"I am going to town," announced Jock the following morning before sunrise. "Hans! Hurry yourself. It is time that we leave."
Hans dashed down the stairs, struggling with his jacket and wrapping a heavy scarf around his neck. He grabbed his hat from the hook near the door and bounded outside to hitch up the sleigh.
"I have a list for you," said Anna, handing a small piece of paper to her husband. "I want to have everything ready for when Helena comes tomorrow." She knew that Jock would be more accommodating about running her little errands if he knew that they would ultimately benefit his visiting sister.
Jock took the list and said nothing. He put on his hat and buttoned his coat, then put on his gloves and picked up the lunch tin filled with food which Anna had prepared for him and Hans. He opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. Anna could feel the cold crisp air filling the room.
"Jock, close the door!" she ordered. He nodded to her and closed the door behind him. She could hear him and Hans talking as they boarded the sleigh and headed for the village of Lippojärvi, just a few miles away.
Anna went to the bedroom and put on her old wool dress. Even though she planned to spend the day cooking over a hot fire, the flames alone would not be enough to heat the house during the early days of a Finnish winter. She went to the kitchen area and cleared off the table. Anders came downstairs and drank a cup of coffee while he gnawed on a piece of kaffebröd his mother had made the previous day.
"I need some cheese from the ice box," said Anna, the order for her son to fetch it implied in her tone of voice.
"I do not think we have any left. Hans said ..."
"There are two more boxes of cheese," she interrupted sharply. "Jock wrapped them in cloth. We need more wood too."
Anders finished his roll in silence. He was used to his mother's curt responses to everything. She was as cold as the snow that covered the Bondebacka homestead each year. Any attempt to engage her in a conversation was in vain. Every day was just like the one before it to her. Anders wasn't sure how long she had been this way, or if she had always been so hard.
"The calf is doing well," remarked Anders in another vain attempt to communicate with her. He put on his gloves and hat and went out the pantry door to the porch, where he opened the ice box.
Anna did not respond. It was her duty to care for the cows, and that she did with a skill born of years of practice. She had begun milking cows when she was only six years old, and had been doing so daily ever since. Of course the calf was doing well. Why shouldn't it?
Anders came in with a block of cheese. He laid it on the pantry hutch and cut out a fourth of it. He re-wrapped the remainder and returned it to the ice box. Then he went behind the tool shed to chop wood. Anna put on her work coat and her shawl, pulled on her boots, and left by the same door to go milk the cows.
The barn was cool, but not cold. All the animals gathered together seemed to keep it from freezing. Anna calmly milked each of the eight dairy cows, some the same cows she had milked as a young woman, and others the offspring of the cows she had milked as a child, for Anna had lived her entire life on Bondebacka farm, and her family had been farming on Bondebacka for over one hundred years.
It was 1641 when her great-grandfather, Lars Andersson, left his parents' home in Uppsala, Sweden at the age of 21, and crossed the Gulf of Bothnia, bound for the Swedish settlement of Lippojärvi on the Finnish frontier. He was the youngest of four surviving sons of a middle-class family, and his only hope for financial independence was to strike out on his own and carve a life for himself. He had died long before Anna was born, but stories of him were still told, of how he arrived with only the clothes on his back and enough money to purchase fourteen acres of farm land — four in Österbacka, seven on Bondebacka, and three in Lillrank. It had taken him two hours a day just to walk and ride to and from the various strips of land, and he had very little experience in farming, but seemed to have a knack for it and did well for himself.
In 1644, Lars married Malin Danielsdotter, a pastor's daughter from Esse. According to the stories, they were an excellent match. They had six children, two of whom survived to adulthood: Anna's father, Carl Larsson who later inherited Bondebacka farm, and her uncle, Tore Larsson, who inherited the smaller Österbacka and Lillrank farms. Malin Larsson died in 1696, during the early years of the Great Wrath, and Lars died on the day the century changed, January 1, 1700. The house he built for Malin had burned to the ground just days before.
A new era was ushered in with the construction of a new and bigger house by her father and Tore, and that was where Anna was born eight years later and where she still lived to this day. Fortunately, it was spared during the Great Nordic War when the Russians invaded in 1713. Unfortunately, her father and her twelve-year-old brother Carl-Johan were killed in that same war in 1716. A year later, her mother married the bachelor farmer, Henrik Andersson — Lippo-Henrik — who moved to Bondebacka farm. Only two weeks later, Anna's eighteen-year-old brother Lars married Gustava Persdotter of Vetil, and the couple moved to Åbo. Anna had seen him only once since then.
Her mother and Lippo-Henrik got along well, he was a good father to Anna, and she was fond of him. The remainder of Anna's childhood, though lonely at times, was not altogether unbearable. But her childhood was characterized by the fact that she did all her growing up during the Great Nordic War, which was a part of the Great Wrath that had begun in 1695 with massive crop failures that killed thousands. The Great Wrath ended when the eight-year Russian occupation ended in 1721, at which time a part of southeastern Finland was ceded to Russia. Anna's only memories of the occupation came from having seen Russian soldiers in the village of Lippojärvi when she went there with her parents on one or two occasions. The soldiers only came to the farm once that she recalled, and they took some of the cows, including Anna's favorite, Mina, who she had raised from a calf.
When Anna married Erik in 1728, she followed the custom of the time by bringing her husband to live at Bondebacka. Erik had been reluctant at first, but when he and Anna spent the day riding around the farm and surveying the surrounding areas, he was taken by the extensive forests that bordered the growing fields and the lush grazing pastures. Erik had not only fallen in love with the daughter of Bondebacka, but with Bondebacka itself. When Anna's stepfather died, and her mother three years later, Erik had kept everything running smoothly during the transition of ownership. His life, though unbearably short, was a happy one indeed.
These days, Bondebacka was the domain of Jock Mattsson Bondebacka. The farm still ran smoothly, it made money, and it had lost none of its beauty, but it had lost its soul. It was not a home, but rather a cold house, an ice house, just like the little outbuilding where they stored milk and other perishable foods in the summer. Fragile things surrounded by ice.
"Whenever I come here I see everything looking the same, but it does not feel the same, does it?" remarked Anna's uncle Tore Larsson when he visited one day during spring.
"I know. It feels different to me too," sighed Anna. "Maybe it is just the passage of time and our perspectives changing as we age."
Tore laughed. "I think maybe I am aging just a little faster than you are." He was 63 years old, but he still looked much as he did at the age of 40. Tore was a quiet man, more drawn to reading and study than to farming. But he still managed to make a life for himself on his two small farms. He had never married, but he had two families living on the farm and was often seen playing with their children.
Jock was not the kind of man to go and play with children. Everything was business to Jock. When Anna first met him, he seemed quite different, more affable. He did brood a bit now and then, but on the whole he had always seemed rather cheerful and outgoing. But, after twelve years of marriage, he seemed disinterested in Anna and they rarely spoke unless it was necessary. She wanted to get along with him, but she just didn't know how to do it. And worse yet, she was ruled by her anger and grief over the losses she had suffered in life. She knew that many people turned to alcohol to drown their sorrows, but she did not have such luxury. There were four children to think of, especially the little ones, Carin and Matts.
Anna finished the milking, filled the tins, and helped Anders load them into the milk sled. He hopped aboard and waited for a few seconds until his eight-year-old half-brother Matts came running out of the house. The two set off to make deliveries in the village and to a few of the smaller neighboring farms that did not have enough cows to fill all their dairy needs. Due to the first snows, they would not be home until day's end. By that time, Anna would have cooked and baked for most of the day, all in preparation for a visit the following day from Jock's sister, Helena Gustafson of Maxmo.
* * *
"I hope that your journey was not too tiring," greeted Anna as her sister-in-law stepped onto the porch and hurried into the house, rubbing her hands and heading for the fireplace. "Can I get you some coffee? I also have fresh bread, cheese, and berry preserves." Anna was anxious to please her houseguest, even though she and Helena had only met twice before and could not really be considered friends.
Helena nodded, "That would be just fine." She removed her boots and placed them on the hearth's fender and then curled her heavily stockinged feet into the folds of her thick black wool dress. Helena was still in mourning for her husband Gustaf Gustafson, who had passed away late last summer. He had been ill for some months, but his death had still been a shock; he had always been such a strong man. Helena missed him, but she desperately needed to get away from Maxmo, the cloying sympathies of her family, and the sudden cold distance of Gustaf's.
"I am going up to Björkbacka farm," announced Jock, who poked his head in the front door without entering. "Hjelmer fixed the wheel for the milk cart and I need to pick it up. I'll be back in time for supper." He didn't wait for a reply before shutting the door and bounding off into the snow.
Anna said nothing, although she knew that there was more to the Björkbacka trip than retrieving a wheel that would not be usable until spring, which was months away. But if Jock wanted to be away from her, so be it. Helena sat silently by the fire, eating her supper and warming herself after the six-hour coach and sleigh ride to Bondebacka. Anna had never made a long trip; her journeys were to nearby Lippojärvi, usually in the wagon, which took about a half-hour each way. She couldn't even imagine being rattled around in a coach or being subjected to the icy cold of a sleigh ride for six hours. Surely that could not be healthy, and yet many traveled even greater distances than had Helena on this day.
The clock on the mantle chimed the hour and Helena looked up.
"I see it still works," she commented about the wedding gift she had made to Anna and Jock so many years before.
"Oh yes, and it keeps excellent time," said Anna, hoping to get the visit off to a good start. Helena would be staying with them for several weeks, and in such close quarters she didn't want there to be any problems between them. Jock would never let her forget it.
"Where are the little ones?" asked Helena.
"It is nap time for Carin. She'll be down shortly. Matts is with Anders finishing the milk deliveries."
"It must be such a comfort to have children," said Helena wistfully. "I wish that Gus and I had been so fortunate."
"It is a blessing but also a great sorrow," said Anna offhandedly. She sat down in Jock's chair across from Helena and reached over to pull the coffee pot from the fire.
"How can a child ever be a sorrow?" asked Helena, her voice raised in surprise.
"When they die, when they die young."
"Everyone dies eventually."
"Children should never die. Never. They should always outlive their parents."
The two women sat in silence, eating their supper, when four-year-old Carin came stumbling sleepily down the stairs, trailing a blanket behind her and heading straight for the small supper table in front of the fire. She reached for the limpa bread and almost knocked over the jam jar. Anna grabbed her wrist and pulled it firmly.
"Sit down," she commanded sternly, and the tiny blond cupid responded by immediately pulling a small chair over to the table and taking a seat.
"Carin, this is your Aunt Helena. She's come very far to see you. What do you say to her?"
"I am pleased to meet you, Aunt Helena," mumbled Carin, looking at her aunt but tucking her chin to her chest slightly, in a submissive gesture that Helena recognized from her own childhood.
"I too am pleased to meet you, my dear," replied Helena. "Would you like some limpa and cheese?" She held out a piece of bread with a small slice of cheese on top of it.
"She'll spill that on the floor," argued Anna.
"Possibly. But she is only a child, and she has to eat," said Helena in her calmest tone. "And she needs a hug." Helena reached out and drew her niece into her arms and held her, kissing her gently on the forehead. Anna held her tongue.
* * *
Anders and Matts arrived home at four o'clock, hungry, tired, and cold. Jock came back with the cart wheel shortly after that, followed by Hans, who had spent the day helping his great-uncle Tore make an emergency repair to the house roof over at Österbacka farm. Dinner was to be a celebration of Helena's arrival, and Hans had arrived just before Tore, who had stopped along the way to pick up Mathilda Lindström, Otto and Hjelmer's sister, and her husband Edvard Persson, who was the pastor of Lippojärvi parish. Jock was not overly fond of Edvard, but he tolerated him for the sake of his friendship with Mathilda's brothers, who both arrived just as the food was being served.
Within a few moments, the house was alive with family and friends, all talking and eating, laughing and drinking. All, of course, except Anna, who rushed from pantry to table, from hearth to pantry, upstairs and back down, and again back to the pantry. Her hospitality was impeccable as far as her culinary skills were concerned. When Uncle Tore tried to bend her ear about having Hans come work on Österbacka or Lillrank farm, something about how he was such a fine young man and there was so much to do, Anna simply replied, "Not now, Tore. I am so busy."
Anna always kept busy. Idle hands were the devil's workshop. She made sure that everyone had plenty of whatever it was that they were eating or drinking. She cleared away dishes which she washed in a large pan at the back of the pantry and then dried and brought back to be reused by her family and company. On her latest perusal of the room, she noted that the fire was burning low. During a Finnish winter, one did not ever let the fire get that low, even when the house was filled with warm bodies. She looked for Hans and Anders to have them go fetch some wood. They were playing cards with Tore, so she wrapped her shawl over her shoulders and picked up the basket by the door and went out to the woodpile.
* * *
"Hans? Where is your mother?" asked Jock.
"I do not know. I have been playing cards with Uncle Tore."
"Perhaps she has gone upstairs to rest. She has been working awfully hard all evening," interjected Mathilda.
"Well, we need wood for the fire. It has almost gone out and the room is starting to get cold." Jock looked around the room and then went upstairs, taking two steps at a time. He came right back down. "She's not upstairs."
"Papa!" called Carin as she ran up to her father. "I am tired. Will you read me to sleep? I cannot find Mama."
"In a minute, Carin," replied Jock. He turned and bumped into Hans. They both headed for the front door, grabbing their jackets on the way out.
The ground was white with a bluish cast, and the sky was dark and clear, with the moon just close enough to full to light up the area all the way to the barn. But they did not need to see as far as the barn. The wood pile was just a few feet away from the house, and there in the snow, lay Anna Bondebacka's lifeless body, the wood basket at her side.
"Hans, go get Uncle Tore."
Hans ran to the house, and Jock ran to Anna. Her limp body had little warmth left in it, and she did not respond to his cries for her to wake up. He picked her up and brought her into the house through the rear door and directly to the fireplace. He sat her into his big chair and rubbed her hands and feet. He tried to listen to her heart but heard nothing. She was not breathing. He continued to rub her limbs and Anders came running towards him with a blanket, which they wrapped around her. Someone, possibly Tore, brought some wood and stoked the fire.
"Jock, she is gone," said Helena.
"No, she cannot be," said Tore, touching his niece's hand and trying to hold her head upright.
"Yes, I fear she is gone," said Jock, and Helena was surprised to see his eyes well up with tears.
"Someone find Pastor Persson," said Tore, and Hans and Anders both went to bring the pastor to the fireside.
"What do you think, Ed?" asked Jock, a tear running down the side of his nose and onto his upper lip.
"I am so sorry, Johan," comforted Edvard.
* * *
Early the next morning, Jock, Tore, and Hans went to the barn where they hastily assembled a coffin from the milled pine boards that were supposed to be used come spring to build a new outhouse. Anders gathered clean straw and made a thick layer of it all the way up the sides. In the house, Helena and Mathilda dressed Anna in her best dress, the pale blue wool with white lace at the cuffs. Mathilda combed Anna's hair and arranged it carefully, while Helena removed a white shear curtain from one of the bedrooms, and brought it downstairs. Moments later, Jock and Tore carried the coffin into the house and lifted Anna into it. Mathilda and Helena adjusted the shear fabric over her body.
Anders rode to the nearby farms and notified the neighbors and friends of his mother's passing. By two o'clock that afternoon, family and friends had gathered to hear Pastor Persson lead them all in prayer. A proper funeral would be held when the ground thawed in spring. It was far too hard to dig a grave in winter. After all had paid their respects and eaten more of the food Anna had so carefully prepared less than two days prior, Jock pulled a chair over to the table that held her coffin. Giant salty drops fell into his lap and onto his large, work-worn hands. He wanted to say something, to say goodbye, to tell her he loved her, but the words drowned in the great river of tears.
The next morning, Jock and Tore carried Anna to the ice house. Anders carefully tucked another layer of straw around his mother's body before Jock and Tore nailed the lid in place. It would be hard for him to enter this room again come spring without wanting to cry the way he wanted to cry right now. Somehow the tears would not flow, and he could not help but think that maybe his mother was happier now. She had certainly never seemed very happy in all his life. Maybe a heavenly reward was just what she needed, and perhaps was all she ever wanted.
* * *
Anna Bondebacka awoke with a start. Her head was pounding. The room was cold and pitch black. Not even a sliver of moonlight broke the darkness, and she feared that the fall — she had tripped over the hem of her dress — and resulting blow to her head had left her blind.
"Jock!" she called. The room remained silent. She tried to sit up and her hands grasped straw through a rough but lightweight fabric. Where was she? She tried again to raise her head and sit up, and this time her head impacted the cloth, a layer of straw, and a hard surface as well. She tried to turn and found herself surrounded on all sides. She struggled to release herself from the material that covered her face. She freed her hands and felt all around her, touching the wood and straw.
"Jock!" she screamed this time, for she now knew where she was.
* * *
"I cannot think about these things right now," said Jock, his head bent down, forehead in his hand.
"You have to do something, Jock," urged Helena. "The children need a mother, especially the little ones."
"I know, Helena, I know."
Carin stood in front of the fire, sobbing quietly.
"Please, child, go to your room," said Jock softly.
Carin looked up at him and instead began to cry more loudly.
"Take her upstairs, please," Jock pleaded.
Helena reached out to Carin and the little girl took her hand and together they went upstairs.
"I guess I should be going now," said Tore.
"Thank you, friend," said Jock. "I could not have gotten through this without your help."
"I hope she is in a better place, Jock," said Tore sincerely.
"She was not a happy woman," said Jock, beginning to cry again. "I know that. I could not make her happy. I tried, and then I stopped trying. I will have to live with that."
Tore put his hand on Jock's shoulder. "We all tried." He rose to leave just as Helena came down the stairs and took a seat in front of the fire.
"She is asleep. So is Matts."
Jock mumbled a thank you to his sister, stood up, and walked Tore to the front door. Tore was surprised to see the rough-and-tumble Jock so broken. He honestly hadn't believed that the man had any feelings at all. In fact, up until that very moment, he had always believed that Anna was cold and hard because of Jock and not the other way around.
Helena cleared away some dishes from the table and brought them into the pantry. She prepared a small snack of cheese and bread for Jock and his two stepsons, and made some fresh coffee.
Hans ate heartily but in silence, and Anders nibbled at the limpa bread as he talked about his mother.
"She was so angry all the time. I was mad at her for being angry."
"She was not angry at you," offered Helena. She did not know Anna well at all, but she knew the source of the woman's harsh nature. Life was hard. It had been no harder for Anna than for any other woman of the time, but some handled it better. Living her childhood out against the Great Wrath was a contributing factor to her icy personality, and so was the loss of her first husband, her parents, her brother, her two babies. It all added up. Helena believed that if Anna could have cried, it might have made all the difference in the world. It might have melted the layer of protective ice that had formed around her.
"Then why was she so angry?" Anders slapped his bread onto the table and leaned back in his chair, fighting hard to keep from crying again.
Helena tried to explain things, but stopped short when she realized that what Anders really wanted to know was how his mother could leave him. He was so like her. She hoped his loss would not add a layer of ice to his personality too. Hans was already bearing his grief with a hard stoicism. Matts seemed confused, and Carin was the only one who was really showing signs of being completely distraught without her mother, regardless of how distant that parent had been.
* * *
Anna lay in silence, thinking about her plight. How long could she survive until someone finally came close enough to the ice house to hear her? They rarely used the ice house during the winter, especially when it was so much easier to just store things in the little ice box on the back porch.
She could feel panic setting in. How many times had she wished that she was dead? It didn't matter now, because she knew she did not want to die, not like this. What must the children be thinking? They would be devastated at the loss of their mother. And Jock? Well, he probably was picking out wife number four to take care of the children, or maybe he had already shipped the children off to live with relatives, maybe to her brother's in Åbo. She didn't know how long she had lain in the coffin. It could have been days, and anything could have happened.
It was strange to think that this was probably the first time in ten years that she had been forced to be still with absolutely nothing to do. Keeping busy had always saved her from having to confront the shortcomings of her life. Now, it seemed that they were all she could see, and she did not like it one little bit. And the results of all her grief, of all her hardships, she had taken it out on those she loved the most by withholding that love, by replacing love with anger and fear, by attempting to distance herself from life and all the joy that life had to offer.
Poor Carin. How much damage had she done to her sweet little girl? And her boys. They needed her too, even though they would probably never admit it. Would she ever be able to undo the harm she may have brought on them all? Would she ever be released from her coffin?
"Oh my dear Lord," she prayed. "Please let someone come here and set me free. I swear that I will be a better mother, a better wife. Please do not let me die like this, so alone and so cold."
A banging sound broke the silence of her prayer. She perked her ears and called out.
"Jock! Is that you? Anders? Someone help me!"
But it was only the wind blowing against the door. Somewhere near her feet she could feel the cold air blowing through a crack in the coffin. She tried to rub her feet together and finally managed to get them tucked into the hay, where they remained cold, but did not have to be subjected to more cold coming through the crack.
* * *
"I will not be home for supper," announced Jock following breakfast. "I will be in the village most of today."
"Would it not be better if you stayed home, Jock?" queried Helena as she cleared away the dishes. "The children need you now."
Jock did not answer her, as he put on his coat, gloves, and scarf, and headed out the door.
Hans rose and took a piece of bread which he put in his pocket. He was leaving to stay with his Uncle Tore for the week to help out at Lillrank farm. Anders came in from milking the cows just as Hans was leaving. He sat down at the table with Matts and Carin and turned his attention to eating. He was hungry after not eating much dinner the night before.
"Everything goes on just like she never died," he stated.
Matts looked up at him and Carin fumbled with her spoon.
"Mama is not coming back, is she?" asked Matts.
"No, Matts," said Anders. "She is not. She has gone to heaven."
"I want Mama," said Carin, whining and fidgeting, her tiny fists clenched at her side, and clearly on the verge of another teary breakdown.
Anders felt for his siblings. He wanted his mother back too. If she would only come back, he would make her happy, somehow. He didn't know how he would do it, but he would find a way. He finished his breakfast and thanked Helena for all her help, and then he and Matts left to deliver the milk to the villagers in Lippojärvi, just as they had done on every other day. But it was not like every other day.
* * *
The wind was whistling and howling. Anna wondered what time it was, what day it was. There was no light at all, not even from the crack in the coffin that let the cold air in. She had stopped yelling out for help and was instead trying to listen for the sounds of people near the ice house.
But she had not stopped crying. She could not stop crying. Surrounded only by straw and pine, she was alone with herself and her feelings, feelings she had not allowed herself for many years. After careful examination of her life, she was able to see how far she had strayed from the happy child she once was when she was Carin's age. When her father died, a little piece of her had died with him. The same happened when her brother Carl-Johan died. And such a big piece died with the loss of her husband Erik. And then there were the babies. But she couldn't seem to cry. In fact, she remembered her mother telling her that crying wouldn't bring them back. And, of course, it wouldn't, so what would be the point?
Crying couldn't raise the dead. She had learned that early in life, and she had also learned that nothing was forever. How quickly loved ones could be snatched away! And she had no control over it, none whatsoever. She was helpless to prevent their demise. She couldn't even stop her brother Lars when he moved to Åbo. She cried and pleaded with him to stay. He calmly told her that he needed to go and live in Åbo and that she could write to him. And she did. But he only wrote back three times, and eventually, she stopped writing.
Anna tried to stifle her tears, but the dam had burst and the tears were now flowing out of control, down her temples and into her ears. Her nose was swollen and it became hard to breathe. Her throat was growing sore as well. She tried to pray in between sobs, choking on her words and distorting them. She hoped that God understood what she was trying to say.
"Dear God, please lift this pain from me! I beg you! I will be different, I swear. Please get me out of here! Please, Lord, please!"
The only answer was riding on the wind as it howled outside and banged the ice house door.
* * *
Otto and Hjelmer Lindström had been drinking. They were always drinking, according to anyone who knew the two men, and at 49 years of age, and largely due to their drinking habits, the twins were still unmarried and becoming less desirable as husband material every year.
The Lindström boys had inherited the 14-acre Björkbacka farm in 1724 on the death of their father, Torvald Nygård of Helsingfors, who had purchased the distant farm as an investment, but he had never farmed it himself, nor any other farm for that matter. Otto had convinced Hjelmer that they could be farmers, so the two moved from the great city to the tiny parish of Lippojärvi.
The Björkbacka house was on the end of the farm that was farthest from the closest farm, Bondebacka. At the end of each week, on Saturday nights, instead of going home at day's end, Otto and Hjelmer stopped work in the fields nearest Bondebacka and took the shortcut through Anna and Jock's farm out to the main road to Lippojärvi, which they crossed to go to the old Finn Heikki Pääkkönen's hunting lodge, where they drank home-made whiskey from Heikki's still.
It was just after midnight when the very drunken Otto and Hjelmer set out for home along the shortcut through Bondebacka farm. The two men stumbled along, each trying to keep the other upright and out of the snow. The last time that one of them, Hjelmer, fell in the snow at night, he ended up almost dying of pneumonia. They passed the barn and stepped onto the little path that led to the ice house at the edge of the trees, which in turn connected to another path that was a shortcut through the woods that came out at the lower fields of Björkbacka.
"What is that?" asked Otto as they passed the ice house.
"Wind, Otto. Have you not heard the wind whistle and howl before?"
"It did not sound like the wind to me. There it is again!"
The two men stopped and listened. The wind was whistling and howling, but in between the gusts there was a keening sound, like someone crying.
"It is a ghost!" said Otto, the world spinning around him. "It is Anna's ghost. Jock said they put her in the ice house."
"Nonsense," spat Hjelmer, his eyes trying to focus their attention on the tiny building.
The sound grew louder and then suddenly stopped. Otto began to laugh.
"I guess you are right. It is not a ghost, just the wind."
They laughed loudly and continued on their way past the ice house.
"Help me! Somebody help! Can you hear me? Help!"
"That was no ghost," said Hjelmer, and he drew his brother to the side of the path and went up the little snow-covered walk to the ice house front door steps.
* * *
"Will anyone have more coffee?" Anna held up the pot for all to see.
"Thank you, Anna," said Jock, his mouth brimming with the succulent juices. "This roast is delicious."
"Yes, and the potatoes too!" added Matts, tipping his tin cup of milk and spilling it onto the bread board.
"Uh-oh! I am sorry, Mama. I did not mean to ..."
"It is all right, my love. We have plenty more." Anna grabbed a towel and began to mop up the spill. "Hans, Uncle Tore tells me that you have been a great help to him at Lillrank."
"I guess so. We finished the roof repairs and now we are working at repairing some of the barn stalls."
"I am going to help," added Anders, stuffing bread smothered in preserves into his mouth.
"I am proud of you both, my two strong boys."
"Three, Mama. Me, too."
"Of course, Matts. My three strong boys!"
"Mama, will you read me a story?" interrupted Carin, obviously tired and sporting more food on her face than probably made it into her tiny stomach.
"Carin, Mama is very busy right now," reprimanded Anders gently.
"Oh no, not at all. Carin, I am never too busy for you, my little one — not for any of you. Of course I will read you a story, my baby." Anna walked around the table to Carin and wiped the remnants of dinner from her face. She lifted the fair child from her chair and held her close. "Come, let us get you ready for bed."
Jock rose from his chair, wiping his mouth. "I think maybe tonight we will both read to you," he said to Carin, and followed his wife and child upstairs.