midnight sun | by Joel Fishbane | fiction

          In some Swedish circles, young girls prepare dream porridge to find out who they will marry. The porridge is heavily salted and the girls eat it before bed; it’s believed their future husband visits their dreams and slakes their thirst. On the twilight when Hank Fitzpatrick visited my grandmother, Kjerstin Almgren, she was wide awake. It was 1908. The midnight sun had given her insomnia and she was curing her thirst with a canteen hidden beneath the bed.
          Mama Almgren had been forcing dream porridge upon her daughter since the start of the week. She didn’t know that Kjerstin wasn’t sleeping. Until now, whenever she was interrogated about her dreams, Kjerstin had simply lied.
          “I dreamed of a man with a wild and defiant manner,” she said, stealing the phrase from a book. “He had the devil’s eyes and hair like Samson before the haircut.”
          Mama Almgren shook her head. “There’s no one like that in this village. We’ll have to try again.”
          That night, Kjerstin made sure to read a different book.
          “I saw a lumberjack with a stern but compassionate face,” she said the next morning. “His forehead betrayed a wonderful sense of humor.”
          Mama Almgren sighed. “Tonight we’ll add another cup of salt.”
          The problem was that Mama Almgren was waiting for a description that matched one of the village’s two most eligible bachelors. Kjerstin would have preferred to leave the matter to herself but had long since lost the opportunity. She was twenty-seven and it was my great grandmother’s considered opinion that if Kjerstin could handle the matter herself, it would already be done (The notion that Kjerstin might not ever marry was not a consideration - not even to Kjerstin herself).
          The two eligible bachelors were Rolf Paulson, from the town council, and the lawyer Lindstrom. Neither had a wild and defiant manner, but Lindstrom was smart, Paulson was kind, and both had money. On the third twilight, Mama Almgren prepared another batch of porridge and mentioned the town council as often as she dared. Better a kind husband then a smart one, in her opinion. Kjerstin was well aware of her mother’s schemes, but by the third twilight she no longer cared.
          During the midnight sun, the night is replaced by a hazy gloom. As soon as the daylight dimmed, Kjerstin exchanged her thick socks for beaded slippers and slid into the prettiest dress she owned: a pale cotton shift with an elegant trim. She washed in icy water; she didn’t dare heat the kettle lest the whistle wake her parents. It was a cold twilight and she kept her hair beneath her sleeping cap until she heard Hank on the trellis. He clambered into the room and kissed her all over. Then he took an atlas from his knapsack and showed her a map. “This is where I would take you,” he proclaimed and only then did my grandmother, like Rapunzel, finally lower her hair. She began plotting her escape; a week later, she would begin telling people he was dead.
          She had been in that village her entire life and knew everything there was to know about its men. Like her mother, she knew Rolf Paulson was kind and the lawyer Lindstrom was smart. She knew who was handsome, fat, clever or dull. But she knew nothing of  Hank Fitzpatrick; he had come from the outside world.
          “He’s spectacular,” she declared to the cat. “Pale and clean, like a blank page.”
          Hank stumbled into her life only one day before he would clamber into her room. Spring had blown him across Europe via convoys, freights, and the kindness of strangers. He arrived in the village to find the stores empty and the tavern locked. He thought he had found a ghost town until he heard the nyckelharpa’s strange twang. It was being played so badly that Hank almost turned away. Then Papa Almgren began playing the flute and Sven the Butcher joined in on a drum. Both were supreme musical talents and Hank followed the sound. He turned all the right corners and walked up the hill until he discovered the community nestled in a pasture of silver birch.
          My grandmother did not look all that lovely. The prettiest thing she owned was still in her armoire and she was wearing the same outfit she had been wearing to the Midsummer Festival every year since she was seventeen. The outfit was an unfortunate and unflattering tradition. Her clothes been handed down so often that by the time they reached her, the hems were miserable and the seams suicidal. She wore her mother’s bodice, her cousin’s bonnet, and a neighbour’s cotton skirt. The broach was tarnished and the clasp of the pewter belt was held together by hope.
          Some steps beyond the festivities, Kjerstin stood beneath a blooming birch  imagining she would always be ugly and alone. Naturally, Hank fell in love with her right away.
          “You there! Stop gawking!” This was Berit Andersson, who was standing nearby, holding a plate of herring.
          “What is all this?” asked Hank in English.
          Berit gasped. “An American!” Hank’s was already scraggly and in need of soap. Now that he was also an American, he had become completely intolerable.
          “Get away from here!” yelled Berit.
          “Varsågod,” said Hank in broken Swede. “Jag är hungrig som en strömming.”
Hank was trying to say that he was so hungry he could eat a horse. He botched the vocabulary. What he had actually said was: “I am so hungry I could eat a herring.”
          Berit Andersson grabbed a single herring off her plate and flung it in his direction. The fish bounced off Hank’s shoulder and flopped in the grass. At this point, Hank sensed the hospitality of the Swedes had been grossly exaggerated. He turned to leave.
          “Vänta!” said Kjerstin.
          Hank could not have understood the word but he knew a command when he heard one. Kjerstin marched over to Berit and snatched the plate of herring away. Later, Hank said he thought she would spill the fish over Berit’s head. This made Kjerstin laugh. “That is the difference between  Americans and Swedes,” she told him (and us many years later). “Americans crave revenge, but Swedes recognize the value of a plate of fish.”
          Kjerstin paid Berit’s neighbour for the food and brought it to where Hank was standing. Kjerstin spoke English. Berit did too, but she didn’t trust foreigners. In that town, no one did.
          Kjerstin took Hank to the stream so he could wash. She took off the bonnet and let her hair fall to her shoulders. Meanwhile, Hank removed a fresh shirt from his bag. It was part of an army uniform.
          “You’re a soldier!” she said.
          “Not anymore.” 
          He confessed with a proud grin that he had been dishonourably discharged. Kjerstin tensed. She knew that a dishonourable discharge was saved for the very worst: murder, rape, desertion. Please, she prayed. Please let him be a deserter…
          He was. Hank Fitzpatrick had been avoiding the military police for three days before he was court-martialed. Deserters are usually stigmatized but Kjerstin was ambivalent to military law.  What did she care for the rules of some foreign army? He wasn’t a rapist or a murderer and that was good enough for her. When she learned Hank had nowhere to stay, she tried to get permission for him to sleep in the attic. Mama Almgren was far too suspicious for such things. She took one look at Hank’s handsome nose and directed him to the nearest inn.
          “I don’t have any money,” said Hank.
           “He doesn’t have any money,” Kjerstin translated.
          Mama Almgren sighed and turned to her husband. “Go fetch Sven. He can stay with him for the night.”
          Kjerstin was delighted. Sven the Butcher lived next door.

          Later, they sat outdoors and ate herring, potatoes, and salmon with dill. Hank gorged himself; he drank to such excess that Sven the Butcher had to carry him home. But he was not so drunk that he did not hear Kjerstin whisper in his ear. “My window is the second on the right; and the trellis is strong - should you choose to climb it.”
          Much of what we know about my grandmother’s life comes from her diaries. She and my father were poor for a while, though by the time my father was old enough to remember anything, the truly terrible times had passed. She found work and left my father to be nursed by the woman who ran the boarding house. Although she charged for this service, she did not take advantage of the situation. She liked my grandmother; she was a widow too.
          “I don’t know anything else about the landlady,” my father told us. “Other than her name.”
          “What was her name?” I asked.
“Her name was the same as your mother’s,” said my father.
          It was things like this that made us believe my grandmother’s life had been touched by the arm of God.
          After she left home, Kjerstin wrote to her family but her father was the only one who ever wrote back. It’s clear from the letters that he was writing in secret. Mama Almgren had been completely disgraced by Kjerstin’s departure. In one of the last letters, dated from just before the first World War, Papa Almgren announced that his wife had gotten sick. He did not elaborate on the illness and  we can only assume this is what got her in the end. As for the Papa Almgren, the fact that the letters stop in 1915 seems to speak for itself
Kjerstin and my father stayed in the boarding house until the end of the war when she married again. They had a son who became my uncle and whenever he was in the room, my parents claimed that Kjerstin had been madly in love with Monsieur Charles Jolicoeur. Privately, though, my father told me this was not the case.
          “My instructions were to call him Papa  to his face,” he said. “When he was away, Mama let me call him what I liked.” 
          Charles Jolicoeur tolerated my father but he was not his son and this always sat between them. Uncle Alex was the favorite. My father was forced to drop out of school to find work, but Uncle was sent to boy’s schools in London. My father was so angry that he ran away in the middle of the night and wandered  Europe until the summer day in 1927 when he got off the train in our little town.
          “Why did you get off the train here?” I asked.
          “Why does any man get off a train?” asked my father and he took my mother’s hand.
In a land without night, climbing a trellis is dangerous work. Still Hank Fitzpatrick climbed; he continued to climb every twilight for almost a week.  He made excuses to stay in the village and eventually Sven the Butcher put him to work. All week, Hank scrubbed blood off the floor and stuffed intestines into sausages. At supper he ate sturströmming and drank beer. Then, after Sven had fallen asleep, he crossed the yard and scaled Kjerstin’s trellis in time to see her lower her hair.
          Now, when she lied about her dreams, Kjerstin did not bother to steal  descriptions from books. Instead she simply described Hank. “I was visited by a man with brutal arms and hair as soft as snow,” she said. Mama Almgren began to despair -  Rolf Paulson didn’t have hair and Lindstrom was too wiry to ever be brutal. She continued to make Kjerstin eat her porridge, but both knew it couldn’t go on forever. Lindstrom was at trial in Stockholm and Paulson was out of town but how long would that last? Kjerstin knew her mother would soon stop looking to oatmeal for signs; she would trust her own instincts instead.
          “Why won’t she approve of me?” asked Hank.
          “Because you won’t want me to stay here.” Her parents had lived in the village their entire life. They believed in their small little pocket of countryside with its dream porridge and midnight sun. They did not believe in the outside world and they certainly never wanted to travel into it to visit her. This was why Kjerstin had never married. It would have resigned her to the fate of living there forever.
           “Why haven’t you left on your own?” Hank asked.
          Kjerstin blushed. Until that moment, the idea had never occurred to her. She always thought the world was a place she would need to be led to by the hand. Preferably one that bore a wedding ring.
          “Though it could be an engagement ring too,” Kjerstin said quickly. “I’m not particular.” 
          Any possibility of an easy escape was thwarted by the sun and by Kjerstin’s mother, who had been keeping a close watch ever since Hank had started sleeping next door. The midnight sun would be over in a few months but Hank couldn’t wait that long and neither could Kjerstin. They would just have to elope by twilight and hope for the best. There were two roads open to them, both of which led to Stockholm. From there they could take a boat.
          “How would we get to Stockholm?” asked Hank.
          “What we need is a horse,” said Kjerstin. She thought of the stoic mule grazing in Sven’s backyard. He had taken a liking to Hank. Accustomed to pulling carcasses, Kjerstin was certain she would please him very much.
          They agreed to leave two twilights later, when the almanac predicted rain. Kjerstin believed the combination of dusk and clouds would be a useful replacement for the night. Hank suggested they escape separately. He would steal the mule and wait for her under the tree where they had met. Kjerstin agreed; it seemed right that she make the first leg of her journey on her own. Having made their plans, they came together beneath the blankets where Kjerstin allowed his scent to overwhelm her. Until now there had only been kisses but now there was the thrill of their engagement and the forthcoming escape. She could feel Hank  urging her on in the careful way one spurs a horse toward a cantor. Or was it the horse who urged the rider?  She had purposely chosen underclothes that were clean; earlier that day she had put drops of perfume in the sheets. She examined his wounded body in the faint glow of that polar haze. There were scars from the war and a place where a bullet had torn through his flesh. He was thin from his travels but his brutal arms could still seize her when it mattered; she bit the flesh of a pillow to keep from crying out. Afterwards, she fell into the deepest sleep she had fallen into since the start of the midnight sun - so deep that she did not wake even when Mama Almgren burst inside and discovered them.
          What had happened was this: the night before, in utter despair, Mama Almgren had tasted her own dream porridge. That night, Rolf Paulson had poured crystal water down her throat. In excitement, Mama Almgren now burst into her daughter’s room to proclaim the good news. It’s easy to imagine her horror when she found her daughter deflowered and swaddled in the American’s arms. Then she went down to the kitchen, grabbed the wolf knife from the wall, and turned back towards the bedroom. “Don’t you make a sound!” she ordered her husband, who was so cowed by the rage that, one imagines, he readily obeyed.
          The speed in which my father declared his love for my mother would have put Hank Fitzpatrick to shame. He encountered none of the obstacles that Hank did and charmed my mother’s parents as easily as he had charmed her. He set himself up as a tutor, but that didn’t last long; within two years, they had built the restaurant they would run together for the rest of their lives.
          Charles Jolicoeur was horrified by the marriage, which he deemed frivolous. He refused to let my grandmother attend the wedding and prevented her from visiting for the rest of his life. Fortunately, the rest of his life was not very long: he lost all of his money in 1930, became a drunk in 1931, and shot himself during the first days of 1932. Uncle was still in London, so Kjerstin sold the house and made one final trip. She arrived in our little town just in time to see me born.
          In those days, there were only two doctors: one was the apothecary and the other was a dope fiend.  On the day of my birth the apothecary was away, and as no one trusted the dope fiend, my grandmother oversaw my arrival herself. With ease, she drew me from my mother, popped the mucus plug, and cut the cord.  We never learned where she acquired such a skill and we can only assume that both my father and Uncle had such uncomplicated births that she was able to take notes.
          “She was your birthday present,” my mother once said. “Your poor father was able to do nothing but pray to God. He was completely useless.”
          “Praying to God doesn’t sound useless to me,” said my father.
          “Of course it was. He had already done his part. If he hadn’t, your mother wouldn’t have been here at all.”
          A few years after I was born, my grandmother caught pneumonia and, as the apothecary was in the war, she was left in the dope fiend’s hands. He did not serve her well and her death incensed the town; he was burned in effigy and promptly disappeared. I have only vague recollections of the funeral but I’m told I cried as I had when I was born. The rest of my family did not have time to cry. They had their own crisis: the funeral had caused the dead to rise. Thirty-one years had passed since Hank Fitzpatrick had died, yet on the morning my grandmother was buried, he had appeared on the steps of the church.
          He was not dressed for a funeral; that he was there at all was merest chance (or, if you will, the arm of God). He had been expecting to pass through on the morning train, having come back to Europe for the sole purpose of hunting my grandmother down. He had gone to the Swedish village where she was from but no one knew where she was and he’d been looking for her ever since. He had a terrible cancer and did not have long to live. He believed that if he did not find Kjerstin Almgren, he would die of regret. Then, just as the train was about to leave the station, he saw her on the platform, looking exactly as she had during all those twilights so many years ago. She was even in the same pale cotton dress. Hank felt an awful tremor in his heart and, just like his son, he stepped off the train for a woman.
          Of course, how he saw her is inexplicable, since she was already dead. When he found the funeral, he took one look at the coffin as it passed and uttered a single word: “Shit.”
          Because she was asleep, my grandmother didn’t know her mother had discovered her and Hank. When Kjerstin woke and found Hank was gone, she was not concerned. Nor was she worried when word reached her that he was no longer in town. “He said he had to move on,” shrugged Sven the Butcher and Kjerstin smiled. She had seen Sven’s backyard; the mule had disappeared.
          That night, Kjerstin feigned sorrow, for she knew Mama Almgren would accept nothing less. She was informed that Rolf Paulson was returning and was instructed to pinch her cheeks when he arrived; after that, she would smile until she was wed.  I imagine Kjerstin fully expected to smile not only until she was married but for many years after. In her diary, she records that before bed she found the cat and hugged her tight. “Where I’m going,” she said, “there is no herring for you.” She did not report the animal’s response; one hopes it licked her face to forgive being left behind.
          That twilight, she drew her packed bag from beneath the bed.  Since Hank knew nothing of the territory, she packed an old map, along with her canteen and several cans of herring. She brought her beaded slippers and the prettiest dress she owned. She would not miss the tattered skirts, the old bodices, the wrinkled bonnets. There would be other closets of used clothing in her future, but none of them would come from here. Without a word of goodbye, she descended the trellis and ran away.
          It stormed that night, just as the almanac predicted. By the time she reached the silver birch, Kjerstin was drenched. She waited a long time, growing more and more afraid. First the rain stopped. Then the sky began to clear and, finally, the twilight lifted. At last, she heard the sound of hooves. Thinking this was Sven the Butcher’s mule, she gathered her things and ran into the road.
          Her father was sitting on the back of an old horse. Kjerstin tried to make excuses, but he silenced her with his hand.
          “Your mother doesn’t sleep forever, no matter how much we may want her to.”
          Defeated, Kjerstin climbed onto the back of the horse. She looked back at the silver birch, believing she would never smile for Rolf Paulson or anyone else again. She was so busy plotting the best way to drown herself that she didn’t notice they were heading away from the village.
          “He still might come,” she said. “He won’t know where to find me.”
          “He won’t be looking,” said Papa Almgren.
          Then he told her what had happened the night before, after Mama Almgren had taken the wolf knife off the wall. Hank had come downstairs, cradling his clothes to his chest. Mama Almgren was behind him, knife in hand. She led Hank to the door, where she whispered in a voice as wicked as it was sincere: “If you’re still in town by lunch, you’ll not be alive by supper.”
          Now, on the old horse, Papa Almgren took an envelope from his pocket. Hank had sent the goodbye letter to the house. Kjerstin still thought it was some sort of mistake. Even with his letter in hand, she still imagined Hank was waiting at the end of the road.
          Soon, they arrived at a crowded harbor where a ferry waited at the mouth of the Baltic Sea.   Her father gave her a ticket along with a small purse of coins. “I wouldn’t want anyone to marry Rolf Paulson,” he said. He touched her hair, which she had hidden beneath a cap. “This village is no place to grow old.  If not for your mother, I would have made you leave years ago.”
          “What will you tell her now?”
          “What is there to say? I looked for you but I never found a thing.”
          A whistle went and he pushed her onto the boat.
          She didn’t move as the ferry pulled away. First her father disappeared, then the harbor, then all of Lake Mälaren. She was still at the railing when the boat docked in Stockholm. A sailor asked if she was getting off. The boat was turning around; if she stayed, she’d only go back home.
           “But I can’t go home. What am I to do?”
          “What all women do,” laughed the sailor. “Find yourself a husband.”
          “My husband’s dead,” said the woman who would be my grandmother. It was what she would say about Hank for the rest of her life. Before she stepped off the boat, she threw his letter into the sea.

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Joel Fishbane’s novel “The Thunder of Giants” is available from St. Martin’s Press. For more about his work, you’re welcome to visit www.joelfishbane.net or track down his family and force them to tell you everything they know.