Marky Thorsness

This little story may not seem real or important since I write it and do not tell it to you. Oral transmission is the only true transmission, like a sneeze or a kiss. But it is important and real to me. So, here it is then.

Aunt Jo was my mother’s sister and pure Norwegian with heavy hair, coarse as the bristles on a runt hog. She’d grab it all up in one hand, give it a twist and fasten it with lots of hair pins. When summer storms blew in from western Minnesota skies, she pulled out the pins and shook her hair free and wild—bigger than a wash tub. She didn’t want to be a lightening rod even down there in the dirt cellar where she dragged me to be safe from whatever came snarling over the border from South Dakota. The air was dark and dank in that cellar and when the hair flew you could see sparks shower in a halo around her head. It should have scared me.

I was given a room upstairs in the old farm house when I came to live with Aunt Jo and Uncle Seivert in 1938. At night it became quiet and spooky without street lights to shine in the windows. It didn’t have a closet, but I checked a storage trunk to be sure no one was hiding in it and found a long fat braid of hair the same color as Aunt Jo’s only with a lighter glint of gold. It was wrapped with yellowed tissue paper, squeezed into a chocolate box so brittle its corners had split.

Could be that hair had been grown by a girl like me, so I asked.

Aunt Jo sucked in air, clicked her tongue, and breathed her words like a sigh so soft I had to lean forward to hear.

“Nei, I cut dat off ven ve qvit vearing poufs over da ears. Anderson girls had da biggest poufs in Slow Vater Township.” With accent thicker than usual, the voice was delicate and wistful.

Her wedding picture was in there too. Short hair fell frontward in waves over plump cheeks. Her chin was tilted down and she looked up from round childish eyes with pleading in them and lips slightly parted like when you say, “Oh?” or maybe, “No!”

Seivert had a hand on her shoulder and it seemed its rough fingers snagged her silky shawl. I thought his eyes kindly, but the hand was hard and sore with a need to be kissed and bandaged. His ears were big. They stuck out and cupped over like fenders on a Model A Ford.

There was a lot to like about Seivert. He was neat about the farm place and dressed spiffy when he went to town. He always hung up his suit and brushed the road dust out of it when he got home. He didn’t leave the place much, so creases from the wooden hanger gave an impression it was still in the jacket holding it away from his skinny neck. Just like in that picture.

Neighbors called on him when animals fell sick. He had the healing way about him, but was strong and swift at killing time.

Seivert milked Holstein cows and raised Chester White hogs big as couches. Aunt Jo was in charge of chickens. In summer they ran free, but in winter the hen house kept all five hundred of them in close quarters that needed cleaning out every few weeks. She did that too.

Sometime in March when winter had about worn itself and all of us out, the incubators were lit and eighty-dozen eggs were marked with an “x” on one side and put on trays. My first year on the Bjornson farm, I thought it was the best chore a kid could be given—turn the eggs twice a day just like the mother hen would if she had been given the chance to keep them warm. The “x” turns up with the sun in the morning, down with the sun in the evening. But the incubators were in Hannah’s room.

Tacked on like a bad afterthought, it was a big ugly room used mostly for storage. Built above the kitchen, the cook stove’s heat rose through gaps of wide floor boards, winter and summer. No matter, it was Hannah’s room even when she wasn’t there. Over the years, hired men of various ages and past lives stayed for months at a time and were always put up in that room. They were reformed drunkards, fornicators, and drifters. Some quoted scripture regular as breathing and one got a letter with lip prints on the back that made him leave in a hurry. The noisy ones told stories, mostly counterfeit enough that even I could hear they had been made up to impress or entertain. At the time I didn’t know the quiet ones had the stories we all need to hear sometime in our life. Like Hannah who only whispered.

Hannah was Seivert’s sister and would be considered “different.” It wasn’t the mustache, but the hatred in her tiny eyes when she looked at anyone. You knew she hated you because she said so. Not out loud, but in a whisper. When she wasn’t going over her hatreds, she just discussed things with herself as she worked with jaws clenched. And she did work. She washed all the dishes, carried in all the water, and emptied the slop pail from under the sawed-off drain pipe of the sink. Other than trips to the outhouse and the clothesline, she spent her time in the kitchen or in her room. It helped out, but the whispers in the air were as electric as the sparks that flew out of Aunt Jo’s hair in the cellar.

“Ain’t yoo da princess vit yur vite hair,” she hissed at me one rainy morning. Spittle squeezed between her stubby teeth spaced wide and worn as the floorboards in her room.

“Huh?” I hadn’t thought of my hair as white. Seivert called me Barley because of my hair and because my real name was tough for Norwegians to say. For a whole year I’d been Barley. Up to now, I liked it.

“Is... is it white?”

“Like da vite in chicken shit.”

“Umm.” Her mouth worked to get the “sh” in shit just right. Not easy for people in that house.

If I had to pick a white to compare something to, I’d pick clouds or Seivert’s baby pigs lined up like loaves of bread dough at their mama’s belly. Hannah’s mind didn’t run to pleasant thoughts.

The rain had just stopped and a rainbow reached from corn field to corn field as Hannah walked out the kitchen door. She whispered, “I vish I ver a rainbow.” I heard the words clearly. A pleasant wish.

Aunt Jo said, “She’s still waitin’ for her man to come home from France.”

“France?” The only country anyone around here came from was Norway. “France?” I asked again.

“Yah. Da vor you know. Long time ago. She doesn’t like you because she tinks you’re German.” With that she turned to the cook stove and I knew talk was as done as the leaky pies she took out of the oven.

On the morning of the twentieth day of turning “x’s”, I awoke to the sound of peeping. Hannah was in the kitchen deep in her morning conversation with herself, so I opened her door carefully. I could see through the glass of the incubators at least one or two yellow heads, down still plastered to their delicate skulls, black eyes shining between gray wrinkled lids. I was out of a job.

Each day the peeping got louder. By the third day we had moved all the fuzzy birds to the brooder house. We lifted them by handfuls into cardboard boxes and inhaled the acrid smell of their pretty little droppings. Chicks scurried in and out from under the hover of the kerosene brooder stove, sometimes in a frenzied crowd that overran the weaker ones.

The first time I found one of the unlucky chicks, I held its tiny body, flattened so it could slip nicely into an envelope you might put a stamp on and send through the mail.

“I know what dead is, but I’ve never held it in my hands.” I looked at Seivert who watched my fascination. I heard my voice talk, saw my mind turn like a crackly old movie film to tell the story of my parents who never returned from a mythical somewhere.

“Well, now...,” he said, then stopped and touched my arm ever so lightly. I knew it was hard for him to talk about things that hurt.

But Aunt Jo was different. She liked to confide in me and figured I could handle some grown-up information.

“Hannah’s going to help out at Olson’s for awhile. Their baby will come soon, and …,” suddenly she was quiet and thoughtful while she rearranged her words. She continued with her eyes fixed on flies clinging to the screen door.

“Your uncle’s bror vill come to help vit spring verk.” Both Aunt Jo and Seivert slipped in and out of their accent and wore their new language like a hair shirt.

So, I waited, impatient for the brother who would be like Seivert. I spent time down at the Uberort, a field called “Untouched” by the first Bjornson who came to this farm. Untouched by plows and full of mystery, its irregular shape wrapped Slow Creek in secrets. The first Bjornson declared it would be forever as he found it—with prairie grasses that brushed the withers of his horse and carvings on rocks like those that marked the shores of Hardanger Fjord in Norway. And so, he honored the Lakota from whom the Uberort had been taken.

Two days later Hannah left with Mr. Olson, and that night Seivert drove in the yard with his brother, Bjorn, next to him in the Ford. I stood by the kitchen window, saw the headlights swing through the gate, bend, and paint themselves over the side of the barn.

Bjorn was younger than Hannah and Seivert. You had to wonder how his frail body could be of much use with the heavy work to be done around the place. He had the look of a poached egg with his high white forehead and the loose skin that drooped over his eyes. The eyes were pale, pale eyes that blinked constant as the lizard’s that lived in the cellar. The blink was in sync with a sharp cough that made the tip of his pink tongue dart out. He didn’t speak to me, just went to the rocker in the kitchen, sat, and lit his pipe. There was a temporary smell about him, like the west winds that bring change. He rocked stiffly and stared at the flat black of the window where his world ended.

Aunt Jo came in from a last look at the chicks. “So. How are you den, Bjorn?” Aunt Jo had kindness in her voice like they were blood kin, but I knew they weren’t.

He looked away and seemed not to hear her, but the mellow deep voice that answered surprised me. I’d wanted to believe he was not as scary and dead as he looked.

Barnets mor?” I relaxed slightly, but understood only a bit of his Norwegian.

“My sister’s girl, Barley,” Aunt Jo answered him in English.

“Yah? Mary’s? And da German?”

The story of my father was well known around here. The way Aunt Jo had told it to me there was a touch of rich drama found in a great love story.

Mary worked in The Narrow Café in our town of Slow Creek. My father drove into Flat Lander County in a tinny car to sell magazines that told farmers, who stunk of cow manure and wore bib overalls to dinner, how to be a gentleman in the country. He stopped to eat at the only café for miles around. He saw the raw-boned hand that pushed the coffee cup toward him and wondered what it connected to. His dark eyes traveled up Mary’s freckled arm to her gaunt Nordic face. My mother was tall so he stood to be sure he was taller, looked into her round Anderson eyes and put his hand to the back of her head. His fingers snarled in her bunched up blonde hair the color of ripe barley as he pulled her to him and kissed her. Mary stood very still, licked her lips slowly, then went into the kitchen and hung up her apron. Together they walked out of The Narrow Café and together they rattled away in his tinny car.

I added sweet color. My mother became the Goddess Freyja who dons her feather cloak to change into a falcon and perch in the cottonwood trees of the Uberort where she watched for her husband, Odin, a busy and powerful God. So with no effort at all I became an exiled princess in a far northern land, a child of royalty who must be gone on the business of their kingdom.

But not much was said in English or any other language the night Bjorn came. He just looked at the window with its reflection of the kitchen, a lighted stage and its silent players. If I had been in the front row of an audience on the outside, in the dark, I might be one who could see the truth of this tale.

I heard Bjorn say, “Mary av de Uberort,” nothing else. I wondered if he knew my secret story.

Aunt Jo glanced at me and turned to the cook stove, her warm friend in a time of trouble. There was a story in this room even she would never tell me.

Like a magician with evil intentions, a winter storm blew in on November eleventh, Armistice Day of 1940. It had been a warm fall, chickens still roosted in trees at night and Bjorn occupied Hannah’s Room. Before it could be determined what the magician was up to, Bjorn had walked down to the creek that ran through the middle of the section.

“He walked down to the creek to be alone. He vants to be alone.” Then Aunt Jo added just enough for confusion to tell me he always went to the creek every fall when our country celebrates the end of the war in France—the war that spawned Hitler and made it impossible for my German father to be the Prince of Minnesota.

In the middle of morning, the western sky changed to inky blue. By noon, blowing snow traveled sideways and Seivert pulled long sling ropes from the pulleys in the peak of the haymow. He tied them between the outbuildings and the kitchen door. Bjorn was not back. Talk in the house turned Norwegian and low—so low, the howl of the wind made it hard to hear.

No one dared venture out farther than they could hold onto the ropes. The power of the storm was felt in the bitter cold that needled into your skin, stiffened your lungs, and threatened to stop your heart in mid-beat. The air was empty of smell. The wind blew it away to be buried in snow.

Bjorn was alone out there, but Bjorn was always alone even during harvest when a dozen men sat at the big kitchen table. He talked some with Aunt Jo, very little with Seivert, never to me, but I felt him study me. I’d hear the little cough seep through the walls of the house during the night. I wanted to know why he was so white, why he coughed, why his eyes blinked, why his tongue flicked, but it didn’t seem right to ask if Aunt Jo didn’t offer to tell. She would if she could.

Through the dark days of the storm that screamed around the corners and roofs of the farm buildings there were the conversations I only understood bits of. One day I heard Aunt Jo say to Seivert, “It all should have ended back den.” She looked over at me and switched to Norwegian.

“Yah,” was all Seivert could manage.

As suddenly as it had roared into our lives, the storm left. Not even a breeze slipped over the surface of southwestern Minnesota on the morning of the eighth day. Sun glared in the great dome of sky. In some places the ground was bare, in others spires of snow twisted upward to build cathedrals—solid, white, and windowless. The north door of the house would not be opened until spring thaw, and until then, bodies of some creatures would also wait—frozen in the last deeds of their lives. We had awakened in a foreign land.

Amazed as we were by the recreated world before us, we were astounded by the silence. The three of us walked toward the creek, spread apart but keeping within sight of one another. Fear of what we would find in the prairie so vast and arctic walked with us. Nothing stirred. No sound other than the scrunch of boots on hard snow.

I came to a smooth, augured-out place and dropped to my knees, breathing so hard frost thickened the fine wool hairs of my scarf. I waited until Seivert came over to me. Together we looked into the hole at a pheasant, elegant in death with its beak wide open and packed with snow. Seivert put the bird inside his jacket. Long striped tail feathers protruded between the buttons. As we eyed the last distance toward the creek, he told me how pheasants were new to this country from China.

“Yust like our grandpa from Norway.”

We started down the slope to the Uberort. Its ragged border was framed by bluestem and tall prairie grasses that poked through the snow, their seed bracts blown empty by fall winds.

“He wouldn’t call it prairie because dat was French,” Aunt Jo said. “He called it Uberort.” We fanned out again.

It was not fear I felt when I found him. I guess you could call it awe. He lay on his back dressed as I had never seen him dressed. The uniform was grand as the pheasant’s. Chevrons of military rank marked his sleeve and heroic medals on his chest glittered in the sun. He looked tall and fit, not skinny any more. Winds had carved a white coffin, leaving him to be viewed like royalty in death.

Mercifully, deep cold had given his face life colors. Pale flaps of skin that hooded his eyes before now sunk into the hollows of temples and eye sockets to reveal bone structure of cheeks and a thin hawk nose. Winter sky reflected in his still eyes. His full mouth was peaceful—not open and begging for air like the pheasant. Bjorn was proud and magnificent.

We left him there in all his glory.

“His favorite place when he was your age.” Seivert put a hand on my shoulder, turned me toward home. “Bjorn. Bjorn. Too sweet a boy to go to vor.” The last part was not meant for me.

“War?” I’d yet to know war, had not connected it to Bjorn. He was too sick to be a soldier. Wars were “over there” and ended on Armistice Day. War was a holiday. Wars were in the Bible and they were even holy.

“Ve should tell her now.” Aunt Joe’s voice was muffled by the scarf around her mouth and above it tears glazed her eyes.

Seivert spoke from his own small cloud of frosted air. His words struck my ears sharply. All his gentleness could not soften them.

Later, men with spades would chip at the frozen ground of the graveyard where Bjorn’s body was put, but I knew I could always find my father in the Uberort.

They’re all gone now. The Armistice Day storm blew in three or four wars ago. The soil of the Uberort, sacred to the Lakota and the Bjornsons from Norway, is still untouched by my family’s plowshares. If there is an early snow on Armistice Day, I sometimes see prints of moccasins and boots. In summer I find tall grass trampled into nests warmed by the peaceful sleep of lovers.

And we honor the secrets kept by the Uberort. For these were people like all of us who do not ask for the troubles of war, men with shortened and shattered lives, broken-hearted women who wait.

©2003 Marky Thorsness— All rights reserved
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