Elsa shielded her eyes from the harsh sunlight as it broke across the horizon. Its rays set off clusters of crystalline reflections as they touched the solid expanse of white flakes and drift that were draped over the landscape. She peered into the shifting planes of blizzard and light to see her husband emerge from the whiteness of the landscape with a small child in his arms. She dropped the pail of ashes she had been scattering on the icy path and uttered a cry of joy. She fell against the gate and raised her hand to her mouth to stifle a low moan.
Elsa had risen in the early morning darkness after another night disturbed by the storm. She hunched her body into the wind and tramped through the snow to the barn. She set down a bucket of snow-crusted vegetable peelings and took a shovel to clear the drifts against the barn door. Once inside, she knocked her ankles together to shake the snow from her boots and inhaled the smell of warm animal breath and dung. She ran her hand along the knotty spine of a goat that nuzzled against her thigh.
“There, Nennie,” Elsa said. “Leave some for the little one.”
With a jab of her elbow, she cracked the ice on the surface of a tin bath and fed handfuls of straw to the goats. A cockerel strutted along behind her without its usual entourage of hens who, warm under their fluffed feathers, huddled in a henhouse.
“Time to clear the path,” Elsa said to the animals, brushing the straw from her hands.
She carried an armful of logs from a pile by the back door into the cottage and placed them next to the inglenook fire to dry. She wrung out her snow-soaked hat and gloves over the sink, rubbed her hands in front of the fire, and then hauled out the pail of ashes she had swept from the cold hearth before lighting the morning fire. She reached for a dry hat and gloves hanging on the back of the door and went back into the storm.
Elsa stood in front of a mirror so filmed with age that she could barely make out her features. She wiped her face with a cloth then rested her hands on the edge of the enamel basin until they ceased trembling. When she returned to the kitchen, Karlsson was lowering the sleeping child onto the couch. Elsa could not tell if it was a boy or a girl. All she could see was a parted rosebud mouth under a dark blue hood, and blue-cold fingernails sticking out of long coat sleeves.
“You’re soaked through,” she said to Karlsson. “There’s hot water on the range. Change your clothes and then we’ll decide where to take the child.”
“Are you recovered?” he asked.
“I was mistaken, of course. Foolish of me. After all this time,” she said.
Karlsson turned to the child.
“I found her in a snowdrift in the field past the back cattle track,” he said. “Towards the Magnusson farm.”
“She can’t stay. Get out of those wet clothes. You’ll catch your death,” Elsa said. “Then take her back to the Magnussons’.”
When the door closed behind her husband, Elsa lifted back the hood from the child’s face to reveal fine features and pale freckles crowned by shorn, golden-red hair. Elsa, still dazzled from the candescence of the morning sun, saw tiny lights bursting around the crown of the child’s head. The sunlight that shone through the east-facing kitchen window seemed to emanate from the child’s face.
Elsa covered the child’s eyelids with her fingers until the lights subsided. When she looked again the child’s purple-blue lips were filling with red and the translucent cheeks with the faintest flush.
Elsa undressed the child, untoggling fastenings and pulling arms from sodden sleeves gently. When she removed the child’s coat, a few acorns fell from a pocket and rolled under the couch. Elsa’s heart beat hard at the unexpected familiarity of the weight of a child’s sleeping body against her chest. The child wore a plain grey pinafore over a black sweater.
Elsa raised the skirt to roll down coarse woolen stockings and gasped at the sight of scratched thighs, angry marks etched into the skin, from brambles, perhaps. When Elsa heard Karlsson’s footsteps in the hall, she covered the girl’s legs with a blanket and, when she lay her back down, pressed her face into the roughly cut hair.
The girl slept through the day until evening when she woke briefly and drank the broth Elsa gave her. After Elsa tended to her goats, she found Karlsson watching the child asleep again on the couch.
“She’s so fine,” he whispered. “A fairy child, not a country girl.”
“Come and eat,” Elsa told him. She ladled thick carrot soup from a pot and set an earthenware bowl in front of him, spilling soup over the rim.
“Why did you bring her here?” she asked.
Karlsson frowned. “She needed to be taken in. She’d have died if I’d left her out there.”
“But why did you bring her here? It’s been years since we’ve had a child in our home. Agnetha’s home. I don’t want you to think she can stay and then have to see her go. She’s probably a runaway serving girl. You said she was near the Magnusson’s place, and if they don’t want her, her own kin will.”
“She has no kin,” Karlsson said.
“How do you know?” Elsa said.
“I spoke to the sergeant,” Karlsson said. “There’s been no report of a missing child. He said to post a sign outside our home and in the village.”
“Well!” Elsa said.
“And if no one claims her,” Karlsson took a mouthful of soup. “Our home will be designated her place of birth and her place of residence.”
The spoon rattled against the sides of the bowl in Elsa’s hands.
“But she’s not an infant. She’s old enough to tell us herself,” Elsa said. “She must know where she’s from and who she is.”
“I’m telling you what the sergeant told me,” Karlsson said. “I think she might be meant for us.”
“That’s nonsense,” she said. She sat down next to her husband and took his hands in hers. “If you let yourself think like that, you’ll be heartbroken when the time comes for her to leave. Finish your pipe and go to bed.”
Elsa glanced at the sleeping girl then turned down the oil lamp and followed her husband.
The couple lay on their bed unsleeping for the hour it took for the moon to angle its light from one corner of the room to another. When the pale light crossed Karlsson’s face, it exaggerated his deep lines into a ravaged landscape. Elsa could no longer tolerate the shared silence so she reached out to touch Karlsson’s chest.
“Shall we hold each other?” she said.
He opened his eyes and turned to her. “Are you sure?” he said. “It has been such a long time.”
Elsa kissed the rough folds of his face.
“I care for you, Karlsson,” she said. “I would like you to feel that.”
At the very moment that she felt his hand on the hem of her nightgown, she heard the door creak. The door itself remained closed and yet Elsa could clearly see a young girl on an open threshold.
She pulled away from Karlsson and sat up.
“Karlsson!” she whispered. “The girl is in our room.”
He stroked Elsa’s hair. “There’s no one there.”
“I feel her,” Elsa said.
Karlsson got out of bed and bolted the door. He returned to Elsa and encircled her with his arms.
She searched the darkness for the girl. The air near the door seemed displaced but it remained closed and there was no sign of the girl she had seen.
“Come back to me,” Karlsson said.
Elsa tightened her eyes against her imagination and moved towards Karlsson. She could smell the wood smoke and tobacco that clung to his hair and his skin — thyme and onion, dog hair and soap. His body captured the odors of the home they shared and she sank back down into him.
Snow fell in the morning, calm, almost beautiful, now that the winds had dropped. When Karlsson left for the fields, Elsa approached the couch in the lifting darkness, knelt by the girl’s side, and stroked strands of hair away from her face.
“Are you awake?” she asked softly.
The girl’s eyelashes danced against her translucent skin lit from the glow of the hearth. She opened her eyes and stared. Elsa placed a pile of folded clothes on the couch.
“These are for you,” she said.
Elsa had found a few clothes she had worn as a young woman and had sat before sunrise at her sewing machine, cutting away inches of fabric. Karlsson suggested it would be easier to use the clothes the girl had arrived in, or to take some from Agnetha’s wardrobe. Elsa did not respond. She had tapped her foot on the machine’s treadle to make new seams in the fabric.
After Elsa dressed and washed, she returned to the girl and found that she had not moved from the couch nor touched the clothes that lay next to her. A shot of impatience burned across Elsa’s cheeks.
“You’re old enough to dress yourself,” Elsa said. “Then go to the table and eat. You’ll be going back to where you belong soon enough, but as long as you’re here, I’ll keep you safe and fed, and you’ll help me with the chores.”
When the girl had eaten, Elsa opened the bottom drawer of the kitchen dresser and pulled out a child’s oilskin jacket. The surface of the canvas was traced with tiny fragmented lines where the protective beeswax had dried into the cloth. The oilskin hung stiffly from Elsa’s hands as if it retained the form of the girl who wore it long before. Elsa remembered the late summer afternoon when she and Agnetha sat outside dipping rags into the softened wax and rubbing it into the canvas. Agnetha had worn the jacket before the wax had become absorbed, and for the next few weeks her bedclothes, her hair, her summer dresses all exuded the warm honey scent.
“I was mistaken. This will be too big for you,” Elsa said. She set the jacket down on the floor behind her and rifled through the drawer for a wide-brimmed hat she had made from the leftover canvas.
“Take that off,” Elsa said. Behind Elsa, the girl had put on the jacket and stood with the hem at her mid-calves and the cuffs covering her hands. Elsa turned away from the child and went to fetch a lantern. Although the girl bore no resemblance to her daughter, who had filled the jacket with her strong limbs and broad frame, Elsa was shaken by the sight of a living child in the jacket. She also feared that if Karlsson saw her in his daughter’s clothes, his determination to keep her would strengthen.
Elsa would not let herself be beguiled, but there was nothing else for the girl to wear outside. The jacket would have to do. She stepped towards her to roll up the sleeves.
“Mind you don’t trip on the hem.” Elsa passed her the lantern. “Carry that and walk beside me.”
The girl walked over to the pail of ashes, took a handful, and shook them into her pocket.
“What on earth?” Elsa said. “We have chores to do.”
When they had fed the goats, Elsa poured grain into a feeder next to the milking stand. She separated one of the nanny goats from the rest, and with a parsnip top held high in one hand, led it towards the stand. It stepped onto the low wooden platform, reached its head through the stanchion, and started to feed. Elsa drew up a milking stool and reached her hand under the goat’s belly. She took a cloth from the pail and, after wiping the goat’s teats clean, hummed a song.
Elsa rested her forehead on the goat’s back and listened to the rhythmic jets of milk hit the inside of the enamel pail. She released the animal from the stand with a pat on its rear and moved on to the next. She heard light breathing at her shoulder so she shifted her weight on the stool to give the child a better view.
“That one’s Nennie,” Elsa said without turning around. “This is Georgie. She’s the mother of the two kids.”
The child concentrated on picking pieces of straw from around the ankles of her woolen stockings.
“Your turn,” Elsa said. She heaved herself up from the milking stool. “Sit to one side. Mind you don’t get kicked.”
Elsa watched the girl’s fingers wrap around the teats, but her gentle touch produced no milk.
“Here,” Elsa said. She circled the girl’s fingers with her own. At the touch of the girl’s hands, Elsa’s heart beat hard in her chest. She felt nauseous and fought an urge to leave the barn for the cold air outside. She cleared her throat and, with a waver in her voice, she instructed the child.
“Drop your thumb down a little and grip with it. And your forefinger. Now squeeze with the other fingers like I do.”
The girl looked concerned.
“It won’t hurt her,” Elsa said. “Feel that?”
When the first splash of milk fell into the pail, the girl smiled.
“Tell me your name,” Elsa said as the girl milked the goat.
“I’m waiting for you to name me,” the girl said.
The first sound of the child’s clear, gravelly voice revealed a strength that belied her ethereal appearance.
“It’s not for me to give you a name,” Elsa said. “Where is your family?”
The girl looked around the barn before answering. “I don’t know,” she said. “They’re here somewhere.”
“Well, where did you live before Karlsson found you?” Elsa asked.
The girl leaned on the goat, her face against its haunch, and sang under her breath.
“Where are you from?” Elsa said.
The girl rocked on the milking stool and flickered her eyelashes at the dusty air.
“I live with the sprites,” she said. She pointed at a gap in the roof of the barn. “Look! They’re here now. They were dancing to my song. You can see them too. They’re tiny and glittery. They watch after me.”
Elsa found herself looking up at the roof despite herself. All she saw were dust motes floating high in the sunbeams that shone through from outside. She let the sour, leathery goatskin and the sweet, grassy straw fill her head and bring her back to herself. She reached around the child’s shoulders for the goat, her fingers tingling at the touch of the hairs that covered the soft skin of the teats. She fell into the rhythm of milking and rid herself of the girl’s nonsense by singing an old nursery rhyme she had sung to her daughter.
Elsa ladled out bowls of mutton and barley stew and placed them on the table.
“The child has no name,” she said.
“No name?” Karlsson glanced at the girl who was blowing on a spoonful of hot stew. “That’s unusual. Does she have an age?”
“Seven,” the girl said. “I think.”
“Well, what are we to do with you, Miss?” he asked.
The girl made no reply.
“We’ll have to do something,” he said.
“You found me. That’s what you had to do with me,” she said. “And now it’s done.”
After supper while the girl bathed in the next room, Elsa made up a bed on the couch.
“There’s a fine bed in Agnetha’s room, Elsa,” Karlsson said.
Elsa plumped up a cushion, knocking the dust from its insides.
“This will do,” Elsa said. “Where is she? She should be done by now.”
The bathroom was empty. Elsa checked her bedroom then looked in the small, unused room next to it. The silhouetted wooden figures of a girl, a man, and a dog carved by Karlsson stood on the mantelpiece, and moonlight touched the edges of a child’s bed. All strength left Elsa’s legs and she grabbed at the doorjamb to keep herself upright. The girl was asleep underneath a quilt Elsa had stitched years before from scraps of old clothes.
“This is not my child,” Elsa told herself. She steadied herself and started toward the kitchen, then turned back. She pulled the quilt over the girl’s shoulders and tucked it under her chin.
At dawn, Elsa packed a flask of soup, home-brewed beer, an apple, and bread for Karlsson, who had been called to join the village men at the millpond north of the village. The arrival of mild weather was melting the snow so quickly that the pond had already flooded the floor of the mill, and the wheel was at risk of being swept from its axle.
When Elsa’s chores were done, she roused the girl, fed her, and told her to stay in her room while Elsa made deliveries to the village. The girl threw herself against the door and screamed for Elsa to stay. Afraid the girl would hurt herself, Elsa opened the door again. The child rushed at her and buried her head in Elsa’s chest. Elsa took her by the upper arms and pushed her away.
“If you go, we might not be able to bring you back,” the girl said.
“What are you talking about?” Elsa said. “I have work to do.”
“No, don’t go. Stay inside by the fire where the sprites can protect you. They’re in the flames.” The girl’s cheeks flushed while she pleaded with Elsa not to leave. Her eyes darted over Elsa’s shoulders as if she were looking for someone to help her to convince Elsa to stay.
Elsa, unsettled by the desperation in the child’s face, swung her by the shoulders back into the room and locked the door from the outside.
Drafts of icy air, so bright and cold Elsa could see their shape, sliced through the loose windowpanes through her heavy clothes into her chest.
In the barn she loaded her handcart with eggs, wax paper-wrapped goats’ cheese, and two small churns of milk. The snow had turned to slush and, despite the cold, the skies were glowering into a sulky grey, a sign that the worst of the storm was over. She set off down the lane towards the village, struggling to control the cart when the wheels slipped on the half-melted ice and became stuck in ruts.
Elsa passed the turn in the road for the path on higher ground that she had intended to take and arrived at the ford in the river. She stood on the track that disappeared into the rushing river. The river flowed faster than usual, though the depth marker indicated a lower water level than she had expected. Upstream the village men, Karlsson among them, had diverted the waters from the flooded mill into the lower stream and, at that moment, the water was flashing out of sight towards her.
Elsa looked at the water and hesitated. If she were to walk back to the higher path, it would add an hour at least, there and back, to her time away from her cottage, and she did not want to leave the girl alone for longer than need be. Nor did she want to risk losing her produce. She gripped the cart handles and reassured herself of her own strength as she flexed her arms and shoulders.
“Oh, get on with it,” she said aloud. “You’re here now.”
She took a step forward and pushed the wheels to the edge of the water. At that moment, a tugging movement at the back of her skirt, as if a goat were chewing on the hem, pulled her away from the river’s edge. The dark rain clouds lowered around her and limited her vision. A sudden roar of water, seeming to come from all directions, disoriented Elsa so that she could not tell whether she was heading toward safety or danger. She took a few tentative steps forward in the gloom, not knowing whether she would find the firmness of the track or the rush of water underfoot. The current was too fierce for her, and she realized that she should turn, but she could not tell which way to go. She glimpsed a thin ribbon of light ahead of her. When she walked towards it, the light multiplied in front of her and fluttered forward in the air as if on the glimmering tips of a cloud of insect wings. Elsa felt the girl’s presence among the lights.
“Are you there?’ she called out against the fading sound of the river behind her. “Where are you? Don’t let me lose you.”
By the time the mists had dissipated, and with them the lights, Elsa had reached a path through the woods that led towards her home. When she pushed the front door open, she found the girl slicing bread and Karlsson seated at the table. He leaped up to embrace her.
“Where have you been?” he said. “I’ve been worried out of my mind.”
“I tried to get to the village but I had to turn back at the river,” she said.
“That’s a good thing. Magnusson was swept off his horse. The waters were too strong to swim against but he was washed up on the bend at the meadows. No news of his horse. Drowned, most likely,” he said. “You should dry off and rest. I’ll put the milk and cheeses in the ice-room for you.”
Elsa turned to the child.
“How did you get out of the room?” she said.
“I let her out when I got home,” Karlsson answered for the girl. “Just a quarter of an hour ago. Should I have left her locked up?”
“Were you at the ford?” Elsa said.
The girl had her hands in her pockets. When Elsa repeated her question, the girl lowered her eyes and shook her head.
“How could she have been?” Karlsson said.
The girl took a handful of shiny, flat river pebbles from her pinafore and placed them in a row on the windowsill above the sink.
“Where did you find those?” Elsa said.
“Might have drowned,” the girl whispered in response. Then she took a handful of potatoes from a wicker basket, filled the sink with water, and began to peel them.
Elsa cut bright, winter-berried branches from the hedges with her pocketknife on her way to the churchyard. When she reached her daughter’s grave, slivers of blue were slicing open the sky.
A stone angel spread its wings across a white headstone that read Agnetha Karlsson. Elsa wiped the melting ice from the stone with her scarf and placed her armful of berries and evergreen leaves onto the grave.
“There’s a child in the house, Agnetha,” she said. “Your father found her. We’re looking after her until we find out where she is meant to be. She’s a strange little creature. But he finds comfort in her presence.”
The afternoon sun broke through the clouds, and Elsa felt a faint glow of warmth on the back of her neck.
“It doesn’t change our time, Agnetha,” she said. “You know I’ll never leave you.” She stayed for some time without speaking then lifted herself up and brushed the dirt from her knees.
Elsa wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, leaving a track of flour.
“You were at the river this morning,” she said directly to the girl.
“You have white eyebrows!” the girl said.
“I don’t know why Karlsson would say you were in the house all the while. I know you were there.”
“I wanted to follow you,” the girl said. “But I couldn’t get out. I sent the sprites. They saved you, like they saved me.”
“Sprites!” Elsa said. “How did they save you?”
“They sparkled across my eyes until I reached the place where Karlsson found me,” the girl said.
“Sit over there. You’re getting under my feet.”
The girl ignored Elsa and crossed over to the dresser where she looked through the neatly folded tablecloths, pillowcases, and dishcloths. She closed her eyes, ran her fingers along the edges of the linens, chose one, and opened her eyes again to see what she had pulled out.
“Look,” she said, holding up a child’s blue gingham apron. In the bottom corner were embroidered the initials AK in yellow silk. The letter A was neatly sewn, however, the stitches that formed the second letter were crooked and of uneven length.
“Was this your daughter’s?” the girl asked.
Elsa nodded. She took the apron from the girl, folded it, and placed it back in the drawer.
“Did she die before she had a chance to wear it?” The girl took the apron from the dresser again. She found sewing scissors in Elsa’s mending basket, cut the knot that held the stitches of the second letter in place, loosened the yellow silk and unpicked it.
“I sewed it for her when she was ill,” Elsa said. “We never expected her to die. She was strong.”
“You can sew it again,” the girl said. “Or you can teach me and I’ll do it. With my initials.”
Elsa dropped her rolling pin onto the table, sending up a puff of flour.
“Your initials?” she said.
Elsa had become used to the child being nameless. If the girl had a name, then she must have another home after all, and to keep the child or let her go would no longer be Elsa’s choice. She wiped the spilled flour into a small pile on the table while the girl picked off the tiny yellow embroidery threads from her skirt and dropped them into the fire.
“You told me you had no name,” Elsa said.
“I don’t. I’m waiting for you to name me,” the girl said.
Elsa lifted the flattened pastry onto her rolling pin with a steady hand, spread it across the pie dish, and trimmed the edges with the dull side of her knife.
“Astrid,” Elsa said. “I’ll call you Astrid.”
“Astrid Karlsson?” the girl asked.
“Astrid for now,” Elsa said.
The girl rolled the pastry scraps into a ball. She rolled it and cut out the shape of a large star. Elsa lifted the star carefully from the surface and placed it in the center of the pie crust.