A Note on the Text:
This story is based on the historical figures of Maria Isaksson (1893-1968) and Gustaf Retzius (1842-1919). Retzius was a leading figure in the Swedish race biology movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and coined the terms Long and Short Skulls, a means of categorizing people based on the size of their skulls, and argued that Short Skulled people had less desirable features than the Long Skulled. The story is also inspired by the 2016 feature film Sameblod.
Lainio river is cold. It numbs my feet and legs, cuts my body in half so that only my torso, chest and arms feel like a part of me. I peer down at my toes just visible through the murky depths. They sit on the muddy river bottom like fat, white little fish. I wiggle them, and barely feel the sensation travel up through my feet and legs.
A girl’s voice, bright and high-pitched, barely audible above the roar of the river. I turn around. My sister, Vendela, comes running down from the farm. Her grey school dress billows around her like an upside-down bluebell.
‘We are leaving soon!’
Vendela comes to a halt by the shore. Her long plaits sway sideways across her chest, flashing golden in the sun. Her broad cheeks blush red from the run. ‘Faari needs your help with the load,’ she says rapidly. ‘They’re wondering why you are not ready yet.’
Her beady-eyed stare is accusatory. Demanding me to get out of the water.
The river current snakes between my legs, encouraging them to topple over and give themselves away to its dance downstream. How far would it carry me, if I let it?
‘If you don’t come soon Faari says we’ll leave without you.’
Lainio is resistant, growing heavy around me, but I push forward, out of its murky depths. Without its embrace I feel naked. I skip across the brown sand towards my towel and clothes which lie folded on the grass bank. After a quick dry I step into my petticoat, my linen tunic and brown, wool, sleeveless dress. I pick up my penknife, the trusted friend I take with me wherever I go, and return it to my dress pocket. I undo my plait and shake the water out. Dozens of little droplets scatter to the ground.
Faari travels to the village market every Wednesday and Saturday to sell our produce. On Wednesdays he drops us off at school on the way and picks us up when he is finished. All other days we walk, which takes us an hour.
My parents and brothers have already started loading the cart when I reach the house. Three linen sacks with potatoes and two sacks of flour, all of them as long as me, lie stacked on the wagon. Father hoists a third flour sack on as I approach. Johannes, the oldest of my brothers but a year my junior, lifts two milk churns, which are received by Lars-Levi, who stands on the wagon. He then takes two giant loaves and a sack of oats from my mother, and piles them neatly against the wall.
Seated on piles of straw in the innermost part of the wagon are my youngest brothers: Isak, Erik-Samuel and Karl-Augustinus. Vendela sits on the driver’s bench at the front of the wagon.
Äiti steps back from the wagon and brushes floury hands on her apron. She catches sight of me. ‘You are late.’
I walk past her to hang up my towel on the porch.
Her voice is sharp. A flint stone sharpening a knife. I force myself to look at her.
‘I have seen you in the river. Staying longer every time, drifting further out.’
‘The water is cooling,’ I say.
‘You can make do with a splash on your face from a bucket, just like the rest of us. You do not have the luxury of river swims.’
I notice Johannes looking at us out of the corner of his eye. On the cart, Vendela looks at us over her shoulder.
‘You spoke Swedish yesterday,’ mother says, softer now. She drags her foot across the ground. ‘To the little ones.’
I shrug. ‘They struggle with it at school.’
‘And you seem too comfortable with it.’
‘I’m just helping.’
Äiti shakes her head. She drags her foot more firmly across the ground, creating a furrow in the dirt. ‘You wake up later too,’ she continues. ‘You go to sleep late. You’re slow and clumsy with the bread making and the needle work.’ A quick glance at me. ‘Those books I’ve seen you with…’
‘We have a lot to read.’
‘Your school mistress allows you to borrow them?’
‘She trusts me.’
Äiti reaches out a hand and tucks a stray lock of hair behind my ear. ‘Remember where your place is, Maria.’ She grasps my hand in hers. ‘Don’t make these fingers soft. They’re for ploughing the earth and kneading dough, not turning pages in books.’ She runs her index finger under each of my fingers, lifting them up, pressing against them. ‘Don’t drift away from us.’
I withdraw my hand and pull my sleeve over it. ‘Next week I finish school.’
Her lips turn upwards slightly. ‘Yes,’ she says nodding. Brushes her hands on her apron and gives a wider smile. ‘Yes.’ She motions with a hand towards the house. ‘Fetch the cheese wheels from the kitchen, please.’
I fetch the cheeses and carry them to the wagon. Each wheel is as wide as my chest and weighs up to a kilo. Their soft, mossy smell soothes my mind. Reindeer cheese and milk don’t have the same sharpness as cow products. You can taste the forest in them, the lichen that the reindeer ingest. I pile them onto the wagon for Lars-Levi to neatly stack.
A moment later Faari and I join Vendela at the front. Faari gives the reins a lash and Sigka, our black and white mare, sets off at a moderate walk.
I look over my shoulder. Äiti stands straight and still in between her sons. She doesn’t wave or bid us goodbye. Her hands, hanging at her sides, are slightly clenched. There’s a twist to her mouth, but not for a smile. Her eyes are fixed on me, unwilling, it seems, to focus on any other point. As if doing so would allow me to disappear.
Could mother be right? Have I been in the world of books and learning for too long? Am I growing soft? I rub my fingers against the side of my head. It feels just as hard and solid as it did yesterday.
I started school at age nine. As the oldest sibling, I had to stay at home to look after my brothers and sister. Johannes and Lars-Levi, one and two years younger than me, were spared of this, and able to start school at seven. They left after the minimum six years, aged thirteen. I insisted on doing the full seven years.
I am used to this now. The trundling rhythm of the cart beneath me, herding the little ones to and from school, practising Swedish sounds on my tongue. Being pulled out of this routine…
An echo of the river current surges through me.
‘The calves are here,’ says Vendela, pulling me out of my thoughts.
Three of our reindeer calves stand by the edge of the road, blinking at us with their dewy eyes.
One of them utters a trembling bleat in greeting.
‘It’s one of yours,’ Vendela says.
As the animal flaps it ears to swat away a fly, I see my signature mark on the pale, pink inside of its skin. A broken triangle.
The animal turns and scampers back into the woods, where the taller figures of the adult reindeer can be seen.
To them, this is a day as any other.
To us, it turns out to be the opposite. In the village square stand two carriages, two horses for each. Beside the carriage stand a group of men and two women in fine clothing, chatting amicably.
‘Who are they?’ Vendela cowers beside me, staring at the gathering through narrowed eyes. ‘Isn’t that Herr and Fru Berg?’
I follow her gaze to the russet-haired man in the beige suit and dove grey waistcoat, and the tall, blonde woman in a plain blue dress with lace frills around the neck and wrists. Herr Berg, the village priest, and his wife, Fru Berg – our teacher.
Standing slightly apart from the group are the Bergs’ children: Gustav, August and Vilhelmina. Blond, straight-backed, all manners and smiles as one of the strangers approaches them and shakes them by the hand.
Then I notice my classmates huddling against the school-wall. Meänkeli children, Finnish children, the Sami boy Davvet Nutti… all staring at the newcomers as if they’re arrived from a different planet.
Faari brings the carriage to a halt at the opposite end of the square. Other farmers have also parked their wagons here. They all stare at the strange party by the school. Faari goes over to speak to one of them, another meänkeli man. Our brothers linger in the wagon, peering out between the gaps in the planks. Vendela and I have to climb up and lead them out by the hand.
Then our teacher notices us. ‘Maria, Vendela!’ She waves us over.
‘Don’t look the strangers in the eye,’ I whisper to my siblings. ‘Don’t speak out of turn.’ I wipe the snot from Karl’s nose with my dress sleeve. ‘And no runny noses, you hear?’ I brush dust off my skirt and check my hair still sits neatly in its bun. I tell Vendela to bring her plaits forward, letting them hang over her chest. ‘Remember, only speak Swedish now.’
Vendela doesn’t meet my gaze.
Fru Berg tells us to go and stand in line with the other children. I feel the curious eyes of the strangers on me as we pass them, and then, the smug grins from Gustav and August. Vilhelmina’s face is a mask, haughty and cold, staring straight across our heads as if we aren’t here. None of the other children give us any kind of recognition or greeting. Everyone’s attention is on the strangers. I see wariness and suspicion in most of the children’s eyes, and in the Sami boy’s, a hint of fear.
Then Fru Berg rings the bell she’s been holding in her hand all along. She marches towards the classroom together with two of the strangers, opens the door and tells us to enter. We shuffle in under her militant watch, one by one.
And freeze in surprise.
All the desks and chairs have been stacked against the far wall. A white sheet has been set up at the opposite end of the room, covering the wall from floor to ceiling. A bench stands in front of it.
In the middle of the room is a chair and desk. On the desk lies an open suitcase containing…
…what looks likes surgical instruments.
Fru Berg has no patience for our ogling. ‘Line up now, five rows, spit spot.’ She walks over to the piano beside her teacher’s desk.
The strangers watch as we sing the Swedish national anthem. One is a short, elderly man with a bulging stomach, dainty glasses that perch on the ridge of his nose, and fluffy grey hair forming a half ring around his head. His bald scalp glistens with sweat and he mops it with a handkerchief three times during the song. The other man is younger, powerfully built, almost two heads taller than his colleague, with sandy-grey hair combed back over his head. His austere eyes catch mine once and my gaze darts to the floor.
Fru Berg keeps a smile glued to her face while she plays, over-pronouncing every word so that the little ones can follow, but her eyes are hard. Normally, she reprimands us if we don’t sing “properly”, but with these men present she keeps a lid on her thoughts.
She tells Vilhelmina, who’s been singing bright and sincerely at the front, to go to the kitchen and check if there is coffee ready for the guests. Vilhelmina gives a brisk nod and walks, straight-backed, out through the little corridor connecting the classroom to the rest of the house.
Upper Soppero does not have an actual school building. The classroom is an extension to the Bergs’ villa. When Herr Berg moved here with his family ten years ago to take over after the old meänkeli priest, he was determined to also bring education to Upper Soppero. His wife would teach the village children. Twenty-eight students from ages six to sixteen, of which only three (the Berg children) speak Swedish fluently, and only three speak it proficiently (me, Vendela and a Finnish girl one year my junior).
Fru Berg explains all this to the strangers with the same precision and efficiency she performs dictations.
‘Are any of the children here Lapps?’ the shorter man asks.
‘Only one.’ Fru Berg points with her hand to six-year-old Davvet, who stands out from the rest of us in his traditional Sami coat and trousers in cobalt blue, with the green, yellow and red collar. ‘Davvet, say hello to the gentlemen.’
The boy opens and closes his mouth, eyes wide in panic. He grips his blue, conical hat tightly in his hands.
I lean slightly towards him. ‘Good morning to you sirs,’ I whisper softly in Swedish.
The boy repeats the words so quietly even I struggle to hear.
‘Speak up,’ Fru Berg demands.
The boy repeats the words half a notch louder. Fru Berg’s expression is stony when she thanks him. Not good enough, but it will have to do. She makes no sign of having noticed my intervention. ‘Roughly half the population of Soppero are nomadic Lapps,’ she explains to the gentlemen. ‘They move around the outlying wilderness, following their reindeer up into the mountains during summer. Their children only attend school in winter when the reindeer graze in the forests.’
‘And where do you fit all those children in, I wonder?’ asks the short man. His voice is thick, like porridge. ‘As marvellous as your learning space is, I doubt it can accommodate seventy pupils.’
‘Herr Berg educates them in the stable.’
‘A frugal location, though I assume the Lapps are used to such conditions.’
The adults exchange a mild chortle.
‘Now, I think we’d better get to work.’
Short Man leads the way to the desk set aside at the back of the room. ‘Line the children up along the wall. Ladies first.’
Fru Berg repeats the commands to us, and all the girls shuffle up to the wall beside the door. The boys are ordered outside. Karl-Augustinus, my youngest brother, hovers at the doorway beside me.
‘What are they going to do to us? Why are they taking the boys out?’
‘Eeneti,’ I say to him in meänkeli. Quiet.
Davvet, next in line to go out, repeats the question in Sami. I repeat in his language. ‘Rafi. Buohkat boahtit buorre.’ Quiet. All will be well.
Fru Berg closes the door behind them. ‘Maria,’ she says, pointing at me, ‘you will be the first.’
All eyes turn to me. I keep my arms pinned to my sides and my head tucked in, trying not to stare at the instruments on the table. They glint dangerously in the sunshine streaming in through the windows. I take the seat in the middle.
Short Man steps close until his face blocks out the classroom and the girls. The sun reflects in his glasses, hiding his eyes behind a blank sheet of light.
‘Open wide.’ He inserts a metal object similar to a nail file into my mouth. He moves it around the front and back of my lower jaw, my upper jaw, and then under the lips. ‘Mmhhhm. Teeth intact.’ Tall Man makes a note in a thick tome of a book.
Short Man returns the nail file to the case and picks up another metal object, like a two-pronged pincer.
‘What are you going to do?’ I ask.
The man positions the prongs on either side of my nose. The sharp edges are cool and I wonder if they will prick my skin.
‘3.2,’ Short Man declares. There’s a scratching sound as Tall Man notes the number down.
Short Man takes another measuring instrument, which looks a bit like an anvil or hammer, with two prongs sticking out from the main handle. He positions it so one prong touches the tip of my nose, the other the top, and presses his thumb between my eyes to mark where the upper prong touches me.
He puts the anvil-prong aside and brings out the largest object yet. It looks a bit like that instrument doctors use to listen to your heart and lungs, with soft, rubber ends.
Short Man places this across my head. One of the ends on my forehead, the other at the back of my head. ’42.1.’ He turns the instrument so the ends sit on my ears. ‘39.5.’
He puts the instrument aside and picks up a kind of palette with thin strips in different shades of beige, white and brown. He pulls one, two, three, placing them against my check to compare. He settles with the third, a dull, clay coloured strip, half beige half brown.
‘Mmmm,’ he says to himself. ‘Are both her parents of Tornedalian ancestry?’
‘Yes,’ Fru Berg says simply.
‘Any mixing with Lapps?’
‘Yes. Maria’s family are Tornedalian, Meänkeli as they call themselves, but originate from the Lapps. That is why they own reindeer.’
‘But not nomadic?’
‘Good.’ Short Man steps back, waiting for Tall Man to finish his note-taking. Then the two swap places.
‘You can go stand over there,’ Tall Man says without looking at me. He adjusts something on the camera, checks the tripod stands steady. ‘Take off your clothes, stand up on the bench.’
My body glues itself to the chair.
‘Maria,’ Fru Berg warns.
I glance once at Vendela. Her face is wooden, like the wall behind her.
Tall Man shifts from one foot to the other.
I stand up. Wander over to the bench. Two steps, and then I am as tall as him.
He motions at me. ‘The clothes.’ A hint of impatience in his voice now.
I pull my dress over my head. I take off my tunic. My hands move to my back to the buttons on my petticoat when I notice movement in the window.
Gustav and August. Amused smiles on their faces.
I wish my cheeks could flush red. Then, maybe, Fru Berg would notice and shoo her sons away. But my body does not behave like that. It shuts down, cold and unmoving like a mountain. There is no space for feeling.
The petticoat slides down to my feet. I step out of it and push it off the bench to the floor. Tall Man picks up a small remote attached to the camera through a wire. He clicks the remote.
Blinded. Three seconds of white. I’ve never experienced a camera like this before. Not just a flash and a click. A lightning bolt.
‘Turn around. Put your hands around your head.’
Another? I want to pick up my clothes to cover myself and hide away in a dark room. But my body is numb, number than it was in the river.
The camera strikes. Tall Man orders me to turn so he can take my profile. He doesn’t ask me to dress when he’s done. He lingers, busying himself with the camera, exchanges a few words with Short Man. Looks me up and down.
Short Man points to the wall. ‘Back in line. Next.’ He swaps places with Tall Man.
I gather my belongings and scuttle over to the back of the line. None of the girls meet my gaze. Vendela is next and she looks calm and focused when she takes the centre chair. There’s no sign of Gustav and August in the window. Then there’s a clutter of cutlery and porcelain as Vilhelmina arrives with the coffee.
Only when everyone of us has been examined can we leave. We file out and the boys file in. Karl-Augustinus and Davvet look wonderingly at me, perhaps hoping to see the steady reassurance I gave them earlier. I cannot look at them. My body is still numb, disconnected from my mind.
‘Will we have our lesson after this?’ I ask Fru Berg, who stands by the door letting the boys in.
Fru Berg twists her mouth as if she thinks it rude of me to ask. ‘The villagers need their photos taken.’
‘But what about our class?’
‘You will wait until the researchers are done.’ The last boy crosses the threshold and she closes the door.
I stare at it, willing it to open. Not because I want to see my brothers examined, but because I want to hide away somewhere inside. Four walls, no windows. Somewhere no unwanted eyes can pry.
Vendela’s voice forces me out of my thoughts. ‘Maria, kattua.’ Look. She points down to the square. ‘Faari.’
I follow her finger. I take a long, deep inhalation.
Father sits on a stool in the middle of the square. One of the other stranger men measures his nose and head, while another makes notes in another thick book. A long line of villagers wait behind him for their turn. I count over twenty.
‘Do you think they will come to our house too? Will they make äiti…’
‘Tyst,’ I say in Swedish. Quiet. The way Faari sits, hands on his knees, eyes downcast, while the southerner applies his strange instrument to his nose and touches him between the eyes… The farmer in him, gritty, tough and unrelenting like the earth, is gone.
‘It will take hours to photograph all those people,’ I say numbly. ‘We will be waiting out here all day.’
‘It is just school,’ says Vendela.
‘We were starting a new chapter in the history book today.’
‘Maria, we can’t do anything. We aren’t the ones who decide.’
‘That’s the problem, is it not?’
My voice rises a notch, attracting the gaze of the stranger women. I’ve been speaking Swedish all this time.
‘Tule,’ says Vendela in meänkeli, reaching for my hand. ‘Let’s wait in the wagon until this is finished.’
‘Nej,’ I say firmly in Swedish. No. ‘Speak Swedish,’ I tell my sister. ‘They stare more when we speak meänkeli.’
‘You are the one they’re staring at…’
Her gaze is stuck at something beyond my shoulder. She takes a step back.
A familiar, mocking laugh enters my ears.
Gustav and August Berg, coming down the hill from their family garden. They have their hands in their pockets, and walk at a slow, leisurely pace, leaning slightly backward. The walk of someone in command.
‘Entertaining to watch, is it not?’ Gustav’s gaze slides down to the scene at the square. His pale eyebrows rise. ‘Isn’t that your father?’
Neither me nor Vendela answer. Our gazes fall to the ground, our lips tight. Until the questions surging within me spill over. ‘Who are these people?’
‘Researchers, from the University of Uppsala.’
‘Where is that?’
Gustav sneers. ‘I don’t expect you to know.’
‘Why are they not studying you?’
Both boys stare at me in astonishment. Then they throw their heads back and laugh.
‘I thought not even you would be dumb enough to ask that.’
My fingers curl into my palms, but I force them to flatten out. ‘Why are they not studying you?’
Gustav Berg steps down until there’s only a hand’s distance between us. His dirty blond hair, waxed and combed back over his head, shines steely in the sun. His pale blue eyes are cold and spiteful. ‘Why do you think?’
I take in his bold eyes, shadowed slightly by a strong forehead with eyebrows so pale they fade into his skin. Prominent cheekbones, strong jawline, a dead-straight ridge to his nose. Perfectly moulded lips. A sculptor could have cut him out of stone to let God breathe life into him.
‘Art needs to be preserved,’ Herr Berg said once. A painter had come to do their family portraits last year, taking the Berg siblings out of class, and I’d been asked to help provide the painter with refreshments. ‘A lot of ugly art is infecting Europe at the moment. Grotesque images all black lines and angles, no sense of aesthetic.’ He’d gazed admiringly at the portraits of his children. ‘We need to protect the beautiful, keep it separate from the ugly. Letting them mingle…’ he’d turned to look at me, ‘would produce undesirable results.’ A resigned smile had formed on his lips, as if he were sorry for me.
‘Come on now, say it.’
I feel Gustav’s breath on my face. It tastes of coffee and sugar. I see the knuckles of his hand stand out against the linen fabric of his trousers. A slight movement and his hand will brush against my skirt. It doesn’t need to. His eyes are all over me, undressing me, returning me to the vulnerable state before the camera.
‘She’s not going to say anything, Gustav,’ says August. I see him, beyond his brother’s shoulder, stealing glances in the direction of the square.
A mocking chuckle. A twist to the lip. ‘I guess she can’t even do that.’ Gustav’s face becomes grotesque.
I step back. Take Vendela by the arm. We begin to walk across the lawn, to the outskirts of the garden, the fields and farmhouses beyond it, when I hear Gustav’s voice. ‘Even their breasts are undesirable. Droopy and lifeless. Better to keep them in the mountains where no one has to look at them.’
Something inside me swirls. I pivot around, cover the distance between us and bring my penknife to his throat. ‘Take that back.’
‘Take back what you said.’
‘What did I say, huh? August, did I “say” anything?’ He tries to laugh it off, but it is a shaky sound. No malice in his eyes now as they dart around, looking for a way out. We’re out of sight from the square, his mother is in the classroom. No one can interfere.
‘Apologise to us.’ I push the knife harder against his skin. The blade is at an angle, slanting upwards. One leftward flick of my wrist and it will cut straight through the external jugular vein. It throbs beneath the metal like a tiny, scared larva.
Then Gustav angles his head slightly and pushes forward. The knife nicks him on the side of his throat, towards the neck. A slow trickle of blood.
He shouts out and covers the cut with a hand. ‘You attacked me!’ He turns towards his brother. ‘The wench attacked me!’
August, who’s kept his distance this whole time, grinning as if Gustav has set all this up for his amusement, now stares at his brother with concern. He grabs hold of Gustav’s free hand and pulls him backwards. ‘Let us go, Gustav.’
Gustav’s gaze is still fixed on me. ‘Mad wench,’ he mutters under his breath, before giving in to his brother. The two of them disappear around the corner of the villa.
I hold up the knife to the sun. A needle-thin line of blood colours the blade’s edge.
My hand shakes as I bend down and wipe it on the grass.
I jump when a voice, a young boy’s voice, calls my name. I twist around.
All three of my brothers hover by the opposite corner of the villa. Cowering against Isak’s chest is Davvet Nutti.
‘Tule,’ Isak says.
I stumble towards them, closely followed by Vendela.
‘They took blood from Davvet,’ Karl-Augustinus whispers.
‘A blood sample,’ Isak clarifies. ‘For their research, but they didn’t explain what they would use it for. Now Davvet thinks he is ill and carrying some disease.’
I kneel down on the grass, feel the dew dampen my dress. My mind is still spinning from the incident with Gustav. I place my fingers on my temples to make it stop. Davvet, look at me,’ I say quietly in Sami.
Two fearful eyes stare at me.
‘You are not ill. You do not carry any disease.’ Gustav’s eyes leer in my mind. ‘They are the ones with disease.’
‘Maria,’ Vendela touches my shoulder.
I keep hold of Davvet’s gaze. Reach out to give his hand a squeeze. His eyes are still wary but he doesn’t pull back. There’s a slight pressure against my index and middle finger as he returns the squeeze.
I turn around. The hand holding Davvet’s slides to the ground.
They stand like an army at the other end of the house. Herr and Fru Berg in the middle, their sons and Vilhelmina to their right. To their left, Tall and Short Man and the other southerners. Behind them, I see some of the villagers. There is no sign of Faari.
‘Maria,’ Herr Berg says. ‘Come here.’
He speaks faster than usual. No trace of his calm and measured prayer-voice. No kindness in his eyes.
My legs are leaden, unwilling to rise.
I glance up at the priest under my lashes. Herr Berg stands with his arms behind his back, chin jutting forward. He is the tallest man in the crowd, gaining a few centimetres even on Tall Man. His shadow stretches out on the grass, impossibly large despite the early hour.
‘Why did you attack my son?’
Lumps form in my throat.
‘Are you aware that it is forbidden to carry any sort of sharp object in the classroom?’
Surprise loosens my tongue. ‘Fru Berg never said that.’
I flinch. Close my eyes. ‘Fru Berg never said that.’
My teacher sniffs in spite. ‘That she has the nerve to speak out. My son could have been killed!’
I open my eyes. Fru Berg has an arm around her son’s shoulders. Gustav’s face reeks with scorn, yet there is a smug glint in his eyes.
‘I didn’t… he was the one who…’
‘Who what?’ says Herr Berg. ‘Speak up!’
I bite my lip. The truth sounds ludicrous. In their eyes, I’m guilty.
‘Does she still have the knife on her?’ says Fru Berg.
I take a deep breath. Feel the knife weighing down my right pocket.
Herr Berg strides up to me and holds out his hand.
I place the knife in his palm.
The priest returns to his family without a word.
I notice Vendela in the corner of my eye. She stands with her head bowed, a frown on her brow, hands folded in front of her. When she notices my stare she shifts her feet, ever so slightly.
Has she already forgotten what Gustav said?
‘To think I’ve been letting a murderess into my classroom…’ Fru Berg continues. ‘She cannot stay here, she’s a danger to the other children.’
‘How old is the girl?’ asks her husband.
All heads turn. I catch my breath.
Faari walks up to stand beside me, oblivious of the crowd’s stare. ‘Maria is sixteen.’ His voice is light, no hint of its deep, regular steadiness.
‘So next week was meant to be her last at school?’ says Herr Berg.
‘Then it would make little difference for her to finish now. She could be banned from entering the town for a week, restricted to her home.’
Fru Berg shakes her head. ‘That is not good enough.’
‘I promise, Fru Berg, she won’t trouble you,’ says Faari earnestly. ‘I will teach her a lesson. I do not tolerate such behaviour from my children.’
My teacher gives a dismissive shake of the head. ‘She needs proper punishment.’
Herr Berg’s expression is troubled. He opens his mouth to speak.
‘If I may be so bold as to interrupt.’
Short Man. He’s been talking to his colleagues in hushed tones all this time, but now he steps forward. He doesn’t wear his glasses. His eyes are small and black and sit close together. They glisten with eagerness as he looks at the priest. ‘Herr Lexell and I,’ he motions to Tall Man, ‘propose to take the girl with us on our travels.’
It’s hard to say who is more shocked. Herr Berg raises his eyebrows and twiddles his moustache. Fru Berg looks as if she’s been slapped in the face. Gustav and August gape, revealing all their teeth. Vilhelmina wrinkles her nose.
Faari grips his cap tight so the whites of his knuckles show.
Herr Berg is the first to recover. ‘You wish to take the girl with you on your research?’
‘There are certain people in our society who would be very intrigued to see her. She is of Lapp and Finnish origins, a curious blend of different peoples.’
‘Would she not… get in the way?’
‘Oh, she wouldn’t be present when we conduct our measurements. Perhaps in needs of translation, but mainly she will be exhibited at social gatherings with other researchers. Such formalities may help… tame… her violent tendencies.’
He looks at me then, and in my mind I shudder. Short Man looks at me like a boy who’s just been given his first wooden soldier to play with. They all do, all the Swedish researchers.
Oblivious to their gazes, Herr Berg claps his hands together. ‘We’re very obliged to you, Herr Retzius.’ He turns to his wife. ‘Isn’t that so, my dear?’
Fru Berg forces a smile. Her husband has already bought the idea, she has no choice but to agree. ‘Of course,’ she says. Her rock-hard gaze fixes on me. ‘But first she must apologize to my son.’
‘Naturally,’ he beckons at me. ‘Maria.’
‘I’m sorry.’ The words stumble of my tongue. They taste vile and sicken me to the stomach. ‘I’m sorry I hurt you.’
Gustav gives a brief nod, an offended look on his face. He brings his hand to the cut again.
‘Good,’ says Herr Berg curtly. ‘Now, sirs, I assume you want to carry on with your work?’
Short Man makes an apologetic grimace. ‘No, we really cannot linger. We need to be in Karesuando by the evening. We have photographs of the children, that is more than satisfactory. We will take our leave.’ He glances at me. ‘In light of what has just happened it is perhaps wise to move on.’
Herr Berg nods. The muscles in his face relax. ‘As you wish. Your visit to Upper Soppero has been an honour and privilege.’
‘The honour is all mine.’ Herr Retzius trundles down to the carriages by the square, struggling slightly to keep up with Herr Berg, his colleagues following. Their exchange of pleasantries continue, fading into a distant buzz.
I flinch. Tall Man, Herr Lexell, walks up to me. The sun casts shadows along his angular face. ‘I’m taking you to the carriage.’
I dig my heels into the ground. ‘I don’t have any belongings. I… I’d need to get home to pack.’
‘We will organise a change of clothes for you.’
‘What about money?’
‘You will have no need for money.’ Lexell moves towards the square. ‘Come.’
I look over my shoulder. My family stand together, Faari in the centre, Vendela and Isak on either side of him, the little ones and Davvet at the front. ‘Maria,’ Faari says, ‘are you sure…’
His gaze slides past me at an upward angle – towards Lexell’s figure, who’s shadow I can see stretching out on the ground beyond my own.
‘It’s alright, Faari,’ I say in meänkeli, though there’s a lump in my throat. ‘I won’t let anything happen…’ Seeing the concern in father’s eyes, I stand straighter. ‘I want to go. I do.’ I remind myself of Gustav’s words. Better to keep them in the mountains where no one has to look at them. ‘I’ll prove them all wrong. About us.’ Yet I barely feel my tongue and lips when I speak. My voice no longer feels like my own. ‘Tell Äiti I’m sorry…’
A slight nod from my father. His face is resigned, he carries himself straight. When Karl-Augustinus reaches for me, Faari whispers to the boy and holds him back. A hug will only make this goodbye more final.
‘Faari,’ I say, almost at a whisper. ‘Surely you don’t think I did it? Vendela was there.’
‘It does not matter what I think,’ he says. ‘That is the problem.’
‘But it matters to me.’
‘That knife is for ear-marking reindeer. You would never use it for anything else.’
‘Äiti needs to understand…’
He nods again.
Lexell calls at me to come. I let myself be dragged away by his voice, watching my family grow small.
Lexell stands by the open carriage door as I reach him.
‘Do not look so glum,’ he says. ‘Girls like you never get an opportunity like this. Be grateful.’
He opens the door. The first thing I see are women’s skirts.
The southern women, three of them now, lean out to look at me.
‘Did you think you’d be getting a carriage all for yourself?’ says Lexell. ‘Get in.’
He does not hold out his hand. Hitching up my skirts, I climb into the carriage, conscious of Lexell’s stare as the movement bares my ankles. The carriage door slams shut behind me.
It’s hot and stuffy inside. The two women sitting on the left side wear expensive looking clothes and big hats. The woman to the right, who does not budge to give me extra space, wears plain, brown clothes and no hat. Compared to the other two, she does not wear a ring on her left ring finger, and her hands are red and sore where theirs are white and smooth.
Two wives and their maid.
We wait for at least another ten minutes. The men have a lot of equipment to load into their considerably larger carriage. Through the narrow window I make out the Berg siblings watching from the square. They are too far away for me to make out their facial expressions, but I can see Gustav speaking to his siblings, how he carries himself.
He thinks he has won. The annoying meänkeli girl who dared stand up to him is being sent away. Maybe she didn’t get a beating, but she will face humiliation, paraded before researchers and intellectuals like an exotic bird. Perhaps they will get bored and drop her on the way.
I put my hand in my pocket, feeling the ghost of my knife in my palm. When the carriage finally jolts into movement, rocking me back and forth, the currents of Lainio swirl inside me. It may be sweeping me off onto a different course, but at some point, it will turn. The current will carry me home.
Josephine Greenland is a Swedish-English writer from Eskilstuna, Sweden. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham and a BA in English from the University of Exeter. She is currently completing a teacher qualification in Secondary English at the University of Edinburgh. Her debut novel Embers, written for her MA dissertation, is forthcoming in November 2020 with crowdfunded publisher Unbound. She is the winner of the 2019 Bumble Bee Flash Fiction Competition by Pulp Literature and the 2018 Fantastic Female Fables Competition by Fantastic Books Publishing. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in Dream Catcher, Literary Yard, Soft Cartel Mag, Plum Tree Tavern, Porridge Magazine, Litro, and AHF Magazine. In 2017, she was awarded the Young Writer’s Bursary by Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival. When not writing or teaching, she enjoys playing the violin, running and hiking.