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Gathered Waters

By Cara Luecht

They want to worship as their hearts demand…

but is it something they can give up everything for?
Brianna has only ever been what her life demanded. A wife, a hostess, a mother. But when a stand her husband takes ostracizes them from the Lutheran church that controls so much of life in Sweden, Brianna finds herself needing to find a strength beyond her station…a strength that will see her through prejudice and persecution and to a home she never dreamed she would find.
Based on the true story of the author s family s journey from Sweden to America, this sweeping saga paints the brilliance of new faith, the bravery of a new land…and the beauty of plunging beneath the waters and emerging a new person, capable of what one never thought one could do.

Chapter 1

January 1880 – Karlskrona, Sweden

It was not by my plan, nor was it a mistake. My husband would say the change in our path was by design. It didn’t matter. Our path, divine or not, began in our home in Karlskrona. That night, like so many others, I waited. I haunted the window, drawing the edge of the parlor curtain over to feel the chilled air seep off the glass. I hoped for my husband but scanned the long shadows for the dreaded bishop and his men. I dropped the lace, only to return minutes later to repeat the ritual.

But that night a stranger accompanied my husband. A bitter wind flattened their coats to their bodies. Afternoon had weakened the sun, and frost gathered in the shade, on the lowest branches of trees and on the eastern sides of rocks and fence posts. I pressed my hand against the glass, and when I removed it an iced print remained.

They walked side by side with coats buttoned to the top and scarves wound around their necks. With each gust of wind, they lowered their faces farther into the fabric until their mouths and noses were covered. I watched the strange man pull gloveless hands from his pockets and bring them to his mouth, blowing warmth into the hollow of his palms. He rubbed them together before searching for relief in the deep recesses of his coat. His tense posture spoke of one who had been cold for too long.

I let the lace slide back into place and crossed to the hearth where the carved mantle stood well over my head; a gift of timber from my husband’s family land to the north. Dark, solid, and ancient with almost no hint of a grain—one glance at the flawless carvings and glassy finish and there was no doubt why furniture with his family’s Modig name was prized. I jabbed at the logs with the poker, stoking the already roaring fire.

Not only was Anders late, but it seemed he’d brought a guest. I remembered the last time we had guests at our table, when I was still a prominent hostess. Had I known, I would have put on a fresh collar.

I gave the fire one more poke, watched the sparks rise and fall, and placed the heavy iron on the hearth before moving back to the window to check their slow progress.

The children and I had waited for dinner. We had waited for more than an hour, but when the hour had passed and Anders still was not home, I instructed our housekeeper to keep the food warm in the oven. I knew the kind of response my request would garner; Elsa’s warm red lips pursed out slightly and turned down at the corners. Of course, never enough to argue with, never enough to raise questions, but sufficient to communicate her disdain for the way I managed the household. I had informed our nanny, Liona, that the children should be fed in the kitchen.

I turned back to the room and checked my reflection in the parlor mirror. Elsa was not a beautiful woman. I ran my fingers over my collar and down my waistline, smoothing the white shirt and tucking it farther into the black waistband of my skirt. The sewn pleats laid flat against my hips and fell in even gathers to the floor. Soon, I would have to let the waistband out again. I checked a stray strand of hair and tucked it behind my ear. Elsa had skin like a sausage, and a body to match.

The dining room table was set for two. We had not had dinner guests in some time. All had been quiet after that last, abbreviated dinner with my parents. We were advised to reconsider our questionable business decision. My face stayed flushed for hours after we walked them to the door, my sister’s furtive, apologetic expression the only comfort. Our church friends disbursed soon after, as the investigations at the hand of the bishop intensified. But that evening the setting looked safe, the china modest and solid, and the room comfortable. I had become accustomed to the sparse two-person service.

“Elsa, we’ll have a guest for dinner tonight.” I entered the kitchen through the heavy, swinging door. “Anders and another man are on their way up from the stables.”

Elsa made a grunting hum and nodded her understanding. I knew I should have asked her to respond more appropriately—certainly Anders would have been unhappy if he knew—but I didn’t want to. I was tired, and she did her job well enough that I had no real complaints. I turned back to the parlor and prepared to meet our guest.

With a flurry of cold air, Anders opened the door. He followed the stranger in, stooping his six-foot-five frame just a bit to avoid the top of the doorway. In tandem, they removed their hats and shook off the cold. Shards of icy snow fell from their shoulders and disappeared into the rug.

“Brianna, I would like for you to meet Johan. He’ll begin work at the base next week. Johan, my wife, Mrs. Brianna Modig.”

I hadn’t thought we were hiring any more laborers to blast stone for the troublesome Navy barracks project. Business was steady, but until it warmed up we didn’t plan to push production any further. I sent Anders a questioning glance that went unnoticed.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Johan bent slightly with his greeting and continued on with the standard complimentary language of a guest.

His accent was clipped and business-like, unlike the typical workers at the base whose speech tended toward softness around the edges of the syllables, lacking in the crispness that spoke of a formal education beyond the primary years.

I thanked him and gestured toward the parlor.

His clothes hung loosely and were worn in the typical places—elbows, knees—and when he had removed his hat I’d noticed the threadbare fabric under his arms.

Once in the room, Anders motioned to one of the upholstered chairs near the fire. Johan entered, knees and shoulders prominent under his ill-fitting clothes. At some point in the past it was likely his finely tailored suit had fit his more robust form. The fabric was heavy and expensive, and the stitching looked professional. On a healthier body, the suit would have been impressive.

Johan sat in the proffered chair, relaxing against the fire-warmed cushions. His hands at rest, his fingers lax against the arms, they attested to his accustomed comfort in a room like this one; one filled with the luxuries of upholstered furniture and polished floors.

Anders and I took the sofa opposite Johan. I couldn’t read Anders’s expressions, but the fire warmed and lit the area, and the soft crackle of wood succumbing to flames filled the room. Had I known how this man would change our lives, I might not have been so lulled by the mundane pleasure.

“Johan came to my office today,” Anders said. “He’s from Varmland but traveled to the base in search of work.” I smiled in welcome, wondering why a man of his obvious education and apparent family money would look for work as a stonecutter, or worse, a blaster.

I had been to the base when the work first began. I watched the dust-covered men labor like ants on a hill. I shouted questions to Anders over the hammering and drilling. He pointed out the foremen and the laborers, and told me when to anticipate the shrill call that warned the men of the coming explosion that stretched mere seconds into hours. How I held my breath waiting for the tremor and held further for the plume of dust and dirt expelled from the cavern. Johan was not a stone blaster. He was not one of those men.

“There were no open beds in the bunkhouse, so I said he could stay in the carriage house until a bunk opens up.”

“And I truly appreciate that.” Johan smiled. “I am looking forward to a good night’s sleep.”

So many men were looking for work. Families were hungry. Children subsisted on herring heads and bread made from anything that could be foraged out of the snow and ice. We had plates full of food. Johan and Anders continued to speak of work. Even the cuffs on Johan’s shirt hung too large for his wrists.

At one time, years ago, the farms surrounding our home in Karlskrona were filled with thriving families. But generations of too many sons meant one hundred fifty acre farms were fenced off into parcels of less than ten acres—plots not big enough to support even a modest family. Animals grazed in the woods because every inch of tillable land that could be forced to grow rye for the family’s bread was turned over year after year in hopes of a better winter than the last.

People, their family names recorded for centuries in the parish books, were moving away from inherited farms—their childhood homes—in order to scrape out a living in the soot-paved cities; rocky soil exchanged for cobbled streets. Neighboring farmers, who used to support their wives and children by their skill and hard work, grew dependent on their wives’ abilities with a needle and their children’s backs as hired-out farmhands. The interest had to be paid, even when shrunken parcels of land could not support the weight of the mortgages.

Johan, though, was not one of those men. His speech was trained, his vocabulary eloquent, sprinkled with cultural references and current political events. He had my attention, maybe even admiration.

The expensive mantle clock ticked while he sat with perfect posture under my scrutiny.

“Excuse me.” We all turned to see Elsa standing in the doorway of the dining room. “Dinner is ready.” She bowed slightly and turned, but not before Anders gave an appreciative nod. She smiled back with closed lips; just a wet slit set deep in ruddy cheeks. I would never understand Anders’s loyalty to the woman.

“Well, I’m famished.” Anders slapped his hands on his knees. We stood, and he motioned for Johan to join us. I fell into step, behind the two men. My husband hadn’t consulted me about opening our home to a stranger. I prayed we wouldn’t regret his decision.

Dinner that night was typical and unimpressive: sausages, potatoes, and bread with jam. Anders sat across from me, Johan to his right. Our guest looked hungry and was losing the battle to appear indifferent. Anders bowed his head.

We were both raised to give thanks at each meal, and we raised our children to do the same, even though our unfortunate tension with the bishop meant we were not presently attending church. But as Anders prayed a sincere prayer with Johan as our guest, thanking God for life and family, food and friends, his words rang archaic, and I wondered what the guest thought of Anders’s devotion.

The chair under me had grown uncomfortable, reminding me that I had wanted to make new cushions for the dining room. I decided to go to town to look for suitable fabrics; possibly something in red, with flowers.

I cracked my eyes while Anders continued and allowed myself a surreptitious glance in Johan’s direction. His eyes were closed. I noted the beginnings of lines forming in the corners, and they gave his face an aged look I suspected he hadn’t earned. His high cheekbones and strong jaw line appeared severe and were at odds with his unfashionably long, dark blond hair. What I did not see, however, was any vestige of uneasiness. He appeared to pray as sincerely as we did, or as sincerely as I would have if I had not been so oafishly staring at our guest.

I bowed my head and tried to concentrate in time for the final “Amen.”

Anders picked up his fork and speared a potato. “Johan will begin work in the office distributing the workers’ pay.”

Johan nodded in agreement, already chewing a piece of sausage.

“There are simply too many for me to process anymore.”

The base work was now in full swing, although Anders had bid for the project when we were still living near his parents in Varmland. After he was awarded the contract, we moved to Karlskrona in order to be near the base. There were over one hundred men employed to blast and cut stone. When the work on the structures began, there would be more than three hundred.

Johan cut another bite of sausage, picked up his glass, and took a long drink of water. Thankfully, we were blessed with a good well. His Adam’s apple bobbed with each swallow. He set the glass back down on the white table cloth. “How long do you expect the project to take?”

“Most of the blasting will be done in the next couple of months. Some of the cutters are already working now, and their numbers will increase as more rock is hauled to where it needs to be on the base. Maybe another month before the first crew of bricklayers begins their work. After that, approximately a year and a half until our contract is complete. We should be done and off the base by August of next year.”

I moved the potatoes around my plate. The cooling grease from the sausages turned my stomach over. I watched Elsa as she darted in and out of the room, trying to discern if she had chosen sausages specifically to vex me. The ceramic fireplace to my back radiated warmth from its painted tiles, and I wanted to escape to my room.

“A year and a half worth of work,” Johan mused, bringing me back to the room and our guest. “How many men have you had to turn away?”

Anders’s lips turned down and his eyes fell to the humble chunks of meat and root vegetables on his plate. Jobs were few, and seldom was there a day when he was not greeted at his office by a line of barely shod men who had left hungry families tucked away in peasant cottages while they searched for work.

“I turn away a few.” Anders shifted in his chair. “I prefer to hire men who have experience working around stone. Especially this time of year, when it’s so cold and the stone can break in unpredictable patterns.” He sat back and addressed Johan directly. “I also will not hire anyone who doesn’t appear to be strong enough for work, and I won’t consider anyone who appears drunk. We do not need injuries.” Anders continued to stare at Johan to gauge his reaction.

Johan nodded his understanding.

“I’ve already told Johan…” Anders began.

I looked up from my fork with its coagulating grease as Anders glanced at me.

“We provide no beer during working hours, and if the workers come from the midday meal appearing to be under the influence of it, they are sent back to the bunkhouse and will lose that day’s wages.”

Anders turned back to his guest. “Sometimes this causes men to decide they should search elsewhere for employment, but with blasting and cutting stone, I won’t have them risk their lives more than the job already demands. I don’t want this project to be one where the time to completion is punctuated by the crushed bodies of the laborers.”

There was no beer at our dinner table. There had not been for some time. I was sure Johan noticed but was polite enough not to inquire. It made me fidget, knowing we did not offer Anders’s guest—our guest—the smallest of comforts, available at even the most humble of dwellings.

Johan took an intense interest in his remaining potatoes. “I never drink beer of any kind,” he confessed to his plate.

Anders’s gaze darted to me, and a precarious silence filled the room. I wondered if Johan was one of those men who drank until they had destroyed their own lives; it would have explained his obvious turn of luck.

“Undoubtedly.” Anders looked to Johan. “Undoubtedly, you have noticed there is none at this table.”

Or, I thought, maybe he was part of some religious sect eschewing any drink that affects the mind. That would have explained his seemingly sincere prayer. He watched us with what I imagined to be the same questions in his mind.

The last time we entertained guests without the courtesy of the drink was that final dinner with my family. They visited because my father wanted to see the project at the base. Dinner after the tour did not go well. The bishop stopped by, and our food was abandoned. It cooled on our plates while my mother berated me in the kitchen and my father and the Lutheran bishop conversed like old friends.

There was no secret, no mistaking how they felt. Their evaluation of our decisions was not a mystery. Thinking he had won, the bishop left that evening with a smile. My parents delivered their warnings and left in silence.

Anders and I stayed firm in our resolve. If we hadn’t before been convinced that the church intruded where it was not welcome, if we hadn’t already known how presumptuous and prying our families could be, if we hadn’t experienced firsthand the consequences of stepping out of our expected roles, we might have never have questioned our place there.

But it was too late. We’d already scrutinized our lives and found them wanting. Something had to change.

I looked to Anders and Johan, who in turn watched me, and each other, and the silence gave way to the clinking sounds of forks and knives against plates as we found our way to an uncertain kinship.

Chapter 2

Anna’s coffee, laced with cream and sugar, was a rich brown that made me think I should like to be swallowed by it, rather than the other way around. I wrapped my fingers around her colorful pottery, welcoming the comfort after the cold—even if relatively short—ride.

“I’m sorry I haven’t made the trip to see you, Brianna,” my sister said to the bright cup in her hands. “You know how it is. Father and Mother seem to find ways to dictate my days even from across the way.”

Anna was resigned far too early to her post as spinster. I watched as she picked up her spoon and swirled it around, the designs on the surface of the liquid changing with each small movement. Though not beautiful, she was strong with broad shoulders and large, almost masculine wrists and hands. The bread she baked with its hard crust and tender middle was infused with security.

“Don’t concern yourself with it,” I said. “I wouldn’t expect you to visit in the dead of winter anyway.”

She lifted one corner of her mouth in a half-ironic smile, knowing my daughter Hulda and I did exactly that.

Hulda played in the front room, out of sight from where I sat, but close enough so I could hear the motherly words of a seven-year-old to her baby doll.

That morning, I’d risen early and dressed quickly. After the previous night and the strange dinner with Johan, I wanted to talk to someone.

“How angry is Father?” I asked Anna, not really wanting an answer.

She continued to stir.

When our parents had visited our home, they’d come to be impressed. For my mother, it was the quality of the food, the polish on the silver, and the cleanliness of Hulda and Hjalmer. For my father, it was the business.

That day, he and Anders left me to sit with my mother and discuss who had fallen on hard times, whose children did not obey, and who were the latest of the poor in the parish to relinquish their tiny farm to the bank and emigrate to America.

Anna’s kitchen with its dried herbs hanging from a timber-beamed ceiling was the antithesis of anything my mother would consider civilized.

“Has mother been here?”

Anna placed the spoon on the saucer, ran her hands over the worn wood of the ancient table and looked at me with a vacant expression that harkened back to the days when, disciplined, we were sent to bed early to hide under the sheets and giggle at our formal stone of a mother.

“I didn’t think so.”

Facing her twenties without prospects, Anna had made the decision the previous year not to subject herself to our parents’ plans for her. She was determined not to be the daughter to live with and take care of our aging parents only because she was disinclined to marry.

After too much family discussion and Anna’s resolve remaining rod straight, they all agreed that she would move to the gardener’s cottage. Nestled tightly in the woods, its stone façade could not be seen from the main house. Anna filled the little home to the brim with warm furniture gathered from here and there, and the cellar with vegetables and bulbs ready for planting. The house even smelled like her, earthy and solid.

I knew I couldn’t live alone. I liked waking to the noise of a household full of people. “Anders brought someone home with him last night,” I interrupted the silence. Outside the kitchen window, a pine branch weighted down with snow scratched against the pane of glass.

“You weren’t expecting company? It wasn’t the constable again, was it?”

Anna knew of the tension brewing at the base. “No, Anders was late. His name is Johan, and Anders introduced him as someone he recently hired to work in the office.”

“Does he live nearby?” I could see Anna trying to calculate who we knew from the town that would take a position like that.

“He will now. Anders allowed him to bunk in the carriage house.”

Anna’s eyebrows lifted, and she focused her wandering, conversational glance on my eyes.

“He left family near Stockholm, but he’s not married. Anders brought him home to bunk in the carriage house because there were no open beds available at the base.”

“There are many men traveling for work now.” Anna’s magnanimous outlook intruded on my more guarded nature.

“I don’t think it was work that brought him to us.”

Anna sat back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “What did bring him then?”

I explained the discrepancies between his appearance and his manners. “He left Stockholm because of a falling out with the church.”

“What kind of falling out?” Anna scraped her chair across the wide plank floor, edging closer to the table. She placed her elbows on the surface and leaned in. “What did he do?”

“He told the bishop it was a sin for the church to distill and sell beer.”

“Oh, dear.”

Although we’d had our own challenges, punctuated by our voluntary removal from the parish congregation, we were never so bold as to question the clergy’s authority outright. Bishop Peterson, unhappy because we wouldn’t purchase beer for the workers, expressed his disappointment in more ways than one. For a time we were spied on and under suspicion of distilling our own, but later we seemed to settle on a working unease between us and the bishop.

Because we didn’t seek to purchase beer from anyone else, nor did we distill it ourselves, no laws had been broken, no permits neglected, and there was little to argue about. We were proud of our tenuous middle way. We would never have seen a rebellion like Johan’s as something that could be part of our future. Besides, I wasn’t sure if it even was a sin for the church to sell and distill beer. I knew there must be more to the story I had yet to learn.

A Bible that matched my own sat on the kitchen table. They were childhood gifts from our teacher. Sometimes I missed the Sunday service. I ran my palm across the embossed leather. It always amazed me how the memorized words stayed alive in my mind even without the bishop’s sermons. The longer we were gone from the church, the less I felt the loss, and that made me uneasy. The New Testament spoke of fellowship with like believers, but it didn’t say what to do if we no longer believed as our church did.

Anna picked up our cups and carried them over to the sink, as seemingly lost in her thoughts as I was in mine.

The low evening sun and lengthening days teased a longing for warmer weather from my winter-frosted mind. But it was only a tease, and although we were encased in the carriage, the frozen air fell off the inner side of the glass to pool on the floor.

We drove past the crooked wooden gate, and I could see just a corner of the main house where my parents still lived. Its huge stone walls and heavy oak entrance looked like they should be surrounded by a moat rather than the gently rolling, snow-covered hills that dominated the landscape.

There was a time when I’d wished my parents were people I could converse with. But my childhood evenings had been spent sitting at my mother’s feet emulating her darting fingers, only to have the stitches pulled and reworked. My sister, born six years after the last of us, was too young to remember those years. She only recalled the silence and the rooms filled with sheet-covered furniture. Alone, and in the time after my parents had stopped pretending, her childhood had been spent in the laps of tutors, or more favorably, in the crook of the tree that hung over the small pond in the garden.

But my days of searching for their approval were over.

My parents had left my home after that dinner and never come back. I didn’t know why I’d expected differently, but they left, and I turned to Anders, and he said it didn’t matter. I had Anders, I had Hulda and Hjalmer, and I had the babe growing inside. What I didn’t have was any idea of what to do with tomorrow.

Shades of deep purple clung to the horizon behind the black brushstrokes of trees. It all slipped by with the whispering crunch of metal sleigh runners on ice and the occasional soft whinny from the horses. I pulled Hulda closer and leaned my head back to watch the night and wonder if Johan was the last of the strangers Anders would bring in.

Blue and yellow squares rested in bound stacks at the bottom of my quilting basket.

They bothered me there. They nagged at me every time I reached in for the tiny scraps of white that would make my baby’s quilt.

It was my winter assignment to cut the fabric into squares and half-moons for a quilt to be presented in June to a newly married couple. The fabric of impeccable quality had been donated by a woman who made sure everyone in the circle knew exactly how nice it was. But as I no longer attended the church, and by default would not be welcomed by most of the quilting circle, I could not decide what to do with the stacks of squares as they slipped farther and farther into the recesses of my basket.

I gathered them up and made my way to the kitchen, where Elsa was kneading dough with red-blotched ferocity. Grey ringlets of hair escaped her loose bun and were pasted on her mottled cheeks and forehead.

“Elsa? Do you know Mrs. Olsen at church?” I opened the conversation and quickly chastised myself for asking the obvious. Everyone knew Mrs. Olsen, and my exchanges with Elsa always seemed to turn out to make me feel foolish, even when I planned ahead of time what I would say.

“Yes, ma’am.” She flipped the large glob of dough over on the wooden surface and dusted it with more flour. The neglected other half of her sentence, the half where she should have followed social protocol and asked why I inquired, hung heavy in the routine silence.

“If I give you some quilting squares, would you return them to her for me?” I dropped the pile into the basket near the fireplace and turned to escape the kitchen.

“I’ll get Samuel to drive me over after the bread is in the oven.”

I turned back to see the corners of her mouth dip down and her dusted hands rest on her hips. “I should have time before I start dinner.”

She took another, harder punch at the dough; the top of her arms offering the exclamation with their responding jounce in her tight sleeves.

I took a breath and turned back to fully face her, reminding myself for the hundredth time that Elsa had been with Anders’s family since his childhood. If the choice were mine, she would have been sent back to his parents’ home.

“I didn’t mean now. I meant would you mind taking them with you when you go to church on Sunday. I no longer have the opportunity to see Mrs. Olsen.” I finished the statement with a little waver in my voice and a growing flush to my face. Elsa knew exactly why I could not take them myself, and I did not appreciate her making me explain.

“Mama.” Hulda ran into the kitchen and stopped in front of the table where Elsa worked. “Liona says Hjalmer is in his nap now.”

Hulda gave Elsa the pleading look that echoed her father’s eyes, and a softer Elsa handed her a small biscuit and glanced back to me.

“Ma’am, I don’t have the opportunity to see Mrs. Olsen anymore either.”

“Come on, Mama.” Hulda yanked softly at my skirt. Grains of sugar were stuck to her fingers and the corners of her mouth. She left a few crystals on my black skirt, and I brushed them away.

“Just a minute, Hulda. Elsa, what do you mean?”

Elsa looked at me as if she were explaining to a child, but unlike her glance at Hulda, this one showed no hints of kindness. “Samuel and I don’t go to that church.”

“Mama.” Hulda tugged again.

I turned her in the direction of the doorway. “Hulda, please go upstairs and tell Liona that I will be there in a bit.”

Hulda scampered up the kitchen stairs while Elsa resumed her kneading.

The kitchen was warm, and with the oven heating in preparation for the bread, my face continued to flush and the fabric under my arms grew damp. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and faced Elsa.

“I was not aware. I am sorry.” I didn’t know why I apologized.

Elsa continued to knead. She punched the dough down, dusted it with flour, folded it over, and then turned it to begin again, all the while ignoring my comment. I wondered if, like us, she did not attend church at all, and I stood shifting my weight back and forth, foot to foot. Where she went to church should have been no concern of mine. I had no right to ask her personal questions, and by the looks of it, she had no intention of answering them.

She finished kneading, covered the dough, and wiped her hands on her yellowed apron and looked up, apparently abandoning the hope I would vacate the kitchen. I reached for the flour container to pick it up and put it away.

“You don’t need to do that, ma’am.” Elsa had the flour in hand before I could get it. “Why don’t you have a seat in the parlor? I’ll bring you some tea.”

Now Elsa stood looking at me. I had planned to go through the trunk of infant things with Liona while Hjalmer slept. Time was slipping away, but I had to know why they left the church. It was disturbingly close to the timing of our decision.

“Will you go back?” I asked Elsa, not moving in the direction of the parlor. “When did you stop attending Bishop Peterson’s services?”

Elsa placed her hands on the work surface and lowered her body onto a nearby stool.

I signaled for her to stay there, and I scraped the pile of flour, with its dried, rolled bits of dough, into the scrap bucket. For once, she complied with a sigh.

“We left when Mr. Modig left. He talked to Samuel, and Samuel thought he was right, that the church is involved where it ought not to be, and we would support his decision.”

I paused my scraping. Leaving the church was one thing, taking others along was entirely another. The half-full scrap bucket thumped against the wood floor as I set it in place near the garden door. I couldn’t think of an appropriate response for a loyalty that had taken me off-guard. Anders’s discussion with Samuel was dangerous. The decision was ours alone. I turned to see Elsa’s frank assessment of my silence. It made me feel too young, again.

She pushed up to stand at the counter. “I’ll take the squares to Mrs. Olsen this afternoon.” She began to shuffle through a stack of stained papers, presumably in search for a recipe.

Dismissed, I made my way up the kitchen stairs to check on Hjalmer with my cool hands pressed to my cheeks.

I found Liona seated on the floor in the middle of the children’s sitting room. She watched Hulda cradle the porcelain-faced doll Anders had given her. Sunlight cascaded in through the windowpanes and glinted off the doll’s blue glass eyes.

Liona glanced in my direction as I entered the room but didn’t move to get up. Instead, she motioned to the chair next to her and smiled a greeting. She was accustomed to my presence in this room, and unlike the kitchen, the nursery made me feel at home with its sitting room filled with diminutive furniture and its plush rugs covering every inch of the floor. My mother didn’t like the rugs. Most of the walls in the house were white, but the children’s rooms were decorated with garden-like paintings complete with dancing fairies and mischievous gnomes peeking from behind various pieces of furniture.

Liona was very close to my age, maybe a few years younger, and she had been referred to us by my neighbor, Mrs. Olsen. That woman had her hands in everything, but in this instance I was grateful due to Liona’s uncommon upbringing and exceptional education. I spoke Swedish, with a smattering of English, words taught to me by Anders when we were first married, before our evenings were filled with children and entertaining business associates. But Liona spoke English first, and Swedish, both with almost no hint of an accent. Mrs. Olsen had told me that Liona spoke Italian as well, although I had not heard her myself.

Anders received English newspapers in bundles at his office and brought them home for Liona to pore over. Sometimes they would talk about the happenings. My bits of English were largely useless when it came to reading a newspaper, but sometimes, given enough effort, I could make out the major events. On those days, they would converse in Swedish so I could be involved. I especially liked to try to make out any of the articles about America and the people who traveled there. It seemed those who chose to emigrate found either fortune or tragedy, and I wondered if there were any people who lived just average lives.

Liona sat with her legs stretched out and both hands flat on the floor behind her. I compared her tiny feet to my own, and then tucked mine under my skirt.

The dainty, dark-haired woman who sat next to me had a mind alight with mathematics, science, and literature. Liona filled the position of nanny because although she was raised with privilege, she had no privilege of her own, and she had been with us for years.

“She loves that doll,” Liona said without taking her eyes off Hulda. We watched as she straightened the doll’s blue dress and checked the tiny buttons on the shiny black shoes. A child’s tea service spread across the table in front of the window. Hulda set her doll in the chair adjacent to hers and poured imaginary tea.

I stood and walked over to the ruffle-filled crate full of baby items awaiting my attention. White linens, embroidered with red and yellow flowers, brightened the room as I pulled them from the wooden box and handed them to Liona.

I could feel the flutter of life; I had been able to for some time. When Liona had her back turned to me, I reached down to trace the expanding circle below the rising waistline of my skirt. I didn’t like how my dresses all appeared shorter in the front, but there was little that could be done about that. At least I was not living in the city anymore. The requirements in the country were more relaxed, and now that I no longer had to be concerned with impressing neighbors like Mrs. Olsen, I would be relatively free for most of my pregnancy. One benefit of alienating oneself from one’s friends and family was a certain loosening of the tethers.

The room grew dark while we sorted, and eventually the fire in the hearth lit it more than the sun coming through the windows. Dinnertime approached. With Anders at the base almost every day, and the cold keeping us inside, the days dragged by. I missed the times I would go into town, to the dressmakers or the lending library, and stop to see him. However, as I assessed the piles surrounding Liona and me, I knew keeping busy over the next couple of months would not be a problem. The ladies at church always said a spring baby was perfect because it gave the mother something to do with her time in the dead of winter. In that, they were right.

I didn’t even know if the ladies knew I was expecting another child.

As I reached to the bottom of the crate, tissue crinkled. Hulda’s and Hjalmer’s baptismal outfits rested there. I pulled one out. It was wrapped in tissue with the lightest blue pattern of dancing bears and secured with a blue ribbon. I sat down with the package resting on my knees, took one strand of satin between my fingers, and pulled.

The folded edges of tissue fell away and Hulda’s baptismal dress fell onto my lap. I had forgotten how small she was. Delicate glass beads on lace sprinkled across the front of the dress. I picked it up out of the nest of tissue and brought the fabric to my face. It still retained the faint fragrance of baby. As I held the doll-sized shoulders in my hands, the skirt almost reached the floor. In truth, it contained enough of the filmy white fabric to make a real dress for her.

“Do not touch it, Hulda.” Liona’s voice came from behind me. I hadn’t realized Hulda stood at my side admiring the dress as I did.

“Was it mine?” she whispered.

I folded the bottom up and fitted it back into the same square of tissue.

“Yes, it was.” I took one of Hulda’s long braids in my hands. “You are a bit big for it now, I am afraid.”

“Will the baby wear it?”

“No, the baby will have its own outfit to be baptized in.” I smiled at Hulda and ran my fingers down the length of her hair. It almost reached her waist and was tied with red ribbons at the end of her braids.

I dropped my hands to secure the package in my lap. Liona held the edges of the tissue together as I tied the bow.

My parents had attended Hulda’s baptism, and Hjalmer’s. I paused with the package in my hands. My stomach knotted and Liona’s eyes met mine as we both came to the same realization. I had no church to baptize this new life. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of that before. A wave of sadness washed over me.

A gnome, carved into the fireplace, laughed at my predicament.

I placed the tissue-wrapped keepsakes back into the crate, made a pile for mending, instructed Liona as to what the children should wear to dinner, and with shaking hands, made my way down the hallway.

Anders met me outside of my sitting room as I juggled the pile of baby clothes in my arms.

“How did today go?” He smiled down at me and reached to touch my cheek. Ever since the project at the base began, he came home with a bounce in his step.

I moved to the side to step around him. He must have thought I was playing coy, because he stepped in front of me to block my way.

“Did you realize that we will have no place to baptize the new baby?” I met his gaze, making sure he understood the severity of the situation.

He took a step back and reached out to take my shoulders. “Yes.”

“What are we going to do?”

I didn’t wait for the answer I knew he didn’t have. He let me go, and I stepped around him.

My sitting room was small, with only two upholstered chairs and a lady’s writing desk in one corner. Paneled in dark wood from floor to ceiling, it exuded warmth. There was a ceramic stove in the corner of the room that was kept stocked with coal during the day. The glass doors on the outside wall led to a hedge-bordered garden. I glanced out the windows and tried to remember where I had planted the tulip bulbs last fall.

The mending found a home in the basket with the rest, and I sat behind the desk to pen a letter to my sister Anna. There was still enough time in the day to have Samuel or one of the stable lads take it to her and get back before it was completely dark. Pen to paper, I invited her to come and stay for a while.