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Seacrow Island, Page 2

Astrid Lindgren

  Melker had said, “You’ll see—all the islanders will come down to the quay to welcome us. We’ll be a sensation.”

  But it was not quite like that. It was pouring rain when the steamer arrived, and on the quay stood one solitary little person and a dog. This person was female and about seven years old. She stood absolutely still as if she had grown up out of the quay. The rain poured down on her but she did not move. It seemed almost as if God had made her as part of the island, thought Malin, and had put her there to be the ruler and guardian of the island to all eternity.

  “I’ve never felt as small,” wrote Malin in her journal, “as I did when I walked down the gangplank in the streaming rain under that child’s gaze, carrying all my luggage. Her eyes seemed to take in everything. I thought she must be the Spirit of Sea-crow Island, and as if we should not be accepted by the island if we were not accepted by that child. And so I said as sweetly as I could, as one does to little children, ‘What’s your name?’

  “ ‘Tjorven,’ she said. Just that!

  “ ‘And your dog?’ I said.

  “She looked me straight in the eye and asked calmly, ‘Do you want to know if he’s my dog or what his name is?’

  “ ‘Both,’ I said.

  “ ‘He is my dog and his name is Bosun,’ she said, and it was as if a queen had deigned to present her favorite animal. And what an animal! He was a St. Bernard, the biggest one I’ve ever seen in my life. He was just as majestic as his owner and I began to wonder whether all the creatures on this island were of the same breed and very superior to us humble beings from the city. But then a friendly soul arrived, who turned out to be the island’s shopkeeper. He seemed to be a normal human being, for he welcomed us to Seacrow Island and told us that his name was Nisse Grankvist. But then he said rather surprisingly, ‘Go home, Tjorven,’ to the majestic child. Just imagine, he dared command her and he was actually her father! But his command did not have much effect.

  “ ‘Who said so?’ asked the child sternly. ‘Did Mummy?’

  “ ‘No, I say so,’ said her father.

  “ ‘Then I won’t go home,’ said the child. ‘I’m here to meet the boat.’

  “As the shopkeeper was busy checking his goods from the boat, he had no time to deal with his obstreperous daughter, so she stood there watching while we collected our belongings. We must have been a sorry sight just then, and nothing escaped her, for I felt her eyes on us as we set off toward Carpenter’s Cottage.

  “There were other eyes watching us besides Tjorven’s. Behind the curtains of the windows all along the street, eyes were looking out at us as we trailed along. It was pouring rain and even Father began to look rather thoughtful.

  “When it was coming down at its very hardest, Pelle said, ‘Daddy, did you know that it rains in through the roof of Carpenter’s Cottage?’

  “Daddy stopped dead in the middle of a puddle and asked, ‘Who says?’

  “ ‘Old man Söderman,’ said Pelle, and it sounded as if he were speaking of an intimate friend.

  “Daddy pretended to be quite indifferent. ‘Oh, I see! Old man Söderman, whoever this prophet of woe may be, says so! And of course old man Söderman knows, although the agent said nothing of the sort to me.’

  “ ‘Didn’t he know?’ I said. ‘Didn’t he say it was a pleasant old summer residence, particularly when it rained, because then there was a delightful little swimming pool in the middle of the living room?’

  “Daddy gave me a long look but did not answer. And then we arrived.

  “ ‘Hello, Carpenter’s Cottage,’ said Daddy. ‘Allow me to introduce the Melkerson family—Melker and his poor little children.’

  “It was a red one-story house, and the moment I saw it I had no doubt at all that it did rain in through the roof. But I liked it. I liked it from the very start. Daddy, on the other hand, was horrified. I don’t know anyone who goes from one extreme to the other as quickly as he does. He stood quite still and stared despondently at the summer cottage he had rented for himself and his children.

  “ ‘What are you waiting for?’ I said. ‘Nothing’s going to change it.’

  “So he took heart and we all went in.”

  Carpenter’s Cottage

  NO ONE in the family ever forgot that first evening in Carpenter’s Cottage.

  “Ask me whenever you want,” said Melker afterwards, “and I will tell you exactly what it was like. A moldy smell, icy cold bed linen, Malin with that little frown between her eyes, which she thinks I never notice, and me with a lump of anxiety in my chest. Had I done something absolutely crazy? But the boys were as happy as squirrels and rushed in and out, I remember that. And I remember the blackbird singing in the whitebeam tree outside the cottage, and the waves lapping against the jetty, and how quiet it was. And I was suddenly filled with wild excitement and thought, ‘No, Melker, you haven’t done anything crazy this time. This is something good, something really wonderful, something tremendously good!’ But, of course, there was that old, musty smell and . . .”

  “And then you lit the kitchen stove,” said Malin. “Do you remember that?”

  But Melker did not remember . . . he said.

  * * *

  “That stove doesn’t look to me as if it were meant for cooking,” said Malin, letting all her parcels and bags slide onto the kitchen floor. The stove was the first thing she had seen on coming in. It was rusty and looked as if it had not been used since the turn of the century. But Melker was encouraging.

  “Those old stoves are fantastically good. It only needs a little handling and I’ll fix it. But let’s look at the rest of the house first.”

  There was something of the turn of the century about the whole of Carpenter’s Cottage, a very dilapidated old cottage. The tenants of many summers had not treated it well, but long ago it must have been a cherished and well-cared-for craftsman’s home, for even in decay it had something wonderfully homey about it, which everyone felt.

  “It’ll be fun living in this old dump,” said Pelle, and giving Malin a hasty hug he rushed after Johan and Niklas to see what they were finding in the attic.

  “Carpenter’s Cottage,” said Malin. “What sort of carpenter lived here, Daddy?”

  “A young, happy carpenter who married in 1908 and moved in here with his sweet, young wife and made cupboards, tables and chairs and sofas for her exactly as she wanted them, and kissed her madly and said, ‘It shall be called Carpenter’s Cottage and it shall be our home on earth!’ ”

  Malin stared at him. “Do you know all that or are you just making it up?”

  Melker smiled a little shyly. “Um . . . yes . . . it’s something I made up, although I shouldn’t wonder if it isn’t true.”

  “Well,” said Malin, “at any rate, there must have been someone once long ago who was happy with this furniture and polished and dusted it and spring-cleaned it. Who does the house belong to?”

  Melker thought for a moment. “Someone called Mrs. Sjöberg or Mrs. Sjöblom or something like that. An old lady . . .”

  “Perhaps she’s your carpenter’s wife,” said Malin, laughing.

  “She lives in Norrtälje at present,” said Melker. “A man called Mattsson acts as her agent and rents the place during the summer. It looks to me as if it has been rented mostly to vandals with very destructive little children.”

  He looked around at what had once, no doubt, been a very pleasant living room. It was not very beautiful now, but Melker was quite content.

  “This,” he said, “this is going to be our sitting room.” And he patted the whitewashed stove. “We’ll sit here in the evenings in front of the wood fire, listening to the storm outside.”

  “While our ears flap in the draft,” said Malin and pointed to the window, where one of the panes was broken.

  She still had her little anxiety frown between her eyes, but Melker, who had already taken Carpenter’s Cottage to his heart, was not worried about a cracked window.

  “Don’t fuss, my dear. Your clever father will put in a new pane of glass tomorrow, don’t you worry!”

  Malin did not stop worrying altogether, for she knew Melker and she thought with a mixture of impatience and tenderness: He thinks he will be able to do it, he really does, but he forgets what usually happens. If he tries to put in a new pane of glass it means three more will be broken. I must ask that man Nisse Grankvist if there is anyone who can help me.

  Aloud she said, “Now I think it’s time we got down to it. Did you say you were going to light the kitchen stove, Daddy?”

  Melker rubbed his hands together, full of business. “Just that! You can’t leave that sort of thing to women and children!”

  “Well, then,” said Malin, “the women and children will go to look for the well. I hope there is such a thing!”

  She heard the boys tramping around upstairs and shouted to them, “Come on, boys! We must fetch some water!”

  The rain had stopped, for the moment at any rate. The evening sun was making brave but futile attempts to break through the clouds, eagerly encouraged by the blackbird in the old whitebeam tree. He went on singing regardless, until he saw the Melkerson children come out into the wet grass with their water pails. Then he stopped.

  “Isn’t it wonderful that Carpenter’s Cottage has its own guardian tree!” said Malin and touched the whitebeam with loving tenderness as she passed it.

  “What are guardian trees for?” asked Pelle.

  “To be loved,” said Malin.

  “To climb, can’t you see?” said Johan.

  “And that will be the first thing we do tomorrow morning,” Niklas declared. “I wonder if Daddy had to pay extra because there’s a fabulous climbing tree.”

  Malin laughed at that, but the boys continued to think of things they thought Melker should pay extra for: the jetty and the rowboat which was moored to it, the attic, which they had already investigated and which was full of exciting things.

  “And the well, if it’s fairly good water,” suggested Malin. But that Johan and Niklas did not think could be considered worth paying extra for.

  Johan pulled up the first pailful and Pelle gave a shriek of delight. “Look, there’s a tiny frog at the bottom!”

  A little groan of anguish came from Malin.

  Pelle looked at her in surprise. “What’s the matter? Don’t you like frogs?”

  “Not in drinking water,” said Malin.

  But Pelle jumped about in excitement. “Oh, can I have it?” he said. Then he turned to Johan. “Do you think Daddy had to pay extra for frogs in the well?”

  “Depends on how many there are,” said Johan. “If there are lots, I expect he’s been let off cheap.” He looked at Malin to see how much frog she could stand, but it did not look as if she had heard.

  Malin’s thoughts had wandered off in another direction. She was thinking about the cheerful carpenter and his wife. Had they lived happily in their Carpenter’s Cottage? Had they had lots of children, who one by one had begun to climb in the whitebeam and perhaps had fallen into the sea now and then? Were there just as many wild rose bushes in the garden in June then as now? And was the path to the well white with fallen apple blossoms then as now?

  Then she suddenly remembered that the cheerful carpenter and his wife had been dreamed up by Melker. But she decided to believe in them all the same. She decided one more thing: However many frogs there were in the well, however many broken windowpanes, however dilapidated Carpenter’s Cottage was, nothing would stop her from being happy here and now. For now it was summer. It should always be a June evening, she thought, dreamy and still, like this one. And quiet. Beyond the jetty the seagulls circled and now and then one of them uttered a wild shriek or two, but otherwise this unbelievable silence, which seemed to tingle in the ears. A thin mist of rain lay over the sea and it was lovely in a melancholy way. Drops of water fell from the bushes and trees and there was the feel of more rain in the air and of earth and salt water and wet grass.

  “Sit out in the garden in the sunshine and eat our supper and feel that summer has come”—that was what Melker had imagined doing on their first evening at Carpenter’s Cottage. This was something quite different, but it was still summer. Malin felt that so strongly that tears came to her eyes. But she felt hungry too and she wondered how far Melker had got with the kitchen stove.

  He had not got very far.

  “Malin, where are you?” he yelled as he always did as soon as anything went wrong. But Malin was out of hearing and he realized reluctantly that he was alone and would have to manage by himself.

  “Alone with my God and an iron stove, which is shortly to be heaved out of the window,” he murmured bitterly. But then he had to cough and could not say more. He glared at the stove, which did nothing but angrily billow out smoke at him, although he had done it no harm, apart from lighting a fire in it with great tenderness and care. He raked the fire with the poker and a fresh cloud of smoke billowed out over him. Coughing wildly, he rushed to open all the windows, and just as he had done that the door opened and someone came in. It was the majestic child who had been standing on the jetty when they arrived, the child with the strange name—Korven, or Tjorven, or whatever it was. She looked like a well-fed sausage, thought Melker, round and wholesome. The face which was visible under the slicker was, as far as he could see through the smoke, a particularly clear, charming child’s face, broad and good-humored with a pair of bright, inquiring eyes. She had the enormous dog with her, which seemed even more colossal indoors than out. He seemed to fill the whole kitchen.

  Tjorven had stopped on the threshold. “It’s smoking,” she said.

  “You don’t say,” replied Melker bitterly. “I hadn’t noticed.” Then he coughed until tears came into his eyes.

  “Yes, it is,” Tjorven assured him. “Do you know what? Perhaps there’s a dead owl in the chimney. We had one once.” Then she looked curiously at Melker and smiled broadly. “Your face is black all over.”

  Melker coughed. “I’m a kipper, a freshly smoked herring. You can call me Uncle Melker.”

  “Oh, is that your name?” said Tjorven.

  Melker did not have to answer for luckily Malin and the boys came back at that moment.

  “Daddy, we found a frog in the well,” said Pelle eagerly, but then he forgot all about frogs because of the fantastic dog which he had seen on the jetty a short while ago and which was now standing in his own kitchen.

  Melker looked hurt. “A frog in the well? Really? That agent said this was a homey little summer residence. But he forgot to tell me that it was a zoo with owls in the chimney and frogs in the well and giant dogs in the kitchen. Johan, go and see if there’s an elk in the bedroom!”

  His children laughed as they were expected to—Melker would have been hurt otherwise—but Malin said, “Oh dear, it’s smoking!”

  “Are you surprised?” said Melker. He pointed accusingly at the iron stove. “I am going to write to the Ankarsrum Foundry to complain about the stove. I am going to say, ‘You delivered an iron stove in April 1908 which is a disgrace to you. What do you mean by it?’ ”

  No one was listening, except Malin. The others had crowded round Tjorven and her dog and were plying her with questions.

  Tjorven told them kindly that she lived in the next house to Carpenter’s Cottage. Her father had a shop there, but the house was so large that there was room for them all. “Me and Bosun and Mummy and Daddy and Teddy and Freddy—”

  “How old are Teddy and Freddy?” asked Johan eagerly.

  “Teddy is thirteen and Freddy is twelve and I am six and Bosun is two. I can’t remember how old Mummy and Daddy are, but I can go home and ask,” she said obligingly.

  Johan assured her that this was not necessary. He and Niklas looked at each other happily. Two boys, exactly their own age in the house next door! It was almost too good to be true.

  “What in the world are we going to do if we can’t get this stove to work?” won
dered Malin.

  Melker tore his hair. “I suppose I had better get up on the roof to see if there really is a dead owl in the chimney as that child suggested.”

  “Oh dear,” said Malin. “Be careful! Remember, we’ve only got one father.”

  But Melker was already outside the door. He had seen that there was a ladder against the wall so that it ought not to be too difficult for him to get up onto the roof. His boys followed him, even Pelle. Not even the world’s largest dog could keep him in the kitchen when Daddy was going to get owls out of the chimney, and Tjorven, who had already selected Pelle as her friend and follower although Pelle did not know it, strolled out after them in a leisurely way to see if anything amusing was going to happen.

  It looks as if it might be fun, she thought. Uncle Melker had taken the poker with him to try to get the owl out and he was having to hold it between his teeth while he climbed up the ladder. Exactly like Bosun when he fetches a bone, thought Tjorven. She could not imagine anything more amusing than that, and she laughed quietly to herself under the apple tree where she stood. Then one of the rungs gave way and Uncle Melker slid down a couple of feet. Pelle was frightened, but Tjorven laughed again, silently and heartily.

  Then she stopped laughing, for now Uncle Melker was up on the roof and she thought it looked dangerous. Melker thought so too.

  “This is a nice house,” he murmured, “but rather high.”

  He began to wonder if it were not a little too high to balance on for someone who would soon be fifty.

  “If I ever live to be that old,” he muttered, and wobbled along the ridge of the roof with his eyes glued to the chimney. Then he cast a glance downward and almost fell when he saw his sons’ upturned, anxious faces so far below him.

  “Hold on, Daddy,” shrieked Johan.

  Melker staggered and almost lost his temper. Above him was nothing but the open sky. What was he to hold on to? Then from down below he heard Tjorven’s penetrating voice.