Chapter 1: by Anna
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?”
“Just as sure as the last two times you asked.”
Elsa gave her sister a reproachful look.
“I’m sorry,” Anna replied, “but we’re definitely in the right place. He’ll be here soon.” She hoped, she really hoped.
There wasn’t even a proper station. They were sitting on their trunk, in the shade of a piece of fence, an hour after the train had left. They’d received a few curious glances, but no one had spoken to them since the conductor had taken their luggage off the train and left it here.
Ready to face the enemy, Anna thought, hearing it as she always did in their mother’s voice. She remembered her saying it before they went down for her first ball, an evening that seemed much further away than the length of the train journey, or the two years that had passed. Her parents had hosted the party. A month later they were both dead.
“What if it’s awful?” Elsa said now, twisting her handkerchief in her hands.
“Then we’ll leave.”
“You won’t be able to leave, if you’re married to him.”
“I’ve got legs, haven’t I?”
Elsa pulled a face. Anna bit her lower lip over a sigh and scanned the horizon. There was a farm wagon heading towards the little cluster of town buildings, but she had no way of knowing if that was who they were waiting for.
“It’ll be fine,” she said, as confidently as she could manage. “I’ll scrub the floors and you’ll darn socks and get well. It’ll be perfect, this is just what we needed.”
Elsa pursed her lips again and looked straight ahead. Anna knew she was just anxious and fretting but at the same time she wanted to shout, I am TRYING, what else was there to do? Watch you fade away to nothing in that crowded, choking city? Starve in genteel poverty, but at least I wouldn’t ruin my complexion?
The wagon was definitely coming this way. Squinting, Anna could see that its only occupant was the man driving, but she couldn’t make out his face; it was in shadow below the brim of his hat. Heart hammering, she stood and waited for him to approach.
Up close, the man looked both better and worse. He was young, as she had known; and he looked healthy, and from his build, hard-working; but he also looked tired, and in need of a shave, and his clothes were worn and not particularly clean.
“Miss Rendell?” he said as he climbed down from the wagon seat. Then, “And Miss Rendell, I assume,” and he looked them both up and down.
“Yes,” Anna said, “How d’you do? You must be Mr Kristoff Bjorgman - I assume - I mean, no one else knows we’re here so you must be - anyway. I’m Miss Anna Rendell and this is my sister. Elsa. Hello!” She smiled, but didn’t receive a smile in return. Elsa was standing now, and he just kept looking from one of them to the other, brow furrowed. Then he turned to Anna.
“Miss Rendell - what are you doing here?”
“I wrote, we wrote - what do you mean?”
He took her hand and turned it over to look at the palm, the skin pale and soft and unblemished. Anna snatched it back again.
“Go home,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re looking for but you won’t find it here. This isn’t the place for you.”
“There isn’t any other place either. We don’t have a home, we’re orphans. I told you that.”
“With the greatest respect, Miss Rendell, that isn’t my problem. I need someone who can help me. You assured me you were prepared to do farm work, and run a home, and it doesn’t look to me like you know much about either of those things.”
“I can learn. I will learn.”
“Well, did you have any other replies to your advertisement? You must have, there’s quite a line of women here, waiting for this opportunity, isn’t there? We could hardly move for them, on the train.”
“Anna,” Elsa said under her breath.
Kristoff looked them up and down again, but now there was a smile, just on the very edge of his lips.
“I told you when I wrote,” he said, “I can’t take two women back to my homestead if neither of them is my wife.”
“I know. I understand.”
Anna nodded firmly. “Yes.”
He nodded, and turned away without another word to lift the trunk and throw it in the back of the wagon. “Come on, then. The judge is expecting us.”
Chapter 2: by Charis
Chapter 2 by Karis_Artemisia_Judith
Kristoff glanced sideways at the girl—woman—on the wagon seat beside him. She was holding her hat onto her head with one hand and clinging to the bench with the other, squinting ahead as if she was trying to see something more than the wheel ruts of the track and the acres of flat, featureless prairie.
He’d made arrangements with the judge before he’d known she was coming. Before he knew anyone was coming—the judge only came through town every few months, and it was why his advertisement had specified that he needed a wife by that date. The judge was used to this kind of thing, and he’d been brisk and cheerful and gotten Kristoff’s surname wrong twice. It was old Mrs. Easie who had stared in surprise. She ran the boarding house where the judge took his room on his way through, and he’d called her in to be a witness while Kristoff got married in her parlor. No one had expected Kristoff Bjorgman to actually find a wife. But here she was.
She’d said her vows in a clear, determined voice, and despite the softness of her hand in his her grip had been firm. His hands had been the ones that trembled as he tried to get the ring on her finger—he hadn’t had one, hadn’t thought of it until the judge asked. It was her sister, standing by as the second witness, who took off her gloves and handed him a slim silver band.
“Our mother’s,” she murmured. Anna had seemed about to object, but then they’d exchanged a look—Kristoff thought living with them was going to be like living with two people who spoke a private language—and she’d simply held her hand out. Then she’d had to help him get the delicate ring onto her finger.
Kristoff looked back over his shoulder. She’d insisted on making a space among the dry goods and her trunk to lay down a quilt, so that her sister could rest during the ride out to the homestead. The pale, fragile looking woman was quietly staring up at the sky. He hoped she was stronger than she looked, for her sister’s sake.
A bad jolt as they went over a stone nearly bounced the girl–his wife off the seat. His arm caught her across the waist, and she looked up at him for the first time since they’d left town.
“When will we get to your land?” she asked.
“We’re on it.” Kristoff shifted his grip on the reigns and pointed. “That line of trees out there, that’s the creek. It’s more ore less the boundary in that direction. There’s stakes to mark out the rest but most of them have fallen over. But we’ve been on my property for the last half hour.”
“The last half hour? But—” She twisted, looking around. “But there’s nothing here.”
“Not yet. I’ve only got a few fields planted so far, since I’ve been on my own. And they don’t look like much, since it’s just barely spring. They’re closer to the cabin.”
He thought she sighed with relief. “So you do have a house.”
“I built a cabin, yeah. It’s not much. And there’s a barn.” He wondered if she’d been afraid he’d expect her to sleep in a tent, or a dugout.
“You built it yourself? Really?”
Kristoff glanced over at her again. “No one was going to do it for me.”
“But no one helped? I mean, how can you build a house by yourself?”
“Cabin. I managed. It’s not big,” he added. “I mean, when I built it I wasn’t planning on—well, you’ll see.” He pointed. “There’s the barn. The cabin’s smaller so you can’t see it yet, but we’re almost there.”
Nothing looked the way Anna had expected. She hadn’t really known what to expect, so she’d imagined a lot of different things, and yet none of them had been…this. A slate grey sky, withered looking grass, mud. This was supposed to be the country, supposed to be farmland, things were supposed to grow here, weren’t they? But she hadn’t seen a single real color since they’d left the town. Even that place had looked bleached and faded, but at least there had been a flower print on the curtains of the sitting room where she’d had her wedding, there’d been the occasional bit of brightness on a sign, but out here there was nothing but grim shades of grey and brown.
She climbed down from the wagon, making an awkward jump to the ground when Mr. Bjorgman didn’t come around to help her. He had gone straight to the horse, murmuring to it as he unfastened the harness. Anna went the other way, to help Elsa climb out of the back.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Seasick,” Elsa said. “But I’ll be fine. How do you feel?”
“Fine! I feel fine. I guess—” Anna looked around. “I guess this is home.”
Mr. Bjorgman—her husband, she reminded herself—was coming back from the barn. There was a strange expression on his face, a tense defiance that she didn’t understand until she noticed the way his glance flicked between her and the squat building beside them.
“It was a hard winter,” he told them gruffly. “Things aren’t looking their best. I’ll be able to do more fixing things up now that the weather’s clearer.”
“Of course. It's—” Anna searched for a compliment that would be truthful but not come out insulting. But he was already pulling the trunk out of the back of the wagon.
It had taken two train porters to lift that trunk onto the train, she remembered. She’d had to help the conductor get it off again, but this man just picked it up and carried it. That was the kind of strength this country called for. She looked down at her own hands, remembering the way he’d looked at them. He thought she couldn’t be strong enough. He was wrong. She curled her fingers into fists and followed her husband into the cabin.
“This is the main room—” The roof was low, and it was dark. There was only one window, and the light that came in had to filter through a piece of waxed canvas tacked firmly into the frame. We’ll be missing out on the beautiful view, Elsa thought wryly. She watched her sister poke around in the dimness while her new brother-in-law rolled his shoulder’s uncomfortably and pointed out the iron stove, which seemed to be a source of pride, and the supplies stored in tins and baskets and barrels against the wall, the plain table. There were two chairs and a stool. The whole room would have fit inside their old dining room, with space to spare.
“Beds are in here,” he added, carrying the trunk through.
“Beds?” There was a note of alarm in Anna’s voice, but she couldn’t follow him in because he was already coming out. He gestured them on, and Elsa followed her sister into an even smaller room, where there was just room for the two of them and the trunk, which had been set against the wall under another canvas-covered window. The rest of the room was taken up with two narrow beds built against the walls, leaving just the small space where they stood.
“Oh dear,” she murmured.
Anna looked pale. She stood in the doorway, and Elsa couldn’t see past her as she spoke to Mr. Bjorgman. “But—we’ll never both fit!”
“There’s two of you, two beds.” His measured voice sounded far away, and Elsa thought he must be at the door of the cabin.
“But what about you?”
“I’ll sleep in the barn.”
“But you—but we—but—fine, fine. That’s fine.”
Anna turned back and sat with a thump on one of the cots. Elsa sat across from her.
“He’s going to sleep in the barn,” her sister said.
“I heard.” She watched as Anna chewed fretfully at her lip. “Do you really mind?” she asked. “I’d be relieved.” I am relieved, for your sake, she thought.
“No! I mean, I don’t know. I didn’t know what to expect, but—it just doesn’t seem right, that he’s going to be out there, and we're—I’m in here. Not that I really wanted to—not with a stranger, but—This is better, you’re right, this will be better.”
Elsa hadn’t said it, but she didn’t object as her sister straightened her shoulders and smiled at her.
“Well, I guess it’s time to figure out if I can cook, isn’t it?”
Chapter 3: by Anna
Chapter 3 by upthenorthmountain
Anna didn’t know how to cook.
With Elsa’s help, though, she managed to get a frying pan hot enough to fry things in, and cook some eggs and potatoes; and how was anyone to know without trying that the eggs would cook a lot more quickly? But once the potatoes were done she managed to heat the eggs up again without hardly burning them at all, just a little bit around the edges.
Her husband didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t say much of anything, just ate what was put in front of him and went back outside. He didn’t come back in that evening, either, but went straight to bed in the barn after dark.
Elsa had retired straight after dinner, pleading a headache, so Anna cleaned up the dinner things and then looked more closely around the main room. She had to remind herself that this was her home, and she was the lady of the house - she was entitled to familiarise herself with what was in it. But it still felt like snooping.
Not that there was much. The place needed a good sweeping, if not a scrubbing, but she could worry about that tomorrow. Some clothes hung on a couple of nails, and she poked at them before deciding they should be washed before she thought about mending them - or having Elsa mend them. Elsa was better at things like that. And needed something to do to stop her fretting.
Yes, tomorrow she’d wash clothes, and take everything outside and clean the room, and she’d have a look around and see what animals there were - were there animals? There must be something - and what was planted in the garden and things. Tomorrow. But right now everyone else was sleeping and Anna was more tired than she had expected to be, so probably she should be sleeping too.
The bedroom was dark and cold. Anna contemplated the thin nightgown she knew was in the trunk and decided that just for tonight, she wouldn’t bother changing. She was asleep as soon as she lay down.
Anna woke suddenly, and for a moment wasn’t sure why, or where for that matter. Then there was another clatter in the adjoining room and she sat bolt upright. Yes, she was here in the bedroom, in her new home, and Elsa was here in the other bed - opening her eyes with a sigh - so the person in the other room must be Mr Bjorgman. Her husband. Kristoff.
“Go back to sleep,” she told Elsa, and got up. She hadn’t undressed, so she didn’t need to dress, and just walked straight through to the main room.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Morning,” Kristoff said, with his back to her. “Fortunately, I’m used to getting my own breakfast.”
Oh, right. She was his wife, she was supposed to be doing things like that.
“I’m sorry, I’m not used to -”
“It’s fine.” He turned to the door. “You’ll need to bake some bread today, there’s just enough for breakfast.”
“You do know how to bake bread?”
“Oh, bread! Of course, of course I can bake bread. I’ll do that right away, this morning.”
“Wonderful.” He went to the doorway. “I had best be getting on. See you later.”
“See you later,” Anna said.
Bread. How hard could it be?
The water came from a well. Not a sweet little stone wishing well, but a hole in the ground with a wooden cover. There was a bucket on a rope, and Anna could just about pull it up when it was full.
Kristoff was doing something in the yard. He watched her draw a bucket of water as if he wasn’t sure whether to go over and help, but when she managed it and went into the house he turned back to what he was doing. When he saw her draw a second bucket, however, he came over.
“What’re you doing? How much water are you putting in that bread?”
“Oh, I made the bread! While it’s baking I’m heating up some water to do some washing.”
“You already made the bread?”
“Yes! It’s in the oven.”
“...how long did you leave it to rise?”
“It’s fine -”
“- you did leave it to rise? Is that what you meant, it’s rising?”
She looked at him blankly. He walked past her and into the cabin.
Anna stood in the doorway and watched Kristoff grab the dishcloth, then open the stove and pull out the loaf pan. He turned it over on top of the stove and a sad, flat lump of bread fell out. Still with his back to her, he put the pan down carefully next to it and sighed.
“If you don’t know something, I need you to tell me.” She could hear him struggling to maintain a level tone. “It does none of us any good if you’re not honest with me.”
For the first time since they’d arrived, Anna felt a real shiver of fear down her spine. They were out here, miles and miles from anyone and anything, with this man who was a stranger to her and probably stronger than both her and her sister put together. Was he angry? What would she do if he was?
Then he turned and she could see his face. Oh, thank goodness - he was struggling not to laugh .
“Let me wash my hands,” he said, “For I’ve been in the barn, and then I’ll show you how to make bread.”
“But you have other things to do…”
“I do, but I would have to do the baking myself if you weren’t here. And I do not care to eat -” he waved at Anna’s earlier attempt, still sitting on the stovetop.
“I’m sorry -”
“The chickens will have it. But I’m not feeding them flour every day.”
When he left to wash Elsa came out of the bedroom. “Anna, what did you do?”
“I don’t know anything .”
“You can learn -”
“How can I learn if I don’t know what I don’t know?”
“Did you think you did know how to bake bread?”
“Well, no - but I thought - everyone does it, it can’t be hard -”
“It isn’t,” Kristoff said behind them. “I will excuse ignorance but I hope you will pay attention. And ask, in future, if you’re not sure about something.”
Elsa disappeared again. When she returned she was holding a piece of writing paper and a pencil. “Good idea,” Kristoff said, then he turned to Anna again.
He showed her how to mix up the ingredients (Elsa wrote the quantities down carefully, under the neat heading ‘Bread’). Then he rolled up his sleeves and showed her how to knead the dough. After a minute he stood back. “Your turn.”
“Okay. fine.” She tried. “Like this?”
“Is it done?”
“No, no. It takes a while. Keep going.”
Anna rolled her shoulders. Her arms were aching already, and she had flour all down her front (aprons. She’d never needed an apron before, but now she could see why they were a good idea), but she was determined she wasn’t going to let anything stop her now. She could do this; she was going to prove it.
“You made dinner last night,” Kristoff said after a minute. “Is that the only thing you know how to cook?”
He’d asked for honesty, hadn’t he. “I didn’t know how to cook that until I tried.”
He laughed. “Can you make porridge?
Time for more honesty. “No.”
He laughed again. “Well, that’s simple enough. Two cups of water to one cup oats -” he nodded at Elsa, who quickly turned over her paper and wrote it down - “and stir it until it thickens.”
“I never imagined I’d have to teach my wife to cook.”
“I can teach you - French, if you like. To arrange flowers.” She thumped the dough over. “Elsa is very good at playing the pianoforte.”
“All useful skills, but I fear they will be wasted here. Could you not have found a husband who would more appreciate them?”
Anna could feel her colour rise. She concentrated on her work. “No.”
He watched her knead for a minute longer, then without warning he stepped behind her and put his hand over hers. “There. When it feels like that, it’s done.”
“So now we bake it?” She spoke quickly, to stop herself blushing.
“No. Now it needs to rise.” He released her hands and moved away to lean against the wall. “Make it into a ball and put it in the bowl with a cloth over.”
She did so.
“Leave it until it doubles in size. Then knead it again, but not for as long. A few minutes. Then leave to rise until it doubles again - it won’t take as long the second time. Then you may bake it.”
“But that will take all morning. Won’t it?”
“Possibly. You can do other things while it’s rising.”
“Can I come outside with you? I haven’t seen everything yet.”
“Of course.” He stood. “Come and see if you can find any eggs, I haven’t had chance to look properly yet.”
By the end of the day Anna hadn’t done any washing, and she hadn’t swept the floor or even unpacked anything from the trunk. The loaf of bread she’d made was half-gone already, and her shoulders ached fiercely from the kneading, and she’d lost a button from her left boot (it was around here somewhere, though, and she would find it and make Elsa sew it back on). She’d ripped the hem of her skirt and couldn’t remember where she’d left her sunbonnet.
But she’d met all the chickens, and the horse, and she’d helped weed the garden (“Which are the weeds?” she’d asked, and been told that they were the ones that hadn’t been planted in rows. Well, maybe that was obvious, but he’d said she should ask if she wanted to know anything). She knew how to bake bread and make porridge, and she was going to prove it by getting up on time and making breakfast for everyone. Tomorrow she would learn more things. She could do this. She was doing it.
He had a wife.
He had a wife, and she couldn’t cook. She didn’t know how to make bread. She didn’t know how to weed a garden, or care for chickens, or preserve food, or anything practical. She could barely lift a bucket of water, and the dresses she wore were fragile things that kept her sister busy with mending. Her soft palms were livid with blisters after just two weeks. Her pale skin had burned with a painful red flush on the first day.
But she never complained, and he never had to tell her anything twice.
“Whoa, boy, hold up.” Kristoff let go of the plow to wipe his face on his neckerchief and fanned himself with his hat. A long furrow scored the earth behind him, the ground broken in neat lines that drew his eye back up the field toward the house. Anna was in the garden, weeding (hopefully) and he could hear her voice faintly on the breeze as she chattered like a magpie. Kristoff had been out here for two years, with nothing but the wind for company. It was nice to hear human voices.
“May I have a hammer and a few nails? And a bit of rope? Oh, and may I make some holes in the side of the house?” She’d asked him all in a rush, without explanation. He’d given the tools and permission to her, and then pretended that he wasn’t watching from the barn while she rigged an old sheet up as a canopy. It made a small patch of shade by the vegetable plot where her sister could sit with the sewing basket.
She didn’t like to be alone. That was the thing that worried him most about his wife. He’d seen it in the way she kept finding tasks to do in the house, or that would be near him, and now she’d arranged for her sister to be on hand outside.
She was smart. And she was reckless, rushing headlong into things—cooking, baking, marriage—and apparently she just expected to figure everything out as she went. Not such a good approach to bread, maybe. Kristoff wondered how it would work out for marriage.
A stomped hoof reminded Kristoff that there was work to do. “Hup, boy, let’s go.” He put his attention into guiding the plow and tried not to worry about his wife.
The thumping on the wall brought Elsa out of the house, hastily wiping her hands on her apron. Anna’s husband lowered the hammer and shrugged sheepishly.
“Sorry. I thought I’d just hammer the nails in a bit more—the wind can be pretty rough out here. Didn’t want her hard work getting ripped down.” He glanced past her, then down at her floury hands.
“She went down to the creek,” Elsa said. “She was all over mud after being in the garden, so—” He nodded, but his brow creased a little as he looked toward the path through the field at the line of trees, and then back to Elsa again. She lifted her hands in a little shrug. “I was just putting the dough in for the second rise. It’s easier for me to remember, since I’m usually in the house anyway.”
“What? Oh, of course.” He started to turn away, then swung back. “I did warn her that the creek can be quite fast, didn’t I? Even where it widens out there’s a strong current.”
“Yes, you warned both of us. Anna will be—” Elsa nearly said ‘careful’ but stopped the lie before it came out. “She’ll be fine.”
He nodded. He was still staring towards the creek.
“Well, I should—” she began.
“Is she all right?”
Elsa blinked at the interruption. “Anna?”
“Yes. Is she…” He hesitated. “She talks to the chickens,” he said finally. “Is that…normal?”
“Oh!” She smiled. “For Anna, it is. She’ll talk to anything. She talks to the food when she’s cooking, she talks to herself. She doesn’t expect the chickens to answer, if that makes you feel better, she just likes to talk. She’s given them names.”
“Oh.” He relaxed, but only a little. “Good. I know that it’s lonely out here. It…bothers people sometimes. And it’s not the kind of life she’s used to.”
“It’s different, but Anna is good at different. Although—” Elsa hesitated. “If you do need to go into town, I’m sure she’d like to go with you.”
“I’ve been thinking we should get a cow.”
Anna looked at her husband in surprise. As dinner conversation, this wasn’t exactly what she’d been expecting. After three weeks, she’d learned not to expect dinner conversation at all. “A cow?”
He nodded. “A milk cow.”
“Oh.” The conversation lagged. “I could learn to make butter,” Anna said. “It would be nice to have butter.”
“I heard that Mrs. Scorbic in town was looking to get rid of a cow. We can go tomorrow, get some other supplies.” He shrugged a little and focused on his plate. “If you want to come with me, I mean. I thought you might want to get more acquainted with the town. It’ll take all day to get there and back, though.”
“I’d love to go! I can wear my blue dress, it’s just been sitting in the chest because it’s just not suited for working, and Elsa sewed the button back on my boot again, so that’s all right, and—oh, but—”
“I’ll stay here,” Elsa said quickly. “I can have supper ready for when you get back.”
“Are you sure?” Anna bit her lip. “Would you be fine on your own all day?”
“Of course I’ll be fine, I can feed the chickens and things while you’re gone. Really I’d rather not have a long hot wagon ride, but you should go, because if you can get some more thread—”
He had a wife, and a sister-in-law, and now, apparently, he was going to have a goat.
They’d gone to the general store first, Kristoff collecting the supplies they needed while Anna chattered happily to the big shopkeeper. Flour, salt, molasses, seeds, thread, all went into the wagon. “And there’s a letter for your husband,” the shopkeeper had said, handing the envelope to Anna. Then they’d gone out to the homestead just on the other side of town, where Kristoff spent the better part of an hour negotiating with Mrs. Scorbic.
He’d left Anna with the patient Mr. Scorbic, who was teaching her how to milk the cow, and came back to find her with a scrawny little runt of a kid in her arms, beaming happily and saying “Oh, Kristoff, look at him! Isn’t he sweet? He walked right into my arms for a hug, and Mr. Scorbic says he doesn’t think that Mrs. Scorbic wants to keep him, and we need a goat, don’t we? Goats are good for keeping the grass tidy around the house, aren’t they? And he wouldn’t cost much, would he, Mr. Scorbic?”
There had been a chuckle in the man’s words as he shook his head. “Not much at all, Mrs. Bjorgman, not much at all.”
“But we don’t need a—” Kristoff started to say, even as the strangeness of what he’d just heard sank in. Mrs. Bjorgman. No one had said that since the judge had said 'congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Bjorgman’.
Anna set the kid down on its spindly legs. Its fur was mostly white, with splashes of brown on its forelegs, a few black speckles on its belly, and a streak of tawny orange on its nose. It was the silliest looking animal he’d ever seen. The goat looked up into his face and maaed loudly.
“He likes you!” Anna beamed.
Mrs. Scorbic came out of the house, wiping her hands on her apron. Kristoff looked from Anna’s smile to the ridiculous goat, and then to Mrs. Scorbic.
“Your husband says you want to sell this kid. Is he weaned?”
“He’s a good three months old,” Mr. Scorbic put in, “he’s just small like, on account of his brother being more aggressive.”
Mrs. Scorbic looked from Kristoff to the goat, then to Anna, and back to Kristoff. “You want a goat? You want…this goat?”
“He likes us!” Anna said. “I named him Olly.”
“Well.” The older woman shrugged. “Well, he’s yours for three cents, and you can’t bring him back.”
Anna smothered a yawn, then yelped as the wagon bounced over a rough bit of the track.
“Yes! I’m fine.” She smiled over at her husband, then twisted around once again to check on her new goat. Olly was tied up with a short rope in the bed of the wagon—she’d thought they could have just set him inside, but Kristoff had insisted on tying him, as if he thought he’d jump out. Pauline the cow was plodding along behind the wagon on her own rope. Learning to milk had been fun, although a bit bizarre at first.
“Olly’s a good name,” she said with satisfaction. “Although now we have Pauline the cow andPauline the chicken, I should have named her Jemima after all! The chicken, I mean, not the cow of course.”
“You named one of the chickens Pauline?”
“Mmhm, Pauline and Desdemona and Lucretia and Geraldine and Marguerite. Oh, and Violet.” She glanced up and realized Kristoff’s lips were moving, and his forehead was creased. “You don’t like the names?”
“What? Oh, no, you can name them whatever you like, I was just counting.”
“Counting wha—” The question got lost in another yawn. The sky was a brilliant patchwork of pinks and yellows, but it was starting to fade into purple and indigo. Anna had been up before dawn, too excited about the trip to town to sleep, and now she was rocking with the motion of the wagon. It was only when he moved that she realized she’d slumped over against Kristoff, her cheek smushed up on his arm. She sat up quickly. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He glanced over at her. “You could ride in the back, if you like. You could get some sleep. We have a ways to go.”
Anna woke up on her narrow bed, fully dressed, wrapped in her husband’s coat. Elsa was shaking her.
“Anna! Anna, wake up! There is a goat on the roof.”
Chapter 5: by Anna
Today she was going to wash, whatever happened. Anna found the washtub, and put it outside - it was a fine day and the cabin was small - by the back door. She half-filled it with cold water from the well, and put a pan of water on the stove to heat, and rummaged in boxes until she found the bar of laundry soap. Then she found everything she could that was made of fabric - clothes off the nails on the wall, sheets off the beds - and carried it all outside in armfuls.
Elsa followed her anxiously. “Don’t just drop it all in the water,” she said. “Do one thing at a time. And check the pockets!”
“I do know what I’m doing,” Anna said loftily, and piled everything neatly as if that had been her plan all along.
She went through the pockets first. Most of them were empty, but she found a few things and put them tidily on the table. Two nails. A handkerchief. Some string. She shook out the sheets, and some folded pieces of paper fell to the floor. She hadn’t put them there; after a moment she realised they must have fallen out of the pocket of her husband’s coat as she’d slept beneath it.
She told herself afterwards she only opened the papers because she recognised them. She wasn’t being nosy. It wasn’t nosy, anyway, when they were the letters she herself had written.
Nevertheless, she soon realised she’d intruded. They were her letters, but the paper was soft from being held and unfolded and refolded so many times. The words along the creases were almost illegible. Someone had read these over and over, and kept them in their pocket; someone had treasured them.
She didn’t quite know what to do with that information.
When Anna came over with a second basketful to peg on the line, she found Kristoff by the drying washing. He looked up hurriedly when he noticed her, and she realised he was checking his coat pockets.
“Everything’s on the table,” she said, dropping the basket onto the ground next to him. “I did empty your pockets, I’m not completely incompetent.”
“Sorry,” he said. Then, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She picked up the first piece of clothing from her basket and pegged it on the line. “Once this is all dry I’ll see what needs mending. I don’t want everyone in town to think I don’t take care of you.”
“I appreciate it. Is the line too high, shall I move it down?”
“It’s fine, I can manage.” She hung another shirt to prove it.
“If I’d known you were going to keep them, I’d have spent more time writing them,” Anna said after a minute. “My letters, I mean.”
Kristoff looked down at his boots, then back up. “I liked them fine the way they were. I expect you put mine in the fire.”
“I kept them. They’re in the trunk.”
“Of course.” She shook out a pair of trousers. “I might want to show them to my grandchildren one day.”
He watched her for a moment, then coughed and kicked his foot in the dust. “Well, I’d better be getting on - oh, blast it -” He took off at a run across the farmyard, and Anna dropped the sheet she was holding in the basket and followed him.
Kristoff was dragging Ollie out of the garden. “You need to start tying a decent knot,” he said angrily. “He’s eaten half the top off the carrots, look, and he’s trampled all the peas.”
“Oh - oh no - Ollie, you naughty goat -”
“He’s just a goat doing what goats do. Tie him up away from the plants, for goodness sake.”
“I did tie him - I’m sorry -” She took Ollie’s rope and Kristoff threw his hands up and strode off. The goat pulled up a mouthful of grass and chewed it serenely.
Anna pulled on the rope and managed to haul Ollie back over to the yard. She tied him up where she could see him from the washing line, tugging on the knots to make sure they were secure, then remembered the garden and ran back to check on it.
The carrot tops were a little chewed. Not much she could do about that, except hope they grew back. The peas were mostly alright, though, once she straightened them out. It would be okay. Oh, dear, she hoped Kristoff wasn’t too angry. Should she go and find him? No, better finish hanging out the washing so it would dry.
She turned the corner of the barn just in time to see the goat tug one of her petticoats off the line and calmly start chewing off all the lace.
After a few minutes Kristoff found himself feeling bad. He shouldn’t have shouted; the garden would be alright, there wasn’t much harm done, and he felt intolerably rude for being angry with a woman who had just done all his laundry.
When he went back over to the house, the goat was tied up to one side and was lying in the shade. Anna had filled her washing line and seemed to be trying to lift the tub of washwater; it was large, and heavy, and after a few tries she huffed and put her hands on her hips to glare at it. Kristoff hurried over.
“Let me help you with that.”
“It’s fine, I’ll get it - I just need to tip some of the water out -”
“I’ll do it.” He picked up the tub. “Where did you want it?”
“Oh, I’m just tipping it out but I want it away from the back door.” Anna put her hands next to his on the handles. “Let me take it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous -” he said, just as Anna tugged on the handles. He pulled back reflexively and the tub tipped towards his wife.
The water slopped out over her and Anna gasped, letting go off the handles; they slipped in Kristoff hands and he dropped the whole thing, drenching her completely. Anna looked at him, her mouth a perfect O.
“I’m sorry -” he said, but she was already rushing inside, the empty washtub upside-down in the puddle.
Ollie looked over at him and gave a lazy “Maa-aaa.”
“You stay out of it,” Kristoff told him, and went inside the cabin himself.
A trail of dirty water led through the main room and into the bedroom. Without thinking, Kristoff followed it straight through. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean -” he said, then stopped.
Anna had already stripped off her wet dress, and was in the process of letting her petticoat drop to the floor. She kicked it off before she noticed Kristoff behind her, then froze when she caught his eye. For a long moment he stood there, before remembering himself and closing his eyes, then remembering even more of himself and backing out of the room.
“I’m sorry,” he said again from the other side of the doorway. “For shouting at you about the goat. And for tipping water on you. And, and for not knocking just now.”
“It’s okay,” Anna said. “I deserved it for the goat. And I know the water was an accident. And - and I am your wife, you know.”
“I mean...” Anna trailed off. He could hear her moving things about, and fabric rustling, and after a little while she came back out of the bedroom, fully dressed and with the wet clothes over one arm. “I should hang these up,” she said.
“Yes, of course.” He stood back to let her by. She paused, facing him. “If there’s ever anything I can - help you with, you’ll tell me, won’t you,” she said.
“Of course. But you’re doing fine, you and your sister. It’s wonderful to have so much help after having to do everything myself.”
“I meant - never mind.” Anna bit her lip, then turned abruptly and went outside.
Anna was doing the milking, her cheek resting against the cow’s warm side and her eyes squinting in concentration, when Elsa called from the front step of the house.
“Anna? I think someone’s coming.”
“What?” She hopped up to peer over Pauline-the-Cow at the road. Someone on a horse was trotting between the wagon ruts toward them.
“What do we do?” Elsa had both hands twisted in her apron. “What do people do with guests out here?” She looked around as if a footman might materialize.
Anna shaded her eyes. “It’s a woman, I think,” she said. “I can see a skirt. I think—we could put the kettle on? I’m sure it will be all right.”
Elsa nodded and took a deep breath. “Yes. I can do that, and I’ll sweep, I can do that quickly.” She disappeared into the house.
Pauline-the-Cow shifted, and Anna pulled the bucket out of the way just in time to prevent the fresh milk from being kicked over. “Naughty cow! That’s no way to behave,” she scolded. “I worked hard for this milk, my fingers have been sore for days, no matter what Mr. Scorbic said about me getting used to it, and you should be more appreciative.”
The cow mooed, and Anna thought it sounded at least a little contrite. Although really most mooing sounded a little mournful. She patted Pauline-the-Cow’s flank.
“I forgive you. I think Ollie has been teaching you bad habits, though. Can’t you try teaching him manners instead?”
Pauline-the-Cow grunted, but went meekly into the bit of field that Kristoff had fenced off. Ollie was already inside, happily chewing on the fence instead of the grass. Anna latched the gate carefully, and started to carry the milk pail inside, but she was forced to back out of the doorway was Elsa swept a cloud of dust out over the step.
By the time their visitor had arrived, the dark little room was as swept and polished as it could be, Anna had hastily pinned her braids up into something she hoped was suitable for a married woman, and the kettle was whistling.
“Hello!” The woman swung down from her horse easily. “I heard in town that the elusive Mr. Bjorgman had gotten married, and I had to come and see for myself! I’m your neighbor, Marta, Marta Ogg, but call me Marta, do—I’ll tie Thunder up over here, shall I, well away from your garden, aren’t your peas coming up lovely! And are you Mrs. Bjorgman, or the sister?”
“I’m Mrs. Bjorgman,” Anna said, but her tongue stumbled over the name and she felt her face heat up.
“Ah, haven’t had many chances to say it, have you?” Marta clucked. “And no wonder, you’re so far out here! I’m your neighbor, I and Mr. Ogg and our sons and all the family, we have a farm just that way, about half an hour’s ride maybe—” she pointed out over the fields. “But I was in town today, which is how I heard about you, and I thought I’d just come here first before going home, and make your acquaintance, since we’re neighbors. A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Bjorgman.”
“Anna, I’m Anna—and this is my sister, Elsa. Oh! And do come in, I’m so sorry, would you like a cup of tea?”
“I would, thank you dear—and how do you do, Elisa was it? Elsa, so sorry, how nice to meet you both. Oh, what beautiful teacups! Did you bring them with you?”
“They were our mother’s,” Elsa said faintly.
“How lovely! They do bring in a bit of color, don’t they. Just a little milk in mine, thank you dear. I’ll just stop in for a few minutes–” After half an hour Anna felt like she’d known Marta her whole life. She knew that Marta had moved west with her husband “oh, ages ago, and the railroad wasn’t here, and the town was just a handful of tents!” And that she had “five sons, all good lads, it was a blow to my heart not to have a daughter, but two of my boys are married now so that’s all right, except I don’t know how I’ll find wives for my other three. Maybe when they see how pretty the two of you are they’ll finally put out advertisements of their own.”
Anna laughed. “I don’t think we’re very good advertisements for brides from the east! We got here and I didn’t know anything, we’ve been learning as we go. Sometimes–” Anna stopped.
“What, dear?” Marta said.
“Well.” Anna shrugged. “Sometimes I’m sure we’re more of a hindrance than a help. But it’s a little late for second thoughts now. And I’m learning!”
“Oh, hush, don’t fret, you poor girl.” Marta leaned over to pat Anna’s hand. “I can tell just from looking around that you’ve been doing a fine job–both of you are, I’m sure–and I can tell you frankly that what a man needs most out here is companionship. And besides, if there’s anything you need to learn, you can come to me! Visit anytime, I can teach you whatever you don’t know. And that reminds me! I’ve been chattering away and never said why I came in the first place. I wanted to invite you all to the barn raising!”
“A barn raising?” Anna’s confusion made Marta laugh heartily.
“Of course, you’re from the city, aren’t you? Well we’re building a new barn, and we need some help to get the walls up and so on, so we invite everyone. It’s an excuse to have a party and see all our neighbors. I know your husband isn’t exactly the social type—a good solid fellow, everyone knows, and the world bless such men, but he keeps to himself, doesn’t he? But maybe you could talk him around, I’m sure you could do with a little socializing, eh? It’s a lonesome place for a young woman, even with a new husband to keep her busy. Say you’ll come!”
“Of course! I mean,” Anna amended hastily, “I would love to come, but I should ask Kristoff—I’m not sure where he is—”
“He was going towards the creek not long ago,” Elsa said.
“Well, run and ask him!” Marta said. “You can tell him that the barn raising won’t take long, and he’ll be able to call on us for any building projects he has in the future, of course. Just see what he says.”
“I will! I’ll only be a moment.” Anna darted out and down the path that led to the creek.
Elsa and Marta met each other’s eyes over their teacups.
“At the creek, is he?” Marta asked. Her dark eyes crinkled up as she smiled. “Well now, they’re only young once.”
Anna turned over again on her narrow bed, restlessly kicking her feet out from under the quilt. Across from her, Elsa had been peacefully sleeping for ages. Hours, probably. She’d said good-night and closed her eyes and that was that, while Anna kept kneading her pillow as if it was bread dough and thinking. Her mother had once told her that if she would think things out and imagine putting everything in order, sleep would come, but there was so much, and it all kept tumbling around in her head.
She’d met a neighbor, and made a friend, someone who could teach her things–maybe some of the things she’d been too embarrassed to ask her husband, or all the things she hadn’t known to ask, for that matter. There were probably lots. Marta was too forthright and her face too kind for Anna to feel embarrassed. Without thinking she’d told the older woman everything about their former life–well, almost everything. But she’d told her about their parents, and the bank bust, losing the house, Mother and Father dying and Elsa getting frailer all the time. She hadn’t talked so much to another human being in ages. And now there was a chance to meet more people, and go to a party—and she needed to make something to take, but she didn’t know how to make much, although she’d discovered an old cookbook, and maybe she could find something. Or Elsa could find something, she was better at following directions. And Marta had said that they could meet her little grandbaby–“she’s the sweetest little armful, and Greta will be glad to let you hold her, I’m sure! And it never hurts to practice–” and there’d be music, and dancing in the new barn. She’d been so excited that she’d run most of the way to the creek to ask Kristoff—
Anna rolled over again and tried folding her pillow in half and burying her red face in it.
She hadn’t stopped to think about why Kristoff was at the creek until she was almost there, and once the thought did hit she’d stopped in her tracks. After all, hauling up buckets of water from to fill the tin tub that doubled as the laundry took ages. It was so much easier to go to the creek when you wanted a more thorough wash than a basin and a cloth could offer.
Anna had stood on the track, biting her lip and wondering whether to go on. The polite thing was probably to turn around and give her husband his privacy. But what did it matter, really? Because he was her husband, after all, and how private could a person expect to be in a creek, out for God and all the world to see, anyway? She’d taken one step forward before fate decided matters for her, and her husband came out from the clump of trees.
Anna turned onto her back with a heavy sigh and stared up into the darkness.
It was one thing to marry a stranger, and to think with relief that he seemed clean and decent. It was one thing to start thinking that there was something handsome about his blunt features–not the aristocratic, fine-boned kind of handsome she was used to admiring, but something strong about his jaw and the shape of his nose. It was even one thing to catch him smiling sometimes and realize how warm it made his face, and how she’d been wrong every time she thought to herself that brown eyes were dull and plain.
It was something else altogether to see her husband fresh from bathing, his hair still dripping on his collar, the gold dark with water and raked back from his face so that those strong lines were more noticeable, with evening stubble accentuating his jaw. Something else to see his shirt only half-buttoned, clinging to damp skin. She’d known he was a big man, but Anna was used to people being bigger than her. She’d gotten used to him. Comfortable around him. And then it was like being really aware of him for the first time. There had been something…raw, about seeing him that way.
In the dark, Anna chewed fretfully at the edge of her thumb. It shouldn’t feel like a complication. But it did.
Kristoff handed her up into the wagon and Anna sat back on the seat with a sigh. What a day! And what a party. She'd never seen one so lively. She hadn't known most of the dances, but there had been a man calling the steps and she’d got the hang of it pretty quickly. And Elsa’s pie - that she’d been so worried about, fretting all of the previous day - had been perfectly fine and well-received; Elsa had had plenty of invitations to dance, too, although she’d declined them all.
Watching the barn being built had been fascinating, watching it all come together. She wouldn’t have thought it was possible if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes. Mrs Ogg - Marta - had smiled at her amazement, and she knew some of the other women had looked at her strangely. But Anna didn’t care, she really didn’t. The ones she had spoken to had been nice, and she’d spent half the afternoon holding one baby or another, or watching the younger children and making sure they didn’t get in the way or get in trouble. She didn’t think Marta had believed her when she’d said she’d never held a baby before - in her previous life, they were always hidden away with nursemaids - here they were everywhere, and most of their mothers were more than happy to hand them over.
It didn’t feel so much, any more, as if the three of them were a little lonely dot in the middle of the prairie. Now it felt like they were part of something; a community, as spread out as it was. Anna liked that feeling, very much.
They reached home eventually. Anna shook Elsa’s shoulder gently to wake her - her sister would have denied it, but she’d been dozing on Anna’s shoulder for most of the journey - and then they climbed down.
“What a good day,” Anna said happily to her husband, as she took the empty dishes out of the back of the wagon. “Don’t you think?”
“It went well enough,” he said, “And I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“Well, I just hope none of those young men take too much of a fancy to your sister,” he said as he turned away to deal with Sven. “I should miss her scrambled eggs.”
Anna went to walk inside, and stopped short at the door as his words sunk in. Her first thought was - don’t be silly, Elsa can’t marry, she’s an invalid. But. Was that still true? She wasn’t as strong as Anna, it was true, but - she was stronger than she’d ever been. Her colour was better, she breathed easily, she still needed to rest during the day but not as much as she used to. Out here, there were so many single men, and surely many of them would be happy with a pretty young wife even if she were delicate. And Elsa was rapidly becoming a good cook, and her needlework was good, and oh no, oh no.
She hurried inside and put the dishes down on the table. “Elsa,” she said at the bedroom door, “Elsa, do you think you’ll ever get married?”
Her sister looked up in the surprise. “What makes you ask that?”
“All those men who wanted to dance with you today.”
“I didn’t dance with any of them.”
“I know, but - one day you might want to.”
Elsa hesitated, then said “Shut the door, I need to get undressed.”
Anna stepped into the room and shut the door behind her.
“Anna, I never wanted to get married,” Elsa said. “I know you always did, but I - I was glad that no one ever expected me to. And - I should thank you. It was the right decision, coming here. I was wrong to try and discourage you.”
Anna didn’t know what to say.
“I feel so much better here,” Elsa continued, “And he’s a good man. I like him a lot more than…”
“Me too,” Anna said. “Me too.”
Anna knew where Kristoff slept. In one corner of the barn there was some straw, and during the day some blankets were neatly folded next to it. When she tiptoed into the barn now, after dark, she found him sitting on the blankets and against the wall, whittling something that looked like a clothes peg. When he saw her he put it and the knife down on a beam.
“Is everything alright?” Kristoff asked. “Is your sister -”
“She’s asleep.” She walked over and sat next to him on the blanket, putting the lantern down on the floor, well away from the straw and walls. He shuffled along a little way to give her room.
“Then what is it?”
Anna hugged her knees, pulling her bare toes under the hem of her nightgown. Then she remembered why she was there, and forced herself to relax. “When I came here,” she said, “Here to your homestead, I mean, it was as your wife.”
“And I was prepared for that. To be your wife, I mean. In every way.”
She looked up, then, and caught his eye, hoping the shadows in the barn hid her blushes. She saw the understanding cross his face.
“Anna…” he said. She slid her hand onto his knee, heart thumping, and leant towards him. For a breathless moment she waited, then Kristoff sighed and gently pushed her hand away. “Anna, I’m not going to - take your virginity on a pile of straw in a barn.”
“Oh, I’m not a v-” Anna slapped both hands over her mouth and stared at him in horror.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have told you - Elsa said I should - in case you didn’t want - I’m sorry. I should have told you before I married you, I’m sorry.” Anna took a deep breath. “I’m not a virgin.” She wrapped her shawl tight around her shoulders and rested her forehead on her knees, too ashamed to show him her face.
The warmth of his hand on her shoulder surprised her. She turned her head slightly.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly.
“No it isn’t. I was so stupid, and then no one - and no one wants a wife who’s - I should have told you but I didn’t know how.”
He squeezed her shoulder then took his hand back. “Can I ask what happened?”
Anna lifted her head and uncurled slightly.
“There was this man. Well, he wasn’t so much a man as a slug. You see, after Mama and Papa died, it was all - we stayed with friends of Papa’s, after the house was sold, and they were terribly nice for a while but - well, the general opinion was that I should get married to someone with some money and take Elsa with me. She was an invalid so no one expected her to marry. But I was pretty and educated and we still knew all the right people, you know, so it made sense. Someone would take me on. You asked, I remember, why I didn’t do that. I tried.” She paused, collecting her thoughts, and fiddled with the pearl button on her cuff.
“This man,” she said. “His name doesn’t matter. He arrived in town - he was from Boston, but he knew some people who knew some people we knew - he started calling. He was so charming...everyone thought it was a good match. He was handsome, in a way, and he dressed well, and he was - kind to me.” There were tears in her eyes now. “And he told me he would marry me, he said everyone did it, he said we’d announce the engagement, after. He said he loved me. And he told me it wouldn’t hurt, and that was a lie, too.” She took a deep breath. “And afterwards, he got bored with me, I suppose, and he told - well, I don’t know who he told, but everyone knew. And he told them all I’d, with lots of men. And I said to him, I thought we were getting married, and he laughed in my face. And no one would have anything to do with me. People who’d known me all my life believed him and the awful things he said about me.”
She paused again, and ran her hand over her eyes. Kristoff could see how much effort it was taking her not to sob.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Anna sniffed and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her nightgown. “And then I saw your advertisement,” she said. “And it seemed like the answer to my prayers. Elsa was so ill, you have no idea, she could hardly breathe in all the city smoke - and we couldn’t afford the doctor - I didn’t know what to do. I thought, a fresh start...and here we are.” She sniffed again. “I wanted to get our own homestead but Elsa said no.”
“That was probably wise.”
“Yeah.” She fiddled with the ends of her shawl.
“It’s hard on your own,” Kristoff said. “I mean, I knew what I was doing and it was still difficult. I could get along but I couldn’t make any headway. That’s why I placed the advertisement. I wanted - a partner, someone who would work alongside me.”
“I don’t want you to feel - any obligation. I mean, I’m glad you’re a hard worker, but…”
“That’s not why I wanted a wife.”
Anna nodded. “I guess I should go back to bed, then,” she said, pulling her shawl around her shoulders.
“Yes. Before you catch cold.”
“I’m not cold. And you sleep out here every night.”
“I’m used to it.”
“I still feel bad that we took your bedroom.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
She stood, smoothed her nightdress, and took a step towards the door. When Kristoff spoke she paused and turned back.
“Anna, can I ask you something?”
“Did you - need to get married?”
“Well, I couldn’t come here without, could I -”
“No, I mean - did you NEED to get married. After...”
Anna looked confused, then the penny dropped. She put her hand to her stomach, then let it fall. “Oh, no! No! Did you really think I’d marry you if - that I’d make you raise another man’s child -”
Kristoff shrugged. “I wouldn’t blame you. I mean - if he wouldn’t marry you, I wouldn’t blame you for trying to find someone else who would.”
“No. Definitely not. I’m quite sure.”
Anna pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. “Goodnight, then.”
His wife wasn't at the breakfast table. She'd been up early, leaving a skillet of very dry fried eggs and very crisp bacon. Her sister was quietly eating plain toast. Kristoff had spent most of the night staring up at the dark rafters of the barn, after watching his wife's ghostly white nightdress disappear back into the house.
He ate the eggs.
Then he found Anna at the side of the house, feeding the chickens. They clustered around her, pecking and scratching at the ground as she scattered grain and table crumbs.
"Don't be so greedy, Matilda," she scolded. "Leave some for Eglantine. Did you need something?"
It took him a moment to realize that she was talking to him. She hadn't looked up, and for once she'd remembered to put on her bonnet. The curving brim hid her face.
"Sorry," Kristoff said. "I just—I thought that one was Gertrude."
"No, this one is Gertrude. That one is Eglantine."
He stared at the hen. It glared up at him with mad little eyes and pecked at his boot. He was positive that just yesterday he'd heard Anna call this one Desdemona.
"Did you want something?" she asked again.
"Sorry," he repeated, jerking his eyes up from the chicken to meet hers. "I mean, about last night. I'm sorry."
She shrugged and flung another fistful of grain at the ground. "We don't need to talk about it. You don't have anything to be sorry about."
"I do. I mean, I am. I mean—I didn't mean to make you feel—"
"You didn't make me feel anything, Kristoff. Don't worry about me." She flipped the basket over and gave it a few hard smacks to shake the last crumbs out. "I'm fine."
"Good. That's good. I just—I wanted you to know, it's not—I didn't say no because of what you told me. About what happened. It's just—we're still strangers."
"Kristoff—" Anna sighed, then pushed her bonnet back off of her head, letting it dangle from the loosely tied ribbons as she wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. She took a deep breath and then smiled up at him with determined brightness. "It's okay. Really. You were very nice about—about everything, and I understand, and now let's just…not talk about it. Unless you mean that you changed your mind, I guess."
"No," he said quickly—too quickly. Anna's smile faltered, then came back twice as bright as she dusted off her dress and headed toward the barn.
"That's fine. We were doing fine, weren't we? Before?"
"Yeah," he said, following her. He lifted the milking stool down from its peg—he hadn't been thinking, when he put it up. It was easy from his height, but Anna must have been struggling to reach it every day. "We've been doing fine."
"Okay. Good, then we can just keep on doing that." She plunked down next to Pauline-the-Cow and hid her face against the animal's hip. Milk hissed into the pail with soft little plinks as it hit the metal. After a few minutes Anna twisted around to look up at him. "What?"
"I was just thinking, I need to go into town. I heard from Bill Door at the barn raising yesterday that some things I sent away for came in on the train, and Mr. Oak is holding them at the dry goods store for me. I thought I'd go and pick them up this afternoon, after lunch. If you wanted to come with me, I mean."
Elsa peered up at the sky and wrapped her shawl more snugly around her shoulders. "It looks like rain," she said.
"Oh no!" Anna squinted at the clouds. "Maybe I should tell Kristoff to wait for tomorrow."
"It's Sunday tomorrow," Elsa said, "I thought Mr. Oak closed up his shop for Sundays." She glanced between her sister and her brother-in-law. Anna had already changed into one of her nicer dresses, and Kristoff was just leading the big draft horse out of the barn. He kept glancing over at Anna with a little crease between his eyebrows. Anna hadn't been looking at him at all, unless she thought that he was turned away and wouldn't see.
"Oh, that's right." Anna bit her lip. "It's so easy to lose track. Maybe I should buy a calendar, if we can afford it. Or an almanac, that would be useful. But if it rains—"
"I think you have time," Elsa said. "You should go. If you leave now then you're bound to get to town before the rain starts. Kristoff already put the cow—"
"—and your demon goat into the barn, and I'll check on the chickens, although I'm sure they have the sense to go into their hutch out of the rain."
"I wouldn't so sure about that. And Ollie isn't demonic." But Anna was moving towards the wagon. She paused with one foot on the wheel spoke. "You're sure that you'll be all right by yourself if there's a storm? It's just for the evening, we'll be back for supper."
"I'll be fine," Elsa said firmly. "And if it does storm, I think you should stay in town. You wouldn't want to get stuck in mud."
"If you're sure—"
"All I have to do is stay indoors, I'll be fine. But promise me that you won't make your husband try to drive back through the rain, otherwise I'll spend all night worrying about you."
Anna finally took Kristoff's offered hand and let him help pull her up onto the wagon seat. He nodded to Elsa.
"The animals are all in and fed, if you look in on them don't let that goat trick you into giving him anything. He has plenty."
She waved them out of sight and then went inside to work on her sewing.
The storm broke before they even reached town. Wind blew the rain directly into their faces, and Sven's huge legs were coated in mud up to the knee. He had to yank the cart along behind him when the wheels threatened to spin and stick. Anna felt like a lost traveler rescued from a sinking ship when she gratefully ducked into the shelter of the boarding house's porch.
Mrs. Easie opened the door, her mouth going round with surprise. Anna blushed to think how bedraggled she must be and hastily combed her fingers through her dripping hair. "Um, good evening! I know it's rather late, but—"
"You poor thing! You're positively soaked, come in, do, you're in luck because Mrs. Oak insisted on having the circuit preacher to stay in her new guestroom, so I have a free bed. And there's room in the stable," Mrs. Easie said over Anna's shoulder, and Anna realized with a start that her husband was standing on the steps behind her, still in the rain. "There's some old sacking in there, so you can give that horse a good rubdown, but don't take too long to come inside and warm up. Isn't this rain dreadful? Now come inside, dear, let's get some hot tea into you."
Kristoff took so long seeing to the wagon and the horse that Anna had been given hot tea, a plate of toast, a spare nightdress, and the empty bedroom before he came in. She was just getting into bed when he opened the door and froze.
"Oh," he started. "I—"
"Don't stand in the doorway, come in," Anna whispered. "Everyone else is probably already asleep."
He blinked, glancing over his shoulder, then stepped in and closed the door behind him. His hair had started to dry, tousled and messy from his habit of rubbing the back of his head. Anna noticed that he'd left his boots behind somewhere, probably to keep from tracking mud across the meticulously swept floors.
"You need socks," she said, sitting up.
His eyes jerked away from her and down to his feet. "But I have socks."
"They're all holes! You should have said, I do know how to make socks."
"All right. I wouldn't mind new socks." His glance roamed the little room, looking at everything except her. It was getting on Anna's nerves.
"All right, then," she said, and lay back down with a thump. "Are you coming to bed?"
Kristoff was staring at the corner of the room, where her dress was hung up to dry. "I—just wanted to check on you. I thought I'd sleep in the wagon, to look after things—"
"Oh for heaven's sake!" Anna snapped, then hastily lowered her voice. "We're supposed to be married. What will Mrs. Easie think? Or the other boarders in the morning? And anyway, you'd probably catch your death of cold and I'm not ready to be a widow, so just—sleep here, okay? Please?"She turned onto her side away from him, scooting close to the edge to show how much room there was, and firmly shut her eyes.
"Okay," he said.
There was rustling, the sound of wet fabric hitting the floor, footsteps and muffled noises—he was hanging up his clothes to dry, probably. She felt the bed dip with his weight, shifting as he stretched out, the blanket twitching as he tried to get under it without touching her. Something--an arm, or a hand--brushed against her and hastily pulled away. Then everything was quiet.
"Do you think we'll be able to get back tomorrow? After all this rain?"
"If it stops soon, probably. We might give it a little time to dry out before we leave."
"I hope that Elsa's all right. She said she could handle things but she's still an invalid."
"I'm sure she'll be fine. We'll be back before lunch."
"Right. Um. Good night," Anna said. Her voice sounded thin and breathless in her own ears.
"Good night," he said softly.
Elsa pushed her wet braid over her shoulder and glared at the goat. He put his head between the rails of the pen and stared up at her with big, liquid eyes.
"I know that you've been fed," she said firmly.
Ollie maaed sadly and bumped her hip with his cheek.
She folded her arms. "You only look pathetic because you got wet, and you only got wet because you got out of the barn and went running around in the rain. And I got wet because I was chasing you. So it's your own fault."
Ollie shook himself and shivered, shaking his head and making his ears flop. His neck drooped.
"You think I'm a big soft pushover," Elsa told him severely. "This isn't going to work."
Ollie blinked mournfully at her, and sneezed.
Thunder rattled the window. Anna blinked, disoriented and too warm. She tried to roll over, but something was pinning her down. The blankets were tangled. Squirming groggily only made them tighten around her, and they were snoring—
Anna was abruptly and entirely awake, because she realized that her husband had his arms wrapped around her.
“Kristoff?” she whispered.
His only response was a faint sigh in her ear, then another rumbly little snore. Anna huffed through her nose and tried to move away, but she was right on the edge of the bed, and when she shifted his arm tightened around her.
She hesitated. Her squirming hadn't woken him. His chest moved against her side with the slow, even rhythm of deep sleep, his breath brushing like a whisper against her neck as he exhaled. He must have been exhausted. She hadn't known—she never did know, not what he was thinking or feeling, if he was tired or hungry. Or maybe he was just a deep sleeper. She didn't know that, either. Anna twisted her head on the pillow to look over her shoulder at his face, shadowed and barely visible in the faint moonlight. Her eyes followed the curve of his shoulder to his arm, draped across her middle and curling up so that his hand cupped her elbow.
Anna could almost count on one hand the number of times he’d touched her since they had met, each one distinct in her memory. Their first meeting, when he’d incredulously turned over her soft fingers and told her to go home, then their wedding, when he’d slid the silver ring onto one of those fingers. His hand covering hers to show her how to knead bread dough. His palm resting on her shoulder after her confession the night before. There had been practical touches--pulling her up into the wagon, fingertips touching when she handed him a plate or a pail, but not so many even of those, not really.
He hadn’t even danced with her at the barn-raising, just stood nearby and watched her dance, and smiled back at her when she’d smiled at him. She’d thought about asking him, but she’d felt shy—and there had been plenty of other men who didn’t make her do the asking. But then there’d been the moment when Marta’s granddaughter had fallen asleep in Anna’s lap, all warm and limp and wonderful. Anna had glanced up and met Kristoff’s eyes, softer than she’d ever seen, watching her cradle the baby against her shoulder.
That look had been what gave her the courage to slip out after Elsa was asleep. To remind him that she was his wife. And that had gone so well, hadn't it just. Anna chewed on her lip in the darkness, feeling the weight of her husband’s arm across her stomach. Maybe if she hadn't told him, he would have wanted—but she had to tell him, or there would have been a ghost in their bed that he didn't even know about. Except of course they didn't have a bed. And he hadn’t been at all interested in touching her.
But now here they were, and stranger or not in his sleep he was holding on to her as if she was the only thing keeping him from sinking in a storm. As least there was a part of him that wanted to hold her, Anna thought. Or to hold someone, anyway.
She sighed. It was still too hot, and she was never going to get back to sleep now. Anna wondered if his feet were hanging off the edge of the bed. They probably were, in those worn-out socks. She could have woken him up, she supposed—she could have made a real effort to get out of his hold, gotten out of bed and gone around to the other side, since he had her crowded up on the edge of this one. But she didn't. Anna kicked her feet out from under the blanket and resigned herself to staring at the ceiling.
Unfamiliar town noises nudged Kristoff out of the deepest, most restful sleep he'd gotten in weeks. The distant train whistle and the squeak of a door down the hallway were only enough to get him halfway to wakefulness, and for a while he floated in a drowsy haze, vaguely aware of the world but in no hurry to leave sleep behind. Without the animals making a fuss at dawn, mooing and maaing and clucking, there wasn't any urgency to the morning. There was just the sunlight, bleeding gently through Mrs. Easie's floral cotton curtains.
Curtains. The thought slowly penetrated, and brought other simple single-word thoughts with it.
Town. Bed. Rain. Anna.
His eyes opened all the way, and all he could see was fair skin dusted with freckles like cinnamon on cream. Carefully he lifted his head. Anna's back was pressed to his chest, nestled into the curve of his body. He'd had his face tucked into the nape of her neck, and it was a good thing he'd woken up first because he was wrapped around her like a grasping letch.
Kristoff blushed, glad that Anna seemed to be sleeping soundly. He tried to ease back from her, wincing as he realized his right arm was numb from her weight, but Anna had one foot hooked around his knee. His movement brought her with him, rolling onto her back.
"Kristoff?" Anna rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes and blinked up at him, her expression muzzy with sleep, lids still heavy. Her braids were fuzzy and disheveled from sleep, one of them half-undone and twisting in spirals across the pillow. A few strands of wayward copper hair stuck to her pillow-creased cheek. "'s it time to get up?" she mumbled.
"No," he said. "No, go back to sleep. I just want to check on the wagon."
"Mm." She rolled over onto his pillow as he got up. When Kristoff looked back at the bed Anna had one arm curled around her head, her face tucked into her elbow like a bird hiding under its wing. He stood staring down at her, hearing her words tangle together in his mind.
I was prepared for that. To be your wife.
He said it wouldn't hurt, and that was a lie too.
We're supposed to be married.
He couldn't stop remembering how she'd looked when he’d first seen her, standing beside that lonely trunk with her delicate jaw set so firmly, determined to see things through. He couldn't stop thinking that she'd had that same expression when she came into the barn, squared her shoulders the same way. Ready to take on a task.
It hadn't been a lie, what he'd said—he was absolutely not going to make his wife sleep with him in a barn, for one thing, euphemistically or otherwise. And he did want a partner.
But more than that, he needed a way to tell her that she didn't have to bed him just so that she could stay.
At the homestead everything was peaceful. Pauline-the-Cow was drowsing in the barn, and the bevy of chickens were quiet, busy clawing at the ground for worms washed up by the rain. Elsa slept peacefully. Across from her on the other bed was Ollie, still half wrapped in a towel, full of undeserved carrots and happily chewing on a corner of Anna's blanket.
Kristoff was leaning over the bed, shaking her shoulder gently. Anna squinted at him, then sat up. “Wha’issit?” she said.
“Um.” Kristoff retreated a step away from the bed. “Mrs Easie says the service - the circuit preacher is in town - the service is going to start at eight, in the meeting house. And it’s twenty to eight now.”
Anna stared at him, still half asleep.
“If you want to go, you need to get dressed,” he said.
“Yes,” Anna said finally, and swung her legs out of the bed. “Okay, yes. It’s Sunday. Oh, no, we didn’t get to the store yesterday -”
“It’s all right, I saw Mr Oak downstairs. We can go by and pick up my things when we’re ready to go.”
Kristoff nodded and left the room.
Anna got up, yawning. She dressed - her dress was dry, but it was splashed with mud round the hem, and her shoes were dirty. She undid her hair and brushed it through with her fingers, but she didn’t have any pins to put it up properly, so just re-braided it and tied it with the same faded ribbons. She squinted at herself in the small fly-spotted mirror on the wall. Elsa would have a fit if she thought I was going to church looking like this, she thought. But surely not going would be worse? Well, it was what it was.
She went down the stairs and found Kristoff waiting for her by the front door. Main Street was as busy as Anna had ever seen it, with families and couples walking down to the meeting house; she recognised a few people from the barn-raising.
It was funny how crowded it seemed between the buildings, when you were used to the big open spaces. Anna found herself walking closer to her husband, then, after noticing all the other women doing it, slipping her hand onto his arm. Kristoff broke his step for a second, then bent his elbow to accommodate her.
Once they were finished in town they headed home, a very intriguing parcel packed safely in the back of the wagon. Kristoff refused to tell Anna what it was, but he’d carried it very carefully, and made sure it was secure and wouldn’t rattle about. She kept peeking over her shoulder at it, but it remained silently wrapped in plain brown paper, giving no clues.
“Is it something for the house?” she asked.
“The parcel, is it something for the house?”
“You can see when we get home, I told you.”
Anna huffed. “Why not now .”
Kristoff smiled. “Don’t be so impatient.”
The journey was completely different to yesterday. The sun had already dried out the ground and the wagon wheels were rolling along smoothly.
“I hope Elsa got along alright,” Anna said. “And I hope she wasn’t worrying about us. Oh dear, I meant to remember all about the sermon and everything so I could tell her, but I forgot…”
“Just make something up.”
“I can’t do that!”
Her genuinely shocked expression made him laugh.
“I can’t lie about what a minister said,” Anna said earnestly. “And especially not to my sister .”
Kristoff smiled and looked ahead.
“You don’t have any brothers or sisters, do you,” Anna said after a moment.
“Not blood, no.”
“What about your parents?” Anna asked. “Where are they?”
Kristoff looked at her, then back at the road. “Nowhere. Dead. My father died when I was eleven, my mother when I was twelve. And right around then some friends of theirs were heading West to take homesteads - three of them, three brothers and their families - and said they’d take me with them if I could earn my keep. ”
“That was kind of them.”
“Well, they made me work for it! But yes. They’re good people. When I was grown and I wanted to take up my father’s claim, here, they didn’t try and stop me, and without those years working with them I’d never have been able to manage here.”
“Is that who you write to?”
“Yeah. The parcel -” he jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the wagon bed behind them - ”is from them, a wedding gift.”
“So you told them you got married?”
“Well, of course. The advertisement was her idea. Mrs Solheim, my foster-mother.”
Anna laughed. “Really?”
“Yes - I’ll be honest. I placed the advertisement so I could tell her I had, I didn’t expect to get any replies.”
Did you want any? Anna didn’t dare ask.
“Why didn’t your father take up his claim?” she said instead.
“He was working in a factory to save up the money to get started. My mother took in sewing. I found the claim papers in with some of their things that I’d managed to keep. And now here I am.”
He was looking ahead again, his jaw set. Anna could tell that that was all she was going to get for now.
“So what’s in the parcel?” she said.
She didn’t get a reply then, but as soon as they’d arrived back home and greeted Elsa she asked Kristoff the same question again. “What’s in the parcel?”
He laughed. “Alright, alright. I’ll show you.”
He took the parcel out of the wagon and carried it carefully inside, Anna right on his heels. Elsa also followed them into the cabin, and stood to one side as Kristoff put the parcel on the table and undid the wrapping.
“Glass!” Anna gasped. “For the window?”
“Yes. A proper window.”
He’d known it would make her happy, but he hadn’t expected her full reaction. Surely she was used to glass windows; surely it wouldn’t be that exciting for her. But Anna smiled all over her face, and clasped her hands, and then, to the surprise of both of them, leant up and kissed him on the cheek.
They both stopped stock still, staring at each other. Kristoff could tell he was blushing to the roots of his hair. Behind them, Elsa cleared her throat.
“Well, I’d better - get my tools -” he said, and backed towards the door.
“Right, right,” Anna said. “Good idea.”
After he’d left, she said “I don’t know why I did that.”
“He’s your husband,” Elsa said.
“I know, but…”
“He didn’t seem to mind.”
Anna stared open-mouthed at Elsa, who just turned away and went back to her housework.
That evening, once dinner was finished, Kristoff stood while his wife and sister-in-law cleared the dishes.
“Well, goodnight,” he said.
“You don’t have to sit out in the barn,” Anna said suddenly. Kristoff paused in the doorway.
“I mean, you can sit in here with us,” she continued. “I’m just going to read and Elsa will be sewing so we’re not very exciting company, but, um. If you like.”
Kristoff hesitated. “I do need to write a letter,” he said. Anna smiled and went back to her work.
The room was not large, especially with three of them in it, and letting the sisters have the chairs meant that Kristoff had to sit on a stool, but he had to confess that it was still more comfortable than sitting on the floor of the barn, and warmer, too. The story Anna was reading was not one he would have chosen - not enough action, and more words he didn’t know than he would have admitted - but she read well and the sound of her voice was soothing, even if he couldn’t always follow as he concentrated on his writing.
It was easier to write these days, though, because he had more to say. When he had been living alone every day had been similar to the last, but now...well, he could probably fill the page just complaining about that goat Anna had made him buy.
Anna finished her chapter just as Kristoff was signing the bottom of the letter. He folded it and put it in his pocket, then stood.
“Goodnight, then, ladies,” he said. Anna stood as well, still holding her book. “Goodnight,” she said, hesitated a second, then stepped forward and kissed him quickly on the cheek.
It was just a peck, but Kristoff blushed just as brightly as he had that afternoon. “Goodnight,” he said again, then almost ran out of the door.
Anna glanced over at her sister. Elsa was looking down, calmly tidying her sewing things into her workbox.
“I’m going to bed,” Anna said, turned on her heel and went into the bedroom. Then she paused.
“Elsa,” she called through.
“Why does my bed smell like - goat?”
She wasn't sure when color started to seep back into her world.
Anna noticed it when she was tidying up after breakfast—she glanced out through the new glass window (so much more light! It made the tiny cabin feel so much brighter instead of gloomy) and realized that there were wild flowers coming up in clumps here and there, between the wheel ruts and along the edge of the field. She paused, dirty plates in her hands, and stared.
Anna wasn't sure when the city had grown dim and grey. She'd thought that it was grief for her parents, and she'd breathed a sigh of relief when she first changed out of her grey and lavender mourning dresses. Surely everything would feel less oppressive, once she was back in society, instead of cooped up in isolation—but despite the lavish colors that filled parlors, the rainbow of party dresses fluttering in and out of ballrooms, the light always seemed dull and drab. Every morning the windows had been grimy with soot, every day the sky was grey with smoke.
Was that why she had been such easy prey? Elsa had always told her that she was naïve, idealistic, and she'd been right. Anna had been so desperate for… something , so ready to be caught up in passionate emotions, she'd practically forced herself to fall in love. Then suddenly everything was a hundred times worse, and she'd felt as if she was smothering, trapped in a building as the walls collapsed inward. So she'd run away to the west, where the sky and the ground and everything had seemed colorless and faded.
Except the grass was glowing green under the sun, and the sky was so blue, stretching away like a pure, deep lake. Anna left the breakfast dishes on the table and stepped outside. The air smelled fresh and clean, and she drew it in with deep breaths. The hens, rambling around the yard, were shining bronze and ivory white, russet and orange. Pauline the cow was a glossier brown than rich polished wood. In the long grass of the untilled fields there were more flowers, pinks and yellows and soft purples and reds all waving and nodding in the breeze. Anna wandered through them, brushing the blossoms with her fingers until her hands were yellow with pollen, and a confused bee nuzzled across her palm for a moment before it flew away.
Anna laughed and spun around, suddenly feeling as if she could truly breathe for the first time in years.
He paused, looking up from his hoe. His wife was waiting at the end of the row, smiling at him. A crown of pale pink and yellow flowers circled her head, and she bit her lip, blushing when she realized what had caught his attention.
"They're pretty," she said, shrugging.
He grinned and leaned on the hoe. "Very pretty."
"I thought you might want some water." Anna hefted a sloshing bucket, lifting it up to clasp it in her arms. "It's getting hot out."
"Thank you." He let her keep holding the bucket while he dipped the ladle in and drank, then tipped a second ladleful over his head, raking the wet hair back from his eyes.
"I could--" she began, then stopped.
"I was just going to say, I could trim your hair for you, if you wanted. Not too much!" she added quickly. "I just thought, you might like it off of your neck."
Kristoff ran his fingers through his hair again. He knew it was ragged--he never bothered to spend his money on the barber in town, so he was left to cut it himself. "That would be nice," he said finally.
She smiled at him, her face lighting up, and he realized again how much his wife liked to help others--to be useful. He wondered how few opportunities she'd had, in her fine formal life before. Anna looked past him, down the tilled lines of the field.
"It's grown so much already!"
He nodded, a satisfied smile tugging at his lips. "It's coming along well. If the rain isn't too bad, it'll be a good harvest--better than any I've had so far. This is the most I've been able to plant since I've been out here, thanks to your help. And your sister, too. I've been able to be in the fields more of the day. Look--" Kristoff crouched down, running his fingers along the spine of a dainty green shoot. "This will be twice as tall in just a few days. And in a few months it'll be higher than your waist, by the time we harvest."
Anna knelt down beside him, and he could smell the flowers in her hair as she bent her head. Her fingers touched the plant delicately, as if it were the curl on a baby's head.
"I've never been around so many growing things in my life," she said softly. She looked up at him, smiling at what she saw on his face. "I think I'm starting to understand," she said. "You really love this land, don't you?"
"Yes," he said, watching her fingertips stroke a curling leaf. "I do."
"Well," Anna said, "I should start supper--" She started to stand, but then grimaced, her arm curling around her stomach. Kristoff caught her elbow as her shoulders hunched with pain.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
Her face scrunched up, but she shook her head, taking a step away from his supporting hand. "It's nothing. Just womanly troubles."
"Are you ill? You're pale." He looked around, frowning. "Should I get your sister, or--"
"No! No, it's nothing--just, you know." Anna gestured vaguely. He stared at her in uncomprehending worry. "The cycle of the moon?" she tried. "The curse? I'm bleeding."
"You're what ?"
She bit her lip. "Um...most women, you know...have monthly troubles."
"Oh." Vague information, filtered through subtle hints and ribald jokes, started to come back to him, and Kristoff felt his face flush darkly. "Shouldn't you be resting?"
Anna shrugged. "It's not that bad--sometimes it's worse, it's not always the same. Elsa makes a tea out of willow bark that helps with the cramps."
"So you aren't--" The words tumbled out before he could stop them.
Anna raised an eyebrow. "Aren't what?"
"Nothing." He turned to pick up his hoe again, but when he glanced back at her Anna was still staring at him, waiting. "Ah--you aren't pregnant."
Her eyes widened. "What? No! I told you--"
"I know, I'm sorry, I just--I wondered. I mean, if maybe you were but hadn't been ready to tell me."
A hot flush was spreading over her cheeks and neck. Water slopped as she picked up her bucket roughly, splashing her skirts.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I wouldn't have blamed you, if you didn't want to tell me right away--it couldn't be the easiest thing to stay."
"Well, I'm not. If I were I would have said so when you asked me. I wouldn't have lied ."
"Of course not. I should have known that."
She let out several short, hard breaths, and then drew in a deeper one. "Well. How could you have known, really," she said, staring out over the field. "When we're still practically strangers. But for your information, I did wait until I had my monthlies before I answered your advertisement. I saw it, but I waited a week, to be sure. And anyway--"
Anna bit her lip, and for a terrible moment Kristoff thought she was about to cry as he saw that she was trembling. But then a snort of laughter escaped her, like steam from a kettle.
She looked up, saw him staring at her in bewilderment, and laughed out loud.
"Kristoff--we've been married for two months, and it was two months since--well, since Mr. Slug, before I even got here. If I were pregnant I wouldn't have needed to tell you, I'd be out to here ."
"I--I don't know, I was never around any women who--and horses it can be six months before--"
"Horses!" She dissolved into giggles and had to set the water bucket down and lean on the fence post.
After dinner, Anna and her sister sat sewing curtains out of a tablecloth they'd found somewhere, and Kristoff worked at whittling a new handle for his hatchett. Anna had been unusually quiet all through dinner, and she wasn't talking now, but he could see that her lip was red from being chewed on, the way she did when she was thinking. After only half an hour, Elsa got up and went to bed. Kristoff started to leave for the barn, but Anna stopped him at the door.
"I was wondering," she said, then hesitated.
"Well--what if I had been. Pregnant, I mean. What would have happened?"
He shrugged. "I suppose that would have been up to you."
"Would you really have been willing to still marry me, and raise the baby?"
"Even if it was some other man's?"
"Well," he said slowly. "It would still have been yours."
Her hand was still on his sleeve. "Well--goodnight, then."
Anna looked up at him, her blue eyes dark in the lamplight. Then she stood on tiptoe and pressed a brief, light kiss to his mouth. "Goodnight."
Elsa, sitting by the window with a pile of mending, watched her sister flit back and forth across the room, like a moth unable to settle in one place. Anna was singing to herself, smiling as she worked.
"You seem happy," Elsa said, snipping off her thread and and putting another of Anna's petticoats into the basket of repaired clothes.
Anna paused in her waltz with the broom. "I am happy. It's nice to be able to go outside and sing as much as I want, without being told to be more dignified. Even Kristoff doesn't complain."
"I think he likes to hear you sing." Elsa arranged a patch for a scorched hole in a skirt and began tacking it on with neat stitches. "I've seen him stop to listen, anyway, and he always smiles."
"Oh. Really?" Anna turned away, her cheeks pink. "I never noticed."
There was a shout outside, and they both turned to the window in time to see a white shape streak past. Kristoff was climbing down from the hayloft, and it was easy to spot the broken corner of fencing where Ollie had made his escape.
"Oh no! Ollie!" Annie dropped her broom and was running out the door before Elsa could stop her.
"Ollie! You naughty goat! Stop this minute!" Anna sprinted down the path, braids flying, as the goat skipped ahead of her, bleating merrily. "Bad, bad goat!"
She skidded to a halt as Ollie disappeared into the tall grass that fringed the creek, expecting a splash, but with a nimble hop the goat was suddenly standing on the log that spanned the water. It was a big tree that had fallen down a year ago, Kristoff had said. The water rushed against it, gurgling, and it made a handy spot for one's washcloth. But if her goat went over to the other side of the creek, he'd be on someone else's land, and Anna had a vague idea that people could be a bit finder's-keepers about animals.
Ollie was trotting along the trunk, nibbling at the dry branches.
"You silly thing, there's much nicer grass over here," Anna said. "Come on, Ollie, come on back, I'll give you a carrot--"
He ignored her, and Anna decided she was going to have to go and get him. She took off her apron, thinking that in a pinch she could use it for a leash, and edged out onto the log bridge. There's was a ripping sound. Anna winced. This dress would have to go into Elsa's mending pile. All of Anna's dresses went into the mending pile, it seemed, and Elsa had to work fast just so that Anna would have things to wear.
"I should have taken it off," she muttered.
She twisted around and wobbled, clutching at the branches for balance. "What?"
Kristoff, panting, was standing on the bank. "What are you doing?"
"I'm just going to get Ollie," she said, and scooted a little farther along the log. Ollie, perverse creature that he was, pranced a few steps forward.
"Come down, it's not safe."
"I'm all right! It's not bad. It's not even wobbling at all--oops--" She waved her arms in the air, steadying herself. "See? It's fine!"
"That tree has been lying in the water for months, it's probably half rotten. You shouldn't be on it."
"But what if Ollie runs off on the other side?"
"But he's my goat! Someone might steal him."
"Then they'll get what they deserve for stealing such a--Anna!"
Anna missed the rest of what he said, because of the water in her ears. Ollie, apparently dissatisfied with the look of the far side of the creek, had turned and barreled back across the trunk, knocking her off balance. Anna spluttered, but she was only in water up to her thighs. She stood up, wiping wet hair out of her eyes, and then yelped as hands caught her waist and lifted her out of the water altogether.
Kristoff stood her on the bank, frowning.
"See?" Anna said. "Just fine."
"You're lucky you didn't fall off where it's deeper," he said severely. "The current--"
"I know, it's fast, but I can swim--sort off."
"That might not do any good if you had hit your head," he pointed out. Ollie was munching on a twig, ignoring the lush reeds. Kristoff swore under his breath, and picked up the length of rope that he'd had the presence of mind to bring, looping it around the goat's head.
"What language is that?" Anna asked.
"When you swear, what language is it?"
"Norwegian. And I'm not swearing," he added after a moment.
"It sounds like swearing." Anna tried to repeat what he'd said, and saw him blush.
"Don't say that."
"It is swearing!"
"Just--don't say it. And don't fall into the creek."
Kristoff had lived alone on his farm for two years. Just him, the horse, and the chickens for all that time, and it had never seemed as quiet as it did this morning. After finished her morning chores Anna had ridden out to visit Mrs Ogg, and Elsa had a headache and was lying down, so she might as well not be there (except that he was of course trying to stay out of the cabin, and trying not to make any loud noises).
He worked out in the field. It really was incredible how much more he’d been able to get done, now that he could concentrate on the farmwork. But then, he supposed, it had to support three people now instead of one.
At midday he sat by the side of the barn to eat. Everything was so still; even that goat was sitting peacefully at the end of his rope, chewing his cud. Kristoff thought about the long days and weeks when he hadn’t spoken to another single human being, and wondered how he’d managed not to go mad.
Late afternoon Kristoff was surprised to see a farm wagon driving up from the direction of the Ogg’s farms. When it got closer, he could see that it was being driven by a young man he vaguely recognised as being Marta Ogg’s son Sean, and Anna was sat next to him, holding a basket on her lap. Sven was being led along behind on a long rope.
When they arrived Anna handed him the basket so she could climb down. It meowed, and when he peeked under the lid he saw several - three or four, they kept moving - kittens inside.
“I said to Marta that you thought we might have mice in the barn,” Anna said by way of greeting, “and she said what you need is a cat! And they have lots so she gave me these, aren’t they sweet? Wasn’t that kind?”
“Very,” Kristoff said.
“Five years ago you couldn’t get a cat out here for love nor money,” the other man said. “Now we’re giving them away.”
“Thank you for driving my wife home,” Kristoff said, untying his horse from the wagon.
“It’s no trouble. Knew she wouldn’t be able to ride home alone with all those kittens. They’re pretty lively.”
Anna had already gone running into the house to find her sister. “She loves animals,” Kristoff said, for want of better conversation. “Dotes on that goat, for some reason.”
“Well, she wants what all women want,” Sean said.
Sean laughed. “No, a baby! So she has to baby the animals until one of those comes along.”
Before Kristoff could think of a reply, Anna stuck her head out of the cabin. There was a kitten sitting on her shoulder. “Oh, Mr Ogg,” she said, “Won’t you come in for some dinner before you go home? Or a cup of tea at least?”
“No thank you, Mrs Bjorgman,” he said. “I’d best be getting back for my own dinner.”
“Oh, yes - well, thank you ever so much!”
Sean nodded at her and went to turn his wagon around.
“Kristoff,” Anna said at the door, a different kitten on her shoulder now, “you can’t come in here, Marta taught me how to make something new so it’s a surprise for dinner! Stay outside.”
“Alright,” he said. “Well, thanks again,” he added to Sean once Anna had disappeared once more.
“It’s no trouble. Oh, and Bjorgman,” Sean said, “If you want any help with any building work round here, after harvest, have your wife let Ma know. She’s taken a real shine to her, Ma has, and we - my brothers and I - we’d be glad to do it.” Then before Kristoff could say anything, he drove away.
When Anna finally called him into the cabin, Kristoff found the table neatly set, with three bowls of stew and a big plate of warm, golden biscuits. Anna was standing by the stove, grinning at him.
“That smells wonderful,” he said, and it really did. “Mrs Ogg taught you how to make this?”
“Mm-hmm! And I wrote it all down for Elsa. Because she likes things written down.”
Anna poked her head into the bedroom. “Are you hungry?”
“I wasn’t,” Elsa said, sitting up slowly, “But that smells so good that I will try it. Why are there cats everywhere?”
When Kristoff came back to the house at noon the next day he could only find Elsa, sitting at the table finishing some mending while she waited for the others. After a few minutes he found Anna just inside the barn; she was sitting on her haunches and digging wildly with her hands through a pile of loose earth, where Ollie had dug up the hard-packed dirt floor.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’ve lost it, I took it off because it was dirty and I wanted to wipe it on my handkerchief but then I dropped it and it’s gone -” she looked up, despairing.
“My ring, my wedding ring.” Anna stood, and pushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes, leaving a smudge of dirt on her cheek.
“You dropped it right here?”
“Yes.” She went to bend over and look some more, but Kristoff held up a hand to stop her and crouched down himself.
“You can’t just rummage about, you’ll bury it even more,” he said, looking closely at the patch of ground, then running his fingers through the dirt very slowly and gently. Anna watched him anxiously, twisting her hands together.
“Oh, I can’t believe I dropped it,” she said. “Oh, I hope it isn’t lost, it was -” he waited for her to say ‘my mother’s’ but instead she finished “my wedding ring…”
Finally, after a couple of minutes, he saw a glint of silver, and held up the ring in triumph. Anna clapped her hands and grinned at him. Still on one knee, Kristoff turned, took her left hand and slid the ring into place on her finger.
Then he looked up, still holding her hand in both of his. Anna was watching him, still, and when he met her gaze he couldn’t move for a long moment. He stood, slowly, only letting her hand drop when he was on his feet, and how had he never noticed how blue her eyes were? When he brushed the dirt from her cheek with his thumb she leant into it, just slightly, and his chest was tight, his hand almost trembling as he ran his finger down to under her chin, as he lifted her face to his.
Anna closed her eyes and stood, waiting. He kissed her lips, gently, then pulled back to see her reaction; it was to push up on her toes to follow him, her eyes still closed, her brow furrowed, so he slid his hand round to the nape of her neck, and kissed her, over and over as she clung to his shoulders and tangled her fingers in his hair.
Then, suddenly, she dropped back onto her heels and pulled away. It took Kristoff a second to realise that someone - Elsa - was calling their names from back at the house. Right. It was noon. If they didn’t go back to the house, Elsa would come looking for them.
Anna gave him a shy smile, but she didn’t say anything, just turned and walked away. As she went through the door to the cabin, he saw her pause and put her fingertips briefly to her lips, the silver ring glinting on her finger as she smiled to herself. My wife, he thought, and it hit him somewhere in the chest.
Kristoff didn’t come into the house that evening. He worked all afternoon in the farthest field, and after dinner he said goodnight and left immediately. Anna had been dreaming all afternoon of the kiss he might give her before they went to bed, and then he just - left. What did that mean?
“Wind’s getting up,” Elsa said as they were preparing for bed. “You didn’t leave anything outside, did you?”
“No - no, I don’t think so.” Anna peered out into the yard. “D’you think it’s going to storm?”
“Maybe. We need the rain, anyway.”
And it was the rain that woke her, a few hours later. It drummed loudly on the wooden roof and walls of the cabin, and Anna could hear how the wind was gusting, throwing the rain in sheets. The wind seemed to find every tiny crack and seam in the building and she huddled under the blankets, hearing it whistle through the stove-pipe. She hoped that the walls of the barn were at least as strong as those of the cabin.
She couldn’t get back to sleep. She whispered her sister’s name, but got no reply, and was resigning herself to waiting for the storm to blow itself out when she heard a shout and a crash from outside.
Immediately Anna was on her feet. Elsa stirred. “Go back to bed, Anna,” she said. “It’s just a storm.”
“I heard something,” Anna said, rummaging for clothes. “I’m just going to check he’s alright -”
Elsa sighed, but then there was another shout, and Anna threw on the clothes she could reach and ran out of the door.
The rain was stinging and cold. The wind blew her skirts in every direction and tried to rip away the shawl she’d tied round her head. At first she couldn’t see anything, but then she saw the glimmer of a lantern and stumbled towards it.
Kristoff was standing at the top of the path towards the creek, holding up the lantern. She wasn’t sure if he’d seen her until he shouted over the wind, “I opened the barn door a crack to check the cabin roof hadn’t blown off and your goat ran straight out. Hasn’t got the sense of a dead bug. Think he went this way. Go back inside.”
“See, this is why you don’t give farm animals names,” he said. “Go back inside, woman.”
“You’ll find him?”
“I’m not staying out here much longer, and you definitely shouldn’t. Go inside before you catch cold. You’re soaked.”
“But Ollie - you know he likes to play in the creek, what if he -”
Kristoff made an exasperated noise and turned back towards the barn. And Anna grabbed the lantern out of his hand and ran.
She’d barely gone fifty yards before she regretted her impulsiveness. Anna could barely see, and she was soaked through, and the wind was blowing her this way and that, and she’d taken Kristoff’s lantern, oh, he was going to be so mad -
She couldn’t leave Ollie, though! He’d be so scared, and lost, and alone. She pushed on along the path until the sound of the running water told her she was near the creek.
Then - a flash of white, and had she imagined she heard something? Anna took another step forward, and another, holding the lantern above her head. Yes! There was Ollie, on the other side of the raging torrent.
“Come here, you naughty goat!” she shouted at him. “Come back over here! Time to go home!”
But still he wouldn’t come any closer. So she had to try and get to him.
Anna huddled in her bed, under her blankets - and half of Elsa’s blankets, for that matter. She was forbidden to leave it and she didn’t dare, even though she was plenty warm, especially with a hot iron wrapped in cloth by her feet.
She didn’t think she’d ever been gladder to see Kristoff than when he had come running out of the dark and dragged her out of the creek. But then he’d been so angry that she’d half-wished he’d left her there. She didn’t think she’d heard him say so many words together as she did as he carried her back to the cabin, though it was mainly repetition on the theme of What had she been thinking? Did she want to drown, get pneumonia, get carried out to sea (a little fanciful, Anna thought, but she didn’t feel she could argue) over a goat? Really, what had she been thinking, had she even been thinking at all? And so forth.
The only thing he said in the cabin - and to Elsa, not to Anna - was “Get her dry,” then he’d stomped back out. To the barn, presumably, and who could blame him.
Elsa had helped her undress, and put her in a clean nightdress under this heap of blankets, and then despite herself Anna had fallen asleep, and now it was morning. She was pretty sure she hadn’t caught cold, but her arm hurt where Kristoff had grabbed it to pull her out of the water. He’d really wrenched it, and she understood why, but it still hurt.
The door opened and Elsa came in. “I brought you some hot tea,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine. No, really, I am, I could get up -.”
“You’ll stay there. And drink this.”
Anna sat up and took the cup obediently. “Is Kristoff alright?” she said after a moment. “He got pretty wet…”
“He says so. I made him take the other iron and he promised me he’d put on dry things straight away so hopefully he won’t get sick.” Elsa sat on her bed and gave Anna a Look. Anna sipped her drink. Neither of them needed to say that if he did, it would be her fault.
“He’s already gone out, anyway,” Elsa continued. “Trying to see if there’s any damage anywhere. And I think he walked over to the creek.”
“Did he find Ollie?” Anna said in a small voice.
“Yes,” Elsa said. “And he asked if I knew how to make goat stew. But he was joking.”
Anna scrunched up under the blanket.
“I think,” Elsa said. “I think he was joking.”
Chapter 12: by Charis
Cold water closed over her head, rushing in her ears and dragging at her nightgown. She flailed, branches scratching her arm as she tried to grasp something, anything, as the current sucked her legs out from under her. Anna kicked hard and managed to push up with one foot on the muddy creek bed, just enough to get a lungful of air before she slipped down again.
Her fingernails scraped over wet wood above her. The log bridge. The water was carrying her under it, and she'd be swept away completely if she couldn't hold on somehow--Anna wanted to sob, but she had to hold her breath, or she'd end up drowned somewhere far away from the little cabin, and Elsa wouldn't even have a body to bury, and Kristoff would...Kristoff…
Something caught her flailing hand, yanking hard on her arm, so hard that it hurt, and then Anna was out of the water, coughing and gasping, the sob she'd been holding in her chest forcing its way out. The rain was still pelting down, making it impossible to blink the water out of her eyes.
"Kris--" she started, but it came out as a whisper, trailing into nothing as lightning cracked open the sky, a whip of white light, and she got a glimpse of his face.
He glared down at her, and even when the dark hid his expression again Anna could feel the fury, as if it were heat from a kettle that was boiling itself dry. She started to tremble, shuddering all over. It's the cold , she thought, I'm shivering , except her chest was burning with something that hurt, and her eyes were hot and stinging.
Her husband picked her up, but he didn't cradle her into the warmth of his body. Instead his arms were hard, every muscle tense, and they crushed her against his chest until she felt bruised. And he didn't murmur anything reassuring--he didn't say anything at all. He carried her through the dark, until suddenly they were standing in the open door of the cabin, Elsa looking ghostly pale, and Anna began to sob as Kristoff dumped her onto the floor and turned his back on her, the door slamming behind him--
Anna struggled upright, her heart pounding against her ribs. The blankets twisted around her legs were damp with sweat and her lungs hurt, as if she'd been holding her breath for too long. She smoothed tangled wisps of her hair back from her face with shaking hands.
A dream. Another dream.
It hadn't happened quite like that. Really it had been over too quickly for her to register many details. The shock of the icy water, one horrible moment of panic as her head went under, and then her nightdress had been snagged on a branch that held just long enough to save her from being swept away. And then Kristoff had been there. He had grabbed her arm so hard that it hurt--although she could hardly mind that, when he'd been rescuing her--but then they'd both had to feel the way back, tripping on the log's withered roots in the dark and falling in a heap on the muddy bank.
That was when Kristoff had pulled her tight against him. She'd felt him breathing, hard, ragged gasps that blew warm against her hair despite the cold rain. She'd heard his heartbeat against her ear, like a fast drumbeat. He gripped her as if he thought she might still be dragged away by the water, and Anna realized she was holding onto him just as tightly, both her hands clutched in his wet shirt, their bodies so close that she could feel his heat, could feel the outline of his chest and stomach as if the fabric between them was nothing more than tissue instead of sturdy cotton. She'd pressed her face into his neck--
And he'd hauled her up as he stood, hefting her in his arms like a sack of grain, and he'd definitely been angry but he hadn't been silently furious. Oh no. He'd sworn at her in Norwegian (and Anna knew it was swearing even if she couldn't understand the words), and then in English, telling her exactly how stupid she was, how reckless, how she would get herself killed , because--
-- because she didn't belong here.
You should go home , he'd said. Where it's safe for girls like you .
Anna sniffed, wiping her nose on the edge of her bedsheet. The worst part, perversely, was that he'd called her a girl . Not a woman, not to him.
And then he'd dumped her on the rug and told Elsa to look after her, because of course she couldn't look after herself, and then he'd stormed off. And the silence began.
"Anna? Oh good, you've admitted to being awake." Elsa came in, a tray rattling with teacups in her hands. There was also a bowl of porridge, which she handed to Anna. "Breakfast."
"Thanks." Anna stirred her spoon around, watching steam curl up (and why did Elsa's porridge come out so much better than hers? They followed the exact same steps, after all. Mostly) but didn't lift it to her mouth.
"Eat it," her sister said. "It'll warm you up."
"I'm warm . Look." She pushed the covers off. "I'm fine, see? I just got a little wet, I'm not going to perish. And I spent all day yesterday keeping quiet and wrapped up and I'm fine ."
"I know." Elsa took a dainty sip of her tea, sitting upright as neatly as if she was in their mother's parlor. "You didn't have to stay in bed on my account."
"But you said--"
"I said you should rest if you felt unwell, and you should keep your feet dry. I didn't say that you needed to hide in your bed."
Anna opened her mouth, closed it again, and then shoved a spoonful of porridge in, swallowing the words she wanted to say with it. It was still too hot, burning on her tongue.
"I'm not hiding ," she muttered to the bowl. Her sister's teacup clicked against the saucer as she set it down, and when Anna glanced up she found Elsa glaring at her.
"You are hiding ," Elsa snapped, "because you did something stupid, and selfish, and you don't want to go apologize to your husband ."
"I--" Hot blood rushed into Anna's cheeks. When Elsa got angrier she just got even more pale and still and icy. Anna got red. "What do you mean, selfish?"
"What do you think I mean? You nearly got yourself drowned! And what if you'd pulled him in with you? All for a silly goat that isn't even useful and that no one else wanted , except you had to have the evil little--"
"Ollie's not evil, he's just a goat ." Anna fought down the tears that wanted to squeeze out--why did she have to turn red and cry when she was angry, as if the anger filling her needed more room? "And I wasn't going to drown."
"You could have," Elsa said. "And then where would we be, Anna? Can you imagine what it would be like for me? For your husband, to have to go searching downstream for...for you? And then Kristoff would be a widower, stuck with a sickly sister-in-law to support and no helper for the farm, so he'd be even worse off than before. Think , Anna--"
"He's already worse off than he was before we came." Anna pulled her knees up, nearly dumping the forgotten porridge out over her lap. "He wishes that we hadn't."
Elsa sighed. "He does not."
"That's why he hasn't come into the house," Anna mumbled. "He's angry and he doesn't want to see me."
"He was very worried," Elsa said. "We both were. I'm sure he'll get over it. You were starting to get along so well--"
Anna sighed. "And I messed it up. I mess everything up. I'm sorry."
"Scoot." Her sister nudged her over, until they were both wedged onto the narrow mattress and Elsa could put an arm around Anna's shoulders. "I'm sorry for snapping. You don't mess everything up--you insisted we come here, and it's been better. I haven't had any bad spells in weeks, and you've been happier than I've seen you since Mother and Father's funeral."
"I don't think Kristoff feels that things have been better. Ow!" Anna yelped as her sister's bony elbow poked her ribs.
"He does . Now you're just being sulky. You told me he said that it's been a help to have you around, and I think he's glad you're here. He must have been lonely before."
Her sister sipped tea. Anna ate a few more sullen bites, but she just wasn't good at sulking--she couldn't ever keep her feelings at a low simmer for that long, and finally she dropped the spoon into the bowl with a clatter.
"He still doesn't come in for meals, and he has to eat."
"He does--he takes bread and jerky out with him, but I think the rain did a lot of damage, and he's been working from first light until it's full dark. It's not really that he's still angry, it's that there's just so much to do."
"Why didn't he say ?" Anna kicked away her quilt, climbing over Elsa's legs to fall out of the bed. "I could be helping!"
She scrambled into her clothes and was through the door before Elsa could point out that her dress was buttoned crookedly.
Watching Anna run toward the field, her bootlaces flying, Elsa wondered if she should have mentioned waking early that morning, and what she'd seen--Kristoff, dimly lit by the lamp that must have been left in the other room, bending over Anna's bed. His face had been lost in shadow, but she'd been able to see his hand, fingertips hovering over Anna's hair, tracing the curve of her cheek without touching.
Anna, always the restless sleeper, mumbled and turned over. Kristoff yanked his hand back as if he'd been burned. He'd stayed, frozen in place, until Anna sighed again and settled deeper under her quilt. Then he'd turned to go, only to freeze again when he met Elsa's eyes.
"I just--I wanted..." His whisper stumbled to a halt and he tried again. "Is she--"
Elsa pushed up on her elbow, although she kept her blanket primly at her chin. She spoke softly but didn't bother to whisper. Anna wasn't that easy to wake up. "She's fine. Just shaken, and a little bruised. Not hurt."
He'd nodded awkwardly, and hurried out.
Sipping her tea, Else considered the strange back-to-front courtship between her sister and her sister's husband, and wasn't sure whether telling what she'd seen would make anything better, or make everything worse.
He looked up, rubbing sweat out of his eyes with the back of his dirty wrist. His wife was climbing through the fence, her shoes already caked with mud, her uncovered hair whisping out of its braids and looking like licks of flame under the bright sun. She hopped on one leg as she brought the other through the split rails, but her smile faltered as she straightened up and met his eyes. Anna bit her lip.
"I came to help," she said.
Kristoff shook his head. His temples were throbbing. "You don't need to."
"I want to. Just tell me--"
"It's fine. You'll make yourself sick in this wet heat--you should stay inside."
Anna huffed. "Elsa worried I'd be too cold, you think I'll be too hot, I'm not a...a souffle ."
"I don't know what that is."
"It's a fancy pudding that collapses if you look at it too hard. I'm not going to collapse."
Mud squelched as Anna came closer, but Kristoff hunched over the row of limp plants, head down, the sweat-damp ends of his shaggy hair covering his eyes. With raw fingers he scraped a channel connecting to the trench he'd made to let water run off, and smoothed some soil up to cover the roots exposed where the rain had washed too much away.
One seedling was already dried out, the green stalk that had bravely pushed up toward the sun withered by the same warmth that coaxed it to life. Kristoff pushed down memories of Sven plodding ahead of him while his shoulders burned from the effort of keeping the plow steady. The smell of the black soil, rich and dark and promising. Anna, singing under her breath, her apron gathered up to hold the seeds as she trailed after him up and down the field. When a handful of seeds had spilled out onto the hard packed ground between the furrows she'd knelt to sweep them up with the edge of her hand, scooping them into the good, welcoming soil and patting them down gently. Had that been in this spot?
Kristoff pulled the dead brown thing out of the ground and tossed it away to be raked up later. He pushed up to his feet, rolling his shoulders. They ached from stooping.
"You should…" He trailed off, not looking at her. "You should check on your idiot goat."
"I checked on him already." Anna lifted a hand, her fingers hovering hesitantly before she laid them on his bare forearm. "I saw that you'd doctored his leg. Thank you."
"They were just scrapes, nothing serious. I think the limp was because he bruised a tendon, maybe, but it should heal itself. Was he happy to see you?"
She laughed. "So happy that he chewed the end off my bootlace."
"Well. He's a goat."
Kristoff tugged the bandanna from his neck and used it to wipe sweat and mud from his face. The movement dislodged Anna's hand, and he pretended not to see the way she flinched back, ever so slightly, tucking her hand behind her like a chastised child. "I should get back to this," he muttered, turning away from her. "There's no need for you to be knee deep in this muck. You could see to the cow, maybe, I've milked her every day but--"
Anna's outraged gasp was the only warning he had before a clump of mud splatted against the back of his neck. He swung around, glaring. " Anna-- "
"Oh good, so you do remember who I am!" Another handful of mud hit him in the chest.
"Of course I know who you are," he snapped. "You're the crazy woman getting her dress filthy for no reason."
"I have a reason." She looked around, spotted a particularly murky puddle, and sat in it in a splash. "Because I'm Anna Bjorgman , remember? Your wife? And this is my farm too, and my dirt, and my crops, so let me help ."
Kristoff hadn't been wrong--well, he had been wrong, insufferably wrong about whether she could help, but not wrong about how hard the work was, or how dirty she would get, even on top of the muddy water that had soaked her skirt and petticoat and drawers, to dry stiff and chafe at her legs until she felt like an onion with the skin rubbed off.
Her thighs hurt from crouching, and her arms hurt, and her shoulders hurt, and her hands hurt, and the back of her neck hurt, scorched red by the sun (because she'd forgotten her bonnet, and was not going to scamper off to fetch it and let her husband come up with more excuses to shut her out). But she'd kept up with Kristoff and they'd found a rhythm--he pulled out wilted plants and she patted the dirt back in place around the ones that were left. Then they raked all the debris, weeds and dead plants together and well away, so that they wouldn't spread rot or disease to the ones that were left.
By then the sky was getting purple with twilight. Looking back over the field, Anna could see candlelight glowing in the window of the house, and Elsa’s silhouette moving back and forth across the yellow rectangle of the open door as she cooked.
“We should get cleaned up,” she said, “or Elsa might not let us in for dinner.”
She waited for Kristoff to pull back and make an excuse, but he just looked at his dirt encrusted hands and nodded. They were almost to the creek–Anna trailing a little behind as her sore body protested–when Kristoff stopped so abruptly that she stumbled into his back.
“I wasn’t thinking,” he muttered. “You don’t need to–I’ll pull up some water from the well for you.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous, I’ll be fine.” Anna went around him. “You can always pull me out again.”
He paused to take down the rough sack that held soap (and did double duty as a scrubbing cloth) and caught up with her on the other side of the screen of trees. They left their boots on a rock and picked their way down the bank. Kristoff stepped down into the water, clothes and all. He was obviously prepared for Anna to plunge in after him, but she waited until he had bent to duck his head under, rinsing dirt and sweat from his hair. When he straightened up again she held out her hands to be helped down. An easy step for him was more of a jump for her, and she was grateful for his solid presence as the water pushed against her, nearly lifting her off her feet as her skirt turned the creek brown and cloudy.
“It looks different, with the log gone,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Kristoff tightened his hands around her waist, “I’ve got you.”
“Did I sound worried? I’m not.” Anna grabbed the soap sack from the bank and worked up a lather, scrubbing her filthy hands and her sleeves all at once. “I’m fine.”
“It does look different, that’s all. I wouldn’t have been able to recognize it as the same spot, if you brought me here blindfolded. It doesn’t even look like the same shape, now that the log’s gone.”
“It isn’t the same. Here–” He took the cloth and held her chin with one hand, while she braced herself by gripping his shirtfront. Kristoff wiped a streak of dirt from her cheek. “The water cuts into the earth,” he said. “When the creek flooded and all that debris was pushing down, it wore away at the banks. That’s what water does.”
“I never thought of it as so dangerous before,” Anna admitted. “I thought of water as something good–to make things live, make things grow.” She shivered, and didn’t complain when Kristoff lifted her out of the creek.
“It does that, too,” he said. “I think–” He stopped and shook his head, ducking again to rinse soap suds from his arms and neck.
Anna, above him on the bank, couldn’t help noticing the shape of his broad shoulders as the wet cotton shirt clung to his skin. “What do you think?” she asked vaguely.
He ran a wet hand through his hair. “I think…things that make us live are always a bit dangerous. Water, fire. Animals. We need them, but water can flood, or freeze. Fire can burn down a forest. The most placid cow could kill a man, if it got spooked and bolted, and the man was an idiot.”
“Pauline would never,” Anna said in mock horror, and he chuckled, tossing the soap up on the bank.
“We’ll keep her away from idiots, just in case.”
“Which is most dangerous?” she asked, wringing out her stained skirt. “Fire, or water?”
“Depends. Is there a wildfire or a flood? But–” He paused as he climbed out of the creek, and Anna looked down, her face suddenly pink. “Nothing changes a landscape like water. It’s slow, sometimes, but it wears away bit by bit–or comes crashing through all at once–and nothing is the same after.”
He sat down next to her on the grass, and they stared out toward the distant hills, where the sunset was a conflagration of pinks and oranges, a final shout of color before the sun sank beneath the horizon. They were quiet for a long time.
“I’m sorry,” Anna said into the stillness. “I should have apologized before, I just–I’m sorry.”
“For throwing mud at me?”
“That too. But mostly for not listening to you, and then nearly drowning. All I was thinking about was catching Ollie, and I wasn’t scared because I’d fallen in before and was all right, and then suddenly I was under the water and all I could think was that you would never forgive me for drowning–”
“Anna–” he’d been smiling when he asked about the mud, but the smile was gone as he reached out toward her. She didn’t see his hand, though, because she’d pulled up her knees and put her face against her wet skirt. He let the hand drop onto the new grass between them.
“Elsa asked me to think how it would be for you, if you had to go looking downstream for your dead wife, and I–”
“I wouldn’t,” he said firmly, and the emphatic words startled Anna into looking up at him. His face was serious.
“You wouldn’t look for me?” Her voice shook. Anna told herself it was just because it was getting dark, and her clothes were wet. She was just chilly. Kristoff shook his head, and looked down at the creek, cutting its way bit by bit into the earth, carving it into a new shape.
“If I hadn’t been able to pull you out, I’d have gone in after you,” he said.
“Oh.” Anna got to her feet–she was shaking from head to toe now, and suddenly she ran for the house, leaving her muddy boots and her startled husband staring after her.