Remembering the Elf Maiden

I took a walk through the Ann Arbor Arboretum on the same day I read about Kristin remembering the visit from the elf-maiden. Kristin is standing near the same place the elf-maiden visited her when she was a little girl. I am not sure what will happen next. I stopped reading as soon as Kristin remembers her. 

    I tend to enter the same way each time I visit the Arb. I walk down the center of the peony garden, and past the Fairy Woods and Troll Hollow – a small patch of forest made up of maybe fourteen trees – and then down a slope that leads to the Huron River. 

    You can make homes for the fairies, and probably for the trolls too, in these woods. You use whatever you can find  – sticks and pine cones, leaves, and perhaps pedals that fell from flowers. It wasn’t that long ago that Harper would want to stop and make a house in this forest. I’d sit on a bench nearby while she worked.

    Ann Arbor houses fairies. At least, I think that’s the town’s hope. There are fairy doors all over, and actually, the Fairy Woods and Troll Hollow is the least subtle. The doors hide in bookshelves in libraries, or in the breweries and coffee shops. When we first moved to Ann Arbor, Harper and I were out and about getting to know our new town, and she found an entire fairy village, complete with a church and a school. The village wasn’t hiding, and I’d like to think I would’ve found it eventually, but Harper’s always had an awareness for these types of things. She’s always noticing things in a world the rest of us think is too dark to see. 

    I had covid when Kristin remembers the elf-maiden, and was unable to focus on much those days save for how totally exhausted I was all the time. Writing was grueling as I couldn’t sustain a thought long enough to turn it into something, and reading gave me a headache. This sent me into what I remember Anne of Green Gables calling, “the depths of despair.” Surely, I would always feel this way. Surely, I will never write again. Surely, this is not covid, this is a part of my personality that has been hiding within, waiting to come out and ruin me. 

    It was Undset’s descriptive parts of the story that gave my mind, and my soul, a reprieve. Undset’s description is like the dollar section at Target, or the Farmer’s Market on a fall day, or hearing the words, “snow day.” It simply makes me happy.

    This is a curious observation to me because normally when I read long descriptive passages, especially pertaining to the setting, it seems the author is screaming, “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO! PAY ATTENTION TO ME; NOT THE STORY!” This is not the case with Undset, and in fact, the parts where she is describing the setting are the parts I understand and am invested in the story the most. 

    On pgs 703-717, I marked seven instances of description of setting. Here are a few:

  • Kristin is on a walk with two of her sons and her niece when “the first stars were sparkling, wet and white, high up in the sky, where the limpid green was turning blue, moving toward darkness and night.”
  • She walks again with Simon and Ramborg on a night that, “was black and clear with glittering stars….[and]…the sound of water was everywhere in the darkness around them.”
  • Kristin stops at a lone spruce tree, on an afternoon of picking wild flowers, “tall, pale yellow stalks, richly adorned with small open stars,” and as she looks upon the landscape she realizes she “missed everything that she once found so wearisome.”

    It is Kristin who Undset gives these thoughts to. While the narration is third person omniscient, Kristin is the one who notices her surroundings. If Kristin is the heroine of the story, then these descriptive scenes serve as great pauses – reprieves for Kristin to ground and gather herself – in order for the story to continue. And if that is the case, then part of being a hero is one’s willingness to observe without concern for what it is, or what it does. You are here. You are in it. Name what it is you see. 

    I’m not making progress on much these days, and I’d like to blame covid, but I think covid is what made me stop and realize that the franticness with which I am searching to make something worthwhile and meaningful is making me apathetic and depressed. I was a bit ashamed to write about my admiration for Undset’s descriptive prowess, but I’m grateful to have spent some time understanding why I look forward to these passages: they take me places I didn’t know I wanted to go – like down a narrow and steep and crooked path and onto a dirt bank of the Huron River where there are ants half the size of my finger and dragonflies with lace wings that skim the water, and that’s where I’ll sit for no other reason then I want to hear all the different sounds water can make.

Callie Feyen (Project Redux founder) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is a writer for Coffee+Crumbs, TS Poetry Press, and The Banner. She is the author of two books: The Teacher Diaries, and Twirl, and is working on her third –a book about JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Callie lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. Follow her on Instagram at @calliefeyen or online at calliefeyen.com.

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