The Rickety Assurance of Story

By Callie Feyen

Kristin enters her new life as Erlend’s wife at the same time I begin a new job. It is a job I have no qualifications for. It is a job I don’t even know if I’ll enjoy, and it is a job that I took because no matter how hard it would be, like Kristin when she surveys Husaby, I wanted to restore order to things. 

The idea of the job, I think, might’ve been as attractive as Erlend’s dark curly hair, his eyes that scream, “ADVENTURE,” and what I’m sure were his medieval Norwegian six-pack abs. I wasn’t foolish enough to think this job would cure what I’m coming to accept is my eternal wanderlust, and tendency for apathetic woe, but I loved the idea of doing something new and different and that didn’t have anything to do with teaching or writing.

I wanted another story. I think Kristin did, too. I think she wanted another story since she was seven years old and she saw the sun shining outside and could barely contain her excitement because that day she would head to the mountains. I think she met Arne in the woods because she wanted to see about another story she might live, and I think she tells her father that she will die from heartbreak if she can’t be with Erlend because she wanted to write her own story – not have her father write it for her.

Indeed, it is not easy to restore order when you write your own story, and Kristin sees this in the mess and disorganization of Husaby. I think it is only on Christmas Eve, when Kristin finds her stepson Orm left behind in Husaby while the rest went to church that she steps into the life she believed she so desperately wanted, and it is story that helps her do it.

Orm tells her it’s not safe to go out on Christmas Eve because evil spirits are out ready to seize everyone.  

 “I don’t think it’s only the evil spirits that are out tonight,” Kristin says. “Christmas Eve must be for all spirits.” 

Kristin continues and tells a story about the first Christmas Eve and Orm is not impressed at all. It is Orm’s response  to Kristin that proves we parents cannot blame water guns, MTV, call-waiting, or SnapChat for an adolescent’s “I know everything” tone – it’s literally medieval. 

 “You’re ridiculous if you think you’ll comfort me with a story,” is basically what Orm tells her, but she says, “I told the story mostly to comfort myself, Orm.”

Two things happen next: First, Kristin begins to clean up, and Orm helps her. Second, at a pause in their work, as they are sitting by the hearth, Orm, who is sitting on a three-legged stool next to Kristin, says softly, “Tell me another story while we sit here, my stepmother.”

//

The job I took, the one I applied for without any qualifications or any clue what it was I’d be doing, is a part-time position in the registrar’s office at a small Lutheran university. Every morning at 10:30, there’s chapel and sometimes I go and sometimes I don’t. It reminds me of my Calvin days when some days I’d walk up the hill to chapel and immerse myself in the glory of a mystery too wonderful to understand, and other days I’d go back to the dorm and watched the second half of Ricki Lake.

The morning after spring break, I walked into the office holding a mason jar of flowers, and put it on a bookshelf in my office. They were a nice addition to the buttery yellow cart I bought for my coffee and tea that sits next to a chair. I’ve never worked at a job where I have my own office, and I am having fun decorating it.  That morning, several students came in needing help to drop or add classes (mostly drop) because this was the last day to do it. Several girls came in grinning from ear to ear with sparkly diamonds on their left ring fingers, and I was again reminded of my Calvin days, when, after a holiday something shiny this way comes (mine arrived a few days before Thanksgiving my Senior year). The girls spoke to me about their schedules smiling and turning their rings – all of them too loose – around their fingers. One girl wore her engagement ring on an index finger and when I said, “Congratulations,” she blushed and said, “Thank you,” and then, “it still needs to be sized.” I nodded, entered information into the computer, and signed off on a piece of paper she’d give to her professor proclaiming she would no longer be a student in whatever class she thought she needed to be in, and I thought of Kristin who had “slipped several small silver rings from her childhood days onto her fingers” in order to keep her wedding rings from falling off. I cannot remember a thing from when I first read Kristin Lavsrandatter, and while I know she will have her struggles both in marriage and otherwise, I hope that she will experience the wonder and mystery in what evolves in the unity she’s committed herself to. I hope this too, for these girls, and for myself.

It was Holy Week, and I went to chapel every morning. The school would take Good Friday off and to correspond the services were a day ahead – Wednesday was Maundy Thursday, and Thursday was Good Friday.

On Wednesdays, the pastor brings free Starbucks coffee and so I held the paper cup in my hands and sipped and listened to the story of Jesus washing the feet of His friends and breaking bread that He said was His body – even to, and perhaps most especially for, Judas.

A football player slipped in late and sat down next to me. He smiled and whispered hello and I smiled back and then turned toward the stained glass backdrop of the pastor. I wondered what this boy would do after school – after he graduated. I wondered if this school helped him surprise himself with another gift he’d had in him that he could take with him and use in this next chapter. I wondered what it was like to play football here, less than a mile away from the Big House. Was that stadium a shadow to him and did he wish at times the cardinal red he played for would pierce through the maize and blue of autumn Saturdays or was it enough to be a part of the game – the reds and blues and yellows marked his own body because he was willing to play?

I’m still learning what my responsibilities are and how to complete them. I keep a notebook to help me remember codes for computer programs and how to do Excel. Sometimes my boss gives me a stack of transcripts from the colleges and I am to match the course to the ones we offer so students know how much credit they have when they begin their studies here. I love this part of the job because I love reading course catalogs. 

We have a class on Monsters. That’s the entire title. “Monsters” is in the History Department and in the description of the course I read that monsters have been pivotal in all sorts of stories. I wrote the phrase down on a small section of my planner where I catch things I want to keep. I wrote “Spike,” “Edwarn Cullen,” “Stefan and Damon Salvatore.” I wrote “Judas,” and “evil spirits from Christmas Eve.”

I’m not sure they’re evil, or all evil, but I do think they are waiting for us. I think they are hoping we’ll step outside into what we don’t know and into the monstrous grace of story. I think they hope we’ll ask them to come, too.


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.

For All The Not-Mothers

I read our March and April selections of Kristin Lavransdatter in quick bursts. Weeknight binges before bed. And then I put it away. I didn’t feel like discussing these sections the way I wanted to discuss Kristin’s bucolic childhood or the many problems with Erland.

For a while, this lack of inspiration was a mystery to me.

Then, I was walking my dogs on an afternoon last week and I knew exactly why I don’t want to write about these sections: they are about pregnancy and new motherhood.

Here it is, nearly Mother’s Day. I am the right age to be a mother and every single marketing email in my inbox is about that day. When I see them, I no longer think of my own mother and grandmothers, I think of myself as a not-mother.

I read fast, knowing that Kristin’s fictional child would live. He would be fine. Everyone else I know has managed to have a baby. Kristin is going to raise seven sons, or something, right?

It has been the shock of my adult life, this wanting to be a mother, but not wanting it badly enough to persist past a year of disaster. I never dreamed of being a mother when I was growing up. I dreamed of being a writer and of living near the sea—which is where I am now. I didn’t know how badly I wanted children until my body gave up pregnancy after pregnancy.

That year was hard on my husband and me, and we put our hopes in deep freeze: moved to a new place, navigated a flare of my chronic illness, and tried to salvage our mental health in these coronavirus years. Somehow, six years have passed. And things have shifted—getting our puppies felt like a sign that I was no longer planning around the possibility of a pregnancy within the year.

All the while, I’ve developed this secret narrative of self-pity. When you are the right age to be a mother, and all your friends are mothers, little hurts pile up.

Being asked at the cash register if you are a mother on Mother’s Day.

Hearing a (woman) scientist lecture about marine mammal fertility and identify the animals that don’t give birth every year as “frail”. Sitting in the back row thinking there should be an essay about how horrible this language is but instead saving it for a snarky text message to a sympathetic friend.

Or, this week, getting asked to write Mother’s Day messages for my job. I was about to tuck it away as something I could tease into a journal entry, when instead I found myself speaking up, outing myself as someone who has not been able to have children, and admitting that this was a hard assignment for me. I was immediately met with understanding. I thought talking about it at work would make me feel too vulnerable. But it didn’t. It was a reasonable request to make. And it was a choice against bitterness.

I’ve read enough of Kristin Lavransdatter to know I want to keep reading, even if she does have all those sons. This novel has surprised me at every turn, already. But for now, I’m not going to reread the parts about Kristin’s secret pregnancy and agonizing birth story. I’m going to go forward and see what happens next.

Photo © Daniel Hentz

Hannah Piecuch is a staff science writer at Oceanus magazine and a designer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She holds an MFA in fiction, but has not written a word of fiction since completing it. She enjoys winter ocean swimming, long woods walks with her dogs, and eating oysters in months that contain “r”. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband. 

A fish flicking its tail

Photo by Leman on Unsplash

By Melissa Poulin

If I focus, I can almost feel that strange sensation again: a soft fluttering, like a bird’s wing or a fish tail. I remember laughing and crying at once when it happened, nearly halfway through pregnancy with my oldest, carried to term after a brief and frightening ectopic pregnancy. For weeks I’d been waiting for a sign that all was well with this new, improbable life within me, and for weeks I’d felt nothing– much later than every pregnancy app and website had told me I would. Later, at the ultrasound, we would learn the placenta was positioned between the baby and the front wall of my uterus, muffling any movement I might have felt until she was quite big, her kicks forceful. I felt that same familiar flutter with my second and third babies much earlier, so early I doubted it was real at first.

She didn’t answer but stood as if she were listening to something. Her gaze was remote and strange. Now she felt it again. Deep within her womb it felt as if a fish was flicking its tail… She had waited so long for this– she hardly dared to acknowledge the great fear in her soul.

Kristin has been alone with her secret for so long when she feels her son “quicken,” resentment growing in the corners of her heart that Erlend can’t see what’s so obvious to her. He is too wrapped up in the display of redemptive return he imagines their marriage brings him. Meanwhile, she wraps a thick cloth of shame around her middle to keep the news from her servants just a little while longer.

One of the many paradoxes of pregnancy is the feeling of being more alone than ever through the sudden presence of another being within the walls of your own body. You are both profoundly alone, and undeniably in company. No one else on earth can feel precisely this way. No one else is more responsible for the life of the helpless being you carry, and yet you are entirely without control of the ultimate outcome. Paradox is one way that we, as humans, recognize the holy. Pregnancy can be a sacred space opened up within one’s very body. For Kristin, the weight of her sin weighs so heavily on this sacred space, it threatens to cave in on her.

Reading “The Fruit of Sin,” I am most struck by the intense imagery that symbolizes Kristin’s deception and its consequences. Behind every shiny surface, from the procession to the estate, lies a rotting interior. It’s an interesting parallel to her experience of pregnancy– an external state at odds with the internal. Her pregnancy becomes a metaphor for the gestation of truth within as she makes the slow and painful journey toward reconciliation. Before she makes her physical pilgrimage to St. Olav’s shrine, she makes an internal pilgrimage as she approaches birth, unwinding the lies that have blinded her and bound her to her fate.

He suddenly understood with certainty– but he had realized it from the moment he first saw the tiny red infant face pressed against Kristin’s white shoulder: it would never be the same between them, the way it had been before, Erlend laments near the end of the chapter. For him, the transformation is at the surface: the child is the cause of the end of one part of their story together, and the beginning of a new one. As is often the case for mothers and fathers, the father marks the transformation at birth, while the mother had crossed the threshold to motherhood much earlier.

For Kristin, things haven’t been the same between them for a long time. When she began hiding the truth from Erlend and her family, an internal deception began, further entangling her in sin. Several times in this section, Kristin tries to put her finger on the moment everything began to change. Over and over, she returns to the moment she chose to betray her betrothed, her family, her faith, and herself.

Long before the outside world could see the change, the internal world of the soul felt a shift, like a fish flicking its tail.


Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.

Sunbeam, Moonbeam

monk

“A man who is a member of a religious order and lives in a monastery”

As in: a holy man

who hallows mountain streams

heals sick infants

possibly a saint.

No one said anything about gloves—

old leather gloves, once fine, now worn.

He said he would hang a glove

on a sunbeam for me.

No one said anything about his sly smile,

his jokes in Latin. This renegade brother,

this painter of dragons, this tall-stooped

gray liar who almost killed a man.

As in: the man who was a clasp across my life

between the dwarf maiden and the cathedral

between the wreath and the wife

between me and the vat.

This monk was never happy in a monastery.

He loved the Road even more than

Sister Poverty and Sister Charity. When I

walked the Road, he was at my side: invisible.

As in: a miracle-maker, standing there

in honey-gold midnight light,

laughing, he hung

a glove on a moonbeam for me

He somehow died without a hand, so I

gave silver to fashion him a new one.

But you, my merry monk,

you must find your own glove.

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. More writing links at her website and at Poetry for Life.