Where’s Kristin’s BFF?

By Callie R. Feyen

It is a late summer night in Maryland, and I am sitting in a screened in porch sipping wine with seven or eight other women – all of us mothers of newly appointed first graders.

It is humid, as it usually is on Maryland August nights. Summer likes to hang on here. We’re all in tank tops and cut-offs. Our hair is haphazardly up and strands that didn’t make it into the knot stick to our necks. There is a sheen on our limbs from the night’s heat; the wind that barely blows rustles swiftly across our bodies – a whisper trying to taunt us, but we cannot be bothered, and so she moves on.          

We are discussing pap smears.

“Girl,” one friend says to another, “you need to take care of your koochie.” She leans towards a platter of grapes, cheese, and crackers after she says it.

 “Truth,” another friend says, raising a glass.

 “Pap smears suck,” my friend says, and pours more wine in her glass. We all raise a glass to that.

The host’s husband steps out onto the porch. “Ladies,” he says, greeting us, and we nod a hello. This is the house he grew up in – a fact I find fascinating and that I turn over every time I’m here. What would it be like to be married – be a parent – in your childhood home? Would memories clash with those that were trying to form, or would they make space for each other?

My husband, Jesse, and I are far away from everything we knew growing up. It has been exhausting and overwhelming at times to find and define ourselves as married people, as parents, as individuals away from our Midwestern roots. Sugarloaf Mountain and the Washington Monument have replaced the Chicago skyline. Crab cakes are the new deep dish pizza. Politics and causes have been traded for Chicago Bears talk, salt water for fresh, Type A personalities for Saturday strolls to the Farmer’s Market for sunflowers and apple cider donuts.

I’m not complaining. Here is where I became a mother. Here is where I learned to run, where I became a graduate student, a writer. Here is where I made friends.

“Lots of bad decisions were made on this porch,” the husband says, and turns to leave.

 “Dear Lord,” his wife says and rolls her eyes.

 We all laugh, and then begin to share our stories of bad decisions – the wildest, and best sorts of stories to tell with friends.


 I admit I was disappointed when Ingebjorg comes on the scene and made a note as such in the margins of the book. (“Ew!” I wrote, and “Oh my goodness this sounds awful,” thus proving my maturity and open-mindedness.) However, her personality stuck with me. Her talkative, boisterous character humored me. She reminded me of Phoebe Winterbottom in Walk Two Moons, and Hassan in An Abundance of Katherines  – characters who knock the heroes around a little bit and show them a bit of the world.

When Ingebjorg loses her mind and runs into the woods, and Kristin follows her, I thought this would the point where the two would forge a friendship where it is dark and twigs crack and snap, and the path is hard to see or there is no path. I think Ingebjorg would’ve made Kristin laugh, and I think Kristen would’ve shown Ingebjorg a thing or two about risk and curiosity.

Instead, Kristin meets Erlend, and anyone can talk to me for 10 seconds and know I love me a love story but it makes me sad that Kristin doesn’t have a friend to test what she understands about the world against what she imagines and desires.


I hadn’t finished hanging my flannel shirts in my half of the closet or thumbtacking my Luke Perry posters to my dorm room wall at Calvin, but I had already been steeped in the Dutch, Christian Reformed culture. When your last name is Lewis, you have no chance of winning Dutch Bingo. Those first days I wasn’t sure if I was more terrified of predestination or if I’d never again hear the el rush by my bedroom window at night. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I’d gone to Timothy Christian once they heard where I was from, my college tuition would’ve been paid in 1995. (I hadn’t even heard of Timothy Christian until I got to Calvin.) If I had another dollar for every time someone asked me if I was PC or PCUSA when they found out I wasn’t Christian Reformed, I would be able to pay off graduate school. (I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know.)

My first English class, the professor gave us a grammar assignment with like 250 exercises to complete. She partnered us up and told us to work together – not in class, but on our own time – to finish them.

I am truly not a nice person. I do not work well with others, and I also never do anything I don’t want to do. So I told the my partner, a 10 foot 8 inch blond dude I’ll call Johannes Vandersmandersma, “How about you do evens and I’ll do odds and we’ll trade?”

“So you’re telling me what you want to do is cheat,” is what JV told me.

How does one get to be 18 years of age and think that circling nouns, verbs, and dangling modifiers in whatever is half of 250 (I’m not good at math) and then trading is cheating? “Johannes,” I wanted to say, “You can vote, smoke, AND get a tattoo. You can eat cereal and ice-cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and this,” and here I imagined fanning out the pages of our very large textbook, “is not cheating.”

Then I would tell poor JV a detailed story of what cheating actually was.

In the beginning, I was miserable at Calvin. There was something claustrophobic and confining about Christianity that seemed to hover and seep all over the campus. I was lonely. And angry. And homesick.

One day while I was feeling sorry for myself, and totally convinced that I was the only one in this place who had sinned and even better, liked it, and would most likely sin again, my suitemate, Valerie, walked in my room, smiling at me like she’d just been asked to the Prom. She pointed to my radio, and said, “I LOVE this song!”

The song was “Booty Call,” by HUGEL and Fast Eddie, and I knew every single word. So did Valerie.

That song ended and another one came on, and Valerie was equally as jubilant. I told her this was my summer ’94 mix tape. I dubbed them off B96, my favorite Chicago radio station.

“I LOVE B96,” Valerie said and went on to say that sometimes she could pick up the station if they were on the right road and held the radio dial just right.

 “Where are you from?” I asked, and I suspect I asked it in a similar tone as Mary spoke to Gabriel when he busted in on her and changed her life forever. There are just so many ways to say, ‘WTF?”

“Walnut, Illinois,” she said, dancing against the threshold of the bathroom door like it wasn’t actually a door.

It would be Digital Underground, Salt-n-Pepa, and all the 90s hip-hoppers that would commence and solidify our friendship.

We hunted for places to go dancing that we didn’t have to wear a cowboy hat to, but we also spent copious amounts of time in coffee shops, where, yes we talked about boys and wine coolers but also faith, theology, and philosophy. I learned Valerie had a deep love for hymns, as I did, and a deep disdain for what we’d call, “Jesus is my boyfriend” music. We discussed the lyrics to and the back story to “Peace Like A River,” with as much passion as we did Salt ‘n Pepa’s, “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

Our childhoods could not be more different: her father was a farmer; my dad worked at the hospital at Northwestern University. I learned the first thing you did when you came home was lock the door. Valerie wasn’t sure her home had a lock. Valerie was the valedictorian of her high school. I had a solid 2.5 GPA. She is rational and cool. I am irrational and hot-headed. We spent four school years and one summer together, talking, laughing, crying (I cried), shopping, studying, becoming adults. I was fortunate to have a handful of fabulous friends in college, but it was because of my friendship with Valerie that I chose to stay at Calvin. She showed me that my faith wasn’t trying to suffocate me – I was just learning how to breathe.

I admire Kristin because she questions what she observes, and feels. I admire her because she acts. She pursues Erlend, she stands up to Simon, she questions her father. I just wish she didn’t have to go through it all by herself. I wish she had a friend along the way.


Eight years later, I am blooming – again –  in a town where hazy IPAs and maize and blue reign; where the sky never seems to fully darken in the summer, where my first grader is now 15. I have been lucky enough to find another sisterhood of friends who are just as rowdy and vulnerable as my girls were in the land where Old Bay Seasoning wafts through the air like the Cherry Blossoms that can hang on no longer and so they fly.

Tonight, I’m sitting with them outside at a local pub. We have all embraced the winter outdoor gathering in times of COVID, and eagerly wrap ourselves in 400 layers and sit by a fire pit that will leave our clothes smelling like smoke for days if it means we can hang out. (I actually like the smell. It reminds me I’ve been somewhere.)

 One of my friends says to me, “You’re reading Kristin Lavransdatter?” and she says it in that breathless way that tells me she’s had an enduring affair with this story. I tell her yes, but I don’t reciprocate her tone. It isn’t that I don’t like the story. It’s been well over day 30 of this year-long experiment, and reading Kristin for the first hour of my day is what’s getting me up in the morning.

 I read her with trepidation, though. I am cautious of a female who is forever searching; who will always live questions, who is suspicious of contentment. Reading her feels too close to home. I want Kristin to be OK.

 My friend clasps her hands to her chest and tells us a poignant birth story about her daughter’s birth, and what her mother said to her at a particularly trying time during labor and delivery: “’Be like Kristin,’ my mother said. ‘BE. LIKE. KRISTIN.’”

There is a collective pause from all of us, in part because most of the group doesn’t now who Kristin is, but from the way she says it, we all want to know about the woman who a mother would call on while her daughter is giving birth.

 “Yeah,” I say, and smile bigger now, grateful for the shared knowing my friend and I have for a story we’re bonded to.

But I also look around the table at my friends, and I think of my girlfriends in Maryland, and of Valerie too, and I’m grateful that I don’t have to be like Kristin.

Not exactly, anyway.

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.

Erlend is a Fuckboy

By C.K. Dawson

I wish I could call Kristin up and have a little heart to heart. It wouldn’t be the first or even hundredth time I’ve heard a similar story from friend, about a man love-bombing her from the get-go, detailing a series of intense highs when they talk or meet, and then the confusion and drama that ensues. Erlend feels inexpressively modern to me: asserting his love for Kristin, but in the same breath endangering her livelihood by the standards of the day, seeking her as possession rather than seeking her good. His promises and reassurances sound eerily similar to the wishful thinking of the myriad of boys I dated in the decade before my marriage: saying a lot of lovely things that they themselves wanted to believe, but to which they already suspected they could not live up. Erlend pulls Kristin into the mess of his affairs, puts her on a pedestal, calling her his “only joy” while expressing disgust and annoyance for his previous mistress and the mother of his children. Any girl on a dating app in the modern age could enumerate to Kristin the myriad of red flags Erlend waves at her from the beginning.

One such claim he makes to her is that mutual vows make a couple sacramentally married in the eyes of the Church, a claim all the more insidious because it’s true, actually. It’s one of my favorite things about my own Catholic marriage, that this sacrament was not performed by the priest, but by myself and my husband. The priest was merely a witness. Even a witnessing priest is unnecessary depending on extenuating circumstances. Marriage is a covenant a couple makes before God– no more, no less. Yet Brother Edvin is correct when he tells Kristin that Erlend has misled her on this point, not because the theology is not correct, but because Erlend and Kristin herself are not free to make such vows. Erlend’s prior life has bonded him to a host of constraints, expectations, and conditions that preclude him from being able to enter into sacramental marriage, and Kristin is betrothed to someone else.

Worse still, when their attraction is initially consummated, the interlude lacks the sensuality of a passionate affair and rings more of assault: Erlend simply takes what he wants. Kristin’s passivity is considered consent by Erlend, but her ensuing emptiness, depression, and pain are not the hallmarks of a woman owning her sexuality and desire in a repressive era.

Most of the men I dated before marriage, (interestingly it didn’t matter whether they were secular or protestant or Catholic themselves) felt vindicated in insisting on more physical intimacy than with which I was comfortable. My desire was consent enough; my principles just something that needed to be argued away. They failed to see that compromises on that front, reluctantly given, were not victories for my freedom or womanhood, but defeats of my ownership of my body and choices. There is a striking difference between those sexual experiences and those I chose freely and eagerly, even when they did contradict my ideals. Guilt for a sin freely chosen is easily remedied; guilt for a sin you were bullied into can become a tangle that takes ages to unravel. Worse still is when that kind of twisted encounter is with someone who claims to care for you, as Erlend does for Kristin.

Erlend pursues Kristin with a disregard not only for her best interest, but for her own agency. Kristin feels connected to Erlend, she loves him, but her feelings, observations, and decisions in the affair are marked by helplessness. This is not a woman choosing her own pleasure and delight over the expectations and demands of the day, but a woman agonizing over an attraction that holds her captive, and the beliefs she holds dear, beliefs that are arguably central to her identity and peace.

C.K. Dawson is a writer for Verily Magazine with her MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Poetry International, Breakwater Review, Relief Journal, St. Katherine’s Review, and Ruminate Magazine. She lives with her husband and daughter in the hills just outside Los Angeles.

Permission to Learn

    By Callie Feyen        

Tonight at dinner, Hadley tells me she is driving to soccer practice. 

 “Not yet,” I say folding my napkin into fourths, then eighths, then attempting sixteenths but I can’t get the creases sharp so I toss it on my plate. “It’s dark,” I say.

 “But I need night time driving hours,” she replies.

  Hadley has had her learner’s permit for exactly 45 minutes.

 I walk dishes from dinner into the kitchen and she follows. “I think it’s best if the first time we drive together that Dad is with us,” I say, scraping leftover hummus off a plate and into the garbage can.

 “Dad isn’t worried, Mom. He said he wouldn’t get in the car with me if he thought I was going to crash.”

“I’m driving the Ford,” I say, rinsing milk down the drain and placing a glass in the dishwasher.

“Fine,” Hadley says and pivots to leave. The Ford is too big for Hadley. Right now, anyway. She prefers the other car, a sedan.

“You can play music,” I tell her pushing “start” on the dishwasher before clicking it shut with my hip.

When Hadley and I drive together, when it’s just me and her, we blast the music. We sing every song with conviction and as though we are with the band. We listen to everything and anything trying it all on like actors reading a script. I love taking on each part with her, singing the words for things she might not yet understand or maybe she does or maybe she’s beginning to and I am with her, driving through the night and unleashing puzzle pieces we’ve been clutching, and snapping them gently into place.

This is why I want to be the one to drive. When Hadley is driving, surely it will be irresponsible and also dangerous to sing these songs this loud – or at all – to hold them up like Psalms that help us say things we think we can’t say, or think we shouldn’t say, or feel, or think. I don’t want to give that up. 

We get to soccer, and Hadley pulls on her gloves. “So Dad is picking me up, right?” she asks, one hand on the car door handle. “And he’s driving the Mazda, right?”

     “Yes, Hadley,” I say, and I don’t roll my eyes, but my tone suggests that I want to. “You’ll have plenty of time to practice driving,” I say. “I promise.”

 And she doesn’t roll her eyes either, and she doesn’t say, “You gotta let me go, Mom,” or, “Dad trusts me, why don’t you?” This is not a fight we are having. Her learning to drive and my sitting shotgun, and then not being in the car at all, is a matter of when. So too, is the fact that it will be awhile before we sing together again.


“Are you so happy then, my daughter, to be going so far away from me?” 

 I cringe when I read this, from Ragnfrid, Kristin’s mother. She asks it twice on the morning Kristin and her dad are leaving for Jorundgaard. Upon hearing her mother’s question, Kristin is “sad and crestfallen,” but clarifies that she’s not happy because she’s going away from her mother, but she is happy to be going on an adventure with her dad. 

 I don’t ever want to put Hadley or Harper in a situation where they have to put aside their own excitement because they are concerned about how I might feel or react, but I wonder if that’s what I’m doing holding off on letting Hadley drive. 

I watch Hadley walk onto the soccer field under the lights and I wonder how many adventures I’ve kept her and her sister from because I was scared, or selfish. Hadley disappears into a crowd of her teammates, and I move to put the car in reverse, but not before I turn the music back on. “Oops! I Did It Again,” sung by Britney Spears comes on. I turn the volume up and decide to take the long way home.

From the first page of the book, Ragnfrid is described as moody, melancholy, and reclusive. Later, when Kristin’s sister, Ulvild is attacked by a bull, and Ragnfrid calls for a witch to come help heal her, Kristin realizes that, “something about her is not as it should be.” 

I believe Kristin, like so many, sees moodiness, being melancholy, and reclusive as traits that are not only weak, but wrong. Add to that the decision to call on magic instead of good old-fashioned prayer, and it’s easy to see why Kristin, who is dutifully and painfully trying her best to follow the ways her father shows her, comes to the decision that something about her mom is not as it should be.

I detest the word “should,” especially as it pertains to motherhood and women. I hit repeat on Britney’s song and begin to drive faster while Britney tells us that she’s just not that innocent. I don’t think Ragnfrid is innocent, but I think what Kristin is observing is her mother’s refusal to submit. Ragnfrid is the only one in the book (so far) who is willing to admit how she feels and what she wants. When she tells Sira Elrik she believes her heart will break if Ulvhild dies, I do not think she is being hyperbolic, I think this is a desperate attempt to express a pain and a doubt so heavy that the only way to lift it is to cry out whatever she has faith in – a breaking heart.

 The priest is aghast at Ragnfrid’s behavior, and responds telling her that she cannot force her will on God. 

 ‘“God help you, Ragnfrid Ivarsdatter,” said Sira Eirik, shaking his head. “You want nothing more from all your prayer and fasting then to force your will on God. Does it surprise you, then, that it has accomplished so little good?”’

 Days after my Aunt Lucy died of pancreatic cancer at 56, a pastor suggested to my cousin (her daughter) that this was God’s will. I think my cousin had a few choice words for him, though I cannot be sure. I was nine months pregnant and had been told not to be sad about my aunt’s death because it will affect the baby, so I spent my days chanting, “Don’t be sad. Don’t be sad. Don’t be sad,” as if I could save my baby who is now Harper from having to experience anger or sadness or fear. Harper is hot pepper flakes on the tongue. She is a rip current pulling you into deep water. She is champagne bubbles and ocean front sunshine. Harper’s strength is her sensitivity and her willingness to fully feel all of it.

God forbids lamenting? God forbids grieving? God forbids our cries of doubt? Or is that just for David? 

 What’s to be done with mothers who aren’t as the world says they should be but who love just as fiercely, just as wholly, just as palpably as the mothers who allegedly are?

 Later in the book, Kristin falls in love with her childhood buddy, Arne. She realizes this after her family has pawned her off to Simon. To fall in love on one’s own account – this is not the way things go. Kristin must stay true to her family and not to her heart. So Kristin does as honorable a job as she can to fight her feelings for Arne and tell him they have no future.

 She does meet him in the woods one night, though. There are proclamations and kissing and Arne tells Kristin if she knew how much he loved her, she’d ask her dad if she could marry Arne and not Simon. 

  Kristin won’t. “I don’t think I could ever love a man so dearly that I would go against my parents’ will for his sake,” she tells him, and with that, Arne gives Kristin a brooch to remember him by. I cringe at this part, too, and I’m thinking about this scene in the book just at the part in Britney’s song when the boy offers her the jewel from the bottom of the ocean and Britney says, “Awwww, you shouldn’t have.” And then, for perhaps the hundredth time, the refrain: “Ooops! I did it again…I’m not that innocent!”

 Of course I’m not comparing an old classic trilogy whose author won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature to a 1999 Top 40 song, except there are a few lines in the song when Britney confesses she watches her days and dreams away wishing that heroes truly exist. I wonder if the lines she sings about watching her days and wishing for heroes resonate at all with Britney. I wonder if singing them again and again left some kind of imprint; helped her understand and perhaps say something she felt but isn’t sure she can say: that she is loved because she looks and does and acts exactly as she’s supposed to. As soon as messes up, as soon as she grapples with anything publicly, as soon as she shaves her head, everyone will know something about her is not as it should be.

 Maybe it’s easier to play the part of someone who can’t trust their feelings than it is to fully embrace and express them. 

  I pull into the driveway and sit for a minute before I get out of the car and go inside. I look at the passenger seat, where I will soon be, and instinctively turn the music down, hoping for a new melody I’ll learn to sing with Hadley, and praying to God to show her that heroes do exist – they just look and act like women that refuse to be as they should be.

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.

What Kind of Woman

by Kaitlin Barker Davis

I’d venture to guess that most women—at some point if not most points—have felt they were not quite the right kind of woman. That something about the way they thought, felt, wanted, acted or looked didn’t align with a more correct version of womanhood. I know I have. But I also hope most of us eventually see that version for what it is: uninteresting and unrealistic. Too small to hold all of what a woman might be, or want to be.

This, I suspect, is something Kristin will come to learn over the course of her story. In Part One of The Wreath (the first book of the trilogy), she is passing through girlhood on her way to becoming a woman, collecting ideas about womanhood from the 14th-century Norwegian-Catholic world around her—just as every girl in every country in every era has for all of time. As Kristin enters adolescence, she discovers that her medieval Scandinavian society has a clear set of roles for women to fit into. Innocent maidens, happy mothers, devout Catholics. But the women she notices, the ones she lingers on, are those who don’t fit smoothly—or maybe they’re the characters I notice, the ones I find most interesting.

Kristin’s mother, Ragnfrid, is a woman weighed down by the loss of three children, and when her youngest daughter Ulvhid is severely injured in an accident, Ragnfrid is wracked by worry and desperation. The morning after the accident, Ragnfrid quarrels with her brother who she holds responsible, and Kristin learns that her uncle “called his sister a crazy, demented woman and her husband a spineless fool who had never learned to rein in his wife. […]  And for the first time it occurred to Kristin that there was something about her mother that was not as it should be—that she was different than other women” (46).

If I’d read this book a decade ago, I probably would’ve been put off by Ragnfrid’s sorrow, by her sallow face and cold demeanor. More likely I would’ve read past her, the experiences of motherhood and loss invisible to me. But now, Ragnfrid burns off the page. My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage that devastated me. And even though I now have two healthy children, that loss transformed me into a woman who lives closer to the possibility of catastrophe. Closer, I often feel, to the woman who is not quite as she should be. To Ragnfrid when she cries to the village priest, “I have lost so many, I cannot lose her too” (43).

My miscarriage was both my first real experience with loss and the feeling of being crazy. By crazy, I now realize, I mean in part that it made me feel flawed. That I was the wrong kind of woman, one who was sad, yes, but also one who had fumbled her essential role. Who had mis-carried her child. Every morning for months I woke with an immediate and crushing weight on my chest. Almost before I opened my eyes, I’d be crying. My grief was uncontrollable, and it terrified me. Gradually I learned to wear it as part of my skin, absorb it into my version of a woman. 


When the doctors and priests fail to heal her daughter, Ragnfrid sends for Fru Aashild, an old woman outcast by the villages as a witch—and my other favorite character so far. Kristin is of course nervous to meet this witch, but she “sensed rather than thought that she had never seen such a beautiful or noble woman as this old witch whom the gentry of the village refused to have anything to do with (47).” That sensed rather than thought interests me. It suggests that though Kristin’s view of womanhood is influenced by society, her intuition suspects that view may be unreliable. 

If Ragnfrid’s female flaw is her unhappiness (or her heart), then Fru Aashild’s is her knowledge (or her mind): “It could be said that the woman knew more than was good for the health of her soul—and yet one should not forget that ignorant people often spoke of witchcraft as soon as a woman showed herself to be wiser than the councilmen (56).” A woman who feels too much or thinks too much can be dangerous. Better to label her as crazy or a witch than to let her become simply another acceptable version of a woman. A timeless theme in the history of humanity. 

Writing is the other thing that makes me feel crazy at times. More specifically, trying to be a writer and a mother at the same time. I have to strategically and aggressively arrange my day for time to write. In order to land at my desk and sit with my mind, on one of the three mornings a week my daughter is at preschool, I lay the baby gently down for his nap, pull the door softly closed, then dash directly upstairs, ignoring the dirty dishes the pile of laundry the toys all over the floor the dog who wants a walk. Most days the nap lasts 34 minutes. Finding the space to write is crazy-making, but so is not writing. Not writing is even worse, like a part of me has stopped breathing. 

I always read a little before I write to prepare my brain for words, like stretching before a run. Today, serendipitously, it was Kate Baer’s poem “Moon Song” from her collection What Kind of Woman: “You do not have to choose / one or the other: a dream or a dreamer, the / bird or the birder. […] You can be a mother and a poet. […] You can dance on the graves you dug / on Tuesday, pulling out the bones of yourself / you began to miss.” 

Why is a mother-writer the kind of woman I want to be? Is this insanity, trying to be two things that seem so incompatible? I love my children and want to be with them, I love words and want to be alone with them. I wonder: Where does the compulsion to write even come from? What would happen if I ignored it? Who would even notice if I didn’t write? Maybe nobody, but I would miss that version of myself. I would pull her bones back out of the grave. 

It’s good when you don’t dare do something that doesn’t seem right,” Fru Aashild advises Kristin. “But it’s not so good if you think something isn’t right because you don’t dare do it. (52)” These sentences have lodged themselves in my brain. I keep rolling the witch’s words around on my tongue, in my mind, like little pearls of wisdom, trying to see if I understand them. Sometimes it doesn’t feel right, my desire for words, for time away from my children to pull the threads of my life together into stories. Sometimes it feels like madness, like the right kind of woman can only be one thing. A mother or a writer, but not both. Maybe, the witch is telling me, it’s okay to dare.

This is my first reading of the book, so I don’t know what will happen to Kristin as she leaves girlhood behind—what choices she will make, what kind of woman she will become. But I suspect that the witch’s words will echo back to her. It’s not so good if you think something isn’t right because you don’t dare to do it. Will she dare to push against the boundaries, blur the margins of the roles of womanhood? 

Will I?

Kaitlin Barker Davis is a writer, traveler and mother from Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Narratively, The Rumpus, CNF Sunday Short ReadsThe Best Women’s Travel Writing (Vol.12) and elsewhereShe has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University and is at work on her first book, a memoir-in-essays exploring uncharted territory in travel and motherhood. Find her on Instagram at @kaitlinbarkerdavis or online at kaitlinbarkerdavis.com.

Weaving a Wreath of All-Heal

By Melissa Poulin

Her first time away from home, Kristin wanders away from the sleeping caravan of travelers in the mountains. She picks wild valerian blossoms growing on the hillside, fashioning a wreath. The blossoms’ pink color appears more vibrant than at home in Jorungaard, Undset writes of Kristin’s senses, which are alert to the adventure she’s thrown herself into. 

That intensity– the potency and beauty of mountain plants — is something I remember from my early twenties, when I began learning wildflowers. I was living for a summer in a small mountain town in the high Sierra of California, where a neon blue sky sharpened the tops of firs and pines, and wildflowers managed to grow between granite boulders and along shale hillsides. I’d toss an apple and a library field guide into my backpack and wander along rivers, streams, roadsides, bike paths, and trails, criss-crossing mountains and meadows as I searched for flowers. Prairie-fire or castilleja, stonecrop or sedum, mule’s ear or wyethia. There is pleasure in knowing a plant by its names. Blue flax, linum perenne, winking bright blue along the roadsides, became a friendly sight, in a place where I had few friends and owned neither car nor bike. Western peony, paeonia brownii, startled me the first time I tipped its drooping face up to look at me, finding there something like fire.

There’s pleasure in knowing a plant by use, too. With the boy who would become my husband, I picked  all types of artemisia, his favorite genus of plant. Artemisia is a group of powerful, bitter herbs with common names like mugwort, wormwood, and sagebrush. He showed me which ones liked to grow near water, which prefer arid peaks. I learned mugwort tea brings dreams, and burnt sagebrush settles the senses and helps focus prayer. Tarragon is the cultivated variety of this mountain plant, with delicious anise-like leaves well-known for a variety of culinary uses. We grow a stand of it at home now, shaded by Shasta daisies, which share a lineage with artemisia, both members of the asteraceae or daisy family. 

Tarragon, artemisia dracunculus, is known as dragon in Swedish. Maybe because of the way its roots grow in a coil, like a dragon’s tail. All of the artemisia herbs can help to bring on a woman’s cycle, making them a friend to women in Kristin’s time, when a woman would be left to bear sole responsibility for sex she may or may not have wanted, while a man largely went free, his reputation only slightly muddied (if at all). 

Fru Aashild alludes to this double standard, this duplicitous divide between the moral and the immoral, as she skillfully disperses the tension at an ale-fueled gathering in Jorundgaard. Calming the feuding priests, Sira Sigurd and Sira Eirik, she responds to their heated accusations of witchcraft and immorality with a nod to how many villagers would be in need of a potion to restore virginity before marriage: “If I had been able to brew it, we wouldn’t be sitting up there on that little farm. Then I’d be a rich woman with property out in the big villages somewhere– near the town and cloisters and bishops and canons.”

In other words, she wouldn’t be exiled from society for her sin, because she would have become indispensable to a society that is as much guilty of breaking moral laws as she. Secrecy and shame hide this reality, keeping people separated by fear of judgment, that of God and of fellow villagers. Yet the “moral” laws scapegoat her alone. She is physically separated from the villages for her sin, while those claiming morality cluster together, clamoring to appear close to God. It’s an interesting paradox, isn’t it? The priests in this scene are small-minded, greedy, and quick to anger, while Fru Ashild is clear-eyed about human actions and consequences– hers and those around her.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We were in the mountains with Kristin, gathering valerian blossoms. This, to me, is the true beginning of Kristin’s fate. Before the dwarf maiden, before the bull, before Ragnfrid bargains with God in her grief, turning to Fru Aashild to heal Ulvhild. Before Kristin’s betrothal, before she’s accused of seducing Arne and Bentein and causing Arne’s death, Kristin is a child. A seven-year-old drawn to pretty pink flowers, playing at grown-up things like the bridal wreath, a symbol of purity. 

Valerian is a medicinal herb, also known as all-heal. It’s a relaxing calmative that has long been used as a sleep aid. You can go to the supermarket and find it listed in the ingredients on a box of Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime tea. Tamed in this way, it can seem benign, and yet for people in Kristin’s time, herbs brought powerful medicine to bear on otherwise dire situations. Historically, valerian was thought to bring awareness, and in its many medicinal uses, it was an herbal ally able to turn bad situations into good. 

Is this the beginning of Kristin’s awareness? Seven is the age of reason, the time in life when humans are said to be able to make reasoned choices and answer for their consequences. In the mountains, in nature, Kristin instinctively finds a healing plant to take with her on the path ahead. The flowers crown her future with redemption, a promise that however bad her fate may be, in the end she will find healing and goodness.

To me, this a sign of God’s presence, here at the beginning of her journey toward womanhood. Again and again from this point forward, Kristin will face choices that ultimately pit two worlds against one another: the natural/sinful world, and the Christian world. It’s a well-worn dichotomy that many have written better words about. It’s interesting to look, as one writer does, at Kristin’s life as an allegory for the soul of Norway, weaving together its pre-Christian life rhythms and the new, Christian order being born. In this scholarly article, the writer suggests that the Catholic worldview sees the pursuit of God as a conversation, a relationship, where the pre-Christian worldview sees it as transactional. Temptation marks the beginning of Kristin’s struggle to pursue God.

But what about God’s pursuit of her? How is this quiet moment, a child enjoying the flowers that are gifts from her Creator, a moment where the natural world and the Christian world are not at odds? Might Kristin’s story also show us that even when she falls and all seems lost, God is still there, loving her and leading her to freedom from her suffering, by drawing her closer to God?

I wrestle with this perspective that pits God’s creation– the natural world God made for us– against a life lived for God. Historically, women have been maligned in the Christian tradition as temptresses and witches because of their desires, their knowledge, and their abilities. Around this same time, Christianity colluded with capitalism to impose a patriarchal order where God created equality. For women in the Christian faith, part of the journey is the untangling of that historical damage from the good news at its core: the truth of God’s unconditional love through Christ.

For me, there’s something very precarious here in the tapestry Undset weaves around Kristin. Can we rescue something of both worlds– Creation, Catholicism– from this story that is ultimately about the redemption of Kristin’s soul? Will we see that the dichotomy is deceptive, that really Creation is woven into and through the Christian story, and that perhaps the real enemy is the lie of control?

Kristin’s wreath– her purity, her sinless state, like Eve before the fall– is woven from mountain plants that bring healing. Maybe this is a sign for us as readers that God will bring her through what lies ahead of her, back to this place of innocence, healed.

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.

Stained Glass and Sucker Shoots

Photo by Bence Kiss-Dobronyi on Unsplash

By Christy Lee Barnes

My grandfather was a Nazarene pastor, a very charming, very earnest fellow, and quite well-
known within our small denomination. His congregants adored him with a goofy, fervent

In the late ‘70s, he commissioned a new church building for his burgeoning flock. He made a
huge deal out of the process, referring to the new plot as “The Promised Land.” The finished
building, which still stands today, looks a like a spaceship, something out of Midcentury
Tomorrowland. Perched at the top is a boxy, modern take on a steeple, inlaid on each side with
circular stained-glass windows.

The image in the glass is two hands clasping one another, tilted vertically to indicate that one
hand belongs to God and one to man. Behind those two hands is a horizontal bar, making the
hands part of a cross. (It’s only now, in trying to explain this to you, that I realize the humor of
someone trying to improve upon the cross as logo.)

In the carpeted mega-church sanctuary on Sunday mornings—or Sunday evenings, or
Wednesday nights—I’d sit stiffly, trying to keep my theater seat from squeaking, trying to absorb the wisdom of the sermons. I’d daydream about climbing up the catwalks and scaffolds that hung down from the domed ceiling, to sit in that little stained glass steeple chamber and
commune with the hands of God and Man. I know I never actually did it, but I imagined it so
often that if I squint a bit, I can almost convince myself I really was there, curled up in the gold
and ruby light, dangling my legs down into the cavernous space below, closer to God than
anyone else in the whole world.

So I felt deep camaraderie, and maybe a little jealousy, when I read about Brother Edvin
and Kristen up at the top of the cathedral:

“She herself and the monk stood in the midst of the glory; her hands were red as though
dipped in wine, the monk’s visage seemed all golden, and his dark frock threw the
picture’s colors softly back…’twas like standing far off and looking into the heavenly
kingdom” (29).

It’s such a beautiful passage, but it’s also a good illustration of a pattern which runs all
throughout this first section of The Wreath. Brother Edvin is being very kind to Kristen, but at the same time, he’s projecting his own beliefs and hopes onto her. (In this case, literally.)
The whole first third of the The Wreath reads more or less like a list of personalities, beliefs, and traumas that color Kristen’s world. Consider all she navigates as a young girl: the call of the Fairy Queen and the chaos and fear that ensues; her mother’s emotional instability and
unresolved grief; her father’s charisma and perfectionism; the trauma of her little sister’s
accident and convalescence; Aashild Gautesdatter’s seductive, witchy knowledge of herbal
healing, magic, and men. And a bit later on, add to that list the desires of the young men around her, which range from subtle and sweet (Arne) to seedy and violent (Bentien).

Frankly, I’m unsettled by the similarities in our lists, little medieval Kristen and little ‘90s-
evangelical Christy. (I mean, it’s not a one-to-one match….sadly, I didn’t keep company with
any fairies or witches in my youth.)

But I did grow up in the pressure cooker of purity culture, cared for by earnest, pious adults who were, I believe, doing their best for me while also carrying their own heavy emotional burdens. I can understand Kristen, perhaps more than I’d like. And the fact that the book is still in print around 100 years after publication means I’m probably not alone in that understanding.
I wrote the poem below, which was first published in Relief Journal, near the end of my time in
graduate school—so, after I’d read Kristen Lavransdatter for the first time. I don’t think I made a conscious connection between the book and this poem when I was writing it, but looking back at it now, the younger self I describe here could also be Kristen—watching, feeling the weight of pressure and expectation—and quietly sorting through what that means for her.

for my grandfather

I remember you best with your roses
pinky to elbow in the mulch,
slaughtering sucker shoots.

You hated how the brilliant blooms
siphoned life from the bush.
The way they grew from damage,
some deep wound in the root.

You taught me how to spot
their tacky sheen, careen of flimsy stems
drunk, you said, on stolen strength.

You heaped them up
to burn for vanity,
struck that match with god-like alacrity.
But I rescued a few petals
when you could not see me

unsure if I wanted
your quiet, even blooms
or the fire of all that life
and all that blazing color.

Christy Lee Barnes is a poet and educator from Los Angeles who now lives in Seattle with her husband and toddler son. Her publications include Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Cream City Review, The Seattle Times, McSweeney’s, Tin House’s “Broadside Thirty,” and other journals.

Three Good Years: A Poem in Ragnfrid’s Voice

By Megan Willome

Three Good Years

And so we had three good years—
Lavrans, Kristin, little Ulvhild, and I.

Three years when I was happy—
when I could hug my children
without the constant fear of losing them 
like I lost my three sons in the cradle.

Three years when I could sleep with my husband, 
not stay out all night in the old loft, 
weeping, moaning, wringing my hands.

They once said I had the loveliest voice, 
but I can’t remember the last time I sang, 
despite their pleas.

And then came my brother, with that huge black ox.
O God, the blood! All over Lavrans, leaving Ulvhild bloodless.
The beast won, the beast I drew to our home.

Lavrans reached out his arms to me, but I screamed them away.
“Don’t touch me! Jesus, I am a sinful woman!
I have brought misfortune upon us. Again.”

The priest said it would take a miracle.
Brother Edvin said I should pray for a fearless heart.
Fru Aashild made her own fortune. (God’s or the Devil’s, who knows?)

That night she told dirty jokes, I knew who she was talking about, 
even if Lavrans was too drunk to realize.
I knew we had to walk halfway across Norway, carrying our broken child.

In time I had another daughter. I couldn’t even look at her, sent her away.
But I sent her the most lovely gifts and when she slept, 
I would sit with her, sing too softly for anyone to hear.

The only safe place for me is outside in the green dark under the northern lights
where my tears can fall like snowflakes, first fine and soft, then fierce like a blizzard.
Like some goddess who becomes beautiful only when alone and cold.

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.