That all changed when we decided to go for a walk after school to discuss the play. We stayed clear of the woods as we usually did and strolled along the edge of the lake until our path turned upward into rolling hills of rye that waved in the breeze.
It was October and very cold but the sun was strong and heated my skin that wasn’t wrapped in shawls and wool. The sky was as wide as a dome with that surreal blue that contrasted with yellow fields, just like the country’s flag.
“Pippa,” Stäva said, his voice low and his brow knotted. I stopped and looked at him, not used to seeing him look so grave.
He reached out for my hand and grasped it tightly. My mouth opened and a tiny “oh” came out, though I wasn’t really sure what was going on. Were we rehearsing?
“We have to be young lovers,” Stäva continued. I nodded. His eyes were filled with fear and something else I had never seen before. I had never seen lust on a man. It was so very different from the big doe-eyes the girls would give him.
“Yes. For the play,” I told him.
His eyes narrowed slightly but were tempered by a lazy smile. “Yes, for the play.”
“Are you nervous?” I asked. I suddenly was. My eyes dropped from his strange expression and focused on his long fingers curling around my own.
“Very,” he whispered. I still didn’t look up. The dynamic between us, between best friends who shared everything and were as comfortable around each other as worn socks, had changed. I didn’t like to feel nervous because of Stäva and I didn’t want him to be nervous because of me.
“We can act. We are actors,” I said quietly. I took my eyes away from our hands and looked at the yellow grass at my feet.
“We don’t have to,” he said and he took his other hand under my chin and tipped it up so I was forced to meet his eyes. Before I could process what was happening, his lips were on mine. It wasn’t easy – it was both our first kiss. Our teeth knocked against each other and his nose pressed uncomfortably against my cheek.
I wish I could say that the kisses improved after that. They didn’t. But I had figured that was the way things were. I had no frame of reference, after all. Oh, I didn’t mind when Stäva kissed me or touched me but I didn’t feel the way he felt. I didn’t have the girly deer eyes and I didn’t have that lustful look that was always on his face.
Nor did I feel anything the first time we made love. I say made love because I truly did love Stäva with all my heart, but it was a different kind of love. It was more brotherly than anything else. Though sex had been ingrained my head as morally wrong by my father, I broke the rules and decided to bed Stäva in his hayloft one balmy summer night. I hoped by doing so, the way I felt about him would change, that I would awaken some sexual being in my 17-year old soul.
All it ended up doing was awakening my fertility.
I ended up pregnant.
I figured it out after missing my monthly red visit and being sick for days on end. I didn’t tell my parents, knowing how they’d feel about it. I didn’t tell Stäva either. I knew there would be no point.
Children were something that I eventually wanted. But there were so many more things I wanted before then. I wanted to live. I wanted to spread my wings and get out of this small, dead place. I wanted to move to Stockholm and experience the city life. I wanted to take my acting and apply to somewhere that counted; not a tiny school but a theatre with paying patrons and lavish seating. I wanted that life first. Then I would work on what was expected of me. It’s not that I didn’t want to fall in love and start a family. I just wanted the choice of when.
If I told Stäva I was pregnant, he would make me go through with it and I loved him enough to do so. He already talked about us getting married. If I wanted that life, being a farmer’s wife in a small town, maybe doing the occasional play in between pregnancies, then I would have been thrilled. Any girl would be so lucky to have Stäva as a husband and the father of their children. But I wasn’t any girl. Far, far from it.
I got rid of the seed inside me by paying a visit to the local witch. This sounds fantastic, I know, but there is no way to describe her. Some said she was just the local whore, others said she made potions and powders when she practiced witchcraft, others said she was a holistic, natural doctor. All I knew was that she lived alone in a cottage in the high woods, where tall trees climbed upward into rocky outcrops and that no one said her name in public. They just called her “häxa” or The Witch.
There was a single dirt path that led the way, the age-old grooves in the dirt from hundreds of years of horse and donkey-drawn carts. I was frightened to death of going to see her but the prospect of having a child and being tied to the town was even more frightening.
The woman’s name was actually Maria and even though she was intimidating with her wild white hair and rough mannerisms, she was rather nice. She made me up a tonic to put into tea, a combination of local sage, leaves and other herbs. She warned me against the pain and the bleeding but didn’t pass any judgment on me for asking for it. It was like she understood where I was coming from and an expression of pride passed through her tired eyes when I told her my plans for the future. I was glad my secret was safe with her and hers – that she probably was a whore, judging by the man who came knocking on her door while I was there – was safe with me.
The next month was a blur. I passed the seed in the lake on a clear evening. The sun had just gone down enough past midnight that no one would see me if they were looking. I didn’t like the idea of being in the water still, but as soon as the bleeding became nonstop, I felt it was the cleanest choice. I was afraid of what the smell of all that blood would attract from deep inside the woods. I suffered through the pain I deserved.
After that, it was time to go back to school. I had other plans. The abortion ravaged me with guilt daily and the longer I stayed where I was, living with my parents, going to school, going steady with Stäva, the more I felt guilty for what I had done. If I was going to go through such a selfish event, I had better follow through with my reasoning. Otherwise what was the point?
And so I dropped out of school just as we came into the last year and decided to head to Stockholm to pursue my dream. Maybe then the guilt would stop clawing at me.
My decision came as a shock to everyone I knew. Stäva wouldn’t come with me and didn’t understand how I could leave him. Neither did any of my classmates or teachers – to them, we were the perfect couple. My parents were livid. They told me that if I left I would not have a home to come back to when I returned. In other words, they disowned me. I expected as much from my father and didn’t really care what he thought but my mother’s actions surprised me. I suppose she was so hurt that I would leave them that I didn’t deserve to be her daughter. I am still not sure if that’s true or not. On good days I think my mother was wrong to shun me like that. On bad days, I couldn’t really blame her. At least it prepared me for a pattern that would endure for the rest of my life. Looking back, I wonder where my “karma” began to fester. Was it when I had the abortion? Or was it when I selfishly abandoned my only love and family?
I left the place of my childhood with nothing on my back but a small sack full of belongings. I can still tell you what was in there: Two dresses, one fancier than the other. A tube of red lipstick for “acting” purposes. A clip for my hair. My nightgown, corset, stockings and two pairs of bloomers. A copy of Dante’s Inferno in English to help my language skills (I nicked it from the school library). A tiny notebook and pencil. A handful of licorice.
I didn’t have any money and was planning to hitch rides to the big city, but Stäva surprised me and borrowed his father’s car to drive me to nearest train station. It was about an hour away and together we had our last ride together. He didn’t say much to me but I could see how I was breaking his poor heart. It absolutely tore me up inside and I when he hugged me goodbye – slipping a wad of kronas in my pocket for the train and a few nights in a hotel – I broke down in tears. As emotional as I was on the inside, my steely reserve finally collapsed and in his arms.
“I don’t understand you,” he whispered into my ear as I choked back the tears that wouldn’t stop coming. “But I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
And with that ringing in my ears, I got on the train and left my old life behind for good.
In some ways, I did find what I was looking for. When I arrived in Stockholm two days later, dirty and tired, I was immediately enthralled by the big city. There was a pulse here with bright buildings as high as I’ve ever seen them and so many people it was like I was swimming in a sea of them. Speaking of the sea, the water stretched onward dotted by hundreds of tiny islands. This wasn’t a lake but a moving and breathing sea that stretched to faraway lands. It was a gorgeous and bustling metropolis to this country girl and I probably stood on the streets for hours, just gazing at everyone and everything.
Eventually I had to fix myself up, eat and sleep so I found a nearby boarding house by enquiring into local shops. It took a few tries and a lot of my patience until I found one that was willing to take me in. The war was going on and though Sweden was a neutral country, there was a surplus of people from Norway, Denmark and Finland hiding out in Stockholm until the war was over.
The place I ended up finding was a bit run-down but it was for women only, and that made me feel safe. No one was very talkative and they kept to themselves, but the owner helped me with finding a job. I worked as a maid at the house for two weeks, my work for my keep in return, before I found my dream job – or the closest thing to it.
A community theatre had an opening for an “all hands” type woman. They wanted someone with experience in the theatre, particularly in either makeup or wardrobe, and who would also be able to clean-up the theatre after the performances and rehearsals.
As you can imagine, I jumped at that listing. At school, I had done the makeup for the plays as well, and though I didn’t have experience with wardrobe, I knew I had a flair for it regardless. In my mind, I was perfect for the job and I was determined to get it.
The theatre was downtown but near a rather derelict area. I was scared out of my wits going there to meet the manager, just as I had been when I met with Maria in the woods. In my town, I was never leered at by strange men, I never had vagabonds shout rude words at me. Part of me wondered if it was some kind of test that I’d have to go through, to see if I wanted this life badly enough.
By the time I made it to the theatre, I was a pile of nerves. It didn’t look like much from the outside, just a grey stone building with chipped pillars and slippery steps, and I started to think if I had perhaps made a mistake.
But the door flung open and a rush of warm light bathed me from the inside. Before me stood Lisbeth, the theatre manager. She was taller than I and in her late thirties, wearing men’s trousers and a short, curled do. Her lips were smeared with red lipstick that matched my own (later we would simultaneously compliment each other on it) and a smile that lifted my weary heart.
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