The Solheims had been good people. Still were, Kristoff was sure. It was Mrs Inga Solheim who had nursed his mother through her last illness, who had said to Kristoff, after - Well, get your things together. Don’t you want to see what it’s like out West? And he had - not that he had anything else to do or anywhere else to go - so he’d pulled together the few things that he was sure were his and joined them in the back of their covered wagon. They’d inched their way across the country, along with the other two wagons of Solheims (all three were brothers, and each had a wife, and between them six children when they set out and seven when they arrived, not counting Kristoff), and he’d been quiet and anxious, desperate to prove he could be useful, that he was worth taking all that way. He’d worked hard for them and learnt a lot, and until the day he died he’d be overwhelmingly grateful for the chance they’d given him.
And now, for something else.
There was an interesting item in the newspaper last week, Mrs Solheim had written. An article about how there aren’t enough women out West. Good men with good farms who can’t find a wife. And some have apparently been placing advertisements in the newspaper to find one! What an idea! But it seems some have been successful. You should try it, Kristoff! I’m sure you must be lonely.
What an idea, indeed. He’d rolled his eyes and ignored it, but she’d mentioned it again, and again, and eventually he’d done it just so she’d stop. He’d never in a million years thought he’d actually get an applicant. He hadn’t thought he’d wanted one.
Anna was weeding the vegetable garden. The plants were all full-grown now, tall and green, and she was kneeling - she never had much regard for her skirts - between them as she worked.
With her help, he’d been able to repair the fields after the storm, and lost far less than he’d feared. With her help, the chickens were happy and gave plenty of eggs; the cow was happy and gave plenty of milk (and the goat was happy, too, though his high spirits were not usually a cause for celebration). With her help, the garden had flourished, and was producing enough that she and Elsa had already spent a day with Marta Ogg preserving and canning and would have plenty more to put up before the season was over.
Anna suddenly jumped back onto her heels with an “Ouch!” and Kristoff hurried over.
“Are you alright?”
“Oh - yes - thank you -” she peered at her finger. “A little bit of something just ran under my fingernail. But it’s not bleeding so I guess it didn’t go too far. Is it nearly dinner?”
“I’ve been out in the fields, you tell me.”
“Elsa’s cooking. I keep thinking I smell something but I can’t work out what.” She waved her hands at him until he backed up, then shuffled along on her knees to the next section of the vegetable bed. “I like it when she cooks. She’s a much better cook than I am.”
Kristoff opened his mouth and then closed it again, choosing to kneel next to her rather than speak. Anna laughed. “Thank you.”
“I don’t mean - the two of you have different talents.”
“You complement each other.”
“Well, maybe that’s true.”
“She wouldn’t have much to cook without you here, doing this.”
Anna sat back and hugged her knees. “Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m here,” she said. “Sometimes everything before seems like a dream.”
She looked at him, and no matter how muddy her skirts or how much of the dirt had found its way to her face, her eyes were always that same perfect clear blue.
“And I’m glad,” she said. “I’m glad I’m not there any more.”
“Glad to be out of the city? Away from - people that were unkind?”
“No, you don’t understand. Before…” Anna sighed. “I didn’t do anything. I mean. I called on people, and I went out and danced and talked to more people, and I embroidered and I looked pretty and none of it had any point . Nothing I did made anyone’s life better, or easier. I was just - passing the time. My whole life. Looking pretty and passing time.”
Anna sighed again, then reached over and plucked another weed from the soil.
“There you go,” she said. “I pulled up one weed, and I’ve already been more useful than I would have been in a whole week back in the city.”
“You like to be useful.”
“I don’t like to be use less . Or pointless.”
They both sat there, among the green plants, beneath the endless sky. Kristoff could feel it, building, and he was leaning in towards her ever so slightly when Anna said abruptly, “I want to mean something,” and turned her eyes to his again, blue as the ocean and clear as the running stream.
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 leant towards her again, just as Elsa called them to the house for dinner.
The narrow bed in the tiny room was familiar enough now. It almost felt cosy. Before coming here Anna had had her own bedroom for years, but it had never been quiet - there was always noise on the streets outside, or people passing in the corridors. Out here, being alone would have been deathly silent without the sound of Elsa’s breathing.
It wasn’t silent outside tonight, though. She could hear someone singing.
Or rather, not ‘someone’. It was a man’s voice, and there was only one man within miles, so it must be Kristoff singing. Anna couldn’t make out any words. She’d heard him whistling before, around the farm, but never singing.
She wriggled out of the bed. Elsa stirred and opened her eyes.
“I just need to, um,” Anna said, knowing that Elsa would assume she was going to the outhouse; sure enough, her sister gave a little nod and closed her eyes again.
The summer air was warm and Anna barely regretted not picking up a shawl. As she pushed the barn door open she felt a brief pang, remembering another night that she’d come out to the barn in her nightdress - but that quickly disappeared, replaced by the sight in front of her. Kristoff was sitting against the far wall, with his straw hat upside down in his lap, and the hat was full of kittens; and he was singing to them in the warm glow of a lantern.
Anna stood there for one long, breathless moment. She didn’t know the song. She didn’t even know what language it was in, although she could guess that it was Norwegian. It was a soft song; a lullaby. The kittens seemed to be appreciating it, cuddling up together in the hat, and for a second Anna thought she was going to cry. Then Kristoff finished his verse, looked up and saw her.
“Anna,” he said, and cleared his throat, sitting up straighter to a chorus of irritated meows.
“I heard you singing,” she said, walking all the way into the barn and closing the door behind her.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you -”
“You didn’t. What song is that?” she said, sitting down next to him and tucking her feet beneath her.
Kristoff looked at his hands for a moment. “My mother used to sing it,” he said.
“When you were little?”
He smiled. “Yes.” He hesitated again, then said “I don’t want to forget it.”
Sometimes Anna got so caught up in the everyday that she forgot all kinds of things. Like, for example, the fact that they were both orphans. She knew Kristoff’s childhood had been very different to her own. If she tried, Anna could remember her mother tucking her into bed with a soft lullaby, but she could more often remember a nursemaid putting her to bed and blowing out the candle. A goodnight from her mother was usually a brief kiss; a goodnight from her father was a nod. And every day it grew fainter and her memories rearranged themselves to match the handful of photographs in the bottom of her and Elsa’s trunk.
It was better to think about the present and the future than the past. She knew that. And her mind obligingly presented her with an image - Kristoff singing that lullaby to a baby. Or maybe to an older child, as he tucked the blankets around them, and then he’d look at his wife and smile -
Anna turned her face away - she knew she was blushing. Now she remembered long ago asking a nursemaid where babies came from, and being given a confusing story about storks and cabbage patches and parcels sent directly from Heaven by God Himself. Now she was here in the warm soft lantern glow with her husband, and when she looked up he was watching her. He’d nearly kissed her in the vegetable patch earlier, she was sure. Not too far from the cabbages. The thought made her laugh and she swallowed it in a yawn.
“You should go back to bed,” Kristoff said. He’d put his hat down, and the kittens had escaped; one was sitting on his foot.
“I’m not tired,” Anna said, sitting up straighter. “I couldn’t sleep, actually.”
“Really? I thought I was working you hard enough. Obviously not.”
“I’m surprised you can sleep out here at all.”
“I’m used to it.”
“It’s not fair. You work hard too.”
“I’m a man.”
“You’re a person .”
He smiled at her indignance. “Well, if we have a good harvest, maybe I can get some lumber.”
“Mr. Ogg said they’d help!”
“I can manage. I did the rest myself.”
“Mmhmm. Like you darned your own socks. A person can be too self-reliant.”
“What’s wrong with my house?”
“Nothing! Except -” Except we don’t have our own bedroom. No, she would never be bold enough to say that out loud, and now she was blushing again.
If he kisses me now, Anna thought, there’s no one to stop us. Every other person and animal within miles is sleeping. The thought made her heart thump in her chest, and she couldn’t think of anything to say to cover her embarrassment so instead she turned away, pretending she was watching one of the kittens.
She looked up when Kristoff put his hand on her left shoulder. “Anna,” he said, and ran his hand down her arm, stopping at her hand, raising it so that her ring shone in the light of the lantern. There was an ache in her chest when she met his gaze, and everything before this moment felt like a dream. The only thing that was real was right here and now, where all her choices had led her, to the perfect moment -
He kissed her. Anna knelt up, eager, and her slipper fell off and she caught her knee in her nightdress but Kristoff wrapped an arm round her waist and kissed her again. She still stumbled a little, and steadied herself with her arm on the floor; and then it only required Kristoff to make the smallest movement and they were lying on the blanket, side by side.
For a second they blinked at each other, his arm still round her waist, her hand on his shoulder. Then Anna pressed forward again, pulling herself towards him, kissing him with her whole body against his. She half-expected him to draw back, but he didn’t; instead he ran his hand up her back to her shoulders, holding her in place.
She felt giddy. There was no one to stop them and she didn’t want them to. Alright, maybe there was only a rough blanket over a dirt floor and whatever was in that sack Kristoff used as a pillow, maybe this wasn’t exactly how she’d pictured this, but -
But there was someone to stop them, and that was them. Kristoff pulled his lips from hers and rolled onto his back, exhaling deeply. He closed his eyes for a long second, then opened them and held out his arm. Anna hesitated.
“Come here,” he said. “You didn’t - do anything wrong. It’s just…”
Not like this , was what she knew he meant. As her heartbeat slowed back to normal, Anna realised she had a piece of straw poking her through the back of her nightdress, a kitten trying to climb her braid and a draught through a gap in the boards going places she wouldn’t care to mention. Much as she wished right now that her husband was slightly less considerate, he did have a point. She wriggled over to Kristoff and lay down with her head on his shoulder, smiling a little as she felt him pull the pointy straw off her back and throw it away.
He put his arm around her, his hand on her waist. Anna could hear his heart beating, feel his chest rise and fall with his breathing. It was so comfortable.
She opened her eyes when Kristoff said “Hey. Anna. You don’t want to fall asleep out here.”
Maybe she did. “I‘m good.”
He opened his arm to release her. “Go to bed. It’s late.”
“You don’t want me to stay?”
He looked pained. “I want you to go to bed.”
So she left and went inside. But when she got into her bed, it somehow felt at once both too small and too empty.