In Hälsingland, In Hälsingland!
in Hälsingland there is a winter house. Full of feasting, full of trees.
It is a forest inside, a bright hearth for the Harga..
The air is full of the scent of pine boughs, cedar, cinnamon, roasting meat and rich red wine steeped with cinnamon sticks, flowers, powdered mushroom caps, cloves, dried hemp flowers and melting cones of sugar. Over all is the yeasty richness of fat, S-twisted raisin-studded saffron buns. It tickles Dani’s nose, though around her the air is heavy with the scent of beeswax from the tall white wax tapers in her crown of green.
Among the Harga there is no pretense of individual saintliness, all the girls and women are crowned with candles, lit and brilliant for they will be and are the carriers of life in the darkness of winter.
The huge, pale throne is carved beechwood, gleaming like a pearl, the carvings on the sides curved out like ribs, fanning out over the blue and gold cushions. The Harga help Dani up, adjust her crown, fix her flowing white on white gown around her curved belly till she shines. “Ahhhh.” they intone with the excitement of children at Christmas, awaiting a gift--
It is Christmas and she had wanted Babysitter’s Club books and Hot Wheels, she had a little blue Bug and yellow van and a red firetruck that she was pushing vroom, vroom around the tree, her small self laughing and laughing at the rainbow of the tree:
(that was before her sister had started crying. Spoiled it. Unfair. )
Oooooh, cries Dani, their voices echoing a tremolo of sadness, someone on the brink of tears the sound her sister had always made before their mother soothed her greedy thinks Dani in a flash of flinty anger, selfish, selfish, mean, bad girl bad thinking of three chilly marble stones under snow, countries away worlds away lives away and it hurts--
Ooooohhh. Auuuuu. Ooohh. The women coo with her as Dani’s hands instinctively cup her belly, flocking to her like doves in their white robes.
Comfort and joy still cause a little pain, but they breathe her into it, together and Dani can bear it, can smile.
The little girls toddle in with crowns of candles- birthday cake ones for the smallest, they’re not old enough for the big ones the grown women wear. Dani’s eyes light up and she claps.
Instinctively she reaches over to grasp Maia’s hand in hers. Pretty, she thinks pretty! Maia’s sapphire eyes sparkle too and Dani wants, remembers:
Dani walking down the aisle of a huge stone church –one that seemed huge—all small legs and tiny tinsel halo. Wave, her mother had whispered in the vestibule, wave so Dani did, gripping the hand of the little angel next to her. Perhaps she had red hair in small curls, they skipped together, glory to the newborn king. The Christmas candles were bright. Dani stepped outside later, yawning, the glittering snow looked like the stars had fallen onto the ground.
Her hand is entwined with Maia’s, both of them sitting on the beech throne, smiling.They both kick their feet, like children beside a pool. Wheee!
Dani tonight, walking nude down the barren fields tossing handfuls of ash onto the snow from the china dish that Maia holds,Fighting the cold of winter with the warmth of summer. Blackened bone and snow swirl together in the light from the lantern her acolyte holds and she doesn’t even think of Brooklyn, there’s just a brief memory of greasy large slices of pizza, fizzy pop, skunky resin, gone and then there is only the cool air of Halsingland. Her acolytes shiver with her, wrap her in a fur when she’s done.
Then she is enthroned, candles sparking and sizzling and she doesn’t even notice the drops of wax on her neck. She’s waiting in excitement. Someone gives her a ceramic bowl-rice pudding, thick with cream, butter and raisins. Dani nestles it against her full breasts and it fits perfectly. Next to her, Maja curls, wriggling her bare feet with red-painted toes, holding a tray of saffron buns. They both look at each other and smile, warmly. Dani thinks in a sweet haze that she’s so happy that they’ll be sisters or brothers together. She thinks of her and Maja and all the women teaching the children to toddle with the spring lambs, their little tender steps, she thinks of the spring feasts, the summer rites, how she’ll slip their children barley sugar so they will be peaceful, thinks of them nodding in the grass near the edge of the fire temple when it is lit, the last song of the elders lulling them into an infant’s sweet sleep unbroken by a hammer blow. The first and the last and the first again.
But there are gifts to come. The thrum in happiness, anticipation as the door bursts open.
Dani half knows, holds her breath, she believes, believes!
In come the men in red caps, grey pants, some of them carrying straw goats, dancing with joy and then in comes the one they’ve all been waiting for. In a huge frame of greenery and a crown of holly, not a human, but a force of nature. Dani’s heart rushes as she recognizes, is delighted as the green man- creature comes to her. He scoops up the rice pudding, lifts it to the underside of the leafy mask that covers his face and eats, hungrily, slurping rice and cinnamon. She catches a tiny flash of red underneath, but she recognizes the shape of a hand though it’s covered in a green glove. He’s the Winter King and Dani claps in delight because magic is real and it’s rushing through her, as fast as the glogg infused with the small, potent mushrooms.
Around her, the stars are breathing.
The gift is accepted. He takes a saffron bun from Maja, tenderly pats her on the stomach, blessing her in joy. Maja’s smile is as bright as the fallen snow and Dani smiles at her happiness. He likes the treat, he likes it—and the other men bring out the sacks of gifts, carved wooden dolls, painted toy dishes and spoons, pots of paints for Reuben who huffles joyfully, goes to his corner to paint, leaving happy smears of gold paint on the walls, the floor, himself and the paper. The Harga hum with joy at each treat, pausing to make sweet burbling noises of joy. As the children squeal happily, the Harga squeal too.
The Winter King leans down to kiss Dani. He tastes of red wine, green sap and sugary pudding and Dani would know him anywhere:
on the ninth day of the festival, the Harga strewed the fire temple ruins and ashes with flowers. Taking the May Queen by the hand, they laid her over blossoms and bone, a Queen. A bride. Her attendants slipped off her robe, till she lay in cinders and petals, nude but for her flower crown.
In Hälsingland there is no shame.
In Hälsingland beautiful things are done in the midsummer sun.
In the back of her head she heard, da da da dum da da da daum -ohhhhh.
His body was pale as milk, his eyes were blue as the sky. Drottingmoter, mest strålande drottingmoter he whispered, and the May Queen welcomed her king. With every motion, everything was farther away till it was only Pelle and the sunlight entering her body, only the rise and fall of her breath, with each thrust, the glory of the Sun inside her and the song of her family singing, gasping in joy as she did, till nothing mattered anymore but her legs wrapped around him, the elemental chaos and glory within her, life out of death, life, ah, life, life--
and that’s how she is here, her child flickering inside her like a butterfly in a glass jar. Idly Dani wonders which of the elders’ name he or she will have, but it doesn’t matter, just that the gods have given them a treasure that Dani is grateful to hold inside her, till they bring it to the light.
Come and see.
Dani could only see the past, but now she sees the future; Siv stern yet kind in vinyl gloves, with warm water and tinctures ready to catch the new, small Harga prince or princess, the women and men moaning in sympathy at each lightning strike of pain, each bit of blood but there’s joy that comes after it. Dani, with a small golden-haired child resting at her breast, then another -small glittering glasses of Aquavit that they’ll all down when the child takes their name held close by all their mothers, all their fathers, dancing in the field at the next Midsomamar, sunlit year after sunlit year like a book of golden pages and then the edge of the cliff, looking, watching her grandchildren wave goodbye as they suck on their barley sugar and then the drop and a noise like thunder--
they will hold her till she dies, grow warm and entwined with her, symbiotes, spiralling like the genetic material that binds them, spiralling and entwined like the Winter King and May Queen. All one.
A tear runs down Dani’s cheek, but it dissipates on the warmth of her skin. There is no need for them anymore, not now. From when her gates open, till the fall of the mallet, they love her, they love her, they love her and she is held-
Pelle holds a glass of glogg to his Queen’s lips and as Dani drinks, it eases. Slowly the Harga begin to sing, hand to hand, heart to heart, a song that they always know, always are.
In Dani’s heart, the stars are falling.
With each note, each swallow, something falls away. Sip, no more of school, there goes the memory of her father, swirling away, her mother, vanishing, her sister (Dani is not angry anymore. There is no need.There has never been any need.) there goes the last memory until at last all Dani has ever known has been the Harga. There is no before, no after, only now as they kiss, Pelle’s hand over her belly, taste of cardamom and wine and sugar. The lights of the candles fizz and spin in Dani’s eyes till she’s laughing and giddy as Reuben and there is nothing but joy, there is nothing else at all.
A fiddle wails out a mournful, joyous note. In the winter house, The May Queen and Winter King stamp their feet on the wooden floor, sway in their crowns of candles, their armour of green, undying things, spin round the trees decked with candles, pepperkaokor cookies with white icing, garlands of clacking, dry bones, button eyed felt animals, red beads pouring from their needle-slashed throats and the May Queen is laughing in joy, waving like a little girl and they all wave back!
Next year, she will wait to dance after the May Queen and Winter King, but for now she is, just as they are now and always shall be Harga, Harga, Harga.
Outside the snow swirls, the winter house lit from within, warm and glowing, a fire in the heart of the cold. Forever burning, forever singing and you cannot tell one golden head from another, not anymore, not ever, all one deep song.
Gods bless them nine times, every one.