How do you tell the story of a life paused, a life frozen as if in amber? What is there to say about stillness, about being the fixed point to which another can always return?
Solveig doesn’t try, doesn’t bother telling her own story even as the first strands of gray appear in her hair and children start running about the village who can’t remember a time before she was this wife without a husband, devoted as a nun to her absent god. To explain this life she has chosen would cheapen it, turn it to something it is not, round off its sharp edges and make her into a woman from a poem.
It’s an old tale, after all - the man having adventures, the man living a picaresque, boots dirtied with soil from the other side of the world. And the woman at home, patient, devoted, waiting. Waiting. Thread between her fingers, as the spinning wheel turns, the only thing moving in the closed-in walls of her home, which always is his, his first, his always.
No. There is no story here.
The wheel turns. Under her fingers, the wood is smooth where she has rubbed it a hundred, a thousand times, soft indentations inviting a caress, inviting as water.
Her mind splits, darts off, runs across the hills and valleys, up the high mountain and then plunging deep into the earth. A great hall, fine and glorious, filled with creatures unlike those who live in the daylight air. She hears the din, trollish voices disputing, a game of riddles for which the price may be death. She sees her; the beautiful woman with her sharp features, her gown which is like moss, living, seeming to shift and move across her skin. She sees the woman’s belly rounded with child, and feels the unexpected father’s mingled pride and regret, the taste of his feelings sour and heady, like being a girl given a sip of the adult’s strong-brewed beer.
She feels the child, suddenly, within the Greenclad woman’s womb, the sharpness of its kicks, its shifting with her. One breath, another. She sees the woman cradling the child, crooning to it lullabies of the caves and mountains, lullabies of the strange people to which she belongs. Solveig reaches to her; this is my child too, she thinks. In her mind, she whispers to the woman the songs and rhymes on which she grew, rough and messy with humanity. Warmth bubbles in her belly.
Helga’s at the door. Wisps of her light hair show beneath her kerchief; since her second child her dressing has gotten hastier, her expression ever more harried. Solveig can imagine the little boy tugging at Helga’s skirt as she combs her hair, demanding her care as Solveig can remember the two of them doing as children. It makes her want to be the big sister again, to sit Helga down before the fire and unbind the kerchief, comb out her hair until it lies smooth and flat.
Her sister has come, as she does each third day, to bring her provisions and gather up the skeins of wool Solveig has finished. They sit already in their basket, waiting for their journey to the market stall in town. Helga unloads the food she has brought - a loaf of dark bread; sharp cheese wrapped in leaves; a small piece of venison which Solveig imagines she may stretch into a stew.
Solveig knows that Helga won’t have time to have her hair brushed before the fire, not in a light which is so bright and busy to Solveig’s quiet one (one which some might say - which Helga did say, years ago, in her first early, righteous indignation at Solveig’s choice - is not a life at all, but merely the shell of one, a hollow form, the motions of eating, drink, sleeping, work, without the human rhythms which should animate it). So she doesn’t offer. But she asks her sister, “How are you? How is Einar? How are the children?” She listens to the answers, with as much of her mind as she can spare. She kisses Helga’s cheek, marveling at the feel of her skin, after so many hours feeling only the wood of spinning wheel.
When Helga is gone, she breathes into her familiar solitude, as much of a relief as her exhale. It has been a long time that she’s lived alone in the small house by the mountain, and conversation isn’t easy anymore. She remembers what she was once like - a bossy child who tried to direct all the others in their games, a maiden who felt a smell of pleasure in her chest when the young men tried to flirt - but it is as though she remembers through a veil. This is her life now.
She gathers her skirt in her hands and presses her foot upon the pedal. The wheel spins. The thread taut between her fingers, stretching out into infinity.
In her mind, she dances into the sky, across the clouds, sunlight blinding her. She crosses wide rivers and wider oceans, until beneath her feet there is sand as yellow as summer, and her body pulses with a heat new and enrapturing.
The woman is on her knees, her body barely wrapped in gauze. The name “prophet” lingers on her lips like a prayer, like something said without conscious thought. Solveig feels the delight and discomfort of the man at whose hand the woman clutches, the steady stir of desire. The name, potent, rich-tasting: Anitra. She feels within herself the life this man lives, in this land which is not his own; the life of one exalted, indulged, and feared. How pleasurable and how lonely. It unfolds like fantasy, cloud-hazed, dream-tinged.
The man will never see it, but the woman - Anitra - will bear a child soon; Solveig can feel the quickening of life, its link to the man to whom she will always be as close as breath. She sees the woman with the child, upon her knee, telling it stories in a language Solveig will never know. She reaches to her; this, too, is my child, she thinks. She presses into Anitra’s mind stories of snow and firs and mountains, of brave young men who brandish axes against trolls. Love takes her breath away.
Every Sunday, without fail, she goes to church. As the years go on, the pews fill up with unfamiliar faces, but the priest has known her since her baptism; as he presses a blessing upon her she can see his hands speckled with age and his eyes beginning to cloud. Though the heat of the bodies around her overwhelms Solveig on these weekly outings, the collective murmur of the congregation’s whispers almost deafening, she feels trust in her priest as she cannot trust even Helga. There is an understanding between them which does not demand words. They respect each other’s piety, their choice of a life outside of the cycle of union and birth and death.
Which is not to say that even he supported her decision, back when Solveig was a red-cheeked maiden intent on a giving herself to a feckless, absent man, for whom all the town held contempt. Those days are sharp and painful in Solveig’s mind; her father shouting himself hoarse, tears held barely contained behind his harshness, Helga’s wide, uncomprehending eyes, and the priest’s wary admonition that there can be excess even in wifely devotion. Back then, Solveig tried to name for all of them the feelings for which she did not have words.
“This is the life I’ve chosen,” she told her father.
“I love him,” she told Helga.
“What I want to do is sacred,” she told the priest.
She saw him swallow and she realized that, though this man was adept at providing consolation and guidance for all the normal problems of village life, this must be new to him. “My girl,” he told her, “take care you don’t blaspheme. Peer Gynt is only a man. You cannot offer your soul to him as you must offer it to god.”
She knew that he, just like all the others, could not understand. They had not felt Peer’s spark of energy, the wild madness which brought him close to things not of this world, close to things which could only be called divine. They did not understand what it felt like to have destiny hook itself beneath your ribs and pull. They could not imagine the closeness between them which required no words or oaths, but which promised her the liberty of flying in the teeth of the wind, of going wherever he went, of sharing in his odyssey.
(They forgot, as everyone forgets, how free the waiting woman is. They didn’t realize the joys of having a husband who lives in the imagination, endlessly young, endlessly beautiful, never belching at your stew or dirtying your clean floors.)
But she is so stubborn, the force of her will so strong, that it doesn’t matter that they do not understand. She will always remember the awfulness and the ecstasy of that day, turning her head away from Helga’s cries, tears freezing on her cheeks, her woolen stockings sodden with snow as she walked, one step and then another, towards the sure heat of his presence on the mountain.
Peer kissed her then, for the first and only time in her long waiting, a kiss whose memory sustained Solveig across decades. She felt giddy with the sharp, thin air, and the passion, for the first time, of being beyond herself, being at the furthest limits of her expectation. She felt that she would have been happy if they had lain down together in the snow and never risen. This and only this, she promised herself. She would accept no pale imitation of a marriage, no other kind of life.
In the present, the last hymn finished, and she rose from her knees with all those who were once her neighbors and who now treated her with wary, gentle respect, as she imagined they might treat an aged hermit or a holy woman. She bent her head for the priest’s blessing.
Solveig draws the wool between her fingers and holds it there.
She can feel him; far and close at once. Madcap still, impulsive and daring. But she is not a girl anymore, not a red-cheeked maiden to blush at his flirtations and admire the curls across his forehead. She is a woman. And she knows how the stories always end.
She pulls the thread, and croons into the wind, “Come home, my boy. It’s time to come home.”
The wind changes. The sound of buttons rattling, bone and wooden and mother-of-pearl all clatter. She smiles.