It had been two days since the worst storm in living memory descended upon Smeerensburg. It had rolled in late in the afternoon without so much as a warning, carving a swathe of destruction across town throughout the night. The people had awoken from a fitful sleep to find chaos; fences had been ripped up, roof tiles scattered, windows smashed, and walls battered.
Thankfully the town was much better at cooperating now than they had been when Jesper arrived, largely thanks to the efforts of him, Alva, and Klaus, and so pretty much everyone pitched in to help with the cleanup. The former clan leaders were pretty much the only ones unwilling to join in, choosing instead to shut themselves in their respective homes and glare at anyone who came near.
So when Jesper got home that evening he was exhausted. His shoulders ached and his feet were sore from a long day of patching and repairing, working alongside the others. He wanted nothing more than to collapse into his bed and sleep; no doubt tomorrow would be filled with similar work.
But as the old post office came into view, fresh paint and new beams battered by the storm-winds, a sound on the wind gave him pause. It sounded like faint crying, a mix of sniffles and muffled sobs, and the voice behind it was high-pitched and childlike. He glanced around the darkened hillside, trying to see the source, before his gaze settled on a diminutive shape perched on the edge of his own porch.
He would recognise that tall red hat on that tiny frame anywhere. And besides, Márgu had made showing up at his door a frequent habit these days. But a cold spike of worry ran through him as he looked down at her tiny, shivering form: she was definitely crying.
“Hello?” he said awkwardly. She looked up, meeting his gaze, and for a brief moment he could see tears running down her face, big blue eyes red-rimmed and sore from crying.
“Jesper!” she cried out. Suddenly she was running across the snow towards him, arms outstretched. He bent down, catching her mid-sprint and lifting her up to his chest. She grabbed at his uniform and pulled herself against him, burying her face in the dark blue fabric.
She called out his name again, voice cracking, and just broke. Fresh tears started flowing, sobs wracking her tiny frame. He just blinked, not entirely sure how to react but unable to just stand there. Gingerly he reached around with one arm, keeping her supported with the other, and gently rubbed her back with his fingers. He hoped it was reassuring, at least.
“Shhhh,” he soothed. Slowly her sobbing quieted, the shaking subsiding. Finally she was reduced to just a whimper, still clinging on to him for dear life.
“Hey, what happened?” he asked, concerned. She was quiet for a moment, not understanding, before she seemed to realise the intent if not the meaning. She started talking, words spilling out in a jumble of half-choked syllables. He didn’t need to speak her language to tell that she wasn’t speaking clearly, and the scant Sámi words he’d picked up in the past months were no help.
He caught ‘mom’, ‘dad’, and at one point his own name, but that was the limit of his understanding. He just listened to it all, letting her pour out her hurt. Finally she grew quiet again, wiping her face on his uniform, and looked up at him. He felt his heart break at the sorrow in her little face; whatever had happened, it had hurt her deeply.
He knew what he had to do. He looked up at the post office, then back down into town, and sighed. Gently he tried to lower her down, but she clung to his chest and said something else in Sámi. So he just wrapped both arms around her and set off back down the hill, determined to find out who or what had hurt the child.
Thankfully the roads were mostly cleared, the debris picked up and sorted into piles on street corners. But with the town deserted the battered walls and boarded-up windows were an uncomfortable reminder of how the town had once been, and Jesper suppressed a shiver as he carried her on. She was quiet the whole way, save for a couple errant sniffles, until finally he stepped under the old sign and into the schoolyard.
He stepped right up to the door and knocked. The sound of footsteps echoed from beyond, before it swung wide open to reveal Alva already in her nightclothes. Her expression was something between irritation and confusion, but it melted into concern the moment she saw the teary-eyed girl in his arms.
“Come in,” she said quickly, stepping aside to let them in. He stepped over the threshold, nudging the door closed with a foot since his hands were full. She walked further in, and he followed gingerly.
The schoolhouse had been quick to recover, with him, her, Klaus, and half the town’s children pitching in. But still two windows were boarded up, awaiting a glass shipment from the mainland, and a bucket was still sitting on a rag atop one of the desks, half-filled with snowmelt from a leak they’d only patched that afternoon.
But the back room was as warm and welcoming as it had been last time, even if the mood was far less jovial. Alva set up three chairs like before, lighting the lamp in the centre of the table. Jesper went to set Márgu down on the middle chair, but she clung tightly to his coat and shook her head.
“Don’t wanna go down, huh?” he asked softly. She seemed to get the meaning, shaking her head again. “Okay then.” He sat down on his own chair, gently lowering her down onto his lap. Alva plucked the tall hat from the girl’s head, setting it on the table, and perched on the edge of the next chair,
“So,” she raised an eyebrow, “What happened?”
“She was waiting for me, like usual,” he explained quickly, “But she was crying. And now she won’t let go of me. I tried to get her to explain what was wrong…”
“But you can’t understand her,” she finished. She looked down at Márgu; the girl was a wreck. She still had tear-stains running down her face, and her eyes were red and watery. So she tried her best to look reassuring and friendly, and gently asked the girl what was wrong in her native tongue.
Márgu glanced back up at Jesper; he forced a reassuring smile and gestured back to Alva. Márgu swallowed, then slowly and tearfully began to talk. He caught most of the same words as last time, although this time she was speaking slower and more coherently. Alva’s expression twisted from concerned to worried.
“She says her parents were out fishing when the storm hit,” the woman explained. Jesper felt his blood run cold; the conclusion was obvious. Márgu went on, struggling to keep from crying again.
“They found their boat this morning…” Alva translated, hesitating. “Sorry, I don’t know that word.” She was looking down at Márgu. The girl seemed to understand; she stuck one arm out, and slowly turned her hand over.
“Capsized,” Jesper breathed. He shook his head, unable to keep his voice from shaking. “Did they not see the storm coming in?”
“We didn’t,” Alva countered, “Not even Klaus, and he knows how to read the forest.”
“So she’s all alone.” He looked down. “That can’t be right! I’m sure they’re still out there somewhere, trying to get home to her, right…?”
Even as the words left his mouth he could tell nobody in the room believed them. The thought chilled him to the bone; sure his dad could be distant, but they still loved each other. He couldn’t imagine losing the old man, and he was a self-sufficient adult. Márgu was just a child.
She was glancing between both adults, her expression unreadable. Watching her made something else suddenly very clear in his mind. She had sought him out, alone; how long had she been waiting for him? “Do her people even know she’s here?”
Alva translated, leaning down close to the girl. She froze, then turned away, grabbing at Jesper’s uniform again. Her reply was quick and sharp, tinged by the lump in her throat; the only word he understood was his own name. As the words registered Alva’s expression went from concern to surprise.
“What did she say?”
“That she wants to stay with you,” she translated. “I don’t think she’s told anyone she’s even here.”
“So she ran away?” he asked. “But why? And why me?” Márgu pulled herself closer against him, seemingly sensing his confusion, and muttered something else in Sámi. He went on. “We need to get her home; they’re probably all worried sick.”
“Right now?” Alva asked dubiously, gesturing to the window and the darkness beyond.
“First thing tomorrow, then,” he offered. “We should bring Klaus, too.” She nodded. Márgu glanced between them again, her grip on his coat tightening. He looked down, gaze settling again on those big blue eyes. “She can stay with me for tonight.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I am,” he said quickly. Slowly he stood up, wrapping Márgu in his arms to keep her from falling. Alva nodded, picking the girl’s hat up and gently setting it back on her head. She sniffed loudly, but gave the woman a faint smile before turning away.
“Thank you,” he said quietly, looking over at Alva. She nodded in return.
She walked with him back through the classroom and out to the door, regarding him and Márgu with gentle concern. As he stepped back over the threshold and into the night she watched him go, turning things over in her mind. It was clear why the girl had sought him out; he was the first person here to even try and understand her, and ever since they’d shared an understanding that transcended language. Convincing her to go home wasn’t going to be easy.
Jesper kept walking. The trudge back up to the post office was mercifully brief, and soon he was carrying Márgu inside. She still clung tightly to him, shivering slightly, and he couldn’t help the fears bubbling in his stomach as he cradled her.
He had no idea how to take care of a child, even for just one night, and this one couldn’t even talk to him. He didn’t know when she’d last eaten or drank, if she was cold or tired or what. All he knew was that she needed him to be there for her, and so he resolved to do the best he could and not let her see how uncertain he was.
In the past few months he had made a few improvements to the post office, shoring the place up enough to keep the snow out and the warmth in, and now he was more glad of that than ever. He sat down on the end of the creaking bed and kicked his shoes off, finally feeling her grip of his uniform loosen.
He looked down; she had fallen asleep, cradled against his chest. Feeling a swell of protective warmth he slipped out of his coat, put both their hats safely down on the desk, and gently placed the girl down on one side of the bed. She stirred slightly as he moved out of reach, but didn’t wake. So he climbed in beside her, taking the other side of the bed.
“Goodnight,” he said quietly, more to himself than to her, and turned away.
Jesper awoke to a kick to the back. He jumped and rolled over, right off the edge of the bed. He hit the floor with a dull thud, the impact knocking him fully awake. He blinked, not sure what could have kicked him, and scrambled back up to see the bed.
His heart leapt into his throat as he took in the sight, the events of the previous evening jumping to the front of his mind. It was Márgu; she was half-enveloped in the sheets, tiny limbs thrashing wildly about. Her brow was creased, her blonde hair mussed, and tears leaked from screwed-shut eyes. She didn’t seem to be awake, but she was crying out anyway; his heart broke as he realised she was calling out for her parents.
He leapt back onto the bed and pulled her close, gangly arms wrapping around her tiny frame. For a heart-stopping moment she tried to pull away, grabbing and yelling, before finally her arms fell limply to her sides as she realised where she was. Her eyes opened slowly, blue shimmering with fresh tears in the cloud-filtered moonlight.
“I’m here,” he soothed, running one hand through the curls of her hair. Even if she didn’t outright understand, she seemed reassured. She looked around, taking in the room, then looked away as she seemed to realise she’d woken him.
“Ándagassii,” she murmured, still shaking slightly. He didn’t need to understand to recognise an apology.
“It’s alright,” he replied, hoping she’d at least recognise his tone. She muttered something else, but it didn’t sound like further apologies so he took that as a good thing.
He looked outside; it was still the small hours, with the moon high in the sky, and that raised the daunting prospect of getting her back to sleep. She still felt jittery in his arms, and he scrambled to think of what more he could do to calm her down. She spoke again, questioningly, and he tried to give her a reassuring look.
Wait, kids liked music, right? He didn’t really know any lullabies; the maids who’d cared for him back home were hired for cleaning, not singing, but he didn’t have an awful voice and a better idea wasn’t forthcoming. So he started to hum the first song that came into his head. It wasn’t the kind of song that was meant for this; it was written for a grand orchestra to play for thousands of the big city’s upper class, the kind he’d go and watch with dad. But in that moment it was enough, and the awkward tune gently lulled her back to sleep.
He followed, feeling his eyelids grow heavier. Carefully he laid back down, keeping her in a loose embrace should the nightmares return. The song came to a close, the last few notes quietly hummed. He closed his eyes, catching sight of the faintest smile on her sleeping face, and fell back into a deep slumber.
Telling Klaus was not a job Jesper was looking forward to. The man had already suffered more loss than a person ever should, and he’d been closer to the Sámi than anyone else in Smeerensburg. So it was with some trepidation that he carried Márgu down into town, fresh snow crunching underfoot.
He’d pulled on his heavy overcoat for the trip, knowing how cold it could get at the Sámi village. She didn’t have any warmer clothes than the brightly-coloured garb she always wore, but the cold didn’t seem to bother her in it so he tried not to worry.
Alva was waiting at the entrance to the square, with her own heavy coat pulled on and her hair tied neatly back. She was leaning against a wall, but pushed off it and walked over as he approached. She looked at the child in his arms first, the same concerned look from the night before present on her face.
“Bures,” Márgu said quietly. Alva repeated the greeting, before looking up to meet Jesper’s gaze.
“How was she?”
“Fine,” he said quickly, “She was no trouble, really.” She gave him a dubious look, one that immediately told him she didn’t believe him. “Okay, so she might have had a nightmare. But I managed to calm her down and get her back to sleep.”
“Poor thing,” she observed. “You’re ready for today, right?” He nodded, even if he didn’t feel it.
The sound of hooves on the snow made them both turn and look. It was Klaus, riding down into town on the old postal sleigh behind a familiar team of reindeer. A single large sack loomed behind the tattered blue canopy, filled to the brim with fittings and fixings of every shape and size. There were window frames and door handles, banisters and balustrades, hinges and latches and locks of all sizes. Jesper couldn’t imagine how long he must’ve been up making them.
People started crowding around. Several children approached the reindeer with carrots and apples, while others joined in trying to lift down the sack. A plump Ellingboe woman and a spindly Krum man immediately took charge, directing the others to unload and begin distributing the supplies. Klaus looked over at them gratefully and called a thanks, before climbing down off the sleigh.
He was smiling tiredly, but it faded as he took in Jesper and Alva’s expressions. He briskly walked over, concern only growing as he noticed Márgu’s lack of enthusiasm.
“What’s going on?” he said gruffly. “Is everything alright?” Jesper and Alva shared a look, both hoping the other would speak first. Jesper took a deep breath.
“I found her crying outside the post office last night,” he said, lifting Márgu slightly to emphasise his point. “Her parents got caught in the storm, and their boat was found upside-down yesterday. I- we don’t think they made it.”
“I see.” Klaus’ face fell, and he looked away. His hands balled into fists, and his shoulders heaved a heavy sigh. An uncomfortable silence settled; even the unloading seemed to slow as people glanced over, wondering what was wrong.
Jesper felt a tug on his coat and looked down to see Márgu trying to pull him towards the man. She tugged again, unwilling to let go of Jesper but determined to get closer to Klaus. So he reluctantly stepped forwards, bringing Klaus within arm’s reach. She reached out and placed one tiny hand on his massive sleeve, quietly speaking in Sámi.
He turned, gaze glancing over Jesper and down onto the child in his arms. She kept talking, her voice watery and unsure; she was telling him her side of what had happened, Jesper realised. Klaus spoke some Sámi at least, from many years of living here and a Christmas spent working alongside them, and understanding glistened in his dark eyes as she spoke. Finally his fists unclenched and he looked up.
“You sang for her?” he asked softly, trying to hide the sadness in his voice. Jesper jumped; out of everything, he hadn’t expected that. He could feel Alva’s questioning gaze on him as well.
“I wasn’t sure what else to do,” he admitted. Klaus nodded in understanding.
“So, now you’re taking her home?”
“We’re taking her home,” Jesper corrected. Alva stepped up to stand beside him, and Klaus nodded again. He looked back at the sleigh, then down towards the docks.
“Let’s go.” He started walking. The other two shared a glance and fell into step behind, not really sure what to say. It was obvious the loss had hit the old man, but he seemed to be holding it together, if not for his sake then for the girl’s.
The walk down was awkwardly quiet, with Klaus sullen, Jesper and Alva worried, and Márgu still hanging on as if she was afraid he might disappear. It was her silence that worried him most; normally when she wasn’t listening she tended to talk a lot, babbling on in her own language about whatever she thought he might want to hear, and having neither him nor her filling the air just felt wrong somehow.
The trip across the water was no better. Mogens seemed to sense the mood and had the good sense to keep his mouth shut, especially after Alva glared the first time he tried to make a sly comment. So they went on in silence, with only the chugging of the engine and the lapping of the waves for company.
Márgu didn’t take the journey well; every time the ferry rocked she would pull herself close against Jesper, whimpering and shivering for fear the old boat was going over. It was an uncomfortable reminder of what had happened and how badly it had affected her, and he felt his heart break every time a wave hit and she buried her face in his coat again. He found himself wondering if that was what last night’s nightmare had been about.
He did his best to soothe and reassure her, rubbing small circles into her back, but to no avail. So he took a deep breath and did the only thing he could think to do. He started to hum again, choosing the same tune as the night before. Slowly he felt her grip loosen, and she leaned back from his chest to look up, the trembling in her limbs reduced.
Slowly and uncertainly he heard a small voice join in, echoing his own. She didn’t know the melody well, but she did her best to keep up, and it seemed to be keeping her distracted from the rocking of the boat. After a moment another voice joined the chorus, a deep, rumbling bass that sent shivers down his spine. He looked up to see Klaus walking over, head swaying gently in time with the old song.
As the man sat down beside him Jesper looked over; Alva was looking at them encouragingly, and nodded firmly when she noticed his gaze; Mogens glanced back briefly, then muttered something under his breath and turned back to watching the seas ahead.
The ferry came to a stop with a gentle bump. Márgu didn’t even notice, too caught up in the song. Jesper drew it to a close, gently embracing her. She gave him the smallest of watery smiles and released her grip to throw her arms as far around his waist as they’d go. Quietly she spoke again in Sámi, and even he recognised the thankfulness in her tone.
He stood up, scooping her up in his arms again. Klaus got up behind him, placing one huge hand upon his friend’s shoulder.
“You should take up singing,” he observed.
“Who, me?” Jesper shook his head. “I don’t sing.” He looked down at the girl in his arms. “Anyway; we’re here. Let’s get you home.”
He headed down onto the ice, leading the other two away from the ferry and towards the village. It didn’t look in great shape; as they approached it became clear many of the tents were newly patched, and a small pile of smashed boats and sleighs lay off to one side. Only a couple of people were out, going about their business in the morning sun.
As soon as they caught sight of the approaching group, one of the locals came running over; another hurried into one of the tents.
“Márgu!” the approaching man exclaimed. She shied away, clutching tightly to Jesper again as the man reached them. He paused, looking Jesper up and down, and then asked something in Sámi. Alva took the initiative and answered; by now Jesper could recognise enough to know she was giving a quick explanation of what had happened.
The man listened quietly, then glanced over his shoulder at the village. Behind him more Sámi were approaching, maybe half a dozen in all, a mix of concern and confusion and relief on their faces. Mutters ran between them, and those at the back of the group were craning their necks to see Márgu over those in front. At the head of the group was the wiry ginger-haired man who had coordinated them at Christmas, his hat askew and colourful overcoat ruffled from being hurriedly thrown on.
He gave a quick word to the first man, who stepped aside, and then looked over the trio. He spoke again, deliberately slowly, and again it was Alva who answered.
“What’s he saying?” Jesper asked quietly, feeling more than a little awkward.
“He’s thanking us for bringing her home,” Alva explained, “And wants us to come inside.”
“Then let’s,” Klaus said, before turning to thank the leader in Sámi. Jesper tried to parrot it, but by the man’s expression alone he could tell he butchered the pronunciation. He started walking, the others going before him.
The group of Sámi headed for one of the larger tents. They went in one by one, taking seats on the soft carpeted floor around the edges of the space. Klaus went in first once they’d all gone in, broad shoulders barely making it through the tent flap. Alva followed, but Jesper hesitated at the door. He looked down at Márgu, meeting her uncertain gaze; deep down he could feel a growing unwillingness to let her go. But this was her home, he reminded himself, and it was where she belonged. He took a deep breath and stepped inside.
Immediately it felt like all eyes were on him as he found a seat on the floor. He told himself it was because he was carrying Márgu, but it still made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up on end. He took off her hat and set it down on the mat beside her, giving her his best reassuring smile as he did so.
The leader started speaking again, not to him or any of the others but to Márgu directly. His voice was gentle and laden with concern, but still she gripped tightly on to Jesper and her reply was quick and short. There were a few shared glances among the Sámi, and Klaus looked over at Alva and Jesper in turn. When the leader spoke again he sounded a little taken aback, and it seemed like he phrased his next question plainly.
Márgu swallowed, and started talking slowly. She let go for the first time that day, turning around to fully face the man. Jesper could hear the lump in her throat, and gently rubbed her back again. She kept talking, getting more and more choked up with each word. He heard his name several times, but that was the limit of his understanding.
The leader spoke again, seemingly asking her to stop, but she still went on. She almost sounded like she was pleading, and the pain in her voice made Jesper’s heart break all over again. He wanted to say something, to help somehow, but he could tell whatever she was saying was something she needed to get out in full. Finally she grew quiet, reduced to sniffling, and a hush fell upon the tent.
There were some hushed whispers from the back. The leader forced a smile and asked something, to which she nodded furiously. He looked up at Alva, and Jesper couldn’t help but glance over to her as he heard his name mentioned again. She smiled warmly, and though he had no idea what her response was it definitely sounded positive.
The leader then spoke again, this time to Klaus. He sighed and started to talk; his words came slowly, carefully chosen, and there was a definite warmth in the low rumble of his voice. The Sámi leader seemed satisfied, nodding sagely along. Finally his gaze returned to Márgu, and he spoke quickly. To Jesper it almost sounded reluctant, but he couldn’t say for certain.
Márgu let out a tiny yelp, turning to look up at him again. The watery smile was back, bigger and more genuine before, and she looked as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“Jesper!” she replied, smile growing. She reached up with her arms outstretched, asking to be picked up. Feeling more than a little confused, he scooped her up; she threw her arms around him. Looking up revealed everyone else in the tent watching their moment.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“They’ve agreed she can stay with you,” Alva explained bluntly.
“Wait, what?” He blinked. “That can’t be right?!” The mood in the room seemed to change in a moment. Márgu let go, shifting back in his arms to look up at him. Murmurs ran between the others, and an air of confusion settled.
It was Alva who asked the question on everybody’s minds: “You don’t want her?”
“No! I mean yes! I mean…” he stammered, trying to think of a response. “It’s not about what I want, or even what she wants. It’s about what she needs and what she deserves. She shouldn’t be cut off from her people or her culture, and above all else she needs someone who can actually understand her.”
“Nobody in this room understands her better than you,” Klaus spoke softly, a patient smile beneath his beard.
“And languages can be learned,” Alva added. “Nobody said anything about cutting her off; you really think anyone here would let that happen? They already visit for Christmas, why not other times? And she can make the trip back and forth whenever she wants.”
“Huh,” Jesper acknowledged. He looked down at Márgu again, feeling his heart swell with care for the girl. There were nagging fears, of course, but with everyone helping he felt sure he could take care of her. So he met the leader’s gaze, and with determination filling him, said, “Then I’ll do it.”
Márgu understood; she let out a small squeal of joy and threw her arms around him once again. He heard Alva filling in the Sámi but he paid them all no mind; all that mattered right now was the girl clutched tightly to his chest. He felt the faint stinging of tears, born from some bittersweet mix of love for her and sorrow for what she’d been through, and tightened his embrace.
“I’m here,” he said gently.