The sky is full of fiddles
The sky is full of stars and fiddles”
I speak the familiar words, then fall silent and wait.
It's a clear night. Cold; really cold. Enough for my breath to fog the darkness. Translucent white clouds from my mouth gather against the black-blue sky. The sharp light of the full moon turns the frost on the ground an eerie white.
The sun was out earlier. These days it's warm enough to seduce people out of their jackets. God, how I've missed feeling that gentle glow on my cheeks; those first days in the spring when the sunlight is actually warming. There are still heavy patches of snow in the shades behind the houses, of course, but they are slowly being melted away by this newly-wakened sun.
Now, hours after sunset, the water dripping from the rooftops has formed icicles. I think my ears might just have done the same.
I'm standing on a porch so modest it's mostly a wooden plank wedged in the mud. The door before me is very small. Unassuming and thin, and yet a ruthless barrier between this cold night and the warm bed inside.
I move closer to the door and rest a hand lightly on the wood before I speak again.
“Twist yourself and turn yourself
and share a word with me
as I'm wandering on such a fair-weather-night
When all the sky-boys come out and dance
with blue shirts, sheep's hooves
The sky is full of fiddles”
Still not a sound from inside.
I jam my hands into the pockets of my trousers, then turn my back to the door and look out over the valley. The view from the Liss house must be the best of the entire village. From here I can see most of the village of Drömme spread out beneath me, the lake with its surface quietly smooth in the night, and the forest-clad mountains on the other side. I can spot the dance barn in the middle of the village where we dance every Saturday night, and the school house I went to every weekday as a child. I can see the village hall, and beside it the large pile of brushwood that will soon become a Valborg bonfire. In the middle of the village, the church towers grandly with the façade shining in a loud white.
With the trees still bare, I can even glimpse the red of my own house on the far left. I squint at it for a moment and wonder which of the boys will try to woo Harriet tonight.
I've been looking forward to this Sunday all winter, of course; we all have. It's the end of April, the Sunday before Valborg; the first night-wooing weekend of the year. Tonight the boys of Drömme are permitted to leave their houses after sunset and recite the traditional verses outside the girls' doors, hoping to be let inside. Wandering through the village I can feel it in the air; the buzzing anticipation of every unmarried boy and girl over sixteen.
I don't particularly believe in magic, but during night-wooing Sundays it's difficult not to notice the change of the ordinary into something blood-tingling. The night transforms the bushes and trees into supernatural creatures. The starlight seems sharper than during ordinary nights, prickling small dents into your skin.
This winter has been especially long and unforgiving. It was one of those winters that froze not only the earth but also the bones in your body and the thoughts in your mind. Between the never-ending nights and the cold days, there hasn't been room for much more than making sure that the fire in the stove kept burning and that the food supply would be enough.
I've spent some time in my father's workshop too, of course. Assisting him where needed and practising my own wood-carving techniques. The most exciting thing that happened all winter was when he let me start working on making my first fiddle from scratch. It's really not as easy as his competent hands make it seem.
I enjoy the precision of it, though. Paying attention to the wood and finding out how it wants to be shaped. The strength needed to mould the wood to my will, contrasted with the fine details of carving out an ornament pattern. Watching my father working on a fiddle is the closest I ever come to reverence; the way every elegant shape is designed for an acoustic purpose; the way every little adjustment you make will impact the sound once a good fiddler takes the instrument in their hands.
When the workshop was quiet apart from the rasp from sandpaper, when my hands were quietly talking to a piece of wood – in those rare instances when my mind was entirely at ease – I could steal a moment to dream. And what I dreamt of was the taste of raspberry caramels and the door to the Liss house opening for me again in the spring.
The last night-wooing Sunday of the year is always in October, around the harvest festival. It was a great success for me last year. I sat across from Liss Anna on her bed for as long as the night lasted, cross-legged on top of her blankets with the bag of sweets between us. The raspberry caramels had the enticing flavour of being let inside a girl's room twice.
Liss Anna is always a bit reserved during the Saturday dances. She's like that with everyone – except for her close friends, probably. She keeps her true colours hidden somewhere behind her ever-present smile. She was like that during the last night-wooing too, but I was patient and kind, talked to her all night. Tried to chase her spirit by finding a topic that would light a spark in her. And as the sky began to brighten and our bodies were heavy with lack of sleep, Anna leaned back against the headboard and relaxed. Her smile turned even nicer then. Soft dimples in her cheeks and subdued stars in her eyes.
I turn back to Liss Anna's door. She may have the best view in Drömme, but this also means that getting to her house on the hill is an actual effort. I've made it through the dark winter, made it over the slippery road to get to her door, and made it through the twists and turns of the old verses; I'd really hoped the door would have opened by now.
I sigh and recite another verse.
“Or do you have another in?
Or do you have another in,
as you don't want to answer me?
Can't you tell me as much
like the cheese to the cone
the snuff to the handle
pour the syrup into a cup, do!”
Finally there's an answer from inside.
“The berth is full!” Liss Anna calls out, voice sonorous and firm.
I groan under my breath.
She has another boy inside, then. If I'm being honest with myself it's probably Mura Bill, going by the number of dances they shared yesterday. I guess I just didn't want to admit it to myself; I didn't want to let go of the raspberry dreams that kept me sane this winter.
I turn my back to the Liss house and walk towards the gate. The frost crunches under my shoes. I tip my head back to look at the moon.
It's already late. I suppose I could try another house tonight and hope to find someone who's turned everyone else down. But I know most of the girls in Drömme, and I know fairly well which boy will be with which girl. By the time I've made it back to the heart of the village my chances of finding someone will not be very high.
I take a deep breath and hold it to let the icy air freeze my lungs for a second. As I let it out I watch the mist trickle up towards the stars.
I will just have to hope to be luckier at Midsummer.
It's Stambro Mikael's idea to begin with. Neither he nor Lestare Greger did much better than I did during the night-wooing, and they have spent two days whining about it. Mikael's intended girl had also shouted that dreaded phrase through the door – the berth is full – and he'd ended up wandering through the village for hours. Greger had at least been let inside, but he'd made the mistake of choosing a girl whose father hated him for no apparent reason. According to Greger's graphic retelling, the father had kept coming into the room to make sure nothing inappropriate was going on.
“He claimed to have heard rumours that I'd taken my shirt off in some other girl's bedroom during a night-wooing”, Greger said. “Does he think I'm stupid?”
“Well, at least you didn't have to freeze your nose off outside”, Mikael said.
“I didn't even have a good time with the girl. She obviously doesn't like me either – I don't know why she opened the door for me.”
“Maybe she thought you were someone else”, I suggested.
“Thanks, John, that makes me feel a lot better.”
I don't know why they're so upset about it. This is only our second year of night-wooing, and we get three more chances before the season is over. Mikael and Greger have both grown a great deal during the winter – grown into their bodies and become quite handsome – and I'm pretty sure I have too. Someone is bound to notice sooner or later.
I couldn't tell you why, exactly, because I was ditched last Sunday too; but I have a feeling that 1895 will be our year.
Maybe it's the palpable promise of spring in the air that makes me forgive just about anything. It's the day of Valborg and the sun is out, fooling everyone into leaving their houses without hats and gloves. As I walk towards the village hall in the evening, half a step behind Harriet and our parents, my fingers are already stiff with cold – and this might just be the only day of the year when I honestly don't mind it.
The trees are bare; greys and browns interspersed with the occasional dark green from a pine tree. But the naked branches tremble with hope, hiding their precious buds of new life. The ground is wet and muddy from the melting snow; spontaneous brooks flow along the road. The yellows and browns of the fields should look sad, but to me they just look alive.
I'm dragging our old Christmas tree behind me in the mud. It's been standing askew in our garden since Saint Knut's Day, when we threw Christmas out of our house. There is not a single needle left on the tree now.
As we get closer to the centre, we meet other families dragging Christmas trees behind them. The village green is brimming with people this Tuesday night. On Valborg almost everyone gathers, pulled in towards the promise of a bonfire and the need of a ritual to welcome the spring. Everyone is wearing their best coats and friendliest smiles.
I make my way through the crowd to throw the tree onto the unlit bonfire. There is a kind of wordless satisfaction in letting go of this symbol of the darkest time of the year. To gather all the winter debris together to burn. The pile is impressively tall; there's brushwood, broken furniture and naked Christmas trees.
I've lost track of my family and instead go looking for my friends. Mikael and Greger wait for me at the corner of the village hall.
“John!” Mikael calls out, waving at me.
“Hey”, I call back as I dodge a child who has barely learned to walk but insists on doing it anyway. “Any idea when they will light the fire?”
“Should be any moment now”, Greger says. “You're lucky you didn't miss it!”
“Yeah, sorry. Harriet couldn't find her shoes.” I roll my eyes.
We make our way back into the crowd for a better view. On the small hill behind the pile of wood the choir is taking their positions. Their black suit jackets and white caps are so inherently Valborg that they're a sign of spring just as much as the white wood anemones in the moss.
Two young men with burning torches approach the bonfire as the choir bursts out in the first, grand words of Winter Stormed. People respectfully back away from the spreading flames; the fire is rapidly creating a wall of heat several metres thick. Everyone quiets, listening to the traditional songs of the spring and staring at the building inferno, delight mingled with something akin to terror.
The mighty flames embed themselves in my chest. They roar and dance and declare beyond a shadow of doubt that spring has come. The choir sings Fresh Winds of Spring and, as always, the song stirs an ache inside me. I think it must be a remnant from when I was a child, because I can't explain why it tugs on my heart the way it does.
It's their last song for the evening, and when they silence they are immediately replaced by Drömme spelmanslag. They play a variation of the song in triple time; a polska. I wish that the mud beneath my feet were hardwood and that I had a girl to lead through a dance.
This is when Mikael brings up the failed night-wooing again. I listen absently to his and Greger's complaints over the Drömme girls. “I've met them all, and I don't like any of them.”
“You mean they don't like you.”
“Of course they don't – all they see is the little kid who always had a running nose!”
But this time, Mikael has a plan. We need to meet new people if we want to successfully woo someone at Midsummer, he says. The idea is that the three of us go to the neighbouring village for a few Saturday dances during the spring. Once Midsummer comes we'll have introduced ourselves to the girls there and have a chance to be let inside their rooms.
I have been in Sidensjö a few times, of course – it's barely an hour's walk from Drömme – but I've never seen their dance barn. I've also never heard their old fiddler play, though I've heard he's good.
This turns out to be a severe understatement.
I take one step into Sidensjö's dance barn the following Saturday and already I ask myself why in God's name I've never come here to dance before. The air is alive with gleaming cascades of notes from one lone fiddle. The dance floor is whirling in a wild polska. Men stomp their feet into the wooden floor hard enough to send up sparks from the soles of their shoes; women's skirts stand out like bluebells.
The dancing couples twirl past me in an anti-clockwise circle, and in the centre of the dance floor stands the fiddler himself. He's an old man, probably in his sixties, with white hair and a thick beard. He's not much taller than I am – which is pretty damn short, to be frank – but when he plays the fiddle like that he has no trouble demanding attention from everyone in the room. His polska is as powerful as an entire spelmanslag playing together.
It's impossible not to be pulled in by the music. I forget everything about introducing myself to a few people before I dance, instead leaving Mikael and Greger at the door to go straight to the bench along the wall. I hold out my hand to the first girl I see, barely having time to look her in the eye properly before she's next to me on the dance floor with her hand on my shoulder. I secure my arm around her waist and we flow effortlessly into the circle of dancing couples.
My feet barely touch the floorboards. The beat of the polska lifts me up and drives me forward, and it feels as though I'm springing on top of the exuberant fiddle tones. When I throw us into a spin we might as well have been flying. I don't know how he does it, but this fiddler does all the work for us; all we have to do is let ourselves be lifted into the air.
I'm already damp with sweat, but I never want the tune to end. When it finally does, my heart is pounding hard. I finally turn to my dance partner.
“I'm Wattbacka John”, I say, my voice sounding breathless and carefree. “Nice to meet you.”
The girl laughs at my belated introduction. Her breath, too, is short and her cheeks have bright red spots. She introduces herself as Klockar Ida, and then the fiddler starts another tune; a polska just as fierce and vivaciously joyful as the last one. We glide back into the dance without another word.
There's something so tremendously freeing in this. Those rare times when you don't have to speak at all to be able to play eloquently with each other on a dance floor.
After four dances we sail off the floor and out of the barn. To have a fifth dance in a row with the same person is inappropriate if you aren't trying to actually woo them; it's the unspoken rule, just as it would be rude to dance less than two dances with any partner. It's just as well, really, because right now I need some air.
I lean back against the red-painted wood of the outer wall. Klockar Ida laughs at my no doubt dazed expression.
“So you don't get fiddlers like this in Drömme, then?” she teases.
We don't. They're decent enough, but they'll never be legends like Roligs Per or Dalfors Hans. Or indeed Soling Jacob, as the girl tells me this fiddler is called. He's dedicated his life to the music; doesn't have a family, apparently, but lives with his friend Soling Alfred, the church gardener. Keeps a few animals and lives a quiet life, except for every Saturday when he plays life into the floorboards of Sidensjö's dance barn.
When I come back inside I can feel how hot and humid the air has turned from the horde of dancing bodies. Dust from the floor is whipped into the air by the tireless feet; my black dance shoes are already stained with it. I'm nearly run over by Lestare Greger and his dance partner before I find myself a new girl and walk back onto the dance floor.
We dance one polska and one waltz before there is a pause in the music. The girl thanks me and leaves. I crane my neck to see what's going on.
In the centre of the room, Soling Jacob stands with his fiddle tucked under his arm. He's looking at someone, and when I follow his gaze I see a young man standing by the wall with his back turned to the room.
I can't see much of him other than the mop of dark curls. He's bent over an instrument case on the bench along the wall, lifting a fiddle out of it. He bows his head to pluck the strings and check the tuning. Then he straightens and turns around, and I see that it's actually a teenage boy, no older than me. He's tall, and his height is emphasised by the slim, black trousers and the braces hoisted on top of his purple shirt; but his face is young and he's wearing a boyishly self-conscious expression.
The boy walks into the centre of the dance floor, fiddle held before him like a shield. He carries himself proudly, but the effect is lessened by the way he hurries his steps as though praying he'll soon be out of sight. To my great surprise, Soling Jacob remains in place. He's waiting for the boy to join him. After hearing his otherworldly performance, I can't help but wonder what on earth this boy is doing here, stepping forward to play with God himself at the golden hour on a Saturday night.
Soling Jacob peers up at the boy and smiles behind his beard. The boy doesn't smile back, only gives the man a grave nod. When he tucks his fiddle under his chin he accidentally touches the E-string with his finger. The sound of it rings awkwardly above the hum of the audience before he quells it with his fist. He shuffles his feet, and I almost feel embarrassed for him before he's even begun playing.
The old man and the young boy are facing each other, fiddles on their shoulders and bows in their hands, staring at each other intently. Soling Jacob stomps his foot for a few beats in triple time, and the boy gives another nod. They lift their bows.
At once, there is an explosion of blazing tones.
The young boy, with all his boyish awkwardness, is gone. In his place is a fiddler completely in control of his instrument. I've seen many fiddlers play; when they come into my father's workshop to try out his fiddles, they work until they sweat to get the instrument to show its whole potential. Still I've heard none of them coax out every bit of sound a fiddle is capable of the way this boy does. I've seen none of them use the entire length of the bow with any kind of smoothness. This boy bows with large, sweeping gestures as though it's no effort at all.
I know I'm probably staring, but I can't for the life of me tear my gaze away. How can seventeen years even be enough time to learn to play like that? On top of the sheer volume of it, the polska is played at a breakneck speed. It's the boy who plays the melody, and Soling Jacob adds harmonies like a grounding carpet underneath the sparkling tune. Both of their bows dig into the strings as though trying to pull in every soul in the room with them.
Between the two of them there is no gap for air, not a single break for breath.
The tune changes into another, this one in minor key. It's just as biting and fast, and the young fiddler's ornaments are precise and dramatic. It strikes me that it fits with his features; his sharp cheekbones, the stark contrast between his dark hair and fair skin, the delicate art of his curls.
He lifts his chin from the chin rest now, his long neck stretching when he looks out over the dancing couples rushing around him. He looks defiant. The focus of his gaze is shockingly intense; I've never seen anything like it – someone absorbing everything around him like that. Yet the music never falters; his fiddle almost plays itself in his hands while he surveys the room.
Then his eyes land on me. I feel a gasping breath in my throat at the immediacy of it. Two pale gemstones look straight at me without shame or hesitation, boring into me as if they could bend me open and look inside. For a moment I'm terrified, caught between wanting to hide and wanting him to see everything.
When the fiddlers soar back into the first tune, the young boy closes his eyes, something like a smile touching his lips. His posture is now prouder than ever and he barely moves his body at all, only his fingers a blur on top of the strings. He opens his eyes again, and now I can see that he does this on purpose. He's outright bragging about being able to stand unmoved, as though it requires no effort whatsoever for him to spit out the sixteenth notes with flawless precision.
They reach the end of the tune. The last tone rings out and it sounds like a laugh. For one dazzling moment, the young boy smiles at Soling Jacob, for the first time seeming at all moved by the magic that just took place on his strings. I blink and it's gone, his face once more composed. He barely acknowledges the applause before he throws himself into the next tune, eyes intent on Soling Jacob.
I finally become aware that my mouth is hanging open. I close it with an embarrassed glance around. I completely forgot to look for someone to dance with. It's a bit shocking that no one else seems to have had similar problems – do they see things like this every day?
Stambro Mikael stumbles off the dance floor just then. I grab his arm.
“What the hell just happened?!” I blurt. I'm desperate to know I'm not the only one who noticed.
Mikael looks from my no doubt dumbfounded face to the fiddlers on the dance floor, then smirks. “Holm William, apparently. He's Soling Jacob's apprentice.”
I look over Mikael's shoulder at the fiddlers. What my friend sees in my face in this moment I don't know, but he chuckles and leaves me standing there. Holm William looks back at me again from the dance floor. I might have imagined the raised eyebrow, but anyhow it finally spurs me into action. Straightening my spine and broadening my shoulders I go and look for someone to dance with.
The girl is a good dancer. I add a few tricks to the standard polska steps, slapping my heel and adding extra spins as she easily follows my slightest nudge.
I'm vain to believe it, but I imagine that I can feel Holm William's eyes on me the whole time. For some reason I want to show him everything I can do. I want to prove that I'm a dancer worthy of his music.
I barely leave the dance floor for the rest of the evening. My feet ache and my head is light, but I am unable to tear myself away from the spell the two fiddlers' music has on me. I keep dancing until I reach the sort of trance that only happens on a really good dance evening, where my tired mind seems to disconnect from my body, and my body just keeps dancing as though it's the easiest thing in the world. I could keep going forever. Once I've reached this state, I'd never need food or sleep ever again; only the hardwood beneath my feet and the music.
But the evening ends anyway, the way evenings always do, no matter how magical. Late at night, when I'm walking back towards Drömme with Mikael and Greger, I'm astonished by what neither of them mention. They go on endlessly about the new friends they've made, but neither of them talk about Holm William… when it's all I can think about.
Ho-kay – a lot to explain in this first one! Valborg is a celebration in Sweden on the 30th of April, to welcome the spring. We light bonfires and sing our traditional spring songs, the most common of which is Vintern rasat (Winter Stormed). Here's a clip with the song (and a bonfire and everything).
Another classic Valborg song is Vårvindar friska (Fresh Winds of Spring). My absolute fave, both the song and the many polska-variations on it! In this clip you can hear the song sung on stage at 11:55. After that, at 13:15 to 15:24, there's a polska performance, if you want to see the dance in action! (I am in the clip myself, by the way, if you want to play that guessing game…)
Polska is the most popular folk dance in Sweden. And no wonder – it's magical, if you ask me! It has a triple time beat, and usually the emphasis is on the first and third beats. There's generally a lot of improvisation in Swedish folk dance; nothing is choreographed, it's a couple's dance and the one who leads decides when to do what. Here's a clip from a classroom just to show what a common polska looks like.
Saint Knut's Day happens on the 13th of January, twenty days after Christmas. It's the day when Christmas is officially over in Sweden and the Christmas decorations should be taken down.
A spelmanslag is a group of people who play folk music together, mostly on fiddle but sometimes on other instruments too. There's a very open and welcoming approach to this, where beginners are free to come and play with pros. The Swedish folk music culture has a pretty flat hierarchy like that.
Both Drömme and Sidensjö are real villages that I've spent a lot of time in during my childhood summers. Drömme is construed from the word “dröm” which means “dream”. Sidensjö means literally “silk lake”.
House names: Back in the day, Swedes didn't just have first names and surnames, they also put the name of the house they lived in before the first name. This to make it easier to know who you were talking about, if a village for example had several Anna's. In this chapter we meet Anna who lives in the Liss house – Liss Anna. This went out of style long before my time, but when you play Swedish folk music you hear it a lot, as the old fiddlers who passed on the songs had those house names.
Music from the playlist:
Himlen är full av fioler (The Sky is Full of Fiddles) – The song by Ulrika Bodén that started it all!
Vårvindar friska, variant från Mora (Fresh Winds of Spring, variation from Mora) – The polska that Drömme spelmanslag plays at Valborg
Leksandslåtar efter Roligs Per (Leksand-tunes after Roligs Per) – The polska Soling Jacob plays when John first enters the dance barn
Roligs Per-låtar (Roligs Per-tunes) – The first tune William plays
I hope you enjoyed the beginning, and I'll see you soon for chapter 2! It'll get posted as soon as my beta is finished with it, which shouldn't take too long - we both want to spread any joy we can in these times of distress. Love to you all!
The sky is full of fiddles
The sky is full of stars and fiddles”
I have just blown out the candle and lain down in my bed when I hear the voice from outside.
I frown. The spring night-wooing was a week ago. That verse does not belong on an ordinary Sunday.
It sounds as though whoever is speaking stands right outside my door. I wonder if he's trying to get to Harriet and has somehow misunderstood what weekend it's appropriate to do so.
There are two doors into our house; the main entrance, and the extra entryway which leads directly into my room. Harriet doesn't have a door. Her window is at the other end of the house. The boy currently standing outside my door must truly be an idiot.
I sit up in the bed and reach for the matches. I'd better go out and tell him he's thoroughly missed the mark.
Just when the candle lights up my room he speaks again. His voice is deep and smooth even muffled by the door.
“Here we stand, heels planted,
and thaw the frozen earth
It is starlit and slick
and crispy-cold it is
Open the door and let me in
Open the door of every man inside
ere the frozen earth thaws 'neath my heel”
I freeze halfway out of bed, staring at the door.
He changed it. I know this verse; it's supposed to be every woman inside. But this boy said man, loud and clear.
Against all reason, I understand that this is not a mistake after all. Whoever this is, he really meant to find my door.
I have never before heard of a boy being night-wooed. In my surprise, I find myself standing at the door without remembering actually getting out of bed. With no small amount of curiosity, I open it.
On my threshold stands none other than Holm William, the fiddler from yesterday.
I stare at him, startled. This is the last thing I expected to happen; I don't even understand what's happening. But it really is him – the dark curls, the sharp features, the intense eyes. He's staring back at me with that same defiant look he had when he played last night.
“Hello”, I finally get out.
“Evening”, he says. His eyebrows rise expectantly, and I automatically step back, allowing him to walk inside.
He shrugs out of his long coat. I watch it slide down his arms, revealing a light-grey shirt with black braces framing his back. I quietly close the door, pursing my lips as he tosses the coat over the back of my chair without invitation. He steps out of his shoes. Then he walks straight to my bed, smooths out the blankets and lies down on top of them.
He looks up at me from my pillow. Several seconds tick by. He's the one to finally break the silence.
“Aren't you going to lie down?”
I grasp for something to say. “Why?” is the word that falls from my mouth.
“It's how these things work, isn't it?”
I look at him on my bed. Look at the window reflecting a distorted image of my small room. Look at the floor at my feet. Nod to myself. “Yeah, okay.”
I walk to the bed and lift the blankets as much as I can with him lying on top of them, then slide back in underneath. He's lying on his back, gazing up at the ceiling. I tentatively lie on my side and watch him for a moment.
His face is just a few inches from mine. It looks different from here. I study the artful bridge of his nose, and his forehead which is now exposed by the curls falling back onto the pillow.
I wait for him to speak, and when he doesn't, I go first. “Um. I'm Wattbacka John.”
“Obviously”, he says to the ceiling.
A pause. “Okay.” I frown to myself.
He glances at me. “I came here, didn't I? This is the Wattbacka house, which I've spent the evening looking for, so it's hardly a surprise for me to find myself inside it. The Wattbacka fiddle maker has two children, twins, and you are clearly not the female of the pair, hence you are John. Not to mention the fact that I came here for you specifically.”
I scratch my ear. “You asked someone about me, then? Yesterday, at the dance?” I feel strangely flattered by the idea.
“Of course not. I didn't have to.”
“Then how did you know I'm the fiddle maker's son?”
He snorts. “Please. With hands like yours?”
I'm not sure what to make of that. I'm actually not sure what to make of any of this. If Holm William wants to become my friend, it seems odd to do that by lying down in my bed without exchanging more than one word beforehand. And if this is meant to be a night-wooing, it's clear that Holm William has never done it before; he unconcernedly bypasses almost every etiquette around the whole thing, including the pretty fundamental one that you're supposed to do it with a girl. Still, he knows what's supposed to happen; he knows the verses, and he knows enough not to crawl in under my blankets.
He doesn't elaborate, so I'm the one to speak again.
“Aren't you going to introduce yourself?” I ask.
He turns his head to look at me. “You already know my name.”
“Still. It's only polite.”
He blows out a breath. “Boring.”
I peer at the strange creature who has appeared out of nowhere in the night, stomped into my room, lain down in my bed; and now lies here hissing and quibbling, seeming for all the world as though I have dragged him here against his will.
It's the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me.
William looks around my room now. His eyes pause at the cabinetwork of my bedside table, my door, my chair, my bed posts. He tips his head back a little to study the post right behind him more closely.
“You've carved these”, he says, and it's not a question.
“I have.” I turn my head to look at the post. “Just a lark, really. I like working with my hands.”
“Why this pattern?” William lifts his hand to touch the carved image of a flower tendril weaving its way upwards. He runs his finger over the little bees sitting in the flowers.
I shrug. “Was watching the bees one day last summer. Got inspired, I suppose.”
“Bees are inspiring creatures”, William agrees. He doesn't outright praise my handiwork, but something tells me this is the closest to a compliment you get from him. His long forefinger keeps stroking one of the tiny bees.
That feels intimate, somehow. No one has ever been in this bed with me before.
“So, what brings you here?” I ask him.
He lowers his hand. “I should think that was obvious.”
I huff a short laugh. “You're a bit of a prat, aren't you?”
His eyes slide over my face once, then he looks away. “So they tell me.”
Now I feel bad. That wasn't a very nice thing to say, and William is my guest, no matter that I didn't exactly invite him. Too bad he didn't seem to hear the fondness in the undertones of my voice.
I heard it, and it surprised me.
“Say again”, I venture, searching for something to say that will please him. “How could you tell I'm from the Wattbacka house?”
He hesitates. But once he opens his mouth, he can't seem to stop talking. What comes out are the most brilliant things I ever heard. He describes me in a way I didn't think I could be seen; he's seen everything, from the way I hold myself to the calluses in the palms of my “delicate hands”. Every single one of these details have prompted a deduction in his mind about who I am, and he lays it all out for me completely without judgement.
I am floored by the truths coming out of his mouth. It sounds so… uncomplicated. In his voice, it sounds simple and beautiful. No one has ever seen me that way before. No one has ever brought my contours into light like this, and it's dazzling.
He gains speed as he talks, barely pausing for breath. He mentions my hands several times; really, I can't understand how he could pay them such close attention in the middle of the busy dance floor yesterday. When he's finished, he snaps his mouth shut. He rolls his lips in between his teeth, biting them in what could be nervousness. I can't imagine what on earth would make him look so apprehensive after all of that.
“That…” I start, and have to clear my throat before I continue: “… was amazing.”
There's a small sound in his throat; I wouldn't hear it if I weren't so close. He glances at me from the corner of his eye. “Do you think so?”
“Of course it was! It was extraordinary, it was quite… amazing.” I sound like an idiot. God, it's clear that Holm William is a genius; I must seem so stupid to him.
“That's not what people normally say.”
“What do people normally say?”
He doesn't answer. Instead he turns on his side, facing me. One pale hand comes up to rest beneath his cheek. It strikes me that his eyes seem more alive now. In the candlelight I'm not even sure what colour they are; bright blue, or green, or perhaps yellow. There's a sparkling interest in them. Almost as if I'm the fascinating genius in this bed.
“You did ask someone about my first name, though.” My voice has turned low and private. “Last night.”
“Fine. Yes.” His voice too has dropped. It's so low I can almost feel the vibrations in my mattress. “But you asked about me too.”
I smile. “'Course I did. I've never heard anyone play like you. It was amazing.”
I can't seem to stop using that word. And William can't seem to stop his tiny, pleased smile when I do.
We lie in comfortable silence for a few moments.
“You do know this isn't a night-wooing Sunday”, I say, clearing my throat.
William raises an eyebrow. “Problem?”
I think on it for a moment. “I guess not.” He sighs softly, settling into the pillow. “I don't have any caramels for you, though”, I add.
He looks up at me, amused. “John, you shock me.”
I chuckle quietly. And that's when I get to hear it for the first time; his laugh, blended with mine.
Stambro Mikael and Lestare Greger want to go to our dance barn in Drömme next Saturday, but I convince them that we should go back to Sidensjö again. One dance isn't enough for us to introduce ourselves properly, I say. There are only seven Saturdays left before the Midsummer night-wooing; we'd better spend them all in Sidensjö if we want to woo the girls there.
They agree with me. I don't think too hard about what made me argue this point so strongly.
I haven't told them about my strange visitor last Sunday. I don't know what to say about it. It's a good thing no one noticed; no one in my house heard Holm William entering my room, and they didn't hear us talking all night. Greger did notice me falling asleep while carving out the scroll of a fiddle the following Monday, but he just had a laugh about it and let it go.
It all seems like a dream in retrospect. Holm William is so fascinating, so brilliant and so out of the ordinary that I wonder if any of the things that happened last weekend were real. On the other hand, William is too peculiar for me to have made him up. If I'd made him up, I'd frankly have made him more believable.
And when we enter the Sidensjö dance barn on Saturday, William stands there in the middle of the room, as real as anything can be.
He's playing with Soling Jacob again. I now know that the old fiddler has been William's teacher since William was a child. He told me that it's his dearest dream to become as skilful as Soling Jacob – to become a legend.
“I think you already are”, I told him. He waved that away.
The tunes they're playing today are less explosive than last week, but just as powerful. This one is in a minor key, pensive and expressive. Holm William still plays the melody, Soling Jacob sweeps forth the harmonies, and there is no bow-stroke that isn't skilfully reflected by the other player.
I walk along the walls and look for a girl to dance with. Once I'm on the dance floor, I try to catch William's eye. Seeing him brings back a flood of memories from last weekend; all those little things I've thought I'd forgotten during the week. Like the way he moves his head fractionally to the side when observing the room, keeping his neck straight. Or the way the corner of his mouth ticked up when he thought I'd said something interesting.
I realise now that I'm dying to talk to him.
He looks up when I dance past him. His gaze bores into me just as sharply as I remember, but his face gives nothing away. Even when I smile at him, he is unmoved. I clench my jaw and add an extra stomp and a slap at my heel to the dance, telling myself it has nothing to do with the fact that he's watching me.
I dance for a long time before William lowers his fiddle, bows his head at Soling Jacob and walks off the dance floor. I quickly thank my current dance partner and leave her when Soling Jacob begins to play solo.
I sit down on the bench next to William's fiddle-case, trying not to let on that my limbs are buzzing with excitement to finally meet him again.
“Hey there”, I say.
William nods at me. “John”, he says gravely. I like the way he says it. It sounds… significant, somehow.
“Thank you for the music.”
He shrugs. “My pleasure.”
“It's still amazing.”
I say the word just to see that smile again – and sure enough. He hides it well, but it's there.
William puts his fiddle into the open case and slackens the bow. I take the opportunity to stealthily admire his fiddle. It looks a bit odd, because it's covered in two different shades of varnish; there are uneven patches of a dark brown upon light, golden wood. Whoever made it must have run out of varnish in the middle of their work and finished the job with another hue. That won't affect the sound, though. If you know what to look for, which I do, you can see that this instrument is a masterpiece.
“You're working on your first fiddle”, William comments as he sets his bow into the case.
“Huh?” I tear my gaze away from the fiddle, look up at him and remember – of course. He sees everything. “Oh. Yeah. Haven't gotten very far, though.”
He eyes me intently, his gaze flickering down to my hands once. He doesn't speak, which is maddening. I want to ask him what he sees when he looks at me like that.
William sits down on the bench beside me. If it was an effort to get him to start talking when he came to my bed, it's even harder now. He's on edge, constantly sweeping his eyes across the room. His shoulders are a stiff, self-conscious line.
When I ask him about the songs he played tonight, I finally manage to coax him into speaking. He has some fascinating takes on the interplay between music and dance. Every good dancer knows that what takes place on the dance floor is a dialogue, really. The dancers are inspired by the subtle changes in the music and move in answer to it, and the fiddler in turn plays off what happens in the bodies of the dancers.
But William takes it one step further. His analysis is razor-sharp when he speaks of the precise way his choices in dynamics, phrasing and beat affect the dance floor. I gradually come to see that in his mind, there is a great map with thousands of possible ways it could go. He's ready to follow one of those paths at any time, knowing precisely what the effects will be given what he sees on the floor.
He tells me about the Sister-Polska from Ore in meticulous detail. Truth be told I barely understand half of what he's saying, but I do understand that it's utterly brilliant. Just the sheer amount of information he keeps in his mind for that one tune is staggering. It sounds very scientific when he speaks about it; all these mathematical calculations he makes in his head while he's playing. And yet it looks so infinitely artful – sensual – when he plays. Science made into a breathtakingly beautiful art. His body and his mind coalescing to handle his fiddle.
Then he sniffs haughtily and adds: “Of course, the average dancer doesn't bother to really listen to the music. They dance in time with the beat but are too lazy to listen for nuances.” He rolls his eyes. “Dull. Tedious to play for. Why dance if you don't want to dance?”
As we speak, we watch the couples dance by. It's quite the funny little schottis tune Soling Jacob's playing, and I see Mikael try to spin and laugh so hard he cries at the same time. All this talking about dancing has my feet tingling and longing to move.
“You know”, I say, “it's a crime to sit still when there's music like this.”
“Indeed”, is all William says.
I smile at him and rise from the bench to find a girl to dance with. We share a couple of dances, and all the while William remains sitting where I left him.
In between dances I come back to share a few words with William. As I do, I become aware of people giving us odd looks. I wonder briefly if it's somehow obvious to them that William was in my bed a few days ago… because that is odd, I'll grant them that.
William doesn't talk to anyone else in the room. Actually, it seems that no one even greets him. He also never dances, and in the next break between two girls I ask him about it.
“I don't dance with the girls”, is all he says, crossing his arms and looking out over the dance floor.
I'm not sure if that's an answer to my question, but I don't push the issue.
We sit there until next time a tune ends, then William suddenly rises and makes his way to the centre of the floor. I consider being annoyed that he didn't bother to tell me an excuse, or even look at me before he left – but instead I just find myself curious. I'm starting to understand that Holm William is a whirlwind of sudden turns and unpredictable whims… and that I'll never be bored again if I keep spending time with him.
He's whispering something in Soling Jacob's ear now. When he pulls back, the old fiddler is smirking behind his beard.
William scurries away again and Soling Jacob stomps against the wooden floor with his hard soles. The room quiets. “Halling”, he announces, and the floor immediately clears. Every dancer finds a seat on the benches along the walls until only the fiddler remains in the centre of the floor.
Soling Jacob starts up a halling tune, keeping time loudly with his foot. The tune is dark and dramatic, the common-time beat ruthless and heavy.
Onto the empty dance floor strides Holm William. His chest is puffed out to convey utter confidence. Confidence in his body, in his dance, in the fact that he and no one else owns these floorboards for as long as the halling lasts. I find myself waiting with bated breath for what he will do.
He walks in a wide circle around the fiddler in the middle. The self-consciousness that I can normally see in his stride is gone; although he's still just walking, he is dancing. He bounces a few times, stomps lightly and swings his arms before spreading them to his sides. He walks along the edges of the floor with his face to the audience, arms spread wide, cocking his head as if to say Look at me, am I not handsome?
He is. It's impossible not to notice. When he daringly draws attention to the grace of his body like that, I find my eyes sweeping over him from head to toe. Today he's wearing a white shirt with his black trousers and braces. It makes him look elegant and sharp; clean lines and colourless contrasts. It makes me notice the pink of his cheeks and lips in a way I don't think I'm supposed to.
Just as he's about to pass me he makes his first spins, arms still stretched out on each side. His balance is perfect; it looks effortless. Just as it does when he plays the fiddle. Just as it does when he knows everything about me from a single glance. He stops spinning to walk casually backwards, staring into my eyes. I can see a challenge in his eyes that I don't want to back down from.
William turns back around with a jerk of his head that draws attention to the strong line of his neck and shoulder. Then he starts showing off in earnest. For a moment, I envy him deeply. I am a decent halling dancer myself, but when William does it it looks like no effort at all. This is the most physically demanding solo-dance that can be seen in the dance barns of Sweden, and it's unfair that someone who can play the fiddle as though possessed by the devil can also move his body in this way. He drops to a crouch and kicks out his legs in a way that looks as though he's resting. That move is murder on the thighs, I happen to know.
In the next moment, William approaches me again and effectively shuts up every coherent thought in my head. He bends his leg to slap his heel with a loud smack, emphasising it by raising his hand high into the air afterwards – all the while staring at me with positively smouldering eyes. Without really thinking about why, I suddenly know with crystal clarity that this dance is solely for my benefit.
My cheeks are inexplicably heating under William's blatant stare. He smiles then, self-assured and smug – I'm sure he sees my blush, and I'm sure it tells him something very intimate about me, whatever it might be.
I glance around at the others. I half-expect them all to look at me, or at the very least boggle at William's near indecency. No one does. They don't even seem as spellbound as I am.
Looking back at the dancer, I give in to the urge to really look. Everything about him is completely breathtaking; his sinuous spine, his strong arms, and his neck, smooth under his curly hair. Even his feet are beautiful to look at, a dance in themselves. His steps are heavy where it suits him and feather-light where it shouldn't be possible; William uses gravity as though he is the master, rather than being limited by it. There's an enticing paradox there. To defy gravity like that, you have to be strong as an ox, but William moves with a grace that hides his strength from the unobservant eye.
The tune ends with a last forceful note. William halts with a flourish and bows in my direction.
The audience claps, already discussing who's going to dance next. I blink and gasp a breath into my dry mouth. William walks back to his place on the bench next to me, sits down with his arms crossed over his chest, smirking when the next tune starts and another dancer takes the floor.
William doesn't so much as glance in my direction, and I do my damnedest not to look at him either. But the space between us buzzes with a strange tension. We don't have to touch; we don't even have to look at each other to be somehow connected.
Although I've never felt anything like it before, I know he feels it too.
And as people clap to the new dancer's steps, it all clicks in my mind. William wasn't entirely wrong to wave away that comment about him being a legend. These people don't know it yet. I don't know how they can have missed it, but they have. For some reason, at this point in time, he is a legend only to me.
This is why they're looking at us in confusion when we're speaking. No one else bothers to talk to him, and they wonder why I do. They don't know. They don't see.
I finally look at him beside me. William turns his head fractionally, meeting my gaze from the corner of his eye. We look at each other in silence. I find myself with the strangest urge to take his hand, lead him onto the floor and dance to the next polska.
Schottis is another of the most common Swedish folk dances. Like polska, it's a couple's dance, but this one's in common time. (The third of the most common dances is waltz.)
Halling is actually a Norwegian dance, although it also occurs in Sweden, at least these days. This is the breakdance of folk music! I really mean that; it's very athletic, a solo-dance meant to show off. Sexy as hell. I highly recommend watching this clip!
Music from the playlist:
Systerpolska från Ore efter Timas Hans (Sister-Polska from Ore after Timas Hans) – The tune that William and Soling Jacob play in the beginning, and the one William analyses for John
Morfars Schottis (Grandpa's Schottis) – A happy schottis that I like, and the one Soling Jacob plays solo
Halling efter Haltegutten (Halling after Haltegutten) – The halling that William dances to
Thank you for reading, and thanks to those of you who have told me stories of your own encounters with the Swedish folk music and dance! I'm thrilled to hear all about it. And for those who didn't know anything at all about it before reading, thanks for keeping an open mind and letting me show you something new! You're all so lovely.
The sky is full of fiddles
The sky is full of stars and fiddles”
Holm William is back outside my door.
I admit I had wondered if he'd be back. Traditionally, night-wooing only takes place four times a year, and on specific Sundays; around Valborg in April, around Midsummer in June, at the end of August, and in October at the harvest festival. That didn't stop William from coming here last Sunday though. Makes sense that it also wouldn't stop him from coming here two weeks in a row.
It's late. I have been stalling; I wouldn't tell anyone as much, but I can be that honest with myself, at least. I didn't want to blow out the candle and go to sleep. Eventually I felt that I had to, but I'd barely started to doze before I heard his voice.
I sit up in my bed and reach for the matches. Outside, William starts on a new verse; one I haven't heard before.
“Twist, spin and turn yourself
and share a few words with me
as the moon shines so bright, so bright
and the boys are busy now the stars are out”
William's voice is firm and confident. As I fumble with the matches, his tone is growing impatient.
“So throw off your blanket and kick it to your feet
come to the window and show me your nose
Come on, look how handsome I am, do!
Think damn! To talk with me, this exceptional man!”
I almost choke on my saliva. I didn't think he could shock me any more than he did last week by turning up here in the first place (and by shamelessly exchanging the word woman for man) – but Jesus, that's a frank night-wooing rhyme!
Unbidden, my mind serves me the image of William dancing. Arms out, smile smug, body strong and alluring. I open the door and stare at him, my lips pinched. He stares back with that same smug smile – he stares me down, refusing to apologise for the fact that he's as male as I am.
I try to think of something to say. You're here again – What are you doing – This isn't very decent, you know – Why are you doing this? But everything only sounds stupid; William would scoff at me, for sure. He never answers something he thinks is too obvious. And although I can't say it's very obvious to me, part of me knows that really, it is.
So in the end I give up. I simply step back with a sigh that makes my shoulders drop. William's smile turns into a grin when he crosses my threshold.
“Thank you”, he says pointedly – the bastard, honestly.
“Welcome”, I answer with no small amount of irony.
He's wearing black and white under his coat. The way he moves when he takes off his outerwear and stalks over to my bed reminds me again of the way he danced last night. Not the self-conscious teenage boy, but the confident halling dancer. He lies down and his body language seems to say: I have a right to this bed simply because I look so damn good. I wish I had it in me to argue the point.
Most people would probably call me crazy for simply crawling back in under the blankets with this arrogant jerk. But those people aren't here, are they?
William lies on top of the blankets with his arms folded beneath his head. The buttons of his white shirt strain on top of his chest. I lie on my side and pretend not to study them.
“Haltegutten”, he says to the ceiling.
“Halling after Haltegutten. The tune going on a loop in your head.”
“The tune I danced to last night.”
There's a moment of silence. The very air in my bedroom didn't expect us to acknowledge his halling last night out loud.
“I wasn't thinking about that”, I lie.
He glances at me sideways, an amused glint in his eye. “Yes, you were.”
“Why do you think I was?” I hold his gaze in challenge.
“I can see it in the way you look at my body. And the way you tap your forefinger in time with the beat in your head. I could list all the separate tells, but really, John, in the end it comes down to your mind screaming it.”
I snort. “That confident, are you?”
“You're hardly the first halling dancer I've seen, William.”
“No, but the most memorable.”
“I dunno.” I turn onto my back, breaking eye contact. “It's nothing I haven't seen before”, I say casually. “I dance too, you know.”
It feels like a small victory when William turns onto his side to try to catch my eye again. “Oh, please. You can't dance like me.”
“How would you know? You haven't seen me dance the halling.”
“No, but I've seen you dance. You're solid, yes, and you're strong. But you aren't lithe; you couldn't carry out the spins and jumps with the same level of finesse as I can.”
He's right, of course. He knows it, and he knows that I know it. I'm not even put out by it; I wouldn't deny him the title of Sweden's best halling dancer if he went after it. But I find that I like teasing him about it. Even though he knows he's right, he just can't leave it alone without getting the last word.
“You're making a lot of assumptions there”, I tell him. “There's a difference between polska and halling, and you've only seen me dance one of them.”
“Fine”, he snaps, propping up his elbow to rest his head in his hand. I give in and let him catch my gaze. “Dance with me next Saturday.”
“Dance with you?”
He rolls his eyes. “Not with me. Halling. A contest.”
I grin. “You're challenging me?”
He lifts an eyebrow. “You're scared?”
“Not a chance”, I chuckle.
“Well then.” His eyes gleam in a way that makes my lower belly tingle. “Saturday it is.”
The dance barn is alive with a driving halling tune. Soling Jacob has chosen a piece that sounds forceful bordering on dangerous; the perfect air for a battle. I can feel the floor beneath my feet quiver with each beat.
Holm William and I have the dance floor to ourselves. The fiddler stands in his usual place in the middle and we're on opposite sides of him, walking in wide circles. The benches along the walls are crowded with people who watch us with anticipation. You can see in their eyes, in the way they lean forward with elbows on their knees, that it's been some time since there last was a halling contest in Sidensjö.
I walk close to the audience as I'm warming up to the first notes from Soling Jacob's fiddle. I make contact with the crowd through winning smiles, catching their eyes to wink at them. I need them on my side if I'm ever going to win this.
As I look across the dance floor, I catch William eyeing my moves while he's dancing. I throw him a smile as well while I'm at it and playfully copy the kicks he's currently doing. An answering smile tugs on his lips at the same time as someone hoots from the audience. My smile grows. I think I've won them over.
The first spin I go into leaves me a little dizzy; for a moment I forget to keep track of where William is in the room. I am brutally reminded of it when I drop into a crouch and feel the gust of air from his foot, kicking the air right above my head.
The audience laughs. One point to William, then.
I rise to face him. He pauses for a beat, giving me a mock bow before dancing away with a smirk. I quell the laughter bubbling up inside me; he's playing with me. He's inviting me to have fun with him in the middle of our contest. I follow him across the dance floor, chasing him just a step behind with my arms spread wide. It works on the audience; they start clapping in time with the music, urging me on. One point to me, I guess.
This feels less like a competition, though, and more like a game. I've never known halling to be like that. It's a solo dance, even when there's more than one dancer on the floor. But there's this link between William and me when we dance. Every move he makes, I can feel it tug at my core. My own moves are comments on what he does. When I see he's about to do the slow spin from a crouch to standing, I quickly drop down too to do the move in time with him. Are we really dancing solo right now?
William's eyes gleam with playfulness. He keeps challenging me with cocky looks and boastful steps. I think we're about to invent a new set of halling moves, in which two dancers pretend to kick and slap each other when they get close enough to do it. The effect is probably lessened, though, by the way neither of us can't really stop smiling.
Playful though he is, William is clearly set on winning – but so am I. He executes a perfect jump off two feet, slapping both his heels at the same time before landing again with enviable grace. I immediately do the same, using all my strength; I hardly look as graceful as he, but I end up jumping higher, and people shout and whistle.
Then there's the loud clang from a metal can. It's time for one of us to dance alone and show what he can do. William raises an eyebrow at me, takes a step back and in mock courtesy gestures for me to take the floor. When he goes to sit down on the bench, he's still dancing with every movement he makes. Graceful bastard.
I claim the floor fiercely. Again I take care to interact with the audience – I'm good at that, if I say so myself. I can make every girl hope that I'll reach out to her when I dance past, and every boy watch me carefully. Well, except for William, apparently; he has the nerve to look the other way when I dance past him. I spread my arms and spin right in front of him, my fingers flying inches from his face. He recoils in surprise and looks up at me. I make another slap in the air right above his head, and he looks into my eyes and laughs.
It's the first time I see him let his guard down enough to laugh in Sidensjö's dance barn. It feels incredible to be the cause of it.
To the relentless beat from Soling Jacob's fiddle, I make sure to use every halling-trick I know. The audience claps in time throughout my whole solo, making it easy to ignore the burn in my muscles. William doesn't clap, but he's watching me. I can feel the weight of his scrutiny like a stone on my shoulders. And that, even more than the applause, spurs me on and makes me feel even stronger.
The metal can clangs again, and I take a seat to leave the floor to William.
He dances a few steps and already I've forgotten we're in the middle of a contest. My mind hasn't managed to properly remember just how elegantly he dances, so I'm somehow unprepared for it yet again. Yes, I can dance halling too – I'm strong enough to be good – but when he does it, it's a true art.
But the clapping from the audience slowly dies while William dances. He doesn't interact with them, doesn't flirt with them, and so he loses them. Even the most advanced moves don't provoke a reaction from the crowd.
I think it simply looks too effortless when he does it. The audience doesn't understand the strength it takes to do that, because he does it entirely without flaw.
Another metal clang and I'm back on the dance floor with William. It's time for the hat-trick that everyone in the room's been waiting for. I've arranged for Klockar Ida to help us, and Stambro Mikael has given her his hat.
Ida climbs onto a chair, holding a long stick with the hat hanging at the end. She lifts the stick high to dangle the hat above our heads on the dance floor. William makes another mocking gesture to me, urging me to go first. I throw my fist in his direction for good measure before I turn to Ida.
I make a show of eyeing the hat and gesturing to Ida to lift it even higher. The crowd loves it, of course. When it comes to this one, you have to understand that the anticipation of the trick is half the show. You have to build it up. It's even better when I know some of them doubt I'll manage it at all, given my height. Oh, they are in for a surprise.
I jump, throwing myself into a spin in the air and kick my leg up. My aim wasn't perfect, but good enough; my foot hits the hat and sends it flying across the room. I land clumsily on my feet and everyone cheers.
When it's William's turn, of course he manages it without breaking a sweat. He kicks the hat off the stick neatly and lands on the floor with grace; he doesn't need even a second to compose himself before dancing on.
We're nearing the end of the tune now. I grab the hat on a whim and put it on my head; William dances over and knocks it off again with his fist. Soling Jacob plays the last note, and in a rush of dance-euphoria, I spread my arms and throw them around William.
He hugs me back without hesitation to the cheering applause. His ribcage heaves rapidly inside the circle of my arms, and there is laughter hidden in his panting breath. The back of his shirt is damp with sweat.
Our eyes meet when we pull back from the embrace. The smile on his face grows. I smile back at him stupidly, stuck in the moment until someone throws an arm around my neck.
“You totally won that one!” Lestare Greger shouts in my ear.
He's probably right. It's clear who should have won – but the judge is the audience, and they are cheering for me. Fools.
As I'm dragged away by my friends, I catch William's gaze once more. He isn't smiling any longer, but his eyes are still glowing. I see in them the promise that he will be back in my bed tomorrow night.
Starlit and crispy-cold
The sky is full of stars and fiddles”
William comes to me every Sunday in May. I learn to stay awake, listening for his steps outside my door before he speaks the verses. It's difficult; he is so light on his feet, barely makes a sound. He can be like a bloody cat sometimes. Still, it happens more than once that I think I can hear him, or even feel him, his presence prickling on the back of my neck. And in the next moment, I hear the soft whisper of his hand resting on the wood of my door, and then his beautiful voice murmuring poetry for me.
I finally buy us caramels. Raspberry. They sit on my bedside table in a brown paper bag, and of course William sees it as soon as he enters my room.
“Really, John?” He scoffs, but I can tell that he's pleased. And he eats more than half of them in one night.
In the dance barn of Sidensjö, people have realised that he and I are friends. They stop looking at us oddly and instead simply move to make room for the two of us to sit together. When he plays, I dance, but when he doesn't, I sort of… forget to. It's far too interesting to sit with him on the bench.
We get into the habit of talking about the other dancers in a way we really shouldn't. But it's just too entertaining and fascinating to listen to his deductions about them all. He can tell me the most scandalously intimate details about anyone I point at, and the quick wit with which he explains his deductions has me giggling helplessly. I shouldn't find it funny, but it's hard to rein it in when William is giggling too.
Once in a while I find a girl to dance with. Klockar Ida and I have fun together, and Greger tells me that Täpp Lisa has been making eyes at me since the halling contest. But I always seem to come back to William afterwards.
The last of the snow has disappeared from the fields and the mud on the road has dried. The stifling quiet of the snow-blanket is gone; now the birds sing and the brooks murmur, and the earth explodes with life. On one day Drömme goes in those familiar colours of brown and grey, and the next, everything is bright green. The burst buds on the birches hold small, fragile leaves, bold and curious and growing fast. When the spring-winds blow, the new leaves whisper. The aspen by our house rustles oblivion as aspens do.
In early June, the bird cherries bloom. Their sweet scent seeps into every minute of every day and gives everything a dreamlike quality. William seems softer around the edges when he lies in my bed, talking about his new experiments on how his fiddle sounds when he strokes the bow as close to the bridge as he can. I'm not sure I'm really listening to his words right now; I'm mostly listening to the hypnotic timbre of his voice. The deep smoothness of it caresses my cheek as I lie facing him.
“I want to see your workshop”, he suddenly says.
I blink. “What?” Then remember how much he hates repeating himself when he knows I heard him. “You mean my father's wood workshop?”
“Yes, yes. Can we go there?”
“Uh- I'm not sure. I mean. Everyone is asleep.”
“That's perfect, then.”
I still haven't told anyone about my night-visitor. At the beginning I might have been able to; I could have told my family or friends about this weird thing that happened to me… but at this point there's no way anyone would understand. William might be weird for knocking on my door every Sunday night, but in that case I'm just as weird for letting him in.
It's not that I'm ashamed or anything like that. I just wouldn't know where to even begin to explain what he is to me. Somehow, I think that's something that can make sense only to me and to him. Because yes, I'm pretty certain he feels it too.
Anyway, I think the worst situation to try to explain that to my parents – or worse, Harriet – would be in the middle of the night when they find me sneaking around the house with a strange boy.
I look up to tell William no, but then I make the grave mistake of meeting his eyes. I'm not prepared for the intensity I find in them. He looks like this sometimes; when he wants to unravel something interesting it's as if everything about him sharpens. Once he's set his mind on cracking an enigma, I have yet to see him let it go until he's got his answer.
I've no idea what's brought on that look this time. But it turns out I can't say no to it.
“Fine”, I say, and William grins and sits up abruptly in my bed. “But you have to be quiet or you'll wake-”
William only laughs. “I'm not the one stomping my feet with every step I take, John.”
“I don't do that!” I protest, getting out of bed myself and pulling on my wool socks.
“Oh, please. I can hear you over forty dancing feet and a fiddle from outside the dance barn.”
“That's when I'm dancing! I do it on purpose!” I finish my sentence in a fierce whisper when William opens the door to the hallway.
“Shhh!” he berates me, eyes glinting. “You'll wake the house!”
“Oh, you bloody prat”, I breathe. I step forward, crowding him in the narrow doorway. “It's this way.”
The sleeping house looks eerie in the half-dusk of a June night. All the furniture looks to be quietly waiting for something, and every colour is transformed into a greyish blue. I bring my candle with me, spreading the warm light in a small circle around us. I've grown up in this house and I know it like the back of my hand – still, in the earliest hours of a new day I feel unsure of what I will find when I turn a corner.
William creeps behind me so silently that I keep wondering if he's still there. If I concentrate, though, I can hear his breath. Sometimes I feel it rustling the hair on the back of my head. It sends a peculiar thrill down my spine.
We make it down the stairs to the basement. Luckily, the door to the workshop isn't entirely closed; I only have to push it to silently slide it open. We walk inside and I carefully close the door behind us. When I turn back to the room, William is already halfway across the large space, eyes rapidly sweeping over materials, tools and half-finished wood-creations.
Of course, he immediately deduces where my spot in the workshop is. He stalks forward to the desk where my works-in-progress lie, and I follow behind him, putting the candle down so he can see. His fingers reach out to brush over every single item I've worked on.
I watch him in silence. Every time he touches something I've carved with my own hands, I imagine I can feel his fingers ghosting over my skin.
I notice what he's saving for last. And sure enough; he finally stops by the half-finished violin top plate lying in the middle of the desk. The F-holes are not yet carved out, but the shape of the wood is obviously unmistakeable. I'm actually pretty pleased with the way the upper and lower bouts and the waist are balanced against each other on this one.
“This is for your first fiddle”, William says in a hushed voice.
“Yeah. I'm working on the shape of the top surface.” I gesture at the piece of sandpaper lying beside the wood.
I smile self-consciously. “It's not very interesting. I'm not that good at it – it's my first fiddle, as you know, and really I'm just-”
“Show me.” William glances over his shoulder at me. Maybe I'm just imagining his serious look in the candlelight, but it still convinces me to shut up and sit down at the desk.
As I pick up the sandpaper, William finds himself a chair. He drags it to my desk, swings it around and straddles it, folding his arms on top of the backrest. I try to ignore his gaze on me when I stroke my fingers across the dusty surface of the top plate, reminding myself of the spots that still need work.
“Can you hear that?” I ask while my hands whisper across the wood.
“What?” He holds himself perfectly still, trying to hear what I hear.
“The difference in tone when I touch this part here-” I pause to tap my fingers at the waist where the left F-hole is going to be; “-and here.” I tap the upper bout, where it makes a slightly darker sound. William nods. “Right, that's going to affect the sound of the fiddle. The shape and thickness of the top plate – and the back plate too – isn't just about copying a model. It's about adjusting this specific piece of wood until it's in acoustic harmony. See?”
William nods again, eyes fixed on the wood.
I put the sandpaper to the upper bout and go to work. Once in a while, I stop to stroke and tap the surface, listening for the change in tone. William has put his chin on top of his folded forearms and silently watches me work. At first, I worry about boring him with such a repetitive and slow task, but soon I lose myself in my work and all but forget he's there. I could do this for hours; I almost go into a trance when I communicate with the wood. I need to be gentle with it so that it trusts my hands and lets itself be shaped after my will. There's such a sweet satisfaction when I notice that it does.
When I next glance up at William, he's staring at my hands. It occurs to me that maybe he feels the way I do when I watch my father work on a fiddle; that reverence, that endless fascination of the way saw and sandpaper are connected to music. It's just that I'm not as skilled as my father is. I can't do magic the way he can.
But when I watch William's transfixed gaze on my work, it almost feels as though I can. That perhaps William thinks I can.
He finally feels my eyes on him and looks up. Our eyes meet in the low light from the candle. My breath stops in my throat when I see the look on his face. His pupils are huge, black pools, and his lips are slightly parted. He looks… hungry, starving; he looks as though he's burning on the inside. It's a frightening expression, and I want to look away but can't. So I stare back at him, and the seconds tick by until I lose count of them.
Finally I manage to swallow and tear myself away, turning back to the wood in my hands. It's only then that I wonder that if William looked like that… what on earth did I look like?
Now, if you didn't watch the halling video after last chapter, you absolutely HAVE to do it now! The contest between the two young men in that clip is 100% what inspired me to let John and William do the same. That sort of contest wasn't/isn't actually held on the dance floors the way I wrote it – this was purely for self-gratification.
I couldn't resist borrowing a phrase from another old favourite song of mine… It's not even folk music, but I listened to it a lot as a child. “Aspens in the park outside rustle oblivion as aspens do.” Thank you, Trio Lligo and Dina ögon äro mysterier.
A word on tune names: Folk tunes often have names like “Polska after Soling Jacob”. This is when the composer is unknown, which is the case with the majority of folk music. The “after” means that that person is the one who played it, often at the time when people went around and recorded/wrote down Swedish folk music in the 70s. If you don't know the composer – who did you learn it from? That person's basically the one giving name to the tune!
Lydias (Lydia's) – I've listened to this song a lot during my travel across the world and my work with this fic. Especially while writing the scene in John's wood workshop!
Speaking of my travel: This fic has been quite influenced by me meeting my beta and friend. For example, John's remark about not knowing how to explain what William is to him - that's how I feel about her. This is what she commented on that, in the middle of the markup for this chapter: You are the fire to my earth, warming and shifting my tectonic plates. And I'm the high rock to your eagle, where she may rest and survey the world, and from which she may launch into flight. Isn't that a lovely description of John and Sherlock too?
EDIT: There is now fanart for this chapter! Check it out here!
The sky is full of fiddles
The sky is full of stars and fiddles”
It's the last Sunday before Midsummer. The nights don't get dark now; the sun hovers above the mountain ridges for what seems like hours every evening. Then it dips just below the horizon, leaving room for a grey haze in the valley, only to rise again a couple of hours later.
The days have grown warm, but the evenings can still be surprisingly chilly. Holm William complains about it outside my door.
it glistens in the window
Crispy-cold it is
the leather bag flies in the wind”
“It's not that cold, William.”
“It's the middle of June.” William shoulders past me into my room. “Summer is supposed to be here now.”
“Well, you know what they say. The Swedish summer is the best day of the year.”
“Who says that? That's ludicrous.”
We lie down in my bed as usual; William on top of the blankets, me underneath them. “Don't worry”, I tell him. “I hear Midsummer will be warmer.”
There is an almost inaudible sigh from William. He raises his hand to trace the carved patterns on my bed post. We both watch his forefinger follow the bees on the wood, and neither of us mention what we both know; that next Sunday is the first in almost two months when we will not be in this bed together. On Friday is Midsummer's Eve, and that means that on Sunday, we will be out night-wooing girls.
“Will you be playing at Sidensjö's Midsummer celebration?” I ask to break the silence.
William scoffs. “Don't be absurd.”
“How's that absurd?”
He gives me a withering look. “The Little Frogs, John.”
I try not to laugh. “It's my favourite song.”
“Don't even joke about it!”
He looks so pained that I have to duck my head and laugh into his shoulder. “You're adorable”, I murmur before I can stop myself.
William tries to frown, but his cheeks also become a bit pink, so I think he's pleased.
It's barely an hour until midnight and I can still see the sun through the branches of the aspen outside. I watch the glow of it mellowing into a deeper gold as I listen to the deep voice and calm breath of William. When the sun has disappeared, I find myself unusually tired.
We had a late night yesterday at the dance barn. Soling Jacob seemed never to want to stop playing, which made it very hard to stop dancing. The sun was already up by the time I got back home. I'm paying for it now; I keep losing track of what I'm trying to say.
I yawn and let my eyes stay closed for just one second. When I feel a cool fingertip stroke the skin above my eyebrow, I look up.
“You're sleepy”, William says.
“Go to sleep, John.”
I raise an eyebrow. “We're not allowed to sleep”, I mumble.
William looks amused. “I'm not allowed to sleep”, he corrects me.
“Well, if I fall asleep you'll be bored and sleep too.”
“I don't need very much sleep. And I won't be bored.”
I snort. “No?”
“No”, he tells me seriously.
I gaze into his eyes for a moment. It feels as though there's sand in mine when I try to focus. “I'll just close my eyes for a bit”, I tell him, curling on my side and letting my eyelids slide shut.
“Go to sleep, John”, he repeats, turning his head so that the warm breath from his words caresses the crown of my head.
Next thing I'm aware of, the candle has burned down. I'm still lying on my side, but I have moved closer to the warm boy beside me; my face rests inches from the warm skin of his neck. He smells incredible. I keep my eyes closed and draw a deep breath, letting the sweetness of his scent keep me floating in that wonderful state of not-quite-awake.
It takes me a few moments to realise that my arm is wrapped around William's waist. He's still lying on his back, and his hand is resting against my forearm, slung across his belly. We still have that blanket between us as a constant barrier, but I can feel his body heat through it. I don't think I've ever felt so contentedly warm before in my life.
William's hand carefully moves up my arm, landing on my shoulder. “I have to go.” He whispers the words with his lips in my hair.
I can't manage more than a grunt and a tightening of the arm I've wrapped around him. He squeezes my shoulder in return, sighs, then slowly sits up. I find myself instinctively moving into the spot he vacates, seeking the warmth and the scent of him lingering there.
Before he leaves, he pulls the blanket up around me. I think he strokes my hair once, but when I wake up again in the morning I can't be sure whether it was only in my dream.
The morning of Midsummer dawns warm and soft. I wake up to the voices of my mother and Harriet singing Summer Hymn in harmonies outside our house.
I bring my breakfast bread into our garden. I watch my mother and Harriet make flower wreaths to put in their hair as I slowly eat, listening to the hymn. The melody reminds me of the solemn mood that grips me when I step into a church.
It's a curious thing, that reverence I feel. I visit the Drömme church at Christmas and Easter like everybody else, but I am no dedicated Christian. I stopped saying my evening prayer years ago. I don't even ponder the concept of religion very often – but in the privacy of my own mind, I sometimes wonder if the Bible hasn't gotten God wrong. The way He is pictured there… it doesn't really make sense to me.
But still there's something seizing me, mind and body, when I enter a church. And that's when I think that really, it doesn't matter what I believe in. If there's a God, whatever that might be, they don't care that I'm not a righteous Christian and that I'm not so sure about everything I find in the Bible. Their love for the people – for me – isn't conditional that way. When I'm in church I feel welcome there, even with my own undefined sort of faith. And so I feel comforted by the familiar melodies of the hymns.
Summer Hymn in particular holds so much meaning, sung only at this particular time of the year. It's traditional to sing it at the last day of school before summer; it seems to hold both the melancholy of something ending, as well as the simmering hope of the most flourishing time coming. The lyrics speak of a rich robe of kind green adorning the meadows, a caressing warm breeze, a bright sun, and giddy birds singing hymns of joy and hope. It makes me really see how beautiful the earth has become at summer solstice. How kind the sun, the winds and the earth all are to my senses.
What I told William last Sunday turns out to be right; the summer-warmth arrives for Midsummer. Even this early in the day the sun heats the bare skin of my arms. There's a sort of wonder in it, I can feel it every year; summer did come.
When I've finished eating I close my eyes against the friendly sunlight. My mother has left the garden, but Harriet is still sitting on the grass among the discarded flowers.
“Loves me – loves me not. Loves me – loves me not.”
I open my eyes and idly watch Harriet holding an ox-eye daisy in her hand. She plucks one petal at a time from the flower, quietly speaking the words. “Loves me” – she plucks a petal – “loves me not” – another petal. It's been ages since I saw her play this game; I remember the girls in school did it when we were children. I wonder who she's keeping in mind when she does it this time.
“Loves me”, she says triumphantly while plucking the last petal. She tosses the stem to the side and looks up at me. When she catches me watching, she smiles mischievously. “Do you need one of these, then?” She holds out another ox-eye daisy for me.
I take it from her and hold it gently in my hand. I stroke the thin, white petals. Watch the tiny black bugs crawl out from the yellow in the middle. I've never played this game, and I don't intend to start now… although I do wonder what the wisdom of the flowers would have to say about William. Loves me, or loves me not?
I rise abruptly from my chair, toss the flower away and go back into the house.
My best shirt hangs on a hook beside my door, ironed and starched. When I wash myself, shave and get dressed, I think about how long it's been since I spent time with the Drömme villagers. There's something very reassuring about celebrating a national holiday at the familiar village hall, with the same group of people that I've known my entire life. Stambro Mikael and Lestare Greger wait for me at the corner as they always do. We get waffles with strawberry jam and whipped cream for free from Greger's mother who runs the waffle-stand every year. We buy tickets for the lottery even though the first prize is always something ugly like oven-ware in the shape of a duck.
When it's time to erect the midsummer pole, it's always the same six men stepping forward to show off their strength. The large cross is beautifully wrapped in birch leaves, and the two big flower wreaths hanging from it are made out of the flowers that always bloom in late June; wood cranes-bill, buttercups and cow parsley. The Liss grandmother is the one leading the song and ring dance as usual, accompanied by the Mura father's accordion. When the verdant pole stands proudly in the middle of the village green, I grab Mikael's and Greger's hands and pull them with me to the circle of people surrounding it.
The accordion starts playing The Little Frogs, and everyone – children, youngsters, parents and elderly – start singing. I have a sudden vision of William outside the Sidensjö village hall, tricked into joining the dancing circle around the midsummer pole, a horrified expression on his face as he tries to preserve his dignity while jumping like a frog. The thought makes me snigger to myself.
When the midsummer pole ring dances are finished, Drömme spelmanslag starts playing inside the village hall. It's getting quite hot, so I only dance a few dances, sweating in my black trousers. Again, it's easy to see who is going to lie in whose bed on the night-wooing the day after tomorrow. Liss Anna and Mura Bill dance at least six dances in a row with each other; it's all very scandalous.
When Bill leaves to get them some waffles I take the opportunity to share a couple of dances with Liss Anna. Her nice, distant smile is back, and the conversation we keep is polite. The raspberry caramel dreams from last winter seem not to make much sense to me any longer.
My grandparents follow us home to share our Midsummer feast. I walk slowly with my grandmother's arm in mine to support her balance. Our house and lawn are prepared for the occasion; two birch branches with intensely green leaves frame the front door; the blue and yellow Swedish flag flutters on the flagpole; the outside table is covered with a white, embroidered cloth. We eat the traditional dinner of early potatoes from our garden, herring, sour cream and chives, and for dessert the summer's first strawberries. The evening is warm, and as the sun slowly sinks below the mountains we are still sitting outside, listening for the hundredth time to my grandmother's story about how she dreamt about my grandfather on her seventeenth Midsummer night.
Midges come out when the sun is gone, and we finally go inside. We all start preparing for bed; all but Harriet and our mother, who wrap themselves in scarves to protect them from the midges. They're going back outside to pick seven flowers each. This is a tradition that my mother insists on continuing, even though she married a long time ago. There's something about the magic of the summer solstice, she says, that she just can't bring herself to miss out on.
The tradition is that at Midsummer's Eve, the girls go out and pick seven different sorts of flowers in complete silence. They put the bouquet under their pillow, and if they manage not to say a word from the moment they pick the first flower until they fall asleep, they will dream of their future husband.
My mother claims that she dreams of my father every year. It's been ages since Harriet confided in me who she dreamt of, although I remember once when we were little she told me that she'd dreamt of her best friend. When the two of them come back inside, holding one small bouquet each with secret smiles and glittering eyes, I find myself for the first time ever wondering who I would dream of if I picked seven flowers. If it would be a faceless girl with a bluebell skirt… or if it would be a strong back framed with braces, a head of black curls and piercing, pale eyes.
A low-lying mist flows across the meadows. “The fae are dancing”, my grandmother always says on nights like these, when the white fog shifts and rolls just above the ground. In the swirling mist, you can almost see delicate women in sheer white silk, dancing together, surrounding the house with their dreamlike haze.
It's the shortest night of the year, and I sleep poorly.
When I enter Sidensjö's dance barn the next day, Sidensjö spelmanslag is playing. Neither Soling Jacob nor William are there. I try not to be disappointed. Tomorrow is finally the night-wooing that we've been looking forward to, Mikael, Greger and I; how well it goes depends on tonight. My two friends have their eyes on several girls, and they waste no time in leading them onto the dance floor.
Täpp Lisa catches my eye as I look around to see who's here tonight. Everyone is here, it seems – everyone except Holm William. I stride confidently across the room to the bench where Lisa is sitting, taking care to create a proud, halling-like posture. I'm rewarded by her gaze sweeping down my body once before she smiles and accepts my outstretched hand.
I've danced with Täpp Lisa quite a few times. We have found each other in the dance by now, have each learned how the other's body moves. She is lovely within the circle of my arms. Her back feels delicate beneath the palm of my hands, and the smell of her hair is sweet. Her feet move in flawless time with mine. I let us spin for the duration of an entire polska just to see if we can; we don't lose our balance even once. Over her shoulder, I watch the red of her skirt flowing beautifully behind her.
After our fourth dance together, she looks up into my eyes. The moment stretches and has suddenly gone on for too long, and red spots appear on her cheeks.
“I should go and get myself some water”, she says. Then she bites her lip as though regretting it.
“I'll find you again later”, I promise with a smile. She smiles back with sparkling eyes.
When I turn to sit down and rest my legs for a bit, I see that William is here. I didn't notice him coming. These days there's always a little jolt of happiness in my stomach whenever I see him, and I walk up to him, fighting an unexpected impulse to give him a hug. We share a few words; he tells me that Soling Jacob isn't coming tonight. Instead, William is going to play solo.
The spelmanslag starts on their last tune, William unpacks his fiddle, and I go find Täpp Lisa again. She smiles at me sweetly, and during the dance she casually drops a few clues as to where the Täpp house is located in the village. I spin her under my arm to hide my smile.
It's not until William stands in the middle of the dance floor and puts his bow to the strings that I realise I've never heard him play alone before. The dance barn quiets at his first notes. Täpp Lisa puts her hand back on my shoulder, walking into the polska without a word. It's as if the biting tones from William's fiddle put a spell of silence on all of us.
His music sounds raw when he plays alone. It's unbelievably skilful, of course; but when the old fiddler isn't there with him, there's a sort of young ferocity in the way William attacks the strings. The bow digs in so deeply that you can almost hear the whisper of hair on steel underneath the tone.
When I look up at him we lock eyes immediately. He follows me with his gaze as I dance around him, his bow in perfect time with my feet. I tear my eyes away from the intense concentration in his, trying to focus instead on the dance.
It takes me a while before I manage to put my finger on what feels so different about this polska. The music feels wrapped around me, like a blanket around my shoulders – no, closer still; like a second skin. There are no blunt edges or chafing discord. I move as one with the music, and I can't tell if it's my body moving effortlessly in the landscape of notes, beat and tempo, or if it's the music fitting me perfectly… And that's when I remember the conversation we had in the beginning, William and I, about the interplay between fiddler and dancer.
William told me then that it's tedious to play for people who don't bother to really listen to the music. That the average dancer doesn't inspire him to play off what they're doing.
I look up again and see that William has turned. While he plays he's moving in a slow circle on the spot, so that his eyes can always be fixed on me. He creates the music entirely based on the way I move.
It feels more intimate than Täpp Lisa's breath on my throat.
At this point, I couldn't stop dancing if I wanted to. Thirst, fatigue and lack of fresh air all become secondary to the heat in my muscles and the triple time beat in my feet. Täpp Lisa and I move into our fifth dance together, and Holm William dives into a hauntingly despairing melody. My world narrows down to the dramatic pulse of the polska, the acute feel of William's gaze on my skin and the red skirt in the edge of my vision.
After our fifth dance, we start on our sixth, and seventh and eighth, until I lose count. There's no need for pretence at this point; everyone in the room knows what this is. And we're not the only couple here tonight who have danced together for longer than is innocent. Lestare Greger and Klockar Ida haven't taken a break for a while, as far as I can tell. Good for them.
No matter how long I dance, I can't shake the feeling that William is still playing for me the entire time. The tunes he chooses grow more and more plaintive and slow, keeping the dance barn in the quivering, quiet space between an inhalation and an exhalation. The spell of the bright Midsummer night seeps into the dance barn through little gaps in the walls. Then William plays the first, mournful tones of a tune I know from before.
I look at him, but he's not looking at me any longer. His eyes are closed while he plays Sammeles Anna's Bridal Polska in the most heartbreakingly sad way I have ever heard.
I know the story behind this one. It's a tune by Dalfors Hans in Ore, one of the greatest fiddlers of Sweden. Legend says that he made the polska for his true love, Sammeles Anna, and played it at her wedding to her first dance with her husband.
As I dance with Täpp Lisa to William's heart-stopping take on the tune, I wish that I didn't know that story.
When the moon next rises, it's time. My father has bought a bag of caramels for Harriet to put on her night-stand, and my mother has ironed my blue shirt. This is the night when all the boys come out and dance, twisting themselves like fantastical creatures to seem desirable.
I'm walking along the road with Mikael and Greger. They are almost bouncing in their eagerness. The sun is still up; this night will be too bright for any stars to be visible in the sky. The stars have found their place in my friends' eyes instead.
We've started early so we can make it to Sidensjö before all the berths are full. Greger is certain that Klockar Ida will open the door for him, and Mikael has several girls he wants to try his luck with. I walk in silence. Greger doesn't notice, and Mikael only glances at me without saying anything. I'm thankful for it. I just don't know how to speak through Sammeles Anna's Bridal Polska, the tune that keeps playing in my head.
The fields of Sidensjö are filled with the charged anticipation that always comes with a night-wooing Sunday. The colours are clean and clear, the roads broad. The houses themselves look inviting and hopeful, waiting with bated breath. There are circles of candlelight in the girls' windows.
A few boys are out already. We spot them from a distance, lurking at the top of a hill before they slink in between the houses. It almost looks as if they're wearing both horns and demon's tails, curling behind them before they disappear out of sight.
Greger takes off towards the Klockar house, and soon Mikael is gone too. I walk past the dance barn that's so familiar to me now, and the church, massive and quiet in the late sunlight. Outside Sidensjö's village hall the midsummer pole is still standing.
The big, red house a bit further down the road has to be the school. If I take left here, I will soon be at the Täpp house, or so Lisa told me. My feet slow down. My chest constricts, as though my heart revolts inside it.
I do find Täpp Lisa pretty and sweet. It's just that I no longer want to lie in bed with someone I'm not dying to talk to. I don't want to struggle all night to light a spark I'm not sure will ever appear. I might have settled for that before; but that was before I knew. That was when I thought that the idea of laughing with someone until you can't breathe, of clinging to their every word in awe, of feeling so calm with them that you don't have to speak to know, was all just a fairy tale.
Before I know it, I have passed by the crossroad on my left. I keep walking along the village road until I have circled back to the dance barn. I stop there, lean my back against the red wall and look up at the almost-full moon.
The moon shines back at me so brightly from where it hangs safely in the sky. A massive, weightless globe overseeing whatever takes place here on Earth. If I only remember to look up at the sky, the moon greets me like the old friend it is and reminds me that some things aren't as complicated as they seem. They simply are, just like the moon, just like the sun, just like their steady cycles repeating themselves around me no matter what happens.
With a sigh, the tension in my shoulders releases and the mournful tune leaves my mind. I won't recite the verses to any of the girls tonight.
I turn my eyes back to the Earth. Give a little wave to the boy just passing me by. It's probably best that I leave the village. Before I know it I might run into Stambro Mikael, and I wouldn't know what to tell him. I can't go back home to Wattbacka this early, though, or my family might ask questions.
I wander slowly along the road leading back to Drömme. When the Drömme lake comes into sight, I take off on a smaller path to walk along the waterline. I'm happy to spend the night with the lake, the trees and the moon.
It's a warm night, not a breeze disturbing the peace. The sun is still resting just above the mountain ridges on the other side of the lake, large and deep orange. The lake surface is almost still. It looks incredibly inviting. I had my first swim of the summer just the other day; it was a bit of a shock to the system, but it was wonderful. Freeing, somehow, to dive under the surface and be completely surrounded by water.
After a long walk through thick-growing trees, the woods thin out and clear into a short stretch of sand. I'm almost not surprised to see the tall boy standing alone at the shore, hands in his pockets, looking out over the lake. His artful curls and long, strong legs could just as well be part of the spellbound June night – it seems obvious that he should be here, right in the heart of the trembling, new summer.
“William”, I say as I step out of the trees.
He startles violently and spins around. His momentarily fearful eyes widen more when he sees me. “John!” – it tumbles out of his mouth.
I chuckle and walk up to him, stopping in the sand just before him. “Yeah. Hello.” I swear I wasn't following you here, I want to add, but his all-seeing eyes are already darting over my face, hands and the legs of my trousers, so I don't think I need to explain. Instead I take a moment to watch him. There's no other way to put it; he looks stunning.
“Evening”, he finally says. He goes for serious, but he can't hide the smile in his eyes.
I stand beside him and turn to take in the view. The sun has begun to set, and it's painting the sky in the most wonderful palette of colours. William turns back too, and we watch the scene in silence for a few moments. He stands close enough that I can hear his breathing, which is strangely calming.
“You're not wooing girls tonight, then”, I say.
He clears his throat quietly; could be a scoff, or even a short laugh. “Neither are you.”
I shrug. “Didn't feel like it.”
When he turns to look at me, I can feel it all along the right side of my body. I pretend not to notice, though, steadily eyeing the water surface.
“Why?” he finally asks, and I can hear his frustration at not being able to find the answer himself.
I wet my lips. “It wouldn't be the same. I'd rather spend the night with you.”
William turns his head away, and I'd bet anything that he's hiding a grin.
We sit on a tussock and watch the sunset. The colours in the sky are constantly changing, and just when I think it can't get any more beautiful, it does. For the most part we don't speak, but the space between us is everything but silent.
“Have you been swimming yet?” I ask him. It's a mundane question, but the beauty of the night makes my voice hushed and intimate.
“No. It's too cold.” His voice is also low.
“It's not that bad.”
“I barely have any subcutaneous fat, John.”
I snort, mostly because I wonder how William manages to make even words like that sound alluring. “Either that, or you're just a coward.”
“I am not a coward; you are foolish.”
I'm about to answer when I feel the first drop land on my hand. I tilt my head back and hold up my palms. The sky is painted with streaks of clouds; not heavy or dark, but I still feel a few more splashes of water on my skin. The whispering sound from the lake is unmistakable.
“It's raining”, I say.
“Obviously”, William says.
“It's a sign!” I jump to my feet, and William looks up at me in confusion.
“That we should swim!” I start unbuttoning my shirt.
He looks at me as though I'm going mad. “Rain is a sign that we should swim? After sunset?”
“The water is never as nice as when it's raining. And the sun hasn't set.” I gesture towards the sliver of gold above the mountain ridges.
“You are foolish”, William states.
“And you're a coward, then?” I grin at him. He chews his bottom lip in a very endearing way. “We're going to get wet anyway”, I add. I undo the last button and pull off my shirt.
“Fine”, William says. He follows me to a large pine tree with a thick crown, quickly undoing his own shirt. I put my shirt on the ground by the trunk to keep it somewhat dry, then start working my trousers off.
It's not until I pull off my underpants that self-consciousness hits me. I can hear William undress right behind me, quiet and quick. There's nothing to be embarrassed by, I tell myself. I swim naked with Mikael and Greger all the time; no big deal.
It's getting colder now that the sun is nearly gone. Not cold, exactly, but enough for me to instinctively wrap my arms around myself once I'm naked. The rain is light, but the little drops chill me. When I turn around, William is entirely covered in goose-flesh.
He crouches down to quickly put his clothes in a pile beside mine, and I try not to look at him too closely. There's no reason I should be shocked that he has so much skin; there's no reason I should be shocked that underneath his sharp clothes, he's as vulnerably human as the rest of us.
We walk back over the ice-cold sand to the waterline. The grey surface is dotted with raindrops. “This is a stupid idea”, William says behind me as I step into the water.
“It's not that cold”, I say and force myself to take another step.
William wets his feet and hisses. “Bloody hell, it's freezing!”
“You never regret a swim in hindsight”, I say and look over my shoulder.
William is scowling more than I've ever seen him do (and that's saying something). The line appearing between his eyebrows is adorable. In fact, the entire sight of him right now is adorable; scowling and cursing and stark naked, with one hand shyly covering his crotch. He's like a grumpy angel, all flawless skin and shining hair curling up in the rain.
He wades through the shallow water to reach my side, and I fight to ignore his nakedness. There's no reason I should look anywhere but his face. There's no reason I should want to.
The Drömme lake is shallow at pretty much every shore. You have to walk a long way into the water before it's so deep that you can't reach the bottom. I often can't be bothered to go that far; I just get in when the water reaches my waist. At that point, I can barely feel the cold at my feet any longer – probably not because it isn't cold, but because I'm losing my feeling in them.
“On three?” I ask William. He stands beside me with the water lapping at his belly.
“On three”, he says.
When we glide into the water together it feels as though we're connected somehow. As if we're sharing something that no one has ever shared before; the heavenly sky and the soft water. I don't know how it works, but rain always makes the lake smooth like velvet to the touch. It's never been quite as soft as it is tonight, though.
William's lips take on a bluish tint pretty soon; he really does have no subcutaneous fat. The rain has stopped, and the only sound is the gentle purling sound when our hands cut through the surface. I dip my head one last time as William gets to his feet and wades through the shallows.
His waist is narrow, but his back is strong. There are two perfect dimples at his lower back, above the swell of his backside. Somehow it doesn't feel as weird to see him naked now that we've swum beside each other; as if the cold water has washed all that away.
My entire skin comes alive when I rise from the water. This is what I love most about swimming in a cold lake; the prickling feeling all over when my body starts warming me from the inside. The pleasure of my hot blood trickling into the small capillaries just beneath my skin, meeting the firm cold on the outside. And the air doesn't feel chilly at all now. I stand tall underneath the vibrant sky, unbothered by my nakedness.
William stands with his feet planted in the sand. His arms hang at his sides and his posture is no longer shy. I stop beside him and look out over the water. The surface is completely calm now the rain has stopped, reflecting the magic of the sky. The sun is gone, but it's still casting the most amazing colours onto the sky above the mountains. I'm starting to think that it will never stop; that this night has decided to last forever for William and me.
I look at him beside me. His hair looks pitch black when it's wet, slicked back to reveal his whole face to me. His lips are no longer blue, only a pale pink. His eyes are very bright.
He doesn't meet my eyes, but he doesn't try to hide either. He watches the sky wearing an expression of awe, as if he's witnessing magic he didn't believe in. It makes him look very young, and very human.
I let myself eye his chest even though I know he notices me doing it. I just want to see what he's like. I want to know the things I don't yet know about my friend – my best friend? It seems inadequate for this thing between the two of us, vibrating so much that it makes the June night shiver.
I've never seen anyone look so beautiful in my entire life. I want to feel his wet hair in my fist. I want to taste the sweet freshwater on his skin.
He finally turns his head and looks calmly back at me. I turn my gaze to the darkening sunset sky, not a trace of self-consciousness left in me even as I feel him watching me. I'm happy to share all of me with him.
“It's beautiful”, I murmur when the pressure in my chest becomes too much not to say it.
When our eyes meet, I notice the words hanging in the air. Something about the grand sky and the scent of freshwater from our skin allows it to be said – a simple fact, something that doesn't require any excuses or explanations. William is the one to ultimately say it out loud:
“You're beautiful”, he tells me.
I can't think of anything but William the following week. It's only Monday night when I wonder how in the world I'll hold out until the Saturday dance to see him. I've never felt an urgency like this before and I don't understand it. I don't know what it is I want with him; I just know that as long as he isn't here, I can't take a whole breath.
Saturday comes, and it's easy convincing Mikael and Greger to come with me to Sidensjö. They were both invited to a girl's bed last Sunday, and they're so satisfied that they've barely had time to feel bad for me, not finding anyone. We get there early and William isn't there yet. I dance to get rid of my restless energy, but I feel uninspired.
Soling Jacob appears but William doesn't. My gaze goes to the door more and more often; I can't really focus on anything else. The girls I dance with leave me as soon as they can. I don't care about that; I only want to see a head of dark curls and those full lips, quirking into the smile he saves for me.
I wait the whole evening. Has something happened to him? He's never been absent from a Saturday dance for as long as I've known him. Is he avoiding me? Why? Maybe I've offended him somehow. Maybe he regrets telling me I'm beautiful. Maybe last Sunday didn't mean as much to him as it did to me.
Does he care about me at all – how can I be sure that he does? How can I be sure that he'll turn up outside my door tomorrow the way he used to do?
I can't be sure of that. I can't be sure of when I'll see him again, and the thought is unbearable.
“John?” I turn around so quickly I almost lose my balance, but it's only Stambro Mikael. “We're going home now, you coming?”
“I… I don't know…”
“I don't think he's coming, mate.”
I look into Mikael's kind eyes and sigh. “No.” I rise from the bench in the corner where William and I usually sit. “Let's go, then.”
Midsummer is one of Sweden's biggest holidays, second only to Christmas. And now you're obviously dying to see the ring dance around a midsummer pole! Here's the infamous Små grodorna (The Little Frogs)!
The dancing mist-fae are mythical beings in Nordic folk religion. The Swedish word is älva, but it isn't really translatable into English since it's a uniquely Scandinavian tradition. On bright summer nights when the mist lies low, it moves and changes so that it almost looks as if there are delicate creatures in there, dancing together.
The Drömme lake is real and it's the most wonderful place.
Polska från Ore efter Flyger Jonas (Polska from Ore after Flyger Jonas) – The first song William plays at his solo performance
Polska efter Dahlberg – Pt.2 (Polska after Dahlberg part 2) – The “hauntingly despairing” song William plays for John's fifth dance with Täpp Lisa
Sammeles Annas brudpolska (Sammeles Anna's Bridal Polska) – This song really is by Dalfors Hans for Sammeles Anna on her wedding day, and the rumour is that he was in love with her. I mean, just listen to the song…
Vemod (Melancholy) – Writing soundtrack for the skinny dipping. (It's a waltz played by a Norwegian folk music band - both Norwegian and Finnish folk music sound very similar to Swedish.)
Mikaelidagen (Michaelmas) – Soundtrack for the Saturday dance WITHOUT WILLIAM NOOO (don't worry, this is as angsty as this fic will get)
Sommarpsalm (Summer Hymn) – One of the most beloved hymns in Sweden
Svartnäspolska (Polska from Svartnäs) – Here's what a spelmanslag sounds like!
The sky is full of fiddles
I tear the door open. William stumbles back to avoid getting the door in his face, cutting himself off in the middle of the rhyme.
We stare at each other for a moment, both of us off-balance.
“You came!” I say.
“Ye-es…”, he frowns.
He takes a step forward and I find myself with my arms around him. The flat of his back is warm under the palms of my hands. His skin radiates the sweet scent of him, the one filling my room every Monday morning after he's left.
His cheeks are pink and his pupils are a hard black when I let him go.
“You weren't at the dance last night”, I say as I step back to let him in.
“Oh.” It's all he says.
“Wasn't sure you'd… you know.”
“Don't be stupid.” He glances at me over his shoulder, trying to look condescending. “It's Sunday. It's our night.” He only looks vulnerable, and he must realise it himself because he quickly turns away again.
I grin helplessly at his back. William lies down on my bed and I slip in under the blanket.
It's so good to hear his voice again. I ask him a question about his latest musical experiment just to set him off, just to get him to pour an endless stream of that deep voice over me. The dusk slowly seizes the village. Inside, the candlelight flickers over the walls.
William hoists himself up on an elbow to reach over me: “Do you have any caramels left?” He searches in the paper bag on my nightstand and all I can think about is how close he is to me when leaning over me like this.
He pops a raspberry caramel into his mouth and lies back down. I watch as he thoughtfully sucks on it, his cheeks hollowing. It makes his cheekbones even sharper. The buzzing tension that so often arises between us is back; it seems to be urging me to reach out and touch him.
William is deep in thought for a long time. When he swallows the last of his caramel, he finally glances at me. “What?” he asks, and I realise I've been staring.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask and give in to the impulse to tap his forehead with two fingers.
“You”, he says, surprisingly.
“What about me?”
He speaks slowly: “I'm trying to understand how… how it's possible. To be the way you are. You're not like anyone else I've ever met.”
I wasn't prepared for this at all. “Thought I was a pretty ordinary lad.”
William looks very serious. “You couldn't be more wrong. Ordinary people aren't kind; they are selfish and smarmy. They're polite, maybe, but not kind.”
“But I am?”
“You are. See – you don't even know it yourself. How can you not know?” He stares at me with the intensity that can only be found in William's eyes. “It's so rare that people really listen to what others have to say. Or that they care to see them as they are without judging them for it. I certainly don't know how to do it. But you… No matter how strange the things I do or say, you just take it in your stride. You never judge me for anything.”
“Of course I don't”, I murmur. “It's not my place to judge you.”
“Everyone else does. But you don't even care about that, do you? If you've made up your mind about something, you don't let the opinion of others affect you. You are strong in a way I've never seen before.”
I don't know what to say to all this. I'm not a person who ever stands out to anyone; I'm just Wattbacka John, with the sand-coloured hair and the common blue eyes. I never imagined someone would find me extraordinary just because I'm kind. It's the sort of thing no one really notices, isn't it?
It's easy to read between the lines in what William is saying. If he's so shocked at being accepted the way he is… I think I might just be the first person his age who's wanted to be with him. It's unfathomable.
“You're not like anyone I've ever met, either”, I tell him. “I think you're amazing.”
He looks back at me. His answer is so quiet I can barely hear it. “I know.”
When our eyes are locked, time stops moving forward in the usual way. Instead it fleets out like a pond on top of my sheets, the surface still and glassy.
“Hey, why did you come to my house?” My voice is hushed like a Midsummer sunset. “That first Sunday? You didn't know me then.”
“I knew enough.” In the low light from the candle, I let my gaze drop to watch William's lips move when he speaks. “You know what I can gain from a glance, John. Do you really think it would pass me by when someone like you turned up?”
“I knew, too”, I whisper. “I could tell.”
William doesn't answer. Another long moment passes, could have been close to an hour; really, it's impossible to tell time now. Then he props himself up on his elbow again, looking down at me.
His face is mostly in shadow but his eyes are gleaming. I can't really tell if he's about to say or do something, but his eyes search my face as if waiting for me to stop him. I keep his gaze steadily from where I'm lying on my pillow. Whatever it is, I won't back down.
Finally, William leans down and kisses me. It's simple, neither ardent nor grand. No more than a chaste press of lips, just to tell me. This is the way I mean it.
I hold still, chin tipped up. There's a slight tremble in my lips pressing back. I know.
I don't think I sit still for a single moment during the week to come. I simply can't. There's this pressure building up inside me, made worse whenever I see William in my mind (which is all the time). My stomach flutters too much to allow a proper breath into my lungs.
We kissed four times. Each kiss with a long pause in between for us to work up the courage again. I keep replaying them all in my head, one by one.
I have never kissed anyone before. Neither has William, I'm sure. It's a sweet secret hidden on my lips, and it's wonderful to think of William hiding the same. I imagine him in Sidensjö this week, with his family, with his fiddle teacher, carrying my kisses with him on his own lips.
When I walk to Sidensjö with Mikael and Greger on Saturday, it's a feat that I manage not to break into a run.
At first, I'm afraid that William won't be there this week either. But when he is, I understand that his presence doesn't help the flutter in my stomach at all. Our eyes lock instantly when I enter the dance barn, and the tension between us is so thick my breath catches. There's a happy bounce in my feet that would carry me across the room to him if I didn't watch it; there's a heat in my hands that would make me reach out and touch him if I came too close.
I keep myself from walking up to him. He doesn't approach me either. But there's never a moment where I'm not acutely aware of where he is in the room – and whenever I look there, his eyes are already on me.
Throughout the evening, I can't get enough of the sight of him. He is even more beautiful tonight than normally. There's this soft light surrounding him, like an invisible halo. Maybe the first kiss changes a person like that. I know I can barely recognise my own face in the mirror these days.
I think I can see my kisses on his lovely lips. I know I can see them in his eyes.
We end up not speaking a word to each other the whole night. He plays, I listen; I dance, he watches. I wonder how none of the others notice that the very air between us is about to snap in two; how come no one burns themselves on the tension? It's agony to leave Sidensjö that night, walking back to Drömme and knowing I have to wait another day before I finally, finally hear him outside my door:
The sky is full of fiddles
The sky is full of fiddles”
He rushes through the rhyme and I tug him inside.
The kisses are even better this time. Our bodies have made sense of the memories of the other; now they seem to know precisely how we can fit together. At first he simply holds me. He rests his forehead against mine, his fingers playing with my fingers, before he finally dares to push forward and kiss me. His lips are a bit sticky with sugar from the caramels. This time it feels familiar and I meet him with greed.
He boldly opens his mouth against mine. My heart beats violently when I follow his lead and let him taste me with his tongue. The raspberry flavour in his mouth is consuming – I'm dizzy with how good this feels. Not even in my fantasies has anything felt this good.
The way William holds me – the almost desperate way that he kisses me… it's as if his life depended on it. As if he's drowning and I'm his lifebuoy. It makes something tender in my chest hurt. He is so confident, yet so innocent; so abrasive, yet so vulnerable. It's almost impossible to stop kissing and touching him when he is like that. I want to drown in him.
We spend some time talking, too. Or laughing, mostly. William seems so happy. His cheeks are enticingly red and when he laughs it's breathless. I soon discover that muffling his laugh with a kiss is the most delicious thing.
I forget everything except for how wonderful life is in July of 1895. Time doesn't seem to concern William and me when we're together, so every day lasts for an eternity. There's no reason to think about anything beyond the feel of his warm body in my arms and his addictive kisses.
The earth blooms with an abundance that almost seems too much. The sun shines every day of July, making the days too hot for wearing shirts. I swim in the lake several times a day, and the water is so warm that you can stay in it for hours if you want to. Everything seems to blossom now, in every colour of the rainbow, and every day there are enough ripe strawberries in the garden to make a strawberry pastry.
As the summer gets hotter, so too do our kisses. William daringly pulls me with him out of the dance barn one Saturday, leading me by my hand to the other side of the building. He leans back against the wall and gives me a look so heated I can't help but step forward into his arms. He spreads his legs to let me stand in between them, putting his face at the same height as mine. I kiss him and he tilts his head to the side, allowing me deeper into his mouth. I put my hands on his jutting hipbones – those hipbones drive me crazy. When I finally manage to pull back William is panting. It's a delicious form of torture to walk away from him in moments like that.
And then there are the moments in the privacy of my room, where the risk of getting caught is much smaller and the only thing stopping us from going too far is our sense of decency. You're not actually supposed to kiss someone at a night-wooing. Then again, William isn't supposed to be here in the first place, so the common rules are pretty hard to take seriously at this point. I lie on top of him, kissing the smooth skin of his throat, and the blanket is twisted up between us as a last token limit.
When I can almost hear him whimper I let him go, resting my forehead on his breastbone. William gasps for breath beneath me. I fight not to groan in frustration and wait quietly for the fire within me to fade – enough for us to start all over again.
“John”, William breathes when the night is motionless and dark. “I can't get enough of you.” This time I am lying with him on top of the blankets, fully clothed. I twirl his hair around my fingers. He closes his eyes and moans quietly. “I don't know what to do.”
“Just kiss me again”, I whisper against his lips. “God, you feel incredible.”
William presses his lips hard against mine. When he ends the kiss he hides his face against my neck and winds his arms around me tightly. His fingertips bore into my back. And that's the first time I ever have the thought that this summer will one day come to an end.
The first Saturday in August is warm and rich. The gardens are full of ripe vegetables, and every meal is based on the day's harvest. The summer still seems never-ending, although the nights are no longer bright all the way through. Still, the sun hasn't yet set when I walk towards Sidensjö with Mikael and Greger.
Sidensjö spelmanslag is playing when we enter the dance barn. William arrives while I'm dancing schottis with Klockar Ida. He's wearing that purple shirt he wore the very first time I saw him; the one he looks so handsome in. We exchange a look and a secret smile, then he sits down on the bench to watch me.
I know he finds me handsome too. He told me the other week, whispered into my skin. When he's watching me like this I feel bold; I feel like the strongest boy on the dance floor.
“Go talk to your friend”, Ida tells me when the tune ends.
“Thank you”, I say with a little bow, and I join William in the corner.
It's always unexpectedly hard not to kiss him hello when we meet in the dance barn. But I can see in his eyes that he's thinking the same thing, and that will just have to do; both of us imagining a kiss at the same time. I sit down next to him and all that we allow ourselves is pressing our knees together. Sometimes even that small contact is overwhelming.
“Are you playing tonight?” I ask.
“I'm going to play with Jacob. He will not be here until late, though.”
“Then I'll stay late.”
He smiles at me warmly, and his eyes flicker to my mouth and back to my eyes again. I lick my lips. Damn it.
When Soling Jacob appears it's nearly dark outside. William takes out his fiddle and the two of them walk into the middle of the dance-circle. They start playing like a sigh of relief over the floorboards. This is what the soul of Sidensjö's dance barn sounds like.
Almost everyone is already on the dance floor when I look for a girl to partner up with. Only Täpp Lisa is sitting on the bench along the wall. I haven't had the guts to dance with her again, not since I didn't appear outside her window during the Midsummer night-wooing – but tonight I've seen her dance several times with a local boy. Maybe she found someone who's better for her than I would've been. Maybe she doesn't hold it against me.
She smiles when I walk over and reach out my hand, and it looks genuine. We share three dances, then we both take great care to politely thank each other and walk our separate ways.
“Well?” Greger is on me when I leave the dance floor. “Did you find out if she has someone else?”
“It seems she does”, I say.
“Aw, sorry, mate.” His hand lands heavily on my shoulder in sympathy. “Might as well call it a night, then? Mikael and I are ready to head home. He has an early morning tomorrow.”
I do my very best not to give William the glance that would give me away. I can feel him watching me, though, from the middle of the floor.
“No, I think I'll stay for a bit. You go ahead.”
Greger narrows his eyes at me. “You sure?” I know I'm being weird; it's an hour's walk back to Drömme, a long way to walk alone in the middle of the night.
“Yeah, I feel like staying late tonight. I'll see you tomorrow for a swim.”
“Fine”, Greger says, thankfully.
I let myself look over at William when my friends leave. He isn't looking back at me, but I'm pretty sure I'm the reason for his smug smile.
Midnight approaches and people are leaving in small clusters. I dance with Täpp Lisa a few times more. We dance very well together – we always have. But when I try to think of it as something more, my mind only fills with Holm William dancing halling for me and the taste of raspberry caramels on his tongue.
Soling Jacob and William are still playing when there are only two couples left on the dance floor; Täpp Lisa and I, and another couple. The four of us keep trading dance partners so that no one dances with anyone for too long, until Lisa tells me she's too tired to keep dancing. They're all neighbours, it turns out, who always walk each other home after a dance. We bid each other a good night, and the three of them leave the dance barn.
I turn around to the two fiddlers standing alone in the middle of the room. They're still playing despite the lack of dancers. I sit on the bench next to William's violin case to listen, and when the tune ends, William walks off the floor towards me.
Soling Jacob remains where he is and begins to play a polska in minor key. The melody sounds lonely and rare in the empty dance barn.
William's ritual of packing his instrument into the case is a dance in itself. Now, since we're the only ones here and Soling Jacob is busy playing, I allow myself to stare as William wipes off the strings, caresses the stained wood and carefully handles the slim bow. He closes the case slowly around the precious fiddle. The locks click.
William raises his gaze to meet mine for a wordless moment. Then he holds out his right hand to me, palm up.
“Dance with me.”
I look dumbly at his hand. “What, you mean polska?”
“Of course.” For a moment, I'm surprised at my own surprise. It's never even occurred to me that two boys can dance together. When I still hesitate, William adds: “You can lead.”
“But…” I glance at Soling Jacob.
“Jacob doesn't mind. Come.”
William curls his fingers impatiently. I put my hand in his and let him pull me off the bench and onto the dance floor.
It's not the first time I have stood beside someone taller than me, my right arm around their waist and their left hand resting on my shoulder. But there's no forgetting it's a boy's back I'm feeling beneath my palm and not a girl's; all those sharp angles and defined muscles instead of curves and yielding flesh. It's… it's exhilarating.
We start walking in time with the music, stepping on the first and third beat. Soling Jacob has begun to play one of my favourite tunes from Ore; The Blue-Goat, an earnest melody holding both unspoken sorrow and unspeakable hope.
I step in front of William to make our first turn. This is the moment of truth, when we will know if this actually works between us – but God, I shouldn't have worried. I've never once seen William do a couple's dance, but he follows my lead entirely without flaw. I wonder how I ever doubted that he knows how to dance polska, even how to follow – of course he does, the genius.
I've had great dance partners before, but this is a whole new level of great. William feels like a breeze in my arms. He can follow my slightest nudge and matches my bounce perfectly; it almost feels as if the second body isn't even there. As if he's simply a part of me.
During the first tune I can barely bring myself to let us out of the spin, so sensational does it feel. The tune ends and I grab William's hand from the back of my shoulder, spinning him out of my embrace and letting him twirl under my arm.
“It's a bloody crime that you never dance polska”, is all I can think to say.
His smile is wide. “I'm dancing now.”
The last note barely has time to ring out before Soling Jacob starts on another polska. William puts his hand on my shoulder again and we slide back into the dance.
After that, we hardly speak. Soling Jacob plays as though his fiddle is possessed, never stopping to think or rest, just pouring out a stream of the most achingly beautiful tunes I've heard. And William… William is so lovely that I don't dare say a word. I'm afraid to break the spell that makes him want to dance like this with me. The fourth polska ends and the fifth begins, and William and I barely pause in between them, simply dancing on. Soling Jacob never so much as glances at us.
I can feel William's body come alive under my hands from the exertion of the dance. The back of his purple shirt is warm and humid, and the scent of him is stronger the longer we dance. Every breath I take has William in it. It's intoxicating. I want to bury myself in the junction between his neck and shoulder and live there forever.
The heartfelt music winds its way around us and binds us together. I never knew a polska could be so romantic. In fact, I don't think I've known the meaning of that word until this moment. To move like this together with a body that I already know so well – together with someone that I can't really breathe without…
It makes something in the bottom of my soul change. I can feel it; hot iron moulding around a new reality.
Soling Jacob plays for hours. The last polska is slow, intimate; William and I dance as close together as is possible. When we turn around one another our chests almost touch. I splay my hands across his back, trying to tell him through my touch alone how precious he is to me. I think he understands, because I can feel something of the same through the palms of his hands on my shoulderblades.
Towards the end, our spins gently slow down in time with the music. The ending is drawn out until it's only a whisper of a tone, and in that frail moment, our arms slide easily the rest of the way around each other into a tender embrace. William's hand slides sensually up my spine to cup my neck. I pull him in closer, fitting us together as best I know how.
I'm too deeply moved and too tired to think about the implications of it right now. I just know with complete clarity that this isn't only for the summer. This is something special beyond words. I will never find it anywhere else – and I don't want it from anyone else. I don't want to live my life without having Holm William as mine.
I walk back to Drömme that night filled to the brim with a new certainty. It changes everything, I know that. But right now, I let myself just be in peace with the feel of the polska still stirring in my blood.
I look up at the moon and the stars, shining so bright and so sure. Irrationally, I want to thank them for letting me have a night like this.
Next day is a haze. I only got two hours of sleep, and on top of that nothing's the same as it was a day ago. I want to dance polska with William forever. He has been my first, and I want him to be my last.
I always thought I'd find a pretty girl to marry. That was a given; never once have I thought that I might need to rethink it. Girls like me, my latest night-wooing failures notwithstanding, and I like them – it wouldn't be difficult to find a nice one.
I just don't want one any more.
None of this upsets me as much as it does to realise that he might not know it. William's the one who takes all the steps for us; he comes to my door every Sunday, and my part is just to let him in. He kissed me, and I just lay there on my pillow and allowed it. He asked me to dance polska with him last night…
He looked so heartbroken when he played solo for Täpp Lisa and me that one time. And the following Saturday was the only time since I've known him that he didn't turn up at the dance. I understand now that William has always been aware that the summer of 1895 will end.
When he comes to my room that night I'm already exhausted. We lie down in my bed – he crawls in beneath the blanket with me these days, although he always leaves his clothes on. He gently pushes at my shoulder, rolling me onto my side, then he curls up behind me as close as he can get.
“Sleep”, he whispers and locks his arm around my chest. I feel his heartbeat behind me and my eyes burn against my closed eyelids.
I fall asleep with William's nose pressed against the top of my spine. I wake up to an empty bed, but that's okay. I don't need more to be sure. On the following Tuesday I leave my house in the evening to walk towards Sidensjö alone.
I don't know what William will say. I only know that if I can't have him as mine, then my heart will break.
Yes, dancing polska can really be that romantic. This clip shows a polska variation (where the emphasis is equal on all three beats, rather than on the first and third beat), and is the best video I've found that captivates some of the atmosphere on a dance floor. Beautiful performance, highly recommend.
As you've gathered at this point, traditionally Swedish folk dance is quite heteronormative, with the man leading and the woman following. That's all changing now, though! The young generation is queering the folk dance, teaching everyone both to lead and to follow, and avoiding gendered language. Two girls dancing together has been accepted for many years already, but very recently it's also less strange to see couples with two boys. I'm very proud to be a part of this change, and I'm touched when I see not only young male dancing couples, but also male couples from the older generation. We're making an impact on the entire dance culture and it's lovely!
Innerligheten (The Fervour) – Writing soundtrack for John and William's summer together, snogging outside the dance barn and whatnot
Blågeten (The Blue-Goat) – The polska John and William dance to
Sista polskan (The Last Polska) – This song is from my favourite CD of all time. As is obvious from the name, it's the last polska they dance to that night.
Det brinner en eld (A Fire Is Burning) – Another tune with Ulrika Bodén. It's the soundtrack for John's realisation of what he wants with William. Here's a rough translation of the lyrics:
A fire is burning
it burns so bright
it burns in a thousand wreaths
I want to walk though the fire
dancing with my true love
You have been my first step
and you shall be the last
And if I can't have you as mine
then my heart shall break
The sky is full of fiddles
The sky is full of stars and fiddles”
The Holm house towers big and white in the middle of a perfectly-kept lawn. The windows are large and clean. I'm standing outside what I sincerely hope is William's bedroom. All I have to go by is the human skull standing on the windowsill. I'd say it's a pretty educated guess, though – even a deduction.
I haven't seen anyone inside yet. It's already late, so I guess at least the Holm parents are asleep. William doesn't have ordinary people's need for sleep, though, so there's some hope that he'll still be awake on a Tuesday night like this.
I clear my throat and speak again, my head tipped back to watch the dark window above me.
“Twist yourself and turn yourself
and share a word with me
as I'm wandering on such a fair-weather-night
When all the sky-boys come out and dance
with blue shirts, sheep's hooves
The sky is full of fiddles”
There's a movement behind the glass. Nerves tingle in my belly when the window opens and William's curly head pokes out.
“John?” He peers down at me, his face torn between confusion and a sort of boyish joy.
“Hey.” I smile.
I can see him fighting not to ask an obvious question about why I'm here, or drop a stupid comment on how the sixth of August is not a night-wooing day. He frowns at me, trying to guess what's going on. I'm pretty sure he won't be able to deduce it.
“Are you going to let me in?” I ask.
“Oh. Yes. Careful, though – everyone is asleep.”
He pushes the windows open as far as they will go. I take a few steps back and then spring forward. The bottom of the window is at the height of my head, but I manage to throw my arms onto the windowsill. William helps me when I heave myself up and climb into his room.
His bedroom is almost three times as big as mine. It also contains about ten times as many things. Books are found on every single surface, maps and scientific posters cover the walls, there are strange fossils, a magnifying glass, and musical instruments both whole and taken apart. Actually, it looks precisely as I imagined it would; as odd and interesting as William himself. It's very comforting.
William looks around his room as if he too sees it for the first time. He looks a bit nervous, so I put my fingertips on his jaw and gently steer his head towards me. “Hello, you.” His pale eyes focus on me with a flash of hopeful light in them, before his eyelids drop when I lean in to kiss him.
I take my time to kiss him properly. When I step back from him he looks a bit dazed; his first priority is no longer to deduce why I'm here, I can tell. It's to snog me senseless. I love being able to do that to him.
That invisible halo around him, the one that appeared after our first kiss, has become more solid. I can see now that it wasn't the kisses that did it. No, it's because of what he is to me that he bathes in a subdued light only I can see. It's because he is the one I have chosen.
Looking into his eyes, I go down on one knee.
Doubt and disbelief wrestle on his face. I swallow fruitlessly – my mouth has gone dry – and my hands are trembling. I thought I'd get through this just fine, but my voice is so choked I don't recognise it when I speak.
“Holm William, this summer has been the best of my life. You are the most amazing person I've ever met, and I just…” I try another swallow. “I just can't imagine being with anyone other than you. For the rest of my life.”
William's eyes have gone very wide. I feel tears building up as I bravely hold his gaze and continue:
“I know this is a lot to ask. I know we can't get married, so my offer will hold little value, but there's nothing I want more than to spend my life with you. In whatever way we can. I love you, William. I hope you love me, and if you do… maybe you can agree not to marry. With me.”
My legs are trembling too now. I resolutely hold my pose on the floor by William's feet. I can see his throat working before he too manages to swallow and get out a quiet:
The smooth hardwood floor rends beneath me. For a second it feels as though I'm falling through it into a bottomless pit. But then William drops to his knees before me, and I can see the sheen of tears in his eyes when he goes on.
“No, we will marry.”
A breath shudders through me and lands me back on the wooden floorboards. I put down my other knee on the floor and grasp his hands.
“But – that's not possible for us.”
“Of course it is.” His eyes are fierce. “We will have the ceremony by the lake – where we met during the Midsummer night-wooing. Soling Jacob will be the witness, and Soling Alfred can officiate the wedding.”
My jaw drops. I feel it happening but I can't stop it. I've heard that Soling Jacob lives with a friend – not once did it occur to me that they were partners, let alone married. Not even after I met William and saw how love can grow between any two people, not even then did I question the relationship of the two Soling men.
“See?” William says. “People are stupid. They won't even consider the possibility of us living together for any other reason than being two bachelors who failed to woo a girl. Not even you saw it, and you are less idiotic than the common man.” I'm too awed by this new information to even roll my eyes before he goes on, speaking fast: “Soling Alfred's mother is a wise-woman in Sidensjö. Bakar Martha – she's eighty years old, probably doesn't have many years left. The Bakar house will go to Alfred when she dies; I've already talked to him about it, and he's willing to sell it to us. It's the perfect size for you and me. There's even room for a wood workshop in the house – you can start a fiddle-making practice in a few years, and I can play for money, and-”
“You've already thought about this”, I breathe. “You've- you've planned it.”
“Of course”, William says. “It might be wise to wait until next summer to have the wedding, though. That would give us time to work on the rings; we can't have ordinary wedding bands, obviously, but I'm thinking a necklace of some kind. Also, I need time to compose the wedding waltz and teach it to Jacob so he can play it after the ceremony. And we need to find suitable clothes for the occasion. I was thinking something in grey, and buttonholes with forget-me-nots…”
William's mouth suddenly snaps shut. He watches me warily, and I know I need to say something. I just have a hard time speaking around the lump in my throat. William wants to spend his life with me too. And I can tell from the excited way in which the words trip out of him how much it means to him that I was the one to ask.
“I love you”, I say.
William relaxes and drops his gaze to our still-linked hands. “I love you too”, he says quietly.
I stifle a burst of inexplicable laughter. “Well then. The Bakar house, you say?” He nods in silence. I squeeze his hands to make him look up at me. “Bakar William. Will you marry me?”
A smile tugs on his mouth. “Yes, I will, Bakar John.”
We grin at each other, so widely we must look utterly foolish. Maybe we are – I don't care. I want to be. We fall into one another's arms, still on our knees in the middle of his room. I smile and smile into his shoulder, so happy that it hurts.
“I want all of that”, I murmur into the fabric of his shirt. “The lake. The necklaces. The forget-me-nots. You'll really write me a wedding waltz?” The idea of hearing a tune William's composed is wonderful.
“I haven't started on it yet.” His voice too is muffled by my shoulder where he pushes his face against it. “This one will have to do for now.” He pulls back abruptly and starts rising off the floor. “Come.”
He takes my hand and helps me to my feet. He puts his arms around me in a dance-position, and I automatically do the same. His cheek rests lightly against my temple. I tilt my face up, smelling the skin of his throat in that spot just beneath his ear. Then he starts humming.
It's a waltz. William sings very quietly, but I'm close enough to hear every little sound. I relax into his hold, letting the romantic haze of the melody seep into my pores. He sways gently in time with the song, and I let him guide me until we're dancing with tiny waltz-steps. William turns us around on the spot – slowly, slowly – as he sings in my ear the most lovely tune. His lead is so sure that I want to just close my eyes and follow him. I trust him to lead me safely through anything.
Dancing with William is the same as talking with him, or feeling him laughing against my skin. It's the same as swimming with him, or sharing an otherworldly sunset. It's the same as kissing him. It's amazing how a simple waltz to a hummed tune can be like that.
William's voice shapes a small sanctuary for us in the middle of the world. The room vanishes around us bit by bit, the weave of reality turning into thin golden threads that surround us, warm and luminous. This, I think, is what it feels like when a promise is made. This is what happens when a future is settled.
I know now for certain that William and I will dance together forever.
The Swedish folk waltz looks different than other, more fancy waltzes. You can watch a clip here.
Khorazir has made four amazing pieces of fanart for this story. You don't want to miss this!!
… But the waltz that William hums is a special one. I didn't like any of the versions found online, so I made my own recording! I'm extra picky with this one as I'm letting the boys borrow a song that “belonged” to me and my first boyfriend – it was when he played Lurkas that I fell in love with him. See why I chose it for the boys? If you want to hear me play it on my fiddle, you can find it on my Tumblr:
Lurkas by agirlsname
Thank you for reading (and listening)! My beta and I have had a blast with this, and I hope you did too. If you have any questions about the Swedish folk culture, don't be shy to ask! Take care and stay safe!