In Midsummer Days by August Strindberg

In Midsummer days when in the countries of the North the earth is a bride, when the ground is full of gladness, when the brooks are still running, the flowers in the meadows still untouched by the scythe, and all the birds singing, a dove flew out of the wood and sat down before the cottage in which the ninety-year-old granny lay in her bed.

The old woman had been bedridden for twenty years, but she could see through her window everything that happened in the farmyard which was managed by her two sons. But she saw the world and the people in her own peculiar manner, for time and the weather had painted her window-panes with all the colours of the rainbow; she need but turn her head a little and things appeared successively red, yellow, green, blue, and violet. If she happened to look out on a cold winter’s day when the trees were covered with hoar-frost and the white foliage looked as if it were made of silver, she had but to turn her head a little on the pillow, and all the trees were green; it was summer-time, the ploughed fields were yellow, and the sky looked blue even if a moment before it had been ever so grey. And therefore the old granny imagined that she could work magic, and was never bored.

But the magical window-panes possessed another quality; they bulged a little and consequently they magnified or reduced every object which came into their field of vision. Whenever, therefore, her grown-up son came home in a bad temper and scolded everybody, granny had but to wish him to be a good little boy again, and straightway she saw him quite small. Or, when she watched her grandchildren playing in the yard, and thought of their future–one, two, three–she changed her position ever so slightly, and they became grown-up men and women, as tall as giants.

Ail during the summer the window stood open, for then the window-panes could not show her anything so beautiful as the reality. And now, on Midsummer Eve, the most beautiful time of all the year, she lay there and looked at the meadows and towards the wood, where the dove was singing its song. It sang most beautifully of the Lord Jesus, and the joy and splendour of the Kingdom of Heaven, where all are welcome who are weary and heavy laden.

The old woman listened to the song for a little while, and then she laid that she was much obliged, but that Heaven could be no more beautiful than the earth itself, and she wanted nothing better.

Thereupon the dove flew away over the meadow into the mountain glen, where the farmer stood digging a well. He stood in a deep hole which he had dug, three yards below the surface; it was just as if he were standing in his grave.

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The dove settled on a fir tree and sung of the joy of Heaven, quite convinced that the man in the hole, who could see neither sky, nor sea, nor meadow, must be longing for Heaven.

“No,” said the farmer, “I must first dig a well; otherwise my summer guest will have no water, and the unhappy little mother will take her child and go and live elsewhere.”

The dove flew down to the strand, when the farmer’s brother was busy hauling in the fishing-nets; it sat among the rushes and began to sing.

“No,” said the farmer’s brother, “I must provide food for my family, otherwise my children will cry with hunger. Later on! Later on, I tell you! Let’s live first and die afterwards.”

***

And the dove flew to the pretty cottage, where the unhappy little mother had taken rooms for the summer. She sat on the verandah, working at a sewing machine; her face was as white as a lily, and her red felt hat looked like a huge poppy on her hair, which was as black as a mourning veil. She was busy making a pinafore which her little girl was to wear on Midsummer Eve, and the child sat at her feet on the floor, cutting up little pieces of material which were not wanted.

“Why isn’t daddy coming home?” asked the little girl, looking up.

That was a very difficult question, so difficult that the young mother could not answer it; and very possibly daddy could not have answered it either, for he was far away in a foreign country with his grief, which was twice as great as mammy’s.

The sewing machine was not in good order, but it stitched and stitched; it made as many pricks as a human heart can bear before it breaks, but every prick only served to pull the thread tighter–it was curious!

“I want to go to the village, mammy,” said the little girl. “I want to see the sun, for it is so dark here.”

“You shall go and play in the sunshine this afternoon, darling.”

I must tell you that it was very dark between the high cliffs on this side of the island; the cottage stood in a gloomy pine-grove, which completely hid the view of the sea.

“And I want you to buy me a lot of toys, mammy.”

“Darling, we have so little money to buy toys with,” answered the mother, bending her head still lower over their work.

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And that was the truth; for their comfort had changed into penury. They had no servant, and the mother had to do the whole house-work herself.

But when she saw the sad face of the little girl, she took her on her knees.

“Put your little arms round mammy’s neck,” she said.

The little one obeyed.

“Now give mammy a kiss!”

The rosy little half-open mouth, which looked like the mouth of a little bird, was pressed against her lips; and when the blue eyes, blue as the flower of the flax, smiled into hers, her beautiful face reflected the sweet innocence of the little one, and made her look like a happy child herself, playing in the sunshine.

“No use my singing to them of the Kingdom of Heaven,” thought the dove, “but if I can in any way serve them, I will.”

And then it flew away towards the sunny village, for it had work to do there.

***

It was afternoon now; the little mother took a basket on one arm and the child’s little hand into hers, and they left the cottage. She had never been to the village, but she knew that it was situated somewhere towards sunset, on the other side of the island, and the farmer had told her that she would have to get over six stiles and walk through six latticed gates before she could get there.

And on they went.

Their way lay along a footpath, full of stones and old tree-roots, so that she was obliged to carry the little girl, and that was very hard work. The doctor had told her that the child must not strain her left foot, because it was so weak that it might easily have grown deformed.

The young mother staggered along, under her beloved burden, and large beads of perspiration stood like pearls on her forehead, for it was very hot in the wood.

“I am so thirsty, mammy,” whispered the little, complaining voice.

“Have patience, darling, there will be plenty of water when we get there.”

And she kissed the little parclied mouth, and the child smiled and forgot all about her thirst.

But the scorching rays of the sun burned their skin and there was not a breath of air in the wood.

“Try and walk a little, darling,” said the mother, putting the child down.

But the little foot gave way and the child could not walk a step.

“I am so tired, mammy,” she laid, sitting down and beginning to cry.

But the prettiest little flowers, which looked like rose-coloured bells and smelt of sweet almonds, grew all over the spot where she was sitting. She smiled when she saw them, for she had never seen anything half as lovely, and her smile strengthened the heart of the mother so that she could continue her walk with the child in her arms.

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Now they had arrived at the first gate. They passed through it and carefully re-fastened the latch.

All of a sudden they heard a noise like a loud neighing; a horse galloped towards them, blocked the path and neighed again; its neighing was answered on the right and the left and from all sides of the wood; the ground trembled, the branches of the trees cracked, and the stones were scattered in all directions by the approaching hoofs. In less than no time the poor, frightened travellers were surrounded on all sides by a herd of savage horses.

The child hid her face on her mother’s shoulder, and her little heart ticked with fear like a watch.

“I am so frightened!” she whispered.

“Oh! Father in Heaven, help us!” prayed the mother.

At the same moment a blackbird, sitting on a fir tree, began to sing; the horses scudded away as fast as they could, and there was once more silence in the wood.

They came to the second gate, walked through and re-fastened the latch.

They were on fallow ground now, and the sun scorched them even worse than it had done before. They saw before them rows and rows of dull clods of earth, but in a steep place the clods suddenly began to move, and then they knew that what they had taken for clods of earth were really the backs of a flock of sheep.

Sheep are quite gentle and inoffensive, especially the little lambs, but that is a good deal more than can be said of the ram, who is a savage brute and often takes a delight in attacking those who have never done him any harm. There he was already, jumping over a ditch right into the middle of their path. He lowered his head and walked a few steps backwards.

“I am so frightened, mammy,” said the little girl, and her heart began to beat fast.

“Oh! Merciful Father in Heaven, help us!” sighed the mother, with an imploring look upwards.

And high up, in the blue vault of the sky, fluttering its wings like a butterfly, a little lark began to sing. And as it sang the ram disappeared among the grey clods.

They stood before the third gate. They were on a slope now; the ground was swampy and before long they came to a crevice. The hillocks looked like little graves, overgrown with vetch or white cotton-flowers and they had to be careful to avoid sinking into the swamp. Black berries of a poisonous kind grew in abundance everywhere; the little girl wanted to gather them, and because her mother would not permit it, she began to cry, for she did not understand what poisonous meant.

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And as they walked on, they noticed a white sheet, which looked as if it had been drawn in and out through the trees; the sun disappeared behind a bank of clouds and a white darkness, which was very went towards them, hoping to find some water in the place whence they came.

On their way they passed a white cottage, behind a green fence with a white gate; the gate stood hospitably open. They entered and found themselves in a garden where peonies and colombines grew. The mother noticed that the curtains in the lower storey were all drawn before the windows, and that all the curtains were white. But one of the attic windows stood open and a white hand appeared above the pots of touch-me-nots. It waved a little white handkerchief, as if it were waving a last farewell to one who was going on a long journey.

They walked as far as the cottage; in the high grass lay a wreath of myrtle and white roses. But it was too big for a bridal wreath.

They went through the front door and the mother called out if anybody were in? As there was no reply they went into the parlour. On the floor, surrounded by a whole forest of flowers, stood a black coffin with silver feet and in the coffin lay a young girl with a bridal crown on her head.

The walls of the room were made of new pinewood and only varnished with oil, so that all the knots were visible. And the knots in the knot-holes looked for all the world like so many eyes.

“Oh! Just look at all the eyes, mammy,” exclaimed the little girl.

Yes, there were eyes of every description; big eyes, eloquent eyes, grave eyes; little shining baby eyes, with a lurking smile in the corner; wicked eyes, which showed too much white; frank and candid eyes, which looked one straight into the heart; and, over there, a big, gentle mother’s eye, which regarded the dead girl lovingly; and a transparent tear of resin trembled on the lid, and sparkled in the setting sun like a green and red diamond.

“Is she asleep?” asked the child, looking into the face of the dead girl.

“Yes, she is asleep.”

“Is she a bride, mammy?”

“Yes, darling.”

The mother had recognised her. It was the girl who was to be a bride on Midsummer day, when her sailor lover would return home; but the sailor had written to say that he would not be home until the autumn, and his letter had broken her heart; for she could not bear to wait until the autumn, when the leaves would drop dead from the trees and the winter wind have a rough game with them in the lanes and alleys.

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She had heard the song of the dove and taken it to heart.

The young mother left the cottage; now she knew where she would go. She put the heavy basket down outside the gate and took the child into her arms; and so she walked across the meadow which separated her from the shore.

The meadow was a perfect sea of flowers, waving and whispering round her ankles, and the pollen water was calm and blue; and presently it was not water through which they sailed, but the blue blossoms of the flax, which she gathered in her outstretched hands.

And the flowers bent down and rose up again, whispering, lapping against the sides of the boat like little waves. The flax-field before them appeared to be infinite, but presently a white mist enveloped them, and they heard the plashing of real waves, but above the mist they heard a lark singing.

“How does the lark come to sing on the sea?” asked the child.

“The sea is so green that the lark takes it for a meadow,” answered the mother.

The mist had dispersed again. The sky was blue and the lark was still singing.

Then they saw, straight before them, in the middle of the sea, a green island with a white, sandy beach, and people, dressed all in pure white, walking hand in hand. The setting sun shone on the golden roof of a colonnade, where white fires burnt in sacred sacrificial vessels; and the green island was spanned by a rainbow, the colour of which was rose-red and sedge-green.

“What is it, mammy?”

The mother could make no reply.

“Is it the Kingdom of Heaven of which the dove sang? What is the Kingdom of Heaven, mammy?”

“A place, darling, where all people love one another,” answered the mother, “where there is neither grief nor strife.”

“Then let us go there,” said the child.

“Yes, we will go,” said the tired, forsaken little mother.

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