“Karen’s Christmas” by Amalie Skram
Translated by Michael Henrik Wynn
At one of the steamship ports in Kristiania there was some years ago a gray wooden structure with a flat roof, no chimney, just over two and a half yards long and slightly shorter in width. At both end walls there was a small window, one slightly higher than the other. The door opened onto the waterfront and could be shut both from the inside and the outside with iron hooks that connected to eyes of the same metal.
The hut was originally erected for the ferrymen in order to provide shelter from rainy days and winter chills when they sat waiting for travelers to demand passage. Later, when the small steamships assumed more and more of the traffic, the ferrymen moved elsewhere. Now, the building temporarily became a residence for whomever had a use for it. The latest occupants were some masons who, two at the time, used to eat their meals there when they one summer repaired a nearby quay.
Eventually, nobody took any notice of the little old shack. It remained where it stood because the port authorities never conceived of the idea of removing it, and because nobody complained that it was in the way of anyone or anything.
Then, one winter night in December just before Christmas. There wasn’t much snow because it melted as it fell, and that made the mud on the cobblestones of the quay even thicker and more sticky. The snow lay like a fine-meshed gray cover on the gaslights and the steam powered cranes, and if you reached the ships, you could see that it hung like a festoon from the masts and the riggings. The dirty yellow glare of gaslights burnt in the dark-gray humid air, while the lanterns glowed murky and red. Now and again a sharp chime cut through the damp atmosphere, when the watch on board struck eight bells.
The constable who patrolled the quay stopped by the gaslights just outside the former refuge of the ferrymen. He pulled out his watch to check how late it was, but as he held up to the light, he heard something resembling the cries of a baby. His lowered his hand, looked about and listened. No, it couldn’t be? Then he looked at his watch again. Yet again there was the sound, this time mingled with a calming hush. He lowered his hand again, and again there was quiet. What kind of devil’s trickery was this? He looked around, but found nothing. A third time the watch was raised to the glare of the gaslight and this time he could, in the silent night, see that it was soon 4 o’clock.
He drifted along the quay, passed the old shack, wondered a little, but then dismissed it all as pure fancy….Or how could it be?
A little while later when he returned the same way, he approached the hut. What was that? Didn’t he detect movement inside? Light from gas-lamps flowed in through both the windows in the end walls, and made it seem as if the interior was illuminated.
He walked over and looked in. Quite right. There was a shape on the bench right under the window, a tiny huddled up creature, who leaned forward fiddling with something, he could not see what. He stepped around the corner, stopped at the door and tried to enter. It was locked.
“Open up!” – he shouted and and knocked with his knuckels.
He heard someone startled. There was a faint exclamation, then all turned quiet.
He knocked again with his fist and repeated:
“You in there, open up! Open up this instance.”
“What do you want? Dear God, there is no one here,” – said the terrified voice on the other side of the door.
“Open up. It is the police!”
“My goodness, the police–oh my dear, it is just little old me. I am not doing any harm, I am just sittin’ here, you see”.
“Can’t you get a move on and open this door, or I will most certainly give it to you straight. Will you…”
He got no further, for at that very moment the door opened, and in the next instance he hunched through the doorway into the tiny room, where there was barely enough space to stand upright.
“Are you mad? Not allowing the police entrance! What were you thinking?”
“I am so sorry Mr. Policeman, — I did open the door, you see.”
“And that was the best thing you could have done,” he growled.
“Who are you anyway, and who has given you permission to take up lodging here?”
“It is just me, Karen,” –she whispered. “I’m sittin’ here with my babe”
The policeman eyed her over closely. She was a slim little thing with a pale and narrow face. There was a deep scrofula scar, a straight line, on one cheek. She was barely an adult. She wore a light brown garment, some kind of sweater or jacket, with a cut that betrayed its age, and a darker skirt, which hung like rags down to her ankles. On her feet there were a pair of worn-out soldier’s boots, laces missing. In her one arm she held a bundle of cloth, which lay across her waist. Something white protruded from the top end of the bundle. It was a baby’s head, which suckled her meager breast. The woman had tied a ragged scarf around her head which was fastened under her chin. From her neck locks of hair stuck out. Her entire body shivered from cold, and when she moved, there came squishy and squeaking sounds from her boots, as if she was stepping in mud.
“I didn’t think I would be a bother to anyone” she stated in her shrill voice – “the hut is here anyway, isn’t it?”
The policeman suddenly felt uneasy. At first he had had intended to drive her out into the streets with harsh words – let her off with a warning. But then he saw the miserable wretch before him with a tiny child in her arms pushing up against the bench, so fearful and humble that she was afraid to sit down. He could not help but be moved.
“But dear God, my child, what are you doing here?”
She perceived the sympathy of his voice, her fears settled and she began to cry.
The constable reached for the door and swung it shut.
“Sit down for a moment” – he said – “the child is so heavy”
She slid down unto the bench.
“Now, then”- the constable said encouragingly and sat down on the bench opposite her.
“Oh dear, Mr Constable – let me stay here” she lisped through her tears. “I won’t do no mischief – not the slightest – keep clean, I will. You can see for yourself, I am hygienic. What you see over there are breadcrusts “. She pointed to bundle on the floor. “I go begging every day – there’s some water in the bottle. Let me stay the nights here, till I get back my job back – if only the Madame will come for me”. She blew her nose in her fingers and wiped them on her skirt.
“And this Madame, whoever might that be?” asked the constable.
“I was in her service, see. I had ever such a nice position with board, 4 shillings a month and breakfast. But then I got knocked up, you see, and then I had to go, of course, Madame Olsen herself went to the Charity and got me in. She is ever so kind. I was in her service right until I went there. You see, Madame Olsen is on her own, and she said she would keep me as long as I managed. But then Madame Olsen had to travel, see, she is a midwife. And then she got ill and bed-ridden out there in the countryside. And now they say she won’t be comin’ home till Christmas.”
“But dear God, are you planning to roam the streets with this baby while you are you are waiting for this Madame! What good can come of this?” The constable shook his head.
“I have nowhere to go” she whimpered. “Since my father died there is no one to help me when my stepmother throws me into the streets.”
“What about the father of your child?”
“Oh him,” she said and made a slight toss with her neck. “I don’t think he will be of much help either.”
“But surely you know that you can get him sentenced to pay child support?”
“Yes, they say so,” she replied. “But how are we going to go about it, when he doesn’t exist?”
“You just give me his name,” the constable interjected, “then he will be produced, you will see.”
“Yes, if I only knew,” she said casually.
“What are you saying? You don’t know the name of the father of your own child?”
Karen stuck a finger in her mouth and begun to suck on it. Her head tilted forward. She smiled in a helpless, silly way. “N-O” she whispered with a long emphasis on each letter and without removing her finger from her mouth.
“Never in my life have I heard such a thing,” the constable began, “How on earth did you hook up with this man?”
“I met him in the streets at night, when it was dark,” she replied without a hint of bashfulness, “but it didn’t go long before he was gone, and I haven’t seen him since”
“Have you not made inquiries?”
“Of course I have, but nobody knows where he has gone. He has probably gone into the country, because he either worked with horses or carriages, I could tell from his smell.”
“My God, what a mess you are in,” the constable muttered. “you must report to the authorities,” he said more loudly, –“then they can work things out for you.”
“No, I won’t do that,” she answered with sudden defiance”
“Surely it must be better to go to the workhouse and receive food and shelter than what you are doing now?” the constable said.
“Yes, but when Madame Olsen arrives — she is so kind, Madame Olsen — she will make me a temporary maid. I know this for a fact, because she promised me she would. Then I know a woman who will give us board for 3 shillings a month. She will look after the wee one while I am with Madame Olsen. And then I will help her out when I return from the Madame. It will all work out fine, when Madame Olsen comes. She will be here for Christmas, they say.”
“Very well, my dear, every adult know their own business. But you have no right to stay in this here hut.”
“What does it matter if I sit here at nights – does it harm anyone? Dear God, let me stay, the wee one won’t cry. Only till the Madame arrives. Dear Mr. Constable, only till the Madame arrives.”
“But you will freeze yourself blue, you and the child.” He looked at her poor clothes.
“Surely, this will be better than walking the streets? Oh, dear Mr. Constable- only til the Madame arrives.”
“Really, you should have accompanied me to the station, you see,” the constable said and thoughtfully scratched his ear.
She startled and moved towards him. “No, don’t do it,” she whimpered as her frozen fingers caught hold of his sleeve. “I beg you- in the name of our beautiful Lord – only till the Madame arrives.”
The constable reconsidered. There were only three days till Christmas, he counted.
“Very well,” he said as he got up. “You can stay till Christmas, but not a day longer. And mind you, no one must know that you are here.”
“God bless you, God bless you, and thank you,” she exclaimed.
But remember to be gone by 6 o’clock in the morning, before the rush of traffic begins out here,” he added when he was half-way out the door.
The next night, when he passed the hut, he stopped and looked in. She sat leaning against the window, the profile of her scarfed head dimly visible against the glass. The child was at her breast suckling. She did not move and seemed to be asleep.
Next morning, it was freezing. During the next day the thermometer dropped to 12 degrees below. It was bitterly cold, calm and cloudless. Rime formed on the windows of the tiny ferryman’s hut, the glass was no longer transparent.
The weather changed again Christmas Eve. There was a thaw, and every surface seemed to drip. You almost needed an umbrella, even if there was no rain. The storehouse windows were frost-free, and the roads more slippery than ever.
The constable arrived in the afternoon around two. His doctor had given him leave of absence from work the last few nights because of a feverish cold. Now he was coming down to talk with a man on one of the steamships.
It so happened that he passed the hut on his way there. Even in the fading daylight he saw, at several paces, something which caused him to stop. It filled his mind with worry. There she was seated in precisely the same position as she was two nights ago. The same profile was visible against the glass. He really didn’t give it much thought, just felt a sudden horror at seeing the petrified figure. A sudden chill went down his spine. Perhaps something had happened?
He hurried to the door, it was closed. He broke the glass in a window, got hold of an iron bar which he stuck through the opening and unhinged the hook. Then he slowly and carefully entered.
They were both stone dead. The child lay on top of her mother and was still suckling, even in death. A few drops of blood had trickled from the nipple down the child’s cheeks and coagulated on her chin. The mother was terribly emaciated, but her faced seemed fixed in a tranquil smile.
“Poor girl, what a Christmas she got,” the constable muttered rubbing his eye.
“But perhaps it was for the best for them both. I suppose our Lord has a purpose with everything.”
He left the hut, shut the door behind him and fastened the hook. Then he hurried to the station to report the incident.
The first day of work after Christmas weekend, the port authorities demolished the hut and removed it. They couldn’t have it there attracting all kinds of vagrants.