Silje decided she would hold onto her anger until the morning, before forgiving Freya’s intrusion into her father’s heart. Then as she brushed her hair, Freya opened the door to her room and entered carrying a bowl of hot water and a towel.
‘It has been some time since we tended to each other,’ she said. ‘I think it is because you have been angry with me. You are my friend, and I do not like it when you are angry with me.’
Silje eyed the bowl in much the same way she would eye a cooling Ring Cake. She would forgive the transgression, just this once. She sat down and rapped on the bedpost so that Freya would know where to find her.
Freya placed the bowl on the floor and knelt in front of her. ‘Which first?’
‘The left,’ Silje replied. ‘Always begin with the left.’
She watched her intently as the Jewess caressed and bathed her aching feet. Freya gently massaged her heels and ankles, and pulled lightly on each of her toes. After a while, Silje realised her eyes were watering; she’d forgotten to blink. Then Freya began drying her feet with a touch so light it made her stomach tighten at every stroke.
Freya stopped. ‘Could I what?’
Silje coughed and leaned back on her elbows; suddenly she felt very tired. ‘Your hair,’ she said. ‘I like it when you use your hair.’ Even as she spoke, she wondered if she had crossed into some unseen borderland, though she’d never been one to concern herself with such boundaries before. ‘I am sorry. I ask too much of you.’
Freya didn’t reply, but a few moments later, Silje felt her soft braid against the soles of her feet. She closed her eyes, lost to the waves rippling out in soft circles from her abdomen. She tried to gather her thoughts, tried to reason with the sensation that had taken such a hold of her. The mead, she thought as the world fell away. It is just the mead.
After an eternity, the feeling ceased. She opened her eyes to see Freya sitting next to her, staring ahead and waving a hairbrush.
‘Now me,’ she said cheerfully.
‘I washed your feet, just how you like it. Now you must brush my hair, how I like it.’
Without a word, Silje took the hairbrush and kneeled behind her. She unfastened Freya’s braid and spread her hair across her shoulders.
‘We should cut it,’ she said, brushing it through with long gentle strokes, watching the coarse threads pass through her fingers.
‘I do not want to cut it. Don’t you like my hair?’
‘I think your hair is beautiful,’ said Silje, surprising herself; the phrase sitting on her tongue was, I think your hair is perfectly nice. Beautiful, it seemed, had jostled past and forced itself from her lips. ‘But if it were shorter then perhaps it would be more convenient.’
Freya giggled. ‘I never thought Silje Ohnstad would be concerned with something so trivial as convenience.’
‘Well then, there is much you do not know about me.’
Silje continued, slowly brushing her hair, silently praying that Freya wouldn’t say Enough. Not yet, she hoped, not for a little while…
‘Do you think Magnus likes my hair?’
She put down the brush. ‘Enough. It is time for bed.’
‘He is very brave,’ Freya said, scratching her lip. ‘Killing all those Germans.’
‘I do not think he said how many Germans he killed.’
‘I’m sure it is lots.’
‘I’m sure it is a perfectly average amount for an inexperienced Resistance fighter.’
‘He spoke of the bravery of his friends. He did not speak of himself at all.’
‘That is what good men are like.’
‘Do you know a lot about men?’
‘Enough to keep most of them at an arm’s length, yes.’
‘So you do not like men.’
‘If you ask too many questions you will not be able to sleep.’
‘So if you do not like men then who do you like?’
‘I like men, Freya.’
Freya hopped off the bed and began stripping off her clothes. Silje tried to look away but found she could not. Does she think that because she cannot see others, others cannot see her?
‘Then I do not understand. You are quite old. Why are you not married? Erik Brenna likes you. He told me so. Why have you not married him?’
‘I am not… old!’ said Silje, pointlessly making a face.
‘I am sorry. I did not mean to—’
‘Men are like fruit: they grow, they ripen, they wither, they spoil. You pluck them too early and they are hard and bitter, pluck them too late and they are too soft and their richness has gone. There is a small space in time when they are just right, when you will gain the most enjoyment before the rot sets in.’
Freya stared glumly in her direction. ‘So you are waiting for Erik to ripen.’
‘In a manner of speaking, yes.’
‘I think that is a sad way to look at things.’
‘When you are older you will agree with me.’
‘Do you think Magnus is ripe?’
‘It would be improper of me to say so.’
Silje averted her eyes as Freya pulled back the covers and threw her thin, unclothed body onto the bed. She realised, with sudden and inexplicable alarm, that the Jewess slept naked.
‘You suddenly care what is proper,’ Freya said, drawing the covers to her chin.
Silje thought, It is the mead talking. She will be herself again tomorrow. ‘If you had asked me a month ago, then I would have said no. But whatever he has done, whatever he has seen, it has changed him.’
‘So he is ready for marriage!’ Freya cried, her interest tediously reawakened.
Silje began removing her own clothes and folding them into a pile at the foot of the bed. ‘I would say he’s perhaps on the turn.’
‘Now you are being unkind.’
‘He is too old for you.’ She slipped on her nightdress, and then struggled into a second one to compensate for Freya’s lack of night attire.
‘I am eighteen. I am more than old enough for him!’
She sighed and wondered if Freya would ever be sober again.
‘And I assure you, Silje Ohnstad, I am perfectly ripe!’
‘That does not apply to women. We are eternally at our best; remember that.’ She climbed into the narrow bed and snatched some of the covers away from Freya.
‘Being with a man – what is it like?’
‘It depends on the mood and the man.’
‘Mine. Now go to sleep.’
‘I have never kissed a man,’ Freya said quietly.
I am sharing my bed with a night troll, Silje thought. Why will she not sleep? ‘Indeed, Freya, that is a tragedy.’
‘What is it.’
‘You will teach me to kiss men, yes?’
‘Oh. Why won’t you—?’
‘Freya, go to sleep or I will hit you with something.’
Freya turned over and snatched back the covers. ‘You are very unkind, Silje Ohnstad.’
‘No, I am very tired, and you are very drunk.’
Silje waited for a rejoinder, but none came. Instead she heard the soft purr of Freya’s breathing; the child had exhausted herself and fallen into a deep sleep as soon as her head met the pillow. Silje decided her father’s mead was perhaps not so bad after all.
And so she lay waiting for her own slumber. She stared at the ceiling, watching a large spider making its way towards the light that shone from the gap above her door. Freya rolled onto her back and Silje lost interest in the spider. She bit her lip and raised herself so she could better see Freya’s face. So plain, she thought, but one day she will be… less plain. She watched the steady rise and fall of Freya’s chest and felt her own heartbeat slow to fall in step with her breathing. ‘But your hair is beautiful,’ she whispered, and felt the first of a thousand tiny hot pins pierce her flesh. She swallowed. Her throat was dry, and she felt a furnace light beneath her skin. It wasn’t just the second nightdress; it was Freya. Even asleep, the girl ran as hot as Junges Fehn’s printing press.
Small wonder she sleeps unclothed. Silje cursed all her misfortunes, rolled from the bed and curled herself up on the floor.