When Inge Maria arrives on the tiny island of Bornholm in Denmark to live with her grandmother, she's not sure what to expect. Her grandmother is stern, the people on the island are strange, and children are supposed to be seen and not heard. But no matter how hard Inge tries to be good, mischief has a way of finding her. Could it be that a bit of mischief is exactly what Grandmother and the people of Bornholm need?
The Grateful Goat and the Talking Spoons
Here I am, feeling sorry for myself.
I’m sitting on a wooden crate, wedged between a cage full of geese and a goat. If I press too hard against the geese, they honk and peck at me, and even though my coat is too thick for it to hurt, it makes me want to cry. If I press too hard against the goat, she eats my plaits. One is already ten centimeters shorter than the other, the ribbon gone, and that makes me want to cry too.
I could stand up, but the boat is rolling and tumbling so much that I would probably fall over, and the deck is covered in water and poo and ?sh guts. If I don’t fall over, I might bump into one of the ?shermen, and they are already grumpy about having a ten-year-old on their boat. They think it is bad luck to have a child onboard. Even worse luck if she is a girl.
I could go and sit with the old man and his seasick pig, but he might ask me why I am traveling alone, all the way from Copenhagen out to the island of Bornholm, and I don’t want to talk about it. That will de?nitely make me want to cry.
I tell myself that the goat isn’t so bad. She stinks, but she is friendly, and doesn’t seem to mind my being close. The softness and warmth of her remind me of snuggling by the ?re with Mama, listening as she reads my favorite stories. I wrap my red woolen scarf around my head to protect my hair, rest my cheek against the goat, and close my eyes. A tear squeezes its way out from between my eyelids and dribbles down my face.
“Silly,” I say, licking it o? my cheek as it slides near to my mouth.
I will not feel sorry for myself.
“I will be a brave girl,” I whisper into the goat’s kidneys. “I will make Mama proud of me.”
And then I fall asleep.
My grandmother meets me at the harbor at Svaneke. We have never met before, but I know it is her because she is the only woman there. She is short and round, like a barrel. Everything she wears is black—her headscarf, dress, boots, and shawl. Even her eyes are black, like two raisins pressed into her wrinkled gray face. She does not smile.
I wonder if her bloomers are black. Gloomy underwear would be enough to wipe the joy from anyone’s face.
She waits on solid ground and makes me walk alone, down the gangplank and the full length of the long stone wharf. I have traveled all this way on my own, and still she makes me complete the ?nal part of the journey alone.
I feel naked and lopsided, and when I reach her, I realize why.
Grandmother gasps. “What have you done to your hair, child?”
I touch my head and feel spiky tufts where one of my long blond plaits used to sit. The goat has eaten all the hair o? one side of my head while I was asleep.
I can feel hot tears prickling in my eyes, but I will not let them fall. I will not feel sorry for myself. No matter how bald the right side of my head feels. No matter how much I wish my mother were here. No matter how long it takes before my grandmother hugs me and says that she is glad to meet me.
“Stay here, child,” she says, and walks along the wharf to boss some men about. I have brought an enormous trunk with me and she is not happy. It will have to come later on the back of a cart. She will have to pay someone for their trouble.
She means I have caused her trouble.
I think, Don’t hold your breath waiting for a hug, Inge Maria Jensen.
The old man walks by, leading the goat on a rope. She bleats at me. I think she is saying, “Thank you for the delicious lunch,” but I am too annoyed to say, “You are welcome.”
But then the man scolds her and I think that maybe the goat is feeling sad and lonely too, and I give in.
“Have a pleasant evening!” I call after her, and wave.
Grandmother rolls her eyes and drags me up the road by the arm. She will not even hold my hand.
The walk home is long and cold. By the time we reach Grandmother’s farm, it is snowing, even though it is late in March and winter should be long gone. My legs are tired and my face is so raw that I don’t even want to stop to build a snowman. My half-bald head stings with every new snow?ake that lands on it.
Grandmother’s house is pretty. It is bright red with black beams of wood holding the red bits together. Like strawberries and licorice. The roof is covered in a white icing of snow, but I can tell from the shape that it is made of straw thatching. This cheers me up a little. At least she doesn’t live in a cave, or a hole in a tree. It happens, you know. I’ve read about it in fairy tales.
Inside is warm and cozy, but it is an old woman’s home. There is a rocking chair by the ?re, a basket of knitting, a small table with a lantern, and a Bible. There are no books full of stories and brightly colored pictures, no cat curled up by the ?re, no squishy chairs big enough for two people to sit, side by side, cuddling, reading, talking, telling each other about their day.
“Well, child,” Grandmother snaps. “Don’t just stand there like a smoked herring with your eyes staring and your mouth open. Come inside and close the door before the wind chills the walls and there is enough snow indoors to ski.”
I look up at her, thinking that she might just have made a joke. She is frowning like an ogre. I smile anyway, and point at a ?ake of snow that has blown in through the door and is ?itting its way toward Grandmother.
Before I know what has happened, my outstretched hand is smarting, burning, glowing red with ?nger shapes.
Grandmother has slapped me!
She stomps past me and slams the door shut.
“You are behaving like a barbarian, child!” she scolds.
“Pointing, gaping, and disobeying your grandmother!”
I stare at her, my bottom lip trembling.
I will not cry, I say in my head. I will not feel sorry for myself.
But I do not know why she has slapped me. I just wanted to show her the beautiful snow?ake dancing across her ?oor.
And I do not even know what a barbarian is.
I have never been hit before. Mama’s hands were only ever used to hug, or to help with laces and buttons, or to stroke my cheek and hair.
Grandmother whips o? my coat and scarf, wipes my face clean with a cold, damp cloth, and sits me down at the kitchen table with a bowl of steaming soup.
I am starving. I have not eaten since the boat left Copenhagen yesterday. It’s not easy to eat when you are watching ?sh guts slide around at your feet and have a sea-sick pig moaning at you. My stomach feels like it has shrunk to the size of a thimble and now it is begging for me to stretch it out with some food once again.
Grandmother says grace—“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let thy gifts to us be blest”—and nods for me to eat.
The soup looks delicious—?our balls and meatballs crowd the bowl of steaming broth, bobbing merrily between the chunks of onion and carrot.
But I am even more excited by the beautiful spoon lying beside my hand. It is large and shiny and has a pattern of ?owers along its handle. It is certainly a girl spoon and perhaps even a talking spoon. There are such things. I know, because I have read about this too, in my fairy-tale book.
I lift the spoon and say, “Thank you, pretty spoon, for your help in eating my food.”
Grandmother rolls her eyes and eats her soup.
I smile at the spoon and begin to eat, getting faster with every mouthful. It tastes delicious and I feel my tummy stretch and my face defrost. It is not enough, but when I have ?nished I say, “Thank you, Grandmother.”
She looks pleased and places not one, but three slices of white bread before me. Then she puts a bowl of jam and a pat of butter on the table.
My mouth is watering and my tummy is growling at me to get wol?ng, but I am afraid that this is some kind of trick. Perhaps Grandmother is testing me to see whether I am a greedy child as well as a barbarian.
I sit there, hands folded politely in my lap, more miserable than a goose on Christmas Eve. Grandmother is bustling around the kitchen, boiling the kettle, making tea. She is pretending to be preoccupied, but I know that she is watching out the corner of her eye.
The butter is winking at me in the light of the candle, begging me to eat it, and the jam is glistening with the goodness of a million blackberries. At last, too hungry to hold back a moment longer, I plunge my knife into the butter and spread it thickly on my soft white bread. I shovel the spoon into the jam and splat an enormous blob onto the bread, then stu? the entire slice into my mouth at once, before Grandmother can stop me.
By the time she sits down at the table with a cup of tea for herself and a glass of milk for me, I have gobbled all three pieces of bread. The remaining butter looks like it has been attacked by a hungry troll, and the jam bowl is empty except for a few blackberry seeds clinging to the sides. My cheeks are bulging with the last piece of bread and jam, my tongue is dancing with sugar, and my tummy is cheering with happiness. Only my head is ?lled with dread.
I look up to face Grandmother and she is nodding in approval. I cannot believe it! Her black eyes are soft and melty, and underneath the wrinkles—I gulp at the thought—her face looks just like Mama’s.
“Good girl,” she says. “I never could abide fussy eaters. A hearty appetite is a gift from God.”
I am overwhelmed with relief. Desperate to please my grandmother, to make her love me, I smile and say, “Thank you, Grandmother. That is the most beautiful berry jam I have ever tasted.”
I pick up the jam spoon and hold it to my ear.
“And the little jam spoon says it is the most delicious jam that she has ever served. She is quite giddy with the sweetness and joy of it.”
It seems to do the trick, because even though Grandmother is rolling her eyes once more, her face still looks like Mama’s and she doesn’t slap me again this day.
I am lying awake listening to Grandmother’s snoring. You’d think it would be annoying, but I am glad for it. I have never had to share a bed before, but I’m grateful that I have not been sent away into a dark corner of the house on my own. I could not bear to be all alone tonight. Not in this strange new house, so far from our apartment in Copenhagen. So far from Mama.
I think of the horrible misunderstanding with the dancing snow?ake that ended with a slap and harsh words. Then I recall how pleased Grandmother seemed when I thanked her for my soup. Perhaps I should learn to be thankful for the good things as they come along, no matter how small. That would show Grandmother that I am a decent girl. It might even make her love me.
Besides, I am learning that there are many dreadful things that can push their way into my life, so I’d better enjoy the good things when I can.
I snuggle up to Grandmother, wrapping my arm around her large, soft middle. She gives an extra-loud snort all of a sudden, mumbles, “Hemph diddly diddly pom squaddle,” and settles back into her deep, rhythmic snoring.
I nestle my head into her shoulder and whisper, “Thank Thee, Lord God, that Grandmother is fat and warm and snores like a walrus with ?sh tangled in its teeth.”
“Hork porker wallop poomph,” Grandmother mumbles, as if she is trying to demonstrate to the Lord that she truly is a great snorer. The poomph at the end is so hard that I can feel the short tufts of hair rippling on my head. I pretend that it is Grandmother’s special way of kissing. Like Mama used to ?utter her eyelashes against mine, then press her lips against my forehead.
I stretch my face up, kiss Grandmother on the cheek, and whisper, “Amen.”