Authors: Wendy Delsol
I suddenly remembered my own hat, probably the mistaken passkey that had gotten me into this Knights of the Round Table meets Golden Girls Reunion. I was about to excuse myself, politely, when one of the women stood, scraping a heavy chair across the flagged floor. She was tall and dour, with a mouth that gathered in angry folds. She looked at Hulda as she spoke. “What is the meaning of this?”
Hulda pointed to one of the chairs, which, I now noticed, faced backward and away from the table. “The second chair can be seated now.”
A chorus of gasps rebounded off the damp walls, as every one of the old women reacted to this statement.
“I can’t stay,” I said.
They all stared at me with wide eyes and open mouths.
Tall-and-Dour was clearly not pleased by Hulda’s announcement, or invitation, or whatever it was. She slapped her hand to the table, causing the candles to flicker and the room to fall silent. “Have you no respect, Fru Hulda? You know the statutes. Youth is strictly forbidden. You risk exposure. And certainly not the second chair.”
Talk about reverse age discrimination.
“I really gotta go,” I said. “I’m waiting for a delivery.” I pointed in what I thought was the right direction, though all the crazy turns of the staircase had me disoriented. “Across the street at my
“She has the cap,” Hulda said in a voice as flat as the prairie.
Again with the cap. Double the trouble at this point: its musty wool was probably teeming with vermin, and it seemed to somehow be my ticket into this masquerade. I yanked it off and balled it in my hand. Another round of gasps, pointing, and nervous twitters circled the room. These old women seriously needed to get out more. Sure the skin condition was a nasty, festering mess, but wasn’t it rude to gawk?
Another woman stood. “It is the cap.”
Tall-and-Dour shook her head. “Impossible. She’s just a child.”
I’d had enough. I gave Tall-and-Dour the most adultlike look I could muster. “I’m sixteen, hardly a child.” I turned and held the hat out to Hulda. “But anyway, you guys can keep the cap. It belonged to my
but she’s dead now. I’m sure my
wouldn’t mind.” I shoved the hat into Hulda’s hand. “Like I said, I gotta get going.”
“Is not the hat,” Hulda said. “Is the cap.” With this she removed her own hat, and I was shocked to see the same raging red rash afflicting her scalp, visible under thin wisps of gray twisted hair. One by one, the others in the room, except Tall-and-Dour, removed their hats. They were all suffering from the same mottled skin condition.
“Is this thing contagious?” I asked, a hand flying to my hairline.
Hulda shook her head. “Is not contagious. Is a sign. As is your youth. As is your arrival this night, the final night, of a three-year deadline to appoint a second chair.”
All of a sudden my whole head started aching. Not just the scalp. Pain radiated from the base of my neck to my eyebrows. I’d had headaches before, but nothing like this. The room spun like a carnival ride, and I needed to sit down or drop to the floor. Hulda must have sensed this, as she quickly put a hand below my elbow and inched me into the room. I sat with a thud and put my head to my knees. Many minutes passed before I recovered enough to sit up and take stock of the situation. I was in the empty chair, which had been turned to face the table. The women looked at me expectantly.
On top of everything else, I thought I might hurl. “I don’t feel well.” I clutched my stomach. “And I don’t understand what’s going on.”
Hulda, who was seated to my right, stuck a white bowl of what looked like dried leaves under my nose. “Breathe deeply,” she said.
It smelled sharp, and the tip of my nose went numb, but I felt better. Both the headache and nausea were instantly gone.
“Where am I?” I was disoriented and momentarily wondered if I was hugging another type of bowl.
Hulda’s voice was solemn. “You are at a meeting of the Aslendigas Storkur Society.”
“The what?” I asked, realizing I was addressing my new best friend — the bowl.
Tall-and-Dour interrupted. “No more. There has been some mistake. She should never have been seated. And certainly not in the second chair.”
I crouched into a backbreaking pose, whereby I could keep both nostrils sucking in grass clippings while my eyes raked the surroundings.
A short, plump woman said, “But Fru Grimilla, she was sick. Nearly fell over.”
must have been born with that scowl; how else would her parents have known to name her Grimilla?
I can lift the bowl, a clever maneuver that allowed me to stretch my neck and shoulders in relief.
“Enough,” Grimilla said with a slash of her hand. “Too much has been said already.”
Hulda stood. “Fru Grimilla!” she said with surprising ferocity. “Do I need to remind you that I occupy the first chair, the Owl’s chair, the Ugla’s chair?” On closer examination, Hulda’s chair was larger than the others and raised on a small platform. It had a large ornate owl carving, which made the bird appear to be perched atop the chairback. “We have waited three years for a new member to find us. And for it to be one so young is a sign.”
I attempted to lower the herbs from my numbed nasals, make my apologies, and scram, but a mere inch of separation between my nose hairs and the weeds caused a relapse. I looked down and noticed that the arm of my chair was carved with perched birds, all kinds of birds.
“Youth is forbidden,” Grimilla repeated. I noticed that everything about her sagged: her shoulders, her bottom lip; even the peacock feather of her teal-blue cloche hat drooped to her brow. “And Fru Hulda, second chair? You pass over many worthy of such an honor.”
“We live to see many changes.” Hulda spoke with authority. “It is not for us to question. It is for us to accept.”
I didn’t feel well enough to respond in any way to the madness surrounding me. I was rooted to the mysterious bowl by pain and nausea. I thought of fleeing, stealing their dinnerware and its contents, but my jeans had turned Judas on me. They just sat there shaking uncontrollably. Traitors.
Hulda turned to face me. “
. Welcome, friend.”
A chorus of
All eyes fell on me, and I felt cornered and scared. It was definitely time to go. I’d had enough of the secret society of yodel sisters, and Afi would kill me if I missed the apple guy. “Sorry, but I can’t stay. I’ll be late,” I managed to say, thinking if I could make it to the back door, away from the stink of those candles, the stares of these strange women, the fresh air might revive me.
“No need to worry about time,” Hulda said. “Check your watch.”
Weird. It had stopped at 9:03, the time just before I entered the shop. All the more reason to scat. I tried to leave; it took a great deal of effort, but as soon as I stood, my symptoms returned: blazing hot scalp, pounding head, and nausea. I sat back down, plunging my nose to the bowl.
“What is wrong with me?”
“Nothing is wrong. When the cap appears, you must come at nine o’clock to council. As for the other discomforts, your gifts are settling in. And always worse with the cap.” Hulda nodded to a woman across the table. “Fru Birta, our Lark, are you ready to record?”
Birta, of the chartreuse wimple, opened a very large, very tattered leather book. “What is your name?”
“Your full name?”
“Katla Gudrun Leblanc.”
Birta looked up from the book. “Katla Leblanc? That can’t be.”
“Only my mother is Icelandic. My father’s side is French.” Again, the room echoed with murmurs. I looked at the woman to my left. The arms of her chair were carved with what looked like pelicans. Were they bird watchers? Mad-hatter bird watchers?
Fru Hulda nodded to the room. “Yes. This is the granddaughter of Fru Valdis. And yes, this is the girl of the lake.”
OK. These crazy ladies were driving me nuts. First I thought it was my non-Icelandic last name they were questioning. Now it seemed to have something to do with my poor dead
. And what lake? Unless you considered the Pacific Ocean a lake.
“Let us continue with the records,” Hulda said. “What is your father’s first name?”
“Enter her as Katla Gudrun Gregorsdottir,” Hulda said.
I was at least familiar with this confusing Icelandic custom. A boy’s last name was his father’s first name followed by
and a girl’s last name was her father’s first name followed by
for daughter. My mother, for example, was Lilja Olafsdottir because her father, my
is Olaf Vilhalminsson. And a woman didn’t take a husband’s name in marriage. But just because I understood the tradition didn’t mean I bought into it. Nor did my dad. He accepted the name Katla, which he morphed into Kitty Kat. He begrudgingly tolerated the middle name Gudrun, because, as my birth story goes, my mom stopped pushing and refused to continue unless she got to pick my first and middle names. My dad agreed — though claimed the nurses bullied him — but he drew the line at the surname. He was French, and his child was a Leblanc.
“I prefer Leblanc,” I said.
Birta looked up momentarily and received a nod from Hulda. I stretched my neck to get a look at the faded yellow parchment, but the Lark scribbled quickly and turned the page. Roll was then called, and the book was shut with a heavy thud.
“Perhaps listening to the meeting will best explain our purpose,” Hulda said. “Fru Dorit, our Puffer, do you have an essence to bestow?”
Dorit, the short, plump woman who had interrupted Grimilla before, rose solemnly from her place. “May I first commend you on this momentous decision, Fru Hulda, our Owl, our Ugla.” Dorit ducked her head coyly toward her right shoulder. “And I’m sure it is not lost on one so wise as you, Fru Hulda, that the Icelandic word for
. Her very name, another sign. Yes? Fru Hulda?”
Boy. It was clear that the suck-up position in this group was already taken.
“This I noticed,” Hulda said, granting no particular favor to Dorit’s doughy face. “Let us continue with our duties. Do you have an essence to deliver?”
“As always, I am honored to serve my sister Storks. And I wish to thank you all, in advance, for your consideration of tonight’s recommendation.”
“Please, Fru Dorit,” Hulda said. “What say you?”
“A boy. He’ll be breech, and late,” Dorit said.
I looked around the room. Were these women midwives?
“What else can you tell us?” Hulda asked. “And remember, be brief.”
“He’s impatient to settle. He’ll be gifted in music, but someone to whom words will come slowly.”
OK. Even a really good midwife, with the ultrasound equivalent of the Hubble Telescope, couldn’t know that.
“What vessels are there?” Hulda asked.
Vessels? Like ships?
“A thirty-four-year-old mother of three girls. Her husband pines for a boy. A twenty-nine-year-old single woman, who has lost herself in her career. A thirty-eight-year-old who has, four times, endured artificial insemination. The husband has been incredibly patient.”
“And have you a recommendation for us?” asked Hulda.
“The thirty-eight-year-old,” replied Dorit. “She has waited so long.”
All of a sudden, something Hulda had said previously clicked. “Did you say Storkur Society? As in stork?” I asked. “As in big white bird? As in baby delivery service?”
Hulda nodded. “Yes. Aslendigas Storkur Society. Icelandic Stork Society, Local 414.”
“You guys are joking, right?” I said. “This is some kind of prank. Am I being punked by someone?” My friends in California were capable, but no way they’d go to this kind of trouble. And I didn’t have friends here in Minnesota.
I tried to stand, but — again — ended up in the weeds.
“If you are to join our society, you will learn protocol and patience,” old sour-faced Grimilla barked.
“Who said I was joining anything?” I said into the bowl of grasses, my nose ice-cold and my scalp smoldering.
“Fru Grimilla, our Peacock, you judge too quickly.” Hulda turned to me. “Is never a choice,” she said with resignation. “Is a calling.”
“Yeah, well, nobody called me,” I said. “Trust me. I’d remember.”
A twitch of a smile flashed across Hulda’s face, but was gone in an instant. “You will come to understand. I will help you.”
“Fru Hulda,” old Grimilla said, “I fear we digress.” She and her bobbing feather wouldn’t allow me another interruption. Peacock, eh? I’d heard of whole neighborhoods in Palos Verdes whose common goal was to rid their streets of wild peacocks. Reportedly the birds were loud, aggressive, territorial, and full of crap — literally. Made a lot more sense to me now. I half listened as the women adopted some sort of agreement regarding the musical boy and the test-tube mom, though I was simply too overwhelmed to fully understand the significance of the moment. Next thing I knew, I was herded up the stairs with the group, my scalp blister-free, my head pain-free, and my stomach settled. The women turned left at the stairs and disappeared out the back door. I hesitated, standing with Hulda at the rear of the store.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“Katla, you are very special girl. I know never of one so young to be given these powers.”
I looked around the shop, filled with such beautiful materials. “I’m seriously hoping this is all a dream, but if it is, what a waste of fabric.”
“Is no dream. You go home. Next time you see my store open, we talk again.”
Before I knew it, I stood in front of Hulda’s dark store with no one in sight, my scalp as cool as the night air, and my brain twisting like taffy.