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Behind the Red Robe
Auduna went to the bathing room,
which currently had a red bathrobe on the door.
She had listened carefully to Frida's explanation;
there were several bathing areas most of which were shared,
and not everyone liked to wash with women and men together.
So hanging a red robe meant that women were using the room
while a black robe reserved the space for men.
Lia and Svanhilda were in the tub, singing a duet.
Frida sat at the vanity table, wrapped in a towel,
brushing out her damp hair to put it up.
Auduna clambered out of her clothes.
She heard the door open behind her
as she dropped her stained dress in the hamper.
Auduna turned around
and saw a man undressing.
She yelped in shock, yanked her dress back on,
and ran out of the room.
Auduna slowed down, then,
her mind scrambling to catch up with her body.
That had been Rowen.
Rowen taking off a dress,
Rowen's bare body with dangling bits
where no woman's body should be dangling anything
even if the bits had been really rather small.
That had been a red robe on the door, too,
which mattered to Auduna because
she didn't want to bathe with a man unless she invited him
and she didn't feel like that with her body looking like this.
Auduna fumed all the way back to the house
that she shared with Frida and Karin and their children.
Auduna was still fuming when Frida came in.
"I'm sorry that Rowen startled you," said Frida.
"I thought you said that a red robe meant women only,"
Auduna snapped. It was hard enough
getting used to this place, without people changing the rules.
Frida sighed. "Rowen is a woman, Auduna," she said.
"She just doesn't look like one. Come on, you know her --"
"I think I can tell when someone has
a stick instead of a muff when I'm staring right at it,"
Auduna said stiffly, "and I think he should be bathing
with the other men behind the black robe!"
"Maybe this should wait until you've calmed down,"
Frida said, and slipped out of the house.
Auduna went to the wash stand
and rinsed herself with cold water from the pitcher.
One of the children had spilled juice on her,
and it took a bit of scrubbing to get unsticky.
She dried off, then changed into a fresh dress.
At suppertime, Auduna still felt out of sorts,
and she dreaded being cornered by Rowen
for another idiotic argument over the women's room.
She dragged her feet all the way to the common house.
When Auduna got there, however,
Rowen was hunched at the far end of the table
between Bergren and Inge.
Bergren had one hand on Rowen's shoulder,
while Inge crossed her arms and glared at Auduna.
Well, that was even worse.
Auduna dumped meatballs and gravy on her plate
and sat down to eat in stony silence.
She ignored Frida's attempts at conversation,
not caring about tomorrow's sewing projects.
She gritted her teeth when Engelbert's piping voice
asked her what was wrong. Frida shushed him.
The meatballs sat in Auduna's stomach like rocks.
After supper, Auduna could see
Rowen conspicuously pleading with Inge.
Bergren shoved his chair back
and stalked toward Auduna.
She hastily backed toward the door.
Then Arnvid stepped between them.
Bergren paused, tried to sidle around him,
and Auduna could see that Arnvid
had a hand spread over Bergren's chest,
not grabbing, just touching.
Bergren moved, and Arnvid moved with him,
touching the way that Vendel touched the horses
when they were unsettled and ready to snap.
As Auduna watched, Bergren calmed down,
tension gradually fading from his body.
Bergren said something to Arnvid
that Auduna could not hear across the room.
Arnvid made a gesture that she'd seen before,
circling his free hand with his palm toward the floor.
Auduna had yet to figure out what it meant,
but Bergren seemed to understand.
He nodded to Arnvid, then walked back
to where Inge and Rowen waited for him.
Auduna hurried out of the dining room
through another door, only to find
Arnvid somehow ahead of her on the porch.
"Walk with me?" he said, holding out an arm
as if inviting her to a dance.
"Walk where?" Auduna parried,
wary of another lecture.
"Your place, my place, down the lane --
wherever you like," he said.
"Not far then," Auduna said. "I'm going home.
This baby makes my ankles swell."
"That sounds unpleasant," Arnvid said,
and aimed them toward her house.
"I have a cousin who works for the village tailor,"
Arnvid said apparently at random. "I think you'd like Fastny.
She embroiders like you do, beautiful flowers and such.
She has a daughter named Sómi, very sweet,
but not too happy in the village."
"Why not?" Auduna asked without thinking.
"Sómi was born with her feet twisted," Arnvid explained.
"She can't run as fast as the other children, so they tease her."
"That's mean," said Auduna. "She can't help how she was born."
"I keep inviting them to move here, but I think we scare them,"
Arnvid said. "Maybe someday, though."
"I don't think Hart's Farm is scary, but it's very strange,"
Auduna said. They had reached her house.
"I keep expecting things to make sense, and they don't always.
Even when people explain the rules, sometimes they change."
"How confusing," said Arnvid, nudging Auduna onto her bed.
She sprawled on the soft comforter and gazed up
at the pale knotty pine of the ceiling. Without being asked,
Arnvid tugged her shoes off and closed his craftsman's hands
around her aching feet. Auduna sighed.
"I thought Bergren was going to come yell at me," Auduna said,
recalling her narrow escape after supper.
"That certainly wouldn't have done anybody any good,"
Arnvid said. His hands were warm and wonderful.
"What was that thing you did to him?" she asked drowsily.
"That thing with your hands?"
"Oh, that -- it's a farm custom," said Arnvid.
"It means something like, hmm, calm down, I'll take care of it."
"Risky," Auduna said. "What if I'd snapped at you like I did Frida?"
"Then I would've taken care of it longer," Arnvid said.
He let go of her feet and covered her with a spare blanket.
Auduna fell asleep before he reached the door.
The next morning, nobody pestered her.
Auduna ate her breakfast in peace.
She noticed that Rowen still looked miserable, though.
"I don't know what Rowen was thinking,
walking in on me like that," Auduna grumbled to Karin
as they walked to the linen room.
"Then why are you talking to me?" Karin said.
"You should talk about that with Rowen.
It's easier to work things out together
than trying to guess about it with someone else."
"That didn't stop Arnvid last night," Auduna said.
"Oh, Arnvid is good at untangling things,"
Karin said, picking up a shirt that needed a button.
"It's just one of the things he does."
"Rowen should have told me," Auduna muttered.
"Perhaps," Karin said. "How many people have you told
about your baby and whatever else brought you here?"
"That's personal," Auduna said to the torn pillowcase in her lap.
"So it is," Karin agreed. "Some things are."
At lunch, Rowen ducked out of the common house
just as Auduna came in, and she couldn't help but think
of the time she smacked the marmalade kitten
for leaving mouse heads in her slipper,
and how it had hidden from her for days
until she coaxed it out with chicken trimmings.
The more she thought about it, the worse she felt,
and it wasn't as if Rowen could have said anything
that would made the whole situation any less weird.
When it occurred to Auduna that she was acting like
one of disapproving village women, she finally gave up.
She tracked down Rowen, who was gathering seeds from flowerheads,
and said, "I'm sorry I screamed when you came in the bathroom.
I wasn't expecting -- well, you -- and it threw me off balance."
Rowen peeked at her through ginger lashes,
then looked back down at the plants.
"I'm sorry I upset you," she said. "It's hard for me
to talk about my body because people don't always take it well."
Auduna thought about Sómi's feet, and the village women,
and the marmalade kitten. However wrenching it was for her,
it must be worse for Rowen living in a body that didn't quite fit.
"I can see why," Auduna said, "but they shouldn't take it out on you."
Rowen gave her half a smile, then poured seeds into her hand.
"You'll want these for your dooryard garden, in spring," said Rowen.
Auduna had noticed that the cottages had flowers and herbs nearby.
She remembered hearing other people exchange favors after arguing.
"I have that dress you wanted altered in the bodice," she said.
"Come to the linen room and I'll fit it for you."
Rowen's full smile was brilliant as sun-glint on sea water.