By the time Nils Holgersson turned forty-eight, he already lived very far north, in Jokkmokk, the capital of Swedish Lapland, which could only with the utmost pretension be called a capital city, since it was no more than a small, remote village upon which, as Tacitus wrote, the sun never shone in the winter and never set in the summer. He worked as a custodian at the only local high school, which had three classes for each grade and a dormitory so that students who lived as far as 100, 200 or even 1000 kilometers away would have a place to stay. The school menu was standard for Sweden: mashed potatoes with butter and strips of bacon on Mondays, fried fish and potatoes on Tuesdays, pea soup and pancakes with jelly on Wednesdays, tuna salad on a roll on Thursdays, and noodles with ground beef on Fridays, which was the children’s favorite. He knew all this from his wife, Maria, who was the cook in the school where he worked as the custodian.
No children had been born to them. They accepted this as their lot in life and did not ask questions, neither of the doctors nor of their own parents, who were still alive when children remained a possibility. Sometimes Nils would amuse himself with the notion that if he had a son, he would teach him how to hold a hammer, how to drive in screws, and how to chop down trees. Most of the time, however, he did not torture himself with such pointless musings.
He rarely spent time with Maria during work. She would be in the kitchen and he’d be in the schoolyard, which was generally covered in ice, or else he’d be in the classrooms or the bathrooms. They didn’t think it was appropriate to consort as a couple just because they were lucky enough to share a workplace. If by chance they passed each other in the hallway, they would mumble feeble greetings and continue on their way. In the evenings, when they met at their home adjacent to the schoolyard, they did not engage in long conversations: Hi. Hi, do you want to eat? Yes, thanks. Beer? Yes, please. Can you turn up the volume on the television? Thanks. They would doze on and off until midnight, each in an armchair, and then go to sleep in their bed, which was neither particularly big nor particularly small, but in any case no act of love had been committed there in quite some time.
One particular morning Maria burst into the school storeroom which served as Nils’ office and said to him breathlessly, “Did you hear? Princess Victoria is getting married in two months and her wedding procession will pass through all of Stockholm. We have to be there. She’ll be so disappointed if we don’t go. And I want to bring her a present, something that will remind her of that day in the forest, you remember, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
Twenty-five years earlier, when they were still a young couple, they went on an excursion to Djursholm on one of the first Sundays in May. A few grand villas stood scattered across the landscape, each separated by vast expanses dotted with lakes, though Nils and Maria did not know if they were indeed small lakes or simply the finger-like fjords of one larger body of water. Just then, from among the trees, a girl ran towards them. In spite of her black curls and her full cheeks—“Oh, how adorable,” Maria said to Nils—she wasn’t all that pretty, and she was dressed as plainly as any girl from Stockholm would be for a Sunday morning outing amidst the first muddy blush of spring. But the girl was crying and when Maria asked her, “Vad hände?” she replied that she was lost and had been wandering in the forest for a long time and couldn’t find her parents.
“Do you know your parents’ names and where you live?” Maria asked.
The girl said sweetly, “Yes, my mother’s name is Silvia and my father’s name is Carl, and we live in Stockholm.”
“And what is your name?”
The girl answered, “Victoria.”
“Nils,” said Maria, “this girl has the same name as our Princess and her father has the same name as our King and her mother has the same name as our Queen.”
“Hmm…” said Nils, who was not a big talker. “Very interesting.”
“Come,” said Maria, who was always the more practical of the two. “Do you want some pastry?”
Maria opened her picnic basket and took out a cinnamon roll, and when she handed it to Victoria, she saw that in spite of her mud-spattered clothes and unkempt hair, the girl before her was undoubtedly a princess. She did not eat like other girls; there was something refined and dainty about her.
After a few bites she said, “Thank you. It was delicious, but I am already quite full.”
Maria saw that the girl was still hungry and entreated her to eat more, but in vain. “Come,” said Maria. “Now let’s go find your parents.”
They set off hand-in-hand into the forest. If only we’d have a sweet girl like her in a few years, thought Maria. After they had walked along for a few minutes picking snowbells, a woman came towards them from the woods and Victoria ran to her.
“Where did you disappear to?” the woman asked.
“I looked for you but found this lady.” The girl pointed back to Maria. “And she gave me some cake.”
“Hello,” the woman offered.
“Hi,” said Maria.
“Thank you,” the woman said. She took hold of Victoria’s hand, turned, and the two of them disappeared back into the woods.
The next day brief notices appeared in all the papers: “Princess Victoria wandered away during a family picnic and became lost, but she was soon returned to her parents safe and sound.” A picture of the not-so-pretty girl in her mud-splattered dress accompanied the item which Maria happened across in Expressen. “Nils, look what I found,” Maria said. “Our Princess!” Although Maria’s name was not mentioned, she nonetheless thought about the story a great deal, and over the years she recounted it again and again to anyone willing to listen. In a warmer land, the story would surely have accumulated a thousand layers with the passage of time, such that a sweet though unattractive girl would have emerged from the forest chased, perhaps, by a wolf or a bear or some other wild animal. Maria would have rescued the princess from them all, and the pastry would have transformed into a house made entirely of sweets—but here, in Sweden, the story failed to swell with time and may have even grown stale: the Princess remained in her worn clothes, the cinnamon roll remained just a pastry, and no beasts of prey emerged from the forest. The Princess wandered off and was returned safely with a cinnamon roll snug in her already round belly.
But in her heart Maria cherished her story the way a person cherishes a precious jewel. She not only recited it to her friends, but also to her family, and especially to the children sent to help out in the cafeteria, until they cruelly began referring to her as “Maria, Princess of Sweden.” When Maria learned of the nickname she laughed to herself, because she knew that she really had met the Princess, and she was certain the encounter remained etched in the Princess’ heart just as it was in hers. So at the announcement of Victoria’s impending marriage, Maria decided that even though she had not visited the capital for more than a decade, she would use some of her savings to reserve tickets for her and Nils on the overnight train to Stockholm and bring the Princess a wedding gift. Not just any wedding gift, but one that would remind her of the day they found her wandering alone in the forest. And what could be better than an elegant wedding cake for the girl who had eaten her cinnamon roll so daintily?
Maria began the preparations for their trip: first she ordered the tickets, which cost her a fortune. She wanted them to arrive in Stockholm well rested, so she purchased second-class sleeper car tickets. Well, she said to herself when she paid the 4000 kronor by credit card over the phone, it’s not every day that our Princess gets married. Then she ordered cookbooks from all over the world. Though I don’t know English or French, I’ll consult a dictionary so that I can be sure to make the Princess the nicest cake in the world, she resolved. But after the cookbooks arrived, she concluded that there was no cake more appropriate for the Princess than a Princesstårta, the crown jewel of Swedish confectionary. Indeed, the airy sponge cake, the layers of thick whipped cream, and the green marzipan frosting awakened memories of her own wedding day, which was the happiest day of her life, long before she was exiled to Jokkmokk along with Nils and his muttering.
Maria and Nils were also married on a Sunday afternoon. Mona, the minister, married them in Spånga Church. Maria wore a white dress as if she had really been a virgin, though in the months preceding their wedding she had slept with Nils at every opportunity and in every possible place, and even in some places where it had seemed impossible to make love: on the wooden kitchen counter in her parents’ house, in his parents’ bedroom, and once they even managed to sneak into the church for a quickie between the pews. So when she stood there arrayed in white, Maria knew that she was not a virgin and was in fact with child, and that despite her name there had been no immaculate conception. The pregnancy led nowhere, or more accurately it led to a miscarriage, which to Maria’s surprise was accompanied by just a small amount of blood. She didn’t cry, but the doctor had said, “Don’t cry, you’re young and you’ll have many children yet.” But she never did have a child and never again became pregnant, and by this point she knew that she could have been baking a wedding cake for a daughter of her own. No matter, she said to herself, if not for my daughter, at least I can bake for our Princess, and when I bring her this cake she’ll remember who rescued her that May morning and will thank me.
It was very simple: three days before the ceremony she had to bake the sponge cake, two days before she had to prepare the cream, and the day before she had to cut the cake into round slices, spread each slice with cream, layer them one on top of the other, and coat them (this was the most complicated part) with a layer of greenish marzipan. As she baked the cake, she thought about what she would say when she’d present the cake to the Princess, and she finally decided that she would say: You see, my girl, just as you have grown and blossomed since that day we found you in Djursholm, so too has the pastry I gave you grown and blossomed from a simple cinnamon roll into a spectacular Princesstårta. Maria thought this out again and again until she was satisfied it was just right.
Everything seemed to be proceeding according to plan. Maria selected the eggs, sifted the flour, added the butter and sugar and eggs one after the other, and only after the batter had risen and turned a bright yellow did she quickly add the flour, which she had previously mixed with the baking powder. The cake rose beautifully and Maria paced in front of the oven wondering whether to open it early, and risk it collapsing in the center, or wait, and risk that the cake might, heaven forbid, burn around the edges. Fifty-five minutes and the cake was ready. Maria took it out and saw that it had come out nicely rounded and golden. A cake fit for a princess, she thought. She hesitated about the whipped cream. Perhaps it would spoil during the journey? In the end she decided to trust in the Scandinavian weather. She whipped the yellowish cream and sweetened it a bit, cut the cake into round slices, spread each slice with whipped cream, laid them one upon the other in perfect symmetry, and placed the whole thing in the refrigerator—but not before she had emptied it out so that the cake would not absorb any commonplace odors. The next day, the day before their trip, she took the block of green marzipan that she had specially ordered and which had arrived in the mail that same day, and she flattened it into a thin layer. Then she took the cake out of the refrigerator, spread a green mantle over it, and to make the cake even more sumptuous, she decorated it with pink marzipan roses, which in truth strayed somewhat from the original recipe but which seemed to Maria to befit the Princesstårta she had prepared for Victoria’s wedding.
Then she placed the cake back in the refrigerator in a pretty box that she tied with two silk ribbons—green and pink, of course. Now she was free to get ready for the trip. She wanted to arrive as refreshed as possible so that she would have the strength to greet the Princess and present her with her gift. She dressed in her finest clothes: a blue skirt and a white shirt that she had embroidered for her own wedding day, as well as a blazer and black leather shoes. Then she fixed her hair, which was thick and bright and without any trace of grey. “Come on, let’s go,” she said to Nils, and checked to see that his shirt was clean, his suit pressed, and his shoes polished. Then, box in hand, they turned and went down the street to catch the bus that would take them to the train station.
At 6:38 they boarded the train to Stockholm that was scheduled to arrive the next day at 8:00 in the morning. The ceremony was supposed to take place at noon, and the wedding cortege was to pass through the city from 10:30 to 11:30, so Maria knew that they had plenty of time and decided that the best place to stand was Kungsträdgården—there she could wait among the linden trees and when the Princess passed by with her beloved, she could approach her as she’d planned. Again and again she rehearsed the words she wanted to say to her, and each time they came out a little differently. One time she thought she’d say: Dearest Princess, do you remember how I found you in the forest when you were just a little girl and I gave you a cinnamon roll? In memory of that day I’ve brought you a wedding cake that I baked with my own hands, because after all, you too grew from a tiny pastry to a great wedding cake! But this manner of speaking seemed too grandmotherly and perhaps too doting, the way one might speak to a small child rather than to a grand princess. Instead, she thought, I’ll say to her: Princess Victoria, you surely remember that morning in Djursholm, in memory of which I’ve brought you this cake. Just as that bit of pastry grew into a Princesstårta, so too have you grown and become more beautiful. This too sounded a bit excessive, because she knew that the Princess was not lovely at all and had in fact inherited her father’s bulbous features, though she at least possessed a certain grace that he lacked. She continued to turn over in her mind the details of their impending meeting, unable to decide what to say. At nightfall they arranged their beds in the sleeping car and fell asleep to the clickety-clack of the train, as if sleep would lessen their anticipation, and when they awoke they were already very close to Stockholm. “Not far from Västerås,” said the conductor who entered their car.
A bright yellow sun greeted them when they disembarked from the train at the central station. It was a glorious day for the Princess’ wedding, Maria thought. Spring had already arrived in the south. They took the 76 bus to Kungsträdgården and when they got off they saw that crowds already lined the square. Maria did not despair. She cleared a path for herself and Nils so that they could find a place at the edge of the sidewalk and stand close to the Princess when she passed. The local cafés had removed some of their outdoor tables to clear more space. Tulips seemed to flash their gaudy colors at the sun. Magpies glided overhead determined to snatch any food left behind on the café tables, and they often squawked to demand what they regarded as their rightful due. Maria felt like a stranger in the city of her birth. The roads she had walked with her mother as a child, and then with her friends, and later her husband, now seemed so wide and full of people, noisy and teeming. Even in Paris they don’t have clothes like those here in Normmalmstorg, and what prices! What she and Nils lived on for a full month couldn’t buy a single shoe, were it even possible to buy a single shoe. The women’s dresses looked bold, revealing, flashy, and suddenly she realized that she and Nils stood out like bumpkins, frozen in time. No matter, she comforted herself, all that matters is that we made it to our Princess’ birthday. And then she remembered that it was not her birthday but her wedding day, and the box she held in her hands was a wedding cake.
More and more people began to congregate on the sidewalks. Sometimes those standing behind Maria and Nils pushed them so that it seemed they were about to fall off the curb and into the street. At ten all the traffic in the city was stopped and the crowds stood at attention. Everyone’s gaze turned towards the Royal Palace in the Old Town on the assumption that the Princess would come from that direction. Maria knew that Victoria would not be riding in a gold and silver carriage, and she was pleased about this. The minutes ticked by but no princess appeared on the horizon. Mounted cavalry, a marching band, an acrobat or two—but not a single princess. Like this cake, you too grew and became more beautiful, Maria rehearsed for the zillionth time when a hush passed over the crowd.
Then a call arose: Here comes the Princess! Here comes the Princess! There in a white car with an open roof, Princess Victoria sat—or perhaps stood—beside her groom and clasped a bouquet of wild flowers in her hands. She wore a simple white dress—appropriate for our royal family, Maria thought—which was decorated with green-stemmed pink flowers. She smiled her wide, warm smile, which made up for her lack of beauty. Her dark hair blew in the wind. Maria tensed. She had been certain that the Princess would pass by on foot to greet her well-wishers; it never occurred to her that she might be riding in a car. But she didn’t panic. Maria knew that she had to act quickly in order to succeed in the task she had taken upon herself. When the Princess approached, she stepped into the street with the box, its silk ribbons trailing in the light May breeze, and walked swiftly towards the car.
“Madame, Madame,” one of the mounted policemen called to her. “Step back on the sidewalk, please. No one is allowed in the street!”
But Maria paid no heed and hurried onward.
The driver noticed a woman coming towards him with a box in her hands and was confused for a moment. Who knows what’s in that box, he thought. Not that Stockholm is a dangerous city, but anything can happen these days, and all I need is for the Princess to get hurt on her wedding day while I’m driving. And so without much thought for Maria or the box in her hands, he sped off, grazing her in the process and knocking her to the ground along with the box. He then accelerated away and left the crowd behind disappointed and dumbfounded.
Maria didn’t cry or make any sound at all. She watched in stunned sorrow as her cake fell into a thousand pieces: the fragile layers of sponge cake broke apart, the yellow cream spilled out, and the green marzipan frosting peeled away and slid nearly intact into the middle of the road. The pink roses, which were never part of the original recipe, seemed eager for their freedom and they tumbled to the street as if unable to contain their excitement. Nils approached Maria and helped her up. He lifted her by her arms, first one arm and then the other, and afterwards gave her a silent hug. I won’t cry, Maria resolved. She saw a magpie with two chicks peck at the cake and felt a twinge of jealousy.
All the news reports on the royal wedding included the following lines: “A woman who tried to approach Princess Victoria caused confusion along the route which led to the curtailment of the wedding procession. The woman held a suspicious box that was later discovered to contain a Princesstårta.”
Before they went to bed in the sleeper car on the return journey to Jokkmokk, Maria decided that tomorrow she would go to the local grocery and ask Solveig for two of the five kittens that had just been born to her cat, Silvia.
Translated from the Hebrew by Ilana Kurshan
Alit Karp is a literary critic for Israel’s most respected daily newspaper, “Haaretz,” and frequently authors opinion columns on issues related to minority rights and freedom of speech in Israel.
Ilana Kurshan is a writer and translator living in Jerusalem.
Read more from the Hebrew: