There is sad irony in the title of this story
Kirsten liked school so much that she hardly ever looked forward to the weekend, but this Friday was so special that she had not been able to contain her eagerness. It would be the start of a wonderful weekend. There were so many good things going to happen.
She woke to the realization that this was the day. Friday. T G I F. On a Friday the big kids in school would sometimes sigh and roll their eyes and say “T G I F”, pretending that they could hardly wait to escape, but Kirsten knew that they didn’t really mean it. But today the words just popped into her head “Thank God it’s Friday”, and she meant them.
From her bed, she could see blue sky through the window, so she knew it would be a sunny day. Mama was busy downstairs. Kirsten could hear the table being set for breakfast and could smell the coffee. The screen door slammed. That would be Ivar coming in from harnessing Thor.
Kirsten allowed herself a small grimace. Thor was the only problem. It would be embarrassing if he farted while they were bringing Miss Stanton home. And he did fart so much. So much so that Pa had named him “Thor” after the god of thunder. The very day that Papa and Ivar had brought him home from Grimstad’s auction sale and Papa had called for her to come out to see their new buggy horse, Thor had shown what he could do. They were all there, the whole family, Mama and Elsa and the baby and even Knut, the hired man. Then Thor rumbled away on and on and on, just as if he would never stop. Everyone was startled into silence until Knut looked up at the sky and then around at the family and said “Dat’s fonny. T’onder but no lightning?”
Everyone laughed. Especially Ivar. Ivar thought it was so funny. Now, every time Thor let one go, Ivar would imitate Knut and say, “T’onder but no lightning?” All the boys in school had taken up the joke. One of them would make a farting noise and then they would all look out the window pretending to be puzzled.
Miss Stanton was from the city and didn’t understand, but she’d be cross if she ever caught on. Kirsten was mad at Ivar. He thought he was so smart because he was eleven and she was only eight. But today for once maybe Thor would behave himself.
She heard the door slam again and the sound of men’s voices. Papa and Knut had come in for their breakfast. She had better hurry. The men would be washing up in the back porch. She would have to wait to wash until after breakfast. Then Mama would comb and braid her hair and put up the braids in the Norwegian way. Kirsten wanted to look nice for Miss Stanton. Miss Stanton was so pretty and wore such stylish clothes. Kirsten wished that Mama had dresses like Miss Stanton’s. Of course, they wouldn’t do for every day around the farm, but maybe for best, for church or for visiting.
Kirsten sighed happily. Today was going to be perfect. Miss Stanton was going to come and stay with them for the whole weekend. After school, she would come home in the buggy with Ivar and her and would stay overnight. On Saturday, there would be so many things to show. The secret place in the trees where she had made her playhouse and the new kittens in the hayloft. The baby pigs were so cute when they were little. It was too bad that they had grown so big so quickly. But she could still show Miss Stanton the snapshot of her holding a tiny pig wrapped in a towel, just like a baby.
Then on Saturday after supper Papa would take them all to town in the car. That would be wonderful. The car was new and shiny. They had used it only a few times, only to church and over to Oncle Sverre’s. It was a touring car. Maybe Papa would fold the top down and everyone would see that Miss Stanton was with them and would know that she was staying with them for overnight. On Sunday, Mama would make a special breakfast and they would all go to church. And after church there would be a chicken dinner with maybe other company coming. They never knew who might come for dinner on a Sunday. There always seemed to be someone who would come to their place after church. She hoped Oncle Sverre would come so her cousins could see what a nice teacher she had. Her cousins went to a different school and had a man for a teacher. Just an ordinary man.
Breakfast over, she was washed and ready for school. Her Mama let her wear her blue dress with the white collar. It used to be her best dress, but would soon be too small. Mama said she should get a little more wear out of it while she could. She was growing so fast.
Ivar had hitched Thor to the buggy and was waiting for her. Kirsten picked up the two lunch pails. Hers had a picture of a squirrel with a big bushy tail curled over its back. Mama had bought it filled with peanut butter. Ivar’s was red with a big green leaf on it. “A shamrock,” Mama had said. The lettering on it spelled PURE LARD.
Ivar was wearing his new winter coat with the fur collar. Kirsten smiled to herself. The weather wasn’t cold enough yet for a winter coat. She knew that Ivar too wanted to dress up for Miss Stanton. She would tease him later. If she said anything now, he might go in and change to his old coat. Just to be mean. She’d wait until they were far enough along the way that he couldn’t turn back. Then she’d tease him about liking Miss Stanton.
Kirsten tucked the lunch pails in with the oatsheaf behind the seat and clambered in to sit beside Ivar. Of course Thor had to start out farting at every step and Ivar had to say “T’onder but no lightning?” It wasn’t funny. If they did that on the way home with Miss Stanton along, she would just die from embarrassment. Her lower lip trembled as she considered the awful possibility.
Half a mile along their way, they were joined by another rig which had pulled out from a lane to follow close behind them. It was the Sandviks. There were five of them. The three biggest sat crowded on the seat while Erik and Olaf, the twins, who were only seven stood behind.
They all called back and forth to each other and Leif Sandvik who was in Grade Eight, tried to tease them about their horse. “Cover your ears,” he advised everyone. “Thor the Thunder Maker might decide to let go and deafen us all.”
But Ivar was clever and wouldn’t be teased. “It ain’t always thunder,” he boasted. “Last night he played ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ Once he’s learned a few more tunes, Papa’s going to hire him out for barn dances.” Kirsten giggled in spite of herself. Sometimes she was proud of Ivar. He always had an answer for the bigger boys.
In the schoolyard, Kirsten dismounted from the buggy and went to put her lunch pail in the cloakroom. On the way she was joined by Aldis Vestman and Ingrid Dalsrud who were also in Grade Three. They were best friends. They went into see Miss Stanton. She was at her desk surrounded by a cluster of bigger girls. Kirsten stood quietly, hoping that Miss Stanton would notice her. Miss Stanton saw her and smiled. It was a beautiful smile. Miss Stanton’s teeth were so white and so even. “A big welcome for Grade Three,” she said “But don’t take your coats off. There’s still a few minutes before bell time. Let’s all go out and enjoy the outdoors until we have to get to work. The mornings are frosty now and it will soon be too cold to be outside.” Rising, she led the girls out into the schoolyard. She had taken Aldis by one hand and Kirsten by the other. Kirsten smiled. The school day was beginning exactly as it should.
The schoolroom was crowded with eight grades. Miss Stanton took attendance. “Everyone is here today,” she announced. “All thirty-nine of us or all forty, if you count me. It’s been a good week for attendance. The rainy beginning has kept you boys out of the harvest fields and in school. It’s so nice to have you here.” She smiled at the boys. They shuffled self-consciously. Some of the boys were big, maybe fifteen or sixteen. But Miss Stanton was older. The bigger girls guessed that she was twenty or maybe even twenty-one.
Kirsten was good at schoolwork. She noted with satisfaction the additions to the gold stars in her spelling and arithmetic scribblers. She had more gold stars than either Aldis or Ingrid. And although she was only in Grade Three, her handwriting was already better than Ivar’s. And Ivar was in Grade Six. She worked carefully, allowing only a few whispered interruptions from her friends. She didn’t want to be scolded. Especially not today. Today had to be perfect.
Morning recess was over. They had played tag and prisoners’ base. But it was over too soon. Maybe, because it was a Friday, Miss Stanton would give them a longer afternoon recess.
Miss Stanton was teaching geography to Grade Eight. It was about Japan. Kirsten had finished her work and was listening to the geography lesson. “Victoria, I think you are ten thousand miles away. You haven’t heard a word I’ve said for the last ten minutes.” Miss Stanton was speaking to Victoria Wilkins.
“Maybe she’s in Japan,” said Leif and everyone tittered. Kirsten had noticed that Victoria was not her usual self. Her eyes were puffy and red as if she’d been crying. And she hadn’t joined in any games at recess, but had stayed alone, lingering near the school door. Kirsten looked across the room at Victoria, studying her thoughtfully. Victoria put on a show of activity, sitting up straight and shuffling books and papers and speaking up brightly to answer questions. But that behaviour didn’t last long. Victoria was soon as far away as ever. Kirsten wondered what Victoria was thinking about. What could be more important than listening to Miss Stanton?
At noon the children, lunch pails in hand, scattered. Most of the smaller girls sat at their desks while they ate their lunch, but the bigger ones went outside. Ivar and some of the older boys had to go to the barn to feed their horses. Kirsten knew that sometimes the boys would climb up onto the barn roof on the side away from the school where Miss Stanton wouldn’t see them. When they came down, they would smell of tobacco smoke. Kirsten hoped that Miss Stanton would catch them someday. But not today. It wouldn’t do for Ivar to get Into trouble today. Today had to be perfect.
The Grade Seven and Eight girls were sitting on the school steps where it was sunny and warm. The Grade Threes were close by and Kirsten could hear Victoria Wilkins above all the others. She was talking more than anyone else and was laughing at everything that anyone said. Even her laughter was different. So loud and shrill.
“I have some very special sandwiches that I made myself. Egg salad. Would anyone like to try one?” Victoria held out a sandwich toward the other girls. “No, I think I better keep them for myself. I might need them all.” She withdrew her hand and raised the sandwich to her mouth, but she didn’t bite into it. “I think I’ll go in and get some water.” She rose and went into the cloakroom where the water bucket was kept. The other girls exchanged puzzled looks and shifted about uneasily. Kirsten and her friends finished their lunch and went off to play.
First thing in the afternoon was story time, the part of the day that Kirsten enjoyed most. Miss Stanton would read a chapter from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Kirsten thought it a wonderful story. This day’s chapter was the one where Tom tries to give his tonic to the cat. Kirsten couldn’t help but laugh out loud even if it was too bad that Tom was mean to the cat. The description was so funny. Even Miss Stanton was laughing so hard that she had to stop reading for a little while.
After the story, the children got busy at their work. Kirsten hoped that everyone would behave so that Miss Stanton would let them have a spelling bee after recess. Kirsten was a good speller and could spell down kids in Grade Four or Five, especially boys. She liked to be on a team with Victoria because Victoria was the best speller in school. Kirsten noticed that Victoria’s desk was empty. She was nowhere in the room. Where was she? Kirsten hadn’t seen her leave.
Time passed. Kirsten had finished her work and was free to read a storybook. The room was quiet except for some restlessness among the big girls. Sigrid Felstad asked permission to leave the room. Miss Stanton looked around and noticed that Victoria was missing. “Wait till Victoria comes back,” she said. “Then you can go.”
“But Victoria’s been gone such a long time,” objected Sigrid. “She went outside while you were reading the story.”
“Very well. Just remember we’ll take up Grade Eight science before recess and I want both of you back in here in less than no time.” Miss Stanton pretended to be severe.
It seemed to be less than no time when the door burst open and a frightened Sigrid appeared, gasping and crying. “Oh Miss Stanton! Come! It’s Victoria. She’s in the girls’ toilet. I think she’s awful sick.”
Miss Stanton dropped the book she was holding, commanded everyone to stay seated and ran outside. Some of the older pupils rushed to the windows. Kirsten’s desk was in the row next to the windows. She couldn’t stop herself from standing up. She saw Miss Stanton, with skirt raised almost knee high, racing along the pathway to the girls’ toilet. Sigrid was with her. When they got there, they seemed to have some difficulty with the door. It was supposed to open inward, but something was blocking it. Miss Stanton and Sigrid struggled briefly with the door and then Sigrid came running back to the school.
“We need help! Miss Stanton wants the Grade Eights. Just the Grade Eights!” she cried, then turned and ran back with the four other Grade Eight pupils in close to pursuit.
Kirsten saw the boys pushing on the door until they got it open far enough for Miss Stanton to squeeze through. A moment later, Bjorn Selbo also squeezed in. Then the door opened wider and Miss Stanton and Bjorn appeared half carrying and and half dragging Victoria toward the school. After a few steps, Leif took Miss Stanton’s place and the two boys, with Victoria between them, struggled further toward the school. Miss Stanton hurried ahead.
“Victoria is terribly sick. Who can go for her parents?”
“Einar Olson spoke up. “I’ll go. I ride horseback. That’s the fastest.”
“Then go. Tell them to come right away. I don’t know what’s wrong, but Victoria is terribly sick and I don’t know what to do. Tell them to hurry. Oh, if only we had a telephone!”
Kirsten nodded. Telephones are important. Papa had helped to form a telephone company. Poles had been set along the roadsides and across some fields, and rolls of wire were there, waiting to be strung. Some families already had telephones mounted on their living room walls, but nobody had a telephone that worked.
“Ivar, could your father come with the car? Could you and Kirsten go home and have him come with the car?”
“Papa won’t be at home. He was going to go into town for a telephone meeting. And Knut is taking the threshing outfit over to Oncle Sverre’s. Mama is home alone with Elsa and the baby.”
The boys brought Victoria into the schoolroom and tried to take her to her desk, but she couldn’t sit up. She was moaning and her arms and legs were twitching. She seemed to have no control over them.
“We’ll have to let her lie down. Bring her over here by my desk,” ordered Miss Stanton. The boys did as they were told. Miss Stanton helped lay Victoria on the floor. Victoria kept struggling, arching her back and thumping the floor with her head. Miss Stanton went to the cloakroom and brought back two coats, her own and Ivar’s. She folded Ivar’s to make a pillow and used hers to cover Victoria.
“We can’t have any more school today. I’ll have to look after Victoria. You are all dismissed. I want you to go home and look for help. Tell your parents what has happened and have them come or send any help they can. But not the Grade Eight girls. I want you to stay here until more help comes.”
“I could go down to the crossroads,” offered Ivar. “It isn’t far. Maybe someone will come driving along and I could stop them.”
“Oh yes, Ivar. Do that. And please hurry.” Children were leaving the schoolroom and hurriedly making their way across the yard towards the barn to get their horses. Soon, most of the children except for those who had to wait for their older sisters in Grade Eight were gone.
Kirsten, not wanting to be in the way, remained at her desk. Maybe Victoria would get better as quickly as she had gotten sick and Miss Stanton could still come for the weekend. She opened her storybook and tried to concentrate on the printed words.
Miss Stanton, on her knees, was trying to talk to Victoria. “What is it, Victoria? Can you tell me what is the matter? I don’t know what’s happening to you.”
Victoria moaned something in reply.
Miss Stanton looked up at the Grade Eights who were grouped around her. “Poison! Oh dear! She’s taken poison. What could it be? Where could she get it?” She turned to Victoria and questioned her again.
Again, Victoria’s reply was barely audible. Kirsten couldn’t hear what she had said.
“Gopher poison! In her sandwiches!” Miss Stanton reported to the Grade Eights. “Do any of you know anything about gopher poison?”
“Just that it works,” said Leif.
“But what’s in it? Is it arsenic or… or what? Is there an antidote? Is there anything we can give her?”
No one knew of anything that might help.
Victoria continued to writhe beneath Miss Stanton’s coat and drummed the floor with heels and fists.
“Maybe some water. Water might weaken the poison,” someone suggested. Water was brought in the tin drinking cup. Miss Stanton raised Victoria to a near-sitting position and held the cup to her lips. Victoria made a horrible gagging noise and water came spewing out of her mouth.
“She doesn’t seem able to swallow,” said Miss Stanton. Her sleeve was all wet. “Should we try again, Victoria? Would you like some water?” Victoria didn’t answer. Miss Stanton laid her down again.
Kirsten shivered. She decided to go outside. Eric and Olaf were out there and Olise Nordbro. They’d be scared too. They could all wait together. As she stood up, she looked out the window. There was Einar on his horse coming at full gallop. “Miss Stanton! Here’s Einar come back!“ she exclaimed. A moment later, Einar was in the room. There was nobody home at Wilkins, he reported. He had his school bag with him and had written a note which he left on the front step, held secure beneath a stone. Then he had ridden on to Johnson’s, the nearest neighbour. “The Johnsons are coming,” Einar said, “but their horses are out in the pasture. He hast to bring the horses in first, but they’ll get here as soon as they can. They might be able to help. Their daughter Ruth is with them. She went through for a nurse.”
“Oh, if they could only get here! We’re helpless,” said Miss Stanton.
Kirsten went outside to look for the Sandvik twins and Olise. “Somebody’s coming,” they told her and pointed to a car sputtering along the road towards the school. In its wake was a buggy with two people in it, the horses lashed to top speed. “That’s Hallingstads,” said Eric, “in their Model T.”
“And Dawsons in the buggy,” said Olaf. “Boy! That team sure can go!”
“Ivar must have stopped them down at the crossroad and sent them here,” speculated Kirsten. “Maybe they’ll know what to do.”
Three adults emerged from the car and hurried into the school, followed shortly by the couple who had arrived in the buggy.
The children waited. The school door opened and the Grade Eights, carrying books and school bags, came out. They stopped on the front step. Kirsten and the other children went to join them. Sigrid was crying. She shared a desk with Victoria. Kirsten felt sorry for her. It must be sad to have a friend so sick. Sigrid fumbled for her hanky and dropped her books. As they were being gathered and picked up, someone noticed a loose paper covered with writing. It was handed to Sigrid. “This isn’t mine.”Then, examining it closer, “Victoria wrote this.” She began to read.
“What does it say? Let me see,” urged the others. The Grade Eights huddled closely together. Someone began reading aloud. Kirsten drifted closer hoping to hear, but couldn’t make out the words. “You should give it to those inside,” said Leif. “It’s important.” Sigrid went back inside the school taking Victoria’s paper with her.
Another car drove up and Ivar jumped out followed by a man Kirsten didn’t recognize. They hurried to join the group of children. “Now what’s all this about?” began the stranger. “This lad tells me that someone is mighty sick.”
The Grade Eights competed to tell what they knew. Now Kirsten could hear. “It’s Victoria Wilkins ... she’s in Grade Eight … gopher poison … sandwiches.“ More facts came out. Leif and Bjorn were privately informing Ivar. Kirsten strained to listen. Nordbys, the Wilkins’ northern neighbour had taken on a new hired man, Halvor Dahl. Kirsten knew him. He was eighteen, tall and strong and had come straight from Norway to join relatives in the district. He was still learning to talk English. He and Victoria had to taken a liking to each other and kept in touch by writing each other notes that they hid in a culvert Victoria passed on her way to and from school each day. Somehow, Victoria’s father discovered her secret and was so angry to think that his daughter should throw herself at a stupid skywegian bohunk that he had whipped her. “With a buggywhip.” Leif declared. “Maybe even on her bare ass,” he surmised.
Kirsten was indignant. Halvor Dahl wasn’t stupid. He was smart. And he was handsome. Nobody should blame Victoria for liking him. Everybody liked Halvor. How could Victoria’s father be so mistaken? But what is a skywegian bohunk?
Another buggy arrived. It was the Johnsons with their daughter Ruth. They hurried toward the school, but the stranger intercepted them. “Tell the folks in there that I’m here with a car and a tank full of gas. I don’t think I can be of any help in there, but I’ll wait here to see if I’m needed.” Kirsten was a little disappointed. She had thought that maybe Ruth Johnson might have come in a nurse’s uniform, but here she was wearing just an ordinary dress.
The door opened again. It was Sigrid. She was still crying. The other girls gathered around her. Some of them were crying too. Kirsten’s throat was tightening and she could feel tears gathering in her eyes. She didn’t want to cry. She looked for Eric and Olaf. They were throwing stones at a fence post. They didn’t seem to care that Victoria was so sick.
The door opened again and Mr. Dawson and Mr. Hallingstad came out. They seemed to know the stranger who was still waiting. They spoke in voices so low that Kirsten couldn’t hear what they were saying. Then Miss Stanton came out and called the children to her. “It’s getting late. It’s already after four o’clock. Miss Johnson has taken charge and we are doing all we can for Victoria. You should all go home now. If you’re not home soon, your parents will begin to worry. So please hurry along.” Then she went back inside.
Ivar helped Leif and Bjorn hitch their horses to their buggies. “Aren’t you going?” asked Bjorn?
“Not yet,” replied Ivar. “I think we’ll wait for a bit.”
Kirsten and Ivar watched the other children drive off. Now they were the only ones left. Kirsten didn’t want to leave. Maybe Miss Stanton would still come home with them. They waited.
Mrs. Hallingstad and Mrs. Dawson came out. They spoke briefly to their husbands and the stranger. Mr. Hallingstad accompanied the stranger to his car and cranked it for him. The stranger drove off with the Dawsons soon following in their buggy. Mrs. Hallingstad continued talking to her husband. Ivar and Kirsten drew closer. Mr. Hallingstad seemed angry. Mrs. Hallingstad seemed to be trying shush him. Kirsten wondered what he was mad about. Mrs. Hallingstad turned away from her husband and came toward the children. She held out her arms and drew Kirsten to her. “Victoria died a few minutes ago. There was nothing we could do to save her. Ruth Johnson helped all she could, but the poison had gone too far. Victoria sat up and said, “I’m going to meet Jesus,” and then she died. She’s in Heaven now.”
Mr. Hallingstad was wiping his eyes. His voice seemed gruff. “Come along, Ivar. I’ll help you with your horse. You’ll want to get home before dark. I s’pose you have some chores to do.”
Kirsten had forgotten the chores.
Ivar replied, “Yeah, we have to bring the cows in before supper. Me and Kirsten. They’re away down in the far pasture.”
“You don’t want to be looking for them in the dark. And your mama will be waiting for you. She’ll think you got lost.” With Ivar following, Mr. Hallingstad led the way into the barn. A moment later, they brought Thor out and proceeded to back him between the buggy shafts.
Kirsten protested. “But Miss Stanton is to come with us. To stay overnight. We mustn’t go home without her.”
Mrs. Hallingstad took Kirsten’s hand. “Miss Stanton has had to change her plans. Because of Victoria. She is feeling so bad right now. Tell your mama that we’ll take Miss Stanton home with us and then drive her over to Wilkins’ a little later on. Tell your mama too that Mr. and Mrs. Dawson have already gone over to Wilkins’ place to be there when they get home.”
Kirsten found herself being helped into the buggy. Ivar was already there. They started off. The sun was low in the sky and the breeze felt cool. Kirsten shivered, then looked at Ivar. “Ivar! Your coat!”
“I know,” said Ivar. “But how could I get it?“
Kirsten was dismayed. His new coat! And such a nice one! Would Mama scold Ivar? Could he ever wear it again? Would it be proper to wear a coat that someone had died on? She hoped Papa would buy him another.
Thor farted. Ivar swore and lashed him with the loose ends of the reins. “Get going, you stupid horse! Get going or I’ll show you!” A surprised Thor spurted ahead. Ivar lashed him again. Tears ran down Kirsten’s cheeks. The perfect weekend would never happen. She would never think T G I F again. They drove on in silence.
But something more was bothering her. “Ivar?”
“Are we skywegian bohunks?”