The old one was his father’s, and it had been worn by many hands—his father’s, his father’s wife, then his son Dreng’s, his two wives whom he had successively outlived, and, lastly, the hands of his grandchildren. Then there were neighbors, friends, relatives who all had handled the calendar stick, seeking out some day in question and its events to be followed—-who could count such a mob of people?
He raised his eyes to the chair where his wife, Odney Persdatter, sat crocheting with the embroidery in hand-—rather, where she had sat, for she had passed five years now to her reward in heaven—-telling him on her deathbed, in her plain-speaking way, that she was going to the home of the blessed saints, and he had best make up his mind soon and confess his stubborn ways and prideful sins and come join her or else, keep his pride and sink to hell with the devils!
When sometimes his eye wandered to her chair and saw the spider web lace, he recalled what she had said when he asked her why she spent so much bother and time on laces that nobody really needed on a working farm.
She slowly removed her glasses then to reply to him. He couldn't forget her smile and words, given as if to a child!
"Why, my husband, what is a lace good for? What are webs good for, tell me please? Don't they catch dinner for a lowly, working spider? He has worked for it, let him have it! And now, as for me, this poor web of mine catches my thoughts and they turn into lace you can see, because in this lace I am thinking of you and thy soul."
"But you said yourself this is like a spider's web! I'm a free Norwegian! Nobody has the rule over me, woman! Keep your lace-making to yourself!" She lowered her head, still smiling, and returned to her web-spinning. His gaze again went to her chair and the spider web lace. The web seemed to glow in his gaze.
“Business is business, work is work!” he always liked to say, when people got too close to his emotions. “Women are butter soft where men are hard as a butting billy goat's horn!” he always said, with an earthy gleam in his eye, to whomever was at hand to hear it-—usually the cows nowadays!
Yes, he was like his race, proud of keeping emotions not only firmly checked but clean out of sight! What he did, his acts, was all he intended to show what sort of man he was. Anything else, he figured, was nobody’s business!
Holding strong in his manly silence, even though nobody was present on the farmstead to challenge him on that point anymore, Dreng faithfully continued his ways. Grown white haired, in his eighties, though his legs acted like stiff boards his fingers were nimble enough, for he still milked a whole barn of cows without his grown sons or daughters to help him—-they had left him and established homes and farms elsewhere in Setesdal Valley.
Nevertheless, it had been a long time since his father had carved the old primstav. He examined it carefully, as his copy needed to be exact to be useful. Woe to him if he missed a saint’s day such as St. Simon’s day, October 28, or got it attached to the wrong notch on the board, which mistakes could leave the cows outside the barn when it was high time to get them safely in (thereby exposing them to a killing winter blizzard).
And should he miss marking St. Peter’s Day, February 22, someone could go out on the ice and break through and drown, and it would be his, Dreng’s, fault! He might even be brought to court for it—-since calendar sticks were so trusted to regulate the daily life of the rural folk.
Hadn’t it always been so? When only a boy, he had asked his father the age of primstavs, and the elder Bjorn considered the question a while before he replied slowly, “You have been taught about he who discovered America, our own Leif Erikssen, well, it was about his time.”
Since he had gained even more knowledge about the world than his father who had not gone to school, he had taken the opportunity to brag a bit on it. He had ventured, “Yes, father, but the educated people don’t speak of Leif, they all talk about Christopher Columbus, and he was the one who really discovered America, they say!”
His father, at his response, glared at him hard and long without speaking. Finally, “Nei, nei!” he cried, highly indignant, though not showing any color in his face. “It is not so written in our Sagas! Have you lost your mind, silly fish? Why, you’ll never amount to anything if you believe those high-collared, city fools instead of our own traditions!”
His father then rose stiffly from his chair, then stomping away to the barn, that was the end of the chance to shine and all he got was humiliation. How his sisters had laughed at him, when their father was out of earshot.
Well, in that case, he just had to prove his father’s dire prognosis was mistaken, and make doubly certain there was no mistake on this primstav! It was a long and noble undertaking, this carving of calendar sticks.
Since the discovery of America, perhaps even earlier, his ancient Norwegian folk had carved them. Indeed, long before Christ and the cross-carrying priests had entered Norway, the calendar sticks ruled their lives.
With Scandinavia’s short growing season, it was life or death to know what was the best time to sow, or when to let the restive, barn-sour cattle spring bawling out into the thawed pasture. Calendar sticks could tell you everything it was vital to know, from when to hire new servants on St. Callistis’s Day, October 14, which was also the beginning of winter, to the first summer day, April 14, honoring St. Tiburtius and St. Valerianus, martyred brothers who died in 229, when servants reviewed their duties to their employees throughout Norway.
Even shepherds marked that day, for then they knew when to abstain from meat, since the folk knew the eating of meat harmed the herd if eaten on that holy day.
Once he had chosen the piece of wood, a fine, thin stick, working it flat and even with his father’s tools until it was smoothed and shaped just right to carve, he was faced with a choice. Should he begin on the Winter Side or the Summer Side? He searched his memory, and his memory held firm. His father had first carved the most important side, Winter, and so he would do as his father.
Of course, just notching the board would only require a child and take an hour at best to accomplish, but a primstav was not a bunch of routine, lock-step notches, it was a sacred tally of holy days and other days of note, 61 in all. Each holy day boasted its own distinctive emblem, and that was where the carving skills of a mature man were required. One need not be a craftsman, though that would help. It was only necessary to copy exactly what the older primstav preserved from the ancient times.
So he began with Winter Night, October 14, and carved the mitten that was the sign for St. Callistus, one of the early popes who died in ANNO 222. While carving the tiny mitten, he could not think what it had to do with Pope Callistus—but that was what northern, mitten-wearing folk recognized for this important day, the beginning of winter, and mitten it remained!
He then carved notches for the intervening days until he got to October 21, and there he carved St. Ursula’s sign. Ursula was a martyr. She had led eleven devout virgins to Rome, and they were on they return from their pilgrimage when they were all set upon by Huns and murdered. Or was it 11,000 virgins she had led on sailing ships up the Rhine? Ancient reports varied. At any rate, October 21 was her day, and on this day all work on spinning wheels and mills was to cease.
Finished with St. Ursula, Dreng continued on. St. Simon’s Day finished October’s holy days. Feast of All Saints began November 1. Would he make it to December this night, he wondered, glancing at the remaining woodstock in his bin by the fireplace.
He had already determined not to burn more than one load for sitting up and working on the primstav nightly—two loads would be wasteful of good wood, and he might run out, with high snow still covering his woodlot.
Working steadily and carefully, Dreng reached November 11, St. Martin’s Day, which was symbolized by a goose. St. Martin’s story almost made him chuckle while he carved the goose. Goose was normally to be eaten on this day, but the old stories told of how shy St. Martin was. Why, when church dignitaries came to this simple man’s house to make him Bishop of Tours he fled and hid in the goose pen! Imagine that! Dreng thought.
A new bishop in a goose pen! But this day was also serious business, for any livestock that the owner did not want to keep over the winter was to be slaughtered on this day. And by November 11 the larders were cold enough to keep the meat safely frozen.
Dreng could not held but admire the great wisdom of the ancient calendar stick—-for it was right as a ruler of their lives at every point. It didn’t matter so much that old St. Martin fled into a goose pen in varying years set at ANNO 395 to ANNO 402 as that they all knew when it was the right time to slaughter livestock and there would be sufficient cold to preserve the precious meat.
He had just started November 23, St. Clement’s Day, when his fire began to die and cold crept into the room where he was sitting. His fingers quickly lost their agility as they grew numb with cold, and so he sighed and turned his thoughts to bed, where he could keep warm until the dawn. St. Clement?
He was still thinking about him, after he had buried the embers to keep them alive through the night, and had climbed into his hand-carved wooden bedstead with a metal pan full of warm ashes to warm the feather mattress and woolen blankets.
He could have heard his cows under the north end of the house except that a woolen cap and his own deafness shut out all such sound. If it had stormed in the night, he could not have heard it-—and he awoke refreshed, ready for the chores of a new day-—only something gave him pause, and he didn’t get out of bed right away as usual, setting his wool stockinged feet on the ice-cold, rugless, wooden floorboards.
He had dreamed something! But what was it? It had seemed so important, but with the day’s first glimmerings the dream had seemingly fled like St. Martin into the goose pen!
Giving it no more thought, he turned to the day’s tasks. Hours later, not many hours later, it was dark. The cows taken care of, the other things done, he was shut in once again indoors, and he got his dinner, then went and sat down, his hand taking the unfinished primstav and his carving knife. He pushed his chair close to the fire, as he needed all the light he could get on his work.
He had noticed that his mind was growing apt to wander a bit, with advancing age. “Now where was I?” he had to ask himself, as he tried to get the facts together in his mind. “Yes, St. Clement’s Day!”
He set to work with vigor. How good it felt to wield his knife, and notch the good wood and make all the exact notches for the days. He finished the symbol for St. Clement begun the night before. Again, it bore no resemblance to the saint, but that didn’t matter. Seeing it, the folk recalled that St. Clement was third after St. Peter, and he wrote a letter in ANNO 95 reprimanding the Church of Corinth for fighting amongst themselves.
For another reason-—his stand for Christ as opposed to Caesar worship—he was martyred by being thrown into the sea with an anchor around his neck. In honor of the saint all ship were to lie at anchor.
Working on this sign Dreng’s mind began wandering. Perhaps, it was the connection to the boundless sea, which always drew a Norwegian’s mind away, even though he lived buried in the farmlands and forests of Setesdal Valley and not along the eastern fjords. The sea and its wild, tossing waves, with the great, slim Viking ships, lured his spirit away from the primstav and the job of carving.
He could see the great early Norwegians breaking the sea’s biggest waves with their magnificent, dragon-headed craft. He could see himself, or some lad who looked like him in his early youth, standing by the commander, saying something that brought the commander’s approving slap across the shoulders. How proud he felt!
But what had he said? The wind was so high he couldn’t hear the words from them. Then swiftly, the ship sailed into a quiet haven of still waters, and huge, bird-nested rocks and sheer granite cliffs rose up on all sides, making the water look like a lake of pure crystal water, so clear you could see all the darting fishes beneath the keel.
Wonderful! Wonderful! Some time later he jumped in his chair, as if he had forgotten to breathe, and then he awoke to the fact he had dozed off.
The fire was nearly gone too! Disgusted that he had wasted his carving time, he made preparations for bed and then went off to bed. The primstav would just have to wait!
He wasn’t going to waste precious chopped wood on a lapse into old age! Not Dreng Bjornsson!
Nei! Nei! He would live and die unchanged-—even his wife’s last words wouldn’t be able to change him!
Now he was just an old, unwanted widower living up where nobody wanted to live anymore, but the whole world of Norwegians could go soft and move down into the easy life of the towns and cities—-he, Dreng Bjornnson, would stick to the good, old ways, they had been proven best for a true son of the old Norwegian folk.
Though he was just as much a man as any woman could want, he knew, no woman would come up there to live with him.
Thinking to sweeten the pot a bit, he said to each prospect he had met in his several trips to town for such a purpose, “You’ll get my house and barn and all my cows when I am gone.” Yet that hadn’t been enough for them! They preferred indoor toilets and running water and all the rest of the soft life of the towns and cities to living alone with him on the high sides of the Valley.
Climbing into bed, he realized after a moment only that he had forgotten the warming pan. “Oh well, I can think warm thoughts instead and save the embers for the morning fire!” he decided. Unfortunately, his stock of warm thoughts proved rather slim, and he couldn’t seem to get any warmth in his feet, and they just got colder as he lay there. It was hours before he lost consciousness.
When he slept, he had no idea, it seemed as if he were just drifting off, and then it was dawn. Time to get up! A new day had begun!
But as he had done the morning before, something in his memory was still strong enough to stop him momentarily. He had dreamed something again. A man of few dreams, this was notable enough to make him think about it. What was it? Again, it seemed flown away, whatever it was.
All that day—-short as it was-—he hurried to get his tasks done. As usual, he finished with his dinner and cleaning up afterwards, and only then did he get a good fire going and turn to his primstav carving. Because of his dozing off the evening before, he was determined to make his time count doubly. He set to work with a vengeance.
November 25, St. Catherine’s Day, a martyred saint who was put on a spike wheel, which broke, and then she was beheaded, required a wool carder for her symbol, and that was easily accomplished, since his own wife had one just like it. This was the day, he knew, when women should begin their spinning for the winter, as his wife’s example always showed him, year after year to the year of her death when her hands gave out.
Next came St. Andrew’s Day, November 30. The story about him said he was the man who acted as envoy to Jesus for the Greeks who wanted to see him. Andrew also called attention to the loaves and fishes, when Jesus asked if they had any food for the vast, hungry crowd following them.
Tradition said he took the Gospel to Russia north of the Black Sea. Wasn’t that the sea, Dreng thought, his forebears sailed when they attacked Constantinople in the days of the Greek and Roman emperors? His sign was a fish hook, and he was the patron saint of fishermen.
How that stirred Dreng’s blood, when he thought of it. St. Andrew meant much to a Norwegian, who lived by the sea and the fish in it-—even if he, Dreng, was a farmer and dairyman, his forebears had come from the fjords and settled Setesdal—they had certainly honored this saint in days of old!
The next day was St. Barbara’s, December 4. Dreng’s heart warmed at the thought, how he was making such fine progress.
But this poor saintly daughter of a heathen father, though beautiful and rich, had been locked in a tower by her father, who demanded she give up her faith in Jesus, and refusing she was beheaded. But Odin—er, God—was not mocked! Dreng reflected.
Lightning struck the father dead. And there was the old saying, “On Barbara’s Day the sun goes away, on St. Lucia’s Night, the sun comes in sight!” That meant St. Lucia’s Day, December 13, was the longest day of the year…
Again, Dreng bolted up as if he had been jabbed with his wife's big darning needle. He was chilled to the bone. He had fallen asleep in his chair! The primstav and carving knife were on the floor. The fire was dead, the embers black.
He picked up the fallen items, and put laid them in their place even though it was too dark to see, and crept toward bed, knowing every step he had to take. As for the warming pan, he wouldn’t bother. Best leave what embers there were for the morning fire, he decided.
The freezing cold, wifeless bed was no comfort to him, and he had a hard time warming up his old bones enough to sleep. When he did get some sleep, he had no idea. Almost immediately, it seemed, it was dawn. His own interior clock told him so, and he rose dutifully as any true son of the old stock despite his cold, aching bones and shivering body.
Again, he hesitated to get up, for a dream had just left him, and it was, he knew somehow, the same one he had dream, or one of the two he had dream previously. But what had it been? It had been repeated, that was all he knew for certain.
Unable to call the dream and its phantoms back, he climbed out of the bed and turned to the task of the new day’s struggle to exist.
Oddly, his wife’s remarks on this and that topic came to mind this day. He couldn’t seem to clear his mind enough to shut them out. Whatever he was doing, or thinking of doing, he recalled a remark of hers concerning it.
Whether it was a barn floor he shoveled to put fresh rushes upon, or whether he fed the cattle, or looked after the other small livestock, her remarks followed him. He hadn’t recalled her remarks in this way before, so why know? It grew to be annoying to him. At last, he finished with his chores, watering and feeding, cleaning up and stocking up on wood and washing his hands and making dinner, eating dinner, and then firing up the hearth and settling in his chair for his nightly work on the calendar stick.
At last! But his wife’s comments-—why wouldn’t that woman ever hold her tongue? Here she had gone to heaven by her own express choice-—and that was her right if she had such a heart to go to be with the angels and the saints—-but why was she hounding him to “confess his stubborn pride and his sins” and “come join her”? He was hale and hearty yet. And his sins were good Norwegian sins--why give them up? He had no mind to do any such thing as she proposed, not as long as he could draw a good Norwegian breath in his lungs!
Shaking his head, he set to work, despite the feeling his wife wasn’t quite through with him, though he was through with her. Oh, she had been a good wife in most all respects, but she could talk. How she could talk! That was her chief fault, if fault she had. He had kept silent and strong, despite her words, and that kept the peace between them all there years together. But now! She had come back from the grave to torment him! So it seemed.
“What do you want from me, woman?” he almost cried out, as he tried to work on the primstav and found he could not concentrate.
His near outburst startled him, and he got hold of himself, and decided he would go to bed early. Perhaps sitting up so late was the problem. The primstav carving would wait. He had all winter to finish it, he decided.
He had just settled in his warm bed, with a warming pan giving his body a welcome glow, when he fell deeply asleep. Sometime later, however, his dreams returned. And he was so engaged in them this time he found himself sitting up in bed, watching the events of his dreams unfold, scene upon scene. He could not have stopped them if he wanted. He saw the dates, October 12 and 13, on the Summer Side and April 8 through 13 on the Winter Side. He saw their events, first to last, for each period. They had nothing to do with the old accounts and saints of the ancient primstav, he realized, watching with wide open eyes in the dark.
He tried shutting his eyes to stop the dreams, but it didn’t work, the dreams continued, eyes open or shut. He buried his head in his blankets, but that helped not a whit. The dreams replayed, time after time, until he thought he would go crazy. Desperate, though it wasn’t dawn, he was just about to leap out of bed and get dressed when the dreams faded, then vanished.
He fell back into bed, relieved, but his thoughts churning away for some while. What was he to do? What was he to think about such dreams? They were so vivid and insistent, even more insistent than his wife had been lately.
When dawn came, he was more than ready to greet it and begin a new day, and do anything to put the whole episode out of mind as far as possible. He attacked his chores with great zeal. The cattle and sheep and goat were amazed in their own way at the loving care he paid to them, and were treated to every kind of attention a dairyman could possibly give livestock. Exhausted, he finally went back inside his own quarters and saw to his own needs. But when evening soon came he was about to eat when his wife’s words again came to mind: “you must finish.”
He dropped his ladle right back into the soup he had fixed! “What?” he exploded with a full voice that echoed in the empty rooms around him.
“--you must finish” the voice continued, growing fainter. But he had heard her well enough.
“Finish what?” he muttered irritably. “I must be losing my mind, hearing voices like this speaking to me!”
He had a bright thought that seemed to save the day for him. “I really need to take a wife! This is what happens when a man goes to long without a women in his arms! He gets to thinking strange things, seeing strange dreams, and hearing strange voices! Well, I can fix that! A man like me can still do his good Norwegian duty to a good Norwegian woman!”
All of a sudden his mind flooded with plans. He would make a trip down to town, and cast his eye around on the female prospects available. Nothing wrong with a decent widow woman--who didn't chew tobacco or spend money or keep a bottle beside her knitting! This time he would not return to the farmstead without a wife! It was as good as his salvation. A wife would save him from his lonely, half-crazed state. She would return him to a proper, ordinary, useful way of life, the one he had known so many years, but which was now turning into a kind of nightmare.
Busier than ever, he got things ready in the stalls and barn for leaving them for a few days, and he packed his own bag, and put on his best clothes. He even looked in the mirror to see if there could be any improvement. “I’ll get a special haircut for her,” he thought. “I’ll have my beard trimmed and scented too with French pomade. The cost of it—-well, it will be worth a good wife to warm my last years.”
He looked around a last time to see that everything was in order and in its place. Then he noticed he had left the calendar stick lying out with his carving knife. That struck him as odd. He had thought he had put them away as he had always done before. Could he be getting careless in his old age? Well, he would put a stop to that!
He strode over to the offending calendar stick and knife, swept them up, and only then noticed that something was different about the stick. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was black! Somebody--a Christmas imp, no doubt--had come in and painted his stick black! Not only that, he had colored the signs!
Dreng dropped the primstav as if it were scalding, hot water or a fire-heated sword.
But he didn’t care so much that some Christmas imp had invaded the house and finished the calendar stick for him and even painted and colored it as much as he was horrified by the filling in of particular dates in October and April.
He saw the glowing, colored signs—-a falls and divided river with two branches standing for, according to the first dream, “a New Creation life” and the “Messiah Yeshua” and the Indian boy he saw who carried those signs downriver to all the souls in the vast lands beyond—-and the birth events of Yeshua the Messiah of the Jews, or Jesus, symbolized by the shepherd’s crook, and the sword of Herod, with a portion of the Crown of Heaven that Yeshua won by His Cross--crucifixion, death, and resurrection. And the dates? “ANNO STELLAE 1943” and “ANNO STELLAE 1”---
“Nei, nei!” Dreng shouted, or found himself croaking hoarsely, as he backed out of the imp-haunted house, leaving the door hanging open for the weather and the wild things, never to return.
A year later, Dreng Bjornsson’s surviving family came to gather his remaining effects (though a neighbor had taken the cattle and small stock and paid for them after receiving word from town). The old man had passed, after a few months in easy circumstances at a daughter’s home, and so there was everything to deal with.
As for the calendar stick, which was painted black with colored signs, no one thought much about it, and there was no dispute as to who would get it.
Now that the more sophisticated "Continental" European culture was predominant, some people were beginning to value such old things of Norway’s heritage again, and people came to see the Julian calendar-based 1707 primstav of Dreng Bjornsson, which wasn’t particularly old, but it was among the last of its kind.
And it was in good condition.
The only problem was that it contained a few mistakes, which were thought likely because the carver had been in his advanced eighties when he worked on the stick.
The signs and notches for October 12 and 13 and April 8 through 13 were missing.