Based on the true story of Belle Gunness whose killing spree began in Chicago in 1900, Triflers Need Not Apply is a novelistic tour de force exploring one woman's determination to pay men back for all they have taken.
PERSONAL – comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in LaPorte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.
– Popularly attributed to Belle Gunness
La Porte, Indiana, 1907
‘THIS HAPPENED MANY YEARS AGO, in the valley where I grew up.’ My children crowded around me on the bed; their hands were sticky with porridge and the empty china was stacked on the floor, where Prince, our collie dog, huffed and rolled over in his sleep. I had turned the kerosene lamp on the bedside table down, and the little flame cast the room in a soft, warm glow.
Outside the window, it was dark.
‘A man was out in the woods chopping wood,’ I said, ‘when his wife suddenly came out from among the trees. She looked just as she had that same morning when the man set out from home. She was carrying a bowl of sour-cream porridge, which she offered him to eat. “This is for you, dear husband, for working so hard in the woods,” she said. The man took the porridge from her hands, and it smelled so good and looked even better. Then he noticed that his wife wasn’t sitting on the log with him but was crouching down in the underbrush, and he suddenly got suspicious that his wife was not really his wife at all but a hulder from beneath the earth !’ At this my children chuckled and shuddered, and crept even closer to me under the knitted blanket.
‘“I think you are fooling me!” The man cast the food aside. “I think you are a hulder,” he cried. And up she went, and now he could see the long tail trailing under her skirt, and she ran off, screaming and cursing and neighing like a horse!’
The girls giggled with delight, but my son’s eyes were large with fear. He was not yet four and a little too young for such terrible tales.
‘Why did she give him food?’ asked Lucy, her little face upturned. ‘Because that’s how they cast a spell, the hulder people. If you eat or drink something of theirs, they can catch you.’ I widened my
eyes and twisted my lips. Lucy whined and squirmed beside me, and I could not help but chuckle.
‘What happens then?’ Myrtle’s soft mouth hung open. She was easier to scare than her younger sister was, and I saw just as much fear as delight in her expression.
‘Oh, they take you with them into the earth – and you can never come back then, or see your family again.’ I shook my head with a solemn expression.
‘Why?’ Lucy asked. I could see a trace of porridge on her round cheek.
‘They always want a human bride or groom.’ I reached out with a finger to wipe off the smear.
‘But she looked like his wife.’ Lucy’s clear brow furrowed as she struggled to understand.
‘That’s right. The hulder can look like anyone you know.’
‘But how will we know then?’ Lucy suddenly sat up straight. ‘How will we know that you are you?’
‘Well, that’s easy. If I am kind, I am myself. If I’m not . . . then I’m a hulder.’ I suddenly felt hot. A tightening in my chest made it hard to breathe.
‘And you’ll take us underground?’ Myrtle shuddered beside me. Her dark eyes glistened in the dim light. ‘Never to come back?’
‘Just that.’ I reached over to the bedside table for some of the silver-wrapped caramels I kept in a bowl. The story had suddenly soured on me.
I did not want to speak more of it.
Selbu, Norway, 1877
“THE SMELL OF MEAT drove me out of the storehouse to rest against the timbered wall. My head was spinning and I felt sick. It had happened often lately.
‘You should be careful, Little Brynhild.’ Gurine came outside as well, climbing slowly down the stone steps while wiping her hands on her apron. She was chewing on something: a piece of mutton. The old woman had become scrawny over the winter; age had sucked all the fat away, leaving her a bony frame and wisps of white-gray hair. She followed my gaze across the farmyard to the six men who stood by the barn. It was a cold but sunny morning in May; the birches in the yard were budding and the horses grazed in the pasture. One of the men, a farmhand called Ivar, told a story while gesturing wildly with his hands. All the others laughed. They were far enough away that we could not hear what he said, but we could certainly hear the laughter: hard peals of mirth hauled through the air. For a moment, I thought they were looking at me, but if they did, their gazes shifted away before I
could be certain.
‘They are not to be trusted, the young ones,’ said Gurine. ‘Like bucks in heat, the lot of them.’ She spat gray gristle down on the grass.
‘He can’t deny me forever,’ I said, although I was not so sure about that. I could not make myself stop looking at him, standing there laughing with his head thrown back. His dark, thick hair curled out from under his knitted cap, he looked healthy and strong, and his cheeks blushed red in the chill morning air. His hands were buried deep in his pockets. I knew those hands well, could feel the ghost of them on my skin even as I spoke. ‘I can make him do it, even if he says no.’ Even if things had changed between us, I still held out hope that I would know those hands once more.
I found it hard to believe that all was lost.
‘You put too much trust in the priest, Little Brynhild. He was never a friend to women like us,’ Gurine said.
‘Women like us?’ I glanced at her.
‘Women with nothing to their names.’
‘Well, he doesn’t much like sinners either. I will talk to the priest about Anders. If the priest says he must, he will.’ I lifted my chin just a little.
“The price I paid for my candidness was Gurine’s constant warnings and a quiet offer to solve my problem with a knitting needle.”
‘Oh, Little Brynhild.’ The old woman shook her head. ‘I don’t think it will be that easy . . . Anders has a farm to his name, and money too. Who do you think the priest will believe?’
My hand fluttered to my belly, caressing it through the worn fabric of my apron. ‘I have the child as proof.’
Gurine clucked with her tongue. ‘You could have gotten that child anywhere.’
I nodded. Anders had said that as well when I went to his room and told him what had happened. He laughed even, as if I should have known better than to come to him with my plight. ‘I haven’t been with anyone else,’ I told Gurine, although she already knew that. We shared work and a bed at the farm six days a week, and it had become too hard to lie about the changes in me. We often toiled alone in the kitchen, stirring porridge and carving meat, so it was better that she knew in case I became faint. The fumes from the food did not agree with me since the child took hold. I was often tired and sick. The price I paid for my candidness was Gurine’s constant warnings and a quiet offer to solve my problem with a knitting needle. She had seen this before, she said. It never ended well for the girl.
I did not believe that to be true, though. I would make him do what was right, even if I had to force him. It was the two of us together, after all, who had caused this to happen in the first place. I had not been alone in the barn after dark, deep in the musty hay. He had been there too, and I said as much to Gurine, who had sunk down on a stone slab that served as a step to the storehouse.
‘Oh, but the world doesn’t work like that,’ she said as another peal of laughter rose from the group of men by the barn. ‘You know it doesn’t, Little Brynhild. If he were a lesser man he might do you
right, but that one’ – she nodded in the barn’s direction – ‘he is heir to all of this and won’t bother with a girl like you.’ She paused to spit gristle down in the grass. ‘If you are lucky, he will slip you some money or set you up with a tenant, but I don’t think he’ll do even that.’ Her face took on a thoughtful expression. ‘He is spoiled, that one . . . he won’t care.’
I could tell that she felt sorry for me, and that hurt more than any words. I never did well with pity.
‘Hansteen will set it right,’ I insisted as a pounding at my temples warned me that a headache was coming on.
‘The priest won’t lift a finger.’ Gurine squinted up at me as I stood there beside her, wringing the gray, worn apron between my clammy hands. I hated how sure she sounded. I hated that she might be right. Cold sweat broke out all over my body and my heart raced when I thought that I might not get my way. This was a long departure from the giddiness I had felt when I first caught his eyes after Christmas. I had thought it all so easy then. I had thought it was the beginning of something. I always believed I could do better than porridge and toil, that my hard work and diligence would earn me a reward. And for a while, I had thought that he might come to care for me, and that one day, I would cross the yard in front of me not as a maid in threadbare shoes but as the mistress of it all – and him.
I never told Gurine about those hopes of love, but I did tell her about my plan to force him. I confided in her the same night that I knocked on Anders’s door and found him drunk in his room. I had prepared every word I was to say to him. I had meant for him to feel remorseful of how our time together had left me in such trouble.
‘How do you know it’s mine?’ he asked instead, sitting on the lip of his red pullout bed. His eyes were glassy from drinking. ‘I’m not the first man you have tricked into the barn.’
‘But you are,’ I protested. ‘There hasn’t been anyone else.’
‘No?’ He emptied the tin cup in his hand. ‘That’s not what they say.’
I felt confused. Who were they and what did they say? ‘Well, they lie. There never was anyone else.’
He shrugged. The light from the candle he kept on the table chased shadows across his handsome face, and on the timbered walls. ‘I don’t see what you want from me.’ His gaze met mine across the small room; the air was stale in there, warm and musty. I could hear the crackling of fire coming from the small black oven in the corner. There was no warmth in his eyes, though; they were much like dark pebbles in the flickering light. ‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘Why?’ I could not believe my own ears. ‘Because you should do right by me. We ought to go to the priest.’
The corner of his mouth lifted in a smirk. ‘What for, Brynhild? Why should you and I go to the priest?’
‘To marry,’ I replied, and my voice did not quiver when I said it. It was the right thing to do, after all. He might not care for me as I hoped he would, but he had gotten me with child. Outside the window, between the plaid curtains, I could see the birch trees moving with the wind, black silhouettes against a dark blue sky. I felt like they laughed at me all of a sudden, as if they were chuckling so hard they could not stand still.”
Extracted from Triflers Need Not Apply, out now.
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