Here is my second short story of the week, based on one of my favourite characters in Scandinavian folklore – the Huldra. I hope you enjoy it! I’ve featured the Huldra in a story before, a story called 1349. You can find it here.
I always said I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I buried my wife or my child before me. But they’re both gone and I’m still here. Though hardly. The Dr, when I last went to see him, may as well have said ‘just lie down in your bed and wait. Death won’t be long in coming.’ What I have can’t be called much of a life. Despite the technology this new century has given us, the mountains still dissuade old family and friends from visiting.
“The snow will be too high on the pass,” they tell me in December. “The snow will still be too high on the pass,” they tell me again in May. “The snow will still be too high on the pass,” they tell me, when they know fine well that summer has cleared the road. They don’t think I look to the mountains.
It’s been years since there’s been a woman in this wooden house. Years since its smelt of anything other than microwaved fish and cigarette smoke. I always wake before the sun, but its light struggles more each day to penetrate through the dirty air that I breath and release again.
I’m envious as sin of the other old men who still go out to ski, swim in the fjord and take bikes up the mountains. I’m envious of the other old men who’s wives still pleasure them. You’d think I would have stopped caring by now, about the female touch. You’d think I would have stopped thinking about sex. But I haven’t. I wake up from dreams where I’m with my wife. Dreams when she dressed as a Huldra for a Halloween party. Dreams of the night we went to the forest and took photos of her with her tail. I still have the photos. She is naked and beautiful and happy. She twirls a cow tail of fabric, and her long hair is loose. Her hair and tail are but blurs in the photographs. We were tall then, and healthy. We had the stamina of horses. I am always wet with nocturnal emission when I wake from from these dreams. And I cry, there in my bed, and I am always ashamed.
One day, my heart tells me that this is it. That it’s time for it to close down. It tells me first with hot pain, then a dull throbbing. I take it on myself to clean the house. I open the windows wide. I wipe the grease off the stove top. I work methodically as my heart continues to eke out an alarm that the end is coming. I have dealt with worse pain than this before. The house, after an hour or so, starts to smell of the forest; of old pines and wet moss and the mulch on the pathways. It enlivens me. But my heart is still insistent. I make my bed. I tidy the bedside table of its clutter; tissues, medication, shot glasses. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to write anything, but I put a note on top of the laptop I never use. The villagers can have what they want from this place. The forest is where I will go now, and the forest is where they will find me, should they go looking.
When I was a child, I was told to avoid stepping off the path, as I could get lost forever. My mother never accompanied me on my hikes, though she told the story of Little Bjorn, who one day, when picking blueberries, went off the path to get the fattest, bluest, juiciest berries and was never seen again. Some say the wolves that had started to come back over the border from Sweden took him. Some say he got lost and starved to death. I told my own child that a troll had plucked him from the ground and had eaten him whole.
It feels strange to be walking without bag or keys, hat or phone. But my step is easier, like I have downed a bottle of sunrays and they have energised me. My pulse isn’t as neurotic as before. If I was afraid of dying, I would be celebrating. I would be thinking to myself ‘another chance to make a go at things!’ I move past the derelict barns where cows once chewed the cud. Much of those that live here now make a living sitting behind their computers. Keeping animals is very much a thing of the past. The smell has lingered though, the smell of hay and shit and feed. It’s somewhat liberating. I think of my ancestors. I think of their strong arms, of how they used to guide the plough. I think of their focus and how it enabled them to see the seasons through.
The forest is deeply aromatic, the smell is almost enough to get you drunk. I walk into the trees boldly, quickly leaving the noise of the village behind. The modern world hasn’t touched this place. It stands as it always had and always will. I move off the path. The trees are endless, and I know not which way I move, but as I go, I strip off my clothes. I suckle the summer air, sweet as honeycomb. My heart describes to me in short, sharp bites when it’s time to stop and rest. When it’s time to lay my head and wait for death. I’m naked when I stop. The sun is still bold in the sky. The pine needles under my back have been dampened by rain and are blanket soft. I hear nothing but the birds. Nothing but the insects. Nothing but the land taking and turning and giving.
I’m warm and drowsy and ready for death when I roll over and see her moving towards me. She walks with a straight back and blonde head held high, a lithe and naked queen of the forest. She knows I know what she is, and there is no moment’s pause before she is sitting atop me, brave and beautiful. My body responds appropriately. She kisses the white fur on my chest, kisses the sallow bags under my eyes, kisses the lobes of my bruised and broken ears. At the moment of climax, I look my queen in the eyes and it is my wife looking back. She smiles the smile I loved for sixty years, and wraps her cow’s tail tight around my throat.