content warning: references to sexual violence
They say she could leave a man lifeless, suck him dry of essence.
That a man might be out in the woods, working or walking, minding his own either way, and he would fall prey to her. Perhaps he might drift too far afield, or get caught in unfavourable weather. He would start making his way back through the birch trees, the once calming silence growing ever more sinister along with the quickening pace of the rain. And there, straight ahead, she would be; borne of mist, her beauty as vital, as unavoidable, as the thick forest air in his lungs. That’s how it’d happen, easy as that, they say.
I wonder what it is to know that power.
When I arrive at the cabin, there’s a note from the owner letting me know where everything is. Rather than collapse in a heap on the neatly made bed, I circle the kitchen, opening and closing every cupboard and drawer. The retro design strikes me; the wood, painted a charming cream, is smooth and cool beneath my hand. I think of my parents’ new kitchen: its sharp lines and sleek surfaces, the “citrus accents” my mother had convinced my dad he’d grow fond of. “You won’t find such luxuries in your little Norwegian bolthole,” my mum remarked as I popped a coffee capsule into their fancy machine. As I pull out an old, rusted kettle, I see she was, of course, right.
I find a coffee tin and a strainer in another cupboard. It smells fresh enough. I fill the kettle with water at the large white sink, place it on the stove and add the coffee. I finally shrug off my backpack and peel off my coat, letting them land like a shed skin on the floor. Picking up my coat, I hang it on one of the hooks next to the front door, and set my walking boots tidily on the wooden rack on the floor. There’s a slightly tatty pair of snow boots there already, which I don’t anticipate needing yet in early September.
There’s a small wooden table in front of the log burner in the living room, framed by a cheap-looking two-seater sofa beset with blankets. The owner has carefully laid out some guidebooks for the area on the table, along with a box of extra long matches. There are some folded maps there too, worn along the creases. I’ll need those to plan my walking routes in the woods; the signal might not be strong enough to use digital means. Besides, I like the idea of taking a more authentic approach to the practical side of this project. It won’t earn me any extra points, but somehow it feels like the right way to go about it.
The kettle is making its high-pitched wail; I lift it from the heat, pour myself a mug, and take it over to the sofa. I’ll use today to rest. The journey from London to Oslo is short, but even so, it’s just after one in the afternoon and I feel I could sleep for a week. Instead, I reach over the side of the sofa and drag my backpack across, pulling my project notes out of it. I brought everything. While my more formal research is on my laptop, the bare bones of my thesis exist on these loose sheets slipping from my battered notebook, furled at the corners. I notice some early scribbles: Who was the Huldra, and what did she want?
There’s a distant rustling sound then, a crunching—leaves and sticks under wheels. I move to the kitchen window in time to catch the glimmer of sleek black gliding between the trees. Before too long, the car has disappeared; its noise, its otherness, absorbed by the woods.
I go back to my notes, and pull out a wad of photocopied newspaper clippings. The faded pictures in the articles show these woods as they were in 1975; although the grainy quality makes it hard to decipher specific details, the sense of eeriness prevails. With the help of an online translator, and a forum discussing supernatural incidents in Scandinavia, I interpreted the articles, clipped from an old Norwegian newspaper. I skim them again now, my eyes growing heavy with the effort.
Sightings of unfamiliar women walking barefoot in the woods. They’d taken a cabin nearby, arriving one by one until there’d been close to a dozen—almost enough for a coven. It hadn’t been long before their nightly excursions had started to unsettle the close-knit community of holidaymakers, wholesome young families taking summer breaks.
And then the men had started to go missing.
When I wake up I am slouched on the sofa, laptop open on the coffee table and notes scattered on the floor. Breath curls out of my mouth like a ghost. Outside, the sun has just set, leaving the trees barely visible, and the cabin very cold. I get to work lighting the fire for the evening; twisting my hair out of the way, knowing the chalky, splintered surface of the logs only briefly before tossing them into the burner.
The mid-morning air is blunt on my skin as I close the cabin door behind me. One of the maps has a walking trail marked out which leads to a lake, so I decide to take that route to get the lay of the land.
I want to pretend I am a Huldra, a witch of the woods, to get to know her better. Would I feel like I owned the forest, that any strange man to set foot on my path would be fated to fall foul of my charms? Or would I feel misunderstood, mistaken, existing in some world where I’m both revered and demonised? Maybe I already know what that’s like. Maybe we all do.
I realise I’ve taken a wrong turn when the bracken thickens beneath my shoes. Tree branches scratch at the arms of my jacket, curl themselves around the map in my hands. If I can just push through this, I should make it out to a clearing by the lake. I walk on, looking up; far above me, the trees have formed a canopy like a crown on which jewels of sky sparkle. But looking up has disorientated me, and I find myself falling, hands out towards the ground. My scream, when it comes, is both sharp and muted, pillowed by the fallen leaves.
Sticks sting under my hands, and pain shoots up through my thighs. This is just how it was. Instead of firm hands, there are twigs tangled up in my hair. Instead of a bed I knew well, there is damp soil at my knees. But this is just how it was, and I feel as though I’ve been gutted. You said you liked it like that. I start to shudder. It’s not that bad, I tell myself. It wasn’t even that bad. I can stand up, and keep on walking. You could have got up. You could have left. I manage to sit upright, turn my hands over, blow the dirt off them. My hair falls in wisps across my face.
The light has changed, sending a cool shadow over me. “Are you okay?”
In front of me: boots, the dark jeans tucked in, a jacket like mine, a cloud of breath preceding a blond-bearded mouth slightly open. Next, he’s putting an arm under mine and hauling me back to my feet. “I fell over.”
“I heard you scream. I was out by the lake,” he says, stepping away from me a little, gesturing in the direction ahead of us. His English is perfect, carrying a slight American twang. “I have a first aid kit in my car. And coffee.”
I hesitate for a moment; it’s strange to not be alone. When I booked the cabin, I felt sure that I’d find myself isolated, with the long weeks of summer behind me and most people back to work in the cities. My solitude was a spell I had cast for myself, which I now feel I’ve managed, carelessly, to break.
“Your hands need to be cleaned up,” he says, perhaps sensing my uncertainty. “It won’t take long.”
As I suspected, the lake is a matter of minutes away. The sun has come out, and I’m suddenly too warm in my jacket; he apparently is in his, too, as he slides it off to reveal a thin hooded jumper underneath. The black car glistens by the water side, parked near a wooden deck with a boardwalk heading a short distance out onto the lake. He opens the door on the passenger side and reaches into the glove compartment, retrieving a small tin box.
I lean against the bonnet, watch him sift through the assortment of gauze, cotton balls and other aid items inside. I’m starting to feel embarrassed; the lacerations on the palms of my hands are nothing more than scratches; it seems like a waste of valuable first aid materials. His hand, holding me by the wrist, is dry and cool, but the strangeness of touch unnerves me. His brow is lined with concentration, a safety pin between his lips. I listen to the birds sing and try to think of something to say.
He dabs the cuts with distilled water, sticks tiny plasters over them, and winds the thin gauze around each hand.
“You didn’t have to go to such trouble, I mean, I’m fine, really.”
He fastens the safety pin, taking his eyes away from my hand only briefly to look up and meet mine. “That kit has been taking up space for years. It’s good to give it a use. Do you want some coffee?”
I straighten my body against the car and nod. He hands me a small enamel mug and pours warm coffee out from a thermos. “How did you know I wasn’t Norwegian?”
He comes back around from putting the thermos away in the boot of the car, and takes a sip from his mug. There’s a pause which I feel with unease, wondering whether or not he’s heard my question.
“A Norwegian wouldn’t have needed a map to make it to the lake,” he says, smiling.
I laugh. It’s an awkward sound, like a choked guffaw, which echoes back to me in my mind. I can feel sweat prickling under my arms and on my lip, and wish I’d taken off my jacket before having the bandages put on.
He seems comfortable with the short silence which follows as we sip our drinks, but not opposed to conversation. The taste of the coffee is bitter in my mouth. “Do you own a cabin nearby?”
He pours the coffee out onto the ground, granting me unspoken permission to do the same with mine. “My dad does. Did. I’m clearing it out,” he says and, sensing a need for clarification, adds, “He died last month.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say, looking down at the remnants in my mug. They feel like such weightless words, to which I manage to add more platitudes. “That must have been really tough.”
He nods, slowly, eyes cast down. “Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Clouds have mottled the sky, and the air has grown cold again. I turn the enamel mug round and round in my hands, staring into it as if the grounds will tell me what to say next. That familiar awkwardness one experiences around somebody new has reared its head, though it seems like it might just be me who can feel it. Eventually, I manage to lift my eyes towards the lake, the nebulous pattern from above reflected on its glassy surface.
“Thank you, for the coffee and the bandages,” I say, lifting an arm limply up. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”
The sun, nascent again now, is on his face and he squints to look at me, one eye wide open. “I thought I was alone here,” he smiles, as if to acknowledge that the presumption had been mutual.
By the time I’m back at the cabin, the weather has made up its mind, beckoning a deluge of rain which falls in sheets against the window. I heat up a tin of tomato soup for dinner, and set about lighting the fire. I play with the illusion that I am being watched; that the man I met in the woods has some sort of omniscient vision, and is monitoring me as I move about the room. I pick up small wooden logs and evaluate their suitability before placing them into the burner. The feeling of eyes on me, peering in from the depths of the woods outside, leaves a cold, filmy sweat on my skin.
The palms of my hands are marbled red. I unroll the bandages and pick at the scratches as I lean against the kitchen counter, waiting for the water to boil. The windows cloud with steam, the morning sky a watered-down blue on the other side.
Once I’ve prepared my coffee, and two slices of toast smothered in peanut butter, I sit down at the table and lay out one of the maps. Even though it hardly did me any favours yesterday, it feels somehow comforting to be tracing my finger over a thin line through the trees, marking out another possible route.
A cool shiver rattles me, shaking drops of coffee over the rim of the mug in my hand. They land like oil slicks on the dense woodland, shaded green on the map. I put the mug down and leaf absently through my project notes. None of the other Masters students have planned field trips, but my chosen subject area seems to have demanded it. How can I be expected to write about the Huldra—about the gendered mysticism that surrounds her and figures like her throughout mythology—if I don’t first follow her ghost here?
I want her impossible position, the fatality of it, to leap from the pages of my thesis, for her gnarled hand to reach through time and legend and wrap its fingers around the throat of the reader. I want, more than ever now, to embody her; to understand what it would feel like to be revered as both beautiful and deadly, to exist in the space between powerful and condemned.
The air outside is thick with a moist humidity; the smell of the earth strong, as if disturbed from a weeks-long slumber by yesterday’s rain. I take a left as I leave the cabin, heading for the forest, its borders ragged with rotten branches and sodden leaves. The muddy ground squelches beneath my boots, the sound softened to a far away thrum as I venture deeper between the trees. Every now and again, I hear leaves rustle with life as unseen creatures scurry further out of sight. Above me, the pallid sun tries to force its way through the grey.
Did you really want me to stop?
The words, the memory of them, echo in my head as if they’ve been shouted out loud. Straight away I can see them being said; slow and rich, rolling out of his mouth, playful lips curling up into a smile.
Images come flooding through. Desire turning to terror within seconds. My hair tugging at the roots, tears damp on the bed sheets. The mattress straining beneath me, creaking; the rip in the wallpaper, soon known by heart. Hearing my own voice fade into a whimper, until no more sound could come out.
I am frozen still, my fists clenched tightly at my sides. As I start to uncoil my fingers, I feel my senses, one by one, begin to return. There, again, is the blanket of small sounds hanging over the trees, the near-tangible smell of the forest. The souring taste of coffee on my tongue, and the thin path ahead of me. And at the end of it, a way off in the distance, I see a figure, the curve of a back turned away.
Yesterday, company made me feel crowded, but today I feel differently. As I roll my shoulders forward and feel the bones gently slot in their places, I start to come back to myself. With the forest powering me, I begin to recharge. Yesterday, I walked in the shadow of the Huldra and fell; today, I walk into her light. I move forward, the earth drumming its thick, heavy beat as my feet hit the ground. The figure ahead straightens, turns round, hands slick with indigo stains.
“There—see that bunch right there?”
I pull the tender fruits away from the thin branch they cling to. They yearn to burst between my fingers, ripe to the point of spoiling. He comes to inspect my findings, curls open my fingers with his. “It’s late in the season for these, but there are a lot of them growing here,” he says, “This is probably the most common berry you’ll find around this area.”
The weather is starting to turn again. There’s no single tell-tale sign; it’s more a feeling that the sun will soon fade out behind the gathering clouds, its pale face shamed into submission.
“What do you call them?”
He puts one in his mouth, the blue veil of its skin breaking before it disappears out of sight. The undersides of his lips are stained blue. “Blåbær.”
I walk over to his open backpack, with the brown paper bag inside, and let the berries fall from my hands. “Have you always done this? Picked berries?”
He comes over, gently pulls his arms through the straps of the backpack. “My parents would bring me out here every year, and we’d always make time to go berry picking. When my mum wasn’t around anymore, we came less and less, but even when it was just me and Dad we’d spend an afternoon out here, in the forest. Å plukke blåbær.”
The words sound like a secret being bared, as if I’ve scraped away at the surface to reveal a hidden truth just underneath. Slow, fat drops of rain start to fall and land on our shoulders. “What’s your name, by the way?”
A raindrop catches in his eye and hangs in the soft, blond lashes for a moment before it is blinked away. “Elias.”
The rain is coming down faster now. I breathe in its earthy scent. “I’m Grace.”
I stand inside the doorway of the cabin. He closes the door behind us and starts pulling off his soaking shoes. I bend to untie my laces, my fingers sore with the cold. We set our wet-through backpacks down, peel off our jackets in the dark.
Elias flicks a switch and dim light pours from a bulb hanging overhead. “Wait here,” he says, running out of the room and returning moments later with two towels. He hands me one, its threadbare surface scratchy under my fingers. I wring out my hair with the towel, droplets of rain escaping onto the dirty floorboards. Elias tugs at a band on his head, bringing matted locks spooling down like yarn. My hands, pressing the towel against my twisted braid, start to slow.
He pulls his hair back into the band, takes my towel and throws them both on the side of the counter in the kitchenette. This cabin is much smaller than the one where I’m staying. Or perhaps it’s just that it’s crowded with things; suitcases and boxes sit on the floor and on the open sofa bed, papers and clothes spilling out. A musty, lived-in smell seeps from the wooden panels of the walls, a scent rich with history.
I move into the room, and Elias jumps into action, taking boxes off the sofa bed, pulling an arm chair around and hitting its cushions, sending dust clouds up into the gloom. He gestures for me to sit in the chair, but I’m heading for the far wall now, where a gallery of mismatched frames hang, jumbled together. The photographs, faded and grainy, all show similar versions of a small boy with bright cheeks, the arms held around him belonging to a woman of striking beauty, whose transcendent gaze seems to reach across time and space.
“She had that effect on everyone,” Elias says, from the stove, where he’s preparing a pot of tea. I realise my mouth is open, my breathing suspended, as I scan the photos, all of which capture that same celestial presence.
“Where’s your father? He’s not in any of these,” I say, coming to sit in the arm chair.
“He was always more concerned with catching her on camera than being part of the moment himself,” he says, setting the tray with two mugs and the pot of tea down on a stool. I try to interpret his voice, to find a sense of resentment, but it’s steady and even, handling facts rather than memories.
“What was he trying to catch?”
Elias sits down carefully on the edge of the sofa bed, its tired springs creaking under his weight. “Her truth, I guess. What it was that lay under her surface. What it was that made her seem like she was…not from here.”
Clouds cross his face, grey eyes shifting under their lids, hands itching for distraction, which he finds in pouring the tea and passing me a steaming mug. “If he could just understand what it was that made her feel like she didn’t belong, he might have been able to get her to stay.”
I sip at my too-hot tea, pushing the many questions I have aside, disgusted at my thirst to know more. There’s a sense of something intimate hanging over us now, the continuing rain its soundtrack, and I feel like I’ve trespassed into personal territory. I don’t know where to cast my gaze, so I rest on Elias’ thick socked foot, the toes flexing up and down.
He sighs to break the tension, and smiles limply. “I never asked you what you’re doing here.”
I thumb the lip of my mug and sift through lines about studies and writing and myths, wondering which one I can spin. I’m moving through shadows and trees. I’m picking berries with strangers and speculating about dead mothers over tea.
Elias’ face has an ease to it now; the clouds have dispersed and he’s laughing, timidly, at my inability to answer what should be a straightforward question. He leans forward with his elbows on his knees. “Should I guess?”
I smooth away a still-damp strand of hair that’s fallen out from behind my ear. “I’m studying,” I say, unsteadily, “A thesis—I’m writing a thesis on Scandinavian folklore, and women. The way women are treated in Scandinavian folklore.”
He raises his eyebrows. “So you like stories?”
“I like…people’s stories. I like knowing what a person was like; whether they lived up to what was expected of them, or whether they had other hidden sides.”
Elias sits up straight, his chest puffed out. “My mother liked stories, too. And people. She could watch you for ages, the way you moved, talked, just to feel like she knew you better.”
His words lie on the floor like a thread. I wonder how long I can pick at it before it starts to fray. I tug at the end at little; gently, just in case. “Did that make you feel exposed?”
“Sometimes,” he says in a measured way, “but mostly it made me feel loved.”
The length of string I’m pulling at threatens to unravel. I imagine its two twisting threads twirling away from each other. “How old were you, when she died?”
Elias looks at me fleetingly, with a furtive glance that I awkwardly interpret as an invitation to proffer my empty mug. The exchange gives him leave to take the tea things to the kitchenette, where he fumbles around before coming back with two tumblers, a small bottle of what looks like home brewed booze, and an expression which insists that the conversation calls for something stronger.
He sits back down and hands me a glass. The syrupy brown liquid tinkles as he pours, sloshing at the sides of its vessel. “Thirteen. I was angry for a long time, mostly at her. I felt cheated. She’d made me feel like I was this precious thing in her life, but it couldn’t have been how she really felt, because it hadn’t been enough to make her want to keep living. At least, that’s how it felt to me at the time.
“Things got easier. We—me and my dad—just needed to learn how to talk to each other about it. And we did, eventually. Talking helps. I feel like I’ve started to get her back; every day I spend less mad at her, I get another piece—this corner of her smile, the smell of her hair, maybe even the sound of her voice, someday.”
I stare down at my drink, untouched. Elias brings his glass to his lips and takes a gulp. “People normally just say they’re sorry, and leave it at that.”
I smile. “Like I said, I like stories.”
In the silence that follows, I notice the rain has stopped. “What will you do with the cabin, once it’s all cleared out?”
He pauses for a minute, purses his lips, then lifts his face to mine, eyes wide in affirmation. “Sell it. There are too many ghosts here.”
I glance over at the photos, hanging there like stills from a past life. Soon, I think, he’ll have to pack them away. I imagine him lifting the memories from the wall, running a finger over the carving of each wooden frame. “I should get back.”
“Do you want some company for the walk?”
Dusk coats the forest, the trees blanketed by a pewter sky. We quickly fall into a rhythm, our shoes pressing into the damp ground in unison. Somewhere, obscured in the birches, an owl is cooing. Elias walks in front of me; I listen to his steady breathing, the air coming out in a cloud of frost ahead of him. He must know these woods like the back of his hand, the paths through the trees branching out like fingers. I’m starting to feel like I know them, too.
“If you’re studying Huldrene then you must have heard about what happened here, in ‘75” Elias says, a smile in his voice.
There’s a rustling overhead, the flapping of wings, feathers slicing through the thick air. I think of the nine men who vanished that year, their eyes staring blankly from the newspapers.
“In this part of the woods, it’s just these two cabins,” he turns and points, the moonlight sharp against his cheekbone, “but about five kilometres north, there are more. That’s where it happened, all those men disappearing.”
They’d discovered the bodies, eventually. Mottled hands reaching out of the earth; pearlescent faces submerged in the swampy banks of the lake, the empty eye sockets forming nightmarish hollows.
“Maybe they’re still out here, haunting the forest,” Elias says. I catch the sweet smell of liquor on the breeze, as his breath billows out.
I watch the moon swell above, flickering in and out of view, and realise, of course, that he is talking about the women; the modern-day Huldrene who never were found.
The grinding clunk of the key turning in the lock is stark against the velvet stillness of the night. Elias kicks at the dirt, keeps his eyes on the ground.
“There’s a beautiful stream about 10 minutes’ walk from here. It’s where we scattered my mother’s ashes. I’m planning on taking a trip there tomorrow, perhaps you’d like to see it?”
An image passes through my mind: his mother’s ghostly arms like fronds, encased in the frame, the scratched surface of the glass as reflective as a clear stream on a bright day.
I close the door behind me and set about lighting the fire. Its burgeoning glow fills the cabin with spasmodic shadows; I watch as they dance on the walls. When I know I am truly alone, I go to my notes and leaf through the clippings and scribbles until I find it, folded and folded again, its seam ragged under my fingers. I open the paper up, the tiny black letters growing more familiar to me with every read:
There, on the 9th day of the 9th month we will convene, and there, too, should you be.
There’s birdsong when I wake. And light, so much light, like a silent scream that makes me wince and scrunch my eyes shut again. It’s pouring in from the window by the bed, the blind wide open in betrayal. It had been so dark when I’d gone to sleep that I’d forgotten to close it. I scramble for the sheets instinctively, pull them over my bare shoulders.
And there it is, again: who said you could get dressed?
The sound of him in my head is like an invasion. My ears ring with it, and grow hot with the rising flame of rage. I push the sheets away with my feet, my naked legs dimpled in the harsh morning sun. Let me look at you longer. I find my clothes at the foot of the bed, pull on socks, then trousers. My fleece jumper last, the zip tugging at my hair, catching as I pull it over my face. I stare at the room through its translucent grey shroud. You look like an animal.
My throat swells with the urge to cry. I press clenched fists into my eyes, and stand very still. Slowly, a calm comes over me; I unball my hands, take a deep breath, and head to the kitchen for coffee.
When the knock comes about an hour later, I’m ready for it; shoes tied up, jacket and backpack on. Elias buzzes with an excited energy that sends his hands on errands—one smooths the top of his hair, the other pushes up the sleeves of his black shirt. He gives a timid smile. “Hey.”
The forest is different in sunlight; every inch of it clearly defined. The leaves are a garish green, the rich smell of the flora cloying. It’s alive with sounds—insects, birds, bodies of water flowing nearby. Each sense is sharpened, attuned to its spell. We walk along, side by side, soaking the spirit of it in.
Elias turns to me, puts his hands in his pockets. “When are you heading home?”
I feel my face start to redden. “I don’t know.”
Though I’m looking straight ahead, I can feel his eyes on me. I suddenly sense the vulnerability of this truth. “I should get back for the start of term,” I add.
After a moment of quiet, I turn to look at him cautiously. He looks up at the trees, the dappled light pushing through above. “You can feel its pull, can’t you?” he says, “The forest, begging you to stay.”
I smile to myself at this thought. The forest, reimagined; luring me in with the promise of something beautiful at its heart. It surprises me that I haven’t seen it this way before, as a living, yearning creature, an elemental force.
We reach an incline where the mossy bank leads down to a bubbling stream. The blood of the forest flows here; froths and sings eternal. The water sprays at our legs, the rocks slippery underfoot. Elias’ electric mood has been quelled. For a moment as his eyes follow the route of the brook, I feel as if I am not there.
His trancelike gaze is broken, and he shakes his head, as if to bring himself back to the present. He puckers his lips hesitantly, pale eyes darting under fluttering lashes, and slowly crouches down to meet the stream.
There are a thousand whispered thoughts; memories bursting and splitting like spoiled fruit. There are the questions I feel I should ask, or not ask; the delicate lines of intimacy fading. There is stillness between us, no talking; just the thrashing rhythm of the stream. I think I hear laughter, hushed voices, trickling like legends downriver.
Then there is Elias’ hunched back, his hand trailing in the freezing cold water, his knees in the glossy gravel, and my fingers stroking at the silk-soft skin on the back of his neck.
Nadia Henderson is a London-based writer, happily living up to the coffee-sipping, cat-stroking stereotype. She can usually be found on the sofa, or brunching with her fabulous women writers’ collective.