by Karina Mahan
My most treasured memories of my summer trips to Norway are by far listening to the stories my grandfather used to tell. He was eager to teach me everything about my Norwegian heritage, and the path to my ancestors was through long memories and tall tales. I remember his gruff voice, the images it evoked in my mind, and nothing more. No language, no words. It’s difficult translating his tales from voice to paper; they hail from deep valleys in a tongue very different from this one. The words descend from the birch trees and glittering fjords. They lay in forgotten runes, exist on moss growing on rocks and in the mouth of a twitching fish on shore. These are the words that only belong between mountains – once the tales are taken out, they lose their hold and the mystery is gone.
So this story, along with all the other stories, belongs with him. When he speaks the words, they pour from his mouth like the rhythm of a song. That is where the stories should stay. So you must understand that even if I manage to tell his stories verbatim, the essence of them is gone; all that is left is the bare idea.
What I want to tell you I have told no one else. It is that one secret story of shame that most people carry around, begging to be told. It was during the summer of my fifteenth birthday, and I had decided to play the cruelest trick of all. But as I ponder on this day, I realize the tale goes back much further than this. Where to begin? Perhaps by telling you a little about the place where it all started.
Norway is a land of tricks and lies. All the old countries are – the ones with memories that stretch beyond the written word. Although the myths are of all shapes and sizes, there is a common theme that binds them together: a polarity between the known and the unknown. The known is familiar people, charted landscape and things you know for certain. The unknown in tales, however, is the stranger who approaches you, the darkness in the corner, the bottomless depths of a lake. And it is in the darkness, the spaces of uncertainty that tricksters thrive, feeding on our fear and superstition.
Norway is teeming with mystical creatures. They fall into patterns; seeming only to live in the unknown and dangerous parts of the landscape. In the depths of the lakes is Nøkken, the evil water creature who lures innocents into the lake to drown them. Out at sea there is Drauken, who, if anyone gazes upon, becomes an omen of death. In the mountains are the trolls, who crush and eat little children if they wander out in the mountains. And deep underground is Huldra, the most feared of all.
I was ten when my grandfather, whom I call Bestefar, told me the origins of Huldra. We were at a cabin deep in the woods. I had drunk a lot of juice during the day, and had to pee in the middle of the night. This was a cabin so far in the mountains it had no indoor plumbing. The only toilet was an outhouse a few hundred paces from the cabin. I was a little frightened of the dark, but didn’t dare wake anybody up, so I tottered out to the outhouse alone.
The air, normally stuffy and warm during the day, transformed into a dead wind that brushed against my bare arms. The outhouse seat was icy as well, making my buttocks wince as I did my business as fast as I could, tossing lots of sawdust in the dark hole for extra measure.
On my way back inside, a man burst out of the wooden cabin door, looking alarmed. The combination of a dark forest and his sudden appearance made my veins turn to ice.
“Where have you been?” Bestefar whispered hoarsely. “You were suddenly gone in the middle of the night!”
I almost cried out of fear, but gathered myself and managed to say, “I just had to go to the bathroom.”
“You cannot go alone out here at night.” Bestefar grabbed my hand and dragged me inside.
“Why?” I stumbled after him, confused. I had always been taught that Sunnmøre was a safe place, and I didn’t have to worry about strangers the same way I did in LA. “Nobody’s even here at night.”
“It is not the people I am worried about.” His tone was so serious I wildly imagined him turning into a scary creature. Perhaps he wasn’t my bestefar, but a shapeshifter who lived in the forest.
“What do you mean?” I tried to say casually.
“Let me tell you a story.” He lit a match and put it in the furnace to start a fire. Then he fetched a pot with some water, heated it up and put some instant coffee mix in the boiling water.
“Let me tell you a story from long ago. Do you know the story of Adam and Eve? Are your family good Christians?” He waved a hand to poo poo the idea of my parents being pious. “Of course they are not. But you know the story of Adam and Eve?”
“Well, it is not exactly true. Catholic men took many things away from the Bible. Things that should have stayed there. And there is a story they took out which is very important. You see, Eve was not Adam’s first wife. She was his second. Or his third. I forget.
“This is true.” He nodded at my astonishment. “Adam had a wife before Eve. And her name was Lilith.”
“And Lilith is the one who sneaks around forests in the dead of the night?” I almost laughed out loud.
His face turned to stone. “No no no! That is not the story. Listen closely.
“Adam and Lilith were husband and wife for a long time. They had many children together and were very happy in the beginning. But one day the snake entered the garden of Eden, saw their happiness and cursed it. He decided he would destroy it. At first he was not sure how to go about this, because their love for one another was deep. But then the snake recognized the lazy nature of Adam, and the hard labor of Lilith. He saw how she worked and worked, carrying all those babies in her stomach, while Adam did nothing. Lilith could not accept her natural place as a woman, and in this she was beginning to grow unhappy. So one day he slithered to Lilith and said: ‘I see you are working very hard today, Lilith. Surely Adam is helping you with all this?’ Lilith shook her head and said, ‘The babies must be washed and cleaned and fed, and Adam is not here. I do not know what to do.’ The snake didn’t respond, and sneaked away, sowing the first seed of doubt in her mind. And this was how it began.
“The snake kept coming more and more often. His observations were sharp, making Lilith more dissatisfied with Adam for every day. He whispered in her ear: ‘you are carrying all the children, Lilith. You are doing all the work. Adam does nothing. You deserve better than him. You are almost like a god, the creator!’ At first Lilith did not listen to the snake. She knew it was evil, and shooed it away with a stick on sight. But he was persistent, and woman’s nature is weak. So she started believing she was better than Adam.
“God saw this and came down to the Garden of Eden. He banished Lilith, saying that she was no better than Adam, and did not deserve to be in the Garden of Eden anymore. What’s more, he banished her children as well, and gave Adam a new wife so he could have other children. Lilith’s children were children of shame, so God decreed that they did not deserve to be among the living. Lilith vanished into the sea, from where she came, and her children were doomed to live underground as cursed and despised creatures.”
“And these creatures are what supposedly wander around the forests at night?”
He looked at me solemnly. “This is what we believe! There are creatures underground. They are called Hulderfolket. The people of Hulder. A Huldra is a female Hulder, and a daughter of Lilith. She is a beautiful woman who lures people out into the forest. And she lives here, in Sunnmøre. My grandmother saw her once!”
“So what does Huldra do with people once she lures them out in the forest?”
“Depends. If it is men, she will have her way with them. If it is small, pretty children, like you, she will kidnap them and take them underground to raise as her own children.”
“Yes. Or bytting. Switching. Huldra is actually very ugly, but she has special magic that makes her look pretty until you marry her. All of her children are ugly, though. Huldra’s only wish is to be beautiful and have beautiful children, so often she will steal human babies. Back in the olden days,” he said, and smiled a bit before finishing his sentence, “if a woman had an ugly baby, the people believed it was Huldra who had switched babies when no one was looking! So ugly babies were abandoned in the forest, as our way of giving the baby back to its mother. That is why Norwegians are so beautiful – we got rid of the ugly babies a long time ago!” He laughed a hollow laugh, but not loud enough to wake up the others.
I smiled, but not very wide, since I was stiff with fear of the thought of Huldra. It was only during my trips to Norway I felt this edgy, irrational fear. Back home in LA I didn’t feel safe either, but there the fears were concrete: robbers, rapists, gangs, kidnappers. Here, things came to life. This place repelled reliability; you know you aren’t safe, but you don’t know exactly who or how. No reason could penetrate these mountains. There was this gap of unknown that no amount of time or knowledge could fill. All I had to live by were old, garbled tales containing half-truths, the normal set of rules erased.
Bestefar sensed my edginess and rubbed my arms to warm them up. “Do not worry,” he said. “Huldra has not taken any children in a long time. Just be careful when you walk in the forest alone. There could be a woman with a donkey’s tail!”
I laughed along this time.
“You know, I have these crazy thoughts about Norway sometimes,” I confessed to him. “I feel like there are so many rules to these stories. And all these stories are filled with creatures that just want to trick humans all the time. Why can’t they just leave us alone?”
Bestefar was silent for a few seconds. I could see in his face that he was calculating what to say. On the one hand he wanted to soothe me, but on the other he had a desperate need to entertain. “I think it is because of the god of tricks.”
“The god of tricks? Is he scary?”
“Not scarier than you,” he joked. “Always playing jokes on the family, eh! Hiding the sugar, hiding in the pantry, always hiding, always tricking.”
I smiled but protested. “I’m not that bad!”
“I am just joking. But no. The Norwegian god of tricks is not bad. He is just not good either.”
“Who is he?”
“He is part jotun and part æs.” He saw my expression at these old Norwegian words, and quickly explained. “The jotner were the giants and the æser were the Norse gods, like Tor and Odin. These you have heard of, yes?”
I nodded. “So he’s half god and half giant?”
“Something like that,” Bestefar shrugged. “Nobody knows, actually. He is a very mysterious character. Just like you!”
“So I’m half Norwegian giant and American god?” I grinned.
“Hah! America knows nothing of gods. They can be the giants,” he said and snorted. “But as I was saying, he is a very famous god. He is responsible for the tricks and lies in this country. He knows all the bad creatures in the wilderness. One day you will see.”
“What’s his name?” I asked suddenly.
Simultaneously he had taken a walnut out of a glass bowl and smashed it on the table with his bare hand. The question was lost.
My mother woke up with a start. “What the hell?” she said, confused. Then she saw me sitting on the couch and scolded me. “It’s four in the morning! Get back to bed, Susann!”
I crept back into bed and had strange dreams of beautiful women and snakes slithering over my body.
And now it’s time for a story of my own. The day I decided to cross the Rubicon.
Five years later and my trips to Norway had changed from fascination to torture. In LA, I wasn’t more than a harmless class clown, but Sunnmøre exacerbated an ugly side of me. It urged out that small part of my personality that avoided the light; pushed that ugly side into something physical, apparent.
I blamed it on the food. The Norwegian diet threw me off balance somehow. Brown goat cheese, fish cakes, ribs and potato after potato. So much heavy food. It sank to the pits of my stomach, harboring a feeling of restlessness. I felt like running it off and falling asleep at the same time. Nothing ever felt right in this drastically different diet, so far away from home.
But the food could hardly be blamed. There were so many things that bothered me about this place, that bothered me about myself. I dropped the last ‘n’ in my name and would only reply to my relatives in English. Every mention of blonds or Scandinavians set me off. These summers in Sunnmøre cut me off from my friends. Everyone else was at the beach partying, or developing complex dramas every day. Meanwhile I was shipped out to this foreign land where I had to hear knitting tips from old ladies and walk around in itchy woolen sweaters. I had to sit politely and listen while these old people spoke in a dialect I could hardly understand. The longer I stayed, the stranger I felt, like this place was changing me into something my friends could no longer recognize. So one day when my bestefar asked me to go blueberry picking with him, I decided I would run away in the mountains.
We brought along four empty plastic buckets and two scoopers to pick berries with. Bestefar drove up as close to the mountain as possible. When the road stopped and trailed off into grassy patches, we parked the car and stumbled out. To my mistake I had worn shorts, and the unruly grass scratched at my thighs.
“Do you remember what the blueberry bush looks like?” Bestefar asked me solemnly.
“I think so.”
There were a couple of berries that looked similar to the blueberry in these parts. Some of the berries were safe and tasty. Others not so much. The blueberry leaves had a mild, green color and were fuzzy to the touch. Once Bestefar had pointed out a bush that had berries that looked identical to blueberries. “Can you see that these are not blueberries?” he had asked. I shook my head. “Look at the leaves.” He pulled off a few and put them in the palm of my hand. “Rub them and see how they feel.” I had rubbed them dutifully. “These leaves are dark and feel like wax. That is how you know they are not blueberries. The blueberry leaves are the easiest way to tell.”
With this memory in mind, I was confident enough to pick blueberries on my own. “I think we should split up,” I told him. “That way we can cover more ground quicker. I’ll go to the left, and you go to the right.”
“But we cannot pick berries here!” he exclaimed. “Are you crazy? What do they teach you in those fancy beach schools? Everyone knows that the further up you go, the tastier the berries will be. We must climb further up the mountain.”
Everyone didn’t know that the best berries were the ones furthest away, because as we walked up the mountain, the bushes close to the trail had been picked clean. A couple of families less zealous than my bestefar had obviously come before us.
The itching on my shins grew worse. I cursed and scratched my bare legs. “Is this far enough?” I asked hopefully after half an hour of rugged climbing.
“Yes, this is good. Be careful. Remember, there are hoggorm in this area. Not too long ago a girl was bitten by one. We’re too far away from the hospital for an antidote.”
He grinned at my expression. “We will have to suck out the poison like they did in the olden days.”
“Ha ha,” I said dryly. “Now can I go?”
“Okay,” he said, switching back to his serious face. “But don’t go far. It isn’t easy to find your way back once you’re lost in these parts.”
I shrugged. “I’ll be fine.”
“Half an hour!” he warned. “Don’t lose track of the time!”
I trudged through the grass and bushes until I was out of sight. I sat down on a rock and breathed heavily. In LA I was considered one of the fit kids, but Norwegian fitness is different from American standards. Americans are visual and focus on how the body looks; you’re in great shape if you weigh so and so many pounds. But Norwegian fitness was all about endurance. They weren’t into treadmills and pilates, they were out there running marathons, skiing and climbing these impossible goddamn mountains.
I hastily picked some berries and dropped them into the bucket. I figured I could stay close by for twenty-five minutes and then go further toward the other side of the mountain right before we were supposed to meet. That would make him panic. I wasn’t sure how long I would or could keep the game up. Perhaps I would hide nearby so I could hear the fear in his voice. Or maybe I would actually run in the forest and find a way back home myself. Maybe a magic portal would appear and bring me back to LA.
After twenty minutes, I started walking further away from the open fields and deeper into the clusters of trees. When the last ten minutes were up, the trees had grown thick behind me. I had no idea which way was which. I blinked and looked around, confused. The leaves blocked the sunlight, and the small, dark forest I was in looked the same from all sides. Which side was it that I had come from again? I chose an opening, but then became uncertain and knew that definitely wasn’t it. The memory of the trail ebbed away fast. Of course I wasn’t smart enough to figure out which angle the sun had been at from where I had been walking, or which way was north.
My breathing went out of whack as I tried to jog my memory. Did I come from that opening? Or maybe over there? I spun around and lost my balance.
“Hello,” a calm voice said behind me.
I turned around again. “Who are you?” I said bluntly.
It was a young man standing in the clearing of the forest. There was something peculiar about his appearance; my eyes seemed to slide out of focus when I tried to get a good look at him. It was like trying to grab a handful of sand. Everything slips out and you’re left with an empty hand. He seemed both large and small, majestic and poor, wicked and good.
“Who are you?” I repeated in shaky Norwegian.
“You tell me.” He spoke neither Norwegian or English, yet I understood precisely what he said. It reminded me of a dream I once had. There was this mystical sentence I learned that made perfect sense in my dream, but the instant I woke up, I uttered it and realized it was complete nonsense. I could only understand this man if I didn’t concentrate on the exact words he was saying. There was some magic holding the meaning together, and if the magic were revealed, it would cease to work.
“I know you,” I said suddenly. “You’re the trickster god.” I surprised myself with this answer. The words in my mouth came before my mind could register them. “You’re …” I paused for a moment, drew on the mystery of the forest, the place and the magic, and pulled the name out of the hat. “Loke.”
He grinned. “Very good. So you’re lost in the mountains?”
“No,” I lied. “I was just out picking berries.”
He grinned even wider. “Alright then. Carry on.”
A strange sound that seemed to be the cross of a sigh and a protest came out of my throat. “Okay. So what if I’m lost?”
“Then I guess a god could help you. If you asked nicely.” He crossed his arms, the smile still persistent on his lips. It wasn’t a friendly smile. There was something angry and malicious about it. I still couldn’t make out the details in his face, but his body worked like an impressionist painting – details were irrelevant, it was the strokes and colors that gave off vibes of emotion.
A fear swept over me. I would never find my way home. Here I was, in the depths of a Norwegian mountain with an American attitude and American ways. A Norwegian would know how to pay the proper respect to a Norse god, I wildly imagined. They would be better equipped, have a far better advantage. I needed to escape this place, get away from this man. I would have to think smart. The old gods weren’t benevolent or virtuous. They were petty and vengeful. They were human. So like all humans, they could be talked out of anything.
“We aren’t so different, you and I,” I said suddenly.
“Really?” He leaned against a tree and cocked his head.
“Because I’m a trickster too.” The lines tumbling from my mouth scared me. These were precarious words to say to a god. Especially since I had no idea what I was talking about.
He laughed the kind of shallow belly laugh that only a scrawny man is capable of. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” I said firmly, knowing that I couldn’t stop now and would have to plow on. “A trickster is a very special person, you know. You have to be good at fooling people. And only people caught between two worlds are good at fooling people. That’s because our entire life consists of a balance. We aren’t one thing or another. We’re in between, always having to pretend to be someone else to feel whole. The giants will only see you as a god, and the gods won’t see you as anything more than a giant. So you act like a giant among giants and a god among gods to fit in somewhere. But really the people caught between worlds are their own identity. There’s nobody else like us. The problem is that there just aren’t enough of us to create our own world, our own place. So we flit among the two halves that make our whole, never really accepted anywhere.
“And somewhere along the line you got tired of this balance, this push and pull. You were tired of the giants treating you as something else, and the gods treating you as a lesser creature. So you decided to trick them all, didn’t you? You decided if nobody was going to define you as anything, you would create your own definition. You aren’t good or bad, smart or stupid, brave or cowardly. You’re everything in the cracks, the gray shades between white and black. The only thing reliable about you is that you’re not reliable at all.” I took a deep breath. “We took everything so seriously. We tried so hard. And that’s why we can’t take things seriously anymore.”
He clapped his hands slowly and laughed again. “Oh, this is fun.” He rocked his head back and forth as his laughter grew.
“Does that mean you’ll show me where home is?” I said impatiently.
He smirked and pointed toward one of the openings. “There. That’s my answer. The question of course being, can you trust a trickster god?”
My eyes followed where he pointed. When I looked back, he was gone. I stood with baited breath and weighed whether or not he could be telling the truth. It was like flipping a coin. In the end I decided to go for it.
“You know,” I yelled, as I exited the forest, “tricksters always end up being the good guy.”
And I walked out in to the light.