By Brad Wall | Fiction
The grass grew and the higher strands burned slightly with the growing strength of the sun. Men usually tended to the lawn maintenance. None of those men will be back. Well, they are back, but not as they were. “Empty as urns,” my grandmother always said when men stumbled their way into our village in a fog that never ends.
Nikolas failed to come back until the dead of winter. He came back mid-afternoon on January 16th. My ginger-haired husband was found in the bed of the hermit. Esekiel and his uncles, Thor and Magnus, were looking for the first boy and were on a hunt. They came to a clearing near the hermit’s place and rested for a time.
Looking into the window, the men then noticed the fiery-red hair of the missing boy-turned-man. Not long after, the young man returned but without his senses. Once he awoke, he merely wandered aimless along the village and the residents’ homes.
It became more and more difficult to keep an eye on the “Hollow Men.” That is what the village calls the men who come back now. The Hollow Men created havoc if they were confined and if they are let loose in the cold, then they may freeze while wandering.
And so, village wives took turns looking after the Hollow Men. They made up rope to use as leashes. Whenever the Men needed to relieve themselves, the leash or leashes came on and the wife led them outside. One of the wives, Elin, took charge more often than not.
I was exempted due to me expecting my firstborn. Nikolas and I wedded in June before most of the men went on the Hunt. The Hunt, the age-old tradition, went off well. The men, drunk and full from the feast, bounded for the forest to hunt deer, rabbit, pheasant, and whatever else lived there.
The wedding or the celebratory Hunt must have caused some disagreement in the forest folk, the Huldufolk. Those hidden elvish people all clad in green. I did not know if anyone allowed some of the feast to be given away to them. During the festivities I could not stop thinking about how handsome Nikolas looked eating his oat cakes and fish. I also could not help thinking of my late mother and sister. Helga, my mother’s sister, had the same eyes as my mother as did I. Helga told me so during her toast.
I saw Nikolas beam proudly when my curly, sixteen-year-old strawberry hair flew in all directions during the toasts. Most children and our families teased us for the color of our hair. I knew when Nikolas and I met as children we would be a good match. I found myself happy to see that he was a perfect man with kind eyes and personality.
Occasionally, one of the wives looking after the Men had to rescue one of the them that had escaped from their detention. The children playing in the snow and in homes, stopped what they were doing when Kristofer, a balding man of twenty-seven, ran by as if he was an animal being chased.
Margret chased after him and roped him before he set off again. He was stopped in front of my aunt’s home. Helga shooed me away from the racket that was being made. I visited her often and with my condition, I relinquished Nikolas into her care.
Nikolas, my quiet boy of sixteen, now seventeen, took pleasure in making jams and preserves. He, before the Hunt, always had been a farmer and loved tending to the earth with his bare hands. I fell fully in love with him because he was more than the average villager. Most of the boys and men were loud and drunk too many times during the week. I helped make the jams, his favorites were elderberry and blueberry; and on occasion, if we had enough, I made wine and liquors. My favorite fruit was the paw-paw. They come and go but when I have them, I am so very happy.
Helga made us some tea and let Nikolas rest by the fire. He enjoyed the warmth of the flickering flames despite his skin being ice-cold. No matter what he wore or if he had been near a fire, he remained frozen.
I talked and Nikolas listened by the fire on such a nasty night in mid-February. I believe he heard me speak but gave no indication. I had planned on a nice life with him: have children (plenty); grow a beautiful harvest each season; and teach the children of the village the histories of our people and how to be harmonious with Nature.
Helga eventually led Nikolas to his bed and helped me up from my chair. I closed my eyes and wished this was over and we had each other again as it used to be.
As the weeks went by, I noticed my belly growing bigger. My aunt began rubbing lavender oil all over my body. I stopped doing it myself at the end of the month. Bending over, took too much energy and I needed it for the children especially mine inside the womb.
One morning, after Helga dropped off Nikolas, I picked a few cabbages from the patch. Just doing so tired me. Helga put them into the soup. She put out the three bowls and filled two. She lifted the bowl up to Nikolas’ mouth. The emptiness seen at that moment struck at my heart. My poor husband shall not escape his prison.
“Kristin, dear, do stop worrying too much. The child will feel that too and will suffer much. Eat your soup before it chills,” said Helga.
“Yes, aunt, I shall.” I spooned the cooling soup into my hungry body and said no more.
The bitter winds chilled my bones and my teeth chattered. Most days and nights the women help to provide wood for the stove and fireplace. Most recently I sat by the fire telling the little ones of the village of our world and its natural wonders.
The children lived to hear our stories and the lives of our ancestors. I told them one early night about Thor Magnusson and his apples. “He fed the apples to his sheep and they were not pleased.”
A child of three spoke up and said, “But why?”
I continued with my story. “Well, they were all displeased because the apples he fed them were not sweet enough. Some looked old; some looked brown. The sheep decided that they should have what Thor Magnusson and his wife had. The flock then revolted and came to Magnusson’s house. They baa’d all throughout the night into the next morning. The farmer and his wife did not sleep. Thor’s wife, Mina, tried to calm the flock but failed.”
The children mouthed “no.” All were listening carefully, and their bright eyes stared at mine.
“She called to her husband and said, ‘Get the sheep right, or else I am leaving!’” The children laughed and smiled. “Thor then spoke to the sheep and apologized. He walked around to his shed and brought out a basket of sweet apples. The next morning came and went. The sheep calmed down and became their merry little selves. The end.”
The children went to bed happy with dreams of frolicking sheep.
Finally, the ground broke free from winter’s grip. The early days of March distressed the Hollow Men. They ran in circles in Elin’s house as she told the band of women, including me, over a hot bowl of stew.
The child inside me pressed hard. He or she needed to be born. It, the forest, were calling the men and my child as well as myself. The pull was too strong.
Before I was married, I strolled along the River Hella. The tall grass swayed beautifully in the height of the summer. I smelled the aromatics of flowers and maize. I missed those days.
Here, in my new home, the grasses and woods smelled different. Earthier. Wet. It all felt dangerous.
I waded through the marshy grasses to get close to the forest. There was a path that led to one of the springs used by the village and other settlements. The basin led to opportunities beyond what we knew. None of us cared for something new. We lived and died in the ways of old. The walk did my body good. Aunt Helga made sure I stretched my legs. She always said, “Plenty of fresh air prepares for swift delivery.”
On my way back I saw Elin with the Hollow Men. Rubbing my large belly, I smiled at the pleased faces. Elin, Head Mother to the Hollow Men, said, “So you are out for another walk. Is good for the child. My mother said the same as your aunt does. It helped me give birth well to my two.”
Elin, with her one eye, looked at my protruding belly with praise. I hated to look at her hardened face. Her patch, a piece of leather aged for too long, made me grateful for my beauty and common sense. Her prior stupidity as a naïve child caused her accident.
Everything in the past provide a path to your future.
Elin, when she was a young, but old enough, cared for too many. Drunken fathers; grieving mothers; sick animals. She cared for them. The stray dog from a ship came to her door and found prey. She had no knowledge of how sick the dog was. But, her tender heart, sounded her love for all.
She rubbed the dog and fed him. But the sick dog wanted more. The dog promptly tore at her eye. Its red eyes shocking the girl.
She lost her eye. The man taking a smoke near her home was Harald Hansson, the local blacksmith. He saved her and eventually married him. He also made her patch.
Things happen for a reason. Her sons lived. Her husband did not. Now, Elin takes care of the Hollow Men for a few days in the week. Despite all that had happened, she still cares.
Elin then murmured something. I caught it after she said it for the second time. “Love everything now and you will feel strong later. Any loss will not be as strong as the love.”
My interaction with Elin stopped there. She then carried on in her stoic way with the Hollow Men. She led them up and around the bend where the first trees of the forest met the village. It did no good for them to be out in the sun for too long. The chestnut trees provided shade for the group.
Despite my tiredness, I felt invigorated. The men were in good hands. They were not happy that it was March. It must be the Equinox. The shifting of nature.
I came back to Helga. She rubbed more oil on my body and let me rest. I fell asleep and entered my dreams immediately.
In this dream, I walked along the houses of the village. I walked past the half-finished church. The path that led deeper into the woods did not continue. I kept walking into the forest of trees that were tall and strong. The light faded as I went deeper. The sea of green grew.
Eventually the shades of green melded into one. An absolute dark green, the darkest viridian I have come across, and it scared me. The rocks and floor were sloped with dark moss that bowed down to the power of the ancient trees.
I did not stop. I could not stop. I was drawn into the center of the forest. I found myself at a clearing. A circle of rocks formed. In the circle was a large stone table. Ivy crawled alongside and onto the table. Patches of nearly black moss lived nestled by the ivy.
I had no knowledge that this existed. Out of the mist that swirled inward came two individuals. Both tall. Both garbed in green. At first glance, I believed they were vine-covered statues. I was wrong.
The flood of mist covered my feet and went up to my knees. The individuals strolled towards me. The clothing they wore wrapped around their bodies and stopped at their necks. The tall people stared at me. Searching inside me. Their grey eyes found what they were looking for. Their delicate, long fingers found my belly.
The Huldufolk. The legends of their existence were true. Their ivory skin and nails alarmed me but not the child inside. The two individuals wore crowns of laurel and hummed as they caressed my bulging belly.
They had angular faces and their hair, nearly white, the color of silver silk, draped around their slim backs. I was guided by the two and then laid down upon the table. I closed my eyes and hummed.
I was back in my room. Aunt Helga had one hand wrapped around my head and the other feeling my child. A child kicking viciously. I had been writhing in my bed as the child wanted out. My aunt placed a cool cloth on my head and sang to me one of my favorite folk songs of yore. She said, “Rest young one. The time is near. Be strong and come be done soon.”
I was frightened. I was cold, clammy, and fevered. The painful kicks from my precious child stopped.
My aunt cared for me. She laid perfumed towels down on my head. The scent of lavender soothed me. Not long after, she gently tilted a cup of brandy so I could sip it. The shock of it all wore off. After my brandy, I fell asleep again.
I awoke to find Nikolas staring at me. His blank stare created such melancholia in my being. I could not help him. I laid in bed for a short time. He followed me, at my heels, slowly. I lumbered around with my belly. I knew it was not long. The child was to be born soon. Any day now.
I took another walk around the village and hoped that I would return with a babe in my young arms. He or she would stare at me without malice; without stupidity or any intent to do wrong.
He or she would be mine to create a life for them. To teach them the right way to live and to live without losing sight of who they are.
At noon, I was pained again. My aunt told me to rest. I did. I soon slept again. I arose for supper and rested by the fire. The raw nights inched its way into my large body and strained bones. The aches I carried were far worse than the child. The little girl in me always remembered my mother telling me so in my dreams. Every birthday I heard the tale of our sprouting and births from Helga.
The Equinox was a day away.
The day had come. The Hollow Men would not move. All, including my husband Nikolas, stood in place. One moment I was on my way to see my friend, Marja, Kristofer’s wife, then seeing the men acting strangely was too much to bear. I stopped at the same time the men did.
They stood upright and looked with blankness in their eyes upward towards the vast swath of trees. The Equinox.
They did this for an hour. Marja scolded me for being late but apologized. She never had children. Never would. Her husband had been out there in the forest. Participated in the Hunt.
The walk, that turned out so long, drained me of much strength. Marja made us tea and pies. I had seven pies. I allowed her to listen to the child. She bent down and put her ear to my belly. She later thanked me for visiting and bade me well in my delivery.
I came home and Helga had made pickled beets and potatoes. I had a few beets and admitted to eating several too many delicious pies made by Marja.
Helga was pleased. “You should be eating more. But you ate enough. The child will take much from you. I was there for you and your poor sister. Your mother did all she could. It was all too much for her. Most do not survive the hours. But she did. I am glad you are here now. I wish that all of us could be here. I wish your sister and mother could have seen how wonderful you are and have grown to be a strong woman. All sacrifice something. Our own have said, ‘The body is sacrifice, sacrifice needs bodies. One is made whole when sacrifice is now.’”
I nodded and sipped my brandy before I went to bed.
When the moon shone through the small window near the front door, the slivers of silver caught my eye. I woke up to the pains of the child inside. The kicks were not stopping. I knew that from the old stories one had to sacrifice in order to stop the suffering from the Huldufolk. The only thing I had to give was the child. I had nothing else.
Fearing that I would alarm Nikolas and Helga, I gingerly crept around. I took my moccasins and coat. The night air felt good against my sweaty skin. Cradling my stomach, I trudged forward into the forest.
I was guided by the moonlight. The shimmering sky lent its light so I could find my way to where I was those Huldufolk.
The path rolled on and I carried on slowly but surely. The trees filled out and the rocks and land turned into moss. It all became viridian again. Just as I had seen it.
After some time, I heard and felt it. The humming. The sound that calmed my child. And put me into a lull. It was a lullaby sung by the Huldufolk. I felt the child come.
The wave hit me hard but was over soon after. I was not alone now. The two Huldufolk I had seen were here. They hummed and I felt their hands soothe the forthcoming child.
I gently walked through the circle and came upon the stone table. I began to hum as well. They hummed and pressed upon my stomach. I thought to myself, if it to be a girl I shall name her Frida.
My beloved. She shall be my beloved forever.