You’ll know if this is for you. You’ll know right away because it’s what you’ve been searching for – for so long.
This is what has happened for thousands upon thousands of years. This is the way it is and maybe will always be. I’ve given this piece a title that will attract your attention – scream at you.
Other people may read it, but not see what it is. In that respect it is harmless and gives nothing away. That date beside the title is there to remind me to encourage you to write up your part before you become 21. I must keep the information coming. So many times I’ve reached my 21st birthday with less than a clear idea of what I am and what I have to do on that day. This is in part due to lack of information. For many years the old tales were becoming harder to access as people adopted science as their basic doctrine. Read Bruno, if you have time, he was one of those who fought so hard (and died horribly – of course) for that to happen. I’m still not sure if it was the right way to go but frankly, the preparation for your 21st takes years and there’s little time to see the bigger picture as you are only alive for such an inadequate time.
So here I am again, a human. Not that that means anything other than a state of mind which denies the existence of pretty much everything.
There’s so much pain in humans. For instance, my parents, as is usually the case, look disappointed, slightly betrayed, when I say that I want to spend my 21st birthday alone. They’ll only learn the truth of what happens from police officers, doctors, or even see a bit in the news.
Of course I love my parents and hate leaving them like this, how could I not? They poured their love into me; for 21 years I was their most important thing. At least they have Sissy now. Traumatised, timid, her world gone in fire and bombs, pushed from one refugee camp to another until finally adopted by Mum and Dad. I love her too.
I hate the way the last thing I say to my family is always a lie. “See you later.”
“Clear!” a woman says. Something moves under me, shaking my body. My heavy gelatinous body. It’s like I’m made of cold porridge that has become semi-solid and cracked in the surface.
Here it comes again: the explosion. My back thrashes, arches. My brain bursts. I think it’s decision time. Do I live or not? Yes, I suppose. There is work to do. Spit, forced from my mouth but too dry and elastic to fly, slaps back onto my lips and across a cheek. Something goes over my face: hard. Air forced into me. Someone is pushing … pushing … pushing me.
A voice calls, “That’s 20 minutes…” There is so much in those words, the biggest question; the biggest abandonment.
Another voice replies, “P waves… Once more. Clear!”
The internet is brilliant for researching information! I never had this before.
It seems huldras, and all the other names they are called, have been – and still are – written about quite a lot. Someone has been putting dates to stories, if you think about it they must be written as stories – not reports – or people may begin to believe this all again. Where was I? Oh yes, someone has been dating stories roughly 21 years apart. This internet may be an advantage in that things like this can be so easily accessed. I doubt huldras research anything; they probably don’t feel the need. I suspect from these tales that huldras have poor memories, having no use for them other than to remember to be malevolent. I can’t be sure though. Things change. The ‘what if’ scenarios frighten me. What if she’s finding new ways to resist or even defeat me? She’s already moved from hunting in woodland to hunting anywhere: this much I’ve learned.
Everything’s covered in snow; the Kirkstone Pass is blocked. No tracks, not animal, human or machine. No one’s stupid enough to go out in this. It’s been a howling wind for over a week – blowing over the summits and turning the snow to slipping layers of avalanche material, not to mention the vicious powder-snow avalanches that arrive silently, slam you into rocks and leave a frozen red smudge where you gasped your last among the tattered ribbons of your clothing.
The sky is a startling clear blue. Sunlight glares from the twisted monstrous forms the moist air has sculpted on rocks. The only noises are the creak and crunch under my boots, the swish of clothes. The only movements are me and the phantoms of vapour snatched from my breath.
Something or someone is moving me, my body, this body. This huge fat body that is so unfamiliar. This tomb I’ve been given. I’m being moved again, folded like you can’t fold a turgid bag of fluid. More like bend the bag and the folds form. I think I’ve been washed because the sheets I’m lowered on are crisp and fresh: no shit or urine on them: no vomit either.
The last of these 21-year-apart stories was, published and dated 1996. It holds an interesting point – maybe vital. Huldras live in time, like humans do, but act outside it. Their chronology is absolutely experiential. The writer identified this as a significant cause and effect logic. An action cannot begin until it simultaneously ends, but that’s obvious. Why was this included? It doesn’t seem to be of any use to me, but the author (probably me) states it three times. Ignore the story and this is the message it’s clear he was trying to get over to the reader – me!
Wait … something about that. A flaw in the way humans think … or perceive the world. No! The way they see time! That’s why it was stated so often. How, after all these lives as a human … shaped like one and living among them … have I not seen this? I need to think about this more.
Actually, going back to the huldra, that means if she starts an action but doesn’t get to finish it… This is going to change everything: I only had to stop thinking like a human – which has only ever confused me anyway.
I’m wearing old-style ammunition boots such as Hillary or Wainwright would have worn. Good on rock, though the steel studs damage it, and rigid enough to be stable on an icy crust crampons would cut through, doubling my work. I’m also wearing a woolly jumper over my base layer – another trick from the past. Ice forms on my windward side, insulating me, and I can sweat through the rest. I love research!
I’ve over an hour to reach the summit of Fairfield, above Flinty Grave – where, no doubt my remains will be found and scraped up. Huldras like dramatic and this one is going to be furious with me. I will enjoy a smug death – if a little messy and splattered.
This huldra may be able to choose the time, exactly 21 years after I was born (as she always does – no idea why this is but it gives me an indication she is a creature of habit rather than invention); however, this gives me the choice of location – always well away from the people I love. Half an ocean away this time. I’m not sure if she can cross water. There is no convincing evidence either way, but it’s a long way to Iceland. The letter, from Sissy, in my rucksack bears the postmark of a small village, I can’t even pronounce its name, in Libya. A false trail and it may be useless if the huldra hasn’t been bothered to learn to read but it’s worth the effort on my part.
I’m pushed on a trolley, strip lights weaving above my blurry vision. I’ll be moved to a bed, encouraged to speak, to get up, to walk – at some point. All I want to do now is sleep and vomit. No, there is something else … some things? Right, two things. Stop the huldra, trip her up. How? Know your enemy! And the other thing? Oh, yes, write to myself.
Huldras are cunning, bright, intelligent, and like so many intelligent things – probably stupid. Her obsession with cruelty and her overconfidence are all I have to work with, my own dull intellect the only blunt and flimsy weapon at my disposal. I can’t kill her … only trick her into killing herself. Then it all starts again: birth, 21 years of relearning everything just to meet the huldra and die stopping her.
More research – Irish this time: they keep good records there and continue to enjoy the old tales. A huldra’s weak points: not many. If you are kind to them they must reciprocate. But they rarely give the opportunity for someone to be kind to them. A real kindness, from a person totally oblivious to who or what the huldra is, really messes with a huldra’s plans.
Huldras hate this more than anything as it can lead to a lifetime of devoted marriage, loyalty, honesty and so on. Records indicate huldras adore everything opposite to those. Brief encounters resulting in maximum physical, emotional, or whatever, agony are their speciality. Death is a blessing to their victims.
Another weak point, if it can be called that, is that a huldra cannot move on to do more evil until it has finished with a previous victim. This is part of my new weapon.
Huldras have a twisted morality which seems to value gullibility and lust as sin. Seduce a man and you can kill him. Seduce a married man and you can torture and kill him.
The classic weakness is that a huldra can only kill a man she reveals her true nature to. If the man knows it before, then she dies instead … or as well. That’s a bit unclear so far, as there are many conflicting texts. The crucial thing is that she dies either way.
Gods, it’s cold. My face feels like a rigid mask. A powder avalanche hurtles down Link Cove to the south west. Crashing from crag to crag, it zig-zags. Link Cove, infamous; don’t climb it in these conditions: that’s what you get in your face. I’m on St Sunday Crag and even with this wind buffeting me like a gang of heavyweight boxes in a frenzy, Fairfield is less than half an hour away. When I get there I’ll have time to smash a bar of chocolate with my ice axe and suck the frozen shards.
The leather elbow patch on my right sleeve is beginning to come adrift, waxed cotton thread worn away. No problem: I won’t be needing clothes much longer.
OK, why fight huldras? Because we can and, forgive me – memory can be hazy over several lives, we had a plan. We wanted to take all the evil spirits, feyfolken, chimeras and so on out of people’s experience. I think the idea was that humans would begin to deal with their own problems, the problems inherent in being a human. But, frankly, I don’t think it’s helped. There are still slaves, rape, subjugation, indoctrination, and all the other forms of inhumanity with which people can diminish themselves through the illusion of diminishing others.
Even Lycurgus … sorry, a Spartan (it’s just that I knew him and I’m name-dropping), would find this room bleak. As I look around through half-opened eyes the first things I search for are ligature points in the walls, rails, anything from which to secure a … but there’s nothing to make a ligature from. Even the sheet-things underneath and covering me are foam. I know that this foam will fall apart rather than make rope. I don’t know why I look for these things, probably a habitual response in this brain, something left by the previous occupant who died as I was entombed in his body.
Someone knocks on the door and opens it before I can even grunt in reply. A nurse in blue scrubs enters. He has a tray on which tiny plastic pots attempt syrupy decoration in a range of what must pass for jolly colours.
The nurse tells me that, now I’m recovering, they can get my psychoses under control again. Psychoses? Oh … right. I’m not only entombed in this body but in a psychiatric hospital. Everything I say will be passed through an ‘is this mad?’ filter in everyone’s heads. Clever huldra. No surprise now to learn my entombment does not stop with just a body. My huldra, I realised too late, is far too subtle for that. While I struggle to be born as a human and find ways to learn how I differ from them – and what I have to do in order to combat the huldra, I assumed all she would work on is cruelty, torture, ways to spread her malevolence: focus her hatred and make it torment the victims she chooses.
I ask when I can be discharged. The nurse looks at me as if in shock and I get told it’s down to the judge when my case is reviewed in … I didn’t hear how many years, my brain was too busy. I have worked out that this must be a prison for the criminally insane. Well done, huldra! Nice touch.
This could be interesting, and something to put in the story. If she knows who I am or that I know she’s a huldra, I don’t think she’ll bother to impress me. She has a choice of ridges, more or less north, south, east or west to approach so I can see her from a distance. She might try some mind-boggling free ice-climbing up crags, but then I could miss her as she’ll be out of sight a lot of the time.
I’m not going to let her seduce me (quite apart from the potential for frostbite here); I’ll get her to commit to me as a victim and simply not play along – thereby blocking her from hurting anyone else. Block her actions, not kill her. Interesting new strategy.
A big problem for me is not knowing what I mean by ‘we’. Maybe several lives ago I could have lost a memory of, or the ability to connect with, this ‘we’. We must have been some sort of group, or I had a fantasy of one, who had a plan to confront what humans call the supernatural – by being born as humans to trap the supernatural into thinking they had power over us? A group who were able to communicate in some way. I’m beginning to doubt this group is real, or if it is, that its philosophy is sound.
Another problem, I’ve only just stumbled on, is tormenting me. Time and humans… I’m beginning to believe they think in the same way as they write the old tales – as if everything happens in a line … really? No! that’s not how reality is. Well, in bits, yes, but it’s not that simple. Time and reality are like a cut diamond, the events facets. You can look at the facets at random and still see into the whole diamond. So I’m probably writing this in a way humans will struggle with, but all humans have supernatural elements … so it shouldn’t be a problem? Maybe it’ll wake some of them up. Anyway, I’m writing this for me so I can read it when I’m reborn and reaching 21.
Another thing worries me. How did this endless 21-year loop develop in the first place? I’m beginning to suspect it’s based on faulty logic, some sort of deal, a misunderstanding. Scarily that could lead me to think both the huldra and I are locked into a problem of our own making. Maybe the research is skewed – it is all written from the perspective of humans.
A burst of bright powder on the summit of Hart Crag. Binoculars out. Yes, it must be her. She wants my attention all right – me, a lone male mountaineer so obviously in need of seduction and death. Bloody hell she’s fast! Fell running on ice? That’s insane, but then she’s immortal and can do whatever she wants. I watch entranced. She moves like an angel, racing light-footed as if she has invisible wings to give her confidence. No way is she a mere mortal – but a gullible human could be deceived into thinking she was some sort of super athlete, gymnast and ballet dancer rolled into one mesmerising form.
Enchanting… Yes, I must keep a grip here. I may be a human male but I mustn’t lose sight of the monster under her skin – though I’d dearly love to. She’s using her primary weapon, appearance, and it’s utterly overwhelming. I’m impressed too, but that gives me a molecule of objectivity – distance from her spell.
The nurse feeds me medications, one by one, and I get water to wash it down – to make sure it really went down, I suppose.
I ask him for a pen and paper. He shakes his head; it seems I’m not allowed them for some reason. He goes to a screen on the wall and asks if I want to hear the news. A bolt of terror jerks my whole body. “No! Don’t turn it on!”
She’s out of sight now, under the brow of the summit. I turn away as if interested in something else, though I’m pretty certain she knows I’ve been watching her.
Chocolate… I dig it out from my thigh pocket, squat on the ice, and smash the bar. I’m lifting fragments and stuffing my mouth when she arrives beside me, only slightly breathless.
“Chocolate … how thoughtful of you!” she says.
Just for a moment I think she’s being sarcastic, that she’s identified me. But as I look up I get a wiggle of the hips, shining blue eyes, frosted blond hair and a smile brighter than I’ve ever seen. Shit, I’d give anything to be gay at this moment. It’s only the fact that she’s totally overdone her appearance that keeps me aloof. I stand and hand her some squares. “Here.” I smile back – feeling as if my heart wants to dissolve into her.
You know that feeling, at a school dance, when you do one of those dances in which partners constantly change? That feeling when, for a moment, the most beautiful girl links arms with you. You’ve never been this close: you’re touching her! Your heart rate soars, you feel giddy, breathless. You pray your girlfriend isn’t watching because although you would never want to hurt her, this sudden intimacy with the school goddess overwhelms you. You’re out of control and it’s written all over your face. You know it will be over in a moment but there’s nothing you can do until the beauty leaves you for the next person in line and you can breathe again.
To make matters worse there is so much conflicting evidence and accounts in these stories of faery, selkie, huldra, fetch and magi … and all the rest. So many attempts to beat or control them, or even to pretend they don’t exist, seem to have failed. I’m beginning to think maybe huldras etc. should not be resisted but let loose again, unrestrained, on humanity, because humanity can only deal with evil if it can see it face-to-face – never inside itself. Or maybe that’s just me when I’m in human form.
Apparently I’m to be moved out of my side room and into the main ward. I’m supposed to re-socialise with the other inmates. I don’t know how I know this but I think re-socialise means sitting with other people and staring at a screen on the wall while my arms, legs and jaw move by themselves like I’m squirming. This is what the antipsychotic drugs do to me, so I’ve been told, and it never stops even if you come off them. I don’t want to look at a screen but I think the staff are going to force me eventually. I have a plan. Somehow I’ll get a pen or pencil, write this all up, give it to a nurse and ask for it to be posted. The woman I’ll address it to doesn’t know this me but knows the me before my entombment in this old obese body. I’ve sent her some of my research before. I’ll sign my notes with the name she knew me by before all this.
No! – whoever is censoring this before it is sent – this is not some pathetic attempt to get out of this place. Staying here is part of my strategy.
Pulling her balaclava off, she turns to face the sun and lets the wind tear at her gleaming hair, tangling it over full lips and sharp cheekbones. She licks the frozen chocolate I gave her. Her mouth moves as if saying ‘Thanks’ but it’s said among other words the wind whips down into Grisedale and away from my ears. If she said ‘Thank you for your kindness’ then she truly is a huldra – it’s all part of the verbal game. I say, “Pardon?” but she just shrugs. Now I don’t know what she said and will look foolish, or reveal myself, if I press her to repeat it.
Looking back to me, as if remembering I’m still here, she grabs my arm and pulls me into the lee of a brutal and spiky wind sculptured ice formation. “Wow! Amazing weather.” She points east. “There, over High Street. You can see as far as the Yorkshire Dales. I’ll bet that’s Kinder Scout, or near it, anyway.” High Street looks as it always does, a ridge of windswept bog interspersed with rocky summits, all ice and snow.
That stunning smile again … and those eyes! This is hell. There is more intelligence in that look than I was ready for – and a serious lack of stupidity – I think. Is she sizing me up, playing with me, or absolutely believing in what I’m pretending to be? I’m not ready, not armed. I can’t prepare one moment for the next. Never underestimate your enemy. The fact is I can’t estimate anything right now.
She hugs my arm. “Let’s duck down out of the wind!”
I slip my rucksack off. “Here, sit on this.” Ah ha! An unthinking kindness… I don’t know if it counts for anything. Everything is so complicated when near her.
She plants herself on it and squeals in mock horror as she slides. I catch the arm she has reached out towards me – not that I need to; it’s all part of the game. Pulling me down beside her she says, “Wow, hunky strong mountaineer. You’ve made my day. I’ve been doing this run for a whole week and hardly seen a soul.”
Hardly a soul? I wonder why the guy died in Sleet Cove three days ago, when conditions were nothing like as aggressive as today. I think she may have been there, doing exactly what she’s doing now. She says, “Where are you staying? You just got here or what? It’s been pretty scary, scary and beautiful for a whole week!”
“Patterdale youth hostel. Got here yesterday just before the pass closed again.”
“Patterdale? Hey, that’s a grade one; they’ll hire out sleeping bags. I can stay there tonight. Let’s get out of this wind and go out to dinner somewhere.”
Nice try, so tempting just to go along with her – and drop my disguise when she feels she has power over me. But no … that’s maybe her plan, win by increments. She’ll get nothing from me. Before I can reply she asks, “What’s your name?” wipes hair from her mouth and pulls the balaclava back on.
Her laughter cuts the wind better than words. She has to shout, “That’s a serious name! I’m Lerka and I’m getting cold. Let’s go!” She stands, catches my rucksack as it tries to fly away, and holds it out for me.
I finally acquired paper and a pencil – after virtually begging for them. Celia is a nurse. She’s kind and may do a favour for me. I’ll give these notes to her this evening. I have to rush writing them because I’m running out of excuses to avoid people and avoid watching the TV. If I do watch it, or if I hear the radio, or if I see a newspaper, even overhear people discussing one, the first thing will be news about what Huldra has done. Just a face, a phrase, an inconsequential report. This is why that statement was repeated three times. She can’t do anything unless I get to hear about it. What I’ll hear about is how my present parents, Sissy, or even the cat have been burned alive, attacked with acid, tortured – anything to lodge that pain in me, her victory – how she stopped me blocking her. I think she’s worked out by now that I must hear the result, the reality of her actions before they can happen, before she’s free to move on and prey on other innocents.
Just when I’m enjoying myself, I know I have spoil it all. “I’m not going back to Patterdale. I’m meeting friends in Grasmere. Not sure where we’re going after that.” I get not a flicker of reaction. If she was a real person something would have been expressed.
She smiles again. “I can go that way. That’s where I’m staying.” Taking my arm she adds, “Whoops,” and pretends to lose her balance, pressing against me.
No chance, Lerka, or whatever you want to call yourself. She asks, “Where are you from, Khalil?”
“Algeria … at first … and then Italy, Greece, Libya – from one refugee camp to another.”
Her screech echoes from ice all around. “You’re lying to me! Why do you have to fuck everything up?”
The nurses put my loss of memory, the memory this body should have, down to brain damage during cardiac arrest. There’s no point in telling them the truth. Paradoxically the truth will only be seen as delusion. I can’t help admiring the huldra for this clever touch. Maybe it was an accident, but cool just the same. The staff here also say my thinking is chaotic – well, it is from their point of view, but natural to me. Really, I’m finding it more and more difficult to be human and beginning to wonder if I should bother with them. Maybe this should be my last time. I hate the way they think and how I get sucked into it. It’s like they cut reality into pieces and try to live in the smallest bit they can find while ignoring or hating everything outside of it. It messes with my ability to see things clearly.
At least the game is over but why do I feel as though I’ve lost? At the very best this is a Pyrrhic victory that I’m going to bitterly regret.
She hisses in fury. Even that noise from her … captivating: she’s giving me her attention and that’s such a … a compliment. She turns those sapphire eyes on me, crystals of powder snow whipping past them. The eyes widen. “Why? Why must you always try to out think me? What makes you want to?”
Really? Stupid question – that’s what I’m here for. She dies as soon as she kills someone who knows what she is – me. That, I’m pretty certain, is what I’ve been doing in all these lives … up until now.
Through a howling, singing gust she whispers quite clearly, “I’ve been clever. I’ve learned all about you and why not to kill you. Instead I’m going to entomb you in a way that lets me give back the agony you inflict on me. Maybe you’ll grow, fucking, up. Welcome to Hell, but wait. Waiting is going to be such fun for you – and seeing what I do from the body I’m going to trap you in. I’d like to watch while you are powerless to stop me, mister person from Iceland. Person with family in Iceland.”
Once Celia has taken these notes I can push the pencil into my ears and eyes. I can do this because I am strong and desperate and this fight goes far beyond pain and disability. ‘Entombed’? I can do it so much better than the huldra could even imagine. Deaf and blind, I will never be able to learn what she has done – and therefore stop her doing it in the first place. But I won’t kill myself. Oh no. I’m going to stay entombed as long as possible, block that bitch from doing evil for a whole lifetime. Huldra, you have met your match.
…Or have you? What did you mean when you said ‘Why do you have to fuck everything up?’. Am I actually stupid and missing something vital here? Maybe we need to talk more next time we meet. I’m so confused.
Is this a victory for me or another defeat? I’m left wondering how many huldras there are in this game of two, or if there is only one monster … and it’s me.
©Gary Bonn, 2017