I would like to invite you to read a short story of mine. It takes place in the year 1349 when the plague arrived in Norway. Please excuse the formatting. WordPress doesn’t seem to like short stories…
They say Pesta arrived on a boat transporting wool from England. Everyone on board was dead when it came into Askoy harbour, so the townsfolk set it alight, and pushed it back out to sea. The smell of burning wool, bodies and wood filled the night sky, while the smoke obstructed the moon and all of the stars. The townsfolk said to themselves that Pesta would have been burned with the dead and their wool. But one man had seen her stepping off the vessel with her rake and broom, and word spreads like wildfire in small places.
“I hope they were as comfortable as they could be at the end,” mother says to father, as she combs the baby’s head for lice. But I know, and she knows, that dying from the plague is a painful process. “She has taken another farm, not ten miles from here,” mother continues, her voice thick with grief. “We ought to make a move north, get the family higher.”
“We will be safer here than if we try to move now,” father says. Mother has been begging for us to move further into the mountains for days. She thinks that the higher we climb, the safer we’ll be, and the less chance of us all becoming sick and greeting death this year.
“But she will take the village. She is taking them one by one, and we are going to be next. We are all going to die!”
When the news about Pesta first arrived, my mother spoke quietly, behind her hands, so that the younger children couldn’t hear what was being said. But now she is past caring. Her hair has turned from the colour of warm, golden sand, to the pale shade of first snow in less than a week, and she is so thin than the baby keeps on sliding from her hips. She has dropped him twice now, and the last time he landed on his head. He didn’t scream. I heard mother say to herself that she hoped he was dead. Father has been mostly silent, turning his hands over and looking at them, as though he expects to see changes even before Pesta has visited. “If we travel, we are more vulnerable,” father says, picking up the iron poker and stabbing at the fire. “We stay here. All of us.”
The gathering hall is thick with bodies. Whenever the doors open, a brisk autumn wind sweeps inside, chilling us all. The women here have cotters in their hair the size of eggs, eyes as purple as summer storm clouds, and faces red as old blood. They have stopped caring about what they look like to others. Except for Hilde. Her skin is tight over her bones, almost translucent, but her eyes are clear. Her loosely fitted dress is clean, the sleeves tight, outlining her small, firm arms. Her honey butter blonde hair is pulled away from her face, and trails down her back in two, tidy plaits. I have never seen Hilde’s hair loose, and I wonder what she looks like with it down. She looks scared. There are small, shallow frown lines in her forehead. But she is still beautiful, and though her blue eyes are fearful, they remain bright. Her thin hands are crossed in front of her, and I start to wonder what she would look like dead.
I haven’t had the chance to taste the inside of a woman’s thighs, or put my face between her legs, or put myself in her mouth, and feel that which my father says is above all else. Then I realise that Hilde must be the one. That we must love each other before Pesta comes and kills us all.
There has been no laughter since the entire village gathered in the hall, just exchanges of food, embraces and autumn coughs, and tears from those unafraid to cry. I walk quickly towards Hilde, running my hand through my hair as I move. I can feel something stir in my loins as I think about fucking. How would we do it? Would it be up against a tree, or on the ground or maybe in the lake. Would she even say yes? It is as though she knows what I am going to ask the moment I approach, because she lowers her eyes, and gives a smile so slight that if I had blinked, I would have missed it.
“I don’t want to die a virgin,” I whisper to her.
“Neither do I,” she tells me. Her usually protective father is preoccupied. And when he does look at me, it is as though he is looking through me to something else.
“My mother wanted to move north, further into the mountains,” I tell her.
“Mine too. I think our mothers are more daring than our fathers sometimes.” Suddenly, I don’t want to die and I feel sick. “Tomorrow night, by the fishing lake,” I tell her, and I run out of the hall to vomit into the long grass.
I listen to my parents fight and hold my siblings close. “Put your hands over your ears,” I say, and they listen. The baby is already asleep, bundled in my arms. The hours move by, and when my father takes out his violin, I know that their argument is over. My mother sings a sad song about a lonely troll in winter, looking for companionship. When the music stops, and has sunk into the wood of the house, my parents fuck, then cry themselves to sleep. I have never seen tears fall over the bridge of my father’s cheekbones, but hearing him weep is so much worse. Something I will carry in my bones until the very end.
The day when I will become a man is calm. It is strange to think that only miles away, there are bodies piled high, decomposing in the autumn sun. The ravens are smart enough to leave the diseased alone. Wolves and bears however, I wonder if they will be able resist the temptation of the flesh. People go about their work. They store the crops, and beach and repair the fishing boats, in preparation for a winter we will probably not see. The village is quiet. Talking is kept to a low whisper. We are still waiting to see if Pesta will come by. There is a lingering smell of unwashed bodies in the air. Bathing has been discouraged, as it has been said that bad smells help to keep Pesta away.
The house, when I awoke at dawn, stank of my parent’s juices and sweat. I wondered if that was what I would smell of after my time in the forest with Hilde. My father had dried blood on his beard. But I was too shy to ask if it came from my mother’s parts. I go against my parents’ wishes, and I wash my armpits and between my legs. I imagine Hilde will have done the same. Anyway, two clean people can’t make a difference to the scent of a village where there are more animals than people. I wonder what will happen to the animals. Will they die the same death? As the day wears on, a feeling of dread comes in on the breeze, and the village becomes quieter, until even the animals are reluctant to make a noise.
Darkness has taken on a different meaning since news arrived of Pesta. It’s heavier, thicker, more difficult to move through it seems. It is as though the curtain of death has already been pulled across. Inside however, I hold a little flame of hope. I don’t know if it is because I am going to become a man tonight. I don’t know if it is because a little part of me thinks that we will be the village that is spared, and that I will live to see my children and my children’s children. I don’t want to die before I have done all of the things that my farther has done, and more. He has yet to teach me the violin, and the best ways of pleasuring a woman. I cannot ask for his help tonight. Leaving the house alone after dark is forbidden.
I know the way to the fishing lake with my eyes closed. It is where my mother taught me how to walk. I remember my father crouched low, with his arms outstretched. I remember falling into them when my legs forgot what they needed to do. I remember having stones picked out of my knees, and my mother kissing my forehead and singing to silence my screams.
The forest is quiet. It is as though the animals and birds have listened in on conversations, and have adopted the silence of the village. If we live, if we survive this plague, there will be more land, and I will be able to take a wife. Maybe Hilde would say yes if I got down on bended knee. The lake is flat and still. I imagine the fish motionless at the lake bottom. I strip and wade in, breaking the mirror like surface.
Despite having washed this morning, I carry an unappealing scent, for my mother has started to burn dung. She has even rubbed it into the skin of the little ones. The water is bitterly cold, and I can see my toes turn purple then blue. It is as though winter has settled in the lake, ready for when autumn begins to weaken and fade. I wash quickly and move out of the water.
I wonder if Hilde will have hair between her legs. I wonder what she will taste like when I push my tongue across and through the gap in her soft, pink skin. I wonder if I will do the right thing with my tongue to be able to make her sigh and release. I can feel myself harden as I think of what she will do to me. My hair is still making wet trails down my spine when I see her. She is moving slowly through the trees. The night is clear enough for a frost, but the moon doesn’t extend its arms into the forest. Yet, I can still see the shape of her breasts, the slight roundness of her stomach. I start to think about the welcome heat from her mysterious place. “Why are you not on the path?” I shout. It is the first time I have shouted in weeks, and I am shocked at the sound of my own voice. It is stronger than I remember, and deeper. Hilde does not reply, but stops in her tracks. Maybe I have ruined the moment. Maybe she will turn around and go home. Maybe I have already lost the heat of her hold. I should have remained silent, and let her make the first noise. But she starts to move again, through the shadows, and I realise that I have been holding my breath. She comes out of the trees and moves towards me. Her hair is in tendrils down across her breasts, and moves ever so slightly. When she walks into the moonlight, I see that it is not Hilde. Hilde’s hair is not as long. Hilde is not as tall. Hilde does not have sharp cheekbones, and eyes green as moss at dawn.
She is so close to me now, this woman. I try and swallow, but it is impossible. I feel as if I have a fist stuck in my throat. She stops when there is but five paces between us. There are many questions I want to ask. But I am transfixed by the ethereal, candle wax smoothness of her body, pale as the wings of a snowy owl. Before I have chance to break up the space between us with words, her mouth is on mine. She is a sweet feast, and I learn every ridge and groove of the underside and top of her velvety tongue. The roof of her mouth is as smooth as wet stone. She must be able to hear my begging heart, because she places a hand on my chest and holds it there. Her fingers are long, and her glass-like nails are tapered at the ends. I have never seen a woman with long nails before, and I want them on my body. I want them running across my back, leaving red marks as though I have been licked with fire. And then her body is pressed against me and I am in her, moving my hips with such fluency it is as though I have done this a hundred times or more. “Where have you come from?” It’s all I can manage. She doesn’t reply. She kisses the places where my pulse is strongest; at my temples and wrists. The sorrow from the past weeks seeps away like floodwater under a strong, midday sun. She lets me trace her belly and breasts with my tongue, and I forget about Hilde. I want to take her from behind, I want to take her every which way, but she insists on remaining on top. The lovemaking continues for days. The sun and the moon watch us in succession. She waits on my chest until I have energy again, and when I have an appetite for more than sex, she feeds me from her breasts.
When she climbs off, I see that our bodies have left a deep imprint in the earth. I swim again while the sun shifts to make way for the moon. I swim the length of the lake and back. I am a man and I have never felt so free. When I come back to the shore, she is standing, her back to me, and under the light of the new moon, I see her tail –like that of the cow– moving lazily. She looks over her shoulder. I see a whisper of a smile.
“Huldra.” She hears me and stretches. I look to where her eyes have wandered.
“The trolls,” she says. These are her first words.
“They have been watching?”
“They see everything.”
We fall asleep together, her soft tail pressed between our bodies, my hands on her back. After a while, it begins to feel normal, and I almost forget that there are trolls surveying our every move. When I awake she is gone. I wait hours and shout for the trolls. I ask where she went. There is no reply. I wait another two days, eating blueberries and drinking from the lake, and then move home, fingertips and lips stained blue. It is past the witching hour when I arrive at the village, and I can smell death. Pesta has arrived.
I am still between the trees when I see her, an old, bent woman carrying a rake and a broom, as all of the stories have said. But her back is to me, her head raised slightly. She is looking at something, and then I see Hilde, her face at the storehouse window. Her hair is loose around her shoulders. I wonder how long she has been there, and if Pesta used her rake or broom when she entered the village. I wonder if anyone else is still alive, hiding. But I don’t move forward to find out. I turn around quietly, and once I am out of sight of the village, I run.