It was the dark deep Scandinavian forest and I was walking down an unfamiliar path.
There was a soft rainfall. The pines and spruces grow tall here, but I could see the sun setting over the green treetops. A large number of mushrooms sat alongside the rough path – more than I have ever seen. Other than the rain it was quiet.
This is where I was born and where I grew up, and the woods will never cease to inspire me. Even more so in companionship with a favorite herb. The autumn day had been hot and it was still possible to only have a shirt on so I did – and in the breast pocket I had one hand rolled cigarette filled to the brim.
I spotted a moss covered boulder in the distance. I stepped over the mushrooms, off the path, towards it.
The stone was warm to the touch as I found a foothold and climbed on top of it. It had been both bigger and farther away than I had expected, and I made sure to mark the way back to the path because now it was getting dark. And it was getting dark quick, a bit quicker than I’d hoped.
Lichen stained my jeans when I got into a comfortable enough position, but now I was finally able to enjoy a smoke in peace. I took a lighter out and tried to light it with a ‘click’. I tried again but now instead of a ‘click’ there was a voice behind me.
A man’s voice said “hello” behind me and I turned round so quick I dropped the lighter.
There was a man standing among the trees some meters away from where I was sitting, his hands in the pockets of a large coat, with uncut hair and the dirtiest boots I had ever seen. Strangely enough his voice was clear and had a booming, almost commanding quality. I was more surprised than scared as he continued:
“Smoking?” he said and glanced at the cone I was holding in my hand. I nodded in answer (I was strangely not really able to talk).
“I have better. Come.”
He took one hand out of his pockets and made a sweeping motion over his shoulder, and when I glanced off in the distance I could see a cabin there which I had not seen before.
I don’t know why but I put my smoke back in my breast pocket, and then I jumped down from the boulder and started to follow the man.
From outside the cabin looked like any other cabin, perhaps a few years past its prime, but ordinary enough. The man opened the door with a grunt. It was the only sound he had made since the boulder, and, silent again, he motioned to a chair beside a table. I sat down inside in a room which was surprisingly big considering the size of the cabin. It was as ordinary as the outside and I did not really have time to notice much because with a bang the man slammed something down on the table.
It was a hollowed out elk’s horn, about the length of a hand. It had a manufactured mouthpiece and bowl. I have never seen a pipe like it. Running across the length of the horn were carvings in languages and symbols I did not understand. Hanging from a cord attached to the pipe were a leather pouch. I could smell the contents from here – a dank aroma I could not mistake, but with a hint of something sweet I was unable to place.
I watched the man’s hands deftly disappear into the pouch, lifting up big pinches of plant matter which looked like they were dipped in crystal. When the autumnal sun met the man’s working hands you could see great gleaming clouds of plant dust swirling around. The aroma filled the room. My eyes were transfixed at the pipe, which bowl now was half full. With almost non-human speed the man’s shabby fingers separated great frosted pieces and ground them with his long, dirty fingernails. For every new pinch I grew more and more involved, and my vision narrowed until all I could see or think about was the smoking instrument being readied before me.
At last the bowl was thoroughly filled and the man paused and slowly leaned back. I sat, hunched forward, my arms resting on the table and I could feel myself grabbing for the pipe. As I reached for it he started to laugh, a coarse, snarling laughter. I felt like I was in a trance, and it seemed as if my hands were moving by their own accord as I lifted the pipe up and put the mouthpiece at my lips. The sensation of the pipe against both my skin and lips was cold to the point of freezing – but I could not stop myself.
The laughter continued. The man now almost sounded like a barking dog, and his entire body shook so that each grotesque half-bark, half-laugh filled the air with dust and grime. My vision began to go blurry, but through the haze I could see the figure of the man preparing to set fire to the bowl. From what, or where, he conjured the flame I do not know, as the sweet and heavy smoke rolled over my tongue. I tensed up and began to draw the smoke back into my lungs, … then I suddenly noticed something curled up on the floor behind the stranger, something like a big rat’s tail with a great ball of fur on the end, something hanging down from under the man’s trench coat. It was a tail.
Here, when children grow up they are not only taught to shy the water or the fire. Here, they are taught about the Well man, to fear the Lindworm and how to avoid the ghostly Vittra people.
We learn, as children, to cover our ears when Näcken is playing his haunting violin, and we learn about trolls. We learn about how trolls trick people … and we learn how to spot them, and what to do. So I ran.
I thrusted myself forward and up out of the chair, letting the pipe fly from my hands, the half-lit contents of the bowl blossoming out like a fire-and-ash dandelion. I pushed the man away from me, and as I did I could feel that his skin was both extremely coarse, like leather, and also hot to the point of burning.
He let out a primal cry and tried to grab at me but I was faster and then I was outside the cabin. While sitting in the cabin the sun had almost completely disappeared behind the horizon, but there was still some light guiding me away from the cabin, as I ran like I’ve never ran before. I dared not look back, only ahead.
I watched the sun set. Just before it gave way to the gloom a lone ray of light caught something gleaming on a boulder. I hurried towards it and found the lighter I dropped. With that, I found my markings in the trees and with them I, finally, found my way home, away from those woods and all that dwells within.
I have not gone down that path again. Because they learn. And the next time he will take me.