Spirits of the Forest

Illustration: Inkshark

fiction by Michael Allan Mallory

“There it is.” Stig gestured to the cracked white birch by the edge of the road. “Almost there!” His athletic build easily quickened the pace.

Harald struggled to keep up. His mangled ankle was a remnant of an old boyhood misadventure and the wide dirt road was uneven this far in the forest.

At the birch tree, Stig veered off the road and led them beyond thick stands of aspen and red alders where, after a short march, they emerged into a tiny clearing. There Harald was met by a stunning sight. A slant of dappled sunlight fell upon the body of a young woman lying on a patch of grass. Sleek and enchanting, she was naked as the day she was born. A swirl of luxurious ash blonde hair spilled across the length of her back to a long cow-like tail.

Stig stood proud. “Just like I told you.”

Harald couldn’t believe his eyes. “She’s beautiful.”

“I told you I’d found a Huldra. That’s no mythical creature.”

Harald nodded. As a child he’d heard the stories of these seductive, dangerous creatures who enticed men with their charms. He had dismissed them as folklore.

But what if they weren’t?

“Is she real? That tail could be fake.”

“Pull on it then. It won’t come off.”

“She looks pretty fresh. Maybe she’s not really dead.”

“Oh, she’s dead. Pull her tail.”

Harald balked. “I’m not touching her.

Stig snorted derisively. “You runknisse. I knew I should’ve brought Anders.”

Except Anders was in Lillehammer all weekend. That’s why Harald was here; he was Stig’s second choice. He was always Stig’s second choice.

“So,” Stig pressed, “you gonna help me?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Good. You stay here. Guard the body. Don’t let anything or anybody harm it. You wait ’til I get back from town with my uncle’s van.”

“Van? What for?”

“To show people the body. I’ll be famous!”

Without further comment Stig disappeared into the underbrush. Harald wasn’t happy at being left behind. It wasn’t the first time and probably wouldn’t be the last.

Moved by the death of so stunning a creature, Harald wondered what life had been like for her and how she had died. In time he grew uneasy viewing her like this and removed his jacket. Hobbling over, he knelt and covered her.

A sound made him look over his shoulder.

It was Stig, back unexpectedly early. And he was not alone. A young farm maid followed him. She wore a white blouse of plain-spun cloth and a long gray-striped skirt. Something was familiar about her, although Harald couldn’t say what.

They entered the clearing. “Harald, this is Silkie. I saw her down the road. I thought I’d bring her to help you.”

A wide-eyed Silkie stared at the extraordinary figure on the grass. “Oh my god,” she muttered breathlessly.

Stig nodded in agreement. “Not something you see every day, is it?” He turned to Harald with a warning stare. “I’m counting on you.” With a parting glance toward Silkie, he trotted into the brush and out of sight.

In his wake there came an awkward silence.

“We have met before,” Silkie reminded Harald.

“Yes.” He remembered her appealing, lively face now. They’d spoken a few times in passing. “You live on a farm in the forest.”

“That’s right,” she said, pleased he remembered. She jutted her chin toward the Huldra. “Your jacket. Why did you cover her?”

“It seemed the right thing to do. She’s naked.”

“You know it doesn’t matter to her.”

“I didn’t like her being exposed like that.”

She tilted her head, considering him with fresh eyes, smiling a becoming smile. “That was nice of you.”

Harald grunted. “Stig won’t think so. He’ll say it’s stupid.”

Her elegant blonde eyebrows knit together. “Does that bother you?”

He shrugged. He’d been kicked around enough in his 21 years, once more could hardly matter. “I’m used to it. Stig and I grew up together.”

Silkie was struck by his reply. “Harald, I barely know Stig, but even I can tell he doesn’t respect you. The reason I’m here is because he doesn’t think you can guard the Huldra on your own.”

“Yeah,” he sighed after a bit. He’d always gone along with his boyhood friend. That didn’t seem to count for much.

Silkie eyed him curiously, taken by a thought. “Are you really going to help Stig show the body to people?”

He hesitated. The way she asked made him suddenly question the idea.

“What if,” she suggested, “the Huldra wasn’t here when Stig gets back? What would you tell him?”

Harald thought it over. “I’d tell him he was mistaken, that she wasn’t dead. She woke up and ran away.”

Silkie grinned, motioning him to keep still. Then she moved beside the body and spread her arms wide, muttering something that was either a prayer or a chant. Afterward, she made a gesture over the Huldra and backed away. To his astonishment the body grew paler until it was nearly translucent. Harald blinked to clear his eyes. It didn’t matter. Within seconds the body faded into nothingness. Gone like a wisp of smoke.

“How—?” He turned to Silkie uncomprehendingly.

She gently pressed her forefinger against his lips, smiling cryptically. “Don’t believe everything you hear about myths.” She nodded toward the road. “We should go.”

After they emerged from the underbrush, a conflicted Harald stared hard at Silkie, sizing her up. Her glacial blue eyes looked back apprehensively. She bit her lower lip in wait of his judgment. It came with the promise of a great heart as Harald’s gaze lingered on her momentarily before he glanced down. “Your skirt got twisted in the brush. Allow me.”

She watched him adjust the hem of her long skirt to conceal the tip of her tail, which had come untied and was now visible. A grinning Silkie wrapped her arm under his and together they walked along a path that went deep into the forest.

Michael Allan Mallory lives in Minnesota with his delightful wife, who is of Scandinavian descent, and two cats who aren’t. He is the co-author of two novels featuring mystery’s first zoologist sleuth: Lavender “Snake” Jones. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Most recently, he co-edited and has a story in Cooked to Death: Tales of Crime and Cookery, an anthology that made the St. Paul Pioneer Press 2016 list of best books for adults. Michael can be found lurking at www.snakejones.com.

This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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