My Face In The Snow
It started with faces in the snow. Small anti-sculptures, if you will, as if someone had simply pushed their face down into the white drift to make an imprint. Except there were thousands of them, the field infested with these small faces. The moon was high above as I was walking home. It illuminated the naked trees and the path that was surrounded with piles of snow. I crawled over one of the piles, to take a shortcut home, and that’s when I noticed. Faces in the snow, for as far as the eye could see.
Only later did I hear the voice telling me to embrace the dark, to give into what so many had given into before and walk into the cliff, be one with her. The gracious elf in the mountain.
We’ve all heard the stories.
After that the signs were everywhere, small hints that pushed me into the right direction. A small drawing on the library table, the face neatly drawn out in such a small manner it could very well have been merely an ink clot.
I saw the Huldra first during summer, a faceless being, not human, but something else, something more. She was hard to explain, a thing like me and a thing so unlike me it was frightening.
Gran had told me stories of The Hidden People, tall tales of folk that lived one with nature, the country belonged to them before we arrived. They tolerated our presence, helped if they saw fit but didn’t hesitate to punish, even kill those who did them wrong.
“Cross The Hidden People, The Huldur and you’ll wish you were dead,” she used to say.
They were just stories told by an elderly woman to an impressionable child that lived out in the middle of nowhere, underneath a mountain that threw snowdrifts at us, in a country were the darkness consumes everything large parts of the year.
Gran was already dead when I saw the faces in the snow. But how I wished I could ask her about them, ask her if she too had seen the faces. Ask her if she’d heard stories. I thought I was caught in a dream and I pinched myself to wake up. It didn’t seem a nightmare, not yet, but it was disconcerting.
I never did wake up.
My father never believed in the stories, in kind spirit he called his mother an old crow and a witch and was sure to tell me just what he thought of her stories. When she died he buried her storybooks, the few she had, with her and told me to study math instead.
But I remembered. I remembered the way she used to slowly say the words as if she was contemplating every word, and how to tell the story in the right way. She never read to me, always told the story as she wanted to tell it. I can still hear the echo of her voice when I sit on the hill in the summertime, facing the feared waterfall. The waterfall were the monster lived, the feared one that was supposed to have killed my ancestors and wreaked havoc on the valley, killing cattle and people alike and unless someone kept him at bay, kept guard, he would wake every hundred years or so.
A week after I saw the faces in the snow, my father died. He was buried in the rain, his coffin heavy with doubt and realism and suddenly I was all alone, a young girl, a lost soul who wanted nothing more than to go back in time so she could sit on that hill with her grandmother forever more, knowing her father was somewhere in the fields working.
I started seeing things that evening.
I refused all help. People were concerned, but I was insistent. I would stay at the farm and continue my families work. That was my home, my legacy, I didn’t need any help. I could do it all myself.
Determined, broken but determined.
She joined me in the barn the next morning. Footsteps behind me, a hand on my shoulder and then the chores seemed to do themselves. I worked from morning to evening, and when I got home there was warm pie in the kitchen.
I could hear her whispers as we worked side by side. The voice stern, quiet, feminine.
“All I ask is that you not walk into the cliff. The so called Elf King that resides there is nothing like you would imagine. He will consume your soul if you let him.”
I knew better than to question the help of a Huldra. I knew better than to turn it away, but I also knew that it came with a price. She insisted though, time and again, that all she wanted was for me to stay healthy and far away from “him”.
At the end of the summer she showed herself to me. A beautiful woman with long red hair, wearing a blue woolen dress with a silver belt and flowers in her hair. She was beautiful and I almost leaned in to kiss her but when I saw the fear in her eyes I stopped.
“I would love to take you with me where I always go. You’d make a good Huldra, but it’s too dangerous. You’re prone to submit to his will”.
I told her “never,” but knew already that it was a lie.
“Be brave,” she told me. “Be brave in the winter and don’t let the darkness get to you, don’t give in to him.”
Then she vanished.
Autumn came with rain and mud, red leaves, sorrow and more chores. I worked as if in a frenzy, as if something had chosen me for this task, and that my wishes didn’t really matter. I missed my father, and I missed my grandmother but all I had of them now were memories that circled around in my head, their different take on life and yet they had both lived on this farm all their lives.
I heard the voices the day of the first snow, and as I saw the white gather on the ground, and at the top of the mountains I realized I might not survive the winter. The call was already driving me insane. His call so deep within my soul that there were no words needed. I felt a yearning, a longing so deep it felt ethereal.
The waterfall was big, the water brown but I could sense him when I was there and I started spending the early hours, before the sun came up, by the waterfall. I was already listening to him, despite all the warnings I’d had.
The dark spawn of winter was waking up, the faces had been the first sign and soon he would roam the valley and consume everything he came across and he wouldn’t stop there, if his hunger was bad enough he would never stop and he’d been sleeping a long time.
The voices became worse and worse and I knew without a shadow of doubt that this evil would come out of Dark Horse Mountain, he would rise and this time he would be unstoppable. There was no resistance, no stories of the old ways left to tell how the darkness could be defeated.
The Huldra had warned me not to listen to the voices, but the snow is hard to escape. It lights up the night and when it’s snowed it’s hard not to hear the muffled echo of the past somewhere deep in your mind.
After a particularly snowy evening I woke up in the middle of the night and felt a sensation within that I hadn’t felt before. A knowledge.
It was time.
I walked the short path to the hill where I believed the Huldur lived. I whispered a blessing towards her and her people and then I walked up to the waterfall, determined to get behind it.
“I’m sorry,” I said to gran, and to the Huldur. “But this needs to be done.”
I had played behind the waterfall as a child, defying my grandmother’s warning. I’d played in the sun, carved images in the cave wall and hidden my secrets there. The cave wasn’t big, but it was big enough to keep secrets of its own and in my wildest fantasy I could imagine that the cracks in the cliff wall could open up, if only you knew the magic words.
The stones over the creek were slippery, the frost clothing the cliff wall in frosty blue and white. The sound of water running was both soothing and overwhelming at the same time. I found my way to the waterfall, careful not to fall into the water, careful not to slip on the stone and break my bones.
I had with me a flashlight and another light strapped to my forehead. I wasn’t going to get caught off guard. I’d listened to gran’s stories well enough to know that they might paint the truth in pretty colors. I knew that what might greet me inside wouldn’t be the perfect elf prince so often depicted in the stories.
I knew that I might regret my decision but I also knew that if I didn’t do this all would be lost, not just for me but for the entire county, perhaps the entire country.
When I saw the faces in the cliff I almost screamed. The cave was much bigger than I remembered, though something within me told me that it might just be an illusion of the light, or lack thereof. It scared me, and the faces scared me, and I almost ran away screaming, loosing my nerve, except I noticed one of them was moving. It was looking at me, as if it had eyes and nose and wasn’t just made of grey stone.
“Knock three times on the crack in the wall and say his name, the reward is worth the agony and your time,” I heard the voice, though no lips moved. I stood still, wanting to run but I couldn’t. Then I found my hand on the cliff wall. I knocked and I uttered words I couldn’t remember hearing before, gibberish that didn’t seem to belong in my mouth.
The wall opened before me and I walked into a room filled with small skulls and bones. In the middle of the room was a well, the edges legded with symbols and I knew them to be old, the runes of my ancestors.
I wanted to run, but instead I looked down and I knew I was lost. This thing, whatever it was, had my soul. The Hulda had failed in her task, or perhaps she was in on the whole thing, perhaps she knew that I never stood a chance against this strange charm, perhaps she thought that yet another sacrifice to the thing in the well would make it compliant a little longer. Make it rest until the dawning of a new age.
Staring into the gaping abyss in the well, the light only penetrating so far I knew what I had to do.
I came to remember the faces in the snow. These faces that seemed hollow and empty. The faces of the people who had been sacrificed, or sacrificed themselves so this creature wouldn’t ascend on the earth.
I would soon be one of them.
I crawled into the well, found the brick stairs, unshapely and narrow, dangerous, but I managed to heave myself down into the dark and as I found my way to the bottom of the abyss I remembered my grandmother’s words.
“It’s not the darkness that is dangerous, nor what’s in the darkness. It’s what the heart makes of the darkness that will bring a person down.”
My flashlights didn’t work down there at all, as if the darkness was made of something more sinister than the lack of sunlight.
And so I sit here in the bleeding dark, cradling a thing I know nothing about. It seemed tiny in my arms at first, but then I felt it wrapping itself around me and I hear its thoughts coming at me, one after the other. This thing that is destined to consume the world, though not today. It’s worth never seeing the light of day to sooth the beast a little longer and I can’t help but think that my face will be one with the others, imprints in the snow for someone else to see. A symbol of love we all share for this dark, heinous creature.
How can we but love him? This dark prince in the cliff?