The Cold Has a Voice
One morning, Runa woke extra early and quietly slipped out of Nana Dagmar’s cottage. As she had so often done before, she went to the cold, rocky beach where she had last seen her father. She remembered how happy he had been that morning, his deep blue eyes shining with love and the excited anticipation that always gripped him before a day of catching fish to take to market.
For Finn, fishing was not an occupation, but an adventure. She had lost track of the number of incredible tales her father had told her; tales of mermaids, nix and kelpies he and his crew had encountered. Oh, how she missed those stories!
Runa took off her slippers and wiggled her toes into the sand just at the water’s edge. The shock of cold as the sea lazily slurred over her feet made her breath catch in her throat, just as it had that fateful day. As she had done every year on the anniversary of her father’s disappearance, Runa recited the last conversation they’d had.
“Best of luck today, Father,” she whispered into the predawn air.
“Oh, my dear little Runa, a kiss from you is all the luck I need,” she then said, mimicking her father’s rich voice.
She blew a kiss toward the sea. A tear ran down her cheek. “You will come back, won’t you, Father?” she asked as she had asked him that day.
“Of course I will. And I’m sure I will have a wonderful new story to tell you,” Runa wept as she recited her father’s last words to her.
Runa sat on her knees and stared at the waves that rushed toward shore, hoping that today, then tenth anniversary of Finn’s disappearance, would be the day she would spy his boat coming in to port. “Please, Father, come home.”
But he didn’t come home. Dawn crept over the sky, but still there was no sign of her dear father. The wind picked up, blowing over her and sending a shiver through her thin body. It was just as she was about to stand up again when she heard it: a slight moan, like someone sighing after a hard cry. At first, she wondered if it had been she herself making the sound, but she soon realized that it was coming from far, far away, somewhere in the deep forests of the valley. She listened intently, but could make out no words, and soon the voice was gone. Runa had heard the voice many times before, and every time she tried very hard to listen, but the voice always seemed to fade away before she could.
Runa walked home slowly, wiping away her tears. Nana Dagmar met her at the cottage door, a mug of coffee for each of them in her warm, wrinkled hands. Runa took her mug in silence and went inside. After breakfast, Runa made a decision. “I’m going to search for Father,” she announced.
Nana Dagmar set her mug down slowly, eyes down. “I thought you might,” she answered.
Runa was confused. She had expected an argument. “Do you mean you will not try to stop me?”
Nana took her hands in her own and looked into her eyes. “Oh, my dear, I could not, even if I wanted to. No, this is something you must do.”
“Do you believe I will find him?”
“I believe you are the only one who could, if Finn is to be found at all,” Nana Dagmar replied. “You will be needing a few things first. Come with me.”
Completely stunned and confused, Runa followed her grandmother to her bedroom. Nana bent low, with some difficulty, and retrieved a rather pretty wooden box from under her bed. The box was long, at least as long as Runa’s arm, and about half as wide. It had carvings all over the lid that looked like a wandering vine.
“Oooh,” Runa said when she saw it. “That’s beautiful!”
“Yes,” Nana Dagmar said, “and it holds something very special. Look.” Nana opened the box and revealed its treasures.
Inside, Runa saw several different small items along with one larger item that looked like a wonderfully decorated pipe or twig. It was this that Nana lifted and offered to Runa. “This,” she said, “belonged to your mother.”
Runa took the object carefully and found that it was, indeed, made of wood. The carvings depicted a forest scene with a tiny man and woman holding hands in a clearing with woodland animals looking on from behind the trees. There was a hole on one end, as it was really more of a hollow tube, and a smaller hole was cut into the top on the opposite end. “Why, it’s a flute!” Runa exclaimed.
“It is indeed,” Nana agreed. “Your mother gave that to your father the last time he saw her. She told him that it was intended for you if ever you needed to find her.”
“But how do I use it? I mean, how will she hear it? Where is she? WHO is she?” The questions all tumbled out of her in a rush.
Nana chuckled. “Well, as you have no doubt imagined, your mother was pretty special.”
“She was an elf or a fairy, wasn’t she?”
“Not an Elf, for they are far too devoted to their meadows to join the world of Man, nor was she a Fairy. She was a Huldra.”
“A HULDRA!” Runa was shocked. Huldra were creatures – often dangerous – that looked like beautiful women, but they had the tail of a cow. It was said that if a man married a Huldra, her tail would fall off and she would be free of the curse that bound her to hide from the world. However, though she would be a devoted, kind and warm-hearted Human, she would also become very, very ugly. The fact that her father had married a Huldra and then, seemingly, abandoned her once she lost her beauty made Runa extremely disappointed in him.
She didn’t like that feeling.
Nana noticed her crestfallen expression and lifted her chin with one wrinkly finger to look into her grandmother’s eyes. “Now, dear, I know what you are thinking. But your father did not cast your mother aside. In fact, he begged her to stay, for he saw past the outward appearance and knew the beautiful person she is inside. But your poor mother had been vain as a Huldra, and the loss of her beauty, though it meant her freedom, was a terrible blow – far more than she had expected. She withdrew from the village and told Finn to never look upon her again.”
Nana touched the flute in Runa’s hands. “However, she did want there to be a way for you to find her, if ever you needed to. Take this flute to the Misting Wood, near the Fall of Tears. Blow on the flute for one second, then three seconds, then two seconds. Your mother will find you and offer what aid she can. But be wary! The falls is home to a particularly crafty Fossegrimen, and he may… distract you from your quest.”
Runa hugged the flute to her chest. She had a mother! And she had a way to find her father! After all these years… “But, Nana, if you had this flute all along, why did you never go find my mother yourself? Why let father stay missing for five years?”
Nana Dagmar’s eyes filled with tears. “I would have. Oh, how I wish I could have! But the flute would only work for you, my dear, and only when you were ready for it. I could not summon your mother, and, at my age, it was not possible to go in search of Finn alone. Without your mother’s help, I fear the task would prove impossible for you, as well.”
“Oh, Nana! I wish I had been ready sooner! My poor father!”
“Hush now, dear,” Nana said gently, stroking Runa’s silky hair. “What matters is that you are ready now, and equipped with one of the tools that will guide you to him.”
Runa looked up, blinking away her tears. “One of the tools?”
“Ah, yes,” Nana said, turning back to the box. She lifted out a necklace – a lovely milky-purple stone on a delicate chain. “This is a two-fold device: the chain is iron, to help protect you against a Nøkk, should you encounter one and cannot avoid him, and the stone is a Lindworm’s tear, to save you from any poison. Throw the chain in the water if a Nøkk should attack. Place the tear on the wound or in your mouth should you be poisoned.”
Here, Nana paused and a smile warmed her concerned face. She held Runa’s hands in her own. “I have one last gift to give you, my dear. It is my love. Think of me when you are lonely or frightened and you will feel my love warm you. Then may you have the strength to do what you must to carry on.”
Runa’s heart felt like it was going to burst. She wanted to cry, but she was excited – no, elated! – as well. So she threw her thin arms around her plump little Nana and simply whispered, “Thank you!”
Nana held her for a long moment before stepping back, suddenly very businesslike. “Now, you have a pack in your room for picking herbs. You will need it. You will need at least one change of clothes, and good, warm socks and good, strong boots. Go, I will fetch some food and a container for water. And remedies! Mustn’t forget the remedies,” she added to herself, already wandering off toward the kitchen.
Runa wasted no time getting packed. She took only two extra trousers for wearing under skirts to protect her legs, two woolen shawls to wear over her blouse, a cloak, a thick blanket, her best traveling boots and, last but not least, her favorite book of legends. When she was finished, there was still plenty of room in her pack, so she joined Nana in the kitchen to finish packing.
Nana presented her with cheeses wrapped in oilcloth, bread that would stay fresh since it was baked until very dry and hard, and a few tins of smoked fish. She added small bags of dried fruit as well. She then handed Runa a metal canteen for water, which she tied to a rope around the girl’s waist. “Keep your water with you at all times. You can go without food, should you lose your pack, but you must have water.” She held her granddaughter at arm’s length and looked her over with shining eyes. “Oh, my dear, my dear… please, please come back to me, no matter what.”
“Of course I will, Nana. And I will have my mother and my father with me.”
Nana hugged her again, then, handing her a stout walking stick and a small knife, she opened the door and watched as Runa stepped out of the cottage and started out on her journey.
copyright 2015 J.I. O’Neal