In the morning, Harald and Olen examine the twisted hinges and know they can’t reattach the door. Olen gives Harald a reindeer hide to curtain the open doorway. He will take no payment.
They stand in the trampled snow of the clearing and look at the forest. The forest is safe enough during the day. The boy is still tethered inside the shieling, and his ankle is bleeding again from his efforts to pull loose. Harald left Solveig inside working a piece of cloth under the tether as a bandage. Olen’s wife died years ago, but she loved him to the end and may love him yet, which must be a comfort.
Olen says, “I should check on my herd.”
Harald says, “I’ll go with you.” He can take the musket. Nothing will threaten Solveig in the sunny clearing, and Olen’s daughter Piija is here, cooking or sewing in Olen’s tent.
Olen says, “They’re all right until tomorrow.”
Harald nods. He should go talk to the boy again, even if there’s no response. He’s about to say this, but voices from the path drive his soul into his chest, where it crowds his heart for a moment; then he remembers about the spring visit.
Olen says, “The old man with the mustache longer than his beard?”
“He retired,” Harald says. Supplies arrive in spring and fall, and the spring shipment brings an agent of the University to assess Harald and Solveig’s work. Olen passes their hill twice a year, coming down from the mountains in early spring and going up in midsummer, often stopping a week or more, so he knew Professor Lang, a cheerful, cynical foreigner who never pressed them for results. Lang used to tell Harald and Solveig, “By Heaven, when you say we know nothing of trolls, you will say it with authority!”
Olen came and went before last year’s visit from Professor Persson. Persson does no fieldwork, but he has read every reputable monograph and studied preserved specimens and does not shirk the duty, he says, of noting other scholars’ failings.
Harald and Olen wait, and soon a horse and three men emerge blinking from the forest. Only a few sunbeams penetrate the trees, fluttering and disappearing like combustible insects as branches move overhead. The horse, large, black, impressive, and poorly suited to the terrain, pulls a heavily laden sledge. Two of the men are herders, if only by family; southern reindeer herders lost their traditional range generations ago. Harald nods to one, called Joŋgu, whom he recognizes from other years.
Persson has learned practicality during a year as emissary and wears a deerskin jacket much like his attendants’, but his professorial robes are doubtless packed on the sledge. When the sun blindness passes, he says, “Good day, Professor Kittelsen.”
Harald says, “Good morning and welcome.” Persson looks expectant, so Harald says, “Won’t you have a seat on the woodpile?”
Persson smiles, almost good-naturedly. “I had somewhat forgotten the charms of—what do you call this place? Small Mountain?”
“Hill Among Mountains,” Harald says. This is not merely a nickname. Harald knows the station is named Kulle Bland Bergen in University documents. Solveig emerges from the shieling, pushing past the new hide curtain, and Persson greets her too as Professor Kittelsen. Then he does sit down on the woodpile. He doesn’t acknowledge Olen or introduce his attendants.
Persson says, “I’ll want to rest before the official interview, but give me a foretaste. Have you made your great breakthrough? Have our legendary scholars of anthropomorphic mating discerned the nature of troll pair-bonds?”
Solveig says, “They don’t form pair-bonds.”
“As far as we can tell,” says Harald, rebuking her imperious judgment. She pretends not to hear, and that’s a contemptuous dismissal of his effeminate reservations. They’re past the need to rehearse familiar arguments. Also, before yesterday, when Harald caught the wild boy, they no longer shared a bed.
“Well,” says Persson, “perhaps you’ve mastered the rudiments of the troll language?”
Olen says, “I don’t think trolls have a language. They use human speech, sometimes, to talk to humans, but not to each other.”
Harald says, “Professor Persson, allow me to introduce my friend Olen Somby.”
Persson nods to Olen, or perhaps only glances at him. He addresses Harald. “Human speech?”
Harald says, “We’ve only had one opportunity to observe this. We don’t know if it’s communicative or purely emotive.”
Piija appears and speaks to Persson’s hirelings in the herders’ language, and Harald understands enough to know she is offering smoked meat and dried berries. One of the men says something Harald can’t decipher, and Piija laughs. Olen says nothing.
Piija is old enough to marry. Harald knows Olen doesn’t want a son-in-law with no reindeer, but Olen is quickly reconciled to bearable disappointments. He understands, perhaps as well as Harald, the greater losses that lie in wait for fathers.
Harald and Solveig named the site Kulle Bland Bergen when they topped the hill and found horizon still looming over them on every side. The ground was mostly submerged under spruce and pine needles and moss, living and decaying matter, with boulders breaching in pods and mushrooms bubbling up everywhere; some wholesome, most poison.
Hired men made the journey with them and stayed to build a small log shieling. Harald made them wait three days and cut only trees observed in the same position each morning. It was that kind of forest. Workers obeyed him because the madness of the enterprise only confirmed his status. Would the University sponsor any other scholars, much less newly minted graduates, in long-term observation of unobservable mountain trolls?
Harald and Solveig were academic heirs apparent, favored disciples of Asbjørnsen and von Linne, the two great authorities on Anthropomorpha. Even before graduation, their joint study of field goblins, based on existing literature and new observations, showed that Homo monstrosus vulgus practice exogamous mating; Professor Strindberg had to retire his popular lectures on goblin promiscuity.
When Harald and Solveig mated, people said Asbjørnsen and von Linne pushed their protégés together to create a dynasty, but Harald and Solveig married for love. For love, Solveig put aside goblins and adopted Harald’s plan to investigate Homo monstrosus arcanus, even convincing her distant relation Count Blessom to fund the project.
Why she is still here ten years later is more difficult to explain. She may find it hard to imagine leaving the place they once had a son.
They lost Bragi—Harald lost him—in late spring, when the snow was mostly gone and meadows were livid with velvetbells, ogre-thistle, and mountain orchid. Bragi was four, and they had been six seasons at Kulle Bland Bergen. They had precise notes on footprints and night calls, a barrel of flinty scat that accumulated in certain gullies, scores of contradictory facts attested by migrating reindeer herders. They had yet to see a troll.
Bragi had big eyes and ears, and Harald teased Solveig that she had her goblin after all, but goblins are bald and show teeth only in fear or aggression. Bragi had curly hair and laughed with his head thrown back and his mouth wide open, as though he meant to swallow the moon. He sprawled across their laps at night, waving his feet to foolish songs about geese and lemming-hawks that Solveig learned from her own mother. Harald can’t remember the words now, and he can’t ask his wife.
That day wasn’t cold, and Harald was in shirtsleeves, but Bragi wore a little cloak and a tall herder’s cap. The cap was a present from Olen. They were close enough to see the peaked roof of the shieling but too deep in forest shade for Harald to let go Bragi’s hand. He shouldn’t have needed a bird to remind him of that. He wouldn’t try to explain the bird when he documented the encounter, going on as one does, as Solveig did, though without laughing or singing her mother’s songs.
Harald didn’t study Aves, and he can’t account for a dipper that flitted up from the stream to bounce on a spruce branch vomiting chirps and squeaks as though pent notes would burst its crop. All Harald knows of birds is a recurring dream, just birdsong and the slow realization that everything is gone. The first time he had this dream, he turned to Solveig, but she said, “If the song was so dire, why didn’t you act more quickly?” Whatever his failures, what right could she have to ask him such a question and lie in the dark waiting for an answer?
He was examining slashes on a tree trunk, slashes not made by a bear, when the bird erupted in warning or remonstrance, and he turned to see Bragi trotting into deeper shade. Harald called after him, the dipper loosed a final warble, and Harald could see the troll. Half a head taller than Harald and twice as wide, it was hairier than a man but not furred by Asbjørnsen’s definition of fur as contiguous strands with no intervening space, a distinction von Linne rejects. Its only clothing was a crude mantle, a soiled animal skin with a perforation for its head. It had no tail, but Harald would later confirm that many trolls do have them.
Bragi followed it down the hill and out of sight, oblivious to Harald, who called and squawked after him, a frantic parody of the discordant bird. Tracks were scarce in drifts of spruce needles, but islands of damp earth confirmed that Bragi was on his own feet and should have been easy to catch. Harald ran over a mile without sighting Bragi again.
The tracks stopped before a boulder spattered with gray-white lichen, as though bird droppings had taken root and sprouted into a vertical scrubland. Harald circled the boulder calling Bragi, then calling to the troll, offering a more generous ransom than he could have paid. He tried to repeat the offer in the language of the herders, but his vocabulary was limited, and he could only shout “I need the baby!”
After he dulled and bent his knife hacking the boulder where the tracks ended, there was nothing left to do except walk back and tell Solveig. She was standing in the doorway, holding a piece of carved wood, maybe three feet long.
“There was a troll.”
“Where is he?”
“I couldn’t catch up.”
“I don’t know where they went.”
The carving was a person, a boy, not skillful but recognizably equipped with curly hair and large ears. She had found it in front of the door.
Lacking other options, Harald and Solveig followed folk wisdom and tortured it. They couldn’t bear to deface it, somehow, so they only attacked the base, scoring it with Harald’s bent knife and charring it with embers from the fire. When that did nothing, they began to coddle it. They lay the carving in Bragi’s cot and put a blanket over it at night.
When Harald felt himself unwelcome next to Solveig, he began to sleep with the carving. On good nights, instead of birdsong he dreamt the carving had turned back into Bragi, who rolled against him in his sleep, putting a hand on Harald’s face. In the morning, Solveig would look at him looking at the carving, and Harald would think about how to answer in case she said she forgave him, but she just looked. Maybe that’s why she stays; maybe she needs to see this punishment.
Four years later, almost exactly, Solveig found a wild boy in the company of two male trolls.
At first, she took him for a juvenile troll himself, which would have been significant. Harald and Solveig had both seen trolls since acquiring the wood baby (which did not prove that was the reason), but they had seen no evidence of families. There was no apparent courtship before two trolls, usually male and female, in response to no clear signal, half-concealed themselves among the nearest ferns or clubmosses for solemn copulation.
No attachment seemed to result. Young were associated with particular females, presumably the mothers, but rarely interacted with males until nearly grown. As usual, it wasn’t clear whether Solveig’s three were a social group or separate individuals drawn to a place where one found a resource; in this case, a beaver dam they could pull apart to eat pups wintering inside.
Solveig watched from about a hundred elbows off, what they called Arbitrary Safe Distance, meaning they really didn’t know but they had survived getting that close before. She didn’t recognize the boy because he was inhumanly hairy. This is common with Homo ferus; they tend to lose the hair, along with their unnatural strength, if they relearn human language and become civilized. When the trolls had eaten the beaver pups, the boy turned his face towards Solveig, and she realized he was something else. She put a hunk of bread on a rock. She denied infringing Arbitrary Safe Distance to do this.
Bread wouldn’t have worked with most feral children, who commonly refuse to eat anything but raw meat, though the bears and wolves who raise them don’t mind human food; but the troll-boy was different. He ate the bread and followed Solveig back to the shieling.
They arrived after sunrise, snow ablaze in the clearing, and this caused the boy no obvious discomfort. He left footprints with very little arch, similar to troll tracks. He had five toes, but so do trolls, sometimes. His trollish body hair differed in both disposition and color from his cap of boyish curls. Harald thought he could be as young as eight years old, in spite of his size, with ears that lay flat to his head and didn’t seem especially large but certainly weren’t small. Many a big-eared toddler grew into a child whose ears fit just that way.
Harald said, “You can’t know it’s Bragi.”
Solveig said, “He isn’t Bragi.”
Harald said, “He could be. You don’t know.”
The boy came back for Solveig’s handouts, always at dusk or dawn, though the sun didn’t especially hurry his retreat to the forest. He didn’t enter the shieling. He didn’t respond to greetings. He ignored a pair of boots Harald left with Solveig’s food. Harald always followed him down the hill and always lost him, tracks ending abruptly as any troll’s.
Once, chasing the wild boy, Harald saw two female trolls in a sort of muttering faceoff he and Solveig had seen twice before, interrupted once by sunrise and once by a moose, so they don’t know how it ends. They don’t even know if the behavior is sociable or antagonistic. Solveig said, “What happened next?”
Harald said, “I was following the boy.”
“So you walked away?”
“You followed the wild boy to another dead end.”
“If trolls no longer matter to you, Harald Kittelsen—”
“What? What should we do instead?” Harald’s voice was composed, but he could feel his face grimacing as wildly as hers. They stared at each other, mute and insistent, knowing the exchange was over and they might not talk for days.
It could be that Solveig stays at Kulle Bland Bergen because nothing matters to her except scholarship. It could be she was always that heartless and it took him this long to see it.
The day before yesterday, melting snow dripped from the roof and Olen appeared, bringing his herd down from the mountains to calve. He always pitches his dome-shaped tent in the same spot next to the shieling, and they think of him as a neighbor. Olen has lost children, so he understands, but he has four left, so perhaps he doesn’t.
Olen could always see trolls. He once told Harald many children go to the trolls and some come back. A wise man among his people, Olen feels obliged to say cryptic things from time to time, but he is mostly easy with Harald. He’s older than Harald’s father was the last time Harald saw him but younger than Professor Asbjørnsen. He is Harald’s only friend. Harald showed Olen the net he was fashioning to catch Bragi—of course the wild boy is Bragi—and Olen said, “Friend Harald, this is not a good plan. You don’t know the boy is your son. And it would be easier to drug him.”
They didn’t tell Solveig. Piija baked the herbs into a loaf, and Harald left it with Solveig’s offering at the edge of the clearing. Bragi preferred Solveig’s loaf and didn’t finish Piija’s, but Olen said he ate enough. When Bragi was asleep, Harald and Olen carried him to his childhood bed, still under a windowsill cluttered with wooden tops, leather balls, stones that once appealed to a four-year-old. Olen had taken apart Harald’s net and soaked the twine in a bucket of water with tree sap and other things. They tied seven strands to Bragi’s ankle, braided them together, and tied seven knots to the bed, which is attached to the wall. Once dry, Olen said, the knots could never be untied; the tether would have to be cut. Under the hair, Bragi’s shins were scarred by life as a wild thing.
Bragi had been hurt only once in four years with Harald and Solveig. Harald used to hold him belly down like a bird in flight and run with him to make him laugh. Inevitably, Harald tripped, scraping Bragi from hip to shoulder. Bragi cried for a long time, making Harald’s stomach ache, and when the bruises went away, Harald resolved to keep him rosy and unmarked for the rest of his life.
This memory depleted Harald as he checked the knots. Solveig sat and watched from the other bed, attached to the opposite wall but still very close because the shieling was not wide. She didn’t interfere, only said, “You know he isn’t Bragi.”
When the boy woke, he stood and kicked against the tether. There was a sound like cracking wood but also like the sound wooden buildings make at night without cracking. The workers did a good job years ago. Bragi sat down, expressionless, and Harald said, “That’s only until you remember. You’re our son.” He held up the wood baby. “This was you.”
The boy was unresponsive, but that didn’t mean anything; there was no reason to think the real Bragi would recognize the carving.
Homo ferus are never civilized without physical discipline. Parents who recapture wild children are often too fainthearted to effect the cure themselves and send the children to monks or nuns.
Far from any monastery, Harald had only Olen, who reluctantly cut himself a switch. Piija made reindeer stew. Harald took two bowls and seated himself on Solveig’s bed. “Bragi, look,” he said. The stew already had Bragi’s attention, but talking should be part of it. Solveig stood behind Olen with folded arms, ready to make them stop. Harald said, “Watch, Son.” He spooned five precise bites, then handed a bowl and spoon to Bragi.
Bragi used the spoon, but he spooned much faster than he could swallow, and twice he choked, regurgitated into the bowl, and scooped the mess into his mouth again. “No, Bragi!” Harald said. “Like this!” He repeated his demonstration, but Bragi wouldn’t look up. Olen didn’t hit him hard. Still, Bragi’s howl sprayed more stew than the bowl he threw against the wall. He howled through Harald’s useless reassurances, and when Harald touched his shoulder, Bragi flung him away with one hand, and Harald bruised a hip on the floor and ribs against Solveig’s bed.
“No more,” Solveig said. “I know you mean it for good, but no more.” That was yesterday, and the trolls attacked last night.
It was the most cooperation they ever saw between arcanus. Harald and Solveig, by long habit, are nearly as nocturnal as trolls, but they spent the afternoon trying to soothe Bragi, who kicked against the tether until he bled. That would leave another scar. Solveig brought him white carrots and sourdough bread, and Harald sang a circle-dance song, hoping his wife would take the hint and sing old favorites. At sunset, the boy settled without really calming. He sat on his bed and sniffed at the evening, and Harald and Solveig lay down back to back on Solveig’s bed, Harald wondering if she would turn to him in his dreams as the wood baby did.
The trolls lined up at the edge of the clearing, closer than Arbitrary Safe Distance, looking enough like boulders and stumps that they might have gone unnoticed but for their guttural hoots. As far as Harald could see through the windows, they had encircled the shieling. When they advanced, crunching through the snow, the trolls called, “The boy! The boy!” and Bragi answered, “The forest! The cave!”
Harald said, “Bragi, you don’t belong in the forest. You’re not a troll. You’re Bragi Kittelsen. You need schooling, proper clothes, proper food. Don’t you remember Uncle Olen’s cheese?” Bragi used to love reindeer cheese. Solveig had found the musket and was rummaging in a chest, the wrong chest; powder and balls were in the small chest under the bed.
A troll wrenched the door from the shieling, threw it backwards into the darkness, and stepped into the kitchen, three troll-steps away. Two smoldering logs in the fireplace lit the mossy trunks of its legs. The axe that cut the logs was outside.
The troll retreated as clanging advanced from the direction of Olen’s tent, and Olen took its place in the doorway, brandishing a handbell like a dark, noisy torch. A faint jingling from the tent told them he had left Piija with a string of pellet bells and brought the stronger ward to their rescue. With such a friend to help, how could they fail to lead Bragi back to himself? Solveig put a hand on Olen’s, in thanks, Harald thought at first, but Bragi was curled face to knees with his hands over his ears, and she may have wanted to quiet the bell.
Persson says the boy must go back to the University with him. Harald is no more impressed than Solveig by Persson’s authority, but they should consider the idea. For Harald, sending the boy to Asbjørnsen would be like sending him to a grandparent. Wouldn’t Solveig like to see what Professor von Linne can do for their son?
Solveig says, “This is our study.”
Harald is not unfamiliar with the strain of resentments too large for his abdomen, chest, and skull. He sometimes exhausts himself by chopping wood or simply clenching his body in the dark until only sullenness remains, but so much arrogance with everything at stake demands a full-throated response; when he finds the words, he will wither her.
He’s interrupted by Persson and Joŋgu and the other herder pushing past the hide curtain, squeezing into the kitchen. Joŋgu carries a coil of rope. Harald is still remembering words, so he only raises an eyebrow. Persson says, “I’m taking the feral boy.”
Bragi stares at the forest through the window in the opposite wall. There’s a small pool of blood beneath his tethered foot. At the window behind Bragi, Olen says something in the herders’ language. Persson’s men look away. Piija joins her father and says something, two or three sentences, and the new herder says, “Okay, okay.” He turns awkwardly in the tight space, bumping Joŋgu with his shoulder, and leaves the shieling. Persson says, “Bring him back.”
Joŋgu says, “He won’t come.”
“You will do your job?”
Solveig picks up the musket, which is loaded now. Feelings and ideas move through Harald’s body, and he doesn’t decide what to do, any more than water does. The channel is there, or it forms, and the river flows.
He tells Solveig, “Let them try. Bring the gun.” She trusts him enough to follow him from the shieling, and they stand outside with Olen. The wind is cold, but it smells more like mud than snow. Moments later, Persson stumbles out the door, tangles in the deerhide, almost loses his balance. There’s a gash on his forehead, maybe from hitting a bedframe, a chest, a windowsill, even the fireplace, and he is supporting Joŋgu, who has something drastically wrong with one leg.
Persson yells, “Einár! Your colleague is injured! Will you refuse to help with this too?” Piija and the new herder come from the other side of the shieling and help Joŋgu limp towards Olen’s tent.
With one man hurt and one unwilling, Persson isn’t much of a threat, but Harald says, “My wife will shoot you if you interfere again.”
Of course, Solveig remains at Kulle Bland Bergen out of love, and Harald understands this when she betrays him. There’s a protective jingling from Olen’s tent, but it’s the frantic bird that wakes Harald, a dipper that shouldn’t be singing after dark.
Bragi is gone. Solveig kneels on the floor, holding the knife she used to free him. “He’s our son,” she says hopelessly, motioning towards the bloodstain on the floor, now the size and shape of a deer’s entrails.
Outside, lumpish figures plunge into the forest. Joŋgu, leaning on a stick, tries to coax Persson into a tent. Persson clearly doesn’t see the lumbering two-headed troll that drives Joŋgu into the tent without him, but Persson retreats from Harald. Noticing the musket in his hand, Harald rests the butt on the ground. The snow is patchy and scuffed, and moonlight discloses few prints, none with five toes. When the snow is gone, spruce and pine needles will dry on the ground, and Harald will smell the coming summer, the passing of another spring. Maybe Piija will marry Einár and Olen will climb the mountains alone.
Back in the shieling, he finds Solveig tucking the wood baby into Bragi’s bed. Harald and Solveig lie down together, and Solveig eventually falls asleep. Harald lies awake with one hand on the musket, hoping to protect what’s left.