It was strange to sit down in the middle of nowhere, literally, at around ten o’clock in the evening of the last day of the year. The place was Iceland, of course I’m born and raised here, but I didn’t usually spend New Year’s Eve at the top of a mountain quite far from civilisation.
I couldn’t see much at the time, but I had been there during the summer solstice and I had spent the night there when the sun hardly sets at all. It was a glorious night that filled me with warmth and quiet contemplation that seemed to settle my soul and ease my mind for months.
It was then that I noticed, with my binoculars, that I could in fact, see four churches from one small spot on the mountain and these churches, although three of them were not in use anymore, were all situated in the opposite direction of one another. North, south, east and west, almost exactly – all facing each other in a way that was kind of uncanny.
My grandmother’s stories came to me then as I was sitting there, in the spot where she had taken me as a child. She had told me of the crossroads and when we got back to the house, a house that was now abandoned, filled with ghosts and old memories but little more, the windows broken and the room I used to sleep in when I stayed there had that summer morning been a home to a murder of crows.
I didn’t know then that the spot she had taken me was, indeed, one such crossroad as she spoke of. When people speak of crossroads it’s almost always in the easy meaning, the meeting of roads. You rarely think about which way to go, you are on your way somewhere and you know where to turn, or your GPS will tell you.
These crossroads are different, however, they contain no visual roads. The crossroad is more in your mind than in the place you inhabit, though the place seems important too. A spiritual meeting place. Through the months that had past since I was there I tried to understand why this spot might be important. Why four churches? The house of God and only at the end of the world like in Iceland can his houses become beacons of a pagan place like this, surely?
This may be the same place as during the summer, the same stones underneath the layer of snow, the same mountain peaks in the distance, (they were not visible in the dark, but I was aware of them none the less), but the place was dark and dreary. The warm winds, the soft earth, the sheltering birch and the bright view over the valleys was just a memory now. Now I saw stars above my head, the cold nippled at me, though I came well prepared with an arctic sleeping bag and warm clothes, and the landscape I saw in the dead of night was harsh, cold and unwelcoming. Even the birch seemed more like the silhouette of a dark monster against the night sky than anything else.
The story says that if you sit at a crossroad, like this one, on New Years Eve, the elves will come forth and try to entice you. They will come in all forms and with all kinds of offers and threats, but you are to pay them no heed. If you succeed to ignore their offerings till the night turns to day, they will leave you their treasures. If you fail, however, you will lose your mind. However, it is debatable how much of your mind you have left if you take on a task like this.
The story my grandmother told me was of a farmer who sat strong all night until one of the elven women, a fair looking lady as they all seem to be, offered him a chunk of dried fat and the man gave in, claiming he had never said no to that kind of thing before and wouldn’t start now.
The elves are creatures of the earth and why they would entice someone this way is beyond me. There is no rational explanation, and I guess that’s as folklore goes. The elves are neutral creatures, not good nor evil, but like us humans as different as they are many. My grandmother believed in these beings, said she saw them creeping around the hill behind her farm on daily basis. She often left things for them, and claimed that they helped her with the chores on the farm because of it.
I, like so many others, never had it in me to deny that the creatures exist, but I never saw them and so I stood on the sceptical side as with other things I had seen no proof of.
And yet, here I sat, on New Years Eve, watching the stars in the night sky and I wondered what other sights I could possibly see in a place like this.
Some claim that the Elves are our cousins, descendants of the vile Eve, who when prompted to make her children presentable and show them to God was too lazy and decided that a few would do. She hid the others because she had not been able to give them a bath, and was a bit embarrassed. When God noticed this he told her that she and her descendants would not be able to see them anymore, although they were right in front of them and that he would choose a special few who could see them, but of course every Icelander knows that the Elves themselves can appear to you, if they so choose.
Since then the elves, or the hidden people as they are so often called, seem to have gained quite a few abilities other children of Eve have not had the pleasure of acquiring. I guess staying hidden and living inside the earth discloses the magic we are blind to.
I guess it doesn’t matter why I decided that summer night to come again at New Years Eve and sit there. There are many reasons and none at all. It was something to do, something odd, something I could talk to my grandchildren about when the time came. I wasn’t expecting any elves, any hidden people or their ghosts to appear in front of me as I sat there, encased in warm clothes and a sleeping bag.
I felt small at first. It’s what happens to you when you sit in the dark watching the stars. I wasn’t afraid. I was never afraid out in the country, even when I was alone. I know that’s a bit unusual, but that’s the truth, even as a child I felt comfortable and safe out about in nature, alone.
Then I started to feel uneasy. There was no particular reason for this, I just felt a bit uneasy suddenly. I kept looking behind me, seeing nothing but the darkness. I thought this was some form of mental breakthrough. As if I was sitting there confronting my inner demons, feeling some form of vague manifestation of them in the darkness and then I would look them in the eye, face the abyss and be a better person for it.
That wasn’t the case.
I started seeing apparitions. White, vague creatures, floating about around me. It was as if I was experiencing creatures dancing around a New Years pyre and I remembered a picture I had seen of the Elves and the people dancing around the pyre and the mighty Elven queen who wanted one of the mortal men to join her in the mountain, but he resisted and because he resisted he lost his life. It’s a song we sing when we dance around the New Year pyres still to this day, and the ghostly apparitions around me seemed to echo that painting and as I thought this one of the ghosts became almost solid, not quite, but almost.
It was a beautiful woman in a blue dress. The cold didn’t seem to bother her the least and she looked at me, as if she was seeing me for the first time and she smiled.
I stared at her, bewildered. I wanted to stand up and rush down the mountain, but I knew that wouldn’t lead to anything good. I couldn’t safely descend in the darkness and if I started to run I would panic and panicking would lead to bad things. So I sat there, and I stared at her and I tried to make it appear as if I was staring through her but of course that was impossible.
“What are you doing here, descendant of Eva,” the woman asked me and at first I thought she meant the one in the bible, the one that was supposed to have conceived us all, but then I realised that she meant my grandmother.
I just sat there, numb. I figured I was dreaming, but I was never this feeble-minded in dreams. I am always the go-getter. Then she came closer and I wondered if talking to her would be one of these things that would drive me mad, like they always say in the lore, the elves drive people mad if you aren’t careful.
“You don’t have to say anything,” she then said, “I can see it in your eyes. You come searching for answers that aren’t in books, or in the minds of your friends,” she said. “You’ve come to find the beauty of the world, the beauty of the darkness and perhaps a little magic,” she fell quiet and walked to a stone, not far from me, and sat down. She watched the apparitions of her friends continue to dance around the now almost visible pyre, though it gave me no warmth.
“This is an enchanted place,” the woman said, “a place of much magic and you shouldn’t be here, there are demons, not just those that surround you, but darker demons, demons you can’t even fathom. I would have warned you sooner, because Eva was a good woman and a friend, but I didn’t know you were here.”
And then the beautiful lady stood up, bowed her head towards me in a friendly gesture and she and her companions vanished. I didn’t know if they went away, or if they just chose not to show themselves to me anymore. It was a dreadful experience none the less. Suddenly I felt as if all the evil of the world had access to me as I sat there in an enchanted place, a place that might invite any creature to come at me.
It was as if the stars were suddenly hostile, the same stars, but hostile and cruel, wishing me evil, wishing evil upon mankind and I knew these thoughts were just paranoia, they were just my own inner demons riding me. It’s what happens when you decide to sit outside, in the dark all alone in the freezing cold. Your inner demons ride you and they will give you no mercy.
When I first heard the noise I almost started running, but again I realised that if I ran I was lost. Then I would truly go mad and there would be nothing left of me, except a corpse at the bottom of a mountain, if I even made it that far.
The noise was strange, a slurping sound, but then I saw a little boy. He was eating ice-cream, wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt. He looked at me, walked up to me and asked if I was his mommy.
The tears ran down my face then, as I saw my father’s eyes in his. Eyes I had only seen in photographs. I have no children, but I lost one before it was born. An experience I keep mum about. “Will you come with me?” he asked, smiling.
How close I was then, to taking his hand and letting him lead me wherever he would, but when he sat down on the stone beside me and slowly became a white myst that then disappeared I couldn’t do anything but sit there and cry.
I don’t know how long I sat there crying into my sleeping bag. It wasn’t until I heard my grandmother’s voice that I stopped crying, more because I was so startled, than anything else. She was wearing her white flower dress and her hair was in a knot. She was white, the only color on her entire body were the red roses on her dress, everything else was ghastly white. She looked at me and cocked her head.
“My poor dear,” she said in her manner. “I wish I could console you, tell you everything was going to be alright,” she added, “but I don’t know that. Will you come with me? I’ll bake you a chocolate cake and we’ll reminisce about the old times.”
I stared at her and I felt at ease. It was strangely nice to see her again after all these years. She was ageless, and yet just as I remembered her, not as old, but still exactly the same. As if whatever deity was riding me had crept inside my head and was showing me exactly what I wanted to see.
“I take care of your boy,” she told me. “He’s happy here,” she said. “Come with us, you’ll be fine.”
But I shook my head. I know I wasn’t supposed to communicate with them, but I had a hard time not talking to her. I wanted to ask all those questions that you want to ask those who are gone. I wanted to ask about my mother, and about my father. I had never known them, and all I knew of them was through her. I wanted her to tell me how much they had loved each other and me and how they had left me with her when they were hiking in the mountains. I wanted her to tell me how I came to live with my aunt and why I hadn’t been allowed to live with her.
But I did nothing, I just sat there in the dark and shook my head. When the myst around what had been her vanished I pulled my water bottle out of my backpack and a Snickers.
I was half through the chocolate when I saw the vision of the two of them. They were climbing a mountain, two white, unreachable creatures. The woman, my mother, waved her hand at me, and then he did too. It was as if they were too far away to communicate, too far to really see me, but they signalled me to come. Two beautiful people I had never known, only seen old pictures of, two people I knew very little about, all I had was legends my grandmother had told me, legends not unlike the lore about the elves.
Then they too vanished.
The darkness seemed thicker then. It was as if it engulfed me, came at me harder, as if it was developing harsh edges and points and would start poking me soon, piercing me. I half expected monsters of some kind to appear, first in white myst, but then become visible, tangible and I almost wished they would. A terrible, unthinkable monster would grab me with its tentacle, come at me and drag me away, because then I wouldn’t have to sit there and not do the only thing I wanted to do.
I heard the whispers in the wind. “It is so hard,” the elven lady whispered in my ear, “it is so hard to let the demons ride you, hard to not let go of it all and just give into the temptation, why do you struggle?”
When he appeared I reacted. When he appeared I stood up. I reacted the only way I knew how, I prepared myself. I prepared myself for a fight. He was long gone in reality, but the ghost of my aunt’s husband still haunted my nightmares. I saw his face in every enemy, saw him creep into my life again and again, threaten to start it all, all over again.
He never became clear, but I could hear the laughter echoing in the wind. The cold breeze seemed to become colder as the myst of him came closer and I heard his voice, in my ear, saying the things he used to say over and over again.
I screamed until I saw nothing but the stars above me and I realised I was lying in the snow, I had kicked the sleeping bag off me and I was starting to run. I gathered myself however, not quite realising if I had been asleep and had just woken up or if the ghost of him had just vanished suddenly, been blown away with the wind that was picking up.
I crept back into the sleeping bag, knowing full well that I really should head down the mountain, get away from this place. If I was careful, not running, I would be able to go down without a problem. It wasn’t so steep, just rocky in places. I would be fine. But I stayed. Couldn’t think of moving.
Not now. I needed to see this through. Face all my demons and see the light of day appear in the distance, beyond the mountains. It would come, although this was one of the darkest nights of the year, it would come and all I had to do was sit there.
He came with a warmer breeze and an unfamiliar face. I recognised him, none the less. The man I hadn’t met. He was dressed like a prince in a fairytale and I thought he looked like one of the elves, except he was taller, not as small, gracious or fragile.
“My name is Ólafur,” he told me. He had blond hair and fragile hands, but the rest of him was a bit dim, as if I couldn’t quite focus on anything but the hair and the hands. And his eyes, his eyes were blue as the ocean.
“You’re with the elves?” and the words were out of my mouth before I could help myself. This wasn’t staying neutral, this wasn’t me being detached.
“I have lived with them for a very long time,” he said.
“Ólafur,” I whispered, “like the man in the song?”
And the man nodded, smiling. “It’s true,” he said, “that I resisted and that she stuck me,” he said. “But it didn’t end there, I did agree to go with her. I’ve never regretted it either,” he said.
“Of course you would say that,” I mumbled, but I was sold already and I knew it. If it hadn’t been the whispers of my unborn child, or my late grandmother’s well wishes then it was this man’s apparition, he was the spirit I had dreamt about. He was the soul I that had been lacking in my life.
Love at first sight? I guess you could call it that, or perhaps it’s true what they say, that the elves put a spell on you and that you can’t resist them. When he saw my smile he took my hand and a soft glow appeared around us. He pulled me closer and whispered things in my ear that I wanted to hear. Promises of a better world, but also warnings, “it’s not all good, and you can never go back,” he said. He said it as if it was a great tragedy, but I couldn’t remember why I’d ever even want to go back. What did I have back there in the human world worth going back to?
And I remembered watching the picture as a child, the picture of the elves dancing and the elven queen on her white horse and the blond human man who resisted going into the mountain with them and lost his life because of it.
And it made sense to me then, that he would be here with me. I’d spent time on this mountain thinking about him and his awful fate, the way he was supposed to die because he would rather die than loose his faith. It had never made much sense to me.
“Come with me,” he said, “I’ll show you things you could never imagine.”
And I didn’t just nod my head, but said “yes,” in a voice that was overwhelmingly loud and clear. I wanted nothing else. I wanted to hold my baby boys hand, I wanted to speak to my grandmother but more than anything I wanted to be with these creatures that defied all human understanding.
And that’s when he vanished and she appeared again, the beautiful lady from before. The one who had warned me that this place could conjure up strange demons.
“I see you’ve chosen,” she said. “I see you’ve made your choice, even when faced with the beast of your past.”
“Do you lie to get me to do as you wish?” I asked her plainly and she shook her head.
“We do not lie, but you can not return afterwards, you will be dead to the world of the living.”
“Will I go mad?” I asked her.
And she laughed, but there was something hollow in her laugh, something a bit frightening. “We’re all a little mad,” she said then. “There are no guarantees.”
“So what do I need to do?” I asked her.
And she told me. She told me exactly what I needed to do and the rest of the night I sat there on top of that mountain grinning, thinking of all the things I had to look forward to. When the first rays of the sun started to appear I walked down the mountain and I told people of what had happened. I told them of the ghostly apparitions and the promises and I told them I would get to follow them into the mountain if I just did as the lady had told me.
They tried to stop me, I almost ended up in a mental institution, locked in, incapable of doing what she had willed of me. But I ran from them, and the blade in my hand was heavy and white and I did what was necessary. I pushed it into my heart, it wasn’t easy but in the struggle I fell and the knife pushed inside me and I felt his hand in mine as my life left my body.
He took me to the mountain, the boy was there waiting, he held his tiny hands around my throat and he giggled. “I’m so glad you’re here mommy,” he said.
I’ll leave these words I’ve scribbled down on the crossroads, perhaps someone will some day find these notes and know the truth. Though sometimes I wonder if this life I lead here, in the dark halls of the mountain is just an apparition, a dream dreamt up quickly as my life fades from my body. I wonder if my inner demons really bested me and left me as dry and empty as I feared they might. It is a hollow, terrifying thought.
So I write these words and I’ll leave them there under a rock, hoping that someday someone will find the crossroads and find comfort in the fact that to some people the elves offer is an offer of a dark heaven and not of pure hell.