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My skin rooted to the ground. It stretched out from my body, pushed in between the leaves and dug into the soil. Blood retreated from my hands and feet and settled in my lower belly, anchoring me to the ground.
My heart was still. My veins had no oxygen or blood. My organs shut down. There was a niggling sensation in my gut; bacteria perhaps, decomposing me. I should be dead.
I was alive.
I knew, because I could still see. There was the foliage, the birch tree spreading its net of branches beneath the yellow-pink sky. Night turned to day and my eyes had logged it all.
I was breathing through my skin, like a plant.
I’d stepped on a loose stone. I hadn’t looked at the path that moment, my gaze was on the pass, just fifty metres away, where the trail dipped down into the valley onto steadier ground, to journey’s end. I should have kept my eyes on the stones. The mountainside was one long field of scree, there were loose stones everywhere and the rain made them so slippery. I should have remembered hiking accidents happened on the way down, when your body was cold and tired, and you only saw the finishing line.
I lost my balance, tripped, tumbled. Wind whipped me, rain pricked my skin, branches battered me as I hurtled past the tree line and there was the ground. The stone grew large in my vision and took everything away with a slam.
Hellie Andersson became casualty. A name on a list. Another ignorant hiker who thought she could beat the elements and conquer the mountain, but forgot that to go up, she had to go down. Mountain rescue would spot me if I was lucky, ship me off to a mortuary, wash me, put me on display for my parents before my body was boxed in a coffin. There’d be a small feature on the news, the world would pat my parents on the shoulders as they mourned the loss of their little girl. My post mortem claim to fame.
Mount Elgåhögna was on the Norwegian side of the mountain range; hikers were rare here, the closest hiking station was across Lake Femunden, thirty kilometres away. Most likely, I would rot away here on the slope, using the stone that killed me for a pillow.
But my skin had rooted itself to the ground. Earth connected with my fingers and nudged casualty away.
“Painting is about connections, Hellie.” Great Aunt Selma put the brush back on the rack. She leaned back on the stool and looked at the canvas. “It helps us communicate with places. Each brush stroke is a spoken word.”
My seven-year-old self stared at the painting. It depicted a young woman with ivory skin and hair made of birch leaves, staring at her reflection in a pool. Behind her was a wizened birch, and beyond it, the outlines of a mountain.
“Mount Elgåhågna,” Selma said softly. “I’ve never felt such a connection to a place before. It’s as if the mountain was alive…”
“It’s difficult to explain, sweetheart… It was almost as if the earth reached out to me…”
“Did you meet the tree lady?”
Selma laughed. “The tree lady is a myth, Hellie. Norwegian folklore, remember?”
“Huldra,” I remembered, nodding. “Woman at the front, tree at the back, guardian of the forest.” I cocked my head to the side and folded my arms. “Why have you painted her if she wasn’t there?”
Selma pulled a hand through her silver hair. “I was trying to make sense of what I saw…”
“Saw what, Auntie?”
Selma sighed, looked at me and smiled. “You are an insistent one, aren’t you?” She reached over and stroked my hair. She smelled of turpentine. “That’s why your Dad sent you over here, wasn’t it?”
“He never has time for my questions.”
“I think it’s more he doesn’t like giving answers.”
Selma withdrew her hand. She picked up one of the palette knives, which looked more like cake spades than knives, and scraped the battle-grey layers out over the mountain incline, smoothing out Elgåhogna’s face. She cocked her head to the left, appraising the work, then wiped the knife on the cloth and put it back on the rack. She swivelled around on her stool to face me. Tucked a loose hair behind her ear.
“It was on this hike,” Selma began. “I’d ran out of water and saw this pond. There was a stream trickling into it that I thought would be good for drinking. I was filling my bottles when suddenly I got very sleepy… I assumed it was the heat, I closed my eyes and remember feeling this tickling sensation in my fingertips – for a moment I couldn’t move, it was as if my body had rooted to the ground…”
Selma turned, picked a brush and ran it slowly over her left palm, tracing the wrinkles netted on her skin. “It was probably just a mirage, a trick of the light…”
The brush stopped. Its hairs hovered above Selma’s canvas-white skin. She swallowed two times. “I could have sworn my palm was made of wood.”
A tickling sensation travelled through my rooted skin, into my fingertips. It climbed up the underside of my arm, tucked around my earlobes, trickled down my spine, branched out across my shoulder blades and shinnied all the way down to my toes.
My fingers lifted off the ground. My arms followed; there was a creak and a crack, splinters fell to the ground.
I sat up. I raised a hand to my face. Turned it around.
My palm was covered in wood.
I prodded my palm with my finger, curled a nail underneath a splinter and nearly dropped my hand back down as pain flashed up my arm.
Shit. I looked up and down my body. There was my skin, human skin, smooth canvas white against the sun. It itched, as if someone had rubbed it with gesso and then sandpapered out all the cuts and bruises I must have got from the fall. I bent my legs slightly and drew in a sharp breath.
My hamstrings and shins were rotten. Damp, moist, dank; they smelled of dead things. I gagged. Covering my mouth with my hand, I prodded the mulch. My finger sank through. I was poking a hole in my goddamn flesh.
I looked around me. Clothes, I thought. Where were my clothes? I had to cover myself, I couldn’t look at this thing splayed out beneath my torso any second more. Where the hell were they? I looked in all directions. Could the mountain have taken… no, no, that was insane. There weren’t such things as clothes-stealing mountains.
I spotted my rucksack tucked against a bush ahead of me. It must have rolled there when I fell. Perhaps I could empty all the crap and crawl inside, use it as a sleeping bag. That could work, right?
I tried to move towards it, but the wooden filaments in my limbs creaked so badly I thought they might break. I thought of the many times I’d snapped a branch off a tree when I was young. How much would it take to snap my limbs? Two hands, five minutes of bending? Would the human part of me resist? I stroked the wood on my arm, brought my hand to my neck. Would I hurt more as a tree?
From somewhere above me a jay called. It swooped into view, bouncing off the air, skirting the green ridges of the pine trees.
I looked up in the sky, wincing in the stark light – heard another jay; maybe the partner of the first.
Bet they’re laughing at me, I thought.
A wind gushed down from behind; it rattled my wooden fingers and rustled my leaves.
I brought a hand to my head. Leaves brushed against my wooden fingertips. I twisted one off. Just like snapping a hair strand, it didn’t hurt.
The straps on the rucksack flapped in the wind; waved at the lake, which glowed as if someone had etched resin into it, trying to get the hiking station’s attention.
I imagined the conversation mountain rescue would have if they searched for my body:
“Must have hit her head on the stone. Blood, concussion, hypothermia.”
“Where is her body?”
“Could a bear or wolf…?”
“Or the river?”
“You think she just walked off, without her rucksack?”
“Hypothermia can cause delirium.”
“People walk away from themselves up here…”
I imagined what the people at home would think if they saw me.
“Don’t look, children, don’t look.”
“Burn the horrid creature!”
I imagined my Dad coming at me with a flaming torch.
At least damp wood didn’t burn.
“They’d chop me up in little pieces,” I said aloud. “My sap would spread all over the ground.” I frowned. Would a tree bleed like a human? Could you die two times? Had I even died in the first place?
Painting is about connections, Hellie.
Connections. I drew a finger along my wooden arm again, softly, scaling the hard ridges, tracing the spots where my old, human skin had rooted to the ground. Did the mountain know I’d helped Auntie paint it? Had it helped me recharge myself, when I hit the stone?
“The brush is like a wand, Hellie. If you know how to hold it, you can create magic with it.” Selma handed me a brush. “Here, have a go.”
“But what if I ruin it?”
“Of course you won’t ruin it. The bulk of the work is done. All that’s left now is blending. Smoothing out the paint strokes, adding turpentine to thin out the layers in the sky and on the Huldra’s skin, sharpening the Huldra’s facial features with the contour pencil…”
“But I have no talent…”
“Talent is a silly word, Hellie. Art doesn’t spring out of people like a jack in the box. It grows, like a tree.”
Selma got off the stool, sliding carefully down, putting her weight on her good leg, waving my arm away as I made to help her. She motioned me to take her place. The turpentine smell washed over me as she placed her delicate fingers around my wrist and guided my hand towards the canvas.
“The trick is to not be in control. If you lean up close to the painting and pinch the brush hard at the top, you won’t let the magic out. You won’t get perspective. You have to let the painting paint itself.”
With her free hand, Selma picked up another brush from the rack. “Hold the brush like this, between index and thumb. Further back… that’s it.”
Our joined hands guided the brush along the canvas. Midnight green shadows crept along the moss lining the hill rise. We switched brushes, opting for the contour lines to sharpen the Huldra’s features.
“There you go, the shadows are coming. Look at them, drawing lines on the arms, giving shape. Look at the Huldra, coming alive.”
“Is that what I am?” I asked aloud. I frowned at how quiet my voice was. I repeated the words; slowly, articulating each syllable, hand at my throat. My voice grinded and creaked, swallowed by the landscape before it had fully left my tongue.
I looked around. The landscape was identical to the one in Selma’s painting; the stone fields of the mountain sloped down into the lichens and dwarf willows, granite grey blending into moss green and goldenrod yellow; thickening in the forest-green under-layers of the pines.
The pool with the birch tree was just a few metres away. I tried standing up, but my legs were too stiff. I placed my hands on the ground, arms straight, splayed out my fingers, and hauled myself over the mountain carpet, deadweight legs carving a two-track path behind me. I reached the pond, pulled my legs up to the side, parted my leaves and gazed at my reflection in the water.
My face was a shade darker, as if someone had coated it in linseed oil. The freckles lines under my eyes had become faint scores, like the beetle tracks in old tree trunks. The colour of my eyes had changed too. Evergreen, instead of cloudy blue.
Just like the Huldra in Auntie’s painting, I leaned further forward, until my whole torso stretched out above the glossy water. “Did you know the myth was real, Auntie?” I said to my reflection. “Did you know the … mountain, knew? Or did you just not want to be lonely anymore?”
I leaned closer to the water. “Are you a Huldra too?”
A breeze caused one of my leaves to fall into the pond. Rings scuttled over the surface, drawing another memory.
“The painting haunts me.”
July 15th, 3 pm. My seventeen-year-old self walked my great aunt out of the hospital, towards the car park where Dad was waiting. She’d just had her second injection of cytotoxins. She wore a wig to cover the thin, soft tufts that remained of her own hair. She’d lost at least three pounds in the last year, her hands were red and swollen.
“It’s in my dreams, every night… I tried to paint it away. Portraits, animals, city landscapes… Everything just turned into the Huldra.”
“The doctors have told you not to paint. Your joints…”
“Need exercise,” Selma said. “Those doctors aren’t painters.”
She slowed to halt, wrung her hands. She smelled of petroleum today, as well as turpentine. “I know it’s not just the bone cancer that makes my hands feel wooden. The mountain calls me, Hellie.” She looked at me. “I need to go back.”
“Look, Auntie, it’s just the meds. They’re making you blab, you don’t know what you’re saying…”
“I know perfectly well what I’m saying, sweetheart. If I’m ever to finish that painting…”
“I thought you had finished it.”
“The colours need thinning, I haven’t applied the balsam…”
That explained the petroleum smell, I thought. Selma still used the paint thinner instead of the pricier mineral spirits, even though they stank.
“Let me do it,” I said.
Auntie blinked. She twiddled her fingers, then shook her head. “No, no, the mountain won’t allow it. I must go back. The painting has to paint itself.”
I took hold of her arm. “You won’t last five minutes up there. Let me finish the painting. You focus on recovering.”
I tugged her away from the hospital entrance. People were smoking all around and I did not want my aunt to start another coughing fit. We approached the car park. Dad’s Audi stood in the first row, I could see him glaring at us through the rearview mirror, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel.
Selma stopped again. “Hellie…” She made to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, blinked when her fingers touched air instead. Pulled at the end of her wig.
Selma blinked. Her eyes grew distant and she reached out a shaky hand to my arm.
We spoke no more.
“Mountain rescue found her rucksack here.”
Dad pointed at the spot on the map circled in red, just below the brown, coiled lines of the mountain. “There was hardly anything in it. An apple, half a water bottle, a packet of crumbled digestives. Didn’t even bring her wallet.”
“How on earth did she get all the way to the mountains?”
“Receptionist at the hiking station said a taxi dropped her off. The taxi driver assumed she had dementia and let her go without charge.”
“I can’t believe they just let her walk off. The woman is eccentric…” Mum cleared her throat. “Was.”
Dad folded the map and tucked it back in the plastic folder. “It’s almost suicidal.”
“No,” I said, louder than I’d planned. Dad scowled. “Selma would never have let herself die in a sickbed, she wouldn’t wait for death to catch her.” I swallowed. “She’d chase it down herself.”
There was a long silence.
Dad broke it by clearing his throat. “What are we going to with that painting in the cellar?”
“The mountain one?” Mum said.
“Auction it. Some specialist art collector might snap it up.”
“No!” I cried. “I mean, it’s…” A weird, tugging sensation filled me, as if someone had attached a string to my brain. “I need to keep it.”
“Can’t you just take a picture and reproduce it when we’re home?” Dad said.
“I need the original.”
“There’s no room in our suitcases.”
“I’ll buy a new one. I’ll pay, for the extra luggage.”
Dad exchanged looks with Mum. She shrugged.
Dad scowled again. “Keep it then.”
“There’s another thing,” I said. “I’ll need to come back to Norway.”
“Why?” Dad frowned. “Selma’s gone, there’s nothing here for you anymore. You’ve got the painting.”
I picked a nail. “I need to go the mountains. I want to see where Selma went when she disappeared.”
Dad’s eyes narrowed. He leaned forward, hands curling on his knees.
Before he could speak, Mum walked up and touched him on the shoulder. “She’s grieving, dear. Let her come back, if that is what she wants. And she’s twenty years old, she’s old enough to make her own decisions.”
Slowly, Dad sank back into the chair, looking down at his feet. “I’m not having another member of our family become a hermit in this country.”
You never understood her, I wanted to say. You never wanted to. Instead I smiled. “I’ll only stay a week, Dad. Tops.”
Dad looked at me for a long time. Then he stood, shrugging off Mum’s hand. “I’m going to the bathroom,” he said and strode out of the lounge. The door slammed behind him.
That evening, I heard him speaking to Mum. I lay at the top of the stairs, peeking through the gap in the bannister rail, as I did when I was young.
“This country messes with your mind,” Dad whispered.
“You’re only concerned about her walking al—”
“It’s the mountains,” Dad cut her off. “They look hungry, staring down at you from the sky… As if they will devour you any minute.”
“Did you devour me?” I asked the mountain. “Is this what happens to all hikers that disappear?” I looked back up the mountain slope, to the point where I’d slipped. It had been so foggy, when I walked; I’d not seen more than a metre down the slope.
Could Selma have fallen here too? The scenery was identical to the one in the painting, and if she wanted to return, wouldn’t she have come on the same path as me?
What if the mountain wanted us to fall?
“Why did you bring us here?” I whispered. “What do you want me to do?”
Something stirred the ground under my hand. I tried to lift it up, but my palm was stuck to the soil. I bent my head down and peered through the gap between hand and earth.
My palm had grown roots. A tickling sensation travelled up my wooden veins, all the way to my head. Something tugged at my consciousness. It’s about connections, Hellie.
Connections. I thought of the two of us, painting together for the first time. Connecting with the canvas and the colours, the Huldra and Elgåhögna. Connecting with each other, and ourselves.
Was it really just the painting which made Selma, dying of cancer, head off to the mountains?
I closed my eyes and focused on the roots in my hand. Fibre filled my mind, everything was a solid taupe and then it gave way to something soft; maroon soil, warm, folding itself around my mind; my mind burrowing into it, like a brush into a paint pot. Things stirred in the dark; I heard a rumble, like a giant belly churning. Tremors rose out of the depths and passed through me, making my whole being vibrate.
Elgåhögna had absorbed me as a plant does the sun. I was part of the network, the ecosystem crisscrossing through the ground.
Voices came to meet me, male and female; there were snatches of Norwegian, Swedish, English, and other languages I couldn’t place. Multiple minds rubbing against each other.
“Auntie?” I whispered, picking my way through the voices. “Auntie, are you there?”
Something soft and silky brushed against my mind. Connections, a voice whispered from the depths.
“Auntie,” I said, not daring to believe what I was hearing. “Is that you?”
The voice spoke back.