"Be careful, Tuva," her grandfather had said when she told him about her plans. “You’ll have to make a pact with the grey people if you want to succeed in this." He’d lowered his voice and whispered, as if he feared they might hear him. “The grey people made a deal with my father, but I never knew what it was about. Whenever I asked, he would only say -- 'just remember: always be kind to the animals and always remember to put out food for our little grey friends before going to bed.’" He was a man with secrets.
His father had been in the resistance movement during World War II. In the shadows of the night, when their little tivoli had closed and their guests had gone home, he’d helped many people escape through the woods towards the border. It’d been very risky, and they were almost captured several times.
My mother didn’t like it. We were already looked upon with suspicion by the authorities. She told me that my father often had to hide the refugees for days before he could lead them to the border. I guess it was pure luck that no one came to investigate our place. You know, I think the grey people protected us. But then his father was shot during an exchange of fire near the border and didn’t return. It must have been a traitor, a quisling amongst the refugees. During the occupation you had to be very careful who you trusted.
Tuva’s grandfather was just a boy when he lost his father and the tivoli was really just a handful of performers, animals and a carousel ride, but he felt responsible for the miniature carnival. That meant he had to contact the grey people. “I never saw them, but I knew they were there, waiting for my father," he said. So I went outside the night after we received the bad news. I shouted out loud that he was dead and asked them if they could accept me in his place.
But the grey people didn’t seem to believe him or accept him. We didn’t notice it at first. But slowly our lives turned into a nightmare. The people woke up in the morning to find their food mysteriously gone or damaged and their clothes torn apart. The few vegetables that grew in the field on the steep hill rotted over night. The bear attacked its keeper and ran away into the woods. Their guests said they felt pursued by invisible beings when they walked through the forest to get there. The bearded sisters claimed that the carvings in the ceiling came alive and stared at them when they stood on stage. They refused to do any more shows. One morning the sisters left, followed shortly by the scarred man and his girlfriend. Every day, fewer guests came, and then no one came at all. “My mother was grieving and didn’t notice what was happening," Tuva’s grandfather said. “Everything was falling apart around us, but I didn’t know what to do. I was just a little boy."
“One night the ground shook so hard we woke up. When I ran outside, I saw a massive wave of earth coming down the hill. I’ve never seen anything so frightening. It ploughed its way through the forest, throwing huge rocks and trees up in the air. We left the next day. Then, seeing her look, he’d added. “I know it was them, Tuva. When we left, I heard a vicious, shrill laughter. It wasn’t human."
Tuva looked around at the little cottar’s farm that her great-grandfather had transformed into a carnival. She’ d been surprised to find it still standing after being abandoned for so many years. She remembered the shine in her grandfather’s eyes when he told her about the strange place where he grew up. The children who screamed in joy on the carousel in the afternoons, and the magic when people and animals crowded around the fires in the evenings, the flickering flames competing with the moonshine and the stars above them. In the little cottage he shared with his parents, he’ d usually fallen asleep to the riot of laugher, the joyous screams, the hush during the freak shows.
Her grandfather and his mother had never returned here. She frowned. Why hadn’t he talked about his childhood until now? Had her mother known about it? Her grandfather had seemed so relieved to finally be able to talk about it, but when she told him that she wanted to visit the old farm, he’ d become agitated. Tuva was unnerved to see him like that. The old man had been her cliff of support ever since her mother died a few years earlier. He had made sure she finished secondary school and they had talked many evenings about what she was to do with her life. She knew he’d support her, no matter what path she chose. It was just the two of them left now. Tuva respected and loved her grandfather, but she didn’t believe the grey people existed. Still, it wouldn’t do any harm to be extra careful.
She took a bottle of water from her rucksack. Summer heat had arrived at last after the long cold, wet spring. The air sparkled, dry and warm. The houses perched on a tiny plateau in the outermost corner of the valley, which clung to the side of a steep hill. Snow-tipped mountains towered over it. Thick forest surrounded the clearing and seemed to creep closer if you stared too long. Green moss and tall grass had almost buried the few buildings scattered around the yard and in between the trees. The main house stood dangerously near a deep rift in the ground, where an avalanche had created a massive trail through the forest. Huge grey rocks stretched downhill towards the valley as if a giant had thrown them out from the mountains.
Tuva felt embraced in the calm, the quiet disturbed only by the sounds of busy bumblebees and the trickling of a nearby stream. The horrid stress on the motorway and the city noise were just distant memories. It’d been a long drive and then an exhausting walk along old squiggly trails through the forest to get here, trails that had almost disappeared with time. Small scratches from the thick vegetation covered her arms and legs. The forest was slowly reclaiming the human-made clearings. Sometime in the future, the plateau would be completely lost in vegetation.
Tuva had expected that the place would be in poor condition after all the years, but the sight of it was overwhelming. Tears swelled in her eyes. She took a deep breath, calming herself. There would be time later. The clearing basked in the evening sun, but she could already see the darkness of the night creeping along the edge of the forest, casting long shadows. Stretching her sti f body, she got up from the rock where she was resting. She had to get ready. “They come at night," her grandfather had instructed her. “You must be prepared and stay awake."
A wooden carousel creaked when she hurried past it. It needed a kind and gentle hand, but she could see that it was a dazzling beauty underneath all the dust, dirt and mould. The little horses seemed undamaged and ready to spring happily around the carved pillar. She shook her head in amazement. Such an odd thing to find here in the middle of the forest, she thought and chuckled at the strangeness of the whole place. A tivoli in the hills! When her grandfather had told her about his childhood home the first time, she had not believed him, until he’d shown her pictures and an old poster. It’d been yellow and torn at the edges, but the creepy and grotesque drawings had been clear and visible. That was when she had fallen in love with the quirkiness of the abandoned place and started to make plans for it.
Inside the main house Tuva found a bare room with only a few benches and a little stage. Thick cobwebs covered everything. The wood frame around the stage had more of her great- grandfather’s carvings, but these ones had a darker tone. Strange creatures looked down at her with vicious grins and grimaces. This must be where they had the freak shows, she thought. She could easily understand why the bearded sisters would imagine the carved faces had come to life. They looked creepy, dangerous even, in the meagre light. There were no windows in the room, only small openings in the walls, between the broad wooden boards.
Her grandfather had of course only been a boy at the time, and couldn’t remember all the details, but she recalled how wide-eyed he was when he told her about the bearded sisters. In the drawing of them on the poster he’d shown her, the two sisters with the hairy faces had looked grotesque. Tuva couldn’t help but pity them. She wondered where they’d gone when they left and if they had any children. They’d looked so young in the drawing.
She noticed the contours of a trapdoor on the floor, and thought it must lead to be a cellar underneath the room. The air was thick and filled with an odour of old and rotten things. The ceiling felt suddenly closer. Tuva shivered and hurried outside again. She looked over to the other side of the clearing, where a skigard fence surrounded a little enclosure. Probably where they had the cock fights, she thought. She almost fell when she stumbled over a thick iron bolt in the ground. Something big and strong must have been tethered to the ground there. Hadn’t her grandfather talked about a bear too; the one that attacked its owner and ran into the forest? She shuddered.
There had also been a strong man for a short time, who the guests could challenge to a boxing fight if they dared. Her grandfather had told her that the giant actually was a kind man from the east who hated the fights, but it was easily made money for a man with no education or craft. Her grandfather spent many mornings in the big man’s hut, listening to his stories from the world. Tuva smiled at the thought of the boy and the large, muscled man being friends.
Beyond the enclosure she saw a door in what appeared to be a house swallowed by the mountain, but when she looked closer, she saw that it was a turf house, built half underground, with grass and moss burgeoning on its roof. It looked ancient, much older than the other buildings. Her grandfather had not mentioned it. She wondered what was behind the door and how far into the mountain it went.
In between the tall spruce trees in the forest, she could see the contours of several small cottages scattered about. They were barely visible in the dark. It had to be where her great grandparents and their people had lived; a little village in the woods, hidden from sight. It must be possible to renovate at least a few of the cottages, she thought. She would have to look at them more closely later, but now it was time to get ready. The bluish grey of twilight glided across the nooks and crannies in the mountain surface, making them look alive and brooding. Tuva hurried to light a fire in the fire pit in the middle of the yard, then settled down on one of the rocks nearby to wait. It wouldn’t be long before the grey people arrived, she thought. If they arrived at all.
A thick mass of grey burst through the door of the turf house. Tuva couldn’t see what it was and stretched her neck to see it better, her heart thudding in her ears. The grey mass moved over the land, through the houses, in between the trees, and over the rocks in quick, short waves, like a pulsating blanket. Then, it seemed to notice her, swarmed towards her, surrounded her, and ceased moving. An ocean of glowing red eyes watched her. They seem to be studying me, she thought, like predators observing their prey. Cold chills went down her spine. They moved closer and closer. She saw sneers, short, pointy narrow teeth, flickering tongues. She screamed. Her ears filled with high-pitched laughter.
Tuva woke up with a thundering heart. It was pitch dark. She lay still, trying to remember where she was. At one point she must have moved down from the rock back to the fire pit. Only a few embers smouldered red on the dark ground beside her. The chilly night air stroked her bare arms and she huddled under the wool blanket she’d brought with her. Slowly she calmed down. It was just a dream, she assured herself. Just a dream. She stared up at the stars, marvelling at how large and near they seemed to be here in the mountains, away from the city lights.
Something scratched in the darkness. Tuva startled and turned her head, looking for the source of the sound. A small shadow moved in front of the main house. Tuva sat up and squinted, but couldn’t identify it. An animal? It trotted around a little, then disappeared in between the trees in the forest. Curious, she waited, but it didn't come back.
That’s when she saw it. Or him. She wasn’t sure what it was. It sat atop a rock on the other side of the fire pit, almost lost in the shadows of the night, watching her. A creature, no larger than a small child, with long claws, pointed ears, grey-brown fur and a long tail curled around its body. Her every pore screamed to her: That’s no animal! Run away from here! Save yourself!
As if the creature had heard her thoughts, it suddenly slid down from the rock and moved towards her. It seemed to be floating through the air. Tuva froze. As it neared, the fresh scent of earth, pine trees and bark caught in her nose. The odour wasn’t unpleasant, but it scared her, made the hair on her skin bristle. Everything told her that this creature wasn’t an animal or a human. Tuva bit into her lip. The pain made her grimace.
The strange being stopped a few metres from her and settled down on a smaller rock.
Intense, bright eyes glinted yellow in the meagre light from the fire pit.
"What brings you here, human child?"
Tuva startled. The voice was clear inside her head, ancient and reverberating with power. She swallowed loudly. The creature cocked its head, studying her. Amusement lit the golden eyes.
“My name is Tuva," she said at last, thinking her voice sounded loud in the night. “Trym was my great-grandfather."
The creature drew its lips up, sneering. Tuva shuddered at the sight of its sharp canine teeth, glinting in the meagre light. Looking up, she saw that dawn was slowly arriving in the clearing. She sighed in relief. The summer nights were short here in the north.
"Trym was a fool thinking he could deceive us." The voice penetrated her thoughts.
“He didn’t deceive you. He died," she said.
“I can prove it." She opened her rucksack and took out a box, removed the lock and showed it to the creature.
“This is earth from his graveyard," she said, silently thanking her grandfather for thinking of this. It wasn’t until after the war that they’d been able to go to her great-grandfather’s burial place. A small stone cross marked the grave now, with his name engraved. Stopping there on her way, she’d spooned up some of the earth, whispering an apology to her great- grandfather and asking for his forgiveness as she did so.
She placed the box on the ground. The creature looked at her suspiciously before it trotted over to the box and sniffed at the earth, its long tail sliding along the ground. Tuva held her breath. A split tongue slid out and the creature licked the earth. It shuddered, then turned its head towards her and sat down again.
"We believe you. I taste him. What do you want, human child?"
“My grandfather told me that my family has made pacts with you all the time we have been at this place. That you’ve helped us."
“I’m not sure exactly what these deals are about. My grandfather was just a boy when he left this place."
“Would you consider making a pact with me?"
She held her breath, waiting. The creature scrutinized her face. Yes.
She sighed in relief.
“Thank you. May I ask what these deals have been about?"
The forest around them went silent. Just when she thought she couldn’t bear it any longer, images started to flow into her mind. Tuva stared at the creature with wide eyes. It nodded to her.
"We will show you."
The night still kept a strong grip on the little clearing. She didn’t know how long she sat on the ground next to the strange being, watching images from the past. The grey people had been here all the time, living in the mountains. Tuva saw images of great flocks of tiny creatures in the moonlight, sweeping over the mountains like a living blanket. They looked just like the strange grey mass with glittering eyes she’d seen in her dream. She trembled at the sight of the pointy teeth.
Then, men began to appear in the visions. At first, the creatures didn’t know what to do with the humans. However, observing that the men were kind to the animals and the earth, they decided to accept them, and to o fer them a pact. Tuva saw images of the creature in front of her and the other smaller beings working in the fields and taking care of the household animals in the night, while the humans slept. The creatures protected the humans against wolf packs, bears and lurking beasts in the forest, and even soldiers.
A number of times, Tuva saw flashes of men putting out bowls of porridge in wintertime, and of the creature in front of her coming in the night to eat it. And suddenly she remembered hearing tales about this in her childhood. She’d thought they were silly, funny folk tales. But the creature in front of her didn’t look like the chubby gnome with red cheeks that were portrayed in the tales, with pointed hats and shredded clothes.
“Are you a nisse?" she whispered.
We go by many names.
It said no more, but continued to show her visions from the past. With every new generation, the creature had made a deal with the head of the family. From the tone of the images, she sensed that the creature respected the men as long as they treated their animals and the earth with respect and put out food for the grey people. When the creatures felt that the men did not respect this deal, they became vicious. Then, pictures of a tall and rugged towheaded man flowed into her mind: her great-grandfather. She recognized him from the family photographs. Tuva sighed. She wished she had met her great-grandfather. He must have been an amazing character. He’d looked so tough and harsh in the pictures she had seen of him, but the fragile and beautiful carousel he’d made indicated that there was another softer side to him too.
Trym was not like his forefathers. He was not like other men.
Tuva sensed that the creature not only missed her great-grandfather, but also the tivoli. It showed her the clearing crowded with people, the image in soft focus and with golden edges, as if the creature felt a wave of nostalgia for these humans. Men stood around the skigard fence shouting to a couple of men fighting. The sweat on their backs glistened in the lights from campfires and torches. In the distance, a woman laughed.
The creatures peeked out from the trees at all the humans. When the cottar’s farm was dark and silent, the creatures peeked into the cottages at the sleeping humans, and pointed their little ears, curious. In one of the cottages, a woman lay in bed, her arms around a little boy with tousled, blonde hair. Tuva smiled when she realized the boy was her grandfather.
She watched her great-grandfather working and working, being the first one up and the last one into bed, but never forgetting to put out food for the grey people. She observed him carving the beautiful carousel, a small smile playing about his lips. The tiny grey creatures liked to let their claws click-clack over the carousel horses, making the wood shine. Then, a vision of her great grandfather walking away and never returning popped into her head, followed by an image of the creatures chasing the remaining humans away in rage, but feeling empty and lost afterwards.
“I wish I’d known him," she whispered.
The creature turned its head and looked at her a moment. Seeing it sharply now in the grey light of daybreak, she gasped. It was grotesque. Hideous. Yet, she felt a connection with the creature, and a deep respect. It sat quietly on the rock, its tail swinging slowly from side to side. Suddenly, she felt something nudging her inside her mind, something seeking her thoughts, her intentions. She startled.
You wish to honour your great-grandfather? Tuva nodded. “Yes."
The idea had hatched from a wild thought she’d had when her grandfather first told her the stories about his childhood home and showed her the old poster. From there, her plan had slowly developed. The setting was unique. Its history was unique. Tuva wanted to show it to the world. She dreamed of renovating the whole place and turning it into a museum, with an art gallery and restaurant, and maybe even renting out some of the cottages to tourists.
She wanted to show people the history of a young man who, after inheriting the farm, decided to walk a di ferent path than his forefathers had, and who changed the traditional cottar’s farm into something dark, foreign and exotic. She wanted to honour the miniature tivoli he’d made, with its charming collection of humans and animals. Perhaps she could still restore the tivoli. It could be a living museum. Maybe she’d be able to track down some of the people who’d lived here, or learn something about their ancestors.
You want to find the people who lived here?
She nodded. “Yes, I want to get to know them, find out what happened to them, apologize to them if possible."
The creature was quiet.
You remind us ofTrym. He was a kind human.
It became quiet again. Tuva held her breath, waiting for the creature to respond to her ideas. Tuva believed her grandfather now. She knew the images the creature had shown her were true. All her senses and her very bones told her so. The grey people existed. But she didn’t know if the creature in front of her believed in her. If it wanted to make a pact with her.
"We will help you, human child."
“Thank you," she whispered, sighing in relief. She rubbed her tired eyes, then blinked. The creature was gone. One moment it was there, the next it wasn’t. The morning sun cast its warm fingers across the clearing. Stretching, she stood and yawned. The door to the turf house swung shut. Smiling, she folded her woollen blanket. She had lots of work to do. Tuva looked forward to tell her grandfather the news. Maybe he would consider living here together with her, if he could overcome his fears.
Giggling with joy, she walked towards the forest trail, swinging the rucksack onto her back “I’ll be back," she shouted.
And, she could have sworn that she sensed something touching her bare arm, as light as the breeze.
Thank you, Tuva.