Out of the Pierced Mountain
Vettie’s Giel, Norway, 1800
A netsuke night, closed and tight: line of river etched by the nail-scratch of a new moon. Hela staring out her window at the familiar landmarks of Vettie’s Giel: stone-tumbled valleys; scree-ridden, grey-sheeted cliffs; the fist of Torghatten Hill on its island rising up from the foam-bitten fjords at its feet.
She swung herself from her scratchy straw-stuffed pallet, wriggled stockinged feet into clogs, climbed down the ladder from the loft where she slept. The goats in the room below jostling and wakening as she alighted, waiting expectantly for their pen to be swept, their detritus shovelled into pails ready for the midden, for Hela to strew out clover-scented hay and softened cakes of beet, refill their basin with fresh water. Goats bleating belligerently as Hela did none of it. Hela instead reaching for her cape, pulling it about her shoulders, going out the door. Began to wind her way through the night-blinkered street, clogs tapping on the cobbles like the heavy hail that so frequently fell upon Vettie’s Giel.
Glancing upwards as she went, seeing clouds to the north bunch and push across the sky ready to let forth rain, send it down fleet and heavy, to gather in torrents, rip through gullies and ginnels like angry tail-whipping snakes.
Didn’t have long.
Vettie’s Giel a place apart, closest township being Bergenstift: thin track from the former to the latter folding like a bird’s leg down the cliff and across a bridge of turf and birch swinging several hundred feet above Kokende Chasm, water thundering below, plummeting between narrow splits and spills of rocks. Terrifying to the newly appointed pastor, who’d swayed for mere moments upon the first few slats before drawing back, declaring he would go no further; that anyone on the other side needing his services would have to walk their own bones down to Bergenstift because he wasn’t going anywhere near Vettie’s Giel.
Not the first, nor the last.
Pastors born and bred in cities not stern enough stuff to suffer the like. Folk wanting marrying or baptising having the whole village packing themselves off down to the churchyard in Bergenstift the neglectful pastors had made their own. Dead folk wrapped in linen, strapped to a plank, two men carrying, one in front, one behind, for that was as wide as path and bridge could take them. And in truth, the folk of Vettie’s Giel were glad they had no pastor to chide and chastise them. Pleased to be left to their own.
Hela crossing the bridge many times, although never in darkness and never when the wind was roaring down the gully scouring those water-whipped serpents on, as no sane person would. Slats of the bridge ready to writhe and buck, throw anyone off its back into Kokende’s maw.
Such a wind on its way now: those malevolent northern clouds already halfway across the sky in a morning not quite dawned. No netsuke night when they reached her, and no way down to Bergenstift when they did.
She quickened her steps, heading for the tiny chapel and its tinier manse in which lived the boy who’d left Vettie’s Giel before Hela was born. Returned a man mysterious: bent-backed, cracked lips spilling over with tales of where he’d been, what he’d seen with those dark eyes of his that glinted like crowberries sparkled over with dew. A man who had half the village enthralled; eschewed by the other half - by those who’d known him as a boy – who’d warned against him. Troubled by his leaving, more so by his return. A man who, in his youth, had crossed to Torgett Island on his home-made raft , despite his parents’ insistent protestations. Sat vigil in the cleft that sundered Torghatten Hill through and through so you could see light from one side to the other, as through the eye of a needle. A boy, returning to Vettie’s Giel on his near-collapsing raft, transformed; who had packed his small life up into a single back-pack and left; never heard of from that day until the night the villagers saw a thin screel of smoke coming from the one-roomed manse the previous pastor had abandoned and the new one had never set foot in.
As if he knew, the older members of Vettie’s Giel had whispered, as if he knew.
Eerie, the word some used; too convenient by half, said others.
How the different circumstances hung together they could not fathom, but you didn’t live in Vettie’s Giel without having a healthy regard for superstition. Seasons came and went; crops burgeoned - given the right amount of sunshine and rain - or straggled and bolted into weedy unproductivity if not. Livestock bred more livestock, mothers looking after their offspring unless they found those offspring unfit, unworthy of investing milk and time in. Like Stefan’s cow, who had splurged out her offspring and promptly walked away, afterbirth still spooling from her uterus. Wobbly-legged calf unable to stand or follow. Stefan gently leading mother back to calf, mother giving her calf a kick that broke its ribs, made it mewl like a punctured toad. Stefan kneeling down and palpating the calf, unwilling to let it go. But it went anyway. Stefan curious, Stefan cutting open the carcass prior to chopping it into usable pieces – for meat was meat, and this the youngest and tastiest you could ever have - Stefan finding the calf had a herniated intestine and would never have thrived.
As if she knew, he told friends and neighbours, as he handed them their portions of meat, share and share alike. Eerie it was. As if she knew.
Hela not so bound by these conventions and superstitions.
Hela knowing more than most.
Bent-backed man, previous absconding boy of Torghatten, selecting Hela from his young story-sucking-up acolytes precisely because she was not so bound. Hela strong, hardened, alone. Keeping her farmstead together these last few years since mother and brother had died. Hela, who had a cape fringed with the ears of the forty nine hares she’d harried and caught, slaughtered and smoked, cooked and eaten, since her brother had gone over a ledge whilst hunting them and not been able to get out. Revenge on her mind, blaming those long men in the grass for Jule’s dying.
Hela, who had one small space on the fringe of her cape for the very last hare needed to complete it.
Complete this task I’m giving you, the boy, the man, who’d returned so unexpectedly had told her, and all your other tasks will be at an end.
Hela believing him.
Hela pulling her almost-finished cape about her shoulders on that night-soon-to-become-morning as she abandoned goats and farmstead, clip-clopped her way through the only street of Vettie’s Giel, hurrying onwards, needing to keep ahead of those threatening clouds.
One task, to end all others.
Bent-backed man’s words in her head as she scuttled forward, reached the chapel, the tumbled-down walls about it. The need strong in her to get on, get her bones down the skinny track rounding rocks and basalt outcrops as it cricked-cracked down the hill towards the rickety bridge.
Only one thing to do before she took that journey.
Hela’s fingers going habitually to the ears fringed about her cape. Nothing like a hare’s ear to give comfort in times of stress. So unexpectedly soft and long. Heart beating hard as she saw the door of the manse open, the man waiting for her a step within, apparently knowing she would come despite her prevarications the night before. Decision made suddenly when she had awoken and listed all the things needed doing: see to the goats, the fields, the dairy; get the butter churned, check on the cheeses, turn the meat above the fire, make sure the fire was smoking properly to smoke the meat.
All too much for Hela.
Had been too much for far too long.
Hela having difficulty getting up some days. Turning her face to the wall, not caring about the goats, the farm, the fields; all those things needing doing that went on and on and on, never an end in sight. The whole of Vettie’s Giel telling her she was long past the age for marriage, needed to do the right thing to keep herself and her homestead, her family name, alive. Prospective matches the ones she’d always known would be on the list, bar the few she might have considered earlier in her life when things had been simpler, when she’d had a parent and a brother and a passable stab at a dowry. Not so now. Only dregs left for her: men who weren’t considering her at all, only the pitiful farmland in her possession.
A life she could see rolling on ahead of her like a field unharrowed of stones.
Hard, bleak, and unrelenting.
A life she didn’t want.
The bent-backed man giving her the chance of getting out, doing as he had done before her.
Take it, Hela, he said. Take it, and don’t look back. This is your time.
Hela taking the package from his hands.
Hela going down the path, across the bridge.
New life beckoning.
Hela on her way.