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Inhabited

A Christmas story

By Robyn CliffordPublished 2 months ago 15 min read
1
Inhabited
Photo by Mark Olsen on Unsplash

We drove up the snowy, winding road towards the cozy A-frame cabin. I jabbed at the button for the heated seats, trying to thaw my thighs, but it weakly flicked a lame orange before spluttering out, with the finesse of a wick in the bottom of an overused candle. All wax, no spark.

You’d said the car was a steal, that we’d be losing money if we didn’t buy it, but it’d been a lemon, in both color and category. Just like the portfolio, like the crypto, like the Beanie Baby collection gathering dust in the garage. No one was going to pay a million for a stuffed moose.

A weekend away would make all the difference.

You needed different, but I needed something else, something more.

But Gods. That was the only word I could find, as the cabin drew towards us. This place was, indeed, something.

You parked, clunkily, the engine spluttering to a dull sigh, and I stepped out, venturing closer to our weekender.

Firs wearing their best woolen coats stood sentinel around the edge of the clearing, while the cabin was nestled in the center, in their embrace. There was something about the wooden and glass home that I couldn’t quite put my finger on; as though it hadn’t been brought about by construction. I thought perhaps that human hands could not, would not have made something so organic. No, it was though it had slowly grown here, popping up through the final layers of tundra one bright morning. The carvings on the beams holding the windows were vines, solidified into place, a reverse Pinocchio. My breath caught in my throat slightly.

The air in the glade was too still, as though even the trees held their breath. Perhaps if we looked away for a moment too long, the cabin would get up and leave.

Well? You proudly came to my side, gesticulating as though all of our horoscopes and lucky stars had collided. A lotto winner, a golden ticket. Isn’t she a beauty? A real beauty. You’d redeemed yourself.

You tell me again, who owns it. A friend of a friend of an employee’s barrister. Vague. Big Norwegian cash, the type that can afford to have a luxury cabin in the middle of Tromsø in this economy.

My objection must have been written on my face, because you continued. They didn’t use it in the holidays, some superstition or something culturally stupid, so it was free to use. I said to be nice, this was a generous gesture, but my criticism no longer penetrated your walls. You reminded me that the UK was dismal, we were quickly running out of Prime Ministers and we’d had our last Terry’s Chocolate Orange. We’d have been stupid to not go, and perhaps they’d have a fireplace.

Perhaps we could light something between us once more.

But who’d leave a place like this, empty? Especially this close to Christmas.

You weren’t happy at my reaction, at my lack of enthusiasm, so I tried to find the words to explain. I admitted that it felt a little ‘Overlook’.

Scoffing, you took our bags into the house.

I thought I saw something move in the upper window.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As though living in a snowglobe, the cabin was predominantly glass, and yet there was none to be found in the kitchen. You laughed at my confusion, and poured us a mug of Malbec each, and we watched the snow fall through crystal windows, over a steaming bowl of fettuccine.

I couldn’t locate any towels either.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~At sunrise, nestled under snow white covers, we heard the cows lowing, and the horses kicking their hay buckets in the stable, hungry. All part of the experience of course, the full Scandinavian immersion- riding the horses through the snow fields and getting amongst nature.

Blankets of snow continued tumbling outside the floor to ceiling window in the master bedroom, and I knew that any tracks we’d made yesterday would now be long gone.

I counted the days on my hand, my gut sinking. It was my nephew’s nativity tonight, and I messaged his dad to give my apologies. Can’t come, I’m in Scandinavia.

It buzzed quickly, his reply showing that he didn’t understand why I was here either.

You told me that he’d always been controlling. You cursed as I defended him, so I turned away, trying to go back to sleep.

Later, venturing into the stables, I noticed that the horses' tails had been braided together between stalls. You swore you’d had nothing to do with it.

I’d never seen such intricate plaits.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~You convinced me that we could at least pretend. That by taking a ‘family Christmas shot’ to send back home, it’d remind us of how things had been.

I asked who’d even care, and you said that as your Mum was in a home, it could really help to shift her mood from lonely to jolly.

Perhaps she should have come with us. It was written in my eyes but I didn’t dare trespass and make the words real. Then, like a tide, the tone shifted again, and I felt my neck, jar with the whiplash.

I stepped into the outfit you’d packed.

These make me look ridiculous.

You laughed, and I did too, your cackle had always been infectious- and suddenly the red flannelette pajamas donned with Christmas stockings and holly wreaths didn’t feel as silly, shared.

We rushed outside, and the light was everywhere and nowhere. Grey and blue, hues of winter hanging in every breath. I kicked up the snow, and the flakes caught in your eyes.

Oi.

At this, you crouched down, rolling up fistfalls of snow into a hard ball, beaming. Your eyes glittered brighter than the twinking of lights on the seven foot tree we used to spend hours decorating.

I screamed playfully, ducking at the last moment as the snowball careened past my ear, and you grunted in frustration as you realized you’d missed me.

Then you saw what you’d hit.

How much ice did you put in that thing? You swore it’d been mainly powder, but the fist sized hole in the lounge window, splintered like dropped cracked candy canes, told a different story.

Cheers. Cheese. Skål.

Our selfie looked genuine at least, and the crows feet around my eyes were familiar, but a surprising appearance. I hadn’t seen those smile creases, since we’d drunkenly danced barefoot around that Western bar we swore we’d never visit. It felt nice. The snow under my boots, the wind in your hair. Perhaps we were finally in a Hallmark Christmas card.

As we flicked through the photos later that evening, another mug of something red, but this time poured from a box, you stopped on the third shot, and pointed to the balcony.

Did the cleaner come today?

I didn’t know there was one?

But the figure glared back. Short, bearded, red-capped and angry. It wasn’t in focus, but I could tell that it was moving.

It was a little closer in the fourth shot.

In the fifth shot the figure was now in the doorway, hovering at the boundary between garden and home.

We couldn’t see it in the sixth or seventh, but in the eighth I felt my breath turn cold.

While your face was pressed against mine, and my arm was outstretched to bring you in closer, a single hand, four fingered and black, lay on my opposite shoulder.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~The second day we were both a little quieter, but you’d broken the silence at breakfast while I managed to scoff pastry after pastry into my mouth. The almond marzipan was my favourite, and I’d be damned if a trick of the light was going to ruin this.

You’d said it wasn’t a trick of the light- that smartphones didn’t work like that.

I shrugged, and tried to push the image of the hand from my mind. Like a phantom limb, I’d convinced myself that I’d felt it. The image gave the feeling foundations.

You wondered how I was being so cavalier but I couldn’t find the words to react. I reminded him that we were leaving in the morning, what could happen? Relax.

You laughed a dull single note, all humor gone from your eyes now. They were cold again, like a shark’s.

A moment of clumsiness and you knocked over my mug from last night. Somehow it was my fault because I hadn’t finished the wine. I told you that no one likes the dregs in the bottom. It was a cheap box of red, I wouldn’t be munching on the tea leaves I’d left in my pale pink mug this morning either.

You said that I’d be better off on a comedy circuit, with lines like that, and the image from yesterday flashed in my mind again.

The hand was gone, but so were our smiles.

I went to help you, but the tea towels were now missing too, so I dashed to the car, looking for something to mop up the mess.

I skipped every second step on the stairs, trying to move quickly.

The snow had finally stopped falling now, and if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have seen them.

Four tracks in the snow. There were yours, there- the thick and sturdy boots creating deep outlines, while lighter, smaller ones doubled over, weaving between them. I wasn’t exactly a nature enthusiast, but I was sure I hadn’t seen prints like these before. It must have been a hare, or a fox, the more rational part upstairs reasoned, some small Scandinavian mammal that was trying to escape the ever falling snow.

I looked around.

There. There! There was another set, and another. Prints leading to the stables, to the car, and to and from the gate. A deep valley in the snow had been worn from the amount of times a particular path had been traversed, spiraling in sections before winding forwards, and then leading to the side of the house. Hundreds, no, thousands of footprints wearing a deep excavation in the snow.

Leading to the door of the basement.

As though hypnotized, I couldn’t help myself. I had to follow them, to know, to just see. Even now, I could feel the phantom limb on my shoulder warning me against it.

Don’t go that way. It’s not safe that way.

You called out my name then, wondering what was taking so long but the thick glass muffled your question, and the snow took the rest.

A step, then another, and another until-

I stood before the basement doors now, and my prints in the snow had joined the others so that I could no longer make out which were mine, and which were the others.

Where the basement had once been secure, an old, rusty padlock was unbolted, the chains half hidden in the ivory snow. My thoughts were moving faster now; paranoid and panting.

Did someone take something from down here? Or did something get out?

Kicking some of the snow off of the thick, oak doors, and pulling with everything my arms could give, I felt it hold fast, before creaking towards me with an almighty sound.

You’d be down here soon. Even you wouldn’t be able to miss that that noise.

Gods.

Inside was a pantry, an overflow of produce that would stock the guest house for decades, eons, perhaps until the end of time itself. Perhaps the owners were Doomsdayers- those people who stocked up their stores for the inevitable end of the world.

Perhaps there’d just been some really good savings.

The pantry stretched onwards into the darkness in all directions, a basement the size of a village, not merely that of a simple cabin.

I flicked on the torch on my phone and peered at the shelves.

They were all butter.

What?

Lurpak, on cast iron shelving stocked from floor to ceiling, and I instinctively grabbed one, opening the tub.

Empty. Licked clean. Not a drop left.

I checked the next one. Empty too. As though whoever stocked this pantry had visited the factory and asked for clean containers. Perhaps there’d never been a product in them in the first place.

I felt a little mad at this. Who would have such a collection? And for what purpose?

I checked the next, and the next, and the next, until I pushed an entire row onto the floor in frustration. They’re all empty.

It was then that I felt something at my side, watching me. I looked down to check, and hated that I was becoming every paranoid stereotype I’d ever watched.

Again, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I could feel eyes on me.

Hello?

Nothing, naturally, until, out of the darkness-

Hej.

A quiet voice between shelves. Low down, perhaps they were squatting, or crawling.

Don’t stay here. It’s not safe here- my mind started shouting, but I was fixed in place, too curious to run. Incapable of pushing my feet from the spot.

Who are you?

I’m Nisse.

A cartoon styled image that I’d seen at the airport flashed in my mind's eye. A short, bearded creature, with a big smile and distorted features- surrounding Santa’s Village. Friendly, helpful, quintessential Norwegian.

-They see you when you’re sleeping, they know when you’re awake.-

An elf?

There was a clanging sound then, deep as though the stranger was dragging something behind them.

A Nisse. Less forgiving, and I’m sorry to say that we are displeased.

So it wasn’t alone then.

We came to the window to see you, to welcome you, but you were impolite.

-I’m sorry, what?

Cursing, spilling, desecrating. Rude indeed, and we don't like such reactions to our hospitality.

I thought of you then, calling the unoccupied home a result of silly superstition, in bed saying those words about my brother, spilling the wine, smashing the window. Then of the missing glassware, towels, the braided hair of the horses.

Then I considered how quiet it was. I’d been sure you’d be here by now.

You didn’t even leave us any butter.

I’ll get some now, I didn’t know-

Didn’t know? Were you not raised with manners? Did you come to this place expecting it to be as Western as you?

I realized how close the Nisse was to me then. The voice had been moving, inching closer and closer, until I swore I could feel the breath on my cheek.

Not short like the photo had implied.

I didn’t know-

I was stammering now, my hands shaking, and looked at the shelves for something to help. Anything that would put distance between this creature and myself. But there was nothing but tubs. Empty tubs, and you still weren’t here.

Today, if you didn’t know, is Juleaften. It’s special, because it’s the one time a year that a Nisse doesn't have to be placated with butter. Sure, we like the spread. We like the taste and the texture, and how it feels in the hands as we scoop it out. But long ago, we made a tradition, a deal if you will.

A deal with who?

The people of this place. The people of this land. Of all lands. A promise which should have been knowledge passed down and down and down. Especially to visitors, here.

I didn’t want to ask, but I had to. It was in the script of the moment, to not ask would have been as big a crime as to. My eyes still couldn’t adjust to the oppressing darkness.

What was the deal?

A small laugh, and I knew that the creak I could hear by the entrance, was the sound of the basement door shutting. I knew that perhaps you hadn’t been the only one in the house after all, and that your silence and your absence had been by design.

I also knew for certain that there were more eyes peering out from the shelves then.

Hark the herald angels sing.

The Nisse between the aisles were singing. In unison, proudly, as if triumphant.

The deal is that if we aren’t treated with respect, then we will take it.

There was a Nisse at each arm then, holding me in place.

I could feel the claws digging into my skin as clearly as I’d seen in the photo. This was it, this was it, this was it.

Then I heard you. Screaming, at the top of your lungs, a noise so loud it was ripped from you. Curdling in the air, carried on the wind as though it was happening just outside the basement.

He was rude. He must pay. You can leave. He must stay.

A heavy feeling of loneliness washed over me, as I became aware that the Nisse in the room were suddenly gone. The claw marks remained, but I knew that two things were true.

The first, was that the eyes were no longer upon me.

The second was that I wouldn’t find you upstairs.

I wouldn’t find you, anywhere.

Folded, in the kitchen, were the towels, and the glassware was sparkling. The tracks eased, and Christmas came and went, quietly.

I left a carton of butter behind, and I thanked the old friend on the phone who had so graciously agreed to lend me the house, this close to Juleaften. In fluent Norwegian, I remarked that the Nisse population was thriving.

He said that it’s important. That not enough places are Inhabited these days.

urban legend
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About the Creator

Robyn Clifford

I'm a mother, a scientist and a writer, trying my hand at balancing the three.

A big believer in the power of fairytales, a strong cup of coffee, and Eurovision.

Currently writing my first novel.

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  • HandsomelouiiThePoet (Lonzo ward)2 months ago

    Nice story ❤️🌹👀

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