The Compass

A 20-minute drive and more or less the same time walking, and we were near some of the most amazing caves in the world. Close enough for my parents to carry me there almost every weekend. Then again, considering you can cross the country by car in little more than 8 hours, there’s nothing really that far away in Iceland. My folks loved exploring the caves, discovering the beautiful crystals and photographing the red rocks formed by lava. I liked the ones with an internal lake, the waters always still and clear. It is a shame we are not allowed to swim there. I understand now it is probably because of acidity and temperature, but for a while as a child I was just upset with the Hidden Folk, for they wouldn’t allow me to dive in their pools.

I started hearing them when I was about six. Always in the caves, as soon as we entered. Of course, I learned soon enough it was actually my father taking advantage from the reverberation on the cave walls to pull out impressions and put his daughter to some wonderment. My mother would pile up saying she didn’t hear anything. Only the special ones were able to hear the Huldufólk, she would say. My parents took this Icelandic folklore quite seriously. Our yard had, as most in our little town, a little house for the hidden folk. But while the standard would be a colorful house built out of scraps of wood, ours was carefully put together, made with sturdy small rocks, even furnished. If you ignored the proportions of the vegetation surrounding it, there was no telling it was not a real house. It was a real house, only in miniature size. Now I can see it was a little too much. But maybe they were trying to balance the complete disregard our neighbours showed. Their hidden folk house was nothing but a fake facade painted in bright yellow, standing on a rock. There wasn’t even a crack for the hidden folk to live in. At one time, I kid you not, they put a small ladder reaching from the fake door to the grass and placed small figurines representing Snow White and the seven dwarfs. My parents said it was beyond disrespect; they had crossed the line to pure scorn, and it would have consequences for them. I never got to see it this prophecy deemed true: I left that same year.

“It is not that I don’t like it here”, Ray was saying, “I just wish for more things to do. Maybe if there were more people here, if this was a big city, we would see some real action.”

It’s been a while since I left Hafnarfjörður and Iceland, but comments like that always get me thinking about perspective. Sure, next to London or Manchester, Liverpool is indeed small. But its over 460 thousand inhabitants surpass with ease the entire population of Iceland. And I’m not even considering the metropolitan population, which flies over two million. Even having lived here for the last eighteen years, the memory of small places is still heavily imprinted in my brain.

My parents decided to send me to England to study when I turned fifteen. They love Iceland, but they also love me, and knew my chances would be greater pursuing an education here. Maybe marrying young and working as a DJ was not what they had in mind back then, but I believe they would be satisfied as long as I was happy. And I am. Ray don’t like to admit it, but the night scene in Liverpool is quite heated. We have some great clubs, and DJs like me get to choose where to work, and when not to. Every time I’m tired from the crazy hours and loud ambiances I can take small vacations knowing I will have a job when I come back.

Liv is nine, and has never been to her mother’s birthplace. Her father left me years ago, soon after she was born, and it has been just the two of us since. I show her the town, she is amused by the little houses in front of the big ones, but what she really wants to see are the caves. I used to make her sleep by telling stories about the hidden folk – to which she referred as “small people” up until she was five – and the amateur speleology I performed with her grandparents. Her eyes are wide open as we step carefully through the humid stones, the lights on our head torches reflecting in the walls and eventually creating an eerie spectacle when the beams meet a crystal.

“Your grandpa would always stray, find some empty chamber and start making voices. The sound echoes here in a way that it is impossible to tell where it comes from.”

I try to mimic my father’s ventriloquism, but I’m unable to create the many diverse characters he could come up with. Yet, the effect of the sound repeating itself several times, weaker and more distant each time, is achieved. We reach one of the inner lakes. She crouches right at the edge, mesmerized by the bluish bottom seeable through the clear waters.

“Why can’t we enter it?”

“Sulfuric acid and heat”, I answer, “and also it would upset the Huldufólk”, I wink.

She sits there, I behind her, and we rest for a while. She raises her head, turns to me as if trying to catch me on a prank, then her eyes open wide again.

“Who is making the voices now?”

I smile and go along with it. I close my eyes as to turn all attention to my ears, listening carefully enough to hear the sound of her breathing. Then, far in the distance, I hear it too. Two, three voices, high-pitched, engaged in a heartfelt conversation, even though I can’t discern what they are talking.

“Maybe there’s someone else visiting here today”, I tell her, even knowing it isn’t true.

Finding someone to take care of Liv for the night wasn’t easy, but I had to come back to the cave. I walk as long as I’m comfortable with, remembering I will have to take the path back. When I think I’m deep enough, I stop, and listen. I try not to make any sound, but there is always a dim tinnitus when everything else is quiet. Also my breathing, it seems so loud now. But I wait in silence until I can hear once again the voices. They are talking fast, it is impossible to get a sense of the conversation. I stay put for a moment, so I can be sure of where the voices are coming from. It is hard, in a cave, with all the reverberation, but I follow the voices until they become louder, even if just slightly. I try walking as silent as possible as the sound grows stronger. When I notice another light source ahead, I turn off my head torch. I don’t know why, but it is like turning on a fear button inside me. The light seems to come from a corridor just beside the one I’m in. When I take one more step, the voices stop. But the light is still there. I follow it, a little faster, making more noise than I should. Then I see it, three small figures, no taller than 20 centimeters, large oddly-shaped heads, and big noses.

“Hello, Amanda. We were waiting for you.”

In my head, I imagined a multitude of scenarios. Some local children having fun. A prank where someone placed a recorder playing infinitely just to confuse visitors, one of those strange phenomenons where the sound is transported from another location as if it was by your side. I even imagined finding hidden folk and they running away as soon as I was able to see them. I did not expected them to be waiting for me. Above all, I did not expect be called by name.

They are not scared. They are not even nervous. They are just standing there, one of them with the arms crossed in the chest, one with the arms crossed behind the back, the last one with both hands in the pockets.

“Come on, now, hurry up. It’s not like we have the whole night”, says the one in the middle.

“Oh, come on, don’t be like that! You know how it is every time a grown-up sees us.”

“But we don’t have much time now.”

“Just give her a few moments, she has been gone for a while.”

“But we have work to do!”

They start talking fast again, the voices becoming high-pitched and unintelligible, discussing with each other, all three talking at the same time. Like children when they don’t agree on what to play. Maybe that’s what brings me back from shock, I never had patience for this kid’s arguments.

“Stop!”, I shout. They silence and assume the same postures as before, as if I had just seen them.

“So, are we ok now? Can we talk?” The middle one seems to be in charge.

“Oh, he’s not in charge. He just likes to think so.” Wait, so they can hear what I’m thinking?

“Yes, dear. But we do prefer if you talk.”

“I’m sorry”, I say finally. “It is just…”

“Strange, we know”, the one in the middle is impatient.

“Yes, I am impatient, we have important matters to attend to. And, please, stop with the ‘middle one’. The name is Eldór. These are Guðni and Víðir. And you are Amanda. Now that we are all acquainted, can we get to it?”

“But how do you know my name?”

Eldór covers his eyes with his hand, upset. “We are not going to address that right now, are we?” I don’t know if the question is meant for me or the others.

“He is asking us, dear. Eldór, we have to give her a little explanation. It is the least we can do.”

“Fine. But hurry.”

“We know you since you were a child, dear”, Guðni starts explaining. “In fact, we believe you know us as well.”

“But I don’t remember ever being able to see the hidden folk!”

“All children are”, he continues, “but not all adults. And if you are seeing us now, it is because we are in great need of your help.”

“My help in what?”

“Do you rememb…”

“The summer solstice is upon us, and we need to find the place to perform our rituals”, Eldór is really in a hurry, cutting Guðni. “Yes, it is a pressing matter, and we need to know right now if you can help us.”

“What kind of place are you looking for?”

“Do you remember the house you grew up in?”, Víðir retakes the question Guðni was about to ask. “Well, it just so happens that your parents were kind enough with us to help us protect the entrance to our ritual chambers.”

“They could really see you, then?”

“No, they couldn’t. But they believed, and that matters just as much.”

“Ok”, I say, “but what about the house?” My mother passed away soon after they sent me to England, due to a congenital heart disease. My father moved to Reykjavík to live with his brother. He sold the house back then. It is a small apartment building now.

“Your parent’s house is not what is important, but the house they’ve built for us.”

I’m confused. I thought the little house would have been demolished along with the big one when they built the apartments.

“Well, it was not. Since it was one of the best huldufólk houses around, they removed it carefully, along with everything that was inside.”

“The small furniture!” I remember my father carving the little tables, chairs, even a desk exactly like the one he had on his study. They were just as realistic as the house itself, working drawers and all.

“Exactly, the drawers.” Eldór is pacing nervously. “That’s what we need you help with.”

“What about it?”

“The house, along with the furniture, is in a museum downtown. Inside the top right drawer in the desk is the key to our ritual chambers.”

“I don’t think they will just let me look inside a museum piece, let alone take something from it.”

“Well, that’s where your daughter comes in hand.”

“Liv?”

“Yes. She is the one who can access the drawer.”

“But how?”

“The house is placed at the children’s section of the museum, and is unprotected enough for kids to play around it.”

“So why can’t I just pick the key there myself?”

“You can’t touch the key. In fact, you can’t even see it.”

“And wh…”

“You are no longer pure. Sorry, it is just the truth.” Eldór is clearly losing his already little patience.

Eldór is a little harsh, but he means well. And I understand the whole “no longer pure” thing. Still, I wish I could be the one taking the key from the little house. I have told Liv about it, how it was so different from all other little houses in the neighbourhood. When we got here, she was crazy to see it, even knowing the big house was no longer there. She hoped the little one would have been kept, being so special. In a way, I did too, even knowing the chances were minimal. When we got in front of the building, she was tired of the small fake facades most everybody uses nowadays. She wanted to see the real thing. So it is no wonder she wanted to go to the museum right away when I told her the house might be there.

The children section is apparently meant for even smaller children. Lots of colorful oversized objects and toys, the floor painted with a multitude of child’s plays, paper and crayons easily reachable at all times. Liv runs and looks around, searching for her main goal, as do I. The hidden folk house is almost forgotten in a corner, ignored by the few children already there. It is understandable; the green-gray rocks and the dark brown wood of the house are quite different from everything else here, and not nearly as attractive for the kind of little people who comes here. Liv’s eyes grow bright as she approaches it, almost walking in slow motion. She looks through the window, mesmerized, taking care not to touch anything.

“The tiny furniture, it is so cute!”

“Yeah, your grandpa carved them with great care. They even work just like the real thing!”

“How come?”

“You see the desk over there? All the drawers can be pulled. Grandma used to leave small gifts for the huldufólk in them.”

“And they took it?”

“Sure! Sometimes, they even left something in return!”

It is like telling her it is made of sugar. Her hands are now flat on the walls, her head pressed against the tiny window, trying to look as closely as possible at the decoration. As soon as she realizes, though, she takes a step back.

“I think it is OK to touch it, Liv.”

“Are you sure?”

“We are in the playroom, aren’t we? Besides, there’s nothing blocking your way, and no signs telling not to touch it.” She looks around, then to the house, then at me. “Go on. I know you want to see if there is anything in the drawers.”

She opens the window and thrust her thin little girl arm inside. She carefully opens each drawer, inspecting, the expectation making her breathing fast. When she touches something, she gasps. She looks at me again.

“Take it. It is either something your grandma left for the huldufólk, or something they left her.”

She pulls her arm, the hand clenched. She is blocking my view. I ask, “What is it?”

“It is just a rock, with a funny doodle on it.” She shows me her open hand. There is nothing there. Well, nothing I can see.

“It looks like one of the things your grandma left as gifts for them. What do you say we bring it to the caves and give them?” She agrees with a smiley face and mentions me to take it. I’m not sure what would happen it I try to touch it, but I brought a small leather coin pouch just in case. I open it and and tell her to put it inside. There is no change for me, I can’t feel any extra weight. I look inside, press it in my hands.

“What is it, mom?”

“I just want to make sure it is safe inside.”

She takes the pouch from me and opens it. “It is there, see?”, showing me. I see only the leathery bottom. I pull the strings on it to close while she is still holding it. When I get to the cave, Guðni is waiting near the entrance. He leads me through the tunnels to the spot where Eldór and Víðir are. I hand them the pouch, assuring them that no one other than Liv touched the key. Víðir opens the pouch and lets its content in his hand. I can finally see it. It is a small pebble, kind of a square with round edges, dark yellow and polished. Carved on it is a strange symbol, like an asterisk with a different fork-like decoration on every point.

“So that is the key”, I say.

“Yes”, answers Eldór, much calmer now. “It may not look like one, but it will show us the way to our sacred place, and grant us entrance once there.”

“And why now?”, I ask. “How come you never tried to take the key before?”

“We didn’t need it before. This year is special, the ritual must happen in that place. We thought you would come earlier, though.”

“What if I haven’t come at all?”

“Oh, you would. It was written. We knew you would be here before the solstice, we just didn’t know exactly when.”

“And what is so special with this year, what will happen differently?”

“There are some things we can’t tell you, dear. But look up tonight, when the sky is the darkest, and you will see.”

I leave them with the pebble, feeling I took part in something important even if I don’t know what. I’m intrigued. Tonight, with the summer solstice, the night here in Iceland will be extremely short, almost nonexistent in some places. There are people who come here to experience the midnight sun as if it is some kind of esoteric phenomenon. So, even when the sky is the darkest tonight, there will still be plenty of light.

I take Liv with me to one of my favourite spots here, a place where we can’t see any sign of human interference, including, and especially, the city lights. When we are not near the summer, it is the best place I know to look at the stars, all of them bright in the sky. Liv is sleeping in my lap after our picnic dinner and waiting for something I don’t know enough to explain her. The sun is setting, or trying to, right behind us, the sky there changing from ocre to blue. In front of us, the dark blue of the universe fighting to beat the sunlight. I am looking up, though I don’t know what I should be seeing. Liv wakes up, rubbing her eyes, asking what is this sound. I hear nothing. She jumps up, points at the sky and says, “Look, mom, it’s beautiful!”

I stand up beside her in awe. The northern lights, dancing in colorful slow motion, visible even if there is still light. I have seen them many times before, but usually you can’t have any day left in the sky for that to happen, their brightness not enough to overcome that of the sun. I look back, the sun is still there, as it will not fully set today. It should not be possible to see the northern lights in such a condition. And yet, there they are. Not only they are visible, but it is the most spectacular I have ever seen.

“Remember the stone we gave to the huldufólk?”, I ask Liv, “the one you took from the little desk in the little house?”

“Yes!”, she answers, unable to take her eyes off the sky.

“Well, this, Liv, is their gift back for us.”

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