Sometimes, you just have to blame yourself. Hold your hands up and say, if I’d done things differently, then the outcomes would have been different. My bad and all that. But most of the time - for most of us - we bumble on through. We don’t think closely about our plan, if we have one at all. We just get on with it.
I want to tell you about a time when I didn’t plan well enough, about a time when I wish the consequences had been different.
I don’t expect you to believe my story, but as nights draw in and we reach the time of the year when the air is restless and the border between the living and the dead is at its most fragile, at least do me the courtesy of hearing me out.
God knows what had inspired me to take a motorcycle tour in winter. There’s always been a fuck you, I’m not conforming, part of me; but occasionally this attitude leads to ludicrous self- defeat. This was one of those times. Lost somewhere in the woods in Minnesota. My balls freezing off, with dusk fast gathering around me.
The plan, as much as I had one, was to ride the north shore of Lake Superior, through Minnesota and up into Canada. In early November before the snow set in. I’d got the Harley, the riding gear and a map I figured I could follow. Besides, there’s something ineffably romantic about riding north and outriding the darkness. Yes, I was your original outlaw!
The reality of the situation, though, was I’d never been good at map reading… or motorcycle maintenance for that matter. So there I was, deep in the woods, my Harley about to give up the ghost (or run out of gas, if you want to be pedantic) and with absolutely no idea which direction to go in next.
I remember the air was razor cold and crystals of frost were beginning to form on the vacant spider webs populating the branches of the mountain ash and maple trees. In memory, I’m sure whispers of snowflakes were drifting down through the close-growing, conspiratorial fir trees too; although this could be decoration ex-post facto.
Against all good reason, I decided to park the Harley in a small clearing where the trees thinned out slightly and carry on using Shanks’ Pony down a narrow, leaf covered trail. I reckoned I’d got about twenty minutes at best before night consumed me, but along with my fuck-you-ness, I’m also one hell of an optimist.
And that’s when I saw it at the end of the trail. The beautiful sight of a wooden house, candles burning in upstairs and ground floor windows. A heart made from interwoven branches hanging on the knocker of the front door, a white sign with the word, velkommen, hanging above that.
As I got closer to the house, I could see it was made of wooden boards, red painted; and whilst I waited for someone to answer my knock, I imagined the fairy tale children, or witch that would open the door.
It wasn’t exactly a witch, but it was a very old woman. She looked at least eighty, with skin that sagged in the places it had settled over years. She had a kind expression though, and perceptive, animated eyes. As she ushered me in, showing no fear of the leather clad man who’d come out of the woods, she told me her name was Aila and that she lived in the house with her daughter and son in law.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Danish concept of hygge, but the room I walked in to embodied it. Hygge is coziness, a state of mind and place where pleasure is created in everyday things - a warmth to battle the darkmess. The room’s central feature was the stone fireplace, busy with a burning orange fire. Logs crackled and their complex, heady scent identified them as apple wood. Everywhere, there were candles – on every available surface, glowing in lanterns and dripping over sconces.
The chairs were of old, cracked leather, but looked of good quality, and the mismatched cushions and throws strewn over them softened their shape. The floor was polished wood, but again, colourful rag rugs added texture to its gleaming hardness. Beckoned to sit by Aila, I felt like a man from ancient times making my home in a cave, safe against the starkness of the rocky cliffs, cobblestone beaches and black woods my journey had shown me so far.
Aila had left me to make coffee, she said and I could hear no other sounds in the house, save for the spit of the fire, the tick tock of a clock and somewhere in the room, the tinkle of angel chimes. I was surprised then to hear the outside door open and the thud thud of boots being knocked on to a mat. The opening of the door brought a rush of cold in to the room and momentarily the fire shrank back in to its grate, like a skulking cat.
The two people, standing in the room, looking at me quizzically, were huge. Well, maybe tall is better. The man was huge – in every dimension, but the woman was tall only. Thin and straggly, like a tree that had never found the necessary light in a forest to grow strongly. In the candle light, it was difficult to see their features, but from what I could make out, they looked in their late fifties, preserved and healthy.
I was about to explain myself to them when Aila came back with the pot of coffee and while pouring it, she told them about my predicament. I assumed (and Aila confirmed) that they were her daughter and son in law – Holmfridur and Ingvald . They both shook my hand, bowing as they did so; but I recoiled slightly (I hoped at the time, not to the point of impoliteness) when I realised the man was missing three fingers on the hand I shook.
The man and woman didn’t stay to talk and I noticed as they walked up the stairs, how the woman followed the man closely - bending towards the back of his head, almost as if she was leaning on him. I also noticed how his hand was held out behind him, holding the woman’s wrist in what looked a clumsy, uncomfortable position.
I finished my coffee and Aila, who had sat watching me throughout (and seemingly feeling no necessity to speak to me), said she would show me my room for the night. She led me upstairs, to a small, white bedroom, again lit by candles. The only colour in the room, I remember, was the blue of the crocheted counterpane on the bed and the indigo irises in the only picture on the wall.
I had no reliable indication of the time as my cell was flat and I’d left my watch in my gear by the Harley, but in the warm candlelight, I soon fell asleep.
That night, I dreamt of wendigos. Vile creatures, half human, half beast. Eaters of human flesh. Gaunt giants, with desiccated, ashen skin.
Covered in fur, with sharp teeth and bloody, savage mouths, they ran through the woods, spewing their odour of foetid decay. Creatures of winter, of the north, of famine.
I woke in the darkness and the thin howling the wendigos were making in my dream was still audible outside my window. In my half-awake mind, I wondered whether it was the growl of a black bear I’d heard, or even a timber wolf; but nothing could account for the smell of decomposition that filled my room.
I sat up in bed, struggling to see in the unlit room, but listening intently to the singing I could suddenly hear from somewhere out in the hallway. The voice was a woman’s, high and sweet.
Holmfridur, walk with me cross mountains
O, Holmfridur, come in to the woods
Lay your head soft upon my chest
We’ll sleep together in the leaves
The song was lullaby soothing and despite my fear, I fell back to sleep.
When I woke next morning, I felt calmer, removed from the strange, heightened state I’d felt in the night. I could even rationalise why I’d been thinking about wendigos. I’d read about them in one of the guidebooks about the area and its Buffalo people. The wendigo was their bogeyman, created by their culture to ward off the temptation of cannibalism.
I got up, washed in the small sink in the corner of my bedroom and went downstairs. No one was around and the house was silent, but on the table in the room with the fire, breakfast had been laid. The red, enamel coffee pot from last night refilled, rolls of bread and slices of thick, salted ham.
If the truth be told, I had no definite plan of when to go, or if to stay, but politeness ruled the day and I couldn’t think of just leaving without saying goodbye to the people who’d given me a bed for the night. After eating, I put my leathers back on, deciding to go out for a walk in the icy, grey of the woods.
There was mist rising from the hollows and I walked with little purpose, save for adherence to the path I was following between the fir trees and aspens. I must have walked for at least half an hour, long enough for the cold to begin snapping at my fingers and toes. I was about to turn back - again with no particular plan - when I saw through closely growing trees, a strangeness I can’t forget.
The man, Ingvald, was standing, upright and tall, tree-like himself in the hollow. Even through the mist, I could see what I hadn’t seen last night in candlelight. The redness of his beard and the translucent, no colour of his eyes. He wasn’t watching me, because he was so closely regarding Holmfridur, whose wrists, tied together with thick rope, he was holding tightly. There was something so odd, so wrong about the scene that I could only think of moving away, so as not to see it at all.
The mist was clearing slightly and I retraced my own tracks back towards the house. But before I got there, another oddity. Ingvald again, this time on his knees, seemingly scrabbling in loose earth by a tree trunk to the left of the house. I then watched him take something out of the pocket of his coat. Something red and white streaked, like the butcher’s offcuts my dad used to feed our dog. I continued to watch as he buried it in the earth he’d disturbed.
Late afternoon was already early evening by the time I got back to the house. I was let in by Aila, who pressed me to stay at least for dinner, if not for one more night’s rest, before I left.
At dinner that night, the hygge of the house hit me again. As it had been the night before, there were candles, the fire crackled companionably and the table was laden with all manner of food. Pancakes and meat balls, pork roast and rice pudding. Despite this, there was something about the atmosphere in the room that chilled me.
Aila hadn’t appeared for dinner, so I was sat at the table with Ingvald and Holmfridur only. The close proximity we were to each other allowed me the best view of them so far. Close up, Holmfridur looked far from healthy. She was gaunt, with protruding eyes that suggested a possible thyroid condition. There was a severity about both her dress and her demeanour. An incongruous detail too – despite her plainness, she was wearing a wine-red lipstick that bled in to the lines round her pursed mouth.
Ingvald was a man - how shall I put it? - at ease with silence. There was no conversation at the table, the only sounds being the chewing of the meat and the scraping of cutlery on plates. Holmfridur sat very close to Ingvald, as though in deference or worship. There was one point, however, when it looked like Holmfridur was going to speak to me, but Ingvald stopped her with a finger to his lips and a flash of his eyes.
There were other peculiarities too – the spoon that I saw Ingvald press on to the back of Holmfridur’s hand, moving it only when silent tear drops ran down her cheek. The salt I saw Ingvald take from the salt pig on the table to rub in to the rope burns round Holmfridur’s wrists.
At one point, they both disappeared into the kitchen and I took my chance to go to the toilet. The sight I caught in the glimpse through the kitchen door was almost laughable if it hadn’t also been so nasty. Holmfridur on her knees, licking the leather of Ingvald’s boot.
I’d had enough. I was both freaked and completely creeped out. But don’t call horror until you actually feel horror. And when I burst in to the steamy, aromatic kitchen, horror is the only word to describe what I felt.
Ingvald was standing by the casserole pot that was bubbling on the stove and Holmfridur was standing next to him. Something about her had changed. She was even taller, even thinner and the odour of corruption she gave off overpowered the kitchen smell of cooking herbs and spices. She turned to look at me and through the blood dripping down the fur (yes, it was that) on her chin, I saw she had Ingvald’s fingers in her mouth and was sucking them.
It was the hand where he still had five fingers…but not for long. Two she spat out – plop, plop – into the casserole pot. Two others, she began to chew; their blood and gristle seeping vividly between her teeth.
What did I do? Well, what do you think? I got the hell out and ran like the devil himself was after me. Through brambles and fallen branches in to the night. The rest of the story is banal – about escape and relief and homecomings. You’ll have heard a version of this story in many others and my version is not particularly interesting, or if I bothered to relate it, very well told.
But what have I learned from my lack of good planning? Put simply – fuck motorcycling in the winter. Perhaps a better question, though, is what’s changed about me? The answer is this: since that night, I’ve never eaten with other people and I rarely sleep alone.