The Jötnar

champlinmadeleinewitt
Photo by Madeleine Witt.

My daughter came in at twilight when the snow looks blue.

She burst in the front door and said, “Daddy! I saw a man walking down in the field, along the edge of the woods!”

I looked at her upturned face — her flaming cheeks, her lower lip trembling with excitement, the tracks of her windswept tears — and, with a feeling like sliding into icy water, I wondered if it was a human man she saw.

“Was it really a man?” I asked her. “Are you sure?” I unzipped the front of her jacket and we struggled to pull her sleeves off over bulky, wet gloves. She stood on one foot and stuck a boot toward me.

“I don’t know,” she said. “He looked softer than a man. He had a big cloak of feathers, like a giant owl.” I watched her jealously, trying to see what she had seen, as she looked past me at the fire shadows on the wall.

“And his skin?” I prompted when she was quiet and still for an unnatural length of time for a child. “What color was his skin?”

“Yellow,” she said, from a far away place. “Maybe he wasn’t a man.”

“I think you found one. I didn’t know they came around anymore. I thought the loggers had driven them out.” I sat down on the carpet at the edge of the mudroom stairs.

“One what, Daddy?” she whispered, petting her hand over my knee. Our faces at the same height, I mirrored her confidential look.

“We can’t say it,” I whispered. “We have to keep them safe.” She licked her lip.

“But, can I tell Julius?”

“Only Julius.”

“Not Mom?”

“Not Mom. She wouldn’t understand now. Come on.” I stood up to get a towel; her hair was dripping a melted snow ring around her on the mudroom floor.

I wrapped Francis in a towel and left her in the living room, crouched on the hearth and poking splinters of wood through the fireplace grate. I walked purposefully out onto the cool porch and looked north. The house lights extended over the curve of the snow-padded lawn until they reached the rows of forked trees making a barrier between snow and sky. We were expecting another Nor’easter and the first flakes of snow drifted down through the long rectangles of house light.

I pressed my hands against the glass windows. The smell of cookies from our kitchen trickled through the cold stinging my nostrils — Emily and Julius were cooking at the white counter under the bright electric lights. The fire fascinated Francis and, discarding her towel, she leapt around in the living room, pretending to be a flickering flame. There were wool socks on her feet; Emily wore fleece-lined moccasins, and Julius curled his toes into the linen rug in front of our kitchen sink. I only had to retreat the ten steps back into the living room and tuck my shoulders into a sweater to feel the warmth they felt. The longer I waited by the window, the farther the tingling sensation spread up my arms and the more fog collected on the wide sheet of glass.

Half ashamed and half hopeful, I searched the shadows for their rounded figures, larger than men, lumbering slowly and simply out of the darkness like trees or pieces of the earth that had decided to move. Had Francis seen one of the Jötnar today, walking along the tree line in the twilight? For years I’d looked for them, but with no luck. As a child, I used to stand with both my feet in a single sixteen-inch print left by the giants’ moleskin boots in the fresh snow. In the mornings, my father pointed out the prints of their lips and noses on fence posts and railings where they had licked at icicles. In the springtime, tiny seedlings sprouted from the mounds of earth they carried on their humped backs. The skin sagged beneath their purple eyes in their wide, flat faces on blunt and abnormally large heads.

When I was a little boy, I could feel the tension building in my stomach for days before the great walls of snows came curving out of the North and turned the day into night. By the fourth or fifth day of darkness, many creatures besides the Jötnar began to roam the forest in search of food. The smaller creatures came creeping out of the shelter of the trees and played a game of survival beneath our bird feeder.

I remember the November when I was ten years old because the Nor’easters came early that year and blew for days. After a week of darkness, my father joked that he was counting off the forty days of snow that would obliterate all life. This made me nervous, so in the mornings, which I knew by the red glow of my squat alarm clock, I went out into the darkness with handfuls of salt for the deer. When I got dressed in the hallway and stood up on a kitchen chair to stretch for my hat and gloves on the top shelf of the hallway closet, my dad heard me and came out of my parents’ room.

“Hey Jackie, hey, hey Jackie,” my dad said. “Going out to see the animals?”

“Yeah.” We walked through the kitchen and down the steps to the mudroom.

“Take this flashlight, okay?” He put the long black flashlight into my gloved hand. “And you have the string?” I held up the ball of red yarn. “Okay.” He took the loose end, unraveled it a bit, tied a loop and slipped that over the door handle.

“Jackie,” he whispered, crouching down and grabbing a hold of my shoulders. “Do you remember what you saw last winter? That day we couldn’t save the snowshoe hare you found?” I remember that my father always held onto my shoulders tightly and looked me in the eyes when he was serious, and the few times he was afraid.

“I saw the Jötnar helping the animals!” I said excitedly. I had awoken at the end of a three-day storm and, when I looked out my window over the white curve of fresh snow, I had seen movement at the far end of the field near the broken, barbed-wire fence and the apple tree. I’d climbed up on the windowsill and pressed my nose and mouth against the glass and, after several interruptions in which I wiped my fogging breath away, I determined that the movement at the far end of the field was one of the Jötnar working in the shadowy cover of the trees. He was carrying a fox whose coat was as white as the four-foot snow banks.

“The Jötnar are helping you, Jackie,” my dad said. “You’re not doing this alone. ”

“I know.” I dragged open the front door against the suction of the wind and popped outside, pushing on the flashlight with my thumb. My dad grabbed the ice scraper and fed the red yarn carefully out the door before heading toward his truck, which needed to be cleared before his commute to work.

There were many animals buried under the snow that would not wake up. The beam of my flashlight glanced off drops of blood scattered by a fight between foxes and prints of the wings of birds that dove into the snow after the mice and voles that came to our yard to pick up the birdseed from our feeder.

Most often the animals lying quietly under the snow were pheasants, their heads curled down into their brightly feathered breasts. I scrapped snow off them clumsily with my mittens. Their legs were stiff and sticking up at funny angles when I pulled them from the snow. They lay in my hands, weighing down my wrists as if I held rocks.

I tied my red yarn around a white pine sapling near where I found the pheasants and then I took two birds, tucking one under each arm. I walked back toward the house, following the yarn by letting it slide through my teeth. Later, I would come back for more of the animals under the snow.

When I reappeared at the door my mother was awake.

“More pheasants,” she sighed as I knocked the snow off my boots against the doorframe. “Oh come on, come on, and get inside. That’s clean enough —you’re letting in the cold,” and she bustled me into the mudroom, taking the birds from my arms. I pulled off my boots and wet socks and followed her into the kitchen, shedding my other winter garments along the floor as I went.

“Jackie, put on some socks,” said my father coming out of the bathroom, running a comb through his damp hair. “The cold is seeping up through this floor.”

“Don’t forget your hat this time, with your wet hair,” my mother frowned at my dad. “You’re outdoors all day.”

“No one’s outdoors as much as Jackie,” my dad said proudly. “Who’d you find, Jack?”

“These two beauties,” my mom said, as she fiddled with the oven and set it on low heat. She popped in the two pheasants, and left the door slightly ajar.

“Dry socks,” she reminded me, ruffling my hair. “And then we can all sit down to this porridge.”

Throughout breakfast, I hopped up to check on the birds.

“How are they doing?” my father asked before he left for work. I pried the oven open a few more inches and peered inside.

“Not awake yet,” I said.

Finally, by lunchtime, I detected movement.

“One of them is moving!” I yelled, not taking my head out of the stove, or my eyes off the twitching leg and half open eye of the bird on the right. My mother came into the kitchen with a quilt wrapped around her shoulders.

“Did you see that too?” She squatted down next to me and reached a hand into the oven to stroke the other bird, which shivered in response. “I think they’ll both make it,” she said with a smile. The skin on my face tightened in the heat as I leaned past my mother to pet the birds too.

***

In the middle of that night, I awoke in complete darkness and couldn’t see anything when I turned my head in what I knew to be the direction of my alarm clock. I thought I had gone blind. My eyes were wide open and only darkness rushed into them. I felt the bed pressing against my back, the back of my head and the back of my legs. The stack of blankets and quilts draping off both sides of the bed was pinning me down, but except for these sensations of gravity, I could have ceased to exist. There was nothing around me except what I felt, and the unceasing sound of the wind wrapping itself around the house. The glass that must be on my bedside table rattled as the house shook under the force of a tsunami.

“Mom?” I called out, terrified. “Dad?” A tree branch scrapped against the window. I started crying and called more frantically. “Mom! Dad!” I heard my father’s footsteps stumble into the hallway, and his hands scramble for the light switch, but not find it.

“Jackie!” He said from my doorway. “What’s happened? Is everything okay?”

“Dad? Dad! I can’t see anything! I’m blind.”

“Jackie, it’s okay. The power’s out, that’s all.” I heard him move toward me and grunt as he stubbed his foot against the corner of my dresser that stuck out into the room. The bed sank down as he sat and I climbed into his lap. I felt his arm, found his hand in the complete darkness, and clung to it.

“The power’s out?”

“A line must be down or something. Hardly surprising with all this wind.” I pressed my face into the bend of his arm.

“It sounds like screaming, like the snowshoe hare. When she died.” My dad was quiet. Maybe he didn’t want to think about the snowshoe hare. “Daddy? How will we warm up the birds now?”

“We can try when we make a fire in the woodstove. But remember, Jackie, we might not be able to save all of them.”

“We have to! They’d die without us!” I felt him shift his weight, but he stayed silent. “Do you see the Jötnar when you’re logging with the other men, dad?” I held my eyes closed, for this was less frightening than the pressing blackness.

“No, I never see them anymore.”

“Anymore?”

“I haven’t seen them since I was a kid, like you.” My friends thought I made the Jötnar up. My teachers thought I was confused by the legends and stories my Scandinavian grandmother told when we crowded around the fireplace at Christmas time.

“Don’t you believe they’re real, Dad? I don’t think Mom does, does she Dad?”

“I know they’re real, all right. Saw them enough when I was your age to never doubt them. But perhaps they don’t like to show themselves to grown-up people like me. Don’t know if they can trust me anymore.”

“Of course they can trust you,” I mumbled. Warmth was spreading from his body along the length of my back and soothing the terror. I felt my dad pull a blanket over me.

In the morning I awoke to light and silence. I rushed to the window to find that the air was clear, the wind was gone, and light was spilling over the snow. Every tree branch, every twig, was covered with a fine case of ice.

I bounded into the kitchen to find my mom pouring orange juice and steaming oatmeal.

“Hallelujah. The storm has passed on,” she said with a smile. “And look, your friends made it.” In the baby crib in the corner of the kitchen, used for exactly this purpose, the two pheasants were wandering back and forth in front of the soft mesh sides of the crib.

“I need to go out today and find the Jötnar,” I announced, squirming onto a kitchen chair. “There will be too many frozen animals to collect on my own. And the Jötnar — their breath is so warm — they can just breathe on the animals and poof — wake them up.” I gulped at the orange juice.

“Please remember to wear the orange vest and your orange stocking cap. The hunters will be out on a sunny morning and mad that they lost more than a week of their season,” my mother reminded me. “Here, will you untie me?” She offered me the strings of her apron and I stood up on my chair to reach as I pried at the knot.

My father walked into the kitchen in his rumpled flannel. “Power still not on,” he said rubbing his hands together and yawning, and then, looking at me, “Jackie, if you go out today, wear your —”

“Orange, I know dad!”

“And stay on the property,” my father cautioned. “You know the boundary lines like you know the pocket of your own bed. Stay where you are comfortable and can find your way home.”

Half an hour later, I cut under our birdfeeder, crossed our field, and entered the woods by the old apple tree. I struggled to walk quickly in the deep snow. The snow had turned to ice and then sleet last night and a hard crust overlay the fluffier snow. I worked on getting into a rhythm and pace that allowed me to stay on top of the snow and not crunch through. With every crunch my stomach dropped in surprise and I had to drag my leg out of the hole I had created. For a while, I kept going in this manner, and I wondered as I walked beyond our yards and fields that I did not see any animals under the snow. Did they come to our yard to die, or because they were dying and had heard we could help them?

Suddenly, I had the idea to try sliding my feet along the top of the snow like I was skiing or ice-skating. I thought about touching my toes down first and then my heel was placed oh-so-lightly and I was able to stay on the crusty surface of the snow. I thought about people who always had to walk softly: spies, because it was their job; rich ladies because they wore those funny, pointy shoes that would snap if they didn’t walk as if the earth was a giant balloon; dancers, and maybe other people who understood the air, like pilots, perhaps they walked lightly too. When I next looked up, I had no idea where I was.

I stumbled forward, tripped up by the deep snow, forgetting completely about walking on the surface. I crashed through a line of pine trees and fell over into a snow bank. I lay there for a minute and felt the cold tingling along my right side, and suddenly I heard giggling, snickering, a little voice laughing. I leapt up and listened, but couldn’t hear anything. Slowly, I sat back down cross-legged and bent to the side, putting my ear right next to the snow bank. There it was, again! The little chuckle was coming from the snow! And then I heard it as well from the branch that hung down, weighted with snow, next to my left ear — a little laughing, high-pitched voice. All around the snow was laughing at me because I was alone, lost, and cold, and the snow was big and white and faceless. I curled my knees up to my chest in terror.

Then a dark shape only a few yards away from me that I had perceived as a stunted tree when I crashed through the row of pines next to it … moved. I leapt to my feet.

His head swung slowly toward me and I peered upward into his face. His skin looked like yellowed birch bark and his eyes, sparkling with the green glow of faraway stars, were lost in the tangle of his black mane. Wonder pulsed through me as I felt the heat from his breath slide across the six-foot gap between us, and press against my face, arms, chest, tingling down the front of my legs. The fringe of ice in my hair melted and plastered my bangs onto my forehead. I couldn’t say a word.

I stood still until he moved through the stand of pine trees and was gone and then I let my breath out in one long push of air. I had expected to come face to face with one of the Jötnar, but I had not understood how overwhelming it would be. I did not know if he would have been able to understand me, if I had spoken. Perhaps the Jötnar were silent creatures like the rabbits and the deer?

I stood dazed for several minutes until the dripping of ice onto my shoulder from the pine tree beside me awoke me to my surroundings. Deciding I needed help from the Jötnar today, just like the animals under the snow needed help, I struggled on, determined to find another nature spirit and to speak up this time.

The forest in the direction I had chosen grew denser. Under the thick canopy of pines, the deciduous skeletons of smaller trees clustered tightly together, like black bramble. Every time the dry plants clung to me, like skinny fingers tugging at my clothes, I wanted to cry, but I was too afraid to make a sound.

When I saw him leaning against the gray beech tree, under the cap of dried leaves, I thought he was another one of the Jötnar. With a half sob of relief, I sloshed toward him. He turned: a very real, very human man confronted me, a long silver knife in his hand. I flailed— toppled backwards into the snow.

“She fell down here,” he said in a scratchy voice, unaccustomed to use. He seemed to be talking aloud to himself. My heart thundered. He hadn’t yet moved to stab me. His large, gloved hand was pointing, and I looked. In horror I saw, only eight or nine feet away from the base of the tree, a bloody pocket of snow about the size that I could curl up in. It looked like a pocket hollowed out by a kid, like me, making the beginnings of a snow fort.

“I’m following a doe. Been tracking her all morning. She was shot by a hunter, but only wounded, and she’s been on the move. Some poorly-aiming youngster out for sport.”

“A deer made this?” I pointed at the bed of blood in the snow and waited for his nod. He was wearing a green hat pulled down over a tangled mass of black hair and, though I peered upward at him, between hair, beard, and hat, I couldn’t make out the expression in his eyes. He was too tall, taller than my father, taller than any man I had ever seen, as tall as the Jötnar. “Do they — the hunters — think about this part?” I pointed at the bloody snow again.

“No. Normally they kill them quickly or let them run. They don’t follow to see the trail of destruction.”

I thought about the doe. She must have struggled to survive through the week of darkness, her hooves scrapping for moss and plants beneath the five feet of snow, peeling bark off trees with her lips.

“Why are you following her? What will you do?” I knew as I asked those questions that they were not the right ones to ask. They had answers I didn’t want to know.

The tall man looked at me for a moment and I thought he wouldn’t answer, or that he’d lie to me, while the truth was ringing all around the long knife in his hand.

“I’m a mercy killer, son,” he said finally. “It’s better for them this way. Hunters killing animals with a straight clean shot, that’s not the worst of it. At least it’s over and done. It’s the ones who escape, wounded, and struggle on for days — that’s torture.”

“So you’re out here looking for them, right? To kill them, right?” His thick, black eyebrows moved and I felt as if the expression in his eyes changed with them.

“Hey, son, they’d die anyway. And I’m good at what I do. I used to be a skinner.”

“A skinner?”

“Walked the woods. Did the dirty work for the rich hunters, or the first-timer boys, who didn’t want to get their hands dirty.”

“But you don’t do that anymore?” As I asked, I was in someway ashamed and I looked down at my feet in the snow. My boots were soaked, my snow pants were soaked, and the tips of my tingling fingers were pulled from the glove fingers and curled into my palms.

“There are some things that even money and food don’t make worth doing, son. You remember that, you hear? Lots of people make choices when they don’t know the consequences. But me? I know the consequences firsthand. And you? I’m going to let you choose if you wanna know.” I looked up at him, remembering that I was lost in the woods and that twilight came early during the last days November. “Hey,” he said, “Are you coming with me or not?”

“I’m coming with you,” I said. He slid his long knife into a sheath at his belt, the buckle of which disappeared under his heavy stomach, and we started to walk.

We walked for a while. The massive skinner moved quietly, but my boots squeaked with wetness and snapped angrily through the snow. I watched the skinner and tried to imitate his way of walking, pointing my toes into the snow, stealth and focus seemed of utmost importance. His boots were a thick leather material that looked as dry as a cotton hand towel. My plastic, store-bought boots were water- logged and pinched my feet.

The skinner stopped, and we both grimaced at the sight of more blood in the snow. The deer’s trail was not as clear and clean as it had been when we first started following it. It looked like she had stumbled several times; the snow was clearly disturbed and there was a steady line of blood. Blood on snow looked brown and left an indent where each warm bead had dropped through the snow.

The skinner grabbed my arm and I jerked to a stop, my head snapping up, and there she was in the clearing in front of us. She was standing with most of her weight on three feet, one of her front legs twisted at an odd angle. Her shoulder was thick with blood that ran down her front leg and fell in droplets into the snow. Her neck was bent, and her face pressed into the snow. Her ears were surprisingly large and cylindrical and bent flat along her head.

We walked closer and, though her head snapped up, she made no move to run away. She was panting; her tongue slid out of the front of her mouth and then sucked back in with effort. I saw where the bullet had entered her shoulder; the flesh and fur were torn away and the area thick with clotting blood and hanging pieces of skin or fur. She looked up at the skinner with an exhausted whine that broke from the base of her throat.

As she dropped to her knees in the snow, so did I, and our heads were at exactly the same height. She was still for a very long time, the tip of her black nose pressed into the snow, her flanks jerking with stuttering breaths. I felt the snow seeping through the knees of my soaked snow pants until my skin numbed and tightened. The numbness spread as I waited. I remember that when she raised her head and looked into my eyes her eyes twinkled like the starry green eyes of the Jötnar —

— “Daddy! It’s so cold!” Francis came bounding onto the porch, an icicle wrapped at the base in a paper towel clamped in her fist. Bang — reminded me of the passing of thirty-five years in which I never saw the Jötnar again. For years I wandered back and forth along the strings that run from our front door out into the blizzards, and every time I collect hurt or freezing animals I’m looking for their soft shapes and yellowish skin from the corners of my eyes. I’m not the only one helping the frozen animals under the snow. And tonight, perhaps, the Jötnar had watched over my daughter as she released the last pair of recovered pheasants on the edge of woods.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” Francis was also holding a small cup. I crouched down next to her, wrapping my arms around her.

“Sugar,” she said, demonstrating by dunking her icicle into the sugar and then sticking it in her mouth.

She looked up then — a look of complete trust — and, horrified, I looked back into her green eyes.

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