To Boil a Manchild
I am Kurr. I am young at seven hundred seasons.
I am not yet wed, I have caught no manchilds, and the mountain thinks me odd.
But as with many things, when I sit to think on this I see that what is seen as odd is often seen through odd-seeing eyes and that is what I tell myself, that I am not so odd perhaps as the mountain thinks I am, and this I sometimes tell my father and sometimes tell his father and sometimes tell his father too who is over four thousand seasons old for we are an enduring race in more ways than one.
My father’s name is Krull. His father’s name is Barr. His father’s name is Hirka and he is the wisest troll alive.
I say this to them not to argue with my elders but to be true to what I see and how I understand things but they do not understand me or they disagree with me or maybe don’t even listen to me and instead look at me as if I wish to argue with my elders which is not such a good thing to do, and so they say nothing to me in return.
They think me odd, I think.
Mother agrees with the mountain and certainly thinks me odd. Trolls marry at five hundred seasons, she says, or sooner and prods me with her walking stick so hard it hurts or bats me with something near at hand a pan a ladle maybe or a broom so hard it hurts and then leaves me with my ribs or head still smarting and all this so fast I have no time to think of an answer before she looks more hurt than I do as she stomps out and away from me to have such a son that no one wants, ashamed she sometimes tells me that the whole mountain thinks me odd—she is very quick though with that walking stick or that broom, I think. Especially for her age.
But on one thing I agree with her for I too believe she has a son no one wants for the shefolk of the mountain all think me odd as well and few will even talk to me. Fewer still (I can count them on my left thumb) have asked to dance with me at feast and none has ever held my hand. Most shefolk look at me as if I belong with the wolves.
But that does not worry me so much. What worries me is that the mountain laughs at Mother behind her back for having such an odd son who no one wants. That is one thing I worry about and sit to think on often. That Mother is unhappy and that I am the reason.
Father, he does not care, leave the boy be he says, he will marry soon enough but then he is not shefolk and no one will laugh behind his back unless he wishes himself married to the earth for Krull is our chief.
I have caught no manchilds. That is odd for seven hundred seasons says Mother. By now any son of mine she says should have caught at least two, maybe three. Your father, she then almost always adds, had caught four manchilds at your age and she prods me again with her walking stick or something else close at hand, a broom or a ladle, so it hurts.
Father, I think but never have time to finish thinking and then say before she stomps out again, reached my age before the roads grew wide and before the rail arrived when catching manchilds was not very hard. And, I add to myself, but would not tell her even if I had the time, of the four manchilds Krull caught I hear two died of fright when they first saw him and should not count as caughts for they must be alive when we boil them to count as caughts. Also, I think to myself but wouldn’t say that either, Father likes the hunt and I have no thirst for that.
I think perhaps this is my own private oddness. I should have the thirst, for it is a troll thirst, but I cannot find it anywhere no matter how hard I look for it or where I look or for how long.
But now I must catch a manchild. I and a shefolk called Hulgur. We were the ones who chose the blue fetching stones.
Oden is angry with us. And Hirka who is the wisest among us and who never has to shout to be heard even though he whispers mostly has decided that we must once again catch a manchild and boil it as an offering to Oden to please him and make him favor us again.
I do not understand Oden. I have thought on him often. If we are his first people, as I have been told all my life and which I believe to be so, why does he drive us farther into the mountain and deeper into the earth? Why does he give more and more of the forest to manfolk like he took our grasses and lakes many seasons ago and gave them to manfolk? Why did he give them roads and iron rail and engines to fly on them like the fastest deer?
Hirka says it is Oden’s way to make us stronger. I know Hirka is wise but I am not sure he is right.
I have asked Oden to answer this question for over two hundred seasons now but if Oden chooses not to answer he does not answer, that is what the wisest among us say. For sure Oden chooses not to answer me, for he never talks back.
The only good thing I can see about the wide roads and iron rail is they drove away not only us but the wolves too.
Yes, all things considered (and reconsidered often) Oden must be angry with us. And so, at Hirka’s whispered wish, my father called a meeting of the whole mountain.
The great hall was lit with many torches and not a troll was missing. They stood in murmuring groups by clan or family except for the children who didn’t care about such yet and sat mixed along the walls, wide-eyed and silent for a change. Each of us were to choose one stone from the many in the skin held open by Barr. One by one my father called our names and we heard it and walked up to Barr and stuck our hand within the skin and rattled the stones and tried to sense the color blue with our fingers, some to choose it and some, like me, to avoid it. But trolls do not see color through touch so many were disappointed to find their stone red or green or gray or black or white or many-colored like flint, and I was disappointed to find mine blue. Hulgur seemed pleased to find that the stone she chose was blue, but she also seemed disappointed that I found the other. She thinks me odd.
Now she and I must find and bring a manchild back to the mountain to boil for Oden or he will stay angry with us and drive us to the center of the earth where there is nothing but darkness and no fire will ever burn.
“You Kurr and you Hulgur chose the fetching stones,” my father said from his high seat. “Leave the mountain for the lower country and bring us a manchild before next new moon. We will boil it at first sliver.”
Not yet the eldest, but past being chief, Barr squatted between the two tall chairs, my father’s to his right, and Hirka’s to his left, holding between his pointed knees the skin now closed and all stones returned to it. He has hair like gray rivers. He has black and angry eyes. He said nothing. It is not his place to speak and you can tell that he is not much fond of holding his tongue.
Hirka sat very big and silent and was now expected to say something. The hall was long noiseless to give him time to think. He did not speak and did not speak and in the end lifted his hand and its pointed finger and slowly carved the air with them at me and Hulgur. “Go,” he said and I wonder at how slow he thinks.
“Go,” said my father, and so we did.
The whole mountain sees us leave the hall. Hulgur a step or two behind me. I look back before I step outside, she does not.
Once outside, I look up and I see less than a quarter waning moon sitting just above the trees. We do not have much time.
I stop and turn and look at her and I think Hulgur wishes she could marry the earth. She doesn’t say so, she doesn’t say anything, but I can see so on her face and by her eyes who do not look at me. Or she wishes that the wolves would come and take me, the sooner the better.
I show her I do not notice this and I ask her, “Hulgur. Do you know where we catch manchilds?”
“Kurr,” she says to me, now looking at me without really looking at me, “You are hefolk. You answer.”
Hulgur is not a fine looking shefolk. She is tall and thin and has a scrawny tail with a scrubby tuft.
“I have never caught one,” I say. “Maybe by a road.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“Or by a farming house.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“Or by the lakes.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“Do you know of any farming houses?” I ask.
“I have not crossed a road for many seasons,” she says.
“Nor have I,” I say.
I did cross a road one summer twelve seasons ago. Mother thought I had run away or married the earth and she was very angry with me when I came back. Father asked what had I done away so long and when I answered that I had been looking around he didn’t answer and didn’t answer, then he walked away.
“Do you know how to think like a tree?” I ask.
“No,” she says.
“Nor I,” I say.
I look for and find a stone suitable for sitting and I sit down on it to think on this. She doesn’t sit but finally looks at me for real.
“Shall we hunt as one or as two?” I ask.
“You answer,” she says.
Catching manchilds was never simple. Not to hear Father or Barr or even sometimes Hirka tell it. But I know it was never as hard as it is now.
Five hundred seasons ago, when I was a child and the roads were few and narrow and the rail had yet to come with its flying engines that sound like they’ve been running a full season or even longer without stopping once to find their breath and wolves were often seen and shunned or fought, catching manchilds was, some say who are not known to brag, like netting salmon. All you did then, they say, was find a farmhouse or a camp or a road or a grass and then a place in shadow to stay very still and think like a tree so they don’t see you. One is bound to come near you sooner or later and when it does you nab it and walk off. What could be simpler?
I can think of few things simpler and I wish that then were now for I don’t know nowadays who among us can think like a tree. I cannot. Father says he can but also says he has not done so for many seasons. Maybe Barr or Hirka. I asked Father once to teach me. He sat down to think on that. After a long time he said that thinking like a tree is not taught, it is known. And then he did not say more, even when I asked more. And then he stood up and walked off.
Oden is angry with us. Yes, I think so too. I am not sure why, though, and he will not answer my questions. But he must be angry for a reason and that is why manchilds are harder to catch these days. That is why manfolk are now many and strong with their blast pokes that kill an elk or a deer or even a bear from a hundred paces and make loud noises like little thunders.
Fura was the last to catch a manchild. This was almost a hundred seasons ago. He stalked for three moons he says, all through one summer, and even so he says, for Fura is honest, it was luck that in the end let him catch one.
It was his very good luck that one of the manchilds strayed from the camp he stood close by trying to think like a tree and then tripped and hurt her leg so badly she couldn’t run. Fura is not one to brag or tell it better than it was.
Not that we can’t run as fast as manchilds, we can run much faster than they can, but they are small and hide easily in cracks and up in trees and get away from us which they mustn’t do for then they can tell the manfolk they have seen us and where.
If a blast poke can kill a bear, it can surely kill a troll, not that I have ever heard of that done, but more than one of us have seen how quickly the bear falls to marry the earth.
The manchild had fallen and hurt her leg, Fura tells, and no one heard her cry for help. Except Fura who says he did not manage to think like a tree and thought that maybe he had scared the manchild to death when she saw him for she went white as a new moon or as snow and fell very silent so silent he says he thought that perhaps she had married the earth, but then he listened closely and heard her heart and heard her breathing and lifted her into the skin he had brought, he says whenever we ask him to tell us about it.
Then he ran for a day and a night and a day to reach the mountain and the manchild was still alive when he got here. A true catch. Not like other catches where the manchild dies before the cauldron.
They boiled Fura’s manchild the same evening without fattening her any to please Oden right away for he was angry with us then too and the manchild was very loud in the cauldron and struggled hard with the thongs that kept her still and then she screamed and screamed and turned pink then red then silent. Each of us got a morsel which was very small for there wasn’t much to her but we ate her in Oden’s honor and Barr said over and over that Fura was a hero and that this pleased Oden well but I don’t think it pleased Oden so well for by the very next moon the very tall though not very careful about where he placed his feet Eras had slipped and fallen not a stone’s throw from the mountain and pierced his eye on a sharp branch and also cut his head in the fall which made him bleed like a river. Many heard him cry out and many tried to stop the bleeding but there was no stopping it and so he bled to death not a stone’s throw from the mountain and Oden did nothing to stop the blood to keep him alive.
I think sometimes that Oden likes manchilds alive and not boiled. And I think that perhaps this is why he gave manfolk their blast pokes and their iron rail and their screaming saw that can cut a tree as easily as you break a reed with your fingers so now the woodsman comes with a large engine cart and cuts more trees in a day than I saw him cut in half a moon when I was a child at one hundred seasons, while he gave us nothing.
And I think that perhaps this is why he gave them the little light that burns at night by their doors and the magic wooden boxes that hold inside them many small manfolk talking and singing and fighting and running while the blue light flickers in the window if you watch it from a distance or from the edge of the woods or from the other side of the road, while he gave us nothing.
And I think that perhaps this is why he has made manchilds so hard to catch.
I once asked Barr about this and he said that Oden chose manfolk over us because we angered him. What did we do to anger him? I asked. We have not boiled enough manchilds for him, he said. I did not understand this so I asked him, if he wants them caught and boiled why does he make them so hard to catch? Barr does not answer this or is still thinking of an answer when he gets hungry, he says, and walks away.
I want to ask Hirka the same question, but no one asks him questions these days, at least not young ones like me. I once asked Father to ask him for me, but he said these were questions not meant to muddle the brains of children.
I sometimes think Father asks the same questions and finds himself as short on answers as I do. But Father never lets on.
One moon ago Talla drowned in Big River and Hild who is his daughter ran for a day and a night to reach the mountain and cried and told Father who then told Birk and Vaka to go fetch Talla so he could marry the earth properly. They ran and Hild ran too to show them where it had happened and they found him after looking up and down Big River for two days but Birk broke his foot on the way back carrying Talla with Vaka, for Talla was very heavy and hard to carry so Birk slipped and broke his foot. Hild ran back for more help and we got Talla back and helped Birk back but the foot had turned ugly and Birk got sick and screaming and staring but seeing nothing and then he died three nights ago and Oden did nothing to stop the screaming or to heal the foot.
Hirka, whose memory says Father is both strong and long, then told Barr and Father that never before had two trolls in their prime died in the same moon except during the Quarrel or by the teeth of wolves.
Father then told the assembled mountain that Oden was hard angry with us now and we must appease him. And that is why Hulgur and I must catch a manchild to boil.
The first in a hundred seasons.
“We leave tomorrow at first sun,” I say to Hulgur.
“I will be ready,” she answers then walks away swinging her scrawny tail like an angry cat wishing she could marry the earth I think, or that wolves would find me so someone other than Kurr the odd one must choose the blue stone to go with her instead.
“Honey, I know you don’t want to go,” said her mother, “but you have to.”
“But why?” she asked again.
“Because I’m going too, and because Daddy wants you to.”
“Why can’t I stay with Elsa?”
“You know we can’t leave you.”
“But she gets to stay.”
“She is older.”
“I’m old enough.”
“No, darling, you’re not.”
“Mom. It’s not fair.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sure we’ll have fun. You’ll see.”
“Not at the farm. Not alone.”
“You’re not alone, we’re with you.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that.”
“You’ll survive. And better get your stuff ready tonight, honey. We’re leaving early.”
Her mom closed the door behind her and Britt knew it was hopeless. No way around it, she would have to go with them. She found her soccer tote bag at the bottom of her closet and began picking out what to bring.
She’s up ahead by ten paces or so, her tail still lashing now and then telling me to keep my distance and to leave her be. We have not yet decided how we will find and catch the manchild, only that we will walk down the mountain and through a day and a night of Beckforest before we cross first Big River and then Little River. A road lies just beyond Little River. We both know this. Once we reach the road we will think some more on what to do next. We have agreed this much.
But we have not agreed to walking closer than ten paces. She is not a good-looking shefolk so I don’t mind this so much but it would be nice to talk with her for until we get closer to the road there is no need to walk silently.
Still, I am happy to be walking. The trees climbing the long mountain slope are tall and thick and pat me now and then as I pass. I feel the wind in my hair and in my eyes and I smell the outside of the mountain with more than just my nose it feels.
Thoughts tumble onto me like soft boulders I don’t know from where and bounce and are gone. There is no need to sit and think on them for they are happy to be here with me under the real sky and I wish again Hulgur would slow down a little so I can tell her I am happy walking, even if it is ten paces behind her.
She disappears around a bend and when I get there I find her sitting to think on something. The stone she sits on is large and gray and white and black with moss. Her feet look like side-by-side badgers asleep with toes and I smile at them like I would at side-by-side badgers with toes and she sees that I do.
“Why do you laugh? she says.
“I do not laugh,” I say.
“At your feet,” I say. “They look like sleeping badgers.”
She looks down at her feet and her hair falls forward like many brown streams rushing down her face and I cannot see her eyes but I think she looks to see if her feet look like sleeping badgers.
Then she looks up and brushes some of the little streams of hair aside to peek at me with black eyes and says she does not think they look like badgers. More like otters, she says.
“But otters have no white,” I say.
“Some do,” she says and I smile at that and for a moment I think she will also smile but then there is no smile from her, just her question. Perhaps the one she sat down to think on.
“Does it matter girlchild or boychild?”
I think on that for a while, for nothing was said about that.
“I don’t think it matters,” I say. “As long as it is a manchild and we bring it back alive.”
“That is good,” she says. But she doesn’t stand up to walk, so she is not done thinking or asking and I stand and I wait for her voice some more.
“Kurr,” she peeks at me again through her hair. “Why do you think Oden is so angry with us?”
That is a question and she has asked it. She has surprised me and looks at me to see if I have an answer or if I have no answer. Even though I have thought on this often I still have no answer and Oden himself will not give me one but after a while I come upon what to tell Hulgur, which is not the reason but which is what I think best to say, even though she seems to have thought on this often as well.
“Are those thoughts not best left to our fathers?” is what I have come upon to say, for it is what Father has taught me to answer if young ones or shefolk question Oden’s way. It is not for them to ponder, he says. It is for your father and his father and his father to think on.
But Hulgur has surprised me, for I didn’t know shefolk would think on things other than berries and weaving and maybe the hunt so I am surprised at her question but at the same time I am glad I came upon Father’s answer for I would not know what else to say.
Then she surprises me even more. “That is the hefolk answer,” she says. “That is not your answer.”
She is right and I am silent. She still peeks at me through her rivers of hair. Black eyes from among the strands. This I need to sit to think on.
The stone she sits on is large enough for two but there is no need to share and no invitation to and I want to see her eyes which are fine and not scrawny like the rest of her and her tail but large and quick, so I sit on the trunk of a tree fallen in a storm long ago, soft now with green and yellow moss. I stretch my legs before me and stretch my feet and stretch my toes, for it feels good to sit and set my feet free. They do not look like badgers or otters. They look more like foxes with their red and white with toes.
She looks at my feet then back at her own feet as if to compare them then brushes her hair back over her head with several scoops of long and thorough fingers. Then she does nothing for a while to give me time to think. But it is not really nothing that she does for she looks at me with her black eyes and I find it hard to find an answer when I know she is looking at me and when I know I have no answer to find.
But in the end I find a path to carry what I think and then I speak this path to her.
“I don’t know why Oden is angry,” I say. “Maybe he is not angry with us. Maybe he likes the manfolk.” I know I am speaking my thoughts as they grow which I should not do for we should let them grow fully before we speak them says Father, and then only to other hefolk. But I speak them as they grow to Hulgur now and I am surprised at what I hear leave my mouth and reach for air.
“Perhaps it is because he likes them,” I say. “Perhaps that is why he gave them road and iron rail.”
“And blast poke,” she says.
“And blast poke,” I say. Then I think it best to add, for my own sake as well has for hers, “But deeply he favors us.”
“For we are his first folk,” she says so soon I was unsure at first had I heard it from her or had I only thought it.
“Yes,” I say then, “Yes, we are his first folk. So says Hirka and many fathers before him. So says Krull. And I believe it is true. I believe we are Oden’s first folk.”
When she did not answer me, but only looked at me with those big, dark caves of curiosity, I heard myself continue, “Manfolk did not yet walk the world when we lived the forests and grasses and not the mountain. We had yet to see manfolk when we warred with wolves.”
She thinks on what I have said and I think on her eyes again. Then they look at me and catch me looking at them and I quickly find something stuck to my foot, a twig or a leaf, and bend to pick it off and still she thinks on what I have said before answering.
“So we must please him,” she says then. “So he will not forget his first folk.”
These are strange words to hear from a shefolk and I am surprised again.
“Yes,” I say. “We must please him.”
“We must please him true,” she says.
“Yes, we must please him true,” I say.
“What would please him true do you think?” she says.
“Catching and boiling him a manchild,” I say. Perhaps more like suggest.
“Are you sure?” she says. “True sure?”
“That,” I say, after a while, for in my heart I am not true sure about that, “is something I have not thought on enough.”
“Nor I,” she says. And then she stands up and walks off, her tail not lashing so much now, and maybe not so scrawny chasing her down the path.
The inside of the car was quiet and warm and hummed with engine and road. She tried to sleep but could not get comfortable enough although she had the whole backseat to herself. It wasn’t that long ago that she could stretch full length in the back and not touch the sides of the car with head or feet, but now, when she lay down, she had to bend her knees to fit and she could not find that sweet place where sleep opens up, welcomes you in, and drifts you off.
Mom and Dad were saying things now and then in the front, softly as if not to wake her. Outside, the sun was already up—it barely set at this time of year—but was still hugging the treetops. She missed her bed. She missed the apartment. She almost missed her sister. Her older-than-you sister that got to stay in town when she had to go with them to the farm. She tried to hear what Mom was telling Dad but couldn’t quite make it out. Her voice was comforting though, the way it comforted her at home when she was in her own bed and could hear that voice in the other room, not as words but as Mommy, and she must have drifted a little then for when she looked out again the sun had climbed and lit all of the trees from above as they rushed by and no one was talking now.
She sat up.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Almost eight,” said her mother.
“When will we be there?”
“It’ll be a few hours yet.”
“You want some hot chocolate?” said her dad.
“Yes, please,” she answered and saw her mom bend down to find the thermos flask somewhere on the floor. She found it and poured a cupful. The sweet smell, like something soft and at home, reached her even before her mom turned to hand the cup to her.
Britt took it with both hands and blew on the creamy surface to cool it a little. It was hot and warmed her hands and almost burned her upper lip. But it was good and the steam rising from it into sunlight was good and Mommy asking if it tasted good was good and maybe this trip wouldn’t be so bad after all.