folktale from Norway
by Joyce Holt
Ingebjørg swept the plank floor of the cabin. Debris whisked out the open door into evening's murky light. For a few weary moments she watched swallows skim the steep slopes of high summer pasture. She inhaled the lingering scents of sun-blessed wildflowers, heather, spruce.
First of the dairymaids to arrive, Ingebjørg had to milk the whole herd and start the cheesemaking on her own, but hardly minded. She savored the solitude. "In the west the sun is setting," she sang for no one's pleasure but her own. "God our Father, thanks for blessings. Keep us safe the whole night long!"
In the paddock the nearest cow sighed and settled to the ground.
Ingebjørg faltered halfway through the second verse of the evening hymn. In the forest gleamed a light, faint, hazy-blue. She slipped inside, slammed the cabin door, and latched it tight. Tusmørke was a perilous time, halfway between day and night, the hour when tusse-folk came wandering from the realm of Alfheim, and trolls from Svart-Alfheim.
The cabin's cross was missing. Ingebjørg lashed together two wooden spoons, forming a large cross to hang at the head of her bed. She tucked her hymnbook under her pillow, climbed in, and pulled the covers up to her chin, leaving one candle burning.
She lay awake, listening to night sounds. An owl hooted. Wind sighed around the corners of the cabin. A cow belched. The dairymaid's eyes grew heavy.
At the threshold, a pale blue light appeared beneath the door. Ingebjørg blinked wide awake, startled.
The door opened. She sucked in a breath. In stepped a tall slender man with hair as golden as dawn. His clothing, light and shimmery as silk, fell away from him as he drifted to the bedside. "I heard your voice," he murmured with the sound of a trickling beck.
His starlit eyes followed Ingebjørg's every move as she hunched up to the headboard beneath the cross. He reached for the blanket. "You shall be my wife tonight," rippled his voice.
Ingebjørg held out the hymnbook like a shield. "I will not," she said, voice firm.
"Not tonight, not ever."
"Put that priest-magic away. Let me slip in beside you."
He laughed. "Never? What mortal maiden can fend my charm night after night?"
"Charm? Pah! If you're so clever, tell me this, Tusse-man. There's a tusse-bull after one of my cows. How can I fend it off?"
"Simple. Mix woody nightshade and orchis into tree sap. Daub it on her tail. Now put that book away."
Ingebjørg refused. "Never!"
After much cajoling he bowed in gracious defeat. "Tomorrow," he promised, eyes swirling with mischief as he shimmered out the door.
At tusmørke the next day the tusse-man again eased to Ingebjørg's bedside, eyes and teeth gleaming with desire. He sniffed -- and his mouth twisted. "What have you done?" he snarled.
Ingebjørg tossed her head. Her braids swung, sticky with tree sap and herbs. "Simple. I'm fending the bull."
The tusse-man stomped and whirled and blew out the door into the haunted night.
Copyright 2017 by Joyce Holt
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