As many of you long-time followers of Speculating Canada know, I try to have a little gift for you around the holidays – a tale inspired by this time of year. There is a long history of telling stories (and especially spooky stories), after all, for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year with the longest nights.
Note: Trigger Warning for discussions of abuse and family violence
By Derek Newman-Stille
I know I haven’t been the best kid this year. I know that I’ve caused trouble. I know that I keep making Dad angry. I know that he hits me because he wants me to be better.
All of the other kids seem happy this time of year, as Christmas approaches. All of them seem to be excited for the holiday season and to be rewarded… even the kids that I don’t think are good… even the kids that bully me.
But who am I to know what is good? I’m a bad kid, so how am I to determine who is good or not. How am I to decide what is good behaviour or bad?
None of them seem to be afraid.
None of them worry about her.
Not like I do, at least.
Even though I know that it is still a few weeks before she comes down from the mountains, I can hear the chomp of her jaws, hear the clomping of her feet, and feel the chill of her breath.
Dad told me about her when I was really little. “If you don’t behave, Gryla will come down from the mountains and slice you into pieces and throw you into a pot and boil the evil out of you and she will eat you.”
There was even a statue of her in the town square with her oversized ears, her horns, her big nose, and teeth worn flat from chewing the bones of children. She leared over a big pot, looking hungrily into it.
If you wanted to, you could climb up on her statue and even climb into her pot, pretending to be a sacrifice to her monstrous appetite. While the other children crawled all over her, dropping themselves into her pot and laughing as they looked up into her looming face, I couldn’t go near it.
Father would push me toward the pot, telling me “Those children think it’s funny. They think Gryla will leave them alone. That she is just a silly troll from our stories, but you, my dear, you know she is real. Maybe they don’t think they have anything to fear from her, eh? Maybe they think that they have been good little boys and girls who listen to their fathers?”
He would look down on me with the same monstrous hunger that Gryla’s statue showed. I would tremble as I looked up at him “I don’t know, father. I don’t know why they aren’t afraid”
“Are you afraid, my girl?”
I would silently nod my head, my curls bouncing up and down.
“Say it, girl.”
“Yes.” I would squeak out, “I am afraid.”
“And why are you afraid?”
“Because I’m never good, daddy.”
“That’s right. Never. Good children listen to their fathers. You never do. Go, get up into Gryla’s pot. Remember what it feels like. That could be you this year. That could be your Christmas, eaten up by Gryla the troll.”
This year I was extra afraid of Gryla. The eyes of her statue seemed to follow me, and they seemed hungry to me. If I stared too long, I swore I could see her move.
Just a little.
Not even a step.
Just a slight shrug and she was closer.
The other children began to sing.
“Down from the mountain
I come abounding
on silent feet
up to your window.
I hear your breathing
hear your fear
knowing you’ve done
bad deeds this year.
Leaving my Yule Lads
up to their mischief
as my cat
goes prowling at night.
I am hungry
hungry for meat
even though you are rotten
even though you are bad.
I come abounding
out of the darkness
Gryla the Ogress
Gryla the Troll.
My hooves will step lightly
My hooves with step sure
Before you know it
I’ll be at your door.”
The children laughed and rolled in the snow and I watched on, wishing I could be like them. Wishing I didn’t have to be afraid.
Last month, I asked one of the boys in my school, Einar, why he wasn’t afraid of Gryla.
He had stared at me and asked “You don’t really believe in her, do you? The Troll?”
I nodded back at him.
He began laughing, calling all of the other children “Hekla believes in Gryla! Hekla believes in Gryla. She’s a little baby.”
He shoved me in the snow, kicking me in the face. Red ran into the snow as other kids joined him, laughing and kicking snow into my face.
I lay still.
It was the same thing I did when my father hit me. I pretended I wasn’t there. I wished I was invisible. I wished they had something to distract them.
I wished Gryla would take them and eat them.
“Your parents give you presents and your parents say that Gryla will eat you so you will be good all year.” Said Magnus, pushing the other children away and looking at me with something worse than anger. A sadness.
I knew that couldn’t be true. My father wasn’t smart enough to think of something like Gryla, wasn’t smart enough to lie that well. His lies were always so silly, blaming me for things that he did.
He didn’t need to lie well.
He had all the power, and I had learned a long time ago that powerful people don’t have to lie.
Magnus reached down and I winced. I think he was trying to help me up from the snow, but I knew it was safer to look after myself.
I spat blood into the snow. Father said I should never spit, but the taste of the blood was making me sick. I rolled over and stood up while Magnus held his hand out for me. He moved closer to help me up and I pulled away. I didn’t know what he wanted.
“You know,” Magnus said, “It’s okay to believe in Gryla. I just wish you wouldn’t. Parents made her to make us afraid. She’s not real. The other kids make fun of you because they don’t believe in her any more.”
“No… of course not.”
He still looked uncomfortable and I noticed his eyes drifting toward the mountain. Toward Gryla’s home.
I nodded to him.
It was our secret.
I knew he didn’t want to admit it. He wanted the other kids to think he was tough.
I was late, so I hurried home.
I didn’t realize that my coat was stained with blood until I got to my house.
“What happened to you?” His voice was angry, not worried.
He pulled at my coat, knocking me down.
“I’m sorry.” I said, trying to keep the tears out of my voice. He hated when I whined.
He didn’t ask what happened. It didn’t matter to him. I always tried to figure out what I had done wrong and I knew I had done something wrong. I ruined another good coat. I got into a fight at school. I was making him look bad. I- I-
“Get in here. The neighbours are going to see all that blood and think that I’ve been hitting you. I shouldn’t have to get in trouble because you can’t behave and you do things like this.”
He could get in trouble for hitting me?
He always said that it was a parent’s right to punish their child. Even the teachers said it. And the priest said it. How could he get in trouble?
“You will have Child Protection knocking on our door and then what will I do? Huh? What?” He was screaming in my face, spraying it with spittle. If the neighbours cared that he hit me, they would have called Child Protection before now. They must know. How couldn’t they know?
I looked at the floor like I always did. Looking up was “getting smart” with him. I stared hard at the floor, trying to memorize every knot in the wood, every burl. I ran my toes over the worn parts of the floor, which he seemed to think was me being apologetic.
“Get to bed. No dinner” He dragged me half way up the stairs before I could get my feet under me and run the rest of the way to my room.
I closed the door, wishing it could keep me safe. Wishing it could keep him out.
Wishing it could keep Gryla out
I heard the crunching of snow outside my window.
Or was it bones?
It didn’t have the crisp sound of boots in the snow or even bare ogre feet. It made a grinding sound, wet and slushy.
I pulled my blankets off of my bed, darting beneath it.
I knew she could smell me.
I knew that the reek of bad girl was all over me.
I knew that her big ears could hear my breathing, my sobs.
I could feel my finger nails dig into the palm of my hand. Maybe if I just hurt myself that little bit, I could keep from sobbing out loud. I clenched my teeth down on my tongue.
Everything in me said “run”.
My body was shaking with fear.
I knew I couldn’t outrun her. How could she eat so many bad children if they could all run away? She had to be faster, had to be able to catch us.
I couldn’t tell if it was the huff of my breath or if it was hers. It seemed too close.
My bed sagged down with me beneath it.
I swore I could smell the stink of rotted flesh from her breath.
“Don’t be afraid” came a gravelly voice. It was a voice that was used to harshness, used to yelling, but trying to be soft-spoken, comforting. It made it all the more terrifying.
“You don’t need to fear me.” I let out a squeak of fear and shoved my hand into my mouth, breathing around it.
“It’s okay. You’re a good little child, aren’t you?”
I wanted to shout “No”.
“You are, you know. I wish you knew that. You don’t smell like food to me. You smell like fear, but you wouldn’t taste good. There’s nothing rotten in you.”
I wanted to tell her that I was rotten – that I knew it. I wanted to tell her that I deserved to be eaten. I was more than rotten, I was downright evil. I knew it. I still had the lash marks on my back to prove it.
“Something rotten has been done to you. Parents are supposed to look after their children.” I heard a low chuckle, “I look after the Yule Lads, feed them fresh meat from the bad people of the world. I keep them fed. I clothe them. I give them the clothes of the people we eat. I’m a good mother.”
I felt her shift on the bed above me, but she still didn’t look over the edge. “But you. No one has looked after you, have they? Oh, I know you have clothes. I know you have food. I know you have a bed and a house. But you don’t have a home, do you? A home is where you should feel safe, protected. You’ve never felt that. Don’t you think you deserve it?”
I let out a whispered “No”.
“Have you never felt wanted?” She waited, but I couldn’t answer again. “What if Gryla wants you? What if you could be my child? No, no, not to eat. There is enough rot out there to keep me fed.”
A ragged, warted hand appeared over the side of the bed, reaching down gently, slowly. I could see the blood under her nails, see the pustulant warts leaking down her hand.
It hovered there, open and relaxed.
It reminded me of Magnus’ hand, reaching out to help me out of the snow. This wasn’t a fist, wasn’t a hand that was grabbing at me. It was a hand that was offering something.
I think anyone else would be disgusted by those thick knuckles, by the sprouts of hair, by the thick, yellow nails. I think I would have been disgusted before.
I just knew I wanted something and there had only been one thing that I had ever wanted – escape.
This was a hand of escape. It was a hand that was marked by living in the wild.
The blood didn’t even bother me… and I didn’t know why.
I reached a finger up and touched it to the middle of the hand.
She didn’t move.
I pushed a little with my finger and she playfully pushed back, tapping her fingers on mine.
I let out a giggle.
Somehow things are more funny when you have been scared. It had gotten me in trouble so many times, those little laughs when I was being punished – those “outbursts” as he called them.
I pulled my hand away, afraid that Gryla would hit me for laughing at her.
“It’s okay” came the gravelly, whispery voice.
I don’t know what it was about hearing those words — maybe it was because I had never heard them before, maybe because nothing ever seemed okay — but I let my tears fall and grabbed onto her hand, really believing that it could be okay.
Part of me still expected her to grab my hand and drag me away to the dark of the mountain… but she didn’t. Her rough hands caressed the back of my hand.
“It’s okay” she said, over and over again. “You’re safe now. Will you come out from under the bed?”
I pushed myself across the floor, craning my neck up to see her.
She looked just like the statue, all rough bark-like skin, warts, and horns.
But her face seemed gentle. Natural. And her eyes were gentle, brown and wide with compassion.
“No one will hurt you again.”
My heart jolted. “What about him?”
“Do you know when a bear is at her most angry and scariest?”
“No” I said, looking up into those eyes.
“When her cubs are in danger. She becomes fierce.” Gryla lifted her other hand, showing off her blood-crusted nails and playfully swiping at the air. She made a little grr sound.
I giggled again.
I don’t think it was the awkward giggle of fear.
She smiled with her flat broken teeth, but somehow they seemed soothing, even silly. I couldn’t help but smile back. “I am the mother to children who have been hurt by bad people. I am the mother to children like you. I don’t let my cubs get hurt.”
I finally knew what she meant.
I looked again at the blood on her long, yellow nails, at the crusting of blood around her hairy knuckles, at the drip running over the lines on her palm. I jumped up and grabbed around her neck, holding tight.
I finally pulled back, looking deep into her eyes. “But, you already have children. You have the Yule Lads”
“Oh, my dear, do you think those were Leppaludi’s children? He is so lazy, he never moves. No, they are children like you, ones who haven’t been loved like they should.”
“But you only have Yule Lads. I’m a girl.”
“I know, love, I know. That’s the way the story goes. But my children aren’t all boys. There are girls too – Yule Lasses. They may even do more mischief than the boys do.”
She gathered me up into her arms, standing up so that her head pressed against the ceiling. She looked down at me again, a smile on her twisted lips “Do you think you could do some mischief?”
I smiled back at her.
I would start thinking of mischief I could do. Nothing really really bad. Maybe just pinch some bullies. Just a little pinch. Just to let them know that Gryla is watching.