A bristling army of pitch-black evergreens began blocking out the night sky on either side of the mountain road where the velvet blue Land Rover patiently devoured asphalt. Catching glimpse of a sign, Anders eased off the accelerator.
“We’re over the county line,” he said. “How far’s the bridge?”
“10 kilometers,” replied his passenger, Eirik. In a dark white coat and cap, he scowled studiously at a road map of Norway by torchlight. “It’s pretty small.”
They came upon a wooden bridge modestly lit and wide enough for a single vehicle to pass. Anders parked the truck on the shoulder and they walked out onto it.
With the bridge under his feet and the cold touch of an early winter rising the hair on his neck, Eirik looked across at Anders. “This is where Nana said we’d find him.”
Anders’ grandmother ‘Nana Ana’ has always been unapologetically imaginative, a trait that worsened with age. During her twilight years she’d insisted on the validity of fairy tales and magic to a degree that her children feared for her mental health. More often, they wearied of her obsession with make-believe. Among all her family, Anders had known her best. Anders and his best buddy Eirik. They three had shared a mutual love for foreign places…
Nana’s passed had blindsided everyone, however the reading of her will had not. Her eccentricity had generally been known but the legal document only served to confirm it. It read like an inventory lists from a thirst store, magic shop, yarn supply store, and a 1960’s library rolled into one. However, it also appeared she owned property of which no one was aware — a secrete hideaway in the Norwegian wilderness, a place the will termed ‘the island bungalow;’ according to her final wishes it now belonged to her only grandson.
Unfortunately for Anders, Nana had had a pathological adoration for puzzles — both solving and creating them. And so, when he realized the will gave no customary means for locating to bungalow, he wasn’t the least surprised. No, she left a clue, a trail, and her favorite quote which, under current circumstances, bore the echoes of challenge rather than encouragement: “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.”
Presently, Anders paced. “The directions said to come here on any night. We’d find named Benjamin with whom we’d barter her old pocket watch for a compass. And that would somehow point us to the bungalow.” He turned about in the bridge’s center. “Just once…”
Eirik walked the wooden railing, listening to the wilderness’ night sounds.
“Just once it would’ve been nice if she said what she meant. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all the, the riddles and the scavenger hunts. It was fun, we had fun, we got to meet people and travel, and I’m–I’m gonna miss it, but…” Aside from Eirik, Nana Ana had been Anders’ other best friend. She’d only been gone a month and so his grief, while not fresh, was still fresh enough.
Anders gestured with pent-up irritation. “Once, Nana! Geez!”
Eirik smiled and peered down over the railing into the blackness where a stream garbled unseen, likely over a stony bed. “Her methods might’ve been out there but she’s never made a puzzle impossible.”
True. Anders turned. “Hang on.” Cupping his mouth, he belted a loud ‘Benjamin’ both up and down the road.
Arm on the rail Eirik listened to the night. He glanced back the way they’d come and up the road, hoping and expecting to see a light.
Nana, you knew the strangest people… Anders closed his eyes and strained to discern human-made sounds in the silence. Here I am waiting for one of them to come crawling out of the bushing in the dark and trade me a compass, and somehow it would feel completely normal. The depth of the silence was astounding.
A frigid breeze wafted past him and, on it, an odd gag-worthy scent. Frowning, he turned. “You smell that?”
Behind Eirik, who wore a puzzled expression, a huge hairy arm reached through the rail, as though from a giant beneath the bridge, with a knobby hand the size of the Land Rover’s windscreen. It swiped at Eirik’s back blindly, dashing him brutally to the deck.
Heart in his throat, Anders scrambled to grab his friend’s arm to pull him from the edge, but the giant hand found and gripped Eirik’s leg first, and ripped him clear off the bridge.
On hands on knees, Anders stared wide-eyed over the edge and saw nothing in the darkness. Splashing and grunting. His buddy was fighting.
I can’t see anything. Like a shot, he sprinted to the truck for the torch under the drivers’ seat and returned to the sharp drop at the edge of the stream bed. Despite no safe, easy or even visible way down, he forged his way quickly. Slipping, stepping, falling, bleeding, somehow he splashed to the inky, jagged bottom without breaking any bones. On his feet and ankle deep in icy water, he hesitated.
I don’t hear anything. He shone the torch’s light under the bridge.
Beneath the wooden structure a massive bipedal shape flinched from the rays, snorting and shielding its face.
“Anders, it’s okay!”
A cold sensation flashed down Ander’s neck and spine in relief despite his pulse thrumming with greater violence.
“Shine the torch a the water, you’re blinding it!”
It? He obeyed.
Standing in the deepest part of the stream loomed a troll. He it from Nana’s old picture books. The awkward dumpy creature bared scraggly teeth under a bulbous, bent nose. It held Eirik in a powerful grip about his torso, at least 4-meters aloft, like a life-sized action figure.
Eirik smiled tightly, clearly uncomfortable. “This is Benjamin.”
Benjamin… “Benjamin!” Tucking the torch under his armpit, Anders produced a cloth from an inside coat pocket and unwrapped something shiny. The troll craned its neck, leaning to see without coming closer.
“You remember Nana? Nana Ana?” Anders held up a handsome antique pocket watch. “She wanted me to give this to you in exchange for a –.”
Benjamin dropped carelessly in the stream and stomped toward Anders with the predictable grace of a rockslide. Anders braced himself, possibly against being unintentionally pummeled, but the beast stopped to stand over him, expelling warm rancid breaths upon his bent head.
Nana, seriously, WHAT is going on? Startled glare fixed on the stream bubbling around his feet, he didn’t look up at its face. “Nana Ana said you should have this if–.”
The troll moved to snatch the watch.
Anders defended it, on impulsive. “If you give me a compass.”
Upstream, Eirik’s drenched form stumbled to his feet toward shallower waters, knee-deep and literally freezing, however when he saw the tense standoff he remained where he was for fear of creating unnecessarily movement that might upset the creature.
With a loud huff, the troll reached to the severe rocky incline behind Anders and opened a square patch of stone like a door. A searing brightness burst from within and, reaching into it, the troll drew out something furry in its fist — a panda cub — which it dropped in Anders’ arms. The brilliant little door darkened into stone as though it were never there. And then Benjamin, mesmerized by the ticking timepiece, selectively used a big forefinger and thumb to gently life it by the chain from the man’s outstretched hand and lumbered away downstream with it, into the night.
Eirik sloshed over to rejoin Anders and looked down over his should at the black and white animal he cradled. “Maybe ‘compass’ means ‘baby panda’ in troll.”
Nana, I hope ‘compass’ means ‘baby panda’ in troll.
The panda turned its face and looked directly at Anders. “Right, then,” it said with a disturbingly human male voice. “So what am I helping you find?”