The velvet blue Land Rover patiently devoured asphalt until Anders eased off the accelerator nearing a mountain pass where evergreens reached for the night sky on either side. He caught glimpse of a sign.
“We’re over the county line,” he said to his passenger. “How far ‘s the bridge?”
“10 kilometers,” said his passenger, Eirik, in a dark white coat and cap, scowling studiously at a road map of Norway with a flashlight. “It’s pretty small.”
They came upon a wooden bridge wide enough for a single vehicle to pass, with modest lighting. Anders parked the truck on the shoulder with the headlights illuminating the quaint bridge and together they walked out to the middle of it, from where they looked about at the abyss of night.
“This is where Nana said we’d find him.” Eirik looked to his friend.
Anders’ grandmother, “Nana Ana,” had been an unapologetically clever woman who’d grown more eccentric with age, eventually insisting on the validity of fairy tales, magic, and the like based on nothing more than her own tall tales. Her daughters had scarcely understood her. However, endless conversations about travel had drawn Anders and his grandmother together which led to her leaving him some strange things in her will when she passed, including a hideaway in the Norwegian wilderness which she referred to as the “island bungalow.” No one had ever been there. And, instead of leaving her grandson an address, she left a clue, a trail, and her favorite quote which felt more like a challenge than encouragement: “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.”
Anders paced the bridge. “The directions said to come here on any night to find someone named Benjamin. We’d barter her old pocket watch for a compass, and that would somehow point us to the bungalow.”
Eirik peered down over the wooden handrails into the blackness where a stream garbled, likely through a stony bed. “As wild as her stories were,” he said, “she’d never sold us short on a actual scavenger hunt.”
Pausing in the middle, Anders thought, True. He 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, and the water. Glanced back the way they came and up the road, hoping to see a light. Anders closed his eyes and listened. The depth of the silence was astounding. Then he smelled something foul.
“You smell that?” he turned.
Behind Eirik who met Anders’ question with a curious look, a huge hairy arm reached through the rail with a knobby hand the size of the Land Rover’s windshield. It swiped at Eirik’s back blindly, knocking him violently to the deck. Heart leaping, Anders scrambled to grab his friend’s arm to pull him from the edge but the giant hand found and gripped Eirik’s leg, and ripped him clear off the bridge.
Alone on the wooden platform, Anders saw nothing over the edge, but he heard splashing and grunting, heard his buddy fighting. I can’t see anything.
Like a shot, he sprinted to truck for a flashlight. He returned to the sharp drop at the edge of the stream bed and, despite not seeing a safe or easy way down, descended quickly. Slipping, stepping, falling, bleeding, somehow he made it to the inky bottom without breaking any bones. On his feet and ankle deep in icy water, he hesitated.
It’s quiet. He shone the light under the bridge.
Beneath the bridge a tall, hairy, bipedal shape flinched at the light, snorting and shielding its face.
“Anders, it’s okay!”
A comforting coldness flashed down Anders’ body through which his pulse thrummed, louder.
“Shine the light at the water, you’re blinding it.”
It? he obeyed.
Standing in the deepest part of the stream loomed a troll. He knew it from Nana’s weird old picture books. The awkward dumpy creature bared scraggly teeth under a bulbous, bent nose. It held Eirik 4-meters aloft with a powerful grip about his torso like a large action figure.
Eirik smiled, tightly. “This is Benjamin.”
Benja – Benjamin! Tucking the flashlight under an armpit with shaking hands, Anders produced a cloth form an inside coat pocket and unwrapped something shiny. The troll craned its neck, leaning to see without coming closer.
“You remember Nana Ana?” Anders held up a handsome antique pocket watch. “She wanted me to give you this in exchange for a -.”
Benjamin dropped Eirik in the stream and stomped toward Anders with the predictable grace of a rockslide. Anders braced himself, possibly against being pummeled, but the beast stopped to stand over him, expelling warm rancid breaths upon his head.
Nana, what is going on? Anders didn’t look up at its face. “Nana Ana said you could have this if -.”
The troll moved to snatch the watch.
Anders closed his hands around timepiece, impulsively. “If you give me a compass.”
Drenched, Eirik stumbled to his feet in shallower waters, knee-deep and freezing, but remained where he was, unwilling for his unnecessary movement to upset the creature while it was within striking distance of Anders.
Huffing loudly, the troll reached to the vertical rocky bluff behind Anders and opened a square patch of stone like a door from where a searing light burst. The creature reached inside and drew something out in its fist, a panda cub, which it dropped in Anders’ arms. Promptly, the brilliant little doorway darkened as if it was never there. And then the troll, mesmerized by the ticking watch, used a huge forefinger and thumb to lift it by the chain from the outstretched hand, gently, and lumbered downstream with it, vanishing into the night.
Rejoining Anders, shivering, Eirik considered the black and white animal over his friend’s shoulder. “Maybe ‘compass’ means ‘baby panda’ in troll.”
Nana, ‘compass’ better mean ‘baby panda’ in troll.
The panda looked Anders in the eye. “Right, then,” it said, shocking them with a grown man’s voice. “So what are we looking for?”