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"Old Saint Nick"

Written by Mason McDonald

Tobias and Vega just need a drink. They’re on their second week of their trip and are utterly exhausted. It’s the good kind of exhausted, though, where you feel you’ve earned every ounce of it. When they tried to decide where to go for their honeymoon, the only thing they could decide upon was Europe. Vega wanted the UK, Spain, France. Tobais wanted Norway, Sweden, Finland. They eventually said fuck it, let’s do it all. Backpacking across Europe had the sort of romantic element they could tell their kids about one day.

Now they’re fucking tired and need a drink.

See them at the bar. It’s dark. The days here are short, so the sun has already set despite it only being 4pm. There are sconces above the bar and scattered around the brick walls with electric orange lights casting amber glows. There aren’t a lot of folk here because it is Christmas Eve. The two are just happy it is open to begin with. Traveling this time of year made it cheaper, but much more difficult. Besides a few men at a table in the back, at a table drinking wide mugs of dark ale, there is only a single other patron. A man at the bar drinking alone. Tobias and Vega sit a few stools down from him.

The bartender greets them in Norwegian. Tobias smiles and tries his best to answer back and say the only two phrases he’s learned: hello and I don’t speak Norwegian. The bartender laughs. “I think my English is better than your Norwegian,” he says with a thick but smooth, practiced accent.

“Fantastic,” Tobias says. “We need a drink. What do you recommend?”

“I need it, like yesterday,” Vega says, her forehead in her palm, eyes closed, smiling.

“It is Jul, after all, so you can’t say no to Aquavit,” he says and grabs a tall bottle with a white and red label, a light brown liquid sloshing around inside of it. He pours two small glasses. He must see the confused look on Tobias’ face, so he continues. “Christmas. Jul. We drink Aquavit to celebrate.”

“Ah,” Tobias says and takes a sip. It burns, thankfully, but it is not overwhelming. It tastes a tad like a rye whisky but with a herbal spiciness he finds quite nice. Vega drinks hers in one go and asks for another. The bartender obliges.

“Easy babe, we’ve a long day tomorrow,” Tobias says.

“Why did I let you talk me into this again?” Vega says.

“Because we need adventure. What’s life without adventure?” Tobias raises his eyebrows, and his glass, to the bartender.

“Boring,” the bartender answers. “Where are you two from? And what brings you to Norway?”

“Canada. Well, I’m from Canada,” Tobias says, “Vega is from Maine. We’re on our honeymoon, actually.”

“Yeah, my handsome husband here somehow convinced me to walk across an entire continent instead of sipping fruity drinks on a beach in Spain like I wanted to do,” Vega says.

“A honeymoon? Congratulations are in order! Here,” the bartender tops them both up, “on me. May God bless your marriage.”

“Thanks, but I don't know if I'll have a marriage after this,” Tobias says, smiling over the rim of his glass and tilting his head to Vega who still drinks with her eyes closed and her head in her hand.

“Trust me, she wouldn’t be here if she didn’t want to be,” the bartender says. Tobias raises his glass again.

The bartender goes back to the other end and cleans up some dishes. The old man who is sitting alone perks up when he realizes their conversation is over. He switches seats so he can be closer to Tobias. He’s wearing an old flannel coat and is balding, the only hair sticking out under his tweed cap being the little white tufts above his ears.

“Nice to hear someone who sounds like me,” he says. He speaks in an American accent. A hint of that southern twang. Just a taste as most of it has been washed away from years abroad.

“America?” Tobias asks.

“Yessir,” the man says, “I hear you kids just got married?”

Tobias swallows his drink and nods. “Yup.”

“Well no kidding,” the man says. There’s a silence that follows that doesn’t sit well with Tobias. Vega shares this feeling as well as she finally opens her eyes and squeezes closer to him, pinching his bicep slightly. Two pinches, their signal for I’m uncomfortable. They both come from big families who like their big familial holiday dinners, so unspoken languages like this help them escape awkward or inconvenient situations.

Tobias clears his throat. “Well, uh, how long have you been in Norway? Just on vacation?”

The old man laughs. “You can say that. Came here a long time ago on a guy’s trip with some buddies,” the man stares off, smiling, eyes glistening, before continuing, “and I just fell in love with the place. Couldn’t leave.” He finished his drink. “Even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. But still.”

“Wow,” Tobias says because he doesn’t know what else to say. He and Vega are people people; they love meeting people and hearing their stories. Call it exhaustion, or call it whatever, but they are getting bad vibes from this old man. He speaks like he’s known them a long time, which can usually be comforting and charismatic, but in his case it's just…creepy. For lack of a better term.

“Well,” Tobias continues, “we should be going—”

“You doing any hiking while you’re here? You really ought to,” the old man says, “even in the winter. I’d say especially in the winter. Some real fine sights.”

“No,” Tobias says, sliding off his stool, “just going back to the hotel. Cheers, guy. Nice meeting you.”

“I met Old Saint Nick out in those hills,” the old man says.

This stops Tobias. “Like…Santa Claus?”

Vega pinches his arm and raises her eyes at him, a silently loud what the fuck are you doing. He waives her off. The old man chuckles. “That’s another name for him I suppose. The original. The big cheese himself. Yes sir. Met him in the hills.”

“How do you mean you met him?” Tobias asks.

Vega sighs. “Toby. I’m tired. Can we go?”

“Your man knows a good story when he hears one, don’t ya fella?”

Tobias does love a good story. He’s an editor—finding good stories is literally his job. He’s also naturally curious. When he hears a good elevator pitch, he can’t help himself. Normally, Vega is much the same. He can’t count how many long nights they’ve spent listening to stories from strangers in bars, and not just on this trip. But all of their trips. They’ve heard stories of river monsters from a fisherman in a Louisiana dive bar, stories of murder and intrigue from a Danish sex worker at a pub in Wales, and they even once listened to a meth head for over two hours as they sat outside of a 7/11 in Utah and he regaled them with his entire life story. This is what they did. It’s also what gives them an unbelievable sixth sense for gaging which people are, again for lack of a better term, creepy. They use that word plenty to describe the type of people they should avoid when their gut tells them to. And their guts are screaming at them to leave. That whatever this guy is going to tell them isn’t worth it. Something is wrong with him.

“I tell ya what,” the old man says, “you buy me a drink, I’ll tell ya about it.”

“Tobias. Let’s go,” Vega says.

“It’s a hell of a story,” the old man says, dryly. Like he believes it but doesn’t all at the same time.

“Alright,” Tobias says and reaches for his money as Vega throws her arms up in frustration. He calls over the bartender and orders another drink for the man. The bartender calls the old man by name—Hemingway. He drinks vodka and tonic water. No ice.

“Hemingway? That’s interesting,” Tobias says.

“It’s just a name, we all got one,” Hemingway says, “mine just belongs to someone else is all.”

“About that story.”

“Yes, about it.”

Vega orders herself another drink, giving in. Tobias does the same.

Hemingway tells them how he met Old Saint Nick in the mountains of Norway.

***

We were just boys, really. Early twenties. Craig went and got himself married. Dumb sonofabitch. No offence to you two, lovin’ someone is one thing, but signing a contract? When has getting the government and God involved ever worked for anyone? Huh?

I digress. Craig got married and the rest of us had to think of something to celebrate. It was me, Jordan, John, and Sammy. Sammy says we should go to Vegas. Now, this was back in the day. Nowadays, from what I hear, Vegas is nothing but dope heads puking in the streets and hookers tryna proposition you for a tug ‘n suck in the parking lot. Don’t get me wrong, that’s what it was like back then too, but at least we had Sinatra!

Huh?

Ah you two are stone sour, eh? Ah well.

John says he can’t go to Vegas, his old lady would kill him. Jordan says much of the same. Then someone, they used to say it was me, but I’d remember something foolish like this, someone comes up with the bright idea of going hiking over in Europe. Sweden or Finland maybe. Norway could be nice, yeah maybe Norway. This was a long time ago, so it wasn’t terribly expensive compared to now, but it still wasn’t cheap. Luckily, Jordan came from money. His daddy’s daddy’s daddy’s give-or-take-a-daddy’s daddy made some money in uh, let’s say cotton. Catch me? Real fucking bad business, that cotton. Built our country and stole our soul. But that money still spent, all those years later, because bad folk never really pay for their crimes, they just pay the politicians.

So Jordan offers to pay for the whole damn thing. Says it’s the least he can do for Craig and besides, he’s always wanted to see Norway. Or Sweden. Or whatever. “Somewhere with fjords,” he says. We asked him what a fjord was. “Fuck if I know,” he says. You got friends, son? I bet you do. And I bet you got a Jordan too.

Shit, you might be a Jordan.

So we get here. We get all the gear, we figure out our route, and we start a’hiking. What nobody tells you is how damn difficult hiking is. I thought it was just walkin’ with a little extra spice to it! Nuh uh, no sir! It’s more like walking and pain, pain and walking. You get so sore you wanna curl up and die and then you walk some more.

But son, little miss, I tell ya—this country is awfully easy to fall in love with. The chiseled mountains, the dipping canyons and verdant plains, and those fjords. Oh, boy. Yup. Awfully easy to fall in love with.

You ever step out of your tent, early morning frost still clutching the blades of grass, the mist hanging just over your feet and cascading over the ledge of the mountain like a waterfall, and the entire view opening up like a curtain in front of you, the vista of icy blue water cutting like a serpent betwixt the cleavage of Mother Earth herself as it rushes out to the sea between the rock and ice?

No?

Then you don’t know. You just don’t know.

On the third day or so, we were walking at night. Usually we’d have stopped long before that point and made camp, but we were just about to crest the lip of the hill we’d been crawling up, and above us the sky was alight in purple and blue rivers, like ribbons, intertwined, and we just had to get a better look. This was before smartphones and none of us thought to bring a camera, so we needed to make sure we got a real good view, because if it wasn’t burned into our eyes then we may lose the memory and we couldn’t bear for that to happen.

We crested the top of the hill and when I tell you what we saw up there was nothing short of Valhalla, I mean it. It was like the Gods themselves were atop those mountains. Do you know what the Vikings said about the northern lights? They said they occurred when the Valkyries were sent by Odin to collect the souls of warriors killed in battle so they could be raised up into Odin’s halls for eternity. The lights, the colours, those are the souls of great warriors. I believe that. I really do. And if you see what we saw, you would too. Eternity. I swear it. We saw eternity.

What was that? Oh. Yes. Sorry. Drifted off there a bit, did I?

Yes. The story.

The five of us sat atop the hill and watched the skies above those mountains, the fjord, and marvelled at the colours for what must have been an hour. The horizon never seemed to interrupt the view. It just kept going. An expanse of rock and plains, water and sky.

Sammy was the first to hear it. He asked if we all did, I asked him what in the hell he was talking about, all we heard was the water below and the rush of wind that chilled us. But we listened, then, and we did hear it. A low rumble. The best way I can describe it would be to tell you the Earth was growling at us. Like a dog when you reach for their food dish, guttural and under their breath.

The wind. That’s all, we said. We were about to set up camp when Sammy pressed his ear to the ground and his eyes grew as wide as silver dollars. “It ain’t the wind,” he says to us.

It’s louder now and we can feel it as well as hear it. It vibrates through our boots and up our legs. John gets scared and asks if it’s an earthquake. We tell him we ain’t in California. He asks if it’s an avalanche. We tell him we are the highest point in the vicinity, if it is, we should be okay. The dumb idiot.

I shouldn’t say that. Because truth is, I was scared too. We all were. The ground was talking to us and we were in the middle of nowhere, a half-week’s walk to civilization.

As we were arguing with John, trying to calm his nerves, something caught Craig’s eyes and he slowly broke apart from the group and walked to the edge of the cliff. He raised his hand, and he pointed, and…

Christ. I need another drink.

Thank ya kindly.

Now, where was I?

Right.

I was at the end.

Craig was pointing out over the abyss, his arm and hand trembling. John, Jordan, and Sammy were too busy arguing, but I noticed. I followed his gaze. Across the valley was another mountain. A sister to the hill we were perched upon.

And from behind that mountain rose a hand as big as the peak itself. This thing could crush skyscrapers between its fingers and not struggle an ounce. It blotted out the moon as it rose into the aurora. Then, it came crashing down. We almost fell over from the shockwave. The fingers wrapped around the mountain and the rest of the thing rose up, bracing on the peak like it was nothing but a handrail.

Now—how much do you know about trolls?

Their history goes back quite a long time. I don’t think there’s enough booze in this bar to keep me going long enough to fill you in on it. I could tell you about the different varieties, where they lived, what they ate, which could smell the blood of Christian men and which turned to stone with the kiss of the sun. There’s no time for all that. Instead, I will tell you this: believe me or not, they are real, and they haunt these hills like spectres. Some are big. Some are small. All are wondrous. All are dangerous.

There’s one that roams these mountains they’ve spoken of for generations. They call him Julenissen. Directly translated to English, it means Santa Claus. Most Norwegians hear his name and think of a small, gnomish creature that protects the homestead around the time of Jul. The rest of the world corrupted him and turned him into a fat man in a suit for capitalistic gain. But his true form is something grander. More magnificent. And the people of these hills know him.

Me? I call him Old Saint Nick.

And he’s a world eater, I tell you.

He rose above those mountains as big as you’d expect a legend, but still bigger than what your mind can conjure. The aurora? He blotted it out as he did the moon. His beard was made of an entire forest that tore up from the mountainside as he rose from his slumber, ripping clean like a piece of sod. His eyes were glowing blue holes that could swallow cities. His head was cone-shaped and smooth, shiny. It was buried so far under the ground, its head was made of a reflective obsidian that glowed a deep vermillion under the twisting colours above.

A living mountain rose into the sky and stepped over the fjord and stood like the Colossus of Rhodes, regarding us. We didn’t know what to do. John, poor dumb John, fell over, unconscious. He missed the rest.

Old Nick raised his arm, in his hand an axe I can only imagine was forged in the heart of the Earth, and he released an ear shattering blast of sound that was so loud we could barely hear it. It was deep and resonating and hummed at a frequency barely capable of breaching our minds. We felt it, though. It roared through our blood and borrowed into our bones.

After his roar, it began to snow. Badly. He marched off and we watched as he went through the plains and over the mountains, waded through the water, and finally found the elusive horizon.

We set up camp and fought against the coming of the storm, unspeaking. None of us were capable of talking about what we saw, or what it meant.

I think we saw what gods used to be. Before the Norse Gods, before our God, before all of ‘em.

Before it all we had the Jötunn. Giants. And they ruled this realm. Still do, I reckon.

***

The silence that follows is so thick it can be sliced with a blade and served on a platter. Tobias tries to find the words he needs and can't. Even Vega is speechless, lost in what they just heard. The old man puts down his glass, empty and upside down, and stands, taking his coat off the back of his chair and adjusting his cap.

“So,” he says, “how about it? Was the story worth the drink?”

mason mcdonald 01Mason McDonald is the author of A Time For Monsters. When not inventing yuletide boogeymen, he can be found drinking booze and fist fighting his own personal Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. He currently lives in Port Morien, NS with his wife Jenna and their collection of animals.

You can pick up his collection by clicking one of the links below!

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