Joyland

San Francisco |

The Huldra

by Ryan Sloan

edited by Lisa Locascio

Finn edges into the old garage for another box of his mother’s things. She used to call this place The Shambles. The mid-afternoon sun has punched four thick columns through a high window, and the dust swirls up slowly into the light like a living thing, like fish in a great glass tank. He knows better than to expect answers, but he would at least like to find the troll.

Outside, his father Jake is sprawled in the backyard. He’s telling Miranda about the new bestseller he claims to be writing. It’s been the same manuscript for years, but she asks him about it anyway. He showed up on their porch in Berkeley three weeks ago; an El Niño mudslide swallowed his house, which is somehow fairly typical for him. His father’s voice follows Finn no matter how far into the garage he goes. In the driveway, with forensic skill like the engineer she is, Miranda has mapped and sorted some of Kate’s early possessions. Floppy disks the size of elephant ears, weathered LPs, photos from Spain and Sri Lanka, coffee cans crammed with receipts, a glass jar containing three mismatched stones, a fake fur coat, correspondence with a shaggy late-80s singer, one pair of men’s leather shorts, and a porcelain doll with troublingly human hair.

Finn opens a plastic box filled with photos and holds a set of slides to the light: his mom as a teenager in the East Bay. A framed print from five years ago, when she was in remission, laughing with her fellow writers at WorldCon, red hair growing back silvered. He flips through his blue baby album. On the faded first page, Jake and a very pregnant Kate, dressed for a 1920s murder mystery party. He’s wearing a fedora, and she’s posed to the side so the photographer can capture her enormous, sequined belly. It seems to fill the frame. They look certain that nothing seriously bad could ever happen.

After a couple of pages, Finn shows up, tiny and belligerent in Jake’s arms. He has to flip five more until he finds a photo of Kate holding him. Taped inside the back cover is a small packet of locks of hair, labeled in her handwriting. The Little King’s First Haircut. He finds a shot from when he was little, at the aquarium in Monterey with his entire arm immersed in the jaguar ray pool, trying desperately to touch the smooth, leathery creatures sliding along the sand. In the picture Finn’s face is bright red, his eyelashes wet. His mom’s smile is muddled. She had been gone an hour without explanation. He had wandered off, or she had, but either way she was gone. An elderly volunteer who smelled like salmon calmed Finn, helped him with his skinned knee. They sat beneath an old shark, deadeye circling, surely wishing it could eat something so clumsy and dumb as a boy.

Finn staggers out of The Shambles under the weight of a tall box. His girlfriend tries to warn him but the bowed cardboard sags and bursts, and he feels it gutter open. Bowls splinter across the concrete. His father swears. A green blanket silts out of the wound, deceptively heavy, and Finn and the blanket and the box do a slow roll to the ground.

“My ex was good at many things,” says his father, coralling fine china with his foot, “but packing not so much. Driveway’s a mess.” The tension of perpetual faults and a hundred years of earthquakes have fissured the concrete more than Finn can hope to. He looks back at the remaining twenty boxes, crammed in the back behind more furniture, and wonders what the hell he’s doing.

Miranda unwraps the afghan. “I don’t even know what this is. It’s— spectacular? What is this?” She holds up a three-foot female troll. It’s made of plaster. It has a Scandinavian apron and small sagging breasts and a broom of wiry black hair and carnation cheeks and a leering red mouth and a tuft of tail tied up with a bow and blue eye shadow around its dead coal eyes. Finn has been searching for the huldra all afternoon.

“This used to be on my mom’s desk,” he tells Miranda, turning it around to show her the thick rectangular slot in the back of the troll’s head. “She used to put little slips of paper in here.”

His father takes the troll from Miranda and holds it at arm’s length, as if it were an unpredictable animal. “Theatre tickets. Matchbooks,” he says. “Those little cards you get with flowers.” Jake turns the troll upside down and paper corners skitter inside the creature’s head.

Finn takes back the troll and rotates it in search of a rubber stopper at the base. He puts his eye close to the slot but can’t see more than an inch into the gloom inside the creature’s body. “Mom wrote notes to herself and then she’d fold them in half and slide them inside.”

Jake snorts. “I always knew that troll was laughing at us.” He pokes it. “Smirky fucker.”

“What did she write on the notes?” Miranda asks.

“I don’t know. She used to say they were memories she was releasing into the wild.” Finn pushes his hair out of his eyes and shakes the troll. “There’s no opening.”

“That’s your mother. Mysteries wrapped in obscurity and sealed in a locked little beast,” Jake says. Finn is surprised by his father’s hands. How papery they’ve become despite a writer’s life. A constellation of thin, chapped skin in little spots and diamonds.

Finn hefts the troll quickly, high above his head, aiming for a swift strike against the driveway.

“Please,” his father says, “don’t do that.” Like he’s talking Finn off a ledge. “That’s not yours to destroy. Okay?”

Finn cocks his head. “I’m sorry?”

“You should be, chief. You’re a wrecking ball. After the funeral, after your yard sale pogrom, I’m surprised there’s anything left of your mom’s at all.”

“You left me alone to handle god-damned probate because it was all too much for you. This is handling it—”

“Hey,” says Miranda, “okay children. Let’s dial back the shouting.”

“This is crazy.” Jake moves to take his son by the scruff of the neck, the way he used to when Finn was little, and Finn shrugs it off, wielding the troll by the feet like a club.

“You’re both,” says Miranda, “a little bit batshit. Let’s just all sit down. You look like those boxers when they get their faces so close together it’s like they might do some ferocious kissing.”

Jake tries to catch Finn’s eye. “Are you really going to break one of her last things?”

Finn lowers the troll and Jake smiles. It’s a grin that assumes too much. Finn smiles too, and then he splits the troll’s head with one jagged stroke.

One by one, they squat and dig among the remains. Most are browned and clumped and smudged beyond recognition. At some point someone seems to have spilled coffee into the troll. Three inches of dried dark liquid crust the lower walls.

Finn reaches past a ticket for a Santa Fe screening of Fitzcarraldo to a photobooth sequence of Kate with two superfans of her work, bloggers who wouldn’t stop trying to comfort Finn after his mom died.

Miranda sets aside several illegible fragments and holds up a napkin twined with intricate ink fire lizards from Kate’s first book, a gift from a handsome illustrator many years ago.

Jake searches and searches until he finds a pink plastic cocktail pick shaped like a cutlass. “Our first date,” he says. “The Brown Derby. She was craving a little old-school glamour. She wore a fascinator, and I wore the only tie I owned.”

Finn unfolds two of the only surviving notes. The first reads: remember that you can always flee. The second says exactly the same thing.

Illustration by Carolyn Tripp