Frida and Jacob came to live with the farmer and his wife one cold winter day. Their mommy and daddy had gone away, suddenly. The farmer and his wife were to be their new daddy and mommy.
Life there was good. Their new parents were cheerful and played with them often. The children had their own loft to prance, dance and sing in. They could dream up worlds in that cozy space.
When the sun warmed the earth again and the trees began sprouting the children ventured outside. They would sometimes help with small chores, but were often left to wander and play. Throughout the summer the fields and forest were theirs and they explored them all. But, as the leaves yellowed and began to fall again to the earth, they found themselves more and more in their pleasant loft.
One day, their new mother brought them a strange present. She told them it had belonged to her father, and his father before him. With reverence, she unwrapped the bundle of cloth she carried.
Inside was a fox. A fox with no eyes. It was only a skin, stitched up to look as it had been when it was alive. It was still whole; head, legs and tail all as they should be.
It was furry and soft to the touch, not that the children got close enough to find out. The dark holes where the eyes should have been stared at them and scared them.
The mother laid the gruesome thing at the top of the stairs to the loft. She told them they would have it to play with every day. She wanted them to enjoy it, as she had as a little girl.
Frida and Jacob — with some prodding from his sister — smiled and said thank you. They acted delighted until the farmer’s wife turned her back and started down the stairs. Then they backed away from the foul toy.
The children would not go near it. They even tried not to look at it. Those eyeless holes, deep and black stared back, stared inside them even.
Every day the same events played out. Their new mother would lay the fox at the top of the stairs. The children would smile and pretend to be excited. The woman would walk away, pleased, while the children played as far from those stairs as they could. In the afternoon their mother collected the fox, storing it away again until the next day. She asked them how they enjoyed it and they, wanting to please her, told her it was great fun.
One cold winter day, almost a year exactly after they had come to the cozy house, the fox lay there, as usual, looking at them without eyes.
The year had been good, for the most part. Their new parents were loving and wonderful. Of late, Frida had noticed that her new mother was weary and sad a lot of the time. They only saw the farmer at suppertime. And he appeared to have aged a great deal since they arrived. He moved slower and played less. There was pain in his eyes when he sat and when he stood. In the night Frida sometimes heard him coughing. The sound was dry and rough, awful.
On this day the children were playing a game of hide and go seek. Frida knelt, hiding behind a dusty trunk, waiting for her young brother to find her.
She had hesitated to hide in that particular nook. During the dark, cold nights, the wind howled outside and hail often pelted the thin walls. But those sounds were nothing compared to the thumping and bumping that came from that trunk. One time Frida was sure she had heard the lid lift with a creak. From inside came a dreadful whimpering, a mewing and moaning. It wasn’t sad though, but mean and bone-chilling. A second later the lid had dropped back in place with a soft bang.
But here, now, playing this innocent game, with sunlight spreading across the wooden floor, those dark memories were far away.
Frida peered out from her hiding place to watch Jacob search for her. Her eyes chanced upon those black holes at the top of the stairs and could not look away. And in her head, she heard a voice, a pleasant voice. It told her not to be scared. But she was. For she knew it was the fox’s voice.
Jacob started to cry. Frida turned away from those holes with difficulty. "What is it, Jacob?" she asked.
"The… the… fox. It spoke to me," he said. "But in my head."
"To me as well," Frida said.
Both children turned to the orange and white creature, for it was no longer a thing. Being children they had no doubt that it could, indeed, be alive again.
The fur rippled on its back and the tail twitched this way and then that. As if it was inhaling, the mouth opened and air rushed into the flattened body. It inflated like a balloon, bulging and rising until, finally, it stood on once limp legs. The hollow form was now whole again, like any fox in the wild. Except for those eyes. Still empty, still black, they looked more out of place than ever before.
"Good day children," the fox said. It still didn’t talk using sound, but the projected voice now seemed to emanate from it. "Sorry if I startled you."
"Startled?" Frida asked. "Don’t you mean to say, terrified?"
"Come now, Frida, we both know you are too smart to be terrified by a silly old dead fox," the fox said.
"How do you know my name?" Frida asked.
"I know many things," the fox said and then smiled. Frida knew that normal foxes couldn’t do that. Then it turned those black holes toward the trunk. "Many, many things."
Frida followed its gaze to the trunk and those nighttime memories and fears came to her unbidden.
"It’s ju… just an old trunk, that’s all," Frida said, trying to deceive herself as much as the fox.
She immediately wished she had said nothing, for the black eyeless eyes then turned to her. "Indeed? Well then, let’s open it," the fox said and pranced silently on its inflated paws toward the trunk.
"No!" Frida yelled, which was very unlike her.
"Frida, I’m scared," Jacob said, his eyes welling up with tears once more. His older sister was his rock and seeing her so distressed was very disturbing.
"It’s okay, Jacob, it’s okay," she said, going to him and wrapping her arms around him. "You’re scaring him," she said to the fox.
"Maybe he should be scared," the fox said.
Jacob started to cry then, sobbing into Frida’s shoulder. "That’s not helping," she said. "I thought you knew many, many things? Except, it would seem, how not to scare little boys."
The fox sat back on its haunches next to the trunk and tilted its head in an odd way. "Hmmm, yes, you may be right. I have been out of circulation for a while. Perhaps I have grown a little thoughtless. Jacob, I am sorry. Your sister is right, it is okay."
There was something in the fox’s soft, even tone that made Jacob feel somewhat relieved. His tears stopped and he wiped them away with balled-up fists.
"All better?" Frida asked, putting on a cheerful smile for her brother.
He nodded, returning the smile. Then the smile disappeared and turned into a look of startled amazement as he looked once more at the fox.
The creature was no longer sitting, no longer looked — except for those black holes, of course — like a normal fox. Now it was, once more, a flat reflection of what it had been. It was still and lifeless.
"For the best," Frida muttered to herself.
That night the wind howled stronger and the hail pelted louder. Frida tossed and turned, chasing sleep but never catching it. Every now and then the farmer hacked and coughed. Those sounds were sometimes followed by pitiful groaning.
The trunk was in her thoughts as well, as was the fox. She closed her eyes and wished them both away. In response the chest knocked and shook, almost dancing in the spot where it sat. But she knew if she lit a candle and inspected then it would be completely still; only a silent trunk. She had checked several times in the past.
There was a different sound then, the creak of a door downstairs. It was a subtle thing but out of the ordinary for this time of night. At first she thought it was the farmer, milling about, unwell. But there were no thumps of feet; it could not be one of their new parents. Frida opened her eyes, unable to quash her unease.
Before her, in the semi-darkness, was a shape. Her eyes opened wider.
The fox sat on her chest, weightless but once more inflated. Even in the black of night, the black of those eyes was darker still. Those hollows looked back at her and peered inside her soul.
She was about to scream but it died in her throat as the fox said, "Do not be alarmed, I am here to help you."
"Help me? You are good for nothing but scaring children, as far as I can tell," she said. She whispered, so as not to wake her brother. He was sleeping, sometimes snoring, in the other small bed that sat on one side of the loft.
The fox ignored her jab and asked, "Do you want to know what is in the trunk?"
"Not particularly," she said. "But if you can make it stop, I would be grateful."
Those black holes somehow looked sad then. "I would if I could, but I cannot."
"What good are you then?"
"I can help you. I can show you how to stop it."
"Or I can just go to sleep," she said, rolling over and pulling the covers up around her chin. The fox leapt off her and came to sit on the mattress next to her.
"We both know that’s not likely," the fox said.
"Well, it doesn’t hurt me, does it? It’s just noisy, so I’ll leave it be and it will continue to leave me be."
"And what of the farmer and his wife?" the fox asked. "It will not leave them be."
Frida pushed herself up to sitting and peered into the blackness that stared back at her. "What are you talking about?"
"You know," the fox said.
"The farmer is ill."
"Yes, go on."
"Whatever is in the trunk is causing it," Frida said.
The fox smiled. "I told you that you knew."
Frida thought of the farmer. He used to smile and laugh during supper and would play with them before bedtime. Sometimes he would tell them stories of ogres and fairies and the magic of the deep forest. But lately the smiles were frowns and the laughs were winces of pain. And instead of stories, he limped off to lay down.
She wanted him to be healthy once more. "What is in there?" she asked the fox.
"Something very old and powerful."
"It has lived in the trunk for a long time?"
"No, only a year."
"A year? But…," her mind swam with the implications. "It came with us?"
The fox nodded, those black spots rising and falling as it did so.
Frida’s mind raced but it was clouded by fear and doubt.
"You are almost there child," the fox said, "follow the thoughts through."
"It killed our parents," she said, knowing it was true.
The fox nodded and said, "I’m sorry."
Frida felt a tightness in her jaw and a determination she had never felt before. "What do I do?" she asked the fox.
"Exactly as I say," the fox instructed. "But, now, sleep child, sleep."
Even as the fox said the words Frida felt her eyelids grow heavy and closed her eyes. Sleep enveloped her like a blanket and she slept soundly the rest of the night. When she awoke, rested but still determined, the fox was gone.
The rest of the day played out as most days did. Their new mother, sadder than usual but trying to hide it, laid the flat fox in his usual spot and seemed warmed by their smiles. Today Frida’s smile was genuine. The fox was her ally now.
All through that morning and into the afternoon the children played. Frida looked at the fox from time to time. She kept expecting it to be sitting there, tail swaying, watching without eyes. But each time it was flat and dead.
She also looked toward the chest. Sometimes it was just a glance, an expectation of what was to come. Other times it was a longing, an aching deep in her chest and belly. It felt like a fire, but cold. That burning chill shot through her arms and legs and she had to fight from jumping up and throwing back the lid of the trunk. Frida had never sipped vengeance before; its taste was bitter but tempting. Remembering the fox’s instructions, she fought the new impulse and turned away from the trunk each time.
In the mid-afternoon Jacob went for a nap. Frida sat on the floor next to her bed, watching the fox. She waited. Jacob started snoring and almost immediately the fox inflated once more. It sat looking at Frida.
"So, what do we do?" Frida asked, no longer frightened or even startled by the fox.
"We open the trunk," the fox said.
"And look inside, of course."
Frida got to her feet and walked with the fox to the trunk. "It won’t escape?"
The fox shook his head. "No, it sleeps in the day time. It is a creature of the night. It hates sunlight and the noisy hustle and bustle of human activity. When humans sleep and darkness creeps it is alert and active."
"What does it look like? How do I kill it?" Frida asked.
"To your first question: You will soon see. To your second…," the fox stopped and shook his head. "Always with humans it is death and killing. You will be freed from it, child. In time, all in time. Now, open the trunk."
Frida, nervous again, tiptoed to the latch on the trunk — there was no lock — and flipped it up slowly, being very quiet. The latch made no squeak as it rose.
"There is nothing to fear, Frida, it is sleeping," the fox said.
"Sleeping things can wake up," Frida said.
The fox said nothing more, only sat there, watching and waiting. Frida placed her hands on the sides of the trunk and, holding her breath, lifted.
The heavy lid rose and, as the shadows receded, Frida saw a little form, no bigger than Jacob, curled and asleep. It was almost purring, lost in its dreams. Frida thought, for a brief moment, that it didn’t look very scary; she wondered why she had been afraid.
"Do not be deceived, child. It has power and is mischievous at best, dangerous at worst," the fox said, as if reading her mind.
But the fox’s warning wasn’t necessary. For, in the next instant, Frida looked closer at the form laying there and she was scared anew. While small, the creature was terrifying.
Atop its head was a bright green, woollen cap. That colour was in stark contrast to the pale, sickly grey of its skin. Below where the cap ended it had one huge eye that moved beneath the large lids drawn over it. And sticking out and over the cap were two long, pointy grey ears. Thick white hairs sprouted from them and went off in all directions. In some places that thin tangle met the thick white beard that ran down to the creature’s knees. Behind that beard, it was dressed in a single garment, a pull-over woollen tunic the same colour as its hat. Nestled in the crazy mass of beard was a small mouth that blew out air every so often. Frida saw there four large, jagged front teeth, two each on top and bottom. They looked like serrated daggers, ready to rend and tear.
"What is it?" Frida asked, whispering and taking a step back.
"A nisse," the fox said.
Frida’s eyebrows knit together. "But nisse are helpful, they do farm work and such."
The fox shook his head gravely. "Yes, maybe, at times. But this one is beyond any of that. He has been wronged or at least believes that to be the case. They are temperamental creatures, easily offended. And once offended they cannot be appeased."
"How was it offended?" Frida asked.
"Once," the fox sighed, "it helped your parents and they thought to repay it. But they treated it too good. It grew greedy and was no longer pleased with their offerings. Then," the fox stopped a moment and looked at her, "then they tried to ignore it. It didn’t like that at all. It set up an accident for them."
Tears started to form in the corner of Frida’s eyes, but her jaw was tight once more and fire was burning in her face.
"Not now, child," the fox said.
"So, what do we do?" she pleaded.
"For now? We close the trunk."
"Aren’t we going to ki…," Frida caught herself, "…banish it?" She shrugged. "Or something?"
"At the proper time, child. Patience. Would you like to be assaulted while you slept?" the fox said. "Now, I believe your brother’s nap is at an end." It leapt upon the top of the trunk, pushing the lid down. It closed with a resounding thud.
At the sound, Frida immediately looked toward Jacob’s bed. The boy sat up and looked at her, blinking. She turned back to the trunk. The fox was gone and the trunk was latched once more. Frida wasn’t surprised to see the flat shape of the fox laying at the top of the stairs, lifeless. Only the black holes stared back at her.
"You are something, aren’t you?" she asked it, shaking her head. There was, as she had expected, no reply.
The rest of that afternoon and evening crept by. Soon though their new parents had retired and Jacob was nestled in his bed. Frida, dressed in her nightgown, brushed her hair by the light of the one lit lantern.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a long shadow approaching from the direction of the stairs. The fox came to her feet and sat.
"Good evening," she said, no longer even a little put off by his sudden and silent appearance.
"Good evening to you, miss Frida. Are you ready?" the fox asked.
Her eyes lit up. "Tonight? Really? I thought you only came to tease me again."
"Really. But first, there is one thing you must do. You seem to know of the nisse. Do you know what they enjoy, almost as much as anything else?"
"I…," she started, thinking hard. "Porridge!"
The fox nodded. "Indeed. Can you make some, quietly, so as not to wake the farmer or his wife?"
"Of course, there is still hot water in the reservoir of the stove. It’ll just take a minute."
Frida stood and started down the stairs. The fox called after her, "Add a large pat of butter on top, that is essential."
"Okay," she called back.
A few minutes later she returned with a steaming bowl of hot porridge, an enormous pat of butter melting on top. She laid it on the nightstand between their beds.
"Good, child. Now, let us start our conversation with your unwelcome guest," the fox instructed. He walked to the trunk and Frida followed.
She leaned down and flipped open the latch. With shaking hands, remembering the unpleasant visage of the nisse, she hefted the lid and pushed it back. She stepped back quickly.
The little creature sat among old papers and clothing in the bottom of the trunk. It looked up at them with that one huge eye. "Friiidaa," it muttered.
The young girl, startled at hearing her own name, inhaled deeply and took another step back.
"No," the fox said firmly, "you must stand your ground."
Frida stepped forward, determined not to fail. She thought of her parents and a little of the cool heat permeated her body.
"I am Frida, yes," she announced. "And who are you, nisse?"
The creature blinked then, but not quickly. It brought those huge lids down and then back up. "Nisse is nisse. Is all. Why Friiidaaa disturb nisse?"
"Why? Why?!" she started, her voice rising.
"Child…," the fox said.
She nodded and continued, not breaking her stare with the nisse. "You dare ask why? You have troubled my family for long enough. You must leave!"
"Leeeeve?" it drawled and then chuckled, deep and shrill. "Leeeeeve? Never! The man of the house doesn’t respect nisse." It stood and pointed one long, gnarled finger at Frida. "Man must pay!"
"No!" Frida yelled. She lifted one foot but before she could step forward the fox jumped into her arms. She caught it and held it, drew strength from it.
At the sight of the fox, the nisse drew back, unsure. It strained that one eye, seeing magic and the unknown in the newcomer to their conversation.
"Child, remember, we have an offering for the nisse," the fox said to Frida. "Maybe, if it likes our gift, it will show kindness by finding a new home."
"Hmmmm," the nisse said, scratching its chin through the mass of wiry beard. "What sort of gift?"
The fox jumped from Frida’s arms to sit on a stool next to the trunk, where it could still make eye contact with the nisse. "Frida?"
The young girl backed away, toward the nightstand where the porridge lay. After a few steps she turned. And stopped dead in her tracks.
Jacob was sitting up in his bed. He hadn’t noticed the conversation on the far side of the room but he had noticed the porridge. He grasped the hot bowl in one hand and the spoon in the other. A huge dollop of the creamy stuff, trailing melting butter, sat on the spoon a short space from his open mouth. The bowl was almost empty. The boy’s wide eyes stared back at his sister’s.
"Jacob!" Frida exclaimed.
At her cry both the fox and the nisse, who had been eyeing each other warily, turned to see what was happening. The fox closed his gaping eye holes and shook his head. The nisse approached the edge of the trunk and, grasping the edge, stood on tippy toes. "Porridge? I smell porridge! But," it sniffed deeply, "a boy, a dirty little boy, has eaten it! Has eaten a gift for the nisse. To steal from the nisse is the worst!"
The little creature launched itself through the air and landed on the bottom of Jacob’s bed. The boy immediately drew up his feet beneath the sheets.
"Frida…," Jacob mumbled, dropping the bowl and spoon and drawing the sheets up to his chin. They couldn’t stanch the chill that ran down his spine.
"You eat my food!" the nisse cried and scrambled up the sheets. It grabbed the bunched up cloth from Jacob and whipped them away, jumping as it did so. The sheets fell to the floor, leaving the boy exposed. Jacob opened his mouth to shriek but the nisse pounced on his stomach, forcing the air out of his lungs.
The creature then grabbed the boy’s wrists. It lay on its back and, though being smaller than the child, hefted Jacob up. It spun him in circles on its bony feet before kicking, launching the boy into the air. Before he could fall the nisse again grabbed the boy’s wrists and swung him around and around.
All this time Frida watched, amazed, terrified and unsure what to do. The fox had approached and watched as well.
"What do we do?" she asked the fox.
"Get it!" the fox cried, losing, for a moment, the calm that seemed to be its constant companion.
The fox jumped onto the nisse, pulling at its green cap and white beard. "Release the boy, nisse!" he cried.
"No, no, no! Boy must pay!" the nisse cried in response, reaching for the fox with one hand while it continued to swing Jacob with the other.
Seeing an opening Frida joined the fray and tackled the nisse. She pinned both its thin arms with her own and, rolling to the floor, secured its legs by wrapping her own around them. "Stop this," she said to it.
"Good work, child," the fox said.
Jacob sat, his head spinning, unsure of what was going on. "Frida, what’s happening?"
"In a moment," she said. "Nisse, will you stop?" she asked it as it continued to squirm in her grasp.
There was a pause, a moment of silence as they all awaited its answer.
"No!" the nisse cried and then cackled. "No!" it cried loader still.
Then it disappeared and Frida collapsed into the empty space, her muscles still tense. "Where did it go?" she asked.
"There!" the fox called, pouncing onto a little shape that scurried among the shadows of the room. "It has made itself tiny."
The nisse was still laughing, though higher pitched now. It scampered out of the fox’s grasp and continued running about the room. Every time it came to a piece of furniture it tossed it up, creating quite a mess.
Frida grabbed the bowl of porridge and joined the chase. She watched the creature, following it with her eyes. She locked eyes with the fox, directing it to a spot on the floor with her gaze. The fox nodded. Jacob watched from the sidelines, perplexed.
When the nisse crossed a specific spot on the wooden floor Frida cried, "now!" and the fox pounced where she had indicated. Immediately the nisse changed direction — right where Frida wanted him to go.
Holding the bowl in both hands she threw herself at the beast. It looked up but only in time for that one eye to open in horror. The bowl came down over it and slammed onto the floor, trapping it.
"You will pay!" came the thin cry from inside the bowl.
"Good…," the fox started but trailed off as the bowl — with Frida still grasping it — slid across the floor. "Well, well, he’s a strong one, isn’t he? Don’t let go, child."
"I won’t! But help me," she said as her knees and elbows banged against overturned chairs and tables. "This is not fun."
But, she noticed, the bowl was slowing; the nisse was tiring. Frida managed to get to her feet and sat on the bowl. It stopped once more. This time it didn’t move again.
"As I was saying, good work," the fox said. "You are quite resourceful, child."
Frida smiled through the aches and pain she was feeling. "But, now what?"
The fox padded over to the bowl. "Nisse? Do you yield?"
"Never!" came the tiny voice from inside the bowl.
"Very well. We will wait until you sleep in the morning. Then we shall dispose of you while you are sleeping," the fox said.
There was a moment of silence. Then another.
"I yield," came the thin reply from within the bowl.
"Release it, Frida."
Jacob approached and sat on the floor, but not too near the bowl. He watched, remaining quiet.
"Are you sure?" Frida asked.
The fox nodded. She sighed but lifted her weight from the bowl. With both hands she lifted the bowl from the floor and laid it upright next to the now tiny nisse.
It sat there, covered in sticky and oily porridge, licking its fingers. "You make good porridge," it said.
"I… thank you," Frida managed.
The fox approached the nisse and bent its head close to the creature. "Do not forget that you have yielded. I have gone easy on you up until now." It bent a little closer, until one of its eyes was right up against the nisse’s one large one. "Do not test me."
The nisse smiled. "Respect I have for you, magic beast."
"Good," the fox said, withdrawing and sitting on its haunches. "You will leave." It was not a question.
The nisse put two fingers of one hand against its nose and blew. Immediately it grew a little. It repeated the gesture, blowing again. It grew some more. This continued until the nisse was back to its true size.
It took another moment before it answered. But, eventually, it nodded and said, sadly, "Nisse will leave."
"And the farmer?" the fox asked.
"No," the nisse said angrily, crossing its arms over its chest.
"Do. Not. Test. Me," the fox said, pausing on each word.
This time the nisse did not smile and there was a hint of fear in its voice when it replied, "Farmer will live. If…" It stood and approached the bowl. It spit into it. "Cure. For bite."
"Where did you bite him?" the fox asked.
"On his back. Apply for cure."
"We understand," the fox said. "Now, it is time to go."
The nisse sighed and, without a word, marched across the room to the trunk. It reached inside and withdrew a stick with a satchel tied to the end. Then it was off, slowly but steadily, down the stairs. A moment later they heard the front door open and close.
"Thank you," Frida said. She flung her arms around the fox, surprised to find him more solid than not. The fox made no move to get away as she hugged him. She withdrew and smiled at the creature. "Thank you so much."
"You are welcome, child. I wish I could do more.” He said nothing of her parents, especially with Jacob there, but she knew that was what he meant.
"It is enough," she said. "What about the farmer?"
"I shall apply the cure," the fox said. "And tomorrow all will be well again."
"And we will never see you again?" Frida asked, tears starting to form in her eyes.
"Oh, sweet child, do not fret." It smiled. "I am always with you."
Without another word it lapped up what the nisse had spit into the bowl and walked away, into the shadows near the stairs. Frida watched it go. She wanted to beg it to stay, to always be there. But she knew that sometimes things changed, sometimes people had to go. Inside, though, they were always there, memories and emotions. Some things could not be stolen.
"Frida," Jacob said, "what’s going on?"
"You’re having a nightmare, of course," she said, smiling at her brother. "Now, get back to bed, it’s very late."
"Okay," Jacob said, easier than she had expected. Perhaps she had learned something from the fox after all. Magic could be real, if one believed.