by Rijn Collins
“Skål, mine venner!”
I feel the words tumble around my mouth, grappling for a foothold. The vodka has numbed my tongue and the cold has done the same to my fingers, but I raise my glass with the rest of them and shout “Cheers, my friends!” in Norwegian with a bad Australian accent.
Per wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and smiles my way. The gap between his teeth holds my attention, and when he speaks, it takes me a moment to realise it’s in English.
“You really born on the Winter Solstice?”
I lick my lips. “‘I was, yes. Winter wench to my core – although in Australia, that’s in June.”
He slides a stream of vodka into my glass, and shows me that gap once more.
“Here in Norway, do you know what being born on the Solstice means?”
I shake my head, and reach for the glass.
“It means you’re a witch.”
I feel it burn my lips, my tongue, my throat. I try not to cough. I’m pretty sure witches can handle their booze.
“But with red hair like yours, you already are.”
I think he might be flirting with me. I think I’ve had a few glasses. I think maybe I am a witch, and I just never realised it. But what I know without a shadow of a doubt is that I’ve never in my life been so cold.
And you know you’re an obsessive smoker when you’ll head into a beer garden even in sub-zero temperatures to slide that stick into your mouth and watch the flame flicker. It’s only my third day in the hostel, but faces are already familiar, and this pot belly stove out the back of the bar seems like the best place to pick up the names to go with them. My Norwegian is improving one phrase at a time, unaided by the guidebook that finds it necessary to teach me the enigmatic line “The first thing I’ll need is a top hat.”
I don’t know what these Norwegians get up to, but I’m keen to find out.
I haven’t got my snow legs yet, and my army boots keep slipping on the slick patches of ice scattered around us, but there’s always someone to catch me. Our breath clouds out before us each time we speak and I have pins and needles in my hands, but the moonlight falling across the snow makes it all gloriously worthwhile.
I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.
We raise our glasses.
“To Gjøvik, the best hometown in the world!”
Clinks shoot through the night air, and more warmth rushes down my throat. I want to toast this magical land too, but for some reason the first thing that flicks across my mind is the 80s pop band, A-Ha. I don’t think that’d make me any friends tonight.
We lift our glasses again. “To Skadi!” is the cry, and I raise my eyebrows.
“She’s the goddess of winter… the Solstice is her night.”
Per nods at me.
“She hunts on skis in the mountain with a bow and arrow. Also has a thing for bare feet.” He winks. “Chose her husband by lining up the gods and selecting the best feet. Kinky little minx, hey?”
I laugh, clasping the vodka glass to my chest.
“How do you celebrate Midwinter then?”
I watch the lit ember of a cigarette end arc through the air as he gestures. Several people huddled around the ashtray watch him, smiling.
“Midvinterblot? We make white cakes, and drink Akevitt, strong liquor flavoured with caraway seeds.”
Someone else joins in, voice warm and deep.
“Don’t forget the winter goat!”
Per laughs, and my eyes land on the gap between his teeth again.
“We have this goat, you see – Julbukk. He used to carry the god Thor, but now he carries the Yule elf when he brings gifts to all the children.”
He smiles at me as glasses clink.
“We love that damn goat!”
This sounds reasonable. It sound festive and pagan and utterly, beautifully Norwegian and when the mission is set to find a goat, it seems the only thing in the world to do. We lace up our coats and pull down fur-lined caps, and tuck half empty bottles of vodka into pockets. Tonight belongs to Skadi, and when the cry goes out to trek barefoot in honour of her, I don’t hesitate to untie my army boots and sling them over my shoulder.
Bare feet crunching on snow, we head into the Winter Solstice night to find a goat.
RIJN COLLINS is a Melbourne writer with a background in Linguistics, a future in Berlin, and an ever growing collection of red notebooks to scribble in. Her work has been published in Going Down Swinging, The Age, Eclecticism, Notata and various print anthologies and online journals, and has been adapted for performance on Radio National. She prefers spilling ink in cold climates, and is headed to Berlin to work on her novel, which will involve more red notebooks, and no doubt whiskey too. Snakes work their way into her writing often. She’s still not quite sure why.