I slowly open my eyes. The sun is gently shining through the black blinds, spreading light on the white dress hanging on the stool in the far right corner. I stretch out and feel my lover’s dark hair tickle my skin. I catch myself smiling. He is still asleep but I hear low murmurs from the kitchen where my mother and sister are quietly chatting. My sister, like me, has come to Stockholm for this celebration. Probably the most important celebration in Sweden – Midsummer. I’m looking forward to spending the day with my loved ones now that I don’t see them very often, but I’m even more excited to invite my Italian fiancé into a traditional Swedish celebration. The clash of the cultures.
I’m six years old. My father and I are walking through the forest to get to our summer house. It’s located in the area where my father grew up, which is the reason they bought it, for my father to be closer to his roots.
The road leading to the house has the lake on one side and the forest on the other, it is too wild and tight for a car to pass which leaves only two possible routes: either one takes a boat on the lake to our private jetty or one walks through the forest. My mother and older sister have taken the boat with our luggage whereas me and my father are walking. Dad has just told me about the beavers living in the lake, and being from the capital I’m hoping to see one. Even if I enjoy spending time in nature I have an enormous respect for the forest. For as long as I can remember my parents have told me about the forest spirits and their behaviour. I don’t want to upset the spirits so I stay on the barely visible path, holding my father’s big hand.
My eyes are racing from side to side, trying to get a glimpse of the beavers. I let my eye flicker towards the forest for a moment and there I see something, but it is not the furry little creatures I’ve been looking for. Instead I see a man, not more than a meter tall. He is dressed from head to toe in grey, and a little smile appears on his lips when I catch his light grey eyes.
I look quickly over at my dad, “Dad! Look over there!” He stops and turns towards the forest.
“I don’t see anything honey.”
I look back but the creature is gone.
“It was a Vätte!” I whisper this time. I’m a little scared because I have never seen one in real life before, just painted in my books at home.
“Oh! Well you don’t have to worry about them!” my father says with a big smile. He senses my tension and lifts me up.
“Vättarna are kind creatures, they don’t hurt little children, but just in case, maybe we should leave them some food out on the porch tonight.”
I feel more at ease hearing his words, and in my father’s arms nothing can touch me. The rest of the way my father is carrying me on his shoulders while we discuss what kind of food we think they’d prefer.
A few hours later, after my sister, my mum and I have been occupying the bathroom for our preparations, leaving my fiancé and brother-in-law to their own devices, my best friend calls to say that he is downstairs with his car ready to go. This year we will be attending the festivities an hour outside Stockholm, on the brink of the archipelago. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the midsummer celebration started in Scandinavia but back then it was believed to be the day when the spirits and magic of the forest were the strongest. People picked herbs on this day believing their healing powers were more powerful and they even believed that on Midsummer one could see in to the future.
It’s just before ten in the morning when we all set out on the road in my friend’s Ford Thunderbird – 65. Urban Stockholm slowly turns into forests and fields and lakes, and a low fog is covering it all, gently lit by the morning sun. I can’t stop staring when we pass the golden misty fields.
I’m twelve years old. My whole school class is on a trip to my favourite island; Gotland. A place that time seems to have forgotten. I have spent many summers running around barefoot in the grass around our little house here and, because of my happy memories, have always carried a special place for this island in my heart.
This time though, I’m with my class and we won’t go to my summerhouse, instead we will travel around the island and spend time in a few different places with lots of fun activities. Our first stay is a big yellow house on the east side of the island, specially equipped to take care of larger groups, such as a school class. On one side of the house are the golden fields, on the other is the enchanting Baltic sea and a fifteen-minute walk away is a small kiosk and mini-golf course. That is the closest thing we have resembling civilisation for miles. Across from the house we’re sleeping in is the haunted house where they organise ghost tours and that is one of our class activities. If there’s something grown-ups love to do to school kids on trips it’s to scare them as much as possible. I’m fairly sure they believe that if they do that, the children will be too scared to sneak out in the middle of the night for the rest of the trip.
I don’t do well with ghosts. I’m simply terrified, because even though I’m trying to tell myself that I’m an adult now, I still believe in those transparent people stuck in our world.
Fortunately, my mother has joined as a volunteer and tells the teachers that I don’t have to go. Since she is my mother and they don’t have to take responsibility they decide that I can handle myself while they are inside. I now have 45 minutes to explore the middle of nowhere. I want to go to the kiosk and buy some candy, but the house is locked and I don’t have any money with me, instead I walk down to the beach.
The sun will not go down; it’s summer and the sun never really sets. But there is the feeling of night fall, the slowing down of singing birds and buzzing insects (except mosquitos – they seem to be even more alive during the night). The light shifts a bit and in a few hours the sun will be briefly swallowed by the sea creating a beautiful golden world. I take in the delicate views of the beach and the sea but it gets boring quickly without anyone to talk to. I walk back to the house and see the golden fields.
It is completely quiet now without my group and on the other side of a broken stone wall the big golden crops seem to stretch out forever. I wonder where it ends. I jump the wall and decide to explore. The smell of the muddy fertile earth is overwhelming for a city child like me, but it brings out all my happy memories. I stop in my tracks when I realise the long barley has disappeared under my feet and I’m standing on the outside of a big circle where the barley has simply turned brown and died. I look around me and I notice a few more rings across the field. A cold air brushes past me.
“Älvor” is all that comes to my mind. Those little winged girls who dance and sing in the mist, their circular movements making the barley fall, waiting for people to engage in their dance. I have heard and read many stories, seen pictures of them in my books, even watched for them from the safety of a car, but I have never been standing in a field affected by their dancing.
I can feel the hair on my neck rising, I feel numb. One part of me wants to run away from there, the other part of me is trying to tell myself that I’m being ridiculous. I’m a big girl now, I don’t believe in fairy tales. I’m left frozen on the spot, struggling with my own fears.
I hear someone shouting my name and the spell is broken. I run back as fast as my legs can carry me. The haunted house tour is over and some of my friends look like they’ve actually seen a ghost. They tell me stories of strange sounds, and cold spots. I don’t share my experience in the fields but when the fog fills the field later that night I’m thankful I’m not there, dancing until my death.
When we arrive my sister wants to take a few pictures before the Maypole is raised and the place will be swarming with people. We go around the main building where the ground is covered in flowers. We pose with the flower crowns on our heads, believing we are creatures of the forest, because today, it’s what we all feel. Our connection to the nature around us, the nostalgia of this old family tradition, mixed with the freedom of bank holidays makes all of us a bit happier, and a little superstitious.
I’m eleven years old. Me, my older sister, mum and dad are celebrating midsummer with some of mum and dad’s friends. We have all been dancing around the Maypole, playing games and eating for hours when my sister takes my hand and tells me we need to collect the seven flowers. I nod, because soon the sun will disappear behind a big stone and then it will be hard to spot the small flowers. We decide to go different ways, and shout if we find a new flower. I start with the easy ones: cow parsley, buttercup, wood anemone and bluebell. It’s harder now that I have one yellow, two white ones and one blue, they are the ones that stick out in the high green grass. I will have to ask mum to look for ticks when we get back. I hear my sister shout and run to meet her, she has found daisies, violets and hepatica. With the seven flowers placed underneath my pillow I’m anxious to go to bed, because tonight, if I’m lucky, I’ll dream about the man I’ll marry.
I wake up with a frown the next morning, because instead of dreaming of the blonde and blue eyed boy in my class that I have a crush on, according to my dream I will marry a man with dark hair and brown eyes.
When the collective celebration is over, me and my loved ones get on the road again until we reach my best friend’s summerhouse. It’s up on a hill with a view over the archipelago and the forest deep on each side. There are a few other summer houses around, but since the forest separates us from them we can only hear them, not see them. We all help to set up the smorgasbord outside on the terrace overlooking the sea, and then we sit down for lunch which turns into dinner. After we all feel satisfied we go inside and play games. This year we are playing Cards Against Humanity, it’s the easiest game to play while speaking English; my fiancé doesn’t speak Swedish yet except a few phrases. A little tipsy, we call off the night at 1:30 am. My fiancé and I will be sleeping in the guest house and we start to make our way over. I hear a slow violin playing somewhere across the sea and decide that I’m not ready to go to bed yet. I take him with me to one of the mossy stones overlooking the sea.
I’m ten years old. My family and I have been spending the evening at my sister’s auntie’s house. It’s past midnight when it’s time for us to go back. Neither Mum nor Dad wanted to drive the ten minutes it takes (and they probably hadn’t decided to stay this long) so now we have to walk. We decide to walk down to the shore where the moon is brighter but we still have to walk through a bit of the wilderness to get there. Everything is covered in thick fog which makes our flashlights useless, except for inspecting our feet. When we get to a small road we have to walk in a line. I don’t want to walk first, because I don’t know the road very well and since Mum and Dad are talking, I’m walking behind the two. A feeling of being watched creeps up on me, and I try to walk a bit faster but it’s hard in this dark terrain. I feel a heavy breath on my shoulder, I can feel the sweat breaking through, and tell my sister to stop. I walk a little further and once again I feel the breath, closer this time, forcing my hair to fall into my face. This time I turn around to give my sister an angry look, but behind me is only darkness and I remember that she is in town. I turn back around and realise I have lost sight of Mum and Dad, but I can hear them somewhere up ahead. I try to catch up with them but stumble over my own feet in my hurry and fall to the ground with a humph. I can feel the breathing closer now and from somewhere a gentle violin is playing that I hadn’t heard before. I draw my knees to my chest, close my eyes and cover my ears while gently humming another melody to myself, but the violin seems to be growing louder or is it all in my head? I know who plays the violin, it’s Näcken the violin man who snares people with his melodies and brings them to their watery death in his pond. Has he already taken my Mum and Dad? An eternity of the violin strings and the hot breathing seems to pass before I feel a hand on my shoulder. This is it. I slowly open my eyes, which are blurry with tears and I see my mother looking at me. I throw myself at her and she lifts me up.
“Are you all right? did you fall?”
“Yes, I’m okay,” I peep. “But there is someone breathing on me.” My Mum helps me to my feet and Dad who has been standing behind her, takes his flashlight and lights up the area next to me. Multiple big glowing eyes become visible.
“No need to worry, we just woke the cows.”
I see the one that is standing next to me, trying to squeeze its head through the fence. I sigh in relief and take my Mum’s hand. Dad starts telling me about the time he and his friends were out in the night and got chased down by a bull. I smile a little but I can still hear the violin growing stronger the closer we get to the shore. I feel somehow calmer because Näcken doesn’t sit by the sea, he sits by small ponds which means that somewhere a celebration is going on.
With my head leaning on my fiancé’s shoulder I hum along with the music echoing over the sea. The sun is slowly rising in the east and my fiancé looks over at me.
He studies me for a moment, his brown eyes glistening in the sunrise. “Thank you for showing me all this. You really belong here.”
He smiles when he removes moss and leaves that have caught in my hair. “You are like my very own fairy tale creature.”
I’m not – but I surely grew up with them.