SINISTER SUMMER CAMP CHALLENGE HONORABLE MENTION
Ten years. They’d passed quickly it seemed, gaining momentum with each winter chill – faster and faster like loose rocks bounding helter skelter down a mountainside. A steep one. I hadn’t heard from my old college roomie, Sven Hagstrom, in a decade. After graduation, he’d abruptly returned to his native Sweden to work at the family’s growing business run by his mom. Canceled our celebratory camping trip. Unlike most other graduates, Sven never experienced the usual angst contemplating post-college life; his career path already established.
Ten summers later, during a lunchtime perusal (and deletion) of endless emails on my company computer, I spotted the transmission from Sven. The subject line read: Explosion from the Long-ago. I chuckled at this, knowing Sven hated cliches, replacing them with equivalent phrasing whenever possible. And this certainly was a blast from the past. A very unexpected one. My heart flickered; my stomach clinched as I clicked the mouse.
To: Jake Jacobs / Software Engineering Manager
Fr: Sven Hagstrom / VP Marketing
I trust this email finds you well. First, I’d like to apologize for my actions following exams, but a family emergency necessitated my sudden departure to the homeland. Afterward, I immersed myself in growing the Hagstrom bath products business with little time for anything else, including collegiate pals. Since I’ve received zero correspondence from you over the years, I figured you’d become razor focused on career as well . . . we two were always the ambitious ones, eh?
Or maybe you were just pissed off we never took that planned excursion to the Grand Tetons after graduation. I know how much you loved camping and looked forward to that one last wilderness jaunt before shackled to the real world.
I’d therefore like to make it up to you with the following proposal – an all-expense paid two-week camping trip at Glaskogen nature reserve in Sweden. Once dates have been established, nothing’s required of you except to show up at the airport. Airfare, ground transportation, camping gear, food, etc., will be provided. Bring backpack, clothing, and hiking boots. Summer nights can get cool up here so pack accordingly.
I’m confident you’ll somehow make the appropriate arrangements for time off at your firm. I look forward to a well-deserved respite from the rat race, reminiscing about old times, and catching up with each other’s lives.
Sven Hagstrom / VP Marketing (and hopefully still your friend)
I sat in my office rereading Sven’s proposal, campus reminiscences swirling around in my noggin. As the consummate workaholic I hadn’t been camping in years, my wilderness gear collecting cobwebs in my townhome’s attic. Here was my chance.
I responded to Sven then accessed the company’s HR site; requested two weeks beginning the Monday after next (allowing for departure on a mid-July weekend). Since I’d maxed out on vacation accrual, my boss eagerly approved the online paperwork.
I winged into Stockholm then headed to the train station for the four and one-half hour ride north to Glaskogen. In a follow-up email, Sven indicated he’d meet me at the designated campsite located in a secluded area just outside the nature reserve’s 69,000 acres; a map was included with detailed instructions.
Arriving at Glaskogen, I attempted to text Sven although he’d warned me service in the reserve was dubious at best. Right he was. At the Lenungshammar Visitor Center inside the park I confirmed the trails on Sven’s map. The older, somewhat frazzled gentleman at the counter shot me a curious glance when viewing the map; indicated I had a minimum of two hours of hilly hiking ahead.
As my backpacked-self ambled out the door, the elderly guy issued a peculiar warning. “If you should hear the enticing voice of a woman singing, do not linger; continue on the trail. Double time.”
“What? You’re joking, right? Messing with a tourist.”
“You foreigners don’t know the ways of our forest. Especially that area. Proceed with caution, young man.”
“Yeah, sure.” As a technical dude, I never put much credence in folklore, local or otherwise.
The anticipated two hours morphed into well over three as I trudged along in the timberland paradise, my pace slowing with each hill encountered. My backpack had conspired with gravity; aching muscles were not amused.
Eventually, my ears detected the campsite. Sven’s favorite American rocker, Bruce Springsteen, blared in the distance. My pace hastened as I rounded the narrow trail to a small forest clearing where two new tents stood surrounded by all the standard camping necessities.
Sven spotted me immediately. “Jake! Damn. It’s good to see you, dude.” I was met at the camp’s perimeter with a huge bearhug and beaming smile. “Other than a few laugh lines, you haven’t changed a bit, man.”
The same couldn’t be said for Sven. In a single decade he’d gained three decades worth of weight, his once reddish blond hair darkened and receded, and his facial lines almost as numerous and random as trail delineations on the Glaskogen map.
“It’s been way too long, man,” I said. “Way too long.”
Once I got unpacked Sven grabbed a couple of icy brews from one of the campsite’s many Yeti coolers and ushered me over to a swank portable picnic table not too far from the large fire pit.
“How’d you get all this shit up here, man? No way by yourself.”
“I hired some guys to hike up here with me; they’ll return in a couple of weeks when we break camp.”
“Must have been a freaking caravan,” I joked. Best campsite ever.
For the next few hours we caught up on each other’s lives in front of a roaring campfire – just like the ones I remembered at childhood summer camps; both of us being office hounds, work dominated the conversation. Sven did reveal a few personal tidbits – he was in the process of getting a divorce (no kids), selling his home, and going back to school to study art at night as he would never leave his day job at the family business. Work by day, paint by night was the plan.
Being canine tired, I bid Sven a good evening and turned in, wanting a good night’s sleep before our planned hike to one of the mountain lakes in the area. Snuggled into the sleeping bag, it took less than a minute before slumber took over.
Sometime in the night I was awakened by the singing. The beautiful voice of a woman it was; although voiced in Swedish, the song was nevertheless alluring, the most intoxicating melody I’ve ever heard.
“Sven, Sven,” I called over to the adjacent tent. “Sven!”
A groggy voice replied. “What, man?”
“That singing; don’t you hear it?”
“That’s probably just some lady playing a prank. It happens sometimes in this forest. She’s pretending to be a Huldra.
“Huldra. It’s based on some silly Swedish folklore. As the story goes, a Huldra entices unmarried men like you with song, leads them into the deep forest, seduces them, and then asks for marriage; won’t let ‘em go until they agree.”
“I’d agree to the seduction, but not the marriage,” I joked.
“Legend says it’s not that easy, my friend.” Sven was wide awake now and squatting in front of my tent. “If you refuse, she’ll kill you, sometimes forcing you to dance until you drop dead, literally. But it’s all a bunch a bull, just another Swedish campfire story, so go back to sleep; we’re on the trail early tomorrow,” advised Sven as he popped up and returned to his tent.
I lay still in my tent for a few minutes, but the sweet song continued to lure in the cool night air. “What the hell,” I whispered as I got up. Donned pants, boots, and light jacket; headed toward the sound. That freaking beautiful noise.
The singing led me up a dense trail adjacent to the campsite. As the volume increased so did my pace until I came upon her leaning on a twisted pine, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever encountered. Golden locks flowed over a long emerald gown. She turned her head toward me and smiled; held out her hand as she continued in song.
If it’s just a silly Swedish legend, I’ll play along – no harm done, my mind reasoned. I took her hand and she led me up the trail for several minutes. Deeper into the timberland. Twice along the way her gown snagged on some underbrush, briefly exposing what appeared to be a cow’s tail. Odd, but I was too mesmerized to care.
We came to a clearing where several other gorgeous young women lingered, joining her in song as we approached. They continued as she said, “These are my sisters gathered for the wedding. I hope you approve.”
“But I thought a seduction preceded the marriage proposal,” I joked.
“It can, but the wedding night is infinitely better I can assure you. Just agree and my sisters will perform the wedding ceremony. Less than five minutes. Then we’ll be on our way.”
These women have no authority to marry anyone, I thought. Just go with it. “Okay, but I expect the wedding night to extend well into tomorrow.”
“It will, my love,” the beauty responded. “It will.”
My bride’s siblings danced around us in a circle singing in Swedish for several minutes, concluding with a group hug. That was the ceremony and we were on our way, continuing down a narrowing path. So much so we ambled on single file, she taking the lead. Somehow, my bride had changed into a sundress along the way; how I do not know. The tail was gone. Maybe I’d just imagined it.
Eventually, we came upon a cozy log cabin. “Here we are,” she cooed, “the honeymoon suite,” turning to take my hand.
I screamed. Screamed my throat raw. The beauty I thought I’d married had morphed into a hideous hag, her face covered in warts and lesions; her breath hot and sour.
“What’s wrong, my husband? Do you not recognize your blushing bride? Surely Sven told you about me.”
“He said it was just silly folklore,” I responded, my voice trembling in cadence with my shaking body. “How do you know Sven?”
Ignoring my query, she continued, “Of course he wouldn’t tell you everything. I suppose not, considering the circumstances.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He was my previous husband, fool! Lured just like you; I tired of him eventually and he realized the consequences. To save his skin Sven tendered a proposal. A quite clever one. Promised if I’d release him he’d provide a replacement, someone from America. I was intrigued as I’ve always married Swedes; it was time I sampled something different.” Her toothless smile broadened, the catalyst for my next move.
I turned and sprinted back down the path, the dense foliage slicing my hands like paper cuts. Didn’t get far before her claw-like hands slammed me down on the forest floor.
“No escape, my husband. You have two choices. Only two. Stay with me in our forest home or dance until your heart explodes. Newly married, I’ve lost my tail, but gained a greater strength than any human can imagine. What will it be – Jake and Huldra or Jake and death?”
There were no lesser of two evils here. My mind raced back and forth like a tennis ball at Wimbledon. Finally, I flipped a mental coin and said, “The wedding night awaits, my love.” The choice pleased her.
Defining my husbandly duties as the worst night of my life would be an understatement. Through it all, however, I plotted. A two-stepped strategy. Sometime in the future when she tired of me I’d make a similar proposal; promise her a replacement. Someone from America or any country she desired. Once fulfilled, I’d focus on part deux. Track down that lying scumbag Sven, wave a gun at his head, and force him to dance.
A Huldra ending. Oh yes, indeed.