The Hidden People
by Resa Nelson
As the Dark Citadels loomed ahead, Sigurthor whispered, “Remember what I told you about the Hidden People.”
Lydia remembered. Sigurthor had warned her about them the first week she’d come to Iceland. At first she thought he must be joking. Now she wasn’t so sure.
She shuddered, despite the cozy warmth of the navy cardigan she’d bought in Reykjavik. Why had she left the comfort of home in Maine? Why had she been so stupid to feel like a loser? Maybe at the age of 36 she was a bit old to live with her parents, but times were tough, right? Besides, it wasn’t like she didn’t earn her keep. All her life Lydia had worked at her family’s salmon farm. How could she have let her folks talk her into accepting an invitation to study all summer at an Icelandic fish farm? Lydia wished she could be home right now, surrounded by the gamey stench of salmon tanks all day and watching reruns of Law & Order at night.
But she forced herself to be polite and let her host play travel guide whenever the mood struck him.
Lydia stood at the top of a broad set of steps winding down to a valley. During the past weeks, she’d walked desolate beaches of black sand dotted with rusting shipwrecks. She’d hiked mountains of blackened lava, laced with unexpected holes. She’d soaked her weary muscles in natural hot springs. She experienced Iceland as a mix of rocky wasteland and green hillsides graced with spectacular waterfalls.
But she’d still rather be watching Law & Order.
Iceland seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Many of the hills looked like they’d pushed up through the ground overnight, and new fissures split the earth so fast that no one could keep track of them. For safety reasons, paths were marked in grassy areas, and tourists were advised to stay on them. If you walked on the grass, it was too easy to step into a crack and fall into a hidden crevice. If that crevice ran deep, you could disappear.
Again, Lydia shuddered, missing her mother and father and the safety they provided.
Kathleen laughed at Sigurthor’s warning about the Hidden People. Sigurthor was a native Icelander, but Kathleen was as American as Lydia even though she didn’t look it. Kathleen’s long mane of white-gold hair gave her a pureblood Scandinavian look, as if she were descended from the Norwegian Vikings who’d brought their Irish slaves to work Iceland’s harsh soil eleven hundred years ago.
Kathleen and Sigurthor were Lydia’s host family for the summer, teaching her how to raise Arctic char, a fish similar to salmon. The more delicate flavor of Arctic char made it popular with restaurants, and Lydia’s family hoped to corner that market in their neck of the woods.
Secretly, Lydia fantasized about becoming a librarian or maybe even running a little bookstore someday. She loved the cracking sound of a newly-opened book. The smell of inked paper made her just as happy as the scent of freshly-baked cookies. And running her fingers over a cover’s raised title made her feel as if she were detecting a secret message, like a blind woman reading Braille.
But whenever Lydia talked about what she wanted, no one in her family listened. She might as well be mute. Or invisible.
So she settled for a life that stank of fish.
“Don’t linger or the Hidden People will steal you from us,” Sigurthor said with a grin. “Then no one will ever see you again.”
“Stop scaring her!” Kathleen said, stifling a giggle.
“I’m not scared,” Lydia said, failing to keep her voice from trembling.
Sigurthor’s dark eyes sparkled as he glanced at Lydia’s white knuckles. “Let’s go,” he said, walking down the steps toward the valley.
Kathleen slipped her arm through the crook of Lydia’s elbow, and they followed Sigurthor. “It was quite brave of you to come all the way to Iceland by yourself,” Kathleen said.
Lydia had failed to mention her terror at boarding the plane alone, and how she’d almost refused to leave Maine. Halfway through the flight she’d run to the plane’s tiny restroom because she thought she might throw up.
“It was a big risk,” Kathleen continued. “You didn’t know anything about me or Sigurthor, and you made a big commitment, sight unseen. Thirteen weeks is a long time.”
Lydia watched the steps carefully while she walked down them. The first time she’d left a marked path, she’d unwittingly stepped into a small fissure hidden under the grass and twisted her ankle. Kathleen and Sigurthor had explained how the North American and European tectonic plates met and bumped into each other under Iceland. Crevices covered the entire country, and the ground constantly pulled apart. It was important to be careful. But the safest bet of all was to find a marked path and never step off.
The landscape of Iceland was completely unpredictable. And, therefore, extremely dangerous.
But Lydia didn’t have the heart to say no when her hosts planned a visit to the Dark Citadels followed by a picnic in the countryside, even when she learned they’d have to travel by horseback. How could those little Icelandic horses be strong enough to manage their way across the lava fields, cliff edges, and rock-filled streams?
They descended between barriers of thick birch trees with waxy leaves. Kathleen stopped suddenly, gripping Lydia’s arm. Lydia jerked to a halt.
“Look,” Kathleen said. “Aren’t they glorious?”
The Dark Citadels spread before them: a gigantic, vast ring of black lava towers. They looked like a maze of petrified sand castles built by monsters.
“Thousands of years ago, this was a lake of molten lava,” Kathleen said. “When the molten lava drained away, the Dark Citadels were left behind.”
Lydia questioned whether she wanted to walk among them. “Why did Sigurthor remind me about the Hidden People just now?”
Instead of answering, Kathleen yelled, “Sigurthor!”
Just ahead, on the dirt path leading into the Dark Citadels, Sigurthor turned to face them.
“What?” Sigurthor shouted back.
Kathleen sprinted to catch up with him, dragging Lydia behind. “Lydia wants to know why you reminded her about the Hidden People.”
Sigurthor’s expression drifted somewhere between irritation and amusement. “We are now coming to a place where it is especially important to stay on the path,” Sigurthor said. “It is easy to get lost inside the citadels. Even experienced hikers vanish. Some have never been found. It is not unthinkable that the Hidden People captured them. Or changed them into something other than human.”
“Sigurthor, please!” Kathleen said in exasperation.
“It’s okay,” Lydia said to Kathleen. “I know he’s not serious.”
“But I am very serious,” Sigurthor said. “If you get lost, you could die in the Dark Citadels, even at this time of year.”
Lydia understood. Even now, during the height of summer, the weather could be dicey. Last week it had snowed in Akureyri, a nearby city. Even though the sun never set during July, the nights could be fatally cold.
“I won’t get lost,” Lydia promised.
“Do not worry,” Sigurthor said. “You will not see the Hidden People unless they want to be seen by you.”
Lydia clung to Kathleen’s hand. “I said I won’t get lost.”
“Good,” Sigurthor said. He turned and walked toward the citadels. “Let us hope that you do not.”
Lydia walked on sand the color of licorice.
She kept pace with Kathleen and Sigurthor as they wound their way through the towering lava formations. Lydia felt intrigued by the path of black sand. Kathleen had insisted it was safe. No hidden fissures. It was a soft path, but a solid one.
Like the sand on Iceland’s beaches, it consisted of lava worn down by the elements.
She knelt to touch it. She picked up a handful and let it run slowly through her fingers. It felt soft. So soft. So beautiful.
Suddenly, it rushed up around her.
Frantic, Lydia pushed the sand away from her nose so she could breathe, but gravity dragged her down.
Sigurthor and Kathleen walked ahead, deep in conversation. They didn’t see her sinking into the black sand.
Lydia closed her eyes just before the sand covered her head. She held her breath and tried pushing herself up, like hoisting herself out of a swimming pool, but she only managed to sink more. It felt like slipping through the sand inside an hourglass. Because she was a strong swimmer, Lydia knew she could hold her breath for a long time. Her lungs burned, craving fresh oxygen.
Oh, God, Lydia thought. Please help me.
And then someone grabbed her hand.
Before Lydia knew what happened, he pulled her up out of the sand. She felt strong hands under her armpits, hauling her to safety.
Lydia gasped, brushing sand away from her nose and mouth. Finally, she looked up at Sigurthor.
But it wasn’t Sigurthor.
A strange man with hair as fine and black as the sand knelt beside her. “Are you all right?” he said.
Normally, Lydia would have thanked him for saving her life, but she couldn’t speak. There was something about the man that seemed terrible and unnatural.
He didn’t seem quite human.
Suddenly, Lydia wasn’t sure which was more dangerous: the sand that had enveloped her or the strange man who had pulled her out of it.
“I’m fine,” she said cautiously. “Thank you.” Lydia stood, keeping close watch on the strange man. She looked around.
Sigurthor and Kathleen had vanished.
“I need to find my friends.”
“No one else is here,” the man said. He stood up, watching Lydia as closely as she watched him. “The Dark Citadels have closed to the public for today.”
She supposed he was a park ranger, even though he wore a black t-shirt, jeans, and leather jacket instead of a uniform.
Looking around, Lydia understood Sigurthor’s warning about not getting lost. Being in the Dark Citadels was like being in the midst of a twisted city, like something out of an Escher drawing. The black sand path wound in and out of the lava formations-–no one could tell where you were at any given point or how you got there.
It was impossible to get perspective.
All Lydia could see were the towers surrounding her. She didn’t know how to get out.
The man pointed at her wrist. “Do you not have the time?”
Lydia looked at her watch. It read 9:33 p.m.
That had to be impossible. They’d arrived at 2:00 p.m. How could she have been here for seven-and-a-half hours?
Then Lydia realized she couldn’t see the sun because the citadels blocked it. Most of the time, the sun stayed high in the sky. It dipped down to the horizon only late at night. Judging from the faintness of daylight, her watch might be right.
“Lydia,” he said.
She froze. She made it a habit to embrace paranoia. Just because you were paranoid didn’t mean you were wrong. “How do you know my name?”
He smiled. “Your friends. They asked me to help you. They have gone home and will return tomorrow.”
Lydia brightened. “You can call them on your cell phone!”
“Cell phone,” the man repeated, as if the words left a bad taste in his mouth. “I have no use of such things.”
Lydia remembered having left her backpack, containing her own cell phone, at Sigurthor’s farm. As long as Sigurthor and Kathleen were by her side, keeping her cell phone at hand seemed silly and pointless. “Then what–”
“Come with me,” he said, walking on the black sand path. It looked stable under his feet.
It didn’t feel safe to follow him, but she remembered Sigurthor’s warning of hikers getting lost and how easy it would be to freeze to death. The air already had cooled with a sharp bite, and it would only get worse as the night progressed.
Lydia followed the strange man through the citadels.
They seemed to walk for hours. Finally, he stopped at the base of one of the black towers. “You are welcome to spend the night here.”
They didn’t seem to be walking out of the Dark Citadels. They seemed to be going deeper into them. And now they were stopping? “Spend the night?” Lydia said. “Outside?”
“Inside.” The man stepped closer to the tower.
What happened next must have been a trick of light. Where the tower had seemed solid and impenetrable, Lydia could now see an opening.
He took a step inside, and then offered his hand to her. “The night will be warmer inside.”
Her paranoia kicked in again. “No, thank you. I’ll be fine out here.”
“All right,” he said, lowering his hand. “Please yourself.” The strange man vanished inside the lava pillar.
She dreamed of the pillars, twisting into disfigured and grotesque figures. She heard Sigurthor say, “Eve did not have time to wash all of her children because God arrived to visit her on short notice. So she hid them. She was ashamed to let God see them as they were, so she said she had no more children than the clean ones God had already seen. But God knows all. God told Eve, “Whatever I cannot see, no one else may see.” They became the Hidden People. And when the Vikings came to Iceland, the Hidden People chose to be seen, knowing the Vikings would perceive them as gods.”
The disfigured and grotesque figures pulled themselves up out of the black sand and walked toward Lydia as she shivered in the night’s pale light. She remembered Kathleen saying, “Icelanders had to hide their Viking gods a thousand years ago when Christianity was forced on them. But the Viking gods were like another race of people. They were just as mortal as we are, but they live much longer. They acted more like guardians than gods.”
The lava melted away slowly from each pillar until it revealed the person hidden inside. She screamed.
“Stop scaring her!” a woman’s voice said.
Lydia sat up, startled out of sleep and no longer outside. Her eyes adjusted to the dim light. She found herself inside an enormous marble hall dappled with candlelight and thick shadows.
Lydia recognized the woman with a long mane of white-gold hair–Kathleen!–walking toward her.
Lydia’s hosts had found her. Or maybe it had all been nothing but a dream.
“That cannot be done,” said the man with hair as black as sand. “I say we eat her heart now.”
Lydia froze, suddenly wanting her mommy.
The woman with the white-gold hair wasn’t Kathleen, after all. She’d looked like her for one minute, but now she looked different. Older. She knelt by Lydia, offering her a drink of water. The woman then spoke to the man who wanted to eat Lydia’s heart. “Shame on you! We outlawed exposure many centuries ago! How could you leave her outside to freeze to death like the child of a slave?”
Lydia’s hands trembled as she drank the water. She found herself curled on sheepskins by the dying embers in a fireplace. Polished black walls rose several stories above them, reflecting the quiet light of the embers and the candles.
The dark man sat cross-legged on a tabletop. “But that is how she behaves. Like the helpless child of a helpless slave.” Before Lydia could breathe, he sprang across the room and posed like a cat at Lydia’s feet. “Tell me, Little Fish,” he said. “Do you wish to spend your life hiding at the bottom of the stream, or do you have the nerve to swim?”
“What?” Lydia stuttered.
“Poor Lydia,” he said. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Always the fish farmer, never the bookshop proprietor.”
She hadn’t told anyone in Iceland about her dreams. Might she have mentioned them in the paperwork she’d filled out for the summer study program at Kathleen and Sigurthor’s farm? No. She would remember if she’d written anything so personal.
“Forget occupations,” the dark man said. “What is the value of being occupied? Unless you decide to throw your life away by bowing to the expectations of others.”
Lydia bristled. “You don’t know me or my life.”
The woman who was not Kathleen stepped between them. “Your friends prayed on your behalf.”
“This is an intervention?” Lydia frowned. There had better not be any cameras here. She felt certain she’d signed no waiver for being filmed for any reality TV shows. “There’s no reason to intervene. I don’t drink. I don’t take anything stronger than aspirin. There’s nothing wrong with my life.”
“Then why are you here?” the dark man said. “Why did you come to Iceland?”
Lydia was tired of him and the woman who wasn’t Kathleen. Lydia never should have agreed to come to the Dark Citadels or the picnic that would have followed. She should have stayed in bed with a good book instead. Even better, she should never have left her own bedroom in her parents’ house on their farm in Maine. She grew angrier by the moment and gave her standard answer to questions that annoyed her. “I had no choice.”
Tiny rips tore her clothes like new fissures created by the tectonic plates deep below Iceland. Lydia pulled at the cloth to keep it together.
Smiling, the dark man kept his gaze locked on Lydia while she panicked. “Nonsense,” he said. “There is always choice. If you don’t like one choice, make another.”
He paused, looking her up and down. “Unless, of course, you’d rather be safe and secure like a child and spend your life complaining about it.”
Three men sang as they marched into the room, carrying torches to light their way.
Lydia ran to them. “Please help me!”
But in the bright light of the torches, what she saw startled her. One man wore an eye patch, another had only one ear, and the third man had only one hand.
The man with the eye patch, dressed in dark indigo and carrying a spear, stared intently at her with his single eye. “Hello, Lydia.”
Lydia recognized these men. A man with one eye who could see everything. A man with one ear who could hear the wool grow on a sheep’s back. And a man who had sacrificed his hand to save the lives of others.
She’d read about them in books. As a little girl she’d spent her summers in the children’s section of the public library, devouring all the mythology books she could find. She remembered reading about the gods Odin, Heimdal, and Tyr.
“Please help me,” she whispered.
The one-eyed man gazed at her for a long moment. “As you wish.”
Lydia felt slim and sleek. And scaly. She tried to scream, but she had no voice.
She flopped onto a bed of lettuce on a serving platter in the middle of a large dining table. She couldn’t stand up because she had no legs. She had a tail instead.
He’d turned Lydia into a fish.
But it was the dark man who sliced her and served her up to the others.
“I love Arctic char,” said the woman who wasn’t Kathleen. “So much more delicate than salmon.”
The one-handed man sat back in his chair and chewed. “But there’s a certain bitterness in this one.”
The one-eared man savored a bite. “It tastes more like regret to me.”
“You’re the expert,” said the one-eyed man. “What do you think?”
The dark man used the carving knife to extract the tiny heart from the fish on the platter. He chewed up the heart and then spat it out on the table. “Too small. Too timid.”
He picked up Lydia’s fish body with one hand, holding together the skin he’d sliced open. He looked into her tiny eyes. “You see, Little Fish, there’s a choice. If you swim at the bottom of the stream, you exist. You may live longer, but it’s not much of a life. Existing is easy. Living is a dangerous proposition. Sometimes you risk. Sometimes you sacrifice.”
He whispered softly into her little fish ears. “But the rewards can be great.”
He tossed her up high in the air.
The dark man shouted, “Choose!”
When Lydia drew her next breath, she was herself again.
The sun shined bright and high in the sky. She sat on a picnic blanket with Kathleen and Sigurthor. She had a sandwich in her hand of peas and diced carrots mixed in mayonnaise.
They were in a valley surrounded by hills dotted with a few spring lambs, in absolute quiet, save for the occasional bleating of the sheep or the cry of a bird circling overhead. Three horses grazed nearby.
“I don’t understand,” Lydia said, looking to her friends for answers.
Kathleen and Sigurthor laughed.
“It’s a simple enough question,” Kathleen said. “What do you like other than fish farming?”
Moments ago, Lydia had been a fish, carved up for dinner. It couldn’t have been a dream. How could she have fallen asleep in the middle of a conversation?
Lydia stared at Kathleen’s long white-gold hair. When Lydia looked away, Sigurthor caught her gaze, and his eyes glinted darkly.
Lydia wondered for just a moment if they might be gods.
She took a deep breath. Hiding motionless at the bottom of a stream had lost its safe appeal. “I like to read.”
“That’s good,” Kathleen said.
Kathleen was the one who had told Lydia that Viking gods were more like guardians than gods.
“I’d rather work in a library or a bookstore than with fish,” Lydia said. “But my family won’t let me.”
Sigurthor smirked. “Can’t grown women do as they wish in your country? Or is that only a myth?”
Horrified, Kathleen smacked her husband’s arm lightly. “She’s our guest! Don’t be rude.”
“It’s all right,” Lydia said. “I know what he means.”
When they finished eating, Kathleen and Sigurthor mounted their horses.
Lydia stared at the third horse, still grazing. She must have ridden it here. She was afraid of horses. Even the Icelandic horse, the smallest horse in the world, was powerful. What if she fell? What if the horse threw her?
“Do not be afraid,” Sigurthor said.
Sigurthor and Kathleen mounted their horses and trotted away.
“You can’t leave me behind,” Lydia called out.
Sigurthor and Kathleen kept riding.
“Fine,” Lydia muttered. She approached her horse. It kept grazing as she put her foot in the stirrup and swung astride its back. She poked its sides with her heels. “Come on. Let’s go.”
The horse glanced back at her for a moment and then returned to grazing.
Lydia kicked harder.
The horse took a few steps forward, lowered its head, and bit a mouthful of grass.
Lydia pulled back on the reins. Hard. She leaned forward, close to the horse’s ear. “I’m not kidding. I’m ready.”
The horse trotted, following the other horses, now far ahead. It changed gait, moving faster.
Lydia pulled back on the reins to make it slow down. When the horse glanced back, Lydia would have sworn its eyes brimmed with irritation.
Even my horse knows I’m afraid.
But then Lydia remembered what it felt like to turn into a fish and have her heart ripped out. The more she thought about it, the less she believed she’d fallen asleep in the middle of a conversation and dreamed about Viking gods. She’d survived having her heart ripped out. Maybe there was more she could survive. Like having the courage to live her own life instead of bowing to the expectations of others.
She remembered what the man who was not Sigurthor told her. There is always choice. If you don’t like one choice, make another.
Lydia let the reins relax in her hands. The horse took the lead, racing to catch up with the others. It ran across rocky and uncertain ground, but the horse seemed to understand the landscape far better than any human could.
Glancing down, Lydia saw her hands shimmer silver in the sunlight, and they seemed to be covered in scales. Moments later, they faded until her skin looked normal again.
“Little fish,” Lydia whispered to herself. “It’s time to make a new choice.”
She held onto the reins just tightly enough to keep her balance. The wind whipped the hair back from her face.
For the first time in her life, Lydia felt alive.
Did You Enjoy The Hidden People by Resa Nelson?
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