I am happy to be sharing a bit of my fanciful mind with you! Discover the story of Freja through excerpts from Chapter I, adapted for Instagram.
The children were still sleeping while the rest of the family was getting ready for the celebration. Deep in the woods, the old and rustic windows shutters from the smallest house were still closed, but thin rays of sunlight seeped through the holes of the cracked wood, bathing the long table in a warm golden glow. Covered with woollen blankets and cosy furs, there were enough seats to accommodate the five generations. The oldest woman was turning 137 today.
They were all now sitting at the table and the windows were wide open. The smell of freshly baked bread and the aroma of well-seasoned dishes invaded the room. A grey and furry cat left his comfortable bed by the firewood and sat next to them. The soothing song of the birds and the music of the wind whispering through the trees was only interrupted by the clinking sound of the cutlery hitting on the plates.
The old lady took a big silver spoon and put a bunch of fresh flowers into a huge steaming teapot. She smelled the infusion and smiled satisfied. After pouring some tea into each cup, she looked at the wall where violins and bagpipes were lying and asked, "When does the music start?"
The noise grew louder and louder. The dense forest did not allow me to see beyond a few meters. I tied my boots tight, grabbed the lantern, and opened the door. A warm summer breeze caressed my face, filling the air with the scent of pine. The sound seemed to come from the woods on the other side of the meadow.
Something big had to be happening, I thought. The closer I got the nicer the sound became, until I began to distinguish the friendly melodies of a violin. In the distance, the faint reflection of the stars in the lake and the glow of a great bonfire guided my way.
Like flags fluttering in the wind, the loose dresses of the women spun around the fire to the rhythm of the music. Behind the dancers, I could see more people, playing the instruments, eating and drinking or lying on the ground on furs and blankets.
I began to approach little by little. In a sturdy chair that looked like a throne, an old lady played the harp delicately. She saw me and stopped immediately. “Welcome”, she said. “Today it’s my 137th birthday”.
The next morning, I woke up to the knock on the door. A sweet little girl, with golden hair and bare feet, came to tell me that breakfast was already served at her great great-grandmother's house. Still amazed at the hospitality and courtesy of that century-old family, I prepared myself quickly to go to the elderly woman's cosy house.
I seemed to be the only one who was still feeling full from the previous night’s buffet. On the table lay homemade bread of various colours and shapes. The children discussed among themselves which colours they had already eaten, while the grey and furry cat was licking some strawberry jam that had fallen on the floor.
As I was trying to sit among the children, the elderly woman served me a cup of jasmine tea with orange peels and a piece of bread with sesame seeds and garlic flavour. The tastes were so intense that I could feel the nature itself in them. “This is the best bread I have ever tried”, I said as she was already cutting a piece of carrot bread for me. “There must be some secret”, I added, accepting the tempting slice. She pointed to a corner of her small kitchen. A wooden shelf, that reached to the ceiling and appeared to be crooked for many years, was crammed with dozens of glass jars with all kinds of condiments, seeds and preserves.
“There is no such thing as a secret, but many forget to add the main ingredient”.
When we finished having breakfast, I approached the old lady to thank her and say goodbye. She held my hands between hers and closed her eyes, tilting her head forward, almost touching mine. I did the same. We stayed like that for some seconds.
She suddenly gave me a soft pat on the shoulder and turned around to call one of the little red-haired boys, who was playing with the cat on the floor. She whispered something in his ear. The shy little boy, who seemed to have been watching me curiously all morning, ran to the shelf and, reaching up on his tiptoes, picked up one of the jars.
He grabbed a small linen sack and poured the contents of the jar into it. Looking at his great-great-grandmother, he gave me the bag and ran quickly out of the house. I said goodbye to the old woman again, promising to visit her soon.
Leaving the elderly woman's house behind, this time in broad daylight, I began to walk towards the lake, passing by the houses of the rest of the family. Standing at the door of a half-timbered house, the little boy waved one hand timidly as he hid the other one behind his back. I walked towards him. Bringing his hand forward and in a very soft voice, he said, "I made it myself”. He extended his short arm, showing me a handmade wooden spoon.
“Next time you visit grandmother, I can teach you how to do them”, he said while I was crouching down to his level. “But you can keep this one for now”.
On the way back home, I couldn't but think about every detail of that magical and unforgettable night and morning. It was my first week in the woods and I had already been invited to join a celebration and hosted by a family of villagers. It seemed a place to stay, I thought, but that was hardly ever true for a nomad like me.
Leaving the meadow behind me, I went back into the forest that led to my house. Nothing more was heard than the rustling of leaves and branches on the ground, which sounded like the ticking of a clock with each step I took. I was still carrying the lantern with me, but this time, I also had the linen sack and the wooden spoon from the villagers. I put the lantern and the spoon under my arm and, with hurried hands, like a child opening a present, I untied the bag to take a look.
The bag was full of white and pink flowers, with a sweet and fresh aroma, that transported me to the old woman's house. I couldn't wait to get home to make some flower tea, and put the rest in a glass jar, there, where I could see it every day and remember that magical night. Once in my humble log cabin, I prepared everything to take a hot bath. Later on, when the tea was ready, I sat at a small table by the window, letting the soft light of the sunshine on my face. With each sip of tea, vivid images of my stay in the village came to mind.
Humming softly and moving my bare feet to the rhythm of the music, I took a deep breath and smile, knowing that I was not the same anymore. Hundreds of adventures still awaited me.
No matter how much I wished I could keep spending time with the villagers, I had to go back to the house and kitchen garden chores. There was much to do before winter came.
The cottage was still looking quite abandoned. While the interior had already been cleaned, branches and old stuff still lay on the small porch, seeming to have been there for many years. There were no other houses around it. The closest village was no less than forty minutes stroll away, there, where the elves lived.
The weather was splendid, the trees hummed with life all around me, their leaves letting the sunlight streaming through and their ancient roots hugging the earth.
On one side of the cabin, there was a garden. Some vegetables and wild fruits had grown during the spring, but I still had a lot to do, if I wanted to have enough food for the winter.
I spent the whole day working in the kitchen garden and decluttering the porch until it was late and the sun was going down. I could spend hours and hours like that, without even noticing how the time flew. But now it was time to relax.
I started the fire and filled the bathtub. The last rays of sunlight hit the borders of the old copper tub, lighting the entire cabin in a golden glow. I lit some white candles, right at the foot of the tub. Some were already consumed and continued to melt on a rusted platter, forming curious shapes in an old wax mix.
I sank into the hot bath, took a deep breath and let myself wind down.
The sun had already set as I blew out the last candle. It was time to rest. I laid my head on the pillow and fell asleep while thinking about the villagers' family. When would I see them again?
I woke up to the song of the birds and the first rays of summer sunlight, ready for another gardening morning. I chopped some strawberries and I watered the houseplants. I put my straw sun hat on and took the fruits with me, to continue with the kitchen garden chores outdoors.
A little later, as I was pulling some weeds, I thought I heard some noise coming from the other side of the cottage as if someone or something was nearby. I turned around and raised my head. Two familiar faces were standing in front of the cabin’s door.
“Over here”, I said waving my arm. A red-haired boy with bare feet and linen shorts ran to me. Behind him, and a bit shyly, his sister approached me as well. She was a few years older than him. Her dress was so white that her golden hair looked as intense as the colour of the sun at sunset. Hanging from her shoulder, she carried a big bag, from which the boy took out a couple of linen sacks, just like the one they had given me with the flowers.
“This was sent to you by grandma”, the little boy hastened to say. Inside the bag, I could see carrots, tomatoes, a loaf of homemade bread, seeds, and some herbs.
I was so grateful for all the things they had brought me and so happy to see them again, that it took me some minutes to control my excitement and invite them in.
They observed the cabin curiously, as I was serving them some water and fruits. On the counter, the little boy spotted the wooden spoon he had given me and smiled. “I can’t wait for you to show me how to make one”, I said excitedly.
The boy was sitting on a cushion on the floor, eating some berries, while the young girl was taking a closer look at the books and papers I had on the table next to the window. She grabbed one of the books, touching its cover with her fingertips as if it were going to break. “Would you like to read it?”, I asked her as I walked towards her. “You can take it home”., I added. She raised her head and gave me a confused look. “I have never read a book before”, she answered.
She packed the book in her big bag and sat next to her brother, who had been silently eating all the berries. The girl continued looking around, at every corner of the cabin, frowning from time to time, as if she was full of questions. But she didn’t ask any.
“We also came here to invite you to our summer celebration”, the girl said, “It will be in around one week, but grandmother thought it would be nice if you come before and join us for the preparations”.
My heart burst with joy. As I was preparing some tea for the three of us, the children told me some fantastic anecdotes about their celebrations. I couldn’t wait to be there.
It was time for them to leave, but this time, I knew I would see them very soon.
In the following days, I continued working in the cabin, the porch, the deck and the vegetable garden. In the afternoons I went for a walk through different areas of the forest, everything was still new to me. I collected some mushrooms, I chopped and took some logs and picked some elderflower along the way.
Although I still had a lot to do, I could not fully concentrate on the house chores, imagining everything that could happen when I return to the village for the summer celebration. The excitement kept me easily distracted and I found myself trying to pull my wandering mind back to the present again and again. Not only did I have to finish restoring the hut and secure my livelihood, but I also had to prepare everything for my visit to the villagers.
The midday sun shone overhead, and as the buzzing of bees and other bugs merged with the sounds of my stomach growling, I decided that it was time for lunch. The heat was unbearable out of the shade. I could only think of eating a refreshing vegetable salad beneath the trees.
There was no wind, only distant birds were heard among the call of the cicadas. The ground smelled of pine needles and the air was scented by the intense aroma of fresh field tomatoes and earthy carrots. It was an idyllic place to lie down for hours, but I really wanted to get the things ready for my trip. I picked up my stuff and went into the house.
I was a nomad, as were all my ancestors. I was used to travelling and be away from home. I never needed much, but somehow, packing for my visit to the villagers was not an easy task. I was full of questions: “What should I wear? What should I bring to share with the family? What would be a good gift for the old lady?”.
A white summer dress lay at the bottom of the wardrobe. I haven’t worn it for ages, but I knew it was the one for this occasion. I grabbed the dress from under a pile of clothes, shook it a bit and placed it over my body, holding it from the shoulders. It was beautiful, with embroidered sleeves and scalloped edges on a flowy skirt to the knees.
The clothes were already packed, it only remained to prepare the food and presents that I would take with me.
The following morning I awoke to the enchanting singing of a bird in my window. Outside, the grey sky was brushed with dark clouds gathering above the trees and the air was already scented with the smell of wet earth. A gust of wind entered the cabin when I opened the door, confirming that it would be a rainy and stormy day. I hurried to put on my boots and grabbed a basket that lay outside on the porch and walked down the steps hastily.
I picked a bunch of wild berries and the first strawberries that were growing on my own kitchen garden. With the basket full of colourful fruits hanging from my arm, I could feel how small raindrops started to fall over my hands. I left the boots under the wooden porch ceiling and walked barefoot into the cabin.
The rain had come to stay. Thick raindrops hit the window panes while puddles were forming on the ground, turning the cracked dry earth into mud.
On a rainy day, the house could not but smell to baked pie and citrus winter tea. So after the tea was ready and the pie dough ready to be filled, I grabbed some strawberries, washed them and cut them in half, to toss them later with some sugar and lemon and pour the sweet fresh mixture into the crust.
The sky went nearly black and only the flames were to be seen through the slits of the old cast iron oven door. I lit some candles over the counter and continued washing the berries while enjoying the sweet aroma of the pie being baked and the melody of the heavy rain in the background.
The heavy rain continued for some minutes more, widening the puddles and splashing mud everywhere. The first pie was ready to take to the villagers' summer celebration. All the berries were washed and set apart. It was time to prepare some fruit beverages.
I mixed different combinations of berries and other fruits and smashed them vigorously. I grabbed some glass bottles that were stored in the pantry, poured the fruit puree and added some cold citrus tea, creating drinks of different colours, flavours and tones.
The fresh and sweet aroma of the citrus tea reminded me of that first morning at the elderly woman in the village, and there was nothing I could do but count the hours until it was time to leave home to meet them again.
The bag was packed, the big strawberry pie baked and the fruit beverages ready. Only the old woman’s present remained to be prepared. She seemed to have every possible ingredient in her kitchen and in their family orchards, and be always cooking and serving others, so I really wanted to bring something for herself.
I grabbed a big bowl, a handful of rolled oats and grated coconut, some honey, some oil and some lavender cuttings, with the idea of making scented soap. Despite her 137 years, the old woman had soft and well-cared for skin, silvery-white as her hair, with only a few soft pink freckles on her hands and cheeks. I knew she would be happy to receive a present like this.
I needed to let the mixture sit and harden overnight, so I focused on the soap wrapping, preparing some pieces of brown paper, to which I would attach some lavender stems and a brief note.
The rain had stopped a few hours ago and the moon was opening up its way through the clouds. In the distance, the hoot of an owl let me know that it was already bedtime. The next day I would start my journey to the village.
I jumped out of bed and opened the windows. The air felt fresh and new. Behind the pines, a brilliant orange sky bathed the forest in a golden glow. To the other side, the meadow looked splendid, the breeze drying the tall grasslands, making them dance in waves that went up the hill. In the distance, the silhouettes of the deers grazing.
I made some roasted apple tea, mixed some leftover berries with nuts and placed it on the big wooden table that I use as a work surface. An exquisite aroma of coconut and honey emanating from the soap bars, that were ready to be wrapped. I attached the dry lavender stems and the note. Only a fresh bath and the last preparations separated me from the beginning of a new adventure.
Once ready, I grabbed my suitcase and left the cabin. I collected some flowers from the garden and started my journey to the village, as excited as a butterfly on its first flight.
The lake, the trees, the wildflowers and the beautiful half-timbered houses, everything looked as magical as I could remember. I arrived a couple of days before the summer festival, eager to help with the preparations and looking forward to being part of the celebrations.
All the children were enjoying the warm day outside, some of them running and playing, others helping with house chores. I stared at them for a while, looking for Ellea, who have visited me at the cabin and for whom I picked the flowers.
The shine of her golden hair gave her away in the distance, near the well. Sitting on a bench was Ellea, reading the book I gave her. I approached her slowly and whispered a timid “hello”, as I raised my arm with the flowers.
She looked up and jumped up from the bench. We hugged and started walking to her grandmother’s house. On our way, she told me everything about the book she was reading and asked me to read a bit of it for her at night. I happily accepted.
We then arrived at the elderly’s house. A wrought cast iron knocker hung from the cracked wooden door. On the upper part, it could be seen the head of a reindeer, in a brownish-black, already faded colour. Between its horns, there were some cobwebs. At the bottom, a heavy ring and a solid sphere. The girl grabbed it firmly and knocked on the door.
The old woman opened the door, radiant as I remembered her. This time with braided hair and wearing an almond-coloured dress. We greet each other with a small bow and a warm handshake. The house was filled with the sweet aroma of orange peels hanging from her kitchen ceiling. Before we could say anything, Ellea asked her great-great-grandmother to prepare some tea and light some candles for us to continue reading together the book.
The early sunbeams brightened the room, while the chirping birds were waking up the rest of the villagers. Ellea was, however, still asleep, hugging a rag rabbit. I walked down the stairs, the main room was still empty. While waiting for everyone to get up, I wandered around the kitchen and dining room, observing every detail. On the table, a bunch of flowers waited to be made into tea.
Walking back to the entry room, on a long but narrow cupboard, lay some musical instruments. Next to it, a wooden box with what appeared to be old portraits. The resemblance in their faces with the women of the family made me think that they were their ancestors. I kept looking at the pictures. A couple of them caught my attention. The clothes and facial features were very different from the others. They seemed not to belong to their family, but to mine.
A soft “good morning my dear” surprised me. “I am going to prepare some blossom tea”, she added.
The crooked shelf of blackened wood had caught my eye from the first day. Dozens of jars, sacks, small cans and drawers were filling the cupboard that anyone could dream of; full of an intense aroma of herbs and spices that invited to cook. A container filled with spoons and other wooden utensils hung from one of the shelves.
“Has Calen made all these pieces?” I asked her, as we were about to finish our breakfast. “Some of them”, she replied, “Wood has been Calen’s family’s business for centuries. Every wooden piece you see in the village come from their workshop”. She added proudly.
“And now, we need to get going if we want to have all ready for tomorrow”, said the old woman, as she placed a huge flour sack on the table.
I had baked myself the strawberry pie for the celebrations, but I was eager to learn all the secrets of the elvish cuisine. As we set up the table and got ready to start chopping, cutting, grating and slicing plenty of vegetables and fruits, some more villagers came to help. We were a total of seven people around the table, coming and going to the oven or to the sink.
Two men had brought leavened bread dough and were already kneading it on one corner of the table. Towards the centre, two little brothers were trying to help place apple slices on a pie crust, perhaps the largest I had seen so far. In front of us, a young lady with her golden hair drawn back in a ponytail was mixing some condiments with lemon and oil in what seemed to be a delicious fresh dressing for the vegetables we were already roasting.
“Is this another recipe you have learned in your travels, Gala?”, asked the old lady to the young woman. “It is, grandma”, she replied smiling, “And I wish I can share much more of them with you on my return”. As the girl took the sauce to the kitchen, the grandmother looked at me and told me “She is a traveller, she certainly resembles your family more than ours”.
I continued placing the chocolate cookies that we had just cut on a baking sheet, without being able to stop thinking, how the old lady knew about my family and why she had those portraits of them in her house.
She must have seen how my brow furrowed as I placed the last cookie. “Freja, my dear”, she called me with a wave of her hand, “let’s put those in the oven and gather the tablecloths and linen for tomorrow”.
We walked together to the long, narrow cabinet where I had last seen the family portraits. She took them gently out of the box and pointed to the lady on the first picture. “My mother”, she said, “you would have loved her bread and her soup. A generous soul.” She quickly moved on to the next one. “And this gorgeous woman over here, my sister. I thought no-one could love her as much as I did; until she met Ollie. They were meant for each other”.
She stared at the portraits for a few seconds and grabbed the third picture. “That’s how I know your family, my dear”, she added, “they came many years ago in one of their travels. Oliver was just a boy when they arrived, but he always wanted to stay in these lands. When the rest of your family left, he built the cabin, where you live now. My mother was not sure about it, but it was enough to see them together to know that it was the right thing to do”. I was still trying to think about everything she had told me when she took my hands and added, “And I couldn't be more grateful to them for the family they gave me. Because of them, today I have Calen, Ellea and Gala".
She placed the portraits back in the box and opened the first drawer. “Here my dear, let’s grab these ones, and let’s make sure there are enough napkins for everyone”.
As the day went on, the normally-quiet-village started to come alive. The doors of all the houses were wide open, perfuming the narrow sidewalks with the aroma of freshly-baked cakes, bread and other roasted delights as people went in and out bringing tables and chairs to the field. Others were carrying garlands and decorations while a few children watched a group of young men pushing a handcart packed with beer barrels.
Preparations continued throughout the afternoon until the town started to get calmer and calmer. As the first doors began to close, I came back to the old lady’s house. She was already getting ready to sleep. “I see you had a productive day”, she said after looking at my untidy clothes and dirty hands. “We need to rest, my dear, the tradition is to wake up to the rooster’s crow”.
The next morning, I woke up to the villagers' bustle, rather than to the crowing of the roosters. I made myself fresh and put on my beautiful embroidered white dress. We packed the rest of the food in baskets and left the house, joining the rest of the people who were walking towards the meadow. The day we all had waited for has arrived.
I sat with the family of the old woman, that had already started to eat some sweets bites. Everyone was joyful. Suddenly, the loud sound of a horn marked the start of the long-awaited festival.
The chatter became revelry and the music and laughter filled the warm summer air. Children running and playing, adults eating, drinking and sharing stories.
Where normally there were a quiet meadow and a few animals grazing, that day there were garlands and lanterns hanging from trees and wooden posts, tables packed with food, families playing musical instruments and several entertainment stations.
Under the shade of a tree, there was a group making flower arrangements, flower crowns and door wreaths. The old woman told me it was one of the traditions of the festival and encouraged me to try it too. Among some young ladies was Gala, who, seeing that I was approaching them, came to me and gave me some flowers to try.
I followed her instructions and we both spent some time doing a bunch of crowns and other decorations.
Gala and I hadn't had the chance to talk yet, but the connection between the two of us was undeniable. “Grandmother told me you are a nomad, but that you plan to stay here”, she said as we walked together to the next stand. “I am”, I replied, “my family is”, I hastened to add. “That is everything I knew and how I was raised. I have been moving from place to place since I remember. My parents came here to search for some family belongings to sell. But somehow I felt an immediate connection to these lands and decided to stay for a while.”
Our conversation was interrupted by Ellea, who was waving at us while sitting in the most elegant station, where Mrs. Godfrey was teaching botanical illustration. Mrs. Godfrey was the herbalist of the village and had a great passion for all kind of herbs and aromatic plants, while her husband, Mr. Godfrey, was proudly displaying his collection of exotic vegetables at the booth next door.
Mr. Godfrey’s stall had begun to empty as the villagers filled their baskets and bags with his fresh vegetables. Intense colours and peculiar shapes seemed to catch the attention of at least ten neighbours, who were queuing up in front of us. I hurried to buy some potatoes before they ran out and continued my way with Galla.
We grabbed some drinks and appetisers from the main buffet table and took a seat at a cosy nook, slightly further away from the bustle, from where we can see the peaceful waters of the lake. “I am glad you could join us for the festival”, said Galla as she raised her glass to toast.
“I’ve heard that you are leaving after the festival”, I asked her. She seemed to get very excited about that topic, “I am, but it won’t be for long this time. I am just going to the town to prepare myself for the next big trip”, she answered with a joyful voice.
The breeze got warmer as the sun climbed higher. We continued talking for a while in our cosy corner. Gala was a very simple person, but at the same time very cultured, she seemed to know everything. I really enjoyed our talks, and she aroused in me the curiosity to know and learn more.
Although I was used to travelling long distances, it had always been by foot or carriage, never by boat. Gala, on the other hand, had already crossed the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and had already been in large cities.
Looking at the lake and with a gesture as if she was thinking aloud, she said, "I know that you have not arrived long ago and that you have to take care of your garden and get ready for winter. But if we ask my siblings to take care of the orchard, maybe you can come into town with me. I'm sure you will like it."
She was right. No matter how much I was enjoying my stay in the woods and the new house, which, for the first time, I was calling home, the idea of further exploring was very tempting.
The visit to the town would last no more than a week, there was no reason for me not to go with her, I thought. After all, I wanted to know what she was doing in the town to prepare her big trip.
She told me about her plans. The more I listened, the more I wanted to join her. She had already everything planned. In three days she would climb up into Mr Godfrey's horse-drawn carriage and pay for the ride by unloading his vegetables and hay at the neighbouring town's market, where she also planned to sell some of her old dresses and jewellery. From there, she would take another carriage to a bigger city, where she would spend the night in a lodge where she used to work, this time paying for the stay by cooking some of her exotic recipes for the inn's breakfast.
“Early in the morning we would take the train to the main city, this time we will stay in a guesthouse I know. I would love to introduce you to some of my friends there and then we should…”, she continued talking but I could no longer pay attention. I had never travelled by train before, nor had I stayed in a guesthouse. How was I supposed to pay for it? I could not spend my small savings on a trip if I wanted to survive my first winter in the woods, away from my family.
But Gala seemed not to be worried about my concerns. She was, notoriously, more relaxed than me, and somehow a very practical person, so even though I had reiterated all my reasons and worries not to join her, she just underrated them and quickly started to enumerate possible solutions. She had, for sure, an incredible power to change my mind. And even though this time I still had my concerns, I promised her to give it a thought.
A second blast of the horn brought me back to the present. In the centre of the field, the campfire had started to burn and the villagers were dancing around it to the rhythm of the music, which was getting more cheerful and louder. Dozens of people playing their instruments were getting ready to start the evening feast. Gala jumped up and grabbed my arm to lift me up. “You have until tomorrow morning to decide”, she said smiling, “now it’s time to dance!”.
I was indeed in the happiest place on earth. Surrounded by laughter, joy, gratitude and fellowship, I could not but feel inspired and arm myself with courage. The decision was taken. Just like the dresses of the peasant women flamed to the beat of the music, my thoughts flew freely as I pictured myself in the new adventure.