Illustration by Andres Garzon
“Someone…yes, someone smashed our trailcam,” Pia said, holding up a shard of brown plastic.
A breeze tousled the silver birches that loomed above the trail, provoking a flurry of golden autumn leaves. The leaves flipped and glided among the two bird researchers.
“Damn, that’s the second one now. We had one go missing last month up by the platform, right before you arrived. The straps on that one looked like they were cut with a blade,” Teemu said, then directed his gaze downwards, “…and they left no tracks. They’re pretty good.”
Teemu, the lanky Finnish bander-in-charge, crouched to examine another piece of the camera.
“Whoa. So who do you think is doing this? Are there poachers up here?” Pia pushed a lock of bronze hair behind her ear and looked down the trail with a spooked expression.
“No, I mean, yes, there are poachers in Finland, for sure. But over on this side of the mountains, there just isn’t much to poach, as far as game birds or animals with good fur on them. I’ve never heard of poachers here working at catching our birds, the songbirds we work on here. Too small, no meat.”
“That’s really creepy. And what about the Mistle Thrush that Dawn banded yesterday? I wanted to ask you about that. Have you ever seen anything like that? Could that be related to the trailcam?”
“The one with the little splint on its wing? No, never saw that before. That was much stranger than the trailcams — the bones in the wing were set perfectly like a vet did it. But no vet —“ Teemu looked up and exhaled from puffed cheeks.
“But no vet would use those tiny little bits of wood for a splint?”
“That’s right. It was woven wicker. And the splint was fastened with that strange cording. Dawn thinks it was wool made from thistledown. Who does that? Such a tight little braid, don’t know who could have done that, or why. Maybe it’s related to the trailcam, maybe not,” Teemu said.
“Maybe it was the gnomes and elves!” Pia giggled.
Teemu’s face remained sombre.
“Well, we don’t joke about them, especially up here in the north. You know, the majority of Scandinavians believe in them. The invisible eyes. The small ones. We call them Tonttuhere in Finland. There are good ones and bad, many different types, just like birds.”
Pia furrowed her brows suspiciously.
She nudged the cracked remnants of the camera casing with her foot, then stooped and retrieved something from the leaf litter.
“Oh-ho! Looks like we have a forgetful vandal. He left the memory card,” Pia said with a smile, holding the card up high like a football referee.
Pia, Teemu, and Dawn crowded around Teemu’s laptop on a tattered couch. The research shack was cramped and basic, but the international team of bird banding volunteers had been working well together in the remote wilderness of northern Finland, in spite of the First-World ordeal of a spotty Wi-Fi signal.
The sky outside the large main window was a profound black, and the swish of the pines was picking up in the onshore wind. A slim shaving of moon flickered on the fjord a kilometre down the hill.
Teemu queued up the files on the memory card to play all eight of the previous night’s motion sensor-activated video clips. The first two showed a Eurasian Red Squirrel bumbling past in the background. The third clip featured a spotty Mistle Thrush kicking over leaves, while the fourth also briefly showed a squirrel, this one sniffing near the camera in failing light. The last few clips showed movement but were too dark and brief for the researchers to make out on the first play.
“Replay it Teemu, that one, and can you slow the — oh Jesus!“
Something cracked off the corrugated outer wall of the shack with the force of a gunshot. The researchers all flinched, then tensed. Teemu held a finger to his lips and stood to peer out the window into the gloom. Visibility ended several paces beyond the front steps.
“It’s OK guys, just a branch falling, it’s windy,” Teemu rasped in a voice that betrayed his uncertainty. He sat back down and played the last four video files again, this time at one-quarter speed.
Dawn jabbed the screen with her finger.
“There! Do it again slower, and pause it. Frame by frame if you can.”
Teemu restarted and paused the video file, then brightened the screen to compensate for the almost complete lack of light in the clip, which was taken at dusk. The front half of a Siberian Chipmunk was visible peering from what looked like a rough cloth sack, and very clearly, one of its front paws had a tiny wooden splint fastened to it.
“Same thing! That chipmunk has the same splint like the Mistle Thrush I banded yesterday! Someone is out here fixing up small animals!” Dawn blurted.
The next clip elicited gasps. It showed a pair of stumpy hands reaching and coaxing the chipmunk out of the sack, after giving the splint a final adjustment. Then the chipmunk and the hands were gone from view.
“Did you see how small those hands were?” Dawn said and poked the screen again.
“A woman?” Teemu offered, then used his sleeve to wipe the screen where Dawn had touched it.
“No way. That’s a kid. Those hands were super small,” Pia said, “…play the last ones, Teemu. This is crazy.”
The next clip was even darker than the previous ones. Only several frames were lit. Teemu paused the video as something passed close in front of the camera and looked right into the lens. The researchers squinted closer until all three realized together with a jolt that it was a human face.
“Christ!” Dawn said, “…it looks like an old hippie!”
The blurred face on the screen was that of a bearded older man whose face rippled in a knowing, friendly grin. He sported what looked like a rumpled felt cap.
“Wow. This guy, maybe some kind of old veterinarian who’s gone hermit,” Pia said, absently looking at the screen, “…a midget vet.”
“Yeah, I guess. Here’s the last one,” Teemu said.
The last frame before the camera had been destroyed showed the face back away from the camera.
“Wait, how small is that face? Look how small it got just there at the end.”
“That was blurring I think. It’s a perspective thing because the face was close to the camera,” Teemu said.
“No way, that face was too small, he’s a dwarf or something. Holy smokes, I’m gonna put this online when we get a signal. This will go viral, a midget vet in the woods,” gushed Dawn.
Pia added: “Dawn is right. I agree about the perspective, but at first, the face looked much bigger than it is because it was right up against the lens, but when it backed away —“
A loud clang outside the shack made the trio jump again, but they settled quickly as the familiar sound told them that Hanno had returned a day early with the supplies. Hanno was the caretaker of the Sami tribal land the research station was on and was busy replacing the station’s large gas canister.
The stocky Hanno pushed the door open and dropped two large bags of food onto the table.
“Hello. Gas is changed. Here is your food.”
The brusque Laplander pointed his chin at the laptop and gave an inquisitive grunt.
“Hi Hanno. Thanks so much for the food run, we were running low. That there on the screen is someone we think has been tampering with our research cameras. And maybe he’s been caring for animals too, healing them. Do you know him? He would be quite a short fellow,” Teemu said.
Hanno stepped closer to the screen and frowned, as the weather outside took a turn. The wind suddenly bent the treetops, and a weighty rain clattered on the roof.
Hanno let loose a breathless diatribe in Finnish and stabbed accusatory fingers towards the three researchers, and the laptop. The three cowered on the couch, as the wind redoubled its fury. What sounded like hail began to crackle against the research station. Hanno finished with a quiet sentence and calmly pulled the memory card from the laptop. He turned and plucked the tiny wicker and thistledown splint from where it sat on the window ledge, then exited the cabin.
A bewildered silence hung in his wake. Dawn finally spoke up as the winds outside ebbed.
“What did he say?”
Teemu took a deep breath, then spoke with a thin voice, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“He…said that we have encountered an Uldra, which are a kind of…Tonttu, ehm…gnome, as you would say, that in fact live up here in the north. He said that the Uldra, and the other twilight beings, well he said that unlike us, they all speak the language of the animals, and know about their problems. He said they care for the animals, as we saw. He ended by telling us that if the Uldras are mistreated by people, that disasters can occur. So we should leave them alone, is what he said, and Lapland and Finland will remain a happy place.”
“He said all that?” Pia whispered.
The researchers huddled in the doorway and found that the weather had eased abruptly — not a puff of wind — leaving the trees around them picture-still. The moon shone with a diffused brilliance that illuminated the woods around them so brightly that it looked like the light of the gloaming.
The top of Hanno’s colourful hat could be seen as he bobbed his way back down the trail to the fjord. He was humming a melody that sounded like the tentative first notes of a dawn chorus. A Robin’s chuckle replied from the underbrush, perfectly on key and in time with the Laplander’s refrain. This was soon joined by several Fieldfares and an assortment of other songbirds. Then, dozens of human-like voices chimed in from the surrounding forest, adding a dreamy, melancholic falsetto to the most exquisite song the researchers had ever heard.
MATT POLL has spent most of the past decade lurking in the bushes in South Korea and has written a memoir about the shenanigans involved with being a foreign birdwatcher there. He has also started writing a series of supernatural stories about birding, as well as a thriller/fantasy novel set on Korea’s DMZ.
Copyright © 2020 by Matt Poll. All rights reserved.