It isn’t easy to live in a narrow cave with 12 robust brothers, a grumpy Yule Cat, jumpy mother and lazy father, especially not when you’re the smallest in the family and everyone walks all over you. Stubby may be the smallest Yule Lad but he has big temper and even bigger dreams. He likes to practice singing, dancing and performing magic tricks, but his brothers just make fun of him. His parents, Grýla and Leppalúði aren’t particularly fond of his performances either…
There’s no Santa Claus in Iceland. According to legend, the 13 Yule Lads, or jólasveinar (who live in Dimmuborgir lava field by Mývatn in North Iceland), come to town 13 nights before Christmas. Originally, they came to steal food and play tricks on people, but nowadays they mostly just leave treats in children’s shoes. Their ogress mother Grýla and her gruesome Yule Cat have also built better habits – or at least they’ve stopped eating people!
One day, shortly before Christmas when there was no food left in the cave, Stubby wanted to lighten the atmosphere by performing a song he had written about himself. But Leppalúði just laid deeper down in his bed, pulling the covers over his head, and Grýla screamed: “Stop this squealing at once! You’re making me completely mad!” Stubby dared not test his mother’s anger as she had once thrown him out of the cave, breaking all his teeth but one. So Stubby decided to make himself scarce rather than risk losing his last tooth. Gully Gawk felt sorry for his brother for once and followed him out into the cold. “You know that mummy hasn’t had a bite to eat for days. Then she gets extremely hangry,” he said comforting. “Come on, let’s see whether we can find something edible.” Grýla, who used to have an appetite for naughty children, had recently become a vegan – which was rather difficult during the freezing winter up north when a thick blanket of snow covered every withered straw.
Gully Gawk was the largest of the brothers and could easily walk through the deep snow, but while he took one step, Stubby took four. Soon, Stubby was too exhausted to carry on. He leaned against a fence pole and tried to call his brother, but Gully Gawk couldn’t hear him and stormed off. Suddenly Stubby felt something warm and soft rub against his woollen sweater. Startled, he stumbled backwards and fell into a pile of snow. Then he heard gentle neighing and realised that it was just a friendly horse that had wanted to say hello.
Stubby scrambled to his feet and dusted the snow off his clothes. He petted the horse – and had a brilliant idea! “Say… would you be so kind to give me a ride?” Confident in his abilities as a rider – in spite of never having sat on horseback before – Stubby climbed up on a rock and from there onto the horse’s back, which stood amazingly still. “Follow that trail!” Stubby ordered. The horse didn’t move. “Hmmm, what’s the word… Giddy-up!” Stubby gave the horse a nudge and it darted off, so suddenly that he nearly lost his balance. He held onto the horse’s mane, bouncing up and down, laughing hard as they overtook Gully Gawk.
The horse trotted towards a lit house and stopped outside. It was a café at the edge of Dimmuborgir called Kaffi Borgir. A strong stench came from the kitchen and Stubby held his nose. He slid off the horse and hugged it to express his gratitude. Gully Gawk appeared, looking baffled. “Where did you get hold of a horse?” Then the stench caught his attention. “What is that?” They peaked through the kitchen windows and saw that chefs were cooking something that looked like fish in a huge pot. “It’s fermented skate!” Gully Gawk concluded. Today was 23rd December and on that day, it’s tradition to eat skate in Iceland. He smiled. “It tastes much better than it smells – let’s bring a few pieces home to the cave!” Potatoes and yellow turnips were boiling in smaller pots but what caught Stubby’s eye was battered fish being fried in butter. Burnt crumbs stuck to frying pans were his favourite! Laughter came from the dining room and, curious as they were, the cooks left the kitchen to hear what the joke was all about. Now was their big chance! The brothers snuck into the kitchen. Gully Gawk grabbed a container and spatula and asked Stubby to fish a few pieces of skate out of the pot. But Stubby couldn’t resist the crumbs in the pan, scraping them off with the spatula and licking it. “Hurry up Stubby!” urged Gully Gawk but then dropped the container and made a run for it because the dining room had gone quiet. Stubby was still enjoying his crumbs when the staff returned to the kitchen. “What’s going on in here?” The head chef asked strictly. “Ehhmm…” Stubby had to think quickly. “I’m here to perform.” The chef eyed him suspiciously. “Well, then what are you doing here? Go to the dining room!”
Stubby walked hesitantly into the room but got excited at the sight of all the people sitting expectantly at the tables. He cleared his throat. “Here comes a surprise act! My name is Stubby and I’m here to perform a song that I wrote about myself.” People gave each other a stunned look when Stubby jumped up on a table and started singing: “I may be as tiny as a bubble and as light as a two-week old winter wren feather. But I can also be big and brutally bold!” He sang loudly, making wild gestures, and his audience was so amused by the strange little man that they burst out laughing. Then everyone stood up, clapped and danced to the beat of the song and Subby could hardly hide his enjoyment. When the performance was over, he bowed deeply.
The café owner took his hand and thanked him sincerely for the fabulous act. Now lunch was ready and the waiters came carrying bowls filled with skate, fried fish, potatoes, yellow turnips and melted sheep fat. “Would you like to have lunch with us?” the café owner asked. “Well… That’s very kind. But if I could bring some of this food home to my family instead, that would be even better.” The café owner said that wouldn’t be a problem and asked a waiter to fill the container Gully Gawk had dropped with fish. “Could I ask for a few potatoes and turnips, too, for Grýla? She’s a vegan now.” The man laughed and said there were plenty of vegetables, too. Stubby was most grateful but worried that he wouldn’t be able to carry the container back to the cave now that Gully Gawk had taken off.
They heard neighing outside and the café owner looked surprised. “What is Léttfeti doing here?” Stubby explained: “This helpful horse came to my rescue when I couldn’t walk any further in the deep snow. I have such short legs, you see.” The man smiled. “Léttfeti is certainly a good horse. Let’s give him some bread and see whether he’s willing to carry you and the food to your cave.” He walked with Stubby outside, petted Léttfeti and gave him some bread. Then he helped Stubby mount the horse and placed the container in front of him. “Will you be alright?” He asked and Stubby assured him that he would – being an experienced rider and all…
The stench of the skate announced their arrival to the cave long before they came into view. When they arrived, the entire family stood in the opening of the cave to see who the visitor was. Grýla had a bat in her hand – just in case. Her jaw dropped when she saw who it was: Her smallest son on a horse with a container filled with food. “Who’s hungry?” Stúfur asked, smiling triumphantly. “Help yourselves: Takeaway from Kaffi Borgir!”
Text: Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos: Marcin Kozaczek / visitmyvatn.is.