What I think of, when I think of fall.
The Cloaked Man and the Bear
When Eirik had been king for two winters, a cloaked man came into their hall. His hood cast a shadow over his face. Raven-feathers were sewn onto his shoulders. As per the rules of hospitality, he was offered a seat next to Eirik. A slice of meat and a drinking horn was offered to him, and he was invited to share in the revelry. It was one of the warm, summer nights, and dusk had fallen, and if Eirik had been more careful, Eirik would have noticed the stranger’s eyes shining in the dark, as yellow as gold coins.
And then, the stranger’s forehead creased. There was an altar to Bertha in the central, untouched part of the hall. It was crowned with bluebells, aconite, reinroses.
“This is a hall of Northmen is it not?” The stranger said.
“Indeed, it is.” Eirik said.
“But I do not see any offering to the Blacksmith?”
“The goddess Bertha is the patron of my line.” Eirik said. “And it is her season, is it not?”
Throughout the rest of the night, the stranger was quiet. If one was to describe him, they would have said that he was sullen, even angry. He did not partake of any of the wine and food. When he was offered gold; for his patchy cloak and his ragged feathers had been taken note of, he refused. He departed after a few short hours, before dawn had followed. Within a few steps into the night, the dark swallowed him up.
“A strange man.” Asmund said, looking after him.
“I don’t know.” Eirik said. “His mood soured after I told him that Bertha was the patron of my line.”
Asmund shrugged. “He must be one of those Wodan-fanatics.”
“Must be.” Eirik said, the episode already out of his mind. But for the stranger, the episode was like salt in a wound, like a torch of fire held to living flesh. For it was no other than Wayland, who had come to bless Eirik and claim him as his own. He had even come bearing gifts; a sword forged by his own hands, a sheath that protected the wearer from bleeding to death, and a leather mail shirt as tough as dragonhide.
He was filled with rage at what he saw as a betrayal. He was determined to crush Eirik and his line, the line that he had helped create. If he could not have Eirik, he was determined that no one else would. Least of all Bertha, the leader of the Hunt. He had begun this story only to displace her, and it was galling to him that she had somehow come on top. In Asgard, he confronted her, a hammer against her plough, and they began to war. The air grew hot and crackled as weapon met weapon, and Norge experienced strange electric thunderstorms during what should have been a crisp summer.
Eirik did not know that two gods fought over him. But it was only because Bertha and Wayland had distracted each other that he was able to snatch a few years of happiness.
Eirik and his comrades were journeying back from Akerhus when a sudden squall caused them to halt. As luck would have it, there was a small log cabin, with grass and weeds climbing up the walls. Crude, but it was a roof over their heads during what promised to be a miserable night.
Eirik knocked on the door, and then broke it down. It did not occur to him that there might be someone living inside. When he finally managed to creak open the door, he was greeted by small beady eyes, small furred bodies tumbling over the ground. Then, finally, the full-throated roar of a bear-mother greeted them.
She was one of the largest bears that he had ever seen. In that moment, Eirik knew that he was a dead man. Against such a beast, an axe, a sword were all pointless things. She would swat them aside as easily as flies. Something in their pathetic, quaking bodies must have reminded her of cubs, because she roared, and then got down on all fours. With terrifying thumps, she came close to Eirik, placing her massive muzzle near his pulsing throat, and taking in his scent. Finally, she roared again, the force of it like a gale, and then trotted to a corner of the hut, shepherding her cubs with her in the process. She settled down in a corner with a growl, her eyes on Eirik and his companions. Eirik knew that they had been given permission to stay in the hut with her, but she had her eyes on them. Any funny business, and she would crush their throats between her jaws.
In the morning, they rose, damp, cramped, to three wet, scaled fish next to them. The door was slightly ajar, and a breeze was in the air. The storm seemed to have subsided. The bears were nowhere to be seen.
“Maybe we should leave.” Asmund said to Eirik. “Who knows what kind of mood she is going to be in?” With creaks and clatters, they got to their feet. And as for the scaled fish next to them, they didn’t know what to make of it. Surely, it was not the bear. How would she have scaled them anyway? With her claws? Eirik saw Bjarn look at the fish longingly, for they had all missed their last two meals, but he stopped him.
There was a creak by the door. It was a woman almost as large as Eirik. She was covered with hair all over, except, it was golden, and it didn’t show, except in the sun. When clenched, as her hands were now, they resembled drums instead of fists. She had two scars on the side of her cheeks, like a knife had been drawn across her face in a single line. It was clear that this woman was one of the shape-changers. They had always known that they existed, but distantly, like the dragon that slumbered in the forest, the witch who brewed potions in a cave.
Her cubs clung to her skirts. The woman gave Eirik a challenging look, and then they saw what she had gone out for. It was a full deer, dead, with three red lines on its throat.
Asmund was the first one to recover. “Would you like some help?” He said, pulling out the small, but sharp knife in his boot, the one he used as an eating knife. As Asmund touched the hide of the deer, she snarled at him, bearing her teeth, the growl beginning deep inside her belly. Asmund lifted his hands and began to back away. Her cubs snarled, imitating their mother. As she cut, she sliced slivers of the red meat and handed them to her cubs.
Eirik returned to Akerhus a moon later. He broke in the door, like had done before, and curled into a corner, waiting for her to appear with her cubs. He took an inventory of what lay inside. He saw, small carven objects of wood – an elephant, a wolf, a bear. A human. The face had been left blank, but there were slight dimples of a nose, a mouth.
Her name was Thorunn. She had been born of a bear mother and a human father. She liked her fish rare, and she liked her eggs raw, breaking them from one end, and drinking the contents down, like water from a cup. At first, when he walked with her as she hunted, a growl began in her throat. But slowly, she became used to his presence, and greeted him irritably, like he was an unpleasant companion that she was forced to put up with. He would say good morning, and she would ignore him pointedly. But she used to catch fish for his breakfast – cod from the river, and he would roast it over the fire and eat it, even though he never thought of fish as a morning meal. Once, he killed a small deer and brought it back for all of them to share, and was surprised by her rage. She got on two legs and roared, before dropping down on all four. She refused to let her cubs come near that meat. When one rebellious cub managed to get away and nip at a hoof, she swiped him across the face – gently, but with enough force that he fell back.
And still, Eirik stayed.
His perseverance won her over, and he brought her back to court. She brought her cubs with her, and he built a nursery for them. They had only the slightest of the human strain through them, for their father had been one of the brown Ursus bears. Eirik remembered the day Thorunn set them free. In her human form, she got on her hands and knees and nosed them out of the hall. They were already full grown by then, but they refused to go, snuffling around her, clinging to her like they had done when they were little. They rasped her face with their tongues. But she grunted at them softly, and finally they lumbered out of the keep. Just before they became a shadow in the woods, they looked back at Thorunn one last time. And Thorunn stood at the entrance of the keep for a long time, watching the slopes of pine darken as the sky blackened.
Eirik and Thorunn had their own cub – a girl named Regnhilde. Thorunn was concerned at Regnhilde’s lack of pelt. She was perplexed by how puny she was, and worried that Regnhilde might catch cold.
“This is how human children are.” Eirik said.
“Were you like this?” Thorunn asked.
“Yes.” Eirik replied.
“But how did you survive?” Thorunn exclaimed, clearly agitated. Finally, she made a wrap for Regnhilde out of her own pelt, the coarse fur that she removed to attain a human form. She sewed a green and white woollen border to it, and as Regnhilde grew, the pelt grew with her. Eirik watched as Thorunn’s fingers, unused to needle and thread, joined fur and wool together in the warmest swaddling that he had ever seen.
For a time, they were content. They cut their wood, they ruled their people, they established networks of trade with Sverige and Suomi. What Alf and Astrid had done for Bjorgovin, Thorunn and Eirik did for Oslo a hundred times over. By then, Bertha and Wayland had been battling in the sky for almost ten winters. Every time they struck each other, lightning crackled in the sky. Finally, Wayland smote Bertha with all his force, and threw her north, to the place untouched by any sun.
He came then, for Eirik. When Eirik was on a hunt, Wayland led the wolves to him. Thorunn, terrified for Regnhilde, sent her into the forest to stay with her bear brothers. Wayland searched everywhere for Regnhilde, intending to bend her to his purpose, but he was unable to find her.
When Bertha finally returned, Thorunn had been dead and gone for many generations. Because of Regnhilde’s flight to the forest, Bertha had lost sight of Eirik’s descendants. And Oslo had changed, with its spires and castles of stone. The roads that had been so familiar to her – most of them were gone, under cobbles and stilts. Rivers had eroded into gorges, mountains had crumbled and dulled, and new species had begun to flower.
It took her many generations before she could locate one of Eirik’s descendants. By then, it was already 1863, the blood diluted many times over.
King Eirik, the Horn and the Plough
Eirik’s favourite place were the forges. It was the place where the memories of his parents were the strongest. When he quenched iron, he could smell the acridness of his mother’s skin; his favourite smell in the world. When he struck hammer to iron, he could almost hear his father cautioning him, telling him to strike each time with equal force.
Outside the forge, there was the wooden hall, stretched out from his throne. It had been his for a few winters now. Harald had chosen to journey to the Arctic Circle on a pilgrimage, and live off only what the land could yield. Harald’s declaration had been abrupt, and it had brought back to Eirik the feeling when he had been orphaned for the first time. He had not believed it. Only when he stood in front of the house, charred down to its foundations, did he realize that one part of his life was gone.
He knew that the only thing Alf had wanted of him was to be a capable blacksmith. And that was what he strived to be. He was the only royal child who would shirk swordplay to learn how to make swords instead. He learned how to read and write only adequately. Alf had not known how to read and write, after all. But only after Eirik began to learn his inscriptions, did he realize that the initial that Alf carved into the base of hilts was a very crude star.
“Sir?” A housecarl stood at a respectful distance. He had to raise his voice over the ringing sound. Eirik had his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his fingers were bound together with leather. A roaring bear was inked on his forearm. He was hammering out the point of the sword, flattening it so that it could slice through a man’s ribs with only the slightest thrust.
He worked around the other smiths, who were tending to their own forges.
As a young prince, he had made his way to an empty table and begun to sharpen the knife Harald had given him at his adoption ceremony. There was a mud and dung barrel of bog iron. He began to work with it, not noticing the blacksmiths around him exchanging looks. Eirik did feel eyes on himself, but when he turned, he saw no evidence of it. But the blacksmiths watched him work, watched his attention to detail. They took in his hands, his knuckles, the way his muscles bulged under his skin – developed even for a lad of fifteen winters, let alone one of ten. Many of them, Eirik now regarded as his adopted uncles.
They were the ones to offer Eirik work. They shared their bread and cheese with him during breaks, and in return, Eirik got back strips of meat, whole salmon from the royal kitchen, more than enough for all of them. It was Tor, one of his adopted uncles, who hushed the housecarl, placing a finger to his lips.
“This is critical.” Tor said, a Eirik struck the sword, again and again and again, finally easing it into the trough of water.
“Tell me.” Eirik said.
“Sir, the envoy from Sverige.”
“Offer them bread and meat.” Eirik said, casting a glance at the sky. It was grey – it had rained, and it would rain again. “It will take me some time.” The housecarl snapped his heels together and departed. Only when he was the size of his thumb, did Eirik put down his hammer and sit down wearily on a stool. His arms were weary. He had been working all night. This sword would be his best yet. Tor brought him a cup of water.
“You made a good sword.” Tor said.
“This?” Eirik said, casting a glance at it. “My mother could make better ones in her sleep.”
They feasted that night. Eirik sat on the long table, his fingers drumming the surface. Some of the musicians had struck up a song on horns and flutes, and the people had begun to keep a beat by the clapping of hands, and the stamping of feet.
The envoys from Sverige sat to his right. They were served baskets of fish, slabs of meat, sizzling and roasting. As signs of goodwill, they had brought for him, bracelets of gold, and emeralds and rubies, and Eirik had given them only a cursory glance. He had pretended to be interested, but they were not nearly as well made as the ones that came out of his forges. They had brought to him chests and chests of ill-made objects, and he had almost groaned when he saw how faulty they were. As s
Then, suddenly, there was the long, rich grainy sound of a goat horn being blown, a sound that silenced all revelry. The doors flung open, and an elk cantered in. On the elk was seated a flaxen haired woman with a plough in one hand. With the same knowledge with which Alf had recognized Wayland, Eirik recognized her – the goddess of plough and earth.
“Which one of you stole my gold?” She said. Her voice, as Eirik heard it, was the howl of wolves at night, the screech of owls, and it tore through him. Her plough was still bloody, and in one hand, she held the head of the housecarl who had been charged to guard the doors. There was a thud, and Eirik turned to catch one of the Swedish envoys slump to the table.
Stole her gold?
“That gold was mine, to spin a cloak out of.” Bertha said. Eirik’s head was spinning, but no longer because of the way her voice tore him apart from inside. His mind went back the chest that the Swedish envoys had brought with them, for that was the only gold in these lands that was not wrought. Surely she couldn’t mean those impure, faulty objects? And in front of him, the reindeer pawed the wooden ground impatiently and swung its head around. Its antlers were as thick as tree branches, and when it snorted, steam came out of its nostrils. A maidservant cried, as her hand erupted in blisters.
“My lady, surely you cannot mean this gold?” Eirik felt compelled to say, picking out the armband that the now-unconscious envoy wore around his wrist. “It’s badly made. The gold is impure, flecked with ore. The rubies are loosely welded; one twist, and –“The ruby winked and dropped into his palm, a droplet of frozen blood.
“Badly made?” She said, her voice like the clanging of cymbals.
“Yes, my lady, see.” Eirik said. The gold was to the side, he gestured to a housecarl to bring it forward. Eirik reached into the open maw of a chest, picking out the first thing that touched his fingers – a goblet, rimmed with iron. It was the composition and the shape of the goblet which bothered him.
“It’s asymmetrical, and uneven, see?” He put it on the ground, and it fell. A part of his mind was screaming at him to remain silent. The easier thing to do would have been to return the gold. However, Eirik spoke out of a sense of pride of craft. He wanted to explain why these things were of no good.
“You dare!” The goddess said, and the reindeer reared, bringing its hooves down with force. A crack – the wooden floorboards splintered underneath them.
“My lady, I am a smith first, and a king second.” Eirik said. “These things are no good. You are too good for them.” He bowed, and he felt the shadow of the reindeer as the goddess approached.
“You know gold?” She said.
“I know metal.” Eirik said. He flung his hand to his left, where his uncles stood. “They can vouch for me.” As the goddess turned her gaze upon the blacksmiths, there was a scramble, as they got onto their knees. She turned her gaze back upon Eirik.
“Fix them.” She said. “Fix them all. I will be back in a span of days.”
“My lady, a span is too little –“But she had already cantered out of the hall, and out into the snow. Behind her, the door swung shut. Only then did the disarray come to Eirik’s attention. The ground was cracked, and the places where the reindeer had pawed at the ground, had blackened, as if burned. A servant had a red rash along her arms, from where the steam of the reindeer’s breath had passed. The envoys were pale, cold, and trembling.
By dawn of the next day, the forge fires had been lit. The three chests of gold lay in front of them. Tor picked up a goblet, examined it, and tossed it back. This was the task: the gold had to be melted, purified, and wrought into these shapes once more.
“What were you thinking, Eirik?” Tor said.
“You heard me try to tell her that a span is too less-“
“No, what I meant is, what did you mean by criticising her hoard?” Tor said. “Don’t you see? She’s punishing you by setting you an impossible task!”
“Uncle, this is not impossible.” Eirik said. “My parents fashioned the Silver Bull in less than seven days, which was so lifelike that Wayland gave it breath.”
“Yes, I hope Wayland is with us.” Tor muttered. “For I don’t see how this work is possible.”
As Eirik worked, he saw the maidservant who had been burned by the reindeer. She had bandages down her arm. Eirik did not know her name, and he asked Tor for her name. Tor took a look at her.
“Freydis.” He said.
“Freydis!” Eirik said. “Come here.” As Freydis hurried over, he poured some of his cooling-water into a mug.
“Hold out your arm.” He said, and Freydis unwrapped her bandages to reveal an almost purpling arm. Eirik poured mug after mug on her arm, nodding as the bruising began to fade.
They worked all day and night. Eirik’s uncles forced him to sleep. He had strange dreams – he saw a woman, flaxen haired, sewing trees into mountains with silver thread. Her face was too radiant for him to recognize, but there was something familiar about her. He saw a man, eyes yellow as gold coins, watching as a house burned. The flames were the same colour as his eyes. He saw them war, hammer against plough. When weapon met weapon, and the earth shook, and smoke erupted as whirling black clouds in the sky.
Someone was shaking him.
“Eirik? Wake up. It’s dawn.” As Eirik rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, he chewed on some meat and drank down some milk. His arms felt weary, but it was a good feeling. Not since he was a prince had he devoted whole days to smithing.
The gold had been melted and made pure. On large sheets, Eirik had had artists draw out each artefact that contained in the chest, with exact dimensions. It was these sheets that they turned to. Even though it was a task that was nigh impossible to complete, an excitement filled Oslo. There was something thrilling about working together to thwart a goddess, and the forges became the new heart of the capital. While embedding emeralds in a shield, Eirik directed the messages to be written to Sverige. Instead of throwing the envoys out for bringing the ire of the Hunt to his door, he had sent them back with grace, and taken their burden as his own. From the forges, he resolved disputes between neighbours. There was a hum around him, a hum that made people gravitate towards him. And finally, a span passed, and the gold was completed. With a clink, the final goblet was tossed into the chest, the final shield was polished, the final sword was sharpened. On the eleventh day, the goddess announced her presence by the blowing of a goat’s horn, and demanded her hoard of treasure.
Three chests, filled to the brim with gold.
Eirik opened them, and the goddess alighted to the ground. Herbs sprouted where her feet touched the ground; a tangle of leaves and stems and buds, sprouting into flowers with yellow centres.
“It’s all there.” She said. If Eirik didn’t know better, he would have said that she was surprised that he completed the task.
“Yes, my lady.”
“You may name a boon.” She said.
This was a moment that Eirik had thought about many times. What would he ask for, if he could have anything else in the world? He had thought about his parents, about having Alf and Astrid back in his life, but that was a wound that had scabbed and scarred with time. But the words, when they slipped out, were something entirely different.
“I want to be yours.” He said. “Your right hand. Your swordsman. Your warrior.” The goddess smiled, then. He had surprised her again.
“You are already named to another.” She said.
“This is my only ask.” Eirik replied.
The goddess leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “There. It is done.”
Alf and Astrid
In heritage, Alf was from Western Norway, a land that was known for large stretches of marshes. In blood, he was from a line of blacksmiths.
He loved his craft more than anything else. Alone, he had devised a technique to make the process of dehydrating bog iron less labour intensive. Nothing gave him greater joy than a well-made sword. Every piece that he made, he carved his initial into the space below the hilt. Like Wayland, his patron god, he would wake before sunrise, and only stop at dusk. But sometimes, to take a break from the smell of iron and fire, he would walk for an hour by the coastline, overlooking the cold, churning North Sea. He would see the black and white striped orcas fling themselves into the sky, and enter the deep again. And then, he would go back to work, to pour heated iron into moulds.
It was on such an evening that Wayland appeared to him in the guise of a young man. Alf took one look at him, and knew that he was not from this world.
“You have pleased me, Alf.” Wayland said. And hearing his voice, which rung in his ears of hammer striking anvil, Alf did kneel.
“Sir.” He said.
“Son.” Wayland said, and Alf was reminded of his father, who had died a few years ago. “How would you like to be king?”
“Sir?” Alf said again.
Alf considered it. He winced, as he realized that he was about to refuse a god. One did not refuse the Hunt, and instead, Alf suggested a compromise.
“I cannot be king,” and Wayland tightened.
“I love my work too much.” Alf continued, and Wayland relaxed. “But my son can be,” Alf proposed. “He will be the seventh generation of our line.”
Except, in the years that passed, Alf did not seem to be doing anything to make his son happen. He showed no interest in women, and no woman showed any interest in him. He smelt of iron and sweat. He was brusque. The flaxen haired beauties of the village were not the ones who would entice him.
Then, a woman came into Bjorgovin, tall and black haired. She limped; she had a scar below her knee. She was imperfect, and therefore, undesirable. Her arms were muscled, thick and corded. She had a tattooed bear on one of her arms. Quickly, she set up her trade, and suddenly, Alf discovered that she was as good as him. When he looked at her face, he was reminded of the bargain that he made with Wayland.
Astrid usually took her breaks at noon. She stepped out, not far from her forge, but far enough that she felt no flash of heat. She sipped water from a cup. One day, Alf stopped by her forge and complimented her on her trade.
“Thank you.” Astrid said, but she did not compliment him back.
“Would you like to work together?” Alf offered. “I have received a commission to craft a bull of iron by the next seven days. It is too short a time for me to be able to finish it myself.”
“I don’t like working with others.” Astrid said.
“Neither do I.” Alf said. “But I must, if I am to finish on time.”
“Alright.” Astrid said, after a pause. “I will come by after my work is finished. By dusk. “She drank down water from her cup. “But only to gauge. I have not said yes, yet.”
“Understood.” Alf said.
Alf was still working when Astrid stopped by. Without looking, he knew that Astrid was admiring his well-oiled weapons, his anvil and hammer, his tools. His forge fire was blazing. She watched him work for a few minutes before speaking.
“I will help you.” She said. “We will start tomorrow.”
For a whole week, Alf’s forge was lit in yellow and reds. The village did not sleep, not because of the noise, but because of the excitement. They all knew that a bull was being fashioned, and they also knew that with Alf and Astrid shaping it together, it would be incomparable. They kept walking by, trying to see what was happening, but the sparks of metal against metal kept them away. Even though the air was frosty now, Astrid and Alf had sleeves rolled up almost to their shoulders, and bands of leather around their torso. Now, Alf took breaks during noon, sipping water with Astrid, and in the evenings, Astrid stepped by the coast to watch the whales dance. They only talked craft: and Alf taught her that the only thing he did with bog iron was that he gave the process all the attention and care in the world. That was what made it different.
In seven days, the iron bull was finally ready, and it was magnificent. Alf and Astrid placed it outside where it could feel the air. Some of the village people thought that it was a real bull, and stepped forward to pass a hand over its fur. It was a wonder.
And then, Alf revealed a ring. As their wedding present, Wayland gave life to the bull, and it sired a herd in the Seven Mountains.
Astrid and Alf fashioned Bjorgovin into a centre of trade and commerce. It helped that the village was perched on the sea. People as far as Tromso made their way to Alf and Astrid to commission pieces. They left rich hides, coins of gold and silver, light coloured wood in return. Before long, the king of Norge heard of the small village that had become a flourishing port in a few short years.
The king had been to Bjorgovin only once before, when his father had decreed that he must make a pilgrimage across Norway. Instead of going north to south, as had been intended, he travelled only from the east coast to the west coast, which was a shorter journey. He remembered Bjorgovin as a small, barely-prosperous, cold village. The land was a fell – large, infertile stretches of bogs and marshes. But he noted now, the quiet signs of luxury – logs of wood heaped inside every home, an unadorned, but thick fur wrap around every shoulder.
He stopped in front of Astrid’s forge, to warm himself.
Astrid did not see him for who he was, so intent was she upon her task.
“Can you hold him?” She said, unstrapping Eirik from her back and pushing him into his arms. “I just need a few moments of freedom.” And so, Alf came upon Astrid quenching iron, while King Harald sat on the ground with Eirik, holding the other end of the carven bone that Eirik had in his mouth. Alf bowed to Harald.
“Your majesty.” He said. That roused Astrid.
But Harald waved them both off. “Now I understand why Bjorgovin is so prosperous.” Handing Eirik to Alf, he said “He will grow to be a great blacksmith,” and Alf felt a chill climb up his spine. He had promised Wayland kingship via Eirik, but Harald did not look like the sort of man who would die by the time Eirik came of age. He was young, only a little bit of grey at the sides of his head.
But Harald’s prophecy turned out to be true. As Eirik grew, he showed a potential from smithing, among other things. The water in which he quenched his iron could cure warts and crooked feet. He showed an ability to mend bone and heal cuts. He looked like Alf, but he wanted to look like Astrid, so he scarred himself under his knee and had a bear inked on his arm.
Over the years, Alf received invitations from the court in Oslo. Eirik too, clamoured to see a larger world. And so, when Eirik had seen ten winters, Alf sent him to the king. Only then did he tell Astrid of the bargain he had struck with Wayland. Astrid was angry, but she was also sad, because she knew that without the bargain, she and Alf would not be together. For she had moved to Bjorgovin without being able to explain why the village felt like home. There had been no catastrophe that she was fleeing from, no famine. One day, she packed up her tools and decided to move. She had not been able to understand why – until now.
“I’ve just been wondering if I should tell Eirik.” Alf said.
“Tell no one.” Astrid cautioned. “No one has to know. If it is to unfold, it will unfold.”
When Astrid and Alf died in a fire a span later, not one resident of Bjorgovin could understand what had happened. But then, none of them had god-sight. They did not see Wayland, perched on top of the pine tree, eyes yellow as gold coins, as he watched Alf and Astrid’s home being devoured by flames.
And it so happened that King Harald did not have any children. None of his wives could give him sons, and if someone dared, they would have told him that the problem was not in the women, the problem was within him – but Harald was not troubled. When he heard that Alf and Astrid had passed, he decided to adopt Eirik as his own.
But Synne chose to drown herself in the Akerselva rather than to complete the tasks Bertha set her. Bertha stood on the banks where she had been carried away, silent. Her arms were folded around her. She couldn’t believe what had taken place. And yet it had. Synne had chosen to leave her son and daughter motherless, rather than belong to Bertha. The world had, indeed changed, more so than she had realized.
These were mediocre times.
After Synne, there were many others who refused her. She couldn’t understand it. And Wodan was nowhere to be found, no matter how much she called. For the first time, in millennia of living, she was at a loss. The peasants didn’t want what she had to offer, the workers didn’t want what she had to offer, and the owners didn’t need what she had to offer. And out of all the silver and gold and iron that was mined out of the ground, none was dedicated to the Hunt. The summit on which she and Wodan had celebrated their coming together was blasted and barreled, and tracks were laid upon it, connecting it to Sverige.
Bertha picked up a pinecone by the stem and blew at it. A gust arose, and a few wooden scales detached to turn into a flock of black bears lumbering into groves. She wrenched out some grass and crushed it into a paste – the juice dripped into a stream that ran into the Gaula. She picked two stones and began to rub them against each other, shaping another peak for the Gaularfjellet mountains. Maybe she should just let herself fade away, like everyone else had done. She didn’t belong to this age – of factories, pipes, automobiles. With her god sight, she saw a flock of heads bent over mechanical looms, cutting, stitching, sewing. Over a wooden plank- sawing, screwing, hammering. The noise threatened to overwhelm her, and she dropped the stones to the ground, clapping her palms over her ears. She felt the earth shake: the peak that had been rising crumbled to dust.
The only god who thrived was the Blacksmith God. In the Hunt, he had been the armourer. One of the few who plucked out the jewels from the raided treasure and set it on hilts of swords, in the center of shields, instead of in weaves.
He was the one who drifted in and out of factories, who dived into gears and looms, who swung from pulleys and dumbwaiters. He had always been strange and malicious. He became stronger during the Stone Age, when the first humans began to shape tools out of flint. When they discovered how to strike stones together to make fire. With the coming of Christianity, the sons of Ivaldi had chosen to descend into the caverns of the earth, but Wayland, the clever, tricky one, had found his home elsewhere. Instead of roosters crowing, the day was signaled by the whirring of gears, sometimes when it was still black outside. But the Blacksmith preferred to rise before the sun, and would use the rays of the sunrise and sunset to temper his swords.
Under his patronage, there had been a community of blacksmiths who became kings.
Such was the tale of Alf.
“They don’t make them like that anymore.” Bertha said, mournfully. She was on the slopes of the Gaular valley, where Ragnar had sacrificed the bear and the hound to her. The Gaular had changed, over the several hundred years that had passed since. Iron mines had opened and closed. The terrain had almost been destroyed. The smell of iron and magnetite had destroyed any lingering smell of pine and blood and fire. The people inhabiting the Meadow at the Foot of the Hill had removed all signs of the meadow, and had moved their sights to the hill. It was a cold smoky city that she gazed upon.
It was 1854, and a railway line had been hammered from Oslo to EidovillBomlo was the first municipality to be Christianized, and in 1694, the Oslo Cathedral had been built – a great sprawling hulk of stone, with spires reaching towards the sky. In the end, the Hunt had lost.
Ravens cawed from the boughs of a tree. One, and then another. Bertha felt Wodan drop to her side. He often dropped in unannounced. Over the years, the hunt had scattered. Knut had died – had been killed and eaten by one of the humans whom he was a patron to. No one dedicated a portion of their meals to the gods anymore. The farmers who followed them had all moved to the city, to be close to the factories where they sought work. Many of them lived near the banks of the Akerselva, thirteen to a room, where they could barely think, let alone pray.
“I feel myself waning, look.” Bertha uncovered a hand and held it out. There, on the pale skin, was a ring of blackened flesh. There was nothing that Wodan could say to console her. Together, they regaled the cities. Their god-sight let them see far beyond a human’s lens. From this stone, they could see to Brittany. They could see the church where Gwydion – Arthur, was laid to rest. They could see the textile mills in Oslo- the men and women with white caps on their heads.
“We find our hero.” Wodan said, examining a fingernail.
“As if it’s so simple.” Bertha said. “And what tasks should we set him? I’m puzzled at how the new world works. Are there any dragons left?”
“Nope.” Wodan said.
“I don’t think that killing and strangling animals constitutes tasks anymore.” Bertha said. “For one, there are hardly any left. And, these men are so small and puny and…” She made a face. “…tired.”
“Have you seen how hard they work?” Wodan said.
“Farming was hard work too.”
“Yes, but something came out of it. Don’t be so dense, Bertha.” Wodan was the only one who could speak to her like this. For a brief while, they had even sworn themselves to each other, but they were too alike to work as one whole.
“I don’t know how to appear to humans anymore.” Bertha said. “There was a certain majesty in stepping out from behind a tree, but there aren’t many of those left either. I don’t think rising out of a pile of wood shavings has the same effect. I tried to rise out of a river the other day, and it just so happened that it was washing day for all the women in Oslo. And visions don’t work. People don’t dream anymore.”
Bertha reached into her cloak and pulled out piece of antler. It was the only thing left behind of Knut, now. “We can give them this.”
“I hope that’s more than a keepsake.” Wodan said.
“It is!” Bertha said. “It provides unlimited meat and milk. Look.” She pointed out the small hole at the tip of the antler.
“Oh, it’s a horn of plenty?” Wodan said.
“Of course, it is.” Bertha said. “You think I kept Knut around because he was warm and furry?”
They watched the horse drawn carriages clatter down from church and cathedral on Sundays. The women and men in hats shaped to their heads, small delicate handkerchiefs clasped between gloved hands. Skirts to their ankles, sleeves to their wrist. The wealthy lived in marble coloured mansions that were not made of marble. Bertha followed them on foot, through the fish and meat market, through the merchants selling their wares. She thought that she saw a few old men and women raise clasped hands to their heads as she passed. But she couldn’t be too sure.
Bertha had her eye on a peasant woman, already a mother. Synne. Synne had a braid of grass within her hair, and an iron bracelet clasped to her wrist. She worked in a textile mill, cutting and sewing pieces of cloth. Bertha followed her to a one room house on the banks of Akerselva. She watched her sing her son and daughter to sleep: Nicolai and Katarina, before taking a pile of soiled clothes to the river.
It’s now or never, Bertha thought. As a woman of middle age, she made her way down the steps, and squatted next to Synne.
“Synne, is it?” She said. Synne gave her a glance and then back to her washing.
“Synne, I would like to cast the bones for you.” Bertha waited for an answer. She hoped it would be the right one. Synne was not the first person whom Bertha had approached thus. The others that she had posed the question to had greeted her in diversity: some had shrieked with disgust at the sight of the pale, sun-bleached bones, some had driven her away with stones, calling her a witch. Some had spit in her face.
“My grandmother used to cast bones.” Synne said. “But that was when we owned a farm in Nordland.”
In their hands, they bore gifts of food and fruit, in a land that was frozen and icy eleven moons in a year. Animals accompanied them; the ones with soft fur, the ones who could yield milk and meat. Bertha, the goddess of plough and earth, helmed the procession. She had a pelt of elk wrapped around her- not to preserve her from the cold, but to quiet the whistling of the wind in her ears. The clouds covered and uncovered the moon by turn. On one side of Bertha was a reindeer, the one whom she called Knut, who nosed at the ground, hoping for a shrub that had escaped the clutches of winter. Winter was the only god who was took a side during this time of the year. It was in his domain that Yule fell, however, it was she who was responsible for making this land slicker and smoother, sometimes difficult to break even with a spear
All had donned the best of what was left– jewels of the Mediterranean studded at hems, thread spun out of the gold and silver raided from Wessex. But instead of raiding, this year, many humans had stayed within their lands, had not set foot in a boat. As a result, there was no gold and silver to spin into thread, no emeralds and rubies that could be plucked out of the goblets and chalices and crowns heaped at their altars. Now, there was only a sprinkling of broth, the essence of a piece of meat, some roots- enough to keep them from fading, but not enough to be battle-ready.
But a child had been born on this day. The Norn had read his fate, and he was destined to be a voyager, a raider. To be truly Viking. He would make them wealthy again. Wodan had claimed him, and he let it be known by setting his flock of ravens forth at the time the he entered the world. The child would gild their thrones once more. For that they were grateful. And to be born at Yule was auspicious.
Knut nosed Bertha. He tried to bite at the stalks of wheat that she held in her hands. She stepped away, pushing Knut’s muzzle to the side.
“Stop it!” She admonished, and Knut lowered his neck. Absently, with a rounded stone that was a gift from Freyja, she began to strip the grain from the stalks, casting it into a basket that hung from her neck. She had, on occasion, let Knut take a few stalks from her hand. He was Knut, her reindeer – it was on him that she had learned to ride, and the humans…well, there were so many of them. But tonight was different. Even from here, Bertha could feel the glow of what the child would grow to be.
The hut glowed. But Bertha’s eyes did not miss the ragged patch of the farm to its left. It was frozen solid, so hard and so slick that she could skate on it. Though she could sense the seeds buried within. Now, however, it was used as a pen for goats and sheep. A ribbon of red was fastened onto the door, a swallow of wine and a crust of bread was at the doorstep. Not much, but Bertha eased. They were welcome here.
The door opened with a crack. Bertha felt a flash of heat on her face. A small, pale face looked out.
“Snow!” The girl yelled and shut the door.
Bertha looked; the girl was right. A heavy snow had begun to drop, fast and thick like sap from trees. It made almost the same sound: thud-thud- thud. She looked back at the procession. Over miles it stretched: gods of thunder, lightning, earth, fertility, spirits of holly, oak, cloudberry, all waiting to present their gifts. The Holly Queen and the Oak Queen: two seasons of one whole year had brought oak saplings and holly leaves with them. Behind them walked Gwydion, who was a lesser god in these lands, but in his native Brittany, was known as King Arthur of the Round Table, and led the Hunt. He had been cast as a mortal in Avalon, to unite Christianity and the Old Religion, but it was not meant to be.
Though this child didn’t have a speck of divinity in him. He was the rare one – a human who could rise from farmer to king in a single lifetime- the kind that even gods should fear.
And they were afraid, because the monks were painting them as fiends shrieking through the sky. The monks believed them to be specters of blood and death, and the gods were feeling themselves shift. Like Gwydion, they were doubling, but into selves they could not recognize. Their eyes were changing colour. Like how the Greek gods had split into their Roman forms, except more severe, more extreme. More than one of them had felt themselves lose control on All Hallows Eve, on Midsummer: days that had been named for them, that were sacred to them. Bertha had stampeded with her elks through some of the very fields she had helped nurture into being. She recognized this aspect of herself in a tapestry woven by a woman in a convent. Blood red eyes, trampling new shoots, decapitating a farmer with her plough. She had been inconsolable for a decade when she came to her senses. None of them had expected the Christian religion to strike them so suddenly, so absolutely.
Bertha and the Wild Hunt glided through the door as if it was mist. From a barren, skeletal landscape, they were transported into the inside of a hut lit by firelight. Inside, it smelt warm and humid, and salty It was coloured in summer – oranges, reds, yellows, warm browns. A pale, stout woman clutched a bundle of sheepskin wool to herself. Bertha made a sign, and the gods put down their baskets full of round apples, drop-shaped pears, clusters of lingonberries. With a sickle, a calf was quartered and hung from hooks hammered into walls. Two gifts. Bertha laid down the golden stalks.
“Helga?” Ragnar’s mother said.
“Here, mother.” Helga said. She had been warming her hands by the fire. She took Ragnar while her mother uncovered herself.
“He’s strong.” Helga said. Bertha too, could see the infant curl his hand into a fist. “Where is Knut?”
Knut moved his hoof against the ground, and Bertha swatted at him. Then, a hulk of a man came from the hay laden corner, where two other children lay, sleeping.
“Here.” Ragnar’s mother said. “Hold your son.” Knut held him, looking at him this way and that.
“Not much to look at.” He said.
“You haven’t felt him grip you, have you?” Ragnar’s mother said, her eyes closed. “That’s what I thought.” Knut looked appropriately chastened, as he put Ragnar back on his wife’s breast. He went to the hooks that hung next to the fire place- the one that had bull-meat hanging from it, and with a knife pulled from his belt, cut out the choicest portion from the hind. A red sliver, still moist, was sliced off. He muttered a prayer and cast it into the fire. Bertha felt her bones warm, felt her spine tingle, as the offering filled her from inside.
“These too.” Ragnar’s mother said, pushing forward some leeks.
“Them too?” Knut said, appalled. “The only greens we have left?”
Knut cast them into the fire r, and Bertha felt herself grow stronger.
She stepped forward and put her hand on Ragnar’s head. Ragnar felt the weight on his brow and opened his eyes. A direct blue gaze met hers, considered her, and then closed. Around Ragnar’s head, she could see visions of things that would come to be. Two women, one dark, one light. A pit full of snakes, a cross. An army, berserking its way through a countryside. A turquoise coloured sea. A young sun. The images glowed and vanished. Bertha blessed him with the courage of the bull that his father had sacrificed to her. “May your arms be strong enough to drag furrows through frozen earth,” she whispered, passing her palms over his shoulders.
She stepped back. Apart from a ring of juniper slipped over his littlest finger, a wreath of holly placed on his head, his gifts were invisible. The gifts of intuition, of battle sense, of manipulation, of cleverness. They came as glowing orbs, as runes inscribed by water onto his skin, as words whispered into his ear.
As Bertha watched, she felt a shadow drop by her side.
“Wodan.” She said, her tone chilly, as ravens cawed. “This is my time.” Knut the reindeer pawed at the ground, steam expelling from his nostrils. Wodan stepped away, a breath short of being pierced through with antlers.
“I was invoked.” Wodan said.
“Were you?” Bertha said. But Wodan remained unfazed. Nothing could vex him. One of his eye sockets was gouged out and blackened, yet still, he was cheerful. His hair was grey and hung to his shoulders. He could appear in any guise that he wanted, yet this was his favourite. “Only old men and kings are taken seriously, and kings make too much of noise”, was what he quoted when asked if he would not prefer to appear young, with firm skin and rosy cheeks. Bertha allowed herself to smile. Wodan was right. This was a celebration for all. Together, they watched the miles of gods step forward, murmur to Ragnar, and then collect in a herd, behind the two of them.
This was what they did. They waited for the ones who could make them strong, and then inscribed their mark upon them, so that they would have no choice. But Bertha had never felt any guilt about it. What was the purpose of their short, hard lives, if not dedicated to a cause? When dawn came, the blessings had been given, and the Hunt had turned into gulls, flying away into Asgard. It was already done twice by then; for great gifts attracted great events- and the gods were eager to discuss how to portion the riches-to-come. Who would weave with rubies, who would embed emeralds into their belts, how the gold and silver would be divided. Many of the would have to make capes and cloaks anew. It would take decades to decide, and it was best to start as early as possible.
But Bertha and Wodan returned to Norge many times. They watched Ragnar grow. They watched him win his wife by spearing the bear and strangling the hound that guarded her. Wodan was there to give him the strength he needed for the final thrust, and Bertha made his arms as unyielding as iron to crush the life-breath out of the hound. There, on the misty slopes of Gaular, Ragnar made a pyre of pine and spruce, and offered up bear and hound to the Hunt, gifting them a fine pelt and a cloak of fur. It was this tale that finally made scribes compose the beginnings of the The Tale of Ragnar Lothbrok in the Volsung Saga. When he truly became Ragnar. For the humans, that was the beginning of his legend.
But none of the songs spoke about how the Hunt had come to his home when he was a newborn, to thank him for all that he would do for them. And in a way, to express regret for the ignoble way that he would die –abandoned in a hole dug into the ground, buried within a bed of snakes, far away from his homeland.
In 1854, the first issue of The Orcadian was printed.
I remember the evening before that story came out. It was the first time I saw a woman in the sea. There she stood- a line of white on a single grey spot in a wild, cold sea. I lived in a house of stone, and from my window, the rocks were the size of my thumb. But on that night, I could taste the salt spray on my lips. The salt tasted different. My mother, when she finished washing the clothes, came up and exclaimed at the storm. The moon was calling the waves, my mother said, but I corrected her.
“The moon exerts a gravitational pull on the tides.” I explained. “The larger the moon, the stronger the pull.”
“That’s what I said.” My mother said absently.
We both peered out of the window. There she was- but it couldn’t be. A pale slim woman, with brown hair till her toes standing in the middle of the storm. A gigantic wave crashed upon the rock, and then she was gone. I felt my mother stifle a gasp. I looked at her. Her hair was not wild and free, it was bound under a white kerchief. She was stout, ruddy. Common, I thought. My mother turned to me, as if she could read my thoughts.
“Go on now.” She said quietly. She did not wallop me as I had expected. Instead, she put her hand to her wrinkling, greying skin. Hardened by life and whipped into leather by the wind. I could feel the comparison in her head: her skin, to the skin of the woman on the rock. Even at this distance, I could imagine it was rosy and flush.
The next morning, Mrs. Cavill, the most beautiful woman on the islands of Orkney, was gone. She had vanished without a trace, her inconsolable husband claimed. There was no sign of her. The few, grey dresses in her cupboard were untouched. Her bed had been slept on only for a while – the sheets were barely rumpled. He sat, in his black trousers, his white shirt untied at the sleeves. A heavy shawl of sheep wool was draped around his shoulders by Mr. Warwick, the shopkeeper.
“I saw her last yesterday morning.” Mrs. Warwick said. She had a silver tray of jam tarts in her hands, and a cup of strong, thick coffee. “She was headed for the mill.”
Mrs. Cavill had been brought back by Mr. Cavill when he had journeyed to the mainland. She had the same features as the rest of the women on the island. She had long dark hair, dark eyes, pale skin, circles of pink on her cheeks. All women looked like her when they were girls, but as they were older, the toils of home, husband and livelihood robbed them of their bloom. But Mrs. Cavill – whose first name was Anna, remained young, and soft, and pretty. She was also impossible to hate, my mother told me – and oh, the women of the town had wanted to hate her so much. But there was something lovable in the way she couldn’t do normal tasks – she didn’t know how to take out water from the well, didn’t know that the red holly berries were poisonous. Mrs. Warwick had caught her plucking a clump of them to put into her basket for a cake. And she could not cook – it was Mrs. Warwick who had discovered this, after smoke began to rise from the Cavill’s chimney. She discovered a sloppy mess in the kitchen – pots overboiling, milk split and spilt. Mr Cavill was helping Anna wipe the floor.
When it was clear that Mr Cavill did not earn enough for two – and now perhaps three, Mr Warwick put in a word and secured a job for Mrs. Cavill at a mill. There, she worked with her hands amidst sawdust, wood. Her hands became chapped. The fresh smell that she used to bring with her was replaced by a dry, musty stink. But her eyes, her face, remained the same. Only now, the shine had begun to ebb. She bore children – twins, two boys, who looked nothing like her, and Mr Cavill used to joke that the human strain bred the truest of all.
For a while, Mr Cavill tried to cope. Mrs. Warwick, Mrs. Irvine, they all helped when they could, sending in plates of grilled fish, pots of chicken pie. Even mother offered to do the laundry for free. It was Mrs. Cavill’s picture that was printed in the first issue of The Orcadian. A black and white picture of her and Mr Cavill – their wedding picture, cut down to size, so it showed only Anna Cavill seated on a wicker chair, her hands clasped in her lap. Some threads of dark hair escaped her net and curled around her temples. She had that look on her face, as if she was trying to look through you, to something beyond. She wore a white boat necked dress, sleeves so long that you could tuck something inside, and a wreath of flowers on her head. I was too young to remember, but when my mother glanced at the newspaper, she said it was a pity that the real colour of the dress was hidden.
“Well, what colour was it?” I said.
“Grey.” My mother said. “A light, washed grey, like clouds in the sky.”
As the weeks went by, everything was forgotten for some time. The front-page picture of Anna Cavill was reduced to a thumbprint sized one on the very last page, under Missing Persons. But I think we all knew that she was not coming back. Some people even speculated if she had run away with another, but this was squashed down. Everyone loved her – Mrs. Warwick especially, and she tolerated no gossip about Anna.
But when Mrs. Sletter disappeared, Mrs. Warwick invited us all to speculate. Mrs. Sletter was wife to Sletter’s Fishery. Mr. Sletter made nets, hooks, rods, and every week, he had a slab of cod on blocks of ice to sell. Mrs. Sletter’s disappearance surprised all of us, because she was not beautiful at all. She looked more like my mother – stout, round, ruddy.
“Her mother was very beautiful, though.” Mrs. Warwick said.
“Did she disappear too?” Mrs. Irvine asked. We were all at Mrs. Warwick’s house, sitting around the table. A fire glowed in the fireplace. She had asked us for cakes and tea, and I was too young to be left behind, and my mother had brought me along apologetically.
“Gods, no.” Mrs. Warwick said. “She lived a long life, but when she died, she did not resemble the woman who from Pierowall. She grew fat, grey. She used to have such lovely long hair, but after she had her children, she began to lose it. Don’t you remember? She wore these strange, mis-coloured wigs to hide her balding hairline.” Mrs. Warwick shook her head. “I remember her husband looking at her almost absently, as if he was trying to puzzle out who she had become.”
“Well, I think she ran away.” Mrs. Irvine supplied, about Mrs. Sletter.
“Who’d have her?” Mrs. Warwick said. The women tittered to themselves. Mrs. Sletter was not well loved. She had been stringy with repayments, hiking up prices when cod was in short supply, charging interests on things bought on credit.
I had not known that Mrs. Sletter had disappeared. I would come to know only a few days letter, when her picture came into the newspaper. I had not spotted a woman on a crag, being washed away by a hungry sea. I had not seen anything. The moon had just turned, leaving everything in darkness. I could only hear the waves crash on rocks, like glass splintering into pieces. The wind whistling and roaring, threatening to sweep this village bare.
Without knowing why, I began to tear out the photographs of these missing women and keep them pressed under my straw bed. And when Mrs. Irvine disappeared, that was when the village began to take these disappearances seriously. Mrs. Irvine was older, older than even Mrs. Warwick, for her hair was already beginning to grey. That was when the town concluded that there was something, or someone, who was taking claim to these women.
Here in Orkney, we had the tale of the sea-wife, of the husband who locked away his wife’s seal-skin into a kirst. When she discovered her skin again, the sea called to her so strongly that she abandoned her children – clear eyed, moist skinned, with the same lost, listening air of their mother. In lighter moments, we liked to say that we were descended from her. After all, this side of the world, who could tell whether folk came from land or from sea? This was a treacherous country – it was outlined in sharp, craggy rock, with mud that gave way under your feet, shaded with a pale, grey shore with crevices underneath. For all that we knew, we were all fish-folk once.
“It’s nonsense, but it was one my favourite stories growing up.” Mrs. Warwick said, when mother and I stopped by Mr. Warwick’s shop. “Of selkies, with their strange, wonderful songs, of seal women who used to dance by the moonlight.”
“It’s mostly tales and nonsense.” My mother said.
“ But I used to love the story that we were all different.” There was a flush in Mrs. Warwick’s cheeks. Her hair fluttered, as if caught in a breeze, even though were inside and all the windows were bolted shut. I should have known what was coming, but to my eyes, Mrs. Warwick, who always seemed so old and washed out, was suddenly pretty again.
She disappeared that night. I saw her last running out to the waves. Mrs. Warwick was never seen again; like Anna Cavill, like Mrs. Irvine, like Mrs. Sletter. I realised only afterwards that I knew none of these women by their first name. Not even my mother. Only when she disappeared as well, and I saw her name printed out into the obituary of The Orcadian, did I read that her first name was Gail. I tore them all out of the newspaper and as the stack became thick, I put them into a kirst.
What happened after that was inevitable. All the women were picked off, one by one, as if there was an invisible hand in the sky. We locked our houses, placed wreaths on our doors, even barricaded ourselves into churches at night. But nothing worked. The call was too strong, and new mothers, young wives, slowly slipped out of their beds at night, and were never seen, nor heard from again.
Us young women moved away. Our fathers sent us to the mainland, to a place that was locked by land and not water, fearful of losing us as well. There, we learned the trade of books, of buying and selling things that had nothing to do with the sea. Some of us, unable to reconcile with our missing mother’s, took to the convent, for a life of contemplation and servitude. Most of us never came back. Those houses that our mothers had lived in, we left desolate and abandoned.
Only when I was older, did I hear the tale of the village that overnight, had emptied of all the women. It was 1869- The Edinburgh seven had just been allowed to attend lectures at medical school, the railway beaten into Solway’s soil had just opened for iron ore traffic.
In my life, 1869 meant that I had a new born in my arms- my daughter, Gail, and a new silk gown fitted over me. I had done well – I had ensnared a textile merchant who bought his supplies shop where I worked. I sold him two bags of buttons – whittled brown ones, and oval shaped silver ones, before he asked. The man who told me this story was the father of his footman – an old, grey haired, gap toothed man, bent over by age.
At first, I turned cold. I thought it was the story of my village, until he said that it had happened a few centuries ago, when James the Fourth was King of Scotland. I counted on my fingers – it was almost a complete four centuries ago. I turned even colder, like ice. I felt the hairs at the back of my neck rise. I remembered the wooden kirst of photographs that I had torn from The Orcadian, the only thing that I had brought with me from Orkney. Everything else, I had left behind.
“No one thought to write it down.” He said. “Slowly, quietly, they lifted the bolts, and made their way to the cliffs, with not even a candle in their hands. The path was hammered into their bones. As the water crashed, hands shrunk and spread into fins, legs joined and swirled into a powerful tail, and woman became seal.” The old man said. “They left their children behind.” He stopped, letting it sink in. He knew he had told a good story.
And here it was, repeating itself once again.
My father said, “My 1000 mudi rice field begins and end with me,” as he looked at the spread of plantations, each blade of rice wet and green in a flooded field. From his view, he could see all the crops, the enel, suggi, kolake, grown on the basis of irrigation and weather. One could say that that is where it all began. He did not know that with this wish the wheels began to turn, and the land entered its penultimate age of life. It would burst and ripen only in his lifetime.
Years later, I stood with him on the hilltop, watching an overcast sky. When I was older, Puli akka would tell me of how the enel crop had been compared to a prostitute, suggi to a bride, and kolake to a perpetual woman. That was the way to remember which crop was the best, she said. By then, I would be old enough to appreciate these differences. One would think that our matrilineal system of inheritance would allow for a woman to determine her choice of partner, just like the fierce matriarchal clans of Keralam, but in fact, it increased our value, and increased the guard around us. I was never allowed to see a courtesan, even though my father visited many. Some of these courtesans even performed in the throne room during festive occasions. They did not speak; their feet spoke for them. I was entranced by these women; brilliant and beautiful, and when the time came, I almost forgave Kanthu for being enamoured by one.
But that came later. For now, my father pointed out the lands that would pass through me to my children. He pointed out the darker patches of forest, in which time moved differently. The seeds of paddy that would fall into the nagabanas had a cycle of life that was completely different from the plantations. Sometimes they would never germinate, but sometimes, a month after plantation, if a few rays of the sun passed through unfiltered, one could see a spread of yellow, drying rice, ready to be husked. Sometimes one would see berries growing on the branches, vivid red and purple shades that I had seen only on the petals of flowers or in the sky. These were not to be picked. My father told me that when he had gone into the nagabana to pray for me, he had discovered the shrine in the middle of a field of rice ready for the harvest.
Today was the eighteenth day of Paggu, the full moon. It was the day that the seeds would be planted into the soil. On the first day of the month, the buffalos had been led in pairs towards the still damp land, their hooves disappearing into the water. It was dawn, and I was wearing new clothes. We had paid homage to Ishwara at sun-break, placing before him coconuts, gold, rice and polished mirror. The land was being cut around the edges, and the bushes that had sprung up had been burned and were being prepared for manure. The rainy season had already begun. I saw the eastern corner of the field being ploughed and five pairs of the saroli leaf being placed upon it, the plant with the yellow arils. Usually, the birds dispersed the seeds of this plant, but the farmers planted branches into the soil, which, my father told me, would allow for the seeds to be shaded from the sun. I remembered what he had said when the fields were ploughed on Bisu, “adapu thathi khandadha kodipu thappandh.” That failure to plough affected the sprouting of the plants. It was one of the proverbs he loved to quote at me, especially when I began learning the basics of a new skill.
As the paddy was planted, the farmers began the telling of stories. One of them began singing of Panjurli, the wild boar that was adopted by Ishwara while it was still a piglet. Ishwara reared it until it became fully grown. As an adult, it destroyed the crops of a Birmana Ballala, who was a worshipper of Ishwara and in anger, Ishwara went into the field with a bow and arrow and killed Panjurli. Later on, he regretted his haste, and when he brought Panjurli back to life, he blessed the boar with divine powers and made him into a spirit;a bhuta.
We had with us an ambassador from Banavasi, who was of minor nobility himself. (It was explained to me later, that ‘minor nobility’ meant that he was a bastard.) His position at court enabled him to be a traveller. He had travelled to many countries; not just within Tulu Nadu, but also beyond, to the cold ice capped mountains.
“You speak our language very well,” I said to him.
“Thank you, my lady.” He said. “I admire your language very much.” I learned then, that he was a poet and playwright. He had penned many pieces of work that had been performed at the palace at Banavasi. I learned from him that rice didn’t grow in the northern countries. There, in the land of the five rivers, it was wheat that thrived. Instead of eating rice with their rasam and sambhar, they mopped it up with rounded flat, appam shaped leavens, except, he told me, it was much less delicious. A chappati was thick and hardened very quickly. They also burned it unevenly in black patches, and he was unable to develop a taste for it. I found it difficult to imagine how they would eat their rasam. Would they dip their leavened breads into a bowl of it, I asked. They don’t eat rasam, he told me. They ate instead, a soup made out lentils, thick and salty.
“How long were you there for?” I asked.
“Almost a whole cycle,” he said. “I left when it began to get cold again.”
At night, I saw the orange flames of korthiri being burned and planted around the fields. As shouts of koo! Began to fill the air, we took to the windows and watched the black figures run around in the fields, and with their screams, attempt to drive away disease. The day before, kalli had been planted, an activity that was supposed to go unnoticed, but I had seen some black figures moving silently around the aramani, though I had not mentioned it to anyone. I began to explain the significance of kalli, kaasaraka branches to Nanda before I saw him looking at me sideways.
“I already know these things,” he said to me. “I may not be an Alva, but I am a Kadamba.”