Thialfi Earns His Keep

This is an excerpt from my book, which has a working title of Roskva and the Runes.  The novel is a retelling and adaptation of the story in Norse myth of Thor’s visit to Jotunheim, the land of giants.  Along the way, Thor acquires two children in a compensation/fostering deal, and the girl disappears from the narrative.  I always wondered what happened to the girl, Roskva, who disappeared from the myths, while her brother, Thialfi, went on to have adventures with Thor.  This is my attempt to fill that gap and be cool in the eyes of my children.  Chapter 2 picks up right after Thor announces he’s taking the kids.

Chapter 2

The road was dusty and the air was cool as Roskva and Thialfi left their childhood home to travel with the gods.  They were slaves.  Compensation.  The price their parents paid unwillingly for all of their lives.  Roskva walked silently, tears tracing down her cheeks.  Up ahead, Thialfi slouched along, kicking rocks as he found them.  Even when he was pouting, though, he was faster than she, so he was far ahead of her.  The old man walked between them, and Roskva found herself transfixed by his feet, momentarily distracted—he seemed to walk so smoothly, his cloak just floated along.  And he left no footprints in the dust.
                Roskva decided to brave a conversation and hurried her pace to catch him.  Even as she hurried, his pace quickened, though his robes stayed motionless, so that he was the same distance ahead for a minute or two.  Roskva began to despair that she would not catch him, then pushed that feeling down and tried harder.   She heard a deep, sonorous sigh, and his pace slowed. “You are determined then, child, to catch me?  So be it.”
                “Thank you, my lord,” Roskva panted, and she thought she saw a small smile on his face as she came up beside him.  “It’s just I’d like to ask you what I’m to call you, sir.  Master?  Lord?  What do you prefer?”  Her boldness surprised her as much as it did him.  But she stayed even with his pace.
                “Ah.  Well, those work, but I also have names.  Why not use a name to call me?  I’ve many names.  Wayfarer, Old One, Slaughter-Father, Riddler, Flaming Eye, Hooded One, Hanged One, High One, Screamer, Long Beard, Raven-Tester, Terrible One…”
                “Ok.  Thank you.”  Roskva interrupted him, but then stumbled for words, humbled.  “Which do you prefer I use to address you, Lord Odin?”
                “I think you’ve chosen wisely.  I answer quickest to Odin.”  This time there was a smile.  Roskva was sure of it.  Her shoulders relaxed some, and she settled in to stride next to the father of the gods.  This was going to be some trip.
                Thialfi and Thor were walking far ahead and headed for a forest.  They stopped at the edge, in the shade of the tall birch trees.  As Roskva and Odin approached, Thialfi snatched Roskva’s hand and dragged her in to the trees.  “We’re to gather kindling.  Come on!”  And off he ran, with her in tow.  He couldn’t hold her long, though; she tripped on the uneven forest floor and couldn’t keep up.  It seemed to take him a minute even to notice he’d let go her hand, and then he turned back, glaring.  “Come on, Roskva.  Now’s our chance to get away.”
                “Oh, so that’s your plan?  You think we can escape old Flaming Eye, do you?  You want to annoy someone who calls himself Slaughter-Father?  Thialfi, be reasonable.  We belong to them now.  Father and Mother are fine.  This is the deal.  Now help me look for kindling.”  Roskva’s eyes burned as she spoke, but she held back tears in front of her brother, convicted in her desire to set a good example.  Thialfi was headstrong, and now in more danger than ever.  She’d keep him safe.
                Thialfi, however, was not so easily convinced as she would have liked.  “So that’s it?  You’re giving up?  Fine.  I’ll go back alone.”  He glowered at her, then turned away and kept moving through the trees.  The trees, he noticed, were getting thicker and closer together.  It was impossible to run.  He wound his way through for a few more seconds before coming up fast on a ravine he nearly toppled in to.  He let out a small shriek as he steadied himself.  Roskva was at his side immediately, holding his shirt, pulling him back.  They both looked in to the ravine.  The cleft in the earth must have been thirty feet down, and ran both directions along the edge of the forest as long as they could see.  It must have happened abruptly, like an earthquake, for they could see broken trees and shattered boulders in the bottom.  And there was no way around it for miles.
                Roskva bent down to pick up some splintered roots sticking out of the wall of earth, then kept picking up twigs as she walked back to the clearing.  Thialfi followed, but kicking at tree roots most of the way; he didn’t stoop to pick up kindling until they were almost back.
                Dinner was uneventful.  The children were not in the mood to be convivial, and the gods were not interested in chit chat.   The food was good, and that seemed to be enough for everyone.  When Thor wrapped the bones in the goatskins again, he looked at Thialfi disapprovingly, but without the expressive eyebrows this time.  Thialfi went to bed, shamefaced and sullen.
                No one knows exactly what happened in the night.
                Somehow, some way, some giant got close enough to grab Thor’s hammer.  He woke with a start, shaking the ground as he jumped to his feet.  “Mjollnir!  Someone’s taken Mjollnir!  Get it back!”
                Roskva shook herself steady, blinking sleep out of her eyes.  It had been a long day, and she had been sleeping deeply.  Thialfi, though, was off like a shot.  As Roskva chased Thialfi blindly, stumbling first over her bedding, and then in to her brother’s, the night air brought her to senses.  The ravine.  “Chase him toward the ravine, Thialfi,” she cried in to the darkness, not sure if he was close enough to hear her.
But he was.  And he was on it.  For a giant smart enough to get Thor’s hammer, running in to the forest was a stupid idea.  Thialfi guessed the giant was looking for cover, but didn’t’ know the danger.   He banked on that as he chased the thundering footfalls ahead of him.
Thialfi really was fast.  Even with the giant’s strength and size, the boy was able to run back and forth behind him and herd him toward the ravine.  It was too dark to see much of anything, but the giant crashed through trees like they were toothpicks, and he smelled like moldy cheese and wet sheep.  He roared in frustration, like an animal, as the trees got thicker.  Tracking him was like looking for the haystack instead of the needle.
It was almost too easy.  It was definitely too quick.  One tree too many snapped under the weight of the giant’s massive arms, and it was over–he was over–down the ravine.  He didn’t even know to slow down.  The noise was deafening when he slammed in to the bottom, and the force of his body blasted a crater in the earth below.  Thialfi stood looking down, thinking about how much farther he’d now have to climb to get that hammer, clinging to a tree branch in the moonlight, as Roskva approached.
“You did it!”  She was panting worse than he was, but she threw back her head and laughed.  “Thialfi, you chased down a giant! A giant!  Not a fox or even me.  You took down a giant.”  Thialfi swayed over the ravine as the triumph settled on him.
“It was your idea, child.”  Odin’s voice came out of nowhere, and Roskva started.  Thialfi was so shaken by his sudden appearance, he nearly fell.  How did he get through the forest without their hearing him?  Thialfi registered briefly that he was glad he hadn’t been tracking the Riddler, when he spoke again.  “Thialfi, is there enough moonlight for you to climb down and retrieve that hammer?  My son is understandably uneasy without it.   He would be grateful to have it sooner rather than later.  I can see the rock giant is quite dead.”
Thialfi’s voice shook.  “Yes, sir.  My lord.  Sir.  I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”  And he let himself fall the first bit of the way down the ravine.
Odin was regarding Roskva, whose chest was still heaving.  She dimmed her smile in the scrutiny of his glaring eye, but couldn’t turn it off completely.  “You interest me, Roskva.”  Her smile began to beam again.
Thialfi came back in to the camp with Mjollnir strapped to his back.  Thor was pacing, Odin and Roskva seated around the fire.  Thialfi was covered in earth, as if he’d slid down the ravine and tunneled back up, but he had retrieved the hammer.  Thor stopped pacing and fixed him with a stern look, then his face cracked in to the biggest smile Roskva had ever seen.  She counted sixteen teeth before he moved on from smiling to lauding Thialfi.  “Good work, boy!  Good, good work!”  An already tired Thialfi collapsed under the weight of Thor’s hand on his shoulder.
It wasn’t quite dawn when Thialfi had come back, and now the sun was climbing in the sky, they were back on the road, and still Thor was praising Thialfi’s speed, dexterity,  and, well, downright  usefulness.  Roskva didn’t mind, wasn’t jealous.  Thialfi was visibly happy, full of his accomplishment, enjoying the adventure, and, Roskva concluded, significantly less likely to run away.  And besides, Thialfi could be useful and speedy all he wanted.  She was interesting to the father of the gods.
That night they set up camp at dusk, and Thor began to roast the goat flesh over a spit.  They sat under the protection of several birch trees, watching the fire and waiting for the meat to cook, and telling stories to pass the time.  Odin went first, telling the tale of his retrieval of the mead of poetry.  He lingered over the image of himself as an eagle, triumphantly returning with the mead of poetry in his mouth, spitting it into jars as he crossed the burning walls of Asgard, the bird-shaped giant behind him sizzling in the flames.  Roskva sat rapt, and even Thialfi was still, listening more intently than he appeared to be.  “And since then we call good poetry ‘Odin’s mead,’” he said, a sense of finality in his deep, musical voice.
“Don’t tell me you’re stopping there!” the children’s heads whipped around, trying to identify the source of this new, oily voice.  “Don’t you want to tell them where bad poetry comes from?  I’ll tell them, if you’re too shy.  Good poetry comes from the mead from Odin’s mouth, kids.  Bad poetry comes from the mead he crapped out before crossing the wall.  When you need a good dose of doggerel, just reach for the eagle poop in front of the fortress of Asgard.  Not only did that mead come from the wrong end of Odin, it also landed outside the sanctified courtyard of the gods, out on the rough rocks of the wild.  Poor doggerel.”  As the speaker talked, he seemed almost to materialize out of thin air.  By the time he was done talking, though, he was as substantial as any of them:  tall and wiry, with thick, coppery hair that hung down to his shoulders and over his eyebrows.  He had one green eye and one red eye.  Roskva couldn’t look away.
Thialfi, too, sat staring, sitting upright to do so, as Odin sighed.  “Loki.  Welcome, brother.  What a pleasant surprise.”
“Loki?”  Roskva murmured the name almost inaudibly, but the tall man turned his mismatched eyes on her and kept watching her, though he spoke to Odin.
“Yes, Odin.  How goes your journey?  Who are your companions?”
“Thialfi and Roskva, newly acquired by Thor.  You can stop trying to intimidate Roskva, by the way.  She’s much too sensible to be taken in by you.”
Loki shot his eyes to Odin, then back to Roskva.  “And what makes you think I’m trying to intimidate her, Allfather?  Can’t a man look at a girl without such aspersions being cast?”
“A man may.  You are not a man.”  Odin leaned back against a stone and drew out a pipe.  “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company tonight?”
“Yes, Loki.  What are you doing here?  Speak fast.”  Thor leaned forward from his rock, his brows starting to furrow, and his fingers flexing as if itching to grab something.
“Why, just seeking your good company,” Loki said. “I was looking for you at Asgard a few days ago.  Frigg said I’d just missed you.  She said you were out on an adventure, and that is just what I am here for—an adventure.  So what are you up to, besides kidnapping and telling half-finished stories?”
“We’re not kidnapping!” bellowed Thor.  “These children are mine in compensation for damage.  Who are you to question my actions?”
“Easy, Thunderhead.  I’m not criticizing.  I’m just interested.  Where are we going?”  Loki leaned back near Odin, adopting a relaxed, haughty pose.  Odin had a strange, bemused look on his face, but no one was watching him.  All eyes were on Loki, who was tipping his head back to look at the stars.
When Odin spoke, his voice seemed to come from all around, and his words were slow and measured.  “You are traveling to Jotunheim, Loki, to contend with Utgard-Loki, the giant king.  Look out for each other, and look out for these children, whose lives you are responsible for.  I shall return to Asgard, but I will watch your progress and enjoy the show, so do not disappoint me.   This girl shall be my eyes as you journey.  What she sees, I will see.  And Loki, your shoe is on fire.”  With that, Loki jumped, the spell was broken, and Odin was gone.  The two remaining gods looked at each other and laughed.   Roskva wondered if she would ever be able to sleep again, she was so amazed, and then, a moment later, she was asleep.

Retelling and Rewriting–Myth edition

Neil Gaiman’s new rendering of the Norse Myths came out last week.  I looked forward to it and dreaded it.  I love his writing, and I love Norse myths, but I was worried his new book would be so awesome it would blow any need for me to write out of the water.  I am writing a Norse myth, you see.  Why on earth should I do that when Neil Gaiman is already doing that?
Whew.  He just translated them.  He revisioned a few scenes, and I was especially grateful for the ones where the Edda are sparse.  For instance, we know that Odin trades his eye for wisdom, that he hangs on the World Tree–a sacrifice of himself to himself–in order to learn the runes, that he visits Mimir’s severed head in the well where Odin preserves it, where it continues to give him counsel. But these are mentioned in passing in the Edda as things you should already know; they are not narrated.
So as I said, I was especially interested in and moved by Gaiman’s telling of the scenes that must have taken place but were never spelled out.  Now these events have a shape, and it’s a faithful, respectful, even loving rendering.  Mostly he is retelling, sometimes modernizing, definitely providing some connective tissue and providing an order that makes sense, but he’s not changing the narratives in any dramatic way.  It is a text I could use in a lower division myth class.  I like to assign direct translations of the primary texts for upper division English majors, so we can talk about manuscript transmission and scribal culture, which Gaiman doesn’t address, and his rendering muddies a bit, but I could use it for non-majors.  Thanks, NG.
So that’s what he did do.  What he did not do is recreate.  He didn’t add content, update, fictionalize, develop shadowy characters, or change plot lines.  Whew.  So I can.
I am writing a book based on one of the stories Gaiman collects, but I am writing a new story.  A character he expresses interest in as well as dismay at not having more information about, I am using for my villain.  A character for whom he constructs a viable exit (having surely noticed she simply disappeared from the myths without a trace or a regret), I have made my hero.  I am transforming the story of Thor’s visit to Jotunheim in to a hero quest for a girl, not Thor. And I do so now knowing more people will know the base story than would have before someone like Neil Gaiman threw his professional weight and his geek-cred behind it.
Meanwhile, I have work to do.  I have a new plot from old roots, a new character from old stock, and a world that may well take less “building” now.  My job is to fill gaps and expand ideas, to translate a story, not just a text.  When Thor and Loki visit Jotunheim, Thor acquires two children on the way, as compensation for breaking the thigh bone of his goat.  In Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, the boy continues on the journey, but the girl is never mentioned again.  I’m writing her story.  It’s exciting and terrifying, and I’m loving every minute.
Teaching · Writing

The Ballad of Lefty and Sergio, or Teaching, Truth, and Tales

This is a story about teaching, about reading, and about epistemology. I taught Calvino’s Mr Palomar last week, which is a lovely collection of reflective vignettes told from the perspective of a very analytical, slightly uptight man. It has no plot. It’s just a series of moments where Mr Palomar encounters the world:  physically, as in looking at waves on the beach; socially, as when he’s buying cheese in a Paris cheese shop; and reflectively, where he tries to make sense of his place in the world.

In the chapter entitled “Serpents and Skulls,” Mr Palomar is visiting Mexico, and touring the Aztec ruins at Tula. He is traveling with a friend who is well-versed in Aztec lore and clearly knows this site. He leads Palomar through a temple, and he “pauses at each stone, transforms it in to a cosmic tale, and allegory, a moral reflection” (96).
Mr Palomar listens rapt, but is occasionally distracted by a school group of children whose teacher keeps pointing to artifacts and describing them, but concluding each description with “We don’t know what it means” (97). Mr Palomar is torn between these two approaches to the world, and my class was inspired to wrestle with them as points on a spectrum.
To discuss them easily, I ascribed names to the speakers. The tour guide, leading a field trip in Mexico, I named Sergio. Then, feeling silly, and thinking perhaps that might be perceived as a goofy name for a Mexican teacher, I doubled down on my dorkiness: and because Palomar’s friend’s impassioned speech was on the left page of my open book, I named him Lefty. This is the kind of randomness or serendipity (depending on your attitude) that I think characterizes my classes. It also contributes to making each class its own culture. I have different students each time, but I also read differently each time. Ten years of Mr Palomar now, and there’s never been a “Ballad of Lefty and Sergio” before.
These two characters represent two approaches to the world and two ways of knowing (there’s the epistemology, as threatened).  Lefty is the conscientious teacher, who does all his homework and prepares for class, and when he gets in front of his students, he weaves a tapestry of what amounts to “scholarship’s best guesses.”  Knowing the cultural, anthropological, and literary history, he ties elements together and presents a working narrative that tries to do justice to the facts we can prove as well as to the truths of human nature (which are harder to prove, but no less real). He makes meaning.
As a medievalist, I’m very sympathetic to Lefty. It’s my job to teach works whose authors have been dead for centuries, frequently works whose authors are completely unknown.  I teach language no one has spoken for 600 years, and I do that, too, by a series of well-intentioned best guesses. If we know what Old English looked like, and we know what Modern English looks like, we can triangulate and make what feels like a valiant effort at understanding Middle English, the transition period.
But there’s no ironclad evidence.  When all is said and done, Sergio’s nihilistic approach that “We don’t know” is true, of course. Maybe it’s the difference between making meaning and making facts. My job is to look at as many external facts as I can, as Lefty does, and then to look at the most important fact—the text, for Lefty the statuary—and from those, produce a faithful reading.
Sergio is right: there is no empirical truth we can find, separated as we are from the works in space and time, but Lefty is right too. The solution is not to throw up our hands and deny any understanding. The solution is to pay attention to where we are standing, as we view as earnestly as we can and bridge the gap between art and audience.
I promise the last two weeks of poetry is not the beginning of a trend, but I couldn’t resist.  If you sing it, the meter can be smoothed out.
“The Ballad of Lefty and Sergio”
Lefty looks at all the facts;
He tirelessly prepares for class–
Reading, writing, watching, and then he
Constructs the truest story he can see.
Sergio won’t trust his eyes;
He sees this world compound of lies.
It’s foolish to presume that he can know
Anything outside of Sergio.
“I think this! It might be right.
The data speaks to me at night.
It makes sense given everything we know…
Why can’t you just imagine, Sergio?”
“It’s too far gone; we’re too far out.
We have no first person account.
You’re saying more about yourself, you see,
Than anything you’re looking at, Lefty.”

Lefty tells us stories that Sergio can’t believe.

Sergio knows Lefty can’t help but deceive.
These guys will keep arguing long after this song,
But thinking one of them is right is surely wrong.

*Photo credit to Bob Lamb, for “Two Gun Bob and Gentleman Kip” who live again as Lefty and Sergio.  🙂  Thanks, Bob!

Living · Writing

After the Golden Years

When my first child was born, I was told to look in to his eyes, because he had so recently looked on infinity.  Does looking in to a dying person’s eyes give the same view?  What if that person is blind?
Poetry is how I process.  Sometimes feelings are too big to fit in to prose.  That doesn’t mean poetry written in emotional straits is necessarily good—far from it, and it can be the opposite.  But it does mean, at least for me, that ordinary statements don’t suffice.  They don’t draw out the pain as well as words that have been subjected to rules and strictures, held to higher standards. Sometimes poetry soothes because it forces one to take some critical distance from the subject, and in that space, healing happens, or begins to.
I visited my mother recently.  She has paranoid schizophrenia, she is blind, and she lives in a convalescent center.  When I walked in, she was sleeping, and she was so stiff and uncomfortable looking, she appeared frozen in death.  I staggered, then realized she was only mimicking death—not yet moving on, but readying herself and me.  She woke abruptly, shuddering at the sound of my voice, then calming at it when I began to sing.
Her eyes are blindness.  What does she see?  What can I see in them?  Blankness, peace, a tabula rasa—pure potential.  Perhaps that is a window to infinity.  It’s not the face of angels I was told would be lingering in my son’s eyes, but it is the face of humanity reckoning, reflecting, readying.
It’s as if she’s caught between earth and ether, inhabiting neither completely.  Here she is on a mountaintop, years ago, close enough to touch the sky.
After the Golden Years

She walks a line she doesn’t see;
She feels it vibrate in her mind.
On one side life, across it death—
She’s wheelchair bound and wholly blind.

It’s years now since she felt real fear,
Or threw her head back, laughing long.
Her days are numb now, mind’s sedate.
I speak to her in favorite songs.

“Too Ra Loo Ra” wakes her up.
“Scarlett Ribbons” slows her breath.
“Stardust” makes her arch her back
In rictus as she tries on death.

One day she’ll whisper to her soul,
And daughter’s dread will turn to awe.
I brush her hair back from her eyes
And sing her “Que sera sera.”