This month, our story prompt for The Word Count Podcast was the following image:
My thoughts wandered a bit when it came to story ideas for this, but in the end, I wrote a story that is somewhat connected to another story I wrote for the podcast: Nemesis, from 2016.
After the Fall
There are things that happen when the blessing of whatever god you served wanes, and your previously immortal body gets stuck in mortal-mode. Things no one warns you about. Like aching joints and the flu, hangovers and menopause. Like mammograms. No one warned me, that one day, I’d be standing in a non-descript clinic near the local hospital, where a quietly professional and capable woman would squeeze my breasts flat to take pictures of the tissue inside.
But here we are. Here I am.
I don’t mind. I’ve had worse things done to me. But as I get dressed afterward, I’m thinking that aging, even when its slowed down and dragged out over centuries, is not for the weak of heart.
“Your doctor will call you if there is anything,” the young woman at the reception desk says when I leave.
I nod, put on my worn leather jacket, and head outside.
I already know the doctor will call. I already know what the scan will show. I’ve already felt it. The lump is small but it’s there, waiting to kill me.
Squinting in the spring sunlight, I get into my car and start driving.
Maybe this is what finally kills me, I think as I turn onto the highway. I can almost hear the Norns laughing as they spin my thread and ready the shears.
I survived Surt’s fire, the ice of Niflheim. I survived the claws of the wolf and the jaws of the dragon. I survived when Asgård fell to ruin. I survived every useless battle I threw myself into after that, wielding whatever weapon was given to me – spears and swords and axes, muskets and pistols. But eventually, when the blessing the High One had bestowed on me faded, I found another kind of life. Quieter. Slower. Safer. Or so I thought.
I’ve always fought, but maybe it’s time to go.
Death’s no stranger to me. I reaped so many as their souls shook loose from their armour and their bones, carried them with me to the Halls, to the Fields, to Glory. That’s what they called it at least. But where will I go when I shrug out of this body? Maybe it’s time to find out.
I park the car at the trail-head and walk in between the trees. Here, spring smells like it always did. Earth, stirring beneath old leaves, new leaves stirring in the branches. Deep inside the park there’s a clearing where the ground is covered in pale, purple flowers. A small path threads its way around the dell, but no one’s here except an old man feeding the grey sparrows and the fat pigeons, a bottle in a brown paper bag beside him on the bench.
I walk out into the clearing and lie down. I breathe slow, eyes closed, feeling as if I might sink into the earth. Maybe I could. Maybe I should raise a barrow over myself, fall asleep, and not wake again. Maybe that’s what my sisters did, wherever they are now. Hrist and Sigrún, Sváva and Kára, Mist and Skeggjöld.
I miss them.
When I first realized my body was aging, I stopped fighting and got a job. Just odd jobs at first. Waiting tables, cleaning dishes, serving drinks. Eventually, I took a job in a hospice. Thought it would be the place for me, used as I am to death and dying. But it was harder than I thought, seeing all those souls slipping away, not being able to guide them. I’ve worked in morgues and funeral homes since then, where there is naught but bones and flesh, fodder for ravens and wolves, or the incinerator and the coffin, as is more common these days.
In the sunlit dell, surrounded by flowers, I drift. I remember Tyr’s hand, torn off his arm as the wolf snapped its maw shut. I remember the scent of Idun’s golden apples as they shone on the branches of the tree. I remember singing with my sisters as we rode the skies, our voices high and clear like water and ice and sea. I remember the High One, the way he smiled that day he gouged out his eye and sank it in the well below the roots of the ash-tree.
My life is a deep, dark well of time and I drift, sink, plummet. Maybe I fall asleep, because the croak of a raven wakes me, and the old man with the brown paper bag is crouched beside me. A pair of old glasses are perched on his nose, one lens cracked so I cannot see the eye behind it.
“Hild,” he says, his voice rough with drink and years.
No one has spoken my name, my true name, for an age and more. Hearing it, hearing him, makes me shiver, but not from cold or fear.
“Where are you going, Hild?” he asks. “And would you not rather go with me?”
I look away. I think of the tissue, the lump inside me, waiting to kill me.
“I think I’m dying,” I say finally.
“I thought I was dead. Maybe we’re both wrong.”
I shake my head.
“I’m old. I’m sick. I’m…”
“We’ve lived through worse,” he says and takes a swig from the bottle before he offers it to me.
I hesitate, but I drink. The label says vodka, but the drink tastes of sun and spring and Idun’s apples. It tastes of home.
“What need have you of me?” I ask, as the warmth of the draught flows through me.
He removes his broken glasses, turning his one hale eye to the skies.
“Maybe there’s a battle coming,” he answers. “Maybe the serpent beneath the world has finally gnawed through the roots of the tree. Maybe it’s time to fight again.”
In the sky above, storm clouds are gathering, and I hear the rumble of thunder and hooves, the clash of lightning and spears on shields. I hear women, singing as they ride, their voices clear as water and ice and sea.
© Maria Haskins 2019
Cover art for this story created by me, using Canva and a copyright-free illustration from the public domain book, The Home and School Reference Work by The Home and School Education Society.
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