Squirrel Key Excerpt

The jeans were already stained, had been long ago; there was nothing to be done for the greasy black smudge below Joey’s knee. Most of the pants in her closet were marked this way. It wasn’t the stain that made her slow her bike on the short drawbridge to Christianshavn. More than one biker careened around her, flicking their bells in annoyance when she stopped without signaling. Joey leaned her red centurion 10-speed on the metal railing along the pedestrian space and looked down at the right leg of her jeans. The cuff had come out of her sock, a tight woolen argyle, and was snagging on the chain. Mindless of the cold, Joey rolled the cuff up to just below her knee.

And it was cold. The Danish wind bit at all of her exposed skin, her cheeks, chin, lips — and now the inches of calf she had bared. Nonetheless, the short hair at her neck was matted with sweat from the ride back to town. Joey pulled her knit cap down around her ears and buttoned the collar high on her black winter coat. She’d left her scarf today; it was already April, after all.

Joey leaned on her bike, suddenly rather tired, and steadied the small pot of daffodils, bright as sunshine, in basket behind her. She looked out over the harbor, at the unusually crisp blue sky mirrored in rainbow slicks on the black water below. It wasn’t the most pleasant place to stop in Copenhagen; car exhaust mingled with the fumes from the shallow tour boats, but the flattened bubble of the opera house sparkled in the afternoon sun. Its spear-like roof jutted menacingly over the harbor, a silhouette meant to mimic the giant grey boat cranes that were still there. Joey watched a boatload of bundled tourists pause before the hulking building; faintly she picked up the guide’s monotone over the wind: “…who also designed the Sydney opera house….” Joey shivered and smiled. She’d taken that tour half a dozen times over the last five years. It was much better, she wanted to tell them, in the summer.

Joey stamped the cold from her boots and angled her bike toward the road. She eased it into traffic with barely a glance, shrugging off another irritated bell. Somebody complained in Danish, but no one really looked at the boyish girl weaving herself through the rush-hour peloton. The Centurion cut through the city center, sneaking under red lights and looking for the side streets Joey knew would avoid traffic.

Across Norrebrogade, Joey slipped through gates of Assistens Kirkegaard, slowing her pace as she always did in the cemetery. Her smile quirked as she passed HC Andersen’s grave, and again when she passed the physicist Niels Bohr, though she could never quite remember why he was famous. Cold as it was, a yellow light streaked through the tall trees and here and there snowdrop buds peeked from the evergreen grasses. People strolled with dogs and prams at all times of the day, here, but Joey relished the hush of the place, the intense reserve she had seen mirrored in the Danish people. Even the babies were quiet.

Back on the street, Joey zigged right then left, up the noisy main drag with its falafel joints, the second-hand stores and endless jewelry shops fading under her heels. Save for the train alleys, this part of town bore the brunt of graffitists’ abuses. Natives considered it the “ghetto.” There was hardly any such thing in Copenhagen. But in a country this homogenous, immigrants were distrusted. At least the ones who looked different. Joey stopped her bike to pop into a kiosk for a pack of Camels. The Indian behind the counter addressed her in Danish, as did everyone. Her grey eyes and fair face were a convenient disguise, sometimes, in a country where diversity was not really a virtue. Even her cheekbones screamed Scandinavian, though that hardly mattered in Norrebro. It was something she liked about the neighborhood.

Cosmopolitan. That wasn’t a word used to describe Copenhagen. “Quaint” and “cozy” usually fit better, but to Joey, the hub of Denmark was a thriving metropolis. It was exciting to live in a European capital; the architecture, the history, the burgeoning international culture — even in little Copenhagen — thrilled Joey today as much as they had the love-struck backpacker she’d been years ago. Though she rarely afforded it, she loved the ease of travel, the long holidays, the strange light of the winter, the summer nights where the sun barely set. She had endless photographs of these things, though she rarely showed them. Who wants a picture of something they see every day? In the small galleries where Joey had managed to get a few photos on the wall, the Danes seemed to prefer edgier stuff: passed-out junkies, defaced statuary. One tiny shop in Vesterbro had even taken her portrait of a dead pigeon. Joey worked hard to find quirky subjects; she loved weird street art in particular. But at her heart, she was always pulled by sunsets and turning leaves, duck ponds and old people. Funny, she thought. You could find those things anywhere.

Joey pulled her bike through the basement-level courtyard door. It was a bright courtyard, for all that it was inside of an awkward pentagon of fused buildings. It was green already with Birch leaves. And it was safe. Joey stashed her bike in the covered bike space, locking both the back tire and the chain. Truth was, this was Joey’s third bike since moving to Copenhagen. You could never be too safe.

The back stairwell was a dizzying coil of wooden planks. It was clearly original, surviving from the courtyard’s early, 19th-century days as a home for the less fortunate. It made Joey a little nauseated to climb the eight creaking turns to her apartment; they were so narrow that, if you came upon another person, one of you had to scale the wall. Still, there were a few greasy windows. They gave off a greenish glow from the ivy climbing outside, in the summertime. And it was more convenient than walking around the block to the front of the building.

Joey jiggled her keys at the back door, struggling with them as she always did, though there were only four, and two of those were bike keys. Silver and black for the back, she chanted to herself, flipping over her worn Edelweiss keychain. The mnemonic wasn’t much help when she was one-handed. Joey had just crouched to set the daffodils on the narrow landing when the door popped open.

“Hey,” said Anna.

“Hey,” Joey replied. Anna looked down at the daffodils.

“Did you go to the store?”

They both looked at the daffodils now.

Joey hesitated. The flowers had been a gift from her student. Her young female student, the one Anna didn’t like very much. It was Wednesday. Anna knew what that meant, that Joey had seen this girl, and if she hadn’t stopped at the store — presumably to buy a pot of daffodils — she had accepted them as a gift. And yet, where were the eggs? The bread she was supposed to pick up? Joey knew Anna very well. Though, she thought with slight disgust, none of this had occurred to her when she was on her bike, flying past one Netto after another on the way home. Anna’s eyes were a very serious deep blue. Purple, almost, and Joey thought of constricted flesh, of blood blisters. She sighed. Which truth was better?

“I didn’t go to the store,” Joey admitted, pushing through the narrow doorway into the galley kitchen. The space was tight for two people. She set the daffodils on the sill next to the window. It looked very dirty next to the striking yellow and green. “I forgot.”

“But you bought flowers.”

She could have bought them at a flower stall, true. The weather was cold but sunny, for once, and thousands of people all over the city were doing stupid things like forgetting to buy eggs and brining home daffodils. Anna had tucked her chin, like a bull. Joey used to think she was very beautiful when she was jealous.

“Yes,” she said, not looking away. Lying was easy. “I bought flowers. For you.”

And it was that last bit that made Anna pause, made the lie work. Not because Joey never bought flowers — for the apartment, for friends, for whatever — but because it was too horrible to think Joey would accept flowers from her student and then casually pass them to Anna as something thoughtful. Something tender. Joey knew that Anna wanted to believe it.

Joey pulled off her coat and blew onto the cold pads of her fingertips. She looked away from Anna, who was repositioning the flowers to catch the dying sun in the kitchen. It made her chest hurt, just a little to look at Anna, her dusky red lips quirking into a smile through the golden strands of her hair. Perhaps she knew Joey was lying. Perhaps, she thought, it made her happy that Joey would bother.

Caring less about that than what was for dinner, Joey left her shoes in the front hallway and went back to the kitchen. She opened the dormitory-sized refrigerator and stared at the cold cuts and the cheese. There were leeks on the counter, and they would go bad soon.

“I’ll go to the store now,” Joey said. Beer bottles clinked when she closed the refrigerator door. “I’ll get some chicken,” she said. “I’ll make some soup.”

Anna was leaning against the sink, watching her with her arms crossed. She leaned, rigid, to kiss Joey’s cold cheek. “No,” she said. “I’ll go.”

When the front door closed, Joey stretched her tall frame. She liked to get home before Anna, as she had done when Anna worked outside the city, in Lyngby. It was nice to have a few minutes in the little apartment, alone. Nowhere was quite big enough for the two of them; even the bed seemed a half-size too small. They had both been working less, though Joey still had plenty of students. More than she wanted, usually. Anna, who had been a translator, now worked as a tour-boat guide, but only part-time. Speaking Danish, English and German was not an unusual credential in Copenhagen, and there were fewer tourists clamoring aboard this time of year.

Joey began with the leeks, carefully rinsing dirt from the slick layers. They were almost limp; she was glad she’d noticed. There was something very sad to her about throwing out vegetables. She wondered if squirrels would eat leeks.

All of the vegetables Joey could find in the fridge — red pepper, small potatoes and an old zucchini — were simmering in the pan when Anna returned. It was dark; the sun had slipped away in moments and Anna left a trail of lights in her wake.

“Here,” she said, dropping the packaged chicken breasts on the counter. She tossed a few small coins in the jar over the sink and pulled a bottle of wine from her coat. White. The cheap chardonnay Anna liked was not Joey’s favorite, but it would go all right with the soup. Anna twisted it open and poured.

“Skål,” said Joey, automatically. They lifted the glasses and their eyes flickered for an instant over them. “I’m sorry,” Joey said turning back to the chicken, “that I forgot.”

Anna squeezed in behind her and reached around her waist. She slipped her hand underneath Joey’s shirt, and Joey clenched at the cold of it. “It’s all right,” said Anna. She stood on her toes to kiss Joey’s neck. “But next time, there will be punishments.”

They grinned at each other. Joey felt the warmth return, sipping the wine. “This is good,” she said. “Thank you for thinking of it.”

While they ate, there was always a story from the boat. There was always someone who’d asked stupid questions about buying pot in Christiania, or who’d bonked their head on one of the low canal bridges. Maybe even a camera overboard or a child nearly so. Anna told these stories with great amusement, as if they weren’t simply variations on a theme. Today — and this was Anna’s favorite kind of story — two German tourists had hit on her quite noticeably.

“I gave them my phone number,” she giggled. And when Joey didn’t bite, Anna looked sullen. “Fine. Not my real one.”

“I suppose they tipped you well, then?”

“Why else would I give them my number?”

Joey laughed. “You’re running quite a scam, Miss Madsen.”

She smiled in that coy way that sometimes aroused Joey, and sometimes bothered her. “The cute one pinched my ass.”

“Then I guess he got what he paid for.”

Anna laughed loudly at that. She often missed it when Joey was joking; even more often she missed it when Joey was not.

After dinner, they went back out into the cold which neither of them noticed. There was no real fine place to walk — the cemetery was closed at night. But Joey was playing with night photography, and they both liked to wander the neighborhood; the small area around their apartment was known as the Mythological quarter, the streets named after Nordic gods. Joey and Anna lived on Baldersgade, after the pure and beloved son of Odin. Anna had explained that Balder was felled by a jealous and unrepentant Loki, with an arrow of mistletoe. At the end of the world, Balder will rise again and rule over whatever comes next.

“Kind of like Jesus,” Joey had said.

“No,” said Anna. “Nothing like Jesus. Balder’s death is a catalyst. Not a cure.”

This is when Joey liked Anna best, on these walks. She liked the stories, liked Anna for telling them again and again.

“Tell me about Mimir,” Joey said as they walked past Mimirs Bodega where swells of laughter and cigarette smoke poured from the open door.

“Mimir was Odin’s counselor,” she began. “Well, at least his head was…”

It was hard for Joey not to think back to Sunday school, hard for her not to frame these stories in the context of the Christianity. They had been her first stories, after all. Mother Goose and the Bible. Anna, who was fascinated by mythology of all kinds, who had studied it seriously, did not relate tales of morality. She relished the characters for their own sake — particularly the mischievous Loki  (“Without him,” she had said, “nothing ever happens.”) — and recounted the tales as she might bits of history. And like history, they were complicated, these stories. Twisted in myriad versions. Ugly and messy, a series of cause and effect spun seemingly without any purpose. They did not control or even guide, they simply entertained.

Anna told her stories and was a very willing subject for Joey. Her cornsilk hair worked well in the street light, though the streetlights in Copenhagen were high up, wired between buildings and rather unromantic. Joey found a stairwell with wrought iron railings she liked the look of, and Anna posed in the shadows for her until she complained about the urine smell. They turned back toward the apartment; Joey looked in through bare windows, watching other lives in their golden light, and felt calm.

Joey let them into the front stairwell, a much wider, more welcoming space than the old courtyard stairs. She hit the timed light switch and headed up the first of the four flights. She heard the slip of metal on metal behind her, a sound that prefaced the awkward creak of their mailbox. Sometimes Joey went days without checking the mail. During her first years in Copenhagen, the mail had come through the brass slot in their front door, spilled right into their hallway. Joey thought of mail carriers all over the city, hauling packages on their bikes and climbing endless stairwells to deliver them. It had seemed practically Sisyphean. Now, the buildings had mailboxes just inside the front door, though she still couldn’t imagine how they kept track of all the keys.

“Something here for you,” Anna mumbled as they disengaged their scarves, shoes and coats. She laughed. “Squirrel something?”

“What?” Joey was only half listening, contemplating the boxes of tea on the little red shelf in the kitchen.

“Squirrel… Key?” Anna said. She poked her head around the wall and waved a creased manilla envelope. Joey turned the chamomile tea bag in her fingers. She felt suddenly cold.

“Is the heat on?”

“What? I don’t know. Here,” Anna chucked the envelope onto the counter. “It’s in Florida.”

“I know where it is,” Joey mumbled. She checked the radiator in the hallway and turned the knob. She did the same with the two smaller ones beneath the windows in the living room.

“Yeah?” Anna leaned over the envelope again, distracted, and then looked up. “Hey, it’s not that cold in here, you know.”

Joey was in the bedroom, now, reaching into the wardrobe. She found a black hooded sweatshirt and zipped it up over her thermal shirt. She stared into the shower closet that loomed over a whole corner of their small room. “You said you were going to clean this, Anna. This shower needs to be cleaned.”

Anna didn’t respond. She was at the table with her laptop. Joey could hear her clicking the keys. “Anna?”

“Yeah, OK,” she mumbled.

Joey hugged her arms around her chest and stood in the middle of the room. She swayed a little, back and forth on her toes, not thinking of anything, especially. A trance-like bit of procrastination that she sometimes fell into, as if she had put the world on pause.

“Jo?” It must have been longer than moments: Anna was at the door with the envelope. “Want me to open it?” Anna liked opening Joey’s mail.

“No.”

“OK. Is something wrong?”

“No.” Joey took the envelope from her. The hard paper felt even harder ripping against her cold fingers. “Yes.” She sighed. “Probably.”

Inside was a packet of folded papers. She opened each methodically and spread them over the odds and ends on the dresser. The typed letter was signed with blue ink; there was a newspaper clipping and a travel voucher. She did not have to look at any of it very closely.

“What is it?” said Anna, puzzling over the mess.

Joey stepped aside and let her examine the papers. “It’s…” Nothing, Joey wanted to say, wanted to brush Anna away, as if from a bruise. “I think,” she began again. “I think my dad is dead.”

***

She woke with a strange stillness. The room was dark and hushed and for a moment Joey could not breathe. Her fists were numb, their grasp weak against the sheets, and she lay like that, her chest paralyzed as if concussed. It was like being underwater, like running in the mountains. Her gasps were loud in the quiet room, but Anna did not stir. Joey put her hands around her own throat, willing herself calm. Slowly — or it could have been quickly, really; there was no sense of time — her gasps became breaths, and her breaths became lighter and then involuntary. The searing in her chest melted into a queasy stomach, a slight throbbing at the temples. She rolled on her side, to the open window, listening to her body and the constant echo of nightingales on the rooftops. It was later than she thought.

Had that been panic? She hadn’t had a panic attack in years. In fact, she couldn’t even remember. She put her hand to her chest and felt for the heartbeat. It sounded regular, even sluggish in her ears, but under her fingers, the pulse seemed to flicker. Had her father felt his heart this way before it stopped?

It was hot in the room, despite the open window. Joey sat up, needing to move. She pulled off her t-shirt and walked to the living room, resenting the small space. She walked into the kitchen and back, feeling the movement of the air on her bare chest. Inside, she was crawling. In the darkness, she drank a glass of water, feeling it drain with each gulp. Joey went back to the kitchen, to the apartment’s only sink, and washed her face, brushed her teeth.

She felt cleaner, at least, and her mind was slipping back into its normal speed, normal thoughts. Fearful to wake Anna, she took time to dress quietly. In the dark hallway, she found her bag, her coat and her shoes and took them all out onto the landing. It was very cold there, and she assembled herself quickly.

Every day, the city gained four or five minutes of light. Every day from winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, the light returned to them and it was a hopeful thing. Even in the dead of January, a promise for which to be grateful. By the color of the sky, Joey knew it to be perhaps five-thirty. The sun would be up in an hour, a cloudy morning.

She thought of hooking around to the courtyard to get her bike. That was an automatic gesture. But there was nowhere she wanted to get so quickly. There were no open stores, and few people on the streets. Joey crossed the road and headed south, where two men sat on the corner, singing drunkenly.

She paused only when she reached the busier Jagtvej, and waited at the crosswalk dutifully, though there were almost no bicycles in the lanes, a few sleepy cabs trolling in the gloom. Their exhaust licked the damp pavement; it had rained while Joey was sleeping. She pulled a cigarette from her camera bag and lit it with a wooden match.

The sky seemed brighter as she wandered south, through the smaller streets, watching apartment lights flick on and off like fireflies. It was sometimes nice, on mornings like these, when Joey couldn’t sleep and she slipped through the city with no particular direction. This morning the movement was not enough; this morning a finger of the anxiety still shivered through her. Her camera hung limply and she needed purpose. It was too bad, she thought, that the cemetery was still closed.

But then at once it didn’t matter. Joey tossed the Camel, half-smoked, into a gutter and picked up her pace. She could see the golden wall ahead and, turning its corner, Joey could already make out her twisting goal arcing up into the grey dawn sky.

She had passed it only yesterday, had wondered that she’d never noticed this before: the gnarled arm of an beech tree did not cut through the wall; the wall was built around the limb. This entire section, between the brick, was crafted of custom wrought iron. There was no reason not to have trimmed to the tree to fit, and yet they didn’t. They measured it out, they built the rails, and they left it. Maybe half a century ago. Maybe they left it for Joey.

She was wired now, in that sleepless, nicotined way of these early mornings — and something else, too. Something expectant and anxious was brimming, like in the hour before she might meet a friend.

The sidewalk was deserted, and the branch swung out over it making a kind of saddle. Joey grasped the iron bars and heaved herself up to where the beech limb cradled her foot; a few straggling winter leaves fluttered to the sidewalk. There was just a moment’s hesitation while she shifted her bag and flashed on one giddy thought — I’m breaking into the cemetery — before she judged the balance of her weight over the spikes. And then she was up, and then she dropped, a crouching animal on the cold grassy floor.

This was the oldest part of the cemetery. Søren Kierkegaard was buried here somewhere, beneath a huge beech tree. What had he said about the “dizziness of freedom”? She couldn’t remember; she had tried to read him and failed.

Joey was careful now; the light was almost proper. Would anyone care about an early-morning trespasser? In warmer months, this park could have hidden an elephant, the lush canopy would blanket the sky with leaves. Save for a few evergreens — the holly and some pines — Joey was exposed. It was a dark world here, inside these walls, but still she could see the accusing glow of apartment windows hovering above. She kept in the shadow, skulking past the crumbling markers that hugged the inner wall as she made her way.

She hadn’t been to this part of the cemetery in several years. For one nauseated moment, she was sure she wouldn’t find it. The cherry tree had been a riot of pink blooms when Joey planted the stone; cherry trees were rather featureless in the Danish winter. But there was another marker, one she knew she wouldn’t forget: a rune stone, perhaps even real, towering several feet above her in the clearing. The carved script had been painted over in red; she had no idea what it meant, but she imagined all sorts of epitaphs: here lies Lars, the bookkeeper; here lies Hans, the boatbuilder; here lies Jens, the sandwichmaker. It probably said one of those things; most rune stones were unremarkable once deciphered. Joey fingered the rough-cut granite, and her eye caught the tree at last.

It was no more than the size of an egg, the thing Joey had carried. Over an ocean, through forests and cities old and new, on trains that criss-crossed the continent, she had carried it in her bag, never far away from her body. And then she’d kept it in her pocket, this precious thing, to slip her hand inside and turn the smooth solidness of it. It was here, under the dark cherry tree where she planted it, where she left it to get it away from her. It had become bigger than the thing for which it stood, this little stone. She knelt down to look at it now, cradled in the years’ layers of root and dirt, and she imagined another epitaph: her lies Theresa, mother to Josephine.

It was an ordinary river rock, greyish with streaks of silver-flecked white. Joey had no idea where it had come from; certainly not Florida. And yet, there it was one day, perched on her mother’s grave. It wasn’t just one day; it was a particular day. It was the day Joey left Florida, the day she left home for good, and she’d ended up under the Spanish moses and the oaks in the old Key cemetery — an aimless morning walk that suddenly had a purpose. There was the stone, smooth and round and begging to be palmed. When, in Germany, she’d read that this was an old Jewish tradition, to leave stones at a grave, she was no closer to knowing who it was from. It didn’t bother her that she had taken it, someone’s offering, someone else’s prayer for her mother. She had taken it exactly because of that.

Her mother had liked parks. Liked grasses and ponds and mosses and trees of all kinds. She would have loved this space with its aimless paths and wildflowers, and clover-scented clearings so fetching the haphazard graves seemed an afterthought. Hers was not a love limited to living things; Theresa Stevens had liked rocks, too. She would have liked this rock. Joey wondered if whomever had left the stone would know that. Her mother didn’t like to collect them so much as point them out: they were uncommon at home. They were special; Squirrel Key has as many stones as it has squirrels. Which is to say none at all.

Joey sat, cross-legged in the grass, breathing into her hands as she rubbed them together. She thought of smoking a cigarette then decided not to; her mother wouldn’t have liked that habit.

“She’s not here, you know,” Joey said aloud. “She’s not anywhere.”

That had been affirmation enough to make her leave the stone here once. Her mother had become the stone, the thing in her pocket. Now it was here, in the ground where rocks and dead things belonged, but that did not keep Joey from occasionally talking to her, from nodding this way when she passed through the park; it made her feel better to think her mother was here, rather than nowhere. Or worse, to feel as she once had: that her mother was everywhere.

It was the memory of that feeling — of shivering over a new grave, delirious without sleep and believing her mother, far from dead, was somehow more alive, was somehow like God — that made her dig her fingers into the earth. She plucked the cold river rock from its roots and brushed it on her jeans. She lit a cigarette, held it in her left hand and weighed the stone in her right.

“Hey,” she said through a sheared cloud of smoke. “Don’t let the plane crash, OK?”

Thyra

Thyra walked out into the meadow where the barley lay drying. That day, the sun was everywhere, but rains came sooner than they hoped and Thyra watched the work. It was a good reason to be out of the hall, away from the women who were restless as chickens.

The men smiled as they always had, at her, and the birds trilled in the trees as they always did. Above the dips of the lark and woodthrush, Thyra heard the gawking ravens.

            Surely father Odin has better things to look at, the old joke came to mind. They were there, just the same, though. If not watching, then waiting and Thyra breathed in the wet barley and pretended not to notice them, not to notice the restless beating inside of her.

It was past midday when they saw the riders.

“He’s coming,” said Afi, his tanned arm reaching for her. Thyra felt his hand settle on her shoulder, the weight of it an anchor, fettering. She stepped away from him, toward the road, setting a pace for those in the field who would have run. Harald was home. And he was alone. She watched his face, his delicate hands as they came closer. His eyes were stones but his toes curled against the flanks of his pony, turned inward as when he was a child. She felt the ocean move inside her chest.

“Shhh,” she murmured, to the pony and to her son and, when he slumped off of the side and into her arms, he wept at the touch of her.

“No, no, no,” she whispered, holding his dirty face. They kneeled on the ground together, Thyra holding his hands tight to his chest as his cries shook them both. She looked at those who had gathered, daring them to joke or to laugh or rejoice in some way. One boy home was better than none, they said with their eyes.

“Afi,” she called. The group parted for the man who watched them all. He curled his lip, holding the stump of his right arm to his chest, as he often did. “Afi, go to Gyrid. Tell her to bring the darkest linen from my stores. You must hang them,” she said, her eyes falling on the scarlet scar that snaked over Afi’s impotent limb. She grasped it and pulled him close, watching the ravens on the meadow as she whispered, “You must hang them up and Gorm must see them and no one must tell him.”

The big man bristled, pulled at his beard. “I will,” said Afi, though several others followed him away. Pride or no, it would have to be done, she thought, before Gorm returned.

 

In her mind, she had told the boys stories because they all told stories. To children, you tell legends and deeds, good and bad; to children you tell the tales that make them sleep and make them behave. They would know all of the stories anyway, one day.

Of the gods, it was Loki for Harald and Thor for Knut, heroes in their minds sailing out with all the men. Thyra thought their choices were telling. Balder was not a favorite. He was weak, said Harald. He was dead, said Knut.

Thyra could only remember telling the story once, though perhaps it was more. She had run out of stories long before they tired of them. But she liked the tale of the brothers who loved each other, the mother who had tried to protect her son, which, after all, is what mothers do.

“Imagine,” she had asked her boys, “me talking to every thing in all the world? To ask every rock, every tree, every fish, every thorn, not to harm you?”

Thyra would do it. They knew that she would.

“But the mistletoe,” said Knut. “She forgot the mistletoe.”

“No. She trusted the mistletoe,” Harald said. “And then Loki made a trick.”

Thyra had pulled them into the small bed, wrapping her arm tight around the fitful Knut. He was much larger than Harald, and he minded her less. He had kicked her every moment she carried him. Thyra smoothed the hair at his neck.

“Balder was powerful,” she whispered to him. “But everyone has a weakness.”

Harald watched with wide eyes as she finished. It was Hodur who killed sweet Balder, she said. Hodur was testing him, like everyone else. But the mistletoe had made no pledge; it pierced his heart, sent from his brother’s bow.

“Hodur must have felt bad,” said Harald.

“Hodur must have been killed!” said Knut, leaping to the middle of the bed.

Thyra nodded, pulling the boy back to her side. “Odin had a son in one day to do just that.”

“A brother to kill a brother for killing a brother?” Knut scrunched his nose and poked at Harald. “That would be your job.”

“Shhhh,” Thyra murmured, watching Harald’s dark eyes and knowing what he liked to hear most. “You both have very special jobs. You’re the sons of the king.”

 

The hall was hung with black linen. She knew Afi could do it. Thyra worked days of salt and soil from Harald’s hair. They sat in the warm cove of her room. He wore his father’s clothes: a clean tunic cinched up to fit him with a leather belt. She smoothed her hand up and down his back.

“You’ve told me enough,” she said to him. Maybe it would not matter to Gorm how Knut had died. Maybe it would.

“A coward’s arrow,” he said again. He wrapped his hands around his chest. “It was, Mother,” he whispered. “It was.”

“Shhh,” she soothed, “it’s OK.” Dipping her comb into the milk-white water, she said, “Tomorrow. You will tell them all, tomorrow.”

 

 

 

Bjork is Probably an Alien

I wrote this for my friend Sara who wanted to hear about our trip to Iceland. 
And, I suspect, to pull me out of my writing slump. 
Thank you, Sara. 

We have landed on the moon. Or perhaps it’s Mars. We dropped out of the clouds into a freezing, desolate rockiness – a throwback to the age of amoebas. Iceland is a recent addition to Earth’s above-water bits. Its eastern coast is nothing more than a preserved lava flow, a blanket of rock and moss buckling like an old parking lot. It does not sound beautiful, but it is.
             Icelanders are instantly likeable. They are like Canadians, except they all sound like Bjork. Iceland is, purportedly, the least genetically diverse country in the world. And it is true; there’s a distinct familial resemblance. Perhaps even sweetness is hereditary.
            We are transported like quarantined cattle to the capital Reykjavik. It is a tiny town, to match this tiny island. Not quaint, exactly, but not entirely devoid of a certain charm. It is efficient, and Scandinavian. Immaculate, but rough around the edges, the lovechild of Copenhagen and some remote whaling outpost. We must transfer to a smaller bus to navigate the narrow streets to our apartment.
            Our first meal on Mars is a spicy Asian noodle soup. We have played the game where you pass a hundred cafes (and knitted sweater shops), peeking and wondering. This one? What do you think of this one?You can get whale just about anywhere, but the locals rave about this noodle soup. It’s served fast and crazy hot by a trio of waitress who certainly shared a womb. We slurp our soup with running noses, our burning tongues trying to decipher its broth. Tummies slightly unsettled, we grab a few Viking beers and call it a night.
            It is hard, at first, to leave the sanctum of our apartment. There is a television the size of a small car and 400 channels waiting to be explored. We are mesmerized and, besides, Iceland is not very welcoming at first. In fact, it is pouring. Will pour buckets all day. It is true what the natives have told us: always bring a raincoat.
            And so we do. Out into the deluge we go, with one destination in mind: the Sea Baron and their famous lobster soup. Finally, a country that understands the importance of soup. I will eat soup until it runs from my ears, I think, as we plod down toward the docks.
            The Sea Baron is about as humble an accommodation as you can image. Part baitshop, part pitstop, the Baron is spare. We sit on ancient boat fenders and lean over split wood tables. This is not a place to linger, and yet we do. Several parties come and go while we marvel over the insanity of this lobster soup. Is that cardamom? We are in love.
            What we don’t know is that we will overdose on lobster. We will eat pounds of it before we go; Maricris will be served eight tails in one sitting. For the rest – though we cannot know this yet – I will prefer chicken to puffin, and be enamored of biscotti made with Icelandic moss. We will both find whale meat illicit and indescribable.
            We have not been gone so long as to not be a little homesick for Copenhagen. Our first bar is a Danish bar. Den Danske Kro advertises Tuborg, Gammel Dansk and, we see too late, a variety of Mikkeller. We drink two Classics in the deserted gloom. It is, I realize, a bit like sitting in a British pub in India. We are in the old colony, with the habits of the colonizers still fresh in us. I attempt to make peace with the locals.
            The bartender looks like Bjork. I’m sorry, but she does. Even the boys look a little like Bjork. They are all rather elfin, in a way. She’s young and pretty, quiet but not shy. She tells us about her spotty education, her sister in Sweden, how she hated having to learn Danish. And underneath it all is the story of perhaps every small-town girl who’s tending a desolate bar on a Tuesday afternoon. There’s not a chance to be much of anything, she says, if you stay here. She wants to go to Australia. And maybe the grass is always greener when you’re young.
            We spend rather a long time in the bar, as we sometimes do in bars. Still, it’s raining. We are debating where to go. Rain calls for the indoors, but it’s too early to stay and get drunk. We manage to get about halfway there, sipping a Scotch each before we leave our bartender to her life. We need to get the full story on this place: the National Museum awaits.
            What I can tell you about Iceland, now having toured several fine exhibits and clearly being something of an expert, is that it’s probably best if you weren’t born here. At least anytime before, say, 1989. (Which is coincidentally the year that beer became legal.) Iceland is a harsh mistress; I think perhaps the people are so sweet because the land beat the fight out of them long, long ago. Their welcome is not unconditional, however. On the way home, I see a sign at a bar that says, “If you are racist, sexist, homophobic or an asshole, do not come in.”
            But they do seem to tolerate cats. There are a lot of cats. Even in the rain. But these are not street cats. This is not Rome. These cats are tended, collared and spoiled, apparently. I watch a fat orange tabby eat ice cream off the street, as if there were always a spot of ice cream on the street. Just for him.
There’s a whole world, however, beyond this village of cats, knitted sweaters and colonial bars. Not a signpost passes without promoting some rugged glacier climb, volcanic cave diving or otherwise improbable adventure. We are practically guilty about it. In the land of Vikings and people who have been bitch-slapped by the elements for a thousand years, clearly we couldn’t just idle between bars and cafes, listening to Bjork all day. We had to do something epic. But which of these myriad butchy offerings should we choose?
Honestly, I might have opted for a dip in an active lava flow before showering with a bunch of strangers, but still, there I was. Naked. In the middle of Iceland’s answer to Club Med: the Blue Lagoon. It might sound romantic to bathe in a geothermal spa – and indeed, the water is opaque enough that I imagine “romance” sometimes goes rather far – but ultimately, you have to admit that you’ve paid a lot of kronur to slather goo on your face in the run-off from a nearby power plant.
All tourist trappings and Puritan modesty aside, Iceland gave us a rare gorgeous day, and we spent it wisely. And there’s nothing like sipping drinks in a hot tub in the sun to make you pass out on the bus like a champion. I can’t even remember what we had for dinner.  (Yes I can. It was organic fish and chips, made with spelt and barley, served with skyronnaise. I still don’t know what that is, but while we ate it, we watched a golden moon the size of my fist rise over the cliffs in the harbor.)
 And that was all the kindness Iceland would afford us. Anesthetizing as our one beautiful day had been, it was a cold, windy, spitting farewell. The elfin people in the airport practically escorted us to our gate, where I tried to get Maricris to notice that we were sitting next to a famous person without alarming said famous person. (For the record, it was Kristen Wiig.) Apparently famous people are in Iceland all of the time. And not just Bjork. Something about the place – a bit of Mars in the middle of the North Atlantic – seems to attract film crews. I’m pretty sure they don’t come for the whale sandwiches.

Monkey Wrestling

I started smoking when I was seventeen. About a month after my mom passed away, in fact. I told myself that it made me feel closer to her, but the truth was that I didn’t really give a shit. Smoking when you’re seventeen, when you can’t even fathom the life before you, is probably the easiest thing in the world. And, much like my mother, I proved to be a natural smoker. I was up to a pack of Camel Lights a day within two months and I continued this trend for the better part of the next sixteen years.

I have seriously quit four times. By seriously, I mean for three months or more. The first time I accomplished this, I very smugly thought the monkey was off my back. Even through each relapse and new attempt to quit, I continued to think I had mastered the monkey. Yes, this time, I’ve done it. I’ve figured it out.

Last summer, I quit again. It was easier than all the other times, and again I believed I had won. For nine months, I gave up cigarettes with hardly a look back. Willpower, I thought, is just desire. It’s wanting something badly enough. I still think that’s true. But I no longer think of quitting as mastery. On some level, addicts always wrestle with addiction.

And so I have had a relapse. Granted, I’m not smoking a pack a day, or even every day. But I have been smoking and I recognize all of the anxiety and rationalization that has characterized my past failures. The monkey lies to you. You lie to yourself.

My girlfriend, a casual social smoker, believes that my physical impulse to smoke is a distortion. It is all in my head, she says. Why can’t we have a pack of cigarettes in the house and smoke one or two when we feel like it? Why can’t I “feel like it” just once in a great while?

Because I can’t. I either smoke, or I don’t. I can’t open myself up to the possibility of cigarettes without being a dedicated smoker. Perhaps that is all in my head, but far easier than trying to change the way my brain works – with the ridiculous reward of again smoking cigarettes, however casually – is to eliminate the possibility altogether. All or nothing, for me. All or nothing.

Today I rode my bike all day with aching lungs. Today I rode around all day with aching lungs, berating myself, while still acknowledging the little demon whispering, “You have those cigarettes at home….” And after I locked up my bike and took off my helmet, I sat by the window of our apartment and I fucking smoked one.

Then I poured water over that pack and threw it away. All or nothing. All or nothing. Ok, monkey. Let’s try this again.

Blocking the writer

The following is an excerpt of a conversation I have with myself almost every day.

This is one of those times you should be writing.

But I don’t even know where to begin!

It doesn’t matter. You’ve had this idea for days. Just start anywhere.

The character’s not developed yet. She’s boring.

And she always will be if you don’t write her down.

Borrrrinng.

Do it.

No.

Look, it’s raining. The house is relatively clean. You’re not reading anything right now. Just write a sentence.

One sentence is pointless.

Ok, write a paragraph.

I’m busy.

No, you’re not. You’re bored.

I have real work to do.

But you’re not doing it. You’re not even going to do it.

Yes, I am. And I have to beat the Bejeweled high score.

Wouldn’t you rather write this story?

You would think so, but no.

Why not?

Because it’s not defined. And it’s pointless. I have this beautifully vague thing in my head and words will just mess it up.

You don’t want to share that story?

Not really.

Why not?

Sharing stories feels like sitting in my underwear.

So, why do you spend so much time thinking about it?

Because I want to be a writer.

You are a writer.

I want to be one that people respect.

You want to be a writer who people respect, but you won’t write anything because if they read it, they might not like it, thus no respect, thus no writing. Does that seem silly to you?

No, I think it makes perfect sense.

Why not write for yourself, then?

What’s the point in that?

To sort shit out. You’re doing it right now.

I hate you.

What?

You’re the same voice that tells me I suck when I get more than five pages of anything. You’re a sadistic asshole.

No, actually. That’s you.

Um, no it’s not. I think I know the difference.

Suit yourself.

Fuck you.

.

The glory days of urine-dusted birthdays

So, two things are happening tomorrow: I am going to the Roskilde Festival and, somewhere around the time that Frisk Frugt is hitting the Gloria stage, I will be 34.

Is it crazy that I feel entirely too old for the former, and far too young for the latter? Anyway, so PJ Harvey’s stopping by for my birthday. I bet you can’t say that about your 34th.

This is a crazy big festival, people. It’s like the mother of European music festivals. People die here. People are conceived here. Hell, I’m pretty sure that more than a few people have been born here. (Cool fact: the festival was created forty years ago by two geeky Danish high school students and, get this: since 1972, all of the profits are donated to charity. Yeah, serious.)

Now, normally, Roskilde is the sedate little sister city to Copenhagen, with about three percent of the population. And that’s saying something. Dude, I’ve been there many times; it’s about as happening as Mayberry. They still have houses with thatched roofs. There’s a fjord. And a Viking boat museum logically placed on the fjord. (In defense, though, their magnificent cathedral holds the bones of every Danish monarch back to Harold Bluetooth. Yeah, that’s where that comes from.)

But for one week every summer, this town gets inundated with hippies and backpackers and all sorts of unclean and possibly deranged tent-dwellers… I’m told that the Roskilde Music Festival is an absolute rite of passage for Danes. We’d put it off for a few years, but sure as hell, no one was going to let us escape the spectacle.

So, but that’s just the thing. It’s a motherfucking SPECTACLE, y’all. I’m talking 80,000 people and port-a-potties. I’m talking weirdos (European weirdos!) from every strange counter-culture enclave you can imagine. We’ll be floating on this putrid wave of debauchery for three days in a tent you would buy at the corner drug store.

People, I’m a little bit terrified. Actually, I have a lot of anxiety about this whole business. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a private shower. What if I get sick? What if it’s too hot? Too wet? Too crowded?

Oddly (so I’ve been told by the forty-somethings in my office who go every year), it’s not chaos. And maybe that shouldn’t surprise me. The Scandinavian ability to control oneself is not, as I first assumed, the product of inhibition. No, it’s actually something much deeper than that. It’s a sense of decency that comes from a society that treats people as adults and expects the same in return. Remember that one really cool teacher in high school who let you assert yourself, your identity, your manic teenaged opinions so long as you did it with respect? Do you remember how calm that class was? How supportive?

That’s Denmark. That, I’m told, is the Rosklide Festival. They call this phenomenon the “orange feeling.” I don’t know why, but basically it has to do with not just the hippie mindset of “live and let live,” but reflects something more dynamic. A personal responsibility. And a sense of trust in the system.

That’s like the antithesis of counter-culture, right? But the interesting thing about Scandinavians, and Danes in particular, is that – just like the kids in that high school class – they kind of figured out how to assert themselves without fucking up everyone’s good time. See, being an asshole is not hygge. And hygge is the highest Danish good. Even at a urine-soaked rock festival.

The move to Denmark has easily been the most cathartic of my life. Before I left the States, I was getting panic attacks in Home Depot. I was talking myself down in traffic jams. And it’s not what you think. It’s not because life is “simpler” here. It’s not because I now ride my bike to work and have only three brands of toothpaste to choose from.

On a hot, crowded bus, a ten-story stairwell or a nine-hour flight, there’s nowhere to run. And in any strange country, support comes where you can find it. Sure, I’m older, I’m more centered – you might argue those things – but here’s the fact of me, what I’ve learned about myself – the worrier, the superstitious fool: my comfort zone is entirely variable. It’s a spoiled space of my own definition.

So bring on the Roskilde Festival. Bring on 34. Bring on the chaos and the urine dust and the hippies and all the cold showers with strangers. Bring the intensity of 80,000 bodies, all of them seeking that one righteous thing: hygge.

That’s my favorite word, by the way. A prize for someone who managed to snatch some sanity back from the face of the Chaos Monster. Dancing my ass off in the middle-of-nowhere-Denmark, up urine creek without a flushable toilet, I guess we’ll see. I guess we’ll see if joy isn’t something I can have anywhere.

April is the coolest month

So, while the dead land is now breeding daffodils (daffodils!), and mixing memories of Alice in Wonderland with my desire for fucking warm weather, already, I have to admit that this little old lady of a town is finally coming back to life.

It’s really an amazing thing to live in a place that has seasons. I mean, even if most of those seasons are winter, there’s still this great anticipation, this sense of hitting the refresh button, when all the little things start to change. There are buds on the trees, tourists in the harbor, daffodils in pots on all of the tourist cafe tables in the harbor. It’s … wait for it… wait for it… Spring!

And I feel like writing. Man, do I feel like writing! I’ll write on this damn iPad, if I must, but I’m dangerously close to rambling (Spring is all about rambling), so I’ll make you a list instead. Here’s some of the shit going down in Coopertown…

1. Danish people refuse to accept that there’s any weather unsuitable for biking. I watched them slip and slide all through winter, and now they are full-on getting blown across the street. Forty mile an hour wind gusts? Don’t be such a chickenshit.

2. Time change = magic. Coinciding with the crazy bell graph that is Scandinavian sunlight, adding an extra hour somehow instantly yields like four more hours of post-working daytime.

3. Carlsberg is probably not the best beer in the world anymore, unless you live in the UK. The company changed their classic slogan to “That calls for a Carlsberg,” prompting Anheuser-Busch’s army of lawyers to proclaim that the campaign infringes upon their “This calls for a Bud Light” branding. Interestingly, Carlsberg’s new tag line is actually quite old: it’s one they used in the 1950s, so, yeah… much head-hanging and possible counter-suing to come.

4. I have a scheflera plant that may or may not have been exposed to high levels of radiation. Are they supposed to sprout like a million new arms overnight?

5. It’s shame upon shame for the Danish immigration services. After the former minister retired in disgrace (apparently you can’t deport stateless people when they have no state, and folks tend to frown upon sending kids back to parents in Thai prison), our colleague Gus was kicked out of the country for some serious governmental fuck ups. But, it made the news and, more importantly, Facebook. We’re betting Gus gets his visa back within the week.

6. Maricris and I are going to Budapest next month. So I’ll be adding Hungarian to my ever-growing list of languages in which I can order beer.

7. Even though I rarely (ha!) update this beast, and have all of three readers, I’m considering a switch over to WordPress. So pretty! So shiny and new!

8. Children and birds go batshit crazy in Spring. Serial. Between the screaming and the chirping and the trolls that live in the apartment above ours, it’s amazing that we get any sleep at all.

9. Because it’s about the only thing we can get for free online over here, we are spending way too much time watching Rachel Maddow. Dude. I’m scared to come home. What the holy crap is wrong with you people?

10. And finally, Mango’s best friend is now a goat. Named T-Payne. And no, that’s not happening in Denmark. But really, it bears repeating.

Huh, that’s totally a top ten list and I didn’t even try. See? Even my subconscious likes symmetry. But I promise that the next post will be horribly morose. Really. I mean, all sorts of shit could happen. Will I ever figure out how to get a monthly Metro pass? Will I be fired for playing with WordPress all day? Will I be driven to alcoholism by a hoard of angry trolls?

Dude. Who knows?

The family tree

In Norse mythology, the whole Universe is a tree: Yggdrasill. It joins and shelters all worlds, and her messenger — the go-between of gods and demons, giants and men — is a mean little squirrel.

The Yggdrasil suffers. But it is the timeless Guardian Tree, and it never dies.

Of course, that’s just one of myriad tree myths. They’re an easy hanger for belief, trees. Targets for cliche and epicly bad poetry, but justifiably so. Few people live to see the birth and death of a great tree. They’re very easy to take for granted.

When we moved to Florida, I was eight. Our house was brand new, built on a dirt lot full of weeds and not much else. We came in at night with blackened feet, and knees and necks, pulled sand spur spikes out of our fingers and toes. For my father, this was a blank canvass. And within months there was jasmine and scheflera, baby palms and citrus saplings and who-knows-what. Over the years, he’s experimented with all sorts of plants: roses, pumpkins, tomatoes, ficus, butterfly bushes. It’s a jungle, now. The configurations change, but always it is green and lush. My dad can make anything grow.

Well, anything that doesn’t require sun. See, there was something else on that dirt lot: a massive live oak. It was two trees, practically. So enormous that even though it sat on our property line, bisected by a wooden fence, there was enough for two families. And we did all of the family things you do with a great tree. We tied ropes with tires and hammocks to it. We carved at it and cursed the layers of leaves it dropped year-round. This tree raised thousands, perhaps millions of angry squirrel babies, all chattering proprietarily from its heavy limbs. I imagined that this tree had shielded Seminoles and dinosaurs.

Today is the first day, perhaps since the beginning of the world, that there is no tree. There is no tree because time and disease and chainsaws can dismantle any Universe. Let it be a lesson to you, says the tree — because I am always surprised by this lesson — that all things go.

Fear

Ok, so I’d love to say that my many-month absence has been tied into my inability to change the language settings on my Gmail account. I’d love to say that it’s because I’ve been traveling. Or because I’ve found a new job.

All of these things are true. But they’re not correct.

There’s no good reason for me to neglect this space except one: I didn’t know where to go. What on earth do you say while you grieve? “Hello, everyone… here’s a post about how I’m still grieving…”

No. And I also felt the need not to write anything silly. Like how I don’t really know what “business smart” means, as a dress code. How the centrifuge at the laundromat shredded my only appropriate pair of pants…

But tonight, I think I’ve isolated something that is both past and future. In as much as I want to think about either of those things.

I’ve been reading Nicola Griffith, lately. The most recent of her Aud Torvingen series. Let’s nevermind the fact that I think of Aud as–that, in fact, she is– a superhero. Let’s not discuss how passionately I want her to simply occupy my couch; to feel her spring-coiled power, to look at the gorgeous expanse of her legs in my living room. No, that’s all just good writing.

What I’m interested in is how deftly this novel explores the concept of fear. Fear in every tense.

My girlfriend and I don’t, generally, discuss certain feelings. We don’t much “process.” We don’t really know how to, not with each other. It’s a strange state, actually. One that forces me to be far less verbal, and entirely more present. It’s important that she gets my message right from the beginning; it’s vital that I understand hers.

But tonight, somehow fear came out. The way we anticipate it, the way we hurt over what is simply a message. The way we worry it into a great monster. And my girlfriend–my weathervane and my lee–named her fear for me.

It’s so simple in its brutality. I can comfort, I can soothe. I can open myself up and say, “Here I am. I’m just like you.” But I cannot protect. It is not only me who has lost. Who is grieving. And who, again, will lose.

There is always a monster bigger than you.

What I Meant

Well, I haven’t posted much. Clearly. Of course, those of you who know me probably don’t expect much, anyway. And I guess I appreciate that.

The truth is, I have written. I’ve written three or four different posts. Most deleted because they’re, really, not what I want to say. Always, there is the line from Prufrock: That’s not what I meant, at all.

But writing goes the way of living; very often, what comes out is a great surprise. I sit down to do one thing, and, somehow, I create another. So, to circumvent any need for poetry, I will make a list (my writer-friend Jill has illustrated the succinct power of the list) of all that is with me.

1. I miss my brother.

2. I am giving myself license. To miss him and to be self-destructive.

3. Self-destruction is less dramatic, as I get older.

4. I need. I have an intense need–the kind which is there in all of us, all the time.

5. Loss makes this need a sad hunger. Insatiable.

6. History has taught me: this will become a longing. And then a simple hurt. And then a fact.

7. The fact is that I could not save him. I could not, maybe, ever have saved him.

Also, there is this: I’m back in Copenhagen, with what was waiting for me. Regular life. Normal life. Easy to be here, without him. It’s a guilty ease. But also, I am immobilized. And I’m not particularly self-motivated, as a rule.

So, again, this is not what I want to say. Or even what I meant. What I meant is his smile and hopeful voice: Hey, big sister… It is a person, flesh and bone. Living, hands and blood.

But I do understand, now, that words are the only thing I can do. And I understand, now, that these symbols are an adequate illustration for loss. Because they are essentially a removal. Sorry little place keepers for the thing itself.