Saturday, December 29, 2007

Vikings vs Indians

Guess who's been bored over break. I culled some sap, fuck that emotional shit. Any comments welcome, of course, especially regarding a title (which I sorely need but cannot think of, as is my wont).
I hurt myself yesterday, in the Weald. I spilt my own blood in that place for the first time since a night shortly before your mother was taken, long before you were born. As I fled the red-spattered branch that had cut me I prayed to the gods whom our people once worshiped before they took to worshiping the earth and the wood: to the hanging god, beloved of ravens, to the forgotten god, one-handed, to the blind god, kinslayer, who is closer to me now than to any other.

And the gods heard me as they have heard me all my life, I who am perhaps their last remaining servant. A mighty wind forced aside the grasping branches and cast the wood's veil of leaves into a swirling tempest, and the things in the trees fell silent. The breath of the hanging god drove away the mist that clings ever to that accursed place, and between the waving crowns of the trees I saw that night had fallen and the moon had risen. Its wan light illuminated the only true path remaining in all the Weald, and I followed it – not out to the shore, but in towards the firedale. I ran with the wind at my back, and at last I came to the great ash that is the only one left of its kind on all the island, and I saw that from its bare branches hung husks that had once been men. I climbed into its bole and there I took shelter with the bones of my father.

Click on "Post Page" below to see the rest!

A hand on my head roused me from the world of sleep to the world of dreams, and upon opening my mind's eyes I saw myself kneeling before our lord (for he is yours as well, though you may not know it), and I kissed his feet until he bid me stand. His likeness has been seared upon my soul, though I gazed upon him for only a moment. His spear is the color of the moon, and his neck is scarred beneath his beard. His left eye shines as red as blood or fire, but his right is empty and dark. On either of his shoulders is perched a raven - they whisper to him, for they know all that passes through the minds of men.

“Look about you, child, and see this land as it was,” he said, and I did. The great ash's boughs were bare no longer, rather they bore leaves and keys in abundance, and the things that hung from them were men once more, their tongues blue and protruding, their eyes pouring blood onto the green earth. I saw my father among them and wept from pride, and my tears too were red. Through the branches of the ash I could see that it was still night and that the moon was high, but this did not give me cause for fear, for there were no other trees within view, no places for devils or false men to hide: the ash stood in the center of a great clearing, as it had during the childhood of my father's father.

“Meager grows my might, for men give themselves to me no more,” said the hanging god, and his voice was the rustling of the men among the branches. “He whom the false men call the father of the deep wood has tainted the air, and she whom they call the mother of the deep earth has spoilt the water. I cannot fight them any longer, not without blood freely-given: my tongue is stiff and my eye grows dim - I am as blind as my son now, or soon shall I be.” I responded with meaningless words, I shall not write them here.

“Your folk withers and diminishes as does mine. As your wife was taken, so was mine. Your son has forgotten my name as surely as he has yours. Your kith and kin have cast you out for serving me, and for that their doom is to become as the false men are. But they were my children once, and for that I cannot forsake them. Write to your son, and tell him the truth of what you have done. Perhaps he will believe you, and perhaps they will believe him – perhaps enough to once more spill willingly their life's blood at my feet.” At this I glimpsed his teeth, though he did not smile, and they were were red and sharp. “Trust the letter to my wife's father – still is he strong and hale, for the false men do not sail the seas.”

And thus do I write now: that you might know the history of our folk, that you might spread the word of the true gods. And also that you might know why I have wrought what I have, I whose hands run red with blood. That as well.

The gods have made the following known to me:
Our folk once lived in a land far to the north, where we were more numerous than the trunks of the trees in the deep wood (and perhaps moreso than the things that flit between those trees on nights when the moon is full, though that is not for men to know). It was cold there, and that is perhaps why we set out southwards as we did, in craft whose making has since been lost to us. In those lands our faith was strong, and our gods were the masters of Sea and Sky and Weald. And such was it when we first came to these wooded shores: we hewed the trees for our ships and our fires, and hung the devils we found among them from the ashes, and we bent the earth to our service with plows and horses. The false men rose up against us from deep within the wood, but we crushed them and devoured their flesh and cracked their bones between our teeth, and none of us worshiped their gods.

But there is an evil in this earth that we did not perceive. As the soil that we had wrested from the trees' grasp soured and turned to dust we were forced ever inland, away from the smell of salt and the crash of waves, out of the reach of the ships that in those days still came southwards. It was then that the Weald began to come to life. Or perhaps it did not so much come to life as awaken from an ages-long slumber, roused by the ringing of axes along its fringes, by the spilt blood of false men in its streams, by the tramping of boots in its deep places where before all had gone unshod.

Paths at first seemed to shift about, it was said, and slowly to disappear entirely, guttering like so many candles in the gloom. The boughs of the trees grew thicker, until they blotted out the sun's gaze and cast all beneath them into unbroken shadow. A gleaming mist clung to the earth, and a man could see his own reflection in it if he looked deep enough, and men's voices seemed to carry strangely through it, at times ringing clear from the branches though the speaker was nowhere in view, but at others stifled so that a man could scarcely make out the speech of a companion. And there were things in that mist, things that hungered for blood as our gods do. I do not believe anyone living has seen them but from the corners of the eyes, black and silver shapes clambering through the branches at the edges of sight, so silent that one was never certain that the sounds that they made were not instead made by the trees. But all this you know, for that is how the Weald has been all your life, and all mine.

Slowly men began to vanish, and the wood began to grow, until it stood once more between us and the sea. And at some point the false men began to take our women and our children.

I should write of the false men, I think, for I do not know if you have any knowledge of them: the days in which they fought us openly are long past, and even in my childhood there were some who claimed that they had never lived but in our minds. I know this to be untrue, as does any man who walks the Weald keeping an eye open to signs of their passing – to the bones of their kills, to the holes left behind by their arrows, to the pits where they burn sacrifices of roe and boar to their father and mother. It is my belief that they have lived on this island since the beginning, for they fear the sea and will not approach it for any reason: they eat neither fish nor salt, as the lay of their fires would have it. Their villages are in the deepest parts of the wood (though I have never seen them I know this must be so, for I have trod every arrowshot of this island save those), close to the places where their gods are strongest. Perhaps those same gods shaped them from clay and vines in the bough-shadows of that fell place, as ours shaped us from iron and ice beneath the branches of the first ash.

I saw one, once. I was alone in the Weald, I do not know why (this having been before I slew the woman who said she was your mother), and from the corner of my eye I saw something that I had never before seen in the mist: something real, not devil nor my own likeness, cast back at me, twisted beyond recall. I spun to face it, knowing as I did that it was foolish to do so, and I saw before me something that looked very much like a man, yet different: it had the shape of a man, with the proper count of limbs and features of the face, but its flesh was the hue of blood fresh-spilt, and it had no beard, and feathers sprouted from its hair, and it was unclothed. Its eyes were dark and full of anger, and it was only then that I realized that in its hands was a bow with arrow nocked. The forgotten god saved me then, for as I made to leap to the side my foot caught on a root, and I fell forward into an apparition of the mist that vanished at my touch. The arrow, which came from my left, but grazed the skin of my outstretched arm, and I drew my father's ax and spun to face whence it had come. The false man snarled from rage and hate, but seeing the cold iron in my hand gave it pause, I think – pause enough for it to note the blood trickling down my arm. With one last glance, perhaps of triumph but perhaps also of terror, it fled into the roiling mist, its unshod feet making no sound on the holy path.

It was only then that I myself took heed of my wound, which though little more than a scratch had begun to bleed mightily and to steam in the cold that had suddenly gripped that place. I ran, and the mist surged about me, though it was no longer pale but black with the shadows of the things within it, leaping and chittering and crying like cats or newborn babes. I did not dare look to either side, for fear that I would see clearly those things that had been so long hidden from my sight, but from the corners of my eyes I could glimpse them whirling around me, flitting from tree to tree and from branch to branch. My blood did not fall straight to the ground but rather towards the mist, though there was no wind, and occasionally I could feel their caress as I ran through the shadows, and it was the icy touch of madness.

Until finally I stumbled into the light of the sun, glinting off the sea like molten iron in a forge, and I fell to the ground and kissed it and wept. I do not know why, but I believe that when my lips touched the earth was when the false man whose arrow had cut me took your mother.

I did not realize she had been taken, of course, until you had already been born. I feel certain that this will not puzzle you, but at the same time I fear that it may, and so I will lay out here what you doubtless already know: that when the false men take a child he vanishes without a trace, but when they take a woman grown they leave something behind in her stead, some artifice of earth and wood imbued with life by the breath of their fell goddess, to live on as wife and mother for so long as the ruse rest hidden from mind.

I returned to the village the next day (having slept along the shore so that my wound might heal) to learn that my wife had also gone missing the same day as I, but that she had been found hale and well along the fringes of the Weald, claiming only to have gone to pick berries. And for many moons I did not suspect anything to be amiss, not between the time of your quickening and the time of your birth, nor between the time of your birth and the time you saw her last. And perhaps I never would have, had the gods not intervened.

The starved god came to me in a dream the night before I slew her. I could see him, as I still can, though even in the dream my eyes were tightly shut. He is bald and toothless, his eyes are rheumy and without sight, and his limbs are as those of a child. His stomach is taut and distended. He crawled towards me, and though I knew fear I could neither move my limbs nor raise my voice. He sat upon my chest, and his weight, little more than that of a fawn though it was, bound me as surely as irons. He reached for my throat then, but halted and instead brought his gaping, drool-slick mouth to my ear, and his voice was terrible like the first wind of winter.

“Your wife is dead by your sin,” was all that he said. And I awoke, and knew it to be true.

The next day I looked upon her with new eyes, and followed her in secret as she went to the fringes of the forest and dug a pit where she burnt a rabbit and buried it that none might find it. I knew then that she had been taken long before, and I cursed her, as I have cursed so many others since, and seized her by the neck. Her movements were slow and clumsy, and she smelled not of flesh but of wood and leaves. I slew her with my ax, the first sacrifice to the hanging god by any among us since the day that ax's last wielder climbed the ash. But not the last, ere our folk worship the old gods once more, ere my work be at long last through.

I do not know why, but I feel I must tell you that her blood was as red as my own. That is all that is left for me to write. I shall cast this bark to the drowned god, and trust that by his mercy it find its way to you.


Carolyn said...

This captured my interest enough to read the whole thing, which I would consider a fair success. The descriptions of the action are vivid. I'm interested in the last part--the son wasn't born until the mom was replaced with the fake mom, right? So is he not the man's real son? Or is this yet to be revealed?
It made me happy when the god spoke alliteratively.
How could he tell if they used salt by the way their fires lay?

Rachel B said...

I'm so glad you continued this! I know enough details now to follow the story :-) I still think you should turn this into an exchange of letters between father and son. I'm interested to know what the son's been up to and what his world is like.