Death Ship

You died far away from me, and I didn’t know.

When Kitta comes to tell me, I am scraping seal hide to make into mittens for you, humming old lullabies and dreaming of your ship’s prow cutting through the whale-road.

"Geira," she calls, waving her hand.

I glance up from my work and shift my feet on the sand. To my right, the ocean sighs, and to my left the land rises in rocky bluffs. I hear cormorants shrieking and the low of a cow, the distant song of Hrof’s shepherd, and from the edges of town the clang of ironsmithery. The sun is warm and high in the sky, and clouds trail peacefully down to the horizon.

And then I see her face.

***

They burned you in Uppsala, near the row of kings. I want to have been there. Everyone tells me again and again, “Hold your pride, Geira. They honored him, and continue to do so with their gifts.” Because with the box of ashes are gold armrings and fine iron weapons, statuary, dress-pins carved in their outlandish northern fashions, and piles of seal-skin. I saay, “It’s a wonder they didn’t send a pair of walrus tusks.” Your mother grips my arm, bruising it, and I am quiet after that.

We inter you in the barrow field, near your father and grandfather, your aunt and old cousin, and all the strong warriors of your line. I do not cry, and I know you will forgive me even if your mother does not.

***

At night, I cannot sleep. The press of your brothers and their wives, of all the children, rolling on their mats near the long fire, itches at my eyelids until I open them and stare at the timbers holding the roof up. I stare as the dim glow of embers catches the whorls of woodgrain and I remember your fingers tracing the lines of my palm.

The emptiness when you were only traveling was finite. It would end when the days began to grow short and your ship would sail you home, your arms filled with treasures and stories. I spent those sleepless nights dreaming of what the stories would be, what tales of blood-price and love, of betrayal and honor and courage you would whisper to me beneath the blankets.

These sleepless nights promise no end. The ship you steer now floats on an ocean with no shore. And I have neither shore nor ship. I am drowning.

***

I throw aside my blankets and go out into the night. It is the end of summer, so already the sun teases at the horizon, never too far from us. Even without my overdress I’m not cold, but I wrap my arms about myself and walk through the town and around the edges of the iron bog to where the land rises toward the silvering sky.

At the top of the bluff, the barrow field spreads out before me. The granite boulders mark out a silent fleet of death-ships, arcing over the grey-gold grasses. I push through to yours, touching my fingers to the cool stones. Most are splotched with lichens, giving green and yellow eyes to the rocks. I trace the shape of your stone ship with my feet, walking the ring of stones and imagining you standing at the prow, which faces the ocean as they all do. I imagine you as you were the night you left, cheeks flared with excitement, wrapped in the blue mantle your mother and I made. The rings on your arms and fingers glittered while the sun set and you were the most glorious you’d ever been. I took you home and slid them off of you, stripped you down and washed you with lavender water. I braided your hair and you pulled me onto your lap. You promised to come home with wealth enough to build our own house, a house for eight children, each stronger than the last. I laughed and reminded you we’d be lucky to get two out of me.

You put one of your rings on my thumb, and while I stand in the barrow field, I twist it around and around.

***

Every night I go to the fields and sit in the center of your ship. I listen to the ocean whisper, to the scrambling feet of rodents and foxes, to the wind ruffling night-hawk feathers. To the far-off wolves. I begin to carry your hammer with me, the one that did not protect you in the mountains of Uppsala. Some nights I see the Raven Keepers tending the graves, silent as wights.

When the sun lights the sky, I work. I sew aprons and turn milk into butter; I tend the fire and go into the bog with the other girls to collect ore for the bloomeries. More and more I stay in the bog, or wander the forest gathering bilberries and roots. Alone.

The daylight grows shorter, and most of my time I am in your ship. At first I bring a basket of sewing and spend the night with bone-needles pricking blood from my fingers because I light no fire. I sew until I can do so no longer, and then I sleep. I curl up in your ship, press my cheek to the rough, cold earth, and sleep.

***

“You must stop, Geira,” Kitta tells me, tugging at my hand. The sun is setting behind her head, making her hair into a fiery aura. “Stay here with us. Drink and eat surrounded by your family, love.”

I stare at her.

Her lips press together. “You can remember him next to the fire as well as you remember him in the barrow field. Better, even! He has been here, alive and strong and whole – there, he is only a ghost.”

I nod, and pull away from her. I come out to the ship and wait for you.

***

One morning I wake and find a bundle of cooked rabbit meat wrapped in a small fold of cloth. The air is cold and I don’t smell it until I’ve unwrapped it and brought the meat close to my face. My stomach pinches and I eat it. I cannot remember the last time I’ve eaten.

***

Where are you? Why haven’t you come? Just to tell me you’re well. I light a fire and pray your spirit be released from Hel for one night. Only one. The flames dance over your ship’s stones, and on all the stones beyond, echoing out into the field until I am surrounded by dancing light. The silver and gold shadows will call the svartalfar and I hope they come. I hope they come and hear my sorrow. I will give them anything they ask if they help me see you again. Sheep, horse-blood, all the cream I can get, flowers, honey – anything.

But no one comes.

***

Two mornings later, a pile of roasted acorns. I thank the empty air and eat them. The soft nuts remind me to drink and to bring a pouch of water with me tonight. Perhaps the svartalfar are indeed watching out for us.

***

I bring handfuls of rings with me now, the small ones you gave to me, that your father had given you when you were a boy. In the morning when I wake to find three strips of dry deer meat, I eat them and leave a ring, shining dully against the brown grass. When I return at sunset, the ring is gone.

***

There is not always food, and my own rings weigh heavily on my wrist-bones and slide off my fingers. I cannot wear the thumb ring anymore, but tie it about my neck with a strip of wool.

Kitta tries again, bringing her children who I’ve always loved. They take my hands and drag at my skirts, pulling me into town to share in the harvest feast. Your mother avoids me, as if she expects me to curse her for not joining my vigil. But I know she has other sons, other daughters, other family to care for who are living.

I stay until they light the bonfire, throwing offerings of mead and horse blood into the hungry flames. I think of you, as I always am, and close my eyes to pretend you are dancing with your sister and will soon come to me and swing me to my feet for a wild, raucous turn aroun
d the fire. We will laugh and spin, and when I stumble you will catch me up and tease me for being clumsy. I will promise to show you my grace when we are alone, and we sneak to the beach, kissing and clutching at each other.

If there are tears on my cheeks, the hot fire eats them away.

Kitta’s youngest climbs into my lap and tugs at my braid. I take her grubby hands and whisper stories to her, of sea-dragons and trolls hiding under cliffs, and in all of them, yours is the hero’s name. She falls asleep and I cradle her, leaning my cheek against her hair. I watch others leave the fire ground, and Kitta joins us. She touches my hand and I turn mine over so she might weave together our fingers. It gives her comfort, and buys me more nights at your ship.

***

I have gifted my dawn-time benefactor with three rings before I ever see him. It is a frosted morning; I wake to find my eyelashes frozen together. I must have cried in my sleep. I cover my face with my mittened hands and breath into the dark pocket until the tears melt. And I see him.

He crouches against the large boulder that marks the prow of your ship, and the first silver of dawn reflects off the thin clouds and onto his face. It is Orri Never-Smile, who came here when I was a maid and lives in the forest. He is lordless and will never approach your father for explanation or trial. You said, I remember, that we should be kind to him, for we cannot know what tragedy tore him from his lord and his family. The only clue is the great scar slashing down his face. It pulls the side of his mouth down so that he cannot smile.

Orri leans on the butt of his great ax and holds up one hand, palm inward. He flexes his fingers and I see the rings lined up on his smallest like armor. I nod once, slowly, and before he goes, Orri taps the ground at his feet.

I find a small square of meat, and I stare after him. It is pig meat, and Orri must have brought down a wild one all on his own.

***

He lets me see him now. He haunts the ship field as readily as I do, though there is not always food left at your ship. I catch glimpses of him in the darkness, walking between stones. Does he wait for someone from Hel, too? I notice he has no proper mittens, but only thick woolen ones. So I find the seal-skin I meant for yours and spend a week of daylight hours stitching them together. I embroider the edges with thread dyed red, for heat and summer and war. It is a pattern of axes, and I think you would approve.

He leaves me a leg of rabbit and more roasted nuts, and I leave him the mittens.

***

It is the darkest hours of the night, one week before the Midwinter sacrifice. I sit with my knees drawn up, sewing abandoned, and stare up at the stars. There are no clouds nor moon. Only the stars, mirroring the patterns of the barrow field until I wonder if I sit among silver-white boulders and look at the stars, or if I sit among the stars and stare down at the death ships.

Orri says from the edge of your ship, “I remember the story of Hildr Sweet-Tongue, who won her husband from the hands of Othinn himself. When her he died, Hildr waited at his grave for nine months until he appeared. He rode his great horse around and around, smiling at her. When invited to mount, she did, and spent all the time from dusk to dawn riding within his arms. As the sun rose she was again alone, and pined and waited for nine months more until again her husband appeared. From dusk to dawn she rode in his arms, and as the sun rose she was alone. Every nine months she rode with him, neglecting all else in the mean time, until at last her foot touched the earth and she collapsed into bones.”

I have never heard this story, and suspect him of inventing it. But I understand his meaning. So I say, “Orri Never-Smile, what do you do in these woods alone, with no rings but those given by a widow?”

His lips twist and I do not know if it is anger or humor they try to convey, because it is too dark now to read in his eyes.

I touch the ground beside me. Orri comes and sits. “You are Geira Silver Hair, from the land of the Geats.”

“Yes.”

“Why not return to your childhood home?”

“My home is with my lord.”

“As is mine.”

“My husband’s father would accept you, were you to tell him your story.”

“Whatever it might be?”

“He is kind.”

“So I heard, and of his son, too.”

I remember your gentle smile. “Did you make up the story of Hildr Sweet-Tongue?”

“I have watched you waste yourself, here on this death ship, lady.”

“No less do you do, a fine warrior without a lord.”

“They say women are stronger than us, when a lord is lost.”

You used to tell me I was strong. Practical. Like a thrice-woven rope. But I am unraveled. I say, “It is only six nights to the sacrifice. That is when he will come.”

“Is it?”

I clench my teeth together and nod. Orri pushes to his feet and leaves me alone.

***

The day before the sacrifice, I am delivering a basket of ore to the bloomery, when I hear a crowd of children run past me, yelling at each other that the wolf has come to see our king.

I know the wolf they mean, and I drop the iron ore and run after them. I shove through into the great hall, where all the benches and long tables have been pushed against the walls. I join the youngest children and several other women in climbing up onto the tables so that we can see over the heads of the war-band. I could take my place beside your mother, who stands behind your father in his thick throne, but I have given that right up these long weeks.

Lifting a girl, Jofast her name is, onto my hip, I stretch to see the back of the hall better. A man kneels before your father, and he is speaking. His hair is braided in seven thick ropes and tied together with leather, and his clothes are old but clean. I see your mittens tucked into his belt.

Orri Never-Smile tells his story, and I hear pieces of it, that he was sworn to Alfarin Stone-Skin and they sailed over the eastern sea to Daneland to ally with a king there and fight against a Frankish clan raiding northward. I missed how they were split, but he fought with all his spirit and arrived back at his lord Stone-Skin to find him far dead. Orri’s scar was won during the vengeance quest, at which he also failed. His lord’s killer died of a sweating sickness, and so Orri had no blood nor rings to bring home to the kith and kin of Alfarin Stone-Skin. His only recourse was to wander as the wolves, and pray he might find a ring-giver willing to forgive his failings.

Your father offers him his ring-sword, and welcomes him.

Jofast wriggles out of my grasp and I do not move as the mead-cup is passed and the war-band recognizes their new brother. I do not move as the boasting begins, a night early. I imagine you standing beside me, glad of the merriment and feasting, looking forward as you always did to the sacrifice and the drinking. Your warm hand presses my cold skin, and I curl up my fingers wishing for the weight of rings upon them.

I do not move even when the fire is low, when the poem-singer stands forth and recites for us all. Orri is seated at your father’s feet, and he finds me in the crowded shadows. He finds me and holds out his hand again, palm-inward. He flexes his fingers and I see the glint of my rings on his smallest. Below it, circling his wrist, is a new, larger armring of twisted copper that your father has given.

***

Outside and alone, I run to the barrow field. I stan
d at the prow of your ship as the sun dips away. Tonight is the sacrifice. Tonight you will come, if you are to come. I watch the last light tug at the crystals hidden inside some of the boulders. I stare and stare and then, just before the light vanishes, I turn my back to the death ship and I walk steadily towards the hall.

note: original picture from access.denied

41 thoughts on “Death Ship

  1. The imagery in this is wonderful. One of my favorite lines: I imagine you as you were the night you left, cheeks flared with excitement, wrapped in the blue mantle your mother and I made. The rings on your arms and fingers glittered while the sun set and you were the most glorious you’d ever been.

  2. Thank you. This one has one of my favorite images in a while, too. What can I say? I’m inspired by graveyards. 😉

    And Vikings.

  3. This is lovely and heartbreaking, like a lonely waltz. Or something. (smile) I really love the language she uses…it’s so very not-modern and really sounds like another person’s voice.

  4. Oh, thank you! It’s definitely like a lonely waltz. I’ve been trying to play with voice the last few weeks, so I’m extra glad this voice seems different to you.

  5. …there is a quality to your writing…

    The first lines of your stories, are so simple and deliberate that, I immediately give trust over to follow where you lead. Reading your stories feels very much like slipping down the rabbit hole… colors, textures, sights and sounds.

    Somehow even foreign voices sound familiar.

  6. I immediately give trust over to follow where you lead.

    I could not possibly ask for more. Thank you, so much. This is one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten.

  7. I recall from a Freshman level Russian Lit class I took at IU…the professor asking us why such and such story seemed plausible… and her answer was because the story began with a description of the quality of the morning light coming through a grove of aspen trees… She asked us how many of us had seen morning light through aspen trees and if his description was accurate. It was… Thus his words = truth. And the rest of the story was plausible.

    That’s my experience of your writing. 🙂

  8. Brilliant – that’s even more important, I think, when writing any sort of fantasy or sci-fi. If you want readers to go with you while you talk about vampires and faeries and ghosts, you have to, HAVE TO ground the story in truth.

    I’m so glad it’s working. (At least sometimes.)

  9. Well, that’s a better explanation for WHY I give trust over so often to your writing. Because in the first moments of your stories I find myself, consciously or unconsciously saying “Yes, of course.” or *thud* “I know that feeling.”

    For this story it was a resounding “I know that feeling.”

  10. Oh, so sad! So heartrendingly sad!

    I’m so glad she chooses life and light, at the end of it all. This resonated very much with me right now. Thank you for it.

  11. I’ve been struck with a series of happy or at least happily ambiguous endings lately… surely it will all come crashing down soon. 😀

  12. Gawd. Impeccable voice. My favorite bit is him showing the rings, probably because I’m an anglo-saxon jewelry ho more than anything else. ;p

    I also have a fondness for her making the mittens. I know, random.

  13. Quite possibly. But I like the scraping of the sealskin. It instantly makes me think of the image of doing it, in just a few words.

    Sealskin fingerless gloves sound not so great though.

  14. No, you definitely want them to be mittens, with the fur on the inside. For much finger-snuggling. And hot tea drinking.

  15. I promise I will write more about this almost-historical pre-viking world. And someday, I’ll finish my novel about it.

    Thanks.

  16. “The ship you steer now floats on an ocean with no shore. And I have neither shore nor ship. I am drowning.” Such a beautiful and poignant line.

  17. Vikingr stories! This website is my new favourite place. I can never find good stories about that.

    Passing that, love the imagery, love the folklore, love Orri.

  18. Hee! Thank you! I’m slightly addicted to writing them, so no doubt there will be many more.

    This one has been one of my favorites ever since I wrote it. I’m glad you like it!

  19. Well, most of my journal is vikingr stuff. That, and Varangians/Outremer knights/highwaymen… a lot of 12th century stuff XD I know how you feel, I’m addicted to writing it too.

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