The god of thunder used to come stay overnight in our house on his way to and from winter campaigns. Every autumn and every spring he’d arrive with nothing but his armor, his shield, and his hammer on his belt. With a great roaring laugh, he’d open his arms and call to my mother. Wherever she was, she dropped everything to greet him. My earliest memory is of her hitching me onto her back and running up to this gold and red giant of a man.
His eyes were as gray as storm-clouds, and lightning cracked inside them. Thick red braids hung down the sides of his neck, and he said, “Come here, boy, and if you can hang on, I will teach you to fight.”
That first time I fell, my little fists slipping around his hair. His braids were too rough and bright for me to grip. I hit the icy ground hard enough it jarred my teeth and I cried.
Thor Thunderer laughed, slapping his wide, flat hand into his thigh, and said, “What lungs you have!”
But he ignored me the rest of the evening and night, and in the morning as he jogged off into the sunrise, he only kissed Mother’s palm as if I did not exist.
The second year I held on for two breaths before plunging down. This time I did not cry, and Thor said, “Soon.”
He came in the spring of my sixth year, and I waited in a tree as he passed under. His lightning-bright hair was a bull’s-eye, impossible to miss. I leapt onto his back and when the thunder god whirled, I held tight to his braids. I did not let go.
“You have vanquished me!” Thor Thunderer cried, half-laughing, and fell to his knees hard enough to shake the mountain. He reached up and pulled me over his shoulder. With his hands under my arms he carried me into the house to my mother. “What a son you have, Ranka. What a man he shall be!” Then he set my dangling feet onto the kitchen table, so I was nearly as tall as him.
“Teach me to fight!” I said.
And the god of thunder agreed.
For three years he taught me how to move and fall, how to stretch, how to make myself strong. Two days in the autumn and two days in the spring Thor Thunderer chased me as I carried rocks, taught me to place my feet in intricate dances, and gave me long poems to learn as we chopped wood and repaired the roof and ate the food my mother made. I said, “What have poems to do with fighting?”
The god dragged me onto his lap and said into my ear, “Courage, Ottar, they have everything to do with courage. Learn the songs for your heart’s sake.”
“I want to learn to fight!” I yelled.
Thor stood up with me under one arm and out we went into the yard. He pulled Crusher, his iron hammer, off his belt and set it firmly onto its head. The short handle pointed up at the noontime sun. “When you can lift my hammer over your head, then I will give you a weapon of your own.”
I stood before it with my feet planted, and touched the cold handle. It burned my skin, and I remembered that even Thor himself carried gloves for wielding it. But I wrapped my fingers around it and pulled.
The hammer-head lifted a finger-span off the frozen earth, then thunked back down, dragging me with it.
Thor laughed, clapped me on the shoulder, and wandered back inside to my mother.
I was only ten years old then, but I wrapped rubber-bands around themselves until I had two large balls. I squeezed them again and again as I walked to meet my bus for school, under my desk instead of writing notes. All winter I kept off my wool mittens, plunged my hands into the snow, and practiced lifting icy rocks high over my head. I stood at the edge of a cliff and dropped the stones into the frozen lake below. The crack of stone on ice echoed through the mountain like thunder.
When Thor came, the first thing he did was take off his hammer and set it down for me. The last thing he did before leaving was lift it up again and take it away. In the spring I managed to draw it up to knee-height. That autumn, halfway up to my waist. When I was twelve I swung it as high as my heart.
That was the year I hit Daniel Edwardson hard enough to knock him back eight feet. He’d asked me if Mother cried herself to sleep every night the thunder god was with other women.
I slammed my fist into his stomach. Daniel skidded through the woodchips and hit up against the slide, and Mister Pierceson came running, yelling for the nurse and the two other teachers on recess duty. But I was too aware that what I’d done was impossible, and stepped back, holding my hands up. My heart thumped hard and I remembered lines from one of Thor’s poems. The rhythm of it beat in time with my pulse, and I understood how it could help.
Even the vice-modra of our school avoided coming too near me as she swept me into her office and called my mother to pick me up. As Mother drove me home up the mountain, I asked her about my father.
She said what she always did, “Oh, Ottar, he was a fine soldier, one of Thor’s own, and that’s how I met him, you know. Thor came with his band to stay at our home one early spring weekend, on their way north to dig out rock trolls in the Canadia mountains. It’s how he died, crushed by a troll’s club, and ever since the thunder god has only come alone, to spare me reminders as best he can.”
For the first time I did not believe her. I remembered the wide eyes of my classmates, the sly glance of Mister Pierceson, the hushed tone in the vice-modra’s voice as she said my mother’s name into the phone.
They all thought I was the son of Thor.
I held out my hands, studied the line of my shoulders in the mirror, and decided it was true.
I paid more attention then, to the way Mother watched him, to the times he kissed her palm or let his hand linger on her hair. And whereas before I’d watched him walk away until I couldn’t find the glint of sun on his lightning hair, now the moment he turned his back I looked at my mother. At the sudden sad tilt of her mouth. At the way her shoulders sagged for one single moment, as if the weight of the world bore her down.
It made me want to hit things, to tear up trees and set fire to our fields and vegetable garden.
But all I did was make myself grow stronger.
I kept to myself at school, did the least I could get away with, and escaped into the mountain every afternoon so that I could find boulders to carry and ice to shape into the size of Thor’s hammer. I carved my own weights and settled them over my shoulders, wrapped them to my waist, and I ran. I climbed. I doubled in size by the time I turned fifteen, and that was the year I knew I could do it.
The god of thunder stomped into our yard and set down his hammer. It was troll-weather, everything gray and dreary, with rain drizzling lazily from the sky. Thor wiped water from his forehead, wrung it out of his braids, and grinned at me before ducking into the house.
I stood before his hammer and picked it up.
The cold burned my skin but I did not mind. Hefting it onto my shoulder, I took Crusher up the mountain and buried it.
I returned to the house and found him with his boots up on the table, sipping hot chocolate from a mug, regaling Mother with a tale from his winter campaign deep in the Appalachian caves. I said, “Where is your hammer? Why haven’t you left it out for me to lift?”
Thor’s heels thumped onto the hardwood floor, shaking the foundation of the house. His brow lowered and he tugged one of his braids. “It is in the center of your yard, Ottar, where it always waits.”
“No.” I spread back my hand toward the wide open door. “It is not.”
He never suspected me, through all the months the hammer was missing.
We didn’t hear about it through the media at first, though there were rumors because Thor did not appear in public as often that summer as he usually did. Rumors that he was far into some mountain, rooting out a dragon, or that he’d followed a giantess to pan-Asia. The Asgard Broadcast Network early morning show broke the truth as news at the first harvest. They made light of it, for his hammer had been stolen before, and there’d been no sign it was being used for ill.
I waited for him to come home. To return to the spot he’d lost it. To stay here, to wait with us, to use this mountain house as a base for the hunt. I waited. At night I stood in the spot where he always set the hammer down, and I imagined him coming and asking his son to help him find Crusher. I would take him to it, and say, “Your hammer has always been safe in my hands.”
The day before he always came in the autumn, I dragged myself out to the trio of lodge pole pines under which I’d buried the hammer. My body felt anchored to the mountain, heavy as lead. I swept aside a carpet of red pine needles and slammed my shovel into the earth. It cracked through, and I dug hard and fast. I dug three feet and then five, through solid mountain rock, until my hole was nine feet deep.
And the hammer was not there.
Climbing out, I walked in huge spirals, hunting for other trios of pine trees, but this was the one. I knew it like I knew my face in the mirror. The hammer of Thor was gone, and I was responsible.
I ran home, crashed through the front door, ready to confess to my mother. To tell her what I had done and ask her how I could make it better. My heart beat so fast there were no poems to match it.
And Mother stood waiting in the kitchen, her chin raised, her blond hair in two perfect braids down to her knees, and her right hand gently embracing the handle of Thor’s hammer where it sat head down in the center of the table.
“Ottar,” she said, disappointment weighing her voice so it fell like rain onto the floor.
I lowered my head. “I only wanted him to stay.”
“This will have the opposite effect, my son.”
“Why doesn’t he treat you better? Why doesn’t he let me be his son?” I stepped forward and reached for the hammer.
Mother lifted it as easily as she might pick up a kitchen knife. She swung the hammer up and tucked it back against her shoulder. “You do not get your strength from the thunder god.”
Shock sent me reeling back, staring from the iron head of the hammer to my mother’s face. Her set jaw, her bright cheeks. “My mother’s mother’s mother was of the etin-folk, Ottar. We have the blood of giants in our veins.” She hefted the hammer. “This weapon is the bane of our kind, crafted by long dead dvergar for Thor’s hand. And you have taken it from him, you have proven the truth in your blood.”
I put my hands on the back of a kitchen chair, squeezing so hard the wood creaked. “It was not what I meant.”
“You did not believe me when I told you of your father. You wanted more, and you took it. That is what giants do. And humans, too.” Mother shook her head. Her yellow braids shivered. “How could I expect different.”
“You never told me!”
“My line was not enough for you? That you needed a god’s blood?” Mother slammed the hammer into the table, splitting it down the middle. The table fell in two halves at her feet.
She stormed past me, out into the yard, and threw the hammer away. “Take it, Ottar!” It spun over and over itself, until hitting hard into a boulder. The rock shattered, crushed to dust, and the hammer landed in the middle of it, head down. The handle vibrated, making the entire mountain tremble.
The thunder god would hear that crack, he would come to his hammer. Now that it was free of the earth, it would call to him. Even I knew that: the hammer and Thor always returned to each other.
I walked heavily to it, unwilling to pick it up again with my giant’s hands. Another thing I knew about Thor Thunderer, and should have remembered: he loves and hates etin-folk in equal measures. Always they – we – are his lovers and family. And always he is compelled to destroy us.
He had trusted me with his hammer. Offered it to me as a test of my strength, obviously knowing me and my mother for what we were. And I had chosen to steal it.
I stood beside the hammer for the three hours it took the god of thunder to arrive. The mountain wind hit me again and again with its tiny knives of ice.
He came as he always did, alone on his feet, crunching up the dirt road. His smile was wide and his red braids crackling like lightning. “My Ottar!” he bellowed. “You have recovered my hammer!”
And all my body shook as I realized he still did not suspect me.
How he trusted me.
“Tell me this tale!” he continued, joy making his hands wider, his stance as wide as a river. His voice echoed up to the sky.
I knelt before Thor and said, “I took it and buried it for all these months. And now here it is for you again.”
There was silence but for the hiss of ice on the pine needles. The weight of his stare held me on my knees as the ice built up in my hair, on my shoulders.
“Why?” the thunder god finally asked.
Behind me the front door opened, and I knew Mother stood there, waiting to hear. Waiting to see.
I did not stand up, but only held out my hands. “I thought if the hammer stayed here, so would you.”
“He thought you treated him so well,” Mother called, “because he thought he was your son.” Her voice was light as clouds now.
“I am not your father,” Thor said. He gripped his hammer and stood before me. “Get up, boy.”
I did, forced myself to meet his lightning-struck eyes. I was nearly as tall as him, and nearly as broad. My hair was darker, but with red in it, and my eyes brown. Unlike him and my mother both. I should have known. I should never have wished otherwise.
He said, mouth turned down in grim lines, “I would have been glad to have a strong son like you.”
And he swung his hammer, named Crusher.
It hit my right leg with enough force to knock me across the yard. Ice cracked all around me and my mother swallowed a cry. I lay flat out, my leg on fire, shattered and broken.
Thor stood over me, his braids hanging down like ropes. He said, “No one survives a blow from Crusher, but you will. And one day you will be strong again.”
The god of thunder used to come stay overnight in our house on his way to and from winter campaigns.
But since I stole his hammer, he has not returned. And I am not strong.
Author’s Note: HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY. Didn’t you enjoy my romantic, kissy story? 😉
photo by: sebr via flickr creative commons.