Winter

[The trickster god Loki’s wife, Sigyn, has spent an eternity holding a bowl under the mouth of a snake that drips poison on her condemned husband, who is bound to a rock until Ragnaröck, the end of the world. At Ragnaröck, the world becomes cold and filled with conflict and strife, the sun is wounded and eventually killed by the Fenriswolf, and Loki is freed to lead a final battle against the gods who have condemned him.]

 

“It’s really getting to be terribly cold,” Sigyn said, shivering one frosty morning as she and Loki waited for the sun to come up over the nearest hill to warm them for a few hours. Sigyn wore mittens made from a few animal skins which she had haphazardly knotted together. She had draped similar contraptions over Loki’s hands and feet.

The sun came up innocently enough. But it wasn’t warm. Sigyn decided to brave the coldness of the sun without comment and simply huddled as tightly as possible against Loki. She had braided his long wild hair to keep his ears from freezing, something she’d never done before, and she wore her own hair braided and wound around her neck life a scarf.

We really must be getting old, she thought, and unfortunately there wasn’t a bird clever enough in the whole valley now whom she could send to the goddess Idun for another apple of youth that might get some warmth back into their poor veins. Sigyn couldn’t remember ever having been so chilled. What grieved her most of all, though, was to see how Loki suffered from the cold, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Loki never complained at all anymore, although he was totally at the mercy of the inclement weather. She at least could kneel down and press herself against his body. And then she still also had her walks to the cliff to toss the poison she had collected in her bowl, a time when she could exercise her limbs.

If only the sun would manage to be just the tiniest bit warmer, she thought despairingly and sent some miserable glances up into the sky where the sun was dragging itself along, pale and glittering, after timidly rising over the hills in the East much too late in the day for Sigyn’s taste. And yet there were red lights in the paleness of the sun’s rays; it was a pity that they couldn’t be stronger and warmer.

And suddenly Sigyn understood.

She felt the whole terror of understanding in a single moment. It wasn’t simply their own old age that made them shiver from the cold. It was the old age of the world. She closed her eyes, then looked again and saw that it was true. The red in the frosty light that came down from the sky had to be the blood of the wounded sun. The Fenriswolf had finally grown strong enough. He who had been yearning for the sun throughout eternity, his time had come. The wolf had reached the sun. His bounding, lustful paws had lacerated the first rays already and drawn the first blood. The sun would grow weak now, too weak to flee from him in its course in the sky. Soon it would be no more. The sun would be devoured. The giants would come in their ships made from the nails of dead men. Then it would be time for Loki’s final battle against the gods, and then all prophecies would be fulfilled. And then?

It simply couldn’t be that late in the world already, Sigyn decided defiantly. But of course her decision was worth nothing in the face of destiny.

Furtively she looked at Loki’s face to find out if he had already recognized the meaning of all that was happening around them. It happened so slowly, years of winter with the days and nights becoming blurred and almost impossible to keep track of. Sigyn watched Loki’s eyes stare straight into the sun. Then, hesitantly, he turned his gaze on her. His eyes were empty toward her. And yet his eyes were full of purpose.

“Have you seen…?” Sigyn gasped, unable to complete her sentence with words that would name the end.

“I have,” he said.

A terrible anger welled up in her breast at seeing the blissful look of satisfaction and gleaming purpose in her husband’s eyes. Was it so wonderful to him to get his chance again to contribute to destruction?

Then, only a moment later, she throttled the anger she felt, leaving only regret and sadness alive. How strange, she mused, to have wished for the end of the world so often during the seemingly endless past. And now that it announced itself, it seemed to come entirely too soon.

“Do you know how long it will take now?” she asked in her need to say something to fill this fearful void of knowledge.

“No, I don’t know what time of the world it is exactly.” Loki wanted to console her. “It may take years still until the sun is altogether dead, until its blood has dried and darkened and the wolf is satisfied. It may take years beyond that before everything else comes to its end.”

“Only they won’t be real years,” Sigyn said sadly. “From now on there will be only winter, and only hatred and coldness and strife left in the world according to the prophecy.”

She couldn’t stop herself from crying. Her tears froze like unhappy diamonds on her cheeks. Loki watched her tenderly, and yet he couldn’t hide the glee he felt within himself. He wished for a way of sharing his excitement with her, but there was no way of sharing the terrible joy of destruction with a goddess.

“I hope it won’t be all hatred and strife,” he said in answer to her last words. “Though for a moment there, I thought you hated me already. Be brave. If I were free already, I would wipe away your tears. Don’t be the first one, please, to fulfill the prophesized hatred.”

“Of course I don’t hate you,” Sigyn sobbed. “Only it does seem an awful shame that it should all be over so soon.” They smiled at each other bravely, she through her tears and he through his pride, when Sigyn used that odd word “soon” which seemed to extinguish all the burden of their long eternity.

It was, from then on, one long winter. The tree by the rock never bloomed again. It carried icicles instead of flowers, like a nostalgic imitation of its former glory. The ground stayed a permanent white now instead of changing to green or brown according to the season. The animals tried as best as they could to hide in the shelter of small rocks where they gnawed at moldy moss, since no more grass could grow for them to graze on.

Sigyn and Loki spoke to each other only rarely now, when the ice wind was momentarily not strong enough to freeze the moisture in their mouths. It had become dark, as prophesized, and they thought about the wave of deceit and strife which was flooding the world elsewhere. Sigyn was grateful that at least the two of them did have respite from that curse still in their secluded valley.

From time to time Loki tried to swell his chest and moved his arms and legs to see if the bonds were ready to burst. He was impatient now. Even so, he tested his fetters as discretely as possible so as not to alarm Sigyn. She knew exactly what he was doing but didn’t feel like commenting on it or wounding her own heart with acknowledging his impatience to be gone. But she felt good about the courtesy he paid her by trying to hide his eagerness.

They watched the sun’s farewell as a bleeding disk of light in the sky. The snake now had to employ all its super-serpentine strength to eke out even a little drop of poison in this terrible cold that was so utterly unfit for a snake’s comfort. Sigyn no longer went to the cliff. The thick crust of ice around them hardly hissed under the quickly extinguished shadow of a flame when she drenched it with the feebler and feebler poison from the bowl. No question anymore of violent flames shooting up into the sky, just when their flare might have finally been so welcome.

Sometimes it was so dark that Sigyn feared Loki would one day just simply take off and leave unseen to spare them a sentimental farewell, and she was afraid that for a long time she wouldn’t even know the difference. But she could see him when the moon was full and lit their night from changing gaps between racing clouds. If the moon didn’t appear for a very long time, she would brave the frost on her lips and ask a question, and Loki, in pity, would brave the frost also and answer her to reassure her that he was still there.

The roar of the wind had grown so loud, and darkness so complete, that they didn’t have a chance to see the three frost giants of the underworld approach. These three had been fighting their way through the blizzards toward them to find their chosen leader for the battle against the gods at last. One day they simply stood by the rock. One of them nearly stumbled over Sigyn. He looked at her, amazed, then irritated. She did, in the end, not seem significant enough for an apology.

“Greetings from the other frost giants, Loki, our chosen leader,” one of the giants said. “At last we have found you. The time has come. The nails of the dead have grown enough. Our ship is built. It is ready for your command. The moon is full now. And by the next full moon we will have reached the battle field. Come with us now, our lord, our master.”

Where is there a full moon? Sigyn thought angrily. She could hardly see anything at all. She had to be angry at something, and the moon was as good a target for her anger as anything else. But then the moon did appear and lit up their valley with a white ghostly glimmer. The wind died down. It ceased pushing clouds in front of the light.

Loki hadn’t spoken yet. He stretched his arms and Nari’s entrails fell away as though they had never bound him to the rock. Loki sat up and rubbed his legs. Then he rose, stood still for a moment to see if his feet would carry him. They carried him easily. The three giants laughed with joy at seeing him stand before them, mighty, dream-like, wild, and tall against the sky.

“I brought you a bear coat,” one of them said, bending his knees in awe.

“I brought you an apple of youth which I stole from that goddess Idun who keeps them,” said the second.

“I brought you your armor,” the third added.

“Thank you, brothers,” Loki said formally, but without enthusiasm. Either he had none, or he made a great effort to hide it from Sigyn.

He let himself be helped into the armor by his delegation of giants without speaking another word. And they, in turn, admired him for his grim silence, thinking that it was a sign of strength and of a great unfettered will.

Suddenly Loki turned to Sigyn. She hadn’t even moved. Her body still knelt by the empty rock. Only her eyes had followed him.

“You should have this apple,” he said, to the obvious dismay of the giants. “I want you to be young at least once more.”

“Why should I be young?” Sigyn replied harshly enough to cover up her sadness. “You’re the one in need of all the strength you can get now. So don’t be ludicrous. What would I be doing with an apple of youth?” She turned her head quickly.

“Who is that old crone?” one of the giants asked with impatience.

“My wife Sigyn,” Loki said, his gaze on the back of Sigyn’s head.

“I didn’t know there was anyone with you,” the giant said.

Sigyn felt her heart contract, but only for a moment. Then it seemed easy to take. She remembered an argument they had a long while back, when she complained bitterly that no one knew her. Odd, to be vindicated for her complaints on such an occasion as this.

“Let’s go,” another of the giants urged.

“Go on ahead,” Loki commanded. “I’ll know where to find you. I will follow you.”

The giants grumbled at first, having had visions of carrying him on their linked arms from his place of captivity in a march of triumph. But then they walked away, obeying their leader.

“Will you take this coat?” Loki asked when the giants disappeared into the roaring darkness.

“Of course not,” Sigyn said. “I don’t feel the cold at all anymore.”

“Please have at least one bite of this apple then,” Loki tried again. “We’ve shared apples before.”

“All right.”

Sigyn took one small bite, knowing that Loki needed to give her something. She watched him eat the rest of the apple in silence, watched him become young again before her eyes. Then she stood up, struggling with herself. She wanted to ask if she could go along with him, knowing that she wouldn’t be allowed to do so, of course, but knowing also that the question would please him. She conquered her pride which told her not to subject herself to this final rejection, and she asked. Loki mumbled something incomprehensible, a corresponding kindness on his part, and they both accepted the unspoken “no.”

“I have to go now,” Loki said, drawing his thick coat around his shoulders. Sigyn nodded. He turned his back to her slowly. Then he swung around again and sat down on the rock. He took the bowl from Sigyn’s trembling hands and put it down on the rock beside him. Then he took one of her fur-covered hands in his own.

“Sigyn,” he said. “How will you die? I can’t remember. I will want to think of you. Or will you perhaps not die at all? Be honest, do goddesses die in this upcoming end, along with the gods? Or do they survive in some fashion?”

“I’ll be all right,” Sigyn said. “That’s all I can tell you.”

In reality she didn’t know at all whether she was to die, and if so, how. Like Loki she couldn’t remember, and the prophecies made no specific provisions for herself or any of her sisters.

“Go,” she said a moment later. “They said the ship is ready. They are waiting for you. What are you waiting for?”

“Nothing,” Loki said. He would have liked to say something important now, something that she could remember in the next phase of the world. He almost told her that he loved her, but somehow that didn’t seem important enough.

“It’ll do,” Sigyn said. At the last moment she allowed herself to do away with the assumed mask of private thoughts and unshared secrets. But the wind came between them, raising a wildness of dark particles of night and filling their mouths and blinding their eyes with snow.

Loki walked away. After a time he turned to look back once more. The snow was thick in the air. The clouds raced pitilessly black across the moon. He thought he saw Sigyn stand by the rock frantically waving her mittens in the air.

He thought he heard her shout. “See you in another world,” she called to him. Perhaps it was an illusion.

“Woman,” he muttered and smiled.

He lost his smile quickly and marched on grimly in obedience to his gory calling.

When she was certain of his final and irrevocable distance, Sigyn sat down on the rock and tried to decide what to do next. She had no calling in these fading hours of the world. Suddenly the snake, still dangling from the tree, touched the crown of her head.

“I dare you bite me,” Sigyn screamed, jerking her head away in terror. “You’re free, too, now, you know. Just as I am. And cold, no doubt, poor thing,” she added, once she was reasonably certain that the snake wasn’t about to harm her.

The snake was perfectly aware of its freedom as well as of the cold. It was the furthest thing from its small but nonetheless immortal brain to harm Sigyn. Instead, it slipped down over her shoulder and wound itself around her neck and her left arm. After a moment both felt marginally warmer.

“All right, let’s go then,” Sigyn said, having absolutely no idea where they were about to go.

Sigyn and the snake left the valley considerably more poised than had been the case with Loki and his grumbling giants. Not once were they tempted to look back. All they would have seen at any rate would have been an empty bowl standing on top of an otherwise equally empty rock.

Some old weak spot on the part of Sigyn caused them to end up in the world of the mortals for a while. There, however, Sigyn was soon cured of all lingering fondness. Passing by a large old-fashioned court yard, she heard an excited male voice.

“I saw her! With a snake!”

“Whom?” another voice asked.

Sigyn took this to be a reference to herself and her cold companion, and she decided to eavesdrop on more of the exchange. At first only mumbled noises reached her ears, and now and again a few distinct but fantastical words. They spoke of her as some goddess bearing a sign of mystical portent. Then they spoke of a witch, of evil. And then the voices grew louder and louder, each contradicting the other. Clearly they couldn’t agree who she was, and all their conjectures were stupid and utterly wrong. Finally, when they didn’t even make sense to one another any longer, the voices swelled into furious screams.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sigyn whispered to the snake. “Before we cause any more confusion.” She was reasonably certain that the snake couldn’t understand a word of what she said. But in her solitude she had a need to hear her own voice.

They wandered aimlessly. That is to say, Sigyn did all the wandering, while the snake tried to be as weightless as possible. Suddenly, though, Sigyn stopped and began to worry. She looked down at her hands. Her hands were empty. There was no bowl in them, and she didn’t understand what it meant.

“Hey snake!” she exclaimed, a little frightened. “Is this one of those terrible dreams?”

The snake couldn’t answer of course.

Stupid snake, Sigyn thought silently, just in case the snake could understand spoken words after all.

And then she walked out into the vortex of creation.

 

[Born in Germany, Beate Sigriddaughter currently lives in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Three times a Pushcart Prize nominee, she has published prose and poetry in many print and online magazines. Her most recent book, the novella Snow White: A Mirror In Several Voices, came out in 2009.  She also established the Glass Woman Prize to honor passionate women’s voices, the details of which can be found here. ]

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s