The farm had been in my family for generations. Father said that once, long before the war that changed the shape of the world, the fields around the farmhouse were laden with the gold of the earth, producing enough food to keep our family’s pantry full and our neighbors friendly. Goats and sheep and cows, chickens and geese and llamas and hogs kept the pastures trim, the midden down, and the soil rich. The home was filled to the rafters with a large, extended family that, at the time, was not the norm. He always said that. Was not the norm. I can count with one hand how many families I know now that have more than two children. I suspect my father, during his lifetime, would also have been hard pressed to name half a dozen. Maybe it was different, before the war.
By my grandfather’s grandfather’s time the land around the farmhouse were already feral, and most of the animals gone. So the legend goes, his great-grandfather wanted nothing to do with farming, but by the time he’d wed the war was already starting, and his wife would hear nothing about moving away from her kinfolk. So, they stayed. As times grew lean he sold off the livestock, a bit at a time. When the currency began to fail he began to trade his produce for what they needed. I suppose that, in the end, he was grateful for his wife’s stubborn refusal to move to the city. The cities were hardest hit during the war. Barely anyone in any of the major hubs survived.
I imagine what it must have been like for them, my ancestors, having to relearn the ways of agriculture, of living with the land rather than trampling it under foot. We have books from before war – not many – and the world that’s painted in those pages seems impossible. Complex machines to do all your hard labor may sound nice, at the end of scorching November day when your back is screaming from harvesting thirteen hours straight, but to be utterly dependent upon some unfeeling thing for your existence is utterly archaic. What must it have been like, in those strange times? Dark. Terrifying. Bleak. Our family nearly died out. Once, we had one of those sprawling families that, even then, wasn’t normal. Mother said they bred as their God wished them to. Most of them didn’t survive the war or its after-effects.
I grew up on this farm, rich neither in harvest nor in material goods, but with my mother and father, and my two sisters. By my father’s time the tiny portion of fields still tame had grown enough to keep us from starving and provide enough left over that we could, at times, eat our fill. My father worked hard to coax more of the land back from the feral forest that helped to keep us protected. We weren’t alone – we had neighbors a number of miles to the south and east of us that we saw on Easter and Christmas and Remembrance Day. But we were often left to ourselves – people were private. Cautious, Mother said. Paranoid, Father claimed.
My father, I think, was happy on the farm. Had things been different, I suspect he would have chosen the farming life anyway. Mother grew up a week’s journey to the west, in a village that grew up where once a sprawling city stood. “It did not take long”, Aunt Ruthan told me and my sisters during one of our visits, “for God to reclaim His creation back from the grasping grips of mankind.” Mother’s family was devout followers of God, even back before the war. I remember being allowed to read through their Holy Texts during my visits. I loved the giant book with its tiny, neat writing. It was the first book I’d ever seen and I knew, even as a young child, that I wanted to love God as much as they clearly did.
Mother was devout too, in her own way. She was restless, she told us when we asked of how she met our father, and wanted to travel a bit. Her ancestors used to do that, when they reached adulthood – travel about the world before settling down to start their families. It was a rite of passage, she said. The war changed that, but she felt a calling within her heart. When my father and his brother passed through one springtime, she sneaked into their cart. They were a full days ride away before they found her, and my father was so smitten with her audacity he could refuse her nothing. They were wed shortly after they returned to the farm.
Religion used to be different, too, back before the war. Grandfather spoke of buildings that were houses of God, and men of the cloth that were God’s mouthpiece upon the earth. I never understood, as a child, how God could have mouthpieces upon the earth and still have allowed the war to happen. Mostly, though, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the stories from before. The world was different from how it had been. Mother shared Scripture with us, and we prayed and fasted and studied as hard as we cleaned and farmed and washed laundry. I grew up loving God as Mother loved God. I grew up loved and happy and I knew, very early on, that I never wanted to leave the farm.
For all of that, matters in the world were not settled. We had droughts. We had terrible electricity storms that would set fire to the feral forest around us. Illnesses and accidents befell us. Crops failed. The seasons were erratic. Winters fell hard and lasted long; spring time saturated us with rains and brought plagues of mosquito; summer burned the insects to nothing and took half the harvest with them. Not always, but often enough, and randomly, as far as we could tell. My sisters married off and left our farm the year my father died. He died in the fields he so loved, a smile on his face. The doctor that our area had said it must have been a heart attack.
I met Thom that year, a small man from back east, traveling with a bag on his back, a blade on his hip, and a one-eyed horse sporting a scar across her backside. We would sometimes get travellers passing through – the Anders farm was closer to the old highway, but the Trout River ran through our land, and people would often follow its path through the sheltering shade of the alders and fireoakes. I say he was a small man because he was – my mother was a good three inches taller than he, and I was taller still – but also because I am still surprised that his stature was small. Even back then, before I knew his name, his presence was massive.
Looking back, I can see the signs almost immediately that things were changing for the better. He was hardly off his mare and bending to help us get in the last of the harvest before a hail storm blew in out of nowhere. Had he been a day later, we would have lost the last of our cereal crops in that storm. Maybe we wouldn’t have felt it, toward the end of winter, but then again, maybe we would have. Mother set him up in the place of honor before the fire that night, and I busied myself in the kitchen, too wired from the work and from the novelty of having a stranger at our table to stand myself. The three of us were exhausted from the day’s labor, and once we’d fed our guest and had him properly nested before fire, heaped with our best blankets, we turned in.
I remember most how full the house felt that night, which even now seems silly. Three adults in a farmhouse that could easily hold six or seven more. With both my sisters and my father gone, the house had closed in around Mother and I, making us cozy and close and quiet. Thom’s arrival reminded me that there was more to the world than just our farm and the forest around us.
The hail came in the night without warning. One moment I was fast asleep, my muscles aching in that pleasant way that hard labor will do, and the next I was bolt upright in bed, blinking in groggy confusion to the noise that sounded like thunder but couldn’t be.
My door banged open and there was Thom, dressed in boots and his patched leathers and nothing else, his hair hastily pulled back into a tail. He seized my shirt from the back of the door without bothering to look to see where it hung, tossed it at me, and said, “Hail!” before ducking back into the hall. His foot falls descended upon the stairs as I sat, gaping, trying to process what was going on. He repeated the cry again, presumably to my mother, and finally my brain began to work. I shrugged into my shirt, pulled on my own boots, and staggered downstairs almost faster than my feet were able to carry me.
I thanked God a dozen times that night as we raced out into the squash patch. For Thom’s arrival at our farm, for his quick thinking, for his keen observation. He was freeing the gourds from their vines before I finally caught up with him, kneeling in the mud, mindless of the relentless daggers that were falling from the sky. He was bare-chested and he moved like he was dancing, from one cluster of squash to the next, cutting them free with the knife he kept on his hip. He would kneel, lift the blade, free the squash, and then roll back to his feet to step a pace this way or that, and fall back to the earth to repeat the process. His lips moved as he went, but the hail and my pounding heart made it impossible to hear his words.
Our squash patch wasn’t very large, and the hail stones grew larger, first pounding and then slicing as they fell. We harvested as much as we could, with Mother running out to haul the vegetables to the safety of cover as we worked. By the time the hail drove us to seek shelter lest it brain us we’d harvested most of the gourds. Some a bit early, but we’d make use of them. Nothing would be wasted.
Mother had steaming bowls of water ready to bathe our minor wounds and a healthy dose of cider to bathe our racing hearts once we returned. She’d stoked the fire and shuttered the precious windows against the storm, and we had nothing left to do but dry off, warm up, and calm down.
I fell asleep by the fire, nestled in blankets I’d taken back from our guest. I woke some time later to find him watching me. The darkness made me bold. Or maybe it was the cider. “You’re beautiful,” I told him. My words came out softly, and for a moment, I hoped he hadn’t heard me over the fire. He blinked, and seemed to draw in upon himself, and looked away. It was, perhaps, a foolish thing to say, but it was also the truth. My parents taught me to appreciate beauty in this world our ancestors had ruined. “I don’t mean to offend you.”
“I am not offended,” Thom said. “We should both sleep. There’ll be much to do come morning.”
“Have you been on a farm before?”
Thom shook his head. “Never.”
My curiosity spiked even as I recognized the truth in his words. My tongue grew heavy. “There is always much to do come morning,” I told him, “and morning can come when we wake . . . after a night like tonight, that will be whenever it will be.”
Despite my words, morning did come early. I roused to find him already gone, and for a moment I felt uneasy. That he would leave so soon, without a word. That I had offended him more than I’d feared. I found him in the barn, looking after his horse. Wanting to seem casual, I went about my morning routine, doling out food and water to our animals, checking on their living areas in case something needed immediate tending. I showed him what to feed everyone, and he watched me with avid interest. The animals watched him with avid interest. Even our sheep, most of whom are shy of people, came shnuffling over to him, and seemed only passingly interested in the food he offered. Our ram was especially fond of him, and when one well-timed assault send Thom flying over half the herd, I worried the brute injured him. Thom bounced, cursed, and then remained on the ground, wheezing. The rest of the sheep kept away, but the ram wandered over with me, tail wagging, and I think we were both relieved to see that some of the tears rolling down his face were from laughter.
“It’s not worse than being kicked by a horse,” he said at last, as he eased back to his feet. Ram regarded him, snuffled his fingers again, and then moseyed back to his flock, pleased with himself. “I suppose I shouldn’t have been lured by the sweet expression?”
“It’s hard to know. Usually Ram is a bit more standoffish than that. But,” I gave him a wry smile, “that was his ‘let’s play!’ attack, not his ‘get away from my women!’ attack. He likes you.”
“Ah.” Thom glanced my way and then looked toward the ground as we picked our way to the house. “Well. He doesn’t really have to worry about that.” It was said casually enough, but still, my cheeks flamed. Suddenly, I was looking at the ground, to be sure it was I who would not stumble.
Mother read the story of Ram’s affections by the way Thom walked into the house. “We have a balm for that.” Her smile was tender. “Ben’ll show you were it is. There’s a tub, if you want a bath, though I’m afraid the water is tepid as best. You should use the balm on your muscles, too, and take a day of rest. You’ve helped more than you know, already.”
“I’ll be fine, Elisa, thank you.” Thom tried to decline her offer.
Mother raised an eyebrow. “You’ll rest this day, Thom Thorrson, or tomorrow your muscles will knot up on you and no amount of massage or balm or heat treatment will aid you. The bruise Ram has left upon your backside will be scarlet in few days time if you don’t care for yourself well. None of us have the easy lives our forebear had, but we are not so hard pressed here that we will accept aid from someone about to fall over from exhaustion and pain.” She turned back to slicing the gourds. “You’ll find the tub at the back of the house in the old bathing room. Ben will show you. Stretch gently throughout the day. Walk, a bit, but don’t push yourself. I’ll see you at dinner time.”
Thom stood in the doorway for a moment, torn it seemed between wanting to argue, and not. He was a guest here, and even he couldn’t argue that he hadn’t already earned his stay. His spirit was generous, and his work ethic strong. He wanted to help. He also could barely stand up.
“Come on,” I said, leading him toward the old bathing room. “No use arguing with her. She’s not wrong, anyway.
The old bathing room was a relic to times past. Someone at some point had taken out the flush-toilet and set, in its place, a stove and pot, for heating water in the colder months. For summer time, the water gathered in the rain barrel just outside the window served well enough. It was like enough to indoor plumbing of yore, between the ease of filling the tub, and the ease of draining it. A hole where the drain used to be ran straight down into a barrel in the cellar, gathering the water that would then be used for watering the herb garden.
“Stay?” Thom said as the water poured into the tub. “It’s been a long while since I’ve had company.” He smiled hesitantly. “Also, I’m not sure how easily I’ll manage to get up, once I’m down.” He said it lightly enough, but I read the worry in his eyes.
I wish I could tell you what we spoke of, as he washed himself clean in our tub. Small thing. Little things. We laughed and spoke and flirted gently, and I amuse myself by thinking that, as worldly as he seemed to me, he was just as uncertain as I was. Maybe. Maybe not. But, I think, yes.
He needed my help out of the tub, after all. While he washed and I talked, my mother had prepared one of the spare bedrooms for him. Fresh linen was on the bed, a tisane steaming on the bedside table, a filled lamp ready for the night, and his pack on the chair under the window. I ordered him onto the bed, and slathered my hands in the balm. “It’s going to burn, a little,” I cautioned him. “You’ll be glad for it, tomorrow,” and then I kneaded the ointment into the whole of his back, from shoulders to the tops of his thighs. He was mostly asleep when I finished.
“Drink this,” I said, holding the tisane his way. “It’ll only get worse as it cools.” He swallowed, sputtered, choked the rest down. “And this,” I said, giving him the timbleful of honey she’d left behind, “to chase away the bitter,” as he gagged at the after-taste.
He shuddered. “That was vile.”
“Medicine often is. You should stretch out for a while. I’ll come back in a little bit and we can walk before lunch, if you’d like. I could show you the farm.”
I do remember the rest of that day clearly. He slept until after lunch time – Mother’s orders – and woke stiff and sore. We toured the farm to work the kinks out of his muscles, and I told him about our farm, and our fight to reclaim it from the forest that wanted to swallow it. He asked after the rest of my kin, and I asked after his. I learned he was from a settlement within the smaller islands of the Appalachia archipelago, where New England once stood. I didn’t know much about either the archipelago or about New England, other than it was very far away. His people, he told me, were sea travelers, but he wanted to roam across the earth, not the sea, and once he reached his majority, he learned horsemanship from kin on the main island and began his journeys. It was six years ago, he said, and he’d only been back home once.
“I can’t imagine being away,” I told him. “Any longer than a fortnight, and I miss this place.”
He rubbed a hand along a nearby fence rail, and his eyes roamed over the land. Finally, he met my gaze and nodded. “I could miss a place like this,” he said.
When we returned to the house, Mother had a full spread upon the table. Roasted duck, fresh pumpkin loaded with honey and butter, bitter greens sauted and salted, and a preserve pie cooling on the counter. The table was dressed, wine was poured, and she was wearing one of her special occasion dresses. “The walk has helped,” she said with pleasure. Once we’d washed up and taken our places, Mother offered up a prayer of thanksgiving, asking God to continue to bless our home, and our guest. I saw Thom lift his hand to his mouth, kiss it, and drop back down. Silver glinted as he tucked his pendant back under his shirt.
Dinner passed, once again, with amiable small talk. We were all still tired – or sore – from the work of harvesting. Thom repeated his earlier stories for my mother, and she marveled at his far travels. He brushed aside her praise at his daring, but she persisted. “I left home, too,” she informed him. “I know how scary it can be, even with the wanderlust biting at you. Though I never aimed to go as far as you. Do you miss home?”
“I miss some of my kin, yes. But, it has been our way since the seas rose. I have brothers I haven’t seen since they ventured to the sea. Who knows what lies to the east?” His expression turned somber. “Sometimes I fear I won’t be satisfied until I’ve seen the whole of the earth. Sometimes I fear I’ve already seen too much.”
Sensing the mood had shifted, Mother deftly turned the conversation back to lighter topics, and we visited until we were drooping. I helped Thom climb his way to his bedroom. He lowered himself onto the edge of his bed, wincing. He moved like an old man, bending for his boot laces, and it was painful to watching, remembering his earlier grace.
“Here, let me,” I said, bending by his feet to unlace the strings. His fingers brushed mine, catching them against his leg. His face was so close to mine that his breath stirred my hair. I blinked, suddenly on the verge of tears, and he dropped his fingers.
“Thank you.” He grunted as he stretched out on the bed. “Tomorrow will be better. That’s what you said, yes?”
“Yes.” My voice was barely a whisper.
“I’ll want to let Shelia out for a spell, see how her leg is mending. We’ll move on in a week or so, if it’s mended.”
Her leg mended just fine, but Thom Thorsson did not move on. I don’t know if, during those first few days, he suspected he would not, or if it surprised him. What is it like, to go from wandering to being settled? How could one who had travelled so far, be so soothed by an unchanging piece of earth? But, however it could happen, it happened.
The farm claimed him as its own, plain and simple. He was all over the property: walking fence lines in order to repair them; mucking out the stalls in the barn without being told to; rebuilding the chicken coup after a second hail storm battered the roof to smithereens. He kept his own council the majority of the time, but he was always there to help, and everything he reached his hands to unfolded without any hitch. He was up before me most of the time, coming from the forest as I went to feed the animals, and we worked in silence a lot, but it was a nice, easy silence. Most of the time, anyway. Now and again he would flirt, or I’d make a bumbling attempt to flirt, but mostly we were simply together, working together, and living together.
I think, at times, that I was in love with him from the moment he slide off Shelia’s back and asked for shelter. I was oblivious, however. It took my mother pointing it out to realize that my affection for him went deeper than I could guess. “They used to kill people for it,” she told me during a rare moment alone, “can you believe that? They used to say God hated – hated! – people for loving the wrong person. Ridiculous.”
It wasn’t unheard of, and on a farm, you realize that such things are natural. Mating pairs of the same gender may not produce viable offspring, but there is more to life than producing the next generation, and, anyway, wasn’t that a part of why our ancestors had gotten into the mess they had? Women sometimes hired wet nurses when they couldn’t feed their own young; was it so different to find a woman to carry your child for you until it was born?
I’d never been in love. I’d never wanted to leave the farm. I don’t know what I thought I would do, but it never occurred to me to go looking for love, the way my sisters’ had. I didn’t need a way out, because I wanted to stay. And here, suddenly, was this beautiful man who was flourishing among my land, and the land was flourishing under his touch.
He stayed through that winter. May roared in with her typical blizzards, and by the July thaw we couldn’t wait to get planting. I showed Thom how we prepared the earth, and Mother taught him how to plant the seeds. At the end of the first day I caught him creeping down the stairs, and shamelessly I followed.
Thom was in the field when I caught up to him. He carried a pitcher of milk and a piece of oatcake with honey. He placed the food on the ground so that it was just touching the first of our many furrow, and then, incredibly, he poured the whole pitcher of milk upon the ground. He spoke under his breath, but he looked up at the sound of my gasp.
“What are you doing?” Why would he waste all that milk? Had our long winter driven him out of his mind?
His pendant dangled free from his shirt for the first time in so many months. It glinted in the starlight, silver-white against his shirt. “A prayer,” he said, calm in the face of my shock. “for a good harvest.”
A prayer. I watched the liquid as it soaked into the ground, precious white disappearing into soil turned muddy. For good harvest. He doesn’t know farming, I reminded myself, as shock kindled into tender amusement. “It is the rain that nourishes the soil, Thom. Not milk.”
Thom’s nostrils flared. He shrugged, intending it to be a casual gesture, but I marked the tightness around his eyes and named them as worry. I curbed my laughter and my shock. “God is good,” I told him solemnly, “and has little need for that which sustains us. Though I’m sure He’ll appreciate this gift, as well.” My eyes lingered on the glinting silver on the cord around his neck. “What is that?”
Thom covered the metal with his fingers. “The night is growing late,” he said instead of answering. “We should turn in.”
Matters between us were awkward for a few days after that encounter. At the time it seemed forever. Our easy chatter dried up, and Thom kept more and more to himself. Oh, he was there to work the fields with us, and tend the animals. He had become a part of our home, easily enough. He ceased seeking me out during our idle time, and his stories of his travels ceased. Time and again I caught him, in the early hours of the morning, staring off into the distance, and I imagined he might be planning to leave us, finally. Maybe the call of the road was becoming too strong for him to resist.
The road was calling, he would tell me years later, but the land’s serenade was far stronger. Our sowing went without any mishaps, and the tension between us eased considerably. There is too much to be done for ill feelings to linger too long. If his flirting was more tentative now, at least he was flirting again. I didn’t follow him when he slipped out in the early mornings or late nights. I didn’t pester him when he’d walk into the woods for hours at a time.
Our crops came in lavishly that year. First collard greens and elephant ears and the various lettuces we planted, and then radishes and carrots and other roots. By the time our tomatoes and summer squashes were unfurling upon us I realized: Thom’s crops were the most abundant. The plants were as shameless as the animals, jostling closer to him, producing the best fruit, the leafiest heads of lettuce, the sweetest, richest carrots. His plants remained free from blight or infestation. Those that my mother and I planted fared well, fared better than they had before, but Thom’s sang on the vine, it seemed. When the grain harvest rolled around, we could barely keep up with the demands, such was our yield. And his portions of the harvest, once again, won out.
Maybe there was something to the milk, after all.
“We should get married.”
Thom looked up from the sock he was darning, needle poised in hand. “Pardon?”
“Married. We should get married.” I poked at the fire, wanting the warmth it offered to seep into my bones. “Unless you don’t want to? I thought maybe . . . well.” He’d been on the farm two years at that point, and I think we all finally realized that he’d found a home with us. We’d never talked about the future, together, and our flirting hadn’t yet gone beyond affectionate snuggling and kissing.
Thom set the sock aside. For a moment, I thought he was going to reach for my hand instead, but he just sat, looking at me. I turned back to the fire, poking it harder than was strictly necessary. “I’ve never really thought about getting married,” he said slowly. “I thought – well. That doesn’t matter so much, right?” He was looking inward now, his eyes distant. “Married,” he repeated. “I would like to marry you.” He said it as though he was just discovering the truth of that. I could have felt hurt, but I decided not to. There was such wonder in his tone. And then, that guardedness that reared up from time to time. “There are some things you don’t know about me.”
There was anguish in his tone. Uncertainty. Fear. Some nights he would wake up in the middle of the night, crying. I’d hear him from my room, and rush to comfort him. We would talk until dawn arrived, but he never told me what he dreamed of. He wore that haunted look now, but he hadn’t been dreaming.
I loved this man. I loved the way our land claimed him, the way our farm opened up for him and gave him the choicest bits of itself. I loved the way our animals clamored around him, the way Ram still loved to send him flying and the way that wicked sheep pulled his strength just shy of serious harm. I loved the way Thom let him send him flying. I loved the way Sheila had become fast friends with our gelding, and the way my sisters and their families took to Thom when they came to visit. I loved being around him, I loved talking with him late into the night, about life, about the farm, about now. But he rarely talked of the past, and we never talked of the future. People plan. I know they plan. Mother and I plan, she and Father always planned and plotted their course.
I placed the poker in its holder, crossed to where Thom sat, and knelt down by his knees. I rested a hand upon his knee and took his hand with my other one. “Tell me then,” I said.
I never heard of other gods until Thom started talking.The words were halting at first, but he grew less haunted as he spoke. He told me of his family – his kith and kin, he called them – and how they’d survived on their islands after the seas rose. He told me of their gods and how they worshipped, and how they believed their gods could walk among them. He pulled his mysterious pendant from his shirt and showed me its design – a stylized tree, surrounded by seven dots that represented the worlds. Yggdrasil, he named the tree. They didn’t know the names to the worlds, though he said they once had. He told me of Thor, the god he was especially close to, though it was Thor’s father Odin whom his family claimed as progenitor. “So, I suppose you could say Thor is like a big brother,” Thom said with a small grin. He spoke to me of a life lived in the shadow of the sea and always, always yearning for green. “I wanted land,” he said. “I wanted to be settled on solid ground. So, I left.”
The story wasn’t all that different from what he’d shared with me before, but there was more of him in it. More of his spirit, of his heart. He spoke of omens and traveling alone, with only Sheila and his god for comfort. His free hand traveled to the pendant he wore, and he wrapped his fingers around it as though it could give him strength. Maybe it did.
I want to say that I believed him, then, but I didn’t. Oh, I believed that he had the experiences he had, and I believed that his family had gods other than the god my mother’s folk knew. But I grew up learning about god from my mother and my mother’s folk, and he was not at all like the gods Thom spoke of. I did listen to him, and as he spoke he grew more confident. I wondered all over again what haunted him, that he’d wake up crying out, that he would speak so hesitantly to me of these things.
This was a turning point between us. He ceased sneaking out in the wee hours; instead he strode forth with the food and drink he set out for his gods – libations, he called them – in plain sight. Mother was curious at first, but she only asked polite questions and left him to it. We said our prayers and he said his prayers, and that was that.
We were wed in December the following year, three years after his arrival. It was a large affair, in part to give people the excuse to gather together and socialize. My sisters and their families came. Our neighbors from around the farm came. As eldest in our household, Mother officiated, recording our vows to one another, and adding Thom to the register of our household. We feasted well into the night, and I’m sorry to say that our wedding night itself past in a haze of exhaustion. We made up for it the following morning. Guests and neighbors remained for a number of days to a few weeks, but slowly they went back to their homes and their lives, and soon enough it was just Thom, my mother, and I alone on our farm. Routine claimed us.
Years went by, and our farm flourished. Not only did we have enough to set by for ourselves, but we had plenty to share, and we always seemed to have enough hands, so that nothing would be wasted. We would host canning parties, and then distribute the extra to those in need. Thom spent time with his beloved Thor, and over time I realized that his Thor was looking out for us. Thom would speak of Thor, and share the few scant stories gathered by his ancestors, and his whole being would come alive. Now and then I would feel jealousy – both because of the warm way in which Thom spoke of Thor, but also because I wanted to know this god. He spoke of Thor in a way that not even Aunt Ruthan spoke of our god. The love he felt, the adoration, the devotion and affection that one only needed to look at our lush farm to see was returned. I wanted to be a part of that.
Over time Thor also became part of our family. Quietly, for Thom was always quiet, always unobtrusive. He set up what he called a ve for the god in one of the further pastures. He placed some special objects atop our dresser in our bedroom and kept an oil lamp there for the god. Thor came in rather like Thom himself had come into our lives: one day he wasn’t there, the next day he was at our table, and it seemed like he had always been.
I saw Thor’s presence in the eyes and hands of my husband. I saw his influence all around us, and I knew he was there, but I never saw the god myself. I never felt him directly.
Four years after our wedding, Mother grew ill. Hers was a lingering illness, but she didn’t suffer much, or so she claimed. She died just before our fifth anniversary, and it was the lowest point of my life thus far.
The farm came to us, as we knew it would. My sisters came with their husbands, and we buried Mother next to Father in the valley’s cemetery, two days’ ride from our farm. Thom stayed behind to tend the farm, as we had no children to care for it in our absence. I think that was when we both realized we wanted children. It was salve to ward off death, something to focus on rather than Mother’s empty chair.
That December Thom set up what he called an ancestor shrine, and we began honoring our beloved dead with libations similar to what he offered Thor. Just before winter set in, a guest arrived. Lucianne was one of my sister’s sister by marriage, a woman just a few years older than I was, with a family of her own. She was a kind woman, and we had no way of expecting her, just, suddenly there she was at our door one night. She’d traveled the distance by foot and arrived winded and tatttered, and wearing two awful bruises upon her face. I’d never seen Thom angry, until that point. He seemed to swell, seemed to take up the whole doorway. When he spoke, his voice was gentle. Lucianne’s face crumpled in distress, and Thom had her in his arms before I even understood what was happening.
That was the beginning of Sanctuary Farm. We took Lucianne in and set her to mending. Like everything else, Thom took to this task as if he’d been born to it. She remained in bed for a few days, and then was about the house, cooking for us, tending the house while we looked after the land. She settled into the farmhouse like she’d always been there, and that would prove to be true for the rest of the folk who came seeking shelter. That winter it was just the three of us. I think it was good for all of us. Tending Lucianne gave me something to think about rather than Mother’s death, and Lucianne filled the house with laughter. She told us only once that her husband used to be a good man, and that was all she would say about it.
Sage arrived next, a man in his sixties with a smoker’s cough and a lattice work of scars across his back. He came from the northern wilds, he said. We didn’t press beyond that. Allendrea came after Sage, and then Glory, and then Rebekah, and Douglas, and Arria, and Navarre, and soon men, women, and children of all ages were arriving, running from pain, from hunger, from abuse. I wept to see such pain in the world. Thom bent to the task, as he always did. Our surplus would not last long with these many mouths to feed.
We reclaimed more of the old farmland from the forest. Some folks stayed for weeks or months, or sometimes years. Sometimes trouble followed them to our sanctuary, but we were ready. Thom seemed to know no fear, and he would stand his ground at the threshold of our property, his blade on his hip, and one of our carpentry hammers in his hand. He was immense in those moments, terrifying in his stillness. Only once did the confrontation come to blows. A young girl of ten found her way to us. I don’t know how she knew to find us. I never knew how any of them knew to find us, come to that. She arrived much like Lucianne had years before, winded, her clothing tattered, her skin mottled. She wouldn’t speak, and wouldn’t let anyone save Thom near her for hours. Finally, as dawn approached he was able to coax her to go with Lucianne and Arria. He shooed them into the house, closed the door behind them, and strode to the barn. “He’s following her,” was all he said to me.
My heart went chill.
Thom waited at the edge our land, atop Shelia, who was going gray in the muzzle. When the man following the girl – her father or older brother, I assume – saw Thom, he paused. Thom wore his blade openly, and held the hammer across his arms. Sitting calmly as the man approached, Tom looked majestic. He looked threatening. But the fool man shook off the awe he had to have felt and kept coming.
Thom tried talking. The man swung first, I’ll admit that. His punch landed easily when Thom made no move to defend himself, and the entire land sucked in a breath. The whole air felt heavy, just for a moment, and then Thom moved and the stillness was shattered. Bone was broken, blood was shed, and the troublemaker limped away, trembling with his fear. When Thom came to our bed that night he shook as much as the troublemaker had, and I saw death in his eyes. I saw rage. I saw fierce protection that would not quit until the very last breath of life had been driven from his body. I embraced him and held him close. I was not frightened of my husband; I never would be.
And so the years passed. A decade. Two. Four. We took in those as they came to us, offering shelter and food and respite from the world that was so changed from our ancestors’ days, and yet, not at all. We had lean times – it wasn’t all bountiful, but our lean times never touched the times I’d known as a child. We had our ups and downs, in life, in harvest, but we always had enough – enough to feed others, enough to see us through. We offered some of our bounty to the gods, always giving as we were given. We kept the Holy Tides that Thom introduced to us as well as adopting those of others who came our way, while they were with us. We were truly, truly blessed, and I know our blessings arrived the year Thom found us.
He was sixty eight the year he fell. It was a simple enough fall, a simple enough break, and we had enough hands in the house to care for him while the leg mended. But fever set it, and infection, and it took all our medical knowledge to keep him alive. I was terrified, and suddenly it was the first season he’d been with us, when the thought of him leaving made me want to weep. I prayed. I begged, and I pleaded, and my husband grew more and more thin as he fought off the infection.
He was going to leave. I knew it in the very bottom of my soul. I sat with him throughout that day, reading to him, telling him stories, wiping his brow with cool water in the bedroom that was our entire life. When he dropped into the sleep that I just knew would be his last I kissed his forehead, squeezed his hand, and glanced at the shrine that had shared our bedroom from our entire life together. “You fix this,” I told his Thor. “It is not yet his time, this is not how he is to go, you fix this.”
A silence descended upon the house, a stillness that harkened back to that time in the woods, a lifetime ago, and I held my breath. I knew Thor heard me. I knew my husband’s gods were present, and they would not take him from me like this. I wasn’t ready to be alone. Life without Thom was going to be no life at all.
The fever was gone by morning. The heavy silence that wrapped around me remained. It pressed in alongside me. The following evening, after all the others had retired, I made my way to our porch. I carried with me a pitcher of cider and the last of the lamb roast from dinner. I’d planned on bringing it to the ve across the pasture, but I paused on the porch, looking toward the tree across the yard. Someone stood there, cloaked in the growing dark, and it seemed, from where I stood, that all the weight from the silence gathered around me reached toward the figure.
It was a man under the tree, though, also, not. As I grew closer his face became clearer, despite the growing dark. He work his hood up, and had a grim set to his mouth. He looked as travel weary as half our supplicants, but he stood ramrod straight, and his gaze was piercing. I cannot tell you, even now, how I knew he was one of the old gods. He wasn’t Thor, I knew that as well. There was, in this moment, nothing warm or generous or giving in this dour god. He regarded me as I crossed the few feet between us, and the weight drove me to the ground. I thought of my words earlier, and I thought of all that these gods had given us, and I thought of my husband, recovering in our bed, on the mend, finally finally on the mend. Terror and sorrow and shame and guilt and awe seized me, and I seized the hem of his tattered robe, and pressed my lips to it as I pressed my abject apologies to him.
He tolerated this for all of a moment before hands took ahold of me and pulled me to my feet. “Enough of that, son,” he said. His voice . . . oh, that voice. “On your feet. There’s work yet ahead of you.”
Dour? How could I have thought this . . . man . . . to be dour. Laughter twinkled in his eyes, and the crow’s feet around them spoke of frequent mirth. “I – “
“Love your husband with the fierceness we often feel for our mates, yes. Do you think we begrudge you your fierce protection and claim?” He regarded me, and shook his head. “No. We’ve never been the sort who were afraid of our own showing us their mettle. Those were never our fears. However,” and now the mirth dropped away, “you are now clearly in our debt, are you not?”
“Have I not been, all this time? At whose hand has this land thrived so?”
His hand patted my shoulder hard enough to make me stumble. I felt, in that moment, like a boy again, spending time with my father. I blinked at the memory and cleared my throat. “Just so,” he said. “Just so. But now, Benjamin Fairfield Thorsson, you know it. Now, son, you see us. And you are ours, as much as your husband has always been. You will honor that, henceforth, and not rely so much on your husband to carry your weight in this. Now, come with me. You’ll need these plants to speed along Thom’s recovery. . .”
“Odin,” Thom said smugly when I told him about the encounter the following day. The tisane was steeping by the bedside. “Had to have been. I’ve met the Old Man a time or two. It can be unsettling.”
Which was one way of putting it.
“Might not be the last time you see him. He tends to . . . meddle.”
“He can meddle all he wants, so long as we get you well again.”
Thom did mend, though his leg was never quite right after the break. He stays closer to the house itself that he used to, and we make ourselves useful looking after it while stronger hands and backs tend the fields and the animals. We are quite content to spend our twilight years with our patchwork family and guests. It pleases me that this land has provided such good for people in such need, that it has gone from barely allowing us to survive on it to providing for so many people, in my lifetime. I think of my father, working tirelessly on the land, and I think of my grandfather and his grandfather, and I have to think: they would be proud.
[Jolene Dawe is a polytheist devoted to Poseidon and Odin. She is the author of Treasures from the Deep, a collection of Poseidon’s myths retold, and The Fairy Queen of Spencer’s Butte and Other Tales. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, a small horde of cats, one small dog, and three spunky spinning wheels. You can find her online at http://thesaturatedpage.wordpress.com%5D