“All of us who dare to love are brave.”
— S.J. Tucker
There is a cave. It is hidden far away from here. In this cave there is darkness, but there is also light. There is a tree with leaves like crystal which grows in the absence of Sunna, and there is a pool of brackish water that will always take you where you need to go. There are three people in this cave: myself, my husband, and you, our guest.
Before you came here you had imagined this cave to be a nexus of physical and psychological torture. It once was. Perhaps it still is, on occasion. Or perhaps we have simply grown accustomed to it. The things the body and the mind can adapt to.
What do you think? Does it not now radiate a near perfect stillness? A near perfect calm?
The first time I came to this cave, I came having forgotten the meaning of stillness; the meaning of calm. I came not knowing my own intentions, knowing only that I would find my husband trapped here. For months I had left him alone in this place while I wandered, feeling the earth quake beneath my feet as though with great, wracking sobs. I, however, was hardly aware of those tremors. For me, you see, the world had already shattered.
I had buried my youngest son, my cherished. A lucky some can know what it is to feel a love so fiercely it feels as though it might consume you like fire and leave you little more than ash. It is a rare few, however, who have known that ferocity of love and watched its object slaughtered.
Those who had brought this upon me watched a moment, perhaps two, while I crawled in the snow and gathered what was left of my child into my arms, my throat raw from the screaming. But They did not watch long. Even They could not bear further witness to the things they had wrought. They turned their backs and left me in the snow, rocking my son while the night chilled his skin.
Often I have wondered if this was Their intent, or if they had planned something different entirely – some punishment for all of us, as though we united were responsible for my husband’s actions; if They abandoned the notion when They saw me crawling in the blood-melted snow.
I was not entirely alone when I went into the woods. I felt Her following, heard Her footsteps in the snow, though She said nothing. She, too, had buried a son, and not so long ago. When, far into the forest I knelt in the snow, She knelt beside me, and helped me to burry mine.
Though I did not speak to Her, nor even acknowledge Her (I couldn’t…I simply couldn’t) She bore witness as I bound that patch of now forgotten forest to guard the place where my son lay buried. I wove the trees with promises like fetters and then I took my leave.
She left me to my mourning as it took me deeper into the ice laden woods, and for that I loved Her. I was numb to it then, but my heart was soft for Her, perhaps even warm for Her, the woman who helped me burry my son, Their very own queen. It was, still is, a very quiet, solemn love, placid and easily forgotten.
With my baby buried I sought His killer in the frozen forest into which He had fled: my firstborn, my beloved. No one came for me. I was left to my wandering, my futile search for the child whose mouth I could still feel suckling at my breast, so vivid was the memory.
He’d been so serious, so grave, yet He looked so much like His father, with red hair and sky-blue eyes. Right down to the freckles He’d looked like His father, who had a bottomless well of jokes and stories and laughter and smiles hidden inside Him. But His son, His look-a-like son, never told jokes and the stories with which He entertained His brother were always somber compared to his father’s. His smiles were precious, they had become so rare. It was as if He knew, as if He had always known.
In the forest I screamed His name. The forest responded with silence.
The haze of the pain began one evening to lift, as pain often does for no particular reason. As I hugged myself, shivering in the woods, I was able to see through that pain for the first time. I remembered that such pain could not be possible without first being lost in the rapture of love. I remembered there was still one left whom I loved like that, and I knew I needed to go to Him.
But when I returned, my feet blistered and burnt from the snow, the pain, a shape-shifter, had once again become something else. I stepped out of the winter and into the deep darkness of the cave where They had hidden Him (out of sight and out of mind) and was warmed from the inside, by a fire that could leave all the world ashes.
I found my husband bound beneath a tree, a serpent entangled in its branches, its fangs leaking acidic venom. He was burning and screaming, His beautiful face, neck, and chest covered in terrible blisters and welts. I forgot about loving Him. I saw before me the man whose recklessness had led to the madness and death of our children. I spit on Him.
“Look at all you have wrought!” I screamed with a voice rough from disuse – so many weeks I had wandered in silence after it left me. “For your arrogance our sons have paid with mind and life! For your arrogance I buried my child in the snow! And still I return.”
I did the cruelest thing I could think of: I saved Him. I found a bowl and I knelt beside Him, catching the dripping venom. Holding that wide basin aloft, I alleviated His pain so with a clear mind He could look upon the face of the woman He loved, the woman whose children had suffered and died for what He had done.
A hate like that can’t go on forever. It burns away all in its path until there’s nothing left for it to consume. It burns itself out and when it’s gone, it’s very strange indeed.
Eventually His burns healed. While the blisters and the welts slowly crusted and flaked away, while the scars faded, I continued to hold the bowl. Only minutes into my newfound way of living my arms began to ache. Within an hour they shook so badly the captured venom sloshed over its rim and gnawed the stone floor it spattered on.
Once the venom splashed on my creaking wrists and I cried out and dropped the bowl. It spilled across the cave floor and the drip resumed on Loki’s face but as I scrambled for the bowl He bit His lips and closed His eyes and didn’t utter a single cry. Pushing against the searing in my arms, I lifted the bowl once again. I gritted my teeth against the agony of it, as Loki had gritted his teeth moments before, and I went on holding the bowl.
In all this time He did not speak. He only stared toward the black spring, still as the stone upon which He lay and just as silent.
By the time His scars healed the pain in my arms had overwhelmed itself – much as my well-tended hatred was about to, so I could no longer feel it save as a distant, numbed pressure.
Looking at His still beautiful face, at the faint scars around His lips and the boyish freckles on His cheeks, I saw His tears for the first time.
He hadn’t had the luxury of burying His own son – it was Frigga who helped to break the frozen ground in which He lay. Nor had He been able to wander with me through the forest, searching for the other. They were gone from Him and He would never be able to put them to rest and there was no one to blame but Himself. No one, that is, save for the ones He had loved, called kith and kin.
Under the weight of our shared silence, I began to forgive Him. I sat up straight beside Him, my spine cracking as I did. I renewed the vigor with which I held that bowl. But I never would forget.
For so long I sat with Him and the silence, forging forgiveness, sitting with memories.
And there are so many memories…
Memories of a blazing hearth, warming the room in which I crouch on a bed, my husband at my back, His fingers nearly crushed in my grasp as I bear down, teeth grinding and tongue screaming. Memories of delivering a baby boy, perfect with ten fingers and toes, with big, blue eyes and a tuft of tawny red hair. He would look like His father when He was grown. Perhaps Sunna would even kiss Him with the same freckles…
That night I held my son and named his Vali. My husband held us both and we were warm and brimming while my son suckled and my husband cradled me, head rested against my shoulder. I wept, for the immensity of such love almost tore me in two.
There were others. There were always others – always Angrboda, the first, and more…but I could live with that, because He would always return to me and we would be…
…like children in the snow, pelting each other with snowballs and building snow people and carving designs in the ice and laughing all the while –
…telling stories and singing songs by the hearth with our son, making shadows on the wall dance and shiver with delight, making our beautiful child squeal with laughter –
…lovers in the rain, making magic with our bodies, wondering at each other’s divinity and scars and beauty, conceiving a perfect, tiny little thing, so much like me this time, with dark hair and green eyes –
…naming him Narvi –
…sleeping in a bed built for kings, overflowing with thick, lush furs, our two sons nestled between us…
When I remembered the force with which I had once loved I cried for the first time in this cave.
He turned to me and for the first time in all those years He spoke, His voice hushed and raw from disuse. I wanted to kiss Him, to lay my head on His chest, but I couldn’t. Not without putting down the bowl. He depended on me, on my arms which had become strong in this trial. When I could not maintain this, when I had to empty the bowl or if I were to lean down and kiss Him…
He depended on me.
Me, because I was the only one who had come to Him.
Angrboda had not come to so much as see Him – Angrboda, of whom He’d always spoken fondly and with a wistful sort of mischief – the Hag of Iron Wood, the wise woman who had taken Him as Her consort. The mythic witch Angrboda, who never came to see what had become of our husband…
I hated her for that, once. I hated her just as I hated those who had taken my sons. But I didn’t anymore. Weeping beside my husband, unable to kiss Him, only to hold His pain at bay, I realized that I no longer had an ounce of hate left.
No longer did I hate Odin for commanding this – Odin who, in His way, had been like a father to me.
No longer did I hate Skadi for hanging the damned viper out of reach, enchanted and wicked with its venom.
No longer did I hate Thor, who had once traveled far and wide with Loki as a brother, who lead the war party which had hunted Him down.
And how I had hated every one of them, silently listing their names in my mind and all the horror I would have done to them, reciting it like a prayer. No longer could I find it in me to make that bitter list.
No more. The hate had burned itself out and I had become simply…tired.
And so I wept, and softly Loki spoke to me. Through my sobs His words reached me, and they made me cry all the harder. But at last my tears, too, burned themselves out, so I was left sitting, shuddering in the silence once again, for Loki had run out of soft things to say.
Then, quietly, gently: “Sigyn?” His voice came to me as though in a dream.
“My beloved?” It was all I could think of to say after so many silent years.
A wry grin formed on his lips, framed by the beard which had grown on his once clean-shaven face. “Do you remember when I was a hero for a day?” I could not help the soft smile that bloomed on my weary face as I looked upon Him. I knew the day of which He spoke: the day He had saved a farmer’s son from one of His own when neither Odin nor Hnir had been able to.
“Which time?” I asked softly.
For the first time since we had come to this place our eyes met, and for a moment we sat still in the silence. Then He smiled.
When I married this man I knew what I was getting myself into, despite all my youth. The beauty and heroism I saw in Him did not blind me to everything else, though I had not foreseen the extent to which this insanity would go.
I knew how people regarded me as His wife. I heard the things They had said, both to my face and behind my back. I did not care because what I had was far more real than They were. And when He gave me two beautiful sons I laughed at Them, pitied Them even, for They couldn’t understand.
Now my only hope to meet my sons again is in Hela’s realm.
Now I can no longer kiss my husband, nor hold Him, nor make love to Him. All that exists between us is the memory of touch. All that needs to exist are those memories and the fleeting words in which they live, and the solemn determination not to drown in all that has come to pass.
Remember that as you go, and think me not a bitter woman. Remember me mourning, but also remember me laughing. Remember me raging, but also remember me forgiving. Remember me harsh, and remember me tender.
But mostly, remember me loving, as I shall forever be.
[Tahni J. Nikitins is beginning to lose track of how long she has been a practicing pagan, but she believes that it’s been somewhere around eight years. She recently became a devotee of Loki, but continues to work with deities and spirits from many pantheons. She often honors the deities and spirits she works with by telling stories for and about them in her art and writing. Some of her work has been featured in Huginn, Lilith: Queen of the Desert and Unto Herself: A Devotional Anthology for Independent Goddesses. She often shares snippets of writing at tahnijnikitins.deviantart.com.]