“Instead of stressed I lie here charmed
‘Cause there’s nothing else to do.”
Far away I dwelt in the place of my ancestors, the place of the earth and its whisperings and bones, where the trees grow twisted and thick, their bark scaly and rough as dragon’s skin. In this place, to which my children had been born and from which my children had been stolen, I stayed.
Far away my children have been taken, to places I cannot go: to darkened caves and deepest seas, to the place where the dead live. I cannot go for I must stand here, the Chief of Chiefs and hagia, Mother of Villages and King of Clans – titles which I won with blood; responsibilities more binding than chains.
Far away my consort is chained in cave with nothing but his grief – and yes, his younger, gentler child-bride to keep him company, feed him and wipe him clean. In the cave she wails and weeps and bemoans my absence – a little girl who does not understand the breadth of the burden I have hoisted onto my shoulders. If she thinks the love and duty of a mother is insurmountable she is correct but blind, for she cannot see that such love is but a molehill to the mountain of that which I carry.
Often I have longed to go, though if I could – if I could go far from here, my home, the place where I was born, the place where I was young, where I shed my blood and won, where I birthed my children, where I will someday die and be consumed by the earth which knows me – it would not be to His side. No – it would be to the sides of the children He gave me: a serpent, magic and eternal, languishing far below the waves; a wolf, immense and wild and brimming with vice, hidden away where He can do no harm…
And my daughter. Perhaps I would go to my beautiful daughter, the only little girl I’ve ever born. I remember that day, the marble of Her white skin and the pink pucker of Her lips, the ivory of Her bones. For all my struggle, for all my screaming and the rending of my body, for all the sweat upon my skin and the blood I brought into the world with Her, She was quiet and calm and small, a cooing pup in my arms. I miss the scent of Her dark hair, which was sweet like the little pink buds of wild roses. But no – I will see Her when I have died and She is welcoming me to live in Her hall. She would not wish to see me before that day, in Her Land of the Dead.
It was when I was absent from my post that my children were stolen from me. I was far away, then, unable to stay the hands that sacked my home. When I returned it was with blood on my teeth and bile burning in my stomach – sickening, that feeling of having your babe ripped from the teat, their cradle emptied, their sibling’s nighttime whispers replaced by solemn silence in the dark. I wanted to go – I wanted to wage war for my children, but my thirst was calmed and quieted. Allegiances were still in place, my people were in shock and not ready to rush head-long into war, and I myself was weak and weary from my unfortunate travels: now was not the time for war. The time for war would come.
Numb. For a while I was numb, sitting in the hagia’s chair before my hall, the eyes of my people upon me and frightened to see their Chief’s skin so pale, cheeks so hollow, eyes so distant.
They had rendered me helpless – they made me weak. I could not protect my own blood from them and I could not protect my consort from them.
What is a girl to do?
A girl is to shrug it off and persist: pick herself up out of the ashes and march forward through the day, fight through the dreams that come in sleep, and march forward again through one more day. A girl is to go on winning battles, settling disputes, leading and feeding her people; listening to the chiefs of the clans when they come before Her to air their grievances, assigning homes to the orphans whom battle, sickness and famine leave behind, burying the dead. A girl whose hide is not thick is not fit to bear the titles I bear, for the children they have stolen from my arms (making me weak – the Mother of Wolves belittled) are not my only children; the beloved they have snatched from me (neutering me, Guardian of the Iron Wood) is not my only beloved.
I was not born to care for a man, be he free or be he chained. I was born to care for villages. It is to them I answer, to them I offer my claws and my fangs and my teat.
They are my children.
They are my beloved.
No – I cannot go. Brief moments I will allow myself to weep – when no one will hear, when no one will see how I hold myself in the absence of my beloved and my children who would hold me if they could. These moments are rare, and they are fleeting. In them I can see through the fabric of the world, through the veils it throws up, and I can see Him bound and burned. I can taste the iron of blood on my wolf son’s tongue and I can smell the dim dankness of a cave dripping with stale water and gathering endless mounds of shit and rivers of piss. I can feel the ice of the sea filling my lungs and the water crushing on my skin down where my endless Jǫrmungandr dwells, feasting, writhing, tossing up waves to drown islands. I see my beloved bound and burned, the chains upon his arms and legs still glistening like the child’s intestines from which they were formed.
Seeing these things, I turn away and bite my cheek to keep from crying out. I bite until it bleeds. My hide is made from tougher stuff than this.
Sometimes I softened my heart for His other children – His Narvi and his Vali. I would be cruel, a monster, were I not to mourn for those boys whose lives and minds were taken from them, taken by the same who took my children and beloved from me. If I am a monster, I am not this kind of monster. Some moments I mourn Their miserable fates and in these moments my heart mourns for Their mother. What must it be to watch your children be tortured and murdered? I remember, then, we are a family torn asunder…
It is good, I sometimes admit, that He had Her. She, who is far better at tending Him than I would have been, had I been able to be at His side. She can curse me, my absence, the wicked children which crawled out of my womb –
– and I will spit at Her feet. Yet, still, so long as She remains, He will not always suffer. For this I allow myself to be grateful.
Once these mournful moments are through I cast them aside and I continue on. I continue on for my people, walking among these trees which I know, feeling beneath my hardened feet the earthen paths worn smooth as marble by the use of years immemorial. The air is ripe with the scent of budding leaves in spring and falling leaves in autumn; leaves decaying beneath the snow and the ice of winter, the soil drying and cracking in summer. You can taste it, if you care enough to try: the vibration on the air that is life, that is spirit, that is magic. And if you are quiet, you can hear the trees speak: they whisper their stories to one another in tones of rustling leaves and creaking limbs; they sing to the skies, to gods older than He or I – to all that is forgotten by the hearts of mere men. It is here I stay. I do not plan on leaving again.
I allow myself to be grateful as I move among the people of the Iron Wood – my children and my beloved – the people they have spat upon. They are a people of the earth and of the forest; a people living in halls formed by the cavernous roots of trees old enough to have witnessed the birth of the gods, living among their branches and wizened trunks. They are a people with limbs twisted and faces broken, backs hunched and skulls misshapen. I walk among them and I see their eyes, a thousand glowing colors, watching me walk. They are shape-shifters and dream-walkers, warriors and myth-makers. Monsters, they call these – my children, my people.
I am the Mother of Monsters. They say I am a monster myself. Perhaps I am. And if I am, at least I do not deny it. What blood I spill I claim. What bones I break, what homes I burn I never hide: you will find no lies nor trickery here. It is this, perhaps, which makes me the monster I am.
I walk this ancient forest where I listen to the whispers of the trees, where the soil knows my tread. If I could go to Him, my beloved, my consort, father to my children, where He lies bound and burned, awash in His wife’s salty tears, I would not. What rests upon my shoulders here binds me with bonds I would never dare break.
[Tahni J. Nikitins is a student of Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. In fall her essay “The Deconstruction of Narrative Framing in David Markson’s ‘Wittgensteins’s Mistress'” will be published through the department of comparative literature’s annual journal Nomad and she plans on finishing her degree in Sweden. Some of her fiction and poetry 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.]