“What We Are Remembered For” by Paul Crenshaw
The funerals are always in winter.
The grey sky rolls in like thunder, and the waves beat at the rocks. Hilde, when she was here, collected the colored rocks on days the horizon disappeared into the mist and the storms howled over the ocean. You cannot hear in winter and the wind never sounds like laughter. The brush—the only thing that grows here besides peat—stunts itself in the wind, and at night the clouds fly like ragged scraps of cloth across the face of an angry moon.
That’s when they come. The old dragon ships, rowing across the waves, tossed about as they slide up the surf onto the shelf. For a time, from a distance, the old oars moving in rhythm, you can remember our history. The axes and swords and shields. The howling of the berserkers.
But once the prows of the ships slide onto the shelf, there are no warriors to swarm over the gunwales. No howling men full of drink and rage, come a-viking through the winter world.
Instead, the ship grounds itself and the old, the enfeebled, come out. Men who were warriors long ago, and the women who waited for them, watching the western horizon of the grey ocean from countless widow’s walks, or standing in the ice-cold at water’s edge.
Wandering west, they call it. They leave from here, not in the dragon ships, but in the small karves I shape from the stunted trees. They lay side by side, man and woman, and we shove them off. The tide takes them. They say, in their last words, with their kinsmen—fewer and fewer each year—standing near, that they go once again to the sea, once again to the west, where the old tales speak of glory.
West, where the warriors wait in the halls of the dead.
Some nights I wonder if we are only the stories we tell.
We call this island Byllknyr, which means the beginning, though it is not a beginning, but an ending. A final stop, before the last long sailing west. It is a tiny place—an hour’s walk across in any direction. There is not much to look at: the low trees, rock, a bit of peat and some sea grasses. My house sits in the middle of the island, near enough to the water to drag the karves once they are finished. It takes a full day to sail here from the other islands, Faering and Halfner and big Islyn, where most of our people—the few hundred who are left—live now.
As a child I remember winter storms, spring rains, my father carving and scraping and sanding the little ships. I did not know then what purpose the ships—karves, we call them—served. Nights we sat before the fire, either my mother telling old tales from the sagas, or my father telling his own tales of the islands and mainland beyond Byllknyr. Some nights, when he got into his cups and began the tales of the lands beyond the islands, where the old men once sailed with ax and sword and shield, there came into his voice such a longing I could hardly stand to hear it, and he could hardly stand to speak. These nights he left the little house and went out in the cold to stare at the stars, and I wondered then if he was trying to navigate himself across some unknown world where the stars were no longer recognizable because the world has changed.
Seeing the longing in him, I wanted to follow in his footsteps, as all children wish to follow their father’s glory. I knew there must be something out there to stir such fierce remembrance. I wanted to see the fjords and the ice cliffs he spoke of, the green lands they say Eric found many years ago. I wanted to set sail with others my age, bearing sword and shield. To ground our dragon ships and come howling over the mainland, to find the old monasteries and rich cities to the south, to bring back gold and gems and jewels.
But I never left.
I spent each summer, as my father had, crafting the karves. By the time I was large enough to help my father, the old men were leaving these shores, and the men my age who sailed to foreign lands did so to settle, not to conquer. They carried sheep and goats instead of sword and shield, and they never returned. After a while, I began to understand the longing my father felt.
My father taught me well how to build the little karves, and when I had all the skill he knew to teach, he sailed in one he had built himself. My mother went with him. None of the old warriors were there to watch, only Hilde and me, for she had come by then, although she stood off a distance and did not speak. I pushed them off. My mother and father lay side by side in the bottom of the boat. The tide dragged them out. That night was the first Hilde slept under my blankets, the first of many things that happened between us, but before that, as the night rolled in with the returning tide, I stood under the stars and wondered what the future held, for the night seemed bleak and dark and I did not know in which direction our world would turn.
I took over crafting the ships. It is one of the last few traditions we have. It is not much honor, but it is all that is left to me.
Even with Hilde here, I thought of leaving, sailing south to the mainland to raid and pillage. I would take her with me, for she is as fierce as any man I have ever met. But when the harsh winters come, only a fool would set sail. Then spring rolls in and the first peat blooms, and then the little flowers that last only a few days. Even Hilde liked the spring. The stunted brush greens ever brighter, and the red berries bud. A few birds make land here, and the sea grass bends in the breeze.
And when spring comes like a warm breath and summer follows like a forge, when the land is full and warm and the birds go flying against the wind, we forget. Until winter comes again, and the dragon ships land on the shelf.
Then I recall how winter has always been a lonely time. I suspect that is why they go together, the men and women. Sometimes, they do not, and this seems worse, somehow.
My father’s father built the little house.
For hundreds of years, our men had gone a-viking, roaming across the land, settling the green lands and the ice lands and raiding the warm lands to the south, leaving behind these cold islands. But out there beyond the sea the world changed them. Those who left did not return, either dying, or choosing instead to settle in warmer climes. Our numbers here on these dotted islands far to the north dwindled.
The last men who had sailed out of the fjords and into the world grounded their dragon ships and hung up their axes. They had grown old out there, beyond the curve of the horizon, and many of them died. The ones who came back found that without the sailing into the summer worlds south of us, the winter grew grey indeed.
My greatfather came to Byllknyr after his viking days. He thought it a great place to sail off to the final west, and one day, after my father had returned from his own viking days—shorter and less glorious though they were—he did. My father had a wife then, and he took over. All through summer he shaped the karves from the stunted trees. And then in winter the dragon ships came and the elders, one by one, went sailing west.
By the time I was born, the viking days had ended. The ships, paint peeling now, wood splitting, only rowed between islands. A glorious summer, they called the viking days, wedged between winter.
I do not know.
But my father’s father did one thing more before sailing off to the western lands. He had seen our dwindling numbers, the men who sailed into the world and left our customs, our land, behind. The women who sometimes followed them, or hurled themselves from the fjords out of loneliness.
He was afraid our people—at least the tiny portion stacked on these islands—would die out.
So he arranged for a wife from another small isle, and lay with her until she gave him a son. The custom caught on. When his son was old enough, my greatfather found him a wife as well. My father and mother were both children then, and my father once told me, before they sailed west together, that for the first years of their marriage she fought him, scratching and biting when he came near her, until finally they grew weary of the fight and came together as one.
We did not prosper, but we maintained. Sons and daughters were born even while the old raiders were hanging up their shields. The dragon ships were grounded, or only dragged out to pass between the islands, and no farther.
The long winter set in. For many of the older men, the winter was too long. Too many cold nights sitting before the fire with a strong cup of mead, and then another, and another, until one’s deeds could be recalled in full detail, and, perhaps, grow in the telling. For, I have come to realize, no man wishes his deeds to die. No man wishes his people to die either, and this is where the conflict arises. Sometimes even the laughter of greatchildren cannot drown out the howling wind, which seems like a calling once more to the sea.
When the winters grew too long and the nights came in too cold, when the wind howled over the serried shelves at ocean’s edge, some of the men rose from the fire and walked out into the grey morning. They spoke of it as one last journey.
They came to my greatfather, the last shipbuilder. They asked for a small boat, a karve, not much different from a funeral pyre. I imagine when the first one came my greatfather threw back his head and laughed, saying “You will not get beyond the horizon in a karve.” Then, I imagine him falling silent as he realized what the other man was asking.
I cannot decide if the first funeral was a magnificent or somber event. If there was drinking and old songs of battle, a huge fire burning oceanside to beat back the coming darkness, to try to curtail the coldness of the wind. It would have been bitterly cold that day, as it always is in winter here, and they may have only stood in the wind and watched.
The man, whose name I shall not utter, for it is ill to speak of those sailed west by their truename, would have stood watching the grey clouds on the horizon. At some point, he would have decided it was time. He would have taken his wife’s hand and led her to the karve. He would have climbed in after her, after he had pushed into the crashing waves. Some of them might have sang, as if they were going into battle again.
The people on shore watched until the karve disappeared over the horizon. I always wonder what they thought. I assume they must have seen the day coming for them when they too would sail west.
In my reveries, I wish for a setting sun for them to sail into, but I have lived here long enough to know better. The sun hides in winter, and there is no sunset.
When I was no more than eight or nine I found my father’s axes in the bottom of a wooden chest. With them were his armor, studded with rings, his helm shaped like a hawk. The axes were still sharp, curved like half-moons. I took them out into the yard and swung them around my head, pretending. Galledon, Valenciennes, lands farther south—my father had raided them all, and I imagined storming wooden palisades. I imagined the great cities of dark Kirth, shimmering of jade, of alabaster and marble, rising up from the great plains.
On rare occasions—I remember two, maybe three times—the old warriors gathered on the island for the celebration of the long night. They spent all morning chopping the stunted trees, and as night fell they built a bonfire. All through the long night they stood in the firelight and drank, telling stories. It is said the old warriors lived only for the present—the rowing of the dragon oars and the beating of the drums—but the men I knew lived only in the past.
One-eyed Hafnar was there, his good eye shining a pale blue, hair yellow as spun gold in the firelight. Jotden was there, with the great scar down his face that seemed to divide it into two separate faces, one angry, the other calm. He said it came from a woman, though I do not know if he meant the scar, the anger, or the calm. Dannen of the Seven Fingers was there, and Fretkin and Freykin, twins, and Sallen the Sullen and Getnerson Getnerson the Double-named and a hundred others, all of them with a tale that still lives in my head—Hafnar’s feat of strength in Galledon, when their dragon ship had beached itself too far out of the water, and half the bearded men of that country chased behind them; Sallen and the Valenciennes gold; Fretkin and Freykin searching for the dragon which turned out to be a siege engine painted with teeth and fire and which they then had to disable. These were tales for late in the night, the men wobbling where they stood, their smiles and laughter slowly giving way to silence.
It was supposed to be a night of laughter and light, to keep away the long darkness, but I watched the darkness creep slowly into the men as they remembered the past. They could not remember it without longing, and always, after each celebration, there were men who sailed west only a few days later. As if the past had gotten into them and would not let go. Or as if they were ready to tell a new tale, one told only in the west.
One day, only a few mornings after the long night, my father caught me with the axes. He was not far from sailing west himself, but the look he gave me—one of such longing, of pain—made me put the axes away. The world had moved on, he said once, and we have been left behind. At the long night celebration there were always a dozen fights in the dark hours. But they were only men for whom all the good fights were over, and these were ways of remembering what they had once been. My father, looking at me with the axes in hand, knew that I would never be such a fighter.
If not for Hilde, I would not have.
My father had arranged the marriage, for already he could feel the call of the western ocean, could feel the winter nights weighing on him. A man does not wish to see his line ended, so he arranged for Hilde.
My father once told me he loved my mother from first sight, and she soon learned to love him as well. I later learned that his words were not true, and she stabbed him several times with various objects in their first years together. In this, Hilde was much like my mother.
Hilde came off the dragon ship and took one look at me, then turned to climb back on. Her father must have expected her reaction, and that in itself should have given me warning, the way a rising wind in the afternoon speaks of a storm in the night. He met Hilde at the prow and blocked her way, and, when she tried to get around him and back onto the ship anyway, he called for two others as tall and grey and haggard as he—her uncles, I assumed. Together, the three of them denied her passage, while the rest of the crew began backing water, slowly pulling away. She did not curse, or scream, but rather stood silently, eyes full of hatred, until the ship was gone.
“She is yours now,” her father said to me, and laughed. They were the only words he ever spoke to me.
Then Hilde turned to face me.
She was beautiful, I must say that. She always was. Eyes like the winter sky, hair like the summer sun. Her breasts were like small hard apples, the kind sweeter than any honey but with a hint of bitterness as well. My father once said a woman’s body is a treat as sweet as any good battle, but I had never experienced battle, or a woman’s body. I did not know then that I would get battle long before I ever tasted her body.
I was seventeen at the time, Hilde a year younger. She turned from the dragon ship and stood looking at me, then reached down and slipped a long knife from a sheath at her waist.
“I did not ask to come here,” she said. “I did not ask to come here, nor do I plan on staying. At first chance, I will be gone from this island, gone from you, gone from these shores altogether. In the meantime, you will give me food and shelter, and if you ever try to touch me, I will gut you like a fish and throw your entrails into the ocean for the crabs to eat.”
She stalked off down the shelf. My father had come out of the house and walked down to me.
“She seems to have some life to her,” he said.
“She threatened to kill me.”
My mother slipped up quietly and took my father’s hand.
“I threatened to kill him too. It’s customary.”
“Customary? Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“If we had told you,” my father said, “would you have allowed her to come?”
“That’s why we didn’t tell you,” my mother said. “Now go after her. Be kind, but not weak. Strong, but not arrogant. Accepting, but not acquiescing.”
“Those things do not walk together.”
“No,” my mother said. “They do not.” They turned and left me to my wife.
She was halfway around the island, walking slowly along the serried shelf, looking out at the ocean as if she would find escape there.
“Do not come near me,” she said when I came within distance of her voice, so I tried to do as my mother had instructed, and neither retreated nor came closer. I simply followed her around the island. I could see she was near tears, though they were the kind of tears that come from anger and frustration rather than weakness or loss.
For hours we circled the island. Years later I would realize it was to be something of a foreshadowing of our time together—Hilde angry, threatening me, and me always watching her, waiting for when she would give up her anger and come into my arms.
It did not happen quickly.
For the first few months she was like a wild beast. She slipped into the house late at night and slept as far away from everyone as she could, then slipped out in the morning. All day she stood by the edge of the ocean, searching the horizon for ships. If I approached her, the long knife came out. Some days I sat as near as she would let me and told her stories while she stared out over the ocean. She did not stop me—she never stopped me from anything so long as I was not close enough to touch her. I told her stories of the old raiding days, the monastery in the mountains of Valenciennes where the gold, they said, flowed like water, and they brought home so much of it the ships foundered several times and had to be bailed out. I told her of my father’s raids into Andalusia, the ponies and cattle they drove to the ocean before realizing they could not take a tenth of what they had gathered and so let the rest go.
Hilde listened silently. I thought she was ignoring me, but she turned to me and said only “I wish those days were still here.” She fixed her blue-grey eyes on me. “Do you not?”
“I do,” I said, and she nodded as if something had passed between us.
Her speaking to me was rare, though. Usually, she spoke in actions, and all her actions spoke of her hatred for me. I woke some mornings to icy water thrown on me. I woke once to a large crab in my blankets, claws locked onto something no man wishes claws to be locked onto. She stacked rocks near my blankets so I would stumble over them in the morning. She boiled seaweed and poured the extract into my mead at night.
She never bothered me when I was carving the ships. Some days she sat on a flat rock near the house and watched my father and me work. She had hacked her hair short with her knife—I later learned this was to make herself ugly to me—and dressed in brown leathers like a man, but she was beautiful. Sometimes, sitting there in the sun, she even forgot to scowl.
On days when the storms came and we were forced to stay inside, near the fire, she stayed out as long as she could before joining us. She would come in drenched, shivering, and my mother would rise from the fire and wrap her in blankets and hand her soup, gently chiding her for being such a stubborn girl. My mother was the only person she would let near her, and some days she looked like a child as my mother fussed over her. My father, already into the mead, would wink at me, and the next morning, in the bluest sky after the storm had passed, would tell me to give it time. The women of our people could not let themselves be conquered, and so had to put up a fight, and the only way to win the fight was to be strong but not demanding, forceful but not overly so.
I told my father he spoke like a fool. Hilde had been here a half-year by that time, and I had begun to despair she would ever come to me. Every day, I thought, was to be a fight, and a fight with no reward. Only sour beer, cold water, and crabs in my blankets. My father laughed. “There are many things you do not understand,” he said, and something caught in his voice when he said it. In the afternoon Hilde and my mother came out and stood watching us, and I knew they had been talking, for both of them gave me such a look as to make me worry what they might be thinking. Later that night, after the fire had burned down and my mother and father were asleep, I heard Hilde rise from the far corner of the house. She knelt beside me and pulled back the covers. I held my breath, hoping with all the fierce longing my people can hold that she meant to join me inside my blankets. She leaned in and reached down low, to the strings of my breeches, which she slowly began to undo. In the firelight her hair burned like sunrise on a clear morning. I had raised my hand to touch her hair when my breeches came open, and she slipped a stinger fish into my underwear, which stung me a dozen times before I could get it out. My father swarmed up drunkenly out of his covers and dove for his axes. My mother, awake in the corner, lay giggling to herself. Hilde slipped out the door. I stayed awake the rest of the night, partly in pain, partly in fear of what might come next.
I remember thinking, that night, that the battle had been joined, and indeed, she told me later that she wanted me to fight back. She could not marry a weak man, she told me, nor let one inside her.
But the next morning, soaking my parts in warm sea water to try to take the sting out of them, I vowed revenge. My father told me once that in the old days the men went out on the dragon ships because fighting men from other lands was easier than fighting their wives.
That morning, I believed him.
It took me a few days to exact my revenge. She was sitting on the flat rock, watching my father and me in the warm afternoon, when she dozed off. I set my tools down quietly and motioned to my father. He shook his head, warning me, but smiling, and continued to plane the hull. I crept behind her, then wrapped my arms around her and lifted. She came awake like a bear in winter. I ran with her down to the ocean and waded out to my waist, then hurled her as far as I could.
When she came up she had the knife drawn, aimed toward my heart. She spit and cursed and wiped the salt water from her eyes and told me she would kill me in my sleep, but I thought I detected a change in her voice.
I did not sleep that night, though. The stars shone through the smokehole and the fire had gone out when I heard her creep in. She knelt by my blankets and pulled them back. When she reached for the string on my breeches, I grabbed her hand.
“If you are reaching for what is down there to stroke it, you may. If you wish to leave me with another stinger fish, you may not.”
Her eyes looked like swords in the faint starlight. “I wish neither of those things,” she said.
“What do you wish?”
She leaned in. “To warm you,” she said, almost whispering.
I let go of her hand. She put it on my chest. I could feel my heart beating against her hand. She raised the blankets, and then, from somewhere hidden to me, she produced a small bucket of glowing coals and dumped them under the blankets with me.
I did not sleep for the next few weeks. I worked in a daze. My father watched me with a smile at the corner of his eyes. I did not notice it, but he was turning grey. And so was the weather.
As I have said, she did not bother me while I was working, but as soon as I finished I would be struck by thrown nettles, or stinger fish, or frozen peat. She put rocks in my food that scarred my teeth. She put little crabs in my clothing.
On occasion, I struck back. I threw her in the ocean again. I put little bits of food into her pockets so that the goats attacked her when she went to milk them, and the sheep nibbled at her. Once, when she was preparing hot water for a bath and did not know I was in the house, I transferred the hot water to a different tub and replaced her hot water with ocean water.
But mostly, I tried to sleep with only one eye shut.
Our battle raged all over the little island. She spent days, unbeknownst to me, digging a hole in the middle of the island, then covering it with little branches and leaves. When it was finished she slipped up behind me and threw a stinger fish down the back of my breeches and ran off. I gave chase. She steered me toward the hole, jumping it herself, then turning to watch as I plummeted into it, knocking the breath from me. I lay in the bottom of the hole. She peered over the edge.
“If you wish to force me into a grave,” I told her, “You are doing a strong job of it.”
For some reason, this seemed to please her.
We battled all that summer, and into the fall. Despite the violence we inflicted upon one another, these were fine days. I understand now the lure back into battle the old men spoke of, even though most days were long, and tiring, with only the ocean for company, the steady creak of the oars. It is the quiet moments you miss as much as the fierce ones.
We did not notice the weather turning, the wind rising. We did not notice the quiet looks directed our way by my mother and father, and the quiet looks they directed at one another.
Then winter was on us. We had spent the last few weeks laying in supplies, cutting wood and forming peat to burn, harvesting what food we could, and now winter was here and we sat silent in the little house listening to the wind walk outside. I did not realize then it was calling my father to sea.
“I wish to start a new karve in the morning,” he said, and the way he said it let me know the new one would be his. My mother stared into the fire. I wondered then how, under all the summer stars, even in the teeth of the winter wind, they could wish to pass from this world. But I had not lived long then, nor seen battle. And the west is said to hold all those things we most miss, the things we most want—battle all the day, and feasting all night.
I spent the next few days watching him work. He would not allow me to help. My mother stood long hours at the edge of the ocean, looking west.
Hilde, for her part, did not attack me in those days. Nor did she wander so far across the island, as if she wanted to remain near, or as if she wanted to come closer but did not yet know how.
Then one morning the karve was finished. And then we were standing on the shelf at ocean’s edge in the last light of the sun. I tried speaking words, but sometimes words do not convey what we really mean, and anyway there are no words adequate to the task at hand. I could see in my father’s eyes, as he took my forearm and clasped it, the way they did in the old days, that there were no words to be said. He nodded at Hilde over my shoulder and told me to keep my axes sharp. Hilde, to my surprise, came down the shelf to hug my mother, and then my father. She turned away so I would not see the tears in her eyes.
Then I was pushing them away, and then the wind was rising and then they were gone, the little karve bobbing over the waves as the tide pulled it out to sea. Then it was lost on the horizon, and I was lost there on the island, with a woman who had lived here for over a year and never offered me a kind word.
I stood on the shelf long after I could not see them, long after the sound of the ocean hitting the shelf had become some kind of song. I might be standing there still, but I felt Hilde’s hand take mine.
“Come,” she said, and led me inside, where the fire was warm, and her body was even warmer. She bit her lip as I entered her, but she did not cry out, not in curses or snarls, and we slept all that night wrapped up in one another, as the wind howled outside.
We had three or four summers, which does not now seem long enough.
All through the winter we slept together, and when spring came we walked about the island as if newly met. No more hot rocks and cold water, no more drawn knives and words of cursing. The sea grass greened, and the red berries came out on the little trees. I had not built a karve for months, and had no plans to, for it seemed, in spring, that the world was full of beauty and there was no time for grey death, no time to consider sailing off to the west.
We did not consider it might be sailing for us.
Most nights in summer we slept under the stars. The sea smelled heavy and fertile and the stars spun overhead. The sea grass bent in the endless wind, but it was a warm breeze, turning just cool near the ocean.
But it seems now to have lasted only a few days. In the winter the old men and women came and left and we watched them go. In the summer we slept under the cold stars, and in the third or fourth spring we knew she was with child, for her blood had stopped running with the moon.
“Halgrin,” she said, “If it is a boy. Ludmilla if it is a girl.”
The firelight spread over us, shadows shifting. I touched her hair. “Goathead if it is a boy,” I told her, “and Crabclaw for a girl.”
Her belly had only barely begun to swell when the winds changed and the light began to fade. The days shortened. We grew colder. We took to sleeping inside, and I began to work on the karves again, for I knew as winter came the old men would wish to sail west, as my father and his father before him, as all our people who had grown tired of this world, who had seen the old battles fade. The world turned grey at the edges. The horizon disappeared.
On a grey morning they came.
Hilde had gone to cut wood for our fire. I worked on a karve until my hands were stiff with cold. I had stopped for a moment to flex them, to work some blood back into the joints, when I realized she had been gone all morning.
Worried for her, for what man is not worried about his wife and the child she carries, even on an isle where the only dangers come from inner thoughts, I walked up over the small hill behind the house.
Grounded on the shelf was a small ship. It was a dragon ship, but not one of the old men come to ask for a karve to carry his body to the west, for I knew all the dragon ships of my people by sight. It was a small ship, a half dozen oars and a small sail, and by its colors I suspected it blown off course and grounded here while its crew found fresh water.
I did not like it. I ran back in the house and found my father’s axes and belted them to my waist.
When I went back out, I heard Hilde screaming.
They had caught her while she was cutting wood, I realized, as I topped the small hill near the center of the island at a dead run. Two of them held her arms, while a third tried to thrust himself into her. I could see, even from such a distance, the cords standing out in her neck, her feet kicking, her wrists straining against the hands that held her.
I do not remember much of the next few moments. A red veil came down over my eyes. I remember drawing the axes and cutting one man’s head off at a full run, then spinning to face the other two. They let go of Hilde, a mistake that I, even in the midst of battle rage, could see was a terrible one. She was bleeding between the legs, and her mouth had been smashed by a fist, but she scrambled across the ground to her long knife and gutted one of the men even as I cleaved the other from throat to crotch.
I bent to hold Hilde before the last man fell, but she snarled and nodded over my shoulder, where more men from the ship came trotting over the little hill, drawn by the screams. There were a half dozen of them, bearing shields and swords. They saw their friends lying dead on the frozen ground and charged.
Hilde and I went to meet them. I tossed her an axe. She spit blood. Then they were upon us, and we swung our axes together, Hilde a blur of sharpened steel, her axes crashing and long knife slicing. Blood flew all around us, and for a time I forgot who I was, where I was, only that here battle was joined and here was death slipping in from the ocean and if I did not go out and meet it, someone else would.
I did not want that someone else to be Hilde.
I remember even less of that brief fight than I do of the first. Only images, flashes of sound: a man’s face disappearing under my axe stroke, Hilde cursing as she spun and twisted away from their swords, as she stabbed with her knife, and men’s bowels fell steaming to the cold ground.
Only near the end did I come out of the rage, when my last foe had fallen and I turned, breathing heavily, to finish what was left of those attacking Hilde.
There was only one. He had thrown his shield down and taken his sword in two hands, but his strokes were far too slow for Hilde. She danced around him, stabbing into his arms and thighs and stomach with her long knife. He had a half-dozen wounds already, and I could see his strength fading. Hilde was smiling as she danced. It was a glorious sight, one I will recall, with both love and shame, until I enter the western ocean on my own-built karve.
Bleeding, dying, with me standing there doing nothing to help Hilde, the man threw his sword at her. She dodged easily, but in the split second she watched the sword wing past, the man lunged for her and grabbed her. I lunged as well, but I was never as quick as Hilde. Her long knife flicked out into the man’s throat and he set her down, gurgling and grabbing at his throat, trying to remove the knife.
It was only after he fell that I realized Hilde was gurgling as well, trying to remove the man’s knife from her stomach with fingers gone slippery from blood.
The last moments of a man or woman’s life are sacred, and they are not for anyone to know other than those meant to witness them. She whispered words meant only for me, and I will keep it that way. The wind was blowing, as it always is. I removed the knife and bandaged her, but her eyes glazed and the life went out of her before I could even get her back to the little house.
It rained that afternoon. Not a fierce storm, but the kind of gentle rain we tell our children must be the All-father’s tears. Why is he sad? our children ask us, and we tell them it is because of all the beauty in the world, though the All-father rarely thinks of beauty in the sagas, unless it is the beauty of battle, so maybe we do tell our children the truth.
The ship was full of gold, I found later. I threw it into the ocean. The ocean takes everything here in the far north, and I did not want what the men brought, neither the ship nor the gold nor the death. I burned the ship at the waterline. I tossed the swords to the sea.
Hilde lay with me in the little house while I built her last ship. When it was ready I carried her to it. Lying there, in a rare patch of sun so late in the year, I could not fool myself into thinking her asleep. I had covered the wound that had killed her, and brushed her hair as I have seen men do with the deceased, but there was neither color nor fire in her.
After she was gone the winter came in, one of the worst I have ever seen. For months I did not see the sun, only heard the howling wind, the sound of the surf. I must say I drank more than is my nature, but there seemed little else to do, and the mead gave me comfort, much as it must have comforted my father in his last years as he sat before the fire and recounted his deeds.
It comforts me to remember Hilde. Most of my memories are of our fights, the little battles we carried out, like the time she snuck up on me as I squatted, relieving myself, and pushed me so that I fell back into my own waste. Or once when she cut my hair as I slept and I woke in the morning bald. Of chasing her across the island. Of holding her, kicking and screaming, in my arms, or, the last time, as all the blood drained from her face and she whispered words meant only for me.
I remember her face shaded in firelight as she sat as far from me in the little house as she could. But she was always watching me, I would see when I turned to look her face on. Always watching, and measuring, until such time as she found me worthy, as, it is written, those who come before us might find us worthy when we pass from this world.
It is winter again, and each morning I walk along the beach, searching for what the sea has given back. It gives little—a hank of hair, a length of bone, a piece of wood from some long lost karve. Perhaps my father’s. Perhaps his father’s, or his, or his, going back through the long line of my people. In the old days, we burned their corpses at sea. In these days, we send them to sea to become corpses.
I do not know which is right.
What the sea gives back is enough, though. I work the wood, if salvageable, into the newest karve. If it is not, I burn it in my fire, hoping to beat back the darkness a while more.
Birds have come to the island this winter, and they have not left. I suspect they were blown off course, as others have been before, but I welcome them, for I am less alone with them here. During the day, they watch me as I carve my last ship. I work slowly, carefully, the cold getting into my hands much more than it used to, but she is taking shape. It is a small ship, after all, built only for one.
The old stories tell us that west holds eternal spring. Endless battles. Mead and wine and honey and roasted meat turning on slow spits. The old men, of course, went because they missed the fighting days. The sailing to new lands, the conquering.
I never fought but with Hilde, and never conquered her, and though I have not been to those lands before, I am one of my people. I will sail west because I miss the fighting. I hope to rejoin the battle there.
|Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by the Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, Oxford American, Lightspeed, Apex, and Interzone. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm.|