My father died in 1990, close to my own birthday. Afterwards, I felt my father’s presence. He was there, watching and worrying over me, and he never left until I could do without him. Even now, I will never forget the precious things that he taught me, and, without which, my life would be meaningless.
I had already begun my writing career. It must have been toward 1991. I think I was reading the Icelandic Sagas. I had to write a story for the Southhill Gazette, and, for once, I decided to write something completely on my own. This very early piece of mine is not very good, but it is interesting, from the point of view of seeing how I put things together: the mood of the Sagas, my own mood, my personal experience of loss, and the runes. I was writing for a family newspaper, and I was thinking of my own childhood, when I was so easily able to see into other worlds, before anyone told me that I wasn’t supposed to be able to do that.
If nothing else, the piece showed promise – more promise than my very first story, at age six, about a bird, or the God-awful tale my Princeton dissertation advisor, Alfred Foulet, coaxed me into letting him read. He was such a nice man, and such a patient teacher! He told me I had talent, but the story was so embarrassingly awful that I destroyed it. Nevertheless, Alfred’s encouragement has never left me, and I will always be grateful to him. He was my second father. He was in his 80s when he died in 1975.
Here is the story, as I wrote it, in the early 1990s. It’s a little embarrassing, but the things that are wrong with it recall Gustave Flaubert’s Mémoires d’un Fou, which I’m very glad we were made to read at school, because, like my advisor’s encouragement, Flaubert’s early, over weaning sentimentality gave me hope. Of course, I was twice Flaubert’s age, when I wrote “Healing,” but then, I have always been a late bloomer.
By Leigh A. Arrathoon, ©2013
Feathery snowflakes danced on the wind, illuminating the night. The boy, Bork, stared out at the snow, whirling wildly, constantly shifting direction. Ever since morning, he had sat in the doorway of the farmstead, looking out, unable to move. Sometimes he felt a terrible gnawing pain in his gut, which spread upwards until, overwhelmed with sadness, he would begin to sob uncontrollably, shameful, hot tears bathing his cheeks.
It seemed to Bork that the world was empty, except for his small sister, Thorfinna, who didn’t count for much because she was a girl. His father, Thorvald, and elder brother, Ulf, had left him there, in charge, while they went to visit kinsmen, who had summoned them. That had been yesterday.
He remembered when his mother, Ragnhild, had left him to gather herbs. He had waited, like this, in the doorway, for two days. Finally, when he could no longer stand the waiting, he had gone out to the home meadow to look for her. There he had found her beneath the Magician’s tree, her alabaster skin torn and stained with blood. He shuddered, and once again, sobs racked his small frame.
He did now what he had done for so many months since Ragnhild had left him. Beside him, on the wooden floor, lay a leather pouch, filled with smooth stones. Each stone had a letter carved into it. He reached inside and felt the stones lovingly. By now, he could guess which letters were etched into each of them by the feel of them. Shutting his eyes tightly, and concentrating very hard, Bork uttered the question he had put to the runes every day for six months.
Will Ragnhild come to me again soon? Will Ragnhild come to me again soon?
Drawing out the first of five stones, he laid it vertically on the floor next to him. It was the letter for Gebo, which stands for partnership. The position of it in the rune spread indicated the outlook for his question. Trying not to feel the letter on it, he drew another stone from the leather pouch and laid it just under the first. This stone was Nauthis, which calls for pain, necessity, and constraint. Its position in the spread showed him the challenge he must face. So the partnership he sought was at hand, though he was warned not to collapse himself into it, that he would be called upon to exercise great moderation, which is a tall order for a little boy.
The third letter represented his present condition. It was the letter Isa, which stands for the frozen world, awaiting a spring thaw.
Below Isa fell the rune for what he must give up, Laguz, which signifies the lunar side of human nature, the immersion in the flow of feeling toward the mother, the womb’s security.
When Bork saw what he must renounce, he began to tremble. He was afraid to draw the fifth and final rune from the pouch, because he knew that this reading was the most accurate one he had ever done, and he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know the answer to his question.
Feeling the stones which remained in the pouch very carefully, his hand fell on Hagalaz, the stone of disruption. No! He would not draw Hagalaz. He refused!
Again he felt the stones inside the pouch, feverishly turning them over and over again, until, at last, he found Fehu, the stone of fulfillment and love. He placed Fehu in the fifth position of the rune spread and sat back, relieved.
No sooner had the fever of his anxiety subsided, than he realized that his new sense of peace was an illusion. He had cheated. It didn’t count because he had forced the outcome. How many times had the Magician explained to him that the runes would not speak the truth to him if he made them lie. He would not see Ragnhild again. He knew that. She would have come to him by now otherwise.
The child Thorfinna began to wail for her goat’s milk. He must go to the goat shed to fetch it for her. Shivering beneath his sheepskin, Bork went out into the blackness. Near the shed, he paused to gaze up at the swirling vortex of lacy shapes.
All at once, one of these shapes began to alter itself before his eyes, shimmering and growing until, at last, he thought he saw a face – a woman’s face. He stared hard into the blackness. His heart pounded. It was Ragnhild. Her long hair of spun gold shone in the dark, alight now with the warmth of her smile. He reached out to her, longing to bury himself in her breast as he had always done, for her embrace was healing to him. But, whereas before there had been substance and warmth, now there was nothing but the emptiness of the night.
“Mama!” He sobbed.
“I am here, Bork. You must not cry.”
“I want to touch you,” he pleaded.
“This is not possible, I’m afraid,” she said softly. “But it is given to us to now to talk.”
“Where did you go? I have missed you so. And now Papa and Ulf have gone away too and left me along with the child, Thorfinna. What am I to do? Oh what am I to do?”
“You are a big boy now. You must take care of yourself. The very first thing you must do is to say every day to yourself, I am strong and capable, and I can easily take care of myself. You must say this every day fifty times a day until spring comes. Will you do this for me?”
“Yes,” he answered, half-heartedly. “But what if Papa and Ulf do not come back either? Then what shall I do?”
“You must ask yourself what the worst thing is that can happen to you.”
“The worst thing is that Papa and Ulf may be eaten by wolves, as you were, and then Thorfinna and I might starve here alone.”
“Although I am certain that Papa and Ulf are strong enough and clever enough to protect themselves, still it would certainly be terrible if they were eaten by wolves, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes!” He cried.
“But you can’t do anything about that, can you?”
“No,” Bork replied, dejectedly.
“So, there is really no point in worrying about something over which you have no control, is there?”
“No, I suppose there isn’t,” he admitted.
“But it might be a good idea to figure out what you could do to keep you and little Thorfinna from starving, mightn’t it?”
“Yes, I guess it might.”
“Well, what could you do?” She asked him.
Bork thought for a long while, and then he said,
“I could save the goat for milk and kill the sheep for meat and its hide. I guess, if we eat the sheep, we do have enough food to last until spring, with the dried fish, honey, salt, and flour that is already put away in the larder. When spring comes, I can fish and hunt to stock the larder again.”
“That is very good, Bork. But you’ll need tools to fish and hunt.”
“I could make them now, when there is nothing else to do!” The child cried.
“Yes! You see? So it seems you don’t need me or Papa or Ulf to survive. You do not need to cry or to ask the runes when I will return, because, when you tell yourself that you are strong and when you use your mind to take care of yourself, you will no longer need anyone. And, when your mind is occupied with the business of living, you will have no time to long for those things which are past and can no longer be.”
“I’m afraid, Mama,” he said. “If I do as you say, you will leave me, and I will never see you again. Even the pain which keeps you ever in my heart is better than that!”
“This winter is a season to become empty. In time, you will know that I have never left you – that I will always be with you. My blood courses through your veins, many of your thoughts are also mine; you are patterned after me.”
“But I cannot bear not to see your warm smile, smell your sweet skin, or to be held by you! It is so lonely since you are gone. It is like dying. The pain of this will never leave me.”
“You are right, Bork. This is a pain you must endure, but it will eventually become joy. There will never be another to take my place. Your loss is great, and yet, do not despair. For, in the spring, you will hear my voice in the brook which tumbles down the mountainside, see my smile in the sunlight on the leaves, smell my skin in the fresh, damp odor of the woods, and feel my caress on the soft, spring winds. This must be your consolation, for I must go now. Do not forget. I will be with you always, just not in the way that I was in the past.”
All winter long, he struggled against the cold and his hunger, and all winter long, his pain pierced his heart. But he no longer asked the runes when she would return, and he did not forget her words.
In the spring, when the world is born afresh, he went out into the home meadow, where he had found her the year before, mangled by wolves. And there, beneath the Magician’s tree, he felt her warmth, and he knew at last that he would never be without her. Then he heard the crystal waters of the brook, tumbling exuberantly over the rocks in its path, and he threw back his head and laughed for joy.