The Ballad of Sigurd Jorsalfare

Chapter 50

Norway; winter 1109

“How’s the ice sculpting?”

Eystein stared at his guest through a shifting mist.

“Slowing down a bit, lately,” he said and shuffled uncomfortably, not sure what to make of his hands hanging by his side, or of his feet reaching all the way down to the ground suddenly.

“I get thirsty a lot,” he smiled through broken lips, his face a cracked gourd. He stumbled a few steps to a bench and sat down, holding the wall to make sure the garden wasn’t shifting and sliding away from him into the forest.

Eystein noticed his leggings were climbing towards his knees, grabbing on to his calves in a possessive, threatening way, and wondered whether it was better to pretend he hadn’t seen them or, perhaps, to confront them right then and there, like the king he was.

“Then again,” he said and waved faintly. “How’s the idiot?” he asked in an amiable way.

“Gone,” said Tehila and sat down next to him, staring at his hands. “You need a manicure,” she observed, “your nails are a mess.”

“I’ve been preoccupied,” he smiled or cried, hard to tell.

“That’s no excuse,” she said.

“No, it isn’t.”

Tehila looked around the garden. The trees seemed to be emulating Eystein, drooping drunkenly towards the pathways, scarred, broken limbs, dull skin.

“More a morgue than a garden,” she rubbed her hands together, blowing into them to keep them warm.

“Why are you here?” asked a cautious, cautious Eystein, afraid to hear an answer.

“Hmn?” said Tehila and rose. “Well,” she said, “well, well.” She ran her hands through her hair, then down her coat, straightening out unseen creases.

“Leaving?” asked Eystein and closed his eyes.

“Unless you insist I stay,” said Tehila, channeling her aunt Rivkah who was known throughout Copenhagen for her pristine manners.

“Insist?” Eystein asked internally.

“Fine,” said Tehila and sat back down again. “That’s very kind of you to insist.”

Eystein leaned forward and hung his head towards his wobbly knees. After a few moments he turned to his right to see if she was still there.

She was still there.

Eystein made a squiggly mental note to get more of the Aquavit he’d been drinking lately, seeing as it produced the best hallucinations he’d had in a long time.

Tehila rocked gently in place, looking pleasantly ahead at the geese landing in the pond behind the three birches.

“Spring came early this year,” she said.

“Did it,” said Eystein, more commenting than asking. Eystein had no special feelings about spring.

“Oh, yes,” said Tehila like a true Dane, whatever that means, “life,” she said, “awakening and such.”

She watched more geese come in for landing and wondered where they’d come from, what had they seen along the way, why did they come back now, at this moment, to this pond of all ponds?

Eystein wondered what they were.

“Geese,” said Tehila.

“Big ones,” he said.

“Just about the right size,” she said.

Eystein sighed. When the shaking began, he tried disguising it from her, shrugging his shoulders, shifting in place, tugging on his wild beard, dreaming of someone who looked like her once.

“You look hungry,” said Tehila.

“I was wondering what I looked like,” said Eystein.

“Hungry,” said Tehila.

Eystein found his fingers interlocking, forming a nest between his hands, or as part of his hands.

“No eggs,” he said and moved the nest gently to see if any eggs had gotten caught in the straw and twigs, but none fell out.

He wondered: what sort of bird would keep an empty nest?

A stupid bird?

What was the purpose of such a nest?

Hope? Were birds capable of hope?

Could birds keep strings of thoughts alive and weave just the right ones together to form a hat or an Allting, or were birds more like Eystein, speaking of himself, prone to losing threads all over the place, making it impossible to find his way, impossible to hold a hatchet or carry a grudge?

Tehila wrapped her shawl around Eystein’s shoulders and pulled him close to her, blowing softly in his matted hair.

The smell of her skin ran through Eystein like a torch-carrying town crier through the sleepy streets of a village about to be invaded.

“Wake up!” screamed the town crier, kicking frantically on doors and walls, swinging his torch above his head.

Eystein found himself drowning in a torrent of flood waters gushing down the narrow, sloping streets of the village, trying to grab hold of passing limbs, branches, boulders, anything that could stop his accelerating movement towards death.

Head above the waters for just a second. Breath. Life, maybe.

Submerged again, Eystein noticed the waters getting warmer. Less threatening, just as fast, though.

The earth shifted beneath him and Eystein discovered a soft beach, not a rock in sight. The waters kept rushing over him, but now they had become more an anointing, a washing away of silt and stones. He breathed freely, lying still, finally at home, an entirely new dolphin just created for this moment.

The beach moved, as well. Insanely smooth and hot, warming, but not burning, drawing him in.

“Don’t be afraid,” said the sand to the dolphin and rubbed his belly.

Suckling the dying king, Tehila held Eystein in her arms, shifting his head from left breast to right, singing softly.

All threads come loose, eventually, whether by the cruel fraying of absentminded time or by deliberate mercy.

Eystein could very clearly see the opening of the nest, the twigs being plucked one by one; he could feel the straw pulled out of his head, scattering in the evening breeze across the pond, the rocks lifted from his bowels, the tree limbs cleared from the path to make way for beggars to arrive, as in old times, at the doorstep of the palace and plead their case before the king.

Sky was visible now and in the sky rode a singular sun, curls of light tumbling towards him, singing, whispering comforting daggers into his chest.

The pain was so welcome, so sweet and liberating he cried out in joy: “Aykah, aykah, aykah hoff” the call of the legendary maniacs, the Berserkers who once led brave men into battle.

Horses dashed from Eystein carrying unspeakable men towards death, waving their swords, their spears, singing their blood-curdling songs of gore.

Geese lifted from the pond like steam into the evening, the fluttering of wings, of the coming of the Messiah, the end of all hatred.

Illuminating darkness fell on Eystein’s eyes and kissed his aching thoughts, licked away the salty residue of vengeance and the bitter aftertaste of love betrayed or never fully felt.

“Mother,” Eystein thought he said but never did, “Why have you forsaken me? Why have you made me so to suffer and to die?”

Instead, he smiled and slumped. Tehila thought she saw a word escape his lips but, angel or demon, it slipped away too fast for her to know.

How little learning I have, she thought, how frail a grasp.”