By Gabrielle Swartzentruber
Freezing rain poured down indiscriminately upon the band of warriors, the frigid water striking Ivar’s beard like icy spiders entangling themselves in their webs. The pounding of the horses’ hooves blended with Ivar’s own pounding heart as he was slammed into his horse’s back with each stride. He bounced along, struggling to contain the hell-bent beast with a single hand gripping the mane. Another warrior riding alongside Ivar witnessed his difficulties and smirked like a child who had just read something he should not have.
“Hold on now Ivar!” he shouted over the roaring of the rain. “Don’t distract me from the upcoming mission by putting on a show of your own! I can see it now; people from all over Scandinavia will come to see the epic struggle between a one-handed man and a four-legged beast!”
“Your mother was a four-legged beast! Tell me, how did you learn to walk on two legs like a real man?” Ivar snapped back. As the leader of this raid, Ivar was fully intent on gaining the respect of this troublesome warrior as well as the others who happened to be watching.
The thunder of the other horses’ footfalls around Ivar created their own storm as they approached the burning village. The roaring flames gnawed at the bottoms of the stoic pines surrounding the village, their spiny leaves reaching into the inferno like black claws, hungry to take the helpless villagers into the realm of Hel. The sky was so dark that Ivar wondered if Hel had been somehow uprooted from the underworld to unleash Ragnarök prematurely.
Too bad their precious life-tree didn’t do them any good.
Under normal circumstances it would not take an entire band of Vikings to attack a small, insignificant village. The village that Ivar and his men were attacking, however, was home to a sacred life-tree, named so because it was believed that the tree possessed healing powers that were beyond the knowledge of even the best trained medicine men. If Ivar’s band could capture, uproot, and transport the tree back to their own village, the tree would supposedly grant the raiders its healing powers, giving them an advantage over the threatening clans in the east. As for Ivar, he planned to use some of the wood to fashion a makeshift left hand for himself and see if this vaunted tree really did possess healing powers. Frankly, Ivar was of the mind that miracles and gods should be placed in the same category as mythical figures; out of sight, out of mind.
As he and the rest of the soldiers reached the smoking village and dismounted their horses, Ivar almost pitied the rapidly crumbling dwellings that were shriveling like a piece of parchment in a campfire. The pines that encircled that village reminded him of children playing Ring Around the Rosie.
We all fall down indeed.
One of the younger soldiers shouted, “We can’t go in there! How are we supposed to see anything?” He was stabbed for his cowardice.
Ivar broke into the pungent veil of smoke, the village’s last desperate attempt to conceal the tree from him. He repressed the urge to cough. Relying on his tactical knowledge of typical village layouts, he led his soldiers to the ruined central square, where Ivar met the tree’s last line of defense, if it could be called that. The village farmers had taken up arms, which meant they grabbed the nearest shovels and pickaxes and stationed themselves around the tree.
Pitiful, really. These people would give their lives for a plant, even if it is a plant that’s supposed to grant special powers.
One particularly suicidal villager gave a last war cry and charged Ivar with a scythe.
I’m just impressed that he’s not attempting to attack me with a gardening hoe.
Casually, almost lazily, Ivar threw his axe like a child tossing a throwing disc, cleaving the villager in two and spraying Ivar’s face and hair with wet, sticky blood.
Encouraged by Ivar’s violent display, the other soldiers shouted and chased after the farmers who would dare defend their home and their most sacred possession. Ivar watched them pick off the villagers one by one and tried to guess which of them would be next. To his amusement and slight surprise, the last one left was a woman who had been trying to hide behind a thick pine trunk.
Impressive. She got all the way to the edge of the village.
A young solider found her first and did away with her behind the pine tree. Her scream resembled a cart going from full speed to a screeching halt. The corner of Ivar’s lip turned up, but with the show over, he turned his attention to more important matters.
Ivar gazed upon the tree of life and yanked his blood-stained axe out of a pine trunk where it landed from its mundane encounter with an unmemorable human life. The life-tree’s branches snaked toward the heavens, as if it was throwing its limbs up for a final defense.
A worthy opponent.
Ivar gripped his axe with his right hand, his only hand, and raised his weapon, smiting the tree with a single cracking blow that would have impressed Thor himself. The ancient tree swayed, as if stunned that anyone would assault it. Like a swooning woman, it fell on the unforgiving soil with a reverberating thud, the branches seemingly twitching in their final death throes, then lay still. Ivar raised a single eyebrow then cocked his head, first to the right, then to the left, studying the network of branches as a fisherman might study the tributaries of a river.
This wood will make a suitable surrogate hand, magical healing powers or no. After all, how can this tree of life be life-giving if it just sat here and let all of the village inhabitants suffer and die?
Ivar’s axe thudded again and again into the tree, sending splinters flying and producing the same cracks as if he were twisting a man’s neck. The other soldiers returned from their villager-hunting excursion and gathered the dismembered appendages of the tree, stacking them into carts like the corpses of peasants at a hurried funeral.
By the time Ivar had finished cutting down the life-tree, the smoke had lifted into the clouds that covered the already opaque sky, revealing a small fjord that lay just beyond the pines. Picking his way through the still-smoldering rubble, he came to the edge of the water and planted his feet on the rocky shore, standing face-to-face with his reflection. He was quite proud of what he saw. A physically imposing body with a chest as broad as a round wooden shield and each shoulder twice the size of a man’s fist. His dark, braided hair was matted and boasted a widow’s peak that drew attention to deep blue eyes under a strong brow. The only flaw was the unimpressive stump where his left hand used to be. He saw the lake-Ivar flash his watery eyes and clench his remaining hand. Ivar took a step back.
This is ridiculous. I’m like a child running from his own shadow.
Well, now this shadow has the guts to look you in that monstrosity you call a face.
Yet you do not have the guts to fight me, coward.
No. If you spent as much time fighting others as you do yourself, you’d lose a lot more than your left hand.
Ivar lunged for a nearby stone and slammed it into lake-Ivar’s face, causing his reflection to erupt and shatter into a thousand pieces that rippled away.
Something tugged at Ivar’s cloak.
Guess it must be my blasted conscience again.
The tugging grew more insistent. Gritting his teeth, Ivar turned his frozen stare down to his left side and saw a maiden-child with blonde braids running down her back like golden rows of wheat ready to be harvested. Not quite reaching his knees, she looked up at him with eyes as clear and deep as the fjord in front of them.
“What do you want?” Ivar asked gruffly. Her eyes turned watery, strengthening their already fjord-like resemblance.
“Well? Spit it out, girl. And don’t do yourself the disgrace of weeping!”
To her credit, the child did not cry, but her voice sounded quiet and distant, like it was emanating from the bottom of a well. “Father?”
“I’m not your father!” Ivar snapped. “Go home!” He turned to go, making sure the child wasn’t having any grand ideas about following him, but she was no longer at his side.
Ivar rolled his eyes.
Clumsy girl must have fallen in. Serves her right, she should be more careful.
Ivar stopped in his tracks as he realized what had happened. He blinked once, then twice.
She tried to reach for my hand. The one that isn’t there.
Ivar turned around and was confronted yet again by his own reflection.
Lake-Ivar’s voice resounded in his mind. “Do you remember?”
x x x
Ivar stumbled into the entryway of his home, the doorframe bearing scorch marks and the distinctive scars of an axe, the door itself lying in half several feet away. Smoke veiled the flames that were threatening to chew into the wood pillars that were the only objects standing between Ivar and the roof. Someone screamed. Ivar swayed, stretching out his left hand to grasp the doorpost only to realize that his left hand wasn’t there anymore and collapsed on his side. He stared down at his fresh stump, the blood clotting around the two bones that were poking out of the end of his arm like little elephant tusks. His eyes and nose were streaming, and dizziness rushed over him so that he could no longer tell where the floor stopped and the wall began. Something tapped his foot. Then again. And again. Fighting another wave of nausea, Ivar raised his head and saw that his foot was under a creaking, empty cradle that was gently rocking itself to a lullaby only it could hear, as though trying to console itself over its loss.
x x x
Ivar gritted his teeth and slammed his palms against his eyes.
Stop! No more!
He drew several shaky breaths. Droplets of sweat beaded on his forehead.
I understand now what I must do.
Ivar ripped off his cloak, threw his axe onto the hard ground, and dove after the drowning girl. The water felt like daggers piercing into his every pore, injecting numbness into his body. He willed himself to move his arms and legs in order to stay alive and shot after the rapidly sinking child. Her hair billowed around her head like a halo, and her nose and cheeks were as blue as the water around them. He reached out and cradled her little body in the space between his hand and forearms. A rush of warmth suddenly overcame him. It was so peaceful and quiet down here; the only sound Ivar could perceive was that of his own kicking feet. The water seemed to wash every thought from his head as well as the blood from his body. No wonder lake-Ivar liked it so much here. In the still suspension of the water, Ivar looked down at the child in his arms, whose beauty even rivaled that of Freya, the All-Mother, and let himself sink closer to the azure oblivion.
She probably has a mother somewhere. And a father. Do not allow them to carry the same burden that you do because of your own selfishness.
With that thought to propel him, Ivar gave a great heave and broke the surface of the water, gasping for the harsh northern air. He dragged himself onto the rocky shore and gave a start when he realized the child wasn’t breathing. He turned her limp body over and repeatedly slammed his palm onto her back, fighting tears that he convinced himself were only fjord-water. Swallowing what was left of his pride, which manifested itself as a lump in his throat, he looked at the black sky and said a prayer.
Odin, I know we haven’t spoken since the incident, but I ask you – no, I beg you – please help me save this child. I don’t know her path; I don’t even know her name, but you do. Grant me the power of Thor and I will do anything you ask for the rest of my days. Just this once. Please. I can’t bear to lose another little girl.
Ivar pounded the child’s back one last time, and she gurgled and gasped, spewing out the frigid liquid that was trying to kill her. He exhaled a shaky sigh of relief.
He scooped up the still sputtering and shivering girl and wrapped her in his cloak. Something changed that day when he pulled the shaking and helpless creature to his chest. She had not only fallen into the depths of the icy fjord, but also into the icy depths of his frozen heart.
Ivar carried the child in the crook of his arm back to the ruined village, now little more than a field of ash. The flames, like a horde of locusts, had eaten everything; even the pines were blackened skeletons that looked ready to collapse into their earthy graves. Ivar’s bundle stirred and stretched out her little arms to the ground. He set her down only to realize that she was pulling a hand even smaller than hers out of the dirt. The hand was attached to a doll that resembled the girl. She pressed the doll against her chest and began to cry.
“Mama!” “Mamaaaaa!” She swiped at her eyes and looked up at Ivar. “Is my mama down there like my dolly? Can we pull her up too?”
Ivar had never been so devastated by a look of hope.
She…she lived here. I did this to her. I killed her parents and neighbors, burned down her home, and stole her life-tree. I am no better than the monsters that took my own home from me.
Ivar knelt down by her side, looked her in the eye, and used the softest tone that his husky voice would allow.
“Perhaps we could. But how are we going to find her in this big field?”
Her blue orbs widened, still resolutely clinging to their hopeful spark. “Mama loved to sit under the life-tree. Maybe we’ll find her there!” She turned around frantically then nearly toppled over, reminding Ivar of a child’s spinning top. “It’s…it’s not here! How are we supposed to find Mama now?”
She buried her head into Ivar’s shoulder, grabbed fistfuls of his tunic, and sobbed. Ivar gently disentangled himself from her grasp and placed his hand on her shoulder.
“If we planted a new life-tree, do you think she would come and sit?”
Her watery eyes brightened once more, and she nodded.
Ivar smiled sadly, but even that quickly faded when he saw the completeness of his barbaric acts; whatever remnants he had left from chopping down the tree was destroyed by the fire that followed. The child pointed at a seemingly random spot nearby.
“Right there. Mama liked to sit right there.”
Ivar moved closer to inspect the indicated spot, running his hand through the soil and ash until it closed around something hard and small. A single seed. One chance to undo his cycle of death. Without a word, he held out the small seed to the girl. She shook her head vigorously and pushed back his fingers, placing both of her tiny hands on top of his single large one.
She bent down and scooped out a handful of dirt to form a small hole. Ivar carefully dropped the seed into the hole and the child covered it up, as if nothing had changed. An unexpected, unexplainable feeling of peace penetrated Ivar’s chest.
Everything has changed.
The little girl looked up and smiled at Ivar, motioning him closer. He knelt down on one knee so she could stand on her tippy-toes and whisper in his ear.
“Will you wait for Mama and our tree with me? We could build a house while we wait so Mama has a place to stay when she comes back.”
Ivar sat back, stunned, convinced this time that his eyes were watering because of the ash in the air. He gazed at the girl through the watery film, unable to voice his fears out loud.
The child doesn’t know yet that she should despise this idea. She doesn’t yet know that she’s supposed to hate me. I took everything from her.
Lake-Ivar’s voice intruded on his thoughts. And yet, if you leave her, you’ll take away the only thing she has left.
Why do you always have to be right?
Ivar dropped his chin, failing to hold back the tears any longer. The girl climbed up on Ivar’s knee, took his face in both her hands and wiped away his tears.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “You don’t have to be sad. Our tree will be the prettiest tree in the whole world and then Mama will come to see how pretty it is.”
Ivar drew the child close to his chest and looked up at the dawn that was only beginning to push the blackness back. But in that blackness was the aurora borealis, the rift in the sky made by the gods’ luminescent swords. In that celestial slash, he glimpsed flashes of his life. Endless nights gazing at the sky in hopes for glory only to understand that the gods were making war elsewhere. Lake-Ivar passing silent judgment when he went to wash his face each morning. A brutal axe strike that severed his left hand from his arm as easily as a twig being dragged through water. He closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of the now-sleeping child against his chest, her breathing deep and even. In that moment, he realized that there was more to this life than just his own.