Some people spend New Years Eve alone, some with family, some in celebration with a bunch of raucous strangers. Peregrine Dunn (the protagonist of my upcoming novel, Silence in the Chapel, and the narrator below) tends to spend his time a bit quieter than most. In a version of L.A. where angels actually do come down to visit on Solstice, this is probably a wise thing.
Too bad that’s not how this night will go.
THE RED GIFT
Confession time, people – this time of year, when angels come soaring in on the Winter Solstice and hang around until the Epiphany, while everyone else is out celebrating and ringing in the holiday cheer, I lay low. No cases, if possible, no last minute assignments to wrap up, no digging into problems. Just take time off and refusing to be judged.
Course, that means no booze. Sometimes I get a little testy on the sauce, or inquisitive. Which might make you wonder why I was hanging around a classy whiskey joint like the Seven Grand on a Wednesday, listening to a hell of an axeman wail out the blues.
Truth is, I like the place, I like the clientele. I’ve been a customer here for, oh, about a couple of months, maybe less. Grateful client laid me out with a six month tab and an introduction into the finer things of life, the Whiskey Society among them. And Johnny, regular barman there, makes a mean cup of coffee for the designated drivers. Thick enough to stand a fork in, sweet as licking the devil’s hind tit, dollop of cream on top to smooth things out. Served in these tiny little cups he gets from the mosque in Culver City.
All told, the atmosphere’s nice, the people are good and I’ve got nothing to do for a couple of hours until I meet up with my partner. So, feeling good all around. Johnny’s regaling me with stories of his latest conquests. Green eyes. Rich brown hair like old oak. Body like a marathoner. Guy can have anyone he wants. Doesn’t hurt that he works for Cernunnos, the pub god who watches over the older Celtic bars in the city. Charisma’s a side benefit for guys like Johnny; I guess it’s payback for the fact that he is god-spelled to never divulge secrets told to him at the bar. Most of the time, the stuff you’d hear would be trivial but sometimes…
Let’s just say I don’t envy Johnny his job.
Speaking of secrets, I notice the guy at the end of the bar. Hadn’t seen him here before and hard not to notice someone like him. Big guy – and I mean burly big, weightlifter class, wrestle a bear to the ground big. Old man, too. Trimmed full beard, hair back in a loose ponytail white as the Hollywood sign. Lined face, deep and experienced. Eyes—should say eye cause there’s something wrong with one of them but the profile’s away from me in shadow. He’s got a red leather duster on, and when I mean red, I mean dark, dark red; almost black, especially in the lighting in this place. All this in a glance but what caught me was his right hand. As he unfolded it to pick up his drink you could see long white scars across his palm. Lots of them. Must have been painful as hell.
I saw Johnny walk over to him, say something softly, and then grab a bottle off the top shelf to top the old man off. The Old Man thanked him; the accent placed him as someone from Ultima Thule. Far, far north, across a continent and an ocean and hell of a ways east of here. The Old Man was a long way from home.
Johnny came by to refill my coffee. I smiled in thanks “Hey Johnny, how do I get a tab like that?”
Johnny shook his head. “His drinks are on the house.”
I shot another look at the Old Man. Hadn’t heard of a single person who drank here for free. “Studio head?” I asked. “Mayor? Owner?”
Johnny shook his head and went back to his all-knowing bartending ways. I brought my gaze back to my cup. The Old Man’s posture was tired, putting out a ‘don’t bother me’ vibe. The rest of the bar certainly had picked it up. He was there alone. I knew I shouldn’t bother him; probably wasn’t in my best interest. Probably would piss him off.
Hells. I had to know.
I got up. Went over to him. Nodded as he noticed me. “Name’s Dunn.” I said. He cocked his head to one side, and I swear to all the heavens that this slick, nasty piece of work dressed in black just sidles up to the Old Man and whispers in his ear. Then vanishes. All in about a split second. Never saw him come, never saw him leave. My head snapped up. No Man-in-Black anywhere.
“I know.” the Old Man rumbled. And when I say rumbled I mean his voice sounded like it came from the earth, like it could shake the bar off its foundations.
I really didn’t want to say anything more. I wanted to crawl up and go back to my stool after apologizing for ever bothering him. But before I could move, I felt my lips moving. Part of my idiocy, I know. Habits are hard to break. “So, what’s your story?” I asked.
He turned to face me and I got the full effect of the other eye: cataracts, cracked, shards of blue and white like icicles boring into me. His lip curled back and for a moment I thought he was going to throw down. And believe me, being the focus of that anger? I’d be on the losing end of that battle. Then he blinked, shook his head, and before I knew it, he let out a rolling laugh.
“You want a story?” He said.He turned back to Johnny and tapped his glass, getting that instant top shelf refill. “Rank piss and straw.”
“You wanted to hear it.” He replied. “That’s where it starts. Rank piss and straw. It was the smell that told me the Bani Móðir was pregnant again.”
Banny Mudder? What was that? I took a sip from my cup and flinched. At some point, Johnny had apparently re-filled me with something a bit stronger. Tasted like it was the good good-stuff. Hunh. Hoped I wasn’t paying for that.
“I need you to understand, young man…” the Old Man continued “—this isn’t something that happens often. Hel, if I’m very, very lucky, maybe once in a decade. Even less, some centuries. Does it surprise you that I’m that old?”
I offered him a halfway decent smile. “Don’t look a day over sixty.”
He chuckled at that. “And here I thought politeness died with your generation. I appreciate the compliment.” He tapped an upright finger to his forehead for a moment, contemplating. “This thing that happens — when the Mother of Killers gives birth — it is not a good thing when it happens but it always happens like this: she drops the calf about a month early—usually a scrawny little thing—on the Summer Solstice. I have to be there for the whole birth. It isn’t an easy one. And my… companions I suppose you’d call them— they’d be there as well, like a couple of doting hens.”
There was movement next to the Old Man, two young men, intense stares, smirks, one of them the bit of work from earlier. I noticed for the first time that they had some family resemblance to the Old Man. Grandsons, maybe? Only problem was, the Old Man was technically sitting next to a wall, so, there was really no room on the other side to have two full people standing at all. And while my brain was still processing this, the two men vanished.
The Old Man leaned forward and winked. “Sometimes, I wish I had a way of keeping them out of it, giving me a moment’s peace.” He whispered conspiratorially. “But those two bird-brains are like upright cockroaches. Everywhere and hard to get rid of.” He leaned back and smiled. “Still, I suppose I’m being too harsh. After all, they’ve served me for so long they’re like family. Family…” the Old Man hesitated. “I suppose that’s what this is all about. Who we take care of and why. You ever work on a farm?”
I shook my head no. “City boy here, through and through.”
“Pity. Lost art for many. Listen, part of birthing any calf is letting it stand on its own, then letting the mother take care of the birth caul. But this calf… its leg was twisted, deformed. And in that leg, I saw Skuld’s fickle finger messing around in the world. This calf was destined for greatness. That long cold Ride would be waiting for both of us. ‘Bani Hróðólfr…’ I named him, then and there and I held him until he stopped shaking. ‘Bani Hróðólfr. I need you. We need you.’”
The Old Man rolled his shoulders to release the tension, shot his whiskey and growled. “I am as old as the hoarfrost and the Northern Lights. My image is everywhere in the world for at least three months every year. I have a day of the week named after me. But people don’t understand me anymore. They think I’m laughing all the time, ‘jolly’, fat, surrounded by elves. The parties were done, centuries ago. I’m not the most pleasant of the companions and never have been. And elves, light or dark, were never the best company. That’s the truth.”
He took a moment to toss a salute to the stag’s head above the bar. “You understand, don’t you? You old fraud.” The Old Man smirked and turned back and pointed his glass at me. “I am what remains of a very ancient promise, one made to all of you at the beginning of the world. I work VERY hard to keep that promise. I asked for it. I wanted it. From the first time I created a covenant between the people and world to the first time I was forced to make a sacrifice of my… no.” The Old Man put the glass down. His expression darkened and sadness just seemed to ripple off him. “I can’t talk about that yet.”
“You said you made a promise.” I prompted.
“Right at the beginning. A simple one to make, a complicated one to keep—I promised to be there for you.”
For a few drawn out minutes, the Old Man pulled back into silence. Long enough to feel uncomfortable; figured he might be done talking. Johnny did a refill for the Old Man. When the Old Man did start up, it was softer; almost a whisper, like he was ashamed.
“Let me tell you how it’s done. Each morning I go down to the pen. The reindeer all chuff at me and nuzzle my gloves and look for treats. Silly things. Stupid things. Wonderful things. My friends and companions in this long life, boon to my People when they were alive, life to the Saami, my cousins as long as they are alive. And I give them my attention, my love; oh I’m not ungenerous, boy, but my focus remains on the stall at the end. There is the Hróðólfr, suckling, content and in a few weeks I know he’ll be grazing with the rest of the herd, but right now, he’s a mama’s boy. Each time, I carefully take off my gloves and set them aside. I wait for her calf to finish his meal and I then rub his muzzle, as gently as I can.”
The Old Man pats a pocket on his coat. “That piece of horn that I keep in my pocket—this one, here…” The Old Man pulled out the nub of a reindeer horn and you could see the point gleam in the light. “-it came from a Hróðólfr; the first reindeer I named that. It’s only fitting given what I do. You take the tip, like this, see? And tear across the palm.” He made a motion across his right hand; the scarred one. “Yes, it hurts. It always does and when it gets really cold, it gets hard to close my hand. I’ve done this so many, many times the scars never really go away. That why you always see me with gloves in the pictures. But I’m strong, inside. I swallow that pain and let the blood come. Then…”
He lowered his head, closed his eyes and rubbed at a now furrowed brow with the knuckle of his right hand.
“Then I paint Hróðólfr’s muzzle with my blood.” He continued “I know, I know. I understand how it sounds to you, but it’s needed. I need to leave it raw and red and dripping and shining in the growing daylight. Sometimes he takes a lick off it. Just as often, he ignores it. He never backs away, and I give him credit for that. Because I will do this same ritual every day, every morning until the night of the Ride.”
The way he said ‘the Ride’ made me not want an explanation. The Old Man looked up, got a refill and then tipped his glass towards me while looking at Johnny. Johnny nodded and poured a shot in my mug; holy gods that tasted good. “Thank you.” I said, somewhat lamely considering the liquid gold in my cup.
The Old Man chuckled. “I haven’t always been portrayed as kindly as I am today. You know…” He smiled, lost in memory. “—I once had the privilege of getting in an argument with some esteemed scholars; over drinks, of course, because there really is no better way to get into a fight. They put aside the fact, conveniently, that at the beginning of the world, my two brothers died while building It. They glossed over the little fact that my name meant ‘Mad Poet’. They couldn’t picture what a body looked like hanging nine days on the World Tree and they certainly couldn’t wrap their heads around the kind of person who would tear out his own eyeball to get a drink.”
I know I must seem thick but it took until that point to realize who he was — or who he thought he was. If the Old Man saw my reaction, that didn’t stop him from carrying on.
“Not being a well-educated fool, I’ve got a less legendary view of myself. Unlike those academic sots, I’ve had to live with the consequences. And I’ll tell you this: memories are tricky, tricky things. The curse of all ages is that you lose track of time. Some memories stay bright and green and eternally present. Others gray out and move away. How long ago doesn’t matter; only the intensity remains. I remember this young woman I bedded at the dawning of the world.” The Old Man grinned, remembering. “We screamed loud enough to shake the sky. Her hair… amazing; the texture of fine moss after a storm. And a rich, loamy smell to her and between her legs was a tangled thicket in which a man could die happily.” He nudged me at that, almost knocking me off my stool. “Strong, strong legs. As I remember it, she left bruises. A very insistent lover.” He paused for a second. “From that epic wrestling, she bore a child and though his name is remembered to this day, I don’t remember him. My only son by her and I remember the tracing of all the lines across her body. All of them. But almost nothing about him.”
The Old Man’s brow furrowed. “Fierce. He was that. Stupid, but not always so. More in the style of the recklessness of youth than slow in the head. I always imagined he would grow out of it in time. Around the time he was born, I started to realize how difficult my promise would be to fulfill. To be there for for you. I needed to see into the future and to do that, you need to see over the horizon of tomorrow. My woman could not go there with me and I had to leave her behind. My first sacrifice but not the worst. But I saw things there. I saw that all things consider themselves eternal but aren’t. I realized that ancient giant I had slain had never considered a thing like me. And I would not be able to conceive of my own killer. But even if I couldn’t see the details of my death, there was something I could do about it. Power—and wisdom—both were readily available at a price. And that price would always be sacrifice.”
His hands shook slightly as he said that but then he took a deep breath and sat back. “It only takes a little while for Hróðólfr to get used to the ritual. To get used to me. The others, though… the rest of the herd never gets used to the blood scent. They always reject him. Automatically. And when he tries to pair with them, they force him out. Last time, I had to thin the herd to prevent him from being gored, and I don’t like doing that. They are as close to me as my own family, do you understand that? I had to choose between them and the world.”
The Old Man stopped talking and I took a moment. I’d certainly made sacrifices in my live, but hells, none as big as giving up family. Empathy only goes so far; it was hard to wrap my head around how you keep sane when you’ve got choices to make that are that dramatic. I guess he sensed my confusion, because when the Old Man started up again, he stabbed straight at the heart of it.
“Don’t get me wrong, young man. I spend many nights in the company of regrets. So many dead. So many friends gone, shuffled into the shadows of history. Regrets… nothing lasts forever and I am as likely to pass into death as the giants who gave birth to the world. But ending my promise to you is not what I want to be remembered for. So, here’s my dearest secret, Mr. Dunn. Here’s how I pull off the magician’s trick of living forever. And it’s the most simple thing in the world.
I sacrificed an eye and the perspective that goes with it for understanding. I learned that the fate of everyone—everyone!—is inscribed in the bones of the world.
I hunted those bones down—the roots of the tree that stretched between worlds—and then I sacrificed to it. I let myself hang for nine days and get as close to death as I could so I could learn its language. Because once you know the language, you know Spelling. And once you know where Fate is written and if you are very, very crafty and just a touch mad you might be able to change it. Here! I’ll share them with you; the words inscribed in the fabric of the world: The mad poet faces the all-devouring wolf and the mad poet is swallowed whole. The world dies in fire and ice but the good bright lord comes from Death to lead the way into a new world. Those are the words that have meaning to me. Part of the Ragnarok. The end of me and my people. The final battle and the destruction of all my dreams. Unless… unless… How much would you sacrifice to save the world?”
Somewhere out there, later tonight, my partner would be waiting for me. And I knew right them how far I’d go to make sure my partner was safe. The Old Man saw it, saw my expression and shared in that moment. “Yes… that’s it! That’s what it feels like. All the pain, worth it, like that stain I put upon my Hróðólfr, my blood. Or how I can barely curl my hand but I will still hold the reins when the time comes to fly on Solstice night. Still fight. Some sacrifices are more than worth it.”
Some memory crossed the Old Man’s face; I could see it like a shadow. “And some aren’t?” I asked him.
He frowns. “They are.” He sighs. “They are worth it even if they take you to places you never want to go.”
He tapped nervously on his glass, waving Johnny away when he tried to refill it. The emptiness seemed to fill with melancholy.
“I hope you understand, I loved my second son. Honestly, purely, deeply. I loved his mother, too–I swear it to the roots of the world–but I never told her what I was going to do. I couldn’t break her heart like that. By that point, I had ruled for so long. I had taken on so many names. Though the ‘mad poet’ stuck, I was also described as a lord, the Lord of lords, a good and bright ruler. When she gave birth, I waited until the exhaustion set in. As she slept I took the young child and presented it to the stars. I named him Baldr—‘the good bright lord’—one of the many names I too had been called. Even as I spoke the name aloud, I knew what I was going to do. That’s how it started. I sliced my palm open on my spear and gently massaged the blood into his cheeks. ‘Such a ruddy-faced child.’ His nurses said when his mother awoke. Before the reindeer, before the line of Hróðólfr, he was my first and greatest sacrifice.”
I must have backed away from him. He certainly recognized what I was feeling and sneered, angrily.
“Do you remember what last year was like? Did you feel it? Could you hear Him? The Wolf in the World, that old ghost who tears at the roots of the universe. I can feel him, always. And I’m not alone; many others can sense it too though they can’t put a name to it. Maybe you can as well? This is not the wolf of a pack. This is not something sane. This is the lone wolf. This is something that exists outside time and sanity. The focus of all the maliciousness that comes from isolation, abandonment and pain. It slides up into the spaces between your thoughts and it fills people up with a hatred and a fierce greed. This is the Fenris.
When I first fought this thing, so long ago, it had meat and shape and form. It was easier then, even though I knew death couldn’t keep it chained. If we—all the powers in the world—couldn’t chain the Wolf, death certainly couldn’t. The Wolf was the thing that I feared the most. One of the few monsters that could tear down the whole world and I couldn’t allow that; I wouldn’t. How could I abandon the people through my death, to leave them to be savaged by a ghost? There is a deep fog upon the shores of the world; the Wolf’s breath was upon us and I will always ride on the Longest Night to find him, ghost or not.”
The Old Man savagely threw his glass at the wall behind the bar, shattering it and startling the hell out of Johnny. “My son… my second son. I don’t know how his mother found out but she knew what I planned. She raced across the world and claimed favors from everything. I had to go to my stepson to stop her, to stop him and don’t think for a minute I don’t regret that decision. I will owe that deceitful child until the end of time for that favor.”
He dragged his fingers across the bar and I could see the top peel off in small strips under his fingernails. “You see, this is how it works. To all things, they are given a measure of life only so long and then cut. But what if, just imagine, Death could be bribed? Or tricked? Or mollified? Or addled? By the blood of one’s blood. By a presence so strong, it can only be yours. And when this sacrifice is taken, this one who you have cared for so much that you have put a piece of yourself within them, then Death is satisfied. I don’t have to imagine this. On the grave of my second son such a bargain was struck and answered. And no one knew that this wasn’t even my time. That I was banking it for another time to come.”
The temperature in the room felt like it dropped several degrees.
“I haven’t told you about the names, have I? The power has always been in the naming of things and that’s why I am so powerful. My very first name translated to ‘furious of mind and spirit’ in the oldest of languages. My brothers, Strength and Intelligence. My servants, Will and Desire. Bani Móðir, the Mother of Killers. Bani Hróðólfr, the Killer of Famous Wolves. I once wrote a poem about Hróðólfr. Someone else put it into a song. I changed the words on the wall of the world with my writing. A small change: the mad poet faces the all-devouring wolf , the good bright lord comes back from Death. The good bright lord was dead now. Death had already eaten it’s fill. I was the only ‘good bright lord’ who could return.”
For the first time, I noticed blood on the back of the Old Man’s hand, from a chip that had flown out when he shattered the shot glass. Absently, he pulled the chip out and flicked it aside.
“The end of the world is like nothing your mind can imagine. It is flames and it is ice and it is screaming and it is silence. Kin and kith dying around you. The terrible scents of hollow deaths and living agony. At the appointed and prophesied time, I took my place in the battle against the Great Wolf and as I watched my eldest son die impaled on the World-Serpent’s sharp tooth, I died. I jumped down the Great Wolf’s throat, as it was written and I was swallowed whole. All that I was was emptied out and I thought for a moment I would never return. Until I was thrust up onto the gates of Hel and they would not let me pass. I could return so I did. I returned so I could watch after you.”
There was a clink as something solid hit the bar, breaking the spell. A bottle, old, covered in dust. Johnny nodded back to the stags’ head. “Compliments of the Master of the House.”
That seemed to defuse the situation for the moment. Slowly a twinkle returned to the Old Man’s one eye as he pulled off the cork and took a swig. He off-handedly offered me some but I politely indicated I’d had enough. I recognized the scent of what was in the bottle; summer meadows and sunsets, spring scents and tansy. A faery drink. Not healthy for mere mortals like me.
“I was once known for war… you know that.” He slurred. “Not presents and mistletoe and evergreens but war. Those ghosts Most ghosts were just practice for an old hand like me. But the Wolf’s spirit lingers. So I keep convincing Death to leave me on this side.”
Hróðólfr—the Wolf Killer. Yeah. I got it. The Old Man slipping in a substitute for his own death. Every time for years, centuries; hells, eons probably.
“Let it be swallowed, let it be sacrificed and let me linger.” The Old Man said. “That has been my prayer and it has always been answered. Each time, Hróðólfr dies and I kill the Wolf and I lay there, so near to death that I draw my last breath. And then another one comes as my doom leaves me.”
“And then you come here.” I say.
“And then I come here.” The Old Man agrees. “My present is my presence, the red gift that of my blood and my sacrifice, even in a world that only considers me a jolly, fat, useless old man. Ah… I remember the song I made for him.
In the breath
Of the Wolf,
I call you,
Son of my Making.
Guide my sleigh,
His voice trailed away.
“To Rudolph.” I said, holding up my glass in a toast.
“To Rudolph.” The rest of the bar replied and the Old Man looked up, noticing the rest of them for the first time. He snorted in amusement.
“And thank you, Nick.” I said. “Or Kris. If you’d like. For everything.”
He chuckled and slid the bottle back over to Johnny. “One name is as good as another.” he lied. Then he pulled a furred, beaded cap out of his coat pocket and put it on.
One-Eye, mad poet, giant-slayer, dwarf-cheater, wolf-foe, way-weary wanderer and spear charger. Kind of a jerk. No jolly elf, that one. Odin of the Aesir. Raven God and Yule Father. The door opened, letting in what passed for winter in the City of Angels, a balmy mid-50s, and the Old Man left it all, stepping into the night.
Copyright (c) 2015 William Thomas Maxwell