“Hey, no worries,” Octavia smiled at my stricken expression. “You look good in street clothes.” She winked and handed me a five-dollar bill. “Can I get one of those house meads?”
For a while, I busied myself behind the counter as Octavia leaned on her elbows, staring into her glass and watching the mead swish in the candlelight. I kept opening my mouth to speak then clamping it shut as I remembered my oath to SFAIS. I felt my eyebrows furrowing.
Octavia gently nudged my elbow across the table. “You look very serious. What are you thinking about?”
“A poem.” The words escaped my mouth before I had time to think them through. At least it was better than where my real thoughts lay: with my enforced secrecy and failing quest.
Octavia looked delighted. “What poem?”
I cast about, and a few lines from the story of Helgi came into my mind. “Late will you have hoard of rings, battle-tree fierce or shining fields,” I recited, amazed at the way the words appeared in English as easily as my own thoughts. She kept quiet, so I continued. “The eagle screams soon if you never speak. Though hero, hard your heart will cry.” I bit my lip, feeling awkward as she continued to stare at me. “It’s part of a saga my friend Bragi used to perform,” I explained. “A Valkyrie appears to the silent hero Helgi and tells him he must start commanding his destiny.”
“I like it. It reminds me of that poem by Auden: ‘Look if you like, but you will have to leap.’” She recited a few lines, and I felt the arm ring tingle as my own breath caught at the unfamiliar words. Octavia smiled at my reaction. “It always makes me feel like that, too,” she said, “As if I’m standing on the front step of my mom’s old house, waiting to step off into my destiny. Thrilled and terrified.”
“That’s Tyr,” I said. “The warrior spirit. The fear and excitement combining into purity of purpose.” I traced the rune on the bar’s surface with my fingertip, finding comfort in its strength. I looked back up at her, suddenly curious. “Do you feel that way often?”
“Not often. Occasionally, I guess. Before I perform with my band when I have a solo. Sometimes when I would speak at LGBT panels in college.” She pondered for a moment. “I have a memory from when I was a kid, back in Michigan with my sister Maggie. We were standing at the top of a slope so steep it was more like a cliff, and below us the woods were spread out like an ocean but all deep greens and little white flowers. I remember Maggie looked at me, and I looked at her, and she asked, ‘Can we?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ And then the two of us just took off as fast as we could into the trees. We were grinning so big, we felt like we were flying.” I could see her whole face light up. “We were out on our own, exploring. I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten. It felt like we were leaping into a new world.”
I nodded. “I love that feeling. I usually just get it when I’m fighting. Sometimes I think it’s what the moment after death must feel like.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, nobody knows for sure what happens after you die,” I said, realizing as I spoke that it was true even for me. I used to think I knew where the dead went: Valhalla, Folkvangr, or Hel, but since my arrival in San Francisco I found it less and less likely that those were the only possibilities. I continued, “Whatever it is, it’s got to be something different from anything we’ve known so far. Imagine a warrior dies in combat and is taken to Valhalla. Don’t you think that’s the feeling they would have? The terror and excitement, the leaping off into something new?”
“Huh. I never thought of death that way. That makes it sound more like a beginning than an ending. Of course, to the people left behind it certainly never feels that way.” For a moment, her eyes looked bleak. Then she smiled at me. “Is that how your Valkyrie character finds her souls on the battlefield? She searches out the ones who leap into death with wild abandon?”
I thought about it. “Actually, no. I’ve always thought Odin’s warriors were chosen because when faced with great danger, they held on to life the hardest.”
“In that case, your Valkyrie should check out the oncology department of UCSF.” Octavia laughed bitterly. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone fight harder than cancer patients. I didn’t think it was possible to survive some of the stuff my mom went through. I guess it wasn’t, in the end.”
That bleak look was back in her eyes, her jaw clenched. I shivered, then reached out and awkwardly patted Octavia on the shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” She sat silently for a moment before draining her glass. “I think I’d better get home. We should hang out again, though.” She pulled out her phone, glancing at me sidelong. “Want to exchange numbers?” she coughed uncertainly and added, “So we can get in touch.”
I nodded, beaming. “I’d love that.” I pulled out my brand new phone and turned on the display the way Yixin had showed me. Then carefully, reverently, I found the right screen and plugged in the number as she recited it.
“All right, I’ll see you later then.” She hopped off her stool just as a couple of new customers approached the bar. I waved and got back to the business of pouring drinks.
At first I struggled to fit my new SFAIS responsibilities into my daily rhythm. My new ability to hide my wings did not extend to changing my clothes, and Yixin helped me purchase some shirts, trousers, and vests that could pass for ordinary or what she called the “NOT renfaire” look but still help me feel a little protected. I felt naked without my armor and strangely light all the time, as if, even wingless, I might accidentally leap too high and become untethered from the earth.
After my first shirt destroyed by reappearing wings, I insisted on cutting wing holes into all of my shirts and vests. I utterly refused to wear a bra. I didn’t even want to imagine those uncomfortable straps cutting into my wing joints.
As the weeks went on, the members of SFAIS relentlessly trained me for the modern world. Nearly every day someone would show up at my bar for the purpose of taking me out on patrol. I walked the length of the Mission with Toci and Coyote, ambled along the Embarcadero with John Henry, and patrolled my own neighborhood with Fergus. I began to accept not just the technology and noise of the city but also the magic curled in its corners. With John Henry, I visited an elderly woman in the Bayshore who had the power to twist luck. Later that week, Coyote and I spent a day exploring Pier 39, and I ate a hot fudge sundae from Ghirardelli Square while he spoke with the chief of the sea lion clan.
At the Kabuki Theater in Japantown, I saw my first movie with Yixin. She challenged the Kitsune fox-spirit behind the counter to an exchange of insults that would have impressed even Odin, and which somehow resulted in all of us sharing beer as we watched trucks explode on the huge screen. I watched characters paint their mouths silver and shout about Valhalla, feeling both shocked and pleased at the strange way my home had been coopted into this modern story, and at the same time, feeling lost. I kept waiting for that tug to pull at my spirit, waiting to step into the Otherworld and offer my hand to these dying warriors. I knew they were only characters in a play, that they were not really dying. But where were the real warriors? Each time I wandered the city with one of my new mentors, I found myself twitching at noises and shouts, guiltily, desperately hoping for a death.
One afternoon halfway into December, it finally happened. Fergus and I were walking our usual downtown route from Union Square to Market Street. Bicycles zoomed past us, taxis and ride-share cars blocked lanes and honked, trucks backed up, and strangers asked for change or complimented each other as they wandered into the street. The air smelled like urine and car exhaust, and Fergus had turned to gawk and snort at a shouting match between a bearded cyclist and a driver when I felt it: that perennial tug. I whipped around, staring each stranger in the face. Was it the ragged woman sitting on the curb with a pipe in her hand? The red-faced cab driver?
I felt as if the world had stilled. “If you have to block the bike lane, at least watch where you’re going!” screamed the cyclist, waving his hand in a rude gesture I had only recently learned from Yixin. The taxi driver gestured back and leaned on his horn until the light changed and the cyclist started pedaling. He was still looking toward the taxi when a huge brown vehicle with no side door veered into his path.
At the screech of truck and bicycle colliding, I jumped back to the sidewalk, heart thudding in anticipation. I watched both bicycle and rider fly into a parked car and land with a clatter of steel and a crack of breaking bone. The driver of the truck swerved too late, hitting a telephone pole with a crunch and a splinter of glass. The taxi remained unscathed.
I stepped carefully over the wrecked bicycle to examine the man. He looked to be in his 20s, and, despite his slim build, might have been indistinguishable from many of the warriors already in Valhalla. “Robertson Harris?”
“Holy shit!” The ghost of Robertson Harris was on his feet, already shaking his fist at the deliveryman in the dented truck. “Watch where you’re going! Christ, man, you almost killed me! What the hell is wrong with you?” He stepped over a piece of metal and looked down, his face slowly blanching as he took in the sight of his own broken body.
I laid a hand on his shoulder and repeated his name. “Robertson Harris, your time on Midgard has ended, your thread snapped by the Norns.” He stared at me, bewildered, so I clarified. “You’re dead.”
He bent, trying to lift the body below him, but succeeding only in passing his hands through it. He squinted up at me. “No shit.”
I kept my face stern, attempting for regal, though inwardly I wanted to laugh. We were both fading quickly into the Otherworld, and the chaos of the road had slipped into mist. I felt my wings settle comfortably around me and pulled my spear from my new wing-sheath. “You have a fire in you, Robertson. You died fighting and furious. Will you come with me to Valhalla to join Odin at his table? To fight until the end of days?”
Robertson started to giggle. Soon he was leaning over, hands on his knees, tears streaming down his face as he gasped for breath. I watched him, a little concerned. After a couple of minutes he sat down on the misty Otherworld tarmac and sobbed.
I stood awkwardly, my joy receding a little. I might have to get used to this, I thought. In a world that didn’t know about Valhalla, not everyone would be happy to see me, and most would not joyously face their deaths.
When he looked up at me again, though, I could see a wry almost-smile peeking through his bloody, matted beard. He took a shaky breath. “Honestly, this is not the afterlife I was expecting.”
“Do you want it?” I asked, trying to sound impassive.
He hesitated. “Is my granddad there? Do I have other options?”
“Your grandfather will not be there,” I said. “I can offer only one path. If you refuse it, I do not know what other paths may be available to you.” 900 years before, it had been possible, though rare, for a warrior picked by Odin or Freya to choose the cold grey world of Hel instead.
Now, I watched Robertson’s face, my jaw clenching. This man was only my third soul in nearly two months of searching. At this rate I would never collect nine nines in a year, but each death still reinvigorated my dedication to the quest. I needed him to accept my offer so that, instead of wavering between hope and despair, I could inch a little closer to the hope side.
Robertson sighed and pushed himself to his feet. “Ok,” he said, holding out his hand. “There’s no going back, right? Let’s go. You think I can get a new bike in Valhalla?”
We arrived less than an hour before sunset. The Einherjar had already collected themselves and disappeared into the hall. The blood had sunk into the boggy ground, and the battlefield was almost picturesque as we walked across it, mist twining silkily around our ankles. We squished our way across the usual muddy hillocks and approached one of the massive doors.
I turned to Robertson. We could already hear the roar and clamor of the party inside. “I might not get a chance to talk to you again for a while, but don’t worry. Look for Olrun—she serves the mead—or Signy the golden-winged. They’ll take care of you. And find Volund Smith; he uses a combat wheelchair and he’ll be able to make you a bicycle if you ask.” He gaped at me, but before he could ask any questions, I pushed open the door and gestured him inside.
The crowd swallowed us immediately. I almost lost Robertson in a swarm of excited warriors clapping him on the back and shouting unintelligibly, but I managed to spot Thorstein the Red and wave him over to help. With his massive frame and wild red beard, he looked like a Norseman from one of Midgard’s cartoons. He gestured to Gloria, who tapped Signy, and the two of them found a space at one of the long tables while Thorstein cleared us a path through the crowd.
As Robertson and I reached the table, Gloria startled me by jumping up and giving me a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. I hugged her back, feeling something in my chest unknot slightly when I saw her wide smile. Olrun and Rufus glided through the crowed as smoothly as swans, each bearing horns and a pitcher of mead. After passing out the drinks, Rufus gave me his own big grin and a warm handshake. “Everybody’s listening to my stories” he told me, “And Olrun here’s been teaching me some of what she sees in the bowls. I never knew you could use beer like a crystal ball!” He grinned at Gloria and added, “We’ve been training hard, but I don’t know what the hell’s in the food here because I don’t even get tired!”
Gloria nodded and clinked horns with him before draining hers dry. True to her new name, she had dried blood splattered across her tunic and the bloody fur of a lynx draped over her shoulders. Signy noticed my look and snaked her arm around my shoulders. “I took Gloria hunting a couple of days ago,” she explained, “and I’ve never seen such patience. She’s planning to make a fur cloak. Speaking of which—“ she looked me up and down “—what in the nine worlds happened to your clothes? Where is your armor and shield?”
I had just opened my mouth to respond when the table, the crowd, and even Signy’s arm began to dissipate. I shrugged at my gathered friends, new and old, and let myself fade away.
“You know, at some point you should travel across the bay and meet me in my neighborhood,” said Octavia. “If you can fly, I don’t know why I’m always coming to you.” My phone had buzzed with a message from her just as I’d landed on the Eikthyrnir roof, and now we were sitting comfortably at one of the tables. For once, we had the whole bar to ourselves. “So, what do you think?”
“About Peter? I’m still not sure what he wants.” I sipped from my mug as I thought about her proposal. “If he finds documents in my language I can help translate them, but I don’t know what he’s looking for. I’m not exactly a scholar. I didn’t even learn how to read until I was older.” In fact, I hadn’t learned how to read until I was already dead. Odin and Olrun had taught me to read the runes because it was required for most magic in Valhalla.
Octavia shrugged. “That’s OK. You can read now, right? English and Swedish?”
“Yes, of course.” I had no idea if this was true.
“Can you read the Viking runic writing, too?”
“See? You must have studied for years back in Sweden. Are you sure you don’t have a PhD? You’re a total scholar. Anyway, Peter’s been trying to finish his brother Duncan’s mythology research, like I told you. You’ve probably done a ton of research for your Valkyrie act. Maybe you could offer a new perspective.”
I frowned. “Possibly. Is he studying Scandinavian legends?”
“In part, yes. It’s kind of a macro look at cross-cultural myths that involve portals. I know it sounds nuts. But neither of us have a conventional understanding of crazy, and I think you should give him a chance.”
I stared at her. “Cross-cultural what?”
She laughed. “I knew I wasn’t clear enough. Peter explains it better, so you’ll have to ask him for more details, but I’ll do my best. Do you know the many worlds theory?”
I shook my head. “I know that there are nine worlds connected by Yggdrasil, the world tree. In Norse mythology, at least,” I added hastily.
“Sure. That’s different, but it’s a little similar. The many worlds theory is a physics theory that also shows up in a lot of fantasy and science fiction. Basically, it’s the idea that there are an infinite number of parallel universes and an infinite number of possible timelines. Every time you make a decision that changes the course of your future, a new world branches off where you made a different decision. So, there are worlds where you stayed in Sweden and never came to SF, for instance, or worlds in which your parents never met or in which America never got colonized, even worlds where life didn’t form on Earth at all. It’s called the multiverse. Peter’s brother was studying references to the multiverse in various mythologies and folklore. He was looking for clues that people in the past had found ways to communicate between universes.”
I took a moment to digest this, but felt more bewildered than ever. How could there be an infinite number of choices when our fate was laid out by the gods? Were there an infinite number of gods also? “Do you believe in this multiverse?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Octavia shook her head and added, “I go back and forth on it. Duncan used to insist that he’d seen another world, but he was also doing a lot of drugs before he died. Sometimes I think Peter’s on to something, other times I think he just focuses on the research to honor his brother’s memory. Either way, he has read some really interesting stuff, and I know he’d appreciate another perspective.”
I thought about it for a moment, leaning in my chair and savoring the odd feeling of the wood against my wingless back. On the one hand, I felt that SFAIS would probably want me to speak with Peter about his mythology research just in case he stumbled upon some actual magic. On the other hand, perhaps my involvement would endanger my own identity, a secret I’d already proven to be pretty terrible at keeping. Then, of course, there was Volund’s armring. How would I know if it had reacted to Peter if I didn’t spend more time with him?
In the end, my own desire to learn about Peter’s research trumped my awareness of the possible risk. It wasn’t the first time my curiosity overcame caution. Nor would it be the last. “That sounds pretty fun, actually, “ I admitted.
Octavia grinned. “Awesome. I’ll give him your number and he can text you.”
We clinked glasses and the conversation moved on to other things: poetry, the jazz group, the antics of Octavia’s sillier undergraduate students. Yixin had showed me how to collect music on my phone, and I was excited to show Octavia some songs from a band that combined traditional Norse music with what I had learned was called electronica. Octavia, in turn, jumped up, propped her phone in an empty glass, turned the volume on high, and held her hand out to me. The phone rattled and the music filled the small space with a joyous, bouncy beat. “This is Janelle Monae. Come on, dance with me!” Her hand still held out, she began swinging her hips to the music. As soon as I stood up and took her hand, she spun me in a circle. I laughed and tried to follow her lead.
After just a few minutes of sweaty, dancing laughter the song changed and I found myself in Octavia’s arms, swaying gently. Her hands were warm around my shoulders, and her cheeks glowed. My breath caught suddenly, but she only moved closer and rested her forehead against mine. For a long moment, we just looked at each other, our breaths matching. Then slowly, tenderly, she placed her hands on either side of my face and kissed me.