After Fergus had paid our bill, after we’d taken the trap door back downstairs and, on Sam’s insistence, left the speakeasy through the lady’s tunnel, we wandered up Jones street and joined Clementine and John Henry at a quiet dive bar where dollar bills plastered the walls and a bare-breasted woman presided from a picture frame over the bar. As Clementine, John, and their friend Mary Ellen started a game of pool, Fergus and I matched each other drink for drink.
“You’re never going to beat me,” I announced, slamming my empty glass on the table. “Alcohol brings me strength!”
He leaned over the table and laughed. “I’m a spirit of booze, darling. I’m just getting started.”
As we moved on toward the next bar, a 1930s themed cocktail lounge that Sam insisted we would love, I began to beam with feelings of joy and power. “Check out how much I can lift,” I bragged to my friends. “John Henry, you’re pretty heavy, right? Let me carry you!”
John Henry chuckled, a deep rumble in his chest. “I’m not letting you do that out here on the street, you idiot.”
“Oh come on!” I veered toward him and lifted him without warning, staggering slightly under his huge, muscled frame. “Clementine! Mary Ellen! Jump on, civilians!”
Clementine was choking with laughter, leaning on Mary Ellen as John Henry squirmed. “Let me down!”
“Oh my God,” Mary Ellen’s voice was light and genteel, her pronunciation as sharp as Sam’s. “What on earth happened to the whole SFAIS protocol of secrecy? Are we all showing off our skills now?” She grinned at us, looked around swiftly, then stepped directly through the nearest telephone pole. “Look, no hands!”
Fergus kicked me gently in the shin. “Let ‘im down, you goon.”
I stumbled as I put John Henry back on the sidewalk, nearly tripping over a prone form lying on the concrete. I stopped and looked closer: the man had his eyes closed, and his beard was matted and tangled over grey-tinged skin. As I watched, his body began to blur at the edges. I stood up. “This man is dying,” I said.
Mary Ellen knelt beside him and gently felt for a pulse. “On the contrary,” she said, her voice calm, “The man is dead.”
I looked again and saw that it was true: the man’s spirit had begun to sit up independently of his body. My heart leaped. What battle had he been fighting? Had he lost to dope, as Rufus had? I waited for the street to fade around me, but nothing changed. The dead man stood up slowly and disappeared.
Fergus touched my elbow. “That man’s not yours, is he.” he said quietly.
I faded partially into the Otherworld and looked around in a full circle, unwilling to acknowledge it.
“He’ll be long gone by now.” Sam’s voice slithered over my shoulder.
I turned. In the Otherworld, he appeared to exist only as his shadow. I glanced down at where the outline of his hat spilled across my foot and onto the pavement. “How do you know?”
“I’ve followed folks into the Shadow Land before.” His disembodied voice, suddenly somber, floated eerily in the air behind me. “It never ends well.”
“Sigrid!” I felt someone shake my arm and returned to reality to find Fergus glaring. “You went transparent.” He turned and glared at all of us as Sam reappeared sheepishly in the shadow of a streetlamp. “I know it’s Christmas Eve, and I know it’s the middle of the night, but we have these rules for a reason! Do you want to spend all of tomorrow wiping minds, erasing smartphones, and explaining to Toci that you’ve caused yet another situation?”
“Calm down, Fergus,” Mary Ellen’s voice was flinty. “We’re just having a bit of fun. No one saw anything, and if someone had, we would have taken care of it.”
Fergus’s face grew even redder. “Don’t tell me to calm down, Mistress Pleasant! Just because half of San Francisco knows about you doesn’t mean you have the right to blow everyone else’s cover.”
I gaped at them. “Do none of you care that you just witnessed a man die?”
Clementine threw up her arms, her white shirt glowing in the headlamps of a passing car. “Stop. This conversation is on hold. If you two are going to fight about each other’s legends, we need to get to the next bar and do this with a drink in our hands.” She turned to me where I crouched over the body, searching the man’s face. It was blank, nameless. “Sigrid, don’t worry about him. He’s mortal. It had to happen some time.”
A chime from my phone distracted me from answering, though I don’t know what I would have said. I had two messages. “Yixin just wrote that she’s at a bar called Bow Bow and the singing is especially good tonight,” I announced instead.
As we continued down the street, I checked my other message: a response from Octavia. Thanks. Merry Christmas to you, too! It’s kind of weird since it’s the first Xmas w/o my mom, but we’re all together which I guess is good. Plus my dad and my abuela have been cooking nonstop so I’m constantly eating and also drunk, which helps. How’s yours?
I’d forgotten how recently her mother had died. She would have to be strong this Christmas to help her family through that grief. Strong like her mother had been, like she had said all cancer patients had to be.
I almost stopped walking in the middle of the street.
Of course. The hospital. The oncology department. How could I have forgotten her advice to my “Valkyrie character”? Had I been that lost in those sparkling, ale-colored eyes?
I nodded with fresh determination as I hurried down the street to catch up with my friends. I had a new plan for the next day. For that night, however, the future was simple: drink Fergus under the table and sing as raucously with Yixin as the merriest berserkers in Odin’s hall.
12 hours later, I walked down a wide white hallway, inhaling the scent of death. In rooms and behind curtains, patients slept, visited with family, watched television or read. Some spoke with doctors. There was a fierceness in the air alongside the smells of blood and disinfectant, an anger that only added to the sense of urgency as professionals rushed back and forth, checking machines and bags of liquid. I felt it as I walked faster with no clear destination. My wings, safely hidden in the Otherworld, felt heavy with dread, and I had to pull them forward as if through heavy branches. I didn’t notice quite how hard I’d been pulling until I gave a great yank and felt a pressure suddenly give way. I stopped, startled, and looked around for a place to hide, my gaze catching on an unused cart in the corner. I ducked behind it, eyes on the corridor, and pulled myself fully into the Otherworld.
This version of the hospital had dingier floors and narrow corridors bereft of machines and wall decorations. Most startling, however, were the people.
The hall was packed with ghosts. A few had arms out in supplication. A few had feathers caught in their hands. At the same moment that I realized they had been pulling on my wings, I also wondered: Were these my Einherjar? Had Octavia been right?
The ghosts seemed as surprised to see me as I was to be facing them. They shuffled silently backwards, and I carefully furled my wings, checking briefly that my spear and wing-sheath were intact.
It occurred to me that I should have expected this. I’d been comparing the hospital to a battlefield since I’d arrived, and a battlefield neglected by Valkyries always has its fair share of spirits. I surveyed the ones before me: barefoot and in socks, with disheveled hair and sunken eyes, old and young. The group included no children, for which I felt grateful. I did not intend to take any child to Valhalla.
The spirits shuffled and whispered among themselves before pushing a stocky woman to the front of the group. Despite the frost threading her hair, her face had few lines, and her eyes blazed like the reflection of sun on a black sea. She straightened her spine and looked me up and down: my modern clothes, my wings, my spear, and my elaborately braided hair. “Are you an angel, come to free us?”
I shook my head. “I’m a Valkyrie, sent by the old gods of Scandinavia. I am here to collect those of you who died fighting and take you to Valhalla, should you wish to go.” I held out my hand and clasped the woman gently on the shoulder.
She shuddered at the touch but then leaned into it as if starved for contact. “What is Valhalla?” she asked.
“It’s where Odin, the chieftain of the gods, trains his army for the end of days. It’s an afterlife of fighting, drinking, and honing your warrior spirit.” I spread my wings and stared each of them in the eyes, hoping it would make me seem grand and mysterious. “Well?”
The ghosts burst into a cacophony of questions and whispers. “What about loving? Is there love in this world too? I want peace, not war,” called a long-haired, bearded man whose guitar was still hanging from his shoulder.
“This sounds like pagan nonsense. The devil’s in it, and no mistake!” A woman with severely tied-back hair muttered.
Two emaciated young men stepped forward, one dark-skinned and long-haired, the other pale and bald. They held hands, their knuckles huge against their thin fingers. “We’d like to come. We’ll fight for you, if we can go there together. If our love is respected in Valhalla.”
I nodded, knowing their names as I saw the warrior spirit bloom in their faces. “Alexander, Mateo, welcome. I know you died fighting, and that before your deaths you fought for love. Valhalla would be honored to have you.”
The two of them smiled, still clutching each other’s hands for support. “Anyone else?” I asked.
In the end, I took ten of them to Valhalla. In addition to Alexander, Mateo, and the woman I’d first spoken to, I collected a young woman in a blood-soaked hospital gown, a drawn-looking man in modern clothes, two ragged looking gold miners, two black-haired men with terrible injuries, and a frail woman whose face looked like it had been wiped off and redrawn with paint.
I had not carried so many souls at one time since my youngest years as a Valkyrie, and, like I had in those earliest days, I staggered heavily across the moss at the edge of Valhalla, grabbing a tree for balance. My charges seemed to manage slightly better: several of them landed almost gracefully. The frail woman, Agatha, crouched to touch the mossy ground in wonder. The others took a few careful steps, gazing at the trees and the mist drifting past their knees.
“It’s beautiful,” whispered Olivia, the stocky woman. Her curly hair drifted gently in the breeze as she reached down and gathered a handful of pine needles and ash leaves, bringing them to her face.
As Lee Shao, one of the injured men, turned to inspect the area, his arm untwisted with a jerk. He gasped in pain and gingerly reached for the back of his head where skin had begun to knit itself closed over a hole in his skull.
The spirits examined each other in wonder. Alexander and Mateo stood straighter; they’d filled out and their heads no longer looked too big for their bodies. The young woman in the bloody gown felt her abdomen and legs carefully, a smile blossoming on her face. She did a little jump, then twirled and held out her hand to Hong, the younger injured man. Though his arm was still missing, he no longer limped, and his torso showed smooth skin underneath his torn shirt. He took her hand and spun her, laughing. For a moment, the whole group reveled in their strong, energetic bodies and the sudden release of pain.
The sounds of the battle magnified as we emerged from the forest until we stood at the very edge of the battlefield. I took a moment to soak in the glorious slaughter: the comforting smells of iron and blood, the carefully orchestrated chaos of the fight. Instead of a free-for-all, the Einherjar had formed two opposing armies, and one army had begun to retreat toward the trees, inching the battle closer to my little group.
I heard a whimper and turned to see all ten ghosts huddling together at the edge of the trees, their faces slack with horror. Alexander, white-faced, bent over Mateo, who vomited into the heather. The man in modern clothes put his arm around Agatha, who was shaking violently. The rest of the group backed carefully away from the fighting. After a quiet, hurried discussion, Olivia beckoned me toward them.
“We want to leave,” she whispered, her voice strained. “This isn’t the right place for any of us. It’s too violent.” The others nodded.
I shook my head, shocked. Who would want to leave Valhalla? Couldn’t they feel the excitement in the air? Didn’t the blood and madness make them feel alive? “I can’t,” I told them. “This is your afterlife.”
The girl in the bloody gown touched my arm lightly, and I peered into her eyes to see her name. Lucy. “It’s ok if you can’t take us to heaven,” she whispered. “Just take us back to San Francisco. We’ll haunt the hospital again. Just take us back. Please.”
I kept shaking my head. “I can’t. No one leaves Valhalla. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Mateo wiped his mouth. “You left, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, just take us out the way we came in. We ain’t even properly arrived yet,” said one of the ragged-looking gold miners.
“Tom’s right. No one saw us. No one’ll ever know,” his friend added. Both miners seemed calmer than the other ghosts; perhaps they were more accustomed to violence.
Hong nodded in agreement. “This is no place for young girls,” he said, his arm around Lucy. “At least let Lucy and Agatha go.”
“I wouldn’t be any help to you, anyway,” said Olivia. “I’ve never been in a fight in my life. You can’t possibly expect me to start hacking people to pieces. It’s absurd.”
I stood silently, arms crossed, waiting for them to have their say. After they had all voiced their complaints, I spoke. “I’m the only person who has left Valhalla in over a thousand years, and I don’t have any control over it. I couldn’t take you away from here if I wanted to. I’m sorry. I thought you had the warrior spirit. Valhalla accepted you, so you will learn to fight. You will come to enjoy it, in time. I promise.”
“No.” Olivia spoke with a quiet finality. “You can keep us here, perhaps. But I won’t fight for you.” The others gathered closely around her, facing me as a united group.
I threw up my hands. “Fine. Stay in the forest. Refuse to fight. Dinner’s at sunset. You can try going to the hall to see if they’ll waste the meat of Saehrimnir on cowards.” I stalked away, spear unsheathed, aching to release my frustration on the battlefield.
Hours later, I sat in a San Francisco coffee shop with a hot mug in my hands, remembering the afternoon’s battle. Peter interrupted my thoughts when he stalked past the self-serve area and dumped his backpack onto the table. I raised my coffee in greeting.
“Hi. Thanks for coming.” He shuffled around in his bag and pulled out a notebook filled with documents; as he flipped through it I could see that some of the papers were each encased in a clear, hard material, presumably for protection. Finally, he found the page he wanted and pushed it across the table at me. “How would you translate this?”
I glanced over the page then read it more slowly. It felt odd, almost unreal, to read my native language, the language of Valhalla, in this incongruous setting. The words settled themselves in my brain, but I found myself actively unable to rethink them in English despite the knowledge of English that Odin had given me. Instead, I read them aloud in the original Norse. Peter leaned over the table to hear.
“It’s a contest between Odin, the chief of the gods, and a giant to see who is wiser,” I explained when I had finished. “Such contests were quite common back then, especially between gods. If you like, I can take it home and translate it properly.”
“I’d rather talk about it here,” Peter moved his bag off the table to clear space. “Translation is a really subjective art. I’d like to you to tell me when there’s more than one way of translating a word, and how you decide to choose.”
I shrugged. “That’s fine, but we might be here a long time. What exactly are you looking for?”
“Specifically, references to different worlds.” He leafed through the binder, his shoulders hunched. “Like here, in this Chinese folktale, when the man stumbles into a house full of ghosts and then when he goes back, everything’s gone. Transformations like that.”
“Huh.” I returned to the Norse pages, looking over it again. “Maybe you should show me some more examples, or I could just explain this to you word by word and you can tell me what jumps out.”
Peter nodded, his mouth quirking into an almost-smile before falling back into its usual morose expression. “I’ll get more coffee and we can get started.”