When Peter returned to the table with two cups in his hand, I started to explain what I’d read. “Odin is always looking for wisdom, so he drags this woman up from the dead to tell him what she knows. She’s an ice giant and a powerful volva, which means a witch or a sorceress. Odin is magically compelling her to prophesize for him.”
Peter put the coffee on the table and leaned over the manuscript . “He brings her back from the dead? Does it say how?”
I shrugged. “No, but it’s not really like that. She’s still dead; he just can make her talk to him because he’s a god. The poem is mostly dialogue. See?” I pointed to what I had written on notebook paper.
“Wanderer, you want me to whisper
Of nine worlds, the nine of the tree
But I am corpse-hungry, hollow from death,
Brittle, worm-eaten. What can you offer?”
Peter read the lines out and shook his head. “This isn’t really what I’m looking for. Can you skip ahead? What about this section here?” He flipped a few pages in the binder and turned it to face me.
I scanned the passage while sipping coffee. “Well, the poem describes each of the nine worlds and how they are connected to the world tree. This is from a section about Muspellheim, the world of fire.”
Peter continued turning pages. “That’s not right either. Maybe we should try a different poem.”
I took the binder from him, leaving it open on a photo of a carved runestone. I pointed to the etching in the center of the stone: a depiction of the goddess Freya transforming into a hawk. “You asked for descriptions of worlds and transformations. Is that not what you want? Maybe it would help if you told me more about what you’re really looking for.”
Peter sighed and bent over, unearthing two more binders from his backpack and dropping them heavily on the table. Then he just looked at me, his shoulders slumped, eyes red-rimmed. “I don’t totally know what I’m looking for,” he admitted. He massaged his temples with his fingers for a moment before glancing up again, his jaw set. “Duncan was studying linguistics with a focus in Old Norse and Old English, so most of the papers I found in his apartment had to do with that, but there was also research into Chinese folktales and I don’t get why. I want to find the connection. So I’m looking for references to China in ancient Scandinavian literature and I’m also looking for whatever you can find about portals, you know, like doors between worlds.”
I stared at him. “You’re looking for references to Chinese portals specifically? In these sagas?” It couldn’t be a coincidence.
Peter misinterpreted my shock. “I know it sounds crazy, but the Vikings traveled all over the place, right? Don’t you think the two cultures could have influenced each other a little?”
I drank the last of my coffee. “I’m going to get a refill. Do you want one?”
I returned to the table with more coffee and something called a gluten free rustic orange torte, which I had pointed to at random but which melted in my mouth, crumbly and bittersweet. Chewing gave me another few seconds to think before picking up the thread of the conversation. “It’s true there was a lot more trade and communication between ancient cultures than people think. There definitely could be something in here. I’ll take a look." I swallowed and stared into my cup before looking up and asking, “Why doors between worlds? Is that a theme you have found in Duncan’s research?”
Peter’s mouth twisted and he appeared to be thinking hard. “Yeah,” he finally said. “There are a lot of myths where people travel from one world to another, like when Freya visits the dwarves to get the necklace Brisingamen or when Loki and Thor go to the land of the giants. But just crossing into a new world isn’t enough. How do they know where to go once they get there?”
I shrugged. “They’re gods. They figure it out.” I watched him silently, trying to focus on the spaces between his words. Whatever he wasn’t saying loomed between us. I ate another bite of cake, washed it down with coffee, and waited for him to explain more.
Instead, he handed me another binder. “I appreciate the help.”
As I thumbed through the carefully laminated pages, I realized this would require patience. But I had a goal now: to draw Peter out, to discover his connection to the Yaoguai, and, if necessary, to obtain his help in stopping it.
It helped to have a goal, but, much as I tried to focus on the mystery surrounding Peter, my thoughts kept circling back to my own quest. I walked slowly over the dunes along Great Highway, passing surfers with their boards and couples on blankets and in each face seeing only the horror of the ghosts I had left in the Valhalla forest. I had never heard of souls who arrived in Valhalla but did not want to be there. Collecting them, I had felt the same thrill that always sparked in the back of my throat when I encountered new warriors, yet these had been too faint-hearted even to enter the battlefield.
My hands deep in the pockets of my vest, I scuffed my feet through the sand, kicking it up in furrows. Would Odin still weigh the Einherjar against my curse if they refused to join his army? And how could I retain my honor collecting such soldiers? If I brought Odin inferior warriors, I would be failing in my duty to the gods. If I transported souls to a place they despised, I neglected my duty to the dead. In that moment, I burned to leave this strange, loud world, wanted nothing more than to sleep in my own bed with Volund’s solid, comforting frame beside me. To return to my own country where the smells of copper, iron, and peat lingered in the chilly mist, where the screeches in the air came from birds instead of machines, and where the tools made sense, smelted from leather and steel. I missed it with my whole body: Valhalla, my cold, bloody, perfect home.
My phone buzzed: a message from Octavia. Hey Sigrid! I’m back, and I guess I forgot the address to your bar because I can’t find it! I must be going crazy! I was gonna surprise you, are you at work rn?
The message sent a thrill into my chest and I found myself smiling despite my sadness. I responded with one of the abbreviations Yixin had taught me, OMW, and took off toward Eikthyrnr.
Ten minutes later, we were running into each other’s arms. For a long moment, we held each other. I felt her relax into the embrace. Her chin rested on my shoulder, and her shoulders shook gently. When she looked up, her face was streaked with tears.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying.” Octavia laughed a little brokenly. “It’s just good to see you, and I guess I was holding a lot in. It was a weird Christmas. I don’t usually cry like this! Ok, to be honest, I’ve always been a crier. I cry every time I watch The Lion King. I even cried reading Oedipus Rex in college.”
I took her arm and led her out of the Sunset District’s usual chilly fog and into the bar. “Can I get you something? Want to hang out on the roof again?”
She shrugged. “Water’s fine. Let’s just sit at a table; it’s cold out.” She looked back at the door and added, “I can’t believe this place was right here and I didn’t see it.”
“The sign’s kind of hard to see.” I took a pair of mugs from behind the bar and turned to my row of taps. “Are you sure you want water? You should try one of these folk beers.”
After we had comfortably ensconced ourselves on one side of a booth, I turned to Octavia. “Do you want to tell me about your Christmas? Was it weird because you missed your mother?”
Octavia sat slightly hunched into herself, her thin shoulders bent as she stared into her mug, her brown hair curtaining her face so that I could barely see her eyes. “Yeah. I can’t decide if it would have been better or worse for us all to have just acknowledged it instead of trying so frantically to pretend everything was normal.”
We sat in silence for a few moments. “What would have acknowledged it?”
“I don’t know.” She sipped her beer before adding, “Maybe just saying, ‘screw it, this sucks and we’re sad?’ It would still suck, but it’s just so exhausting to put on a brave face all the time. It’s like none of us are allowed to have emotions because we don’t want to upset anyone else, but then we’re all alone in the same house.” She leaned against me in the booth and I put my arm around her, basking in the warmth of her body. “Do you ever feel that way around your family?”
I thought about my family. It was like trying to recall a half-remembered dream. Had I ever felt alone in my own house? The longhouse of my childhood had been full of people: the master and the mistress of the house, my own parents and siblings, and everyone who worked on the farm or returned from the spring voyages. The smoke and noise had been as cacophonous as in Valhalla, and my days had been packed with chores and training. I never had a moment quiet enough for loneliness.
In Valhalla, though, as autumn became endless, as we hacked our way through the same opponents day after day and no one else seemed to notice how little was changing, I had begun to feel alone.
So I nodded and tightened my arms around her as she snuggled into me, the wooden bench cool against my back. “Yes. I know how it feels when there’s something terribly wrong, and no one seems to realize it but you. Or the feeling that somewhere down the line everyone made a pact not to talk about what’s important. When you feel that even acknowledging the problem would somehow be creating a bigger one.”
“And that one would be your fault,” Octavia muttered. She cleared her throat and added, “I know…I know talking about it won’t bring mom back or fill the house with her laughter or bring back her stupid Christmas donut recipe. But at least I’d feel less alone about it. Fuck, Sigrid, I feel like I’ve lost the rest of my family too, sometimes. We’re all shouting into the void.”
I didn’t know what to say. She sniffed, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “It’s nice to see you again. Sorry I’m being such a bummer.”
“I don’t mind.” I hugged her and we sat in silence, sipping our beers. “I did have a question for you, though, if you want to talk about something else.”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“It’s about my character. Well, not exactly about my character, more about Valkyries in general. Well, more about Valhalla.” I was stumbling. How could I explain what had happened with the ghosts without explaining anything else?
Octavia chuckled. “Spit it out, girl. What’s on your mind?”
I took a breath. “Would you want to go to Valhalla?” I stared straight ahead, afraid to hear the answer.
“What, you mean like if I died on a battlefield?”
“Yeah. Or however you died, actually. If you died and you had the choice to go to Valhalla, would you go?”
“What would my other choices be? Purgatory, Norse Hel, Christian Heaven? Is reincarnation an option? Would my ancestors be there?”
I almost laughed. “I can see why you’re friends with Peter.”
I could hear the smile in her voice as she said, “Yeah, me and Grasshopper do like our research. So?”
“Your ancestors probably aren’t there, and you don’t know what your other options are. You have to choose: Valhalla or the unknown.”
“Then most likely, no. I would choose the unknown.”
“Why? Why would anyone refuse to go to Valhalla?”
Octavia put her feet up on the seat and snuggled deeper into my arms. “Well, think about it. Valhalla is supposed to be paradise, right? But it’s only paradise for a very specific culture. If I’d been raised in a warrior society to believe there was no greater honor than fighting, I would probably be stoked about fighting and drinking for eternity. But this is the 21st century and even soldiers know that war sucks. Violence is fucking traumatic, dude. If I died violently, I would want to go somewhere peaceful where I could heal, not to another battlefield to collect more wounds.”
“But the violence in Valhalla isn’t traumatic!” I protested, “The violence in Valhalla is like a game: you can’t die and you can’t even really get injured. It’s supposed to be fun and challenging. It’s rewarding because you get better at it. And it isn’t only fighting and drinking: there’s good food, there’s poetry, there’s even music.”
“Hey, calm down.” Octavia sat up, twisting to look me in the face. “Hey.” Her voice was gentle. “You’re really upset about this, aren’t you?”
She took my hand and turned it over, tracing the lines of my palm with her thumb. “It’s ok to want to fight,” she told me. “You’re angry. You want to throw yourself into battle. That’s ok. But not everyone is going to be like that.” She held my gaze, her brown eyes warm. “There’s courage in refusing to fight, too, Sigrid. There’s honor in respecting that not everyone wants what you want.”
“I don’t know if I can respect it, though,” I realized.
“You can.” She leaned forward and kissed me.