Care for the Dead

This week’s snowy weather reminded me of this tale, so I thought I’d share it with you all...

No one had wiped the blood from her cheek. It could be hers, leaking from the thousand slices that scored her skin. It could be someone else’s, a remnant of the war. She had ripped her way through the guards, her sword singing her rage. They had taken her father, she took their lives. A trade, she thought. Asgard should pay.

But no war host had waited within the golden halls, just Silver-Tongue. Loki had stolen the wind from her sails. The rage from her chest. The steel from her hand. Skadi crumpled to the floor, felled without a single blow. How could she outsmart the Trickster himself?

“You have demands?”

“My father will not be forgotten!”

“Agreed,” Loki answered, his voice greasy on her skin. “His eyes are stars. My father will cast them into the sky, and he will watch you until Ragnarok comes. Next?”

“I wish to feel something other than this. I wish for joy.”

“Your life will be one long joke, the punchline never-ending.”

Skadi knew the words were turning against her, even as the battle had. Her love was gone. Her vengeance was too. What else could there be for her?

“I do not know how to be alone,” she whispered. And Loki had offered her the companionship of a god. Any god. Hers to pick, if she agreed to his rules. So she reached out for him, clasped hands in an oath – peace for Asgard, a husband for her.

So she was whisked from war to wedding, blood still smeared from brow to lips. Her arms ached. Her heart ached. In her weariness, she chose a soft voice, smooth skin, someone who promised to know nothing of war and all of nature. He offered her the sea, and how she longed to float.

But.

It was a trick (as all Loki’s schemes are, sooner or later). Her husband-lord-master-captor was not soft, or gentle. He was the sea, constantly wearing at her shores. Shifting the sands until her feet were unsteady. Vast, unfathomable, deeper than her understanding went. The water kingdom was not a safe home for a girl made of snow.

So Skadi fled, across the year and over the land, to the highest peak she could find. She called up walls made of ice. Buried the rocks with fields of white. Sent her wjnds racing down the valleys to push men back inside their houses where they belonged. She howled and raged. She cursed the gods. Mortals quaked, and the world was darker.

Skadi did not notice when the girl first came, just that she was there. She knelt at Skadi’s feet, her legs wrapped in blankets but hands and head uncovered and gleaming with frost. Her breath clouded on the mountain-top air, but she did not shiver. She was young, but her eyes held a million unshed tears. She was quieter than the deepest snowdrift, and just as still.

“Your rage killed a man today,” the girl said. “Froze him in his bed until his life drained into my hands.”

“I can’t make it stop,” Skadi said. “I don’t know how.”

The girl just nodded.

“I’m not asking you to. I’ll care for the dead.”

But.

Skadi sent the snows a little shallower the next day. Let the light linger a fraction longer. Her weeping did not slow, but her anger ebbed. She looked into her heart, and named the sorrow she saw there. When she came back to herself, the girl knelt by her feet once more, a silent witness to the goddess’ grief.

“Your sadness killed a girl today,” she said. “Smothered her under a snowdrift until I took the rest of her breath.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Skadi replied. “I’m just so-“

The girl raised her hand.

“Don’t worry. I’ll care for the dead.”

And so it went on, Skadi’s storms slowed inch by inch, the mourning girl’s compassion unshaken. Each night, she offered a reason, an excuse, tried to explain away her pain, and every response echoed the same: I’ll care for the dead. I’ll care. I’ll care. I’ll care.

There was a question in Skadi’s heart, and in her head, but her tongue could not unlock the mystery. She talked of herself, and longed to read the mourning girl’s brain. So Skadi sat. Blood still caked her face, but she cast of her armour at last. Helmet, chestplate, greaves, all thrown down into the snow. This time, she waited.

She waited for a girl with hair as dark as the Allfather’s ravens. Who knew all the sadness a heart could hold, but cared even still. Who arrived in a blink, between one heartbeat and the next, yet seemed as solid as the mountain itself.

This time, Skadi did not wait for the stranger’s sad tidings.

“I am sorry for what I have done.”

“You did what you did because your heart was bursting,” the girl replied.

“They killed my father.”

“I know. I care for the dead.”

“Did you meet him?” Skadi asked. Hoping she had. Hoping she hadn’t.

“If I did, I do not remember. I cannot hold the specific sorrows in my breast or the weight of the world would crush me. I care for the dead, and then I let them go. I let him go on, down the river and into the night.”

A single tear slid down Skadi’s pallid skin. It sliced through the blood, the first to cut through. The question rose through her chest. It closed her throat. It bubbled through her lips.

“Who cares for me?”

The girl raised her hand to Skadi’s face, catching the tear that hung from the curve of her chin. A smile ghosted her lips, and warmed her eyes.

“Do you know why I came?” she asked.

“No.”

“I am not my father’s daughter. He revels in the trick and the trap – in a twisty way out of a tangled problem. They may call me Lokisdottir, but that is not who I am. I care for the dead, so the living can heal. I could care for you, but that’s not my purpose.”

“Then what is?”

“I gave you the space you needed. So you could care for yourself.”

So.

Two goddesses sit on the snow-capped mountain. They tend to their own hearts, and let the winter fall from the world. They may grow to love each other, but also they may not. One showed the other how to heal a fractured heart. The other learned.

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