Grief is a knife, sharp edge turned in, lying on a folded napkin. The plate is an empty plateau I cannot bear to climb. There will be no celebration. Do you remember, my love, when you fed me plump cloudberries from your scarred hand? You caught the juice that ran down my chin with your tongue.
Or soon after: “Here, Wife,” from under the marble arch. “Here is my victory. It is yours.” You knelt in front of me, while I straddled your throne. “My throne is yours,” you said, and sweat from your damp hair spilled on my thighs.
And now, what of our sons, All-father? Do you seek them in the holy empty space with your holy empty eye? What of Baldr? I loved him first, while he swam in my womb. I loved him even more than Hodr. I shouldn’t say so, but Hodr’s blindness frightened me at times. And was I wrong? He was so easily tricked into flinging the mistletoe, that tender enemy, into his brother’s heart?
A child is a sucking chest wound that never heals, pressed upon to cause pain. They grow older, call us Mother, and forget us. We become an afterthought: the wound seeps and bleeds. Our sons, they drift away to orbit around other suns, other women whose breasts provide different nourishment.
I blame Hodr, but I am at fault. Loki tricked me first.
“No, Wife”, you say, “How could you have known?” But I, mother of all mothers, how could I not consider every small thing? That’s the way of mortal mothers: feed, bathe, clothe, love, but leave the pot boiling or the door unlocked. Remember the monsters, but forget the unlatched gate. Mistletoe has become my swinging gate.
When Loki in robes, Loki with a maiden’s mouth, asked why Baldr could withstand spears, arrows, and the mighty blows of his brothers’ fists, I should not have answered. Oh, I should not have been so proud of my beautiful boy.
“All but the mistletoe, but it is too young for oaths, and what damage could it do?” I said, and poured more wine.
Now I weep and you stare out the window, unblinking. You weep and I stare at you. Your darkest freckles are an unnamed constellation on your marred cheek.
Are you thinking of your other sons, perhaps? Or Thor’s mother? Jord, giantess, who smells of loam and seed and wheat.
“I only think of you and our son,” you say, but the lie is obvious in the way you do not even turn to me or take my hands.
I cannot stand to think of others at this time.
I do not despise the weight of your heavy head at my breast, but the scent of blood makes me weary. I cannot bear it tonight. Poor Hanna flung herself on the pyre with Baldr. Perhaps I should have done the same. Your brothers, Vili and Ve, offer flesh for comfort. What fools you all are. You turn the words in my mouth to ash.
I cannot bear to pace these empty stone halls alone. I can hear Baldr and Hodr rounding corners too quickly, I can hear them squabbling, and laughing. This is a place for ghosts, not gods. Why do you not come for me?
“Please,” I cry. “Please, who will help me?” But who answers the pleas and prayers of a god? Certainly not you, dear husband.
Only Hermod, yet another marching in your parade of sons, comes to me. “Great Mother,” he calls me. I want to slap his slender face. I am no one’s mother now. Even as all those hopeful women pray to me, send their pleas worming into my brain, I ignore them. I do not wish to grant children and comfort to anyone right now. Perhaps never again.
“Great Mother, what can I do? I will ride Sleipner to the halls of Hel herself if you wish,” he proclaims, on his knees.
Your boys are always throwing themselves on the ground and begging for danger. This time, I don’t mind.
So I send Hermod to Hel, because I have nothing left to lose. Perhaps Loki’s fearsome daughter will release my son to me.
I cannot rest while I wait for news. I pace and worry at the edges of things – hems, curtains, memories. Baldr at three, golden, his small fingers yanking your beard. Baldr, a bit older, peering into the abyss of your eye socket. Baldr and Hodr arm in arm, laughing- the sun and the moon, together. All those pretty blonde women flashing around them like stars.
Hermod returns so delighted with himself that he resembles Baldr in his bearing, despite his weaker chin and thinner hair.
“Tell me of him, did you see my son?” It is I who begs from stiff knees this time.
“He is seated in a place of honor, Great Mother. Hel feeds him fish and berries from her own hands.”
“And Hel, what has she said? Will she not return my boy to me?”
“She bade me give you this message, ‘Great Mother, my ransom is this: if Baldr is truly so loved and missed, let all living pay the price of his return in tears. Let all weep, and I will return him. If even a single creature does not bear the loss, then he will remain with me.’”
That half-faced girl toys with me.
“Her father’s daughter,” you murmur, and I wonder, All-father, if you’ve had her as well.
All weep, save Tokk, that stubborn giantess bitch. The ground is salt-brined with sorrow. The mistletoe cries out the loudest. But Tokk will not save my son for me. Not even a sniffle. I beg. Tear at my hair and breast. I send her great baskets of fruit, casks of wine, all manner of beast and bird, dressed in their own rich juices. I offer your victories and my own. The sun itself. And still, Tokk will not bend.
Could you not ply her as you have so many other giants? Stroke Tokk’s hair, suckle her breasts. Even take her across our throne, legs splayed wide, grunting under your fingers. I suppose that would be too much to ask. You will not drop your trousers to save our Baldr? Pin your hopes on Thor then, that brass-hammered cretin.
Give my son or give me justice. Do not sit there and demand that I be reasonable.
I spit on you all. “My love,” you protest, but you drift off without expending the effort an argument would require.
“It is done,” you say, and order a feast such as none have ever seen. It’s a foolish request; one buckling table is the same as the next, much like one drunken guest resembles any other. I do as you ask, though. I am too weary to argue.
You stare out the window, and I stare at you. The plates are full, the feast begins. Your pale gaze rests further out, perhaps on the edge of time itself. The earth trembles, the glasses shake, and oddly enough I see you smile.
All-father, you look almost happy, reveling in your tale. Your laugh rumbles through the hall like thunder as our guests mock Loki, pinioned and bound by his own son’s grey, ropy entrails, angry serpent overhead. “When venom drops on his skin he writhes and screams. He fathers earthquakes rather than children now.”
But there is also Sigyn, Loki’s poor wife, stuck holding such a small bowl. How frequently she must turn away to empty it on the floor! As if it were her fault, as if she played a part.
I forget how alike you and Loki can be, with your games, and your constant need for victory. I wonder if sometimes you love your losses as sons; they are an excuse for yet another battle. As long as that battle has no true purpose. Where was your sword when I needed it most?
No matter what devices are employed to torment the monster, they will not bring my Baldr back. Still, I must admit, when the ground shudders, I feel a little more like myself again.
Ani King is an oddly reliable whisky drinker located in Lansing, Michigan.