I was talked to, so I began to talk, and I was read to, so I began to read. Infinite cycles of sleeping and waking, that eventually coalesced into day and night, months and seasons. Feeding and growing, playing with family and friendly beasts: M-O-M and D-A-D, C-A-T-S and D-O-G-S. Our home was protected by the sign of the bear, and there lived Father, Mother, and Baby bear. My first book was "Little Tiger Goes To Bed,” and Father read the story to me until I fell asleep. I had many stuffed beasts to cuddle and hold, like lions tigers, and bears. Oh, my favorite was the snow leopard, though. I celebrated the changing seasons, and played happily on the grass, or in the snow, with the great hounds who guarded our hearth. Winters were warmed by a roaring fire, with a plentiful pantry stocked for the long winter: a fortress of canned goods, bottled summer peaches, Freyja’s homemade apple pie, powdered hot chocolate, smoked-ham, and all kinds of dried foodstuffs. Long hours spent lying in a heap with the giant friendly dogs and cats on the warm rug in front of the radiant, flaming pine logs. When the storms were bad, it was sometimes quite a long time before the roads were clear again, and the wind would howl in the gables like Fenriswulf. But winter always gave way eventually to spring and summer. The woodlands, creeks, and fields became my vast kindergarten under the watchful eyes of EarthMother and Skygods. The Kami-- the spiritual forces dwelling in great trees, and stones, and mountains-- sent their vibes out across the meadow-plains and river valleys. I knew that giants and dragons lay buried under the mountains, but they had gone to sleep long ago.
Over the river and through the woods was the town. A small village, to the lee of a great Oak. Acres of green pasture lands and farm houses, thriving herds of cattle, and fields of alfalfa or hay. Also, the smell of cow shit, burning ditch-banks, and locusts squashed on the highway. At first my family seldom visited the town, but as the town grew our visits became more frequent. The townsfolk remarked our family's absence from the church on Sundays. But we were secure in our canyon castle-cabin, and ventured into town only for supplies or to send me to school. I found plenty to interest me in the surrounding hills and sagebrush, chasing prairie dogs, or catching creeping things in the creek. We went camping, fishing, riding on horseback, and skiing in the winters.
* * * *
I was put on skis when I was four years of age. At first, father bore me aloft on his strong shoulders, gliding neatly over the snow. Swifter than the deer running through the valley. How wolfcubs learn to hunt and young birds start to fly. Allie-üp! A few heavy wobbling steps and off the dropoff we go! Faster, faster, shrieking with glee. Racing across the tundra, down the hillsides and pathways, then pulled slowly by groaning giant metal gears back up to the summit to fly down again. Over and over, full of love and snow and sunshine... Spinning, arms outstretched--Hail to the sun! "Daddy, Daddy look at me!" Cold frost fairies nipped at our noses and ears, sparkling in the ice-crackling sun. Old 90's pop tunes on an old music player. Headphones double as earmuffs when it's cold and bright and sunny.
-Whatcha listening to, kid?
-Sonny & Cher. Cher means expensive in French, Dad.
-Cher is also dear, my dear.
-A deer? *an eyebrow raised in incredulity*
-Dear, as in beloved, ma cherie.
“Soaring, tumbling, free-wheeling through an endless diamond sk”——Whumph! Aaaand the would-be ski ballerina eats snow-slush. Ow.
—Get up and try again.
Back on your snowsteed little war-maiden!
— Just ask yourself, kid: What is cold? What is fear? Only he who knows no fear...
Mercurial blades at our feet-fast as greased lightning. Solomon's patented snowswords, double-tipped and built to last, carved with secret runeS. Fleet fitted feet, scraping and sliding over the snowpacked runways, an awkward birdling, stretching it's wings for flight. Shimmering snowdrifts veiled in diamond dust. Weaving in and out of the towering stately pines, ravens occasionally followed above us in the treetops of the black forest. Thought and Memory. The Gods of long ago were free and life loving like this once— invincible and immortal, just for today.
Then, into the great timbered halls, crammed full of other winter warriors. Queuing up for Meat and Mead. Chili and Chips. Bread and Butter. Cookies and Milk. Bratwurst and Beer. The laughing scrabbling noises of hundreds of platters, forks, knives, mugs, and trays. Groups sit in kinship or friendship at long tables and benches. There is always room at the stone hearth fire. Men laugh loud and coarsely. Kids chatter and shout. Women laugh and cajole sniffling toddlers, overheating in their parkacoats and fur hats. A battery-powered musicplayer minstrels on m3p: the true-bad Doors, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and all the other songs we know by heart. People from all over, from many cities and countries, from everywhere. Some sit at our table congratulating War-father, "Another round for this guy!" Some sit at our table and tell stories of old, of courageous folly. How he laughs, big and loud and coarsely, and plays to the crowd. His tales, tall tales indeed, of snowy knights’ exploits, of nightskiing, of mountaineering, of snowblindness and cliff-faces and avalanches' awesome thunder. A legend (in his own mind).
That was in the olden days.
But he grew old, this knight so bold, and o're his heart a shadow...
* * * *
Traveling was his escape: board an airship to the tropics and don’t look back for a week. We took planes, boats, and tourist trains, crossed many oceans, mountain ranges, and island chains. We parasailed over rough waters, took pirate booze cruises, dove deep in submarines, rode the waves on catamarans, and once did loop-the-loops in a restored WWII bi-plane—nichts fesselt mich an die Erde! [nothing chains me to this Earth!] We drained brightly colored fruity concoctions with paper umbrellas stuck in the straws and bottomless bottles of amber brew with lime. Anything to runaway from the anchor of everydayness that always dragged him down back home. His soul, ever restless, like a jet-setting Wotan or a modern-day Flying Dutchman:
Das Heil, das auf dem Land ich suche, nie werd ich es finden! Euch, des Weltmeers Fluten, bleib' ich getreu, bis eure letzte Welle sich bricht und euer letztes Nass versiegt! [The grace I seek on land never shall I find! To you, ocean-tides, I shall be true, until your last wave breaks, and you are drained dry.]
I later found out that there was another child, my half sister—the result of a few weeks flirtatious fling with a business associate—who never saw her father. Her mother was left with no forwarding address—at least mine knew what number to call when her husband took off with the kid to some beachside hotel. My mother claimed she never wanted to go on these vacations, being far happier at home rearranging the linen closets, repotting the house plants, and redecorating the house for visitors (who seldom came)—das höchste Kleinod doch, ein treues Weib [the peerless gem, a true wife]. But I know she resented it. What woman wouldn’t? Wann wirst du, bleicher Seemann, sie finden? [When will you find her, wan mariner?]
The great-grandson of a sailor, searching eternally for that lost golden salt shaker. (I, too, have gone in quest of this legendary treasure myself, but can confirm it’s not on the floor of any of the dive bars or dusty taverns that I’ve visited so far). Some would have tried to blame his woman, but he’d just smile, shake his head, and tell you it was his own damn fault.
Mein Mädel, wenn nich Südwind wär', ich nimmer wohl käm' zu dir: Ach, lieber Südwind, blas noch mehr! Mein Mädel verlangt nach mir! [My maiden, were there no southwind, I could never come to you! Ah, dear south-wind, blow stronger! My maiden longs for me!]
* * * *
My father took me to Tahiti when I was 13. We bought lychees from a roadside vendor on the way to Paul Gauguin's house. He came to Tahiti to paint (Gauguin, not my Dad—my Dad practically never painted, that is, he never painted anything that wasn't practical) but there were no paintings in his house. Gauguin wasn't there either—he went to live somewhere even father away from everything. He left the girl he was with in Tahiti (who was 13, the same age I was then) in search of answers he still hadn't found. I suppose he finally fell off the edge of the world somewhere, oozing with syphilis and regret.
Years later, I went to museums in Paris and found my father's face in Gauguin's last self portrait. He looked just like him. I sent him a book of Gauguin’s paintings. I don't know if he ever read it. I still have the book—I fished it out of a box destined for the dumpster when my mother was busy downsizing what remained of his office. Although I often looked at Gauguin's face for a long periods of time, I avoided my father's increasingly vacant gaze during his last years.
Willst du dein ganzes junges Leben verträumen vor dem Konterfei? [Do you want to dream away your whole young life before that portrait?]
Kann meinem Blick Teilnahme ich verwehren? [Can I help it if my face shows my pity?]
* * * *
To all who seek freedom and riches in faraway places, who’ll believe the words of a washed up salesman, or who’ll dig beneath the surface of sun-kissed island sands—Beware! All isn't gold that glitters: the treasured boxes you find may hold only moldy maps, worthless credit cards marked with the black spot, and old decrepit bones. For the islands are the last refuge of old & crazy castaways who’ve lost their marbles and most of their teeth, drooling and gibbering over a burnt grilled-cheese sandwich.
Jimmy Buffet was playing for an escapists convention at the Hotel California. "Good times and riches and sonofa bitches, I've seen more than I can recall…” In the hotel bar, crowds of aging, middle-class tourists, wearing khaki shorts with their Tommy Bahamas or tacky T-shirts, ordered refill beers and fruit cocktails and margaritas. Many had begun to look nostalgically back at forty. Some, when enough grog had been consumed, eventually began to sing along to the well-known sea-shanties, soft-rock songs, and maudlin ballads. “All of the faces, and all of the places, wondering where they all disappeared…”
—O, macht dem dummen Lied ein Ende! Es brummt und summt nur vor dem Ohr. [Oh, stop that stupid song, it hums and buzzes in my ears!]
(“Nothing like a pack of drunks," my old man would say.)
Outside, the cruise ship crowds crawled from one bar to another up and down the Duvall St. Strip. The tourists and the queers and the crazies. Waiting for the 2nd-rate drag shows and all-too-ephemeral Happy Hour to start, to while away the tedious hours between dinner and the time when time passes out cold.
* * *
We were sitting in a chic Italian restaurant on Front Street, a safe distance of white linen coved tablecloth, shining silverware, and plainwaterglass barriers between us. Suddenly, he snorted loudly, then he blew his nose in the white linen napkins —who's gonna wash that out?— and reamed out each nostril with it. He looked at my face—disgust— and —shamehurt— didn't know what to say. He recognized the violation of social norms and etiquette (painstakingly instilled during girlgrowth-into-womanhood that had created a picture-perfect specimen of womankind) that he had just committed.
Some faces stared, disgust glinting off the mirrored walls and shiny silverware. He asked me if "it" bothered me --paterfamilias pays the bills, dotes on daughter, lavish with his bounty, —I stared at a bite of tiramisu frozen on a silver spoon, the rest half-eaten on my plate. Said something awkward, distracted staring at silverware examining the wow-what-fine-thread-count texture of my own clean, white, linen, napkin. He got up, took his credit card out of the discreet black, leather "Thank You" folder, putting it back in his wallet, tossed the napkin smeared with snotandfoodwipings on the table on the table, and left. I tossed my napkin on the table too, rumpled, and walked out behind him, ashamed.
Dem Vater stets bewahr' sie ihre Liebe! [May she always love her father]
* * * *
-Of whom were you ashamed? (my therapist asked, in his pseudo-soothing psychiatric voice, his beige tie knotted askew)
-For being so full of bullshit and mortal grossness. Great men aren't supposed to have snot dripping from their noses, and gentlemen don't leave dirty snot-rags for the well-dressed waitresses to find or busboys to clean up.
-Well, nobody's perfect. Mortality is a disease that none of us will survive, and it will probably not be pretty for any of us. What else did you feel about it?
-Ashamed of myself. First, for being so petty as to care about all that social convention bullshit and fancy airs they tried to impress upon me. Second, for following him out, with my eyes glued to the floor in shame, like I was his wife in some repressive society where the women must walk three paces behind their men!
-Why did you do that?
-I don't know.
-I think you do. Why did you do that?
-Because suddenly I felt like the whole trip, the nice meals, the hotels, everything-- it was like I had become an escort he had paid for.
-I see. Did he say anything?
-Did he treat you like an escort?
-Did he ever… touch you, inappropriately?
-No. (and even if he had, I would never tell a milquetoast landlubber like you)
-Well, if you don't feel safe enough yet to share something with me, you don't have to, you know.
-You don't understand….
To question the gifts one has received from a ring-giver in pledges of fealty or bonds of kinship would be disloyal.
So nimm meine Schätze dahin! Sieh dieses Band, sieh diese Spangen [Then take my treasure! See this bracelet, these clasps!]
To give him over to the enemy in return for his gifts would be a base betrayal, punishable by…
Denn wiss', Unsel'ge, welches das Geschick, das jene trifft, die mir die Treue brechen: - Ew'ge Verdammnis ist ihr Los! [For know, poor girl, the fate awaiting those who break faith with me: eternal damnation is their lot!]
* * * *
My father watched all the Star Wars movies with me a million times. (We never got tired of them.)
Star Wars is the new myth. (I've always loved myths, if you haven’t picked up on that). He told me how he never knew his father, but came to know his father was a powerful, if not-very-nice man. He said he always felt like Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. He (my Dad, not Luke Skywalker) became a better man, but still always longed to be powerful.
"Father, I feel the conflict within you—Let go of your hate!"
"It is too late for me, son."
My father was not Luke Skywalker, nor Darth Vader neither.
My father had no son. Only me, and I am no man.
List, O list--for I am thy father's spirit.
Do you believe in infinitely more things in heaven and in earth?
“Do you believe in life after love?”
—Do you believe in life after death?
(What is cold? What is fear?)
—Don't ask me those kinda questions, Dad.
List , O list-- whilst I pour poison in your ear from before and beyond the grave.
Ain Weib, das Treu' bis in den Tod mir hält… [A woman true to me till death]
I don't hate the man that was.
I hate the man-that-never-was, the man who swore false oaths, who forged checks his body and his bank account couldn't cash, who left himself a dribbling, dementia ridden-idiot with only his ex-wife to nag him to brush his teeth and a piss-poor government pension.
* * * *
Many years, a hollowed house sale, a bankrupt sea, and the trashing of many once-very-costly possessions later, I watched my aged father tend his sun-baked bungalow’s backyard. He grew plump grapevines and lush, thorny blackberries, while my mother’s tomato plants shriveled and withered on the vine. I meandered through ripe-rotten berry thickets, watching robins bringing food to their firstborn. The honeybees hummed evenly as they went about their flower shopping. Starling teenagers squawked noisily after their elders had kicked them out. Drunken wasps buzzed angrily after fermented fruit, rasping their jaws on decayed wooden fences. Numerous generations of fat rats and the ratlings they had reared scamped in out of the pyracanthas. Much to my Mother’s annoyance (“Fucking filthy vermin!”), the rodent patriarchs had prospered, despite repeated poisoning attempts and the presence of several local Tom-cat hitmen. Their progeny nested in the garage or crawlspaces, where they held squeaking revels late into the night. I watched them nibble the low hanging berry fruits with confident pleasure — nah, nah, neh-nah, you can’t catch me! Sometimes fascinated young rat faces would peek in my basement windows at night, twitching their paws and whiskers, curious ‘bout why the lights were on at 2 in the morning. I named the rats, and secretly fed them peanut butter under the back porch. My mother bought more rat traps and cursed them unto the umpteenth generation.
(Even now, years after the suburban ranch-house too has been sold, I suspect the rats are doing as well as ever; I saw berry-plant runners poking through the planks of the back fence.)
* * * *
Wann dröhnt er, der Vernichtungschlag, mit dem die Welt zusammenkracht? [When will resound the crack of doom, rending the earth asunder?]
In the dark morning, not in his bath, nor in his bed, but on the floor half-beneath his bed, in the dust and the filth of age accumulated, beside a bedside nightstand steeped in old palm-sweat, my father fell with a Ba-BOOM that shook the house from 2AM silence. There was a pause. Then thunder and shrill wailing pierced the walls with panic and dread.
Holding his head —noble's? courtier's? soldier's?— I, in my hands, held —choking!—eye, tongue, sword—he gargled and gagged like one whose throat has been softly slit. I held his head, ah, qual pallor!- straight, balanced on my hand, his eyes unseeing, semi-rolled back, while I tried to dial three simple emergency numbers on my phone with the other hand—My eyes, will they be like his when I am dead? This same liver-yellow, inanimate blue hue? — my voice spoke calmly to the emergency operator, reciting our address by rote while, from his mouth, I tried to hold back a spittle-slick dried tongue— Breathe-Breathe-Breathe---Breathe-Breathe-- Yes, you once breathed life into me, so live, damn you! Still holding his head in my hand, astride his chest, a calm voice in my head I didn’t recognize counted each breath as through it might be his last, wondered if he were in pain, wondered if he counted each breath when I was born as he held my head in his hands. Could I see my origins in the eyes of this trembling mortal coil? Zeus, his head in pounding pain, once bid Hepheastus split it in two. Breathe—breathe, yes, yes… Labor of love, Wisdom—from his eyes, tongue, from his sword—sprang forth! Live, damn you! If you are not, then what am I? What of mine is not yours? Will something of me die with you--or will some of you still live as long as I do? Breathe--Breathe! A kiss, a kiss of love upon the forehead—Breathe—Another? Fairytales! No kiss of love has the craft to break this spell, if it be the spell of Death decreed by Fate--Breathe--Breathe-- Even Zeus cannot alter that which is (no more?) Breath. Breath---Breath---Breath… "And recall, daughter that as I am you shall become" he told me oh-so long ago.
Four young men, in crisply-pressed EMT uniforms and strong as oxen, bore him from the house, glassy-eyed but breathing, quickly, out into dark mourning. His family-of-two followed. Still strong as a bull, bursting his bonds, as though being born to slaughter but desperate to live, still breathing. May each of us struggle so long and so hard against that seductive sedation, and refuse to go quietly into the void. But who knows the mysteries of the will and its vigor—that is not dead which now enfeebled lies, and in just a few more moments even death may die—To die? To go? He knew not where. Lying in cold mechanical obstruction until rot; he preferred the brief candle be put out upon a burning altar.
Where are all the Gods? Where is War-Father? Wo bist du Vater? [Where are you father?]
He sits in Vallhall, surrounded by Heroes
His War-maidens sit weeping in terror at his feet
Shall we slaughter your horses? (all long dead)
Unmoving, he stares fixedly ahead
Shall we slaughter your hounds? (nearly all dead, the last was vomiting blood last night)
The World-Ash has been hacked down
Shall we cover ourselves in ashes?
Awaiting the doom pre-ordained
[What is cold? What is fear?]
* * * *
Today, my mother and I discussed the funeral (the lack of funeral, actually) arrangements for my father. He's not dead yet, only 70-something,—old-- but still, a multiple stroke victim, in declining heath, and it's best to plan ahead for the inevitable, she says. My mother is going to discuss with him having his body donated to science—the university will make all the arrangements and pay the necessary expenses.
He first read me Treasure Island and Shakespeare— An' all melodramatic 'ee was too--Tales of Pirates and Body Thieves and Wanna-be Kings Spurned by their Murderous Wives—morbid laughter—Dead men tell no tales…
Within a few months, we can have the ashes returned to us, at no cost, a rest well urned.
Wo bist du Vater? Es ist die Stunde….wo sie dich geschlachtet haben.[Where are your, Father? It is the hour… when they slaughtered you.]
Hast du nicht die Kraft dein Angesicht herauf zu mir zu schleppen? [Have you not the stremgth to lift your face up to me, your daughter?]
Funerals are expensive. We will not have the money for one, but he never wanted one anyways, always said so, he did,—not exactly —and as for the burial expenses, well, we wouldn't have money for those either—and I'm hardly going to be carting him around like in As I Lay Dying— so it will really be the best thing, she agrees, for me.
She will discuss this with my father over the weekend. It will put his mind at rest. Dead men tell no tales.
* * * *
He once said he wanted a Viking funeral.
I thought he was just being a showman again, with his flair for the dramatic, but he meant it. We had hiked in the mountains, fished rivers and lakes, built campfires by their banks, and eaten fish. My father always caught many fish.
He asked me to give him a Viking funeral—and I told him I would. He stared at our campfire, cold dark trees to his back silhouetted against a moonlake beyond brimmed over with starry sky. "Like at the end of Star Wars?" I asked. “Yes,” he laughed. We laughed. And I told him I would. Ich gebe dir mein Wort [I give you my word].
Captain Darth Vader goes down with his ship, sinking with burial treasure down to Davy Jones. Swimming with the fishes.
The (created) cremated (all that) remains will be sent by registered mail to us, at no cost.
A rest well urned.
Oh well. Ashes to ashes & all that. An urn will much easier to move than a coffin-wagon.
* * * *
For now, I wait. I keep busy, grinding away at the daily bills-to-be-paid-for type of job he always hated, waiting for the check (and the ashes) to come in the mail. Liebe tötet [Love destroys].
One day, when the funerary ship finally comes in (in an envelope shrouded in plastic), I will take off for a weekend to recall the lost years. I will hike into the mountains, scatter his ashes in rivers and lakes, build a pyre beside the banks, and set it flaming adrift. I will give him a Viking funeral. Not because he deserved it, and contrary to the customs (and laws) of my country, but because I told him would. I will stare at the campfire, and watch the smoky spirits rise. Seht ihr denn mein Gesicht? Seht ihr das Licht, das von mir ausgeht? [Do you see my face ? Do you see the light that shines from me?]
And when the snow comes to the mountains, I will dance on steel ski-swords like a winged valkyrie. I will spin until the world spins too, keeping my edges masterfully adrift over the ups and downs life throws in front of me, always looking forwards and backwards by turns. Wenn einer auf mich sieht, muss er den Tod empfangen oder muss vergehn vor Lust. [And whoever beholds me Must unto death be stricken Or be lost in pain of joy] "Just remember, kid, the mountain always wins…"
He taught me how to build fires and he taught me how to dance and I promised him I would. My word and our blood is my bond, and that is all that is left to me in this world.
And how my eyes will dance—in the cold flames as sparks ascend into dark heavens—and exult in life: the best thing he gave me, the only thing I have that truly belongs to me. And someday, even that I shall give up to whichever gods may be (if they be at all) when my soul sails off the edge of the world. Dann werde ich in Nichts vergehn… Und ohne Reu' bis in den Tod gelob ich Treu'! [then shall I fade into the void .. And without regret ‘till death I vow to be true!]
Will I see you there, AllFather?
About the Creator
Eternal Student: literature, poetry, history, art, and philosophy. English Teacher. Writer & painter. Traveller & skier (when there's $$$). I'm young enough to be foolish, yet old enough to know better. Lover of dark & beautiful things.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions