Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (32 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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“What are you looking at?”

He nodded. “The crow. Do you see it?”

She put her arms around his waist, which was wider now than it

once was. “You stare at it like an old enemy. Did it insult you in some way?”

“Just the opposite.” He stepped away from her and walked to the

door, where he fell upon the bench, pushing his feet into his boots.

He stood and shouldered himself into his coat.

Olga remained by the kitchen sink, the humor in her face giving

way to concern. “What’s got into you, Ivar?”

“Finish the bathwater, woman. I’ll be back in a moment.”

• 267 •

• The Giant in Repose •

It was a long trek from the front door to the barn, and though

the year was old and the snow was new, a hard winter was promised,

and there would be a time coming when this trek could not be

made without a rope tied around your waist, lest a blizzard swallow

you whole. The Minnesota plains were flat and long, not like the

robust countryside of Norway, where glaciers carved bright watery

roadways through the mountains. There were no hidden kingdoms

in this fertile land, unless they were the kingdoms of the sown seed and the ready harvest.

The crow appeared as young as he ever was, his feathers glossy

black, his beak sharp as a blade. He turned his head to the side and fixed Ivar with a bright, black glare.

“Håkon,” said Ivar, coming to a stop beside the post. “I never

thought to see you again.”

“I’ve found the church,” the crow said, as though countless years

had not elapsed since last they spoke.

Ivar found it suddenly difficult to breathe. “Forget it,” he said.

“I cannot. You rendered me a service in another age, and I am

bound to repay it.”

Ivar sighed. He looked over his shoulder at his little house, at the farmland stretching around it beneath the piled snow. He had come

here with Olga many years ago, when he had long surrendered hope

of finding the church, leaving Norway for this new world with a tide of his own countrymen. They found in the deep winters a comforting

echo of home. Even if the land looked nothing like it.

He looked at the crow again. “Fine then. You’ve told me. Consider

your debt repaid.”

Håkon flared his feathers and jerked his head. He paced sideways

along the fence, paced back again. “That’s not how it works. You

know that.”

Ivar put his own hands on the wooden fence. They were old, short-

fingered, broad. He was still amazed to watch the fall of his own

body. He had been young, raven-haired, and strong, for the length of an age and beyond. For as long as he’d stayed true to the Story.

• 268 •

• Nathan Ballingrud •

And then he’d come to America.

“Look at you, Håkon. Still so young. Your feathers are as black as

Odin’s eye. And I’ve grown old.”

“You have abandoned the Story, and so you’ve aged. Everyone

has aged, waiting for you to come back to it,” said the crow. “Only I have not, because only I’ve been faithful to the tale. Return to your purpose, Ivar.”

The sun hovered low in the sky. The day wore thin. How

wonderful would it be, he thought, to push it up into the sky again.

He remembered the directions procured for him by the princess,

who whispered flattering lies into the giant’s ear. “His heart is at the center of a lake, beneath a church, chained to the image of love.”

Behind him Olga would be pouring the boiling water into the

bath. A skirl of smoke lifted in lazy coils from the chimney, rising like a prayer into a low winter sky. He had farmed this land with

her for forty years. Raised a daughter and a son with her. Together

they were drifting into the strange waters of old age, and he had

come to believe that they would reside together beneath the earth, in whatever realm waited for old Norwegians far from the path which

God had set for them.

He was reluctant to leave, but the pull of responsibility, and more

than that the pull of the old Story, were impossible to resist. If he did not come back, he could at least find consolation in the knowledge

that Olga would not have to live long in loneliness. The earth would call her soon.

“Where is this church? I haven’t the means to return to the old

country.”

“The church is in the Story, my prince. There is no need to cross a

sea. Only a need to listen.”

As they walked away from Ivar’s house, into the field of snow, Håkon rode on the old man’s shoulder, his talons gripping hard the heavy

winter coat, and told the Story.

“Once there was a king with seven sons. He loved them so much

• 269 •

• The Giant in Repose •

that he could not bear to be out of their company. So when the time

came for the sons to marry, he sent six out into the world to find

seven wives, and kept the youngest at home, lest the loneliness for

his children uncouple his soul from his body. The sons ranged across the land and had many adventures, at the end of which they found

a palace with six beautiful princesses. After a period of courtship

the sons set upon their journey home with their six beautiful wives.

Transported as they were by love, they had forgotten their youngest

brother.”

Ivar grunted, but did not interrupt.

“They came upon the house of a giant, which was a mountain

fashioned into the likeness of a cottage. The icy peaks were its

shingles, the untamed countryside its porch. The chimney which

released the smoke of the great kitchen fire was lost in cloud. The

sons were remorseful of their forgotten promise and sought to make

amends by presenting their brother with the giant’s head as a trophy.”

“A fine substitute for a woman’s love!” spat Ivar.

“If you don’t mind,” said the crow.

“Continue.” Ivar’s stride grew longer and more sure as he listened

to the old story. His breath filled his lungs more easily, and a heat grew in his blood that he had not felt in long memory.

“The brothers called upon the giant to face them. After a few

moments the door swung open, and the giant stared down upon

them all with a frightful face, and all six brothers and all six of their wives were so terrified that they turned to stone where they stood,

and their horses beneath them. The giant left them there, and went

back into his home.

“After a year had passed the king began to despair of ever seeing

his sons again. ‘It is well that I kept you here,’ he told his youngest,

‘for if I had lost you too there would be nothing left to tether me to this wretched world.’ But the youth was not content to spend the rest of his days hidden away like a prized trinket in his father’s castle while his brothers remained missing. He insisted that he go out and

discover their fate, and bring them all safely home. Though his father

• 270 •

• Nathan Ballingrud •

protested, he wore him down in time, and at last he ventured down

the same road they had embarked and been lost upon, promising his

father that he would discover their fate and bring them home.”

“Brash youth,” side Ivar, but now there was pride in his voice.

“He had minor adventures of his own, including one in which

he rescued a certain starving crow, who was then beholden to him.

Eventually, he found his way to the giant’s house, and in the garden he found his brothers and their six wives, their heads spattered

with bird droppings and their ankles entwined by weeds. He crept

secretly into the cottage at night and saw the giant talking to a girl in a suspended silver cage, who was as small to the giant as a canary would be to himself. The youth knew immediately that she would be

his wife, for she was young and beautiful and she sang sweetly to the giant in a voice as delicate as the first cracking of winter’s shell.”

“Bergit,” Ivar said, his voice full and quiet. He was walking

forcefully through the snow now, unhindered by age, like a horse

breaking through the surf.

“Bergit the Lovely. You remember,” said Håkon, the approval plain

in his voice.

“Of course I remember. Continue, crow.”

“He spoke to her as the giant slept, the thin bars of the cage

between them. She revealed that his heart was kept in a different

place, and so he was invulnerable to death. If he would promise to

free her from her imprisonment, she would help him to discover the

location of his heart, so that he might slay the giant and free them all.

Do you remember this part of the story?”

“She did as she promised.”

“She sang sweetly to him again, on that night and on many nights

thereafter, feigning love, until at last he revealed his heart’s hiding place.”

“In a lake. Beneath a church.”

“And the hero went out to find it.” Håkon fluffed his feathers,

allowing himself the indelicacy of a dramatic pause. “And then he

lost his way.”

• 271 •

• The Giant in Repose •

“I lost nothing, crow. I grew bored of a search that had no object.”

Håkon nipped his ear. “How can you say that? The object was

always understood!”

“Not by me,” Ivar said. “Not as the years grew.”

“Speak for yourself, prince. I know my function.”

“What of Olga? What becomes of her now?”

“She is not part of this Story,” said the crow. “She never was. Now

look ahead.”

Ivar did as he was told. The land in front of him rose in a sheet of rock, topped distantly with ice, and fell away on his left into a fjord, the glacial water as hard and bright in the sun as the purpose that

had first stirred him from his father’s castle. Along that declension of earth, rising from the grass like something grown, approached

by neither trail nor road, was a small wooden church, barely bigger

than Ivar’s own shack, its steeple sturdy and proud, a shout of faith rendered in wood. There was no snow at this level; the land was

decked in the indulgence of summer.

Ivar himself was young again, the muscles in his body gathered in

his chest and arms, his hair long and black again, his beard full. He felt the full throat of the world in his chest, and breathed to fill it.

“Very well,” he said. “Let us see what’s inside.”

The interior was warm and lit by a vast bank of candles which

covered the wall behind the altar. The pews and the shelves were of

polished wood, dustless, the book on the altar open and inscribed in an ancient Nordic script. Ivar paused and stared at the illumination on the page, which depicted the Angel of Death standing outside a

closed door, a sword held loosely at his side.

Håkon leaped onto the altar and angled his head at the picture.

His feet gripped and ungripped, repeatedly, like a nervous child. “A favorable omen,” he said. “The giant’s end is at hand.”

“So it would seem.”

Ivar turned away from the book, looking over the church’s interior.

A strong wind wrestled the building, and the wood creaked under its

• 272 •

• Nathan Ballingrud •

pressure, seeming to list from side to side. It felt like being in the hold of a galley, and Ivar wondered what he might see if he opened the

door to the outside world.

“Who keeps this place, Håkon?”

“It is the house of the Lord, Ivar. Surely that’s obvious.”

“But who keeps it? Is Christ Himself dusting these shelves and

lighting these candles? Does He heat soup over the fire? Will I find Him drowsing on a cot in the back?”

The crow peered at him. “You must be careful of blasphemy, my

prince. You yourself have been drowsing on that prairie in the new

country. The church, like the giant in his cottage and like your father in his castle, is maintained by the Story. It was a fog of dust and

spiders until you looked upon it from the hill.”

Ivar sat in one of the pews, and settled into thought.

“The Story awakens to you, and you to it. Look at yourself, Ivar.

You’re young again.”

Ivar remembered hiding behind one of the chair legs in the giant’s

cottage, the terrible stench of cooking flesh filling his nose, the split carcass of a troll hanging from one of the rafters, its ribs pale and naked in its own exposed meat. The beautiful Bergit in her cage,

dangling above the carnage on the table as the giant thrust his head suspiciously through the clotted smoke, filling his nostrils with it.

“I smell a Christian’s blood,” it said. Its voice was old and deep, like something assembled from the rock which rooted the mountains to

the earth.

Bergit had said, “A magpie flew overhead, and dropped a bone

down the chimney. It went into the pot, but the smell lingers.”

Mollified, the giant had returned to its grisly work, and Ivar nearly sobbed in relief.

In the church, now, he passed his hand over the smooth wood of

the pew in front of him. “Why would the giant hide his heart here?

In a church?”

“I suppose because it’s the last place anyone would look,” said the

crow.

• 273 •

• The Giant in Repose •

Ivar was unconvinced, but could think of nothing to say. “Well.

Let’s find it, then.”

There was only one room in the church, so it did not take long

to discover the trap door behind the altar, with a ladder descending into a natural cavern. Ivar descended carefully while Håkon swooped

past him and glided to a rest at the bottom. The cavern was cool,

and its walls were rippled with the reflection of water. Ivar turned to see a vast lake, as black as a sky, stretching deeply into the distance.

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
6.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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