My brother and I flew recon over the gray Santa Monica beach, half-frozen rain striking our black feathers. Below, a skater swaddled in Gor-Tex swished around the curves of the bike path, while surfers in wetsuits bobbed in the dark waters.
It was the coldest winter on record in Southern California. It was the coldest winter everywhere.
“Hey,” said my brother. “Down there.” Without waiting, he dove toward the sand where a dead Rotweiller rolled in the white foam. It had been a long flight and we were both ravenous. I angled in to follow, and soon we were absorbed in our feast.
A big gray gull challenged our salvage rights, screaming and beating us with his wings, but we tore him to shreds, ate him, then returned to the dog.
Later, my brother would be able to report every minute detail of the incident. He’d describe the precise markings on the gull’s bill, the way he favored his left foot over his right, the iron and salt taste of his blood.
But he wouldn’t be able to say why we’d killed him. He’s expert at the whats and whens and wheres, but he leaves the whys to me.
His name is Munin, Memory. I’m Hugin, Thought.
Our hunger satisfied, we took to the skies again and continued south over the T-shirt shops and sunglass stands of Venice boardwalk. When we reached the storm-shattered pier, we turned seaward, onward, away and beyond.
We heard a blue whale sing its last song before dying of old age. We watched an undiscovered species of fish go extinct. And we saw something enormous on the ocean floor, slithering on its belly and churning waves hundreds of fathoms above.
We flew and flew, carefully observing and cataloging so that later we could give Odin, our boss, an accurate report. But first we had a special appointment to keep.
Well past the horizons of Midgard we came upon the shores of the dead. Hel is a dry place. It’s a land of gray plains and twigs and dust. And in the center of this land there lived a pair of slain gods. We found them reclining atop the roof of a great timber hall, passing a cup back and forth.
The poets used to say that Baldr was so good and pure he radiated white light, a sun compressed into human form. There used to be something about him, something that, when he walked by, made a man put down his drinking horn or stop hammering trolls for a second and just be glad he was alive to witness the moment. You knew that Baldr, somehow, was what the whole thing was about.
He was still beautiful, but not the same. Now he was cold and magisterial, a god of glaciers and dark stone mountains. He rose to his feet and announced our arrival to his brother.
Höd was a much humbler creature, thinner in the shoulder, longer in the face, his shriveled eyes lost in dark sockets. You really didn’t want to look into those sockets. They went a long way down.
We landed on Baldr’s outstretched forearms and dug our talons in a little to see if he’d flinch. He didn’t, of course. Even exiled from the realms of the living, he was still a god. “Just when I was thinking you wouldn’t come,” he said. “I’m glad to see you. Let’s go inside.”
Getting welcomed to Hel isn’t such an enormous thrill, but I politely thanked him anyway.
His hall was cold and dimly lit. Pale flames wavered in the hearth, their light barely pushing back the shadows. A long table bore a modest feast — a few loaves of bread, a pair of emaciated roast pigs.
Munin perched on the edge of the table and appraised the fare. “I guess it’s a good thing we already ate.”
Höd’s jaw muscles clenched. “If you’d like to contribute to the meal, I can start plucking feathers right now.”
Baldr laughed. “Brother,” he said in his gentle voice, “we observe hospitality in my house.”
I think Höd would have rolled his eyes had he been capable.
At the end of the table sat a plump old woman in a purple sweatshirt. The shopping cart beside her was filled with empty soup cans, magazines, rotting batteries, a sword hilt, a broken car antenna. Over her matted gray hair she wore a Minnesota Vikings cap. She clutched a long twig in her left hand.
“Sibyl,” I said, nodding respectfully. I hadn’t seen the witch-prophetess in a long time. Not since the world was younger and greener, when, in exchange for a meal, she’d told Odin how the world would end.
“There is an ash tree,” she said now. “Its name is Yggdrasil. Lofty Yggdrasil, the Ash Tree, trembles, ancient wood groaning.”
Not knowing if she was uttering an incantation or just making conversation, I indicated the twig with my wing. “Is that part of Yggdrasil?”
She shook the stick. “Yggdrasil’s an ash. Does this look like ash? Stupid bird.”
Same old sibyl.
We sat around the table and picked at the skinny pigs for a while before Baldr asked us about affairs back in the land of men. Normally we report only to Odin, but how often do you get invited to Baldr’s house? So Munin spoke of the weather on Midgard. Three winters, each colder and longer than the previous one, with little summer between. Floods, bad crops, people freezing in the streets, hoarding and price gouging and rioting and looting.
Munin didn’t say the word.
He didn’t have to.
We all knew where this was heading: Ragnarök. The great monsters would do battle with the gods, and most of the gods would be slain. Heimdall. Hermod. Frey. Thor. Even Odin. A world without Odin. And the world itself would burn and crumble, and the ancient chaos that preceded us all would return. But from the ashes would rise the younger gods, and Baldr and Höd would end their exile in Hel to help them rebuild.
Munin went on and on, citing wind chill factors from CNN until Baldr put an end to his chatter. “Thank you, Munin,” he said. “Most thorough. My father is lucky to have your counsel.” He turned his gray eyes to me. “And you, Hugin, what will you tell Odin when next you see him?”
As if you didn’t know, I almost said. But being Odin’s agent has taught me to reflect before I speak. I’d play along for now. “I can tell you of two brothers,” I said. “Like you and Höd, two sons of Odin.” And there, in a vast dry hall situated at the center of Hel, with the sibyl worrying her twig, I told Baldr about an attempt to end the world.
Munin and I had watched the godling sons of Odin sail for many days and nights before they came to an island between worlds. As they neared the shore, Vidar threw the anchor over, jumped out and waded toward the beach. He was much like his father, lean and rangy with a voice that rarely rose above a dry whisper.
Vali was different. Forever a toddler, he scrambled over the gunwale and belly-flopped into the waves, thrashed about as he realized his feet couldn’t touch the stony sea bottom, then gave a mighty kick that sent him flying through the air and onto the beach.
“Did you see?” he said, delighted. “I almost drowned!”
Vidar brushed sand off his half-brother’s bottom. “I saw.”
“I could have been killed!”
“Yes, you came perilously close to an untimely demise. Please follow, Vali. We have a task.”
The beach sloped up sharply from the tide toward a towering wall of jagged basalt. The gods began to hike up the rise.
“Vidar, I’m hungry.”
“Possibly because you didn’t eat your supper?”
“Dried fish. I hate dried fish. I hate all fish.”
“If I give you a piece of candy, will you be quiet?”
Vidar sighed and gave him a piece of candy anyway. All the gods in Asgard knew it was easier if you didn’t anger Vali.
They reached the rock wall and began to climb.
“Vidar, tell me a story.”
“Now is not the best time.”
Vali pouted. “You better tell me a story, or I’ll rip open your tummy and pull all the tubes out, and then I’ll choke you with the tubes, and then I’ll make you eat the tubes, and then I’ll — ”
Vidar closed his eyes. “Once upon a time there was — ”
“There was a god named Baldr,” Vali cut in. “And Frigg, his momma, loved him, and everybody loved him, and he was always very nice. So Frigg got everything in the world to make a promise — all the animals and flowers and birds and everything — she asked everything to promise to never, ever, ever hurt Baldr.”
A gust of wind picked up an unpleasant scent. Fur. Damp animal fur. Vidar continued the tale. “As you said, Vali, Mother Frigg exacted an oath from fire and water and metal and stones, and from earth and trees and beasts, from ailments and birds and poisons and serpents. She wrung promises from every conceivable thing that it would do Baldr no harm. All except a young plant growing on the very skirts of Asgard, a small sprig of mistletoe. She felt it too small to be of any consequence.”
Vali’s grip slipped and he tumbled until a rock broke his fall. Vidar climbed down and retrieved him. “We don’t have time for this. Climb on my back.” They renewed the ascent, Vali riding piggyback.
“And so a game arose around Baldr’s invulnerability,” said Vidar. “He would stand at the highseat during assemblies, and the Aesir would hurl objects at him. Stones, spears, cauldrons of boiling water, wasp nests — all bounced off him and did no harm.”
“But then Loki got all mad!” interrupted Vali. “And he put on ladies’ clothes and tricked Frigg into telling him about the mistletoe. And there was Höd, and he was blind, and he couldn’t play along, and Loki said, ‘How come you’re not playing?’ And Höd said, ‘I’m blind! They won’t let me play.’ And Loki said, ‘That’s not fair.’ And he gave Höd the mistletoe and said, ‘Throw it! Throw it!’ And Höd goes, ‘I’m blind! I can’t aim good.’ But Loki helped him throw, and…and….”
“Catch your breath, brother. And try not to choke me.”
Vidar crested the wall and peered over the summit. In the center of the island loomed a great, dark shape. The son of Odin swallowed and began his descent down the other side of the wall. Vali leaped off his back and scrambled after him.
“I said it’s your turn, Vidar.”
Vidar’s mouth set in a grim line. “The mistletoe pierced Baldr’s breast,” he said. “And it was…it was horrible. How can I tell you what it was like? You never saw him, brother. The skalds say he was beautiful, but it was more than that. You know how when you look at Thor, he’s like a great dark thunder cloud stepped down from the sky to assume human shape. And Njord, he’s like the sea itself, tidal waves crashing in his eyes. Baldr was like that. Only he personified everything that was…I don’t know, good? Worthwhile?” Vidar paused there, hanging off the side of the rock wall, his face haunted. Even Vali took notice and preserved the silence. Then, finally, Vidar said, “He died. Right there in front of all of us. You could almost see the world change color. Nobody knew what to say or what to do. And the next day, we put him in his ship and sent him off to Hel. That’s the last any of us saw of him. And ever since, we’ve been living out the sibyl’s prophecy. We, the great and mighty Aesir. Puppets.”
Something at the foot of the wall made a noise. A low growl, a clank of metal.
“Come on,” said Vidar. “Let’s cut some strings.” They jumped the rest of the way, a twenty-foot drop. Vidar drew his sword and led the way to a shadowy, massive form chained to a boulder. It turned its blue, liquid eyes to the brothers and watched them approach.
“But you didn’t tell the good part of the story,” Vali wailed. “The part when All-Father Odin got mad at Höd for killing Baldr, because he loved Baldr best of anybody, so he and my momma had me, and when I was just one day old I jumped on Höd’s chest and I put my arms around his throat and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, and then he was dead and he had to go to Hel, too. You didn’t tell that part.”
“You told it very well, Vali. Now let’s finish our job.”
“Was she pretty?”
“Was who pretty?”
“My momma. Was she pretty?”
“Vali, she was a giant.”
Vali stopped walking, his lip curling into a snarl.
Vidar sighed. “All right. All right. Words are insufficient to describe her gigantic beauty. She was the most lovely giantess that ever was. Yes? Will that do?”
That satisfied Vali. The little god squared his shoulders, puffed out his chest, and took the lead toward the monster at the center of the island.
Viewed head-on, the wolf was merely the size of an adult grizzly bear. But if you squinted just so and looked at it through the corner of your eye, it was larger. Larger than the island that contained it, large enough to dwarf the mountains, to swallow the sun and the moon.
Vidar put a hand on his brother’s shoulder, holding him firm. “This is Fenrir Lokisson, the wolf. He and I are destined to do battle at Ragnarök. And I will kill him. But not before he destroys the sky.”
The wolf’s jaws were propped open by a sword, and its legs were bound by a silky ribbon connected by a chain to a boulder.
Vidar raised his sword high in the air. The wolf stared at him placidly, his slow breaths sending clouds of steam into the gloom.
The ribbon binding him was made of six true things, from the roots of a mountain, to the breath of a fish.
But Vidar’s sword was made of seven.
He brought the sword down, parting the air with a thunderclap and sending up a shower of sparks as the blade cut through the chain. Then, gently, he sliced through the ribbon, removed the sword gag from the wolf’s mouth, and Fenrir was free.
“Kill him!” screamed Vali. “Give me the sword!” The child god lunged at the wolf, but Vidar grabbed him by the arms, restraining him.
Fenrir bowed his great back, stretched his forelegs out and yawned. He shook dust from his tail, then turned to Vidar. His mouth formed something of a smile. “That was unexpected. Why set me loose?”
Vidar shrugged. “We’re tired of sitting around waiting for Ragnarök to happen.”
“Ah,” said the wolf. “I think I get it. Why wait for the fulfillment of the prophecy when you can ignite it yourself? Hasten the destruction of a few billion men, trolls, elves, giants, gods, horses, dogs, what have you. Usher in a sea of blood and fire and pain the likes of which not even Odin can fully imagine. Just so you and your brother and the other little godlings can step out of the wings and take charge of the remains now. A plot worthy of Loki.”
“Actually,” said Vidar, “I was just anxious to get to the part of the story where I kill you.”
“I’ll see you later, then,” said Fenrir with a laugh. He leapt into the sky, momentarily eclipsing the moon, before vanishing into the dark.
The gods started back to the boat, and Munin and I circled overhead for a time, watching them.
“Well,” I said to Munin. “What do you think about that?”
He flapped his wings twice to gain altitude. “Thinking’s your department.”
With the shadows deepening in Baldr’s hall, Höd picked at the scant remains of the pig on his platter and shook his head. “It seems entirely unacceptable to me that a psychopathic little toddler is due to inherit the world after the Great Battle.”
“Is that an objective opinion?” I asked. “That has nothing to do with the fact that Vali slew you?”
“It has everything to do with the fact that he slew me! If I wrung your feathered neck today, would you want to sit in council with me tomorrow? What kind of working relationship would that be?”
I turned to Baldr. “Maybe you could answer that question. What do you make of it when Aesir try to bring about the end of one world, just so they can hurry up and start ruling over the next?” I so badly wanted Baldr to say he found it reprehensible. I wanted him to be angry with the young gods. I wanted him to tell me he wasn’t like them at all.
He regarded me with an almost cynical smile. On his face, it was a sad thing to see. “Those gods are Odin’s progeny. The same as Thor or Höd or myself. They’re doing what we’re all doing, what we’ve done for thousands of years — playing their role in this hideous prophecy. Only they realized it was possible to accelerate the process. I admire their initiative. It’s something we’ve lacked for too long.”
My feathers bristled. “They should be patient,” I argued. “All they have to do is wait and they’ll get what they want. Let things happen in the way they were meant to happen. The world ends, the gods and monsters fight, and the young gods inherit a new earth. They don’t appreciate what a privilege that will be, to rule over something new and fresh and green. They don’t appreciate what an honor that is.” And now I looked hard into Baldr’s gray eyes. “It’s wrong to interfere with the prophecy.”
The corners of Baldr’s mouth curved up in a small smile. Folding his ice-white hands on the table before him, he said, “What do you do, Hugin?”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and cocked my head sideways. “What do you mean?”
“I mean what do you do? You fly around and watch and analyze and calculate, and you whisper intelligence in Odin’s ear. But do you actually do anything?” The hall had grown colder by many degrees as Baldr spoke. “Why do you judge those who have the courage to act, when you, Thought, have only the courage to think?”
Before I could devise a response, he turned his attention away from me and spoke to Munin. “Do you remember my funeral?”
“Of course. I’m Memory. I remember everything. Odin came with his Valkyries, and Frey came in a chariot drawn by a boar, and Freyja was there with her cats. Her dress was very pretty. And there were the trolls and elves, the mountain-giants and frost-giants. Everyone showed up. The Aesir wept. Thor kept blowing his nose, and it made a great schnoork sound that shook the leaves from the trees.”
Leave it to Munin to remember the thunder of Thor clearing his nostrils. I remembered something else.
Odin the All-Father frightened me. In the dark hole left behind by his sacrificed eye, I saw his fear. He remembered the sibyl’s prophecy from so long ago. She’d told him that Baldr would die, that his death would be the first step towards the doom of everything Odin had ever known. He’d always hoped that somehow the sibyl would be wrong. Sometimes witch babble is just witch babble. But now there was the shocking white corpse of Baldr, whom Odin loved not in the way a war god loves a warrior, but in the way a father loves a son.
That day, everything started to die.
I thought about some of the things Munin and I had seen recently. The world-spanning Serpent who churned the waters, brewing tidal waves and hurricanes. Thor’s son, Modi, had loosed him a week ago. And there was the Ship of Dead Men’s Nails, freed of its moorings by the young god, Magni. I thought of the bloodbath Midgard was becoming, with people killing each other over a can of ravioli. All the portents were coming true.
Bent over her twig, the sibyl muttered softly to herself. “And the serpent rises, and children drown in its wake, and the blood-beaked eagle rends corpses, screaming. Ragnarök, doom of the gods, doom of all. Battle-axe and sword rule, and an age of wolves, till the world goes down.”
She spat upon the twig, and now it wasn’t a twig at all, but a spear with smoking runes burned down its side. I didn’t recognize them. She put the spear in Höd’s hands.
Baldr nodded. “Tell me what Odin did at my funeral, Munin.” He wasn’t looking at Munin. He was looking at me.
“He laid the gold ring Draupnir on your chest,” Munin said. “And then he knelt at your side, brushed the hair off your forehead, just like he used to do when you were a boy. He whispered something in your ear.”
“What did he whisper?”
Munin opened his beak, paused, shut it. He looked at me, and I shrugged. I didn’t know either. On that awful day, Odin used his cunning and spoke in a voice not even I could hear.
The sibyl snorted. “I know what he said. I’m the one who gave him the words. And he had to say them, too. Didn’t want to, but he had to. No choice. That was my price for giving him a heads-up about the future.”
“Tell the ravens, please,” said Baldr.
“This: The sibyl’s magic can give you true death.”
Baldr stood at the head of the table. “Now, Höd,” he said.
“Wait,” I squawked. “You’re not really going to do this.”
Stupid, stupid bird. Baldr wasn’t working with Vidar and Vali. He wasn’t interested in freeing monsters. He wasn’t trying to accelerate Ragnarök and end his days in Hel.
With a slight shudder, Höd rose to his feet. He fingered the mistletoe spear. “I don’t want to do this,” he said. “Not again. It’s not fair. The prophecy says we get to live! That’s what’s supposed to happen. Not this.”
Baldr’s face darkened. “I thought we were agreed. Who are we to build a new world on the corpses of others?”
After a very long moment, Höd lifted the spear over his shoulder. He sighed. “I just…I just want to say thanks. For not ever being mad at me. Everybody else hated me for killing you. But you always treated me like a brother.”
“It’s alright,” said Baldr. “You are my brother.”
“This has all been for my benefit,” I said to Baldr. “Mine and Munin’s. That’s why you sent for us. That’s what this whole thing has been about.”
Baldr nodded. “I wanted Odin to know what happened here tonight. I wanted him to know why I did it. I was always the first link in the chain. The most important link. Remove me, and the chain shatters. Send me to a true death, end my existence.” Baldr closed his eyes. “Munin can tell Odin of my deed. But you, Hugin, you have to tell him…I don’t know. You’ll think of the right thing to tell him.”
“I could tell him something right now,” I said. “He’d never allow this. And if I don’t stop to observe the world as I fly I can be at his side before Höd lifts a finger.”
“I know you can,” said Baldr. “It would be very easy for you to do that.”
I felt a tightness in my throat.
How often do you see a god defy the universe to save a world? How often do you realize that you can let it happen, or you can stop it? And how long do you have to think about it before you figure out the right thing to do?
Höd pulled the spear back a little farther and took a deep breath.
I took a deep breath, too.
“Your aim’s too far right,” I told him. “A little left. A little more. There.”
Baldr smiled at me, this time with some of his old magic, and the hall seemed to warm, and I basked in him.
“Hey, wait!” said Munin. He was just now figuring it out. “Can they do this?”
I shushed him. “I think it’ll be alright.”
And Baldr stood there, his arms stretched out to his sides. And when the rune-burned mistletoe spear punched through his chest, he was laughing.
The world changed color again.
Munin and I left them there, Höd staring blindly at his hands, the sibyl reading her magazines. And Baldr, not just exiled from the living, but truly and finally dead.
Later, after the long flight home, when we perched on Odin’s shoulder and he asked us what we’d seen and heard, Munin told him everything in detail from his perfect memory. He told him of the break in the leaden clouds and the melting of the snow. He told him how we saw the great Fenrir wolf slink back to his rock, frightened for the first time of an unknown future.
And me, Hugin, Thought, I told him that he had better start making some plans.
Because Baldr had given us a whole new tomorrow.
And today, anything was possible.