Boneyards and Berserkers - A Novel
I studied the picture of mom’s soldier sweetheart. This dark, furry werewolf in navy dress bore no resemblance to my freckled, face and straight brown hair. Was this lie her capstone in a life dedicated to destroying her daughter? Did she really despise Ron so much she would take his only child from him? Mutely, I placed the picture on the table, biting my lip so I wouldn’t cry.
“Mom, really? Rico perched on the arm of the chair, his nose inches from the screen. He shook his head and stared at me, his dark eyebrows raised over a pair of pale blue eyes. Pushing his black rimmed glasses back up on his nose with a thin finger he let out a sigh. “Seriously. Your browser stinks. Its slower than crap.” He shifted the weight of his slender frame on the edge of the chair while I continued to type data in small boxes on my sprawling chart.
“And you are the current expert on the various forward momentum measurements of excrement?”
“whatever, I’m just trying to help. You should use this one” he offered, pointing to the round icon pinned to the taskbar. “Its way faster than what you’re using.”
Rico, I like what I’m using. Besides, if I use that browser I have to retype all my passwords and stuff. I don’t need superfast. I just need it to work.” I pushed the “save” button and waited for the screen to refresh.
“Oh right. Cuz your dead people aren’t going anywhere, anyway. But I would like to get on the computer before you categorize me on your happy funtime tree.” Eric pursed his lips and gestured toward my work.
“Son, laptop. You know I like the wide screen because I can display sixteen generations all at once.”
“Wow.” Rio clutched at his chest and fell off the edge of the chair.
“Listen, do I disparage you when you go on incessantly about your giant green bug squadrons?”
“Jade Guardians. Mom. They’re called Jade Guardians and they slaughter attacking mantids. Sheesh. When my games go viral I’m not buying you that Jag. So there.” Eric stood up. “And you said I could work on my designs tonight. See I have this great idea for the Jades. You take the jade plasma and when it hardens you can carve your own weapon, right.”
“And so I have this mantid head automatic that shoots a pulse of electricity from its mandibles and when I have the weapon in active mode then mantids think I’m one of them”
“So you’re all stoked about playing as a Jade warrior but you look like a bug? Won’t your buds snipe you if you look like a bug?”
“Mom. You never listen to me do you? Mantids are greenish yellow and when I’m in mantid mode I’m blue. Mantids only see in yellow and green. Get it? They’ll see green, I’ll be blue and my squadron won’t nail me.”
“So what if the person playing your game is colorblind?”
“Yeah, what if the person playing is blue green color blind?”
“Mom, some old guy isn’t going to be playing my games.”
“So you’re designing product that is age discriminatory.”
“Mom, the gamer will know what color he is when he plays the game so it doesn’t matter if he can tell the difference between blue or green.Its part of the programming. You know. Options.”
“So why bother?”
“I could say that about you cataloguing the deceased.”
“Dude, seriously. You thought it was cool that you were related to Rollo the Viking, right?”
“I prefer Lincoln but Rollo’s ok.”
“Can you see Lincoln as a Jade Guard.”
“Um. Yeah. Ok. Don’t hurt your brain thinking about stuff like that. Just let me know when I can be on the computer.”
“You’ll be the second to know when you can use the computer. Until then, like I said. Laptop”
I turned my attention back to the sprawling sequence of boxes while my younger child hunkered over the laptop screen. Sixteen generations of names and dates and faces. Ten thousand identified DNA donors most of them now suspect in the light of my mom’s random confessional. So many possibilities lurking amongst the bones, and me with all the time to ferret out the good stuff – anything to spark more than passing curiosity. Ok the Lincoln connection was of a bit of interest but it only garnered an eyebrow raise from the young one, and certainly not enough to keep us conversing over coffee. Anything to keep me from actually penning the next great novel or perhaps starting that garden compost project - I found my little genealogical addiction to be singular in nature – a solo effort interesting only to me and my penchant for acquiring useless information like the gestation time of spade foot toads or the telephone numbers of now defunct companies I used to call for money when I was younger and still clung to the thought that my current profession was temporary and I would still have the opportunity to be the next Stevie Nicks if only I was discovered while singing in the warehouse while counting bolts.
Truth is I needed a conveyance, very much like that story I remembered from childhood where the little girl held a button in her hand that transported her to another place. If only there was a way to make the bones and berserkers breathe and perhaps pontificate for my family. Something simple. I had a kroner from 1976 carried over lovingly in my grandma’s pocket from Norway to Michigan. – maybe a symbol. Some magic wand to wave across the ages.
Where would I start if afforded this elixir, this get out of urbanity free card – to fold the fabric of space and time or as I’ve learned on Nova recently - the fabric of space time and stick my pencil in the cogs of the machine – rewinding it to the moment that would amaze my progeny. A repetitive spell. A hocus pocus. A safe word. Yet here I was droning on in my small frames – a genealogical mix of scribe and garbage man sifting through the dry rubble in search of something salvageable – and in my heart carrying this small ache with every addition of a name or bit of evidence of someone’s life. That ache magnified in the stark truth that the summation of one’s existence would be catalogued as a few dates on dry census papers or a five hundred word blurb on a wiki page. These souls who lived and died, fell in love, held and lost children. Perhaps the babies were the ones that stung the most, mother that I was. The tiny ones often unnamed. “baby boy or baby so and so” Mothers who died in child birth and that odd trait I now unhappily shared – it’s always evident who the mother is but fathers seemed so much more expendable and yet it is the paternal lines that are of so much interest to bone diggers like myself. I allowed my mind to consider what my younger child had said about the women of Sparta. The only way to get a gravestone in Sparta was to die in battle or in childbirth. Coupled with the adage from a dear aunt stating that the Hughes’s were “Casual with their offspring…” all these thoughts roiled in my head and set me on my path to find out not who I was but who we all were.
A lone gull cry echoed in my head, a distant call prodding me from my half sleep. I pulled the blanket around me closer in an attempt to tune out the incessant marauder of my slumbering joy. A damp wind snuck under the blanket, clammy fingers jarring my skin to attention. I opened one eye to see a billowing grey bank of clouds poised in the sky…why was there sky. Suddenly my world pitch violently to one side and I felt myself slipping from beneath my blanket. I let out a small squeal as I was rolled repeatedly, becoming disoriented I dug for a hand hold but the palms of my hands met only slick wet wood. My odd trajectory was suddenly halted as I thudded against a large coil of sodden rope. My stomach lurched as the scent of rotten hemp and a strange fishy odor rose from the pile. Pulling myself up to my knees I retched a glob of greenish yellow bile as a chorus of rough laughter rose up in my ears.
“There’s a girl.” A massive weight clapped down on my back as a rough wet hand pulled a lock of hair away from my face. “Miss your farm now, do you?” As I was pulled to my feet, the large stranger’s eyes locked with mine. Two disconcerting blue orbs bored into my skull, their gaze steely and unfathomable as the open ocean. Framed by thick sandy brows and set in a weathered face, I felt small, frail in their unflinching line of sight. The stranger clapped hands on both my shoulders. “You’re a sturdy one. Give us a name then.” My mind was empty of words as I made mental inventory of the rest of the stranger. He was large, well over six feet tall, dressed simply in heavy sewn woolen trousers with an overskirt and tunic of deep blue. A rope braid around his neck fettered a cloak that appeared to be made of some sort of animal hide, semi repellent the drizzling rain dripped from the edges of his hood forming pools between feet clad in simple leather boots. His sandy hair coiled in loose curls around his neck and the rain dripped through his bushy beard. “Come on, Girl. What do they call you? Where are you from?” The boat pitched again and I doubled over in nausea, retching on the strangers boots.
“Well there’s a name for your rune stone.” The stranger made a gagging noise and grabbed me by the chin. “Plucked your lifeless body from the deep and unwound my ropes from your body. The least thank you you could give would be to tell me what to call you and give me your purpose for me saving your life. You’re certainly no warrior.
“Perhaps she’s a gift from Freya to guide our course through the storm.”
"More likely she’s from Loki.” Another crewman taunted.
“Let us have her Hrolfr, we need fresh meat!”
“Wait! I’ll tell you everything! Just don’t eat me!” I spun around to face my tormenters who erupted in a chorus of loud laughter.
“No, this one’s not from the old gods. But maybe the new one.” Hrolfr studied the small cross around my neck for a moment then glowered at his crew. “There will be no eating of Christians on my vessel, men. We serve the new God now. Egil, take her to Elfeda and give her instructions for some dry clothes and food. Perhaps then she’ll find her senses to explain herself to us.”
“Hrolfr, does the god matter when a woman is dropped on your deck?”
“I don’t need a woman. I need the land. Besides, she is familiar to me. Very familiar. Get her below and when she’s not hurling seawater at my boots, we’ll discuss her future in greater detail.”
“Come on then, since we can’t eat you, we may as well take you below as Hrolfr said.” Egil waved toward a cutout in the floor. I stumbled down a set of plank boards to the lower level at the end of the ship which opened into a large triangular space. The space was dank and heavy with the odor of wet wool and fish.
“Elfeda, a ladle of bjorr is in order. We have a gift from the Gods. Excuse me the new God.” Egil motioned me toward a figure bent over a small tub. Several arms and legs flailed behind her and I could hear the sound of splashing water.
“Egil. Your children reek. Now you bring me more stinking fish? I should have stayed on my father’s farm. Ruffian.”
“I hear the shores of Normandy are warm and the grass green.” Egil turned and climbed back up the small plank, disappearing into the upper deck.
“Well, lets have a look at you then. Oh Daughter, did you roll in dead herring? Children! Out and back to the buckets. And you, strip and into the water.” Elfeda picked up one naked child, setting her on a piece of cloth and motioned toward the bucket with her head.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d just like to dry off a bit.”
“I’d sooner sleep with sheep than allow you down here smelling like you do.” In the flickering light from a small tallow candle on a low table I looked into Elfeda’s eyes. She was a tall woman with titian hair piled in small knots around her face. Her pale blue eyes looked at me, then the tub and then me again.
“Is it cold?”
“Very.” A hint of a smile played around Elfeda’s face “but the cloth is warm and I’ll get you some stout bjorr to finish the job. But first, we scrub the sea off of you.” Before I could complain further, Elfeda was undressing me and pushing me toward the large bucket on the floor. The water was icy cold and I barely managed to suck in a breath before she started scrubbing my skin with a bar of strong soapy substance. Pushing my head under the water, she began working the soap into my hair until an eye stinging foam surrounded my head. Taking a wooden cup, she repeatedly doused me with icy water until it ran clear. “Oh that’s much better. Here is a cloth and one of my dresses. It should fit you nicely. It may be a bit long. She handed me a towel as I stood naked and shivering in the bucket. “dress yourself and I’ll attend to that hair.”
After struggling with three layers of wooly fabric dyed a pine green, I stood on the deck, dry yet chilled to my core. I surveyed my surroundings as my eyes were finally adjusted to the low, smoky light. In front of me a low table held several small, squat tallow candles in bowls. A few loaves of a mealy bread were set on the table along with a few squat jugs. Three or four children giggled in a corner as they mopped up water from low part of the floor with cloths and buckets. A small bunch of women talked in low tones by a series of barrels, looking in my direction and shaking their heads.
“They think Loki sent you. They want the men to throw you back overboard. They’ve not yet adopted Hrolfr’s new god fully. They’ll warm up to you.” Elfeda set a silver bowl in front of me that contained a dark amber liquid. She began to work a small ivory colored comb through my hair. As she did so, the tunic I had attempted to tie around myself fell, causing Elfeda to laugh.
“Have you never dressed yourself?” Elfeda bent down and grabbed the fallen tunic. She fussed over my layered outfit, finally attaching the thing with two metal brooches, one at each shoulder. She took a third and attached it in the center just below my throat. “there, that’s much better. Your hair is so dark.” She looped a handful of my damp brown hair around her fingers expertly twisting it into the same series of knots as her one coiffed mane. “here, this will warm you. It’s the only thing on this wretched boat that will until we reach Normandy.”
I took the offered cup and swirled the thick liquid around. Its aroma was more pleasant than the prevailing wet sheep fish water smell and my mouth watered a little in anticipation. I took a sip. It was slightly fruity with a bit of a burn. My entire body flushed as I downed the rest of the contents in a couple of swallows.
“Well, you don’t look like a Viking, but you treat your bjorr as one. Go back up and speak with Hrolfr. Tell him your reasons for being here and then I’ll poor you another bit with some dried mutton to ease the burn.” She motioned toward the center of the ship where the plank led up to the light. With a little alcohol now coursing through my system I felt a bit bolder and ready to face the large marauder at the top of the plank. Carefully I picked my way along the deck to the prow of the boat where Hrolfr stood, his back to me.
“Nice weather we’re having.” I cleared my thoat and spoke. Nice weather. How stupid. Why did I say that.
“Yes, its warm for so late in the year.”
“Yes, so you’re Hrolfr.”
“I am” He turned to face me. “You know me but I do not yet know you. Poppa would not approve of me throwing an innocent Christian to the kraken.”
“the Kraken, seriously?”
“Loki’s children must eat as we must eat.”
“Yeah, I suppose. Don’t I have to be a virgin or something?”
“You wouldn’t be a sacrifice.” Hrolfr took a step toward me.
“Ah, so I’d just be squid chum. Ok. Listen. I’ll tell you everything. Just don’t toss me out for kraken food.”
“Allright. I’ll consider it. You seem sturdy enough. Not a warrior but perhaps Elfeda could use you for the sheep. There’s plenty grass to go around where we’re headed.”
“perhaps you’re a spy for that French king. You know too much.”
“I listen well. Ok my name is Tam and I’m actually not sure how I got here. I was talking to my son about insects and well? I must have fallen asleep and when I awoke, well I was on your ship.”
“Convenient. Implausible. Perhaps the gulls could benefit from picking your carcass clean.”
“I’m serious. Really. I have no idea how I got here. Maybe it was Loki.”
“So you believe in the old gods yet you wear the symbol of the new. An opportunist. I like that. And I like you. I’m not sure why. Perhaps you are spa-kona? Tell me then of the land I will conquer.” Hrolfr knelt in front of me and looked up into my face. “I’ll spare your future and you will tell me mine.” I stood for a moment, without words, wishing I had paid more attention in my ancient history class. Hrolfr, Poppa. Was this really Rollo the Viking? And if it was? How did I manage to fall asleep in my cozy living room and wake up almost two thousand years in the past on a Viking Knarr some where in the Atlantic? Panicking, I looked around for something, anything that might buy me some time. Kraken food. A Christian Duke clinging to wive’s tales and mythos. Yes, it all made sense, the clinging fog, the chilled air, that square heavy single sail and immovable mast.
“Ok I’ll tell you for a bit more bjorr and some food.”
“Spoken like one of my own. Come then, we break bread together.”
I sat down across from a low table with Rollo and took a piece of heavy bread he broke for me.
“You’re Rollo, known as 1st Duke of Normandy and you’re married to Poppa.”
“Right. You became Christian like Poppa when Charles the second gave you the land.”
“the bjorr is not loosening your tongue Spa-kona”
“Ok, I came from your future.”
Hrolfr’s hand hovered over the handle of a large blade belted to his side. “You are no valkrie. Are you a trickster?”
“No, your future is great for a pillaging Viking.”
“You’re a great monarch. Your grand child will conquer half the known planet. He’s known as William the Conqueror. He’ll unite the British Islands.
“Bog jumping beasts. Useless dark tiny people.” Hrolfr thumped the table hard and poured another cup of strong bjorr, pushing it toward me he spoke “go on then girl. Tell me of my progeny.” I spent the next few hours telling Rollo about his children and childrens children. As the nondescript sky overhead deepenend to a dark gray, the boat occasionally pitched and rolled causing the sheep to bleat plaintively and the candles to sputter on the table.