Hávamál and the Golden Strand

Nine days and nights did the hanged man swing on the windy boughs of Yggdrasil. Nine days of scorching sun, of suffering the stag’s teeth and the squirrel’s claws. Nine nights of bitter cold, of dodging the squirming mass of serpents, of tasting neither food nor drink. And on the ninth hour of the ninth night, in the dead of the ninth month, a broken and battered Odin swept up the runes to claim what lesser gods had perished to obtain.

Knowledge.

Elsewhere in this blighted land, we forgot the power of metaphor, the power of stories. We forgot the power of names. Even before the thing, we watched helplessly as the old stories were warped, perverted, the teeth corked, the broken bones bowdlerized into friendly head-rubs. We saw horrible chimeras born from the flesh of lore not meant to miscegenate. Odin’s battered hand clutched false runes. We were midwives for the birth of false names, names brought forth for fashion and whim, for the profane. Even the few sacred names that remained, but for the diligence of rough desert fanatics, had squirmed out of their holy casks and onto billboards and bus kiosks. But here? Here where the rains fall and the zaffre ocean gets to second base with the glaucous sky? Here something old, something powerful still lives.

When Odin dangled from the sacred yew, he bought with his pain and his depth perception something powerful. When you can name something, you can focus the attention of an entire nation, bending that thing—that named thing—to the will of the mob. He who controls the names controls the agenda. He who controls the agenda controls the power. But when everyone lays claim to the Words of Power, when the ink smudges and the names get blurry, the magic binding the people frays. And then when the parchment is finally incinerated in a flash of nuclear rage, the spell is broken. All we have left are the scraps and the memories. The runes are broken, and the All-Father’s other eye was torn from its socket by his pet ravens. It’s understandable that he might like to retire to the Pacific Northwest. It really is lovely here. The climate is temperate and the squirrels are gentle.

Brigit was a Georgia belle by birth, and not even the concrete rasp of half a decade living in Old New Amsterdam could burr the satin finish on her manners. After two days’ sailing in her company, two things were evident. One, her soft-spoken slight lisp hid a well-read mind as strong as a bear trap and as fast as a methamphetamine-addled cobra. Two, her insistence on wearing calf-length patent leather heeled boots bespoke a sensibility better suited to dry land than the unforgiving buckle of the sea.

Clay was what happens when you take a fifth-generation Irish Catholic immigrant raised in Polish Chicago, give him an education in finance, and tell him to honor his ancestors. Close your eyes and imagine a burlap sack filled with steak and mashed potatoes. If that sack were to grow a mustache and wear vintage Oxfords (again, while at sea for reasons not quite clear to me), you’d have a reasonable facsimile of Clay, useful for decoy work under poor lighting conditions.

Brigit and Clay were the first mate and skipper, respectively, of the Ἀπόκοπος, a drafthorse of a 36′ Bermuda-rig sloop. For the past 36 hours, Anika and I had joined their existing crew, a beagle named Clotho and a languid tabby called Lachesis, and I found myself instructing everyone but the pets on board the finer points of actually getting a sailboat to work properly.

Beggars, they say, can’t be choosers. In another time, I might square this with conflict resolution scholarship. If your outside options are poor, you might be willing to sacrifice some dignity for expediency. In this instance, most of what I cared about was not running aground. Contrary to what you might imagine, running the rigging on a sailboat in even moderate winds involves a lot of footwork. My ankle was still in pretty sorry shape, so the most I could contribute was helmsman duties. Standing the helm with three landlubbers who—I swear I am not making this up—had been using overhand knots to secure the rigging meant that in addition to steering, inspecting the condition of the vessel’s hardware, inventorying the afloat gear, and swapping backstory, I had to shake the chowder out from between my shipmates’ ears. Easier said than done. Sailing is muscle memory. Over the incessant cry of my insulted ankle, I took to the boat’s laminated tiller like a drunk to a new, exotic bottle of imported hooch.

First meetings always set the tone for the adventure. With Anika, a terrified little girl was bravely trying to hide a beloved pet rat from a bloodthirsty mob. With Brigit and Clay, a cartoonish duo of novice sailors tried (and failed) to keep their newly-acquired vessel from running aground. I suppose I should be grateful. Laughter is precious, more so when it’s as elusive as it is these days.

I still owe a debt to my conscience and to Anika for asking her to scout the city while I attempted useless convalescence under the fallen cypress root ball. As much as I loathed my rank cowardice for sending a kid into peril, I knew that a spry child would be able to evade curious eyes a heck of a lot better than a guy who occasionally gets winded eating a bowl of peas. I quickly paid back a small portion of that debt when I kept my pistol holstered after seeing physical comedy that included a five-foot-nothing girl in heels attempt to stow a jib while wearing finger rings; a stout, pasty stockbroker attempt to turn around by steering into the wind under five knots; and an overexcited puppy piddle topside and slide overboard on the unexpected arrival of a broadside wave. I only recognized what I was looking at when I saw lank little Anika jump into the surf to rescue the dog. Unfortunately, but the time she wrestled little Clotho back on board, the keel had taken a bite out of the sand below and the boat was beginning to dance that telltale lurch of a boat beached.

Me: “Ahoy! You look like you could use a hand.”

Clay: “You must be Sam.”

Me: “I am.” I put a little more distance between me and the cold campsite and a little less between me and the beached boat. “You just ran aground. Tide’s just turned, so you might be there a while.”

Brigit: “It has? How can you tell?”

Me: “Uhh. I know how to read the beach, I guess.”

She cocked an eyebrow and waited for Clay to help her down.

Me: “Aren’t you going to secure your jib?”

Clay: “I’m helping her down now.” There was a trace of annoyance in his voice. If the weird maneuver that got them beached hadn’t convinced me that these were a couple of rookies, this little exchange sure did the trick.

Me: “No, your… the sail that goes in front. You should tie it up. If it falls in the water, the salt will damage the seams. And you should really do the same for your mainsail. If it flutters in the wind like that, it’ll fray the leeward…” I made the economical decision to hobble on board and do it myself. Instruction is useful, but emergencies lend themselves poorly to longwinded pedagogy. It took me about as long to bundle and cinch the jib and furl the main as it did for Lachesis to get a whiff of my hobo stink and issue a long, low growl delivering her Intent to Scratch notice by express mail. Odd, since cats normally like me.

Luckily, it didn’t take much more than an hour and a half for the tide to come in enough to free the keel from the beach and allow us to make for a quiet cove to the north. None of us wanted to be afloat after the sun went down, partly for fear of running aground again, but mostly to avoid ending up like one of the mad prophets you saw in those days from time to time.

Anika: “What’s ‘mad profits?’ Isn’t that you rip someone off?”

Clay: “Prophets with an ‘e.’ Haven’t you guys met those people yelling into vacant lots about the coming of some great evil?” He glanced at Brigit with a mix of affection and impatience. She had busied herself artfully arranging a sumptuous meal of spit-roasted wharf rat and wild-harvested root vegetables. “I never met a one of them that hadn’t first tried their hand at a deepwater crossing.”

Brigit: “Dinner’s ready, everyone.” Blue china. Fancy.

Anika: “How come we never saw a mad prophet?” She looked at me with a trace of skepticism, as if I’d been hiding something from her.

Me: “I can’t say for sure. I thought they were all dead. I haven’t seen once since…” I’m old enough to remember when time worked properly, when the divisions between the days and the weeks and the months and the years stood for something important, when the seasons stomped their feet and told us when to sow and when to reap. “Since Brookline, I think.”

Brigit: “You’ve been to Brooklyn? Are people living there again? Clay, he’s been to Brooklyn. Maybe we can go back.”

Me: “Not Brooklyn. Brookline.” I drew out the second syllable to emphasize the dumpy Massachusetts mill town rather than the radioactive ruins where the Dodgers once played. “If you don’t mind my asking, how did you escape from the city?”

Clay: “Vacation.”

Brigit: “One of my professors cancelled class that Thursday,” it was jarring to hear the name of a week day again, “so I took a four day weekend. The world ended while I was on a bus somewhere in Delaware.”

Me: “So you two took separate vacations?”

Brigit: “We met in Staunton’s Militia.”

I stopped chewing.

Me: “Indeed?”

I could feel that the blood drained from my face, and I noticed in the sinew of my arm a certain compulsion, as if an invisible elastic band strained to draw my trigger finger in the direction of my hip holster.

Anika: “What’s that?”

Me: “You remember what they did to Templeton?” There was no way for me to put my meal down inconspicuously and my new companions had me flanked.

Anika: “Yeah, why?”

Me: “Staunton’s Militia did to journalists what the men on your farm did to Templeton.”

Anika: “Really? Why?” This was directed at Brigit, not at me.

Clay: “Relax.” I suppose my attempts at controlling my nerves weren’t as successful as I imagined. “As soon as we found out what the truth squads were up to, we fled. We never killed anyone.”

Brigit: “Well, not while we were in the militia anyway.” This I understood. The darkest days had pretty much passed thanks to a lack of interest and the tendency of folks who wanted to role-play Mad Max to end up either impaled on their own bayonets or starved on a shit-stained sofa inside a corrugated tin shack somewhere. To survive, you swallow your pride, open your doors, and damn well cooperate. Staunton’s Militia murder platoons had either scattered by now or lay dead in potters’ fields, victims to their fellows’ bayonets. “I’m not really sure why they wanted all the journalists dead.”

Clay: “Lawyers too.”

Brigit: “Well, that’s one’s old. ‘Kill all the lawyers’ is a line from Henry VIII… or was it Henry VI? I think it’s even older than that though. Tullius maybe? Julius Caesar? I want to say it’s at least as old as Imperial Rome.”

Anika: “What’s a lawyer?”

Me: “That’s a complicated question. Ask me again sometime.”

Clay: “They wanted the journalists dead because they committed mass treason.”

Brigit: “Treason? Who told you that?”

Clay: “I’ve had some time to think about it. What’s the one big thing that happened back then?” He paused to lick his plate clean. “Think about it. We stopped lying.”

My response came almost automatically, a chant that burbled up from an indifferent sea.

Me: “To ourselves and to each other.” Everyone looked into the glowing coals of the cookfire.

Clay: “There was a lot of rancid flesh on the corpse. The politicians were easy: they were gangrenous from the start. That part was obvious. But the journalists?” He raised his eyes. Dusk on the empty coast came late this time of year, and the glitter of ancient starlight seemed distant enough, lost in the churn of the close surf. “They chose to align themselves with the powerful. They chose to stop being champions of the people. They chose to betray their consciences and they chose to betray the people.”

Brigit: “Puh-lease.” Two syllables. Very nearly two separate words. “It was journalists themselves that wrote themselves a cute little history where they were some sort of bulwark against tyranny. All that crap about journalistic integrity is ridiculous whitewashing. They were never, never ever in the history of human affairs, not even once the upholders of some objective truth. The best they ever got was in the skill and discipline they used to mimic the style and tone of objectivity. You’d have to be a real horse’s ass to miss the constant economic reality of editorial control. Readers don’t have infinite time or infinite attention. You’ve got twenty minutes, tops to tell a newspaper reader what’s going on in the world, and you have to compete with every other paper out there. You choose what goes on the front page based on what you think your readers want. You don’t base it on some perfect Platonic standard of what they should know.”

Anika: “What’s ‘Platonic’ mean?”

Every time a piece of the old world slipped in around here, it bugged me. First Shakespeare, now Plato. But not exactly right either. I had a suspicion that Brigit had studied before. So since her odd way of describing Plato was a little off, it was another too-sharp note in the dissonant orchestra of this part of the land.

Brigit: “Ideal forms. We’re just humans, so we can’t witness perfection. The best we can do is to try to approximate it. In the case of journalism, that would mean reporting on events of historical import with impartiality. And when you’re writing for a biased audience, any attempt to be objective and unbiased simply won’t sell. News is a business, after all. If you don’t please your customers, you go out of business. It was just as true in 19th century England as in 21st century New York.”

Me: “So what do you suppose made the difference?”

Brigit: “Probably the active management of the language?”

Clay: “How’s that?”

Brigit: “Think about what words used to mean. I don’t mean words like ‘literally’ or ‘like’ or ‘plethora’ that decayed by common use or spun out of control from a throwaway joke in a movie. I mean the words of power.”

Anika: “Words of power? How do words have power?”

Brigit: “All words have power. But some words have special power. They change the way you see the world.”

This is true. A long time ago, I lived in a land that had two words for blue, where we used one. And the people of that land saw two separate, distinct colors, not merely different shades of each other. We, in turn, did the same with the Japanese. What we see as blue and green, they see as different shades of the same color. The words we use influence our perception.

Brigit: “Journalists intentionally misused words like ‘power’ and ‘monopoly’ and ‘epidemic’ and even ‘children’ as part of an uncoordinated campaign. By subtly altering the landscape of the language, you can guide the eye to the features you want your readers to see. And often, those features made the work of journalists and editors a lot easier. They raised the status of government work, and it so happens that you always know where to go for a government quote, so long as you’ve managed to make it past the gatekeepers.”

Clay: “This is the first I’ve heard you talk about this. Are you saying that newspaper editors went out and intentionally changed the language just to make their jobs easier?”

Brigit: “No, but that’s because I don’t think any single editor has that kind of power. I think it was more of an evolutionary process. It doesn’t have to be conscious or directed, even though it might look that way after the fact. I think it was probably just a matter of maybe a few little motivated changes here and there, and readers’ widespread acceptance.” She began collecting plates for the evening scullery. Anika quickly wolfed down the last of her meal. “You know, um, random selection…” Clay was about to interject, but she quickly corrected herself. “No, random mutation and natural selection. That’s it. One equilibrium of the ecosystem is the story that government orders society and everything sort of fills in the middle. Like an old tapestry.”

Clay: “But that’s not the only equilibrium, right?”

Brigit: “Right. There are other language patterns, ones that glorify God, or ones that pay respect to the nobility, even ones that elevate merchants. Somehow, and I’m not really sure where it started, but somehow we ended up with a cult of democracy, a cult of the Presidency, and a cult of rule-by-experts. I think whatever happened back then didn’t want those cults to survive.”

I held my tongue. Something about what she said stirred half-remembered dreams. I had seen the mad prophets, and I’d even listened to their ravings briefly. There was something there, but I couldn’t hold onto it in these waking hours.

Anika: “So that’s why they killed the reporters? Because they were cult leaders?”

Brigit: “I think so. Something like that. But it’s not something I could ever bring myself to do.”

Clay: “Killing is a dirty business. Sometimes you have to do it, but going out of your way? It’s not easy to wash off blood.”

Anika fell silent. I went to help Brigit with the dishes.

And in distant Valhalla, blind Odin clutched bloody Gungnir, tears welling from empty sockets to drip on the dust of crumbled runes.

Previous Episodes in this Series

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