Birger woke to a gentle shaking. He sat up quickly and looked at the Jul fire. It was ash and embers. The boy jumped to his feet and began adding the last of the kindling and logs to the fire, careful not to disturb the glowing embers. He and Garald had been charged with keeping the fire at the edge of their village burning through this longest of nights. It was a sacred charge to hold vigil until the sun returned in the morning and a great offense if they failed. Where was Garald? Birger looked around the fire and only then paid attention to the man that had shaken him awake.
The man stood tall and straight with a full but short white beard. He wore a fine green cloak trimmed with some fur Birger didn’t recognize. One side of his face lay in shadow, as did the hole where his right eye should have been. Birger had seen a few men with a missing eye, but none carried himself like this man, a man unknown yet familiar. Birger couldn’t help but stare into the eye that was there when he asked, “Where is Garald?”
The tall man sat on a log by the fire and spoke, “Your friend? We sent him to find a different log. Your fire is dying, and you are using the wrong wood. I need oak.”
The familiarity Birger felt for the man sprouted into awe and bloomed into courage. “Are you him? Odin?” asked Birger.
The one-eyed man nodded, staring into the fire. “We’ve been hunting. We came down to rest and consult the sparks.” Odin looked up at Birger. “Please, sit.” Birger sat on the log closest to him. He would have grabbed his blanket from his bedroll to wrap around himself but feared taking too long to obey the All-father. “Did you leave this for us?” Odin asked, pointing to several shoes filled with hay that sat at the doorways of several huts a short distance away.
“Yes, sir.” Birger looked at the shoes, wondering if they should have left more hay. Had they been too stingy? “We left it for Slepnir and Thor’s goats and all the other horses and hounds in the Hunt. Would you like more? We can get you all that you need.”
“No, please sit back down. This is very kind.” Odin turned his head over his shoulder. “Thor, did you hear? They remembered your goats in this village.”
A barrel of a man with hair and beard that reminded Birger of red clouds drifting over a midnight sun stepped out of the dark and toward the fire. By his side walked a smaller man with dark hair but a shining face. The large man sat beside Birger with a weight he thought might break the log they shared. He dropped a large hammer in front of him and slapped Birger on the shoulder. “There’s a good man. Could you believe a goat’s legs could tire from running on air?”
Birger rubbed his shoulder and shook his head, staring at Thor’s hammer. He was close enough to reach out and touch it. Birger stole a glance at Thor. The god drank from a horn Birger had not seen before. The boy lost count of how often Thor swallowed from the horn and wondered where the mead was coming from. When Thor finally lowered his horn, he belched and said, “If it rains later, it’s just me pissing,” and guffawed.
Birger looked back to the man with the shining face and sad smile. He was sitting next to Odin now. “Is it true, sir?” Birger asked Odin. “Slepnir has eight legs?” The boy looked in all directions beyond the fire to see the horse but could see nothing but darkness beyond the firelight.
The man with the shining face answered, “Yes. He needs all eight to travel the eight colors of the Bifrost.”
A new voice chimed in from the shadows, “Don’t confuse the boy, Baldr. He can’t see all eight colors.” The owner of the voice stepped up to the fire. He was as unremarkable as these other men were extraordinary: not short or tall, thin, or fat. He was perfectly plain to Birger.
Odin ignored Baldr and the ordinary man. “Yes, he has eight legs. Slepnir is the greatest of steeds. He is the color of storm, and his front two legs presage the storm’s arrival. I even named them: Thunder and Lightning.”
The ordinary man said, “He’s not all gray. After a battle, his muzzle is usually redder than these dying embers. Odin lets him graze on his disemboweled enemies. And the impious.”
Birger looked at the fire and watched the kindling.
Odin shook his head and said with soft reproach, “Loki.” The ordinary god sighed, sat on the log beside Thor, and stared into the dying fire. Thor leaned into Loki and said, “I named my legs too. Hollow, Dwarf-Kicker, and,” grabbing his crotch, “Sigynpleaser!” Thor wrapped his arms around Loki’s shoulders. Both gods shook as Thor laughed.
Without looking away from the fire, Loki said, “For that, I will give you no hints as to where I hid Mjolnir. I was going to give you three.”
Thor and Birger looked down between Thor’s feet where his hammer had been set. Thor stood and looked around the fire. Growling, he stalked off into the darkness, looking under bracken, swearing curses in languages unknown to Birger. Loki looked at Baldr. “He’ll be looking all night if you don’t lend your face to help him.” As Baldr stood, Odin motioned Birger to take Baldr’s seat beside him and Birger obeyed.
“Boy,” said Odin. “I don’t have much with me, but I wanted to reward you for remembering our mounts on this Jul night.” He fished in his wanderer’s bag until he delighted in something inside. He took out several puppets no taller than a hand. Each puppet had several strings attached to a larger string. Odin placed each of the larger strings on his fingers and made the puppets dance. “We have friends at our home in the north that make us many wondrous contraptions. They made these carvings for my sons when they were young.” Odin took the strings off his fingers and handed the puppets to Birger. “Careful you don’t get the strings tangled. It is an easy thing.”
Birger held them up to his face to look more closely. His village had poles carved with the gods’ images around the village. These were nothing like that. They looked like little gods and goddesses shrunken and frozen in time. They were beautiful but also unsettling. “Thank you, All-father.”
“Am I? The father of All?” Odin asked.
Birger swallowed, not knowing how to answer. He wondered if this was a riddle. He feared what would happen if he guessed the wrong answer. He opted for truth. “I don’t know. It’s what I’ve been told.”
“If I am father of All, does that not make me the father of Jul?” Odin looked at Birger with an eye unreadable.
“I suppose it,” said Birger.
Odin smiled, “Then on this night of nights, call me Jul-Father.” Something about Odin’s appearance changed. He looked for a moment to look like Winter itself.
Birger smiled back, knowing not why, and said, “Yes, Jul Father. I will.”
“Are we in Rome? You should have him calling you Jupiter now?” Baldr strode out of the dark and up to the fire. “Why not Saturn? It’s his time there now.”
Loki returned with a log under his arm larger than any man could carry with two, “Will this be sufficient?”
Odin said, “It is. But take the mistletoe off. It throws off my reading. Go sit away from me, boy.” Birger obeyed for a third time that night.
Loki pulled the mistletoe off the oak and tossed it to Baldr, who caught it. “Do something with that.”
Baldr looked around and hung the mistletoe above the door of one of the huts. “There. Now they can remember what good my sun does. They can remember it on these days it shies.”
Birger watched Loki place the oak log on the embers of the Jul fire and whisper some galdr over it. The log quickly began to smoke. Loki looked around until he caught Birger staring at him. He held the boy’s gaze. He stalked toward Birger and sat next to him. Birger wished again he had a blanket wrapped around him. “You remembered hay for our mounts, but do you know why we ride this night?” Loki asked with fetid breath.
A dozen stories of Loki’s tricks and evils flashed through Birger’s mind. His voice caught in his throat when he answered. “Because you hunt?”
Loki slowly nodded and grinned. “Yes, but do you know what we hunt?” Odin turned his eye to the pair. Birger thought he saw the All-father shake his head, but it was too slight for Birger to be sure. He felt Loki leaning in.
“The dead,” Loki said. “You see, it is up to folk to remember to honor the dead and their resting places. This day of the year is the shortest, and if the dead are not reminded the sun still shines, they think the end of times is here, and they may rise. It is common folks’ duty to keep the barrow channels clean from dirt, nests, and weeds so the sun may shine on the draugrs’ bodies and keep them in their place. But many people started forgetting.” Loki’s stench grew, and Birger’s chest hurt.
“Draugrs started to rise from their barrows.” Birger watched as Loki reached his hand out in the shape of a claw. He wanted to close his eyes but thought the god might take offense. The boy’s wide eyes began to well up. Loki’s hand began to age and dry. “The dead want to take Midgard back and evict the living.” The skin on his hand pulled back, and his fingernails grew long. His hand was a dead, rotting claw reaching out. The scream Birger held in his throat felt like it was burning him alive.
“Leave him be!” Odin commanded.
Loki withdrew his hand, which had already changed back to normal. He looked back to the fire and said in the manner of one who had just finished telling a ghost story, “This is why we hunt. To keep the dead from the living. Remember to tell your family and friends if they don’t honor the dead,” Loki turned back to hold Birger’s gaze once more, “Rot and claw will have them.”
Baldr scratched his palm and said, “You change so quickly. Is it that easy for you?”
Loki looked down at his hand and then at Baldr’s palm. “The changing is easy. But I must remember what I changed from, or I will lose myself. I once changed to a duck and forgot who I was. I flew south for the winter and only remembered myself when I flew back north and saw the Bifrost again.”
“I wish you would have stayed south and made a sour meal for some mud-covered bumpkins!” Thor shouted. He stomped out of the darkness holding Mjolnir. “You didn’t even hide it. I just found it lying in cow shit half a league off. You just threw it!”
“Quiet!” Odin said. The oak log had taken to the fire, sending up ash and sparks. The rest of the gods held their squabbling. Odin turned his missing eye to the fire and stared. Birger watched the sparks dance like minnows in spring and then slow as if frozen in a winter stream. For countless heartbeats, Birger watched Odin stare into a world more real than the one he knew. Odin blinked, sighed, and said, “Nothing.”
The rest of the gods reappeared. Thor said, “That’s good. It means people remember their dead. Honoring the old ways.”
“No,” said Odin. “It means we have killed all the draugr over the years that could have escaped. It means no one buries their dead to honor them in the old ways. There are no more draugr left to escape.”
Birger thought Thor looked restless. The boisterous god grew quiet and seemed to look for something to do. He stalked back into the dark where his goats must have been.
Loki put his hand on Odin’s shoulder. “These people lead short lives, All-Father. Short lives lead to quick changes. They age before our eyes, living, breeding, and dying in a breath for us. And each new life brings new ideas. Things can’t help but change.”
“You’re wiser than you should be.” Odin stood.
“If I am wise, it is by your shaping. The world and its people shape themselves. It is the way of things to change.” Loki stood and looked down at Birger. “As long as they don’t forget what they changed from.” Birger looked at Loki’s hand before squeezing his eyes shut. When he dared peek, Loki was gone.
Odin looked at the log, the mistletoe, and finally, the empty shoes by the fire. He looked at Birger and the puppets in his hands and grinned. “What is your name, boy?”
Birger opened his eyes all the way. “Birger, sir.”
“Birger, I will write your name in my runes and you will be blessed,” said Odin. As he walked away, Birger heard him say, “I wonder how many toys the dark elves could carve in a year’s time.”
Before long, Birger heard neighs and whinnies rising and fading with the night. He lay back down in the twilight and wrapped himself and his new puppets tightly in his blanket. Drifting off, Odin’s white beard and Thor’s rotund laughter tangled in his mind while he wondered where Garald had gone.
About the Author
Jarod Pharis is a retired news cameraman, background actor, and private investigator and looks forward to his next retirement. He lives in Kansas City with his wife and son under the iron paw of the world’s most bipolar goldendoodle.