Do you want to know when the killing started? Of course you do. It didn’t start right away.
On last week of May, the students in my old neighborhood would move out of their apartments. Their leases were up June first, and most would go home for the summer. We locals called it “Christmas in May” as we walked down our streets and salvaged the bookcases, tables, desks—even stereo equipment—that students had bought in September and couldn’t or wouldn’t take home in June.
I had gone out street-picking on a Wednesday night and brought home a bookcase for the cellar and a white plastic outdoor chair. My wife and I worked as a translators and language professors and we could always use another bookcase, even the kind of bookcase made of cheap pressboard. She specialized in Romance languages, and I in old Norse and Anglo-Saxon. And there was always room for another chair on our little back porch.
I speak of that life in the past tense.
For as I slept that night, I had the oddest dream, and it continues.
I dreamt I had wandered out of my bed, out of the house, at some point late at night, and found myself standing on the street again, looking at a pile of discarded household items that were lit by a dim streetlight. I don’t even know which street it was. There were wisps of fog, and a cold breeze blowing. Even in the dream, I thought that was odd.
I stood looking at an old mattress, a table with a broken leg, an outdated computer printer, and a great ax with a polished rune-inscribed blade. Such a bright, shiny, expensive thing for someone to discard, I thought, but perhaps the owner’s parents didn’t share their offspring’s RenFaire obsessions. The blade was magnificent, and I wanted it. Who wouldn’t want to be like the heroes of the old stories: mighty Beowulf, who slew the monster Grendel; the brave battle God Tyr, who willingly sacrificed his hand. . . .
As these thoughts ran through my mind, I felt a bit of cold breath on my neck. Close behind me stood an old man, thin and tall, with a narrow face and a crooked smile. His shoulders were stooped as he craned over me to look at the pile of stuff by the curb. Then he turned to talk to me, his mouth at the level of my right ear.
“I’m looking for a bowl,” he whispered. “But first, there’s someone who thinks I owe them some money. It might get rough. Would you care to accompany me?”
He turned and I followed—without the axe, I don’t know why—up one street and down another, his loose black trench coat waving in the cold breeze like a big dark flag in front of me. I had the vague feeling—that kind of unexplained feeling you can get in dreams—that we were heading north to do something heroic.
After walking for a short while on the empty streets, we came to a two-story brick house with an old rusted van out front. We walked up the steps of a massive brick porch that was squeezed between wildly overgrown hedges. Odin (for I knew he was Odin, now) rang the doorbell. After a minute or two, a big bald man filled the doorway. He filled it so completely, it looked as if it were made precisely to fit him. He saw me first and wrinkled his brow. Then he saw Odin and scowled.
Odin smiled back at him. “I have three thousand dollars,” he stated, as if this were a formal announcement of some sort.
The man at the door said nothing, but grinned and held out his hand.
In response, Odin turned and walked back down the stairs, taking his money with him. I followed.
“Why did you do that?” I asked, alarmed, when we were further down the sidewalk.
“So he’ll get his sons and his brothers. He’ll need them, if he wants to take anything from me!” Odin squeezed my shoulder. “Then we’ll have a real battle! Remember him, Fenrir?”
“What?” I said, confused. “But I’m not Fenrir.”
I knew who Fenrir was, of course. In Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Fenrir was a monster in the shape of a wolf who was prophesized to take the side of the giants at the final battle of Ragnarok. He was the child of a giantess and the troublesome god Loki.
He would be captured, tricked and bound by a magick ribbon, by the Aesir, the Norse gods, who were aware of the prophecy. Even then, Fenrir suspected treachery, and when he agreed to be bound he insisted one of the gods put a hand in his terrible jaws as a guarantee of good will. At Ragnarok, Fenrir is destined to kill Odin.
I found myself loping to keep up with the long-legged god.
“I’m looking for a universe,” said Odin, as we went past the piles of trash on the curb. He picked up a purple salad bowl, looked inside, and threw it back.
I understood that the universe was a bowl, and so we were looking for bowls. Such is the logic of dreams.
We wandered down several streets, examining every pile of debris, and every now and then I’d see Odin lift something up and shake his head.
After a while, I found a nice blue bowl that was filled with stars. It didn’t have a pattern of stars, no, it was actually filled with stars, like someone was making a cosmic punch with a bunch of galaxies, or maybe cosmic soup. I yelped to Odin, who was just a few junkpiles down the street. “Hey!” I said. “I think this is it!”
“No, I’ve got it here,” he answered. He was holding up a smaller yellow bowl.
“But this one’s bigger,” I replied, somewhat proud of myself.
“No, they’re all the same size,” he answered. “Universes are all the same size.”
I left that universe where it was and loped over to him. Up close, his bowl was a dull gold. He scratched the ruff on my neck, and then he suddenly took off running down the street. I had no trouble catching up and running next to him; it seemed a natural pace.
He looked down at me and laughed. “That’s good, Fenrir!” he said.
“But I’m not Fenrir!” I answered. I was also starting to laugh. It seemed like a good joke: turn me into a wolf, call me Fenrir. . . .
“But you are Fenrir!” Odin’s laugh was hard and heavy. We were running faster, I could feel the muscles in my haunches moving, hear my paw-pads thumping the sidewalk.
“I’m not Fenrir!” I insisted.
“Yes, you are!” he shouted. “You’re Fenrir! Fenrir the terrible! Fenrir the monster who swallows the moon! Fenrir, whose cavernous jaws and scythe-sharp claws rip and shred gods and mortals alike, Fenrir the blood-soaked horror of the final battle! Your jaws are the brutal empty end of it all! You are Fenrir of Ragnarok!” and he took the little yellow bowl of the universe and spun it like a Frisbee over his head way up in the air.
“I’m not Fenrir!” I yelled, still laughing.
And then I was in a broad field spattered with white flowers and low, deep green bushes. Odin was gone.
But the strange dream goes on.
My old life is a sweet and fading memory. Day after day passes, year after long, brutal year, and there is no escape. I hunt deer, boar, bear, and even humans, but nothing fills my stomach. I am hungry always. I look up at the moon and I want to eat him, too, crying with roars that shake the mountains, howls answered only by the echo of avalanches—
At least, I’m the biggest, baddest thing in the universe.
—and I swear that I will never trust a god again.
On a rocky crag high up over the valley, there are two ravens, and their laughter grates on my ears.
Yes, I would tell them, the end of the world is coming. But this is just the beginning.
Would you know more?
Do you still want to know when the killing started?
Of course you do.
I had to pee. That’s all. That’s when the human-killing started.
I was young—a pup, really. And like a punk pup I wanted to mark everything. I could smell the human settlement, the stink of gods about them, the smell of the horses and oxen and pigs. Proud of those damn pigs, they were, kept them in a fancy pen. I wanted to pee on that fancy pen, their barn, their sheds, or as close as I could get to them. I wanted their smarter beasts to know their enemy. Their tyrant beast-king. I wanted them to be afraid.
I skulked around the edges. It was summer, and midday, but they still had men posted, keeping watch. They always had men watching; there were wolves, bears, other men, and monsters that were legends already, even in this early in human-time.
They had to be wary; civilization was a concept far, far off in the hazy distance. They had to be strong and to make the world afraid of them. I’d heard the boasts: “May your gods save you from the fury of the North Men!” Ha! But these posted men were overweight and half drunk, more like security guards, or the toy cops at the university. I got around them easily.
The smell of wet grass filled my nostrils. They had gathered the grass in piles, and it was somewhat rotted. I came around the back of the barn—a puddle of piss here, a squirt there—and low and quiet shot to the longest shed, the one where they kept the cows. It was open on three sides, all new pine logs, the bark still peeling, the edges of the floor covered in pine scraps, sawdust, and sticks. This would be as close as I dared, for now. I took a long whizz in a milk pail, and couldn’t help but chuckle, a low sound that could have been mistaken for a growl.
As I came around the other side, moving like a low, impossibly long shadow, I saw a horse that was so big I stopped to look up. He was fine and haughty, tied in several places to the pine posts, and as strong as anything I’d yet seen.
I started moving, but not before one of the North Men saw me. He had a whip in his hand; I imagine he’d been using it to break the wild-eyed horse. I could sense the whip as it cut through the air behind me, I could feel it slice along the air, and I heard a sound like the moment before lightning hits on the crags in the high meadows. I turned fast, and before it could crack my hindquarters I had the leather end in my teeth.
I suppose, at that point, I was thinking I’d pull it out of his hand and run with it. A prize! But this man wasn’t one of the louts on guard duty; he was really big and his arms were the size of my haunches. He had what, in my university days, I would have called a handlebar mustache, and it took up much of his big wide face.
University. The thought of university now just confuses me.
But I can still see that man’s face. He was a leader of men, a warrior, maybe even a king. The others stood back and let him face me alone. He had a knife strapped to his leg, but he didn’t reach for that. He came grinning, pulling on the whip, muttering something about doggies, because to him I was just a wolf. A rather huge wolf, but still just a wolf. And a huge wolf didn’t seem to worry him. If he’d been breaking the spirit of that horse, maybe he thought he could break me. Break me like other dogs. But I have long curving claws that sometimes clatter when I run.
And I am no man’s best friend.
I waited, keeping the end of that wicked whip carefully in my teeth. He was grinning and I was grinning, too. I find it funny that of all the kindreds, only humans think that bared teeth are a sign of happiness. For the rest of us, grinning teeth mean we want to kill something.
He stood in front of me. I had kept low and smallish and stayed that way. He muttered something again, and I saw his foot go back for a kick. Suddenly I was up and full size and, simply reaching with my right paw, hooked him through the throat. So easy. Just one toe, one sharp curving claw. He was off balance, and so I held him up, ripping my claw down and through his chest. I was face-to-face with him, and although he was still grinning, his eyes looked like those of a frightened child. So easy, yes. As my sharp claw-tip poked out through his sternum, the last squeeze of his heart sent a great spurt of blood six feet in the air. A mighty muscle, the human heart.
His friends, forcing themselves out of stunned shock, were pulling out broad knives and picking up pitchforks and axes and fallen logs. I had no desire to fight all of them, nor did I then know how. I let their strongman fall to the sticky ground and tore off through the cedars and pines. They knew this might be their only chance to catch me, and so they followed. Soon dogs were baying behind me, my enslaved and traitorous brethren.
I was never fond of dogs, even in that brief, hazy time I was human. They are stupid, shallow, and demand attention. I found most people that way, too—I’m sure they all called me a bastard, behind my back. The humans and the dogs.
Yet, I am a dog. And I love Odin. Well, the way a vicious and abused mongrel loves the master he’d like to kill. I love the gods. I am not evil. The gods bound me because they were afraid of my strength and afraid of my fate. And only knowing that story, did I set myself against the gods.
I ran and the North Men and their dogs still followed.
Finally, by a river, I hid in a big old badger den under the roots of a giant ash. The den still smelled of big old badger. If those dogs had any sense, they’d smell it and avoid it. I began to congratulate myself! Me—biggest and baddest.
That was the first human I killed.
I am tired of scratching my life with my claws into these stone walls. At least the runes are mostly straight lines. I’m not writing a linear account, but this is a saga, and it has a beginning and an end. Once you begin telling it, everyone already knows how it ends. It’s the middle, how it happens, that makes it interesting. This is my saga, it belongs to me and me alone.
Although maybe a scholar someday will read it and translate it for posterity.
Hah. Bitter thought.
The ribbon, Gleipnir, is draped loosely around my neck and shoulders; that’s all it takes to bind me. The stone walls, the tree-thick iron bars, the huge mountain over me, the fiery landscape beyond—that’s all overkill; it means nothing. And I’ll get out someday. I know it, and they know it, and there’s nothing either of us can do about it.
But always overhead, day or night, I can see through those meaningless bars that damned bowl of stars, trapping me.
I’ll kill Odin. He knows it and I know it and you know it. It’s the way the story ends.