Round two of the NYC midnight short story contest: Spring 2022 Placed: honorary mention
Prompts: Genre, comedy; Character, a stick-in-the-mud; Topic, perfection
The fur trim is modish but a little ratty.
“Torsten makes a good robe, but his frugality is a little wearing. I mean, used pelts? And is this rodent?! I guess it sends a message about thriftiness, but a shaman should have a certain presence.”
Sif is muttering to herself in the dim light seeping into her shelter. Morning dew beads on the hides and trickles steadily onto the packed earth floor. One benefit of her status, she thinks, is the acceptance of self-dialogue. Murmuring inaudibly is pretty much a prerequisite for a shaman. ‘Talking to the divine,’ they call it.
“There’s precious little else to recommend it,” she frowns, jabbing at the mass of once-flaxen hair with a bone comb bequeathed by her mother. “Certainly not the threads.”
Responsibility is heavy on the shoulders of the tribe shaman as the most important ritual of the year approaches; securing the return of the sun at Yule. The rest of the year can be spent pleasantly enough with auguries, purifications and the odd choreographed sacrificial feast, but winter brings the big question: Will an absent or imprecise ritual cause Sol to keep dragging the sun right on by into the cosmos with a sly backward glance at the rapidly chilling civilisation?
She turns to exit her goahti and groans as the gown drags through the newly formed puddle. “Oh bqllr!” she snaps, “now I have an actual drowned rat on my hemline.”
This year has thrown up a particularly gnarly obstacle in the form of Corey, a village elder with archaic ideals that run counter to Sif’s reforms. His place in the line-up of supporting celebrants was secured in the traditional way, reading portents from bird placement on the lake at sunrise. One loon west of the sand spit had swung it. Luckily Torsten, Sif’s dressmaker, confidant and alleged troll-botherer has been chosen by the same method. Good to have someone on her end of the seesaw. She has yet to meet the two youth attendants, but experience has taught her that too much familiarity with them can be a problem. Does the fox drink grog with the chickens?
Corey’s participation has already thrown up problems, first with Sif’s revision of the sacred syllables and then with the selection of the sacrificial attendants. There is a certain equivocation in their title as only one will see the new dawn.
“They should both be female, and maids,” he had insisted. “Makes the choosing easier; we can’t afford to lose a male.”
Sif had sighed and explained patiently that times were changing.
“Maids, Corey? Come now, those are Midgard guidelines. Every sex has a role to play before the gods.” Ignoring his hostile stare, she accepted one family’s kind donation of mixed gender siblings.
Sif is relieved to be settling into her role at last, after crippling imposter syndrome marred her early ceremonies. Rethinking her wardrobe and ditching the ill-advised woad at Torsten’s suggestion has done wonders for her self-confidence and she feels a certain gravitas creeping in as surely as her grey hairs. Her mother was a neopagan reformer but struggled with the practicalities of bringing innovation to the role.
“Move on or die,” she growled, a touch melodramatically, as she handed over the ceremonial ash wand on her death bed.
Sif shivers and collects herself.
“Come on girl are you a vole or a Valkyrie?” she mutters to herself and strides out into the morning mist for the pre-ritual briefing. Corey is first in attendance, fidgeting and clutching a bag of black feathers to his belly.
“Please tell me that is not the ceremonial raven?” Sif glowers.
“You may judge, but the larders have been empty of late, we all know that,” Corey fluffs evasively, his pinched face reddening.
“Brilliant. You ate the offering; is that what you’re telling me? Does something about sacrifice confuse you Corey?”
“I kept the skin and feathers; thought a decent shaman could fathom something from it. Long tradition of inanimate sacrifice there is.”
Torsten approaches silently as Sif shakes her head. A big, tousled pudding of a man, he is respected in the community but warily so; there is an ambiguity about him that throws folk off-guard. Exactly the quality that Sif finds so refreshing.
“Need some help here?” he asks gently? “I have a fine chicken that could stand in for this sorry carrion.”
Sif exhales. She is open to change, but sacrificial fowl may be a step too far. Corey starts to disagree, still fumbling with the disembowelled corvid, and Sif senses the imminence of one of his lectures.
“Fine. Fetch the chicken. Now where are the other sacrifices?” She turns just as the two siblings, Njal and Vitta approach nervously, eyes round as cornered fawns. They are pallid, timid creatures with the rufescent eyes of forest dwellers, more familiar with famine than feast.
“Ah! Our lovely assistants have arrived! And how delightful they look in your creations Torsten!” Sif ushers the children forward and fiddles with the girl’s crimson wool robe. “Delightful, and so practical.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Torsten smiles and leans towards the young girl. “Have you heard the joke about the bear hunter’s brown pants?” he whispers into her ear.
“No,” she ventures shyly, “can you tell it?”
“Torsten!” Sif booms, “not helpful!!”
Sniggering, Torsten pets the girl’s sallow hair.
“May Freya guide your choice tonight,” he winks at Sif, “they are both adorable.”
Corey has stood patiently through the exchange but clearly has more to say. “I hope the ceremony will adhere to the old ways,” he snaps, “nothing beats the paths well-travelled.”
“And nothing leads the wolf more clearly to the lamb,” Sif counters.
“Your last elixir was very poor,” he goes on, ignoring her. “I would recommend the recipe my father used as a more powerful aid to reaching divine ecstasy. A strong brew of lingonberry, birch bark and honey with a sanguine finish.”
“And end up face-down and senseless in the peat.” Sif sighs.
“If that is what it takes, yes,” Corey insists, his lips pinching, “the mythos decrees that a state of advanced inebriation is essential for a successful crossing to the spirit realm.”
Sif rolls her eyes. “Why does everything have to be about getting wasted? Fine, fine, you do the elixir if you feel so strongly about it. But no henbane or cannabis seeds for minors. We need this to come off consummately.”
Having sidled off to find his chicken, Torsten reappears to show it off. “A fine specimen I’m sure you will agree,” he grins, dancing the plump fowl on his knee.
“It is a pretty hen, but not a raven.” Sif sighs. “Children; what part does the raven play in the Yule ceremony?”
“The sacrifice, ma’am,” Njal suggests.
“Flying through the flames before the gods claim it’s soul,” adds Vitta.
“Good, very good,” nods Sif. “Now Corey, how are we to keep the ritual’s finesse with this flight-challenged pot roast? Do we toss it on the fire or watch it run around the pyre clucking it’s stupid head off?”
“I can hang it from a stick?,” Njal volunteers, “make like it’s flying?”
“Hideous, but probably the best we can do. Fine; chicken on a stick. Let’s gloss over the climax for now.”
“That’s the most exciting part!” Vitta pouts, her rapt face falling.
“Don’t worry, my angel, you’ll be centre stage tonight,” Sif beams, “run along now, it’s nearly showtime!”
As the sun melts from view behind the forest, the scene is set. Sif’s year of honing, bartering and rehearsing comes to its realisation among the dancing embers and looming basalt spires. A towering pyre of seasoned pine spits and crackles atmospherically in the chill night air as the community approaches in festive spirit and their finest furs. A wolf howls long and low in the glimmer-dim and a silence falls over the crowd as Sif steps into the circle of firelight, looking every inch the High Priestess. Flanking her are Corey and Torsten. He has worked a small miracle with the raven, whose feathers now adorn their shoulders in iridescent shoals.
Sif’s first fistful of henbane hits the embers like a bomb and throws up a putrid green smoke that quickly envelops the crowd. Covey has distributed his elixir heavy-handedly and some men are onto their third horn. The mood is buoyant, and as the two youngsters solemnly lead in the chicken tied to a birch branch, a wave of ribald laughter erupts. To restore some solemnity Sif raises her voice, intoning the sacred syllables commandingly over and over the noise of the crowd.
“Here we go,” she breathes, “let’s give these peasants something to gawp at.” She is relieved to have skipped the grog, confiding “I don’t mix my toxins” to Torsten as he passed the horn.
The planned culmination of the ceremony comes as the tethered raven succumbs to the flames and the hallucinating shaman slits the throat of one juvenile attendant with the ceremonial dagger. The blood, flames and bitter smoke combine in perfect theatrical crescendo, filling the throng with awe and reverence. Sif’s current view of two children attempting to swing a chicken through the air on a pole is somewhat less exalting, and she is briefly concerned by the sudden hush that has fallen over the congregation, but she is in her moment and starting to fly.
Abruptly Njal falters by the embers and crashes forward, relinquishing the hen to his sister just as it catches fire and starts shrieking ungodly but impressive avian arias. Vitta drops the pole in horror and sinks weeping into her skirts; her brother’s meanness combined with natural indifference means that she is the only other sober person on the mountain.
Slowly the chicken’s lament and the girl’s bawling bring Sif into her senses enough to glimpse the carnage that surrounds her. Bodies cover the clearing around the pyre like birches laid waste by the winter winds. Corey’s elixir has wiped out the entire tribe.
“You dauti bacraut what have you done?!” she screams into the night.
As if in answer, a series of stentorian booms echo down the mountainside and bounce off the valley walls, shaking Sif in her robe. “Thunder?” she winces, “or the laughter of the gods?”
It is a long trek up the mountainside to the Eagle Rock with the traumatised girl, but Sif and Vitta relish the warmth that climbing brings them. The cold feels oddly persistent and time seems to have stagnated since they left the ceremonial ground. From the rock there is a clear view across the silver sea to where the sun has returned every day since before the memories of the old ones. They huddle together in their cloaks and fix their eyes on the chalk line of the horizon, illuminated by the waning moon’s glow.
“What will we do if the sun doesn’t rise?” Vitta ventures as last, “I feel like it should be day already.”
“Hush child, I can spin it. Call it a new republic or independence from the circle of death. A neopagan rebirth.”
“But won’t it be cold and full of monsters?”
Sif puts her arm around the girl. “We have fire, sweet thing, and women’s wit.”
“All those people though, just wiped out like lemmings.” Vitta shudders.
“You can’t make houmous without squashing a chickpea darling.”
“Is that a type of bird?”
“No, just something I saw in the flames.”
Vitta’s eyes widen. “What else did you see? What will come to pass?”
“Well, I saw you and I tucking into a chicken dinner!”
“Oh, thank Frigg, maybe we can make a new future! What was it like?”
Sif flinches. “It was pretty dark.”