by David Sklar
It’s such a nuisance, dying every day. Being eaten every day by the same rough men. You may not know this, but my body is still me, even when it’s meat. So I feel the passage of my roasted flesh through their intestines. The battle sweat isn’t so sexy, once you’ve spent time in a person’s gut. But you get to know a man that way, in a way no one else does. I’ve been in the warriors of Valhalla, every one. I’m in them still, becoming part of them.
It’s a hassle, being resurrected every day. Remembering, even after I have been eaten, what form to take when my nephew waves his hammer over my bones.
It’s not the same every day, you understand. And I must remember, every time, how much to change. A spot here, a bristle there. A slightly different wrinkle on my snout. Knowing what the mortal beast will look like when I’m done. Too much, and someone will notice. Too little, I’ve wasted a day.
The first time I tried this, I took too long. The pig was dead of age before I looked enough like him, and I had to walk myself back until I resembled Sæhrímnir again. After that, I practiced on farms in Midgard for a hundred years, learning how much I could alter before anyone mentioned the change. Some things are worth working for, you know — not many, but some. When I could get it done in half a decade, I tried again.
I stole a piglet from a farm on Sable Island. I named him Lazarus, or maybe Lemenkainen, and I looked into his eye and saw the pig he would grow up to be. Then I shrunk him to a size that would fit in a jar the size of my finger, and I sneaked into Valhalla by the cooks’ entrance, with the pig in my pocket.
I hid the piglet in the jar underneath the scullery floor where the scraps were thrown out, where he would have a constant source of food. Then I went to the barn and found Sæhrímnir, the pig they serve in Valhalla every day.
I’d brought another jar with me, for I had planned to hide Sæhrímnir beneath the earth, but when I looked into his eyes I saw the piglet he had been, and I listened to the thoughts he chose to share.
Have you come to kill me? he asked.
I shook my head.
They always kill me, said the pig. They kill me every day.
And you want to live? I asked.
I am tired, Sæhrímnir said. I do not fear death. But I’m tired of dying.
So I became a flea behind his ear. And I whispered of the peace beyond the grave.
That’s nonsense, he said. We’re in the choicest nether real estate, and all the humans do all day is fight.
It was no use to lie any more. The power of a lie, you know, is that people want to believe. Without that, it’s no fun. So I said nothing, but waited with him for the slaughter.
I drank just a bit of his blood — I was a flea, after all. And when they skinned him and lowered him into the cauldron I hopped onto the cook’s apron and waited there.
As the warriors at the long table discarded the bones, I slipped into the pile. And, when my nephew swung his hammer over me, I made myself the pig around the bones.
I carried the bones in my belly, and in the night, while they slept, I returned to the kitchen. I split my belly open with the boning knife, and left Sæhrímnir’s bones in the fire pit.
And every day I let them kill and eat me.
In all the time I dwelt there, they never noticed, but for once, when my brother, the all-knowing, with the one all-seeing eye, brought his horse to the barn there for shelter while the stables were being cleaned.
My brother didn’t recognize me — but his horse did.
Mother? said the stallion.
Shh, said I.
He’s good, my boy. He listened. After my brother had left, I asked my foal, Is your uncle treating you well?
He is a good master, Sleipnir said.
A master? I stammered. He’s your grandfather.
He is a man, said Sleipnir. I am a horse.
I looked my son in the eye and said, You’re smarter than your cousin, but I never put a saddle on him.
This is how it is.
From what I could tell, he believed it. No, I told him. This is about me.
About you? he asked.
Your uncle would rather not think of me as a mare — as a female of any species.
Why not? asked the horse.
Because I was born with a dick between my legs.
And now you’re a woman?
No, at this moment I’m a hog. Try to keep up. But when I finish here I might be a woman, or a man, or a sexless amoeba, and your all-knowing, all-seeing uncle has no place in his taxonomy for that.
He’s unhappy because you’re transgender? Sleipnir asked.
Transgender? I scoffed. Honey, I transcend gender.
So we good? I asked.
What became of Sæhrímnir?
I let him rest.
You mean… my son began, and then trailed off.
It is what he wanted, I said.
My son did not respond.
So are we good? I asked.
Tell me again about my father, Sleipnir said.
Of course, I told him. Your father was a splendid beast, a magnificent work horse. Now, me, I’ve never had much use for work, but he wore it well. He helped his master build these walls — not the stable walls, but the walls around all of Valhalla. But for payment he wanted the sun and the moon. And Aunt Freyja. So your uncles sent me to throw him off, so he wouldn’t finish. The craftsman was single-minded, and nothing I did could distract him. But your father was a horse of another color. He broke through his harness, at the sight of a beautiful mare in heat. And I fancied him anyway…
And I told Sleipnir stories until he slept. By the end, I’d regrown udders and ovaries — the maternal instinct is strong, and I still see the suckling foal he was, even now that he’s grown. I decided to leave them there until morning, and I almost got found out when the butcher’s assistant came to my stall.
* * *
When at last the pig that I became looked like the pig I’d brought, I crept into the scullery while they slept, and I opened the jar to let Lazarus out. Even fully grown, he was tiny compared to Sæhrímnir. I made him vast enough to feed an army, and I became the flea behind his ear. I’m sorry, I told him. But he was a mortal beast, born to die and be devoured. If he understood me, he did not show it. If he answered me, I did not understand.
* * *
When the butchers killed Lazarus, they knew something was wrong. I saw in their faces how his squeals pierced their hearts. But not one of them acknowledged how they felt.
When the warriors ate the meat, they called for more. And when he was mostly gone, they squabbled over what remained — with words and grabbing hands, and then with swords. When they were done fighting, the victors devoured the scraps, and the losers picked up their severed limbs and heads, and they put themselves together, like they do every day after sparring.
When my nephew waved his hammer over the bones… well, nothing happened. That was the point.
No one noticed, not at first, but him. He swung the hammer once again, but nothing happened still.
When he swung it a third time, lightning crackled throughout the hall. But the bones did not move.
The men began to notice then, and to gather around, and watch. He swung the hammer, but to no avail. And he thundered, and he hurricaned, and it rained within the hall. But the bones did not move.
And the warriors standing by began to wail. One wept. And then another. And one more. Until the longhouse filled with keening, and the rain flowed from the eaves.
My brother came to the hall and demanded they stop. “What is this ruckus?” he bellowed.
“I will never eat that meat again,” said one of the men.
“You are warriors!” my brother shouted. “Not sheltered schoolgirls! Are you so weak that you weep for a slaughtered pig?”
“We swear, we chose better than this, Allfather,” Toothgrinder the Valkyrie told him.
“They were heroes when we brought them to this hall,” Shieldscraper added, throwing a flagon of mead at the back of a warrior’s head. “Shape up, Ulfric.”
In the form of a sparrow I flew to my brother, and stopped before his face and retook my own shape.
“Loki!” my nephew thundered. “You did this!”
“Of course,” said I, smiling over my shoulder — though I was stiff from having been a pig so long.
And my brother, the all-knowing, asked me, “Why?”
“Look at the warriors of Valhalla,” I answered him, gesturing with one hand to encompass those who had gathered there. “You thought to build an unbeatable army, to train them for thousands of years. And you know your shieldmaidens chose them well. But on your training fields, you banished death. And you provided for their every need. So when they strike each other down, they do not see the pleading eyes of a life snuffed out too soon, but a comrade who will repay them the blow the next day. They might as well be playing a video game.”
“What is a video game?” my brother asked.
“You are out of touch,” I told him, and I turned to walk out of the hall.
My nephew flung his hammer at my head, but I knew he would, so I stood ten feet to the left of where he saw me — his hammer, which always struck true, smashed a hole through the Long Hall’s wall, and I only felt the lightning singe my beard.
I approached the door, but the Valkyrie Shieldscraper barred my way.
“Why did you do this?” she asked me.
“I already answered that,” I told her.
“No,” said Toothgrinder. “You didn’t.”
“But—” I protested.
“The truth,” Shieldscraper demanded.
“I like the world,” I told the Valkyries. “I don’t want it to end.”
“And?” Toothgrinder asked me.
I started to answer, but Shieldscraper gave me that look, the way she does.
“It’s about your nephew, isn’t it?” Toothgrinder said.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s all about him. Everything’s always about him. ‘Why can’t you be like Thor?’ people always ask. Like a brute who thinks a big hammer is the solution to every problem, and people think he’s great and I’m dirt. He even has his own comic book in Midgard.”
“I do?” my nephew asked.
“What’s a comic book?” asked my brother.
“And him,” I said, cutting the air with my hand in my brother’s direction. “I brought him his nephew. I told him, ‘Here is Sleipnir, flesh of my flesh.’ And he gazed on my son admiringly and said, ‘He’ll make a fine steed.’ Who does that?” My fists clenched at my side. “Who the fuck does that, bro?” I shouted at him.
My all-knowing brother had no words.
I stepped out of the deluge in the hall, to the dry outside, and the Valkyries did not bar my way, not any more.
Sleipnir stood there, tied, not far from the hole in the wall. “You should not be tethered,” I told him, and the reins obeyed my words and unlashed from the post. But he stood there, obedient to my father. Where are you going? he asked. Not an accusation, though he had a right. He wanted to know.
I said, “Perhaps I’ll be a woman for a while, and work in an office. They do that now. And they don’t have to tie their hair in front like a beard to fool my brother.”
He cocked his head. Really?
“I don’t know,” I said. I laughed. It’s weird, not knowing — having a moment’s leisure not to have a scheme. “I love this world,” I told him. “All that absurdity. The chaos and all those who live in it. But our family would be content to let it burn.” I really do like this world, you understand, whatever other reasons I have for what I do.
He stood there, impassive.
“You could come with me,” I told him.
He shook his head — not the wild way horses do, but a slow side to side like a man.
“You are the son of a god,” I told him. “You can do anything you want. Don’t waste your time preparing for a war no one can win.”
He gave me a home, Sleipnir answered. Something you couldn’t do.
“He made you a slave,” I said.
He is a good master, Sleipnir replied.
“You don’t need a master!” I told him. “You’re my son! You should bow to no one.”
How’s that working for you? he asked.
I raised my hand without thinking, and he flinched like an animal would. When I stayed my hand he turned to face me again, to look me in the eye. There is war in you too, he told me.
“Come with me,” I implored him.
I’d rather stay here.
I turned and walked away, down the bridge of the Northern Lights. Although the storm was only in the hall, my cheeks were wet. I felt stupid, weeping then, for my boy, who had a home and a life he chose, when I had not shed a tear for Lazarus, or for Sæhrímnir — or for everyone who stands to die if the men of Valhalla regain their taste for havoc. I cried for none of them, but I wept for him.
* * *
About the Author
David Sklar lives in New Jersey with 2 kids, 2 cats, and 1 spouse, in a house that has been remade repeatedly for almost a century on its stone foundation on the side of a hill. His published works include fiction in Nightmare and Strange Horizons, poetry in Ladybug and Stone Telling, and humor in Knights of The Dinner Table and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. The guest in the author photo is Beanie, who passed in October of 2021 after a very good and loving life. You can find more about David at davidsklar.blue, and his cartoon Poetry Crisis Line at poetrycrisis.org