fiction by Allison Baxter
From there come maidens, very wise,
Three from the lake that stands beneath the pole.
One is called Urd, another Verdandi,
Skuld the third; they carve into the tree
The lives and destinies of children.
Cornelia lay in bed, squinting her eyes against the Norwegian summer sunlight muscling through her drapes. She studied her ring, rubbing the twisted gold cables, feeling the smooth cold. With emeralds inset for eyes, sharp teeth etched into the mouth, the dragons’ heads in the center threatened enemies as they had in Viking times. She closed her eyes, and there was Agnar giving her the ring, promising to come back from his voyage to Kenya with money for their wedding. Now, all she had of Agnar was a ring, and his mother wanted it back.
“No, Fru Larsen, you can’t have this ring,” Cornelia said to the stale apartment air.
Cornelia sat up, running her hand through unwashed hair. Today wasn’t a good day to see anyone…go to work…get out of bed.
“Skjerp deg,” she told herself. “Sharpen yourself up.”
But she struggled against heavy sleep, eyelids moving closer and closer together until they slammed shut. Like a powerful undertow, she fell into the darkness of sleep again, seaweed smells stinging her nose just before she was overtaken. Ocean, salty damp wind tugging at her hair, then a ship’s deck. In the dream, a dark figure with a wide-brimmed hat. With dark withered hands, he pulled down his hat, obscuring his face. The man moved closer.
In a booming tenor, he commanded, “Tell Mikkel…watch for pirates.”
Pirates. Cornelia shuddered. Mikkel was Agnar’s best friend and often first mate. Where was Mikkel going? He’d said something at the memorial service about humanitarian supplies. Her friend since childhood, he’d helped her pass chemistry in college and introduced her to the love of her life. But…this was a dream, not destiny. The Norns had carved Agnar’s runes into the tree of destiny, Yggdrasil, too deeply for Agnar to alter his fate. But Mikkel’s fate was in the hands of the military patrol. Mikkel was safe. This figure in her dream was anxiety with arms and legs.
“Who are you?” She demanded, rejecting games from her subconscious.
The man pulled at the brim again, his wrist peeking out of ragged sailor sleeves. He was more insistent, his Norwegian pushed together tightly, like herring in a jar. “Den buk ta.”
Cornelia shook her head. She knew it wasn’t real, but she wanted to know. “What does that mean?”
The man lowered his head, obscuring his face and stepped closer. “Den buk ta.”
A thud on her stomach, and she was back to her bedroom. Loki, her fifteen-pound tabby licked her face with his raspy tongue. The image of the man disintegrated, but a smell of seaweed lingered. What about Mikkel? The hair on the back of her neck stood up. She couldn’t lose her friend, too.
Cornelia pushed the dream away, shuffling to the kitchen to feed Loki. A photo of Agnar rested on the table in the midst of unopened mail and empty soda cans. He’d given her the photo then taken a box out of his uniform pocket. He’d popped the spring-loaded lid open and held out the ring, a shy grin on his face. She’d answered with her ring finger.
“Jeg elsker deg,” he whispered, kissing her goodbye, smoothing her brow with his calloused hand. He read her knit brows, her straight lips.
He tried to smooth her furrows with words. “Cornelia, don’t worry about this Viking.” He thumped his chest. “I come from pirates, and I take care of myself and my crew.”
Cornelia had wanted to be positive, but her grimace betrayed her. “These pirates have machine guns.”
But Agnar and his crew had left the next day. Two weeks later, off the coast of Kenya, pirates shot from a small boat pulled up next to the ship. Crew members reported later that Agnar leapt onto the boat from the ship’s deck, but his fists were no match for seven gun-armed pirates. He bled out quickly from his femoral artery.
Cornelia trudged to her balcony for ocean air and perspective. On her street in Bergen, Lille Øvregaten, people rode bikes to lunch, couples held hands, flowers danced in the breeze. A figure with the same faded brown and wide-brimmed hat as the man in her dream stood in front of her building facing the street. She gasped, her muscles tight. Could it be? She raced down three flights of stairs, but he’d disappeared by the time she arrived.
She sped down her street, peeking down alleys and inside shops, and spotted him in the closed market, hunched over peaches. Cornelia ran inside, but he scurried down the aisle as she approached him. She searched aisle after aisle, but no faded brown hat.
That night, the figure returned to her dreams, more insistent. “Tell Mikkel, den buk ta. Tell him 13.03, 47.8.”
“What is that? I can’t help Mikkel if I don’t know what it means. Why give me silly puzzles if a friend’s life is in danger?” She said with an edge of irritation.
Then, the man touched his hat, smoothing the brim, and she knew that gesture, she knew his warning was prophesy. Mikkel would die if she didn’t convince him.
The man turned from her, limping away, his voice fading. “His runes are not carved deeply. Use the water hoses to gain time.”
“Wait. Don’t go. I can’t save anyone with this. Please.” But he was gone.
Cornelia sat straight up like a sprung catapult, her heart pounding so hard she thought she’d break a rib. She understood nothing but understood everything.
She called Mikkel and his mother answered.
“Is Mikkel around?” Cornelia asked, out of breath, muscles tense.
“Gone?” Cornelia tried to keep the panic out of her voice. He couldn’t be on the ocean already.
“You’ll have to wait until he gets back. They’re bringing food and water for Somalia… a humanitarian mission. His ship leaves in an hour, and he can’t answer because they’re readying the ship.”
Cornelia dressed and ran for her car. She sped to the harbor, dashing to the ship. She shouted for Mikkel with every cell of her body, loud enough to get the attention of Skuld, the Norn of the future. Finally, Mikkel emerged, squinting against the sun. He stood above her on at the rail, his mouth open.
“Cornelia? Why on earth are you here?” Mikkel finally asked.
She hadn’t figured what she would say. Anything she said would sound unbalanced. But… he had to believe her.
“Mikkel, I know this sounds crazy, but the past will change the present. I have to tell you something to save your life.”
Mikkel crossed his arms, his face stern.
She set her jaw and prayed silently that he would listen. “I don’t understand this, but you will.”
Mikkel twisted his mouth. “Cornelia, I have a lot of work and no time for nonsense. You should leave. You’ve had quite a shock.” He sighed, relaxing his face. The sharp edges of his voice smoothed. “Do you want me to call someone for you?”
Cornelia stepped to the edge of the dock. “I know I sound manic, but I’m okay.” She tried to smile, to look relaxed and confident. “Does this mean anything to you? 13.03. 47.8. Use water hoses.”
Mikkel’s eyes widened. “How do you know those numbers? Those are almost the coordinates of our destination.”
Cornelia smiled. Progress. “Den buk ta?”
Mikkel’s eyes shifted left then right. He scratched his head. “Den buk ta? Do you mean Adenbukta?”
Why hadn’t she realized that? She’d missed the first syllable in his mumble. “You’ll travel through the Gulf of Aden?”
He dropped his arms to his sides and nodded slowly. “Those coordinates are in the Gulf of Aden…” He started to say something, but one of his crew hailed him. Mikkel was gone.
Cornelia strolled back to her car, relieved, almost happy. His fate was his own now. She’d done what she could.
A shadow behind the harbor office caught her attention, and she walked towards it. “Agnar, I know it’s you.”
The figure leaned a crumpled body against the building exposing only his hands. He lifted a face as green as an angry ocean, eyes, empty black sockets. A draugr. “Can I rest in peace now? Can you let me go?”
Cornelia nodded, her face clouding. As she reached for his hand, he faded before her eyes, leaving only the smell of seaweed.
On her way home, Cornelia stopped by Fru Larsen’s, handing her the ring and bowing to her sorrow.
Two weeks later, she opened an email from Mikkel.
I have only a minute, but I want to tell you I’m safe. Pirates attacked us off the coast. Like you said, I was ready with high-pressure water hoses. I don’t know how you knew these things, but you saved us. Something strange. The pirates fell into the water off their boat one by one, for no reason, taking their weapons with them. I swear a dark figure, a man in a hat, floated above the pirate skiff. Before he vanished, he tipped the brim of his hat just the way Agnar used to.
Glad i deg
Cornelia closed her eyes and thanked Agnar.
Allison Baxter, ESL teacher by day and mystery writer by night, lives in Oak Park, Illinois. She recently finished her first book, Death in Logan Square, and is working on the next in the Chicago Neighborhood Mystery Series, Death in Humboldt Park. Find out more at allisonbaxterauthor.com.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.