I talked with my son today. I told him that I was going away for a while. He said that was okay, but that his mommy said I couldn't take him with me. I said that was fine, he wouldn't like where I was going anyway and then we wrestled for a while and ate some grilled cheese sandwiches. I stroked his hair when he fell asleep in my arms afterward and waited for his mom to come for him. I told him I loved him before he left and kissed his mom when I opened the door for her. She slapped me.
It is seven years ago and I am a truck driver in Alaska. The road is coated by a thick layer of snow and swirling flurries prevent me seeing further than a few feet. Keeping the load from tipping is taking all the concentration I can muster. I have to take it slow, easing the truck around turns and over hills I can barely see. Nevertheless, I see the haggard stranger on the road, dressed in ragged black clothes that billow in the wind. He is plodding steadily through the snow, far from even the remotest outpost of human civilization. He also happens to be walking in the same direction that I'm driving.
I would like to say it was compassion that moved me to stop. It wasn't. By all rights I knew the man should have been dead if he was out here on foot and there was something unnatural about his stride. It seemed to part the snow as he walked, as if he was some sort of arctic Moses. It made me nervous and despite my better nature I was inclined to keep on driving. If he could survive this long, I figured he could make it a few hundred miles more.
And yet I stopped anyway. The man exuded a sort of intrigue that I couldn't resist. I've never been one to stick my nose where it didn't belong but the man was the only thing I'd seen in miles that wasn't snow.
I blew my horn and eased the truck to a stop. The man paused for just a second, gave the truck a quick once-over and climbed into the cab. He smelled like a great number of things, not all of them bad. A thick gray beard covered most of his face and there were bird droppingson both of his shoulders. One of his eyes... The left one, I think, had a slightly worn leather eye patch over it. The other one was dark brown and seemed to gaze more deeply into me than I was comfortable with.
I pushed down on the gas pedal again.
We sat quietly for a time. There was no need to ask where either of us was going. There was only one city for miles and that was Anchorage. After a while I felt I needed a cigarette. I pulled out my lighter and lit up right there in the cab. I noticed the man's lone eye flicker with sudden interest at the appearance of the flame.
"Need a light?" I asked, holding the lighter towards him. He seemed to be fascinated by it.
"Aye." he replied and took it from my hand. From somewhere inside his bundled rags he pulled out a long pipe with a climbing ivy design along the stem and a small pack of tobacco. He tamped down the tobacco and, with some effort (lighters aren't exactly designed for pipes), managed to light the thing. Again, silence took hold as we each received our respective nicotine fixes.
The urge to say something overwhelmed me.
"So... you must have been pretty lost to end up way out here."
His good eye swiveled around to glare at me.
"I always know where I am" he stated. He seemed to find the suggestion that he was lost insulting. I could understand.
"Alright, but what bought you out here then?" I asked, gesturing at the bleak landscape.
"I... I lost my horse" he muttered, looking sullenly at the dashboard.
"Your... horse? Are you from around here? Horses don't do well in Alaska. Your beloved stallion probably froze to death a long time ago, especially in these conditions." As if to give emphasis, the snow suddenly started coming down twice as hard. He looked at me again.
"It was a... special horse"
"A special horse?! You think it was special enough to survive this-"It suddenly struck me that, having found the man dressed in rags in the middle of a snowstorm hundreds miles away from civilization, his horse might be peculiar as well.
"Yes, a special horse. A gift, in fact. Irreplaceable."
"I see. Any idea where it might have gone then?"
"Alas, no. It was stolen from me and I have hunted for it without rest for many miles. The thief left me with naught but a riddle."
"Aye, a riddle. I should know better than to be fooled by such a simple puzzle, but there it is"
"What was the riddle then?"
The man removed his pipe and cleared his throat. Then with the tone that people use when reciting important things from memory, he spoke.
"I am in the land of darkness before light, where a man can go with company but never stay with them and feel but never touch. It is a land of terror and of passion and mirrors- you can only truly see yourself there. Where am I?" He popped the pipe back in his mouth and reclined into the seat.
"Damn. People say some of those things about Alaska, I mean, we do have a long, dark winter for sure. And some would say it has terror and passion. But I don't understand the parts about the mirror, the company, or the feeling without touching."
"Aye. It has long troubled me as well. But I will not stop to rest until I find the answer. He was the best of horses, my Sleipnir."
"Must have been."
We returned to silence for a while again after that. I kept my eyes on the road, he kept his on the landscape outside the window, no doubt looking for his horse again. I looked at him more closely. There were tremendous bags beneath his eyes.
"My name is Owdin. Mr. Owdin."
"Mr. Owdin, um, when did you last sleep?"
"I have not been able to sleep since Sleipnir left me."
"Isn't that... unhealthy?"
"Perhaps," he said, turning his weary eye back towards me, "but I cannot sleep until what I lost is found."
I considered this. I was not entirely sure the man was sane, but he I could see how distraught he was over this horse. Imaginary or not, I decided to help him find it.
"So if you had to go to sleep right now... you couldn't?"
"Aye, that's right."
"Perhaps this... thief of yours... hid the "horse" in your dreams?"
"Yeah... I mean, that makes sense, right? When you're sleeping you're in the land of "darkness" before the morning light... You can go to sleep with someone else but you can't bring them into your dreams with you. Passion and terror are common, and the only real person in them is yourself... Yeah. Sounds right to me."
Owdin looked at me then, his one eye wide with shock. For a moment I was afraid he'd have a heart attack or something.
"Of course! The treacherous little..." He muttered something foul-sounding in a language I couldn't understand. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. "It all makes sense!"
"It does?" I asked, genuinely surprised and more than slightly confused.
"Yes! Sleipnir's presence in my mind is what has kept him from the sight of Huginn and Muninn! The damned trickster must have placed a curse on me to keep me from sleep!"
"You must undo his magic! Quickly, stop your vehicle!"
"Wait, wait, I can't just stop..."
"Stop the truck!" The power in his voice was so great that I unconsciously obeyed, jerking the truck to a halt. At this point I was utterly convinced that Mr. Owdin was insane and genuinely afraid of what he might do next.
"You have to hit me!"
"Hit me, in the face as hard as you can. If you can knock me out, I can retrieve Sleipnir and break the curse. Do it!"
I did it. A beautiful right cross that hit him dead on. I felt a little bad for him (he was just a crazy old man) but there was something immensely satisfying about the connection and besides, he'd been asking for it.
Owdin's head drooped and his body collapsed forward. He was bleeding heavily from the nose but his eyes were shut. The poor guy was out cold. I got out of the cab and went around to the other side of truck so I could lift his body into my bunk behind the seats. When I was done I got back in and drove on for a few hours. I would have to drive twice as fast to make up for the time I'd lost on this.
It was dark by the time I heard the ravens. At first I thought nothing of them. As their cries became increasingly loud and rapid I became ill at ease and drove slightly faster, remembering the stains on Mr. Owdin's shoulders. The calls grew more aggressive. The sound of flapping wings seemed omnipresent. With mounting horror I looked into my mirrors and saw the two birds flying in perfect sync alongside of the truck. They were both tremendous, easily three feet in length and much longer in wingspan. The cries had stopped; now that they had my attention, the birds flew in total silence. Quickly, I glanced back to see if Owdin was still in the cot. He wasn't. I grimaced and pushed the truck as fast as it could safely go. The ravens did not even so much as flap their wings to adapt to my new speed. They didn't need to. They were gaining on me just by gliding. Before long I had ravens staring at me through the windows, looking me over with glittering, black eyes. I ran through my few remaining options and slammed on the brakes. My load slid sideways across the ice behind me, coming dangerously close to tipping the whole truck on its side. The ravens swooped around and landed on the hood, suddenly much smaller. Distantly, I could hear a horse galloping.
I got out of the truck and tried desperately to shoo them away, to no avail. The sound of hooves grew ever closer. By the time Owdin pulled up on an eight legged horse I was nearly hysterical with confusion and frustration.
"My beloved riddle solver!" he bellowed, "You have done a great thing today!"
"Aye, you have! You've won the favor of a god this day. I, Odin, chief among the Norse and master of wanderers, warriors, prophecy, and death, grant you a boon of knowledge. I can tell you anything you could ever wish to know and some things that you could not. Ask, and take my knowledge for your own."
Exhausted, bewildered, and half-convinced it was all just an extremely strange dream, I asked.
And he told me.
When he was done, I went back into the cab and grabbed my pack of cigarettes and the lighter that the god had so admired. I lit up in silence. Odin passed his pipe to me and I lit that for him as well. We smoked together for the last time.
"I suppose I won't have to worry about lung cancer anymore." I muttered, shaking some of the ashes off my cig as the frigid Alaskan winds did their best to put it out.
"Aye, you shall not... I take it you accept your fate then?"
"Aye, I guess I do. I mean, there isn't much I can do about it, right? If I try to escape, it will just find me again in some form or another. Best thing to do is to go to it with my head held high. Heh."
"That is for the better then..." Odin looked absently at the evening sky. "You are a brave man, riddle solver. Tell me your name."
I told him.
"A good name. We shall meet again one day, riddle solver. Until then, I will be watching."
Then, without warning, he galloped off on his fantastic horse, his two ravens flying behind him. That was the last I saw of Mr. Owdin.
When I finally dropped off the load I was two days behind schedule. The shipping service I worked for fired me and stranded me in Anchorage. I had to pay my way back to California with whatever cash I had on me. Upon arriving home, my wife and I decided to have our first child and nine months later she gave birth to a boy. We named him Cory.
Two years after that, my wife divorced me and took Cory with her. She said I'd become morbid and that I was a negative influence on our son's development. I didn't bother to stop her.
I spent the next few years trying to prepare myself. I took any job I could, putting as much into my savings as possible while spending as little as I could on myself. I sent Cory two checks every year, one for his birthday and one for Christmas. I would always attach a note telling him how much I missed him and that I would like it if he wrote back. He never did. I asked him about it once, when he came to visit and he told me that his mommy didn't want him to read the things I sent. She said they might hurt him by exposing him to my influence. I laughed and told him to watch some Spongebob in the other room. Then I cried.
In what little spare time I had I researched life insurance policies and worked with my lawyer on my will. I give it all to my wife and son. When that was done I took some cash I had set aside and went for a vacation in Norway to see the fjords. They were wonderful.
That was a week ago. Today is Wednesday, the twenty second day of July in the year 2009 A.D. It is 6:48 in the evening and I am in my apartment watching the sun go down after a day of playing with Cory. I am smoking for the first time in seven years.
It is 6:52 and I am shutting off all the lights.
It is 6:53 and I am drinking from a bottle of strong Norwegian liquor.
It is 6:55 and I am laying down on my bed. The evening sun is shining on my face through the window. It is a perfect day.
It is 6:57 and I am thinking about my father.
It is 6:58 and I am thinking about my wife.
It is 6:59 and I am thinking about my son and what he will think about me in twenty years.
It is 7:00 when the pain sets in in my chest and my heart spasms violently. It hurts just as much as I was told it would.
It is 7:05 when I finally see the Valkyrie.