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Today's Story by Paula Cappa

Odin sends Huginn, his thought, and Muninn, his mind.

Hildie at the Ghost Shore

Silent and soft, the snow falls. The dim vales beyond are restful. In the shadows, Hildie walks through fairy woods, every branch hanging with mounds of snow, white as cow’s milk. She is mindful not to carry her lantern too close to her cloak. The hem, set with stones, drags across the icy path. She takes comfort that her hood, lined with white cat skins, warms her ears against the wind. A scent of cooking rises from the chimneys, smoky and sweet. As the sun rises against the thatched roofs, she is reminded to hurry to the village square, lest she be late again. Too many days she has tarried, watching for that wild horse named Sleipnir from a legend told by her papa. What joy to ride such a creature, sleek as a pearl, through the forest; dreamy images of the steed sprouting wings and flying her off into the heavens would much occupy her mind. Sleipnir, one might think this the silliness of a child instead of a wizened woman with a mere dust of age on her head.

Just as the sun bursts the sky, Hildie enters the lace shop. Meneer Dekker will be pleased with her punctuality today. Up the hidden staircase to the attic she climbs, her skirt gathered above her ankles for safe footing. The fire is already lit in the hearth—Meneer Dekker being the kindest of all shopkeepers to attend to her comfort. Hildie finds the kettle of water he leaves for her each morning—another kindness. She hooks it above the flame for apple-scrap tea.

Hildie gazes out the window to the tumultuous North Sea rolling at the ghost shore: yesterday the waves peaked like small white hands gently combing the sea; today, they conspire with a fierce rocking and speak of thunder. At her window-table, she sits down to gather her bobbins. Every day Hilde weaves the most exquisite Brugge lace patterns on her bone bobbins. MeneerDekker provides her with expensive silk threads for her prized art. “The finest in all of Belgium,” he often boasts to his patrons.

The cries of gulls soothe her and she begins to hum. Warm and safe, with the sweet of tea on her lips, she sends her happy fingers weaving the silk in gentle rhythms. There is even a labyrinth of sunlight across the pegged floor.

A knock at the door startles her. She expects no one, certainly not Meneer Dekker who is normally occupied sweeping threads from the floors and arranging his most attractive bolts of fabric in the shop window. She cracks open the door.

No light on the steps, but she can see a man’s great round eyes. His cap carries the scent of salt and tobacco: a wrinkled complexion speaks of long days at the mercy of the lashing wind and sun.

“I seek Mevrouw Hildegarde, the mistress of runecraft.”
Hildie glances past the man to the steps. No sign of Meneer Dekker. She opens the door wide.

“You are the oracle?” he says before crossing the threshold.

“I cannot say. Enter.”

Hildie directs him to sit in the wooden chair by her window-table. “Meneer, may I offer you tea?” She feels his eyes on her broken shoes as she clickety-clacks to the hearth.  “Bunions,” she explains. “Shoes are a torture. Such is life. We endure.”
“January is the coldest … cruelest month,” he says, taking a seat. “I am pleased to rest my feet on dry land after too many years at sea.”

Hildie pours the hot water into a teacup. “Ah, you are a sailor! Like my papa.”

“An occupation that keeps me far from home. Far from family. I miss them. Regrets, I am full.”

She watches the apple skins sink to the bottom and adds a bit of cinnamon bark to warm up his spirit. The man takes the teacup, his fingers red as meat from the cold. Through the curling steam, Hildie sees his eyes fill. There is a peal of bells from the church across the way and a clop-clop from the horses trotting by. “It takes a strong man to cry,” she tells him. These words her papa used to speak when she was a child. Since then, only a few scribbled letters from his ports of sail sustained her through the decades.

He catches a loose tear off his cheek. “I have little courage.”

“You have courage enough.” Hildie removes the velvet pouch from her skirt’s deepest pocket. “You are not a villager here?” This is more a statement than a question for she does not recognize his high forehead and scraggly beard that is much too long by the current fashion. His eyes are like dulled stars, friendly, but unfamiliar.

“I travel from Jaellinge.”

“You come all this way? When you have the most famous runes in Denmark?”

“I am in need of a spiritual warrior. The runes in Jaellinge cannot serve me.”

Jaellinge! Hildie closes her eyes for a moment, her childhood daydreams returning. Old legends repeat in her head, recalling her grandmother’s insistence that the Jaellinge runic inscriptions were the most powerful of all. On one side of the stone tablet a serpent wraps itself around a lion. On the opposite side is a man in a coat, arms spread wide, head adorned with a crown—only her mind’s eye could conjure the image. Hildie’s desire of journeying to Jaellinge to touch the mightiest of runes remained unfulfilled.

“Will you help me, Mevrouw Hildegarde?”

With a silent prayer, she spreads out her square of finely woven silk. On it, she empties the velvet pouch. Twenty-five runes spill out. Not even the booming North Sea could extinguish the stones’ whooshing as if they were alive and breathing.  “I do
nothing, Meneer. When you consult the runes, you consult the self.”
The man takes a handful and, with slow attention, he rubs each rune between his thumb and forefinger. “Please, what is the source of these stones?”

“I fetched them from the shore, each pebble smoothed by the sea. The glyphs are inscribed by my own hand. This meets with your approval?”

He nods. “There are secret spells here?”

“I think not.”

“Tribal spirits?”

“I have found none.”

“Do you evoke the divinity of Odin?”

“The wind-god?”

“I speak of Odin, the god who leads souls of the dead to their destination.”
Hildie gasps at the man’s statement. The image of the Norse god hanging on the windswept Tree of the World formed like a blaze before her. For nine days, Odin hung wounded, bloodied, thirsty, hungry—abandoned by all. When Odin finally cried out, he spied the runes at his feet and drew in their secret wisdom. From this sacrifice, and knowledge, Odin won restored life and became all-powerful.

Hildie knows the wisdom of Odin to be within each rune, but to evoke Odin directly as supervisor of the dead, this she never dared. “Meneer, you come here today to ask me to evoke Odin and his Ship of the Dead?”

“Are you not the spiritual warrior? Are you not the gifted Mevrouw Hildegarde of Belgium, favored by Odin?”

“Favored? I admit to nothing. The Ship of the Dead belongs only to Odin. He alone is the soul-catcher. Meneer, might I ask? Whom have you lost to the death slumber?”

His lips tremble. A near sob escapes. “My daughter.”

Hildie lets her chin fall. “I will do what I can. Let us begin. Take each rune and place it back into the pouch.”

The man follows her instruction. One by one he drops the runes with quiet ticks and tocks.

“Ask your question. You need not speak it, but repeat it three times in your mind.”

She watches his face while he makes his silent appeal. Then through her soft breath, she chants to the father of the gods, Odin. “O Rune Keeper, Spear Thruster, Gatherer of Souls, be thou here, Odin. In your goodness, reveal truth, as this is the seeker’s inheritance. This day, send the gift of the self.”

The man reaches into the pouch and withdraws the first rune. He lays it upon the cloth. Hildie sees the upright position of the glyph: an x joins the short arrow above. She cannot smile.  “Meneer, you have chosen Othila, symbol of separation. This is a time of separating paths. Do you understand? Old skins are shed.”

He sits rigid in his chair, the tea gone cold before him.

“Othila is issuing you a sign to submit.”

He shakes his head.

“You are free to deny this. You must know that total honesty is required when consulting the runes.” Hildie urges him with kindness in her voice.

“I do not deny this radical severance. Allow me to choose another rune?”

“As you wish.”

The man fondles the runes for a long moment before selecting another from the pouch.
Again, Hildie cannot smile; she aligns the two runes from right to left. “This is Ansuz, the messenger rune. Loki is present in this rune. Loki is the arch-thief, an ancient trickster.”

“An evil power?”

“Loki is not to be trusted.”

“My daughter, she is at risk?”

“That I cannot say. Loki steals, betrays. He is the wolf, Meneer.”

“Might I know this message, Mevrouw Hildegarde?”

“Choose another rune, Meneer.”

He places his third rune into her palm. “Thurisaz. The gateway. But you have drawn it in the reverse position. Casting Thurisaz reversed suggests a halt. Do you see the message here?”

“I do not.”

“Thurisaz unveils a blockage on the passage ahead. This halt is somehow necessary. Protection perhaps? Make no hasty moves forward.”

The man drops his head, covers his face with his hands.

“Meneer, might I ask? What conditions prevailed in your daughter’s death? Is this what troubles you?”

He lifts his head with lips pressed together so tightly that it appears the words twist on his tongue.

“If you permit me, did she succumb to an illness?”

He managed to shake his head.

“Meneer, dare I say, was it a violent death?”

His face burst, eyes pinching shut as if to block out the words. “My daughter … intruders in the dark of night. Murdered un her sleep!”

Hildie’s heart sinks. “My sympathies are yours, Meneer.” Committed to her craft, she endeavors and begins her chant again. This time she strikes her breast with each rhythmic beat. “O Rune Keeper, Spear Thruster, Gatherer of Souls, be thou here, Odin. Grant this seeker a true presence. We ask for the will of heaven to prevail.” At the window, a screech draws her eyes. Two ravens perch on the sill, flame-eyed, wings flared. She loses her breath at the sight.

Startled, the man veers back.

Hildie grips her hands together and tries to remain calm.

“What do they mean?” he asks.

“Rely on radical trust, Meneer. Odin sends Huginn, his thought, and Muninn, his mind.”  All the earth throbs around her, heartbeats pulsing, even at the tips of her hair.  Her chest swells. Her throat tightens. She feels her body go limp like a bunch of tightly tied violets with no roots. Is this the power of Odin upon her? Dare she continue?

The man lets out a deep sigh. “I see ashes in the sky, Mevrouw Hildegarde. Out the window, there. A streaming cast of white ash.”

“You see the winter of the spiritual life. Seek among these ashes. Look deeply.”

He grabs her hands and holds on with strength that overwhelms her.

Together they sit and tremble. Storm-lifted waves crash at the window. Cave-worn rocks thunder at her ears. The ceiling spins so fiercely she can barely see the shadows pitch and mount. Closing her eyes, she squeezes the hands holding hers.

“Meneer, might I ask? What was your question to the runes? Please, tell me quickly!”

“I ask, is there a way I may see my daughter through to heaven?”

Hildie snaps open her eyes. The walls of earth fall. A dazzling gate opens. “Look, Meneer. Odin does not fail you. Do you see your daughter’s face among the ashes? Is she not there before your very eyes?”

“I do see, Mevrouw Hildegarde. I see! Inside the ashes is your lovely face. As heaven stands. Your pearly steed arrives. Be swift, dear soul, my Hildie. Go.”

My Hilde? In this fleeting moment, she sees in his dulled eyes a familiar deep sparkle, like the open sea — her papa. Now, his eager face before her, he brushes a kiss upon her cheek.

Sleipnir  sprouts wings. Above the ghost shore, beyond the blue snow— joy.


Paula Cappa is a published short story writer and freelance copy editor. Her short fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Twilight Times, Every Day Fiction, and in anthologies. Her novel Night Sea Journey, A Tale of the Supernatural launched October 2012 on Amazon and is receiving promising reviews. A second novel is planned for release in spring 2013. She writes a fiction blog at http://paulacappa.wordpress.com/


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