TRACES IN THE SNOW
It was a just morning. That kind of morning where you hear the howling of the early frost wind striking the windows, testing their strength, where the coldness bites the glass trying to crack it with its fangs, showing the early morning frost on them, where the sun just above the grass rose above it, braking its rays in half. It was a morning made to stay in, warm up near the fire, drink something hot so your lungs warm your breath, as you stare at the entertainment of other and listen to old stories so you could imagine your place among the past that walked once here. Indeed,a morning to stay in. But that blessed silence or a whisper of a thought was broken by the barging in of a rather vigorous old man, who just ran in like he was in the prime of his youth, rather then his old age that the lack of hair and the posing gray ones told.
“Ah, you want to sleep again my son, but no, the morning has blessed us with a warm touch, we have much to do, don’t dwell on last days thoughts, rather gather the today’s ones!”
He jumped around the room like a young man, gathering the curtains by the side, letting the sun break to the sleeping man inside, who showed less life then the wiser man. He let the window open, breathing the fresh air with full lungs, waving his arms around as if he was gathering it more and more, just to enjoy in the smell of the new snow that gave the air that special aroma.
“Come on, you lazy ox, do you intend to sleep away the whole day? Dra til helvete! When i was your age i was out with the first light and your father, well i never even caught him in his bed, because he was never in it. Stand up, or i swear i will bring the snow to you!”, as he finished his mumbling, he pulled the blanket of the bed as the man laid, grabbing his feet pulled to his stomach.
“Grandpa, i know i heard you the first time. Snow, air and you yelling.”, said the young man as his hands covered his eyes and ears.
“Besides, what is there to do? We gathered the wood, the snow will be shoveled, and the whole village is covered in snow, what is there to do?”, now a bit more aware of the situation, he looked at the older man looking down the window, not even paying attention.
“My dear boy, you are not in the city anymore. Here at the village, we always have something to do, or did you forget. A skite! After all you were raised here.”, as he said, he turned to his grandson, who was now almost up, giving his full attention to the old man.
“Look at him. My boy, living large in the city, at the collage. You make your grandfather so proud.”
He smiled at the boy, with such pride and joy as he looked at him. He knew what an achievement it was, as he raised him as his own son, and to see him grow in a man, made the elder happy.
“You make it sound like i do some great effort, grandfather. I am just studying, that is all.”, he stood up, stretching his stiff body, breathing the fresh air as the window was wide open now.
“Besides, like i said, is it not all done, we have nothing left to do, i was hoping for a nice and relaxing morning. Where would we go anyway, it’s snow everywhere.”
“Oh my dear boy…”, laughed the old man as he was about to leave the room, “…perhaps the city has made you soft, or you forgotten that work is never done here in the village, ha ha ha. Besides do this old man a favor son, and take him for a morning walk… I did miss you, and you know i look forward whenever you get your school vacation.”
As the old man said that, he smiled at the grandson, who smiled back, nodded and followed him to the living room.
The living room was a combination of a diner room and a living room. The big family table stood by the side, almost in the middle, made for big gatherings. He remembered how his grandparents every week invited some friends, how the house never was empty growing up, with huge meals that lasted for hours, all the wine and ale his grandfather and his friends drank while he was listening to the old stories and legends, and grandma was getting pissed how he always managed to find a new bottle. “A new story, a new bottle, my love. A storytellers mouth must never be dry.” He said something along that way, and she was still pissed until he would always kiss her and she would smile, decades together and still they were so young, true love. Then he would open a new ale, and such stories would be told. And he would sit with them, as they were red and drunk, with his jaw dropped down to the floor as they would tell stories about Thor, Odin, Loki and Balder. As he would tell about Freya and her children. The stories of the Aesir and the Yotun, their war, Ymir and his builds. As he would look in awe about the legends of the old warriors and kings, about Beowulf and his adventures, about how he fought the dragon with his legendary sword, about King Ragnar, who pillaged even in France. But his grandfather, as a proud Norwegian, always loved to tell the history of the land. About how it was formed and he loved talking about king Harald. When he would tell the story of his efforts to form the united kingdom of Norway, the battles he fought, he could always imagine himself on the battlefield, in the mud of the fight, with swords drawn he would fight along side the King himself. Yes, grandfather was a good storyteller alright, especially when few ales were on the table or better in his stomach. He was proud, his grandfather, of his legacy, of the old ways and his ancestors, and as he raised his grandson in the same values, so was he. But it wasn’t just grandfathers pride and stories that made him cling and fondly remember the old ways, no. It was the whole village. He was not born here, but his father, and his grandfather like his father and father before him were all born here. And even of the village wasn’t his birth place, being raised by a man like his grandfather, made him not even remember such a trivial fact, as he was Norse as much as him, and he knew that made the old man especially happy and sometimes tearful. But it wasn’t just the old man, it was the whole village. They were north, deep in the snow, not jealous of the city life. Tradition was important here, as it was passed from generation to generation, and perhaps if the young would move to the city or abroad to work or to study, no one would forget this place, as they all one way or another would return, to visit as much often or to even move back. Grandfather, who was in some way like a village elder, would often joke and say “We are Norse, we are wanderers and explorers. In a way we always carry our home with us, and in a way we all return.” And perhaps the village didn’t have a mall, but just the regular small super market, it had the local village doctor, and the reception was bad, but the whole village knew each other, helped one another, and was proud in what little it had. Tradition and the old ways were important, so the young ones don’t forget, so the stories of old don’t get lost, so the old ways don’t get forgotten, so the ancestors in some way live as they had, in memory.
Yes, he remembers the table fondly, the stories and old friends, as he sits by its side, he looks around the room, the old fireplace, with fresh woods that was just lit up, giving a special warmth to the already inviting ambiance. By the fireplace so many frames filled with so many people. He stood up, as he noticed some new addition. First frame was him and Grandfather, first snow, as he fell in, just more then a year old was he there, and the old man laughing in the picture with more hair, but still same fire in that joy he carried on he smile. So many people in pictures, Grandpas hunting friends, summer by the village lake, old farmers and pictures by the summer fire. Then second to last picture, a man and a women, on their wedding day in their wedding attire, smiling together. No it wasn’t the old man, the smile and joy looked well alike as his, but the eyes told a different story, a story of another man, a man that had is own life to lead.
“You want your eggs scrambled or?”, voice of the old man came roaring from the kitchen as the whole house now was smelling good, like a stake house on a busy day, a smell that would make your stomach growl with such a sound you wouldn’t know was it you or a wild boar. But as his thought went from answering his grandfather to being obsessed with the smell of well cooked meat, his eyes went a bit down and saw another new picture. The old man and his love, smiling happy. Must been taken few years ago, they are kissing, being happy like younglings, must have been at the barbecue. When you would see them at first, you would say they are old and fragile. But stop and have a drink with the old man, let Grandma fill you up with her roast or the so tasty cake of blueberries she made, stop and give them a second and they will make you feel old. They had such life in them, such love, you would say they are in their early twenties and just married. And they were such a team. He was there to keep us all in one place, together and she kept him there, away from his stupid ideas.
“You there? Eggs or? Oh if i find you went back to the room and slept again i swear i will drag you to the snow and…”
As he was stepping out to see where he was, seeing him holding the picture, he stopped, leaving the pan back and coming to his grandsons side, putting his hand on his shoulder.
“She was so proud, when you came to say you are going to study. You know, even in the end she asked about you. She made me promise to her i will learn to cook so i won’t feed you with raw beef and ale all the time.”
They both laughed, with tears in both of theirs eyes.
“I miss her too. I regret that i couldn’t be here in her final moments”.
“No.”, grandfather interrupted him. “Don’t think about that. She knew you were with her in your thoughts. Like i said, she was proud that you were studying, proud of the boy she raised. She was happy in her final thoughts.”
As he said that, wiping the tears on his eyes, taking a big sniff in his nose. His grandfather was a big man, a strong man, and seeing him with tears was a rare picture for his mind. He laughed, he was sad, he was joyful and angry, but tears on his face he couldn’t remember seeing. She left a hole when she passed away, it was obvious. Grandfather tried to mask it as best as he could, he would laugh and joke like always, or he would say the boys from the hunt would come by to get a drink or two together so he would always had company, but he knew in the moments between he would catch him staring in an empty space. The old man didn’t had an easy life, from his early age he already experienced how life can be cruel and what joy and happiness he earned, he knew how much he had to give for it, how precious it is. He would after all that still laugh, smile and often say, “We are Norse, we were born in the harsh elements, to endure.” To endure. And that is why he was his hero. A man who knew hardship and still laughed and loved others, who loved life and who enjoyed in little things life had to offer. And that’s the one of many things he learned from his Grandfather, to enjoy life. To never dwell on mistakes, but rather to try and mend them. And Grandma… Well that woman was his mother, a woman who he could confide in, she showed him such love, such compassion. She was his warmth, not just to him, but to the both of them. A woman who took care of them both whenever they would think of a mischief or get in trouble. She was the one who kept them both in line, she was their love. She was family.
Thinking of her just made them both teary, as it was a big loss, a loss like no other, a loss of a piece of heart they felt burning. But they are Norse, they endure.
“So eggs?”, said Grandfather jokingly, wiping the tears, but not hiding them.
“Yes, and ale.”
That made them both giggle, remembering fondly of a memory that was only distant in time, but not in their heart.
Breakfast of champions. Meat smoked by the old man, so sweet and salty in the same time that makes a man yearn for a drink. When ever would someone ask him why does he make it so that you have to drink something right away, he would say, “Why do you think i keep the mead by?”
“So… what do you want to do today?”, filling his mouth the young man barely could get a word out.
“Breath, son. Last thing i want is for you to get suffocated by meat. Even tho it’s not a bad way to go, ha ha. Take some ale, you will feel better, i know i always do.”
He took a big swig of ale probably just to demonstrate to the young one how to do it properly.
“Oh now take a drink of ale. Grandma would love to hear that. Salty meat and sweet ale, breakfast like none other.” He smiled to Grandfather as he followed and showed that is the family skill, that ale drinking.
“Oh let me take care of your Grandma. I know she would be pissed, but she always knew that i secretly fed you ale since you were six.”, said the old man in such pride that he always took for teaching him something that would always get them in trouble, especially with Grandma. She was the one who was in charge of the moral high ground, and trouble was Grandfathers stuff to teach. But as always when they were caught either drinking, or that time when Grandpa took him to hunting three days when he was five years old, or perhaps when they were feeling like eating grilled meat so they made a flame that almost caught half the house, Grandma would be mad, scold them both as if they were children, yell and even one time bite (But that was grandfathers fault, he did say “What if you bark like this, what is next biting?”) .
“So tonight is the night pyre. We go celebrate the winter and all who returned. So we need to help the others find some wood, set it up.” Grandfather looked so happy as he was saying that, staring at his Grandson, especially when he took a big sip of ale.
“What?”, asked the Grandson, with it still dripping from his face.
“Nothing.”, said the old man so proud with a big smile on his face. “You just remind me of…”
As he was about to say, a knock on the door broke the almost said sentence.
He stood up to answer it, mimicking his hands to the grandson who jumped up to answer, to sit down and continue to eat.
“Hello. I just wanted to see are you fine gentlemen joining us this morning, or perhaps the city man is still in bed, ha ha.”, said the man in front of the door.
“Oh no, we managed to get him out. Somehow ale and the smell of meat gets that city mentality right out.” Grandfather somehow managed to brag about his ale in every second sentence.
“Get in, please there must be some ale left.”
As he went in, the grandson said hi, answering the already expected questions about how the life in the big city is, and how is the studying going.
The day went by, as the guys killed time profitably. They met the local friends, all from young to old and went by getting logs that were put in the middle of the village, standing tall and many. As night fell, the whole village came by, happy singing songs and dancing. It was freezing, you could feel your breaths weight as it left your mouth, somehow it seemed that if you cried, your tears would freeze on your cheeks, not even reaching the end. But, as Grandfather said, we are Norse. Cold troubles you less when there’s ale by, or when there’s song to be heard. A dance is hard to resist, as not just that it goes well with the ale, but the women make it harder to decline.
Everyone was out. If not because they wanted to have fun, then because they needed to. The pyre is a tradition. Few times a year they light it for students and workers that went away, in their honor for coming back home. Or as Grandfather said, “A light, for all who are away and couldn’t make it, so they know their way back home.”
The young man looked as the women his age danced, some with other men, some with their friends and some alone. Friends he grew up, all there, but his eyes were caught by a young blond, an old friend he saw years back, but never really caught up with. He saw her dance, alone, moving her body, touching as if she was calling him, her hair flowing with her every move and her hands going lower and lower down her tights. She was calling him, and he wanted to come, to go with her, grab her tight and kiss her lips, her red lips that stood out in the surrounding snow. But not today. Somehow, his mind was filled, but not with thought, rather with memories, with some grief and some bitter taste in mouth, that was not left by the ale. No, not tonight. He went further finding his Grandfather sitting in front of the pyre, alone with his thoughts, with ale in his hands.
“Look. What have i done wrong, my son?”, the grandson looked all confused as he sat down next to him.
“I must have done something wrong in raising you, my son. All these beautiful women there, dancing and drinking, and you come here sit next to an old man. I taught you how to handle ale, please don’t say i forgot to teach you how to handle women. If you need a quick lesson, it is same as ale, just they have a bigger kick.”
They both laughed, as they sat next to each other, two generations, different age, similar personalities.
“No, you taught me well…”, the young man said with a smile as he said that, pulling his grandfather closer, “And for all, to you and Grandma, i owe my life. You raised me, taught me everything i know. I can only hope to become half the man you are Grandpa.”
“You are cruel, my son. You are trying to make an old man cry. That is low.”
They smiled and laughed, as the old man pulled his grandsons closer and kissed his head, thanking him for the kind words.
“I… We, me and my love, we both raised you best we could. And we are ever so proud in what kind of man you became. But to your misfortune, i raised you, and i know when something troubles you. You don’t dance, you are here with me and not with your friends, with her. And i see her, it is obvious to me and then i know it’s obvious to you. And you sit here with ale in your hand and just drink looking ahead in nothingness, you remind me off…”
“My father…”, the grandson interrupted him.
The old man said nothing, just with a bitter look on his eyes he took a deep sip of his ale. Somehow, even though he was faced to the pyre, his eyes were focused in a empty void that was inside him. There was a hole in the old man, a life that was filled with tragedy and sadness. He never forgot it, he just learned how to handle with it.
“When i looked at the photos this morning, i stopped at dads. I noticed something. All the photos that were on that wall, all the people that found their way there, i knew about. I could even tell you where each picture was taken, what was done in that day and i could tell you the persons life story. The whole life story. And i even wasn’t born when half of them were taken. But when i came to the picture of my parents… I know about mom. I know her life well, you and Grandma talked plenty of her. I could tell Grandma loved her, and that she was hit especially hard when she passed away while giving birth to me. But dad… You never told me anything. I could tell you the story of all people in this village, all of their families and all of their friends, but the story of my own father i don’t know. Grandfather…”
He looked at the old man, still looking forth, almost as if he wondered off, not present.
“I know your life was hard. I know you knew sadness and despair. But you are the one person i know that even in the face of pain, you wear a smile.” The young man tried, but all the old man heard was the howling of the wind. No music, no sounds of voice came to his ears, he just drank the ale, one sip larger the the last. The only thing that ale did was left a sensation to tell the body he was still feeling something.
“I did my best with you. I raised you to the best of my knowledge, and you giving me the compliment of being half of a man i am was the greatest thing i ever heard since your Grandmother said, ‘I do.’ “
The old man spoke with such pain in his voice, such was the tenacity of sadness that graveled his throat, that he spoke deeper than usual.
“I loved your father. I did. In some ways you remind me of him and that scares me. Your father, like you, was raised here, in this village. And like you was taught to always remember and respect our old ways. He grew up listening to me telling the same old stories, stories i told you as well, stories of heroes and the tale of their quests and adventures. And like a kid he often dreamt to make his own quests. Boy, i tell you to get your father in the house was a task worthy of the gods. He always tried to find trouble.”
As he told the story, the look on his face told a look of regret, a look of pain, worse then when he spoke of Grandma.
“And then when he grew older, he grew tired of the quests but was more interested of the end…”
“The end?”, the grandson asked as he looked at the old man, who he loved more then anything in the world, now in such pain that he couldn’t even look at him in the eyes.
“Valhalla. We are Norse. We endure. Only because, to us it is the end that matters. Live life to the fullest, die in battle, for war, so Odin can offer you a seat in the endless halls where you fight forever with the heroes of the old, who earned their place. You eat, feast and drink, side by side with your brothers.” The old man drank one more sip, then just laughed.
“Look. A pyre. Now we burn them for our children to find a way home, used to we burned our warriors, who laid their lives in the battlefield. No more battles, no more barges with bodies to burn, bodies that were just our vessels, that carried the stubborn spirit worthy of the summoning by the gods themselves. But your father, inspired by my storytelling, was convinced that today we work, we love, we travel and fuck, but no meaning we give to it. Death. He once searched for dragons and swords, and suddenly he saw meaning in the end. And i can not blame him for it. All of us, like our fathers at one point were called by blood and steel. Hell, your grandmother saved my life by preventing my thoughts and idiotic ideas.”
He look at his grandson, at the boy he raised, the best of his knowledge and smiled.
“When your mother died…”, he continued, “…he brought you here. The look on my sons eyes, scared me. Like you said, i knew sadness of life, and little to nothing scares me, but his look of determination made my bones shake. You were just a little child, barely red from blood that made you survive the snow of mountains.”
“I never knew my father came here after i was born.”, asked the boy with such confusion in his voice.
“Yes.”, the old man continued, “He came. For one day. Like i said, the boy had determination in his eyes. But i paid little to none attention to it back then. I thought, he just lost his wife, it must had been grief. But after he took me out, on the porch, we had a drink of ale. I though the boy wants to share his sadness with his old man, or to reminiscence the life of his dear. But he did not want to remember the loved memories or to open up.”
The young man, now even more confused tried to uncover the truth he wanted to hear for so long.
But nothing made sense, but he didn’t expect to understand yet his grandfather never spoke of his father.
“Then what did my father talk about?”, asked the young man.
The old man took one more big sip and shook the bottle upside down.
“Damn, no more. He took a deep sip of mead, just like me, and asked me to tell him a story. A story that i never told you before.”
“Which one, Grandfather? I thought you told me all the stories you knew?”
The young man grew ever so eager to find the truth, the fact that haunted him all his entire life.
“It’s an old legend. Of the first king of Norway, king Harald. You see, his life’s wish was for him to transcend the Jarls of our land and country, to unite us all and become the first king of a united nation of Norway. A dream that took almost a life time, a dream that was almost impossible. Well, that’s what they all thought. Well, he did prove them all wrong, he united all the jarls, all the vikings, and we became a strong nation. But when there were no jarls to fight among themselves, an outer threat appeared. A force that proved too much to handle. The king found his forces overwhelmed, and him greatly wounded. While a nearby viking helped the king retreat, he told him to stop. ‘Wait’, he said. ‘Even if i fall, here, even if i go to Valhalla, i need you to honor one final order from your king. Go, retreat, to the highest peak, of the highest mountain, where winds blow hard as our steel, where the snow won’t allow any outsider to step on its white face. Find your way up to it and wait. ‘ The young viking, shocked of his kings words answered. ‘My king, i respect and serve you, i answered your call to arms to defend our homeland, but you would deny me Valhalla, to fight and die with my brothers, to be summoned to dine with Odin himself. My king, you ask me to betray our way, to betray lord Odin and all the gods. ‘ The king, badly wounded looked at the young warrior, smiled and said. ‘ I hope lord Odin and all his Aesir will forgive us, as i fear this might not be just the end of Norway, but of Viking as well. Look at them. Such number, such ferocity they showed, and no matter if one of our Viking worth is like dozen of them, no matter if one of our Shield Maiden can take entire legion of their warriors, they will keep coming. And i know i deny you what all Viking dream, death of a warrior. But i beg you, to sacrifice your dream for the dream of our Nation, for the way of Viking can be no more. I beg you, not as king, but as your brother, so that my death, our brothers deaths won’t be in vain or forgotten. ‘ The young warrior looked long at the king who asked a lot, but he saw the truth and wisdom of his words. ‘But my king…’, he asked, ‘ what am i to do on the top of the mountain? ‘ The king just smiled and said, ‘Go and when you reach the top of it, stab your sword in the cold snow, lay your shield on it and put your helmet on top of it. And wait. When the Vikings are needed once more, a warrior of our steel will come and get you, a Viking with like minded heart and strength will ask you to raise your sword and pick your shield once more again. ‘ The warrior with pride in his heart asked, ‘But my king, if i go on the highest peak of the highest mountain, against the strongest iced wind through the deep snow, how will anyone know where i am, where to find me? ‘ The king grabbed his head, brought his forehead on his, laid his head on top of his own and said, ‘ To a brother, or a sister, who comes from the blood of your blood, who is born in the cold as we are and survives, they will know where you lay, to them your footsteps won’t be covered in snow. They will find you, sitting on top of that mountain and they will ask you to fight once more. Because as long as one Viking lives, we all live. Norway lives. We are Norse. We endure. ‘ And the young warrior, went to the highest mountain, found the highest peak, and on top of it, in the thick snow he struck his sword deep, on it he laid his shield, and his helmet on its hilt. And to this day he still waits, to a call by someone who is from his blood, who is worthy to be called a warrior, to be summoned to when the Viking will be needed once more.”
The young man looked at the pyre, thinking of his grandfathers story.
“That story… you never told me.” The young man searched meaning in his grandfathers story, but to no avail. “Why you told me about all the gods, about all the heroes and about all the realms, but never about that tale. Why? And why did my father brought you out and why does it hurt to speak about him?”
The old man tried to talk, but looking at the boy, who reminded him much of his son, just brought sadness to his heart, sadness that no ale or battle could heal or mend.
“Boy. I never tried to tell you that story because i blame me and my storytelling for making your father search meaning in them. I was bitter for long and blamed all and most of them me. I tried to give him, as i did you, the life of happiness, raising you both to my best capabilities…”
He looked at him, holding his shoulder.
“He left you that day in our care. I don’t blame him. You brought such happiness and joy to my beloved. And him… he went up in the mountains. Days we searched for him, but no equipment, no food or water, he never could make it. And i regret that we never found the body, to give him some rest. All that was left were the footsteps in snow that even the hard dropping blizzard couldn’t hide. He fell under grief of the lost love, and he loved you, son. He knew we would take care of you, that we will love you. So i beg of you, don’t hate him, for leaving. Know he loved you a lot. But your mother was the light of his life, his joy, and when you take a mans joy, you condemn him to such darkness it eats his soul.”
“I know. I know he loved me, Grandpa. He left me to you… To Grandma. And you gave me such joy. And for that i love you. And i love him, as well as my mother. I love you, Grandfather.”
As he said that, he hugged the old man so hard that he felt his heart, his breath and the old mans tears. He loved him. Not just for raising him, teaching him about life and love and the values of preserving and honoring the ancestors, he loved him immensely for the strength he showed when he needed him most. To him he was his hero, and right now sitting by his side seemed way better then the dance of the stunning nature that called him before, that stunning and mesmerizing moving blond.