Up in the North Country

It never fails, he thought, the unmistakable signs of mythic Norse winter all around. The frost giants up and stretching, getting ready to go out on the town. No one can turn back winter, stave off its molecule-stopping approach. Everything is frozen. Words freeze in the air and shatter on the glassy earth.  Release their contents, drifting upwards on the North Wind, unheeded, unheard; dismal little ghosts winging their way up to Odin's throne and even he doesn't give a good god damn.

"It's time again," Gunnar thinks, sighing, dressing himself, brewing coffee. Some lonely shaman is singing songs to the reindeer, accompanying himself on a jawbone harp strung with human hair. He sets up a keening, a wail, a nasal insinuating whine that shakes the rafters and sends the lonesome drifter shivering into the night, collar turned up against the wind that suddenly bites so hard. No home is waiting. No one; nobody there.

He looks nervously over his shoulder as he poles his leather boat or coracle out into the fjord. "Noe er vel galt? Kan ikke helt ... kan ikke ... putte .. fingeren på det." (Something is surely amiss? Can't quite...can't...put.. my finger on it.) Something looms over the horizon, a Harryhausen movie Poseidon shooting up out of the water with great slo-mo gobs of ice falling from his long hair and beard, seaweed caught in his trident just like Jason and the Argonauts or Sinbad or whatever it was. His eyes are movie cameras, his heart is the blazing full-color electronic hearth of the television, playing and rewinding and playing again the same old tapes; old favorites, old standbys, veritable folk culture in the software craw of this whole frigorific land. This gelid place is this hoary old geezer, unspeakably ancient, that crawls up to your door at midnight and hisses foul words from the jagged moon mountains in his mouth, yellow teeth and nicotine-black fingers numbly begging for a crust of bread or half a crown or a cup of whale broth to stave off the eternal stellar chill of his grave in the fjord. He dissolves in a hail of ice crystals; a storm of silver electronic gnats, the frothy sizzling snow of a 50's TV screen.

Did he remember to bring those papers for the American in the Oslo hotel lobby? What papers? What American? CIA? KGB? SETI? Some mythic beast cries up in the hills and the boatman's hair stands on end.

The water in the fjord has gone gelatinous with the cold. "A man could walk on this water," he thinks, "thick as glycerin in this cold." He mutters "Mai Thor suge mjød fra min bestemors smokken juledag"  (May Thor suck mead from my grandmother's teat on Christmas day ) and gets back to his poling. His pole is less than useless, since the fjord is hundreds of times too deep for a pole  but his family has been doing it this way for centuries and he will certainly not be the one to try and change things. Some of the young bloods have even started using motors, but our man is not only tradition-bound he is also extremely stupid. That, too, runs in his family and has done ever since his ancestor Kleng the Dim began poling across this fjord all those ages past. Thus, a journey that should have taken two hours became a full day's work. (Small wonder that Kleng's descendants have lived in dire poverty for centuries.)

Old shaman on the shore winks, turns a nasty shade of yellow, a mocking gesture from the right-angle universe just around the quantum bend. He flies off over the fjord singing a little song, dropping little gift-wrapped turds. Gunnar pays him no heed. Indeed, he has none to pay. There is a heed crisis on and few have any to spare. He keeps poling his boat with that unflappable Norse calm which would pass for stupor or sleep anywhere else. Off in the mystic hills, the mythic beast's ears perk up and it scampers off into the tundra, leaving behind a pale green phosphorescent trail. It hunkers down in the scrub oak, whining and licking its scarlet coat with a languid silver tongue.

The papers? He pats his inside pocket. Yes. Still there. Turns on the radio. Maybe a weather report, news of the great rift, the war. Picks up the radio, but it is frozen solid, Chinese plastic not made for this cold. It cracks quietly, almost shyly and slips into the water with oriental grace. It bobs about on the surface of that jelly-like water and is finally sucked in with an obscene schlurping sound.

"It's all building up and up and up and I know who's behind it all. Just gotta get a handle on this...this....this...what was I saying?"

He sits quietly in his boat, not poling, just looking around, taking it all in. An enormous severed arm, clutching an equally enormous Viking shield floats by. "Must be getting closer, av Odin's Pokker" thinks he, "hope those papers are in order." If not...well, he'd rather not think about that.

Suddenly it's raining books. Leathery old tomes heavy with mold, written in a spidery painful old man's hand, Enochian characters and runes and catchy paperback novelizations of up to the minute Hollywood soft-core, limp-core, liquid-core porn and Conan the Barbarian muscle pictorials and H.P. Lovecraft stories by the score, technical manuals for forgotten devices, perpetual motion machines and exquisite Hindu pleasure units made of clockwork and oiled with ghee; phone books for Atlantis only the letters Beth to Gimel, Egyptian jerk-off papyruses, maps and atlases, grammars and encyclopedias, Chaldean teen magazines on clay tablets, biographies of forgotten people, Jackie O's address book, Genghis Khan's diary, Elvis Presley's manicurist's autobiography, translations of translations of transcriptions, one of God's ledgers cataloguing every hair on every head of everyone who ever lived, books infested with worms, scrimshaw, illuminated Bibles, Mayan stellae, Inca quipus, Celtic phrase books, Welsh atlases, cross-
referenced, indexed, fifty-volume sets about Prince Albert's button-hook collection, Johnny Carson's translation of the Ramayana as told to Shecky Greene, books by Eskimos about snow, Connie Francis' recording contract, the confessions of Desi Arnaz, dead letters, the collected correspondence of Herb Alpert...They swirl in great pulpy eddies on the fjord's glassy surface then dissolve like Alka-seltzer leaving only the faintest whiff of library paste on the wind to mark their passage.

The Shaman swoops overhead, changing for a moment into a Kamikaze plane heading for a hapless merchant ship, transforming into the Concorde full up with a load of well-heeled embalmers bound for the Riviera, a buzz-bomb in the Blitz, a hysterical bee in the Norwegian night, shouts something dirty in an ancient language, sounds like glossolalia, skids to a halt like Daffy Duck on a lake in a Saturday morning cartoon, sticks out his thumb like Clark Gable in "It Happened One Night", ears and all, hitching a ride.

Man in his boat pulls out his can of patented aerosol Shaman repellent, indispensable, old man, rather, never know, lousy buggers buzzing the hut night and day, what? The wizened old wrinkle sack gets it full in the face, sinks like a flaming Messerschmitt into the water, shrieking and cursing all the while.

"Well, I guess he won't be keeping me up nights any more. Bad enough with those Valkyrie bitching  how I never take them out any more, playing their Wagner records loud all night, flying-horse shit on the floor, cousin Loki dropping in all the time with new gags from the magic shop. Good riddance."

Sun begins to set on Norway. Gunnar arrives on the far shore of the fjord, ties off the coracle, trudges through the snow up to the single concrete bunker, knocks on the steel door, enters and finds the bunker vacant,  deposits the papers under a cast lead souvenir replica of the Eiffel Tower on the Harbormaster's desk. He furtively steals a nip from the brandy bottle next to it, thinks better of it and takes a healthy swig. The Harbormaster enters, flapping his arms and beating snow off himself, trying to encourage some circulation. He sits down at his desk, muttering to himself as he begins to go through the papers. Without looking up, he grunts and tosses them into his reindeer-hide wastebasket with a hearty Norse curse and a grimace of disgust. He clears his throat and looks up at the boatman over his glasses, eyeing him up and down as if examining an insect found in the smorgasbord.

"Gunnar, du ekle insekter, svar meg et spørsmål" he croaks.
"Yes, Harbormaster?"
"How long has your family been making this trip across the fjord?"
"Oh, I would say about two hundred years, your Excellency."
"Hmm," he raises his eyebrows "is it really that long? Two hundred, eh?"
"Yes, Excellency, two hundred. Years."
"Hmm," says the Harbormaster again. He looks away from Gunnar, surveying the scene out the window, then turns and seizes the brandy, upending and draining the bottle in a single, heroic gulp. Recovering from his coughing fit, he speaks. "Do you agree with me that two hundred years is a very, very long time, Gunnar?"
"Yes, Harbormaster, I am proud to say that it is a very long time indeed."
"Yes," he agrees, rifling through his top drawer, searching noisily for something. He stops, having found it.
"Yes, I am glad that you agree that it is a long time. In fact, I think the flying Shaman whom you killed, my grandfather would agree with me that it is too long. Good-bye, Gunnar, it has been mildly annoying to know you, may you burn in hell."

So saying, he raised his gun and plugged Gunnar between the eyes. Gunnar dropped to the floor with a look of seeming gratitude frozen upon his face.

"Rot i helvete,  stinkende du sønn av Loke!"

The Harbormaster raised Gunnar's gushing head by the hair and kissed him on the lips, inhaling and savoring his last breath, then , with a deep sigh, he sat down at last to his lunch.

Blaine L. Reininger
Brussels, 1987

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