Dagmar was doomed to run.
Feet in stiff, new trail shoes flexing, hitting. The sharp ache of each stride in knees no longer accustomed to the pressure. Her body, too heavy on the downhills, femur jarring into hip socket, each hop down like a blow against her soles. Against her soul.
Dagmar was doomed to run until her curse was lifted.
Oh, she thought of it as a curse, but it was just a wedding ring. She could have solved the problem with a pair of tin snips. Applied to the ring, not the finger, though there were days—
Days, maybe even weeks, when she could have fielded enough self-loathing to resort to the latter. But no, she would not ruin that ring. It had a history: the half-carat transition-cut diamond was a transplant from her grandmother’s engagement ring, reset in a filigree band carved by a jeweler-friend who was as dead as Dagmar’s marriage.
She wouldn’t wear it again herself, if—when, she told herself patiently—when she could ever get it off. But she thought of saving it for a daughter she still might one day have—thirty wasn’t so old. Anyway, it was a piece of history. A piece of art.
It was futile—and fascist—to destroy history out of hand, just because it had unpleasant associations. But the ring wouldn’t come off her finger intact until the forty pounds she’d put on over the course of her divorce came off, too.
So, in the mornings before the Monday/ Wednesday/ Friday section of her undergrad animal behavior class, she climbed out of her Toyota, rocking her feet in her stiff new minimalist running shoes—how the technology had changed, in the last ten years or so—and was made all the more aware of her current array of bulges and bumps by the tightness of the sports bra and the way the shorts rode up when she stretched beside the car.
The university where Dagmar worked lay on a headland above the ocean, where cool breezes crossed it in every season. They dried the sweat on her face, the salt water soaking her T-shirt as she ran.
Painfully at first, in intervals more walking than jogging, shuffling to minimize the impact on her ankles and knees. She trotted slow circles around the library. But within a week, that wasn’t enough. She extended her range through campus. Her shoes broke in, the stiff soles developing flex. She learned—relearned—to push off from her toes.
She invested in better running socks—cushiony wool, twenty bucks a pair.
She’s a runner and a student; he’s a poet and a singer. Each of them sees in the other something they’re missing in themselves.
She sees his confidence, his creativity. He sees her studiousness, her devotion.
The story ends as it always does. They fall in love.
Of course there are signs that all is not right. Portents.
But isn’t that always how it goes?
Her birds found her before the end of the first week. Black wings, dagged edges trailing, whirled overhead as she thudded along sloped paths.
The crows were encouragement. She liked being the weird woman who ran early in the morning, beneath a vortex of black wings.
She had been to Stockholm, to Malmö where her grandfather had been born. She’d met her Swedish cousins and eaten lingonberries outside of an Ikea. She knew enough of the myths of her ancestors to find the idea of Thought and Memory accompanying her ritual expurgation of the self-inflicted sin of marrying the wrong man…
Or maybe she’d married the right man. She still often thought so.
But he had married the wrong woman.
And anyway, the birds were hers. Or she was theirs.
And always had been.
“Your damned crows,” he calls them.
As in: “You care about your damned crows more than me.” As in: “Why don’t you go-talk to your damned crows, if you don’t want to talk to me.”
Her crows, the ones she’d taught to identify her, the ones that ate from her hand as part of her research, clearly had no difficulties recognizing her outside the normal arc of feeding station hours.
They had taught other birds to recognize her, too, because the murder was more than ten birds strong, and only three or four at a time ever had the ankle bands that told Dagmar which of her crows was which. Crows could tell humans apart by facial features and hair color, and could communicate that information to other crows. Humans had no such innate ability when it came to crows.
Dagmar had noticed that she could fool herself into thinking she could tell them apart, but inevitably she’d think she was dealing with one bird and find it was actually another one entirely once she got a look at the legbands.
The other humans had no problem identifying her, either. She was the heavyset blonde woman who ran every morning, now, thudding along—jiggling, stone-footed—under a cloak of crows.
Things she has not said in return: “My damned crows actually pretend to listen.”
Dagmar grew stronger. Her wind improved. Her calves bulged with muscle—but her finger still bulged slightly on either side of the ring. The weight stayed on her.
Sometimes, from running, her hands swelled, and the finger with the wedding ring on it would grow taut and red as a sausage. Bee-stung. She’d ice and elevate it until the swelling passed.
She tried soap, olive oil. Heating it under running water to make the metal expand.
It availed her not.
There are the nights like gifts, when everything’s the way it was. When they play rummy with the TV on, and he shows her his new poetry. When he kisses her neck behind the ear, and smoothes her hair down.
She felt as if she were failing her feminist politics, worrying about her body size. She told herself she wasn’t losing weight: she was gaining health.
She dieted, desultorily. Surely the running should be enough.
It wasn’t. The ring—stayed on.
“Cut the ring off,” her sister says.
But there have been too many defeats. Cutting it off is one more, one more failure in the litany of failures caught up in the most important thing she was ever supposed to do with her life.
That damned ring. Its weight on her hand. The way it digs in when she makes a fist.
She will beat it.
It is only metal, and she is flesh and will.
Perhaps it is her destiny to run.
One day—it was a Tuesday, so she had more time before her section—she followed the crows instead of letting the crows follow her.
She wasn’t sure what led to the decision, but they were flocking—the crows with bands and the ones without—and as she jogged up on them they lifted into the air like a scatter of burned pages, like a swirl of ashes caught in a vortex of rising heat. They flew heavily, the way she felt she ran, beating into the ocean breeze that rose from the sea cliffs with rowing strokes rather than tumbling over one another weightlessly as the songbirds did.
They were strong, though, and they hauled themselves into the air like prizefighters hauling themselves up the ropes.
They led her down the green slopes of the campus lawn, toward the sweep of professionally gardened pastel stucco housing development draped across the top of the cliffs above. They turned along an access road, and led her out toward the sea.
She ran in the cool breeze, June gloom greying the sky above her, the smell of jasmine rising on all sides. Iceplant carpeted both sides of the road, the stockade fences separating her from a housing development draped with bougainvillea in every hot color.
A bead of sweat trickled down Dagmar’s nose. But some days, she’d learned, your body gives you little gifts: functioning at a higher level of competence than normal, a glimpse of what you can look forward to if you keep training. Maybe it was the cool air, or the smell of the sea, or the fact that the path was largely downhill—but she was still running strongly when she reached the dead end of the road.
Still heavily, too, to be sure, not with the light, quick strides she’d managed when she was younger. Before the marriage, before the divorce. But she hesitated before a tangle of orange temporary fence, and paced slowly back and forth.
She stood at the lip of a broad gully, steep enough to make clambering down daunting. A sandy path did lead into its depths, in the direction of the water. The arroyo’s two cliffs plunged in a deep vee she could not see to the bottom of, because it was obscured by eroded folds.
The crows swirled over her like a river full of black leaves tumbling toward the sea. Dagmar watched them skim the terrain down the bluff, into the canyon. Their voices echoed as if they called her after—or mocked her heavy, flightless limbs.
She felt in her pocket for her phone. Present and accounted for.
All right then. If she broke a leg…she could call a rescue team.
If she cracked her head open….
Well, she wouldn’t have to worry about the damned wedding ring anymore.
She reads his poetry, his thesis. She brings him books.
She bakes him cookies.
He catches her hand when she leaves tea beside his computer, and kisses the back of it, beside the wedding ring.
She meets his eyes and smiles.
Dagmar pounded through the gully—trotting at first, but not for long. The path was too steep, treacherous with loose sand, and no wider than one foot in front of the other. The sparse and thorny branches on the slope would not save her if she fell, and on the right there was a drop of twice her height down to a handspan-width, rattling stream.
Dagmar wanted to applaud its oversized noise.
Even walking, every step felt as if she were hopping down from a bench. She steadied herself with her hands when she could, and at the steepest patches hunkered down and scooted. The trail shoes pinched her toes when her feet slid inside them. She cursed the local teens when she came to a steep patch scattered with thick shards of brown glass, a relic of broken beer bottles, and picked her way.
She still had to stop afterward and find a broken stick with which to pry glass splinters from her soles.
The gloom was burning off, bathing her in the warm chill of summer sun and cool, dry sea air. The crows were somewhere up ahead. She couldn’t say why she was so certain they would have waited for her.
Sometimes her breath came tight and quick against the arch of her throat: raspy, rough. But it was fear, not shortness of breath. She acknowledged it and kept going, trying not to glance too often at the sharp drop to a rocky streambed that lay only one slip or misstep away.
She actually managed to feel a little smug, for a while: at least she’d regained a little athleticism. And she didn’t think this would ever have been easy.
“Look at you,” he says. “When was the last time you got off your ass?”
Maybe not easy for her, but she thought she was most of the way down when she heard the patter of soft footsteps behind her, a quiet voice warning, “Coming up!”
She stepped as far to the inside of the trail—as if there were an inside of the trail—as possible, and turned sideways. A slim, muscled young man in a knee-length wetsuit jogged barefoot down the path she’d been painstakingly inching along, a surfboard balanced on his shoulder. Dagmar blinked, but he didn’t vanish. Sunlight prickled through his close-cropped hair while she still felt the chill of mist across her neck.
“Sorry,” she said helplessly.
But he answered, “Don’t worry, plenty of room,” and whisked past without letting his shoulder brush. He bounced from foothold to foothold until he vanished into a twisting passage between sandstone outcrops.
“There’s my sense of inadequacy.” Dagmar sighed, trudging on.
Things she does not say in response: “Look at you.”
She bites her lip. She nods.
She is trying to save her marriage.
And he’s right. She should take up running again.
Someone had run a hand-line—just a length of plastic clothesline, nothing that would prevent a serious fall—down the steepest, muddiest bit of the trail-bottom. Dagmar used it to steady herself as she descended, careful not to trust it with too much of her weight. By now, she could hear the wearing of the sea—and something else. Water, also—but not the water trickling in the rocky streambed, and not the water hissing amongst the grains of sand. Falling water.
She rounded the corner of the gully—now towering a hundred feet or more overhead, to a cliff edge bearded with straggling bushes—and found herself in a grotto.
A narrow waterfall trembled from the cliff-top across wet, packed sand, shimmering like a beaded curtain in the slanted morning light. Its spray scattered lush draperies of ferns with jeweled snoods, hung trembling on the air in rainbow veils. Alongside grew dusty green reeds.
She drew up at the foot of the trail, her throat tightening upon the words of delight that she had no one to call out to. Broad sand stretched before her now, a wide path that led between two final shoulders of stone to the sea. Wetsuited surfers frolicked in the curling waves, silhouetted against the mirror-bright facets of the water. The sun was bright out there, though she stood in mist and shadow.
At the cliff-top, two crows sat shoulder-to-shoulder, peering down at Dagmar with curious bright eyes, heads cocked.
“Caw,” said the one on the right. She could not see if they were banded.
She craned her head until her neck ached stiffly and tried not to think of how she was going to get back up to the top. Loneliness ached against her breast like the pressure of accusing fingers.
“Hey,” she said. “This is so beautiful.”
The crows did not answer.
Her hands had swollen on the descent, taut and prickling, the left one burning around her ring. Her feet ached still—mashed toes, and she suspected from a sharper, localized pain that one of those shards of glass might have punched through the sole of her shoe.
The ripples beneath the waterfall looked cool. She hopped the rocky little stream—now that it ran across the surface rather than down in a gully, it was easy—and limped toward the pool, wincing.
The crows come at dawn, bright-eyed—how can black eyes seem bright?—and intelligent. The feeding station is designed so that only one bird at a time can eat, and see her. They squabble and peck, but not seriously—and, after a fashion, they take turns: one, having eaten, withdraws from the uncomfortably close presence of the researcher, and the next, hungry, shoulders in.
When they come up to the trough, to pick at the cracked corn she dribbles through the transparent plastic shield that separates her from the birds, they eye her face carefully. They make eye contact. They tip their heads.
She knows it’s not good science, but she begins to think they know her.
It would be stupid to pull off her shoe—if she did have a cut, she’d get sand in it, and then she’d just have to put the shoe back on sandy and get blisters—so instead she dropped a knee in the wet sand beside the pool and let her hands fall into the water. It was cold and sharp and eased the taut sensation that her skin was a too-full balloon. She touched her ring, felt the heat in the skin beside it. It was too tight even to turn.
Dagmar pushed sandy, sweat-damp hair off her forehead with the back of her hand.
From behind her, as before, a voice—this one also male, but midrange, calm, with an indeterminate northern-European accent—said, “Have a care with that.”
Dagmar almost toppled forward into the puddly little pool. She caught herself on a hand plunged into the water—the left one, it happened—and drew it back with a gasp. There must have been a bit of broken glass in the pool, too, and now dilute blood ran freely from the heel of her thumb down her elbow, to drip in threads upon the sand.
She turned over her shoulder, heart already racing with the threat of a strange man in an isolated place—and instead found herself charmed. He was tall but not a tower, broad but not a barn-door. Strong-shouldered like a man who used it—the surfers on the water, the soldiers who ran along the beach. Long light hair—sand-brown—bounced over one of those shoulders in a tail as the water bounced down the cliff above. A trim brown beard hid the line of his jaw; the flush of a slight sunburn vanished behind it.
And his right arm ended in shiny scraps of scar tissue four inches above where the wrist should have been.
Iraq, she thought. He might have been thirty; he wasn’t thirty-five. Afghanistan?
His gaze went to the trickle of bloody water along her arm. She expected him to start forward, to offer help.
Instead he said, “Your coming is foretold, Dagmar Sörensdotter. I am here to tell you: you must make a sacrifice to a grief to end it.”
Her name. Her father’s name. The cold in her fingers—the way the pain in her hand, in her foot receded. The way she suddenly noticed details she had not seen before: that the cliff behind the one-handed man was grey and tawny granite, and not the buff sand she’d been eyeing throughout her descent; that the surfers scudding like elongated seals through the curving ocean had all drifted out of line of sight: that the ocean itself was being lost again behind chilly veils of mist.
She pulled her bloody right hand away from the wound in her left and groped in the pocket of her shorts for her phone.
“It avails you not, Dagmar Sörensdotter,” he said. “You are in no danger. When grief burns in your heart, and your blood enters the water, and you run down into the earth at the edge of the sea with your helskor on, accompanied by crows—on this my day of all days! Who shall come to you then but a god of your ancestors, before you run all the way to Niflheim?”
He gestured to her feet. She looked down at her trail shoes, and noticed a reddish patch spreading along the side of the right one. She looked up again.
He didn’t look like a god. He looked like a man—a man of her own age, her own ethnicity, more or less her own phenotype. A man in a grey T-shirt and faded jeans rolled up to show the sand-dusted bones of his ankles. A crazy man, apparently, no matter how pleasant his gaze.
“I have a phone,” she said, raising her right hand to show it. Aware of the water and the cliff at her back. Aware of the length of his legs, and the fact that she’d have to dart right past him to reach the beach trail. “I’ll scream.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “If you must,” he said, tiredly. “I am Týr, Sörensdotter. My name means God. This hand—” he held up that ragged, scar-shiny stump “—fed the Fenris wolf, that he would stand to be shackled. This hand—” he raised the intact one “—won me glory nonetheless. Men speak of the brave as Týr-valiant, of the wise as Týr-prudent. I am called ‘kin-of-giants;’ I am named ‘god-of-battle;’ I am hight ‘the-leavings-of-the-wolf.'” He paused; the level brows rose. “And will that name be yours as well?”
“I’ve met someone else,” he says.
Dagmar lowers her eyes. She slices celery lengthwise, carefully, dices it into cubes as small as the shattered bits of safety glass.
It feels like a car wreck, all right.
She scrapes the vegetables into hot oil and hears them sizzle.
“Do you hear me?” he asks. “I’ve met someone else.”
“I heard you.” She sets the knife down on the cutting board before she turns around. “Were you looking for the gratification of a dramatic response? Because you could have timed it better. I have a pan full of boiling oil right here.“
“The leavings of the wolf,” she said. “Leavings. Like… leftovers?” Dial 911, she told herself, before the nice, crazy stalker pulls out a knife. But her fingers didn’t move over the screen.
God or not, he had a nice smile, full lips behind the fringe of beard curving crookedly. “It did make a meal of the rest.”
She felt her own frown. Felt the hand clutching the phone drop to her side. “You’re left-handed.”
“Where I’m from,” he said, “no one is left-handed. But I learned.”
“So why didn’t you give the wolf your left hand?”
He shrugged, eyebrows drawing together over the bridge of a slightly crooked nose.
In the face of his silence, she fidgeted. “It would have been the sensible choice.”
“But not the grand one. It doesn’t pay to be stingy with wolves, Sörensdotter.”
Her hands clenched. One around the phone, one pressing fresh blood from a wound. “You said ‘helskor,‘ before. What are helskor?”
“Hell shoes.” He jerked his stump back at the steep and slick descent. “The road to the underworld is strewn with thorns; the river the dead must wade is thick with knives. Even well-shod, I see you have your injuries.”
“I’m not dead,” Dagmar said.
“Dead enough to shed your blood on the path to Hel’s domain. Dead enough to have been seeking Niflheim these past months, whether or not you knew it.”
With his taken breath and the lift of his chin, Týr gave himself away. He gestured to her dripping hand and said what he meant to say anyway. “When you put your hand in a wolf’s mouth, you must understand that you have already made the decision to sacrifice it.”
“I didn’t know it was a wolf,” she said. “I thought it was a marriage.”
“They are not,” Týr says, “dissimilar. Are you going to stand there forever?”
Dagmar raises her left hand. Blood smears it already, the slit in her palm deeper than it had seemed. Still welling.
It palls the diamond in crimson, so no fire reflects. It clots in the spaces in the band’s filigree.
She says, “I didn’t want to waste it. I wanted to save it for something else.”
“A sacrifice,” the god says, “is not a waste.”
He does not say: What you try to salvage will drag you down instead.
He does not say: You cannot cut your losses until you are willing to admit that you have lost.
He does not need to.
How bad can it be? Dagmar wonders.
She puts her bloody finger in her mouth and hooks her teeth behind the ring.
Damn you, she thinks. I want to live. Even with failure.
Bit by bit, scraping skin with her teeth, she drags the ring along her finger. The pain brings sharp water to her eyes. The taste of blood—fresh and clotted—gags her. The diamond scrapes her gums. Flesh bunches against her knuckle.
I don’t think I can do this.
“This has already happened,” the god says in her ear. “This is always happening.”
I don’t think I can not.
When she pulls once more, harder, her knuckle rips, skins off, burns raw. With a fresh well of blood that tastes like seaweed, the ring slides free, loose in her mouth, nearly choking her.
Dagmar spits it onto the sand and screams.
The god has left her.
Dagmar stands on the strand under the bright sun, her left hand cradled against her chest, and watches the long indigo breakers combing the hammered sea. Red runs down her arm, drips from her elbow, falls and spatters into the shallow play of the ocean’s edge. Overhead wheel crows, murders and covenants of them, driving even the boldest seagulls away.
She holds the ring in her right hand. Her fingers clutch; she raises her fist. One sharp jerk, and the ocean can have it. One—
She turns back and draws her arm down, and instead tosses the bright bloody thing, flashing into the sky. Round and round, spinning, tumbling, pretty in the sun until the dark wings of carrion birds sweep toward it.
She does not see which claims it—banded or bare—just the chase as all the others follow, proclaiming their greed and outrage, sweeping away from her along the endless empty river of the sky.
“Thank you,” she whispers after them.
In a moment, they are gone.