The worst part about Sundays was crowding into the dank basement of the Eriksdale Lutheran Church with a bunch of rowdy six and seven-year-olds to listen to Bible stories. Annika was mad because the pastor’s twin sons seemed to have divine immunity from punishment. She stomped out to the parking lot and crawled into the back seat of her mother’s old beige Ford. “Next week, I’m gonna punch Matthew and Michael if they don’t stop bugging me.”
“Did you learn nothing at Sunday School? Nothing about turning the other cheek?” Momma’s tone was as cranky as the car engine rumbling to life. “And you can stop pouting.”
Chastised, Annika slumped against the cool vinyl door with her arms crossed and began counting the telephone poles as they whipped past on the long, sleepy drive to the Wallin family homestead.
When the car turned off the gravel side road, Annika startled awake. Her teeth chattered as the tires bumped in and out of the well-worn ruts. Enormous ash trees, like naked sentinels, lined both sides of the dirt lane leading to the two-storey farmhouse her great-grandfather’s family had built when they’d emigrated from Sweden before the Depression.
Annika pressed her nose against the car window and strained for a glimpse of her great-grandfather. “I see him. I see Farfar.”
He stood coatless in the cold with his hands shoved in his overall pockets, a grey hair spout swirling in the wind above his bald crown. Annika raced through the slushy snow to the stoop, spraying gritty water with each breathless footstep. She flew toward her great-grandfather’s arms but this time he didn’t lift her over his head. “Land sakes alive. You grow taller every week. Soon you’ll be flying as high as Odin’s ravens.”
After a feast of freshly baked rye bread, yellow pea soup, and pickled beets from the cold cellar, Annika and Farfar escaped to the front room, leaving Momma and her great-grandmother to their muffled conversation and the gentle clanking of pots and dishes. An oak rocking chair rested next to the big picture window that overlooked the fields, wheat stubble poking through the patches of snow that refused to give way to spring. Farfar gripped the rocker’s armrests, worn shiny by years of a farmer’s worry and contemplation, lowered himself onto the seat, and patted his lap. “Come, min lilla böna.” Annika loved it when Farfar called her his little bean.
Annika settled on Farfar’s lap, her long limbs almost touching the floor. He smoothed her hair that hung to her waist like a sheaf of Manitoba wheat. When she nestled against his chest, she could hear his heart thumping and his breath wheezing in and out. He tapped each bone on her spine. “Ett, två, tre, fyra, fem. Count with me, Annika, sex, sju, åtta, nio, tio.” Then he touched each shoulder blade in turn. “You know what these are?”
Of course, she knew—what seven-year-old didn’t know those were wing nubs. Farfar said whenever she was afraid, those nubs would help her fly like Odin’s ravens to a safe place. Annika giggled because she knew there was no place safer than her great-grandfather’s lap where she could listen to Norse legends.
“Where shall I begin?” Farfar scrubbed his head with his long fingers, scraping his memory drawers for one of the many stories that had been passed down to him across the generations. “I’m afraid we cannot start at the beginning, min lilla böna, because the Other World has no beginning and no end. It exists for all time, from the past to the future. So, we must start with what we know. The Other World is made up of Nine Worlds held together by the branches and roots of a magnificent ash tree called Yggdrasil, a tree so huge that its branches reach higher than the mountains, beyond the clouds, and into the darkest corners of the universe. Its roots travel deep, deep into the Underworld.”
“A tree like the ones in the lane, Farfar?
“Ja. I was a boy when I helped my father plant those trees. They are sacred to me because they remind me this is where our family established our roots. And those ash trees also remind me where I came from; not just the place, but my people and our stories. When I walk down the lane and look up into those trees, I hear the voices of my ancestors and I remember the stories they told me. The same stories I tell you, so you know our family belongs to this land. And you remember you are born from a long line of hearty Swedes; the daughter of the son of the son of the daughter, going back generations to Freyja.”
Farfar paused to catch his breath. The rocking chair swept back and forth, and the spring wind rattled the windowpane. Annika urged her great-grandfather to tell her more about Freyja.
“The branches of Yggdrasil hold fortresses of the Nine Worlds where the gods and the goddesses live. Odin. Thor. Loki. And so many others, I cannot remember them all. But of all the gods and goddesses in the Other World, Freyja is the greatest. A true warrior princess and the leader of the tribe of Vanir. She was very tall like you will be one day. She was smart and curious, just like you. When she went in search of the truth, she wore a cloak made of falcon feathers that allowed her to shapeshift and travel long distances without being recognized. Around her neck, she wore a Brísingamen made of precious metal and teardrops of amber. That necklace gave her magical power. Legend says her power was so great that she led her tribe to break down the walls of the fortress where Odin lived. Odin feared Freyja’s power and signed a truce with her because he thought he could control her. But no one can control a strong woman.”
Annika stared out the window and into the fields of her imagination where she morphed into Freyja, wearing a feather cloak and a Brísingamen necklace, standing triumphant over Matthew and Michael, her hair blowing in the wind. Then she’d disappear like a shapeshifter so no one would know it was her and she wouldn’t get into trouble with Momma or the pastor. There would be no convincing either of them that Frejya was preferable to Jesus as a divine mediator for combative children.
“Do you know what Freyja means?” Farfar’s question returned Annika to the front room. “It means lady. But Freyja was not like the ladies of this earthly world. Somewhere between the Other World and this earthly world, strong women like Freyja were told they had to use their power differently. Some women became prim and proper. Their power was in following the rules and protecting against chaos. Freyja taught women and girls to be strong in different ways.”
“Strong how, Farfar?” Annika waited as Farfar coughed into his large cloth handkerchief and stuffed it back into his overall pocket.
“A woman must be strong in her body so she can labour side by side with a man. She must also be strong with her mind so she can recognize the truth. She must be strong in her heart because kindness will help her control her mind and body. Freyja would want women to be kind to themselves and kind to others.”
Annika was confused. Did that mean Freyja wouldn’t want her to tackle the twins?
Farfar gazed out the window as if he were searching for the right words. His mouth was smiling but his eyes looked sad. “No matter what happens, you are strong like Freyja.” Annika threw her arms around Farfar’s neck and squeezed so tightly he coughed. Then she lay her head on his chest and the two sat in silence, staring across the field as the sun set, lulled by the creaking of the oak runners against the wooden floorboards.
After the fall harvest was in and Momma and her great-grandmother had finished making Saskatoon preserves, Odin’s ravens carried Farfar’s soul to Valhalla.
Annika sat in Farfar’s rocker in the front room and counted to ten with each sweep back and forth. Ett, två, tre, fyra, fem, sex, sju, åtta, nio, tio. She was summoning strength so her wing nubs could fly her to a safe place where her throat was not stoppered with sadness.
Her great-grandmother shuffled into the front room and took her hand. “Dear one. Come with me and your mother.” The three stepped outside into the warmth of the autumn sun and walked between the old ash trees covering the lane in a lush dark green canopy. Annika stopped and listened for the voices of the ancestors in the rustling leaves. She heard them telling her she was strong like Freyja. And that she was safe in this place where Farfar’s stories would always live.
Diana Lynn Gustafson is a Canadian author with disciplinary and geographic roots from sea to sea. She was born in a small farming community on the prairies, published dozens of articles (and three books) during her twenty years as a women’s health researcher at an east coast university, and will be graduating this fall with an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. She currently lives and writes in Toronto and is an active member of three writing collectives.