I sit by the fire, lost and alone
Four empty places, and one who stayed home.
I drink to my kin
Who walked Njord’s road
I drink to my kin who’ll drink here no more.
– “Gather Ye Pipers,” Mikal the Ram
The funeral had no coffin. I don’t know if that meant that Mikal the Ram preferred cremation, or if he and his wife decided they’d rather not display the body. I didn’t ask Roberto or Helena about it. I had, after all, only met Mikal the Ram once. I wasn’t sure I even had a right to be at the service, much less to question it.
The funeral program called him “J. Michael Shew.” I’d never heard that name before. It looked like it was going to be a long funeral, with more than a dozen speakers. The epigraph took me by surprise in more ways than one:
Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life
End over end neither left nor to right
Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights
Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life.
We sat in a dim Protestant church with cream-colored walls and a dark brown carpet. The modern building lacked sober artistry of the medieval, which I felt ironic, given what I knew of Mikal. Two podiums sat at the front of the hall and, in front of them, were a series of tables covered in his possessions: t-shirts from Lilies Wars, a sheepskin that I recognized from when it hung from his shoulders, set designs from church plays, and failed get-well-soon cards from his students. An illuminated scroll, proclaiming Mikal the Ram’s promotion to Laurel of the Society for Creative Anachronism, dominated one table. To the right a projector showed photographs from his life, before the brain tumor finally got him.
I sat with Roberto, Helena, and the rest of our SCA family. The three elders sat in the row in front of us. They all looked like they had been crying. I’ve got no idea how old they actually are, but they seemed far older than they had before.
“How are you, Mo?” I asked.
Modar—the head of the household, balding, bearded, with large glasses—shrugged. “We have our good weeks, and we have our bad ones. This has been one of the bad ones.”
I guess I should explain the names. Roberto and Helena are, legally, Chris and Debbie; Modar’s real name is Ron. They tend to call me Aldheim, though of course, that’s not my name either. People make up new names for themselves in the SCA. Sometimes those names mean more to us than the ones our parents gave us; I once heard Roberto’s father slip and call him “’Berto” without thinking.
The SCA is a strange nerd subculture. Every weekend, we drive for hours to get to events, where we dress in clothing that hasn’t been in style for six hundred years and tell lies and drink homemade wine and argue about tinctures and blazons until it’s time to drive the hours and hours back home again. We take it as an excuse to buy obscure books about the Middle Ages, and bash each other in the head with wooden swords, to read old sagas and poems about the Anglo-Saxons and the Old Norse and the Byzantines, to tell stories to those who would hear them. So it had been with Mikal the Ram, as well, who had been a famous bard within the society when he was alive.
The family started talking about Mikal to pass the time before the service began. I stopped talking, myself. They had all known him for years, having seen him at least once every couple of months without fail for a decade or more. But then, they were not children, as I felt I was, sitting in that church. Churches always make me feel uncomfortable.
I am not a Christian. I never have been. My parents were, once, but they became Wiccan in their 20s, so I was raised a pagan. I had never been inside a church for anything besides a wedding or a funeral until my sophomore year of college, and I still find them to be strange, intimidating places; my idea of a temple was my living room, not a vaulted place full of stained glasses and crucifixes. I felt under my tie for the silver Thor’s Hammer I wore around my neck and rubbed it for luck.
I knew the services were starting because Roberto quit talking. Only momentous events prompt his silence. The photographs faded from the wall, and soon people started coming in from all sides of the church: Mikal’s wife, the dozen or so who would speak to us during the service, and the preacher. They came in to the sound of bagpipes and drums, played by men in kilts who followed them into the room.
Some of them wore suits; some did not. I recognized one of the company as another SCA bard, one I had once spent a whole event trading tales with. He wore a silky black shirt with blue flames at the bottom. I had noticed several people who wore similar clothes, including one man who wore a Coca-Cola t-shirt and black sweatpants. He claimed they were the nicest clothes he owned. I wanted to hit him. Mikal deserved better.
The first speaker opened with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music.” A poem to mourn a poet. I wondered if in his final days in the hospital, cancer eating away at him, Mikal had planned his own funeral service.
A poem to mourn a poet. It made me think of “Loki’s Song.”
This is the story that I was told of Mikal the Ram, not so many years ago:
In the early summer every year, the Kingdom of Calontir holds a war. The Lilies War, as it’s known, is a week long SCA event held at a campground about half an hour outside of Kansas City (or, as it is known in the Society, the Barony of Forgotten Sea.) I have never gone, because I have never been able to afford a week off work, but it’s the height of the year for many in the area. It’s a camping event, all outdoors—which makes it easier to pretend it’s 1100 A.D.
This particular year, just before Lilies began, storm clouds gathered over that part of Kansas. On the first day of Lilies, when people were arriving to put up their tents and say hello to their friends, the clouds opened up and rain fell down in sheets, and it never let up until the day Lilies ended, when the sun finally reappeared and the mud started to turn back into dirt, just in time for everyone to pack up and go home.
About the fourth day of this mess, Mikal the Ram, dressed in his Nordic regalia, sheepskin and all, decided that he had had enough. He stamped out of his tent into the rain. His friends inside called out to him to get back inside before he caught his death in the storm, but he didn’t listen to them. He went out into the middle of the muddy field, and stared up at the sky.
And he sang.
The song was one he had written for the god of fire and mischief. It was simply called “Loki’s Song,” and it went like this:
I was born in battle’s fire
Laid beside my mother’s corpse
My toys the ravens of the field
My lullabies the screams of horse
But when that storm god you all praise
Walks the earth and shatters trees
You’ll huddle close beside my gift
Whispers prayers beside the spit
And as the woodsmoke turns and twists
you’ll owe your lives to sly Loki
When I picture this in my head, I picture old Mikal—think about Falstaff wearing a sheepskin and you’ll get the picture—standing alone in the storm with fire in his eyes and mad laughter roaring from his breast. I picture him shaggy and crazed and ornery, exactly like the Ram he named himself after. I hear him daring Thor to keep the storm going—mocking the Storm God to his face.
I smile when I think of that. Once, when I was on a date, the clouds opened up and rain fell in sheets for exactly the length of time it took for my girlfriend and I to run across the parking lot and get inside my car. The moment I started the ignition, the rain stopped. We sat there, dripping and shivering, and looked at the sudden reappearance of the sun. I could only raise my fist in the air and shout, “Thor, you asshole.”
That is how I worship; that is how I think of gods. I think they can be cantankerous or tricky or helpful. I think of them as something human, something I can know in the way I might know you, as a person.
I think of Mikal the Ram bellowing at the gods, and I felt kinship, for I have bellowed at them too.
The man in the blue flame shirt had just finished speaking. He had to stop several times in the course of his speech to choke back tears. I felt sorry for him, and I felt envious, as well. I had liked Mikal the Ram, but the entire funeral seemed distant to me, something meant for other people. I was not grieving. Not really.
J. Michael Shew had taught art an elementary school. His principal was the next speaker. He was a bald man in a brown suit who clearly did not like public speaking.
“I’ve only been principal for a few years. Michael had been there long before I ever got there. But my predecessor told me all about him: how Mr. Shew loved his students, loved to get them to play with art. He went out of his way to connect with them,” said the principal. I listened to him describe how crazy Mr. Shew had introduced Talk Like a Pirate Day to the school without warning one year when he appeared for work dressed in an eye patch and a tricorner hat. I knew this man was a stranger. This man was not here for Mikal the Ram, and may not have even known about Mikal the Ram. He was here for J. Michael Shew. And I realized in that moment that all I knew of J. Michael Shew was what I had been told in the past hour.
Who was J. Michael Shew? He was an art teacher. He had been married for years to a woman named Ginger. He had no children, though he had loved children. He drew cartoons and designed sets for church plays, and had even written a handbook for designing sets on a budget that had been used for church productions across the country. Once, in the middle of acting in one of these church productions, he had inadvertently hiked up his costume and flashed his BVDs at a crowd of unsuspecting church ladies.
J. Michael Shew had developed a brain tumor and been told he had six months to live. He really only had one and a half.
I felt sorry for J. Michael Shew. He seemed like a good man, and his story was as sad as stories get. But I did not know him.
Three women sang “Down to the River to Pray.” Then the preacher came back up to the podium, shuffling his notes.
“When I visited Michael in the hospital,” said the preacher, “He said that he wanted me to read this passage from scripture for him. And he said I had to read it from the King James translation. Now, that’s kind of odd, because in our church, we always read from the New International Version, and using the King James is, well… odd, for me, anyway. But as I was preparing this, I realized why Michael asked me to read from it. This is from the second book of Timothy, chapter two…
“’It is a faithful saying: for if we be alive in Him, we shall also live with Him: if we suffer, we shall also reign with Him: if we deny Him, He also will deny us. If we believe not, yet He abideth faithful: He cannot deny himself. Of these things, put them into remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of hearers. Study…’” At this point the preacher stopped for a breath, and smiled. “’Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’”
And just as I’m sure he intended, we all groaned at J. Michael Shew’s final pun.
“Now let us pray,” said the preacher. I watched as Roberto and Helena bowed their heads and clasped their hands. Most of the room did the same. I bowed my head as well, but I did not pray.
It was January as January should be: cold and rainy, Viking weather. But we were inside, and it was warm there, and it was only through the windows of the rec hall that we could see the gray clouds and the mist.
The building was an odd one: a long hall with a kitchen at one end and a stage at the other. The ceiling was made of wooden planks that slanted upward until they met in the center. It brought to mind old Germanic halls—contaminated, perhaps, by the electric lights hanging from the ceiling and the glass windows in the walls. The feeling was there, nevertheless.
The event being held in that place was called Queen’s Prize. It was an arts and sciences competition, and at first glance it looked like a flea market—rows of tables piled on with dozens of displays. SCAdians had created these projects and brought them out to be judged. The Queen picked the winner—hence the name of the event—but everybody got something for their efforts.
Many of my college friends were there with projects. Esa brought an elaborate dress that had taken her a month and a half to sew, and Kasha had composed a piece of music. Helena was in the little kitchen cooking three courses to be judged in the food competition, and Roberto was there with her, though he had not submitted anything. I sat at a table near the stage with my tawny rune-covered staff and several copies of a long poem I had written, which I would perform during lunch.
The poem was called “Gangleri the Wanderer,” and was based on a familiar story in Norse myths: a stranger appears at a chieftain’s hall one night and dispenses knowledge and stories, and by the end is revealed as Odin, the lord of Asgard. I wrote it in the alliterative style of Old Norse, which was sometimes awkward in Modern English, and tried to cram as much of the knowledge I had gained about old Germanic languages at school into it. It was the first thing I had ever written for the SCA.
My sponsor, a black-haired woman who called herself Dorcas, came over to me about an hour after I set up and took a seat at my table. “Hey Aldheim,” she said. “How did your poem turn out?”
“Alright, I hope.” I picked up one of my copies, bound in a decidedly not-period plastic cover. “Do you want to take a look at it?”
She started to read through it. She was about halfway down the first page when she stopped and looked up at me. “You wrote it in the style?”
“Yeah. I mean, that’s what I was supposed to do, right?”
“For a beginner? I can’t say I really expected you to…” She finished reading the poem and leafed through my documentation, which was almost as long as the poem itself. “Good documentation, too. You college kids never know when to quit.” She sat it down and smiled. “But you entered it for performance, not the poem itself, right? So let’s hear it.”
I started to recite the poem from memory, but I couldn’t keep the alliteration in my head. The narrative made sense, but I was losing a lot of the poetry. Dorcas told me I should go ahead and read it off the page. I tried that, and it sounded better, though it meant that if I used my stick I wouldn’t have a free hand for emphasis. We both agreed it was worth the trade-off.
When lunchtime came around, I and about five others were called up before the king and queen to perform our pieces. One recited, with much aplomb, about five minutes of selections from Beowulf in the original Old English to a crowd who mostly did not understand Old English; another, a girl I later discovered was thirteen years old, played a beautiful song on an Anglo-Saxon harp she had built with her mother’s help. And then I stepped up, with my rune-staff and my Thor’s Hammer and my poem, and I did my best.
Once in this world, there walked many wonders,
marvelous monsters, and men who earned honor.
But oft have I heard of the old gods…
Dorcas said reading a poem was like rowing a boat: you row, then a beat, then you row. I saw ‘Berto in the crowd smiling at me, even though I guessed that he could only hear a little of what I said. The acoustics in the room were awful.
I wrote that poem for the competition, yes, but I had other reasons, too. Earlier that year I had gotten into a religion called Asatru, which was based off reconstructing the religion of the Old Norse and Icelanders. I wouldn’t say I “converted” to Asatru; conversion has always sounded very restricting to me, something for the monotheists to worry about. I had adapted it into my own beliefs, and found myself thinking about Odin and Thor and Freyja daily, trying to figure out how these new and powerful presences worked into my consciousness. I wrote the poem for them, to express what I felt made them so appealing to me: their flaws, their failures, their pain. Their humanity.
And eventually, after Gangleri the Wanderer had told the story of the world’s birth and the world’s end, the chieftain asked him why he had come to them, and this was what I said in his voice:
Allfather knows all that arises in Midgard
from his high seat in Valhalla he sees
all things that are or ever will be.
Yet Allfather is maimed like those in Midgard.
The gods know grief for their brother Baldr
who left the light-lands never to return.
The plight and pangs of middle-earth men
belong to the Aesir and the Allfather.
But the gods also know that glory is gained
by men who live well and defy their doom
through their great deeds of courage and kindness.
Death comes to all who walk the worlds;
in the fate of man and god there is no shame.
In the end all things pass into the black;
shipped out unguided into the silent sea.
What shore we reach is known by no man.
What matters in life is the way that we live it.
The crowd clapped, and the king made me tell a joke about Snorri Sturluson. Afterwards I went to find Roberto. He was standing next to a big man in a blue tunic, a man with gray hair held back by a silver circlet around his forehead. He had a sheepskin thrown over his shoulder, and a drinking horn on his belt. Roberto smiled and pointed to him.
“Aldheim, I want to introduce you to Mikal the Ram.”
“Or Mikal Hrafspa, if you prefer,” said the shaggy man, and he smiled. “It means the same thing, but in the old language. And that was a pretty good poem you wrote, for a beginner.”
“Thank you,” I started to say, before I was cut off.
“Except that you only had Gangleri reveal seven secrets! He has to reveal nine! Nine’s the magic number!”
I had not even been aware that Gangleri had been counting out the secrets he told at all, much less that anybody else would think to listen for that.
“And when you banged your stick on the ground… That was good, but you did it on this floor, and this floor is tile. Doesn’t make a very good noise, especially with the acoustics. Here, let me see your stick for a minute.”
I gave it to him and he walked over to the steps leading up to the stage and slammed the stick against the bottom one. The noise was loud and resonant—it had exactly the effect I had been going for.
“And Odin always offers the first taste to Loki,” said Mikal, handing back my staff. “Because he never knows if the old troublemaker poisoned it first, eh?”
“I—Yeah, you’re right, now that you mention it.”
Mikal smiled. “That’s all okay. The main thing is just that next time, you don’t read off the paper. Worst thing in the world for a bard. You’ve got to let it come out of your head. The paper just gets in the way. Not period, either!”
Roberto slyly waved to us and slipped off into the crowd, still milling around after the performances, waiting for the lunch break to be over. Mikal the Ram didn’t seem to notice, and he clapped his hand on my shoulder.
“But that was still very good. Not many people do that; not many go in for the Norse that way. I wrote a whole saga once in English in the Norse meter, and it about killed me. I’m glad to see others give it a try. I shouldn’t be the only one who has to suffer.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small coin with a laurel branch on it, and put it into my hand. “I got a set of these coins when I became a laurel. This is the only one I have left. I’d like you to take it. And I’d like you to keep doing things like that.”
I didn’t speak much for the rest of that Queen’s Prize, because Mikal the Ram was too busy talking—telling stories, telling jokes, reminiscing about events and wars long gone. He was impossible not to like. And for me, it was impossible to think of anybody else in the society who I wanted to emulate more.
He was funny, and genuine, and he believed. I could tell. He believed in the stories; that’s why he told them so well.
I realized, later, that I had lost that coin. It was like realizing I had never picked up a child from baseball practice, as though somewhere, this important thing I had been given custody of was sitting in the rain, cold and resentful.
After the funeral, Roberto, Helena and I piled into their red Honda sedan for the drive home. I sat in the back and kept quiet. Truth be told, when Roberto spoke up, I was thinking about Jesus, as I often do. Salman Rushdie once said that atheists are obsessed with God; I think pagans tend to be obsessed with Christ in much the same way.
“I want to thank you for coming along today, bro,” he said, glancing at me in his rearview mirror. Roberto thanks me every time he sees me, like I’m doing him a favor. He thanked me once for letting him buy me three meals and pay my way into an SCA event.
“Well. You know.” I fumbled for words. “I wanted to pay my respects.”
“He would have been glad you came. I know you always say you only met him once, but I think you understood Mikal a lot better than most people did.”
I didn’t say anything to that, mostly because I didn’t think it was true. I hadn’t even known Mikal’s name before we got to the funeral—his real name, I mean, the one that he used around everyone in the world but us. I hadn’t known he was an art teacher, or that he had once flashed his BVDs at the church ladies.
I hadn’t known that he was a Christian. I kept thinking of that bland modern church, and every time, I thought of “Loki’s Song.” I couldn’t get my past how they could both belong to the same man.
Beneath all that, I felt something like betrayal—nothing Mikal the Ram could have done on purpose, but betrayal nonetheless. I was coming to terms with my new outlook on faith at the moment I met Mikal. I wanted him to be the person who got it, someone who knew the old gods and believed in them like I wanted to believe in them. And he wasn’t.
That wasn’t his fault, of course. It still hurts to admit your legends are, in the end, only legends, after all.
“We need to get some stuff from this Russian grocery store near here,” said Helena. “They make pretty good falafel, if you want some.”
“Sure,” I said. “Sounds great.”
And soon we were eating falafel in a dingy little grocery store with a sandwich counter. We were surrounded by petrushka dolls and imported chocolate, lit up by the store’s half-functioning fluorescent lights. I hoped to see something vaguely medieval among the shelves, but there was nothing there.
I bit into my falafel, the cool tang of the cumcumber sauce mixing with the hot chickpea patties, and stared out the window. I could feel the hard August heat even through the store’s air conditioning.
Helena set her tray aside and leaned forward on her elbows, as she always does when she’s about to probe. “So,” she said. “What are you thinking about?”
“Mikal,” I said. “Just working out my thoughts.”
“And those would be?”
“I don’t know. Trying to get my head around the idea that he’s gone,” I said. That wasn’t the truth, really, but it was close enough. I didn’t feel like getting into my anxiety about the religious tendencies of the dead over lunch.
“He was in a lot of pain, at the end,” said Helena, sipping her soda. “He’s in a better place now.”
“I’m sure he is,” I said. That, perhaps, was a bigger lie.
I would like to say that I pictured Mikal waking up in his hospital bed to find that all his pain was gone, and that he saw a beautiful, winged maiden standing in front of him, so radiant that the light fell off of her in waves. Perhaps she reached her hand to his, and together they walked the rainbow bridge into Asgard. Ahead of them Mikal might have seen an old man with a spear, missing one eye, and Mikal would have known he’d come home, at last.
But I can’t say that.
I would like to say that even if he was not the pagan I had wanted him to be, I knew that he had gone on to heaven—fluffy clouds, mansions and paved gold streets, whichever one he believed in—and that he was happy there, had finally gotten all that he deserved, even if it was from a God I didn’t worship.
But I can’t say that, either.
All I can say is that I miss him. I miss the legend I made him into. I miss the chances I might have had to hear his voice and sing his songs.
I think of Mikal the Ram, who has now shipped off into the dark sea that knows no shore, and I miss him. I miss him, even if I didn’t know him. Maybe especially because of that.
Eric Scott was raised by the Saint Louis coven Pleiades, a Wiccan family based in the Alexandrian tradition. His fiction and memoir explore the joys and doubts of being a second-generation pagan in the modern world. He recently completed his MFA at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ashé! Journal, Killing the Buddha, Kerouac's Dog, and Witches & Pagans. In his spare time, he draws elaborate metaphysical diagrams on his bedroom wall and sings for a Taoist glam rock band.