Swords of flame waved at the morbid sky, burning embers floated and squelched on the abyssal waters of Lake Superior. We were adrift on a rowboat watching my father’s body and boat burn in the haunting night. Dazzles of green light waved on the flat horizon of the lake, the magical blanket of the northern lights fed the fiery funerary boat.
My mother was singing in Old Norse. I was pounding a deerskin drum to the rhythm of my heart. My brother Fetu was there. He was playing the panpipes. I was the only one crying. My mother had been crying for the last three days and was dried up. Fetu didn’t cry. The last time he cried was when his father Afi, my father’s best friend, died in Namibia. He didn’t even cry when his grandmother died and he had to move from Samoa and come stay with us.
He was sad but only showed it with his body language. He paused from the playing the panpipes to lay a hand on my shoulder.
My mother’s Old Norse was horribly mispronounced, but it didn’t matter. This is what my father requested of us on his deathbed. So she had only three days to memorize the verses (on top of being blitzkrieg drunk mind you).
I peered through tears into the distorted flames of the Frigga, the first Viking longboat my father built with the assistance of his best friend Afi, his Samoan comrade and co-owner of the mercenary outfit Human Conditions Inc.
The ship was a third of the size of the ones used in the Dark Ages, but it was built for this exact occasion though we never knew it. Every boat we built after that one was modern. He had plans for his funeral long before we ever knew.
“He is with us, Baldur, and my father too. They’ll always be with us.” Fetu said. I was trying to stop crying, I was such a crybaby.
Usually I would respond with some smart-alecky comment about ‘nothing consciously existing after death.’ But I knew he would respond with something about people existing in the living conscious of our own heads. And then I would agree with him and say he is right.
“They are here.” I said. “We are here.”
Fetu was Samoan. His mother had died at an early age in a diabetic coma, so he was raised by his father and his grandmother.
His father, Afi, was gone on business half of the time, just like my father. And he was always with my father. They were tied to the hip as far as soldiers go.
A few years before my father met my mother in Angola, he was introduced to Afi who had just got done with three tours in Vietnam as a Recon Marine. Afi, like my father, had tasted blood several times and liked it. He was proud to be a fighting warrior, though the Samoan culture still harbored this warrior aspect, he felt that something was missing, the danger and the delivery of death. He didn’t have to be drafted to go to Vietnam, he enlisted when he was seventeen. He couldn’t wait to taste blood.
The Vietnam War was coming to a close and he was honorably discharged with many decorations from combat. He loved his home, the islands of Samoa. He took a year off and met Fetu’s mother, Moana. Afi, again like my father, was an avid sailor and traditionalist. So naturally, my brother Fetu, was also conceived on a boat like me, but he was born in a hospital while Afi was away in Africa. Fetu’s mother Moana hated him for that. On top of being pregnant and all the suffering that goes with that, she was in a constant state of worry that her newfound lover was dead and being cooked on a spit somewhere in the wicked jungles of the Congo.
Afi came home untouched, but it didn’t matter to Moana. She was passed suffering, she couldn’t bring herself to even kiss Afi.
The baby seemed to be grief-stricken also. Fetu was a serious human from the start. It is fabled that he didn’t even cry when he was born and the doctors spanked his bottom. Moana said that she had taken all the crying from Fetu all those months that Afi was away. “I took all of his tears.” She told Afi. “He won’t be crying for you Afi.”
“One less thing I have to teach him then.” Afi said.
Moana was perpetually depressed after that. Her family and friends didn’t know how to deal with it. She kept gaining weight by eating junk food, far from the traditional diet she was reared on. She died from diabetes when Fetu was three years old. He did not cry then.
Fetu confessed that when he cried when his father died, he wasn’t grieving for his father’s death. It was a warrior’s death, a good death for a Samoan. He cried for his mother, someone he could barely remember but felt so much pain for. “My mother died of grief.” Fetu had said after Father Odin’s funeral rite. “She grieves still.” If he ever had ever cried again, he would be thinking of his sullen mother eating junk food watching TV detached from her family and friends.
His grandmother became the caretaker when Afi was away in Africa, and she eventually died of diabetes too. She ate much modern food. After her death, Fetu refused to eat any type of processed food until he joined the Marines where he had no choice but to eat the MRE rations or whatever was fed to him in the mess hall. If Fetu had an opinion about anything, it was diet. He was obsessed with the evils of the modern food industry, and considering the deaths of his mother and grandmother, understandably so.
Fetu was fourteen when his grandmother died, and Afi had already been dead for more than a year. His relatives wanted him to stay on the islands, but Fetu had other plans. He wrote my father a letter.
May I come live with you?
Fetu and I had met several times before he came to live with us. Afi and Fetu always vacationed with us. I always talked his ear off and tried to get him to drink alcohol with me. He always refused. He didn’t care for alcohol.
I felt like I annoyed him when we were kids, and when I’d ask him he’d say: “I don’t get annoyed.” He was always nice and never got angry or irritated. He was the kind of guy that you want to give a big hug to. He was a big muscular guy, just like our fathers. He never showed it, but he cared.
“Teach me Samoan.” I’d say. “Come on Fetu, teach me some Samoan.” When I got a grip on my native languages (and my second and third), I became obsessed. I was a raven about languages, to the point of annoyance.
Fetu had a great many talents and skills, like our fathers. I was too much of a bookworm to learn half of it. He was a far better sailor than I, he could navigate by the stars without any equipment.
He had a major flaw after his years of soldiery. He was addicted to stimulants. Methamphetamines were his favorite.
He spent the three days of my father’s funeral rite high on meth while my mother and I were drunk as skunks and crying.
We were on two different planes of existence, his far faster and clearer than ours. We danced and sang and yelled and fell around the column-fire.
Fetu danced with fireknives through the night, he spun wheels of fire around a central pillar of flame.
“I wrote you all a list requests for my funerary rites.” Father Odin said.
He was on one of his two death beds. He said this on his outdoor one, a webbed hammock strung between two pine trees.
“Fetu will do the things that will bother you, Baldur.” He said.
My father was dying. I had refused to accept it. This man was the epitome of strength in my world, he couldn’t simply die off in my eyes. But my mother had sent for our doctor friend, a medic whom my parents had met and been friends with ever since their time spent in Angola. “His heart is going to burst, literally. If he wants to live, we have to get him to a hospital. I can’t treat him out here in the woods, on this island. Apparently, we can’t convince him to do that. He’s prepared to die.” Dr. Johnson said. He was right, and I had to accept the fact that papa was going to die here on Our Island.
My mother and Dr. Johnson went on and on with loads of medical jargon which I considered hocus-pocus. (In my head, it was hocus-Pocus right down to the etymology. Possibly metathesis of the Latin hoc est corpus.) They may have well been magicians to me saying “here is the body”.
Just like when Father Odin was healthy and doing everything under the sun, he only went to his indoor deathbed except for that last night. He refused to go inside. He wanted to christen the new boat we had built.
We had been working on this boat for the last two years on our mainland property right on the coastline of Lake Superior. My father named it Hringhorni, after the ship that the mythical Baldur was ceremonially burned on after his death. Fetu and papa did most of the work, I only helped in the summer because of school.
“We haven’t properly christen Hringhorni yet. Take me sailing for one last time boys.” Father said.
I wanted to cry so bad, but I didn’t want to be selfish. I knew my dad wanted this to be a happy moment.
“Are you coming with Nas?” He said, waving at my mother. She was slumped up against a tree. She nodded and watched us help him of his death hammock.
Papa grabbed me up once he got to his feet. He had aged quickly. Twenty years in the last months. I hugged him and was choking on my urge to cry.
“Papa.” I said. I stuttered like a struggling boat motor. I hadn’t been drinking since I got to Our Island. I had just started my fall semester of teaching and dissertation work when my mother called and begged me to come home. “Papa is ready to leave this world.” She said. “He’s going to God soon. Please come home.”
“That’s my brave boy.” He said, in Swedish. “Fetu, could you grab some bottles of mead for all of us.” In English. “The wind is nice.” He looked to the sky with a great breath.
We all had to help him walk, he didn’t mind. Years prior, no one was allowed to help the man. But he had become so wise and humble that he welcomed our assistance.
We tromped through the trees to Our Dock. Hringhorni rocked as if impatient to sail. She was beautiful, built with the fine shipwright craftsmanship of papa and Fetu. A perfect paradigm of lagom, the traditional wonder of the ancient ancestors melded with the efficient genius of modernity. A Viking longship as a keelboat yacht.
“You break the bottle, Baldur.” Papa said.
In that moment I was happy, though on the verge of having the dams break in my lachrymal ducts.
I broke the bottle of the golden nectar of our ancestors, /skáldskapar mjaðar/ The Mead of Poetry, my father’s delicious honeywine. Wine and glass trickled down the stern.
“Let us sail.” I said, in Old Norse.
We helped him aboard, seated him at the helm.
My father had told us for years to create our own rituals, because we had none in this modern age. “If we don’t have it, let’s make it ourselves and give it importance.” He often told us in one way or another.
“I wrote down a list of ceremonial tasks for my corpse.” He said and handed me a parchment of handwritten rules. “Drink some mead and read it aloud.”
I swallowed strong on the bottle, the dry bite of mead squelched my throat. I hated stuttering. I had to be away with it.
The Funeral Rite for the Odin of the Clan Ankarsvard
Nastasia-Give me Last Rites
I know you are not ordained to do so, but I know how you feel about the Church. And you know how I feel. I will be Christian for you in my death, it is the least I can do for you. I want you to die peacefully knowing that you will see me in your afterlife. My convictions are not strong enough to deny you this, and I love you to death. I always told you that I would do anything for you. This will be my last deed.
Baldur-Recite the Völuspá
When my heart stops, read this over me. Never forget that when you need me, I will support your courage. I will always be in your head whenever you need me.
I know you have that poem nearly memorized in the old tongue. Read it off the parchment you made for me when you were twelve if you must. It is with the rest of my sentiments in my chest.
Put it back in the chest when you’re done. The chest will be burned on Frigga along with the other offerings and my body.
Fetu-Remove My Sentimental Anatomy
This is a task that only you can stomach. You know how queasy Baldur gets when he guts a fish. And my wife will be bereaving. Take my eye out and burn it with some Ash-wood then give the ashes to my wife for she is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Take two braids of my hair and give one to Baldur and one to yourself.
Remove my exploded heart and burn it with Ash-wood. Take the ashes and make ink. Give Baldur a tattoo after he crosses the equator, the sea turtle in Samoan style and tradition.
All-Leave my Body for Three Days
Let my body sit for three days before you wrap it in oil-soaked cloth and cast me aboard Frigga. Drink and be merry. Dance and Sing. Realize Death. Live.
I read the requests without stuttering or crying. Fetu was tacking the mainsail. Mama sat snuggled up by papa as he held the tiller.
This was our last time together with papa, on the gently cresting lake in the brisk wind of October. He had a swan song. It was silence, peaceful.
But a word echoed in my head from his parchment.