The Girls of Skogtarnisor
Chapter 1: The End of Innocence
Copyright© 2020 by Tarasandia
Love infused my childhood: ah the innocent days, before we learn of danger, of betrayal, of fear. I was lucky, really, to be sheltered so long, and to live - however naievely - in such a safe and nurturing space.
My sister Brenna found our home to be more constricting than I did, and she chafed under the isolation it enforced upon us. Whenever she could, she would sneak away to peer through the Market Gate, where people from Other Places came to trade with the men of the village. But I was not so made, and felt comfortable inside the walls of the village where we lived. Neither doubt nor question ever troubled me.
And as a child, what was there to question, really? My papa doted on Brenna and me; no matter how long and exhausting his day, he made time for us every night. I can still remember the sound of his great heartbeat under my ear as I lay my head against his chest, and the vibration of his voice as he sang to me and Brenna, one of us on each knee.
He had crazy in him, too: “Bloooooo-Ho-Haaahhh!” he’d bellow as he came for us with impossibly long arms tipped with the threat of tickles. Oh, how papa could make us laugh!
Mama would see us turning read and telling Papa, “Stop, stop!!!” and she’d firmly let him know that enough was enough. She hated tickling herself, and would never inflict such a thing on us. But oh, could she tell a story! How many nights the three of us on her four-poster bed, snuggled into covers and one of us in each crook of her arm while she lulled us to sleep with stories of Freya, of gods of Aasgard and heroes of Midgard.
She also delighted in making surprises for us. One of my favorites were her treasure hunts. We would come home and she would hand us each a small slip of paper with an unfinished couplet:
Your treasure hunt is now begun, and this is your first clue:
To find the next now stop and think: where do I keep the ____?
And off I’d be to the craft box where she kept the glue!
As we grew into young ladies, Papa seemed to calcify into stricter ways, but Mama could still disarm us with silliness any time. One of her best weapons against our teenage years was her four-year-old alter ego Toastie Zwieback, a mischievous but well-intentioned kindergartner who discovered endless ways to get in trouble by trying to “help”.
We were lucky to live in innocence for so long, but of course it couldn’t last.
The village of Skogtårn-i-Sør was better suited to preserving innocence than most. For the first 18 years of my life, the only contact I ever had with someone from outside of the village would be when someone new came to live there. Merchants were allowed in the area outside of the Market Gate, but never inside of the wall; and casual passersby were not even allowed so close. Having no basis for comparison, this all seemed quite normal to me. Brenna, on the other hand, seemed instinctively to know that it was not.
The only other gate in the village wall was the Labyrinth Gate, and just beyond it, the Labyrinth Forest where the Will-o-Wisps were said lay in wait to lure unwary children to their doom. Many important rituals of the village centered around this gate, but the only time it was ever opened was - so we were told - to banish someone from the village. As the daughter of a Village Elder, I knew that death itself was preferable to banishment, and in any event, we never had a banishment during my childhood, so the idea of the gate opening at all was more myth than real to me.
Once a year on Freya’s Day, which fell on Midsummer’s Eve, everyone in the village would gather at the Labyrinth Gate. The main event was a solemn and scripted Freya’s Day Pageant, which did not vary at all from year to year. The year that I was seven years old, I was selected to play the roll of Bygul, one of the magnificent blue skogkatts that pull Freya’s chariot when she comes to open the Labyrinth Gate and lead the people of Skogtårn-i-Sør to the fields of Folkvangr.
“Dagmar is going to give you a chicken,” the pageant director told me, “and all you have to do is pretend to be a Skogkatt. Tear into it like you haven’t eaten in a week. The messier and snarlier, the better!”
I was a neat child by nature, but I had a vivid imagination, and for this cause I gave it free reign. I went around pouncing, snarling, and I feasted ravenously at every meal - if not at the dinner table, then at least in my mind - for a full week before the event.
“I am Bygul! I am a starving skogkatt, and this chicken is the BEST THING I’ve ever eaten!” I told myself; as my body daintily nibbled at a slice of buttered toast, my inner skogkatt was sated in wilder ways.
Of course, I had attended the ceremony with my parents every year, and if I hadn’t been cast as a skogkatt that year, then perhaps my memory of understanding the story would have melded into a vague sense of something I had always known. But as the Norns would have it, I was cast as Bygul that year, and in my vivid seven year old imagination, by the time the ritual had arrived, I had become Bygul, of the massive mane and powerful, tufted snow-paws ... and most of all, of ravenous appetite for chicken!
The night of the pageant came, and before the show began, my father took me up into the Watchtower that flanked the Labyrinth Gate. We had been up there before: every year, after the pageant, the entire village filed up the winding staircase of the left tower, across the parapet over the gate to gaze at Freya’s castle Sessrumnir and leave small charms, flowers and food at her statue over the gate, and back down by the twin tower on the right side of the gate - all the while praying for the Day of the Labyrinth when Freya would finally open the Labyrinth Gate and bring all of the villagers to Folkvangr.
I had never been up there in such solitude before. My father was a man of few words, and he must have sensed that the stars beginning to peek through the falling darkness and the glow of Sessrumnir in the distance had a special magic all their own which could not be enhanced or embellished by words. When the time came for the Pageant, I was not just Bygul the Fierce and Ravenous, but Bygul the Regal and Magical, who would safely escort Freya and all of her chosen to Sessrumnir and the fields of Folkvangr. “All our troubles,” so the saying went, “will be no more, and the former things will pass away.”
So when my roasted chicken arrived, I set into it with a kind of other consciousness that I could not truly call my own. There had been no extended rehearsal, as most villagers basically knew the pageant by heart; and even if there had been, I doubt I’d have paid much attention to the others’ roles. Now, I reveled in the words of Dagmar-as-Freya, explaining the scene before the audience: Eat my precious Bygul and Trejgul! Have your fill: let nothing remain of those who left before the Day and the Opening of the Labyrinth Gate!
“Those who left before the opening of the gate?” I thought, “What is this?”
Let the flesh be torn from their bones, and the bones be gnawed by the dogs when you are done. Let nothing remain of those who abandoned their own true home to seek their own glory in the Wider World!
A flush of heat rushed to my head, and beads of sweat formed on my upper lip while my head began to spin in foggy darkness.
Wait for me, my precious ones, and do not doubt I will come for you. Leave not by the Labyrinth Gate, nor wander through the Market Gate seeking the Wonders of This World ... or witness your fate!”
I retched, and suddenly I was just a cold, confused and shaken little seven year old girl again.