In the Skin of a Goat

by Tam MacNeil

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So here I am, watching Thor mull beer. Me and my sister, the kids, all standing here together, watching the son of Odin pretend to be a human.

           He's not good at this. First, mortals don't mull beer out in the open like he's doing, they do it at a hearthfire in a meadhall. Second, his rendition of 'human' is badly flawed. He's made himself symmetrical, two-armed, two-legged, with the wedge of his nose on the front of his face, but what he doesn’t realize is his rendition of normal is as far from real normal as a boiled egg is from a stone.

           And these kids, these kids can tell this man isn't really a man. They're cowering and shifting where they stand. We found them snow-bound and huddled together and so their hair is stringy and their eyes are glassy and they look about ready to fall down. They're ten or twelve or so, I’d guess. Marked already by a hard life, the boy with shoulders hunched and head upraised, pugnacious but cowed, and the girl with a plum-stain bruise encircling one blue eye. Runaways.

           Funny that we should have run across them, Midgard is so broad and wide. A Norn with her fine spindle spinning must have set all this in motion. Well, she’ll have pleased Thor with this one. Always looking for a chance to have a story made about him, that guy, and now here are children in need of rescue.

           While I am thinking of Norns and fate, Thor offers the rough clay cup to the girl. She takes it and drinks the ritual first draught. If there are chunks of egg floating in the hot beer, if the honey is gritty with ash and the corpses of summer drones, she doesn't say. She passes it to her brother, who drinks and returns the cup to the god with the yolk-stained fingers. Long lifetimes of mortals lie behind me, but I remember how in ritual is the warp and weft of human life.

           It seems the heat and beer have worked a kind of magic on the children. They're not clasping one another the way they had when the downy snow was swirling. Now they stand like snags commiserating, shoulder on shoulder, weight pressing against weight. A little less afraid, perhaps, but still remembering the hand of winter, when the cold pressed against them, faces, thighs and bellies, whispered secrets and dread. Oh mortal life, what good is all that spun, woven wool, or soft scraped leather against the ageless hand of winter? What succour in the memory of summer when the wolf has swallowed the sun?

           Lost in my own thoughts, I forget my part in the ritual. At least, until I feel my sister shift her body beside me, and hear Thor say, "You must have something to eat." That is how I know it is my turn to die.

         

In the morning, resurrected and with a headache, I rummage for my bones. This always takes an age. I never know exactly which long shinbones are mine and which belong to my sister. When finally I climb into my familiar, coarse-haired skin, dawn is almost upon the hillsides and there’s only the groggy residue of pain to remind me of the blow that last night killed me.

           When I am whole again, we're harnessed to the chariot, my sister and I. Her coarse coat is the black counterpart to the earth-brown I wear, her horns curling and elegant, her name the silly synonym of mine.

           They say, the Eddas, that we are driven by Thor, but frankly, goats are clever creatures. It’s just lucky that oftentimes our desires intermesh.                         In the case of these children, for example, all of us want to see the hard home that drove them out.

           Thor wants to be a hero. He doesn’t understand the hard grip of hunger, or the way the skeins of love and hate can twist together in the family thread. And I, I want to return a favor that was once done for me and mine. So we go.

           The house is easy to find, lying like an upturned ship on a hill that overlooks a narrow fjord. There are a few sheep on the hillside, but not one of them is sound. A hole in the side is a door that stands open, a tattered pennant of smoke flapping at the lintel, the gray banner of a lost cause.

           Those who dwell in that turf-roofed house, a man and woman, are just as pale and yellow-white as their progeny. They are note-perfect in the ritual of greeting but icicle-friendly, unutterably cold. It’s not likely that Thor picks up on these subtleties; subtleties are not really his domain. But I, with my rhomboid goat's eye and my mortal past, I can see the cringe buried in the embrace, hear the dissonance that underlies the words of gratitude and greeting, the unspoken promise of something later.

           And the children seem to me defeated. They sag and stare and look beyond the hills as if they're longing to be far away. I can’t help but feel a little loathing for myself and for my master. After all, these are the affairs of mortals, and Thor never was one, and I haven't been one for centuries. What do I know of human suffering now? These people are hungry and land that in the time of settlement was rich and dripped with honey has been too close-cropped by too many sheep, and now too little grows.

           The mother sags like a warrior defeated in an unfair fight, the father looks on his children as if they were his livestock, and from his greeting of them, I have no doubt that gaunt and hungry frame knows a hunger quite divorced from food and utterly insatiable.

           It had not occurred to me that it might have been a mercy to have left the children where we came upon them. To leave them for the glossy black feathers and obsidian eye of Odin's companions. That the cold stings at first but wraps limbs up in snow and sleep and the passing, I am told, is easy. To live in misery, to have been returned to servitude, to have been dragged back into woe by the hand of a god, now that is grave injustice.

           But even if I could catch Thor's eye and his attention, there is little I could say. We can't very well undo the saving of them and this journey, and Thor is a god concerned about reputation, he's not going to take them back to the cold and let them die.

           Besides, Thor, son of Odin has just invited himself as a guest and family savior into the turf-roofed house. And, lucky me, he’s also promising to feed everyone. I know what that means.

           'Bring the goats in and slaughter them,' Thor says with the ease of a man in his own meadhall. The children don't answer, but they do obey.

         Do not trouble yourself. Death is no vast and unknown country to me. There will always be another morning. I will always rise up with the light of dawn, pick my bones from my sisters' and pull this hair-shirt over me. Though I am only a goat and there is little in my gift, goats are clever animals, and there is something I can do.

           The children are made to undo the harness and bring us into the dark and smoky turf-roofed house. Inside it is warm and dark and stinking like an animal pen. My stables in Asgard are cleaner and are better kept than this.

           'Be careful,' Thor says in his thunderstorm voice, 'not to harm the bones of the goats.'

           It is this that gives me the idea. And when the girl leans close to me, hands working the buckle of my traces, I lean close to her, all pretense of tasting the ash-white hair that curtains her bruised face. If you want to be free, break my leg, I tell her, and nibble the hair, too, to make a good show of it.

           She doesn't hear me. The power of human speech is like the memory of a youth lived ten centuries ago, before Doggerland fell into the sea, before emperors marched their armies northward and into the arms of more trouble than they could manage. I do not actually speak anymore, no matter how I wish I could.

           In the darkness, by the low peat fire, Mjollnir crushes not like a landslide or an earthquake, but like time, and I am dead again.

 

In the early morning it is dawn that wakes me. All is as it should be: The blush of colour in the sky, the pile of bones, the familiar heap of my coarse skin. But it seems I have slept late, the magic of Mjollnir working slow upon me. My sister has all ready manifested and all that's left in the pile are my bones. No need to pick through them, polish them with my curious and turning hands, to wonder what kind of a creature could know its foundations so intimately.

           I can hear the harness jingle as the children set my sister in her traces, and I can hear the voices of the mortal hosts who speak so grudgingly the words of the ritual farewell. I assemble myself rapidly, as if by working faster I can overtake the passage of time. Place bones in order. Shrug into the hair shirt. Resurrect. Find I cannot walk.

          It's the first time in endless centuries that I have known pain, and, for an ignoble moment I am reduced to bleating, bleating, as if I was a real goat. Thor comes to me and for the first time since the world began, he does a good impression of a human. He runs one hand down the leg that hurts and observes me when I cringe. Together we discover the limb that was broken, the bone that was split, the marrow extracted with the blade of an oyster knife.

          The sun covers its face. Mortals cower. The wind falls on the surface of the fjord and beats it into shapeless gray. Rain beings to fall, first spattering, then rushing, until I think the river-ocean has been upended, and that we shall all be swept away. Like I said, unsubtle is our Thor. I, ever the peacemaker, who's mad plan this was, must calm the enraged godling down. I hear myself bleating like some ridiculous animal, trying to speak the way I once did, trying to make words and sounds.

           Thor son of Odin, he listens to my nonsense noises. Then he nods. The rain ebbs and splatters and then stops all together. Thor makes his demands, and he is given what he, what I, have asked for. Of course the gift is granted. The wants of goats can be ignored, but Thor is not the type of god to be gainsaid.

           Let me be clear about something: It is not as if he cannot mend me there and then. I am not actually undone. My wound is a mere marrowless ham-bone, and not the sort of damage that only Völundr could mend. Not the type of thing that will cost a god his eye. Still, we all make a good show of it, all of us charlatans. Me, limping, the children shedding tears warm like the thawing rain of spring, as if they sorrow to be parted from the family and in the service of a god, and Thor, Thor the very image of a thunder god.

 

The Eddas are full of tales and untruths. They’ll tell you that the royal family of the gods has only one clever son. Don't you believe it. In Midgard nothing is ever as it seems.

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