The Wanderer had a vision.
The twilight hung dim across the sky, and the shadows of the trees threw a darkness over the forest road that made it impossible to see. The Wanderer listened to the trees groan in the breeze, uneasy.
He had come looking for wisdom in the Land of Gods. Asgard, the bards call it. Here, Valhalla stands roofed with shining shields, and the Aesir gods take their rest in golden halls. A bright place to be sure. But darker places lie in the folds of Asgard, at the foot of the peak where the warmth of the sun does not reach so easily. Old places. Places of knowledge.
He was searching for the Great Ash Tree, called Yggdrasil, the pillar which binds the nine worlds together. It anchors itself to Asgard by a single great root, and beneath that root lies a modest stone well, the Well of Urd. The well contains in its depths the record of the past. Men and gods come to gaze into its waters. They see their lives reflected, full, not missing a breath. They grow wise and are called prophetic. Among these Odin ranks first, the All Father, the wisest of all.
The Wanderer came to a stone marker in the center of the path. There was only one rune, etched in simple hand, old and weathered, unfamiliar and archaic. It read Memory. This was the right path, then.
The Wanderer stood for a long while, debating his course. He could turn back here and return to where he belonged, he knew this. He looked down the path past the stone, but he couldn’t see far.
Then, a child came forward from the dark. The Wanderer gripped the hilt of his sword, but the child did not seem to notice him. He was playing, making stabbing motions with his wooden sword. “Take that,” he said “and that! No one can beat me! For I am‒” but he didn’t finish his battle cry. The Wanderer stood, motionless. The child got closer, ducking and parrying his way towards him, as if in some great struggle. When he was at arm’s length he thrust his wooden sword at the Wanderer, pausing just short of his throat, and with his arm raised he looked up at him, fierce, eyes scrunched up in determination.
Shivers screeched down the Wanderer’s spine. This child, with his blonde hair down just below his ears, and his boyish freckles, was identical to his own childhood self. He was staring at a reflection from years and years before. He swallowed hard.
“Go back, Trespasser” the boy squeaked. “There’s only pain for you here. And if it’s knowledge you seek, you’ll have wrestle it from me. But you might as well turn back now, for I am‒” but he stopped short again. He withdrew his sword with a flourish, and raced off down the path.
The Wanderer stood, unable to move. He had heard songs about phantoms and the tricks they played on travelers. He looked back towards the world of men, longingly, knowing he had already made his choice. He ripped off his mail and cloak and sprinted after the boy into the dark.
The Runner wiped away the sweat from his eyes, and threw his weight into the orange Hyundai mower.
The problem with a job like grounds keeping isn’t the work or the heat.
The mower coughed out a half-chewed pack of cigarettes.
It’s that you’re alone all day with nothing but your thoughts.
The mower wailed on, chewing up coffee cups and paper bags. There was a crunch and the neck of a beer bottle shot out against the fence.
Each day he and his supervisor worked their separate ways around the house. It was a lot of time alone. And each day, thoughts reverberated around his skull. Memories, mostly. Some things he was happy to remember; laughter around the dinner table, and long car rides to nowhere. Many he wished he hadn’t recalled, though. Mistakes. What he wished he could erase. Or wonderings, if things could have been different. The recollection of his past repeated itself over and over like a record that skips. Comedians blaring their chops through his headphones couldn’t distract him. He just kept thinking and remembering until his chest hurt from the stress of it.
He had always believed in reflection. Had always been introspective. If you wanted to understand yourself, he thought, you had to look back. You had to see all you had done, and explore it with an analyzing eye. A life examined. Why did I do that? You had to ask. But the question “why?” was always followed by How could I do that? I can’t believe that I did that. I’m so sorry that I did that. And the guilt descended like a vulture.
He wished he could stop.
When three o’clock came, the Runner peeled his gloves from his hands, and slung his backpack over his shoulder. On his way home he played the radio, trying to drown out his inner monologue, but it was no use. Frustrated, halfway between Route 1 and Route 206 he rolled up the window, and he screamed. He screamed hoping that maybe if he gave voice to what was sitting in his chest it would leave him. It would be forced out into the air, where it would dissipate like so much fog. But it didn’t. It sat. And his restless memories continued.
He pulled over. He didn’t know what to do.
The Wanderer ran for what seemed like hours. He stopped in a misty clearing. What he saw, when he looked up, filled him with a mix of joy and trepidation. Extending into the earth before him was a gigantic gnarled root so large fifteen men could not wrap their arms around it. Yggdrasil! he thought. It was here, he had found it. He knelt in exhaustion, and examined how the smaller roots protruded from the largest and snaked their way through the mist into the ground. At the foot of the main root was a well, small and made of stone. The Well of Urd. Excitement coursed through him.
He approached the well and paused. There, scrawled upon Yggdrasil’s roots were columns of runes. He squinted to read them, and fell upon one column on the central root. It was a poem written in old hand.
“The unwise man is awake all night,
and ponders everything over;
when morning comes he is weary in mind,
and all is a burden as ever.”
“Wise in measure let each man be;
but let him not wax too wise;
for never the happiest of men is he
who knows much of many things.”
The shadow of concern loomed across the Wanderer’s face. He continued reading at a fevered pace. Whose words were these?
“I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven.”
“None refreshed me ever with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep…”
“Ere long I bare fruit, and throve full well,
I grew and waxed in wisdom”
The Wanderer stepped back in horror. He knew whose words these were. They were Odin’s. A warning, left from his visit in an age long past. He looked up and saw the fraying noose still hanging from the roots above. There was a price to pay for Urd’s wisdom.
The Wanderer stifled a shudder and shrank away from the well.
The Runner twisted the key out of the ignition and sat. He took a deep breath. This was no longer sustainable. He took out his pad and pen.
We are told, so early, that we must regret our mistakes.
We sing in the pews, “Oh Lord, we who fell from grace beg forgiveness.” We live with our sins in the forefront of conscience, so that we might never forget. We call this humility. We regret the people we once were. Deny them. Wish them out of existence. We can’t stand them. But we must never forget them, lest we repeat their crimes. We are told to reflect on our mistakes‒ this is noblest. This is the work of the wise mind. Reflect, they say, but they neglect the subtext: to reflect on oneself, raw and honest, and see all the chips and cracks, is pain. There are no lies to protect you from an honest memory.
There was anger mounting in the Runner’s pen.
But, blame can only be passed along so far. We do this to ourselves. We carry around our pasts and depress ourselves: I was never good enough in school. She left, and it was my fault. I should have stood up for what I believed in, but I didn’t have the courage. All the while saying “But I’ll be better! I’ll be better! I’ll learn from this, again and again and again, until it’s all I think about.” Learn what? What is there that you don’t already know.
I wonder, oh I wonder.
The Wanderer looked around. There was no one here. He could still turn back. He could leave here and never return. He looked back to the well. What would his price be?
He wasn’t sure what made him do it. It could have been a ravenous lust for knowledge. It could have been some sense of principle. Or, perhaps some belief that what he had read scratched on Yggdrasil was not true. But, the Wanderer made up his mind. He put both hands on either side of the well, took a deep breath, and opened his eyes wide.
There was nothing but inky black. He strained his eyes harder. What was he to look for?
Then, something. An image played out on the water. It was the boy! It was himself. He was there, playing in the stable of his old home. The image was more vivid than any memory he had ever had. There he was, climbing to the top of a hay stack. The horses were out that day. The scent filled his nostrils. Manure and dried grass. He could feel the straw scratch his skin. The Wanderer was filled with a mirth that he had not known for years.
The scene changed. He watched himself sit on his father’s knee by the fire and heard his stories just as he had told them. The fire crackled, and he felt himself drifting off to sleep.
Then, he was in a forest helping his brother scrabble up some slippery rocks. He could hear the roar of water, because there, just above, was the waterfall, pouring itself into the pool below. “Do you see?” he shouted. His brother stared with eyes wide. “It’s amazing!” he answered.
Tears rolled down the Wanderer’s cheeks.
A new scene rippled into view, and he waited with eager anticipation. He was on the floor of his old home. He had his brother pinned under his weight and was pulling on his hair. His brother shouted and struggled to get away. Exhilaration crept beneath his skin. It felt good. He was so used to feeling small, and here, at least, he was big. The Wanderer was ashamed. He wished he could banish the feeling from himself, but he could not deny it.
Then, the boy grew up. He was fighting with his mother. He was shouting at her. He was so angry. He could barely keep from sobbing. But, when her eyes became wet with tears, he rushed to apologize. She screamed at him to get away. The Wanderer winced, and felt the guilt as if he had been shouting again. This wasn’t him. This couldn’t be him.
The boy, even older, was walking down the village street. He passed by a beggar. Each day he saw him there in rags, and each day he passed by. “Alms for the poor?” the man said. The boy kept walking. “Sir,” the beggar said “I’m hungry, and cold.” The boy fingered the coins in his pocket. He bent his head down and walked on.
Memory after memory unfolded in the well. He saw every misdeed and moment of weakness. Every wrong and offence. The Wanderer didn’t want to watch anymore. He had buried these things.
The well went black once more, and he could see nothing.
Then, he felt the dull tip of a wooden sword push against his throat from inside the well. His blood went cold. Now free, he staggered backwards and watched the phantom from the road rise from inside the well. “I told you, Trespasser” he squeaked. “I told you to stay away!” He jumped down from the well and thrust his sword just short of the Wanderer’s throat once more. The Wanderer threw his hands up in surrender. “Did you think that wisdom is free?” the boy bellowed. “Did you think you could ever walk away from this place without beating me?”
“N-No! I didn’t!” the Wanderer stammered.
“Nobody beats me! For I am‒” For the third time, the boy did not finish.
The Runner pulled into his driveway.
He needed to go for a run. He left his backpack in the car, and went out. He let his legs move the way they knew how to, and his arms seesawed with them.
He was starting to understand.
He was looking for the wisdom of a life examined, but was unaccustomed to such honesty. Each day he browsed the shelves in the backroom of his mind, and was surprised when he found the uglier parts. He had not entered because he wanted to, but because he had been told that he must, and was caught unawares when he found the door locked behind him.
Yes, he was capable of carrying out that which he disdained. He had been a bully, before. Had been weak, and cowardly, and naive. Had been selfish. He had come looking for great insight only to find that he was human, and this is what he could not seem to stand. It was not a thoughtful and sagely mind that ran through the record of the past each day, but one incredulous that it could not reconcile what it saw in its own memory with what it perceived itself to be. And so, not understanding, it rejected what it saw, and his memories resurfaced again and again screaming look at me! Look at me and tell me who you see!
People speak of memory as though it is a trivial thing to which one comes and goes as they please. This is not so. Memory binds itself to the restless mind and traps it. With all his introspection, the Runner had made for himself a pair of shackles.
Finally, he was starting to understand, but how could he make it stop?
The Wanderer and the boy stood, eyes locked. The Wanderer’s heart was beating fast. What would the phantom do to him? For a long time, neither spoke nor moved. The Wanderer stared, hard, into the boy’s eyes. His own eyes. His heart began to slow. What could the phantom do to him? The Wanderer lowered his hands, warily. The boy tensed his wrist and squinted harder. The Wanderer put his hand on the wooden blade, and lowered it softly. The boy fought to keep his arm raised, but he hadn’t the strength to resist. He knelt so that they were level.
“There’s no use” the boy cried, “for I am‒”
“You’re me” answered the Wanderer. And the boy dropped his sword. “You’re me,” the Wanderer repeated, and the boy embraced him. “You’re me” he said again, and held him in his arms.
“Can you forgive me?” the boy asked.
“Yes,” the Wanderer answered, “I forgive you.” And the boy climbed back down into the well.
With the cadence of his step and the sunlight on his face the Runner began to emerge little by little back into the present.
To plumb the depths like that and see everything as it really was is necessarily difficult. But, his suffering, he realized, stemmed from something else. It was his inability to accept those uncomfortable moments of the past that was driving him mad. He had thought that he should be perfect, without blemishes. His memories reminded him that this mirage was simply not so. Each remembrance of his mistakes and failings was a disconnect from the paper mache self-image that he clung to. When he tried to silence them, they grew louder.
Yes, all of that had happened. Yes, he had done those things, but you know, he was still alright. There was no perfect ego. There never had been. The delusions of infallibility were smashed. Why shouldn’t there be mistakes and failures and disasters? Why shouldn’t he find all the normal human baggage there in the recesses of his skull? What he had left when all the sands had slipped through the sieve was himself. A real self, in dynamic states of repair and disrepair. The knot in his chest began to untie itself.
Could you forgive me he asked himself? And for the first time, the answer was yes. And he started to laugh, because he was free.
Note: The excerpts from the Norse poem Hávamál are taken from Olive Bray’s translation:
Bray, Olive, trans. Hávamál. Ed. D. L. Ashliman. Hávamál. University of Pittsburgh, n.d. Web. 02 June 2017.
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