It was three o’clock on the third Sunday afternoon in March when I was serving the last coffee to what I hoped was the last customer in the café. My café was beautiful, if I say so myself – the walls were adorned with photographs and paintings with a nautical theme and the walls were painted a faded sky blue. The warm smell of coffee permeated the air and the aroma of freshly baked bread filled the room with its fragrance. I needed a break as my feet were in agony. I had that irritating itchy feeling on the back of my neck which foretold disaster. The regulars were all there – Miriam feeding muffin scraps to her white Scottie dog Milly, Jayne reading the Sunday paper sighing every now and then with her foot rhythmically tapping on the table leg, Matthew sipping his double shot of espresso and flirting with the new barista. The coffee machine rumbled, grinding away.
There was a thump as I found myself at the bottom of a hole dug in the earth. I was in the field on the edge of the forest, twenty minutes away from where I had just been. My teeth chattered and freezing wind blew my long hair around my head, getting strands stuck in my mouth. My feet were wet and something cold and squishy was oozing between my toes. Now what? This had happened quite a lot in the past month, but usually not when I was halfway through serving a customer. Peering over the rim, I was greeted by the sight of three women wearing bikinis and chanting loudly, waving their arms. Oh no, I knew them.
‘Freyja, Goddess of the Spring, of Women and Cats, of Love and Fertility, of Death and Harvest. Oh Goddess, who blesses us every day with beauty and strength, with…Oh. She has graced us with her presence! Freyja, you have come!’ the shorter of the women said, blushing. Then the smile faded as she gazed down at me and disappointed recognition dawned in her eyes.
‘Er, Freya…is that you? What are you doing here?’ she said, not looking the faintest bit embarrassed at being seen wearing a bikini in a field in the middle of March. The cold wind whistled.
Nodding, I shrugged and felt my face go hot.
‘Um. Yes. Um. Can you help me up out of this hole, please?’ I could feel the mud seeping into my shoes. Looks like I would have to go shopping again.
‘Well, it would mean breaking the circle. I know, maybe you could chant with us! Perhaps the Goddess will come if more women join in her worship. You’re here now, you might as well.’ She beamed.
Every time, this happened. It was typically surprise, mixed with amusement and confusion. None of them usually thought to ask how or why I had ended up in the middle of their circles. One moment I would be watching TV curled up in bed or in the storeroom taking inventory, and the next I would be surrounded by people in various states of undress chanting away, performing the Rites of Spring. I hadn’t yet stumbled upon anything more risqué than nudity yet, for which I am eternally grateful. I could handle a few would-be Goddess worshippers or kids messing around with Wicca, but I don’t think I could deal with, well, that.
‘No, that’s okay. I’ve got to get back to the café,’ I said, attempting to winch myself out by grasping short clumps of grass for support. Justine walked forward to help me out, lines creasing her forehead.
‘Okay. Sorry. Er, well, I hope you don’t think we’re weirdos…we just like to celebrate Spring and count our blessings. That reminds me – where did you come from?’ she said, her eyebrows arched, as she heaved me up.
‘Oh, um, I was just going for a stroll in my lunch break, and, well, fell into your hole…,’ I trailed off, trying to be convincing. She nodded, apologising.
I brushed myself off the best I could, but stared down at my new red ballet pumps and my beautiful red dress with white swallow silhouettes. I was still wearing the apron from the café. I could try and get the mud out with some stain remover, but my shoes were brown and sodden, and my heart sank. There was a faint musky sulphur smell surrounding me. I felt my nose wrinkle.
‘Well, I’ll be off, then,’ I said. ‘By the way, I hope you don’t get too cold, I’ve heard there’s a storm on the way.’
They smiled, reassuring me that they were fine and would not, in fact, get cold, but I saw goosebumps on the youngest girl’s arms, the fine hairs sticking up. She grimaced at me; in what she thought was a stoic smile. I felt a giggle well up inside me but quelled it with the thought of all the washing and stain removal I would have to do. Not to mention taking several showers, as the cow shed smell appeared to be following me. The café! Never mind, I had trained the new barista to treat my sudden disappearances as everyday normal occurrences. She probably thought I had sneaked off to see some man. As much as I would like that to be true, the unfortunate truth was that I had not seen my husband for a long time (he was missing, presumed gone) and the last time I had seen my lover was twenty years ago. They had adventures, you see, wars to fight and male pride to massage.
Perhaps I should have been more aware of the significance of the uneasiness I had been feeling. As I got to my front door, my shoes squelching and an unpleasant stale farm smell filling my nostrils, three ravens were sitting in my front garden. I have nothing against ravens, but these were those sort of ravens, you know, the kind that stare at you with asinine beady eyes, as if they are waiting for you to say something. Maybe, then, it was no revelation when one of them opened its black beaky mouth and said:
‘Do not you remember? Hurrr…Hugin and Mugin, Milady?’ the raven nodded at one of the other birds, which was distinguished by a blue metallic tinge on the tip of its feathers.
‘Yes. What now?’ I said, not the least bit stunned at where this was going. I unlocked the door and kicked off my shoes. I walked back out, barefoot, and stared at the birds.
‘Milord rrrrequests your presence. Ffforthwith,’ said the other one, who might conceivably have been Hugin.
I snorted. Did he now? Well, I might as well make him wait a little bit longer since I desperately needed a shower and wouldn’t want to embarrass his lordship (ha!) with my unkempt appearance. I said as much to the waiting creatures. I think my sarcastic tone was lost on them.
‘We will wwwait, then, Milady,’ they said, in unison, flapping their expansive wings and hopping from one foot to another. Apart from the third one, who seemed to be there to round the number up to three, the mystical number. His lordship liked to keep things traditional, even in the twenty-first century. Greymalkin, my cat, sprung down from where she had been waiting.
‘I will watch those things for you, Freya,’ she said, vibrating. The birds huddled together, stretching themselves to full height as my grey cat swished her tail back and forth, grinning wide and exposing her sharp teeth. I grinned back at her, scratching behind her ears.
‘Now, now, play nicely. We don’t want his…majesty to be displeased,’ I said, and went inside to have my shower. I heard a hissing noise and loud squawk. Well, she wouldn’t do anything hasty. They could fly, after all.
Two hours later and I had thrown on a pair of jeans, an oversized t-shirt and a brown leather jacket. I was past caring what traditions might remain in Asgard. Greymalkin was crouching on the step, her tail flicking back and forth and emitting a hideous screeching twitter noise in the direction of the three birds, now perched on the fence. One of them was missing a feather or two.
‘Milady, do you have your cloak? Wwwe are flying, so you would be advised,’ said one of the birds. I nodded, and threw on the Falcon cloak. The pinpricking sensation, like pins and needles, spread through my arms and back. I had to flex my arms to make sure they were working. It had been years, and I sometimes wondered whether the old things I had would work. I rose two centimetres off the ground, hitting the porch roof and bruising my shoulder. I landed with a thump and the falcon wings stretched out, swooshing through the air. Greymalkin screeched, and shot through the cat flap. Like I said, it had been many years.
The day was coming to an end. Light met dark and created a viridian blue sky. The wind had died down and the ascent to the air was smooth. I felt the air give as I glided, following the three black ravens upwards.
We reached the rift in the sky, which to most people’s eyes would look like an optical illusion – like the glass you get within cats eye marbles. Except in the middle of this eye, you could see the treetops and cities. If only my chariot was available; flying home in Falcon wings was hardly the kind of grand statement I used to make.
I dipped through the rift, following the three minions. They made a celebratory swoop through the air then plummeted down to a grand hall, all golden arches and intricate wandering vine-work. Oh; Valhalla, the hall of the dead. Maybe he wanted more than his fair share; our agreement to halve the dead.
I dropped down, circling the grand hall, admiring the brightness. Everything gleamed in Valhalla, but I still felt that it was nothing near as magnificent as Sessrúmnir, my vermillion gold hall. As I landed, I saw groups of dead warriors, being attended by statuesque Valkyrie women, many of whom I recognised, chosen by me, when I had been overruled by the folly of Gods.
In the grand hall, I felt eyes following my every movement, but I walked tall, unafraid. I was joined by two fearless grey tigers, stalking by my sides.
‘Welcome, Freyja Vanir,’ said Odin, who was sitting on his throne flanked by two of my tall strong Valkyries. He was not my lord, and never would be, despite his assertions that he respected the peace between the Vanir and the Æsir.
‘What do you want?’ I said, refusing to bow. The hackles on the tigers’ backs rose, as they growled low in their throats; the ground vibrated.
‘Calm yourself,’ he said, his face a mask of benevolence, but I could see the light of triumph in his eyes.
‘What game are you playing? It hasn’t slipped your mind that you suggested you needed more women to serve your so-called warriors?’ I said. It had always been this way – he tried to barter, insisting that his warriors deserved special treatment from my Valkyries, but they were warrior women, powerful, independent.
‘Have you given any more thought to our previous conversation? You will be endangering the fate of the Æsir and Vanir if you do not yield.’ He said.
‘That previous conversation ended with my banishment. I have too much love in my heart for the freedom of women to condemn them to a life of enslavement.’ I said.
Odin stood up, but before he could say anything, I lifted off, seeing the surge of belligerent warriors closing in on where I had been. I laughed, staring down at Odin’s purple face.
‘Whilst you have been wasting time, your lordship, the Valkyries have left your hall. They have gone back to Sessrúmnir, where they belong. You have abused the terms of our contract and want more than is yours to desire. They are not, and never were, slaves to your warrior men. From this time forward, you can consider the contract broken – whether to wage war or not I will leave to you.’ I flew high, following the crowd of joyous Valkyries as they left the hall of dead warriors, laughing and free.