This is a piece from our online issue, FALL OF MEN, inspired by the New York Review of Books.
CONTENT WARNING FOR FALL OF MEN : Despite the conclusions of the bad men falling in the end, some of these pieces may have sensitive or explicit content. (That said, it might be real cathartic to read a thing where the bad men get thrown into volcanoes or eaten by alligators. Either way, your mental health is really important to us. Take care of yourself!)
By Cate McGowan
Spring tiptoes into their valley across the last winter frost. Before dawn, Brynhild walks through the new season’s borrowed light. She carries her father’s sword; the scabbard’s cold against her leg, but it’s a protective charm at her side, a query when she wields it. Though, she seldom finds answers to its questions. Today, unlike any other, a loud chorus accompanies her sword’s interrogations. The sisters of the air call.
We’re here. Where are you?
She answers by following their whispers. After she tracks a narrow cliff along the village’s trail, she stops in a clearing above the river, then pulls off her cap, and her long hair unfurls into a black talisman against the world’s ugliness.
Brynhild feels obligated, owes the earth something of herself before she leaves. She conducts a new rite: she winces when she swipes her palm across the sword’s smiling blade—there’s the slice of pain only for a moment, and then her hand numbs. She taps her fingers into the cut and slides them over her burning forehead, decorating her white cheeks with warrior stains, too.
The blood tastes like bronze when she licks the drops. And as she holds out her palm over the water, crimson drips onto the mossy rocks in the whirling riverbed below. A ribbon of scarlet unrolls in the current, and soon a dead fish bobs to the surface, its carcass flashing silver in the pre-dawn light.
Come to us.
She’s offered her blood to this mountain, this hulk that takes and never gives. It trembles with flames inside. But she’s not like this selfish god. Yes, she’s a waiting vessel, too, with flames kindling in her gut, but she only wants what’s hers. She’s certain other girls are built like this, maybe even stuffed with flames. And maybe those girls repel invaders better than she can. Maybe Brynhild might learn. Maybe her fire will sputter out, replaced with air.
She strolls. Her blood leaves a trace behind her. She passes the grist mill, moves toward the stone footbridge up the path—it arches like a small hound over the mountain crevasse.
Hurry. We can’t wait.
The willows are thick here, so she hacks at them, and their thready branches confetti in her wake, and she steps from the trail onto the wolf-gray overpass and kneels onto the bridge’s cold stones. There are footsteps behind her. She knows who it is, but she feigns surprise as the boy’s rough finger brushes her nose. He stands over her shoulder.
It’s Gunnar. A boy who’s really a man. The boy she’s summoned today, the boy two years ahead of her, the boy who touched her where she didn’t want to be touched, the boy her tribe considers their best hope. She doesn’t receive the elders’ well-wishes, but Gunnar does. He’s done nothing to deserve their praise. Just like this moody mountain they worship.
Gunnar’s thin, not bad looking, his hair’s auburn-tinged and shoots in wild directions, and his angled cheeks and long arms are so out of place among these farmers. But deep inside him, there’s some kind of evil no one else perceives. Brynhild sees it.
“You’re bleeding?” He points to her hand, her face striped with signs. She turns and fakes a smile.
He paces as she stands and blinks.
Climb. Come to us.
Gunnar reaches for her waist, tries to kiss her, but she ducks away, walks ahead. He matches her pace as they march in silence together up the steep slope.
Brynhild’s stride quickens. Somewhere close, songbirds aim their first dawn calls. Their music flutes up the grade with no pattern in mind. It’s difficult to discern those forest creatures’ earthly tunes from singing Valkyrie voices, whose curved warbles chorale in all directions, attenuating, then booming, and their ghost horses wing, whistling off-key in an amphitheater of clouds.
Hurry, we can’t wait much longer.
As she and Gunnar climb, she swings her light sword at branches, and the downed evergreens stink, their sap sticky on her blade. Dark aromas kick up from the earth, too, and shadows slip under her feet. She’s dizzy as her eyes wander to the sky, tracing the last winter stars through galaxy milk. How she wishes she could fly!
Now, a raven argues with himself in some scrub on the bluff. The new day’s light dinks through sparse flora and refracts. The voices keen.
Soon, the two climbers reach the summit, and the mountain rumbles a grudging welcome. Steam billows from its crater, and the magma heat emanating from deep inside is almost unbearable. On the farthest cliff before the sheer drop, Brynhild and Gunnar inch to the edge, peering down into the molten basin. The light pulses to a kind of beat, and the wind picks up, so the two twine their arms together, lean into one another for balance.
Here you are. Welcome to the sky.
At Gunnar’s touch, Brynhild’s gut spins like tossed rune beads. She pulls away, and, on the hard lava precipice, so warm, she reclines, pretends to want him, gestures for him with open arms. The blazing wind whorls, and Gunnar scoots on top of her.
He kisses her hurt hand with his shaky lips, unbelts his tunic, then swaddles her wound with the shirt and delicately cradles her makeshift bandage. Just weeks ago, he hadn’t been this gentle in the goat shed—he’d thrown her against the stall, thrusting into her with no kindness.
His soft breath on her ear lobe is not what she expected here.
“I think I could love you,” he says.
“Me, too,” she lies, her voice certain. Gunnar’s body hardens.
Her palm begins to bleed again, soaking through Gunnar’s wrap. The fluid blooms into a scarlet flower, its bright petals spike across the white linen, and she inhales raggedly under the weight of the boy. The goddesses’ voices are like gongs now, heavy, needy.
We call for righteousness.
She considers the hot sword scabbarded next to her, but it’s not the answer.
So, she rolls to her side, and she grabs Gunnar’s shirtless shoulders. He eases into her hug. In an instant, though, she pulls back, shoves him with a force that surprises even her, and he slides across the slick surface.
Yes, yes, that’s what we demand!
Gunnar scratches desperately at the ledge for a handhold, but he keeps sliding, loses his grip, tumbles off. She leans over the shelf, and through the steam, she watches him topple—he faces upward, eyes flashing wild, big hands grabbing at air, finding nothing to prevent his fall, and then, after his long tumble, the evil boy’s silhouette disappears deep inside orange doom.
She stands and tosses her father’s blade after Gunnar. The appreciative mountain swallows her gifts with a belch of fire. Such a stupid, brute volcano.
And the air goddesses respond to her offering with their own thanks. Their aria’s deafening, a joyful hymn; the sound chain-mails around her, shielding her in golden loops.
Brynhild grins, relishes this first victory. But there’s no true happiness without a sword’s protection, so she plans her next weapon, her visit to the heavenly forge. She watches the dawn riot red and waits for her sisters to carry her far away from these people and their angry mountain, their falling men.
Cate McGowan is the author of the story collection, True Places Never Are (Moon City Press), which won the Moon City Press Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the Lascaux Review Short Fiction Collection Contest. A Georgia native whose work is anthologized in outlets such as Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton) and Descansos: Words from the Wayside (Darkhouse), her stories, essays, and poems appear in myriad literary publications, including Glimmer Train, Crab Orchard Review, Shenandoah, Into the Void, Louisville Review, Moon City Review, Vestal Review, Unbroken Journal, and Tank. She is currently an Assistant Fiction Editor for Pithead Chapel and is pursuing her PhD. Find her at https://www.catemcgowan.com.