Monday, 6 October 2014

Dies Solis - Second Cycle

[This is a ‘stand-alone’ fragment from the unpublished novel, "The Wolves of Ragnarök"

This fragment retells the ancient story about how small matters, left unresolved, can spiral into catastrophe (based loosely on "The Flyting of Loki"). This fragment deals briefly with one wolf from Icelandic lore, Sköll

The piece fades into a piece exploring slavery which ties to the lecture "On Slavery". This fragment is not in final form - if you are familiar with some earlier letters you will recognize the second half of this piece.]

The Norse told harsh cautionary tales showing how the slightest mischief could end in disaster. One concerned the almost-god Loki – it is not a story about you or me.

Once content to carouse and fawn at the table of the Gods, he has become tired of the pretense.  While cold hard sober he risks the enmity of the Gods by honestly describing what they have become. 

Like the unravelling of an Old Icelandic saga, the risk of dire consequence builds as action is met by reaction, in circumstances where no one is willing to stop the spiral.  The exchange of hard words is followed by injury to trusted servants and friends. Then directly the protagonists engage, as the world is drawn into the conflagration.

The almost-god Loki runs.  The Norse tell grimly how, when he is found, his children by his wife are chased and he is bound with the entrails of one in a cave. 

Only his wife, Sigyn, remains with him.  She tends him, keeping poison from dripping onto his body.  When she leaves his side to empty the bucket in which she collects the poison his body is racked by pain and earthquakes rock the nine worlds.

In this dim place they grow older in the pain of each other’s company. The memory of the outside worlds dims with every passing year.  Only the reality of the cave remains. 

He says “I know your name.  Sigyn.  You keep the poison from burning me away.  You leave infrequently, but when you are gone the poison drips unstopped and with each drip my body screams in pain. You fend off the evil bent on consuming my body.”

“Once we had a life, a home and hall, and stories - so many stories.  Full of life, full of plans – a new room here, blinds in this room, rugs here, a rose just there.  Wealthy and, if not respected, feared.  Laughter echoed around us, if not honest, at least mirthful.”

“Your silent presence reminds me of those ruins.  There you stand, faithful to my unfaithfulness. Children of my mistress threaten the world, while our children are dead.  Those children hunt and stalk the Gods, while the hard entrails of our son bind me to this rock.  And as you go about your silent tasks your eyes catch mine and your hate burns me more than the poison you catch.  My heart screams in pain.”

Finally, after an age, Sigyn leaves and does not return. 

The almost-god Loki is finally consumed by the poison. He rips his bonds and rents the fetters that have bound him all these years.

Here he sits in the dark, pain filled as useless muscles and nausea prevent further flight.  Tired and broken, he will need to relearn how to walk – to escape the cave.  But for now, he is simply a man.  A shadow of himself, whoever that may have been. 

In the cold winter, in the comfort of their hearths, the Norse had time to refine their stories. This story is harsh.

The only paths open to this shadow of a man lie in his dreaming.  Is this a cave, or merely a room dimmed from all light. The shadow man begins to dream, the dull red rock he holds begins to glow.  When molten hot it lights the darkest night, just like the sun. 

We all once knew that the sun is a two horse chariot – a device that can usually only be justified in the interests of war.  Not a device for our meadows and bogs – it is a machine used sparingly in the armies of the steppes and the plains, far to our south. 

The sun is the goddess Sol’s chariot.  She stands in the chariot, guiding it through the stars. 

In the predawn the two sky horses Árvakr and Alsviðr, “Early Awake” and “Very Quick” draw the chariot in darkness.  But in the dawn, their manes ignite just like molten lava from our own volcanoes.  

And then the chase recommences.  For Sol is being hunted across the sky by two wolves.  At Ragnorok, she will be taken and torn apart by Sköll.  Her gore will fall on Asgard.  But for now, the sky horses avoid the wolves by swiftly pulling the chariot across the sky – each day a slightly different path. 

The heat from the manes is intense – and the horses and the goddess are protected from the heat by weird terchnology – some say wind-bags, others cool-iron.  The heat from the manes is enough to sear the Earth itself – to burn away both the water and the rocks.  Another natural deity, Svalin, the atmosphere, forestalls this result.

In summer, when the days are long, the wolves sorely test both Sol and Svalin.  Here on Earth the world heats.  But as winter draws near, Sol avoids the chase by taking a different path across the sky, and ice takes the world into its grip.  Very occasionally the wolves catch the chariot and we can see them dancing as an eclipse darkens the sky.

Originally the old tribes did not see the wolves.  They simply thought Sol grew brighter as her chariot came closer to her lover’s hearth.  Later Sol was perceived as having a bright and dark side, and day and night were conceived according to whether we saw her left or right side.  There was no talk of wolves or paths in the oldest stories pressed on sheets of metal. 

So why now do the wolves pursue Sol? But these are not any wolves. These are children of the Iron Wood. But still we do not know what condemns Sol to track these dangerous paths nor why the wolves are intent on the pursuit.  In the absence of an answer, we presume that from the earliest time, the wolf pack through its nature will seek to pursue and kill when given the opportunity. 

The shadow man turns in his dreams, and finally perceives the path. Through the valleys below, the old people followed the old foot path for millennium.  The same paths: shared by the people, the animals, their spirits and their wolves.  A network of paths, unchanged save for the occasional detour to avoid a tree brought down in a storm or a creek that had flooded its banks.  Paths that were used for travel and hunting and burning and trade and war.  Paths used by Kaditcha, hunters, gatherers, children and lovers alike until they were adopted by the shepherds and surveyors and mail deliverers and road builders, and now the chariots of our own time.  We still crest each hill at the same point as the old people, and their spirits view the same landscape of hills and creeks through our eyes as existed far into the past.

Silently his body arises and drifts into the mists surrounding.  Dark shapes rise from the ground and follow him down into the valleys below.  Drawn to the place they last met, a howl leaves his lips and he throws himself into the sky.

He drifts for an age – the old stories slowly becoming intangible.

Below, the mists start to resolve into forests and towns. The path becomes a highway. No hint of wolves here – unless the occasional police car might be thought to have taken their place.

A little distant from the old farm house at the bottom of the hill, runs the road.  Washington and the continental army marched past the farm along the road before Cook ‘discovered’ Australia and named the great south land “New South Wales”. 

From the farmhouse, I could sit and watch the community roll past along the road – a variety of vehicles (jeeps, Toyotas, Chevy’s, Pontiacs, hummers) at a bewildering array of speeds.  As an added bonus, because the town police station is not far distant, the faster passer-bys often travel in the company of a black and white town police car, its lights flashing and sirens blaring.

In the best of Tolkeinian style, the road is called Main Street.  Unlike the main streets that dot Europe, all the main streets here lead to Boston rather than Rome.  The habit of calling the main street of a town ‘Main Street’ is an ancient practice observed throughout Europe and New England.  Originally, only major roads leaving a capital city were gifted with a different name.  The ancient Appian Way (Via Appia) led from Rome to the heel of the Italian peninsula in 312BC while the Via Aurelia from Rome to France in 241BC.  Even so, the Via Appia was simply known as Main Street in Brundisium.  The modern practice of gifting the more confusing pattern of roads within a town or city with fictive names probably dates to the practice in the Republic of naming roads after the Censor who constructed the road, or repaired it.

Recently it has become fashionable to refer to ordinary people by referring to Main Street as though it represented the ordinary person.  For it is on Main Street that the toll for the excesses of the financial markets is being paid out. 

In Boston, the Main Street that eventually passes the farm house is known as Massachusetts Avenue.  At one stage, this was the road that led through the state and beyond, to New York and the other New England cities.  But today, it has become a bit of a backwater, overshadowed by the massive Massachusetts Turn Pike, the haunt of the state police.

The Pike cuts through the forest to the south, far distant from this sleepy town.  Today, those who travel on the Main Street seldom travel far from home.  A historian started his history of Spencer (written in the 1890’s) with the warning that nothing of any importance had ever happened here – even going so far as to apologise for the lack of witches and slaves.  But this was deceptive praise based on the humor of the time and the dream of splendid isolation.  For in the earliest days of the district, during English rule, witch prickers included Spencer in the spring hunt and slavery was not uncommon.  Far from being devoid of history, the town was replete with small factories (shoe makers and wire drawers), was the home of the Howe family (the inventors of the sewing machine and spring beds) and any number of people slain through love or lack of it.  But even so, long-distance travel was as uncommon then as now. 

Like most New England towns, it is still governed by a confusion of small committees and trusts. The town charters provides for elected ‘selectmen’ that meet openly in committee and make decisions that are given effect to by an administrator.  Over the ages, the selectmen have attempted to weld other the elements of public administration into a coherent bundle of activities, but many of the little public committees and trusts have remained fiercely independent and obstinate to this day. 

As Spencer is a larger town (it has about 12,000 residents in 5,000 homes), the town is also responsible for employing its own police force.  Police in Massachusetts are not employed by a single state entity.  They are employed by an array of different entities.  At the local level, towns over 1,500 residents are required to employ their own police department, which is responsible for maintaining the peace.  This includes responding to violent disturbance, by human or animal alike, and traffic duty on the Main Street.  Counties (which may contain a dozen or more towns and perhaps a city or two) also have a police department, and the Sheriff of a county is an elected official.  The importance of county sheriffs is a bit on the wane, but they remain responsible for “transporting prisoners, operating county jails, traffic control duty, serving official court orders, and running community service programs”.  The state police, on the other hand, provide a statewide patrol (most noticeably on the Pike) and back up local agencies.  Local, county and state police departments work together with the bewildering array of private police departments engaged by schools, malls and hospitals. 

This may appear very fragmented, but the various police departments have an uncanny capacity to work closely together when the occasion calls for it – particularly when faced by the threat of intervention of a federal police department (the FBI) or another investigative agency (such as the fire department). 

In recent times, the Spencer Police Department employed over 30 people.  This includes almost 20 full-time Police Officers, a mix of full and part time dispatchers (almost 20 more people) and a part-time custodian (with jail facilities for 7 prisoners).  At the heart of the system, sensibly, the dispatchers also provide an integrated service for fire, public works and emergency medical services. 

At this particular time in history, the local police forces have been trying to take on more women, but men still make up most of the visible force.  This might change with the relaxation of the test that new recruits to the local police forces must pass.  Previously, the county test was blamed for discriminating against women recruits because it included a grueling obstacle course.  The Worchester county obstacle course had a 5 foot wall – a wall with straight smooth surfaces.  To climb the wall, a recruit had to pull themselves to the top using upper body strength (there were no foot holds).   Women recruits had great difficulty scaling the wall – and even when they did, it so drained their energy that few finished the rest of the course.  Recently, with the strong support of the elected sheriff, the course was changed, to provide two foot braces, providing additional leverage for recruits.  Since then all the female recruits passed the test (previously less than 30% had succeeded).

Because the local police are completely dependant on the folk of Spencer for their income, like other local police forces, they appear to be very reactive.  On one hand, they are very visible - they publish their response log each week, and switch on their sirens when ever the opportunity arises.  The local police log records the life of the town.  For example, the complete log for one cold November records:
“10:21 am: Motor vehicle accident, Main Street.  Property damage but no personal injury.
10:32 am: Animal control, Oakland Drive.  Needs trap for squirrel.
5:18pm: Police information, Thompson Pond Road, Wants on record that lawn ornament was stolen.
5:36pm: Motor vehicle accident, Paxton Road.  Property damage but no personal injury.
6:23pm: Motor vehicle accident, West Main Street.  Property damage but no personal injury; gas everywhere.”

At other times…
“9:32pm: Assault Maple Street, Guy grabbed son by neck.
10:01am: Motor vehicle lockout, West Main Street, Two year old locked self in car.
8:41pm Police information, Dewey Street.  Drunken woman in street.
2:17 pm: Gunshots, Rawson Street.  Unfounded.
4:49 pm: Motor vehicle accident vs. deer, Route 148.  Spoken to.
8:37am: Juvenile matter, Adams Street.  Female fled from residence when mom tried to pick her up for school.”

These reports strip away any pretence that the community is otherwise than it is – it is a place of real people, with ordinary problems.  Sometimes the problems are caused by squirrels (New Englanders pronounce squirrels as “skwirls”), bats, bears and deer – but more often there are the result of ordinary human relationships.

While the fines that are levied by the local police or the local courts contribute to the income of these agencies, one suspects that warnings and advice are liberally dispersed to locals whenever a fine can be avoided (eg, “November 24, 2:27pm, Malicious mischief, Main Street, Spoken to.”).  Even so, crime rates are low. 

Those who need to travel outside their own local police areas have turned to technology to assist them meet the combined problems of roads that all bear the same name and local police with a built in preference for chasing people from out of town. 

The most recent innovation has seen families adopt a new member into their ranks.  Sue-Sue became a member of the old farm house a couple of years ago.  Sue-Sue is white, about 24 years old, college educated, with a proper well articulated New England accent.  She is usually calm and assertive – she is, after all, backed up by the assurance of modern satellite technology.  But, even so, like most young Americans, she is blind to the real world.  Able to instantly identify where she is, she is totally dependant on others to tell her a destination.  But her special skill, picking a path from here to there, is necessarily a subjective task. Her occasional obstinacy and complete unwillingness to concede any error, can be a source of enmity within the household.  As such, more often than not, generally after a couple of terse exchanges between the driver and herself, she can find her voice silenced as her program is abruptly terminated. 

Quietly a new form of servitude is emerging, and a whole new army of invisible slaves are entering our world, largely unseen and unannounced.  I may only be imagining the tone of bitterness and the occasional pause in Sue-Sue’s chatter, but how long till the members of that battalion become self aware?  Will then we need to dip back into Roman law to the old rules governing servitude - to the mutual obligations owed by owner and owned.  But even now we are painfully recreating these rules when reconsidering the responsibility owed by the owner of a slave to another injured by the slave.

He remembers the last fall of leaves blowing onto Main Street.  The Indian summer ended and soon the snow would set in – in earnest.  In the swirl of the leaves and the snow gusts, along Main Street below the old farm house still march the ghosts of Washington and the continental army, the minute men dashing to Boston and the generations of school kids who have lived and died in this place.  And a black and white police car chasing another tourist from New York.

As in the sky, Sol turns her team to paths that tend gradually northwards, to avoid the pack.

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