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~ Heathen Stories and New Myths ~

 

Afterlives

The old man slowly walked through the green field, towards the great tree. It looked like the huge black walnut that had once stood in his yard. So long ago... I wonder if it`s still there. But this one is somehow... more. More of a tree than any tree I ever knew. Does that make sense?

He ws hearing a sound like soft quick music, and after a few seconds realized that it was trickling water. Water was flowing from a pool at the base of the tree, splashing and gurgling into a brook that ran downhill and out of sight. Dapples of reflected sunlight danced on the dark trunk of the tree.

The younger man was leaning against the tree, gazing into space. As the older man came closer, the young man turned and saw him, and immediately straightened up and ran towards him. With a shout of laughter, they embraced.

"Ah, it´s you", the older man said, as they walked into the shade of the Tree. "You look different now. Do you know that the last time I saw you, you were eleven years old?"

"And the last time I saw you, you were lying in a coffin at Welch Funeral Home down on Lampkin Street, and I was too terrified to get close," said the younger man. "But none of that matters here. You look so much better now."

"I should hope so!" laughed the older man. "Age and appearance shouldn´t matter any more, but somehow in this place I feel in my prime."

"To me you look like... those pictures on Honey´s wall, the ones that must have been taken in the 1930s."

"And you look to be about twenty, I would guess."

They stared at each other for a moment, and embraced again.

"Oh, it´s so good to see you. So... where, exactly, are we?"

"This is the Tree."

"I can see that. What Tree?"

"You would call it the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil."

"Is this the Garden of Eden? With the river flowing out of it?"

"You could call it that, I suppose. It´s certainly a place of beginning."

"When you say I 'could call it that'... do you mean that this isn´t really Eden?"

"Well, I see that tree as Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with the Well of Wyrd below. Our Welsh ancestors knew it as the Oak, where Lleu Llaw Gyffes suffered his great ordeal after being wounded by Gronw´s spear. Our Scots-Irish ancestors sae the great hazel tree, whose nuts fall into the Well of Wisdom. The Hindus would call it Asvattha, and I suppose that Buddhists would see it as the Bodhi Tree under which Siddharta Gautama became enlightened. I don´t think it matters here."

"Do you mean that... you´re saying that all those religions are the same?"

"No, they´re not. Your God and mine aren´t the same, and neither are our afterlives. But the Tree is... well, it´s what Paul Tillich called the Ground of All Being. It´s what there has to be in order for anything else to exist. The axis mundi. The Tree that upholds absolutely everything that has been and will be and could be. Its base is where our separate worlds intersect. Where we can meet... for a time."

"So you´re not coming back with me?"

"I´m sorry, but no... I´m not."

A tear appeared at the corner of the old man´s eye.

"So you´ve... cut yourself off? From all your family?"

"Grandad, the fact that we´re meeting here should show you that I haven´t. Not really."

"But you... I don´t know how to explain this, but... where I am now, with my God, in the arms of Jesus... there is an unbelievable sense of peace that comes from being with all my kin. I am truly 'gathered unto my people, being old and full of days.' My parents and grandparents and brothers and sister, and my beloved wife... your own mother... and the kinfolks that I only knew of in family stories, the Gwins and Howells and Zimmers and Beckhams... we´re together now. Together in ways that we could never be in our earthly lives. I had some problems with my brother, and my son, once, but all is forgiven now. We – we know each other. Don´t you know that you´re given up that? That you´ve renounced us and our love?"

"But every one of those kinfolk lives with me, in me, too."

"How can that be?"

"Well... remember the opening lines of Beowulf? Hwaet! we Gar-Dena in geardagum!"

The two voices rang out together. "...theodcyninga, thrym gefrunon! hu tha aethelingas ellen fremedon!"*

(
*So! The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of these princes´ heroic campaigns. – Seamus Haney translation, p3

"You taught me that when I was nine years old, and I carried it with me all my life. Not just the words, but the desire to know them... to know more, to explore the ancient lore to its roots. And as long as I lived and quested for knowledge – every time I spoke those words in sumbel – you lived in me. Even now, a part of you is alive in me, and you go where I go. And the same is true for Mamma, and Honey, and Uncle Howell, and all the kinfolk I never got to meet, and all those old theodcyninga and aethelingas who did brave deeds. We can´t truly be severed. The fact that we can meet, here, is proof of that."

"But you´re still not in Heaven with all of us."

"No, and I´d still prefer not to be. The God you served all your days – he and I aren´t quite on the best of terms. I know it´s your desire, and it was always your destiny; I just opted out. But I´m well taken care of where I am; my wife and I are together, we´re happy, and we´re doing good work. "

"I once thought that anyone who didn´t worship my God would be cast into eternal punishment. The lake which burneth with fire and brimstone."

"But how could your God cast me into eternal punishment witout throwing you in there, too, since you´re in me and I´m in you? Put it this way: do you really think that you, or Mamma, or any of our family could live in eternal bliss, knowing that someone they truly lvoed was in unending agony that would never be relieved?"

"I see..."

"The only people that get eternal punishment are the ones who´ve cut themselves off from all ties. Oath-brakers and murderers...they end up in a world of ice and poison, or so the metaphor goes in my faith. But that´s basically the fate that such people create for themselves; they put themselves in Niflhel well before their bodies die."

"Now, explain this to me again – you´re still on Earth. How does that work?"

"Well, not all of me... but what I guess you´d call my consciousness, or part of it, stayed around. I suppose your great-grandfather Zimmer might have called me an Alb, or a Tatermann. I stay on the land where my family lives, and watch over it. I help see to it that enthusiastic deer-hunters don´t wander onto it, and that the soil stays fertile, and that the weeds don´t get too big in the gardens, and all that. You know, that land grows crops that by all rights shouldn´t be able to grow there – thanks to me."

"Why, that sounds just like my broccoli in 1952! The head of the agricultural school at Mississippi A&M couldn´t get broccoli to grow in his garden  - but I grew it in mine! In that horrible red-clay soil that´s no good for growing anything!"

"Sounds like I inherited my own knack from you!"

They laughed together. Then the old man became serious.

"But is that all?"

"Well, no. Part of me watches over my lands. But part of my soul is alive in my own descendants... just as a part of your soul is alive in me. And not just our genetic descendants, either: parts of our souls are alive in every student whose life we touched. Every last one of those Mississippi farmboys whom you managed to persuade, if only for a moment, that Geoffrey Chaucer might actually have something to say that they might want to hear... and every one of their children and children´s children, whose families inspired them to learn because you were there... that´s a part of your afterlife. And in every one of those Arkansas folks whom I managed to persuade that Charles Darwin might not actually be the Antichrist. And in every one of those Heathens who read something I wrote and decided there might be a grain of sense in it."

"In your Heathen readers, too?"

"Yep. All three of them."

They both chuckled quietly. "It all reminds me of the book of Ecclesiasticus - 'All these have gained glory in their generations, and were praised in their days... these were men of mercy, whose godly deeds have not failed: good things continue with their seed, their posterity are a holy inheritance, and their seed hath stood in the covenants. And their children for their sakes remain for ever: their seed and their glory shall not be forsaken. Their bodies are buried in peace, and their name liveth unto generation and generation.'"

"Well, yes, exactly. Though my own holy book´s a bit less wordy—'Cattle die, kindred die, every man is mortal, but I know one thing that never dies: the glory of the great dead.'"

"So there is more than one kind of immortality."

"Of course! Remember your beloved Illiad and Odyssey? Achilles' shade hangs around in Hades – but the immortality he wanted most, and got, was his kleos aphtiton, his undying fame. And even after death he takes joy in the mighty deeds of his son; that´s yet another way in which he lives on."

"Kleos is one of the central themes of the Illiad. As I made sure my Mississippi farmers' sons learned quite well, I might add."

"Homer was basically right – and so were the Anglo-Saxons and Norse. There´s more than one way to live on after death. I´m still exploring them all."

"Now, what do you mean by 'them all'?"

"OK, this is hard to explain, but souls have many parts – while a part of me watches over my family, and part of me lives in my descendants, another part is free to travel."

"Travel?"

"I´ve roamed through a pretty good-sized chunk of the material universe. Watched new stars form and old stars explode. From the inside. I´ve fond fossils that none of my colleagues ever dreamed of, and that they´ll never even know about for two hundred years more. I´ve solved a whole bunch of scientific problems. Gods, the research papers I coudl write now! Did you ever read Mark Twain´s story 'Captain Stormfield´s Visit to Heaven'?"

"Of course."

"Remember? 'Eternal Rest sounds comforting in the pulpit, too. Well, you try it once, and see how heavy time will hang on your hands. Why, Stormfield, a man like you, that had been active and stirring all his life, would go mad in six months in a heaven where he hadn´t anything to do.'

The reasoning and learning part of me isn´t tied down to my old lands; I can go anywhere and learn anything that catches my fancy. I´m finally free to grow as far as I can, and ever farther."

"It´s the same for our in our realm, you know. Just the other day, I was finally able to clear up some textual recension problems with the Venerable Bede himself. Well, we don´t have days, of course, or any time at all, but it somehow feels like 'just the other day'. And Chaucer and I have spent some fine time discussing Parliament of Fowles. I manage to keep busy, and yet I don´t get tired. Twain was right: '-my mind gets older, and stronger, and better seasoned, and more satisfactory.'"

"See? No matter where you end up, your mind can keep growing. Twain was dead-on about that. What more could people like us ask for, than the chance to keep working and growing and learning?"

"True. But... one thing bothers me. Where I am, in Heaven, I stand not just in the presence of my own kin and friends, but in loving union with my God. I was under the impression that the followers of your Gods were said to be rewarded by being taken to Valhalla or some such place, to feast with them. Why didn´t this happen to you?"

"In one of the sagas from Iceland, there´s a story about a man who was a devoted worshipper of the god Freyr. When he died and was laid in his howe, it was said that Freyr would 'have no frost between them' – and his mound was never covered with snow, even when snow blanketed everything else."

"Gislis saga surssonar?"

"You got it! Well, that´s how it is now... there´s no unbridgeable gulf between the material world and the realms of our Gods. Christian theologians talked a good game about the infinite distance between the holiness of God and the unworthy wretchedness of Earth- but it´s not so, not for us. Jsut because I experience my consciousness as being still on the Earth doesn´t mean my Gods aren´t with me, too. They´re there. Freyr is in every springing blade of grass, and Odin in every wild wind, and Thor in every thunderstorm, and Skadhi in every chill breeze. And I´m with them, and talk with them... and I know them far better than I ever could as a man."

They stood together for a few moments, in silence. Then the older man spoke.

"I feel... I should be... getting back."

"I´ve got some things to do, too."

"This has been so... I´ll see you again?"

"Of course. Whenever you want. And Mamma, and Honey, and all the family – we can all meet here now. We´ll have a reunion any time you want. We have all the time in the world."

"That´s... that´s wonderful. But how do I get back here?"

"Take this before you go. You´ll know the way, and you can show the others."

The younger man reached up and picked a fruit from the Tree, took a bite, and held it out to the older man, who took a bite. It was not any fruit he could remember. Apple? Yes, but what kind?  And there´s hazelnut in the taste...

Without speaking, both of them bowed to the surface of the pool, cupped their hands and dipped up some of the water and drank it. The older man felt the sweet coolness on the back of his throat, quenching a thirst that he had not even known was there... and then he smiled, as he felt his understanding expand. Now he looked anew at the Tree, and he could see what it really was. He looked at his grandson and saw who he really was, and knew that his grandson was seeing him in the same way.

They embraced for a long, long moment, as a breeze rustled through the branches of the Tree, and the water from the Well endlessly danced.

© Ben Waggoner

Ben Waggoner has translated numerous Old Norse Sagas. His books on Lulu.

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