The last of the remaining light ebbed, casting long grey shadows on the white, cold ground, the sun’s feeble attempt to rise above the mountains ending in quiet surrender. Kristoff knew it would soon be too dark to search for more mushrooms. He continued his chant. The guttural sounds rising from his rotund midsection frightened Jakob and Kathrina, with their eerie, other-worldly quality, making Kathrina think of the blowing of Heimdall’s horn across the Rainbow Bridge. Perhaps her grandmother was right and Kristoff really does communicate with the gods in Valhalla, after all.
She, at once, felt guilty for thinking that. The priest told them that Valhalla was not a real place. They had become desperate, though: two planting seasons had gone by and they were still without a child. The priest could not produce fertility for them, so Kathrina’s grandmother encouraged them to seek the help of Kristoff, over the objections of the rest of the family.
“He has the magic of the runes.”
“Father Gregor says that he is summoning satan.”
“Where is Father Gregor’s magic? They are still without child.”
“We have to have faith in Christ.”
Kathrina’s grandmother would not accept Christianity. To accept it, she would have to deny every great work of magic she had seen in the name of the old gods, and her whole life had been in dedication to those gods.
Kristoff finished his chant and handed them some mistletoe, which he had climbed an old oak to retrieve that morning. He had more difficulty than he would like to admit. He was not so young and carried a lot of weight, these days. He handed a mistletoe berry to Jakob.
“Take this in your mouth and break the skin.”
Jakob took the seed in his mouth.
“Now kiss Kathrina and present the pulp to her”
Jakob and Kathrina became embarrassed by the pulp, which resembled the seed of men.
“Do not feel shame for nature. All things come from the gods. Now each day, take one berry and do the same until you have no more left. Soon you will be with child.”
Kathrina gave a daughterly embrace to Kristoff.
“If we have a son, we will name him after you, Kristoff. Will you craft our child one of your beautiful toys?”
Kristoff nodded. He wanted to tell them that he learned his toy-making from the finest craftsmen, the dwarves. Such a boast would have been met by laughter. Young people no longer see or believe in dwarves. They have been told by the priest and their families that these are figments of old, superstitious fools, so they know not even the difference between a dwarf and a silly elf.
Jakob and Kathrina walked off excitedly with the mistletoe. His ritual had earned their reverence, if only briefly. He felt the inner evil of pride work it’s way to his mind’s eye.
Kristoff knew that this vanity was transient. Christianity was winning the people over by greater forces than his runes could conjure. The Church was even sanctioned by Norway’s King.
He first felt the force of it many years before, shortly after his finest moment in battle as a Berserker, the fiercest of the Vikings, when Eric led them in the great sea battle of Svolder. He could relive every detail of that day: the bittersweet taste of the magic mushroom, mixed with mead and the blood of wolves, the Berserkers preparing for a battle to the death. Their nervous smiles peeked through their bearskins as the ships approached, then they worked themselves into a frenzy. It must have been a terrifying sight to those Swedes.
They attacked Olaf the Swede’s eleven ships, beginning from the flank and took each one, in a fierce and bloody battle, until they came upon the Long Serpent, itself, the greatest naval vessel that had ever been constructed.
Kristoff watched Olaf the Swede as he took his last breath, jumping from that ship, into the icy water with his shield held tightly, to hasten his descent into the great sea. Kristoff hurled his throwing axe into the sea towards the ripple marking Olaf the Swede’s final moment in the world of men. Soon his axe would join Olaf in the sea goddess Ran’s magic net, at the bottom of the sea. Which would she think the greater treasure? Oh, but he was boasting to himself, now.
He remembered how they all boarded the Long Serpent with Eric, their great leader, and rejoiced, preparing for their triumphant return to Norway. Instead, it was a bittersweet day for them. Eric stayed true to a pact he had made to convert to Christianity if he were to win this battle. He fashioned a cross from the wood of the conquered ships and placed it on the bow of the Long Serpent, in front of the image of Thor that had carried the ship into battle. This would be the last battle for these Berserkers, who had no place in a Christian world.
Kristoff had nothing to do after that but roam the countryside seeking wisdom, like the great god Odin when he wandered through Midgard, the world of men. Odin had given up his right eye to drink from the well of wisdom. Kristoff gave up his past as a Viking warrior. He went to Lapland, where the Sami, the great shamanic people of the arctic lived. Rebuffed by many a shaman, he met one named Hegon who agreed to give him the secret teachings. The shaman used the magic mushroom, too, but for exploring the other worlds where the Gods and Giants and dwarves and elves roamed. He learned much magic from Hegon and he also learned about himself. Kristoff’s steadfast union with Thor, he of the great hammer Miolner faded as he made union with all of the gods and understood the value of each. He even embraced the goddesses. After five years with the great shaman, he returned to the home of his birth, with Hegon’s gifts of a drum and a ceremonial suit, red and white in color, just like the magic mushroom.
These days, Kristoff could barely fit into the old suit, his belt of reindeer hide stretched to its last. Still, he put it on and prepared for his ride, the reindeer already attached to his sleigh, when he was greeted by Father Gregor and two strangers, dressed in robes.
“Greetings, Father Gregor,” his voice sang.
“Hello Kristoff. This is Frederik and Tor. They have come from far away on a mission to spread the word of Jesus Christ. I hope this Christmas Eve finds you well.”
Kristoff ignored his framing of the holiday.
“Yes, I love the Yule, Father Gregor. Even though the land is as bleak and dark as Jotunheim.”
Father Gregor cringed at Kristoff’s reference to the realm of the mythical Giants, which the church decried as a part of hell.
“Will you be coming to the feast at the church this evening?”
Kristoff nodded, hiding his sadness. They had taken down the old hall. The people of the village had called it Banstock, after the Volsung’s legendary hall, because it had also been built around a large oak tree, reperesenting Ydrassil, the great world tree. Kristoff had cried when the oak was felled and rooted, Most painful of all was the fact that this was done by an old Berserker Viking, Steffan, now a builder of the great stave churches.
When their Viking battles ended, Steffan had voyaged with the explorer Leif Ericson to strange new lands, even meeting a new people in a new world.
“They are like the Sami, with yurts and drums. Their skin is darker and they are the greatest hunters I have ever seen,” Steffan had told Kristoff. When Leif Ericson converted to Christianity, Steffan joined him.
“One day, I hope to return to that new world and convert those people to Christianity.”
Kristoff had never understood the attraction to this new religion. What was the use of this perfect God? No one could live up to the standards of such a God. Even Odin had his flaws. The myths, too, seemed no improvement. Jesus was betrayed by Judas, just as Baldur was betrayed by Loki. Was Eve’s apple any different than the witch’s heart eaten by Loki? And how could they have only one God? What of Mary, Moses and Adam and Eve? Were they not gods like Freya, Thor and Vidar and Vali? One God? It seemed only a matter of semantics and convenience: One God and one Pope.
He also disliked the way the leaders of the Chuch played on people’s guilt and shame. He had already seen the folly of its converts judging everyone else around them, while ignoring their own shortcomings. How can people come together if they all must pretend to embody perfection? Where is the seeking when nothing but good triumphing over evil plays out in the mind, until that reaches its inevitable contradiction? No one seemed to even understand these questions anymore.
Kristoff had hoped that Christianity would die out, but he was reminded of why that was unlikely everytime he saw Father Gregor. This priest was not an impressive man. He had lived the kind of privileged and safe life that Kristoff had never respected, accepting the words of his superiors and never questioning their motives or his own. He was completely lacking in self-reflection and real contemplation, but he had the robes of the church. This covering represented centuries of wealth and dominion over the ancient Empire. To these missionaries, he was just a rotund old Viking in a red suit. They were smiling with that confidence he had noticed in the many missionaries that had preceded them, expecting this silly old man with his old superstitions would soon accept Jesus Christ.
The oldest of the two missionaries, Frederik, spoke first.
“What have you stuffed in those stockings, Kristoff?”
“The magic mushroom.”
Tor, the younger of the two, recoiled at hearing this.
“Magic mushrooms? Aren’t they the work of the devil?”
Kristoff let out his familiar belly laugh.
“Ho, ho, ho. You Christians and your devil. The magic mushroom is the Rainbow Bridge itself. It is the path to visit the gods in Asgard and even the Giants in Jotunheim. How do you Christians visit your God?”
“Through faith,” Tor answered, almost as if in the form of a question.
“Yes, Tor, through faith,” added Father Gregor, redundantly.
In the past, Kristoff might have challenged this meaningless retreat to “faith,” but he had long learned that such arguments led nowhere. How could he describe the old gods to men whose mission was to kill them?
He could see, though, that Tor was more curious than most. In fact, Tor was quite awed by Kristoff. He had never seen a man with such a powerful presence. He wanted to ask him more about the mushrooms, but it would not be possible with the others there. Frederik interjected, perhaps curious himself.
“When did you start taking these magic mushrooms?”
“I started by drinking the piss when I was a boy.”
“The piss?”, asked Tor
“Yes, like me, my father herded reindeer. The reindeer sometimes eat the magic mushrooms and dance all night. You can watch them and when they piss in the snow, eat that snow. It is the same as eating the mushroom. Ho, ho, ho, but it tastes better!”
Frederik felt the need to impress upon young Tor that these were just the ravings of a crazy old man.
“Surely, Kristoff, these are just figments of your imagination. What kind of god can you see by drinking piss?”
“Ho, ho, ho. Try it yourself!”
Kristoff pointed in the direction of his herd of reindeer, where one appeared to be dancing, almost ecstatically. Tor looked on in amazement. Father Gregor diverted the subject, seeing once more that he had failed to move Kristoff closer to accepting Jesus Christ.
“I think it is time for us to prepare for tonight’s feast.”
“Good to see you, again, Father Gregor. I’ll see you at the feast. I expect to be hungry enough to eat half the boar myself.”
They walked off, Tor still transfixed by the dancing reindeer. Kristoff smiled to himself. He was the jewel that Father Gregor still couldn’t have. He continued packing the stockings with the mushrooms and filled his large satchel with the toys he had spent the year making. The effects from the magic mushrooms he took for the fertility ceremony had begun to wane, so he ate a few more before boarding his sleigh.
This was a good batch. The villagers would be pleased. Kristoff was in an ecstatic state as he rode his reindeer sleigh towards the village. He felt like the god Odin. Then he was Odin, riding Sleipner, his eight-legged steed and flying through the cold night in golden armor. He started to cry out.
“Ho, ho, ho!”
His laugh was unmistakable to the children of the village.
“Kristoff is coming with the toys,” they hollered, running back to their huts.
“And the magic mushrooms,” their parents snickered.
They all hid in their huts, waiting for Kristoff to deliver the wood-carved toys bulging from his satchel: swords, dolls, horses, ducks, tops and even small propellers, the quality unmatched in all of Norway. The excitement reached a crescendo when they heard this half-crazed old man in his red suit approach. He lay the toys at the door and dropped the stocking with the magic mushrooms through the fire flume. The children ran to the door and grabbed their toys, watching Kristoff run off with a belly laugh to the next hut, while the parents retrieved the stocking with the mushrooms from the fireplace and hung them on the hearth to keep them dry. Some would take them tonight before the great feast of the boar.
Kristoff finished his sleigh ride earlier each year. He was no longer welcome at many of the homes, warded off by Father Gregor. The Christian converts would receive their toys from the Church - no match for Kristoff’s craftsmanship, and certainly no stockings filled with magic mushrooms. Father Gregor knew that Kristoff was the last real connection to the old ways. He intended to silence Kristoff, like the ugly Dwarf, Brock, sewing up the lips of Loki. If he couldn’t convert Kristoff, he would usurp his customs and rituals with Christian themes.
Kristoff arrived at the church and had to marvel at the beauty of it. Steffan was as great a builder as he was a warrior. When he entered, he was disappointed to find that the boar had already been killed. Father Gregor decided to prevent the laying of hands on the boar. This was a Yule solstice tradition where each person whispered a pledge to the boar to be delivered to the goddess Freya before the boar had been sacrificed, in the hope of a good year and a bountiful harvest.
“I have set up a confessional before the feast,” offered Father Gregor.
Kristoff laughed when he heard this offer and considered taking Father Gregor up on it, but then thought better of it. He looked around the church and could see by their demeanor that some others had taken the magic mushrooms. They slowly formed a group around Kristoff and began to dance and sing the Yule-joy. It was mostly the old-timers, now. They were outnumbered, but ecstatic and oblivious to the reproachful glances from the priest and some of the converts.
Oddly, Tor, the young missionary Kristoff had met earlier, approached them smiling and joined in their dance. He turned to Kristoff.
“I drank the piss!”
“I followed that dancing reindeer until he pissed in the snow and I had every drop of it.”
“Ho, ho, ho! What do you think?”
“I can’t believe it. I think understand Christ. I feel like I am Christ.”
“Ho, ho, ho!”
Kristoff was somewhat disappointed that even the sacred mushroom had been stolen by this new religion. He knew, though, that Tor was now spoiled for any more missionary work. The Church wants to keep their God hidden from its followers and feared by them. An accessible Christ would never be a part of a religion that depends on obedience. Tor was pulled away by the older missionary, Frederik, and he did not even attend the feast of the boar.
After the feast, the priest made sure that all leftover food was disposed of, to prevent the tradition of leaving food on the table for the Yuletide Ghosts. The festivities moved to the front of the church, where a large evergreen stood. Father Gregor explained that the tree was shaped like a triangle, the three points representing the holy trinity. Kristoff longed for the old oak tree. This had been a compromise from the Church leaders and, in past years when the old Banstock Hall still stood, Kristoff had decorated the evergreen tree with magic mushrooms. Father Gregor stopped him from pulling the string of mushrooms from his satchel.
“We can’t have these magic mushrooms in the church.”
The Church no longer needed to compromise. Father Gregor, continued:
“And you can’t deliver mushrooms to the villagers, anymore.”
Kristoff could barely believe his ears. There was a day when he would have taken his throwing axe and cracked a man’s skull open for such arrogance. But that day was long past. The church had won out. It had already happened in other villages. Soon, he would have to water down his worship, so that it was not threatening to the Church and practice his rituals in secret. He watched as Father Gregor handed strings of small, shriveled apples to the children of the converts for decorating the evergreen. The other children were not allowed to touch the tree. Some of them cried.
Kristoff looked at the shriveled apples and wondered if this somehow related to the story of Adam and Eve. It didn’t make sense that the fruit of sin in the Christian Bible was replacing the magic mushroom. Then it occurred to him that perhaps these apples were a message to him. The goddess Iduna’s shining apples, which kept the gods in Asgard forever young, were now reduced to this. The twilight of the gods was now upon them. Perhaps Loki’s last trick was to create this Church. The gods had been conquered and killed.
He left the church somberly, as if leaving a funeral. He boarded his sleigh and headed back. He would still make his toys for the children, he thought, but now he really was just a jovial old man in a silly red suit. He looked towards the moon and understood his own insignificance as he observed the silhouette of the reindeer. One of them had begun to dance. He smiled to himself then yelled out loud:
“Ho, ho, ho!”
Story by Steve Terranova