In which Odin hangs from a tree and seriously contemplates poetry, oysters and the possibility of tentacles, among other things.
Under the ash tree
It all began with a torn-off scrap of crumpled parchment, stained with mead, black-spotted where Thor had evidently used it to flatten ants. At some point, Thor had written on it a badly scanned ode to his quest for the perfect weapon, then scratched it out. One of his Valkyries had delivered it with an expression of mingled doubt and distaste on her face, holding it by the tips of her fingers out at arm's length, then wiped her hand on her tunic once he consented to take it from her.
Odin spent several minutes trying to decide if Thor wanted him to check the spelling (which was appalling), ask his opinion (which he intended to avoid giving as far as possible) or desired advice on a rhyme (which was entirely out of the question). Or horror of horrors, perhaps Thor planned to dedicate the ode to him and sing it at the next feast. There was a limit to blindly doting parental pride, and Odin had reached his during that unspeakable, always-to-be-regretted incident with the roast boar, the wet log and the torched chair on Thor's third birthday.
Finally, he thought to turn the parchment over, and indeed, on the side that did not have the ode on it were more of the smudged and crooked runes that generally passed for Thor's writing. It was hard to tell, but he thought somewhere a monster in distress was involved, and there was a slavering damsel that needed to be battled, and if the adjectives seemed misplaced, it was hardly unusual given that Thor drove his thoughts the way Freya drove her cats, though it was equally possible Thor had meant to say what he seemed to say. In any case, Thor had hared off to Jotunheim to deal with one or the other or both, and did not plan to come back for dinner.
This much was plain enough, or at least uncomplicated, but he would never be able to say afterwards how Thor's sticky missive had led to his current predicament. He blamed it wholly on the walrus. No one could possibly be faulted for losing all coherent thought in their heads when accosted by a walrus while hanging upside down from an unexpected ash tree on a sunny moonlit beach to the symphony of playfully rolling waves breaking across the golden sand.
"Would you like an oyster?" asked the walrus lugubriously, indicating a small troupe of shivering young oysters behind him. "They're very tender." Behind him, a nondescript youth carrying a hammer and a plank of wood with nails on it blew his nose into a handkerchief with a loud and somehow doleful-sounding honk. The oysters wept.
Odin stared down at the oysters, which looked very fresh and very pathetic. His head was swimming from the sudden rush of blood and he felt a little queasy. "No, thank you?"
"No? Well, all right then. Farewell." The walrus shrugged indifferently and continued waddling down the beach. All the tragic oysters hopped after it except for the littlest one, which had fallen over a rock and couldn't get up. He felt a flash of pity for the tiny oyster crying after its friends on the sand, then finally gathered his wits and called after the odd company moving on down the beach, "Hey, wait! Aren't you going to help me down from here?"
The walrus waved its flipper in the kind of absent-minded acknowledgement that indicated it had heard without registering his words, and began to tell the oysters a story as they receded into the distance, but the carpenter boy stopped and turned to look at him, expression quizzical. "Help!" Odin shouted again, waving his arms frantically.
With an impatient sigh, the boy turned and trudged back towards Odin. "Shouldn't you have thought of a way to get down before you went and hanged yourself up there?" asked the boy.
"I didn't hang myself up there!" Odin snapped, indignant, then realized he couldn't swear that he hadn't strung himself up because he didn't remember how he came to be hanging from the tree. He devoutly hoped the boy didn't know how he got up there either, but it was only a slight hope, because the boy was nodding agreeably with a look on his face that said he was just humouring the lunatic, who could say whatever he liked but not change the facts. Odin decided that he did not like this impertinent brat at all.
"So what are you doing up there?" asked the boy, sitting down on the sand with the little oyster. Both of them stared up at him expectantly, as though expecting him to tell them a story. Neither seemed in the least concerned about his plight.
He counted to seven and stopped when he started to see sheep and stars and thought he might fall unconscious, afraid the two would go on their way and leave him hanging there. "You! Boy, can you get me down from this tree? Please? Forget how I got up here."
The boy looked down and hammered another nail through his plank, then hefted it and gave it an experimental swing. Then he looked up at Odin and smiled. The little oyster somehow contrived to look bloodthirsty.
Odin began to feel deeply concerned for his personal health and well-being. He was also beginning to feel a little thirsty, and thought that he might eat the oyster after all.
"I'm looking for my son," he said, hoping to distract them. The boy rose to his feet, and Odin flinched reflexively, the movement causing him to swing slightly from side to side. He felt even more dizzy. "Have you seen him? He's probably around your age." The boy smiled in his upside-down face and helped the swinging along by giving him a push. "Hey!"
"He's not," said the boy, his voice serene and very old. "It's so quiet here," he went on, apropos of nothing, as Odin grabbed at the tree to steady himself. Then the boy pushed Odin again.
"What the - stop that! What are you talking about? Ah!"
"Your children are cruel, All-Father," chided the boy as the bark crumbled under Odin's grasp and he swung free again. "Can you not control them?" He pushed Odin lightly, just enough to keep him swinging. Odin squeezed his eyes shut, but it did not help the vertigo or the pressure in his head.
"Thor isn't cruel, only thoughtless," Odin said, and grabbed the boy's sleeve when he reached out to push Odin again. "Who are you?" he demanded, furious, then the boy grinned, showing sharp white teeth, and all of a sudden his smile was the brightest thing against the grey sea, the grey sky and the grey sand - "you," he breathed, "you are..."
"You're the one who is cruel, then, if you will not stop him," the boy murmured musingly, pulling his arm free and hefting his plank. "It's so lonely here."
"I've tried speaking to him," he tried reasonably, spreading his hands. "But he has to defend himself too. You know how your people get." He smiled at the boy, trying to look as helpless as he could - not a difficult proposition given the situation. "I'd like him to stay home more," he said in a soft, indulgent voice, as though embarrassed by the admission, and the boy came closer to listen.
Odin grabbed the boy and kissed him, and the world turned around. He was lying on his back on gravely ground, small stones and dried twigs sticking in his back, the boy leaning over him was a pale young man in stark black robes straddling his waist, the dusty taste of dry earth was on his lips. The young man froze for a moment, almost relaxing into the kiss, then wrenched himself away, struggling to draw his sword, but Odin kept a death grip on his upper arms and twisted around to reverse their positions and pin him instead. "Enough games," he told the man, and let him go.
They were on the beach again with the weeping oyster. Odin sat up and picked up the little creature, and it became a dry, sandy shell. "It's all an illusion, isn't it?" he said.
The man looked around the beach. Odin followed his gaze in the direction the walrus had gone, and there were only bleached bones half-buried in the ash-coloured sand. He turned back to the man, who regarded him with quiet resignation. "It is quiet here."
On impulse, Odin reached out and caught his arm again. "You don't have to stay in this place. Come to Asgard with me. I will make a place for you there." The man stared at him for several heartbeats, obviously nonplussed. It was regrettably awkward.
"I can imagine it," said the man, his hair shining dully in the watery daylight like tarnished silver, pale eyes the burning white of the sun in an overcast sky. "Leaving this place. I can imagine," he said, glancing over the endless beach and dry shells, and the white, white bones in the sand. "That's why I cannot go with you," he said, deliberately, pulling his arm free.
As he rose to leave, Odin tried to get to his feet and realised his legs were still trapped - entangled by writhing serpents. He was fairly certain they were not really serpents, but on the other hand, there was definitely something holding onto his legs, and he wasn't sure if the reality would be better than the serpents. While he hesitated, the man smiled and waved at him, and vanished like a dream on waking.
"Father," said Thor, hovering over him and smelling of sweat, dirt and blood. "What are you doing here?"
Odin blinked and sat up; his legs were lodged under the twisted roots of a long-withered ash exposed by the elements. "Help me out."
"Why are you so clumsy?" Thor muttered, and set to work cutting him free. "Who is that?" he asked, motioning to the side.
Odin turned and looked at the strange youth who lay drowsing beside him, half-unsurprised. The stranger startled awake and looked around in growing confusion. "Who are you? Where am I? /Who am I?/" Odin put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"I am Odin, and this is my son, Thor." Odin paused, considering the bright gold hair and the spark of something very like fire in his sky-blue eyes. "You can be Logi."
"What?" said Thor.
The youth stared at him. "Loki?"
"That will work too. Come on, it's time to go home."
Characters etc belong to Kinoshita Sakura and Lewis Carroll.