A snake

A girl

A wolf

The snake swallows.

The girl raises.

The wolf breaks.

Ginnungagap once brought forth what would return its emptiness

All begat in a river that wouldn't stay its course, a forming of borders in order to cross them.

I read about an area of the North Sea reputed to have been the inspiration for Ginnungagap, the great nothing present before the universe began. Nothing but Muspelheim's encroaching heat and a cold drip from Niflheim.

What makes that area of sea different than the surrounding water? Depth churn, distance from land, border and eschewing of boundary at once? A need for chaos to infiltrate? Because even in a nothing, chaos infiltrates.

Defined islands, blooming flower askew.

I draw how the forgotten continents open and stack with a pencil, ink sloppily, and fill in the gaps between sketch and finality with liquid ink. Membranous forms, pained and torn tissue to spaces that could have been erased, whose borders are accepted as the pasts that always have been.

Nothing lies under. All infiltrates.

What is the pain before creation? What is the hole in the belly? What fills the nothing with clouds and a gathering?

The dream of a snake to circle the world. Strangled cock's crow. The destiny of a bound and feared beast to swallow the binding and fearful gods.

Gullinkambi crows once

The scream that saves the world, almost. The cry that warns.

Crow begins the motions of what it warns, high atop the tree of life. Or perhaps that’s another bird perched in Yggdrasil. All we have: the Överhogdal tapestries, a bouquet of names on maps, trinity of birds—Golden-comb, forest-rooster Fjalar, Hel—cock—calling and echoing the coming wake.

That signals to me a cock-craver, sneers Loki, drunk and before-bound. Laughing god. Before pain, before shudder that shakes Midgard, before the cock shrieks in the darkness, high atop the ash where he eyes the three fates spinning below.

Each spine a small pointed world.

I forget when inking that all worlds end sooner and more bluntly than intended. The sharp, sweeping lines bleed into black, a swallowing of detail until the form that’s left is, not skeletal, but half-eaten.

If I were a god in mind of consequences and the trajectories of creation—if I were a god that considered the workings of faith and not simply its endpoints—I’d draw bigger, more elaborate. I’d draw a creation meant to retain its given body in the devouring ink.

Gullinkambi: the warning and initiation both. All ends need to be marked with a holler. All ends need to be set in motion.

Subsumption of cocky strut, eyes bleeding into darkness. How wonderful in a drawing not to consider: how forms will someday look, how shapes and lines will always yield to their inevitable surroundings. How wonderful to have no vision of finality. Rendering an act of blindness all along the way.

To move blindingly toward. Render without reckoning the fate of swallow, of darkness. Flame on golden comb.

The girl raises an army of the dishonorable dead

The girl rises and bleeds her shape into the darkness, the frost of Helheim. I’ve always pictured her skinny, a wraith in a nightgown just awakened, uncomprehending.

Her domain: all the inglorious dead. Babysitter for the leftovers, the nonviolent who couldn’t attain Valhalla or Folkvangr.

Some army she’ll raise. Those who haven’t killed, those who won’t, and the mercenaries who were born to it. Pacifists, farmers, and the enraged.

Does she hear or feel the call to it, Golden-Comb crowing the beginning? Does she gather her vanguard, explain the end times to the ended? And when they look on their earth a day or a century later, how have they changed? How will they be the horde she needs them to be?

Hel raised, brushing sleep from her eyes.

Banished, responsible girl. Earthquakes of her father’s venomed spasms above her.

I consider details—long tendrils of hair, shadows in the drooping curves, but I only want Hel to float and flatten, to stay a ghost. She's buried, anonymous, tender of the garden of the dead.

I don't know what she ever wanted, how she moves, how she judges or apportions her flock of souls. I don't know if she's cruel or sad or kind, if she views her life as punishment or glad stricture.

I know that girls who choose passivity or self-sacrifice over supposed strength are often trying to avert a bloodbath, the betrayal of one's own. A tearing down of how things are, followed by the turning when the teardown comes for you.

Hel as dungeon-master in her dungeon cell, weighing the blood cost by fighting, by the endless and twisting teardown, asleep until the cock sets in motion what can't be stopped.

Jörmungandr swallows the sea

Sun melts into the sea. Moonlight unmasked melds to the surface, all still.

Collapsing toward: antidote to the flung-away fears of the gods. Curving around and against, doubling up. Illusory, curves too black. Separating snake into black sea, into piecemeal.

Maybe piecemeal was what it had been wishing for all these years in its wretched self-consuming completion, a wish when it burst forth and swallowed the thunder, brought the sky down.

Jörmungandr, name even a winding. Depths of the giant-blood and tears of first life, as if to be earth-bound was to know that Midgard was other and old and awaiting the doom written into its surfaces.

I wake in the night to a stomachache and a girl screaming, "but you're my boyfriend" outside the window. Stomach pain from back melded into front, hunched over the inking for hours.

Sensuous illusion, joining points precisely to wind back into front, then front yielding to back. Aqueous undulation, but the more I draw the overturn, the more the snake twists. It forms a shape that looks like harbinger. Crushed vertebrae, disorientation in the ink.

When you draw the children of the gods, you have to break their spines to give them meaning. Or to trigger your heart that only beats hot in the presence of harm. Rhythm to halt harm in the first place too late or misremembered.

Sköll and Hati swallow the sun and moon

An old legend about the eclipses: the wolves chasing the sun and moon across the sky have captured the plasma or stone in their jaws. Scream at them until they startle and drop their prey.

For months, I drew dinosaur skulls out of a field guide, then human vertebrae and skeletal feet, then canids. The precision of where bone joins, especially bone as sheet or plate: cranium, pelvis, spinal tower of articulations.

A superstition that I may cause harm to all living creatures by rendering inaccurately, as if drawing were a persuasive conversation with billions of genetic years. Though we carry the corpses of all the genes that once formed us, gave rise to an embryo that built a segmented backbone, assembled blood and beating heart just so.

And with skulls and how they are puzzled, it's always: become, becoming, behemoth. The wolf Fenrir, Allfather-killer, sired two sons: Sköll and Hati. Sköll can mean treachery, mockery, or fear: all forms of betrayal. Hati is simply hate. Sköll chases the sun, Hati the moon, shadows always a threat in the sky.

A collapsing toward. A flung outward, yet a balance struck. Lack of individuality boasted by archetypes. Still the perfect bone at the heart of the hate, still the betrayed birthed by puzzled bone. Just so.

All the stars dying, swallowed or banished, all the vanquished light drawn to the heart of the shade.

Odin is killed, and Huginn and Muninn meet the sweet throb

I’ve always drawn forms or lines, then connected them at random points and watched for what appeared. I’ve always been mindful of kindness toward one-eyed men.

Allfather with sword and shield and great glaring eye. Knowing he’ll lose against the wolf he feared enough to cast away, to bind in torment.

The world ends when the fears of the gods can no longer be hidden and leashed to earth. When the Allfather pushes his fears—a snake, a girl, a wolf—away, he starts a war that will consume him. And what is it to love your creation if your dread brings about its consumption?

A snake. A girl. A wolf. The snake swallows. The girl raises. The wolf breaks.

I didn’t know the ravens loved each other until I drew them, tumbling. Heads bent toward, soft curves of neck particular to birds. Sweet throb of it, then horror at my solid bones.

No softness to my hands. The gods carved humans from a piece of wood.

It’s why we can see softness, love, protection of a wing, a bowed head as the world goes headlong, our dual nature of killer and ash-heart yearning toward sweet throb. What will fate have us do with all this love?

Fenrir crying out, aggrieved. Bound limbs now free. Allfather glaring as if being a god were enough to forestall the fires that come. Huginn and Muninn tumbling, loving, guarding.

Is it worship to draw the destruction of the gods? Is it pity, sweet throb?

What makes your heart unfold, calls forth the adoration, reveals the softness at your neck? The fates unchanging, glorious?

Or the fates unmoored and raven-plunging with a snake, a girl, a wolf?

Visions of Muspelheim

Forms that exist inside one another and reaching, the same pouring into that occurred at creation, only heat with different purpose, only the overtaking of beings and fates instead of Ginnungagap, the nothing that begat the world with a little heat to begin.

Like the oak savanna or the prairie grasses that hold fast, the strong parts that both withstand and need the flame are hidden far beneath the soil.

When I draw the flames of Muspelheim, now broken away and grown, now consuming, I flick the licking tips, make lobster claws and unexpected graspings. Gregarious splittings, plasmic shifts captured in the barely-skirting brush tip.

I’m afraid of fire, of inescapable pain and spasm, of the delight in what’s burned. After inking the Muspelheim ravage, I take a shower to see how much heat I can stand: not much. My heart pounds, cold fills my belly. Melting to Muspelheim and Niflheim in the gap of my fear.

Fire leaves ugliness, blackened carbon star stuff we claim to be, as if we could in any way accommodate a change of form. As if we didn’t love our shapes enough that fear of fire was one of our earliest. We want beauty without the sense of it. Consumption with no awful transformation.

We want to watch without recognizing all that an element is: creation and destruction, pain and delight, and we want to look away from where the overlap occurs even as we bury it, humming, with our great terrors.

For the gods: battles with their long-ago cast-away fears. Final meeting eons in the making, a touch of fire too expected. But for us, for Midgard, only a wash of pain, a thorough annihilation.

When I draw what I envision, the flames are connected, rising and scouring. They reach and harbor, displace the dark. They carve the air, transform in a moment.

Freyja remains to receive blót

A rain of blood, she stays behind. She survives, lynchpin between Midgard and Vanaheim. Always other, the beautiful guest.

A god drenched. How long until she’s sick of sacrifice, how long until she can say she never wanted it? Poor thing, poor god. A rain of blot, and she survives only under.

I used first a screwdriver, then a brush dipped in India ink whose once-yellow bristles stayed grey. Stormclouds, congested heart. Stroke over and over; the surface never turns black. The motion of the straight screwdriver with the loose handle, or a child’s watercolor brush with a blue plastic handle from a pack of five, gives the blot a belly, an under-curve.

Once I tried to draw a small eel toy with a toddler and her mother, and the part of the eel that wound was too illusory—over and under and turning. I could see it, but I couldn’t draw it, and I gave up.

Funny to think I’ve tried every permutation while one or many escape me. As if I’ll only see what I want, rather than what I please, even when it’s something as simple as a series of joined lines.

Being sick is the strongest she will ever be. I’m sick of the killing, a friend said on a long-ago Election Day. She won't choose more war, but the wars will continue. The rains fall on some crumpled other, and what angel can separate god from sacrifice among the drenched?

This is where I lose the magic in the Ragnarök maps, in the illusion of guest. In the poor thing. Moment of pity for the gift’s adored.

For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.

Natalie Vestin is the author of Gomorrah, Baby (Anchor & Plume, 2017) and Shine a light, the light won’t pass (MIEL, 2015). Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, The Iowa Review, Passages North, and elsewhere. She works in antimicrobial resistance and stewardship research in Minnesota.

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Ever since I got rid of my car, I walk to downtown Saint Paul using the Walnut Street stairway—425 feet of walled rock steps built into a crumbling cliffside. Not many people know about the stairway. On most satellite maps, it's flattened and identified as "Unknown Road." Local archaeologists will occasionally excavate the area around the steps and make lists that pretend not to distinguish between past and present: drain tile, 17 teeth, milk bottle fragments, razor with one blade.