Mikael stared into the dark murkiness of the water as it churned from beneath the ship. It reminded him of his life. Or what was left of it after she left. In his kinder moments, he told himself that he had been young, that he had thought that he loved the woman, and more importantly, he thought she loved him too. But what did you know at twenty-six?
“Fuck, twenty-six,” he spat into the wind and waves.
The woman was twenty-six. How had he let that one escape him? Would it have made any difference?
None of his other objections had. And he had plenty. But he supposed he would have found something wrong with anyone that his brothers choose. The simple truth was that he did not want a wife. He had had one – and look how that turned out.
But the truth was that he was the very reason that their mother was pushing this so hard. Well, not him, but his little girl Monica.
She was almost five now. Still, she did not speak. Not a single word. She would not even look at you. She drew away from touch, though, at times, she would cling tightly to her grandmother’s leg or his father’s. Sometimes even Svein. Bjⱷrn was her favorite though, laughing and tossing her about. They seemed not to need words to understand one another. Him…his daughter wanted nothing to do with.
Maybe in her tiny mind, she blamed him for the loss of her mother? She had barely been two when Greta left. Packed her bag and demanded that he take her back to Germany, back home. He had begged and pleaded, sworn that he would give up fishing, get a ‘normal’ job, and stay home. He had promised that they would move to the city. Anything if she would just stay. She had refused all his entreaties.
As he had picked up their daughter, the enormity of it all came to a head. Greta had asked him what he was doing. When he replied that he was taking them back, like she asked, his wife had informed him that she wanted to go home – alone. She wanted no part of him, no reminder of their life together, not even their child.
Mikael was not sure whether he was elated that at least he was not losing his child or angry at a woman who could so callously turn her back on her own flesh and blood. He had decided to go with both. Despite all the difficulties, he loved his daughter, dearly.
His daughter? Maybe that was his problem with this whole thing? After a lifetime of sharing everything, every meager thing they had, Mikael had always longed to step out of Svein’s shadow. To have something all his own. He thought he had that when he met Greta. Though he knew he was breaking with hundreds of years of tradition, he was confident that the old ways were dead. Wrong even.
After all, how barbaric was it – kidnapping a woman, sharing her among all the brothers, never even being absolutely positively sure if a child was yours or a nephew? They had always known that their way of life was an anathema to the modern cities that they visited. But it went deeper than that. From the time that they set foot outside of the Holding, their little world, and went into town to shop with their mother, the boys had known that they were different.
Mikael had not wanted to be different. He had wanted his own ship. His own wife. His own home. His own child. He shook his light brown head as the late autumn darkness enveloped him. Maybe he should have found the strength to leave long ago.
He might not be a computer genius like Bjⱷrn. The sea might be all that he knew, like his fathers and Svein. He might not even be captain, but he had the skills necessary to find work on any ship. Perhaps one of the shipping lines that they birthed alongside in the ports was looking for a first mate.
But he was tired of being just a first mate – second best. It was what he had been all his life. What he was with his wife and even his child.
“I have been looking for you,” came the voice from behind him.
“I figured you would be,” he replied flatly.
This was the moment he had wanted to avoid. Had honestly hoped would never come. He reminded himself that Svein was not the enemy. That he had no more choice in the life, they shared than he did. It had merely been a spin of Fortuna’s wheel that had dealt them the cards that determined their fates. Svein’s as elder brother shouldered the full weight of their collective futures alone. And his as…first mate, second best.
“I sent Bjⱷrn to feed the woman,” Svein said stiffly. His brother was not a man for whom words came readily. He had never been. He was a man who simply did whatever was necessary…for the good of everyone else.
“She has a name. Kirsty,” Mikael was uncertain why he was defending the woman.
He wanted no part in this tradition, this marriage, if you could call it that. It certainly never would be by the world in which they lived. They were freaks, and any children born of the union were doomed to be freaks too…just as they had been from the time they were little.
Perhaps it was the very fact that some part of him still clung to the hope that he could convince them all to abandon this foolish idea? And what? To admit to themselves that the world was changing around them? That their very way of life was over? That was hard enough for him to accept. Let alone Svein…or his mother and father.
Only Bjⱷrn had a real chance at a ‘normal’ life. If they would concede and allow his youngest brother to go to college, study computers that he loved so much. But the kid lacked the will to break with traditions, so he clung to the ancient ways, and found his joy where he could in designing the games he loved so much — staying up late into the night in the bunk beneath Mikael’s.
Who knew maybe it was his fault? If his marriage had succeeded? If he had shown the way? That the old way was not the only one? That they could be men in their own rights, not just sons of the sea as their fathers before them, and their fathers’ fathers back through time to the ancient Vikings that had spawned them. But he had not. He had failed. And he was failing now too.
“I told him not to give her any details until we joined them,” his brother gripped the rail next to him until his knuckles shone as white as the moon that kept peeking between the clouds.
Mikael nodded, “I’ll go up and steer for a bit. You join Bjⱷrn. The two of you don’t need me,” he said aloud the words that he had been practicing all day, perhaps for a lifetime.
Svein spun to face him. His brother’s face contorted in rage, “You know it is not like that. This has always been an all or nothing thing. You agreed. You gave mother your word. Does that mean nothing to you anymore?”
Mikael felt anger and shame dueling inside of his chest, making it tight until he swore that he could not breathe. But his brother was far from finished with him. That was the thing about Svein; he was like the depths of the sea that they fished. He might appear glassy calm at times, but deep beneath were currents that pulled you under with unexpected strength.
And when the storms of life stirred those waters, when they reached deep beneath those waters to the bottom of that sea, flotsam and jetsam, which were never meant to see the light of the sun, were tossed recklessly upon the shores. Cleaning it up was never a pleasant task. Mikael steeled himself for the storm that was to come. Who knew perhaps he deserved all that his brother would throw at him?
“Mother has slaved for three years to raise your child, Mikael. She is not a young woman. You know how her bones ache, how her joints swell more each winter. Yet, she runs after a small child. Don’t get me wrong; we all know that she does not mind. None of us do. But that does not make it easy,” he paused for a moment, whether to take a breath or allow his words to sink in, Mikael did not know.
“Do you have any idea how hard these past few years have been for her? It is not just losing our fathers one by one. That is the inevitable passage of time that we all must learn to deal with — but watching us grow into men, seeing the struggles that each of us faces between the old and the new? Do you think that is easy for her? Did your father ever tell you her story?”
Mikael shook his head. He preferred to lock away the few memories he had beyond Petrine, the rock, as she had chosen to call herself.
The woman, who had loved four men the same but differently, giving to each what he needed and taking from him that which he was able to give in return. She had patched together a loving family that had provided their three sons with stability that most modern nuclear families could not…love and discipline in the measure that each needed. That was all he needed to know of the woman that gave birth to him.
Or so he thought as Svein continued, “You know that she is American. She was a flower child of the sixties, hitchhiking across Europe in the early seventies when she met our fathers. Anders fell instantly under her spell. You can still see shades of the beauty that she once was. I remember it well, and trust me, she could have given that blonde lingerie supermodel a run for her money.”
Mikael nodded as both of them relaxed and leaned against the railing once more. When his brother finally got to talking, it was never a short conversation, “The thing about Mama is that she is that rarest of treasures: a woman who is more beautiful on the inside than the out.”
“Anders saw that. And while she spouted dreams of sexual liberation and equality of that time, she also longed for the meadows and fields of the commune where she had once lived in California. He said he always knew that with time and love, this woman could be the One.”
‘The One,’ it was the term that was always used to describe her…the bride. Mikael had grown up hearing stories of the valor of his forefathers who had gone to sea and war to maintain their way of life. But he had heard just as many tales of the women, who had fought alongside these men to keep hearth and home. The Ones were rare, but then again, that was at it was meant to be. Each generation had only to find one woman. One woman capable of loving them and of bearing and raising the sons that would continue it all.
Oh, there were the occasional daughters, like his Monica. They were treasured and loved, spoiled almost by fathers and uncles, as well as their mothers. In ages gone by, they trained and traded, sometimes with others who practiced the ancient ways. But that no longer held. To their knowledge, their family alone held to the old ways. What would become of Monica was very much undecided, partly because of her differences…
“But his brothers were not so sure. She was brash, loud, and very opinionated,” his brother chuckled.
The tension seeped a bit further away. “Maybe Mama has not changed so much after all. Anders recognized that was what they needed, someone strong enough to stand up to the winds of time that were blowing everything they knew away. One by one, he introduced them to her. Rachel, she was called then. And slowly, they began to see it too.”
He sighed, “But it was not easy, not in the beginning anyway. When it was time for them to return to the sea, they took her with them. Yes, took. Kidnapped…captured just as tradition dictated. Mama always said that if Anders had asked, she might well have gone of her own free will. But that was not their way. And when they told her of their ways…”
Svein’s laughter joined with the crashing waves and howling wind to create a symphony as beautiful as the woman they spoke of. “Well, you have seen Mama’s temper. You can imagine what happened then.”
“Four brothers and one wife. She wanted no part of such barbaric ways, and she told them so. In very colorful ways and in all the languages that she knew. You know that gash above the door in my cabin?”
Mikael nodded, entranced by his brother’s talent for storytelling. No wonder it was he who Monica wanted to tuck her when they were home. “Mama did that. She threw one of the hooks that Lars was repairing at them. Almost took Lars’s eye out,” he said. “But she always said it was Anders she was aiming for, for getting her into the mess.”
Mikael could almost picture it. Their mother with one of the long hooks that they used for moving and separating the fish in her hand, using it like a javelin or spear to defend herself. It was so much like her.
Yet, over the years, it was them and their fathers, their way of life that she had come to defend. He frowned as he tried to imagine that transformation. How the hippie feminist that his brother was describing became the earth mother whose love was the glue that held them all together? Their rock as she was called now.
His brother smiled, “Yes, I can see it. You are wondering too. How did Mama come to accept her fate? To love our fathers and us. To fight with every breath inside of her to save our way of life that the world would say is wrong. Ask her yourself, Mikael. That part of the story is not mine to tell. I told you this much only so you would understand how important this is to her.”
Svein sucked in a great lung full of air, so profoundly that the sound of it rose above the waves and wind. “Do you think this is what I want?” He shook his head and waved his hand towards the sea, “Njörður’s Captive is my wife. And Rán, my mistress. They are all I have ever wanted.”
His brother sighed heavily, releasing more than just air in that final whoosh as the truth of their situation dawned on both men.
“But Mama is right. What we want and what we need is not always the same thing. I wanted your marriage to work, maybe even more than you did. Then none of this would have fallen to me. Your sons and Bjⱷrn’s could have taken over in a few years when we are too old for this shit.”
His brother shook his head, “But we cannot change the past, neither of us. And maybe Mama is right; maybe this life is too tough for any of us. Maybe it truly does take more than one man to give a woman enough love to bear all of the pain that comes with life and enough courage and strength to love in return.”
Mikael nodded as he thought about his brother’s words, about his mother’s as well. Was that where he had gone wrong with Greta? Had she needed more than he alone could give her? Would Bjⱷrn’s laughter have smoothed the way to wedded bliss as he bet even know his little brother was doing below deck? Would Svein’s quiet wisdom have lit the pathway when he had no idea which direction to turn?
He doubted it. Greta had never possessed his mother’s strength nor her selfless capacity for love. She was not ‘the One’ and never could have been. She could not have adapted any better to three simple fishermen husbands than she could to one.
Could this one? Could Kirsty do any better? Did she have the strength of spirit that had sustained their mother through the loss of three men that she loved, each very differently but all with equal ferocity? Could she give up the chaos of the big city for the quiet, almost lonely solitude that forced one to examine the deeper side of life…and themselves? Could she embrace that and find the beauty in it as their mother had with her wildflowers? And her equally wild sons.
That was the question that weighed deepest upon Mikael. More importantly, did this woman possess enough of their mother’s seemingly endless capacity to love for her to embrace the wild and all too quiet little girl that was all he truly cared about?
His brother was right, and Svein’s words reminded him of others that their mother had whispered into his ear as they set sail, “Mikael, I will not always be here for Monica. Your little girl needs more than an old woman can give. As much as I love that little girl, and you know I do, she needs a mother.”
She had drawn back with a soft kiss to his bearded cheek and a firm slap in the same spot, “You know what you must do.”
She had thumped his chest with a smile before turning back to look at the tiny package wrapped in her thickest winter coat and lifted high in his father’s arms. “You know in here. I taught you well. We showed you the way. But you alone can find your way back to it…back to us.”
He shook his head and cursed that wheel of Fate once more, but he knew that what they spoke was true…both of them. Right now, he had to face his Fate. And stand shoulder to shoulder with his brothers to embrace a tradition almost as old as their way of life.
He only hoped that together, they had used more wisdom to choose ‘the One’ than he had shown when he picked Greta. But that too was supposedly one of the benefits of this way; sometimes three heads were better than one. Or he sure hoped so.
He sighed as he stepped back from the rail. With a final glance at the moon as she peeked her face once more behind a cloud, he gave the only answer that he could, “Alright, let’s go. I know he is better looking than we are and probably smarter too, but we can’t foist this whole thing off on the poor kid. He is, after all, just one man.”
Because after all his mother said, he knew the truth when he saw it, and deep inside, he knew this felt right as his brother laughed into the wind and waves, and wrapped his arm about his shoulder. Together the two men turned to face the fate that neither of them fully wanted, but both of them needed to the depths of their dark souls.