This is an older story of mine, but appropriate for this time of year. Hope you enjoy it!
Crossing the Divide
Sholto Douglas balanced on the old stone, seawall overlooking the ruins. The chilly October wind whipped around him, chilling his skin. The scent of salt and seaweed, stirred up by last night’s storm, filled his nostrils. His older brother should be here, not him. But James had been killed in a car accident nine months ago. So the task at hand fell to him. Even if he believed it was all bullshit.
Except he didn’t know what to do. Sure, he had directions scribbled on an abused piece of parchment, handed down for generations. He’d tried to do some research before flying here, searched out a few pagans and witches. Some of them looked at him like he had two heads and said the whole idea was crazy. What the parchment said was simply not possible. Which was pretty much his own conclusion.
But others, the ones who seemed more well balanced said, yes, he needed to do this ritual. It was possible the annual rite was one of the elements holding the world together, and of great importance. Even if it didn’t make sense logically. Any action taken to enhance the earth’s energy at this fragile time might be important in saving the planet.
They’d given him a few leads on how to go about it, things to try, but he was really out of his league here. He’d never even known about all this. Anger surged in him; why hadn’t Dad or James ever mentioned it when they’d been alive?
So here he stood. On the Mainland, which is what the natives called Orkney, even though it was an island. He’d left as an infant in his mother’s arms. Now, they were all gone. His entire family, one by one, had passed from this world. And he was a thirty-five year old man trying to keep alive a tradition, which no one knew about and he didn’t even believe in.
James hadn’t had the same problem. Maybe because as the eldest, he was groomed to perform the ritual by Dad and trusted it implicitly. Every year James had returned here at the end of the Celtic Year and performed it. After business school, he’d settled here, fallen in love and married. But there had been no children to pass the ritual to. His wife emigrated to the U.S. right after James died.
After his death, James’ Solicitor had sent Sholto the sealed envelope which James had addressed to him. The letter inside it read: “Hey Bro. If you’re reading this, then I’m dead and gone. You need to take up the family mantle here. I know this will sound insane, but our family has done this for generations, before recorded history. The job is passed from father to son, or brother to brother. (Sexist, I know. I don’t know enough about it to be sure if a woman could make it work. Either way you better get busy procreating or find more relatives. I’ve had no luck with either, which is why this letter. As far as I know, we’re the last of our bloodline.)
Basically, our family has been in charge of saving the world for a very long time. At the end of the Celtic New Year (dusk on October 31) you need to be on the beach on Orkney. Ready to do this ritual. Now I know you’re a geek and don’t believe in ‘woo woo’ stuff. But whether you believe or not, you MUST do this. I’m not giving you a choice here. I didn’t have one when Dad passed it on to me and neither do you if I have to pass it on to you. The instructions for the ritual are enclosed. Don’t deviate from it until you’ve done it for a few years, then you’ll know what you can change and what you can’t. And be careful. Do not trust what the ritual brings, trust only yourself. I wouldn’t tell any of the villagers about this, we’ve always hidden it from them. I hope you never have to read this letter.” Enclosed with the letter was a rough, shiny, black stone set in silver on a long silver chain and the ragged parchment containing instructions written in Scot’s Gaelic with translations into English scribbled in James’ handwriting.
He got the letter three months after James died. Just after starting the relationship with Angie. And now he would have to hide this from her. How could he have a relationship where he had to hide something so huge?
Besides, Sholto told himself, he was a technical writer. He wrote computer software manuals. Ritual and faith felt alien to him. He believed in logic and technology and that people generally screwed things up. He included himself in that category. So how could he be responsible for the fate of the world?
Out in the bay, seals barked as if laughing at him. He jumped down from the wall and walked back to his rental car. He’d have a beer and dinner, then to bed. Tomorrow was the big day, or night. He needed to start at dusk. Which was early so far north at this time of year. About five, the B&B owner had told him.
His body clock felt totally confused and he was groggy. He hadn’t really slept on the planes from Seattle to Newark to Edinburgh to Kirkwall. He had no idea what time it was or what time his body thought it was. He’d left his watch and cell phone in his suitcase, back at the B&B.
This trip was about letting go of all that. Somehow, he needed to find a way back to having a connection to the natural world and complete this ritual. If only for James.
He pulled up outside his lodgings and walked down the street to a restaurant the B&B owner had recommended. Sholto barely tasted his salmon and salad. The beer was hoppy and added to his exhaustion, yet left him with a feeling of ease and took the edge off his anxiety. He rubbed his eyes and the two days growth of beard which extended beyond his shaggy sideburns. He needed a shower and shave. Maybe tomorrow. He paid and returned to his room to sleep.
The next day he woke late. After he dressed in worn, black jeans and a black T-shirt, he gathered up his supplies, newspaper, lighter, matches, a votive candle inside a glass container and the parchment with the ritual, putting them all in his empty backpack. He slipped the pendant on under his shirt and grabbed his jacket.
He had long since missed breakfast and lunch, but the owner pressed a couple of muffins, and tea in a disposable cup, into his hands as he walked out the door. He drove out to the ruins again and drank the hot tea in the car, which somehow made him feel better. The clock on the dashboard said 15:55. He did the math, it was almost four. An hour until he needed to begin the ritual.
He parked alongside the road. There was no parking lot near these ruins. They were fairly hidden and not many tourists made it out here, preferring to go to the more well travelled Skara Brae. It was well past tourist season anyway.
As he got out of the car, the strong, cold wind hit him hard. He zipped his jacket tighter, wishing he’d remembered gloves. It wasn’t raining, yet, but felt like it could start at any time. He walked down to the beach. The tide was out and sea birds whirled on the zephyrs. He didn’t know what any of them were. Seals barked and he could just make out their dark shapes bobbing in the water past the rocks.
Walking along the beach, he noticed it divided into two distinct strips. The first, stretching along the current water line was sandy; the other strip lay above the high tide line and was made of shale-like rocks. Where he lived, on the other side of the planet, beaches were generally either sandy or rocky, not both.
The sun shone between clouds, but it didn’t seem to affect the temperature. It felt about forty degrees at most. He collected a few small, empty shells, passed around a stranded jellyfish. There were several small crab carcasses, some of which the birds were arguing over.
Sholto picked up some dried kelp on the rocky side of the beach and several pieces of wood.
On top of the ancient seawall he crumpled newspaper and piled the dry kindling over it, forming a pyramid. He added dried kelp and sprinkled beach sand in a circle around the wood. He spaced the shells evenly on top of the sand. Then he wrapped the rest of the dried kelp around a small stick and set it aside.
Sholto removed his shoes, socks, jacket and shirt, shivering in the chilled air. Then put his jacket back on. The ritual specified a bare chest, not necessarily arms and back. He rolled up his pants, so they’d stay dry, and walked back down to the beach.
“Spirits of the West and the Sea, I ask you to join this circle.” He waded into the frigid water up to his knees, feeling sand, shells and other things beneath his feet, before his toes went numb. He bent and scooped up some sea water into the paper cup, carrying it back to his altar and setting the cup down, before dribbling some water over his head. Sholto glanced around hoping no one was watching, he felt awkward.
“Spirits of the North and the Earth, I ask you to join this circle,” he read from the parchment. He picked up a handful of sand and sprinkled it around the firewood as well as over his head.
Dusk approached and he lit his stick wrapped in seaweed with the lighter and said, “Spirits of the East and the Air, I ask you to join this circle.” He turned counter clockwise, making a stream of smoke around himself with the burning stick.
When he’d done that three times, he used the burning stick to light the newspaper fire. “Spirits of the South and Fire, I ask you to join this circle.” He lit the candle with the stick and blew on the newspaper, waiting for it to really catch fire, then added more wood.
He pulled the pendant from under the jacket and held it out, “Spirits of the Center, the Mystery of the World, I ask you to join this circle.”
As he waited, Sholto tried not to think about how silly he felt. The wind picked up and he put more wood on the fire. The warmth felt good on his freezing skin, making at least one part of the ritual worthwhile. The vote was still out on the rest of it.
A huge black shape emerged from the darkness of the sea. It must have stood forty feet tall with a long, undulating body, ten feet around and scaled, and most of its length still stretched out into the sea. Loud sucking sounds came as it moved from the water and across the sand. It had countless legs, some of them paddled, like fins and a long frilly dorsal fin. The creature slowly bent its head down towards him. Two bulging golden eyes gleamed at him above an open mouth, filled with teeth and hot, fishy smelling breath.
It took all Sholto’s strength and courage not to run back to the car and flee.
“Welcome,” said Sholto, his voice shaking as he backed up along the seawall, careful to keep the fire between him and the creature. He hadn’t really expected anything to happen and James hadn’t warned him about this. How could a monster like this exist without anyone knowing about it?
“Why have you called me?” The beast asked.
He glanced at the parchment, trying to remember what to say. “I am one of the blood, come to renew our contract,” said Sholto. His voice felt shaky, his entire body contracted with cold and fear.
“Is it that time already?”
“And you are new. The brother of the last, I think,” said the creature.
Sholto nodded. “What exactly is it that you do for the planet?”
“It is difficult to explain in a manner you humans could understand. I balance your world. I lie on the ocean floor and control currents, weather patterns, heat and coolness of stone, water and air. And much more. I assist your world by keeping her stable. Once there were many more of us, before the others died or left. It is difficult to do alone.”
Sholto had a difficult time grasping all that. It defied what science told him about the world.
The monster sighed. “I told you that humans can’t understand. Shall we get on with the negotiations?”
“Yes,” replied Sholto. This was where it would get tricky, he thought.
“I will take my usual payment,” said the beast.
Sholto exposed his chest to the creature.
The huge, black thing spoke again, “But I want something else as well.”
“That’s not part of our pact.”
“It is time to alter the arrangement,” said the creature.
Sholto said, “You can’t do that. You made the deal.”
“It is time to change it.”
“No,” said Sholto.
“Then I’ll destroy the world.”
“We’ll have you killed. We’ve grown much more powerful than we used to be,” Sholto said. He was bluffing. He didn’t know if it was possible to kill such a creature.
“You wouldn’t be able to find me.”
“We have equipment which can find anything and anyone,” said Sholto, not even sure if the beast was real or findable.
The creature roared at him. Its hot breath threatened to extinguish the fire. Sholto bent and tossed more driftwood onto the blaze, hoping it wouldn’t attract attention of any of the locals.
The creature stared at him, fleshy appendages behind its eyes wiggling. Sholto wondered what that meant.
If he failed here, the world would end. He knew that now, down to his bones. It made no sense, logically. But it was as true as the fact that the sun appeared in the sky every day.
“You don’t even know what I want,” said the creature.
“I’m guessing it’s something I can’t give you.”
“I want companionship. I am the last of my kind and I’ve been alone since I made this bargain,” it said.
Sholto realized with a shock that the creature had feelings. It wasn’t just a predator who’d made a bad bargain.
“What sort of companionship do you want? I don’t understand.”
“I need a mate. I have been alone for far too long. Humans have partners. I’ve seen people walking on the beach together, talking. Surely, you understand?”
“I don’t know how to give you a mate. And with two of you isn’t there a greater risk you’d be spotted by our technology and captured or destroyed?”
The serpent closed its eyes as if in pain and let out a deep breath, almost like a sigh. Sholto’s fire flickered in response.
Then the eyes opened and it said, “There is a way you can help me create a mate, but it will require your trust.”
Aaah, this was what James had meant. ‘Don’t trust what comes up in the ritual. Trust only yourself.’
Sholto asked, “I’m not saying I’ll help, but what is it you want me to do?”
“After the ritual, give me the pendant,” said the creature.
“But then I won’t be able to perform the ritual next year.”
“If we are successful here, my mate and I will not trouble you again. There will be no more need of the ritual. We and our offspring will do our part to help hold this world together.”
Sholto asked, “Why?”
“It has come to be my home. I no longer wish to destroy it as I once did.”
And if we fail?”
“Then I will give up my claim to this world.”
“Where would you go if we fail?” asked Sholto.
“To die or find the others who left,” it said.
Sholto felt grieved at that. Who knows what would be lost with the absence of this remarkable creature? Would the planet die without the serpent’s presence? “What is your name?” asked Sholto.
The creature sighed again. “If I tell you, you will have power over me.”
“Do you not trust me? Yet you ask me to trust you.”
The serpent groaned deeply and closed his eyes. Finally, it whispered “Iormungand.”
“Iormungand is your name?” Sholto asked.
“Yes, it’s the name the Norsemen gave me. I liked it, so took it for my own.”
Sholto thought for a while. He searched deep inside and realized he couldn’t deny the serpent his help. “What must I do to help?”
Iormungand moved its head closer to Sholto’s torso. Sholto opened his jacket again, baring his chest. The serpent expertly grazed it with one tooth, making a tiny incision and extracting only a small amount of blood. Sholto barely felt the cut.
The serpent said, “Remove the pendant.”
Sholto took off the pendant and held it out. Iormungand let one drop of blood fall from his tooth onto the stone, then said, “Please put the pendant down on the wall.”
Sholto lay the pendant down close to the serpent and moved back behind the fire.
Iormungand began to chant. The pendant hissed and sizzled. Smoke rose up from it.
“Please pour some of your sea water onto it,” said the serpent.
Sholto took the cup of water and poured some onto the pendant. He watched as it grew in size and the stone broke away from the silver, elongating and stretching. It began to take the shape of a small snake, about a foot long.
“Now, please sprinkle sand on it,” said Iormungand.
Sholto did and the small creature somehow changed the sand; the grains melted and formed scales.
“Now take a burning stick and wave it over my friend.”
Sholto picked up a half burned stick and moved it back and forth, watching as the scales turned black and shiny from the heat and smoke.
“That is enough,” said Iormungand.
He returned the burning wood to the fire, warily watching the smaller serpent grow.
“It would be good for you to release the elements now,” said Iormungand. “Thank you, human. You should hurry and go. My young friend will be hungry and having tasted your blood will not understand why it wouldn’t be polite to eat you. We will be leaving soon and never trouble your kind again.”
“Goodbye,” said Sholto. He began with “Spirits of the Center, of the Mystery which lies within. I thank you for your help and your presence and release you,” then quickly released the other directions and elements. He scattered the fire into the sand and picked up the remnants of the pendant. The new serpent had slithered off the wall and toward the sea. It was growing quickly, now at least ten feet long.
Sholto rapidly gathered up his backpack and clothes, nodded at Iormungand, who watched him, and sprinted for his rental car, feeling numb from the cold.
By the time he got the car started and the heater going, the second serpent had grown as large as Iormungand. They wove around each other, entwining. Sholto watched for a while, then drove back to Kirkwall, wondering if he’d done the right thing, but believing he had.
He returned to the beach the next day. It was deserted except for the usual wildlife, sea birds, seals and a couple of crabs. Long slithering tracks remained on the sand, which the sea had yet to completely erase. In one of the indentations, Sholto found a large, black scale, which he slid into the pocket of his jacket.
Every year in October he made a pilgrimage to the same beach. After the first year he brought Angie along, although he didn’t ever tell her what he was looking for. Some things should remain secret, he thought.
Sometimes he caught sight of a dark shape far out at sea. A whale? A ship? Iormungand or its mate? He was never sure.
The world remained and Sholto found no need to repeat the ritual. But he never lost his belief that he had helped save the world. By simply helping another soul.