An Amorality Tale for Small Birds
Having tucked The Pilgrims’ Tale away in the airing cupboard, under a damp tea-towel to prove, I’m in between big novel projects at the moment. This is a dangerous position to be in. It means I may suddenly be seized by a desire to write yet another story about Loki, and none of us wants that.
This was the result of a prompt I saw somewhere I can no longer remember, which called for a story uniting these three elements: A campfire, a scream, and a lie that wouldn’t stop growing. Come on, how could I not write a story about Loki and a giant chicken after a prompt like that? I had so much fun, I’m not even ashamed.
An Amorality Tale for Small Birds.
Sure as a single ant on the doorstep on Monday means an army of them in the sugar-bowl by Wednesday afternoon, whatever Loki chose was bound to lead to trouble.
So when they found themselves caught by swift sun-fall in a rocky country where even the cockroaches had starved to death, with an easterly wind blowing, and rain dripping down the backs of their necks, Thor did not complain. In fact he nodded to himself and grinned because he had just thought of something important, and that was an achievement he was proud of.
“Now I remember. The last time we did this, I said I wouldn’t let you choose our path again.”
“You did say that.” Loki dumped the firewood he had been carrying into a pile and, taking off his cloak, he rigged up a small windbreak that sent the spray of the rain over the top of it. If one huddled close in its lee it was suddenly both drier and warmer. He lit the fire easily – it was a major talent of his, in downpour or under the sea, to always be able to start a cheery blaze. “I think you said it the time before, too. Yet here we are.”
“Next time I will choose for us. You always have such bad luck.” Thor drew closer to the fire and watched his companion rummage through their packs. He was always moving, Loki, as though he feared something might catch him if he stood still long enough, and in the yellow light he looked like a flame himself, red-topped, restless and hungry. “Why do you always have such bad luck, Loki?”
Thor had heard that some folk called him stupid, but he knew he was only slow, like the gradual piling up of dark cloud on the horizon. He arrived when he arrived, but when he did so, no one could say he was not definitely there. And although he was slow he had journeyed with his blood-uncle often and knew him, in so far as anyone could know the strange waif his father had brought home with him from Giantland.
So, rather than watch Loki’s face – the expressions that were always slightly behind the thoughts in his burnt-black eyes – he watched the clever fingers. Leaning forwards, he closed one of his own palms around Loki’s wrists and stopped him just as he was about to hide away the one piece of meat they had left.
Loki looked at the chicken drumstick in his hand as though it had formed there by strange arts, and then he smiled. “I thought I’d make dinner. There’s a mouthful or two each on this. We can starve tomorrow.”
But of course, if Thor had not stopped him, he would have taken the whole thing and eaten it himself while Thor was sleeping. Maybe he would have cooked it first, and maybe he wouldn’t. That was just how he was, and nothing could be done to change it.
So Thor smiled back and said “Good idea. But you set up the camp, so I’ll make the dinner. That’s only fair.”
“Of course,” Loki’s teeth squeaked together in frustration under cover of his grin.
Peeling one of the smaller twigs from the firewood, Thor pushed it through the meat, while Loki set up two forked sticks, one at either side of the fire, to hold the spit. Thor set it down between them, the drumstick in the flames.
And a hideous scream rang out in the barren country around them, now so dark that they – with their eyes dazzled by the campfire – could see nothing but blackness like hanging curtains. But surely it was not the ghosts of the dead cockroaches who screeched out there, with a long, blubbering clawing wail, like a cat being drowned in a copper bucket?
Loki froze, except his eyes, which darted to and fro like a rat in a box.
“You should go and see what that is,” said Thor, turning the meat to let it brown evenly.
“Are you mad?” Loki was always sharper when he was unhappy. “It’s some hideous monster. That’s your territory. You should go.”
“But if I go,” Thor said, very reasonably, “you’ll eat the meat and I won’t get any dinner.”
This was so true that after opening his mouth a couple of times to deny it, and shutting it again, Loki had to shrug and step out into the darkness.
If one was the kind of person to call World War Two ‘a bit of a scrap’ then in the same line, it would be fair to say that Loki had not had an easy life, despite all his efforts. And so when he had closed his eyes for five minutes to get his night vision back, he gave some serious thought to how he could get close enough to the shrieking thing to find out what it was without it devouring him. Which was why he was a bacterium when he saw it first and wafted away with his metaphorical heart in his metaphorical mouth. To a bacterium, the thing looked like a huge monster of a bird, somewhat in the shape of a chicken, but with a bright red eye and bright green wings and tail feathers like an explosion of fireworks.
He was so taken aback it took him milliseconds to work out the relative sizes of himself and the thing if he had been a man. But when he did, he turned back to his own form immediately, and laughed.
By his feet, the little green bird cocked its head and looked up at him knowingly.
“Was that you, screaming?” asked Loki.
“It was,” replied the bird. “I screamed because it’s my sister-son’s bone you have put on your fire. Would you not scream if someone was about to eat your nephew?”
“I would probably pass the salt,” said Loki, and his mouth all by itself curved into a grin. It was not so very small a bird as to fit in only one hand, but he could carry it in two. “What a good thing we’re not talking about me. Listen, let me pick you up. I’ll take you to the fire and you can retrieve your kinsman’s bone.”
But he was thinking, of course, that a whole bird is better than only part of one on the plate, and that when he had it in his hands he would crush its throat and add it to the evening meal. “I am eager to put an end to your terrible distress.”
“Ha!” said the bird with an intonation of contempt in its harsh and shrill voice, “Wouldn’t you like that? No, you’d just give me to Thor and he would kill me.” It hopped backwards, and at each hop it swelled fourfold, so that when it was nine steps away it was the size of a three and a quarter year old Tyrannosaurus Rex. (Loki had been chased by enough of these in his time to be fairly accurate in his assessment.)
“You go and get the bone and bring it to me,” the bird snicked its beak together like the crushing jaws of a waste disposal lorry. “And no treachery, mind.”
Which just went to show that it doesn’t matter how large you are – you can always get things spectacularly wrong.
Because after agreeing to do exactly as it said, with his face white with fear and his voice as high pitched as a boy band backing group, Loki scurried back to the fire more determined than ever that the chicken bone was his prize and he was going to have it to spite them all.
“Thor,” he said, wringing his hands, “we mustn’t eat the meat. That scream – it was a völva, horrified that we were about to eat meat that had been cursed. She said I should get you to bring it to her, so that she can remove the curse. She wants to meet you. Did I say she was very beautiful? It may have slipped my mind.”
Thor, I believe I’ve said before, was not stupid, but he was not unkind either. So he just poked the drumstick with a knife until the pale juices ran and said “Nonsense. We mustn’t be inhospitable. Go and invite her to come and sit by the fire and share our meal and our warmth. This is just getting nicely cooked.”
So Loki, by now in a perfect state of mortal fear stepped back out of the firelight. The very moment it saw he was empty handed, the monstrous bird’s beak swooped down and caught him up. He screwed his eyes tight shut against the pain as it began to slowly try to grind him into two parts.
“Wait! Wait!” he screamed. “Let’s do this more cleverly. You go round the other side of the hollow. I’ll get Thor to run out here to me, keep him talking for a bit, and you can hop in, grab the bone and be gone by the time I’ve done. No one needs to be severed in half today, am I right?”
“Hm,” the bird tilted its head and set him down almost gently on his feet. He straightened his tunic and patted down his sides, making sure all his ribs were still there.
“Very well. But if this doesn’t work I really am going to swallow you whole, and you can spend the rest of your short life being dissolved in my stomach.”
“No need for that,” said Loki, and waited until it had made its ponderous way around the other side of the clearing, where Thor sat in the centre of an inverted bowl of light. Then he turned himself into a beautiful woman, with the head-dress and the golden plaques and the drum of a Lapland seer. “Help!” she shouted, “Help! Help!”
Thor jumped up and ran out, leaving the bone behind him on the fire. At the first sight of movement on the other side of the camp, Loki ran swiftly to meet Thor on the very borders of the darkness. “Thank the fates you’re here,” she said, taking the huge god’s arm and turning him round. “Quickly, back into the clearing. There’s a monster. It’s been holding me captive and now it’s trying to get you too. Quick, before it casts a spell on you.”
This was the sort of thing that Thor had no trouble believing. So he turned back fast and saw the giant bird with its golden beak like Death’s embroidery scissors and its burning red eye like the fires of Muspelheim just leaning down over the fire. It’s shadow was like a hole in the world behind it.
It opened its beak – to curse him, he thought – and he swung Mjollnir and crushed its skull with the satisfying bang and crackle of a packet of crisps being popped underfoot. The massive corpse landed in a scatter of gravel and small twigs, and Thor went back out to look for the pretty lady who had warned him of the danger, hoping to tell her that she was now free because of his brave deeds, and to humbly accept any reward she might be inclined to give him.
But the darkness was sadly free of enchanting women. All he found there was a bitter east wind and the sound of water on stone. Oh well, he thought. Who could blame her, after who knew how long in captivity in this harsh, unwelcoming land, for heading home as soon as she could? Shrugging resignedly, he returned to the fireside to find Loki there with the picked chicken bone in one hand and the other on the head of the dead monster, rather like a Victorian gentleman posing for a photograph by the carcass of his eighth white tiger, except without the huge handlebar moustache. He was sucking the last morsels of meat from his teeth and grinning.
Loki, of course, was gloating. Got it! Three of us fighting over it, and I got it.
But Thor, who wasn’t aware he had been in a competition, gave a long-suffering smile in return and thought that his uncle had been looking strangely harried at certain points this evening. Peaky even. He had probably needed the food more than either of them would have been willing to admit. So things had turned out well in the end – might as well leave it at that.
“I see you’ve started without me,” he said. “But no matter. There’s plenty of meat on this thing for both of us. And plenty left over for the rest of the journey too. Help me butcher it and get a haunch on to cook, will you?” And that’s what they did.
I can’t tell you what the bird’s reaction to this outcome was, not being privy to the afterlife arrangements of avians. All I can tell you is that it roasted beautifully, and that it tasted just like chicken.