Sing Walls

an homage to Grendel by John Gardner.

In another world, I learn to sing.

I watch at my crack in the timbered wall of Hart with more intent as the Shaper sings strange-eyed, bat-blind; I can see nothing that he does. (Some days I bawl like an infant, and my eyes distort in—is it empathy? No, it can’t be; empathy’s too human—an approximation of the Shaper’s view. I’ve not tried viewing Hrothgar in this state; I rather suspect I won’t see the same beauty in the blurred smears of blood on the snow.)

My first attempts at song are clumsy, all shambled like a drunk thane, tongue heavy with words as theirs are with mead. I do not sing of the wars: the first lesson I learned from lyres is never tell the truth.

Firesnakes are stars like the sun,

Warm like pines ablaze, boiling water.

It does not melt my skin like it melts snow.

The sun reaches a long arm down through the twisting

Snakes, like vines, hands reaching into dark,

Long fingertips of light dancing across the cave

Walls, making shadow-puppets out of my uncles.

My fur is brown, lighter than the cave walls, lighter

Than my mother’s. Moonlight bathes my world

In milk, sigh-soft and calmer than the mere.

There are nights when the moon is full that it shines

So bright, and fills the ledge above the firesnakes

And I see my reflection in the snake-water

And sometimes on those nights I am not hideous.

I sing light into my cave.

All lies, all tricks of language, not the truth of the world at all. By witchcraft (wordcraft), it bids a smile on my face. I fight it, and turn it to a snarl. My teeth, moonlight-white against black cave walls. I shake my head (great shaggy head, pointed ears, terrible dark frame). I sing it out again, louder. My mama rumbles, a mountain of flesh above me. I close my eyes, look at the blood behind my lids. In defiance of my own voice I stay silent. The futility of self-sabotage descends on my lungs. My mind screeches, claws on ice skittering over cells. My throat itches, like I’ve been bitten. I will sing again. Already, words still hot off the furnace of my tongue, I see the outline of my mama in moonlight.

In this world, I do not see the dragon.

I feel the pull of his mind, while I watch the war burn down the woods. It smells of smoke, of burning flesh. I scan the plain of Hrothgar’s army, looking for bodies. The smoke smell hurts my nose, and I turn away, walk into the woods. The smell grows stronger. I reach for a vine, and grasp a snake. (I have heard the humans talk of ill omens. I may well be one, monster in the forest, last hurrah of the trees.) I run home, feet thundering-heart-beat across the dirt. The stench of burning flesh runs with me. I let the snake go as I jump into the mere.

I do not fall further than usual. My hand grasps at the ledge. I haul myself over. My nostrils burn. I tear at my fur, yowl, echoing through the shadows at the pool. I resolve to yell away the death hanging on my skin, itching like a scar.

The woods burn black smoke under

Cloud-filled skies! The tents are an ant-army

Under the stare of the Monster!

The Shaper sings away the wars!

He sings away bloodshed and the smell of bodies!

He brings glory out of nothing!

And yet glory it is! And so I sing words,

Build up the world not in whispers

But in song!

The woods return from the edge of death,

The snakes slither into men’s ears and bite down,

And all will do as it must

Shape or be Shaped,

Follow or make the path!

It is strange, was strange: the dragon went. He must think his wisdom would be less than well-received. (Reflection lends enhancement to my eyes. It would break this Grendel’s heart.) Bone-fire leaves my lungs. I sleep fitfully.

He tries again, as I watch Hart thrive through the summer, growing like the flowers, heavy with the fruit, with children. Wealtheow, the queen, grows too, her womb swelling along with the apple trees’. She will not be ready for the harvest. I do not know if the babe will survive the winter; not all of the Danes do. The dragon calls, bone-smoke in my lungs, like nicotine. I cough. I listen to life, living. I lie on my back at night and hear the grass growing. The dragon went.

In this world I’m Hrothgar’s nuisance, not his plague.

I steal fat cows, plump pigs, hardy chickens (and once a goat; meat like trees, old and tough); I come in the night, listen to the stupor of the Danes, and am gone, a shadow of the land’s retribution.

When they notice the missing livestock, they build fences, blame wolves. I step carefully; I do not blur my footprints as I cross the fence. Hrothgar is more blind than the Shaper; next they blame the dogs. I thought I would spare them by my clarity.

The man’s body shocks me. It is still warm in the night, cast outside of Hart. He does not scream when his eyes meet mine. They’ve torn out his tongue, cut off his hands. His blood covers the stone steps of Hart, sinks into the ground. I look down at my hands, covered in the gore of pig-guts. I look closer, see his hands, tossed further away. I wrinkle my nose in disgust, and take up the hands, carefully. They smell like blood. The man’s eyes widen. He nods, and I do not know why. His face goes blank. I stare for a few, long minutes, stupid as a child when confronted with the oldest presence I have ever known. I look at his hands, cradled in my own. I think of the Shaper.

The man’s blood tastes familiar, I think. My teeth crunch on bone, and it hurts the roof of my mouth. I bite my cheek in the confusion and my blood tastes the same as his. I toss the other hand to the ground and flee.

They see me but once, and it is enough. The Shaper, lying lyre in untruthful hands, spins me into gleaming red word-wool, blood in my mouth, a man at my feet. I’d eaten a cow; they threw the man out, his body was cold. He is missing limbs, from the scavengers. The humans, pattern-makers (with their crackpot theories, right to hell), piece together something false, and the Shaper sews it into memory, changes time with words. It is winter, after that, and I stay in my cave. I howl words up to the white above. I will not let them make me more monster than I know I am.

Dead men are free meat for wolves

And for vultures. I do not eat like

Birds, like dogs. You cast out your own,

Throw ill will on your animals,

Toss curses into the forest.

I am no more monstrous than that wood.

To eat a man is to eat my own flesh.

In this world, Beowulf stays across the sea.

Hrothulf’s stinger lands square in Hrothgar’s back, and I feel the ground below me shifting in response. It knows the king is dead, the scorpion is on the throne. As the ground thaws it grows back different. I trace my steps through the forest to Hart, afraid, somehow, after years of growing up, that I will lose my way back. Hrothulf’s eyes are cruel as he stands before his cousins and his aunt. The Helmlings will come to make war on the new king. Wealtheow bows her head and will not look into his face. The children, teens now, plead with Hrothulf, their faces like terrified sheep. I turn away, suddenly disgusted. I do not wish to see Hrothulf slaughter his kinsmen.

Unferth the kinslayer comes to visit me. Not to kill me, mind; he has run from Hart, for Hrothulf has not found him worthy of his own brutal title. “Selfish bastard,” Unferth jokes. The firesnakes have burned deep scars into his skin. He fell into the mere by accident (oh irony!), and found my cave by selfsame method. He stares at me, nearly blind—like the Shaper, who has yet to die—, watches my shape in the glow of moonlight. He does not ask my name, nor what I am. Unferth knows. He thinks I will kill him, for food, for mercy. I just might. I open my maw, teeth lit by moonlight, and his eyes go wide.

Unferth, the man who has slain his brothers,

Waits on monster’s stoop for death, trading shame

Of suicide for honor of suicide mission. Go see

The monster in the cave, the one who steals our

Livestock, the one who has slaughtered the man

We threw out into the cold, and has eaten his hands.

Unferth, the man who stopped shame with shame,

Running from home like a dog in the face of a new,

Cruel master. Go see the monster in the woods,

The one who eats cows and has tasted the blood

Of men, and found it same as his.

Unferth, the hero, my gift to you. Not death;

I have not killed a man yet. I’m no more monster

Than you make me. And you, no more hero

Than I make you. Use my gift well. Sing words, break walls. By this, I let you live.

In this world, I bury my mother in spring.

The shambling, empty-eyed shapes by the pool have thinned out. I haven’t visited in weeks, and do not know if there are any still there. They amble away to die, either deeper into my cave or up to the sunlight. I care not, either way. They avoid me to die as they did to live; I owe them nothing. But I bury my mother.

It’s a cold day, but the snow is gone, and the ground is soft with moisture. I am far enough from the poisoned Hart that Hrothulf’s rangers will not disturb her funeral. In the moment when I dig my claws into the earth, tear away chunks of peat and soil to make her grave, I would have given something (perhaps my sight, my nose, my mama—irony, again—) to have been a badger. I am not, and offerings to speechless gods are ill-advised sacrifices.

The sun is hot on my back as I heft my mother’s body into the hole I’ve dug. My paws are bleeding, and her arms are red and still. I cast my mind back to the Shaper’s death, to the funeral songs that came to me on the hill—Hrothulf had him killed, after the wind and the harp brought him songs of Hrothgar. His protege dragged his body from the scene, away from Hart, into the woods. The dead man’s eyes were turned to me, and he could see me, somehow. The dead eyes gazed on more than the live ones ever glimpsed. The boy—a man now, but always ‘the boy’—didn’t know I was there, and he sang low, under his breath, as he buried the old man.

After the ceremony, he took a knife from the Shaper’s belt and laid it across the inside of his fingers. Red dripped down, over the Shaper’s wizened knuckles. He wiped the blade on his own breast, held his hand there in a moment of slow-time that stretched for minutes. Resolving his conundrum, the boy returned the knife and laid it over the pile of stones that marked his grave. And then he walked away, to somewhere else. I have not heard of him since.

An echo of the scene playing in my head, I pick up the first stone.

You are returned to the womb

Of the earth that birthed you.

May she forgive the sins you bore

In the life you were given.

Stones up to her waist, all stained crimson. My paws are dry, but I dash them on the rocks to break them open again.

You are offered the blood

Of the son that buried you.

May he remember the lessons

You had no time to teach him.

One more, to cover her face. And then it will be over, and done with. And real.

You are dead by the hand

Of the clock that ever-turns.

May the earth ever-tick,

May time never run dry.

In this world, I start my garden in summer.

Perhaps I am too early, or too late, for my harvest to align with Hart’s. Not that it matters, as long as I beat the first snowfall. I have watched them in their fields, the ones they burned outside of other halls to shackle them to Hart’s will. Season by season, I stole the hard seeds of their food from beneath the earth, and once my mother dies, I know it’s time to plant them.

Claws-that-aren’t-badgers’ rend the soil, lay the sleeping seeds in their growth-coffins, bury them again. Eyes that flash under the glow of moonlight gaze at each before they are cocooned away; I cannot tell a difference between them, but I reason: no one would know Grendel by his claw alone, nor by a tuft of fur. An arm? Perhaps an arm.

My work makes me hungry, and I venture to Hart’s outerscape, to the pens. There is a man tied to a post, carrion birds perched in adjacent trees. He’s bleeding, beaten, drunk. I slash his bonds. His mind is mead-heavy, and he does not scream; he blinks, and runs past me into the dark. I snatch a cow, and eat it in the shadow of the trees. I leave what parts I cannot use (the bones will make my garden-fence) leaned up against the post. A message, of some sort. I cannot riddle what they’ll make of it.

I wish I’d hid the Shaper’s harp before they burned it. By the way my voice cacophonies throughout my cave, it would have a lovely sound there, if my claws could learn to play it without slicing through the strings. It was too heavy for the boy to take with him when he ran. Hrothulf’s jealousy of the dead burned hellfire on the land, liquid sunlight raining onto the old wood, the horsehair strings. Nothing of the Shaper survived, except in their minds, which will grow old, and should they whisper his stories—Hrothulf will not hear them, wishes nothing but to strike them from time, undo the loom-strands that he wove—they might falter, and shape again, until in years to come the shapes of the Shaper are lost to all minds but mine.

He will die with me, and I with him; my indent in the world will be undone as his harp-string-shapes unravel, the red-word-wool Grendel outline cut from memory, I the only one to remember him, and remember myself.

Looking over the torn and put-together earth, I wonder if my garden will die with me, too. Three deaths in one, death of body, death of memory, death of impact.

Onions to keep the beasts off your back,

Rye to know the day you die,

Oats to coax the horses

Barley for the wine

Peas for spring, greens for greenseason,

Wheat for bread or just to eat,

Horsebeans are in place of meat,

Linseed to taste if nothing else

Angelica is for the dead,

The damned who’ll fall afore world’s end.

At my count three will die with me.

In this world, I leave my home in autumn.

It is the beginning of my death, leaving Hart behind. I snatch a calf before I go, lay down a trail of ruin right to my mere, my empty, hollow cave. The echoes of my own, old snarls frighten me; they bounce off the walls, the demons of my personal history. I do not leave the trail for Hrothulf’s men. It is for Unferth, for the boy, for the Shaper, for Hrothgar’s ghost. The veal is good, tender meat; the blood is warm, and I wish I could save more of it, but the path must be clear.

When I go to kill the calf, I look in the window of Hart, at the revelry. Years later, they will think it a poor celebration of my death from their lives, and they will be right. A harp sits in the corner, unused. As I stand, rooted, peering into men’s Hart, I imagine it gathering dust, the wood rotting underneath, the strings fraying like the memory of my shadow over them. The imagined harp collapses, fades. I am back in the now, looking in, letting my eyes stray from the corner where the harp will die to the laughing, carousing human faces. I look for the faces of Unferth and the rest who knew me, make a game of watching for the illusory flicker of their visages in the hearthfire. I say my silent goodbyes to the ground below me, to the doors I might have torn from their hinges, to the walls I have not bothered to knock down.

I walk to the cow pen. They watch me, carefully, as I reach down for one of their young. The bull of the herd bows his head, paws the ground. I am quicker than I would have been stuck in a tree. The bull’s horns sink into the fencepost. At the door of Hart, I slit the calf’s throat with my not-badger-claws, and stroll back into the forest, back to my mere, back to my cave. The path is clear, so the dead may follow it.

On my way away, I think of the boy again, of Unferth, of the Shaper’s songs. My voice saws the clouds in half, but it makes my bloodsoaked spirit seem lighter.

I am going away. When I get

To somewhere else, somewhere other

Than the place I was born,

They will not know me.

This has been true since

I left my mama’s womb.

I leave it again now,

In leaving the cave.

In leaving her body.

In leaving my Hart.

I’ve no direction but away from here, and I walk for days. The mountains are hungry, and nip at my feet, drawing blood. I let them have what they will. I stand at the top of a mountain and look over the land that knew me, the land that already is forgetting. It looks back, the wide chasm I begged for religion a cavernous, smiling maw. Or maybe it’s frowning, like all the silent gods I once waited to hear.

I turn around, feel possibility drawing the wind from my lungs, making me yowl. It strikes me, now, that where I go, nothing of me has been. Not even my name. Maybe, on this edge, Grendel dies in full, not just in Hart.

In this world, I die in winter.

Spring whirlwinds in with a red-claw-crescent moon; it wanes from there—a metaphor: my final seasons.

Years after Grendel is gone, I stop moving. I settle in a shallow cave, something to keep out the rain. I will not recede into the womb-gullet of the dark; I rest on its tongue, daring its teeth to crush my skull. Mankind is a whisper on this land, but still, I do not touch deer. My first seasons are hungry ones, until the leaves are gone, and the bear returns.

The dark shade of my mother, it stands upright in the maw of my—stolen—cave. In memory, Grendel reaches out a paw, drags his unbadger-claws across its stomach, contemplates the crimson dye—or perhaps he yells, and the bear runs. I rise, mimic its stance. Earthen eyes contemplate me—not the space I take up, not the not-nothing-ness of my existence, me—. The bear waits. I gently ease to the floor, curling up on one side of the cave. It mirrors me, and the gruff lullaby of its breathing is the last sound I hear before spring.

When I have learned all that mimicry will teach me, it is winter again. The bear does not awake with me next spring. I bury what I cannot use; its blessing makes the ground fertile.

In all the life

That someone I once was lived

Only one looked at me and not

My matter; even she looked only

A short time, before me faded.

This time, not-my-mother,

You fade first.

I have a new garden, one untouched by human experiment. In my travels, I collect wildflowers, ramsons, mugwort, herbs. I scatter the seeds—mimicry of wind—and let them grow where they will over bear bones. A joint victory of life and death. A clawstrike at permanence, at something that needs no hand but that of time to keep it going. I plant them once, and they return again, again, again.

Some winters I sleep, and others I watch the world, memorizing the way the snow falls, wishing I had a harp to cast its shape in song forever. Under the ground, my garden waits. Even without harpsong, without heartbeat, it grows.

I will not know if the world

Will outlast me. Still, the question

Grendel’s youth proposed the world

Has not been answered. But

I have a different query.

I lie down in my slumbering garden. Someone Grendel might have known laughs, chilly fire. He says “time-as-coffin.” I open my maw, teeth lit by moonlight, and my voice is a harp’s note. I do not wonder if I alone exist, if the walls are Real or Shaped. I join the earth in sleep, let the snow absorb the last song of my being. In the spring, my garden will bury me.