Freydis envied the dead. Death had been one step behind her throughout her long life, although she knew they would never meet. Instead, Death had always taken those she loved or used her as its instrument. Instead of peace, Death gave her pain and nightmares.
Freydis huddled closely with Vetus, her oldest friend. Her wrinkled, age-spotted hands trembled as she wiped the tears from her wind burnt cheeks. The Autumn Icelandic air tore through the cemetery and the black clouds above them threatened rain. Good, she thought. Astrid loved the rain.
Freydis closed her eyes, listening to the words the cleric spoke. His steady, rhythmic voice carried away on the wind. Her mind wandered to the first time she met Astrid, over 60 years earlier. They both served in a field hospital, in the European theatre of the Second World War. For Freydis, It was her penance, to atone for the darker parts of her past that she wished she could forget. Astrid was the only human, other than Freydis’s father, who knew what she truly was, and loved her. Immortality had given her many things, but it was Astrid who gave her a sense of belonging.
A wave of nausea jolted her back to the graveside. Despite the cold, Freydis could feel a film of perspiration had formed on her brow and the sensation of her glamour beginning to falter overcame her body. The accompanying chill crawled down her spine. She had never tried to hold a glamour for so long before, and it was draining the little strength she had left amongst the grief. She rested her head against Vetus and inhaled deeply. He smelled like the forest after the snow had fallen.
“Does it ever get any easier?” she asked him, searching his familiar, ageless face. She could tell by the distant look in his eyes, that while he may have been standing beside her, his mind was far away. After a moment, a heavy sigh escaped his lips, and he turned his eyes to meet hers.
“No — but time makes it bearable.”
Vetus wiped a lingering teardrop from Freydis’s cheek. His hands were warm and gentle. They watched as Astrid was lowered into the cold, damp, earth. Her last connection to that place. Freydis fought the urge to climb down after her. Vetus placed his arm around her shoulder, and with a gentle squeeze for encouragement, they turned and walked to the car waiting for them. Freydis was grateful for his presence and the comfort it always brought her. Slowly, she began to release the glamour she had worn to blend in for all those years. Vetus eased them into the car, and once inside, signaled to his driver they were ready. The car smelled new, but of course, it would. It had to be a rental. Vetus lived in Ireland, though Freydis was sure the driver looked familiar.
The crunch of the gravel beneath the tires and the incessant sound of the windshield wipers grated on her as she gazed distantly out the window. She wondered how she could feel so numb and so raw all at once.
“Dea,” Vetus whispered, breaking their silence, “Have you given any thought to what comes next? Where will you go?” His use of her nickname, the one her mother gave her, always felt bittersweet. Exhausted, she offered a shrug in reply. She hadn’t let herself think that far ahead.
They completed the trip in silence. When they arrived at her modest, wood-framed chalet, Vetus, ever the gentleman, walked around to open the door for her. The glamour was completely gone. Helping her out of the car, Vetus met her tired gaze with a warm smile, no doubt in response to her looking normal again. Freydis could see the care and concern he felt in his emerald, green eyes.
“There is nothing left for you here, Freydis.” The warning in his tone made the hairs on her neck stand on end, and she could feel the heat rising in her cheeks.
“I know that” she snapped, “I just need some time.”
The smile returned to his face, though not quite reaching his eyes. An icy stare betrayed his true emotions. He leaned over and kissed her forehead, then turned and left without another word.
Her grief made arguing cruel and pointless. Vetus stalked back to the car without a backward glance. He could never understand why Freydis was so preoccupied with trying to live as though she were human, especially with her complicated past. Humans feared and hated what they did not understand. History was proof enough of that. She couldn’t possibly believe she would be welcomed as one of them if they ever truly discovered what she was. Astrid, he thought, was unlike any human he had ever come across; a dying breed and the years spent with Astrid had made Freydis forget why she had come there. He knew he had to help her find her way back from this, but how?
Comfortably seated in the vehicle he pulled a cellular device from his suit jacket pocket. He hated being tied to it but operating in the human realm made it necessary. His long fingers knew the number by heart. Ophelia would know what to do. She knew Freydis almost as well as he did, though from a distance. Her loyalty was beyond reproach.
“How is she?”
“Exhausted. Using so much magic for such a long time has drained her dry. She worries me.”
“Don’t worry, I will keep eyes on her. We will see her through this, just as we always have.”
Vetus leaned his head against the car window and sighed, “ Do we still have that residential property in Boston?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Freydis needs a fresh start, a new life. I have contacts there who can help. Can you arrange it?”
“Anything for you. Talk soon.”
Vetus returned the cellular device to his inner jacket pocket. Still leaning his head against the window, he closed his eyes. As his mind wandered, he restlessly twisted the amethyst ring on his finger.
Freydis crossed the threshold to the place she had called home for decades and the silence she found waiting for her was suffocating. Aimlessly she paced the rooms. The evidence of a happy life was all around her, but she only felt numb. A picture of a much younger Astrid sat on a shelf in the hall. Delicately, she picked up the picture and held it close to her heart. They had never really defined their relationship, maybe because it was complicated. Freydis wouldn’t have said it was romantic although there were moments. A penetrating gaze, lingering touch, or comfort in a lonely moment, was not uncommon. They gave each other that simple pleasure: another’s touch.
Astrid had been widowed when they met. Her young husband had been killed in action, which is what drove her into service, as a nurse. She had told Freydis how she had promised her God she would never remarry, and their friendship was all she needed to be fulfilled until she joined her husband in eternity. It suited Freydis. She had encounters over the centuries, all of which satisfied her physical desires, but it was different with Astrid. A steady and comfortable companionship without judgment or expectations, and it was gone.
Unable to bear the empty house, she grabbed her coat and retreated outside. Iceland was beautiful and often reminded her of Norway, her homeland. In the shadow of two great mountains, her tiny town sat alongside a harbour that stretched outward to the Northern Atlantic Ocean. The salty air was frigid, and the wind had picked up since earlier. Wrapping her coat tightly around herself, Freydis walked along the water for the better part of an hour. It gave her time to think, and she realized that after pretending to be human for so long, she had forgotten why she came to Iceland in the first place. Her mother’s ancient edict: “Find my people, to find yourself,” echoed in her mind.
Listening to the water against the pier, Freydis could remember the calmness of her mother’s voice whenever she spoke. Even as they hauled her away, her voice was steady and calm. Thinking of her mother created a tightness in her chest and a tidal wave of painful memories. Closing her eyes, Freydis could see the soldiers once more, binding her mother’s hands as they placed a black bag over her head, leading her away to Vardøhus Fortress. Witchcraft had been the charge they laid against her. It was the first example of many to come, how humans destroy what they fear or do not understand. She had been so young.
Lost in her memories, Freydis was unaware of the eyes that watched and followed her from the water; eyes that had watched her the whole of her life. Eyes that understood the source of her pain.
The streetlamps burned brightly in the twilight when Freydis returned home and made herself tea, in her favorite mug. A gift from Astrid, it was white with black letters that said, ‘Go Away, I’m Reading’. She grabbed Astrid’s pink, knitted cardigan from the kitchen chair where it always hung and wrapped it around herself. It smelled faintly of her flowery perfume. She picked a book from the bookshelf and with her tea, sat in Astrid’s recliner chair, trying to distract from the aching loneliness she felt. The weariness of the day seized her within moments, and she fell mercifully into a dreamless sleep.
The days melted into weeks while Freydis navigated through her grief. She hadn’t eaten anything substantial and all she seemed to do was sleep. The reality of waking each time to an empty house always brought fresh tears and anger that she’d woken at all.
On one occasion she nearly tore the house apart, hoping against the odds that she would find even a single dose of that sweet relief she used to know. Something to help her forget. Something to make her numb. She wouldn’t find it.
She tried seeking solace in her magic, but she could barely manage a glamour to change the colour of her hair.
Concerned neighbours brought food and gestures of comfort, but she wouldn’t answer the door. Even if she did, they wouldn’t recognize the young woman she had become without her glamour.
When she finally managed to get out of bed, she filled her emptiness with documentaries and take-out, until she finally accepted her new reality. It would be Vetus, as always, who finally broke through the wall of her despair.
One morning, a shrill cry from the telephone startled Freydis awake, and her knees shook when she tried to stand. By the third ring, she answered. Her voice was raspy as her vocal cords awoke from their lack of use.
“I know you need time, but I think some space would also help,” The familiar voice said. Rolling her eyes, she felt the faintest grin pull at her lips. Recognizing the musical tone of her cautiously optimistic friend, she relented,
“Okay, Vetus. I’m listening.”
He proceeded to make his sales pitch and by the end of the call had convinced her to not only leave Iceland but to venture where she had never been before. America. Boston, more specifically. An acquaintance of his owed him a favour and happened to be the Dean of History at America’s oldest university, Harvard. He had agreed to allow Freydis to fill a vacant assistant professor position in his department. Vetus knew her well and played her love of history and old things against her. She didn’t mind though; it was one of his more endearing qualities.
The prospect of a new opportunity, though intimidating, was also exciting. For most of her life, before Astrid, Freydis had been searching for others, like herself. Her mother’s people. Perhaps America might have some of the answers she was looking for.
Standing in the disarray of her scattered memories, Freydis realized that throughout her many lives, she never accumulated many personal possessions of any significance. She had a small collection of items she held very dear: her favorite mug, several books, a small Scottish dirk, and a few other mementos from each life she lived and the people she had loved. Her most prized possession though was a hastily written note from her mother, which she kept tucked inside a book for safekeeping. It didn’t take her long to pack.
She made her way to the kitchen with her favorite mug, for once last tea before she left the place behind. Waiting on the kettle, she glanced around. For the most part, everything looked normal. If someone were to come here after she left, it would seem like she had just vanished, leaving everything behind. Thankfully, Vetus would take care of what remained.
A knock at the door interrupted her rumination, and without waiting for her to answer, Vetus strolled in. Still in her pajamas, tea in hand, Freydis sat down at the table and watched as Vetus motioned to his driver to collect her luggage. Wordlessly, he sat at the opposite end of the table and absentmindedly flipped through the morning newspaper. Freydis watched him as she sipped her tea. Most would have found the silence awkward, but there had been many similar moments between them. It felt natural to be with Vetus. Something deep within her felt connected to him in a way she couldn’t seem to put into words. It was as if the magic within them or perhaps the immortal part of each, recognized one another. Regardless, his presence always made her feel safe and at ease. After her mother died, Vetus had been the only consistent person in her life. He was the only other non-human and immortal being she knew. In all their years of friendship, he never talked much about himself. Freydis realized she knew truly little about him, personally, though he was most certainly Irish.
“Thank you. For everything.”
Her words smashed through the peaceful room like the sound of breaking glass. Without looking up, he cleared his throat and waved his hand dismissively. He closed the newspaper and glanced at his watch. Freydis was notoriously late for things, but she passed it off as a symptom of feeling like she had an infinite amount of time.
Hastily, she rinsed her mug and stuck it inside her carry-on, and finished getting ready to leave. Stopping at the threshold she turned to take everything in one last time, knowing in her heart she would never return.
“Good-Bye, Astrid,” she whispered to the empty house, and with a heavy sigh, she locked the door behind her and handed the key to Vetus. Taking her by the hand, they walked to the waiting car, and once again he opened the door for her. It was in those difficult moments, endings, and such, that she appreciated their comfortable silence most.
Boston in midwinter was unexpectedly like Iceland, only wetter. Freydis was glad she didn’t need to adjust much to the climate. There had been many other adjustments though, like how she was still getting used to seeing her ‘normal’ face in the mirror. After all, she had spent decades with an old woman looking back at her.
Boston was also relatively quiet in the winter months, so she was able to spend several weeks settling in and getting acquainted without too many social interactions. She loved that Boston had a rich history and with luck, it might lead her closer to finding her mother’s people.
The biggest downside was living in a city. As a rule, Freydis avoided cities. They were crowded and noisy and lacked the natural places that put her at ease. At least there was an abundance of bookstores.
Cass Walsh was the first real connection she made in her new life. Freydis met her in a bookshop, Walsh’s Book Nook, located a few blocks from her apartment.
There was a certain magnetism about bookstores that always drew her in. She liked to call it “treasure hunting” and it was one of her favorite hobbies. The façade of the shop was unassuming, and the inside was small, but well-lit and inviting. Ceiling to floor shelving was filled with many volumes and despite the small space, there were a few comfy chairs scattered about for use by the patrons. The register was located at the back of the shop, which Freydis found odd, but then again, she supposed that the people you typically find in a bookstore are rarely prone to theft. As always, it was the smell of the place that made the experience so rich; New paper and ink mixed with the sweet, musky smell of well-loved words from aged tomes.
Freydis had a ritual whenever she found herself among so many books. She walked along the shelves, slowly running her fingers over the bindings, caressing, and reading the titles, waiting for the one that would call out to her; a whisper only she could hear. Those leather-bound, with embossed lettering and a gilded edge, were her favorite.
Barely into the ritual, Freydis was interrupted by a vibrant, clearly extroverted, redhead, calling to her from behind the counter. As she approached Freydis, she waved so vigorously, that Freydis had a mental image of her hand flying off. The woman’s smile was the kind that would light up an entire room and it burst through the gloomy demeanor that Freydis often found herself in those days. With a lilt in her step, she moved toward Freydis with her hand outstretched in a friendly greeting.
“Hi! I’m Cass! Welcome to my family’s bookstore,” she beamed, “You must be new around here? I never forget a face.”
What an exquisite handling of the central premise. Echoes of Highlander abound and yes it is one of my favourite films, which always makes me cry. This has so much promise.
Thank you so much!
In reply to Beautiful writing by Nikki Vallance
Thank you so much!