The Hanging Man
Once upon a time - (All the best stories start with "Once upon a time." It signals to the reader that he or she is about to leave the world they have always known and are about to enter another, different world. Or, better yet, that they are about to leave the world they know and reenter it by a different door.)
Once upon a time, there was a man who only had one eye. Some years before, he had traded the eye for something else. This wasn't as bad a deal as it sounds like it should be, because he got exactly what the eye was worth, and the price he paid (as in all sound magical dealings) was the thing he got itself.
The way it worked was this: Whenever he looked at anything, he always saw it in exactly two ways - one way for each eye, the one that was there, and the one that was an empty socket. The eye that was there saw a world of light and beauty - colors, flowers, women, that kind of thing. And he loved everything he saw (especially the women). The other eye, the empty socket, saw only darkness. This darkness wasn't a black velvet curtain with nothing on it. There were shadows moving in the darkness, shadows that were always there for anyone to see who looked, but most people (those with two good eyes) never noticed them. They live in a place of eternal distraction, attracted by the colors, flowers and (especially) the women.
But this man, because of the deal he had made, was able to see everything clearly. As a matter of fact, he couldn't help it. On rare days, usually on those bitter winter days when a single gray-blue cloud covers the sun and sky and the wind rips through your face and hands and makes old injuries ache again, he would regret that he ever struck that bargain. But from some things there is no return, so he shouldered his regret and trudged on through the frost. Usually alone.
He wasn't the kind of guy who had a lot of friends. There is something about meeting a one eyed man on a cold winter day when a single cloud obscures both sky and sun that freezes your blood more than the wind ever does. As a general rule, people would greet him politely, then be glad when he was gone. He had, really, only two friends, and they didn't help the generally unfavorable first impression either.
These friends were a pair of birds who, when they weren't perched on his shoulders whispering in his ears, could be found circling in the air above his head. Some people say they were "thought" and "memory," some people say they were something else, but I'll let you in on a little secret: They were just a couple of crows.
So ... at the time of this story, the man had a vision which came though the eye of darkness, and lodged itself in the eye of light. The vision was very clear, but at the same time somewhat obscure.
It was a picture of a man hanging from a tree.
Not knowing what this vision portended, he did what any man would do. He consulted his only two friends and sought their advice. They told him exactly what he should do.
This guy (his name was Wotan) set out on a long journey, a journey which would eventually take him to the center of the world, and there he found a great ash tree named Yggdrasil. This is the tree that runs through all three worlds, and binds them together, much like a nail hammered through your hand into a plank onto a workbench. Its roots reach down into the underworld, its branches wind through the upper. And its massive trunk runs through our world, the world in the middle - which is called middle earth.
The first thing he did when he got there was to cut a long branch from the tree. This he carved into a slender shaft, then he fitted a steel blade, which had been forged by a dwarf, to one end, making a sturdy spear. He named it Gungnir, meaning "The Swaying One."
The second thing he did was to take a thick rope woven from the hair of old women who had died virgins and tied one end of it into a noose. He climbed to a thick overhanging branch of Yggdrasil and tied the other end there, then stuck his head in the noose, drawing it tight. Wotan stood for a moment, closed his dark eye, and looked at the world through his bright eye one last time. Then he jumped.
As you can imagine, his neck broke immediately. Ordinarily this would kill a guy, but Wotan wasn't just a guy. He was a god, and the rules gods play by are not the same as the ones we play by. Wotan would die, eventually, and oddly enough, this is what would eventually be the cause of his death, even though his actual death would come in the mouth of a horrendous wolf named Fenris. But that wouldn't be for a while yet, and this story isn't about that, anyway. For right now, all you need to know is that he was still alive. That white rope woven out of the hair of old virgins was silky smooth so it didn't chafe his neck much, but it still wasn't exactly comfortable. Wotan could feel it crushing his weasand, could feel the blackness of something like death coming on, and before he went into the dark, he did one last thing.
He took his bright spear Gungnir and drove it through his groin.
Then it got dark.
Now bear with me for a moment here. This is where the story takes a sharp turn into strange. In order to make sense of this, you must close your bright eye and look at the shadows with your dark eye. Turn away from distraction by colors, flowers and women. See what Wotan saw.
He hung there for nine full days, not alive like men can be, but not dead like gods can be either. Nine was the number of days he had to hang; three for the underworld, three for the middle earth, three for the upperworld. One day for before, one day for during, one day for after. He hung for all time, in all places, and he is still hanging, and he always will be hanging. Nine is the number of forever - or, at least, it would be, except it doesn't contain itself. You need ten for that. But it is a near to forever as you can get while still being in time. Yes, it is strange, and it doesn't make a lot of sense because you are looking at it through the wrong eye. Please try to follow my instructions.
There he hung, suspended between two worlds, hanging in the middle world, pierced by his own bloody spear. And the darkness came on, rolling from his missing eye across his forehead, filling the other one.
This wasn't the chocolaty, sensuous blackness you get when you lie in bed with someone you love, either before, during, or after the love. This was the achy, pounding darkness you get during the pulses of a very bad headache, the kind that drives everything away, even love. It came harder and harder until there was nothing else, just that. Wotan hung in that empty blackness all night.
Eventually the sun rose again, bringing with it colors which lit on the flowers and women of the returning world, and driving away that big gray-blue cloud. The two crows, who had been off somewhere during the night, came back. In there beaks they carried things that looked like little sticks. They perched on Wotan's shoulders and put the sticks in his ears where they became letters - runes, to be more specific - which they had plucked from the ends of the branches that grew at the top of Yggdrasil. Wotan took the runes and arranged them into a single word which he carefully laid on the shaft of Gungnir. The first word was "ALL."
Each day this was repeated. At the end of the third day, the first set for the underworld, Wotan had a group of three words. Written on the spear was the phrase "ALL THAT WAS."
The process went on. At the end of the second set of three, the set for middle earth, he had the phrase "ALL THAT IS." These two chunks of text took up the whole length of the spear in front of him, covering the area beginning at the beginning and running up to his groin. The next chunk would have to go behind him, running from his groin to the world tree.
Again the repetition of the process - darkness, returning light, colors, flowers, women, running clouds, two crows with sticks. The third set of three, this time for the upperworld, and this time the phrase "ALL THAT WILL."
As soon as he laid out the last word, Wotan dropped from the gallows like ripe fruit. He examined the spear carefully, and found that the iron tip had been embedded in Yggdrasil. Not deeply, but deep enough that a little trickle of sap ran out like blood. The wound in the tree, and the dripping blood, formed a set of runes spelling out one last word.
The word was "BE."
Wotan read that word, and, for the first time, and for the last time, he wept, because, now that the knowledge of ALL THAT WAS, ALL THAT IS, and ALL THAT WILL BE was his, he recognized exactly what he had done. Even as he watched, the tiny hole made by the point of his spear began to decay, rotting a little bit at the edges.
One day, out of that scratch in the bark of a great ash tree, a wonderful and horrendous wolf would come howling. And the wolf's jaws had an urgent appointment with Wotan.
Slowly, painfully, Wotan drew the Swaying One out of his body, but, as he pulled, a little sliver of wood caught in the wound. Wotan now knew that the wound would never fully heal.
Copyright 2010 B. de Corbin and Splendid Fish Studio