The Lay of the Time Kettle



“The Time Kettle—few have seen it.”

It is a tiny speck of a vessel, and yet it carries the flame for the entire universe.


It is grand, capacious even, producing steam that has moistened the Amazon, twice.


She turned it on months ago and it has flickered on and off with the opening and closing of an over loaded fuse in the basement, opening and closing and opening and closing like the door to all possible worlds.


Some swear the circuits are connected.


This morning, she takes the kettle off the fire, pulls it down from the hook that promises heat and yet imprisons the vessel upright.


She lets the kettle sit, lets the fog die down, and sees a shadowy figure smiling in steamy morning moonlight from across the room.


She does not rush.

She has waged and wagered and waited 13.8 billion years of his forever on the clearing of this watery smoke.

Grief and fear, it turns out, make an awful lot of steam—like burning green wood, not yet seasoned.


It was worth it, she thinks, having stretched her legs out of the time bubble, the giant shimmering zorb protecting her fragile human body.

Her seemingly human body.

Sometimes she forgets to misunderstand reality when she sees his face, the spirals of his hair, touched and oiled and loved and broken into form, the curve of his lower lip.


She starts thinking she knows things.


Looses him, loses him when the circuit completes and the kettle starts to glow blue and burble, mesmerizing as a captured creek.


“You have my axe,” she says, before a journey. He takes it, lays it down next to the fire.

"And my sword,"

His face doesn't move a single, shining whisper, but he takes it, and lays it down on a bed of pine needles.

"And my bow,"

She tugs the ribbon from her ponytail, and watches him wrap it once, twice, three times around his already-bandaged wrist.


She leans forward, feeling spent, knowing there is far to go, hands clasped around a long, L-shaped staff, head bowed, broad, tall, strapping, and humbled.


She keeps bees, and three swords hang on her tavern wall, which she shares with the man, where they welcome their friends and enemies alike to sup on honeyed mead and hearty stew. No one save the barkeeps understand how the swords got there. Fewer dare to ask, with all the notches they see in the blades, each filled in with some combination of starmetal, tenacity, and moonlight.

She turns to her friend, then.


"Now that you have everything, will you stay?"


"Not like this."


He steps out the back gate, into the wood, pack filled.

He fingers a letter that has rested in his pocket for months.


"Sweet one,


Find dry firewood. Build yourself a cabin.

Come back if ever you wish. I will be waiting.


I have waited millennia. I would wait ten thousand years.

Would collapse time into a singularity. Will do that, once I learn how.


Also, you will never, ever, ever find me again.


If you do not recognize me when next we meet, take my hand.

You will always know me by the work of my hands.


Godspeed, beloved."


He pulls out the letter, flips it over as he walks slowly down the garden path, toward the gate—hart-iron, intricate, lockless.


"If you dare to bring it back, the wood—and I pray you will, we can stand in the garden, hang the axe next to the rake on the shed, walk the old labyrinth and see if we want to hug, or kiss, or dance, or touch hands to hands at the center.


If you come back—and I pray you will, we can dance out between the stones like hopscotch—creative, play-pretend impatience, and I’ll pin you to the garden path, feeling your laughing breath gust through willing wisps at jaw corner and nape of neck, and we can feel our hands touch at shoulder height from hundreds of miles apart, like we’re goalposts who have finally closed the distance by bending the surface of the globe.

We, encouragers, appreciators, lovers, alchemists.

We, rivers and time-lapsed tectonic plates.


I love you. Be safe. Have fun."


He folds it back up, this tiny, inkpaper map, humming 12 universes of terrain.

He heads to the river.


***

She packs up, and flies to the sea, imagining her homecoming. I will hand him Riverstone, handfast, heavy, and soft, my granite friend who I fast-pitched at his face last week, and tomorrow, and I will ask him to carry it around in his satchel.


Yes.


It is an enormous breath of an ask, for while his time is infinite, his desires are honed, and his satchel is small.

The version of him she has built in her mind says, "I can smell your fear. It smells like clearcut forest and charred peace lily, and poison."


"Of course you can. Of course it does. Can't die in a house you've burnt to the ground."


"Have you caught wind of your breath, lately? Have you drank yourself, lately? Have you held that other soft hand of yours? Hugged those shoulders?"


"no."


He kisses the top of her head, and walks off, flicking her a lego piece that looks like a map, which she catches. He touches the minifigure mommet of the twin brother he always wanted that he keeps wrapped in silk in the pocket of his bright yellow linen suit jacket, and smiles.


***


She sends him a letter, this imagined man:


"About the fear, brother. I have done my best to speak it out of the house.

Yet yelling “I LOVE YOU!” at a guest who needs to hear it does not make them

want to leave, turns out."


I’ve taken to whispering "I love you’s" into Fear’s ears, my throat having gotten hoarse, and whaddaya know, the fellow has five hundred twenty Scheherazades worth of tales.


Thank you for helping me find him a job—A tinker’s vice pays kindness twice and all that.


He has promised that our coffers will never be empty and our hearth will never go cold.


He can pull a crowd from anywhere in a split second, and the tavern is all laughter and soup smells and emberglow.


You're welcome to come back, if it ever feels right. I could use a hand with these kids I've adopted. Ollie and Will and Emily and my dad and my mom and my other brother are helping, but they could use a dose of your ruthless compassion, and there's no better heart to teach them game-making."


***

Years later, she hears the garden gate creak open.


She does not run.


Whoever is coming in will come in if they wish to.


And even if they come into the garden, it does not mean they are there to talk to her. They may be coming to convene with the flowers.


"I'm here." she hears from behind the hedges.


"I know." she replies.


A stunning woman with green mallard feathers braided into her forelocks carries an extinguished lantern in one hand, and a staff in the other.


The being on the bench can smell skittles on the wind. Cherry. Lime. That's new.

They blink, and the woman becomes a tiger, a wolf, a rhino, a gazelle, a salamander.


New glasses, love? he says, taking a step forward.


She cannot bring herself to be startled.


She reaches into her pocket.


***


Months earlier, she had imagined this moment, built it in her head, minus the mallard feathers and the green skittles, had built it around the shadow and highlight of that unreal lower lip, now thin, painted red, still stunning.


"You made it," she thought she'd say, breathless, kissing him while she was upside down, hanging off the roof of the tavern, in the rain.


***


She had just been on the roof before they arrived, this new one, but she wasn't hanging there. Her hips were over her knees were over her feet.


And her weight was settled on her bones when he? She? They? took her hands.


It looked like a three layered onion, with the edge cut off so it wouldn't roll on the cutting board, but in this case, the cut edge was airborne. They would be living dangerously. They could see all the layers. His hands. Her hands, and the Riverstone cupped amidst their rings and wrinkles.


***


She had imagined, months ago, that he'd cry, and that his voice would break a little when she tried to hand him the stone.


The most beautiful moment, she thought, would be if this hurt a little.


"Please," he'd say, voice breaking a little. "Keep it."


But the DVD started skipping when Thor stepped in.


"Odin?"


"Oh shit. He's here."


"This is what you want to watch, Loki?"


"Yeah, a little."


"Look, you know Balder's right here, and that he's totally forgiven you for the mistletoe thing, right?"


Loki gasps.


Odin sobs. "My sons. My beautiful sons. You are safe. You are so beautiful. I am so sorry I did not tell you sooner. Please forgive me. Every one of you. You are the best of me."


They hold him while he shakes.


***


No one cries as the fox meets the wolf in the garden.

The phoenix spreads its wings, and the unicorn bows.


He lets the water of her hands drop back into the sea, having drunk his fill of their rock-scarred softness.


He lifts a stone from his own pocket, the same black and white granite, worn smooth by a thousand, thousand beatings in the tide.


"I found mine in the river," she says.


"I found my by the sea," he says.


The grains match.


The stones will never again touch so closely at they did.

Not in this lifetime.

This is neither error, nor tragedy.


The fault lines have been worn smooth by eons of grim grit and petty pebble, carried by snot and tears, blood, mud, and snarl.


The stones remember the fires that forged them, the mountains that bore them high, the hands that carried them down, the shoes the kicked them, the dust that kissed them, the waters that honed them, the sands of time that polished them.


She sees something running near the corner of his eye.


“Where is the pain, love? Who hurts?”


She sees his lips twitch, a crow's foot twinkle, and raises an eyebrow in threat, in promise, ready to kiss it out of him until he can no longer breath, much less laugh.


"That is sweat, not tear, dear heart. You do not know me well enough to read this face. It's hotter than hell in here, did you leave the time kettle on, again?"


"Yep. I'll grab it." There is no guilt in her voice. No fear. No grief.


The hearth burns with seasoned wood.


She pours two cups of tea, one chamomile, hibiscus, sunshine, and mint, one a mix of black tea and moonlight.


He hold the remote, quirked eyebrow asking if she's interested in watching some sexy garbage.


The beautiful brothers hum onto the screen, still hugging, father still sobbing, and he presses play.


Frigga stands up from her place on the couch, and the men let go of each other's shoulders, nearly flinching.


"I am sorry," she says.


And she nuzzles his upper arm like a cat, who knows things, knowing nothing, suspecting the universe might be up to treachery.


He tears up a little, like he always does at this scene.


The previous scene is the one that gets her.


They sit through it together.


It's a tradition. A ritual. A rite of passage.


Every year, they knock their teacups together, like nobility at a banquet, sharing poison, for trust.


You're winning, he says.

You too, she says.