Ole’s Viking Funeral by Ron Gibson, Jr.

Ole’s Viking Funeral

In Minnesota, near the wild Boundary Waters, where old bones wait for flesh and the newly dead wait to be buried, winter’s sword swings out of Canada like a whorl from a playoff beard, stirring the blood of wolves on Isle Royale and stirring the wolves in the blood of my father. Together they would howl under the sky, miles apart, for different reasons.

Even after a decade away from home, when I hitched myself to a soldier before ending up divorced and living alone in the Northwest, I still welcome the seasons with apprehension.

As leaves turn gold and fire, and creeks thunder with ghostly salmon, and the air turns crisp, freeing a mind from suffocating heat to work as it should, I begin to tense.

The mind may firewall, but muscles never forget.

You see, exactly the same time every year my father became someone else. As the wild landscape changed, so did my father. Gone was the kind man that reminded me of the fiddle-playing Pa Ingalls from the Little House on the Prairie novels, replaced by a demon. My mother insisted my father was still a man – even as his eyes dulled, forehead began to protrude, face became meat-red and ugly, voice thickened with unveiled brutality and clothing became one big purple bruise – he was just not the man she had married. The man she married was named Robert, and this man answered to Ole.

For seventeen weeks each year, Ole isolated himself to the den, only coming out for meals with the family. As his features deteriorated further, my older brother and I would stare instead of eat, while our baby sister’s screams of terror finally convinced Ole to listen to my mother and wear a fluorescent orange ski mask. This served only to fuel my imagination, wondering what new horrors lurked behind the mask, but it kept my baby sister quiet.

Once finished eating his meal with his hands like a beast, Ole would quickly retreat to the den, where the door remained limned with TV light twenty-four hours a day. The only way we knew he was awake was when his savage howls of frustration or triumph broke though the ever-present din of sportcasters and call-in talk show hosts.

Depending on the year, usually around Christmas, as the snarling fangs of winter fell unabated, burying us alive inside our house, Ole’s energy would flag. His steps slowed, shoulders stooped, tears forming inside his mask’s eye holes. The den became more and more quiet, until the TV and radio no longer played. The silence was disconcerting, but welcome after so much sound and fury.

As per tradition, Ole’s last act of the season was to shovel the walkway, paying penance for another season of failures, a broken demon howling under the same sky as the wolves of Isle Royale, before shedding his ski mask and purple clothing like a chrysalis in the mudroom, returning our father to his family.

 

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Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Noble / Gas Quarterly, The Airgonaut, Pidgeonholes, Maudlin House, The Vignette Review, Cease Cows, Spelk Fiction, etc. & forthcoming at Whiskeypaper and Cheap Pop. @sirabsurd

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