Ättestupa

Dedicated to Ari Aster’s Midsommar.

Dani stands at the top of the mountain.

She’s marked the rune stone with her passing, like so many others. Pelle, she knows, is behind her doing exactly the same thing. He has taken the blade across his palm, as she had done, as they had done together. After meeting their meal with the Hårga, they rose to their feet around the high table, pausing, breathing in … Dani still marvels at being able to actually breathe, even after all this time, no longer choking on grief, and pain, and suffering. No longer denying her needs, or embracing her isolation, or clinging to that old sense of incredible fear and self-loathing.

It is just her now. It is her, and Pelle, and the Hårga. Their family. Her family.

It was all a choreograph. Dani can appreciate that. And it had started long before she had ever been found by Pelle, before he befriended her and Christian, and his friends. It even transcended the festival: the ritual that brought them all together almost fifty years ago now. Even before her sister had killed herself, and their parents Dani felt different, felt separate from the daily routines of others, held aloof by fear and anxiety for her sister’s well-being, second-guessing her feelings with her friends, terrified that she was somehow spreading her own neuroses to her relationships — to Christian at the time — and telling herself to be grateful, merely grateful, of being tolerated by Christian’s friends, and an academic environment on a path going nowhere. She found her places in grief and despair. She found herself in the muted places after her family had died, placing her pain in bathrooms, quietly in her bed, away from all the people that simply couldn’t relate to it — or to her — and trying to pass, to always pass as normal and carry on the rote and rut of whatever passed as social existence in North America.

She had talked to Pelle all about it. She had opened up, like the flowers she wore as May Queen — the most beautiful and miraculous May Queen in the Hårga’s history according to the rather unbiased opinion of Pelle — and she realized that she had her own observations, her own legitimate concerns, and her opinions as well. It occurred to her now, standing on the mountaintop, just how much the place she came from didn’t understand grieving. Dani still recognizes that there is some merit to privately dealing with loss, to knowing it as part of the core of one’s identity as an individual. Recognizing one’s mortality, and limits, and the fact that all things are transitory is something that differentiates a human being from the animals. But human beings, Dani recognizes, are still social animals. They are still storytelling creatures. They look for meaning. They make their meaning. And, at their greatest, they made their meaning together.

Western society, Pelle told her once, had forgotten what is was like — as a majority — to have a place for publicly accepted grief. And she agrees. Even now, standing here, with the altitude of the air cooler than before Dani recalls her elective classes. While Christian had been the anthropology student, and poor Josh had been even more dedicated to the field — costing him everything for the sake of curiosity, consumed by personal greed — as Dani told Pelle once, she had been a psychology student. Psychology, she remembers with a faint smile on her face, not psychiatry, her introduction to mind-altering and receptive substances introduced to her by Pelle, and their family. Sigmund Freud had been terrified of “the occult,” some texts had attested, to the point of going into shock around his students, overwhelmed by the possibility of its tides “consuming Western civilization,” or some similar kind of sentiment. But Freud was the product of his time and place, a man scared of losing control and being taken over, being shamed.

There is a sweet spot, Dani knows, between psychology and literature, philosophy and myth, the curved bridge of her nose and her forehead according to Pelle’s lips, and spontaneity and the dance. One of Dani’s elective classes at college had been about World Literature. She recalls one work they had to read: a German novella called Tonio Kröger. It had been written by Thomas Mann, where his protagonist of the same name as the title attempts to understand the bourgeois society he was born into: understanding their workings, feeling superior to them, even pitying them, but ultimately being envious of their ignorance of what they were, and to what they participated themselves. But what Dani remembers the most isn’t Tonio, but the scene with the dance and the girl with the dark hair among many blonde girls and boys that tried to move like them, tried to express herself like them, tried to dance like them … and failed.

Despite her pale blonde hair and bright green eyes, Dani knew she had been that girl, deep down, and just didn’t understand that then. Not really. She just didn’t take it seriously. In a performative culture, of any kind, it was just another role, another persona. Carl Jung, Freud’s student, contemporary, and eventual rival had interlap with Thomas Mann in ideology if not personal acquaintance. Jung recognized the importance of culture and mythos as more than simply the supremacy of the phallic over the feminine, as more than just the mindless, black mud of the occult. He saw vitality in the old symbols and archetypes. He saw life.

Just a few minutes ago, Dani had looked in Pelle’s eyes down below around the table with their loved ones. She lifted her cup, as he did his own. The cup is a vessel of the feminine, containing mead and everlasting life. It had been some time since they had dressed in the white robes of summer, but now wore the sky blue tunics of the elders they had become. Pelle’s long hair had become grey, his moustache and beard growing out and marked with white. Dani herself knows her hair, that had been so pale before, had become white itself, the skin around her cheek bones more taut, crow’s feet around her eyes and accentuating the lines of her forehead. She’d hoped she would become as handsome as Siv, the matriarch before her, a fact of which Pelle never forgot to assure her. Her eyes are still green, as green as the day as she had become May Queen, in a summer that will last inside of her heart forever.

All because of the man in front of her, as they sang their last songs to each other. All because of the family that embraced her when she had lost her own.

She looks down at her family below. Their children and grandchildren stare up at her in silent adoration, in anticipation of the next moment, of one more breath. They are so beautiful. She never would have dreamed of their existence fifty years ago during more uncertain times. It makes her think about her sister, and pang of pity goes through her heart. Of course, with such destabilization, with not having that place to understand pain, she just didn’t want to be alone when the time came on her. But the cycles were off. Their parents had more time to go, a decade or two. Pelle’s own parents died, in a fire without ritual or meaning, far too young, leaving him and Ingemar before the latter was fortunate to join them latter in life by the blessing of the Hårga.

They had time with their children and grandchildren. They had time with their friends. She and Maja had also become close. She stands down there, below, smiling up at her, her own red-headed descendants in tow. Dani knows her child, now grown, is the child of Christian but she doesn’t hold it against them … or even Christian anymore. The truth of the matter is that, for it had ultimately been Pelle who had brought her here, if it hadn’t been for her relationship with Christian — if she hadn’t found the absolute rock-bottom, the spiritual nihilism, with him that she did — she would never have known Pelle, or the Hårga, and it didn’t bear thinking about where she would have been at this time in her life: if she would have even been alive … Or if she would have wanted to be.

Dani was never stupid. She knew what Christian was, deep down. She knew it would never have worked out between them in the grand scheme of things, that he held on to their tenuous, rotting, relationship out of a sense of obligation and pity … just as the Western world kept people alive long past the time they should have been gone. It was barbaric and cruel to keep someone in a withered body, their mind eroding, their desires choked in dying flesh and disintegrating faculties just for some misplaced ideal of a “sanctity for life.” Everything has its seasons, and its times, and its cycles.

Like that dance around the maypole so long ago. Dani feels the ghost of a smile on her lips, still tasting of the mead, of the kiss that Pelle gave her the night before as they made love for the last time before their supper, and song, and final farewell. The Hårga is a choreograph. A performance. A dance. They had slowly acclimated her to the rules and rites. They had shown her a place among the women as they baked and cooked and washed and oversaw the breeding of the next generation. She and Maja and all her other sisters danced together. And Pelle. Pelle saw something in her that she, at the time, did not. She had forgiven Christian long ago, the best of him living on in that child, instilled with the respect of the seasons.

Pelle had wanted her to win that dance so long ago, to become May Queen. She had already been part of the family at this point, though it definitely removed her from the lottery held at the end of the festival. He had been charged to bring others back to the commune. But nothing he did had been left to chance. He asked about her field of study when no one else had cared. He tried to talk to her about his grief when she was in pain, to relate to her. He showed her his drawings that he didn’t bother to show the others. Pelle even remembered her birthday. And when she became May Queen, whether she was meant to do so by the gods or mortals, it had been the greatest birthday of all. Dressed in flowery finery, practically waddling in it, surrounded by laughter, Dani felt her face open up. It didn’t close in sadness, but it unfolded in a smile. In joy. Pelle told her that, every day, of every moment they lived until they would leave this earth together, when he kissed the curving where her nose met her forehead that he wanted to see that smile in his mind’s eye forever: that she deserved someone and something that would make her want to smile like that. And by the gods, did she ever.

No, Dani thinks to herself, as she prepares to meet her family one last time, Freud didn’t understand this. Jung did. Jung would have known about the anima and the animus and the archetypes that make human meaning. He would have appreciated the mandala patterns of synchronous movement and placement in the ritual dinner, and daily life of the commune. He would have seen the commune embracing the anima, and the presence — the withholding — of Christian being diminished and sublimated into the procreative role they needed him to serve. Patriarchy had been consumed by occultism, but the Hårga understood too that the harmful elements of the world, such as the legendary “dark one” that made so many others dance to death, perhaps the St. Vitus Dance that once consumed Europe, was appropriated and re-appropriated by the village — by the commune — and even burned in effigy to reaffirm life itself.

A snowflake drifts down, slowly, and gracefully past Dani’s cheek on the mountain as she looks down below at those who love her. She recalls Josh laughing at them when they asked him what the Ättestupa was, only realizing later that it was a product of Nordic satire: a pale shadow of what this, right now, really is. But most of all, she thinks about when she embraced her grief on her own, alone, with no one around her, even when others were physically there, and recalling Pelle’s words about how everyone wants to held.

And the Hårga held her. They held her in pleasure and pain, in agony and in joy. And now, they will hold her one last time: with the man that she loves not far behind.

And as Dani hopes to fall as elegantly as the snowflake, without the pain of the memory of the winter where she lost everything, where she now returns to her other family, praying that neither she nor Pelle will require the mercy or the imperfection of the mallet, wishing she could see one more Midsommar but finding solace in the fact that her grandchildren will have that honour, that they will never feel awkward or out of place in the communal dance of the people they love, the wind sings around her as she leaps towards her fate.

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About matthewkirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
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