St. Louis summer: not just hot, but humid, sticky, “muggy,” as we, the low-born of the south side, tend to call it. The world seems to glow orange under the proud gaze of Father Sun. On August days like this, sometimes the death of the Sun King doesn’t seem so tragic after all. He has it coming.
It is a little past eleven, and I am standing, alone, in the English Woodland section of the Missouri Botanical Garden – “Shaw’s Garden,” the other gift of our local saint, Henry Shaw. The year is 2007; I am twenty-one years old.
The English Woodland Garden doesn’t seem traffic like some other spots. It is a quiet, mazelike place. Although there is one asphalt road that splits it in half, a necessary blemish so that the trams and tractors can get across the garden, most of the paths in this garden are made of red cedar chips spread on the ground. They wind and twist around plots of dirt and greenery; black metal signs stick out of the ground and give names to the plants: a swamp white oak here, a dogwood there, a collection of bishop’s hats by your left foot. The dirt and the cedar steam in the heat, enough that my glasses fog up. The Three Graces, Zeus and Eurynome’s bronze daughters, dance together atop a stone on one side of the garden. Squirrels rustle past in every direction.
At the edge of this garden sits a wooden bower. In my memory, this bower was made of rough timbers, lashed together with ropes, the bark barely stripped from the still-round branches. The peak of its sloped roof was decorated with branches spread out like the World Tree. It felt like a tiny Viking hall in the middle of my city. I have been there in the years since, and that is not the building that stands there now. The gazebo that stands on top of my memory is sturdy and made of weather-treated four-by-fours and has metal brackets held together with rivets to brace its angles. Perhaps I remember it wrong; perhaps they tore the old down, or it fell apart during a rough winter. Perhaps I dreamed my Viking hall into being. Perhaps it knew why I was there.
I had no other temple. I needed a place to pray.
I stop at the threshold, place my hand on the rough frame of the doorway. Inside are two wooden benches, one to each side. The back of the bower has a railing and overlooks the last few trees and shrubs in the English Woodland Garden before the landscape melts away and becomes Japan. I first found that place the year before; I had come with friends from my coven. We were smitten. Sarah ran her hand across the tall beams of the frame and looked back at me; she seemed to radiate light. “I need you to build me one of these,” she said.
“Buy a house first,” I said, but I agreed to do it.
I sit down on one of the benches and look at my hands. I haven’t cried yet. I feel like I should have by now. That would be the human thing to do.
Two hours before, I had kissed you goodbye for the last time. I doubted I would ever see you again. We had been standing in the airport with your parents; you were boarding a plane for Washington, DC, en route to Almaty, Kazakhstan. You always said you were going into the Peace Corps: it was one of the first things I ever heard you say about yourself. You never said anything different, even after we found ourselves staying out talking at restaurants until we were forced out by the wait staff, even after I took you to a dance while dressed as a giant mouse, even after you realized I would never be bold enough to kiss you and so you kissed me yourself. I knew this.
You said you would be there for two years at least, but probably three. We had been together for nine months. The literary critic in me has always rankled at the symbolism.
I kissed you goodbye, and I watched you wheel your suitcase away into the bowels of Lambert International, and I rode in your parents’ SUV back to their house in North County, where my car was parked. I hugged them both goodbye – also for the last time – and drove back into the city, to Shaw’s Garden.
I shut my eyes, at last. Sweat pooled on my forehead. I sit in the muggy heat and try to focus. I begin to chant the names of the gods: I pull their names from my diaphragm like ohms, warping and shaping their names until they are pure notes that stretch as far as my lungs will take them.
I pray to Odin, wanderer. Frigg, all-seeing. Thor, protector. Tyr, oathkeeper.
I pray to Freyr, sower. Idunna, youth. Balder, martyr. Loki, changer.
And I pray to Freyja.
Freyja’s name rises from my belly. My eyes are clenched and my hands are clasped and I am not crying but I wish I were.
I pray to Freyja, and I think about you, and I wonder about what will happen to me now.
There’s a feeling, like a gentle brush of fingers against my hands, and I hear a woman’s voice in my ear. Trust me, she says.
If you say so, I say back.
I don’t think of Freyja when we begin to send each other letters that say how much we miss one another. I don’t think of her when my parents pull together the money for us to spend a week together a year into your term of service. I certainly don’t think of her when we break up two years into your time in Kazakhstan and I try – poorly – to start seeing other people.
It isn’t until you appear in the baggage claim at Lambert Airport and I see your face for the first time in two and a half years and we kiss each other good night on your parents’ front step that I think of Freyja.
Trust me, she says.
Last year, when I bought your engagement ring, I wondered where to keep it until I asked the question. I decided to keep it next to the statue of Freyja on my altar. Perhaps “decided” is not the right word; really, she insisted.
(Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.)
(Also, today is the first day of Pantheacon! I’ll be there! Will you be there? We should give each other high-fives.)