My memory tells me that the first rune I drew was Raidho.
A decade into the past and contextless, this may not be true. What I can remember clearly is my Old Norse professor walking around the room with his bag so that each of us, whether we wanted to or not, could draw a stone. After they were distributed he went to sit at the front and do something I can only call “chortling.”
“This is all bullshit,” he chuckled, flipping through the small pamphlet that had come with the set. “I thought you should see that. Ingmar, what did you get?”
Raidho is an early form of the letter “r,” and that is exactly what it looks like. When used for divination, it means “riding,” the pounding speed of horses, the call of the road. I traced its lines, and waited for my turn, and wanted it to mean something.
This summer was filled with travel and, because I am myself, they were all road trips.
Home, first. A day across Illinois to see friends, and then another across Missouri, looping up and into the Ozarks on my way into Kansas. I do not travel this route often, but I know the trip, the long stretches of interstate and the hilly, jolting state highways. I know the best places to stop for fried chicken, the unexpected back-road wineries, the roadside attractions that still cling to Old 66. This is what it means to go home, picnicking at a rest stop with the Dalton Gang and Rockabilly Museum five miles ahead.
Then, Memphis. I have only been to Memphis once, in high school, dragging my family determinedly through the Civil Rights Museum, which I did not yet understand. This would have been different, two days south across unfamiliar highways that were still somehow I-55, riding with a friend whom I had never shared the road with before. This would have meant packing blankets, bottle openers, a too-large drinking horn that is mostly ceremonial, and hightailing it across state lines. That trip was muggy nights of homemade mead, falling against my friends with laughter as we built a web between us and offered it up, called it worship.
The third destination, I don’t know – somewhere in Canada. As a kid I traveled to Canada regularly, to visit my grandmother at her summer job. That was a long time ago, now. I remember climbing a path marked by yellow bands up to a knoll covered in wild blueberries that overlooked a lake. The cabin we stayed at had a porch where I cried for the first time over the death of Robin Hood, bleeding out in the pages of Classics Illustrated as ground squirrels darted past my feet. It is impossibly idyllic in my memory, and this would have been something else, another part of the country, a different set of strangers brought together by religion instead of blood.
Now this summer is fifteen square miles. More, maybe, if I dust my bike off and replace the tire and teach myself something about maintenance. So far it has been walking, dodging the runners and dog walkers and other wandering obstacles that have turned my neighborhood into a high-stakes game of Frogger. Six feet – what does that mean in stretches of sidewalk and alleyway? I have turned it into a game of exploration, finding the street art and unexplained details of my neighborhood that make it strange again, make me a traveler, make it something other than not home, not Memphis, not Canada.
Of the tattoos I do not have yet, Hermes feels the most pressing.
He has been there since the beginning. I have glimpsed him in laughter, in the curve of marble or muscle, but I know him best the ache of the fifth hour of driving, the one where the radio fades between stations and I start to scan for what comes next. There is a kind of divination in this. I close my ears and walk into a crowded space, ask him for an answer and then open wide and listen for what comes first. I change the channel. Is it an ad for the next town, Missouri making the roadside pronunciations unguessable? Bevier – Bev-eer? Bev-ee-aay? Beaver? Is it a song I know, the guitar riff a reminder of the days when the only local option was classic rock and my summers were Styx and REO Speedwagon and a pilgrimage to the record store two hours away and up a hidden flight of stairs? Is it, inevitably, Journey, a joke about time and travel and being here, right now?
I come back to him in ways that make me think I never really left – a tiny collection on my desk at work that takes the shape of a shrine, a habit of picking up coins and pebbles and lonely dice. Walking feels like looking for him – the unusual doorway, the stranger at the crossroads, the wide and looping boulevards of my local cemetery. Trying to write him onto my skin feels impossible, too solid, like making a word out of air and light. I think of the caduceus, following the bones of my arm. I think of wings on my feet.
It is harder to go walking now, as the weather gets warmer and more people fill the streets. I am no longer used to people. It is harder to feel unafraid.
I know almost nothing about astrology besides that a lot of my chart is in Sagittarius. That’s the constellation that was once Chiron, the son of Apollo and teacher of Dionysos, a man of culture and unending knowledge. When I see it referenced in this context, Sagittarius means movement, travel, the constant search for more.
There are many ways of making that metaphorical – the journey of learning, the optimism of new opportunities. I recognize these in myself. But I’m also aware of it as the arrow fired from a celestial bow, a push for literal and physical movement, the yearning to be somewhere else.
In two months, my world has shrunk to the three rooms I share with my partner. Living room for work and relaxation, kitchen for meals, bedroom in the evening. End to end in thirty paces, with hours on the couch, hours in the chair, hours laying on the floor and watching the sun come in through the windows. It is not depression but it mimics the symptoms. Connection is hard. Being present is hard. So I write instead, sending myself out into exploration and finding places to speak about loss and hope that feel more real than the stilted and self-conscious ways I can speak about them to my friends.
“Listen,” I say. “There is nothing wrong with me. I am healthy. My family is doing well. What I am mourning is the smell of a gas station in summer, the way asphalt and gasoline taste when they’re hot and in the air. I only get Mountain Dew when I’m traveling because it tastes different like that. The first drink between air conditioned spaces tastes cheap, cold, and bad for you but it also tastes like two more hours on the road. How do I say that’s holy without sounding absurd? How can I mourn when people are losing things that are so much more important?”
My friends remind me that emotions have nothing to do with morals. Mourning is just a question of loss, a sense of something missed that needs to be acknowledged. I know this, and I write stories about heroes with no clear quest, lovers separated by necessity, strangers forced into close companionship as they share a horse on their journey.
I will not travel this summer.