Hugin and Munin fly each day
over the spacious earth.
I fear for Hugin, that he come not back,
yet more anxious am I for Munin.
-Snorri Sturluson, from The Poetic Edda
The ravens will not leave her alone no matter what she does. They watch her from the trees outside her bedroom window when she sleeps, and when she wakes each morning, it is their squawks and caws that rouse her. When she leaves the house, hosts of sleek-winged, slender shadows dot the trees in the yard, and everywhere she goes they follow, circling high above or perching on rooftops and branches and telephone wires. Even when she dreams, she hears their voices, feels the soft brush of their wings.
She has never given much thought to ravens, but after weeks of hearing their voices and watching them watching her all day, every day, she has learned a great deal about their behavior. She has learned that they usually travel in pairs. She has learned that their language consists of clicking sounds and low, throaty caws. She has learned to tell them apart from their cousins the crows, who are smaller than ravens and have higher voices. She has learned that they mourn their dead.
She has learned many human stories of ravens. She has learned that Raven spread light through the first great darkness, that he discovered humans trapped inside a clam shell, or, in one strange tale, that he pooped out the world. She has learned that the Norse god, Odin, the All-Father, was accompanied by two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who allowed him to learn many secrets and cast his gaze across all the world, and that the presence of ravens after a sacrifice meant Odin had accepted the offering.
Tonight, she dreams a dream she will not remember when she wakes, a dream of flying on black wings over a churning, glaucous sea. When she wakes, she is mystified by faint impressions that remain with her after the dream has ended—the tang of sea salt on her tongue, the whisper of wind upon her flesh. When she wakes, the cries of ravens echo in the darkness and silence.
The next day soon yields once more to night, like the sun blotted out by black wings unfurling.
That night, between sleep and dreams, she opens her eyes to see a raven perched upon her breast, its black feathers glistening in the faint starlight that filters through her bedroom window, the bird’s upright body rising and falling with the rhythm of her breath. The raven tilts its head, peers at her shrewdly with shiny black eyes, then clicks and squawks in a low, throaty caw. What do you want? Was that her voice, or the raven’s? Was she questioned or questioner? She closes her eyes, and suddenly plunging into the depths of dream again, sees the world through the raven’s eyes.
She soars over rising seas and lands drowned in new depths; she glides too near forests consumed by flames; and everywhere it seems, the deserts are growing.
As before, when she awakes, she will not remember all she dreams, but she will know the voices of the ravens as they mourn the death of all their kindred, both feathered and furry, and of the forest itself.
And, again, dim sense impressions greet her when she wakes, but this time the taste on her tongue is the caustic bite of waters turned to acid, the feeling on her skin the scorch of wildfire. Again, she wakes an hour before dawn, and the cawing splits the predawn silence.
In the rasping voices of these black winged visitors, these heralds of the tomb, she detects an unmistakable note of fear.
For the death of the world spells the end, even, for the eaters of the dead.
The dreams and the dread shadow her all through the next day, so that even when she closes her eyes and plugs her ears, the ravens are with her. That night, though her dark eyes sting with fatigue and her body screams for sleep, she fights to stay awake for fear that the dreams will come to her again. She is not ready for the uncanny sensory experience, not ready for the birds’ pure animal terror. At last, she can resist no longer and sleep claims her.
The next morning, she rises before the sun, sheds her simple nightgown, and steps out into the chilly predawn darkness. As grief overwhelms her, she sits, clutching her exposed knees in bare arms, rocking to the rhythm of her sobbing. How long has it been since she has felt the grass beneath her bare feet? How long since she has watched the moon rise over the tree line? How long since she has run into the woods, her wild heart beating faster than her running feet striking the forest floor? In that moment, as the sun limns the jagged black shapes of trees with white, she stands naked and offers herself up to the ravens in her purest animal form. This act is only the beginning, one of many sacrifices that will show the ravens she has heard and heeded their message.
At last, her sacrifice accepted, she rises to face a dawn without ravens.