excerpt > Terese Brasen > Kama
it was possible to see past the market commotion through the open city gates to the brown trail that sloped towards the blue water, where the ships had docked.
The horses came first—only five this time. At the gates, the riders stopped and dismounted before the statue of the god Freyr. Kama couldn’t hear the voices but she knew the prayer her father and his men would offer: “O my Lord, I have come from a far land and have with me slave girls, furs, spices, wine, cloth, swords and silver. Send me a merchant who will buy from me whatever I wish and will not dispute anything.”
The horses crossed in front. Their elegant legs stepped over the stones. Hooves clanged against the ground right in front. So close. An acrid smell like urine mixed with peppermint fanned over the porch.
Kama closed her eyes.
The routine comings and goings along the Dnieper River told her she was safe. A system existed. The gods determined day and night, ice and fire, but men like her father cared for the kingdom of middle earth.
Now a steady procession trudged up the trail. Stooped backs supported heavy packages. Teams handled boxes, one person each side grasping the goods that would soon attract curious buyers.
Past the Big House, the market square was almost empty but already noisy with scraping, clamoring and hammering, as the side shed opened and closed, as boards and sawhorses were dragged in place and stalls assembled, as hammers tacked burlap skirts to table edges.
“Inga,” Asa yelled.
“What now?” Inga shouted to her stepmother. She needed to distance herself from the shapeless form who reeked of fish. Inga spat out a sunflower shell. In the fall, Asa collected decapitated sunflower heads and stored them as winter bird feed. Now a withered gray flower rested on Inga’s lap, and one by one, she was picking the seeds from the pockets, placing them between her teeth, cracking them open and spitting the discarded casing on the gravel just past her boots.
“Get your ass over here and give me a hand,” Asa said.
“Do it yourself.”
“What if I have to take a pee?”
“Pee yourself like you always do.”
Inga was pushing back at the woman who had raised her and claimed her as a daughter. The two were clearly not related. A net hid Asa’s mousy hair. Fish blood stained her apron. But Inga was all Asa had to talk about. She hoped to convince customers who stopped by her stall that Asa was brave and mysterious—not just a fishmonger.
Asa would say. “What have Freyr and his ugly sister Freyja done for us lately? Wake up and smell the bullshit. You need to keep your eyes open. One eye open, one eye shut, so it’s actually looking inside. That’s what I do, and that’s why I know when I’m being bullshitted. Not to be boastful. Just saying there’s more than meets the eye, and it could do you good to close one eye from time to time—like I do—and look at what’s down below, where there’s a shit load of layers until you get right to the bottom, where there’s real deep-down-under gods that don’t move about, but just stay put. Those are the gods I sing to. I close one eye and listen and then my body starts shaking and I let it all out, singing.
“So there I was, just like normal—old Asa down by the river, eyes closed, shaking and singing—when screaming pierced the darkness. Let me tell you, these weren’t ordinary screams. Gave me the chills. Knew something wasn’t right. And that’s when I found her, lying right there on the rocks, a newborn child wailing. Which of course isn’t unusual, but this was different. This little one was meant to be among the living, so I picked her up, took her home and raised her as my own. Called her Inga because that was mother’s name. Runs in the family.
“The world’s full of assholes who believe Freyja’s going to take her revenge because I took a child sacrificed to her, but Freyja’s a shit bag and I showed her.”
Asa’s stories cast shame over the foundling. Critical eyes questioned Inga’s right to wander the streets of Kiev. “Makes me uncomfortable even having her around,” the women would say. “What kind of person picks up a stranger’s child? Bad luck, as far as I am concerned. There’s a reason children are left on the rocks. Who doesn’t know that? What belongs to Freyja is Freyja’s.”
At her stall, Asa began chanting, “Asa, the fishmonger gets no thanks, gets no thanks.”
“Why should I give you thanks?” Inga called, as she spat out a sunflower shell.
“I saved you. I did.”
“Who says I wanted saving?”
And then Inga grumbled to Kama, “Can’t wait to be out of here.” Both girls agreed on that for different reasons—Inga because she clearly belonged somewhere else, Kama because Kiev was a temporary home.
Now the morning was truly beginning. The sun ascended. Heat touched Kama’s linen shift. Vendors stacked opened crates under tables and sang, calling on the now steady influx of visitors to try a spoonful of honey, taste a candy or sample a new tea. Asa tended to her customers, slipping pickerel into sacs, wielding her knife to slice away fish heads and fillet white meat, guarding the hot grill where pike sizzled. Kama felt Inga’s tension and wanted to subdue it, because today should belong to Kama, daughter of Sigtrygg, who was the son of Gnupa and Astrid the Dane. Today Kama’s father, Earl Sigtrygg, had landed in Kiev. He and his men would rest here in the Big House for several months before setting off for Hedeby, but Inga couldn’t let go of her anger. Her brooding was dark and loud. She stared intensely at busy Asa, knowing that stories about her spiced up every purchase and enquiry.
“Forget her,” Kama said.
“She’s a stupid bitch.”
“Who’re you calling a bitch?” Inga said.
“Thought you said she was.”
“I can call her that, you can’t.”
Before they sorted out their differences, the tall girl found by the river tossed the sunflower and jumped to her feet. Her warrior frame shoved through the crowd. Kama sprang up and rushed towards her. She needed to stop Inga. But Inga was already at Asa’s table, pushing a full pail of Bream until the shocked staring fish lay in a puddle on the gravel. Dirty brine splashed over patrons. A chorus of excited screaming erupted.
Kama grabbed Inga’s arm. Out of the market. Run. Through the front gates. Down the trail to the river.
The girls stopped to breathe in the Dnieper. It saw so much in passing, which accounted for its moods. Now it was blue, brighter than any sky. The waves were frolicking white foam. The ships had risked storms and difficult passage, and the playful and glistening surface seemed to celebrate a long successful journey.
Many people still called it the Danu, an old word that meant deep river. As far as the girls knew, this was the only river. It flowed from one end of Midgard to the other. It swam with nourishing fish and connected all people. Rains came and went, but the river was constant. Ice hid it during winter, but under the white slabs, water continuously flowed.
The parade from the ships to the gates continued, but the real activity stretched along the bank. The river had become a bath. Normally, grooming took place in the Big House, but the number of filthy men who had spilled from the ships necessitated a different solution, and the slave girls had set up shop on the flat wet stones that lined the Danu. Kama and Inga crouched to watch. There appeared to be several phases. The slave women tore the dirty attire from the sailors, examined the garments and then tossed them either on a smoldering fire or on a wash pile for charwomen to soak and smash against stones. Stripped of their blackened clothing, the men sat in rows on a long log, where a different set of women applied soap to hair and skin. The crews then displayed their bravery by charging full speed into the cold current. Even now after many days under the warming sun, icy streams mixed into the flow, and there was much yelling as sailors splashed. Soapy lather pooled and washed away. The final preparations took place farther down the bank where servants toweled the men and then brought new tunics, before trimming, snipping and combing.
The Big House was probably already loud with mead drinking. Men liked to amuse themselves with wrestling and taunting the girls whose job it was to give them pleasure. Not that Kama knew. She stayed away from hall during homecomings. But there were stories. Tova, one of the townhouse women, bragged that, before she had earned her freedom, she had been one of the most desired, which was hard to imagine with her wide back and hips.
Kama then became aware of a different collection of stones and logs where a separate cleansing ritual was taking place. Seated on the river-worn wood were children, younger than Kama and Inga, it seemed. Kama and Inga stood and took several steps toward the gathering, so they could perhaps see the faces and hear the exchange. They were close enough to observe without being seen. Kama counted five bodies. The girls were darker skinned, like Kama’s mother. Black hair cascaded over their shoulders and chests—a row of tiny bodies with veils of untamable curls. Kama wanted to look away but couldn’t resist staring. She guessed they were sisters. Rope tied their hands and linked them together. The cord wrapped around a pair of wrists, extended across the lap to reach the next girl, creating a chain that prevented any one from running, unless they all tore off together.
This was how it had been for Kama’s own mother—Katerine. She had run time and time again and finally discovered freedom in the nunnery in Constantinople, where Kama’s father had found her, another Mediterranean treasure—like more priceless soap, perfume or silver.
Guarding the girls was a woman with a white cap that hung straight down and made Kama think of rabbit ears. Her long black dress could have been some sort of apron that wrapped and tied around her body. She was delivering a speech of some kind, saying a few words, then clapping, a few more then more clapping. The girls paid no attention, but looked down with dreary expressions that suggested exhaustion. Perhaps they had attempted to fight and flee and now were worn out with hunger and lack of sleep. Or they couldn’t understand what the woman was saying. The woman’s jabbering could have been completely incomprehensible, like the choruses that came from gulls and crows.
Beside her stood a man with a whip. He lifted one girl’s hair and laughed. Puzzled and scared, she chose to laugh back. It was better not to resist. Then one girl began shouting—fast howling like an animal crying without any hope of being heard. The girl stood, even though doing so yanked at the ropes. She was taller than the rest, but still not a match for the guard or his female accomplice, who ceased her prattling and grabbed the girl’s arm to force her down. Kama expected the guard to raise his whip and slash the disobedient girl’s face, but when none of that occurred, she realized he could never harm her appearance. Beauty gave value. Scars would lower the asking price.
He dropped the whip and began jigging from one foot to the next, yelling, as though it were all a lark, and babbling a song that seemed to belong around a long table in a Big House, where drinkers became “shit-faced,” as Asa said.Here under the open sky with the river’s freshness nearby and the uncertain future of a set of captured sisters, the lyrics were misplaced. But the song went on and became louder. He lifted his tunic and held his erection as though he were the statue of the Freyr, whose body-length stone penis reminded onlookers that the rain was his sperm, and he, the god of prosperity, fertilized the crops and fields. But the man with threatening eyes was a not a deity. He was a dog about to bite. As he jigged, he stroked himself and danced closer to the older, angry girl, until he erupted liquid over her face and hair. Kama had been staring so intently, she imagined it touching her own skin and eyes.
She was glad she was Sigtrygg’s daughter—Sigtrygg son of Gnupa, king of the Dane land. Her grandfathers and great grandfathers had been the first Swedish merchants to conquer the south Dane land and then venture across the Baltic to Kiev and down the rivers to the Black Sea. Over time, they had risen to power. Her father could have inherited the throne, but he was fascinated by eastern monasteries, ancient languages and dark-eyed women like Mother, and therefore chose to stay a trader, traveling the deep river year after year.
Kama lived here with her mother but soon she would sail to Hedeby, where she would sit beside her grandmother, Queen Astrid, and eventually become queen.
Inga’s future was less certain. . .
Terese Brasen studied Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, as well as Scandinavian literature, during her undergraduate years. She earned her MFA from Pennsylvania's Cedar Crest College, through the Pan-European Program in Creative Writing. She holds Swiss and Canadian passports, is fluent in Danish and is currently completing a collection of short fiction. Learn more Kama here.
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