The way I see it, the human race was raised by stories of gods and monsters. From the very start, from the moment we opened our eyes and looked upon the wonders that surround us, we've been under the guidance of the divine. It doesn't matter if "divine" translates to God, or Zeus, or Odin, or even Ra - they all stand as equal to one another. They all serve the purpose of watching humanity as it undergoes evolution and radical changes and, on frequent occasion, they step in when something goes terribly askew. I believe that mythology is not just a collection of folklore and cautionary tales, but true accounts that were disregarded by the introduction of science.
I, myself, am guilty of losing faith in mythos. I once wanted so badly for the gods of Olympus to be real that I, in a passing phase, clumsily praised their names and swore by them. Of course, I was only in the sixth grade and I had bee inspired by the current chapter of history we were studying in Core class. Two weeks later I became enamored by the Egyptians and added a book on their mythology to my shelf, right next to the Greek mythologies I'd already collected.
Then high school happened and my world shifted radically and I had less time to devote to re-reading the well worn pages of my books, filled with words I'd long since memorized. For a time, mythology fell out of style and I spared it only a passing thought when I was assigned to read The Ramayana for English class.
This is all trivial. Minor details to a much larger, much greater picture that I merely people, a hazy face in the background barely worth a second glance.
The point is that the gods and their stories are what made us, the human race, into what we are. The lessons from those tales are so deeply ingrained into our beings, that most don't recognize the touch of divinity in what they say and do. I am guilty of this as well, basically everyone is.
I never used to wonder how the gods felt about being so thoughtlessly discarded by the people who once worshipped them. It never occurred to me and why would it? I never truly believed in their existence, I just liked to pretend they were real sometimes. However, pretending is not nearly the same as believing.
Gods and monsters… Despite my past adoration, I never would have thought that I was worthy of their attentions. I still don't think I am, I still have no faith in my own worth, but I do have faith in them. In gods and monsters. Because there is something greater than the everyday life and the everyday problems we humans face, it's just a matter of knowing what to look for in order to see it. It's a matter of having trust and a little bit of faith and enough presence of mind not to panic when faced with the impossible.
But more on that later, for now, let's start with a simple introduction:
My name is Emily Jensen. I am eighteen years old. I am a freshman at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. I have long black hair that is bleached blonde and dyed crimson underneath. I have seven piercing: two on each lobe, two in my left cartilage, and one in my nose. I have blue eyes. I like to wear black mascara and dark eye shadow. My wardrobe consists of jeans-bootcut or skinny-and t-shirts that are either very bright or very dark. I like shoes and I own more than I need. Every day I tell myself that I wear them all in turn while slipping into the same pair of worn-out Converse that I wore the day before.
I said before that I am a student at Willamette. That is important for one singular reason: the Star Trees. The Star Trees are a circle of five tall sequoias on the corner of campus and when you stand at the heart of the circle and look up, supposedly the space of sky between the treetops looks like a star. I looked on the first day of orientation and the shape I saw looked more like a dog or a camel, but that's beside the point. Campus legend has it that couples who kiss under the Star Trees are destined to be together for the rest of their lives. It's very romantic.
It doesn't help that, according to my roommate, WU has a high percentage of students who found their future spouses while enrolled.
Personally, I find the Star Tree legend to be silly, but I am probably bitter. See, my story starts about a week after an incident under the Star Trees and it starts with me feeling the sting of consequences catching up with past actions.
I entered school technically "in a relationship" with a boy whose company I was no longer enjoying or really even tolerated very well, but neither of us were particularly good communicators and the issue was largely unaddressed. It was awkward. Eventually, he messaged me on Facebook with a simple, "I'm changing my status. Just moved in to my dorm, finally got Internet hooked up and my roommates are weird. I want you to know you're a pretty cool girl. Have fun at school and I hope you make lots of friends."
It wasn't the break-up itself that upset me, it was the fact that he didn't even try to talk to me before changing his status. No calls, no prior messages, not even a damned text. Nothing. With all the social mediums out there, he chose to ignore every single one and jump straight for the big one. The message came through on my smartphone while I was checking my Facebook for the hell of it during an orientation group meeting. I was surrounded by people I barely knew in a place where I wasn't quite settled in and it was terrible. I was…numb at first and then I was just pissed off.
I decided that boys were stupid. Idiotic. Not worth the effort. And what did it matter that I was half responsible for the relationship's failing? The summer had been long and he had been out of the country with a non-international cell phone, communication was scant. By the time August rolled around, it became very clear that long-distance was not working for us. I had always intended to Skype him, but orientation was a five-day deal and I didn't have a whole lot of time (and apparently he didn't have an Internet connection anyway). I felt so femininely self-righteous and so bitterly peeved that he would make such a dick-wad move after being so wonderful for those first three months while we were together at boarding school, that I decided boys were not worthy of anything I had to give.
It was a stupid and rash decision that was grounded on all the wrong reasons, but at the time I didn't care. All I cared about was showing him that I was unaffected by his rejection, not that he would ever notice because he never logged onto Facebook or Skype. Ever. But I didn't care. I had made the issue so deeply personal that it turned into an emotionless farce.
I kissed Aubrey Mohan under the Star Trees.
There is no photo evidence of this occurrence, which is so utterly ridiculous because the whole reason I did it was to somehow get back at my stupid ex-boyfriend.
After the kiss, I felt smug. Like I'd really shown him up and he ought to feel just awful, because look at me now!
And then I looked at myself.
And I looked at Aubrey.
And I felt…disgusting. I was just a pitiful excuse for a human being.
Need I go into all the reasons why I was...am wretched and terrible and lower than the scum beneath Aubrey's beautiful vintage boots? Please, don't make me. I don't think I can handle it.
I spent the week avoiding Aubrey as much as I could, because I didn't know how to face her after what I'd done. It didn't help that we had Rhetoric together every morning on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Those three days were unbearable. She would shoot me worried looks across the room, perfectly shaped eyebrows knit together with concern, and it absolutely killed me to see how much she honestly cared.
On those days, I felt sick.
But enough with introductory paragraphs and long-winded set up, the real story is much more exciting:
On Friday, during lunch, after which I would be free for the rest of the weekend, Aubrey set her tray down at my table with enough force to make a smacking sound that resonated throughout the room. Only the others at the table, my friends Waleman and Dylan, looked up.
The rest of the world kept turning.
I wanted to disappear.
Aubrey Mohan was the kind of girl who was classically pretty on the outside and downright gorgeous on the inside. She was slim and her hair was curly and the color of warm caramel. She had a cute face and and a nice figure, but her heart and soul were made of such pure gold they put the gates of the Palace of Versailles to shame. And she always dressed so stylishly: very vintage and accessorized.
Aubrey also wore glasses. They were trendy and square and the frames were black. They were not "hipster," but they were not exactly "chic" either. They were perfect.
My ex had had glasses. Simple little things for reading, so he didn't wear them very often. I had always thought that was a bit unfortunate.
Perhaps I had a thing for glasses.
She said it once and stared at me. She did not sit and she did not look away. She said my name once and she waited.
I had nothing to say to her that wouldn't sound cold or bitchy or in any way horrible.
If there was ever a time for me to convert to a religion and pray, this was it. And, dear God, I screamed whatever sort of prayer I could think of in my head until I ran out of deities and words. Something must've worked, because as soon as I felt like giving up and facing her with brutal honesty, my cell phone began to ring.
Clayton Stroope's voice never sounded so beautiful as it did in that moment.
"I'm sorry," I blurted out and I fled the dining hall in a blaze of panic set to the tune of Thriving Ivory's "Love Alone." There was an irony in that moment that I never had the courage to address. Similarly, I couldn't decide who I was apologizing to and what for. I was too grateful for an excuse to run away that I never spared it a second thought, nor did I think to look back and see what kind of effect my exit had on my abandoned friends. On Aubrey.
I answered the call as I pushed through the doors and stepped out into the sunlight. It was mid-September and the sun was still cheerfully shining - I almost wished it would rain, because wouldn't that just be perfect?
I frowned. "Hello…?"
I hung up and stood uselessly in front of the University Center. I did not want to go back to Goudy, the dining hall, but going to my dorm felt like a lame admission of my ineptitude in dealing with self-caused problems.
"Hello, sorry, I am still getting used to this whole 'technology' thing."
I spun around and came face-to-face with a boy in blue jeans and a white polo. He was grinning like he knew me, like he was continuing a previous conversation, and he had the biggest bluest eyes I have ever seen. He was pale enough to put an albino to shame and his hair was a tightly curled dark blond - if it was black, I would have pegged him for a vampire.
"Who are you?"
"Okay," I said bluntly.
Elijah chuckled. "That never works, sorry. I am Elijah. That was me on the phone. I am not very good with technology and cellular phones and what-have-you. It is not my strong suit."
"You sounded very desperate and Mihr insisted that I step in before you do something foolish, so I called you. I figured that with this modern day, a simple phone call would be much better in the long run than a beam of holy light and angelic singing that plays for your ears alone. That trick has not worked for a very long time."
I said, "You talk a lot and it doesn't make much sense."
"I have been told, yes."
"Okay," I said, glancing surreptitiously at the students milling about, passing in every direction and strangely paying no attention to me and this starry-eyed stranger. "Okay… Can we start from the top, please?"
"Who are you?"
Elijah laughed. The sound was so pure and so melodic that the few clouds lingering in the sky cleared out and the sun shone brighter.
"I am Elijah-"
"Yeah, I got that."
"-I am an angel."
"The Angel of Innocence," he went on. "I look over newborns and the Tree of Life."
I stared, gaping, and then pulled myself together enough to ask, "Did you run away from a hospital?"
There was that laugh again, as though I'd merely told a funny joke that he had never heard before.
"I did not expect you to believe me, Emily Jensen," he said honestly, all sparkling eyes and radiant smiles. "But it would be very nice if you would. I am here to help you, if you will allow it."
It was remarkably easy to trust this man. Thinking back, it was definitely because there was no logical way for him to be human. He had this aura of something greater about him, something supernatural and powerful, but at the same time soothing. His company was so easy, his presence so comforting, that it was not hard to believe that there was something fundamentally different about him.
"Okay," I said eventually, "but we're not talking here. This is gonna be a weird conversation, I can tell, and I'd rather not have people overhear…" I left off the fact that there was one particular person I didn't want interrupting us, but the look in Elijah's eye said that he suspected me of this anyway.
"No one will interrupt us," he assured, taking on a childishly wicked gleam. "Call it a perk of having Grace."
I chose not to comment on that, I was still having trouble wrapping my mind around things and I didn't want to add to the confusion that was swelling steadily in my brain.
"Can we just go somewhere else, please?" I asked helplessly.
"Of course, child," said Elijah, his paternal tone somehow suited his youthful face.
We didn't go very far. We didn't even leave campus.
We ended up sitting on the little lawn behind my dorm, Baxter Hall. It offered none of the privacy I wanted, but it was away from Goudy and therefore away from my current personal problems. There was also the added bonus of Elijah's Grace keeping us seemingly invisible to passers-by (later, Elijah would explain that his Grace did not make us invisible, it simply made us unnoticeable).
The sun was beating down on us, but this paled in the face of how Elijah's shadow revealed a pair of massive wings arching from his shoulder blades.
"Does your Grace make your wings unnoticeable, too?" I asked calmly. At this point, calm was the only emotion I could manage. Freaking out would only make a mess of things.
"Oh, no, my wings are invisible to human eyes."
"How convenient," I deadpanned. "Though you ought to work on shadows."
Elijah twisted around and scrutinized his shadow, humming thoughtfully to himself. "Some things cannot be helped."
I sighed and sat heavily on the grass, stretching my legs out in front of me in hopes of absorbing as much sunlight as possible while it lasted. Elijah settled himself carefully next to me and, maybe just because I was thinking about it, I could hear the soft rustling of feathers as he moved.
It was high time this conversation got underway, so I plucked up the courage and said, "Why did you call me?"
"I told you," replied Elijah. "Mihr told me to interfere before you did something to make matters worse with Aubrey Mohan."
I frowned at this. "Who's Mihr and why would he - she? - care about what happens with me and Aubrey?"
"Mihr is the Angel of Friendships. It is his duty to ensure steady and lasting relations between people who are meant to be together." And then he leaned forward almost conspiratorially and added, "Though his title technically is 'Friendship,' he really deals with all sorts of relationships. He got a promotion a few centuries back."
"Okay." I decided the best course of action in the face of this news was to continue rolling with it. Hopefully, this strange day would end and I would never see this strange man ever again and I would be able to go on peacefully ruining my personal life and making a wreck of my college career. "So why does an angel care about me and Aubrey? I mean…she's not really my friend anymore, I sort of kissed-and-ditched her last week… Isn't homosexuality, like, a terrible sin according to religion?"
Elijah laughed that annoyingly wonderful laugh of his and patted my knee sympathetically. "Silly child, that is a purely human invention. We of the Host have not the slightest idea where mankind came up with such a notion! It is our firm belief that love is love. Gender has nothing to do with it. We only wish that that particular teaching had been made more clear in the original manuscripts."
"That's great," I said. "I totally agree with you, I really do, but… I'm not in love with Aubrey. I'm just an idiot who made a horrible mistake."
"I am not saying that you are in love with Aubrey," Elijah said steadily. "I am saying that no matter what the nature of your relationship to her is, it still needs to be healed and that is Mihr's area of expertise. Thus the reason for his intervention."
"So he intervened by sending you…? I don't get it."
"He is a very busy angel, especially in this century, and I happened to have business in this area so he asked for my assistance. Naturally, I am more than happy to assist a brother."
"Well that's all very good," I grumbled, "but I plan to avoid my problems until they go away. Thanks very much for the concern and tell Mihr that I appreciate his intervention, but I think I'll take it from here."
"I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to do that."
I was becoming annoyed. I was not particularly religious, but the idea that my stupid problems were worthy of an angel's attention was a little bit humbling and a lot bit aggravating. Was it so hard to let a human sort out her own human problems and not have to add divine intervention to the plate?
Apparently it was.
I swallowed my arguments, figuring it would do no good to get angry with an angel, and tried to divert the conversation.
"All right then," I said. "So mentioned having business in this area? What sort of business could an angel have in Salem, Oregon? It's not exactly a happening place."
Elijah blinked. "I do not understand what you mean by that."
"Er… I mean, it's a small town and there's not a lot that happens here, so why does the Angel of Naivete have business here?"
"Innocence," Elijah corrects gently, "and I'm here because my of duty to Yggdrasil."
"Yggdrasil," he repeated. "The Tree of Life."
"Yggdrasil." I turned the word over in my head, it rang with familiarity and I was certain I'd heard it somewhere. "That's Norwegian. I saw it on a poster in my dorm. The third floor is Valhalla themed and the walls are covered in things from Norse mythology. But…angels are part of Christian theology, aren't they?"
"Yes, that is typically the first to come to mind."
Elijah didn't seem to get the point I was trying to make.
So I elaborated, "Why do you have duties to a figure from Norse pagan mythology?"
Elijah gave me another of his endlessly patient paternal looks, complete with a soft somewhat-sympathetic smile. "My duties are to newborns and the Tree of Life and the Tree of Life happens to be Norse. Just because we supposedly belong to different theologies does not mean I cannot be her friend. We are small pieces of a large picture and the sooner we can look past the details, the sooner we can appreciate the beauty of the whole."
I could just tell that Elijah was chock-full of the kind of wisdom commonly found on decorative throw pillows and minimalistic wall art. Somehow, though, he made the words earnest and honest, instead of cliched and empty. I found myself unable to do more than just look at him and he looked back with a small, sincere smile and bright, unblinking eyes.
"You really are something else," I whispered as awe and realization washed over me like a frigid ocean wave. It was strange that even after seeing the shadows cast by his wings I was still in doubt about what he was and it wasn't until he gave me that look of utter, angelic tranquility and relentless faith in the words he spoke that I truly believed.
Sitting before me on a dinky damp lawn in a little liberal arts college in tiny Salem, Oregon, was an angel.
"I am," he said steadily, but his eyes took on a new glow and his smile widened just so. He seemed pleased as though I'd given him a high praise and the reaction was infinitely endearing.
"So what duty brings you to this humble little town?" I asked, feeling much more like my old self. As I said before, Elijah's presence was an easy one to be in.
"Yggdrasil has lost track of en blomst," he said. "I have scanned all European and Asian countries and found no trace of any wayward blomster. America, however, revealed the presence of this particular little blomst and I followed that presence to this location."
"…What are you tracking?"
Elijah chuckled. "Apologies," he said sincerely, "I have become accustomed to using their natural tongue. I am searching for en blomst, a flower, one of Yggdrasil's children. This one in particular has named herself Fjola and she is notorious for wandering away for decades at a time. However, she has been gone for nearly a century now and Yggdrasil is beginning to worry. She asked me to please search for Fjola, which happened to coincide with Mihr needing to intervene in your affairs. It is all a happy coincidence, really."
"I'm exploding with happiness," I deadpanned.
Elijah puckered his lips and a concerned line formed between his eyebrows. "Your mood is very difficult to keep track of."
"I'm sorry," I said, shrugging, feeling a bit guilty. "I can't decide how I should be reacting to all this… It's just too weird, y'know? One moment I'm ignoring someone like a middle schooler and the next I'm talking to a freaking angel. This is not normal…"
"There is no need to apologize," Elijah said placatingly. "I understand completely and have decided to make you an offer." He beamed and I felt compelled to smile back. "Originally, Mihr wanted me to talk to you, to have a heart-to-heart of sorts, and help you to work through your problems."
"I suspected as much," he said, "and thus decided that instead I shall allow you to avoid your problem for a little while longer, but only if you help me to find Fjola."
"Okay," I answered without hesitating. Because really. What teenage girl wouldn't want to avoid her current social problems? And here I had a distraction giving itself to me on a silver platter. I would be crazy not to accept!
Elijah adopted a look of consternation. "I have not explained the full extent of my request. You do not yet know the parameters or the dangers you may face."
I balked. "Dangers?"
The most danger I had ever faced in my life was a minor car accident in which my brother and I got rear-ended a few weeks before I started my sophomore year of high school. I had to wear a neck brace for the whiplash, during which time I reached critical levels of embarrassment and only left the house when it was absolutely vital - meaning I left once to see "District 9" in theaters and it had been totally worth the discomfort.
"Of course," Elijah said easily. "Yggdrasil's children are very powerful despite their youth. Fjola is the second eldest, she has only been around since the second decade of this world, and still she is but a tiny fraction of her mother's age."
I struggled to wrap my mind around this concept, the idea that not only was there an angel sitting right next to me, but there was also a seeming girl running around town who happened to be nearly as old as the Earth. Part of me wanted to check myself into a psych ward and never come out, but a stronger part of me was desperately curious to know what such a girl would look like. What would she wear jeans and t-shirts? Dresses? Boots? Or nothing at all? Or would she even be human? She was a flower possessed by a mystical power beyond my comprehension, she could probably assume whatever form she fancied or no form at all. Maybe she was some unfathomable thing the likes of which this world has never seen and thus can never hope to imagine in even the dizziest of drug-induced daydreams.
And yet, all I could manage to sneak past my tightening vocal cords was a pathetic squeak of, "…Dangers?"
Elijah smiled almost too serenely. "Yes, dangers. If you accompany me on my quest to find Fjola, you are likely to encounter creatures of dark and twisted natures. In past a venture, I had to deal with the wretched souls of men reduced to cannibalism and cursed to walk forever in agonizing hunger. The kind of creatures drawn to Fjola's presence are not simple ghosts and sprites, they are a dreadful things driven by either a joy in causing pain or a terrible, maddening hunger that can never be satisfied."
Elijah's chilling words made the sunny day feel cold, his cool voice leeched all warmth from my body, and I shivered. I looked around at my surroundings, over-bright and glaring in the light of the sun, everything aglow with a harmlessness that I now found myself suspicious of. What kind world did I live in and what kind of things did I share it with?
Elijah watched my face as I tried to picture what kind of monsters hid in the shadows that stretched lazily all around us and in an instant it became clear what he was trying to do.
I pointed an accusing finger at him. "I see what you're doing!" I exclaimed. "You're trying to freak me out so I'll choose to stay here and face my problems. Very clever, angel boy, but I am a teenager. Avoiding problems is something I excel at!'
He sighed. "I was not trying to fool you, I merely wanted to ensure that you are fully aware of what you have agreed to. However, if you would rather stay and settle things with Aubrey, than I would strongly encourage you do so."
The angel was speaking with blatant honesty, but I was certain there was a slight glimmer of tentative hope in his wide eyes. He was prepared to face horrible monsters for the sake of finding Fjola as he had done countless times before, he was okay with that, but he did not want to do it alone. Not if he could help it. Seeing him like this, looking so strong and yet so slightly hopeful, made my heart melt.
"How long does it usually take to find her?" I asked quietly.
"In the past, it has taken anywhere between a day and six months," he answered plainly.
"And you'll protect me?"
"Of course." He said this with such quiet intensity that it sent an icy thrill through my veins, it was an emotion I couldn't name or properly understand, but it was good.
"Then let's find her."
"You will miss your classes," said Elijah and it seemed like such a ludicrous thing to say at that moment that I drew a complete blank. The statement and its utterly simple truth caught me so far off-guard that I lost all ability to form letters into words into sentences. And when the ability returned, I had to wait a minute to stop laughing before I could say anything.
"Then we better make it quick."